Out On The Porch
A shelter from the storm
This old porch is just a long time
Of waiting and forgetting
And remembering the coming back
And not crying about the leaving
And remembering the falling down
And the laughter of the curse of luck
From all of those sons-of-bitches
Who said we'd never get back up
--- Lyle Lovett/Robert Earl Keen, “This Old Porch”
A storm rolled in on us the other night, so me and my dog manned our usual observation station. We sat on the top step of our covered front porch, just far enough under the eave to feel the weather without getting saturated by it. Solomon, a Great Pyrenees who resembles a runt polar bear, likes to watch lightning, and seems to enjoy getting rained on. He is afraid of no man or dog, even the ones who could eat his lunch. But thunderclaps see him crying for his mom. And since we don’t know where that loose woman is – he came to us as a rescue they found wandering around a Tennessee Dollar General parking lot in the middle of a downpour – Solomon nudges up close, leaving no space between us, just in case the heavens drop the hammer and he has to jump into my lap and once again crush my legs.
The porch is maybe the best place for us to watch heavy weather. It is a liminal borderland. Not quite in, not quite out. Kind of like Lindsey Graham.
Now see, that was just wrong. And mean-spirted of me, besides. I’d have never written that joke had I been writing this on the porch. A place that sets the table for civility and generosity and spiritual expansiveness, that dulls our harder edges and our need to be performing monkeys trying to impress laughing hyenas on distant screens. Meanwhile, porch loitering sharpens our appreciation for the things that stand outside of time. Porches might not just be the best place to endure life, but to sustain and enrich it. So that even if Lindsey Graham visited me on mine, I wouldn’t make cheap-shot cracks about his proclivities, which I actually know nothing about (other than his tendency to perform indecent acts in television studios on the 45th president of the United States). Instead, I’d offer to make him my version of an Old Fashioned – bourbon on ice, without all the corrupting sugar and Angostura bitters and orange twists. And then we could get down to the real business of what it means to be fellow humans in a world that often confounds our understanding of it, thereby inviting us to be inhumane. Maybe I love the porch so much because it’s the place that makes us most humane. A place where you can regain your good sense after the wider world stops making any.
While our porch is perched on a hill overlooking our neighborhood – a fine view - the porch itself is nothing fancy. It’s six feet wide, and twenty-one feet long. Not large enough to throw a dance party on. But just large enough to fit a few rockers and lamp tables, flowerboxes and hummingbird feeders, along with hanging bluebird-themed chimes that catch the wind. It used to have gingerbread brackets - put up by my wife - like a proper Victorian porch. But when Alana persuaded me to convert to vinyl railings after one too many springs of us having to painstakingly paint all those flaking spindles, we had to ditch them. Even though I’m lazy by nature, and hate painting and maintenance, I also hate resting my feet on synthetic plastic, just another reminder of one more real thing getting leeched from our lives. And yet, the porch itself is still old wood, slathered and protected with decades-worth of Deck Over. It still feels like a warm heartbeat pulsing under us, even if the wood itself is long dead.
The porch is the place me and my dogs have always gone for respite and communion. None of them lasting as long as me, thus far, but each giving way to the next, like brothers passing the baton in a relay, trying to see me through companionship-wise. There was Simon the Dalmatian Sensation, my wife’s dog who I inherited when we got married. He was an athletic beast who gave chase to all manner of varmints, both real and imagined. But unlike most of his kind, who tend to be wiry dogs, he had a weight problem. If we were the type of people to take him dog-clothes shopping (we aren’t), we’d have had to hit the “huskies” section. He looked less like a Dalmatian, more like a short-haired Newfoundland with spots. In glorious pre-internet days, Simon and I would laze away afternoons together, me reading and listening to the Stax Soul Sisters, him begging for ice cubes he could chomp on, interrupted only by his paroxysms of yelping panic when his tail got caught under my rocker, as he always sat too close.
There was Levi, my Yellow Lab. The Esther Williams of dogs. He loved water so much, he used to go swimming whenever the opportunity presented itself, most often in my neighbors’ pool. The last dog we had who was not constrained by an Invisible Fence shock collar, he’d go crashing down the hill, dive in while doing the full dog belly-flop splash, then he’d swim a lap or two, before sitting on the lowest pool step, just soaking for a spell. We’d often look down from the porch and see the smooth back of his blonde head peeking above the waterline. Then he’d steal a foam pool noodle, proudly bring it back up on the porch, and throw it at our feet like a conquering hero, so as to say, “Here is a souvenir from my most recent travels.” Alana and I thought it was hilarious. Our then-neighbors never quite got the joke, and called animal control.
Then there was my 150-lb black bear of a dog, Moses, a Bernese Mountain Friend. When you met him on the porch, he’d get excited for a minute or two, which was about the extent of his energy reserves. He’d dive under your crotch and push you up in the air, shuttling through your legs like he was in a canine car wash. Then he’d pirouette back through, before plopping down on the porch, perfectly draping his thick white paws over the top step, which looked like elegant spats against his blackness. His whole little dance made me feel as though I was sharing a porch with Fred Astaire, if Fred Astaire had furry cankles.
The porch is a place where I planted my flag. Literally, after 9/11, as so many others did. It was there I draped the Stars’n’Stripes over my door. Not because I necessarily wanted to – the door didn’t shut correctly for a few months. But because I felt it my patriotic duty. As Michael Dolan wrote in his definitive history of the porch, “The American Porch: An Informal History of an Informal Place”:
A flag on a porch says to me, this is home. This is where we live. It’s a place you ought to see, where different kinds of people try to get along. Some days we do a terrible job of that and some days we halfway succeed, but mainly we keep on trying, we keep on keeping on, and that’s because on the whole it’s a good way to live, a good place to live.
The porch is a place that connects me to other places, and to the people I love most. There’s my parents. In the thick of the Great COVID scare, when we were leery of even bringing in groceries without disinfecting them, months would go by without me seeing them, even though they only live a half an hour away. Now in their late seventies, they wanted to avoid the plague like the plague, since their age cohort was dropping like flies to it in pre-vaccine days.
There’s a site I hate, but as a masochist, can’t help but visit sometimes. It’s called seeyourfolks.com. It asks where your parents live, how many times a year you see them, and how old they are. Then, after you plug in that data, it estimates how many more times you’ll see them before they die. Needless to say, I wasn’t seeing my parents enough.
But occasionally, they’d come by, and sit on the porch, so we weren’t breathing on each other indoors. And all felt right again in my world: My dad, trying to tell a story, while asking “who is that guy in that thing that said that quote?” To which I’d respond, “Dad, I’m not a mind-reader, I’m a listener. Are you telling the story, or am I?” Or my mom, a feisty Sicilian woman, who when she gets worked up talking about politics – usually about some Fox villain like Nancy Pelosi – likes to make gestures with her hands like she’s Luca Brasi cinching a piano wire around their necks. Her over-the-top fits of air-violence then convulse us into laughter, as she gives in, a good enough sport to laugh at herself.
The porch reminds me of Alana, who always sees shooting stars when I’m not looking. She forces me out there at night to witness the moon in all its phases. Whether waxing gibbous or waning crescent, first quarter or third quarter or full, it’s a light show that never loses its luster. We sit on the porch, and like the tides that the moon’s gravitational force commands, we feel its pull.
Just last week, we were in Cape May, New Jersey, America’s oldest seaside resort, where Victorian porches, some dating back to the nineteenth century, bless the landscape in every direction. It’s a place we’ve frequented since we were in our twenties, and it too, never gets old. One evening, we went to watch an old-country’n’soul jamboree on the porch of the Chalfonte Hotel, Cape May’s oldest original hotel, dating back to 1876. While the rest of the crowd dutifully manned their lawn chairs, I noticed that the upper porch, overlooking the band, was empty. We shot upstairs and took seats in a solo balcony, the envy of the lawn-chair hoi polloi. Or at least I took a seat, watching Alana dance on the upper porch to the sweetest countrified soul music – think Hank Williams playing Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – as a perfect harvest moon hung over her head. I took a mental snapshot, knowing it’d be one to remember long after my other memories fail.
The porch is a place where I see off my kids when they shove back off to college, and when they (happily) return, reminding us we’re a family again. Solomon shuffles from his porch perch to greet them, sniffing the old smells of his brothers, who he probably worries might crowd him out of their rooms, where he sleeps in their absence.
The porch is a place that does not immunize me from frustration. Years ago, my county erected some cell towers with soft red lights on them a couple miles away, but in my porch’s eyeline. It was annoying, but mostly non-disruptive. Until one night, one red light became a blinking bright-white strobe light. The front of my house looked like it was the exurban equivalent of Studio 54. At any moment, I expected Bianca Jagger or Grace Jones to emerge from my shrubs, offering me a bump of coke. So I drove over the next morning to collect the emergency phone number off the tower fencing, called the appropriate authorities, and told them they’d better turn that blinking white light off, because my wife has photosensitive epilepsy, and we would sue their asses into the ground if they trigger a seizure. I lied, of course. Alana isn’t epileptic, but the next night, the soft red light was back on. The outside world and my porch had made a truce yet again, even if a temporary and uneasy one.
The porch is a place where I used to spy my neighbor, Bill, who looked a bit like Mike Ditka, complete with cop-mustache. Bill lived next to me for 17 years, and yet, as so often happens in modern life, we barely knew each other. We waved over the fenceline. We occasionally talked about the weather, the snowfall we were trying to clear from our driveways. But mostly, due to the setups of our yards and trees, we only saw each other when we were on our lawnmowers, and it was too loud to talk, so a simple wave would suffice.
Bill was always ahead of me, grass-cutting wise. I’d be on a deadline, or my spark plug or blades would need replaced, and my grass would always grow higher, as he kept his respectably short. He seemed steady as a beating drum, and I’d often look up at him from my front porch, giving a nod while thinking, “Bill – there’s a guy who doesn’t have a care in the world.” Except that he did. A couple months ago, I noticed his grass growing higher than usual, then his teenage kids cutting it. Which they hadn’t before. Then an ambulance arrived in his driveway one day, and I heard his insides had been eaten by cancer, unbeknownst to him. From seeing him on his lawn tractor to hearing he was in the hospital to him coming home for hospice to him dying took all of about three weeks. He was 60 years old. Which is to say, too young. Now, from my porch, I see his kids riding his old lawn tractor. Boys doing their dutiful best to fill the new manhole in their lives.
The porch is a place where I go to feel a surge of life even when surrounded by death. It’s the place I escape to at night with a good book, to listen to the music of the crickets chirping. Which is, after all, the sound of yearning and procreation, of the need for affection – a mating call. Because it’s dark out there, and as they know in cricket world, everyone needs a tarsal claw to hold onto. It’s a pleasure to hear their amorous ruckus. A reminder that life surrounds us, even when we’re feeling half past dead. And that we are a part of it, not apart from it.
The porch is the place where I go to talk to God on my good days, and yell at him on my bad ones. I figure when I do the latter indoors, the ceiling and the insulation and the roof shingles might hamper his hearing. Somehow, I feel like I’m actually jawing at God when I’m out on the porch, looking at the constellations above, the Taurus and the Ursas, major and minor – the bull and the bears. The poles between which life unfolds.
And sometimes, after I’m done yelling at God for whatever perceived injustice I’m crabbing about, if I shut up long enough, I hear a voice – maybe just in my head. But it’s one that’s echoed through the ages. As it did in the Book of Job, when Job was asking many of the same questions thousands of years ago that I ask now. Which boil down to “Why, God? Why?” And the voice that boomed at Job thunders back at me:
Who is this that obscures my plans
with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?
It goes on quite a bit from there. God’s a chatter once you get him going. And all of it usually shuts me up, as it did Job. Though to answer God’s question, God’s guess is as good as mine as to where I was when he was laying the foundations of this imperfect world. Maybe I was just a glint in his eye. Maybe a pimple on the ass of the primordial ooze. I can’t say. Maybe God was just posing rhetorical questions.
But I know where I am, now - out on the porch. Listening for him, hoping he’ll speak, while I sip a whiskey and watch the world go by. Or better yet, while I watch it stand utterly still. Just long enough to make a little sense of it, until it’s okay to go back inside.
Slack Tide by Matt Labash is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. Preferably paid, so as to miss no columns, and to have full access to comments and the story archive.
Bonus Track: Here’s “This Old Porch,” co-written by Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen. (What’d you think I was gonna play?) As told to Rob Clark at myaggienation.com, the song was born as a result of a chance meeting at Keen’s place on Church Avenue, in College Station, Texas, where both Keen and Lovett were students at Texas A&M in the seventies.
Keen and friends used to play bluegrass jams on the porch. “We were a bunch of little rednecks,” Keen told Clark. “All my friends, they're dipping snuff, drinking coffee out of beer cans, and then drinking beer out of beer cans, and then drinking to drink. And we made some comment about everybody who walked or rode by while we were pickin' and grinnin.' And we were like, 'Who's that dude on that 10-speed?'"
The huge afro on two wheels was Lyle Lovett, who was entranced by the music they were making. He stopped his bike, and asked if he could play a song. Someone handed him a guitar, and the rest is history. The musical friendship and the tune they’d write together (Keen was good for the first three verses) stood the test of time. The porch that brought them together and inspired the song didn’t. “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” Keen said.