Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Indian Summer

Summer is winding down. We have exactly four weeks from today until the Autumnal Equinox, the first day of fall. But here in Albuquerque temperatures are down nearly fifteen degrees from their summer high. My home weather station reports a high this summer of 98 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius if you are interested). I was surprised to see that we never quite hit 100. The truth is, most years we don’t; it just seems as if we do.

What seemed to make this summer especially unbearable was the higher than usual humidity. We have a swamp cooler (also known as an evaporative cooler). It’s the only means of cooling our house. This is a wonderful way to bring summer comfort to your home, but it relies on dry air. You often hear folks say that the desert is hot, but that it’s a dry heat. If you’re not familiar with this, then you probably don’t realize just how significant a difference the dryness makes.

We had lots of pregnant skies the past two months. But we had little rain. This made for heavy humidity without the relief of the cooling rains. The swamp cooler just blows warm air when the humidity is up. We added fans (which have motors that, while running, add to the heat in the house) to move more air, but it’s all hot humid air. This was an especially humid summer.

Only it wasn’t. My weather station recorded an average relative humidity of 53 percent for July and August for the past three years. This year’s July and August average was 42 percent relative humidity.

So much for perception. I just realized that I have been comfortable all summer, but I wasn’t aware just how comfortable I was. That makes me feel so much better.

Next Tuesday is the first of September. The month generally promises an Indian Summer with its pleasurable breezes and insipient autumnal light. The summer rains (such as they have been) should soon disappear. The evenings will find dusk earlier, the crab apples will drop from our crab apple tree and litter our lawn, making it smell like wine.

Bonnie wants to get rid of the eyesore that is our front yard. Our neighbors to the east just had their lawn extracted and replaced with gravel. It was done tastefully, and the maintenance required will be minimal. Still, it’s not exactly my idea of what we ought to do. To Bonnie’s everlasting credit, it isn’t what she has in mind either. Together we have come up with a basic plan and design which includes leaving about half of our lawn intact, adding some stone paths, various planters and, yes, some gravel. Some of the lawn at the eastern extreme is already dying (Bonnie thinks our neighbor’s landscaper damaged our irrigation system). No matter; this will be removed as part of the master plan she and I are cooking up.

The fall is an excellent time to work on the front yard. We’ll hire a couple of guys to do the hard digging and removal, but Bonnie and I will be spending several weeks this fall on our hands and knees making our front yard beautiful.

Just in time for winter.

Monday, August 24, 2009


Bonnie and I have lived at this house for about four and a half years. It was built in the sixties; I don’t remember the specific year. It’s on the deed.

The builder of our house was called Mossman. That means something here. If you’re selling a Mossman home, you advertise the name. If you’re selling an Amrep house, you keep quiet about it. That’s the way it works here.

I have in my possession, the original construction copy of the building plans, complete with red-line markups that reflect modifications to the plans as the house was being built. This house, Number 94, The Country House, on the plan title, was built to an existing design, but it was built for the original owner. Mossman built a home for the couple that put $500 cash down on their dream.

When we bought this house, we immediately fell in love with our neighbors to the West. Brandy called them our own Hobbits. Neither one of these octogenarians was taller than five feet. Dan and Beejay were the original purchasers of their home and had lived in it for well over forty years. I don’t recall how many owners they had encountered in what was to become our new home over the years, but it was several. You could tell by the way they spoke of it, Dan in particular, that their sense was that the house had somewhat less character for having been owned so often by so many.

But the owners that sold it to us had lived here seventeen years. That figure amounts to over a third of the house’s lifespan, and so it must count for something. When we were doing the dance of offer-counteroffer, and had advanced to the inspection stage, we queried whether the fireplace drew well or not. A long ago rental had taught Bonnie and me that some fireplaces simply did not exhale smoke to the outdoors as well as they ought and that there was nothing practical that could be done about it. The response we received (transmitted from their agent to ours and then on to us) was that they had not used the fireplace once in their seventeen years of inhabitance.

Dan and Beejay were later to tell us that the couple was not very active, nor did they possess much ambition with regard to the upkeep or modernization of the place. The house was vacant for seven months when we first walked its halls and rooms, and the yards showed the neglect in particular. This was late winter when we were house hunting, so dead grass was to be expected, but the sense was much more of abandonment. Inside the house, a master bath shower door hanging by one hinge, and a rust-filled dishwasher in the kitchen served to underscore what Dan and Beejay were eventually to tell us.

The street we live on is lined with homes of a similar age. The half-mile long block includes two homes also built along Number 94, The Country House lines. You don’t notice it immediately. The appointments are different enough (and one is a mirror image), that each appears unique. It was the owner of one of the other Number 94’s that suggested we purchase the original plans. They were for sale for a small fee by the planning department – he discovered somehow – and specifically, the plans for our Country House were available, while his were not. He knocked on the door one day when Bonnie was home and offered to split the cost of the plans if we would get copies made for him. The red-line markup’s would not reflect his particular building, but they would represent the original intent. I consider this to be a coup for me. I have the drawings that the builder used when adding the recessed power outlet for the kitchen clock and the cedar closet upstairs. Our down-the-street neighbor has plans for somebody else’s home, similar to his, but not his.

Mossman included a front porch in their design. The porch is modest; it’s about four feet deep and twenty feet long. The roof overhangs another two feet or so. When the monsoons hit and we have a strong wind accompanying them, this setback is insufficient to keep us dry. A little wind is alright. The monsoons hit when the weather is hot, and the cool rain is a relief, and a little in your face and on your feet is welcome. But a strong wind gets one a bit too wet for comfort.

I don’t understand why, but porches are a dying breed. Even when this house was built in the Sixties, they were fast becoming passé. The neighbors directly across the street have a porch about the same size as ours, and they have planted some lovely flowers and vines so as to make a nice grotto of this porch. Yet I have not once seen a soul sitting on it.

Not another house within eyesight, on either side of the road, sports a porch that is worth a damn. Instead of the postage stamp sized porch we have, most of our neighbors’ porches were clearly cancelled.

One of my great joys is sitting on my porch. It may go back to the days when I smoked, as that is where (in this house and others) I spent much of my contemplative time. But I also feel that it harkens back to an age when we were more civil as a society. I think of Atticus Finch taking in a bowl of tobacco on his porch, talking a spell with the townsfolk, and suggesting that he might just wander inside and fetch his rifle so he could kill the rabid dog that was up yonder.

Hot summer evenings, with incipient thunder rumbling some miles away as we swelter in the pregnant humidity, are ideal times to watch the neighborhood saunter and bustle past. Children running or biking or tricycling or skate-boarding or scootering and occasionally go-carting up and down the street. Older sisters put out to watch their dirty-faced younger siblings, preventing to the barest of extents their premature demise as teenagers scream the pavement in cars destined for a light pole lover’s embrace. Lawns mowed, edges trimmed in maniacal obsession. Dog owners and their charges in search of un-tended lawns where deposits may be made unseen and unaccounted for. Joggers with faces intent on endorphins – shunning my encounter or that of others.

And yet as much as so many of these front-porch visions may suggest disconnectedness, they all connect us. They make us all part of an experience that is not simply news as six and Dancing with the Stars and Monday Night Football, and after-the-kids-are-in-bed recriminations about spending and bills and jobs. It’s an opportunity to be equal with your community members. It’s a chance to see them at home, but not at home behind closed doors where both fears and seclusion take hold.

My porch allows me to see my neighbors with a dose of respect. It allows me to show myself in much the same way to them. When they go inside their houses, I tell Bonnie about all the distrusts I have in them. Doubtless they discuss similar thoughts about me. But when we are outside, on our own properties, but exposed in the mundane acts of living, we are equals. We see each other in our most noble surroundings. And we understand that we are Community.

I want to build porches for my neighbors. And I want to build a bigger porch for myself. The monsoons should always be enjoyed outdoors.