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My Porch Plan

Published: June 2, 2010

Sometimes the most ambitious projects call for the simplest solutions.

Several years ago my wife and I rented a house that had, attached to its hindquarters, a screened-in back porch. Though it was our vacation and we had made ambitious plans for the week, the pull of the screened porch proved too great, causing us to scrap our agenda and spend our days reclining in twin hammocks, reading, beyond the reach of the horseflies and mosquitoes.

Over the next few years, I revisited that pleasant porch many times in my memory, recalling the cool breeze circulating around me, the gentle throb of the evening crickets, the sweet iced tea within arm’s reach, the book tented upon my chest as I slid into a nap.

Winters rolled into springs and springs into summers. I turned 48 and felt the press of time, my life half spent without a screened porch to show for it. Then last spring, I phoned a builder, who walked around the house with me, studying it, looking for the obvious place to attach a porch.

“How about we build on a front porch?” he said.

“Wouldn’t work,” I told him. “We’d have to chop down my wife’s magnolias. She’d skin us alive.”

“We could always come off the kitchen,” the builder said. “Tear out this wall here, put a door there, move the garage over there.”

He stretched out his tape measure, punched some numbers into his calculator, and quoted a figure that was more than we’d paid for the house. Why is it that whenever I hire a builder, no matter how small or large the project, it inevitably involves the depletion of my entire savings?

By then, I had painted myself into a corner. Believing the porch’s cost would be modest, I had begun buying porch furniture and stacking it in our garage—a rocker, couch, swing, tables, chairs, a fan, a lamp by which to read, one sign forbidding the use of cell phones, and another sign prohibiting the use of dirty words, such as Congress, incumbent, Republican, Democrat, or Tea Party.

I’m a simple Quaker minister and have to watch my expenditures, lest I become the subject of gossip and speculation. Quaker ministers are granted wide latitude in theological matters, but have to toe the line when it comes to simplicity. There are Quaker porches and Episcopalian porches, and I am expected to know the difference. I thanked the builder, an Episcopalian, and sent him on his way.

Later that evening, my wife and I were discussing our prospective porch, and she suggested I build it. There was a time I would have tackled a job like that with confident enthusiasm, but that was several explosions ago, and I’ve grown more timid over the years. The phrase, “I’ll build it myself” has become codespeak for “How about I screw it up so bad we’ll spend twice as much paying someone else to fix it?”

A few days later my friend Dave Helton came to visit. Dave is a human encyclopedia, able to dredge up, sort out, and spew forth arcane bits of data on any topic related to the home.

“Why don’t you just hang mosquito curtains on your breezeway?” he asked. “People down South use ’em all the time. You put ’em up in the spring, take ’em down in the fall. Cost you a couple hundred bucks.”

I went online, entered the words “mosquito curtains,” and landed on a company in Georgia, owned by a man named Kurt, who, despite once having a job on Wall Street, looked reasonably trustworthy. I phoned Kurt, told him the dimensions of our breezeway, read him the numbers on our credit card, and four days later the UPS man delivered our mosquito curtains. Kurt had predicted it would take two hours to hang the curtains and thoughtfully included directions, which I ignored, adding several hours to the installation time. After hanging the curtains, I transferred the rockers, couch, swing, tables, chairs, fan, lamp, and signs from the garage to our breezeway. It was a tight squeeze, but I shoehorned them in.

There is much concern in our country these days about our national debt, climate change, and health care. My plan of action is to sit many hours on my porch this summer, drinking sweet iced tea and not thinking about them.

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