Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

In 1871 Harriet Beecher Stowe used funds from her own substantial fortune to have a Victorian cottage built in Hartford, Connecticut, the state of her birth. The house had twelve rooms, plumbing, heating, a study for her husband, and no dedicated writing space for a woman who penned at least ten novels, including Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is one of the most influential books of all time and which today is often disingenuously criticized for not being written by a woman with the progressive ideological lens of 2020.

Cute house. If you don’t mind that it’s in Connecticut. Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. By Midnightdreary – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5846038

And then in 1874, Stowe got a new neighbor. Missouri-born Samuel Clemens built a much larger, more ostentatious home with twenty-five rooms, sweeping international décor, and a man cave of sorts that contained both a dedicated writing desk and a billiards table. As you may recall, he also wrote a few books, including several you probably read in school and that were written at his home in Hartford between billiards games.

Personally, I’m not sure why anyone would want to make the move from beautiful Missouri to Connecticut, a state that as far as I could tell on my one brief visit boasts little more than Lyme disease and the kind of astronomical day-use state park fees that inspire picnics in gas station parking lots. But I wouldn’t mind a billiards table in my dedicated writing space. Also, I’d like to add my apologies if you are from Connecticut. I’m sure it has its charms.

It is a pretty cool looking house, but it’s still not in Missouri. Mark Twain House and Museum, Hartford, CT. By Kenneth C. Zirkel – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21778275

It did for neighbors Harriet and Samuel and a whole host of movers, shakers, and big thinkers who made Hartford’s Nook Farm neighborhood their home. If the history books can be believed (and I am by no means suggesting they can) these were not neighbors who necessarily agreed all the time. But it was allegedly a pretty congenial place to be with open doors, stimulating conversations, and high-minded and friendly debates among respectful friends.

In the time my family and I have lived in my current neighborhood, for about seven-and-a-half years now, our street has tried to foster a similar sense of congeniality. We hold an annual Christmas open house, occasionally set up outdoor movie screenings in the cul-de-sac, wave from front porches, freely loan and borrow tools, and visit one another’s garage sales. I’m even trying to get comfortable with a neighbor popping in for a visit without feeling too flustered by last night’s dishes stacked up in the sink. I have a lousy maid. Also, she’s me.

Despite the fact that we don’t all vote the same or worship the same or root for the same baseball team (There’s just one inexplicable Yankees holdout. We’re working on it.), our neighborhood is a good place to be. And this week is particularly exciting because we have new next-door neighbors that just officially moved in.

It was a comfort knowing there were so many gnomes keeping watch over the neighborhood. And a little bit disturbing. Public Domain, via Pixabay.

Well, this isn’t entirely exciting, because the neighbor who moved out was a kind ninety-something-year-old obsessed with yard tchotchkes. I think I might kind of miss the flamingos, and gnomes, and frogs, and angels, and butterflies.

I’ll miss my quirky neighbor, too, who always attended the Christmas party in a brightly colored suit, snake-skin boots, and bling that would make most rappers jealous. He’s moved on to a retirement facility closer to his family, where he’ll get along much better than he did alone in a big house.

The place will be different without him, but our new neighbors seem nice. They are ultra-marathoners and vegans, and they have two very small dogs that compensate for their diminutive size with over-large attitudes. The newcomers have also have expressed in no uncertain terms that they are not fans of garden gnomes. I’m going to have to rethink the contents of the welcome basket.

But even though I think running is stupid, I love a good steak, and I have a relatively mild-mannered, medium-sized dog who right now is losing his mind over the canine interlopers next door, I think these new folks are going to fit right in. In fact, I already pretty much love them.

Oh, hey! If you’re not busy tomorrow night (10/9), check out Friday Night Reads presented by Title Wave Books, Revised and author Ryan P. Freeman, who will do a Facebook live reading from my book Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense.

A Flocking Good Time

On September 4, 1979, the students of the University of Wisconsin in Madison emerged from their dorms to attend their first classes of the semester and discovered their campus had been overrun. As they’d slept, someone had filled the quad with 1008 bright pink, plastic flamingoes. The culprits were members of the Pail & Shovel Party that controlled the student government after campaigning on nonsensical promises and irresponsible fun.

The prank went down in history as one of the most delightful on campus, sparking an annual “Fill the Hill” university fundraiser and eventually inspiring Madison to adopt the pink flamingo as its official city bird in 2009.

gnome
St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame pitcher Bruce Sutter garden gnome standing guard over the beets.

Why not? The students, after all, were simply participating in a longstanding tradition of lawn ornamentation, one that reaches back at least as far as the temple gardens of Ancient Egypt, and winds on up through the sacred groves of Ancient Greece and Rome. It includes the first manufactured garden gnomes of 19th century Germany, the inexplicable rise of Grandma’s polka dotted backside in the 1980s, and the wide variety of tchotchke in, and occasionally stolen from, my next door neighbor’s front yard, of which I am secretly super jealous. Mostly, I just want an excuse to use the word tchotchke as often as I can because it’s pretty much my favorite word of all time. Go ahead and say it (ˈchäch-kē). I bet it makes you smile.

But when someone mentions lawn ornaments, the image that springs to mind first for most of us is the classic pink flamingo, invented in 1957 by then fairly new Union Products sculptor Dan Featherstone in Leominster, Massachusetts. Featherstone’s flamingoes landed in yards throughout the United States during a time when subdivisions featuring cookie-cutter house designs were popping up at a great rate and homeowners were looking for a way to make their homes stand out.

The plastic pink flamingo joined only six species of the living bird, which gets its pinkish hue from the beta-cerotene in its food. Their population has waxed and waned in the decades since their initial introduction in 1957, but the plastic variety are the only ones you are likely to find these days in the wilds of the United States (or even in the suburbs).

Ozziebirds
Ozzie wasn’t quite sure what to think of our visitors. Oh, and just in case you ever decide to participate in a flocking, I recommend gloves. Dogs are territorial.

And just like their more natural counterparts, the lawn ornaments tend to flock in large numbers. In fact, there is currently a flock or two living quite happily in my area, roosting each night in the yard of some “lucky” homeowner. The culprits this time are affiliated with my oldest son’s youth group, who will happily take donations in exchange for the nighttime flocking of an unsuspecting friend’s yard. They will also happily sell insurance to anyone not brave enough to host the visiting birds.

My son and I may have had something to do with a few of these migrations. And yes, we have also discovered a flock in our own yard. They’re not so bad really. The birds are quiet. They don’t eat much. And they only stick around to make your next door neighbor (who has otherwise cornered the tchotchke market in your more or less tasteful neighborhood) super jealous for 24 hours before flying off to roost elsewhere.flocked

The Pail & Shovel party would be proud I think. Of course, no matter how many yards get flocked, the official bird of the Greater St. Louis area will always be the Cardinal.