COLUMN: A house in order

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, Nov. 7, 2010 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. A shorter version of this piece was broadcast as commentary on a recent edition of “Between You and Me” on KAXE.

A house in order
By Aaron J. Brown

It’s probably fitting that the news of the past week centered so much on the House of Representatives, or that the economic troubles of the past few years owed so much to the housing crisis. When a word like “house,” associated with hearth and home, meets any form of disarray we find ourselves anxious. We long for the comfort of a house we remember, if we were lucky enough to have such a house. 

Indeed, it all comes down to houses these days. Houses are the most expensive things people buy. Most people expect to buy and sell several before they end up in the retirement home, which is something different. Problems in our country relate so closely to debt and social expectations that houses are as good a metaphor as any for the trouble in American life. What makes us feel comfortable and powerful also distracts and indebts us.

That’s why I was lucky to grow up in a trailer. Every house since has been just slightly better, warmer and less drafty. And when I drive down I-35 to the Twin Cities I see the nice homes on the rolling hills that once yielded grain. These houses now feature four available colors of vinyl siding, covering up hasty construction that passed some sort of cursory legal inspection. These houses hid the finances of their original owners, already gone now, and the entire shell game of our economic mess. These houses will be tilled back into the earth in my lifetime.

Something I read recently talked about the opportunity of hard times. This buying, building and disposing of unremarkable houses is killing us, the author wrote. He opined we should return to the time when we built homes with a sense of permanence, and a goal of passing them to future generations. The thought conjures the image of a castle, lorded over by, well, a lord, who tended the land and negotiated the family business in town.

It’s hard to reconcile this vision with another bit of information about our times. I got in an argument online with someone derided the costs of paying unemployment to workers unwilling to move for jobs in far away, fast-growing states. I was taking the position that in the 21st century no one should be forced to move to distant urban centers for mere temporary comfort. If family and community matter we shouldn’t throw them out at the first sign of duress. This exchange ended the way most internet arguments end, indistinctly and without much pleasure for anyone involved.

Nevertheless, it’s true that the economist Richard Florida predicts that the country’s future will become more urban, with young people combing the concrete landscape like digital nomads, renting to keep light on the land and putting behind them thoughts of home, wherever that might be. This, we’re told, is the immediate future of our people. Our houses, a little less permanent each passing year, tell the story.

My wife and I moved into a new home on family land in 2005 and here we stay. We will not be forced to leave and we hope at least one of our sons chooses to stay here someday. This is possible only because of the changing world, the technology that allows someone to do big city work while looking at the steam cloud of a taconite plant. We are just a few decades separated from relatives who lived in company homes at the edge of a mine where the men worked. Today, women and men tap into an economy connected by wires, where the edge of the mine is just one front.

Times have changed, but not all has changed with them. For instance, all the great peoples of this earth build for the future, not the moment.  We know this because the great people left something behind that mattered. The pedestrian people, the ones who milled around between empires, are known only to the highly educated scholars who write their mild tales of excess and sloth into mostly unread books tucked away in the deepest corners of well-built houses.

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range writer and community college instructor. Read more at or in his book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”

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