COLUMN: The things that make us human

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, July 31, 2011 Hibbing Daily Tribune. A version of this piece aired Saturday on 91.7 KAXE‘s “Between You and Me.”

The things that make us human
By Aaron J. Brown

We know that fire needs fuel, oxygen and heat to burn. A swap meet, combining elements from rummage sales, antique shops and art expos, also requires three elements: a large retirement age population, a rapidly fluctuating local economy and folksy charm.

Grand Rapids, Minnesota, is the genial kind of Midwestern town you find at the intersection of mining, forestry and tourism, industries that produce all these necessary requirements for the swap meet being held this weekend at the Itasca County Fairgrounds.

It’s been a few years since I’ve been to the swap meet. I’m on hiatus. Nothing makes these vendors more nervous than a guy like me with three young boys in tow, each one some combination of sticky, clumsy or unaware of the unforgiving reality of glass things smashed against ceramic things. All my money is tied up in the mortgage, gas and Goldfish crackers. I don’t carry cash. So I’ll wait to go to the swap meet until I’m a little older and have the gray hairs and frown-wrinkles necessary to secure a good price on the old license plates and vintage typewriters I so vainly crave. I estimate this will occur next year or the year after.

But I hear about the swap meet; I see the signs and newspaper ads. Fact is, I could use some old maps and authentic wall displays from before I was born. Furniture is always more interesting when you know it probably once belonged to someone who is no longer alive, even if you don’t know the name or vocation of the deceased. Words take on new meaning when written at a dead man’s desk. Swap meets provide great lessons on topics like anthropology, economics and history.

First, the anthropology. As I teach in class sometimes, the objects in our lives communicate something important about us. Walking around a swap meet you realize the way the things about us have changed very much, very recently. Televisions, radios and appliances are a good deal less cumbersome, but kitchen implements have somehow become more awkward. This is perhaps due to the sheer number of electric slicing, dicing, mixing, grilling and steaming devices we’re now required to have if we are to replicate the meals we see on our much more efficient televisions. Mostly, though, these objects remind us that so much of what we buy new today is built to wear out long before it ever reaches a swap meet.

Then, the economics. It is a swap meet, after all. Money has a way of clouding the raw value of an object. We think of money in terms of how much we make in a week or how much is in our bank account or stock portfolio earning compounding interest. We don’t even handle money any more; most of it is exchanged through computers by the swipe of a card or click of a computer mouse. But how many out-of-date Corel ware bowls is a 1935 adding machine worth? Now we’re talking. Naturally, it depends on the pattern and whether the adding machine works or not.

Finally, the history. Stroll through a swap meet and you see something that Americans have always had a hard time understanding, our recent history. Sure, we read about the old stuff in school, but this is not a nation built on reflection, but on barreling into the future with a dim sense that it’ll be better out there somewhere. That’s how so many big issues take so long to fix in our system, and why the ghosts of the past linger so long in our lives today. Yeah, that soup ad from the 1940s is kind of racist. So is that promotional 1957 map from the Chamber of Commerce. The stuff of our recent past will always explain us better than the nostalgic assurances of a talk radio host or coordinated campaign to sell life insurance.

So check out the swap meet. Swap what you will and remember the rest. Just don’t break anything.

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and community college instructor who lives north of Nashwauk. He is the author of the blog and the book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”

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