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So You Built a House

We were sitting in the best seat at Double Mountain Brewing—the one that gives a really nice view of the desert hills off beyond the Columbia River—when my wife said that she really liked the mother of one our child’s friends. The rolling beige terrain beyond the glass garage door is massively impressive. The pizza was quite small.

We’ve been regulars for ten years, and we’ve seen changes—mostly subtle ones. The Jersey Pie, which we order religiously, has been consistently good. It enrobes the palate in an unctuous emulsification of pickled pepper juice and capicolla fat, but the char on the crust has gone darker and lighter. They threaten the Greek salad with balsamic vinaigrette, so we have always ordered a large Greek, “sub sherry vinaigrette,” which is the closest thing to Greek dressing on the menu. It’s acceptable, although it’s always been treated as an afterthought, and when they need to save money, it’s the salad that suffers.

When I eat at Double Mountain, I never tell anyone that I “made pizza for dinner,” because that would sound ridiculous. Colloquially: I ate there. Economically: I paid them to make and serve me pizza. But let’s not smudge the lines: they made the pie. They get the credit.

This woman, my wife said over the smaller-than-average pie, had said to my wife that, “we’re building a cabin,” in a little town in the mountains of southwestern Washington. The only thing is, she had never visited the town, didn’t know much about it, and perhaps couldn’t even point it out on a map. In other words, “they” weren’t actually building a cabin—“they” were having some third party build it for them.

This is a common linguistic trick that people use around here: “we’re building a house,” you might hear an upper-middle-class couple that doesn’t really look capable of wielding a hammer instinctively say. It took me a while to catch on. “Oh, really! Wow, that must be lot of work! Is one of you a contractor?,” I’d start in, eager to learn the ins and outs of building one’s own house.

“Oh no! We hired a general, but it is a lot of work!,” comes the surprised reply.

When I was a kid, my dad actually built things, with his own two hands. Our two-and-a-half story row house in an aging neighborhood was purchased with a down payment of $700. The back door led to a ten foot drop-off where a deck was supposed to be. The interior was a wreck. It was habitable, but just barely. If my dad said “I’m putting an addition on the house,” that meant he was framing walls, installing windows, electricity, drywall, painting, roofing, and so on. He still works more than full time as an electrician.

When a Portland physician says “we’re building a house,” or a cabin, kitchen, or whatever, they generally mean that they are perusing catalogs, making telephone calls, and meeting designers, architects, general contractors, and real estate agents. To be fair, this is certainly more involved than ordering a pizza from the menu, but even if I “build my own pizza” from the available ingredients, no one will accept that I actually made pizza. I just made a pain-in-the-ass of myself.

This little bit of colloquial dishonesty turns what is at best a supervisory role, and at worst a mere consumer role, into a real hands-on process. It also turns the white collar professional into a blue collar craftsman. “You see,” it seems to say, “these hands may look smooth, but I’m not afraid to roll up these Canali sleeves.”

This particularly egregious example that my wife was telling me about over dinner got me so animated that I knocked the pizza tin off the wire rack and onto the floor. It caused quite a commotion, as a nearby Weimaraner had been begging for a slice and now began barking and pulling at its leash through the restaurant’s open garage door. Everyone turned to look at me, waving my hands excitedly in the air, bitching aloud about the bourgeoisie. The wife seemed very disappointed with my lack of self control, so I had to drop it. Fortunately I still have the power of the written word, because I’m not done yet.

This doublespeak conflates the qualities of “possession” and “ownership,” which in consumer society sounds like a distinction without difference. And the distinction that I want to draw has nothing to do with legal definitions—I’m not challenging the legal right of someone to own something they simply paid for. I ordered this goddamn computer from the Mac store, but don’t think you’re going to get it from me easily. Nevertheless, if it breaks, I will be in line at that Mac store, just like all the other creative class assholes. And if they ask me for money I will pay it. And I will take it home and clumsily bash at it again. I retain possession, but not ownership, because I am helpless in the face of its sheer complexity, and its processing power is far beyond anything I will ever be able to fully utilize.

Ownership, in this sense, is mastery—the ability to not be dependent on someone else should a thing in your possession fail, and the ability to take full advantage of it. Should one of your poorly-hung fake shutters fall off the second-story window of the house you “built,” you will have to call a handyman to come hang it back up, while your shame is on display for all to see. Should the toilet get badly clogged, you will need a plumber to come out and snake it, leaving you with only two full baths in the interim, and setting you back a few bills for a fifteen minute job that your 12-year-old should have been able to handle. And if you build a cabin in a mountain town with good fishing and hunting, plenty of room to spread out and grow things, forage, and make big fires, but you only come out once a month or so to cook farmed Atlantic salmon in a nonstick skillet, then you aren’t really putting it to its best possible use. But hey, you possess it.

On top of those hills, just across the way from the good seats, you can just make out the luxury homes built there to take advantage of what must be stunning views. The land seems so vast that the pittance of acreage devoted to these residential tracts should be perfectly inconsequential. Imagine—some of them were “built” by people who had never witnessed the view firsthand, and simply picked it out from a real estate developer’s image gallery. The deer and the rattlesnakes knew what to do with the land, and had to move along anyway.

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