The granny pod in the backyard


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Real-estate trends say a lot about America’s wider economy and society — about citizens’ ambitions and insecurities and their evolving sense of place in our hurly-burly nation. So I read with great interest the Jan. 26 New York Times stories “The Gadfly of Greenwich Real Estate: Amid dozens of unsold mega-mansions, a real estate agent sees a glut of greed” and “Big Is Back (and Don’t Forget the Extras).”

The stories reminded me of how much more showy house ownership is now among the rich and near-rich than, say, 50 years ago. What mix of insecurity, exhibitionism, “irrational exuberance,” love of place, healthy confidence and speculation in all this? (Reminder: A real-estate boom caused the Crash of 2008.)

Billionaire Warren Buffett, by the way, lives in a modest house in Omaha.

But what really caught my eye was a Times story that ran back on May 1, 2012 headlined, “In the Backyard, Grandma’s New Apartment.” It’s about a mini-house called the MEDCottage — a prefab 12-by-24-foot, one-floor “bedroom-bathroom-kitchenette unit that can be set up as a free-standing structure.”

Given the aging of the population, we might be seeing far more of these dwellings than McMansions in the next couple of decades. They’re a fine idea, letting old people retain a sense of independence (albeit partly bogus) while not encumbering them with the duty of taking care of a “real” house.

But it’s doubtful that many residents of these tiny houses will build the powerful memories associated with childhood homes. For one thing, their ability to remember is fading.

Some of mine might be too, but my recollections of the house “I grew up in” on a hill near Massachusetts Bay remain powerful. The smell of the cedar closet, the dusty heat of the third floor in summer, the freezing drafts in the west-facing rooms in the winter, the troubling sound of glasses being clinked downstairs. My parents owned the house for about 20 years but because a young person’s sense of time passing is much slower than an adult’s — more of that below — it seems to me that I spent half my 66 years there. A childhood home has a powerful personality, creating a haunting and lifelong sense of place.

But now, jettisoning most of our stuff and moving into something like the MEDCottage has a growing attraction. I wonder if the buyers of our modest house would mind if we bought a corner of the (albeit small) backyard and put one of these tiny dwellings there to move into. We like the neighborhood.


The demonstrations in Ukraine against dictatorial and (with his family) kleptocratic President Viktor Yanukovych, pal and/or lackey of Russia’s quasi-fascist dictator Vladimir Putin, recall that given honest information, most people would choose to live in Western-style liberal democracies. While such potentates as Putin strive to ever expand their power and to quash their opposition, most Ukrainians look west for hope. The thuggery of a Putin or the Taliban can only suppress for a time people’s drive to live in the sort of society whose fullest expression is in nations dominated by Western ideals.

That’s because those ideals when implemented, however incompletely, address the deepest desires of people for dignity, for protection from arbitrary, larcenous and violent rule and for self- and civic improvement. The brute force of authoritarian regimes cannot work forever to block these desires.

Most Ukrainians want to be part of “Europe” (which really means Western and Central Europe) and not an autocratic empire — even one run by fellow Slavs.


We’ve had a tough winter in the Northeast so far this year. The jet stream has been screwed up, bringing us extended deep freezes, and Out West, including Alaska, record warmth.

When you’re a kid, snowstorm predictions bring joy; you don’t worry about going outside without a hat, nor about your dog not wearing a coat. (We thought that dogs were impervious to the extremes of nature.) But as you age, the inconveniences of snow and ice look more daunting; indeed, new snow can seem a layer of death. You feel the cold more and (rightly) anthropomorphize the dog’s feelings.

Still, as I wrote in my blog during last Saturday’s morning-long “January thaw,” how adults process time helps get them through winter. We know far better than the young how fast the seasons come and go. A happy reminder comes when you have the habit of walking the dog early in the morning and sometime in the middle of January you start to really notice it getting brighter earlier. Rejoice! Rejoice! However, with the caution and empathy of age, you make sure that you’re wearing a hat and the dog a coat.

Robert Whitcomb ( and is a Providence-based writer and editor and a former editor of The Providence Journal's Commentary pages.