Midnight Rambler: Monopoly, Timberline, and the Tower of Babel

Written while not asleep.

Thinking about Monopoly. The hilarious tragedy of it. It was originally invented as a way to show people that our economic system led nowhere and eventually bankrupted everyone. Unfortunately that epiphany wasn’t embedded in the game itself and, fallible egocentric creatures that we are, we came to entirely different conclusions: We have what it takes to bankrupt everyone and win!

I remember the Monopoly experiment that was conducted (perhaps ironically) at Stanford. They started the game with one player already owning the vast majority of the property and money. After his inevitable victory, he would still attribute winning to his own innate talents and abilities, not the obvious fact that he was so advantaged at the outset that his win (and the other players’ loss) was a formality. Maybe you know someone like that. Maybe someone who’s running for president.

As if still in a dream, my mind drifts from Monopoly properties to an entirely different hotel: Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood. I love that place. It’s built around a central granite column with massive wooden beams coming off it. Each floor has a fireplace in that granite column. As you climb the stairs, you notice amazing chiseled designs carved into the handrails and stair posts by the artisans who built the place.

Timberline was built during the Depression under the WPA. Nearly every community in America has at least one school, library, bridge, or other piece of public infrastructure built under this program. So Timberline is beautiful in more ways than one—it represents people rallying together during a difficult time to build beautiful things that serve the common good.

In a way, Timberline is really the opposite of the Tower of Babel—the tower ancient humans tried to construct to reach heaven. Apparently God wasn’t a big fan of that idea. What could stop our ascent? Making us speak different languages. There was mass confusion, building was stopped, and God returned to reading a magazine.

The authors of that story had a good point: Human beings can achieve great things only when we communicate and understand each other. Otherwise, forget about it.

This week I saw a headline stating that Bernie Sanders represents America’s desire to return to the values of the New Deal—a time when we rallied together to give ourselves the beautiful and enduring places we cherish. Places like Timberline, where the epiphany is embedded in stone.


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