Why We Do What We Do: An okc.net Story.

This past summer, I learned that I had what it takes to beat the pants off my friends in the game Monopoly.

This was not completely welcome news for me. I do have the desire to excel at whatever I put my hands to, which has taken me all over the map with the crazy crap I do in life, but I do not like to be the reason another person does not succeed, even in a stupid board game.

Sometime before I turned ten, I was putzing around on the back porch alongside my dad while he tinkered with whatever needed tending to that weekend. He’s always had a running tally of his own “honey-do” list that extends far beyond the scope of anything he’s likely to accomplish in his lifetime. Whatever he doesn’t know how to do, he still tries to learn. Curious learners usually like to teach, so I liked to poke my nose around while he worked. Those gentle moments when he’d pause to demonstrate how to sharpen mower blades or explain how we carefully approach the ashes from the grill were the highlight of my day.

On this occasion, I either hadn’t mustered the courage to approach him yet about whatever he was doing, or it just hadn’t caught my interest. Instead, I was tuned in to the travels of a lonely ant, weaving between the cracks in the cement. Something cruel came up the back of my neck and possessed me – before I realized what was happening… I had squashed that ant.

My dad looked up at me, wide-eyed and appalled, and asked, “What the hell did you do that for?”

I was powerfully shaken by his reaction. I had done that cruel thing completely mindlessly. It wasn’t like me at all, but I’d done it. Today, sometimes I do kill ants, but never just to watch them die.

The Papa M song “glad you’re here with me” offers us a more beautiful perspective on this human phenomenon. It highlights more than our impulsive desire – it lyrically extends to convey the duality of our natures. It remains my favorite response to Mr. Cash’s famous line about shooting a man in Reno:

well this morning they killed the candy-maker
three shots to his head with a .45
i don’t wanna end up in the paper
or kill a man just to watch him die

i don’t mean to judge the man that murders
i don’t care to un-sympathize
though i am neither victim nor killer
i see myself in both of their eyes

but what drives a man to kill another?
and leave his body in the dirt to bleed?
ain’t he also my brother?
ain’t you happy you are here with me?

I share these sentiments, and they make it hard to enjoy squashing anything, including my board-game opponents. These sentiments make it hard to have opponents.

Monopoly was originally created not by the Parker Brothers, and not by Charles Darrow, a guy who turned his luck around by selling the idea to the board game magnates, but by a Quaker woman – a Ms. Elizabeth Magie. Her 1903 “Landlord Game” had this description in it when you opened the box:

“Monopoly is designed to show the evil resulting from the institution of private property. At the start of the game, every player is provided with the same chance of success as every other player. The game ends with one person in possession of all the money. What accounts for the failure of the rest, and what one factor can be singled out to explain the obviously ill-adjusted distribution of the community’s wealth, which this situation represents? Those who win will answer ‘skill’. Those who lose will answer ‘luck’. But maybe there will be some, and these, while admitting the element of skill and luck, will answer with Scott Nearing [a socialist writer of the time] ‘private property.'”

Check out this website for the full story – it’s a pretty interesting source. What I take from this is twofold:

One – Let us leave our baser instincts on the playing board. I’m not saying don’t play – it ain’t worth beating yourself up over the morality of monopoly. But it is worth thinking about it. We have these sick parts of ourselves that Do get a thrill out of winner-takes-all, but this is not something that translates into living a life that celebrates the skills and talents of all individuals. To take these tendencies beyond Monopoly endangers us as a people. To kill a creature is not the same as robbing a creature of its opportunities, but it comes so close that I know I will always have as much discomfort over the latter as I do the idea of the former.

Two – I want to help make a workplace where people All gain from each other’s efforts. I want this place to never squash the people involved by becoming a game of someone-takes-all; it should support everyone equitably. Further, I want to find a way to work with people that operates on a cooperative level in all aspects. From inception to completion, projects need help. Reliance on the individual prevents many people from going further than their own minds; working together, things happen.

Long after my father’s dismay helped me understand the fragility of life, I had a completely different experience with insects. A fly was buzzing around the room during class. I swept out my hand in an attempt to catch it with no expectation of succeeding, but some strange force guided that fly right into my hand. I looked at my loosely-closed fist, and then looked up at my professor – for a moment, our faces reflected each others’ in a crescendo of surprise. I quickly broke our stare and took the fly out into the hall to release it. Never in any other first impression have I been able to show so much of myself without saying a word.

This happened during my first semester at Hampshire College, in an Aussie/New Zealand cinema and literature course from the amazing professor Eva Rueschmann. She showed us some movies in that course that still haunt me – Heavenly Creatures, Once Were Warriors, Romper Stomper, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Rabbit-Proof Fence… the list goes on. When it came time for me to write a term paper, I unconsciously knew I was not really prepared to write deeply Yet about the stuff that really racked my body (Lee Tamahori and Geoffrey Wright’s works being the most affecting films I saw in that class), but I had been deeply affected by Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Eva was a professor of the rarest kind – many of the folks at Hampshire are, but her especially – and gave us substantial freedom, feedback, and encouragement on any film or literature response. So I embarked on the first lengthy term paper I’d ever really cared about doing fully. Yes, that’s right, I wrote a damn term paper on Mad Max, and my professor was totally cool with that.

I do regret now not having gone into deeper research about the film or director George Miller – I hadn’t even seen the other Mad Max films at that point! I highly doubt it holds up over time. It was largely a personal response, and somehow I worked in a discussion of Mad Max as the Shakespearean fool, which is just another lousy college-kid thing to do: reach into extraneous discussion to fill out page requirements. But it marked a real shift in my take on academic writing. I still stand by that film, and I think the series as a whole has relevance in most aspects of our lives – even if you see the joke in all this, keep reading, there’s more to it than that.

I view Mad Max as a symbol. This symbol manifests as a person and represents that part of us which will never ascribe to the faults of humanity. This goes beyond the usual anti-hero personification. Mad Max has his own faults, as do all of us, but he separates himself from society time and time again because they fail his expectations, and he is unwilling to bend: if he does so, their faults become his own. Probably No group of people will be ethical enough for him to follow or join. He comes close to people, but never too close: the autogyro pilot (Bruce Spence), Papagallo (Michael Preston), and various children all make their appearance, but ultimately, “he lives now only in [their] memories.” We know he was once close with someone – his wife and child – but the circumstances of their death dictate his divorce from humanity; this ultimate cruel act is something he correctly sees within everyone’s capability, in one form or another. For example, Papagello is not a marauder, and he leads his people as honestly and fairly as he can, but even he has traces of the darkest parts of our crueller nature. Mad Max himself is fully capable of murder – the whole drive of his character in part one is revenge. He does not begrudge vengance per se, but he does not tolerate greed, jealousy, or impulsive cruelty, and he does not endorse warping reality to fit a fantasy. He is at the surface merely a moral compass; the viewer easily gauges how honorable any community he encounters really is based on whether he gets involved in their struggles. But in the end, the moral compass always directs away from people. His separateness distills all his characteristics and actions into symbolic form.

The Mad Max series challenges me in a way that few other movies do. Trying to understand this symbol is a puzzle I’ve been working on since 2003. I have no desire to exemplify any of the characteristics he distances himself from, but I don’t want to distance myself from people. He moves right the hell on when the day is through because he does not allow for our mistakes. And here I am, winning at Monopoly like an asshole because I like playing board games with my friends. It doesn’t jive.

Mad Max is a bleak take on how we build our communities, but it shows how intrinsic the need for community identity really is to humans. Thing is, we can’t build these communities on our scraps of distrust; this is our demise. Yes, Mad Max sees our demise everywhere because its a post apocalyptic world, but we haven’t reached that place yet, guys. We have yet to find a way to work together as a race, and I’m not saying I wanna broach this subject in a Very Large way, but I am saying that this influences my take on how I operate as a worker. I really have hope for humankind, and it comes through in how I want to shape the place I spend most of my time. Mad Max raises a whole series of questions for me: How could we could create the wholesome space for people that these films say does not exist? Could we drop the cut-throat bullshit and allow that to happen? What can we turn to to make better sense of cooperating as a people?

A good friend I worked with at my most recent wage-earning gig (surely not the last) turned me on to the idea of a democratically operated workplace. After I quit, I started delving into research, and came to the conclusion that Workers Co-ops are the ideal venue for an experiment that tackles these questions. We are all continuing to learn what this project is growing into, but Colin Newman and I have guided it with high principles in mind.

At Okc.net, we’re setting out to:

  1. Vote on everything financial and administrative. By establishing a rotating committee to vote on the payment of contributors, our budget, and important decisions, we ensure that our money goes to all the right places and that all voices are represented. No One person is responsible for making those decisions; this relieves the strain of our baser instincts, and the strain of singular responsibility. We counteract the fallacy of the individual and the pressure of leadership by relying on the whole group to lead us collectively. I hope the Quakers would approve.
  2. Offer unique views of Oklahoma. Much of the site is devoted to life around town in OKC because we have plenty to say about where we live. Oklahoma City needs our perspectives, and no one else will speak our minds for us. We provide an alternative view to the daily rag – yes, we do represent people with political leanings whose voices are swept away in xenophobic public policy. We represent people with an interest in local architecture, art, music, film, theater, and comedy. We represent people with an eye towards frugality; we encourage the patronage of thrift stores, flea markets, good cheap eats, and beyond. We represent people with an eye towards local retail, and we stand behind those fresh upstarts who sell eclectic wares or highly-crafted foods and goods.
  3. Build a greater sense of community. Our neighborhood guides and historic OKC focus are ultimately a tool to help this city realize its fullness and identity. Over time, we hope that okc.net becomes a touchstone for its readers, and that we help people understand how their neighborhoods shape their lives. This is what we have to offer Oklahoma City in the grand scheme. We get all kinds of talk these days about how Oklahoma City is growing and becoming more, but it’s important to keep a record of what this place is and has been over time for our city to develop in its own way. We are Not Austin, we are Not Portland, and we should not shape our identity on these other places; we desperately need to find the parts of this place that make it unique and celebrate them.
  4. Give creative minds a chance to share themselves. It is important to us that we find a way for readers and viewers to recognize the talents of people across Okahoma and that they get financial and emotional support for their efforts. Okc.net is still largely a blank slate; there is room for anyone who wants to be a part of this crazy venture, either as a sporadic contributor or as a steady contributor. Writers and photographers are not the only people we seek to empower, however; over time, we expect further development in areas that more substantially support film makers, visual artists, and musicians. Ultimately, we also want to publish our writers in printed form, an equally important and lasting medium.
  5. Treat our contributors with the respect and love that all humans deserve. This comes through in our allowances for our writers; several writers have already said that okc.net has given them the freedom and chance they needed to write what they want to write. Our meetings and discussions convey our consideration for each other’s ideas – when writers need help coming up with what to say next, we meet as a group to help each other come up with stories that really grab them. Our editorial process is possibly the most kindhearted devotion we can bestow – we take great care with people’s work, and we strive to help them express themselves fully. The development of our writers is a beautiful thing to watch as an editor, and we want them to feel that this is a place where they can blossom.

Okc.net is an expanding project that tries to magnify our better traits. I hope this document better expresses some of our ideals, and that you like what you hear. Continue to tune in as we develop over time. We have high hopes. I’d even like this to be the kind of place Mad Max would feel comfortable coming back to every now and again, if only just to see what’s new today on okc.net.

(c) Liz Drew All rights reserved. Liz is the Managing Editor at okc.net – give her your feedback or get in touch about anything at liz@okc.net, she’d love to hear from you. She’s also on facebook.

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