Allen Varney, writer and game designer


Greetings From Seattle

Allen Varney's letters home, January-February 1995 (1 of 4)

Moving in; absolutely not infatuated with editor; anti-tax crank; ugly Sound of Music incident; uglier wetlands; John McPhee reading

[In 1993, as a freelance game designer, I lucked into a chance to design an expansion set for Wizards of the Coast's spectacularly successful trading card game Magic: The Gathering. (For a brief description of Magic, click here.) The gaming field had caught Magic fever, and if published before the craze died, my expansion set could have earned me, by the company's own estimate, over $200,000.

[I waited through 1994; nothing happened. To help bring about this windfall, I moved from my longtime home in Austin, Texas to work freelance with Wizards in Renton, a suburb of Seattle, Washington. The letters I e-mailed back home to friends contrast Austin and Washington, describe life for a freelance writer, and whine entertainingly about corporate bureaucracy.

[I disparage certain employees in the following letters, but overall Wizards treated me exceptionally well, then and to this day. What happened to my expansion? Read the letters, or jump to the end of the story. -- AV]

[1/11/1995: Moving in]

Hi! Due to a screwup by the IMPETUOUS, NEGLIGENT, and SOT-BRAINED managers at my apartment complex, who rented my chosen apartment out from under me before I arrived, I pass along my CORRECTED change of address, this for another apartment in the same complex. [Address here.] This one is for real, because I've signed the lease and moved in. It's a backwater one-bedroom basement apartment with a great view of, not a major deer trail like my previous choice, but -- a fence.

I have a happy-new-year letter from a friend., Steve Wiswell. He writes that e-mail is like conversation, like phone tag, whereas letters written on paper and mailed with stamps are thoughtful, meditative, and can be passed along to others; they're "about the business of writing for its own sake." I wonder if he thinks the act of killing the tree for the paper is part of the whole experience.

In fairness to Steve, I wouldn't have got e-mail before his letter arrived. I just got my computer set up this past Friday, when my stuff finally arrived from Austin (2600 pounds, AFTER I'd given up half my books!). Then I needed a phone jack repaired, so I only got back online last night. While offline I felt isolated, as if travelling again. Now, back in cyberspace three weeks after leaving Austin, I feel on the verge of a normal life. After I send this note, I just have to do a few loads of alarmingly overdue laundry, and I'm set.

Before you ask: Yes indeed, it is, in fact, raining. Has been for several days, a slow drippy mist-bath from a leaden sky. I took this as an improvement, because for the first week after I arrived in Seattle [Dec. 28, 1994], the city got nothing but bright glaring sunshine. You can't imagine the quality of that glare; it drives right through your eyelids and into your forebrain. You cannot turn away, because it shines blindingly from every reflective surface, as though the light permeates the air itself. In bright sunlight at a particular low angle, I always develop a splitting headache; in Seattle, in winter, the sun hangs at exactly that angle in the southern sky ALL DAY LONG. Rainy day blues? Seasonal Affective Disorder? Never heard of 'em. Bring on the clouds, say I.

I have been hanging out with a few of the people at the game company near me, Wizards of the Coast (WotC, pronounced "wot-see"). You'll remember I moved up here to track the Magic gaming project I have going with WotC; it's now firmly scheduled for October. At least, they say it's firm. Anyway, I've seen this written on paper, which by the Steve Wiswell criterion makes it more real than before.

I'm also trying to get other work with WotC, with varying success. When I arrived, I got in a tight cash-flow bind due to an unexpected loan I had to make to a friend. So I visited the WotC offices, got a game-review assignment for their magazine, wrote the review right there over two days on a PowerBook portable, and got a check from the editor almost on the spot. That's as close as I've ever come to "singing for my supper."

Everyone at WotC, as at most game companies, works almost every waking hour. I said to the magaazine editor, "Tell me you have a life outside work." She said, "I can neither confirm nor deny that rumor." I fell into that trap ten years ago when I worked for a game company myself [Steve Jackson Games], but it won't happen again.

Renton is a tedious, humdrum, crass little burg, but the excellent bus system takes me to Seattle, a happening place. I have touch-tone service for the price of a pulse line in Austin. My checking account here is free. I've introduced WotC to Indonesian ginger candy, as well as several other Asian candies I couldn't get in Austin. Things are coming along pretty well. If you see Steve Wiswell, tell him I haven't found the pillar candles he wanted, and that his opinions about e-mail are all screwed up. Thanks, and happy new year.

[1/18/95: Absolutely not infatuated with editor]

I like it well enough here. Seattle/Renton has better water than Austin. I'm within walking distance of an okay library, which is more than I could say living a block off north Lamar in Austin. This place has two classical music stations; the local public station, KUOW, is SO much better than pitsy KUT in Austin that I get invigorated just comparing them.

However, the weather here is really genuinely cruddy, nothing but low drizzling slate-gray clouds. It gets dark before five, which is a drag. And I haven't yet had a chance to connect with new people. I'm pitching in at Wizards of the Coast to make a tight January 26 deadline for the latest issue of their magazine. It's pretty good money, and it furthers my goal of making myself generally useful there. I'm not helping due to infatuation with the magazine's smart, funny, capable, beautiful, and incredibly cute young editor; don't think that. She's already embroiled in a couple of relationships, plus she works about 90 hours a week on this magazine, and anyway I'm half again her age, so obviously infatuation would be a stupid idea, and I've ruled that out. It's not like the smell of her strawberry blonde hair mesmerizes me when she stands nearby, or like I fantasize about sitting with her in some cozy teahouse passing the day in witty conversation, or compare her eyes to moonlight shining through the slate-gray clouds. Don't think that. I mean, that would be STUPID. I'm glad we got that straightened out.

The dangerous aspect about hanging around WotC is getting sucked into the pervasive mentality that this current craze for their Magic game will go on indefinitely. No one there thinks it'll crash. Enfolded in this world-view, I have trouble discerning the actual trends, such as whether the craze will honestly continue until the release of my expansion set (currently scheduled for October). At this point I'm pretty optimistic, but how much of that is just general environmental optimism rubbing off on me?

One point I'm beginning to notice is how the hectic workload makes WotC's schedule very fluid. I suspect that without an inside staffer pitching for a product, circumstances can postpone it repeatedly. If so, then my moving up here was the right move, because I can keep pushing my own project into people's awareness.

[1/25/95: Anti-tax crank]

I met the most unusual crank at the Renton bus stop Saturday. Usually I can spot a lunatic at ten paces, because he's usually muttering under his breath or praising Jesus or shambling like the Swamp Thing. But this guy wore an immaculate gray pinstripe suit, white silk striped shirt with gold cufflinks (when did I last see cufflinks?), power tie, and polished shoes. He had thin black hair (given his age, I suspect covert use of Grecian Formula), wore handsome eyeglasses, moved in punctilious fashion, and carried a burgundy leather briefcase. I thought, This is a solid citizen.

We fell to talking, and at first all seemed well. He spoke in a deep, precise voice, a legalistic voice, and it didn't surprise me to learn that he's a consultant to insurance companies. Sounded very right-wing or even Libertarian, God forbid, but I let that slide. We kept talking as we got onto the bus for the half-hour trip to Seattle, and then he suddenly started talking about the federal income tax. Man, it was like he got some sudden injection of digitalis or methamphetamine -- he just went into overdrive, arguing that the federal government has no legitimate authority to collect an income tax, citing (by name, number, and year) case after case proving that there is no enforceable liability if you don't pay, saying he hadn't filed a return in thirty years, talking with increasing passion and urgency about how the government has pulled a fast one on the American people, never stopping to ask "Am I boring you?" and in fact hardly pausing to take a breath. I'm telling you, this guy went 'round the bend while I watched.

Even at this point I said to myself, Okay, so what, it's a half-hour ride and I wasn't doing anything else anyway. But half an hour later when we arrived in downtown Seattle, this guy was just building up steam. He started talking about Irwin Schiff, apparently America's chief tax rebel, author of five books including The Great Income Tax Hoax and, most recently, The Federal Mafia. This crank from the bus turned out to be good friends with Irwin Schiff and had a lot -- a LOT -- to say about him. It took fifteen more minutes of patient effort to peel myself away. Even at that, he scrawled Irwin Schiff's phone number and a few relevant case citations on the front page of my newspaper.

No, I didn't follow up. I figured, Even if there's anything to this, you clearly have to be well versed on all the case law to avoid major harassment, and more importantly, you really must make a life commitment if you're going to flout the state. Looking at this guy, so dapper but so obviously unhinged, I realized he'd spent his life paying taxes of an altogether different kind, a spiritual tax, and in a pretty high bracket.

By the way, am I boring you? I go on at such length about this encounter because nothing else of much interest has happened up here. I wandered around the Fremont and Wallingford neighborhoods of Seattle and saw Gasworks Park, a beautiful hilly park right on Puget Sound that was once a gas refinery of some sort. The hulking, rusting, graffiti-covered factory still stands behind a tall fence, a monument to the decaying Industrial Age.

Fremont was interesting, funky, eclectic, the closest I've found up here to an Austin atmosphere. One very Austintatious landmark is the recently erected Fremont Rocket, a salvaged Cold War missile now painted in '60s/'90s psychedelia, lined with neon, and erected high up on the corner of a pleasant little junk store called Ah Nuts. The owner's notice on the door of Ah Nuts says, "I buy weird stuff. See if you can weird me out with the stuff you bring in. Bet you can't." I looked around this place, and he did have a good selection, but I kept thinking, Buddy, if you wanna be weirded out, I got friends who could put you in the Center for Weird Studies Intensive Care Ward. For all the nice places I've found up here -- Gasworks Park, Kuan Yin Teahouse, a couple of IMMENSE bookstores -- I haven't found anything to approach the strangeness of home.

I've been working a whole lot at Wizards of the Coast on this magazine that will never make its January 26 deadline. No, the lovely and charming editor hasn't looked at me twice. Today I went so far as to wear a cashmere sweater, but never at any point did she seem inclined, even in passing or under cover of an accidental contact, to run her hands all over it. This no longer bothers me as it would have (did) ten years ago, what with declining hormone levels and all. It causes me to reflect on the Buddha's teaching, that a sensual relationship inherently leads to dissatisfaction and draws one away from the path to enlightenment. However, it also causes me to reflect on the Hindu yogic teaching that because sensual relationships draw you away from enlightenment, you should get into as many as possible just to prove this to yourself and get the desire out of your system. I dunno, do you think I should offer her this line of reasoning? My timing (if nothing else) has been bad, because she's just recently taken up with one of the Magic designers in Research & Development. He's skinny and balding, but as one of three designers of the most recent Magic expansion set, with its 360 million card print run, he's just made a cool $120,000, and looks likely to triple or quadruple that on the next set he's doing. Maybe I should give him The Federal Mafia and Irwin Schiff's phone number, and then he'll go nuts over the government's income tax scam and get out of the picture. We can only hope!

[2/1/95: Ugly Sound of Music incident]

I should explain first that my upstairs neighbors make a lot of noise. A big burly guy with heavy footsteps, a woman who shouts at him all the time, and there's this kid -- I guess they only have one, but she sounds like a whole nursery school, leaping around and jumping on the furniture and shouting and giggling until, I do not lie, two in the morning. Add in the loud music they play, and this family makes as much noise as a typical frat house. They live with the volume knob turned all the way up.

So this past Saturday night at ten past seven, while I worked at the computer, there came this strong jolt overhead. I thought, What on Earth have they done now? It felt like they threw a sofabed, drastic behavior even by their standards. Five seconds later, the entire wall in front of me suddenly SHOOK with this STRONG jolt, like a car had just collided with my apartment building.

And that was it: my first earthquake. I didn't realize it until I went outside and found that not only had no car crashed, but most of the family upstairs had left for the evening. A friend who's lived up here for nine years had told me that Seattle doesn't get earthquakes. I called her the next day. "I was wrong," she said as she nailed her bookcases to the wall. Turns out that even though it Richtered at just 5.0, this quake was still the strongest Seattle has had in 30 years, with an epicenter ten or twelve miles west of here. Boy, great timing I had, moving up here last month -- into a basement apartment! (The city took only minimal damage, and nobody got hurt. By the way, it is a true fact that Seattle's sister city is Kobe, Japan [site of a deadly earthquake a few months earlier].)

The screenwriter's maxim is "Start with an earthquake and build to a climax." Sorry that I can't sustain the excitement level. I have put in something dismayingly close to a 40-hour week helping out with this game magazine at Wizards of the Coast, where the January 26 deadline has slipped to February-7-Or-Else. A tense time, a tense half-dozen overworked people... it all takes me back, like hypnotic regression to a previous life of torment. The editor still has that endearing smile, that Grace Kelly jawline, but in the boiler-room atmosphere her dry wit has evaporated. And last week when we were all working late, this editor started playing a CD of The Sound of Music and, worse, sang along, song after appalling song: "My Favorite Things," "Do Re Mi," "The Lonely Goatherd" ("I sang this at a recital!"), and even, oh god oh god, "So Long Farewell Auf Wiedersehn Goodbye." She has a pleasant light soprano voice, but I mean, there are limits.

My pained expression prompted her to ask why I disliked The Sound of Music. I thought and said, "I suppose because it's about BOTH religion AND children." She chuckled and said, "It was nice knowing you, Allen." So you see that the bloom is off that particular rose. What is it about the human heart that we can be drawn to another person, all unsuspecting that she, willfully and without consideration for others, will sing along to "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" Blind, blind!

I did another walking tour this past weekend, my third using a book of 17 tours. In talking about the one I took last week of Fremont, I forgot to mention the most striking sight: the Fremont Troll. It lurks under the George Washington Memorial Bridge, an amazingly high span that crosses about 150 feet above the Lake Washington Ship Canal between Puget Sound and Lake Union, in the heart of Seattle. The north end of this bridge goes to ground in the Fremont neighborhood. For this bridge Fremont built a great troll. What a sight: a gigantic concrete head and two arms erupting from the ground, looming over a paved footpath as though just emerged from the stony ground. Its single eye has a hubcap iris; its enormous left hand holds a full-size Volkswagen beetle. Children climb all over it. I think private industry should fund a program to put a troll under every major metropolitan bridge in the country. Contractors can include it as a line item in their road budgets: "Troll." Why didn't we think of this in Austin first?

Oh yeah, the most recent walking tour. This time I did the University of Washington (UW or "U Dub") campus. It's attractive in spots -- Memorial Way, lined with 25 rows of sycamores; cathedral-like libraries -- and there's one breathtakingly designed vista of Mount Rainier. Don't know if you know Rainier in anything but name. It's an extravagantly beautiful conical peak, snowy all year round, and when you see it as I did, mantled with clouds on the last clear day before this latest week of drizzle and fog, big as though it were ten miles away instead of a hundred, it looks like the Paramount Pictures corporate logo. The sight of it exalts the spirit; you become suddenly conscious of the cool air, of the midwinter world. You come into your sole birthright: this moment.

It's so beautiful up here, I'm looking forward to the longer days of summer. I plan to walk all the tours in the book before I leave. Then again, Mount Rainier is a dormant volcano, and if my luck with earthquakes is any indication, it may decide to blow before I go.

[2/15/95: Uglier wetlands]

I didn't write last week because I had only disappointing results from my latest walking tour of Seattle, a visit to the Washington Park Arboretum. You may immediately realize that a visit to an arboretum in the dead of winter is bound to be a letdown, fraught with heartbreak, but my book of walking tours said it's very worthwhile. The book hasn't let me down, until now. In winter the Washington Park Arboretum offers over 150 different kinds of mud, from firm clay-like mud through every imaginable consistency down to submarine slurry. You have to watch your step at every moment, and if you ever do steal a fitful glance upward, the trees are dull, skeletal, and crowded close together.

This problem arises because the place is both an arboretum and a public park, administered by two different institutions in a tense relationship. In fact, the Washington Park Arboretum (that is, the mud) is an entirely different entity, bureaucratically speaking, from the University of Washington Arboretum at Washington Park (i.e., everything growing out of the mud), and God help you if you use the wrong name in the presence of one or the other faction -- or so I'm told.

The arboretum/park also maintains a pristine wetland, apparently one of the last such in America. You can walk through it on a bark walkway, the only place in the park free of mud. This wetland is -- I'm searching for the right phrase -- absolutely butt-ugly, a chaos of impenetrably thick dry weedstalks and the occasional wretched birch. Supposedly it harbors lots of bird life, but the birds were smarter than I, and had removed to warmer climes.

On top of this, last week I had only gloomy news, the postponement of my Magic expansion set from October to November. On the bright side, nothing new has moved in front of it; it's just that everything ahead of it has slipped. I still expect to be done with my end of the project by July.

Disheartened, I took another walking tour last Wednesday in lieu of writing to you. This time I had much better luck touring Queen Anne Hill, a beautiful domain of rich people in remarkably unassuming houses. The district's chief attraction is its fabulous trees, rows and rows of imperial oaks, even-spaced elms, chestnuts, black cherry, and many more, lining both sides of every wide curving street. Though they're bare now, these are the trees the Arboretum should have had. You walk along the pristine sidewalks in the chill winter breeze and look up, always up, at these stately and elegant residents. They have seen this city grow from just another port to a world-class metropolis, not a patchwork of suburbs and small towns but an integral location, a city with a life like a great person's life: historic, individual, vibrant and various. Queen Anne Hill offers excellent views of it all, especially the "Emperor View" from tiny Kerry Park on the south side of the hill. You look south to downtown Seattle, with all its megalithic skyscrapers, the Space Needle in front, the Sound and the canal to the right and below, and in the background tremendous Mount Rainier. The mountain of brilliant white snow behind, the mountain of black buildings to the fore, and you can't say which looks bigger.

Toward sunset I walked the downtown waterfront. Sunset is seldom an event in Seattle, because in my experience the sky is always plain blue or plain gray, pick one. But that night had individual clouds, a long patchy front stretching from west (orange) to east (pale rose). The sun caught one stratus cloud and turned it into a tapestry, in that it highlighted cross-strands of vapor in brilliant orange, leaving a warp of dull unlighted strands. I sat on a wharf and watched the angled light glint on the quiet water, turning it into an unreal computer animation. And I thought of my friends, the Austin jugglers, who at that exact moment were meeting in Austin. It was a beautiful sight, but a lonely moment. I miss everyone there.

[2/22/95: John McPhee reading]

This past Friday I went into Seattle to a reading by John McPhee at the Eliot Bay Book Company, a bookstore that is fabulous not so much for its great size -- for in these days of Barnes & Noble chain superstores (two floors of cheesy empty-headed bestsellers selected by computer and half-literate mouth-breathing McJob zombie clerks selected by attrition), mere size is no great recommendation -- but for its extreme intelligence. At Eliot Bay the personnel care lovingly for their individual sections, posting recommended reading lists, lists of past Hugo Award winners in the science fiction section, a deep and eclectic selection of Eastern philosophy, a children's section with monkey bars, and so on. So John McPhee, who apparently has never done a public reading before in 30 years as a writer, chose the right store to start. Evidently the reading was kind of an accident on everyone's part; he happened to be in the Seattle area to visit his grandchildren and, I guess, said "What the hey."

McPhee is one of my favorite writers. He's published two dozen nonfiction books, most in the pages of The New Yorker and all in trade paperback by one publisher (!), on a remarkably wide array of subjects. His first book, A Sense of Where You Are, was about Princeton star basketball player Bill Bradley (who later became a US Senator; McPhee is godfather to Bradely's children). His next, Oranges, is my favorite. It's about oranges, and a more fascinating book you couldn't imagine. Then there's all the books about geology, and ecology, and The Curve of Binding Energy (nuclear physics), and The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed (a bunch of aviation engineers driven to create a new kind of aircraft), and Coming Into the Country (Alaska), and one about Switzerland and one about birchbark canoes and, and --

-- And so I was eager to see him, and so (it turned out) were a WHO-O-O-OLE LOT of other people who arrived an hour early with stacks of books for McPhee to autograph. I thought I wouldn't get in, but by happy chance I ended up in a second-row center seat. McPhee is a short, slender man with thinning gray hair draped across his head, a trimmed white beard, and elegant wire spectacles. He dressed casually: off-white shirt, black pants, black shoes, long wool vest in Mexican pattern.

Considering he hasn't done readings before, he comported himself calmly as he read from his new hardcover, The Ransom of Russian Art. It's about a rich Harvard economist who travelled all over the Soviet Union in the '50s and '60s, first studying tractors, then the role of women in Soviet society, and then buying paintings by disfavored modern Soviet artists. These artists, hundreds of them, painted abstract and Expressionist paintings (verboten in the USSR) on whatever they could find, like tablecloths or old pieces of wood. This guy bought NINE THOUSAND paintings, smuggled them out of the USSR, and stored them in a barn on his estate in New Jersey. Apparently everything he didn't buy, the Soviets destroyed, so this guy singlehandedly rescued the output over two decades of an entire school of art. He did it just because he liked the pictures. Then he happened to meet McPhee on a train ride from New York to Princeton, told him all about this ("The train covered about two hundred miles," said McPhee, "during which time he spoke about forty thousand words"), and McPhee went home and started writing this book. No, I didn't buy it; if I could afford to buy hardcover books, I wouldn't have had to move up to Seattle.