Greetings From Seattle
Allen Varney's letters home, March-May 1995 (2 of 4)
[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. To help bring about a promised windfall in royalties, I moved from Austin, Texas to work freelance with Wizards in Renton, a suburb of Seattle, Washington. I wrote these letters to my friends back home in Austin.
[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]
After a boring couple of weeks sitting in front of a computer screen and shivering -- due to the cold, not (for once) to deadlines -- yesterday I finally got out to Volunteer Park, in Seattle's lovely Capital Hill neighborhood, to look through the South Asian Art Museum. A fine collection of Japanese screens and netsuke, Chinese funerary wares and snuff bottles, Korean pottery, Indian Buddhas, Moghal paintings, and the like, including a couple of creepy images like an eleven-headed, thousand-handed bronze boddhisatva from Tibet or somewhere, and a three-headed ceramic elephant bearing a dozen wildly grinning Thai natives. Demented, Cthulhoid stuff. But my favorite item turned out not to be in the museum at all, but in its gift shop: a greeting card with an image from an anonymous Chinese book of paintings circa 1750, now in the British Library. A medieval Chinese poet named, I think, Aniya or Amiya (no, I didn't buy the card) told his friends he would be carried away by a phoenix -- and he was, before many witnesses. The painting shows the poet's departure, but in Chinese fashion it's a landscape, a resplendent depiction in metallic inks of a mountain, golden in the light of sunset, against a cerulean sky, with marvelous angular trees in red and silver at its base. You can see a dozen figures, so small at the bottom of the painting, looking up away from you to the crest of the mountain, where a tiny figure floats on a tiny bird. It's a surreal image, but the meaning is clear: all these people staring raptly at a small novelty, when the genuine wonder stands unnoticed around them.
The cherry trees are in bloom here, and now I finally appreciate why the network newscasters based in Washington DC always went on about them each spring. Ordinarily Renton constantly presents new vistas of ugly, sterile, crass Chamber of Commerce strip-mall fast-food used-car concrete-asphalt smug 1950s middle-'Merican suburban provincial isolationist lowbrow whitebread booboisie tawdriness, but the cherry trees have lent the town a temporary grace I never foresaw. They have these delicate flowers of the most beautiful pale pink -- some trees have white blooms -- that dot every branch, so that the tree looks like it's covered in pink or white snow. They bloom well ahead of other trees, so you walk along a street with a row of barren trunks and suddenly you're passing beneath a canopy of elegant Japanese beauty. I stopped one evening beneath these trees and watched a streetlight shine down through an array of blossoming branches; I wanted to float up and through it, down an endless tunnel of backlit pink and white flowers, for hours. An afterlife vision. Now the other flowers and trees are starting to blossom as well, so it looks like a colorful spring. I miss the bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush in Austin, but this area has plenty to offer flower-wise.
Work is picking up. My Magic set is looking a bit more definite for November. Most of the in-house designers at Wizards of the Coast have finally looked over my 18-month-old draft and given me positive feedback; they think that with revisions it's definitely publishable. This is a significant milestone, although in a sensible world you would have expected them to arrive at this conclusion a year ago when they gave me a contract. Nothing else on the schedule looks poised to slip in front of my set, so I'm feeling more optimistic. I do the final draft next week, and then I expect playtesting to begin in April. All of my part of the set should be done by July, so if my schedule is light then, I might return to Austin a couple of months early!
[This letter follows a business trip to Chicago. --AV]
After two glorious weeks of blooming, of pink and white firework bursts against a barren background, the cherry trees in Renton now have a haggard look. The delicate petals have dropped away, turning the sidewalks into bridal aisles. These trees as much as say, "Beauty was well and good insofar as needed, but let us get down to business." The dark red nubs that remain of the blooms are called (I think) receptacles. Already they begin to swell as the genes inside knit themselves into cherries. I can hardly wait for this second treat from these amazing trees, a taste treat (like the flowers) directed toward selfish propagation. In my depressed teen years I would have drawn dark lessons about how beauty conceals a relentless struggle for survival: nature pink in blooms and red in cherries, but still more red in tooth and claw. Now I'm more mellow. I see these trees coping beautifully with reality, handling unfair necessities with grace and elegance. Ah, for the life of a cherry tree.
Speaking of beauty, Chicago is a wonderful town, as it says in the song (or is it New York that's the wonderful town?). I have never before taken a trip that so closely approached perfection. Gorgeous weather (in Chicago!), flawless air travel and a suite Friday night at the Mariott at someone else's expense, a smooth presentation that got me the design assignment on the spot, a weekend with a dear friend, and deep-dish broccoli-spinach-mushroom pizza at Ronny's near the corner of State and Madison, which is where they start numbering the streets both ways and therefore can be called the center of Chicago. And the Chicago Art Institute, what a tremendous collection! Grant Wood's "American Gothic," Seurats and Monets, Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" (you know it, the painting of the lighted restaurant on an empty Greenwich Village street, with three lonely customers at the counter inside), an endless array of fine work. It gives you a buzz, I tell you. You get out of the Art Institute and see ordinary street scenes as compositions, see skyscrapers against the sky as a harmonious line of shapes.
Then on Sunday, two blocks away from my hostel on the University of Chicago campus, I -- me, Allen Varney -- I got to walk all around Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House (1909), masterpiece of his mature Prairie House style. The rhythm of all those boldly arranged planes and verticals, like a dance; the artistry of the lead-glass windows; the originality of the vision; it's still the most interesting building on its street, by a disappointingly wide margin.
At Wizards of the Coast my Magic expansion set is looking pretty definite for November. Everyone in power has said my manuscript is definitely publishable with suitable revision, which I'll be doing this week.
The excitement in my life remains entirely in work or otherwise outside Renton. Still, for all of Sunday and Monday I had the most unusual feeling of congenial contentment after returning from Chicago. I felt quite at peace. Then Monday night I had terrible nightmares all night, whereas ordinarily, for all my daytime worries, I sleep fine. Maybe the brain requires some minimum anxiety level to remain sharp, do you think? Wouldn't that be a bummer!
It's so nice of the IRS to revise the income tax payment procedure this year so that you submit your return in one envelope, and send the check in another. They'll get my return right on time; but although the wheels of the IRS grind exceeding fine, they also grind slow, and so it will certainly take them some days to realize that I haven't actually, in the literal sense of the word, paid. By the time they figure this out, the $4000 I'm expecting will have arrived, and I'll pay! The way I understand it, if you file a tax return but don't pay right away, that's not actually tax EVASION like they got Al Capone on. So in general I'm feeling pretty optimistic, if that's the word I want, about the situation. We shall discuss the freelancer's life at greater length another time.
I've done some interesting things these last three weeks, including kite flying at beautiful Gasworks Park in north central Seattle. When I first saw this park a couple of months ago, that central hill with the big stone sundial inlaid at the summit struck me as Earth's ideal kite-flying place. I mentioned this to a couple of Wizards of the Coast designers, and they wanted to try it. One suggested that it would fit best into his schedule at six in the morning, but I strongly discouraged this notion, and so we headed up from sordid downtown Renton around noon one weekday.
Kite-flying, 1990s style: After a quick lunch, for which occasion I was forced to eat for the first time in a decade at McDonald's -- both these guys are rich from Magic sales, but they both wanted to eat at McDonald's, which exemplifies the eating habits of WotC designers -- we barreled up I-5 to Gasworks Park. They had a meeting at two, and so we raced from the car, hiked quickly up the hill, deployed that kite like a corps of Army engineers, enjoyed four intense minutes apiece of quality kite-flying time, and then they rushed back to the car to drive back to work. I didn't return with them. Instead, I wandered pleasantly north to Green Lake (which is blue) and walked around it, seeing many, many people who were jogging or power-walking to obtain optimized concentrated intense high-quality leisure. Have you noticed how the computer revolution was supposed to give us more free time, but in fact most of us are working more, enjoying work less, and living little better than we did in 1980?
I myself am turning out quite a lot of wordage by my standards, because I've lined up many projects that are dead easy, if a little dull. It's all by way of marking time until the release of my Magic expansion set, which is now looking very firm for November (barring routine schedule slips). My set has a project manager now, everyone who could say "no" has definitely said "yes," and no other project looks even remotely likely to replace it. But I tell you true, if I hadn't been around here to keep it in everyone's mind, I doubt that this set would have seen print before next summer, if at all. It was definitely the right idea to move up here.
But BOY, do I want to get home to Austin.
I miss Threadgill's! The food up here is not actually bad nor actually expensive, but it's hard to get full here on a budget. Spend ten bucks in Seattle, and at best one eats enough okay food to feel pleasantly sated. For ten bucks at Threadgill's, including tax and tip, you get so much delicious food you can't move for an hour. When I get back to town, I want to go right back to the same apartment complex I lived in before, one block away from the restaurant. Maybe even a smaller apartment than before. I have become more convinced in the ambition I formed hazily in my last days in Austin, the goal of being so rich I don't need to own anything. A futon, a refrigerator, a microwave, and a state-of-the-art laptop computer with a fifty-gigabyte hard drive -- that's it! Anything else I need, I'd buy, use, and pass along, living without attachment to transient material things. Except the laptop. And Threadgill's.
I miss juggling! Have I connected with these supposed Seattle jugglers, putatively called the Cascade Club? No! Have I met anyone that has ever actually attended one of their meetings? No! Have I juggled more than twenty seconds in three months? No! I met a juggler at Green Lake, tried his clubs, and my forearms began to throb. Jeez.
I missed RoboFest 6! I was gonna talk about fractals again and everything, like last year. I haven't met anyone up here as cool or visionary or twisted as the Robot Group in Austin.
I miss Austin's science fiction fans! By chance I learned of and attended a meeting of some local fans last month. It was so refreshing to have an extended conversation that didn't revolve around WotC and Magic.
Most of all, I miss my friends: each of you and all of you. It's well enough, going on walking tours of Seattle and attending readings and lectures by famous authors (Australian science writer Paul Davies spoke at the university last week on the renascence of the cosmological constant, which was occasionally thick going but very interesting) and seeing the occasional museum exhibit (tonight I saw a fine one on the Pre-Raphaelites at the Seattle Art Museum: six dozen paintings of pale languid women) or Jackie Chan movie (Armour of God last Thursday!), but everyone down there is having FUN, unlike everyone up here. It's possible I can finish everything here by mid-August, buy out of my lease, and get back by early September. When I get back, I want to arrange about thirty consecutive all-day get-togethers, then socialize my brains out for a month. Keep a day open for me, okay?
I finally connected with the local juggling club on Saturday, with mixed results. They meet at Seattle Center, site of the 1960-something World's Fair and the Space Needle. After the meeting I saw an IMAX film at the Pacific Science Center there. I'd always wanted to see one of these, on that immensely large screen (35 feet high, 60 wide), yet never wanted to pay the exorbitant admission. But at Wizards of the Coast, from whence all blessings flow, I got free passes from an editor. So I saw an immensely large one-hour documentary about a high-tech Russian sub examining the remains of the Titanic at the bottom of the North Atlantic. Impressive at first, but with a lot of fisheye distortion at the edges, and the bottom of the ocean is not at all scenic. I still have passes left, so I may go back for the outer-space films and the Pink Floyd laser shows.
I found more of interest at the Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection, south of Renton in the even duller town of Federal Way. Weyerhauser Company, prime villain in the timber industry, sponsors this excellent outdoor museum of bonsai trees as a public relations gesture, presumably so we'll forgive their aggressive clear-cutting of the Pacific Northwest. This is the largest private collection in North America, and (I'm told) the finest outside the Smithsonian.
After viewing about five dozen superb semi-cascade pines, informal upright maples and larches, Chinese hackberrys, and slanting junipers, I talked at length with one of the volunteer assistants at the Collection, whose name-tag read "Wayne." Wayne looked and acted like an accountant but talked like Paul Gauguin just back from Tahiti, saying that bonsai requires not only patience and horticultural knowledge but also artistic vision. Bonsai is quite time-consuming, what with root and blossom trimming, weekly fertilizing, and "training" of branches with wire. Wayne said a bonsai master can expect to create no more than about forty works in a career. (And, of course, the works are never finished.) He spoke inspirationally about the greatest virtue of bonsai, the transformation of the bonsai artist through discipline to his art. I noticed that Wayne's teeth were very crooked, and I thought privately that a good orthodontist could straighten them out in two to four years.
Work proceeds apace, and I may be out of the woods positive-cash-flow-wise come early May. I've felt constantly strange for months, planning for the coming years of financial independence and, at the same time, struggling hard to make next month's rent.
To that latter end I showed my LOBBY boardgame to the Research & Design department at WotC yesterday. They scheduled it for a playtest, but they seemed more interested in "third-person day." Inspired by the Cerebus comic, someone had decided that everyone should speak exclusively in the third person all day. In discussing the game Diplomacy with me, Jim Lin said, "Jim thinks Allen hasn't played Diplomacy in the right atmosphere." And so on. Not only designers, but real grown-up people also talked that way, even in a business meeting with outside auditors. By the end of the meeting, staffers evidently got the auditors to talk the same way; wish I could have heard the conversation at those auditors' dinner tables that night.
Perhaps you, who know me passing well, may guess my reaction to third-person day. Also to the WotC game of calling "shotgun" when in a group heading to a car; the first person who calls "shotgun" upon emerging from a building gets the front passenger seat. Also to the WotC game of counting to ten fast when you and another person happen to say the same thing simultaneously; if you reach ten before the other person says "stop," he has to buy you a Coke. This last game may soon implement a set of advanced rules involving pinching and poking, but their exact nature is still unclear to me. WotC: a kid gang running a $70 million company, living the game every hour of the day.
The Tibetans believe, or believed before the Chinese spent the last few decades exterminating Tibetans, that your karma determines your rebirth in one of six forms. Reading from top to bottom: deva (happy god), asura (jealous god or demon), human, animal, pret (hungry ghost), or tormented being in one of the thirty-two hells. You aren't sent to that existence by a divine power, but by the inevitable consequence of your own cravings, feelings, and ignorance. I find the idea of reincarnation stupid and obstructive, but this cosmology gains power when we see that all six of these forms exist now, for each of us, in our own lives. That is, by the consequences of our actions and attachments (karma), we turn our lives into heaven, hell, dull-witted animal existence, constant unfulfilled longing, and so on. I bring this up because it's been a bad week for me, one of the lesser hells, although I have only myself to blame.
The bureaucracy at Wizards of the Coast is beyond belief. The company president is big on a management philosophy called Continuous Quality Improvement and a flat organizational structure that "empowers" (the principal WotC buzzword) employees. In practice this means that nobody is in charge. On Thursday night I played LOBBY, my board game of Congressional power politics, with the Research & Design people. It went kinda sorta okay; the design has troubles, but it struck them as promising. So I asked, "Can I get a contract?" and they just looked at one another, mouths hanging slightly open and expressions vaguely unsettled. No one at this game company, the largest in my industry, had any clear idea who could offer a contract to buy a new game. There is no submissions process. I don't mean a bad or inadequate or congested submissions process, I mean nothing. You send in your game design to WotC, it goes into a mail bin, and there it sits forever. [This has since changed. --AV, 1999]
But that's not the worst. When nobody is in charge, it means that anybody can say "no." I moved up here to shepherd my Magic expansion set through the approval process. I compiled a list of people who could say "no" to my set, and over months I painstakingly got each of them (eight or nine) to definitely say "yes." This included everyone in the R&D department, except one single individual guy that the others said wouldn't be involved with my project. So when R&D finally appointed a project leader for my set, with unlimited life-or-death authority to kill or reschedule the set as he pleases, GUESS which guy they picked, just GUESS. Right! This guy read the manuscript of my expansion set for the first time last week and had a panic attack. "No, no, no, we can't do this! No, no, no, we can't do it in November, we have to wait until March! No, no, no!"
See, WotC has an avowed mission to make game-playing as big, as integral a part of American pop culture, as the movies. Where ordinary people get together of an evening and say "Let's go to a movie," in ten years WotC wants them as easily to think, "Let's play a game." In itself this isn't absurd -- gaming is that big in Germany, for example -- but it seems that in trying to make games as big as movies, WotC has unwittingly adapted to gaming the system by which movies are made. 999 out of every 1000 screenplays never get produced; ninety out of every hundred movies that start filming never finish; whole, complete films get shelved before release all the time. In the film process, anyone can say "Let's not do it" at almost any time. In contrast, in network series television, there are only about three bottlenecks at which someone can cancel a project. Gaming, my field, works more like television, because once a project is underway, it's usually going to happen. Except at WotC.
So, about those Tibetan hells. I greeted this project leader's news with sullen grace on the phone, and then for the next two days I was just helpless with rage. I threw appalling tantrums in my apartment late at night, I rehearsed nasty things to tell this guy, I was about ready to rent a panel truck and buy some fertilizer. You wouldn't have recognized me. All the while, I understood that I was being irrational: The Magic set isn't going to make me rich, even if it does come out in November, and my card game, the baseball game for the Chicago company, promises to be more lucrative anyway. And when did money get to be this big a deal in my life? None of this changed my mood. I felt such frustration and resentment that this clueless nobody could make all my efforts meaningless -- that he had power over me. This has always been my personal Tibetan hell: someone telling me what I can and can't do.
The bad time I had in India was a result of the same psychology. When a beggar comes at you, this is (from one perspective) an imposition on your freedom. You have to deal with this guy. When a thousand beggars come at you in sequence, from a certain perspective your freedom evaporates. This made me so angry and resentful that I became the Ugly American within hours of arriving in India, and got uglier over the next two hellish weeks. Now, this past week, here I was again, feeling imposed upon and controlled, and instantly flying off the handle in response.
Of course, from a more enlightened perspective, these impositions are not controls. I only feel controlled because I have a self-centered desire to do something different. If I had wanted to help beggars, I would have enjoyed India immensely. If I hadn't gotten so involved in the Magic set, this product leader goofus wouldn't have ruffled me. This compassionate perspective is probably correct, but I'm so far away from it that it has no relevance. I find these emotions extremely difficult to work through.
In the end I just regrouped and have started pitching again, trying to get yet one more guy (in what appears to be an endless sequence) to say "yes." If he does, I'll stay alert until the corrected color proofs of my set go to the printer. I got complacent before, but now, in the absence of contrary evidence, I intend to assume that every WotC employee, including receptionists and shipping clerks, can say "no." It isn't so much the money at this point, as the realization that if this gets delayed, I may have to stay in Renton months longer than I'd hoped.
For 24 years Seattle has hosted the Northwest Folklife Festival each Memorial Day weekend, the first really nice weekend of the year in this area. This free festival, kind of a World's Fair for those on tight schedules, gave me my first entertainment after a month of relentless work.
Folklife is BIG. I mean REALLY BIG. Music dance art drama demonstrations workshops exhibits souvenirs food food food food and about a hundred thousand people, all jammed onto the spacious grounds of the Seattle Center (where the Space Needle is), site of the 1962 World's Fair. Austinites can think of it as fifty simultaneous Eeyore's Birthday Parties, a colossal welcoming of spring. Well, it feels like spring up here, although residents call it an unusually warm summer. Over the weekend the temperature climbed to all of (whoop de doo, alert the media) 85 degrees. Up until Folklife, the neatest thing about this pale excuse for summer had been the flowers. Texas bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush are pretty, sure, but up here the flowers make you redefine spring: camellias, violets, plum blossoms by the trainload, tulips so vivid red they look like pictures on a glowing monitor, backlit from some hidden cathode source. Rhododendrons, oh, you can't believe the rhododendrons! Apparently the "rhodies" are native to many places, but they're especially native here, and bushes on every street are entirely covered, laden, festooned with trumpet blooms in most of the colors of a good paint catalogue. A gallery of heartwarming beauty, enough to make you forget, for instance, a glad-handing weasel who has decided he probably can't kill your game project but is dead set on delaying it until March. The flowers distracted me as I dug glumly out from under a pile of halfwitted work. Then along came this Folklife Festival to make life interesting again.
Over three days I saw bands like Ranch Romance and the Righteous Mothers, went to a musical saw workshop and tried playing a saw (easy, but hard on the thumb), saw a demonstration of the dancelike martial art capoeira (created by African slaves in Brazil to let them fight with their hands shackled), heard Hawaiian slack key guitar and a 19-string lute and Scottish fiddling and Caribbean steel drums and a sidewalk hurdy-gurdy band (all hurdy-gurdy tunes sound alike), and fell in love with Japanese taiko drumming. I saw an exhibition of Asian kites and a hip-hop show. Now I've seen the Harmonicans TWICE, which is two more times than you've seen an ensemble of harmonica players. In the harmonica taxonomy there are some odd species, especially one German four-octave chromatic model, price $1500, that is as long as Billy Barty's leg. At the concert a two-level bass harmonica got dutifully blown by a big gray-haired palooka with a hawk nose. As he played, he moved his head instead of the harmonica, and when he blew on the harmonica's lower layer, his nose kind of mashed against the top and got pulled along, a fascinating sight.
I juggled for a few hours with some of the Seattle group, the Cascade Club, but the field got so crowded that patterns grew difficult. Musicians had set up every ten feet along the promenades, so densely packed you couldn't run a threshing machine across the grass without dismembering thirty guitarists. Mostly I just listened and ate. I ate Nepalese dhal bat, peach crepes, and grilled pumpkin in lemon-garlic tahini sauce. Loved it all, except when I blundered into a concert of Balkan folk music and heard a Turko-Bulgarian instrumental for bagpipe and accordion, written in 9/16 time, that sounded even stranger and more horrible than you think.
The strangest part came on Monday afternoon with the Barbershop Extravaganza. Five or six barbershop choruses gathered to bring four-part harmony to the masses. Barbershop quartet singing, bluegrass, and C&W are the only types of American music developed by white people, which only adds to the monumental debt we must repay in Purgatory. My ancestors came over on the Mayflower and the next eight ships after that, so my, pardon the term, ethnic heritage should predispose me toward barbershop. But I shuddered to see the Windjammers, three dozen paunchy bald white guys in gray suits with red bowties and red sequined vests, who looked like a head-collision between your local Chamber of Commerce and the Ice Capades, standing shoulder to shoulder with vibrant fake grins, brimming with local-community-theater vitality, and singing a medley from, oh god oh god, The Sound of Music. Then they marched in place for a medley from George M. Cohan, every note and every step in unison, all of them slavishly heeding every gesture of the paunchy bald white guy conducting them. Then they did a medley from, of course, The Music Man, the high-water mark of barbershop. (I had wondered, before the concert, how long it would take for a group to do "Lida Rose." The answer was ten minutes -- and an hour -- and ninety minutes.) Then -- worse than that! -- they did a gospel tune. Have you ever seen a platoon of plutocrats -- men who could have been ward heelers at Tammany Hall or politicos nominating Chester A. Arthur for President, who debate whether to vacation this summer at the Club Med in Guadalajara or the Club Med in Oaxaca or maybe the Club Med in Jamaica -- standing on a stage singing about the day of jubilee? Ethnic heritage or no, it tests your character.
Likewise the Jet Cities, the women's (excuse me, the ladies') chorus that followed. It was time-warp time when these matrons waddled on in their Big-Beautiful-Woman patterned caftans, their heavy makeup, their teased hairdos, and launched into a coquettish arrangement of something like "Buy Me a Mink." Then, to show a certain naughty flirting with new trends, they sang a medley of Elvis tunes. Halfway through "Don't Be Cruel," I ran like a rabbit. It wasn't just that these women were walking singing stereotypes -- Daughters of the American Revolution who married as virgins and grew gradually desperate as their hubby turned out to be a jerk -- soap opera fans who throw fancy dinner parties and join Weight Watchers and read Silhouette romances -- it wasn't JUST this that I found frightening, but also that for these choruses, male and female alike, seemed completely oblivious to forty years of social change. Feminism? Equal opportunity? This bunch seemed not to reject these ideas so much as never to have encountered them. I felt like I'd fallen into the Eisenhower administration. But the audience cheered, so the barbershop ethos evidently still exerts a powerful hold on the Silent Majority.
There's also a big film festival going on in Seattle right now, and it seems like every summer weekend offers some kind of festival. It should help keep my interest up here, but I still plan to get back home in August or September. See you then!