Allen Varney, writer and game designer


Greetings From Seattle

Allen Varney's letters home, June-July 1995 (3 of 4)

Yen to travel again; going psycho in India; twins; Dorothy Gale is a Las Vegas ho

[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]

[6/21/1995: Yen to travel again]

After three weeks of brilliant sunshine, Seattle fell off the wagon and reverted to its incorrigible rainy self. The night temperatures get down into the 50s -- this, on the first day of summer! -- and the continuous slow wimpy drizzle turns the streets black, so that you have to watch your step to avoid gooshing slugs. I went up to Gasworks Park on Saturday for a kite festival, having misread the brochure that said it was on Sunday, and flew a borrowed kite all alone under a looming gray sky. A forlorn feeling. However, this followed a morning break in the weather for the annual Fremont Solstice Festival. I stood at the front rank of thousands for a parade of Green Men, sun worshippers, four naked guys on bicycles, and many bizarre costumes and floats. So overall it was a pretty good day. The next day it actually didn't rain, but I still didn't make it back up to Gasworks for the real kite festival.

I finally got the latest and probably most important "yes" in the long yes sequence on my Magic expansion set. The product team leader (viz. "glad-handing weasel" in my previous note) has said that the company will definitely publish it. Don't think for a second that I will fall back into complacency, no, I remain on full alert, but this is very encouraging. However, the current struggle now moves to publication date, where things look dismaying. The Magic line leader is pushing for a Thanksgiving release, but the weasel and the marketing slimes argue for March at the earliest, preferably April or May, and maybe some later epoch of the Holocene Period. It'll be another week or two before they settle whose is bigger. This is almost like working at a regular job, perish forbid.

Because my two years of cash flow problems are finally over, I have started to think again about travel. I happened to see the huge travel section in Eliot Bay Bookstore last week, noted that Lonely Planet has new editions of its African guidebooks out, and darn if I didn't feel that urge to go. It was almost three years ago that I left on my world trip, those seven intense months of an otherwise routine life. For so long, I thought I'd stick to North America for future travel, much as, after my sole bungee jump, I resolved never to try that again. Perhaps endorphins, which remove women's memories of labor pains, also wash away recollections of stressful times in foreign climes. Well, I wouldn't leave until the money comes in from this Magic set, and by that time Africa may well have drifted adjacent to the United States, Gondwanaland will be reunited, and I can go by train.

[7/4/95: Going psycho in India]

Just now got back from the fireworks at Lake Union, below Gasworks Park in the heart of Seattle. The show was a big deal, national coverage on All Things Considered and all, a 15-minute show of 19 sequences created by a guy they brought in from Japan. I had a pretty good spot on the southeast shore half a mile from the fireworks barge on the lake, and I liked a lot of the show. It is truly said that fireworks are humanity's only works that surpass nature's beauty. Nature got the upper hand, though. You may recall that I identified Gasworks Park as the ideal kite-flying place in the universe, partly due to its consistent breeze. The breeze died tonight, no more than an occasional wheeze of wind. So these spectacular fireworks blew up, painting mile-high willow trees and pixelated green gas giants and goldenrods, and all of them produced smoke. Then more smoke. Then more. As the show drew to a close, the climactic bursts seem to emerge through a towering haze like a battlefield, conjuring images not of willows and goldenrods but of Hiroshima. It rather muted my pleasure, but I always love fireworks. One of these days I hope to do a children's story about them.

Nothing to report about my Magic set, mainly because I've been preoccupied with my last AD&D design project for this year. The marketing slimes at Wizards of the Coast were supposed to spend last week debating my financial future, i.e. how and when to release my set, but though they could delay the thing into the next millennium, I have (characteristically) begun to plan how to spend the money I expect from the set's release, which I hope won't be delayed past March. I haven't actually begun spending the money yet -- couldn't survive as a freelancer without minimal cash-flow discipline -- but I have worked out a four-month itinerary for a trip next summer to Africa. There's at least another four months' worth of sights beyond the ones I've planned, even at a whirlwind pace, but I doubt I'll want to go back any time soon after this trip. Who knows, I may cut this short as I cut India short, and spend the whole four months in England.

I have been thinking lately about India, specifically about the psychotic episode I experienced on the sleeper train from Jodhpur to Agra. [1999 NOTE: I now suspect this episode was caused or exacerbated by a bad reaction to an anti-malaria prophylactic called mefloquine, sold under the trade name Lariam. -- AV] If you recall, I had settled in an upper bunk, and some Indian guy was arranging his luggage in the bunk opposite, unaware that a completely unhinged person lay across from him. I watched him rest a foot against my bunk while he shoved his bags into place, and I distinctly thought, If he moves his foot above that point there, I'll pull his leg so he falls down between the bunks, then I'll leap on him and beat him to a pulp. I was absolutely ready to do it. If he had moved his foot beyond that arbitrary point, I would probably still be rotting in an Indian jail right now, or in an American mental ward under sedation. Instead, he pulled his foot back, I came home to the States, and next summer I'll be rich. Reflecting on the completely random things that have profoundly shaped my life, I cannot see how people ever imagine a divinity that shapes our ends. (Maybe this divinity shapes somebody else's end, not mine. You could make a case that divinity was looking out for the guy in the bunk across from me. How many other calamities do we all evade, oblivious?)

On the other hand, that trip also showed me, in the abstract, the spiritual side of life. As I watched people praying in cathedrals, Turkish and Indonesian mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples, and Chinese ancestral shrines, or lighting incense for animist spirits on the streets of Yogyakarta, I saw how all these people were going to the same place: the sacred place, the sacred mind. This led me to study Buddhist philosophy when I got home, and although I'm still not even remotely spiritual, I like to think that the grounding these studies have given me can guard against a resurgence of craziness as I travel in Africa.

The point I'm thrashing toward is that the travel bug is still biting me, despite the horrors of my past journeys. I was thinking, as I returned tonight from the fireworks, that for much of my life I've felt a certain unease that I was missing out on something neater than my current activities or location. Given the routine nature of my life, apart from that world trip, this belief was certainly true. There on the shore of Lake Union, I had considered moving on, hoping to find a better spot to view the fireworks; but then I decided this was good enough. Only in recent years have I ever thought "this is good enough" about anything, and the feeling is still quite rare. I suppose I want to keep travelling just to check out what I'm missing. I sort of hope I'll find that home is good enough.

[7/12/95: Twins]

I went up to Seattle's U (for "University") District this evening to see a couple of Humphrey Bogart films. Across from me on the bus sat identical twins, statuesque women about 24 years old. They made desultory conversation with each other, looking at one another constantly, as though each were checking her appearance in a mirror. It must be interesting to have a clone. I heard about a study of twins separated at birth and raised in wildly differing environments, and when they reunited late in life they found that, for instance, both wore lots of rings, both stored rubber bands on their wrists, and so on, an unreasonably long list of similar habits. Strange to think of a gene for storing rubber bands on the wrist, but so it seems.

Once or twice people have told me I look exactly like an old acquaintance, but I have never met my doppelganger. I suppose if I bump into him in Vegas -- he'll be the other one who can't throw behind his back despite years of practice -- then he too will carry a bag of Indonesian ginger candy and talk too much about his forthcoming trip to Africa. Inasmuch as he won't live in Renton (if he did, I'd have seen him), he will at least be spared the lousy haircut I got today. I've had the worst luck with Renton barbers, who are all oooold guys out of Mayberry R.F.D. with a gut-level hatred of long hair, guys who when you say "Leave it alone in back" go into some kind of fugue state and shut out your voice, so that in moments you're watching your almost-lovely brown curls falling like the gentle snow to earth. I got a better haircut in Goreme, Turkey, from a burly youngish guy who couldn't speak word one of English, than I have from anybody in Renton. Not that I'm whining about it or anything.

(As I write, I'm listening to a late-night classical program where the CD of a Bach lute suite is screwing up. CDs mess up in ways lots more interesting than boring vinyl skips and scratches. This Bach suite has become a syncopated, fluttery modernistic piece, jazzy and surprising. In a way it's a shame John Cage didn't survive to hear this, although in general I think Cage survived way longer than was good for anybody.)

One of my bad work habits is a tendency for my mind to wander to my next project while still in the middle stages of my current one, well ahead of the time I should be considering it. It has happened with all my projects this year, and now that I am halfway through the design of the baseball card game, my mind has reliably shifted forward to -- nothing. I have no project lined up after this card game, and so I have spent the last couple of days thinking of nothing. After months of relentless productivity (more than 130,000 words since January) I'll need to shift gears to get back to my usual mindset of idle dabbling.

The days, so frustratingly short when I moved here in December (DARK by 5:00, not twilight, not dusk, DARK), now extend until 10 pm. The longer days really dramatize this whole axial-tilt business, and they have brought out my urge to travel. While my Magic set grinds glacially toward a March (or later...) publication date, I want to see a lot of the Pacific Northwest before returning to Austin. And I still have half a dozen walks left to do from my book of Seattle walking tours. Looks like a big couple of months ahead. About time.

[7/26/95: Dorothy Gale is a Las Vegas ho]

[I wrote this after attending the 1995 International Jugglers Assocation convention in Las Vegas. --AV]

Las Vegas is the American ideal, the Reagan Revolution made concrete (and neon). The last 15 years of changes in America's social fabric show forth most characteristically in Vegas. Though harrowing and sterile, Las Vegas has become under Reaganomics what Bugsy Siegel never could make it, a genuinely interesting place.

Calling Las Vegas crass and vulgar is like calling Plan 9 From Outer Space a bad film. True, but it doesn't begin to convey the subject's significance. Vegas has always shown off a poor person's idea of luxury, a low-class idea of glamour: neon, lavish furniture, neon, red carpets, neon, excesses of food and drink, neon. But in the 1980s, sort of a Las Vegas decade nationwide, Vegas transformed into a family vacation destination, where you take your kids to soak up these American priorities. "Give them to me until they are six," as one of the Popes was supposed to have said, "and they are mine forever."

I have seldom seen or heard of excess on a greater scale than Las Vegas. Versailles? Beijing's Forbidden City? Emperor Bokassa's 1977 coronation (costing half of the Central African Republic's gross domestic product)? Maybe, though I suspect these records won't stand long. Lately Las Vegas isn't being outstripped even by the classic excesses like the Great Pyramids -- for of course the Luxor (or, as the hotel writes it, "LuXor") is as big as the Pyramid of Cheops, and it also throws in a Sphinx and a full-size replica of the obelisk at the real Luxor. The upcoming Paris-themed resort, to open in mid-1997, offers a replica of the Eiffel Tower. And I saw a scale model of the mammoth "New York, New York" complex, scheduled for late 1996. This place looks like someone took all of New York City's major architectural landmarks -- Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, Grant's Tomb, the Met, you name it -- put them in a big bag, shook them up, and spilled them out as the frontage of this casino. To one side, the Brooklyn Bridge flows over a canal; a long roller coaster snakes inside and outside the building and over a gigantic parking garage; the canal leads to a corner lagoon, and in the middle of the lagoon stands the Statue of Liberty. Makes you proud to be an American.

I flew down to Vegas for a juggling convention, which was a blast. Meeting nine or ten friends from the Texas Juggling Society, I felt as though I'd never left. We went to a lot of buffets -- Las Vegas has gone in very big for buffets -- including the one at the MGM Grand, the largest hotel in the world (5,007 rooms). The MGM's Oz Buffet is situated near the replica of the Emerald City of Oz, which stands just inside the entrance shaped like a colossal replica of the MGM lion. Around the Emerald City are trouped audio-animatronic statues of the Wizard of Oz characters in popular scenes from the movie, and nearby, another animated figure of Dorothy waves from the wheel of her new red Dodge Avenger ES with antilock brakes and dual airbags. (You can win the car as a slot-machine jackpot.) While we sat in the buffet, Deborah asked, "What do we think of Dorothy now that she's driving a Dodge Avenger?" and Jerry tersely replied, "I think she's a ho." We all agreed.

Las Vegas can turn Dorothy and the Statue of Liberty into hoes, but in that respect it is only slightly ahead of the rest of the country. As, to a hammer, everything looks like a nail, so the corporate view makes everything a commodity. This is because the people who plan products and product lines have no personal mythology -- no soul, if you will -- and often no talent. To take only the first random example that comes to hand, the glad-handing weasel at Wizards of the Coast who is in charge of my Magic expansion set has finally managed to kill it. Though dead set against it from day one, he's had to shift his ground a lot, from "I don't think this is commercial" to "This product is so commercial, we want to keep it in reserve until Magic sales need a boost" (that is, after the craze has died). This man and his subservient marketing slimes are the only people in Research & Development who have never actually designed a game. All the designers said yes, including the president of the company, but this guy and the marketeers said "no," I suppose because they have little imagination or talent for a rules expansion. I feel some rancor, but overall I'm just tired of the whole experience and looking forward to getting back home in late August or September. In general I'm realizing that moving up here just because of hopes of fortune was a bad idea -- that hopes of fortune are themselves bad ideas, bad for the spirit. For many of my friends this is a no-brainer. Sorry it's taking me so long to learn this, folks, but visions of Africa tempted me.

The hills of Renton, and of much of the Pacific Northwest, are covered with brambles -- Himalayan blackberries. The story of these bushes is identical to that of kudzu in the South: Well-meaning ambassadors brought over a few of the plants from Tibet for the Alaska-Pacific-Yukon exhibition in 1902 or sometime around then, and the blackberries started taking over. Now they grow on every patch of land that isn't scrupulously guarded and maintained. Perhaps "Himalayan blackberry" conjures a vision of peaceful foggy slopes, genial blossoms, a monkish friendly plant. In fact this thing has thorns THIS long, looks ugly, grows at cancerous speed, and its aggressiveness is almost Triffidian. But for these few weeks of summer, it brings forth scads of tasty blackberries. You can reach up as you walk by, pluck the fruit and eat it right there. For me, a suburban boy, this is a strange novelty; I work from a visceral understanding that food actually grows only in grocery stores. At first I had suspicions that these exposed berries would be dangerous -- the birds aren't eating them, so they must know something -- but nothing bad has come of eating the berries, unless there is some unknown mechanism that cancels the eater's expansion set.

I have eaten these delicious blackberries with clear and present awareness, recalling the Zen story of the man chased by a tiger. The man falls off a cliff, grabs an overhanging bush, and sees the roots of the bush being gnawed by two mice, one white, one black. The man sees a single strawberry growing on the bush, and he plucks and eats it. The story ends, "How sweet it tasted!" However, it's delicate work, reaching through all those thorns. This is probably why the local birds haven't touched the berries. Still, the quarter-pound of blackberries that you would pay 75 cents or a dollar for at the store, I got for free! And all it required was half an hour of meticulous effort.