Allen Varney, writer and game designer


Greetings From Seattle

Allen Varney's letters home, August-September 1995 (4 of 4)

Highland Games; Magic World Championships; woolly worms forecast winter; Woodstock for flies; life lessons; aftermath

[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]

[8/2/1995: Highland Games]

This weekend I got out south of Seattle to the King County Fairgrounds in Enumclaw. I haven't lived here so long that "Enumclaw" sounds like a perfectly ordinary name for a small town, nor do the other weird Yakima, Makah, and Quinault Indian names affixed to small towns around here: Muckleshoot, Puyallup, Snohomish, Snoqualmie, Issaquah. When you think about it, "Seattle" itself is a weird name, one of those names that by rights Americans should mispronounce but never do, like Beethoven and Michelob. At this Enumclaw fairground I saw the annual Highland Games, a celebration of Scottish heritage in the Pacific Northwest. Turns out all the clans of medieval Scotland are represented in force in Washington state, a whole subculture with fanzines and clan get-togethers and genealogy societies and tartans, tartans, tartans, your clan's plaid pattern on a tie or kilt or bedspread or socks. It reminded me of science fiction fandom, that other subculture that sheltered and educated me -- that now is slowly dying, supplanted by the Internet.

The Highland Games had food as bad as Scotland's and way too many bagpipes (>0 bagpipes = too many), but the Games themselves were fascinating. Not every day do you see burly guys in kilts take a regulation pitchfork and try to heave a 20-pound burlap sack of straw over a bar 20 feet high. Scottish games are for REAL MEN. Shot put is for wussies; in the Highland Games, you throw a 56-pound weight -- one-handed -- over a bar some eight or ten feet up, and you're ready to jump out of the way if you get the trajectory wrong. In the Olympics you can throw a hammer, but you run up to the trig and spin around before letting go; in the Scottish style, you just stand and whirl the ten-pound hammer over your head and throw it a hundred feet. Trust me, of the guys competing in these Games, there wasn't one of whom you'd consider it a wise idea to twist his nose and call him a pansy. All of them looked like bikers, or like the guys loan sharks send to break the legs of bikers. (None were Scottish.)

One competitor in the Masters division -- guys over 40 -- was named Bob Hamm. A gray-bearded biker type, Bob had quite a beer gut, or so it looked from the grandstands, but he was doing stuff at age 40+ that I couldn't do at any point at my life. I learned about Bob from his wife, whom I happened to be sitting by, a woman who looked like she'd never picked up a 56-pound weight in her life: fat, pale but sunburnt, floral print blouse and white pants, a woman that you just know drove here in a station wagon and could just as easily have gone to a Monster Truck Rally. It turns out that there's a whole circuit of Highland Games at fairgrounds around the region, and Mrs. Bob cheers for Bob in competition every weekend. It's a low-key sport, Highland Gaming, without a national regulatory body or lucrative endorsement contracts (all those manufacturers of 56-pound weights are missing a bet), and all the competitors and their spouses hang out together amiably every weekend. Mrs. Bob pleasantly answered my questions (Where do you buy 56-pound weights? "He cast his himself"), and in the big final event she offered a memorable and illuminating observation. The big final event, the crowd pleaser, the signature game that packs the stands was, of course, the caber toss.

Maybe you knew already that the caber toss is a competition of precision, not mere brute strength. Sure, you have to be strong enough to pick up the caber, a tapered 16-foot log weighing 70 to 120 pounds -- pick it up at one end and hold it upright, mind you -- and run with it to build momentum, and throw it so it goes end-over-end before falling. But the competition tests how accurately it falls, not how far. You want it to fall pointing straight away from you, as though you're standing at the 6 on a clock face and the caber points straight at 12. In fact, the judge grades the throw using this exact idea, rating it "12 o'clock" (perfect) or "11:30" (slightly off) or, for miserable throws, "2 o'clock" or even "3." Precision must have been handy in all those clan wars where you were storming the enemy castle and had to bridge the 15-foot moat with your 16-foot pole. How comforting to know these devoted Highland Gamers are keeping this skill alive. (Where do you buy a caber? "Bob went out and cut down a tree and made his own.") As to Mrs. Bob's memorable and illuminating observation: We were watching one guy after another lift the caber by one end, sweating and grunting, chin jammed against the trunk to keep the thing upright, then staggering forward into a low-slung run, face growing redder with every step, then jerking upright with a heartfelt "Yaaargh!" and hurling his end high as the other end fell. One competitor failed to make the caber turn all the way over, and at this point Mrs. Bob helpfully informed me:

"It's not as easy as it looks."

Things are moving along here pleasantly enough. Yesterday I got up to Discovery Park, a large nature park on Puget Sound in the boring Magnolia neighborhood of Seattle, and walked the trails until my legs hurt. Then today, on the Free Tuesday held by the Seattle Art Museum each month, I saw a "Treasures of Venice" exhibition of paintings on loan from a Budapest museum. Both days I ate at a marvelous little booth at Pike Place Market, Crepe de France. I love good crepes, and this place serves one with fresh tomatoes, scallions, herbs de Provence, and basil sauce that, in one bite, can center your troubled spirit and summon inner reserves of strength. Then there's a dessert crepe with bananas, Nutella chocolate spread, almonds, powdered sugar, and whipped cream -- man, I have to get back there....

[8/22/95: Magic World Championships]

After so many, many months of cash-flow problems, what a relief to be solvent as I face my upcoming move to Austin. For reference, this is the key: Forget to pay estimated taxes. Pay everything on April 15, when you're good and ready. Such a clear, elegant solution -- what could go wrong?

Haven't written for weeks, distracted as I was by work, Gen Con, and other matters. Last month I witnessed the finals of the first (and maybe last) Magic World Championships, an authentically incredible event. Wizards of the Coast (WotC) rented the ballroom of the Red Lion hotel near the airport and flew in national champions from 19 different countries for the competition. The semifinals and finals on the ballroom stage were recorded by a roving camera crew and two overhead cameras that showed the tables with the card games in progress. In the hotel lobby two or three hundred fans watched a giant TV screen showing live closed-circuit coverage of the matches, complete with -- I swear I'm not making this up -- color commentary by three WotC employees. They spoke from an upstairs studio set that they called the Mana Vault (a Magic game term), and they all wore tuxedos. Truth, solemn truth. A guy from Switzerland faced a guy from France in the finals; they conducted the match entirely in French, which left the commentators bewildered. Switzerland won.

At this event, this giddy extravagance, I had the sense of witnessing a legend that future gamers will hear and wonder about with skepticism or astonishment. Gaming's answer to Malcolm Forbes's 80th birthday celebration on the Moroccan desert, or the Hollywood studio parties of the 1920s, or the banquets of Henry VIII.

A couple of weeks later came the annual Gen Con gaming convention in Milwaukee, which was (as usual) larger than ever before, with must-have-been 25 or 30,000 people. Trading card games were everywhere, mostly from euphoric wanna-be publishers who expect to make millions, who will certainly go under within the year and owe hundreds of thousands. It's so depressing to watch people play out the exact same stupid patterns of history over and over. Speaking of stupid patterns, I took on eight months of work, including a novel for TSR based on their new dice game [published as Cast of Fate, 1996]. Well may you ask, "How does one do a novel based on dice?" We'll find out. Anyway, it will pay my taxes and tax penalties this April (see first paragraph above).

Last week I finally made it down to Mount Rainier, a hundred or so miles south-southeast of Seattle. This volcanic mountain, snowbound and glaciated all year round, literally creates its own weather -- you can watch clouds form to leeward each evening -- but that day the air was crystalline and the sunshine warm. I climbed a pleasant trail to 6,500 feet, with the mountain looming another 8,000 above. From the viewpoint you can see two or three other volcanoes, including Mount St. Helens, which used to be almost Rainier's size before 1980 and is now a kind of tall, messy crater. It's possible that Rainier could blow too someday, and if the wind is blowing the wrong way that could be terrifically bad news for Seattle. But what the hey, I'm moving in September! See you then!

[9/6/95: Woolly worms forecast winter]

My mom sent me a story clipped from last Wednesday's (8/30) Reno Gazette-Journal, headlined "Signs point to a rough-and-tumble winter":

"Rabbits are growing thick coats, mice are coming into homes, squirrels are stockpiling piles of pinenuts, and woolly worms are more bouffant than usual. ... All the folklore signs are there, people say: a harsh winter is on the way.

"In the shops of Truckee, folks look at the aspen trees turning yellow and predict an early freeze. ... The locust trees are already losing their leaves. There are lots of crickets and plenty of elderberries and chokecherries. ... [I]n the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, sticks of the Indian Mullein plant are offered for sale. Legend has it the mountain plants -- also called dancing spirit sticks -- grow as tall as the snow will be in winter. This year, the sticks are four feet tall."

This was a front page story, which tells you what the Gazette-Journal (a Gannett newspaper) considers news. If the woolly worms are right, and why would they lie, then I'm getting back to Austin just in time. Like I needed a caterpillar to tell me that.

Mom also sent along some Doonesbury comic strips from last month relating to the release of Windows 95. ("It wants a faster microprocessor and 35 megabytes on the hard drive -- Hey, it just turned on the printer! It's a complete list of its demands!" "Give no quarter. Hold it to its box specs!") As you might expect, here in Redmond-land, the Windows story saturated the media. The hype earned $74 million in four days, Microsoft stock went way up, and some people bought Windows who didn't even own computers. But then -- man, who ever could have guessed? -- users reported lots of problems, tech support lines were jammed, the stock skidded back down, and it certainly won't be long before Microsoft ("Where quality is job 1.1") announces a bug fix.

The completely predictable development of this story put me in mind of the Magic craze, and of the numerous historical manias and euphorias that have interested me since I moved up here. John Kenneth Galbraith regarded such episodes of insanity as inevitable in a capitalist system. Too bad; it would be nice to imagine a reform of society that outlaws advertising, public relations, flacks, lazy journalists, and the whole intricate apparatus devoted to making us want things we don't need. Unfortunately, this would doom the gaming field, and then I'd have to find duller work. Almost as important, it would also require a complete overhaul of the political system. Noam Chomsky observes that the essence of democracy is propaganda -- manufacturing consent through indoctrination and manipulation.

Yesterday was Free Tuesday at Seattle's museums. On the first Tuesday of each month you can get into the museums for free. I made it up to the Seattle Asian Arts Museum in Volunteer Park and saw the elaborate rubbings made at the 6th-century Wu family shrine in China. Prestigious families built these tombs to honor (and show off) their ancestors, ancient sovereigns, and filial piety. The carved stone murals show ancestors, battles, auspicious omens of all kinds, and scenes from history. I think the modern equivalent of such shrines is the Disney Store. I can't imagine what I would put in a shrine to my family -- backbiting Thanksgiving quarrels don't strike me as the stuff of murals -- but contemplating a hypothetical family shrine is an interesting exercise.

Quite a lot of work lies ahead before I can even start packing, so I won't be getting up to Vancouver and Victoria or the rest of the Pacific Northwest. This is frustrating, but I hope to revisit the area someday -- during summer -- not for eight months -- not working on a Magic project -- and see these beautiful places. Always another horizon....

[9/10/95: Woodstock for flies]

Seattle, unlike Austin, has no urban colony of 750,000 bats that eat the bugs of summer. You can stretch out on the grass here without fear of fire ants, but mosquitoes bite, houseflies buzz, and now my apartment has fruit flies, tiny brown gnats that drift lazily in front of my computer screen. I hate them. Last week I threw a banana peel in my bedroom wastebasket, and then a few nights later I glanced down and noticed, in progress above the wicker basket, a fruit-fly convention, a miniature of the skies over O'Hare Airport in a two-hour backup, Woodstock for flies. The scene confirmed half the old adage, "Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana."

This was two o'clock in the morning. Now I did have pressing deadlines, and you, knowing me to be a 36-year-old man with a certain amount of mature detachment and slovenly bachelor habits, would of course expect me to blithely laugh off this fly invasion, ha-ha who-cares? For after all, wouldn't it be a ridiculous display of neurosis, like a murdererous lunatic in the last third of an Edgar Allan Poe story, to leave important work and spend upwards of half an hour stalking flies in my bedroom? Wouldn't you call it silly and obsessive, not to say DERANGED, to turn lights on in the bathroom so as to lure flies in there, slam the door behind them, and then crouch, waiting to crush the unsuspecting flies against the mirror? Wouldn't that be DUMB?

Well, that's as may be. Anyway, I slapped at these flies like a flamenco dancer, clap-clappity-clap in rapid sequence along their flight paths. But they, you know, teleport. I would clap my hands right on them, I mean RIGHT ON TOP of them, and in that EXACT SAME instant they'd fly along merrily, I'm-a-fly, I'm-happy-happy-happy, three feet away. Eventually they would land on the wall, implying that teleportation tuckers one out. They always perch -- crafty bastards! -- on a strategic corner where two walls meet (of which my bedroom has many), taking shrewd tactical advantage of the 270-degree freedom of view. I assaulted them with rolled newspapers, with towels snapped like a jock in a locker room. I hit the wall WHAP! so that the neighbors got annoyed (two in the morning) and pounded on the wall, POUND-POUND-POUND, and then I would see the damn fly buzzing along three feet away, buzz-buzz I'm-so-happy-to-be-me.

A fly, or -- I will go further -- any domestic insect pest can make a guy question his masculinity, can make anybody wonder whether humans really are on top on planet Earth or whether this idea is just the propaganda of corporate news media. I remember back in my first apartment in Austin, one night eight or nine years ago -- this shows how little I've learned since then -- I happened to glance under my desk and see this monstrously large cockroach scuttling along the floorboard. To see a cockroach is, with me, to instantly assault same roach with deadly force. It's a galvanic reflex, an ancient state of war declared in the genes, cobra-versus-mongoose. I grabbed the nearest likely object (one of my juggling clubs) and, as adrenaline surged in the primeval fight-flight reflex, pulled my desk away from the wall. The roach scuttled along the wall, I lunged, I tripped over the desk chair, and the roach reached safe haven behind the stereo cabinet. I ran, or rather limped, for the stereo, pulled the speakers from the wall, pulled the cabinet out, looked around for the roach, found nothing, and for the first time began to ponder the mechanics of insect teleportation, when by chance I looked back toward the desk. There it was, scuttling toward the kitchen in a break for freedom! I leaped, I struck as Achilles smote Hector, or whoever it was that Achilles smote. Victory! I mashed the thing into the carpet. Then I looked up and saw that my entire living room looked like it'd been hit by a tornado. Chair tipped over, furniture everywhere -- I thought, "Who really won here?"

Yet having given the matter much thought, I believe that in a fair battle between human and fruit fly, a patient human with a gift for long-term strategic planning can eventually get the upper hand. Our advantage comes from the fly's short life-span, apparently about 24 hours. No more than a few hours after I first tried to corner these flies in my bathroom, I found them resting on the wall like old guys on a porch. I whapped them one by one (more quietly than before), and they took it passively, having achieved the wisdom of long hours and made their peace with the Fly God. I emptied the wastebasket the next day, and now my victims' great-great-great-grandlarvae have flown to seek stinkier baskets elsewhere.

Actually, I think this place has fleas too. I'll be glad to get back to Austin.

[9/18/95: Life lessons]

I've been working hard getting deadlines out of the way before my departure from Seattle next Tuesday. It's been hard work all year, really. I've written an average of 20,000 words a month since January, and I'll have to keep up that pace through at least April. (For comparison, a decent-sized novel is around 100,000 words.) If I stay on this treadmill through all of 1996, then by Christmas of next year I expect I'll have completed my second million words as a professional writer. No, I'm not proud; a statistic like that is chilling, not pleasant. (By the way, there are guys in the gaming business who produce three times as much as I do.) I believe I've published approximately as much as Charles Dickens had by my age, but everybody remembers his works and not even I remember most of mine. This stay in Seattle was supposed to free me from Grub Street servitude, but oh well. It beats working.

Actually, things are coming along exceptionally well here. I'll have no trouble renting a truck for the drive to Austin, and it'll be cheap. My dear friend Beth arrives from Boston Friday to drive the truck. When we get into Austin we'll attend a pleasant get-together with some of the jugglers. And my upstairs neighbors, the world's noisiest family, people who viewed every hour of every day as an opportunity to make noise, are out, evicted, gone to torment some other writer in some other apartment complex. During their tenancy, which woke me up at 4 AM on the first night I moved in and at frequent intervals thereafter, I cultivated a certain detachment (and a good pair of earplugs). But I didn't achieve quite the appropriate degree of loving-kindness, the charitable understanding of our fellow human beings that is the hallmark of virtue.

Jack Kornfield told a pertinent story in Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: "What we have to understand in working with anger and ill will is true of all the difficulties in our practice: that they are our strongest teachers. This became very clear in the spiritual community that G. I. Gurdjieff led in France. One old man who lived there was the personification of these qualities -- irritable, messy, fighting with everyone, and unwilling to clean up or help at all. No one got along with him. Finally, after many frustrating months of trying to stay with the group, the old man left for Paris. Gurdjieff followed him and tried to convince him to return, but it had been too hard, and the man said no. At last Gurdjieff offered the man a very big monthly stipend if he returned. How could he refuse? When he returned everyone was aghast, and on hearing that he was being paid (while they were being charged a lot to be there), the community was up in arms. Gurdjieff called them together and, after hearing their complaints, laughed and explained: 'This man is like yeast for bread.' He said, `Without him here you would never really learn about anger, irritability, patience, and compassion. That is why you pay me, and why I hire him.'"

If anybody hired these people to live upstairs from me and pound on the floor, they got their money's worth, but I didn't learn the right lessons. Actually, in meditating on the problem I ended up contemplating foolproof ways to sneak into the place and pour a glass of water into the top grille of their stereo amplifier -- not the kind of spiritual goal you find in the writings of the great teachers, who in general discourage the practice of breaking and entering.

There's a mental exercise that cultivates understanding: We're supposed to pretend that everyone we meet, friend or stranger or enemy, is actually part of a huge exercise to teach us wisdom. So when someone mistreats us, say for example by cancelling our Magic expansion set, we consider why, and what we're supposed to learn from the mistreatment. So far this hasn't worked especially well for me, but I'm done pursuing dreams of wealth -- or anyway, pursuing them anywhere but Austin. See you all soon.


[My expansion set did not happen on my trip to Seattle, nor did it make me rich (not even close!). But despite my sniping at certain employees, Wizards treated me with fairness and generosity, and I harbor no ill will toward the company or my many friends there. Magic fans: My project eventually surfaced in much different form as Vanguard; fast connections can see all the cards here. I received credit for the original concept but did no work on the product as published. -- AV]