Going to California

Life By The Valley — 2.9

My first day at work in Palo Alto was mostly meeting a lot of people and signing a lot of papers. I’d already met my new boss, Phil Straw, when I was interviewed. He was a quiet, thoughtful, outspoken force of nature.

“Here’s a Phil story, for example,” Doug said, on the way into work that first day. “We’re at dinner, he gets a phone call. After listening for a moment, Phil asks for and gets a few numbers from the person on the other end. Then he pulls out a laptop, reads a few numbers from a spreadsheet, then says, ‘Good luck,’ and hangs up, puts the laptop away. I ask him, ‘What was that all about?’ And he says, ‘Oh, just a mate of mine on a boat. Came up too fast from a dive and felt the nitrogen bubbling up out of his skin. Asked me how far he had to go back down, for how long, to decompress.’ Phil and his friends are serious divers, but you should know he’s the kind of guy who gets phone calls like that.”

And no surprise, Phil now runs a company that makes custom dive computers that manage exactly that kind of thing, diving down to crazy depths and using delicate mixes of different gasses in order to let you stay deeper longer. It also has to let you know how, and how quickly or slowly, to come back up, or else you’ll die.

I’d be making it up if I said I remembered much of what happened that day, but certain moments stayed with me.

I remember being lightly briefed on recommended security protocol, and being relieved that in my general paranoia I was already meeting or exceeding most of their recommendations. But one other person was being on-boarded the same day that I was, a guy with the same initials as me. We signed our paperwork at the same time and, to our mutual horror, discovered that our signatures were identical: DP-identical-sqiggle. As in, we couldn’t tell them apart ourselves. We actually took a step back away from each other, I could feel my eyes growing as wide as I saw his opening up. The next day, we both confessed to each other that we’d spent part of the previous evening practicing new signatures.

Then there was the man I met on the street. Doug and I were on our way to dinner, after my first day at work in Silicon Valley.

“Hey, is that a game store?” I asked. It was the first game store I’d seen since driving up from Austin the day before, though I was sure the San Francisco area had no shortage of them.

“We can head on back after we eat,” Doug offered.

The following block had a “Dianetics and Scientology” sign along half its length. On the corner stood a wild-looking old guy, long white hair whipped to the side by the passing traffic. He bore a sign which read, “Scientologists have space cooties! www.xenu.net.”

“I think that’s Keith,” Doug said with mild surprise. “Well, we can go back and see Keith, too.”

We ate. Then the game store, and Keith.

Doug called out to him as we approached. Keith looked a little leery of us at first, and a little crazy, too. Then he recognized Doug and both the leeryness and his insanity fell away. The two of them did some catching up, I was introduced, and then Keith’s background was made clearer. He’d spent no small amount of time working on Xanadu, a legendary hyper-text project in progress since the ’60s that had finally shipped that week. In 1980, he was made a founder of the L-5 Society, an organization promoting space colonization. In his spare time, he had several large axes he enjoyed grinding.

“What does that mean?” I asked, pointing at one of his other placards. It said, “You mock up your reactive mind.”

“That’s what they tell you after you’ve given them $160,000, that you’ve been in control of yourself all along: you ‘mock up’, or you define for yourself, your ‘reactive mind’, how you interact with the world — see?”

Keith has been increasingly villified by the Scientologists thanks to a long pattern of mutual lawsuits. By the Scientologists’ estimate they’d expended over $350,000 on fighting him in the courts. By his, they’d spent about $2 million.

“Wow,” I said. “Even by their count, that’s two reactive minds worth of cash.”

From around the corner walked a beautiful blonde woman, properly business-suited if not business-minded.

“This is Robin,” Keith said as way of introduction as she passed. “She’s a Scientologist. Robin, these are two of my friends.”

“Hello, Robin,” I said, but she didn’t seem interested in further conversation. She smiled dismissively and pushed the crosswalk button. Her smile faltered only slightly when she realized she’d have to stand there with us for a full traffic-light cycle.

“Robin can’t say ‘Xenu,'” Keith grinned. That got her.

“I think that’s just silly,” she snapped.

“Of course. Xenu is silly.”

“I know,” she sighed with the slowness of someone repeating a mantra designed to sooth anger, “that nothing I could say will make you think any different about Scientology.”

“Oh yes you could!” Keith gushed. “You could make me think it was far worse!” This quickly became one of the most entertaining exchanges I’d personally witnessed in my entire life. Keith turned to the offensive.

“What do you think about [forgotten Scientologist term]? Where they keep you in a chair and put boogers in your mouth?”

“That’s . . . ah, I’ve never heard of that.”

“Oh really? Well you should ask someone about it. If you can get to the Internet, search for it. People who used to be higher-ups in Scientology talk about it a lot.” Robin glanced nervously between him and the other side of the street. The light hadn’t changed yet. She visibly restrained the urge to punch the crosswalk button a few more times. That’s Scientology training for you.

“There’s a professor,” she said in defense, “an Oxford professor emeritus named Brian Wilson.”

“Brian Wilson?” Doug asked. “Of the Beach Boys?”

“OF OX– . . . of Oxford. A professor. He’s done research into apostates, going back to the 13th century, and he found they’re notoriously unreliable sources.”

“One, sure,” Keith gave her. “Two even. But when so many people recount the same story — with minor variations in the details, which accounts for different places doing things differently — then you just can’t discount it.”

The light changed. “Excuse me,” she said over her shoulder while charging across the street. Keith waved one of his picket signs at her.

“Bye,” he called. I’m sure he’ll see her again.

“Bye, Robin,” I said. Then, when she walked out of earshot, “What’s Xenu? Or should I just check out the web site?”

“Oh, you should check out the site. But in brief, L. Ron Hubbard had to stretch for a background for his new religion, and coming from science-fiction as he was . . . . Xenu is the cosmic entity who kidnapped trillions of aliens from the seventy-six inhabited planets closest to us. He trapped them in volcanoes on Earth about eighty-five million years ago — volcanoes that couldn’t’ve existed at the time — and when they were blown up, the alien souls were trapped here forever.

“That’s what they teach you when you get way high up in the organization: you’re filled up inside with alien cooties, and the only way to get rid of them is to, well, give Scientology more money.”

As far as Keith goes, within two years, about three months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he would be hunted down in Canada as a terrorist. He joked on an Internet forum that a Scientology office should be hit by a “Tom Cruise missile,” and a group of Scientologists apparently convinced a judge that this was a genuine terrorist threat. Keith fled the charges, and Scientologists tracked him to Canada where they reported him to the authorities as a dangerous man, wanted in the U.S. as a terrorist. Things went really poorly after that. I’ll let a Toronto journalist tell the rest of the story.

And that was probably the most important thing I learned in the depths of my first day in Silicon Valley — also, that I did not have a number for anyone I could call for help in decompressing. I knew I had to be careful; I had no idea what would bubble up, out of my skin.

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Going to California

Making Magic — 17

Of course, the road to selling twenty-three million cards wasn’t completely straight. For example, the first production batch of cards from the printer were not what we wanted. Evidently, the printer thought we were just kidding when we’d talked about having a mathematical formula, even a simple one, for controlling the distribution of the common, uncommon, and rare cards. And then once the retail stores heard that we were actually going to be able to deliver on what they ordered, they not only weren’t worried about having ordered too much of the game, they simply raised their orders further. We weren’t able to adjust the print run at that point, though we felt good about penciling in a reprint sooner than later.

The area of damp dog smell radiating out of the carpet from the fireplace was still growing. The night before Thanksgiving, some of my archaeologist housemates decided to take serious measures against the dog spirit who it seemed was haunting our home. I came in from a night out with friends around one in the morning to find that I could not see anything at all in front of me. Usually, I could see down the short front hall and through the long living room out through the glass door to the backyard starlight beyond.

Flipping on the hall light showed me why: visibility was only about 3 feet or so, after which a solid volume of smoke filled the house floor to ceiling. I called hesitantly to my housemates, but got no response. After confirming that no one was in the living room I made my way to the fireplace, where embers still glowed. Coughing, I opened the flue and cracked the back door, then I retreated to my room. One open window and a damp towel along the door’s bottom edge later and I felt safe going to sleep that cold November night.

To be fair, though, they’d exercised whatever had been haunting us. It’d be a month before people stopped asking me why I smelled like a campfire, though we never felt dampness on the carpet or smelled wet dog in the living room again.

The weeks leading up to the game’s release were some of the sweetest in years, and one of the few bright spots through my year of tedious depression. People were talking about a new movie that had just come out called Pulp Fiction, and after all the time we’d spent together over the past three months it felt great to get out with Steve to do something fun — I thought Doug Barnes had come with us as well, though he doesn’t remember it that way now; someone did, certainly. It felt even more right to be seeing for the first time a movie that seemed destined to be a classic.

“It’s a great game,” I said in the parking lot on the way out from the film.

“Well, I hope so,” Steve said. “I think it will sell.”

“It will,” I said.

Back at the office, Jim McCoy, lead admin for Illuminati Online, was opening one of the first sets of finished, packaged, store-ready cards and sorting them out. I thought seeing that many cards so soon would be nausea-inducing. I was wrong. For whatever reason, it was comforting. To see Jim so delighted by the cards was a real gift for me, too. I told him about Pulp Fiction, strongly recommending he see it.

He nodded quietly, adding nothing further. That was when it hit me: I always knew Jim was a cool guy, though I hadn’t realized how shy he was. I hoped he’d open up some day.

I told him how the Newton coupled with the software he’d given me had saved the day for us in Michigan, at the press check, marveling at how much technology had to be bent to make up for being short a single quarter. We had a good laugh. I liked Jim.

We played our first in-house game with real, finished cards — six of us battling it out for world domination. I won.

Soon, the fan mail began pouring in — mostly electronic, at first, though this was in the day when physical fan mail still arrived every day, with questions or ideas or strange randomness. Overall, I think the game had a mixed reception. It took much longer to play than Magic, for example, and it was a specific kind of dorky that was different from Dungeons & Dragons dorky or Star Trek dorky. It had its serious fans, though, and in those first few weeks, most people were pretty excited about it. There’d only been four collectible card games of note, by that point, not counting two tiny disasters from two tiny companies.

We were excited, certainly. The best part, of course, was finally having something worth talking about with people who didn’t give a crap about games. At a small concert in downtown Austin, I ran into one of Cookie’s old roommates and her boyfriend, the young designer who’d been running down my Internet predictions.

“It hasn’t even been a week,” I said, “and we’ve nearly sold through twenty-three million cards.” They stared, mouths opened. “I think it’s pretty cool,” I filled in. They wished me a merry Christmas, turned, and walked away. I never saw them again. That’s fine.

The following week, I met up with Cookie. She called because she was in town for Christmas to see her parents. I picked her up in town and we drove over to just north of the university campus. That’s where in Austin you always used to find the most spectacular holiday light displays, strands of brilliance stretching from pole to pole along and across the street and back. Maybe it’s still that way today.

Standing on a corner, looking up at the pin points of color, I hugged her from behind as she reached up to squeeze my forearms gently.

“Some part of you will be inside of me for eternity,” I said, not sure it was a good thing even though it was true. We did not kiss. That would be more than six months out, still.

As uneven as some of our moments had been during production, Steve was gracious and generous once the money began rolling in. He gave me a bonus that was almost half my annual salary at that point, as well as a 20% raise. This was still not a lot of money, even in Austin terms, but I was finally making more than a starting teacher’s salary, so it began to feel more real. I began to wonder if I might actually have taken a much larger step towards adulthood than I’d thought.

I was having fun, and I was learning something. What’s not to love?

My mom called. “You won, you know.”

“What do you mean?”

“The nerds. The nerds won.”

“They did?”

“You did. You always said that computers were the future, and that tying them together was important, and in the past year it’s finally happened.”

“Are you saying you think it’s cool to be a nerd?”

“No,” she said. “I think the nerds aren’t nerds anymore. I don’t know; they just are. But they’re in charge now. You’re in charge now.”

“It doesn’t feel like it,” I said, quickly adding, “but thanks. Thank you.”

Our house was full for New Year’s Eve. Jeff and Andy and their larger circle were there, plus Suzanne and some of her other friends; Patch and Felicity showed up, though Doug was busy — and of course there were the archeologists and all their friends. Even Mentor came through, for a time. Rick couldn’t make it. He was back in Houston, having girlfriend trouble. Something would have to change there soon.

As the night breezed on, I found myself sitting in one of those big round rattan papasan chairs, half curled up and watching everyone moving in and around the party, basking in the magic of the evening. Down on the floor by the chair, Felicity asked something of Patch, pointing up at me. He grinned and shrugged, and like a careful cat she crawled up to nestle with me in that eternal moment. She held my hand, pressing it against her thin waist.

“I can see it,” I told her. I tilted my head toward Patch, who sat watching us from the thick shag carpet. “I see it.”

“See what?” he asked, still grinning.

“All the connections,” I said, my gaze drifting. “I can see the three of us on the day we met. I can see every time Felicity served me eggs over-easy at Red River Cafe. Doug was so important to all of this, and I can see the raw deal he got, in the end — I wonder what’s going to happen to him? It’ll be so marvelous to see.”

I went on. “I can see all the ways that I know all the people here, and how we’ve touched each other’s lives — the important ways, the trivial ways. All the connections. It makes a pattern.”

“Cool,” he said.

“Someday,” I told them both, “I’m going to write it all down.”

“If anyone can,” Felicity said, “it’s you.”

“Well,” I began to say —

— then a short fuse ignited in my brain, and for a moment, only for a moment, I thought I heard my mother saying something, and I remembered the thing I hadn’t even known I’d forgotten, never known I had lost.

It came to me, only for a second: my true name. I reached to grasp it with both hands and like that, it was gone. Worse, I couldn’t even remember what it had been, what it had meant to me, or the mysterious web of connections it had so briefly unlocked.

“Are you alright?” Felicity asked.

“I think so,” I said, though I did not think so.

Someday, I told myself, I should at least try to write it down. But being realistic, until I finished the book that Steve had pulled — and he was right to pull it, I could see it by then; the most infuriating thing about Steve was that he was right, he especially was usually right about things being wrong — I couldn’t even begin to think about writing anything else.

One year to the day, I would again remember my true name. But it would be a long year.

Here’s the story.

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Going to California

Making Magic — 16

It was a simple idea, as these things go. After having spent years wondering what the Internet would first look like — only to be disappointed to discover that no, it wasn’t going to be the virtual-reality interface promised by science fiction but a series of crappy-looking flat pages of text no more sophisticated than a daily newspaper — I was the right person at the right time to ask why it couldn’t be just a little bit more.

Since quarterly newsletters and bi-monthly magazines were too infrequent, especially in promoting a project we’d started only ten weeks earlier, the answer was something online. Because our Web site was one of the first couple of hundred destinations on the Internet, if not one of the first hundred, and a good chunk of people who were online at that time were, well, geeks, our little game company got a fair bit of traffic. So you’d want it to be a Web page.

But it would be great if it wasn’t any old Web page, not least because I didn’t like Web pages at the time. For example, here’s what The Telegraph looked like in 1994’s November.

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Not good. What about yesterday’s stories? What about related stories? Because traditional media was crapping themselves about how they were going to make money online, they had no plan to make older content available. A number of media outlets seemed to presume they’d end up adopting a business model like Lexis-Nexus, which had been successfully selling subscriptions to case-law records and news archives for many years by that point. Still, I don’t remember anyone being interested in organizing what little content they were putting online towards the end of 1994.

What if you didn’t care whether or not anyone was paying for your content? We sold issues of Pyramid Magazine, because it cost a lot to print. We gave away our quarterly newsletter in stacks because it was a compact bit of self-promotion. But what if you did care about letting people look back, to see the full scope of content you’d posted in the past, and you wanted to make it as easy as possible?

Begin with a Web page, basic HTML, with a header across the top naming your publication and a short column of text saying whatever you wanted to say. Then every day, you could add another column on top of yesterday’s story, growing the page out in reverse-chronological order. Add something like a little calendar in the upper-right corner of the page, which would show readers which days had seen updates, and let them jump to specific days, and you’re golden.

You could put all sorts of things in these columns. You can give people your email address, you could link to other pages on your site — you could link to other sites.

It could be a better promotional tool than a magazine or a newspaper. It didn’t need to be a daily editorial, it could reach out to people in a very personal way. I was afraid that it would become more personal journal than advertising copy, though I figured there were worse things in the world.

I didn’t have a name for it, though 19 years later most people would call it a weblog, blog for short.

I had a serious problem, though. I called it postpartum depression over having gotten the card game out the door, but it turned out to be normal depression, in a serious way. While I expect I probably looked fine, it would control my life for almost exactly a year.

We didn’t have a year to kick this thing off, though. The printer was mowing through the card stock, and the retailers were hungry for the game, so we had four weeks to get our fans fired up enough to send them into the stores.

Every day, Steve asked me, “How’s it going with that news thing?” I don’t know what I said. I should have said, “Listen, I’m pretty depressed and I can’t even see how to start making something that isn’t crap.” Because while Steve was not always a mentoring type, he was a problem solver, and one of his special geniuses was improving things that sucked.

Instead, I did almost nothing for ten days after Andy and I got back from the press check. That’s not totally true: I took the time to assess what it would take to get my book project back on track. With the confidence and the credibility I’d earned from my work on the card game, I still thought it would be possible to get it out in two months.

It wouldn’t come out for two years, though I’ll get to that.

My work on the HTML page quickly got hung up on how to make the little calendar, and though I spent nearly all my free time brooding about it I made no progress. After waiting nearly two weeks for me to get off my ass and do something — anything — Steve caught me in the hall upstairs one Thursday morning.

“I went ahead and started a page for the newsletter idea you were talking about,” he said. “I don’t know what to call it, but we can figure it out.”

I was mad, though I knew I could only be mad at myself. I’d wanted to make something great, while Steve saw how to make something good enough.

“I gave you permission to update the file,” he said with a shrug. “If you want to be the one to update it, go ahead.”

I was too mad and depressed to do anything about it that night. The next day, Steve told me that a fan had recommended calling it The Daily Illuminator, and that’s what it’s called to this day.

Click here to read the first two weeks of the Web’s oldest blog. The first entry was November 16, two days before the page from The Telegraph shown above.

By Sunday, I’d crawled far enough away from my depression and didn’t feel overwhelmed by the pressure to return to my derailed book project, so I took the time to add my first of many updates to the Illuminator. After a short line reporting that we’d signed off on the most recent issue of Pyramid, I said this:

“The rest of our weekend has been surprisingly calm. After much cold and rain this morning, the clouds parted and we had a lovely autumn afternoon.”

I’ll call it my first blog post, and that’s why to my closest friends and I take credit for co-founding the world’s oldest blog. Though it made me grit my teeth at the time, Steve Jackson deserves credit for being its first blogger, with me being the second.

Was it the first actual blog? I don’t know. In 2008, I heard about a guy who’d posted a reverse-chronological diary of his summer intern a few months before our column started, but I don’t know anyone who heard about it at the time and he didn’t keep any archives. The basic idea had appeared before as a “plan” file, which some older-school Internet people used to make available for public browsing, which was kind of a personal “what I’m planning to do” text file. What we did took the concept to its logical Web-based conclusion. If it wasn’t the first blog, it was the first one we ever saw, and it remains the oldest, longest-running, regularly updated blog, though the credit for that goes to the great number of people who’ve stepped up over the years to keep it updated.

Call it a final bit of magic to show up in my life that year.

We updated it every day, letting fans in on the blow-by-blow of getting Illuminati: New World Order, and soon other projects, wrapped up and available in stores. It was 10 days before we included our first link, though the ability to link to other pages across our site was cooler than any worry about people getting sick of reading text littered with links. It was the Web: people hoped your text would be littered with links, because that felt like a more useful thing to do. Other news sites were repulsed by the idea of putting up columns linking to source material or definitions on other sites, because it was taking readers away from their content and their site. It sounded to us that by doing the right thing for readers, they’d be more inspired to come back to us again.

The Daily Illuminator is still going strong, nearly 20 years later.

Exactly one month after the Illuminator’s first post, on December 16, Illuminati: New World Order hit retail stores. I hit a couple of comic shops on launch day, and it was an eerie feeling to see our neatly packaged decks of cards there by everyone’s cash registers. I was swollen with regret over so many aspects of the design, but seven or so people had put it together from scratch in two months — and that included bringing the team of seven or so people together. So it wasn’t great, but I had to admit it was good enough.

It was an even eerier feeling a few days later, when all the decks were gone. They were gone because they had sold out.

People liked it. In seven days, we sold 23 million cards.

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Going to California

Making Magic — 15.75

There’d been a young, auburn-haired woman on the plane, right across the aisle and behind us, who’d spent the flight deep in concentration on a book. She was reading quickly, occasionally pausing to underline a word with sharp deliberation.

When the printer’s rep let us stop at our hotel to check in before heading to the facility, we ended up in line for the front desk just behind the girl from the airplane.

“‘Scuse me,” I said.

She turned and let me see her smile.

“You were on the plane with us,” I said.

She nodded.

“Sorry for asking, but I noticed you were doing a lot of underlining while you were reading.”

She nodded again. “Every time I hit a word I didn’t know,” she’d told me, “I marked it. I flew out here for an interview, but when I have some time to myself tonight, I’ll look them all up to be sure I’m getting everything.”

“Wow,” I said.

“What are you here for?”

“Press check,” I said. Then, knowing full well the risk of ridicule, I said, “Have you ever heard of Magic: The Gathering?”

“I think so,” she said, eyes narrow.

“We’re doing one of the first games like it.”

“What’s it about?”

“Secret conspiracies trying to take over the world.” I wasn’t sure where to go from there. “It’s pretty cool.”

“It sounds cool,” she said. “You’re staying here?”

“Yeah,” I said, wondering why she was asking. Of course I was staying there. That’s why I was in line to check in. All I could think to say back was, “You?”

“Yes,” she said. “They got me a room here on my own, so I’m just hanging out.”

“Oh,” I said. We exchanged names; I don’t remember hers. “I don’t know when we’ll be back from the printer. It may be late, but I hope it won’t be too late. If you’re around in the hotel restaurant later, I’ll look for you there.”

“Okay,” she said, still smiling. Then it was her turn to check in.

As she walked away, keys in hand, she glanced back at me. She had green eyes, and she was still smiling.

Touring the printer’s facilities was a slideshow of impressive views. They couldn’t possibly have afforded enough space any closer to an urban center. There were warehouse floors with two and three rows of gigantic, German-made, multi-color presses, larger and more aggressive-looking than an armored tank scaled to the size of a bus. There were barrels of ink that would intimidate Donkey Kong. There were many palettes of unprinted paper and card stock.

“How many cards are we actually printing?” I asked Andy as we walked from one enormous, bright, airplane hanger-scale warehouse to another.

“You didn’t hear?”

“I heard that the numbers were high, but that with the new game some distributors were changing their orders.” A collectible card game based on Star Trek was hitting stores in something like a week, and it looked great. We were worried about two things: getting the game out before the company ran out of money, which would put most of us out of work, and getting the game out before too many of the oncoming competitors made it onto the market.

There were only so many people who were going to be interested in collectible card games, we figured, and it wouldn’t take too many games to saturate the market.

“They changed their numbers,” Andy said. “They raised them. You really didn’t hear? The sales on the Star Trek game is going so well that the stores raised their orders to the distributors. So we’re printing twenty-three million cards.”

I wanted to stop walking but I figured I had to act like nothing was wrong, even though I knew full well that retailers had been suffering terrible shortages of Magic shipments to the point that they’d started ordering far too many just to get a minimum amount. The Star Trek game wasn’t going to keep us out of the market. It was giving the stores enough cash and confidence to boost their orders for our game. They may be ordering four or five times as many as they can actually sell, presuming that supply will be a problem.

The distributors had the option to send back what they didn’t think they could sell.

“Oh my God,” I said quietly to him. “We don’t have to push it to the stores — it’s getting it out of the stores that’ll be the problem. That means the game has to actually be good.”

“It is good,” Andy said. “It’s going to be fine.”

And the press check itself was fine. Your basic Twentieth-Century color printing was a careful balance between four colors: Cyan, a kind of light electric blue; Magenta, a neon hot pink; plus Yellow and Black. We only had to make a couple of tweaks to the flow of magenta on one of the card-back sheets, and that was it.

But I knew what I was probably passing up as I was asking a guy with a black beard to tweak the flow of hot pink fluid on his massive, German-born press.

A couple of guys at the printer offered to take the time to crudely cut out a partial set of cards for us. It only took another twenty minutes or so.

“The final ones will have reliably straight cuts and rounded corners and everything,” said the guy with the black beard. “Hopefully these’ll do you for now.”

“They’re fine,” I’d said, transfixed by actual cards in my hands. “They really are fine.” And they were. Andy and I would take turns pawing them back in our room.

They looked at least good enough.

We got back to our hotel before midnight, fifteen minutes after the restaurant closed but while room service was still available.

There weren’t a lot of video-watching options in Holland, Michigan, near the end of 1994, but Conan The Barbarian was on, so we watched Arnold Schwarzenegger chew his script as we ate room-service burgers.

Early on, he is asked, “Conan, what is best in life?” And he delivers his famous answer: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.”

For some reason, that had both of us laughing like eight-year-olds, howling with relief. It was the deep laugh of people who were for a moment in the same place at the same time, who trusted each other like everyone should have someone to trust, who were free.

When Andy and I were done laughing, I said, “Wonder what happened to that girl.”

“She’s lamenting,” Andy said.

“Hope not,” I said. She didn’t seem like a lamenter. “Hope she did well on her interview.”

“Hey,” he said. “Hey, Derek, man: what the hell was it you did at the airport? That was bad ass.”

“Just a hack, a little trick that in most cities doesn’t even work any more. To tell the phone company that money has been put into a pay phone, it sends up a little signal, and if you can reproduce that signal then you can fake having put money into the phone. That’s all I did. Who knows, maybe by next year it won’t work at all. But it worked today.”

“That is fucking bad ass. I knew that Mentor knew about all of that stuff, but I never actually saw someone do it, like right there, right in front of me.” He frowned a little. “So you used to be a serious computer guy?”

“Yeah, I was a programmer, a while back.”

“And you’re a designer now? Why’d you stop?”

“Oh, I knew I’d never be that good. And I figured that there was something else out there that wasn’t programming but wasn’t sitting in front of a green-screen doing data entry.”

“And what was that?”

I fumbled to explain myself. It’d been years since I’d even thought about it.

“People look at computers and they have no idea what they’re actually capable of doing,” I said. “But the truth is that computers are extremely limited. People get frustrated with computers because they don’t know how limited they actually are. They figure they should be able to do whatever they want to do, and while they know that computers are getting faster and whatever, outside of being able to play Doom or not being able to play games at all, I don’t think most people truly understand what a computer can do. It’s either a really fancy abacus, or it’s magic.”

“I’m with you.”

“But in the space between what a computer normally does and what it will never be able to do, there’s a boundary. And the more you know about that boundary, the better you can press on it. And if you can press on it just enough, you can carve out a little pocket, and that’s where you find magic — the only real magic you’re going find in this world.”

As we turned our attention back to the film, in the back of my head I realized I’d finally actually done it — we had done exactly what I was telling Andy. We’d pushed our tech and ourselves far further than was reasonable. In a little over two months, we had made magic. I also realized I was wrong, and that it was far from the only magic in the world. If I could come out of the other side of where my head had gone and trust someone, anyone, I don’t know what else to call it other than magic.

On the plane the next morning, I couldn’t put down the samples. This is real, I kept telling myself, touching one card after another. From the nothingness of insanity I’d summoned up something really, really real.

I had done a cover story in Pyramid Magazine for the game, but suddenly that didn’t seem like enough promotion. Every quarter, we put out a quarterly newsletter to our retailers called “Where We’re Going,” which ended up being passed along to customers in small numbers, but we’d produced Illuminati: New World Order so quickly that it would hardly be promotion enough.

We needed a way to speak not only to retailers, like the newsletter, but to our customers, like Pyramid — not only for this game, but for everything, as much as possible. It couldn’t be at our invitation — meaning, we weren’t going to send people email every day to promote the game. The fans would have to drive the interaction.

On the plane, on the way home, the heavens parted and the sun shined down and an idea came upon me. I set down the cards and stared off into space, reveling in the joy of being given such a gift.

Back in Austin the next day, as Steve was looking over the sample cards himself, I shared my thought with him.

He listened carefully. “That,” he said, “is an excellent idea.” He pointed downstairs. “Do it.”

“Okay,” I said.

You won’t believe what it was.

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Going to California

Making Magic — 15.5

Once Andy and I were on the plane, seat belts snapped, I was almost able to relax, though my memory of the ten or so days before were not especially clear.

The final rush to completion had been a frenzy. The enormous sheets of card layouts looked fine, the art was as decent as it could be with what little sanity we’d had remaining — our earliest work was making me cringe, by then — and I’d put finishing touches on a stripped-down design for the various cardboard boxes and other packaging needed to hold the products together.

The last few pieces of art we made were for the Illuminati themselves. Jeff threw several together in a day in Photoshop, while I went the roundabout way to produce a few myself, such as borrowing some high-end 3-D software to render a golden apple.

I have no memory of actually turning the game in, of sending it off to the printer. I remember us standing around downstairs, saying, “Okay, well, what do you think? Is this it?” But we must have. I don’t think I did a lot before getting on the plane.

Unfortunately, after landing outside of remote Holland, Michigan — home to many large printers as well as three of the largest American office furniture companies: Haworth, Herman Miller, and SteelCase (which we were later told was technically in Grand Rapids, less than 30 minutes from Holland) — we hit a fundamental impasse.

Neither of us had any money. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, because we had bank cards and credit cards.

“You’re not going to believe this,” Andy said. “There are no ATMs here.”

It’s not as though we needed a lot of money. We only needed a quarter, to call our printer’s office so they could send over someone to meet us.

Imagine, if you can, being one of the few people traveling through a small airport in a relatively remote part of Michigan, when up walks a shaggy, sleep-deprived guy in torn jeans, sporting a bright nose ring and a look in his eyes of unparalleled paranoia. A bristle-headed companion stands by in a worn, black leather jacket, cooly staring you down.

The first guy says, “Motherfucking do you have a quarter?” While you have no way of knowing how hard it is for him to start a sentence with a D — like trying to pick up a house of cards; even using both hands does not help — you can imagine it being hard to be sympathetic.

You can imagine not giving him a quarter.

“I don’t know what to say,” said Andy. “I can’t believe how old this place is.”

Something sparked in my mind. I began digging through my backpack.

“How old would you say this place is?” I asked.

“Green-shag-carpet old. Dark-wood-paneling old.”

I pulled free a device, grinning so hard that it hurt.

“Fucking watch this,” I said, not only because starting to talk with a W-sound was like buying a first-class ticket to Porky-Pig land, but because, well, fucking watch this.

The thing I held up to the pay phone receiver was an Apple Newton, which looked like this:

apple-newton-110-dev-edition-01

As far as I knew at the time, it was the most powerful portable computer in the world. Even though I was nearly always broke, when Jim McCoy heard that Apple was releasing a special, small batch of this new, incredible hardware in transparent plastic, he let me know. He and I and another io.com guy each bought one, making the three of us the only people we knew who had Newtons, and so even with the terrible press that the first device had gotten we were the only people we knew who understood how awesome its newest incarnation had become.

Because there wasn’t a lot of software for them at the time, we’d share whatever software we came across. Through the usual secret three-way-handshakes and esoteric quote exchanging, Jim and I came to understand that we shared a specific background. One day, he’d buzzed my office.

“I got a new piece of Newton software,” he said. “It makes Red Box tones — that mean anything to you?”

I blurted, “Can I have a copy?”

That’s why a few months later, in Holland, Michigan — which was so far behind the times that the phone company had probably not updated their infrastructure in well over fifteen years, I was able to hold my Newton up to the phone receiver and tap an image of a quarter, which triggered the device to make a series of high-pitched “budda-dudda-dink” noises.

“What are you doing?” Andy asked, glancing around to check if we were being watched.

“What’s the number?”

He gave me the number. I told the printer rep that we were at the airport. She said she’d send someone right over.

Walking to the airport exit, Andy whispered, “Holy shit, dude. What did you just do?”

“Magic,” I said.

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Going to California

Making Magic — 15

Soon, September passed by. It was no longer Summer though, situated as we were in the middle of Texas, still the heat would not relent. I was working 10-16 hours a day, six or seven days a week.

I spent a lot of my time with Steve.

“No,” he said one day. “I don’t want to see any more of this?”

“Any more of what?” I was really confused. We were looking at an abstract design for a computer-centric cards. One of the secret societies was called The Network, so naturally we had a lot of technology touch points in the game as well, and I’d painted it up in shades of green.

“No,” he said, turning away from the screen. “I don’t want to see any more green.”

I don’t think I said anything.

“If it’s not something like a tree,” he said, counting exceptions off one finger at a time, “or grass, or money, or an Army uniform — something that is supposed to be green — don’t use green. It’s a dull color. Stop it.”

“Why?” I asked, and when his shoulders tensed, I almost wished I hadn’t.

“When I was in school,” he said, “a long time ago, I had to read ‘The Red Badge of Courage’.”

“Sure — all American school kids have to.”

“And the author described rotting wounds on the battlefield as green.” He shuddered. “It’s stuck with me. So I don’t want us to use anything green here. Please.”

“That’s—” I started.

Steve caught me in a strong stare. “Please,” he said.

I sighed. “I’ll tell the guys: no green from here on out.” I turned back to the computer. “As long as we still have red and blue to work with.”

“Thank you.”

Life went on like that, more or less, for nearly two months, in a blur of dark air-conditioned rooms, take-out meals, and computer-colored artwork reviews with Steve, peppered by the occasional playtest.

Pushing a mouse to color artwork for more than 80 hours a week — week after week — will do something to your brain. When the artwork you’re coloring is an extended vision of the power structures of the world and icons of your age and paranoid delusions, it’s possible to create in your mind a perspective that never before existed and may never should have.

The eye in the pyramid goes back at least as far as Ancient Egypt. In America, it most famously appears on the back of the U.S. one-dollar bill, though because it’s also been used for hundreds of years by the Freemasons, and it’s commonly believed that many of the Founding Fathers were brother Masons, some see the Great Seal of the United States on the back of the buck as a wink to the conspiracy that was the true force behind the birth of that new democracy.

The strength of the symbol is its simplicity. It’s a triangle with a circle in it — that’s all. It makes a perfect seed for paranoia because it takes two of the most simple shapes and produces something that crosses the lowest threshold of what our brains consider to be an actual signal against the noise of randomness around us. It’s a trick, exploiting the limits of our lowest levels of cognition to find a way into our minds. It’s a hack, bringing along whatever you attach to the symbol and giving it a stronger cognitive presence than the payload might have otherwise.

Every piece of art in Illuminati: New World Order has an eye in the pyramid in it, somewhere. Sometimes it had been spec’ed for the art, often I had to add it. In reviewing the art, Steve and I sometimes found even better places for them. It was fun. I spent essentially countless hours running a virtual brush along inked lines, watching as the forms abstracted out into their fundamental geometries: adding a subtle eye to a triangle that seemed to be begging for one, or adding acute angles in the shading to create a slanted cone behind a circular form.

What little walking around I did outside the office only made it clear to me how far gone I was. The eye in the pyramid was everywhere, when you were looking for it. The only pleasures I allowed myself were music and driving and comic books. The local comic book stores had begun selling collectible card games, given that everyone was buying them, so taking a break to walk around Dragon’s Lair or Austin Books was like walking through a story of economy and commerce that I was at that time myself living. The feedback loop was focusing in some ways, but in other ways not.

I stopped showering every day. I shaved rarely. I hadn’t had a haircut in months. I used to let the TV news run in my apartment, all the time, but by that point in the production I had to keep it off or my mind’s noise amplification would create too much signal. I even found myself struggling to avoid reading tabloid headlines at convenience stores.

There were secrets in the world, and if someone wasn’t going to tell me what they were, I was going to figure them out myself. I saw conspiracy everywhere, and it wasn’t just me. A lot of us were becoming similarly afflicted, one way or another, which only seemed to make the game deeper. A few of the things that bounced out of our heads in that time strike some people as eerily prescient today, like the card that shows the New York World Trade Center’s twin towers, cropped closely, with one tower exploding from its middle.

sb1nYZf

All I can say is that everything we put in the game seemed very plain to us at the time. I don’t know if that’s a reasonable explanation given that I had become delusionally paranoid.

A Street Gang, controlled by the Mafia, attacked the Game Developer. The Local Police, controlled by the Servants of Cthulhu, attacked to destroy a Street Gang, causing it to lose its Safe House. The Archeologists, controlled by the Discordians, took over the Safe House, sharing its protection with the Game Developer. The Mafia attacked the Safe House, but George the Janitor, controlled by the Local Police, blocked the attack.

It all made sense, in a fragile sort of way. And while I was dropping card art into the layout, it struck me that the cyberspace I’d long anticipated, that I yearned for, had come true in the form of modern design tools. Those geometric abstractions of pictures and text and boxes that I’d spent days creating and flying over, and which I still struggled to control, described a virtual reality of locations and people and forces which had been designed for the sole purpose of fighting it out with one another.

I decided I’d been in cyberspace for years, and never even realized it.

All the fears that had welled up in my head for so long were wrung out into that production, and all the pieces that my paranoia put together culminated in an last, fevered round of color correction and art tweaking. The artists themselves, the illustrators, were beginning to feel exhausted, though we were close enough to the end that it didn’t seem to matter. We had what we needed to be successful. It didn’t take the whole two months for Rick to develop into a Photoshop powerhouse, and Jeff was turning in work that I not only didn’t have to touch up, but which I knew was better than the job I’d have done on the same thing. He was more than good enough, by then. He’d developed a genuine skill there, and in the darkness of my office it was impressive.

I wasn’t alone in those last weeks. Steve was there with me, and he looked close to as worn out as I felt. We spent an hour or two every day reviewing art, tweaking it there — between getting faster with the tools than I thought possible and lowering my standards slightly, I was often able to get Steve to sign off on a card at first glance by making quick changes right there in front of him. He’d rap on my war-surplus metal desktop that a piece of colored art was now good and we’d move on to the next.

One day, I don’t remember why, I stumbled out of my office. It was late, probably close to midnight if not past it — Steve regularly stayed in the office until at least two in the morning — and we were the only two people in the building.

“How did it happen?” I asked him.

He pushed himself back from his desk, squinted his eyes, and shook his head.

“How did what happen?” he asked.

Illuminati,” I said. “Ogre was your first baby, though — taking nothing away from how awesome it is — it’s kind of taking something that already existed to its logical conclusion. And GURPS is taking the point-balanced role-playing game and doing it right. You have this real knack for taking things that already exist and making them better — much, much better. But Illuminati is its own thing. I’ve never seen anything else like it. You’ve done some genius-level stuff, no doubt, but where did Illuminati come from?”

“It just came to me,” he said quietly. “I was driving down the road, back from a friend’s house, one of those long country roads out here, and—” He looked up with a widening smile, as if the heavens were opening before him. “I could see it laid out before me. I pulled off to the side of the road and I immediately began taking notes. And that was Illuminati.”

I don’t know if what he said was true, but it felt true.

The next night, not a week before I’d ship the game to the printer, Steve caught my eye walking past my office. I don’t know why I’d left my door open.

With no introduction, he said, “I’m color-blind.”

I’d like to think I made no response. “Not badly,” he quickly followed, “not in a terrible way. I can see color just fine, just a little less so than some people. So things look better when they’ve been pumped up a little.” He frowned. “I probably should have told you that earlier.”

“It would have made things easier,” I said.

The next morning I showered and shaved and I arrived early, where again Andy was kicking boards in half up in the rotting stable. Wordlessly I joined him, knocking down posts, busting open a knuckle on a too-thick board, working up a sweat.

“Good morning,” he said. It was the end of October.

I shook my head. “Not really,” I said. “But we’re almost done.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I am.” Andy waited for me to say more. “You know the story about the caterpillar and the, I don’t know, some other bug?”

“I don’t think so.”

“The other bug asks the caterpillar, ‘Hey, you’ve got a lot of legs, how do you even coordinate them all? How you even walk at all?’ So the caterpillar thought about it, and after that he was never able to walk again.”

“That’s fucking depressing.”

I checked my mind. Somehow, it was quiet. It was mostly empty, in order, like it hadn’t been in a very long time.

“What I’m saying is that I’m not thinking any more about how I’m walking,” I said. “So I feel okay. I don’t know why, but I’m not going to question it.”

He laughed. “Well, keep on walking, man. We’re flying to Michigan for a press check in less than two weeks.”

“It’ll be fine,” I told him. “Don’t be afraid.”

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Going to California

Making Magic — 7.3

At a barbecue over at Mentor’s place, I’d run into a woman I’d known in high school, someone for whom I’d once nursed a pretty hard crush. She’d begun dating someone who’d gone to high school with Mentor, which made for a nice symmetry.

“Derek?” she said, walking up to me through the party, head-cocked and finger outstretched.

She and Mentor’s old friend were having a proper dramatic relationship, but she introduced me at one point to her roommate, a sharp woman with dark, thickly curly hair and a very femme punk look about her. She was the first girl I’d felt attracted to who had a nose ring; hers hung from the outside of one nostril. Even in counterculture Austin, piercings were only just becoming popular. It felt new, and it helped that she was hot.

Christine’s roommate needed a computer with Internet access to write a paper that was due the next day. She’d called me the night before — got my number from her roommate; we’d passed each other briefly at a party — to ask if I’d be around Sunday night, that she’d heard I had a computer on the Internet at my house, and that since it didn’t cost me anything to be online maybe I wouldn’t care how late she stayed up using it. This was just before when most people didn’t have computers. I’d said sure.

So with my car back, I was even able to pick her up. Actually, I’d planned to hang out a bit with Christine — we hadn’t spent any time one-on-one since high school, so maybe she wanted to check if she still had a good feeling about me before letting her roommate enter my lair — with the idea that we would meet up with her roommate later, presumably if I passed whatever test she had in mind.

I passed. Giving Christine a ride over to campus and swapping her for her roommate, she pointed back at the car and said, “Don’t keep her up too late, Derek, okay? She’s still gotta write that paper.”

Back home, it turned out she’d already eaten, so I set her up with the computer, and she got to it. I know the all-nighter deal, so I set out a blanket and a pillow. My sectional couch would more than accommodate her. To the clickity-clackity of my laptop, a rare creature in that age, I turned in for the night.

Maybe five hours later, I’m awakened by my bedroom door opening. She waves hesitantly, to make sure she’d gotten my attention. Half of her face was lit in dim stripes of blue, moonlight by mini-blinds, and the rest was darkness, with a glint of nose ring to one side.

“Hey,” she said. “Um, do you have a t-shirt I could borrow?”

“Sure,” I said, pointing to my open closet. The top shelf was just stacks and stacks of t-shirts. She grabbed a black one that must’ve looked good to her, holding it out to confirm it was appropriately baggy and long enough. Taking off her shirt and her bra, she slipped the t-shirt over her head before unbuttoning her pants. Still, I hadn’t been expecting her to walk towards me and slide into bed.

“Hello,” I said. We kissed for maybe ten minutes.

“This has got to be the first time that a girl has ever hooked up with a guy simply because he had a computer that was online.”

“I’m not sure that’s strictly true,” I told her. We kissed for a much longer time.

I played with her necklace. She took off the t-shirt. I traced her shoulders, I kissed the crook of her elbow, the tips of her fingers. One finger bore a highly polished ring made from a speckled stone that could have been greenish.

“Nice ring,” I said.

“It’s from my boyfriend,” she said. “I think he wants to get married someday, but I think that’s bullshit — don’t you?”

I didn’t stop kissing her, but when she said the word “boyfriend,” her level of attractiveness fell through the floor. Huh, I thought to myself, that’s a first.

I’d begun dating Cookie while living with another girl, who I began seeing when her boyfriend had gone away for a month as part of a medical testing experiment. That’s a long story. And then my previous girlfriend, Suzanne, the only really serious one in my book, had broken up with me after she’d been seeing someone else for quite a while.

I began to wonder how cool it would be, how much I could accomplish, if only I was coupled up with a girl I could trust.

We woke up with each other, though we didn’t end up sleeping together. She’d put her t-shirt back on. I gave her a floppy disk with her paper on it and dropped her off on campus.

“I’m surprised your professor won’t let you email it to him,” I said.

“Why would someone do that? They want something they can lay their hands on and mark up.”

I shrugged. As we pulled up to her building, she looked at me squarely and said, very seriously, “I like you.”

“I like you, too,” I said.

“Let’s hang out again,” she said.

“You’ve got my number.”

At work, over lunch, Andy was talking about getting one of his nipples pierced with a small ring.

“Hey,” I said, “that’s funny, I was thinking about a nose ring.” I could start many sentences with “Hey” because of the outward rushing air of the H-sound. It started the air moving out of my lungs which was generally key to falling into a rhythm of speech in which I’d be less likely to stutter noticeably. “That’s funny” was another phrase that was pretty easy to say and which would often lead better into sentences less suited to be started with, “Motherfucker.”

We agreed that we would go together — three of us: me and him and his fiancé, who wanted her belly done — and get pierced. It went well, up to a point.

 

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