There is a European folk tale about hungry travelers who arrive in a village asking for food. When they are turned away by the suspicious inhabitants, they fill a large pot with water and set it up in a central place, lighting a fire underneath. Then they plop a huge stone into the pot and start mixing. A curious villager comes by and asks them what they’re doing. “Making stone soup,” is the answer. And what a soup it will be – the tastiest thing on earth. The villager asks if he can have some. “Well,” say the travelers, “you’d have to contribute something. Have you got any carrots?” The villager runs home, gets some carrots, and into the pot they go.
A few minutes later, another local comes by and wants to know what’s happening. One of the travelers tells her about the stone soup they’re making: a delicacy, a dream, a veritable explosion of spices and flavors. Eager to get in on the experience, she offers to add some ingredients. A hunter strolls up with a freshly killed brace of rabbits. Again there is curiosity about the pot, which is starting to smell good, and again the travelers agree to share their stone soup with him if he contributes. And so it goes, until, many hours later, the villagers and the travelers share a sumptuous meal together.
When I was six, my father moved us to Vancouver, BC, where he had just gotten a position as a physicist at a new university. It was the 1960’s, when the mere promise of his new salary got us a spacious house on the side of a mountain overlooking the Pacific Ocean. With the front garden being just a long slope of lawn, my parents decided there was work to be done, and so many weekends of landscaping began, with the whole family pitching in. What resulted was a nice terraced garden with boxes of plants on different levels and a lawn in between. At the bottom where the lot met the road, Mum and Dad declared a rock garden to be just the thing. And so off we went to the local river to fill the family station wagon with rocks of different sizes – smooth, round stones of white granite speckled with black and grey, things of beauty in themselves.
These rocks were unloaded at the bottom of the garden and arranged in a nice pattern. My favourite one was a smooth stone about the size of a cantaloupe. It was almost perfectly round, and I was amazed that such a thing could have been produced by nature alone.
Years passed and the weeds proved themselves stronger than our resolve to get rid of them. And soon the rock garden was merely a gravel verge dotted by larger stones along the bottom of the garden, less distinctively a thing in itself as my brother and I became teenagers and our friends started parking their cars next to, then increasingly in, it.
These friends were coming to parties. The famous Gygax house parties. Our parents were both liberal and often away, so my brother – who is three years older than me – invited the boys, and I invited the girls, which gave us all a new dating pool to work from and added an element of excitement to each event. Someone with access to a school chemical lab would bring a jug of pure ethanol and mix it with soda pop for a not-quite poisonous punch; others brought beer. Word got around at our school and sometimes a few too many people would show up. Things never really got out of hand, but once or twice a neighbour called the police about the noise and they would come by to break things up. The kids would disappear, leaving their bottles behind. Bottles you could take to the liquor store and get money for thanks to the deposit on them.
A few years later, my parents had split up, my brother was at university and I found myself one afternoon in my last year of high school overhearing two kids talking about a party. “Are you going too?” they asked me. “Where?” “At the Gygax house.” These were two kids I didn’t know, talking about a party at my house that I had not planned. And my mother was out of town.
I rounded up a few real friends and we headed home, where cars were already parked in the gravel. Always eager to be liked, I decided to let the party happen. A few hours later I began to regret that decision, as more and more kids showed up – kids I’d never seen before, who seemed to be on the verge of trashing the place, just because they were bored and drunk in an upper middle class neighbourhood on a Friday night. Finally, I called the cops.
With most of us teenagers under the drinking age, the minute the flashing lights reflected in the front room windows everyone dropped their drinks and escaped out side doors and back windows, leaving me and my friends with a house full of empties, half-empties and full bottles of beer when the cops left. The full ones we kept. We played music, we laughed and danced, we drank the free beer and cashed in the empties. An idea started to form in our minds. One that seemed new, but unbeknownst to us, was very old.
(The perfect stone, bomb-shaped, flown to Zurich in my hand luggage)