I woke up this morning wondering how my life might have been different if I had learned to read from books instead of the newspaper.
My family was literate, but working class. We didn’t have a lot of books, but we were never without a newspaper subscription. Mom and Dad despised the right-wing slant of the Detroit News, but never let that stop them from poring over it every night. Starting when I was three, I’d sprawl out on the floor with whatever pages they weren’t looking at and try to decipher them.
After a few months I’d figured out most of the letters and the sounds they represented. From then on I tormented my parents by asking “And what does this word mean?” with the frequency and regularity of a ticking clock.
They must have had the patience of saints, because by the time I started kindergarten, I could read fairly well on my own. A little knowledge could be a dangerous thing, I learned, when Miss Norman began teaching us our A-B-C’s. “I already know all those letters,” I announced, and began explaining how you could use them to make words.
The other children looked bewildered. Miss Norman looked annoyed.
“Thank you for telling us that, Larry,” she said, “but that’s not how we learn our letters here.”
The other kids were no longer bewildered. They now knew beyond a doubt that I was an idiot.
When I got home, I stomped into the living room and yelled at my parents. “You ruined everything,” I said. “You let me learn to read the wrong way and now Miss Norman hates me!”
For the first time – but far from the last – I saw them exchanging that look. The one where you could tell they were rethinking their decision to have children.
As for me, my disillusionment with both my family and society at large had set in. A week or two later, I found myself in the principal’s office along with the school psychologist, a police officer, two anonymous adults, and my terrified-looking parents. They were concerned, it turned out, because I’d made a crayon drawing of a jail, with my mom and dad in it.
I was used to adults acting in irrational and unpredictable ways, but I really didn’t understand what the big deal was. Miss Norman had told us to draw a picture of anything we wanted, so I did. Did I want my parents locked up in jail? Had they done something to deserve it? I wasn’t even clear on what jail was. It had just seemed like an interesting concept.
It was becoming obvious that however fascinating my ideas might be to me, they were only going to upset other people, so I’d be wise to keep them to myself. I still read the newspaper compulsively; I just stopped talking about it. It would become a lifelong habit; as an adult a couple of semi-ok relationships hit the skids at least in part because “You always have your nose buried in the goddam paper.”
By second or third grade I’d acquired a library card and transferred some of my affection to books. In fourth grade, I decided to write one. It featured a team of archeologists excavating the ruins of Detroit in the year 3000, trying to figure out what had caused the collapse of the American Empire. I finished one chapter and started another before deciding book writing was too much work.
My studies of the Roman Empire had, however, caused me to identify with the barbarians, a point of view that would underpin my timeline for the next several decades. In seventh grade I launched my first successful publishing venture (successful in the 21st century sense, i.e., my pay came only in the form of exposure and influence).
Our teacher, Sister Edna, had launched a class newspaper called the 52 Star News (our class had 52 students, a not at all unusual number in those baby boom days). I was invited to participate, but took umbrage at its editorial positions, which would have had us believe that the students were “excited” or “thrilled” about every idiotic project or homework assignment, something I knew for a fact not to be true.
So I started my own newspaper, the 52 Asterisk News, in which I reworked and ridiculed every article from the “official” paper. It was a huge hit, and the first time that writing had won me friends and popularity (an experience that would be fleeting and rare; I wish I had treasured it more). Kids who had always ignored or bullied me began greeting me with an effusive, “Is the new issue out yet?”
The writing part came easily, but in those pre-xerox days, I had to type each paper by hand, using sheets of carbon paper to produce additional copies. Anything more than a minor mistake meant I’d have to toss the whole thing into the trash and start over.
The 52 Asterisk News would be passed hand to hand around the class until someone got careless and the long arm of Sister Edna swooped down to confiscate it. After a few of these incidents, my parents were called in. “Why do you always have to be different?” sighed my mother. “I don’t know, mom, I guess because if I wasn’t different, I’d be the same,” I may have retorted, but probably didn’t if I knew what was good for me.
“You have so much potential. You could accomplish so much if you tried a little harder to fit in.” I’d been hearing this all my life, so it was in one ear and out the other.
The closest I came to legit (nowadays you might call it “state-sponsored”) journalism was in high school. In ninth grade we had a teacher who had missed her calling; instead of a nun, she should have been a hard-boiled city editor. She announced that we were going to learn how to write newspaper-style. “It’s very different from the writing you’re used to,” she promised.
She ordered us to give her 500 words about some changes being made to the school administration, with the idea being that we’d do it all wrong, giving her the opportunity to rip our articles to shreds and then teach us about the “5 W’s and H” (who, what, where, when, why, and how) and the cardinal journalistic principle of objectivity (it was the early 60s; people still believed in that sort of thing).
But her plan didn’t work on me. After looking my piece over several times and some perfunctory hemming and hawing, she admitted, “This is basically a perfect newspaper article. Where did you learn to write like this?”
“That’s how I always write,” I shrugged. Apparently I’d been reading newspapers so long that I’d begun to think like one. She put the article, just as it was, into the school paper, and it won a high school journalism award from the New York Times.
Heady stuff for a 14-year-old, but it would be as close to the Times as I would get. I was a page editor and columnist all through high school, but when it came time to pick the editor-in-chief, the job went to a more stable, less rabble-rousing student.
I tried some college journalism, but couldn’t stop getting expelled long enough to get into a serious groove. Next stop was the underground papers: among others, the East Village Other, the Ann Arbor Sun, and the Berkeley Barb printed my stuff, and the Barb even paid me (25 cents a word, though I made considerably more hawking copies to businessmen and tourists on San Francisco street corners).
When the underground newspaper scene died away, it looked like my writing career would disappear with it. I did try writing another book, actually finishing it this time. It was a post-apocalyptic pulp novel about a nuclear accident at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. Publishers wisely passed on it, but it did provide me with the pen name I’ve used ever since.
After that I stopped writing anything but the occasional letter to the editor. Most were intemperate screeds that the recipients understandably ignored, until I wound up in rural Mendocino County, where the local paper, the Laytonville Ledger, had a policy of printing every letter they received (it would have been a very thin paper if they hadn’t).
It was like seventh grade all over again. Every week half the locals would be laughing their asses off and the other half would be threatening to kill me. Eventually I stepped on one too many toes and the local aristocracy prevailed upon the editor to ban me. By now xerox machines had been invented, and though they were still primitive and hand-operated (the only one in the north county was 45 miles away in Willits, nestled among the manure bags at the local feed store), I had sufficient technology to start my own paper.
Thus emerged the Iron Peak Lookout, named after the mountain that towered over the notorious Spy Rock marijuana terroir and feral hippie frontierland where I’d made my home. My hopes of reliving my 52 Asterisk News glory days were dashed when a delegation of indignant marijuana farmers marched up my driveway to tell me that if I didn’t stop calling attention to our bioregion, my house was extremely likely to burn to the ground, with or without me in it.
That persuaded me to change the name and focus of my little newsletter; as just plain Lookout, it would grow to have a circulation of 10,000. I continued writing about Mendocino County issues, but also covered the Bay Area, national politics, environmental issues, and punk rock music, the latter being, to my surprise, where I found the most readers. My mother remained less than satisfied; though she read the Lookout regularly, she found it a bit too profane and vitriolic for her liking.
“Why don’t you write for the New York Times?” she would ask, “Someplace where you can make a real impact? It seems like a lot of your Lookout readers are just embittered malcontents.”
“Mom, you can’t just call up the New York Times and tell them you want to write for them,” I’d wearily reply.
“You’ll never know if you don’t try.”
The Lookout expired in 1995, an inadvertent victim of its own success. A record label that began as a spinoff from the magazine exploded into a behemoth that demanded full-time attention from a dozen employees in addition to myself. I never officially shut it down, so in theory I could resume publication any time I choose, but that would put me in the same category as those earnest individuals who write to me asking for advice on how to start a record label in the year 2020 (my reply: start by figuring out how much money you can afford to lose).
I didn’t hang up my laptop altogether. For about 20 years I was a columnist or contributor to Maximum Rocknroll, Punk Planet, Hit List, and Absolutely Zippo, all of which except Zippo are now extinct. And I wrote a couple of books – my fourth and fifth books, actually, but the first two to be published.
I never did get around to writing for the New York Times, but did enjoy the signal honor of seeing my name adorn the masthead of “America’s Last Newspaper,” as the tiny but mighty Anderson Valley Advertiser bills itself. Not just as a writer, either; when its irascible editor and publisher, Bruce Anderson, got himself tossed in jail for punching out the county superintendent of schools, I made the long, arduous journey from Spy Rock to Boonville and stood in as editor while Bruce did his stint in the stony lonesome.
Despite never attaining a circulation of more than a few thousand, the AVA has both made and reported news of national and international import. Its ability to exasperate and annoy has vastly exceeded any of my humble efforts, and its place – well, niche at least – in history is assured. Bruce, along with longtime collaborator Mark Scaramella, still oversees every aspect of its production, and though he’s now in his 80s, I would continue to recommend that errant school superintendents avoid getting on his bad side.
But when Bruce and Mark go to their reward – or lack thereof – the AVA will almost certainly end, and it’s hard to imagine we will see its like again. At one time every town in the country had its own newspaper, or several, and any idealist, crank, or guy with a grudge could and would end up as an editor or publisher (oh wait, I resemble that remark!). I guess the closest thing we’ve got to that now is the blog, or, more common in the post-literate generation, the tweet, snapchat, and vanishing instagram story. Who has time to read more than a sentence or two these days, or, as my youngest friends might say, “What’s a sentence?”
I don’t mean to sound grumpy, and I’m not, really. Things are supposed to change and old people are supposed to gripe about it, but I actually like seeing the world change, even if I remain a little dubious about where it’s going to end up. When my mom was getting into her late 90s, I’d occasionally ask her if she was planning on living to 100. “I might,” she’d say, “I’d like to see what happens next.”
I feel the same way. And for as long as I’m able, I plan on taking notes.
If you’re interested in checking out (or revisiting) Lookout magazine, all 40 (and a half) issues are now available in a searchable online archive which is available here. Thanks to Stefano Morello and the East Bay Punk Digital Archive for making this possible.