Get Weird, Young Man

So, after a tangential diversion into something I will go into later, I was reminded of one of the most important books in my life, and because I've never discussed it, I'm going to go on another little tangent to gush about it.

The book is, The Happy Mutant Handbook, made in 1995 by Mark Frauenfelder, Carla Sinclair, and some of the other original boingboing crew. Basically, it's a handbook into the lifestyle of the typical boingboing enthusiast, filled with essays, bios of interesting people and groups, a few manifestos, and lists of resources accessible through something they keep calling "the Net". Whatever that is.

Now, I give boingboing a little bit of crap now and then, simply because now it is popular, and almost, like, mainstream, so they get to lead the flying-V of geese for a while, and get hit with the worst air resistance. Sure, I lamprey a few links from the mega-feed now and then without citing my source. That's what the big shark is there for! But really, this book in no small way made me the man I am today, and that's why I want to talk about it.

Let me set the scene for you a little bit. The year was 1995. I was in seventh grade. The year before I had just moved back to the US after living in Germany for two years, moving into a suburban wet dream in Connecticut. I was extraordinarily introverted; I had always been a bit of a "entertain myself" kid, though social enough, but upon coming back to the States to realize everybody had made ultra-serious friendships in 4th and 5th grade and become obsessed with all kinds of music I had never heard before and talked constantly about something called "Saved by the Bell", and that my shorts were way too short... well, let's just say it drove me a little inward.

Looking back on it now, I really fear for that poor thirteen year old. He might have met a horrible fate in suburban Connecticut. He might have watched a lot of TV, kind of liked the Gin Blossoms, and went to school for business or actuarial training and settled down in a similar sort of suburb, maybe finally getting married and producing spawn. Or worse, I could have been driven inward, and worn all black, and had a really bad attitude, and maybe grumbled to myself while I drove a bus. Sometimes I think we forget just how much teenagers need affirmation. They desperately need someone to tell them they are okay, that what they look like and what they say and do is not horrible. West Hartford, Connecticut was not going to tell me these things. Hell, I didn't even play travel soccer. Of course, my parents thought it was fine that I told weird jokes and read a lot of books, but being a teenager means that your parents' affection all of sudden is no longer enough.

And this sob story might have continued, if I didn't lurk around the magazine racks at Barnes and Noble, which was just about the weirdest place in town after the hobby shop, after the record store closed so a greeting card store could open. In the back of the racks, behind the legitimate glossy magazines, I found odd-shaped magazines about computers and music, and weird stuff like esoteric religions. I always wondered how these magazines survived, if nobody had ever heard of them. I was interested in the Internet, and spent a lot of time exploring BBSes. I kind of put two and two together, thinking that maybe these weird magazines were sort of like the Internet--something almost free, not really for money, that only a few people knew about. I bought copies of 2600 and Z magazine, and understood almost none of it, but enjoyed the tiny 8.5 x 5.5 shape, and the feeling of reading something edgy nobody knew about or understood. It was arcana for me, and I would just like holding it in my hand, the way kids carry Animal Farm, or the Communist Manifesto. Just to feel those edgy words in your hand.

I never found bOINGbOING, the zine. This was still West Hartford, and the Barnes and Noble. I have no idea what 2600 was doing there. Maybe it was well known at that point. I didn't read any zines (unless you count 2600), and I wouldn't for another five years. It wasn't until the Internet really took off that I even understood that you could get zines, and they weren't just given to you by somebody you knew, on the sly, like underneath a diner table or something. But I didn't have any money anyway, so it didn't really matter.

What I did find was The Happy Mutant Handbook. Like all zany guidebooks, I was charmed by its unassuming and calming cover of a smiley mutant with big ears and antennae. Picking it up and flipping through it, I saw a bunch of things I didn't recognize, but stopped for the hilarious list of posts from alt.shenanigans. I saw articles with things that looked like instructions, but for... concepts? I saw a little bit of media hacking; I knew I liked that.

I don't remember if I read the "What is a Happy Mutant" section there at the store or when I got the book home, but I knew instantly that it was addressed to me. It told me everything that I needed. It was like someone had translated a first-year sociology text on counter-culture into my vernacular, and put a lovely "go! do it!" spin on it. I needed little more prodding than that.

I read the whole thing cover to cover. I still remember the sections on The Church of the Sub-Genius, and ribofunk. I sent away $3 for a pack of Schwa stickers. I looked every http and ftp address they printed in the guide, checking them off in pencil when I had. (I didn't follow the AOL keywords, being a Compuserve kid, and I didn't know how to make gopher work. Ha! 1995!) I signed onto the Usenet for the first time, and printed out pages and pages of alt.shenanigans which me and my new friends read to each other, cracking ourselves up by acting out the scenarios. Yes, I was making friends, finally finding the other kids who liked weird and funny and gross stuff like I did. (The tears better be flowing down all of your cheeks.)

I pocketed other items into my brain for later. Cyberpunk, and confrontational art, and maker projects, and bios of counter-culture freaks, and tales of adventures of all sorts. I let my eyes drift over references to people and music I had never heard of and would not hear of again until much later. Two years later when I tried pot for the first time, and a year after that when I first consumed my first dose of magic mushrooms, still having no idea what my brain was in for, I felt no fear. I always wondered why I didn't have a hesitation when I accepted my friend's offer of schrooms. I've never been a huge risk taker--don't get my kicks that way. Tonight, reading through the HMH I realize that the bio of Timothy Leary played no small part in the evolution of my mindset. Mark Frauenfelder writes with no hesitation or caution about Leary's expansion of the mind with psychedelics. I trusted this book, and if it told me that drugs could be a not-bad thing, then hell, I would find out for myself. (Hear that, Mark? You made kids use drugs!) Of course, it wasn't alone in pushing me in this direction. Meeting people who do drugs who are totally normal is the best anti-anti drug ad you could imagine.

In the years since the book has been on my shelf, traveling with me across the country as one of my most treasured books. I might not have opened it in ten years before tonight, and I forgot a lot of stuff in it, having to discover it from other sources further on down the line. Hell, I never knew Bruce Sterling wrote the introduction! I didn't read Bruce's books until college, by way of William Gibson, by way of druggy SF cronies. And look at some of these other contributors: R.U. Sirius, Rudy Rucker, Richard Kadrey, and others. I didn't re-discover all these folks until the last few years. But with the HMH, things definitely altered direction for me. There were a lot of tangents, and a lot of detours.

From the logo re-purposing section, I first picked up Adbusters around 1998. While it didn't have the mutated illustrations I hoped for, it opened me to anti-globalism and left politics I could understand, before I read the heavy stuff. By turning me on to Usenet, I got onto rec.music.phish. You laugh, (and I laugh too) but this was my introduction to interacting with "real adults" as an equal over the Internet. Plus, Phish became my resident counter-culture for 3+ years, introducing me to all kinds of underground music and underground personalities, the history of counter-cultures itself, and of course, mind expansion via brain chemistry hacking. From there it was another short leap to electronic music, and underground literature, and to mystical and bizarre religion, and anarchism, and, well, the list goes on.

Being a newbie is one of the most important points in any enthusiasts career. Every community, or pursuit, or craft, or subject needs one hell of an FAQ. It needs to be tongue-in-cheek, and self-deprecating, and welcoming, and exciting. And of course, well-written. There's not always a teacher around, or someone to copy, so you need a source to give you the dirt. And well, HMH was my first FAQ on how to not be a douche bag.

Of course, I might have ended up in a similar place. Even a lot of the things I forgot I found elsewhere, and it would be hard to say if I hadn't stumbled onto this book I wouldn't have stumbled on to something else. But wandering around those cold middle school and high school halls filled with the walking corpses of J. Crew and Abercrombie, it sure was nice to have that book under my arm. I remember my friends and I sitting around, dreaming about driving a van across the country to the desert for Burning Man. We never went, but it was nice to have some sort of crazed mecca like that to think about. Out west, away from New England and the East Coast, there was a place where they burned giant robots and took drugs and drove motorcycles naked in the desert. The HMH was a revealed text to these kinds of crazy worlds, which we hoped one day to set off towards, as if we were going on a crusade, a crusade against the country we wanted to leave behind. It was like an ancient text, but from the future, showing us all this knowledge that we didn't know had existed in the past, but we might live to see it in the future.

So I eventually did go west, and then back east, and then west again, and went to college a couples times, and ate a lot of things I probably shouldn't have, and saw some awesomely bad bands, and read a lot of books, and read a lot on the internet. All in all, I've never had to look back with regret. It's pretty damn good, knowing you can make your life as crazy as you want to at any time, any where you are, no matter who you're with. I don't know if I'm still a Happy Mutant or not, but whatever the hell I am, it's pretty alright most of the time. Cheers!

And so to conclude:

Thanks Happy Mutant Handbook! You pushed me towards loud music, weird clothes, esoteric internet drugs, and no doubt reduced my washing frequency! I couldn't have done it without ya!

It looks like the book is unfortunately out of print, though there are used copies for sale online. I'd like the authors to post it online, in its entirely. Man, look at this world! There are tons of kids who need something like this to turn them on, and I'm afraid the Kindle just isn't going to cut it.

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