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In my hometown of Mentor, Ohio, it seemed like everyone around town knew Joe Biel. He was a few years older than me, and was known for selling “zines” at punk shows in Cleveland.

Those zines eventually led to Biel starting Microcosm Publishing—an independent publishing and distribution company—in 1996; in 1999, Biel relocated to Portland, Ore.

On the 20th anniversary of his company, Biel has now released a book that’s quite personal—Good Trouble: Building a Successful Life and Business with Asperger’s.

During a recent phone interview from Portland, Biel discussed his upbringing in Ohio, and his discovery of punk rock.

“My family life was pretty bad as a kid. My dad was disabled, and my mom was really violent,” Biel said. “Between those things, when I found punk rock around 1992, it helped me find a moral compass and find a more productive use of my energy and my time. Then when I started zines a few years later, it was sort of my way of giving back to something that had been really meaningful to me.”

That punk-rock ethos has helped Microcosm thrive as an independent publishing and distribution company, even through the current downturn that publishing companies have endured. Biel said he was determined to start a publishing company.

“It’s a little bit tacky and cliché, but … (after) being born in the ’70s and growing up through the end of red scare, most of my neighbors’ dads were laid off and hired back for a lower wage,” Biel said. “It just felt like nothing meant anything. I felt like I should do something that was meaningful. … My values were more meaningful to me than financial goals or any other type of success.”

Biel’s relocation to Portland in 1999 came after what some would consider to be a tragic moment in one’s life. Biel made the best of the situation.

“I lived in a house, and it burned down in a fire,” he explained. “It was a totally liberating moment where I lost my stuff, and it was just totally freeing. I knew a bunch of people who wanted to move to Portland, and it seemed different. It was during a time when my friends were developing drug habits, having accidental kids or being totally screwball. Moving to Portland with a group of people didn’t seem like something I expected to last. That was all an accident.”

Microcosm Publishing features a variety of titles on everything from bicycles, to veganism, to social-justice advocacy.

“I think most books sell into people’s insecurities, self-hate and shame. We focus the most on trying to make people feel good about themselves and confident, and to create the change they want to see in the world,” Biel explained. “There are so many books out there that try to make you hate your body, (express) fundamental hatred, or just thrive on insecurities. It’s about being the you that you want to be.”

While Microcosm Publishing has done well, a nasty dispute between Biel and his now-ex-wife—which included accusations of Biel being emotionally abusive—led some to call for a boycott of Microcosm. Biel has also faced a series of health problems and as a diagnosis of Asperger’s, an autism spectrum disorder.

“I had been married in 2002, and I was divorced two years later. It had been a pretty bad relationship and I ended up in therapy,” Biel said. “… At one point, the therapist looked at me, and as I was leaving one day, I just casually mentioned that I could not see people’s emotions or facial expressions—anything to indicate there was something beyond the words they were saying. She just kind of looked at me and asked me, ‘Did you have childhood (brain) trauma?’ I was like, ‘What? What was that?’ She said I probably had Asperger’s. I learned about Asperger’s before, and I was pretty obsessed with it at the time, but I never thought it was something that affected me. I was eventually properly diagnosed.”

Biel said that he was comfortable letting the public have a look inside of his private life, his failures, his successes—and some of his funny experiences.

“By the time I was ready to embark on writing it, I pretty much knew who I was and how I felt about things. It was a pretty good litmus test, so I didn’t really get nervous about it,” he said. “I’ve been a public person for a long time now, so I’m used to not having much of a private life. For me, it was a little bit easier, and I learned the hard way that when I don’t talk about my life or myself, people tend to fill in the gaps in the most unflattering of ways. If I bottle that up and try to hold it in, it doesn’t work very well. It’s better for me to inform the narrative around myself. I feel like most of the things I’ve done are sort of embarrassing, but also a little bit funny, so there’s a value to it.”

Good Trouble: Building a Successful Life and Business with Asperger's

By Joe Biel

Microcosm

256 pages, $14.95

Published in Literature

Berkeley resident Sascha Altman DuBrul has accomplished much as a community organizer and punk rocker, inspiring many who subscribe to the philosophies of Noam Chomsky or punk-rock ethics.

And he’s done so despite struggles with bipolar disorder.

In his book Maps to the Other Side, he offers a journey through his writings over the years, covering subjects such as train-hopping, political activism, community gardens and his struggles with mental illness. “The stories in this book are the personal maps through my jagged lands of brilliance and madness,” he writes in the introduction.

DuBrul starts by talking about his childhood. He was raised in a chaotic home by two parents who consistently fought while he was being raised by the television. He talks about the Live Aid concert in 1985, saying he was disappointed by the much-anticipated concert, and calling it as a gathering of coked-out rock stars who got together to sing “We Are the World.”

As DuBrul grew older, he became more influenced by punk rock and set out to change the world, inspired by Noam Chomsky and the punk-rock style of activism. Oh, yeah, and he listened to Chumbawamba during their early punk-rock days before we all heard “Tubthumping” on repeat.

He traveled the country via train-hopping, listening to the stories of migrant workers and hoboes; he eventually fell into the world of community gardens and took part in protests against NAFTA and the World Trade Organization. He spent a lot of time in Northern and Southern California working in community gardens and organizing punk rockers to take up political causes. He even set up California’s first seed-exchange and seed-preservation network, known as BASIL. Author Ruth Ozeki was inspired by him and based a character on him in one of her novels.

While DuBrul was an inspiring figure who worked tirelessly for his causes, people around him were beginning to notice he was coming apart. He describes various episodes while off medication, such as scaring his friends with his rants and making scenes in public, including an interesting encounter with the Los Angeles Police Department. “For brevity’s sake, I’ll spare the details, but let me just say that I’m lucky I didn’t end up with an LAPD bullet in my chest,” he writes.

His struggles with taking his daily regimen of prescription drugs while trying to stay productive are at times heartbreaking, but inspiring when he manages to pull himself together and keep moving on. By founding the Icarus Project, he became an alternative-information source on the subject of bipolar disorder, while giving people the ability to express themselves through the arts and collaborate as a collective on the subject of mental illness.

Despite being derailed at times by bipolar disorder, DuBrul offers a unique perspective on what it’s like to lose one’s mind, yet still manage to make a difference. Maps to the Other Side also offers a unique look into the world of collective-based activism that was going on long before Occupy Wall Street came along—as told by someone who has dedicated his life to social justice.

Maps to the Other Side

By Sascha Altman DuBrul

Microcosm

192 pages, $15.95/sliding scale at microcosmpublishing.com

Published in Literature