Editing a magazine is hard. It requires the skills of a coach, cop, rabbi, judge, nurse, and executioner. It also requires good instincts, because editors have to make decisions quickly. You don’t get paid much, either. But some magazine editors stick with it because they have a chance to unite communities, start important conversations, and help writers grow. That’s what Jay Walljasper did for me.
In September 1985, I had recently acquired a liberal arts degree and was looking for a job in a small town in Upstate New York. I wanted to stay there and write nonfiction, but I didn’t know how I was going to make a living. I had been a newspaper reporter, but the world of professional writers was almost completely unknown to me.
Photo courtesy of Julie Ristau
I wrote a short piece for a local “alternative” weekly paper about a festival in the Town of Hamburg, New York. The local Chamber of Commerce was celebrating their claim that hamburgers had been invented there (which was probably not true) by cooking the world’s largest hamburger and then not eating it. The burger was the size of a children’s swimming pool and fully realized, with a bun and pickles and everything. That night, after all the drunken Hamburgers had gone home, I discovered the 200-pound monster and its cart in the pool shed of the Holiday Inn. Ah, the joys of investigative journalism.
I had heard about a new magazine called Utne Reader: The Best of the Alternative Press. I didn’t know how to break into the magazine business, so I mailed the clip to its editor and got a note back from Jay. He didn’t take the piece, but I remember him saying, “This is weird, and that’s good. Please send more.” His invitation was all I needed. I started sending things to Jay and then taking his assignments. I wrote a lot of short pieces and several cover stories for Utne in the 1980s and 90s. One of them, “Remaking a Living” (#46/1991), might be the most widely-read article I ever published.
We didn’t know how lucky we were. Those were the last years before the internet, when print magazines were still fat with ads and subscribers. Like Jay, I was fortunate to have an editing job at a magazine that was briefly considered “hot.” The luckiest part was that my publisher didn’t know or care how editorial work got done, which gave me lots of time to talk to Jay on the phone. Those conversations would reliably produce good ideas for both of our magazines.
Jay and I belonged to a generation of left-leaning college graduates who were too young to have experienced the 1960s but were still looking for alternative ways of living. We covered the realm people called “crunchy.” We celebrated neighborhood co-ops, organic food, new-age spirituality, and local festivals (if they were cooler than the one in Hamburg). We believed that the best way to transform institutions was to start small. We watched as these efforts grew and created new mainstreams.
Writers, like musicians, get better when they practice every day. It’s a repetitive and solitary profession, and much of the paying work is in New York City, San Francisco, and a few other big cities. If you live near those places, there are communities of writers to hang out with. If you don’t live there, it’s harder to find peers. But Jay and I had each other.
Jay lived in Minneapolis, where the local style is wholesome, restrained, and polite, even when the ideas are radical. I was in the rustiest part of the Rust Belt, which sheltered interesting people who didn’t have much money. As time went on, we came to understand that our lack of attachment to those big publishing centers was a source of strength. We marveled at the arrogance and laziness of the coastal elites, who didn’t understand ordinary Americans back then, either.
We met in person in 1989 at the National Magazine Awards, because both of our magazines had received nominations. The event was held in New York at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, in a ballroom packed with the biggest names in the business. I remember the high quality of our conversation, the mediocre food, and also that we were both trying hard not to seem impressed by the glitz. I also remember standing in a long line behind Jay, still talking intently, and being interrupted as Tina Brown, then the editor of Vanity Fair and a magazine superstar, walked past all of us to the front of the line without a word, got her coat from the checkroom, and left. We didn’t win. I think both of us left town disappointed and also relieved.
Big Journalism, to us, was a world of cutthroats and raw ambition. Jay tried hard to reject this approach. He was honest, and he knew when to delegate. He attracted talented people who were drawn to founder Eric Utne’s idea, and he created the conditions that allowed these people to do their best work. This is a difficult juggling act, and Jay kept it up at Utne for 15 years. In the process, he helped change the culture. Organic fruits and vegetables claimed a tiny share of total produce sales in the US in the 1990s. Today their share is 15 percent and rising fast.
Jay and I both turned to freelancing after our magazine adventures ended, and it seemed to me that he found some pretty sweet gigs. He was a “writer in residence” at a local university and a fellow at think tanks devoted to urban design. His later career existed in the cozy intersection of political advocacy and lifestyle journalism. He celebrated the rejection of consumer culture, the joys of taking long walks, and the love of good conversations, especially if they happened over beers. He and his spouse, former Utne publisher Julie Ristau, worked for OnTheCommons.org, which explores and advocates for public spaces. Jay traveled the world for these jobs. He ended up with a deep knowledge of his own city but also of Amsterdam, Warsaw, and Buenos Aries.
Jay’s writing style was informal and so transparent that when I read his work today, I can still hear him talking to me. He was in top form last fall, when he published a piece in Notre Dame Magazine about “bucket lists,” the things you should supposedly see and do before you die (ie, “kick the bucket.”) Reading other people’s lists while stuck at home made Jay feel bad. “While bucket lists are useful,” he said, “even more valuable would be an inventory of familiar things all around that nourish happiness.” He proposed a “luv-it list” for the pandemic, arguing for the profound benefits of cheap, simple joys like singing in the shower, urinating outdoors, and wasting time. “Dawdling, lingering, sauntering, browsing, slacking and goofing off are hallmarks of a happy life,” he wrote. “As Kurt Vonnegut declared, ‘We are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you any different.’”
Jay died shortly after he turned that piece in. He had an aggressive form of kidney cancer and didn’t know it. He discovered its symptoms in August and left us just before Christmas. One day during that time, Jay and Julie talked about that final article. He told her that maybe his soul knew what was happening before his mind did.
My best memory of Jay is when he and Julie visited my spouse, Tania, and I one summer afternoon several years ago. We are sitting on our front porch, seemingly wasting time and actually making each other laugh. We trade quips as if we are passing a ball around, and as our exchanges grow faster, our laughter spins out of control. We are in the middle of a group giggling fit when Jay says something that convulses us even further. He leans back, looks over at my streaming face, and smiles.
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