Changing the World, One Idea at a Time: Part III

“Every now and then, a person will have a good idea for an invention, but the concept rarely goes beyond idle speculation and cocktail party chatter. Richard Kirschman is not one of those people.”

So wrote a reporter for the Marin Independent Journal about 20 years ago, and no, Richard Kirschman has never been a person to hide his ideas behind “idle speculation.”

A Bolinas fire fighter for 20 years

For half a century he’s been known in West Marin as the everywhere-at-once First Responder, activist, inventor, farmer, letter-writer, real estate developer (the good kind), philanthropist, self-publisher and all-around Great Idea guy.

It’s the inventor with a sense of humor I’d like to follow here, the guy who looks at society’s complexity and notices something so obvious that everybody’s missed it. Typically he can’t stop thinking about it until a solution appears in his mind, and then he’s filled with excitement, and off and running he goes.

That was the case with the $3 Coin Project and Ten Thousand Words You Already Know in Spanish, as we have seen in previous posts. But the range of ingenuity and good humor in Richard’s many inventions will always astound. Here are a few examples:

The ‘Rickshaw Ring’ Project

I bet every Westerner who’s traveled to India has had this thought: How do they do it? That is, how do rickshaw drivers do the back-breaking work of peddling tourists around on soft (not paved) roads? All day, every day, and then, when a hill approaches, they have to get out and pull the rickshaw, with you and the kids and the luggage sitting there, adding weight. And they charge you the equivalent of U.S. pennies for the service.

Rickshaws — one empty, one full

On the other hand, I bet the next thought might be: If this is the way rickshaw drivers make a living in India, who am I to question it? Rickshaws have functioned this way for many generations. It’s a hard life for the driver, but what can a lone observer do about it?

Well, a lone Great Idea Guy like Richard Kirschman has always had this acute curiosity about how things work, and how they might work better. On this first trip to India and his first ride in a rickshaw, he got out and noticed something he couldn’t unnotice. That is, the wheels of rickshaws run on a single gear. Just one. Elsewhere in the world, he knew, bicycle riders use multiple gears to make pedaling easier. Could the same principle be applied to rickshaws in India?

It took a while (he went home, he made designs, he wrote letters, he built a model, he came back, he met with experts; he went home, etc.) to create a gear so simple and inexpensive that it could be installed in minutes by any driver, and would then greatly reduce the pedaling effort.

More time elapsed (he redesigned, he petitioned, he wrote more letters, he came back; he made appointments, etc.). Eventually a number of manufacturers, professors, engineers, a Times of India reporter and rickshaw drivers agreed that his “toothed adaptor ring, bolted directly onto the 22-tooth freewheel,” as they put it, could make a huge difference.

Richard’s prototype gear (top) for rickshaw

Time passed, enthusiasm built up … and time passed. Richard built a prototype that was praised by everyone who saw it, but again, time passed. Eventually it proved extremely difficult for Richard, an American living in West Marin, Calif., to move things along a world away. The project needed agreement, mobilization and action throughout many different systems, and at several key junctures, that didn’t happen. Letters and emails of support kept arriving, but the project stalled, and there, after several decades, it remains.

One unforgettable moment deserves recognition: “One day we put the gear on four rickshaws,” Richard recalls, “and the drivers confirmed it was a big improvement.” Suddenly the head of the Indian Institute of Technology and the head of the Indian rickshaw union in Madras got down on the ground with Richard to examine the ring on a rickshaw school bus.

The rickshaw school bus

Here were three elders, two whose castes would normally not allow them to socialize, on their knees next to a rickshaw excitedly discussing something that even today could trigger a huge change in their world.

So Richard came away — well, disappointed, but also inspired. The prototype had galvanized diverse authorities over changes that hadn’t existed before — not just with the gear itself but with the connections he made, the people he met, the resources within the culture that few ever see. The experience had taken him to places in India he would not have visited before, and for that he would be forever grateful.

The Unofficial Boy Scout Merit Badge

You probably know that the Boy Scouts of America finally lifted its ban on members who are gay. And just this year, girls are being allowed to join as well. But did you know that BSA still discriminates against the “nonreligious”?

According to the group’s Charter and Bylaws, “No member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing his obligation to God.” Parents must sign BSA’s Declaration of Religious Sentiments to ensure that no atheists, agnostics or nonbelievers are allowed in.

To Richard, a former Scout himself and a longtime “religious nonbeliever,” this is silent bigotry. It can be challenged by a number of means — social media, lawsuits, protests — but with his bent for irony and tongue-in-cheek humor, Richard had another idea.

Scouts learn about life by fulfilling activity requirements that earn them merit badges, which they sew onto uniforms and sashes. Why not help them explore “freethought activism,” Richard wondered, by issuing a new badge, this one with a letter “A”?

Richard probably didn’t imagine that people would take one look at that big red “A” and think of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. In this story, set in the 17th century, an unwed mother named Hester is shamed by wearing the letter “A” (for Adulteress) on her dress in puritan Massachusetts. It’s the reference in The Music Man our dissipated hero mentions when he sings “I hope, and I pray, for a Hester to win just one more ‘A’!”

The Free Thought merit badge

But Richard’s “A” was not that “A.” Thanks to the enthusiastic co-sponsorship of evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), this unofficial Boy Scout merit badge displays the distinctive Dawkins’ “A,” but this time it stands for Atheist, and for Agnosic. The badge was adopted and has become available through the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

Today you can buy these eye-catching cloth badges from the FFRF for three bucks each, whether you’re a scout or not. Wearing the badge for whatever reason may prompt people to ask about it and bingo, right then and there, word will go out that “A” is also for Advocacy — that is, support for difference and privacy and the notion that even the Boy Scouts of America can re-embrace larger values like freedom of speech and belief.

Entrance to Mesa Refuge

Richard himself proved eloquent on the subject of separating church and state when he created a Free Thought Fellowship in his name at Mesa Refuge, the long-running residency for writers in Point Reyes. He launched the fellowship in 2016 with these stirring words:

“In a land where freedom to speak one’s mind is valued in both law and culture, criticism of religion or its consequences is still widely suppressed and often culturally punished. This fellowship is intended to both recognize and support the work of individuals dedicated to the separation of Church and State, atheism and agnosticism.”

Dogpatch: Too Bitter to Lick!

If you’re a dog owner, you know how frustrating those Victorian collars can be for the wearer when you’re trying to stop your dog from licking or chewing a cut or surgical site or hot spot. For decades, veterinarians have insisted on these collars, and dog owners haven’t objected. How could they? Putting dogs through this humiliation was the only way, they believed, to heal that wound. Many still believe it.

Victorian dog collar: How they hate it

But when his own dog had to wear the collar, Richard had a Great Idea. Instead of imprisoning the dog’s head so he wouldn’t lick the sutures, why not let the dog decide for himself?

With no credentials as a chemist or veterinarian, Richard plunged to the task: He was a dog owner; he had a brain. How hard could it be? Well, it took five years of mixing, testing, patenting, trademarking and obtaining FDA approval, but in the end, Richard created a soothing yet bitter cream called Dogpatch that really did change the world, at least as far his dog was concerned.

The ingredients (mostly a very soothing Aloe Vera) included Denatonium Benzoate, simply “the bitterest flavoring known to man” — well, man and dog. It inspired Richard to display the logo, “TOO BITTER TO LICK!” in an earnest and endearing starburst on the package.

West Marin vets and pet store owners loved Dogpatch. They stocked it and sold it and swore by it. Richard and Doris traveled the state and hand-sold the product at dog shows and veterinary conferences where pet-supply distributors, kennels, trainers and groomers embraced it as the answer to Victorian-collar tyranny.

Dogpatch: “Too Bitter to Lick!”

“At first we had fun,” Doris would write of the warm reception to Dogpatch. But traveling that much to sell one product proved costly and exhausting. Then, too, the prospect of national distribution proved impossible for a single-item, single-owner company. Even after Richard sold his company to a zealous sales agent, Dogpatch — never part of a recognizable group of products — eventually disappeared from the market.

Too bad for dogs across the world! But again, to Richard, the experience was worth it. Dogpatch proved that a different answer to an old problem, especially one that comes from somebody out in left field, will work if you put your mind to it. And people lucky enough to have bought a tube would never again have to shrug and say, “there’s nothing we can do,” when a vet prescribed the hated Victorian collar. (I still have a tube, 20 years after expiration date, and after one lick, my dog ran the other way.)

The DIY Fog Catcher

Remember how dried up and downtrodden Californians themselves got during the state’s three-year drought in 2011-14?

Experts say it’s inevitable that the rains will stop again, so the only answer is to conserve water. For a long time Richard thought about that. He lives in Point Reyes Station, the foggiest region in America, it turns out. Trees thrive during droughts because the morning fog is so dense and seepy they get to drink from it in their own very sippy-cup way. Why not humans?

Fog as a resource for water is not a new idea, but it’s not easy or accessible. Large systems of “fog catching” are underway in Chile, Guatemala, and Nepal, but distribution systems for crops and homes are difficult to fund and develop. So Richard pondered the idea of smaller systems that individuals could build on their own.

30-foot fog catchers at work in Ethiopia

Using a special polyethylene netting he imported from Britain, along with inexpensive household items (poles, pipes, buckets), he created a small, easily managed device that resembles a see-through sheet strung up between goalposts.

He attached a drip-collecting gutter on the bottom of the net, and as long as the fog rolled in, this early prototype worked. A Canadian nonprofit called FogQuest had similar results with a larger screen (40 square meters yielding 200 liters of water a day), but Richard’s was basically homemade and easy to set up for individual use.

Richard’s prototype fog catcher

Eventually, the drought ended and the ground fog lifted just enough on his test area before he could try it out in larger fields. Today the DIY fog catcher awaits the next drought for further testing, and as usual, Richard is optimistic.

Because West Marin is an off-the-grid kind of place, small ranches, organic farms, independent creameries and oyster-bed companies quietly succeed from owners’ do-it-yourself utilization of local resources. If solar panels, chemical toilets, “cloud” storage and wind-driven generators help people live independently, the day is near when Richard’s DIY fog catcher could be the water-saving prototype to save the day.

The Resistor Movement

A lot of people don’t march in the streets or write letters or vehemently take sides in a controversy. Like them, Richard believes there are subtler ways to protest with dignity. Now, during the Donald Trump era, perhaps the time has come to RESIST just about every single thing on general principles.

typical resistor as used in electric boards

As a ham operator and electronics officer in the Navy, Richard had worked for years with tiny bits of wire and porcelain called resistors. Electricians use them to slow (resist!) the flow of energy as a way of keeping other components from getting too hot or overloaded.

I like to picture Richard holding up this wiry item for the first time and thinking, HEY! How effective this little guy would be as a political pin for those in the know.

An admirer of grassroots movements that have grown quietly and stealthily from the subtlest of beginnings, Richard purchased batches of the inexpensive things and learned how to cut them and bend them and stick them into cloth like the little gems they are.

Resist! as tasteful pin

Resist! as subtle jewelry

Word got out and people started wearing them oh, so tastefully — and noticeably — on jackets and shirts and scarves and all manner of clothing.

Then Richard kept experimenting and … voila! beautiful earrings appeared, and necklaces and (very soon I’m sure!) cuff links and shoelaces and hair barrettes, if anyone still wears them.

Resist! as dangly earrings

For the progressive in Richard, perhaps the only joy of the Trump administration is that no one asks, “Resist what, exactly?” When they see the lovely turquoise-colored resistor item, they want one or dozens for themselves.

And in West Marin, land of thoughtful progressives, everyone knows what it stands for: resist sameness, seek difference; avoid the masses, live independently; listen to nature, resist tyranny.

The PG-13 Bible

As we’ve learned, Richard Kirschman is not a religious person, but he does respect the Bible for its literary and historical importance.

As he told the Point Reyes Light, “The Bible is important. It is not a book about some dead religion. It is very much alive. It profoundly affects the way people treat each other, who they let their daughters date, who their sons marry, where they live, what laws they pass, and who they vote for.”

So it offends him when people quote the Bible to support narrow-minded ideas of morality. Conservative Christians seem especially inclined to hold up the Bible as evidence that God didn’t intend men to go uncircumcised, or gays to marry, or adultery to go unpunished, or women to be equal, and so forth.

The PG-13 Bible, first edition

How to change things? Confronting these issues one biblical quote at a time would never solve the problem. But suggesting that people read the whole Bible wouldn’t work either. Richard knew that most of us have never read the Old Testament, yet many are influenced by those who quote the same, far-right-supporting Bible stories over and over again.

Enter the delightfully profane and eye-catching PG-13 Bible, which Richard self-published in 2006.

You want a scandal-ridden quote to stir people up, some words from God that rip the lid off hypocrisy and tell the truth at last? Here they are..

In the PG-13 Bible, Richard prints out the entire text of the first five books in the Old Testament (also called the Torah), which he has helpfully bound in black covers, warning readers that the book contains “passages offensive to society and unsuitable for children.”

Second edition

That’s the PG-13 part: Few people are going to crawl through the Bible looking for ancient fire-and-brimstone horrors nobody believes anymore. So, utilizing the movie industry’s Parental Guidance warning system, he highlights passages in bold to help parents easily find the parts about slaying, lying, killing, pillaging, stoning, etc.

That way, we can all learn how the Bible contradicts itself and is often bloodier, more racist and even stupider than a Quentin Tarantino movie.

So. Open the PG-13 Bible to just about any page and you’ll find one of these arresting boldfaced passages popping out at you:

–Numbers 32:17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.

Sample boldface: Leviticus 18:22 and 23

–Leviticus 18:22 Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.

–Genesis 9:32 Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father.

Yikes. And wouldn’t it be better, Richard wonders, when you’re staying at a hotel and happen to look inside the nightstand drawer by your bed, expecting a Gideon Bible, to find a PG-13 Bible that’s honest and shocking and deliciously offensive?

Like most of Richard’s inventions, it really opens your perspective on life.

Changing the World, One Idea at a Time: Part II

It may not seem that a $4.95 paperback with nothing but word lists could make a difference to an industry — maybe to the world — but that was the potential I saw in Richard Kirschman’s self-published book 25 years ago.

Richard Kirschman

In those days I was on the lookout for self-published gems outside the New York book trade. I believed a connection existed between the Gold Rush era of the mid-1800s and Northern California’s small-press revolution more than a century later. True, not many of the 300,000 people who came West made money from the Gold Rush. But they all believed that anything was possible when they got to California.

This idea, that breaking away from institutions in the East can make people more personally creative and adventurous in the West, seemed to thrive from one generation to the next, especially in the Bay Area. The legendary Whole Earth Catalog (1968) started out as a self-published list of tools, for example. Hundreds of author-produced books, including my favorite, A History of Doorknobs in the United States, followed that same path: The inspiration to self-publish, which so rarely occurred to writers in New York, very often felt like the only way to go, 3000 miles away, in Berkeley or San Francisco.

Richard had experienced traditional success in 1961 when Doubleday published his New York on the House, a guidebook listing free exhibits and events. But just as connections to the mainstream often fade as authors leave the hub of publishing in New York, so does that anything-is-possible belief flow more mightily from within.

Hope at a Glance

So. The premise for Richard Kirschman’s self-published book in the 1980s was simple: Tourists planning to visit a foreign country often dread the idea of learning a new language. They see it as scary and tedious, so they don’t get around to taking classes or listening to recordings or even browsing in a language guide. As a result, many travelers feel like failures before Day One of their trip.

Richard’s book, Thousands of Words You Already Know in Spanish, promised a series that would change all that. Designed as a half-sized paperback you could fit in your back pocket, the book provided rows and rows of Spanish words spelled as follows:

exactly the same as their English equivalents, such as inventor/inventor, labor/labor, superior/superior;

almost the same such as depositar/deposit, paralizar/paralyze, identidad/identity;

the same with a vowel added on as in pacifico/pacific, humano/human, incentivo/incentive.

And so on. That’s all it was, but oh, how it delivered.

In that B.C. (Before Computers) Era, one glance at these words, which you already knew in English, turned feelings of dread into surprise and delight.

Once you got used to the idea that, say, a word like supervisor meant the same, spelled the same and sounded the same in both languages, the effect was empowering. You didn’t have to memorize anything — once the ear was attuned, the next steps –the next words — fell into place.

Of course, the same thing happened to Spanish-speaking folks coming to the US or UK. One look at the other half of the title, Miles de Palabras Que Usted Ya Conoce en Ingles, and voila — I mean !presto! — you were on your way.

Richard enlisted the expertise of editor and writer (and future wife) Doris Ober to give the book some authority and class with a bright and colorful cover and inspiring (one page only!) introduction.

lists and lists: oh, how they deliver

The two began work on Italian, French and German editions but stopped when they hit a snag. Book distributors in those pre-Internet days tended to lock self-publishers out. Readers could buy books only at brick-and-mortar bookstores, which in turn were dependent on mainstream publishers in New York who didn’t carry self-published books.

Richard tried selling to travel agents and tourist guides instead, and he practically gave the book away to ESL (English as a Second Language) and Spanish-language teachers. He’s kept a few hundred copies, just in case: Today, as conditions worsen for immigrant families at Mexican-American borders, a book like this can be the first sign of hope.

Richard working with students today

Prototype Man

All my life, I have heard variations of that kind of energy — this book can change the world — from self-publishers all over the West. Richard stands out because he’s never been interested in making money or even selling a lot of copies. What matters is feeling that light bulb (the old kind) go off in his head and deciding to do something about it — to engage in society for its own sake, to get out there with your Great Idea and see it through; to stay involved, to never be passive, to find the gate and get it opened.

Thousands of Words today is better understood as a prototype, one of the reasons so many in West Marin admire Kirschman. He has created quite a number of projects out of thin air, gave them a physical reality and explored their potential in both the business and the nonprofit world. Many have taken off and become a success, as we will see. But equally inspiring is the way Richard has gone about exploring the world through the lens of every good idea.

“Thus began Richard in West Marin,” a Point Reyes Light reporter once wrote: “He had ideas, he invented, he petitioned. He studied, learned, asked questions and offered pragmatic ideas, always with a smile and good humor.”

Well, not always. Outrage has played a part, maybe the best part. So has ingenuity, skepticism, wonder, irony, love, despair — and some truly whacko ideas.

 

 

Changing the World, One Idea at a Time: Part I

A modern-day Gold Rush has been mining its way through the hills of West Marin, thanks to the oddball brilliance of one very smart iconoclast named Richard Kirschman.

I mention the Gold Rush because the key to Kirschman’s unique project is a gorgeous $3 coin that looks like gold, has the heft of a silver dollar and bears the knockout design of wildlife artist Keith Hansen.

 

West Marin’s $3 coin: A lot of money raised … without investment?

An Experiment Hits the Jackpot

Kirschman introduced the coin in 2010 when he asked retailers and restaurant owners to include it in the change they gave to customers. The coin is so stunning that most people asked about it, as they do today.

“They’re told it’s both a collector’s item and real money you can spend in West Marin,” Kirschman says. “We love it when they keep the coin as a souvenir, because that simple act of removing it from circulation will transfer its value of $2 (over cost) to local nonprofits.

Three bucks seems like a paltry amount, but Kirschman notes that 2.5 million tourists visit West Marin every year, and many do take it home — tens of thousands, in fact.

And no wonder: Etched into the brass are long-admired symbols of West Marin — the famous Point Reyes lighthouse, tule elk, California poppy, osprey, sand dollar, dairy cow, and more of the sightings one discovers along the famous rolling California hills.

From Zero to $50,000

From the beginning, Kirschman and his wife, editor Doris Ober, rarely kept an exact running count of the total donated. Too many coins were in circulation at any one time, and they wanted to keep administration simple anyway.

But this year, as a new member joins the board, Kirschman, 85, realized this astounding fact: Over the course of eight years, without anyone spending a dime, the $3 coin project has raised upwards of $50,000. And it’s all gone to good causes.

That’s not even the kicker to this story. Kirschman and Ober never really promoted the project to retailers in the ten communities. So now, with more active engagement, the coin’s true potential may be realized.

Names of the 10 communities right on the coin!

“It could earn twice, maybe five times as much, and in a shorter time frame,” Kirschman says. “Who knows? The coin’s motto after all is Strength in Community.”

He gets out his notepad to show what he means: “There are 2.5 million visitors coming through West Marin every year. If one out of ten took one coin home, it would leave $500,000 for local charities-every year.” So with a little effort, the total really could be stunning.

It Works and It Baffles

The only thing not in agreement about the $3-coin project, at least with non-economists like me, is exactly how it works.

First, it’s important to note: Kirschman’s coins are not a version of Bitcoin or other “cryptocurrency.” They are not “zero coins” or supermarket tokens or part of a speculative bubble or pyramid block chain or altcoins. They are, rather, an agreed-upon currency that brings together ten coastal communities whose merchants want to help local non-profits.

So if you find one of these coins in your change after paying a grocery store or restaurant in, say, Stinson Beach or Point Reyes or Tomales Bay, you can: 1) keep it as a joyous art piece or commemorative collector’s item or absolutely terrific stocking stuffer (kids love them); or 2) use it in payment for other purchases throughout West Marin.

And if you keep it, simply by taking $3 out of circulation, you’re making a donation to local nonprofits. Frankly, that’s the puzzler for me: How can it be that if you simply do nothing with actual money or spend it as local currency, you’re contributing to good causes?

Richard Kirschman displays the coin at the annual West Marin Weekend parade

How It Started

Kirschman got the idea in the 1990s when he realized that nonprofit groups in West Marin were seeking donations from a very small population. With only 2,300 households in the entire area, “everybody was fishing from the same pool,” he says.

At the same time, the more than two and a half million tourists coming through West Marin each year represented an untapped bounty of cash. They loved exploring famous natural landscapes along Highway 1, from Muir Woods through the Point Reyes National Seashore to Tomales Bay, and they spent a lot of money doing it.

Kirschman knew that most of these visitors wouldn’t be interested in donating to small nonprofits they’d never see again, like local libraries, museums, preschools, Little League, senior centers, summer camps and the like. Nevertheless, he was intrigued by the way tourism stimulated the local economy.

So he created a nonprofit (technically a 501(c)3, which took six months of state forms to fill out and regulations to pass and a Board of Directors to create), now known as the Coastal Marin Fund. He took out an account at Wells Fargo in Point Reyes Station to process the flow of money. And when he contacted wildlife artist Hanson, he wanted the look and feel of the coins to be so classy and timeless that visitors and residents would want to keep them forever.

Signs explain coins to visitors

Kirschman then asked merchants along Highway 1 to integrate the $3 coins with real money, and to explain to customers why using the coins was 1) a fun idea and 2) not costing anybody a penny.

“For every coin that drops out of local circulation,” Kirschman stated probably hundreds of times, “two dollars becomes available for a local charity or other community nonprofit.” (That’s two dollars rather than three because the coin costs a dollar to mint).

It took another six months of going from store to store, restaurant to restaurant and service to service across the wide expanse of West Marin. Over time, enough merchants got it — you didn’t have to understand the premise to make a real contribution — that soon a real presence of the coins began making a lasting impression.

Signs began to appear — “$3 Coins Accepted Here” signs! “Ask for one in change” signs! — in many of the ten West Marin towns whose names proudly ring the circumference of the coin: Muir Beach, Stinson Beach, Bolinas, Dogtown, Olema, Inverness, Point Reyes, Inverness Park, Marshall and Tomales.

So Simple It’s Hard to Believe

Want to know how the project works in more detail?

Let’s say you’re a participating grocer who’d like to support a local nonprofit like the West Marin Little League:

  1. You buy a box of 25 coins from the Coastal Marin Fund at $3 each, paying a total of $75. (Of course you don’t really buy them; you exchange $75 in real money for $75 in gold coins.)

    The box of coins

  2. Now the gold coins are real money as far as you’re concerned. You offer them as change for your customers, who take them home as keepsakes (they’re so beautiful!) or spend them elsewhere in West Marin.
  3. Because the coins cost the Coastal Marin Fund only $1 each to manufacture, here’s what happens to the $75: a) $25 goes to replace 25 coins, leaving $50; b) $10 goes to the Coastal Marin Fund for operating expenses, leaving $40; c) that remaining $40 goes to a designated charity or nonprofit.
  4. So when the box is empty, it’s now worth that $40. You simply hand the box over to the Little League of West Marin (or any nonprofit in West Marin; here’s a selected list).
  5. The Little League then turns the empty box over to the Coastal Marin Fund, which gives the group $40 cash. The group can wait until more empty boxes pile up from other merchants, which is usually the case. Twenty-five boxes worth $40 each, after all, equals $1,000, and that’s a lot of baseballs.

But wait, says the person who nearly failed algebra but now insists there must be a straightforward answer: How does the fact that the customer takes the gold coin home — the equivalent of Kirschman’s vision of the coin that “drops out of circulation” — result in more money for nonprofits?

Even a chintzy casino token has value

“The same way,” says Kirschman, “as when a casino patron takes home a $5 chip as a memento — a chip that probably cost the casino a nickle to produce — leaving the casino with a profit of $4.95. Since in our case the $3 gold coin costs about $1 to make, whenever one coin drops out of circulation, it leaves $2 behind for West Marin.”

The Hidden Joy of It All

I think what I love most about the coin project is that it’s both realistic and hopeful, practical and idealistic. Like so many of Kirschman’s ideas, it says: If we all believe in each other, the value of free-enterprise in a democracy is not to make the 1 percent of the population rich. It’s to spread the power of wealth around for everybody.

Further, built into the Coastal Marin Fund is a “Direct Granting” system that allows the merchants themselves to choose the nonprofit they like and hand over the grant, literally, in the form of an empty coin box. There are no deadlines, applications for grants, judging committees or other bureaucratic procedures (Richard hates bureaucracy) standing in the way of good causes receiving money.

What a lovely accessory

And let’s say you’re not a participating merchant or town — you’re just a good-hearted citizen who’d like to assist without spending your own money. This too is simple: You just buy a box for $75, spend the 25 coins inside that are worth $3 each, and give the empty box to a nonprofit. (You can ask somebody local to do it, or the CMF.)

And thank you! say the grateful West Marin folks: You too haven’t spent a penny, and yet you’ve just contributed $40!

“By the way,” Kirschman likes to say to kids especially, holding the coin up so they can view the rim closely: “Do you ever wonder why this (and any coin of value) has these lines etched around the outside?” Few kids or adults know. “The lines are called ‘reeding.’ This was an invention of Isaac Newton’s to prevent people from filing slivers off their gold coins, which they could then exchange for cash.”

Why are lines etched on the rims of coins?

The irony of the project is that Kirschman sees himself as a skeptic and a realist and an atheist and a doubter. You wouldn’t think he’d pour his heart and soul (he does have them) into a coin project for good causes — or a unique first-aid cream for dogs, a hospital for babies with AIDS in Romania, a back-saving gear for rickshaw drivers in India, a drought-reducing device that collects water from fog — and on and on, as his great ideas go, which we will see in upcoming posts.

All that’s just for starters. I met Kirschman years ago when he wrote two self-published books that stand today as a testament to the keen observer in all of us.

Then I discovered that Kirschman is the guy who, after he served as a juror, sued Marin Country for its “rubber stamping” Grand Jury; donated land for a medical clinic to Point Reyes; gave the Boy Scouts of America an A for Atheist badge (why won’t they thank him?); created a prototype hospital for babies with AIDS in Romania; raised near-extinct farm animals on his own property to help the breeds stay alive.

The Boy Scout badge

And he’s still tinkering with: a fog-to-water device for the next drought; a gear for rickshaws in India that could save millions of drivers from back-breaking passenger loads; ideas for humane treatment of deer, bees, dogs, turkeys and cattle; help for prison inmates and seniors getting it on in communes.

That barely dents the list of Great Ideas he’s come up with, so I just kept writing and writing — five more posts, in fact — to see what makes a guy like this tick. Many of his projects haven’t succeeded, but he’s as proud of them as any others, because commercial achievement has never been his goal. Serving the creative impulse, following one’s passion, more deeply exploring “Strength through Community” (his own motto for West Marin!) — all of these seem to shed light on an astounding drive underneath. Yet none of them comes close.

And by the way, if the name of Richard Kirschman sounds familiar, he is the brother of police psychologist and mystery writer Ellen Kirschman, whose books I’ve discussed in previous posts. Ellen K’s name rang a distant bell when I saw her first novel in a bookstore.

Gromyko’s desk plaque from early United Nations

Now I think, gee, what a family: Going back a half-century, one discovers that their mother became friends with Eleanor Roosevelt in the early days of the United Nations. Richard was 13 at the time and happened to “borrow” the hand-made desk plaque of USSR ambassador Andrei Gromyko as a memento … ah, but why go on (see Part V).

These are the kind of offbeat facts that I hope will explain so much about an offbeat iconoclast who really does change his world, one idea at a time.

 

 

 

 

Let Glide Be Glide

Recent decisions by a conservative Methodist bishop are causing an uproar among the many followers of Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco.

A few weeks ago, the bishop, Minerva Carcaño, abruptly removed two pastors and launched a task force to assess the finances of Glide, the powerful Glide Foundation, and the “lack of an appropriate governance structure.”

It’s hard not to smile at that last one. Has the bishop never set foot in the place? A feeling of happy chaos pervades so that everyone will feel welcome, but look more closely: A strong organizational structure of some 90-plus free programs confront life-and-death issues every day.

These programs succeed where others do not because Glide has carved out a unique identity in one of the worst slums in America. Worrying about “appropriate governance structure” with the mother church probably isn’t a priority when you’re providing free meals to 700,000 people annually.

Learning from History

What’s at stake keeps reminding me of an explosive event in the 1960s, when a shoot-out nearly occurred between the Black Panther Party and San Francisco police.

The Black Panther motto: “armed self-defense”

The incident began when the Panthers opened a San Francisco branch, much to the horror of a very white SFPD. The Panthers’ cramped office was located in the Western Addition/Fillmore District, a low-income, largely African American section of the city.

The police insisted that a bomb scare required an official “visit” to the Panther branch to keep the neighborhood safe. The Panthers accused the SFPD of inventing the bomb scare to conduct a search for illegal weapons. The police prepared to advance in force that very night. The Panthers brought in sand bags, plywood to cover windows and enough ammunition to withstand a full-scale SWAT attack.

So things escalated pretty fast, and it was a very scary time anyway. Lethal firefights between police and Black Panthers were breaking out in other cities, Oakland especially. The FBI branded the Black Panther Party as “the greatest threat to the security of the country.” As is true today, tensions between law enforcement and people of color skyrocketed throughout the country.

The Issue of Trust

Neighbors in the Western Addition/Fillmore, many of them members of Glide, asked the church’s pastor, Cecil Williams, to step in. He had worked with the SFPD before — sometimes even against them — and was able to set up a meeting that afternoon.

With a delegation of Panthers and residents at his side, Williams suggested that the chief postpone the police “visit” until things cooled down and the Panthers invited them to come in.

Cecil Williams and the SFPD

The chief conferred with several captains and surprised the delegation by agreeing. “We’ll wait,” he said, “until you’re ready for us to come out there.” He then stood up as if to say the meeting was over.

“I sat there thinking this sounded too easy,” Williams remembers. As is so often true today, the fundamental issue was trust. “This was the problem of taking the word of the chief, I had learned. There was never any guarantee to the black community that police wouldn’t rush in for any reason.”

Williams then made the following announcement: “On our end, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to have 400 or 500 of our people surround the Panther office tonight, and tomorrow night, and however many nights it takes until the Panthers feel comfortable.”

The chief looked stunned. Hundreds of poor people willing to stand between outraged combatants with loaded guns? No way.

Cecil himself had no illusions. “It went without question that these people would not be armed, would not fight the police in any way, and would not move from their positions. If a bomb had really been planted and exploded in the night, many of them would be killed. If the police decided to invade the Panther headquarters, they’d have to arrest all 500 people first.”

It was a brilliant move in its Gandhian way. The chief again agreed to postpone, this time aware of potential consequences.

The Black Panther office in San Francisco

The All-Night Stand

Minutes after the meeting, Glide worker (later president) Janice Mirikitani initiated the church’s “telephone tree” (no cell phones then). One by one, volunteers arrived at the Panther office. Then dozens, then hundreds. “The crowds swelled into the streets,” Williams remembers. “Soon you couldn’t see the Panther office for the mass of people getting deeper and thicker. Still more people came; the police would have needed a tank to wedge through.”

The volunteers stood packed together that way all night. Even in the wee hours when a siren screamed by, no one panicked, even the Panthers. (It turned out to be a fire engine). The next night, the volunteers returned, and the next. They kept coming until the SFPD and Panthers found a way to reconcile. (That peace would be temporary.)

This was one of the many times that Cecil Williams interceded in a crisis. He has been successful, people believe, because Glide is both a church and a community force. Its commitment to unconditional love means “the church is there for the people, not the other way around.”

Indeed, Williams’ voice of 50 years ago sounds very much like activist pastors in the Black Lives Matter movement today.

“People want to know how I as a minister who’s devoted to nonviolence could have supported the Black Panthers and their use of guns,” he says. “I answer that it’s easy to get stuck on the issue of weapons when the larger picture — a world of racism and violence — is not being addressed at all. I am committed to unconditional love, which means I respect the reality of others. In a world where African Americans are more likely than whites to be profiled as violent, and more likely to be killed, my focus is the preservation of life.”

At Glide in the 1960s: The church as a community force

This is the point that Bishop Carcaño keeps missing, I think. Williams isn’t saying he supports people having guns. He’s saying he accepts the reality that people have guns, and he ministers to them without judgment.

That legacy has continued with all the pastors who followed. Glide “accepts the reality” of anybody who walks in the door — not only the poor and homeless but the mentally ill, the addicted, the paroled, the PTSD vets, the warring gangs and others. Many are camped outside Glide’s doors, and they are welcome to come in, too, because the love of this church has no conditions.

Then We’ll Love You

So back to Bishop Minerva Carcaño, who oversees 370 churches and says nice things like this: “As United Methodists we respect all faiths (and) love all people … All of our churches minister to the poor and marginalized.” That’s true as far as it goes.

But Carcaño’s idea of love does have conditions. “Glide Memorial United Methodist Church must remain true to the mission of the United Methodist Church,” she says, “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Oh, dear. This sounds like the old Skid Road barter: Come in and have some soup, says the Christian church to the lost and homeless. But before you go, embrace Jesus Christ as your savior. Then we’ll love you.

Minerva Caraño

At no point in Glide’s 55-year history has anyone been directed to become a “disciple of Jesus Christ.” All the people, whether sitting in pews or donating millions or drunk and screaming at passers-by outside are encouraged to find their own truth, their own identity. God is not a punitive god, according to Glide — nor a judgmental god, not a shaming god. God is a freeing god to all the people, especially those who’ve been cast out.

As Cecil points out, the earliest followers of Jesus Christ were “the nobodies, the outcasts, the poor and homeless.” They built the church because Jesus spoke to all, without judgment, and brought love to all, without condition.

The Controversy Today

But let’s look at Carcaño’s accusation of a “lack of financial transparency” at Glide. This is hard to figure since Carcaño sits on the board of the Glide Foundation and has been privy to every budget, audit and account that Glide sends out to all board members and donors. Like fellow board members she has signed off on statements that prove Glide’s financial transparency. And she has probably sat back in awe at the number of donors who contribute to the annual budget of $16 million.

One of the largest donors, financier Warren Buffett, describes his long involvement with Glide here. “Nobody who’s ever given to Glide has ever felt shortchanged.” he says, referring to the transformations he’s seen among the people whom Glide calls its “clients.”

Cecil Williams, Warren Buffett, Janice Mirikitani

True, Buffett’s method of giving is unusual — he auctions off a chance to have lunch with him each year, and the highest bid usually tops $3 million — but that’s because Glide is Glide. It’s not just the homeless whom God encourages to make their own choices their own way. Rich philanthropists get to do it, too. And by the way, donors who contribute to Glide, Buffett says, “always get their money’s worth.” So what is Carcaño’s beef.

Of course so often it’s Williams and Mirikitani who draw people like Buffett — and Oprah, and Bono, and Bishop Desmond Tutu, and so many others who bring the spotlight to Glide. Carcaño has said she reassigned the two pastors because her top-level choices have been subverted by Williams and Mirikitani. They seem to be running things from behind the scenes, she believes.

If that’s true, given their ages — 77 and 89 respectively — it is astonishing in our youth-crazy culture that these two have so much power. The bishops who oversaw Glide before Carcaño embraced Williams and Mirikitani as a gift to the ongoing legacy. Perhaps it says a lot about Carcaño that she alone can’t work with them to mutual benefit.

The ‘Land Grab’ Theory

Carcaño’s critics say the real problem boils down to nothing less than an attempted land grab.

Jones Memorial Methodist Church today

Glide Memorial Methodist Church today

Glide as it happens is one of two United Methodist Churches in the city serving African American populations and pastored by African American lead ministers. The other, Jones Memorial, is located a dozen blocks away in the Western Addition. Both have developed nearby buildings for affordable housing, and the property values of both have soared with the entrance of Silicon Valley interests during the so-called “tech revolution.”

Meanwhile, say these same critics, the pension and healthcare fund of the United Methodist Church (UMC) has become so underfunded that it’s in need of massive influx of funds. The sale of the two church properties could bring in a windfall of $40-50 million, it’s been said, and solve a lot of problems.

It’s hard to believe that this kind of backroom scheming, if it exists, would be supported by someone with the activist credentials of Minerva Carcaño. She may be a rules-conscious conservative about UMC “governance,” but she’s also backed pro-immigration, LGBTQ and other progressive issues where it counts — at protests, at the border and during her own arrests.

Nevertheless, there’s another thing Carcaño misses. The two pastors at Glide didn’t just talk a good game about being “radically inclusive.” They, like Glide leaders before them all the way back to Williams and Mirikitani in the 1960s, made it a point to express unconditional love through concrete acts, such as feeding the hungry, offering shelter, providing healthcare and standing up for the humanity (read: civil rights) of all.

After retirement, Williams and Mirikitani returned as part-time employees of the Glide Foundation to support new leadership and to continue Glide’s legacy

You can see the results at Sunday Celebrations when kids and adults get onstage to tell the congregation what happens to them in Glide’s programs. These are people America once dismissed as the dregs of society. “Everybody had given up on them except you,” Buffett says to Williams and Mirikitani. Transformation really can happen when people feel deeply, authentically, unconditionally loved. Usually, week after week there’s not a dry eye in the church. It’s unfortunate that Bishop Carcano has said of Glide’s services, “Sunday Celebrations are uplifting concerts, but they lack the fundamentals of Christian worship.”

If a central concern for the modern pastor is to “respect the reality of others,” surely a central concern for Bishop Carcaño is to respect the reality of her own pastors, to let them let Glide be Glide.

Instead, it appears her approach is to eviscerate Glide, one of the most successful churches in the Methodist domain, and return to the 1950s conservatism that nearly killed it in the first place.

Note: I worked with Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani in the writing of their memoir, Beyond the Possible (HarperCollins, 2013). Most of the quotes and several photos in this post are taken from that book.

 

 

 

Remembering Peter Mayer

Reading about the death of legendary Penguin publisher Peter Mayer at 82 reminded me of an episode in the late 1970s that demonstrated the makings of that dear man as one of the book industry’s most charismatic leaders.

Peter Mayer: at Penguin in 1979

It happened after book publishers in the United States and England signed a consent decree in the mid-1970s that released English-language reprint rights to competitive bidding among different houses throughout the world.

The consent decree was created to level the playing field by weakening the dominance of London- and New York-based houses. So Peter Mayer — having climbed the ranks at Avon and Pocket Books to run Penguin’s international operation as CEO — traveled to Australia, New Zealand (often referred to in shorthand as ANZ, never as “down under”) and other countries to buck up the Penguin troops, as it were.

I was traveling through Australia and New Zealand at the same time, reporting for Publishers Weekly on the effect of the consent decree. This was a wondrous, in-between period for any reporter in ANZ because remnants of UK colonialism were in the midst of fading away — though too slowly for some. Many people still referred to England as “home,” and guests still sang “God Save the Queen” at ceremonial dinners. But a new belief in home-based institutions had begun to take over.

The famous Penguin logo

In book publishing, it was hoped, the consent decree would also help to diminish the particular colonialist notion that ANZ authors had to be published abroad before they were taken seriously at home. This had been true of Colleen McCullough (The Thorn Birds) and Thomas Keneally (soon to write Schindler’s List). But with the bidding process for acquiring books now open to local houses, it was hoped that dependency on the “parent” company or country would lose its hold.

So Penguin interviews figured mightily in my travels. Since its founding in 1935, Penguin’s series of color-coded paperbacks had become recognized and trusted the world over, giving ANZ branch offices a leg up in launching unknown local authors to international markets. Now, though, a belief spread among other houses, from Harper Australia and Random New Zealand to the independent Angus and Robertson, that the consent decree would break up that Penguin advantage.

Thus Peter Mayer, whom I had admired from afar but met only once in person, had his work cut out for him. Penguin had hit a low point for the first time since its founding in 1935, so who knew if this was the right time for its new CEO to fly 10,000 miles and visit the hinterlands? But word had it that Peter hit the ground running; he was a’vistin’ book trade folk like a house afire. Wherever I went in either country, people would say that Peter Mayer was either a city behind or a city ahead of me, and it always seemed that his visits had a profound effect on everyone who met him. Some said “incendiary,” but in a good way.

For example, if I interviewed staff members in a Penguin office before Peter Mayer came through, answers to my questions usually took a noncommittal direction — daily accounts and predictable data were trotted out to show titles selling briskly and markets responding nicely, and so forth. Few risked an opinion about the consent decree or, really, about anything.

Like a house afire

However, after Peter Mayer had been there, it felt like everybody from warehouse handlers to managing directors came rushing out with eyes shining to meet me excitedly and blurt out things like this:

Well, we used to sell to bookstores once a season, but now we’re going to do inventory checks and co-op ads and author signings even for the smallest books because we’ve got the legacy to turn this consent decree around, you see? Here, look at this advance title list: we’re picking up more local authors than ever and our crossover [trade to text] numbers are going up because real growth is in the offing, but first let’s introduce you to this editor and that sales rep, and do you want some tea? Are you going to the ABPA (Australian Book Publishers Association) dinner and have you heard of this small press and that new bookstore?

It was curious at first because I thought that Peter as the top Penguin exec would visit Penguin’s offices throughout ANZ and then, you know, leave. But his infectious we’re-all-in-this-together outlook about books compelled him to stop in at bookstores and wholesalers and competing publishers and author signings everywhere he went.

The original orange look for Penguin fiction

And each time he got somewhere, he’d strike up a conversation without regard to rank or privilege. To Peter it was a gift to work with books at any level – for publishers, for example, to sign an author with huge potential despite the house’s small budget; or to announce a large hardcover printing but reserve enough f&g’s (folded and gathered sheets) to bulk up the paperback run. It might be a gamble to offer discounts for unknown authors like one-free-for-ten (meaning the bookstore would get the 10th copy free, a crazy idea since most buyers ordered a maximum of three books by unknowns), but what the hell — if we believe in our writers, let’s take some chances.

Peter also liked to rummage around bookstores asking questions of everybody: Why were some books placed face out rather than spine out or as “endcaps” (end-of-the-aisle displays)? How had the buyer convinced publishers, who usually dreaded the idea of paying for bookstores’ advertising, to accumulate stats from previous orders to cover almost the whole bill?

Penguin green: mystery and crime

I should mention that everybody on the sales side knew how to do these basic things. They did not need the boss from London to instruct them on their job. The difference was that Peter made it all fun again, made the risks of returns and bad reviews worth it and, again and again shared that vision he knew we all had, that working with books at any level was a privilege, a kind of art in itself.

I put the “we” in there because even hearing about such things third or fourth hand, I got just as revved up as anybody else. I remembered that years before, a younger Peter Mayer had taken a group of students through an Avon warehouse as part of a Publishing Procedures course in Boston. As a member of this group, I was not alone worrying that the book industry had become arrogant and stuffy and mired in the Dark Ages. So I was struck by Peter’s enthusiasm over little things, like new ways to glue signatures in paperback books, or how one day it would be possible to print all books on acid-free paper, so one day the pages wouldn’t turn brown and crackly the older the book got.

In the1990s

True, Peter Mayer had been billed as part of the new breed of publishing — hungry for new ideas, not stuffy, hugely ambitious for himself and his house and unashamed about driving a cab for a living (of course this made him all the more romantic) before he started in book publishing. Most important, he was no phony. Showing us around that ice-cold warehouse, he picked up, pawed at, held to his heart and even recited parts of so many titles that it was clear he loved reading for its own sake, a rare quality in our trade.

Peter left us at the end of that tour with a challenge. The paperback industry might cover the world with millions of reprints, but the house was always looking for the next, best one. Could any of us think of a critically well-received hardcover that hadn’t been reprinted in paper? Standing at a loading dock in that B.C. (Before Computers) era, this was not an easy thing to research.

I think my candidate was A Separate Peace by John Knowles, which prompted a “Great idea!” response from Peter, who then remembered that Bantam had picked it up in 1953. (How nice of him not to mention that any book on the bestseller list as long as the Knowles novel had been would be snapped up fast.)

Ah well, he shrugged, as if to say, that’s the joy of publishing — hundreds of other good books are out there waiting for all of us, so why are we standing here?

That’s the question I heard ringing through the book trade these past decades as collapse from a new era seemed inevitable. For every industry, it seems, you’re lucky if you get one Peter Mayer in a lifetime.

 

A Police Shrink Who Gives Up on Nobody — Part III

Sue Grafton’s recent death reminded me what a joy it was to watch this gracious, no-nonsense writer break into the male-dominated mystery genre back in 1982.

I’ve been thinking of Grafton while writing about Ellen Kirschman, a mystery writer whose work is just as fresh and relevant for her time.

Sue Grafton

Ellen Kirschman

As I remember the B.C. (Before Computers) era of the early ’80s, novels by unknown writers like Grafton were lucky to be published with a first printing of 5,000 copies — and luckier still to clear a sale of 3,000. Grafton’s publisher, Henry Holt and Company, took a risk on her first novel, “A” Is for Alibi, with an initial printing of 7,500 copies and was thrilled when it sold 6,000.

As the world now knows, one reason for its success was Grafton’s catchy, classy idea of making a lethal murder mystery sound like a children’s spelling book. Something about following the alphabet had a huge and immediate appeal, and why not? Few could resist solving “B” (Burglar) without looking forward to “C” (Corpse). Readers coming in late at “E” (Evidence) seemed to always want to go back and start with “A” Is for Alibi.

This was also the PFE (PreFeminist Era) when publishers were just beginning to realize that women not only bought most of the books in the United States; they actually read the damn things and, in the mystery genre especially, spread the word of an intriguing newcomer faster and more powerfully than any marketing or publicity campaign ever could (still true). Continue reading

A Police Shrink Who Gives Up On Nobody – Part II

One day I hope someone will write a book with a title like Therapized Nation that charts the growth of the United States without mention of psychotherapists until about the 1970s.

After that, our history becomes so larded with shrinks that today few commercial novels, movies or TV shows exist without them.

What’s missing, though, are police department psychologists, especially women, as fully developed fictional characters. We see them in police briefings as stiff consultants coming forward when asked a question. Yes, they’re respectful of Freud and intrigued by Jung but oh, so careful to apply the safest and most general psychological theories.

Kirschman’s second book in the series, following ‘Burying Ben’

I think this happens because the author doesn’t know enough to establish the police psychologist as a real pro in the field, let alone a great sleuth unraveling the department’s juiciest mystery. Plus: A feminist shrink who reveals what really goes on in a mostly male, mostly white police station? Never happens.

Until, that is, a real-life veteran police psychologist named Ellen Kirschman, who’s worked with the Palo Alto CA police department for 25 years, decided to launch a bold new mystery series in 2013. It’s bold because the now-retired Kirschman introduces a smart and sardonic middle-aged veteran shrink, Dot Meyerhoff, who’s as caustic and tough as she is compassionate.

Not afraid to confront the unspoken prejudices and internal politics of Kenilworth PD (Kirschman’s fictional Bay Area police department), Dot also finds one subtly innovative way after another to serve the mostly white male cops who need yet resist her counseling.

No ‘Bigot with a Badge’

As mentioned in Part I (below), police shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement had begun to hit the headlines when I discovered Kirschman’s first novel, Burying Ben, in 2013.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it was, that the issue of police officers killing unarmed people of color would take a decidedly unusual twist in the second Dot Meyerhoff mystery, The Right Wrong Thing (2015).

The unexpected turn is that the cop in trouble is not the usual “bigot with a badge,” as people now regard the average police officer, Dot notices. (And why shouldn’t they, the novel ponders. A hostile and combative manner is what so many smartphone and dashboard cameras have shown us in real life.)

Instead, the officer under scrutiny is a thoughtful and dedicated white female rookie named Randy who’s passed the grueling application process at Kenilworth Police Department with flying colors.

Dot, the department psychologist whose interview is the crucial last step in the hiring process, has gone on record describing Randy as “psychologically stable, (with) good impulse control, no problems with anger, not excessively vulnerable to stress or substance abuse, extroverted, and optimistic.”

Ellen Kirschman

Sounds fine, but this is where Kirschman brings the situational ax down: Guilt-ridden when her partner is injured because she panicked during a fight (even her partner calls her a coward), Randy receives mandated counseling — a controversial issue in itself — but is back on the force too soon, thanks to a weak chief who bows to political pressure.

It’s at that moment that fate throws her a tragic curve. In the midst of approaching a pregnant African American teenager named Lakeisha, Randy believes the girl has a weapon and fires her own gun in defense, killing Lakeisha instantly.

The outrage that comes down on Randy from Lakeisha’s family and community takes a number of turns that don’t make sense to Dot. She decides to risk the chief’s wrath (and her own job) by going into the field herself to find out what happened.

The Even Trickier Part

But perhaps the more engrossing, trickier part of The Right Wrong Thing is that Randy, who was previously ostracized by Kenilworth police officers because she was the department’s first female hire — and thus rumored to be too emotional (too weak) for the job — is now embraced as a hero by these same male cops.

“I’m one of the boys now because I killed somebody,” she tells Dot, referring to Kenilworth cops as “the same jerks who gave me extra whacks in defensive tactics, just for the fun of it. Now I’m their hero. Well, fuck them. If that’s what it takes to join the good old boys’ club, I don’t want it.”

Good for you, we think (well, I thought), but Dot sees beyond Randy’s anger to symptoms of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) that must be dealt with first. They range from nasty insomnia and a compulsion to relive the killing of Lakeisha to obsessive “perimeter checks” (locking and relocking windows and doors) and “diesling at the curb,” the author’s term for being so jacked up with adrenalin that she anticipates emergencies everywhere.

The prevalence of PTSD

Dot also knows that if Randy is given a slap on the wrist for killing a civilian, her own guilt will make things worse. “When the punishment doesn’t fit the crime,” Dot tells us, “all a person is left with is self-punishment.”

Indeed, Randy’s self-blame is so volatile that all she can think of is going to Lakeisha’s mother to apologize personally for the shooting. By every standard of police work, this is the wrong thing to do. But Randy no longer trusts police work or what it stands for. The only thing that feels right is unloading her remorse on the very person who’s least able to hear it

All of this comes out in the early pages, along with, of course, the usual pressures: intense-to-hysterical media coverage, litigious attorneys, death threats, a frustrated husband, furious family members and something new, even hilarious if it weren’t so tragic, on the police procedural scene:

The Spiritual Disconnect

This is Dr. Marvel (accent on the vel) Johnson, an “alternative therapist” who’s eager to tell Randy and her husband what they want to hear, instead of what they need to know.

Marvel earned her Psy.D (not Ph.D) from a place called Christian Connect Institute of Psychology and insists she’s “a bona fide psychologist” because her license allows her to practice in two states. “Christian psychologists recognize the place that God has in our lives,” she tells an increasingly skeptical Dot, “and the suffering that comes with a spiritual disconnect.”

Oh dear, “spiritual disconnect.” It’s not that Dot doesn’t understand the term; rather it’s the New Age way therapists like Marvel seem to toss stuff like that around that makes Dot gnash her teeth. Marvel has also turned the 12-step plan from Alcoholics Anonymous into a PTSD program of spiritual reconnection. “What has given Randy great relief is to give her suffering over to God,” Marvel says.

The more Marvel pushes her evangelism-in-therapy as a quickie solution to complicated issues, the more it’s almost fun to watch Dot smolder.

Marvel: “The point is that police officers are ministers of God’s authority on this earth, as it says in Romans, and as such are in a spiritual war against the forces of evil. I’m not saying [Lakeisha] was herself evil, but she clearly was in the grasp of evil forces. Once Randy realized this, she felt a great deal better.”

Dot: “Now I know this woman is full of crap.”

Kirschman wants to show us that no single police act ever happens in a vacuum. At the same time that Randy is trying to deal with the shooting of Lakeisha, community pressure is bearing down on Kenilworth PD, not only to hire more female police officers but to consider appointing a woman as chief.

Women police chiefs tell Megyn Kelly how they broke the glass ceiling

Are Female Cops Different from Male Cops?

Listening to the debate between candidates for chief, Dot notices the subtleties of gender discrimination that affect police work in what could be many police stations today.

Question: Why do you think women make good police officers?

Answer: Jay Pence, the male candidate: “Women are good with children. They have good communication skills. They have a natural affinity for caretaking that is very helpful with domestic violence victims.”

Jacqueline Reagon, the female candidate: “Women are more likely to defuse an explosive situation by talking someone down and less likely to act aggressively when they are challenged… Whereas male officers are more likely to respond aggressively because of their egos or their need to exercise control.”

Wow. Are male-female differences so obvious in police work? They are, says Reagon, a chief with many years experience from other cities. She’s here to say the era of self-censorship by women police are over.

In fact, in the “cowboy culture” of Kenilworth’s nearly all-male force, Reagon says, “acts of physical prowess or daring” are “the only activities that count” by men in uniform. Were she appointed chief, emotions, teamwork and an avoidance of acting aggressively would be higher goals, Reagon adds.

This is why I find the Dot Meyerhoff mysteries so valuable. News reports of police shootings emphasize acts of violence and aggression rather than the strong emotions and biases that run underneath. We civilians can’t see them, but a veteran police shrink like Dot gets it immediately. About Randy, for example, Dot says:

Compassion is Randy’s Achilles Heel. On the one hand, it will make her a better cop. On the other, it will obliterate the emotional distance she needs to do her job.”

Policewomen in uniform — how they started

By the way, I’ve always wondered why the military insists on being, you know, militant about uniforms. Demi Moore is so stuffed into that Navy blouse in A Few Good Men that she looks like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Women cops look equally uncomfortable because they’re wearing clothes originally designed for men, yet few people say anything about it.

Except Dot. She notices everything. “Uniforms improve how men look, the sharp creases and expert tailoring making them look taller, straighter, and fitter than they might otherwise appear. Chief Reagon’s uniform only emphasizes her height, her thick legs, and her lack of grace.”

Unfortunately Kirschman’s fiction continues to have problems. In The Right Wrong Way, her main characters (other than Dot) need complexity and sophistication; there’s a sameness to the dialogue; ethical questions are left undeveloped and “action” scenes sometimes feel false, as does Dot’s reckless way of inserting herself into police business.

Perhaps most important, we readers need to see the value of Dot’s job in the everyday. In one scene, for example, she calls spouses (mostly wives) into the station for a confidential meeting in which everyone is encouraged to let off steam and talk about resolutions to family issues. As Dot often says, “the only thing harder than being a police officer is being married to one.” Under her guidance, these debriefings can be profoundly cathartic.

Watching Dot champion these women while opening the gates to higher emotional ground should be fascinating and informative for the reader. However, just when the most revealing admissions begin to surface, Kirschman cuts away to a different plot point, leaving this opportunity unfulfilled.

Elsewhere, we get to watch Dot help a beleaguered officer pull out of a terrifying panic attack, and that is a joy to behold. How great it would be if we could see more of this routine psychologist’s work so beautifully handled, while at the same time Dot spots clues to the mystery underfoot.

But again, here we are in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, which millions of women hope signals a true watershed in the way society thinks about women. If mystery readers enjoy the quiet genius of a woman like Dot, without regard to age or sexual attraction, surely there’s hope for a less babe-alicious genre.

Happily, Kirschman confronts one of the most controversial issues in this regard in book #3.

Next, Part III: The Fifth Reflection

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Police Shrink Who Gives Up on Nobody – Part I

Police killings and Black Lives Matter had begun to dominate the news in 2013 when I walked into an independent bookstore and found a paperback mystery called Burying Ben.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t make a big deal of this because Burying Ben is “only” a generic mystery — nothing literary or momentous about it. But looking back on the enormous pressures this first novel stood up against — as have the second and third in the series — I’m astonished at what the author continues to teach us.

Though unknown as a mystery writer at the time, Ellen Kirschman was famous in her field as a retired police psychologist who worked with the Palo Alto CA Police Department for 25 years.

Ellen Kirschman

Her nonfiction books (I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know; I Love a Fire Fighter, etc.) keep selling in the hundreds of thousands, and she’s much in demand as keynote speaker at police and family conferences from Singapore and Hong Kong to Toronto. First responders suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and other injuries swear by her workshops and retreats.

Kirschman has joked that mystery fiction is a way for her to “get back” at various foes and blowhards she’s run into in police work, and we do see stereotypes skewered here. At the same time it doesn’t appear that Kirschman exaggerates what one of her characters calls the “cowboy culture” of cop life.

When, for example, the new “little lady” psychologist is introduced to a roomful of FTOs (field training officers), someone asks, “Is that why she’s so short, because she’s a shrink?”

“It’s an old joke,” the psychologist knows. “I laugh to be polite.” But things are going to escalate. When it’s announced that she’s written a book about police officers and family life, another cop yells, “Can I get two copies, one for my wife and one for my girlfriend?” This kind of humor appears to be expected.

Burying Ben came out years before the Harvey Weinstein scandal and its aftermath, so reading such an exchange rings a familiar bell. Making a brief appearance is the police chief, who’s been standing behind psychologist’s chair. He “bends to my ear with a mock whisper. ‘The more they rag on you, the more they love you. When they stop teasing, that’s when you should be worried.’ ”

Well, it’s not teasing, we know, and it’s hardly love — perhaps the word “humiliation” would be closer. While the psychologist understands that “trust doesn’t come easily to cops, especially when it comes to mental health professionals,” the chief’s uncomfortable nearness feels calculated, his patronizing remarks intended to keep the new lady shrink in her place.

Just as Black Lives Matter launch protests against police behavior from the outside, Kirschman’s fiction explores the roots of it all from the inside. She may be writing a light mystery, but on the way we get an expert’s view of the dark side of police station life — its competitive atmosphere, deep strains of misogyny and racism, cruel hazing of new recruits and overall resistance to change.

Burying Ben

Still, it wasn’t Kirschman but the jacket illustration of Burying Ben that called to me that day in 2013. There on the cover was something unthinkable in the mystery genre — the chalk outline of a victim who appeared to be male.

Kirschman’s first mystery, ‘Burying Ben’

Whoa: No voluptuous babe sliced to pieces in some ghastly James Patterson bunker. No kidnapped women chained to radiators eating dog food off the floor. It was so refreshing.

The subtitle leaped into view: A Dot Meyerhoff Mystery. The name of the sleuth sounded so hokey and yet so genuine that I thought she must be adorable, and decided to investigate further.

Sure enough, the fictional Dot is very much like the author, a trusted police psychologist with decades of real-life experience and a peppery sense of humor. The difference between the two is that Kirschman, now in her 70s, keeps Dot — newly hired at the Kenilworth (Bay Area) Police Department — in her robust 50s.

If you’ve wondered what it’s like for cops — mostly male cops — to work with a female psychologist, Dot’s observations are worth the price of admission. As she notes in the third book in the series:

“Police officers are not eager consumers of therapy. They think it makes them weak to have problems. I think it makes them human. Almost every cop at Kenilworth PD regards me with skepticism, worried that I’m reading their minds and getting ready to report them to the chief as unfit for duty. They are not as standoffish as they were when I started three years ago, but it’s still an uphill battle to win their trust, let alone put a dent in the male-dominated culture of rugged individualism.”

We’ve seen that “male-dominated culture” in countless detective novels and police procedurals — and by the way, aren’t we all tired of every movie and TV show sticking a lady shrink in front of every star? Even Tony Soprano kept his sessions with Dr. Melfi secret because he didn’t want to seem emotional or weak.

In Burying Ben, what makes an embittered cop named Eddie so intriguing is the profane, unfiltered hostility he levels at the new female therapist.

“I don’t need you or anyone else picking through the turds in my head. I got my own doctor, Doctor Jack Daniels … As far as I’m concerned that [mental health] debriefing crap is just a big circle jerk where everybody cries, says their feelings and leaves feeling worse than when they started. … Listen to me, Florence Nightingale. You can shove your mail order Ph.D. right up your ass … Hasta lumbago, Doc. Have a nice day.”

Goodness. Do cops really talk that way? Well, when backed into a corner, they do, Kirschman reveals. Although readers may dismiss Eddie — alcoholic, racist, sexist, near retirement — as a lost cause, the joy of this series is that Dot doesn’t give up on anybody.

Dr. Melfi and Tony Soprano

Not a “Fun” Murder

Burying Ben is a doozy of a story, though painful: A rookie named Ben not only takes his own life, he leaves a suicide note blaming Dot Meyerhoff, the new female psychotherapist at Kenilworth (read Palo Alto) Police Department.

Dot realizes she has to find out why Ben killed himself before she herself is fired.

To do this, she must 1) gain the trust of cops who aren’t speaking to her (they blame Dot, too), 2)survive a painful divorce while enduring one unexpected (of course) hot flash after another, and 3) prove her worth to the chief, who’s suspicious of lady shrinks to begin with.

And mystery author Kirschman has to prove her mettle, too. Statistics show that suicide is the number-one killer of police officers — in fact, cops are three times more likely to kill themselves as to be killed by criminals. Police don’t like to talk about it; mystery novelists don’t like to write about it, and it’s certainly not the kind of “fun” murder we mystery fans usually go for.

But Dot’s narration offers a different perspective. For one thing it’s a relief that she’s not the gorgeous hotshot female narrator so often seen rising up the murder-mystery ranks with fists and hormones a’flyin’.

Dot is rather a middle-aged hotshot female whose practice of patience and empathy allows her to slow down, observe and listen. We see how she notices things in a flashback, when Dot first meets Ben at a grisly suicide scene, where the gentle rookie is trying not to faint:

Police psychologist Elizabeth Olivet on ‘Law and Order’

“Ben’s eyes are fixed on the body that lays like a discarded cornhusk doll. His lips are clamped together. He looks as though he might cry. Crying on scene is forbidden. One tear would be enough to earn him a jacket as weak, sentimental and undependable in an emergency.”

One Tear Could Ruin a Career

Dot knows that cops depend on each other not to fall apart under pressure: Their very lives can hang in the balance. But does this mean they must constantly prove how tough and unfeeling they can be?

Apparently the sergeant in charge thinks so when he orders Ben to return to the corpse and “put in your report whether this guy was a Q or an A,” meaning whether the dead man’s tongue sticks out of his mouth in a straight or circular direction.

Dot happens to see the other cops stifle their laughter as Ben earnestly goes off to measure, so she realizes some kind of initiation rite is taking place. Soon her talk with Ben — compassionate and instructive at once — takes us a past the locker-room atmosphere to unveil the real mystery addressed by this novel.

This is: Do macho white guys like the sergeant start out mean-spirited, or do they learn the small cruelties via peer pressure along the way? Can’t the police department’s hiring process cull out candidates who suppress their feelings, like hatred for women and people of color? Or do most rookies begin innocently like Ben and “turn bad” as they move up the ladder?

How Dot sees it

We get some answers from Dot, who shows us how elaborate the application process has generally come to be, and how the instincts of a police psychologist can make a difference. But she also suggests it’s an imperfect system that requires fine-tuning long after cops have earned their badges.

I have to warn my mystery-reading colleagues that Burying Ben has a number of first-novel problems: It’s too busy, the pace bogs down, there’s a sameness to the dialog, odd redundancies occur and Dot’s unorthodox methods strain credulity.

And yet these days when police behavior has come under such intense scrutiny, I’m less interested in the success of the story than fascinated by its revelations. And I was really anxious to see how Kirschman had grown in her second (2015) and third (2017) Dot Meyerhoff mystery.

Next: Part II, The Right Wrong Thing

 


 

Ten Thoughts for the Nice Guys

May I ask the famous male actors who say they’re “utterly disgusted” by Harvey Weinstein to take the next step?

I’m talking to the nice guys of the industry — George Clooney, Ben Affleck, Benedict Cumberbatch, and others. Don’t wait until people say you knew about Weinstein all along. Speak out when bad acts happen.

Here are some ways to do it:

1) The next time an actor like Seth Rogen declares he’s “trying to conceal massive erection” because Kate Beckinsale is standing next to him on the stage of the Golden Globe Awards, speak out.

Kate Beckinsale, Seth Rogen at Golden Globes

Tell the Seth Rogens everywhere to shut up with that stuff. It just opens the door for the next Harvey Weinsteins who are surely on the way.

2) When you see a young woman like Kate Beckinsale pretending to laugh so she’ll be perceived as a good sport, speak out again.

Talk to your men friends about empathy. How do you think it feels to be the butt of some 6-year-old’s “dick joke” in front of millions?

Now Seth, you can be a good guy, too. At a recent round-table discussion hosted by the Hollywood Reporter, you said that Harvey Weinstein was guilty of “horribly inappropriate behavior.”

Well, don’tcha see, at the Golden Globes, so were you. Now every time say or hear a sexual remark denigrating women, you can do something about it.

3) I think it’s true that George Clooney would never embarrass women to get a cheap laugh. But let’s revisit that same Golden Globes when Clooney congratulated fellow nominee Michael Fassbender for having a huge penis.

“You could play golf like this, with your hands behind your back,” Clooney said, taking an imaginary “swing” as though a long club were hanging between his legs.

George Clooney

Okay, come on, guys: George, do you think your remark was just a harmless bit of bawdy humor? Do you want your daughter, now 3, to grow up in an atmosphere of “dick jokes” and other he-man stuff that make her feel like a lesser person?

4) These kinds of jokes are never a one-time thing. As one Hollywood website commented, “George isn’t the only actor who’s helped Michael score a few more holes-in-one, if you know what we mean.”

Sorry to say, we do. Referring to women as “holes” sets the bar pretty low. It means if you don’t stop polluting the social climate with relentless genital/toilet/sexual humor, you’re again contributing to the rise of every Weinstein/Cosby/Ailes/O’Reilly etc.in the future.

[DRIB (Don’t Read If Busy): It’s true that emcee Ricky Gervais gets away with sexually offensive commentary when he hosts programs like the Golden Globes. This is what he’s hired for — to blatantly shock and disgust for the sake of higher ratings — so people can decide ahead of time to watch or not. To me, that’s a First Amendment matter, and I have to say, sometimes he’s genuinely, caustically, tellingly witty. What I’m asking celebrity actors to address is that everyday locker-room humor that inspires images of groping and raping and doing whatever intrusive males can get away with. Fellas, talk about this. You can change it.]

5) Remember, guys, “dick jokes” may be funny to YOU. Recently on HBO’s Last Week Tonight, satirist John Oliver ran a segment called Dicks in which TV reporters were shown drawing symbols on screens and maps to predict traffic patterns, storm systems, construction zones and the like.

These directional graphics resembled everything from arrows to canons to flat kitchen knives and rounded batons with an occasional circle or two at one end. Some looked like male genitals but really, most didn’t. The message was: “Look everybody: dicks!”

John Oliver

Now fellas, consider: If these same TV announcers had drawn balloon-like images showing the spread of fire or influenza or drought, would it have been funny to point and say, “Look, everybody: breasts!”

I bet John Oliver, one of the most astute and incisive commentators on television — also one of the most foul-mouthed — would be the first to say No. He knows this kind of humor is not only disrespectful to women, it’s immature and boorish to boot.

[DRIB: So why did he run the segment? I think some advisor has told Oliver to lard the show with the word FUCK, egregious dick jokes and sexual references having nothing to do with satrizing the news. It’s ironic that this emphasis on “swearing and screwing” not only gets in the way; it weakens the very strengths that make the show unique.]

6) Now men, let’s also watch out for you-get-it-but-you-don’t-get-it moments, as in this interview that George Clooney gave to the Daily Beast:

“A lot of people are doing the ‘you had to know’ thing (about Weinstein) right now, and yes, if you’re asking if I knew that someone who was very powerful had a tendency to hit on young, beautiful women, sure. But I had no idea that it had gone to the level of having to pay off eight women for their silence, and that these women were threatened and victimized… “

Wait, George, wait: You’re at the center of things in Hollywood, so you do know. Men who are powerful don’t just “hit on young, beautiful women” — as though “hit on” is another term for “flirt.” Men like Harvey Weinstein overpower young women and force them to perform sexually.

So George, you have every idea about the way Hollywood works, as was also apparent when you told People magazine that Ryan Gosling didn’t attend the awards ceremony because he was “in Thailand or something. And you know what you do in Thailand.” Snicker snicker! Let’s ask the 10-year-old girls in Thailand what they think. Or let’s just cut that kind of remark.

7) Still, there’s hope, George! You also said,

“… this (the Weinstein revelation) isn’t a right or a left issue. This is a moral issue. We’re all going to have to be more diligent about it and look for any warning signs.”

Attaway, guy! And now that you realize you too are a warning sign, you’re going to speak up, right? And encourage others to join you.

Courtney Love

8) It must now be a given that a lone woman who protests Weinstein-like behavior risks being “eternally banned.” Courtney Love says Creative Artists Agency did that to her back in 2005 when a reporter asked if she had any advice for young women trying to break into Hollywood.

“I’ll get libeled if I say it,” she replied, adding, “If Harvey Weinstein invites you to a private party at the Four Seasons, don’t go.”

She was right, but there was a price to pay, which is why you guys have to step up. Be feminist men.

9) Granted, it’s not easy. Let’s take a moment to ponder what any of us would have done after a Sundance screening in 2010 of a movie called The Killer Inside Me starring Casey Affleck.

Jessica Alba at the start of the movie

The story is about two beautiful women (Kate Hudson, Jessica Alba) who fall in love with a seemingly mild-mannered law enforcement dude (Affleck) who beats them horribly. It turns out they like to be beaten, so the camera focuses on cheekbones being crushed, eyeballs smashed, etc. But the women keep asking for it because they forgive him. After all, there’s a “killer inside” him. The little love, he can’t help it.

After the screening, a woman stood up and yelled, “I don’t understand how Sundance could book this movie! How dare you? How dare Sundance?” The director was there for a Q&A and said later he was “in shock” at the reaction. He thought it was “more moral” to show what beating the shit out of women really looks like than to leave the violence offscreen.

Jessica Alba after expressing her love in the movie

Well, somebody really relished that job. Now remember fellas, nobody’s talking censorship here. In fact it’s the opposite — the hope is that today, Weinstein/Cosby/Ailes etc. disclosures will launch a wider discussion than ever. Maybe Weinstein didn’t produce “S&S”(suck ’em and slice ’em) movies as a rule, but at the center of the film world, it’s important to remember, he did rule.

Women critics have tried to dig more deeply into the reason misogynistic violence appears in movies and TV, not just occasionally but as a steady diet that seems to stimulate an appetite for more. They constantly challenge “sadistic movie violence against women” and the film industry’s assumptions that audiences “are happy to watch their heroines being beaten and gagged,” not to mention “cut and splayed and killed.”

It’s time to listen to them. As Rachel Cooke of the Guardian points out, it’s “unpalatable” to have to watch the “complicity of these women in their own destruction.” Yet it’s a theme that appears often.

So guys, the question is, if you’re in a Sundance audience where a woman gets up and shouts her objections to a movie like this, what do you do? Would you see it as an opportunity to at least talk about what’s happening in film all over the world? Would you insist in the Q&A that the director recover from his “shock” and answer the tougher, more revealing questions? You could always retire to a coffee shop with a handful of film buffs. You could write up the matter in your blog or emails or Facebook or Twitter. You could do something.

The fear right now is that after the Me,Too campaign dies down and the Weinsteins get fired or sent to jail and replaced, the film industry will again turn a deaf ear to women who are the prey of sexual predators, and the women who speak up.

And guys, here’s the truth of it: Pretending that women aren’t targeted and don’t speak up means you condone “the way Hollywood works” as the Weinsteins of the world define it.

10) See what I mean, George? And Ben and Benedict? Saying you’re disgusted by Harvey Weinstein is just a start. The whole issue of difference, sexual and otherwise, is complicated and dense and deep. Don’t make fun of it as though you’re in a school yard.

And bring a little compassion to the table. Trevor Noah, the savvy and big-hearted host of The Today Show, recently apologized to feminist writer Roxane Gay because he himself used to make “fat jokes” about women.

Roxane Gay, Trevor Noah

The problem came later when Noah turned around and made a “runt joke” about Attorney General Jeff Sessions. (And it was a cliche runt joke at that: “Oh, I didn’t realize you are standing,” said Noah about the “tiny” man stepping up to take the oath.)

If you read Noah’s riveting autobiography Born a Crime, you know he’s much too discerning to make a schoolyard blunder like that. But this is another case of knowing-and-not-knowing: To Noah’s mind, the assigned villain of the hour has no humanity. All the guys get to pile on.

That’s almost just as bad. Let’s call in those laugh-a-minute Weekend Update guys on Saturday Night Live who seem to believe that because Harvey Weinstein is the current sexual boogeyman, they get to be mean. And nasty.

Michael Che on Saturday Night Live describing Harvey Weinstein

“It’s so easy to make jokes about a guy who looks like this,” said Michael Che, referring to a photo of Weinstein. “I mean he looks like chewed bubble gum rolled in cat hair.”

HaHaHa, hilarious, no? If the same man had been a Nobel Prize-winning philanthropist, would you have said the same thing? Or compounded the error by calling him “a well-dressed skin tag,” just to get another laugh?

Granted, Saturday Night Live is hardly a bastion of sophistication and class, but that’s not the point, is it?

Think about this, fellas — Kate Beckinsale may be conventionally beautiful, and Harvey Weinstein may be conventionally unattractive, but it’s their hearts and souls that matter in our everyday dealings with them, wouldn’t you say?

Take away issues about looks — skin color, ethnic features, disability, height and weight, national/religious garb — and what’s left is the person’s humanity. Aren’t we all seeking a world of equality? To get there it’s nice to remember: Looks never matter.

Except maybe in one way: Recently Kate Beckinsale, now 44, disclosed that Harvey Weinstein ambushed her in his hotel room when she was all of 17.

Kate Beckinsale, age 17

If looks did matter, that picture of her as a young person with her whole life in front of her has got to melt the heart of many an adult.

The thought comes: Maybe we lost our chance for civility when Hillary Clinton lost the election. But let’s honor her message in It Takes a Village. If we don’t stand up for the youngest and most vulnerable among us, who will?

So come on guys! It may be too late to stop what happened in the past, but surely you can be among the counted for the next teenage girls who are about to be “interviewed” by the next Harvey Weinsteins all around us.

 

 

 

 

She’s Our Gladiator

I’ve never read a book by a woman with so much male ego as Settle for More (Harper) by former Fox TV News anchor Megyn Kelly (who’s soon to go to NBC).

On the cover of “Settle for More”

Confident and inspired even in childhood, little Megyn radiates entitlement as she asks the universe, What greatness does my future have in store? (my paraphrase). How will my inner gifts define my destiny?

Learning that girls’ baseball teams don’t exist in her neighborhood, Megyn tells her mother to sign her up for boys’ baseball with no fuss or fights or lawsuits (yet).

She has her vulnerable moments, too. There was a time in school when she was bullied by very cruel kids. But today, Megyn thinks it was a good thing. It toughened her. “Adversity is an opportunity,” she tells us, “and one that has allowed me to flourish. It has made me stronger, my skin a little thicker.

When Megyn Kelly becomes one of a few women attorneys hired by a prestigious law firm, she refuses to copy case files. It’s not fair, she writes, to charge the client an associate’s fee when a paralegal can do it. What she means: I didn’t compete my ass off in law school to stand in front of a Xerox machine.

Those tight tight tight cocktail dresses

Overall, her mantra — “I never say no to hard work— serves Kelly well as she carves out her path to Fox TV News. We see her prepping hard for interviews into the wee hours, dressing for combat in her fashionable, tight tight tight cocktail dresses. Kelly rises quickly to become the King of TV News with “the most successful news show in all of cable.”

Now readers, please don’t confuse matters by asking, Shouldn’t a woman be called the queen instead of the king in all of cable? Goodness, no. Power has no gender for Megyn Kelly, who with her Womb of Steel seems to have conceived and delivered three children by herself. No wonder their names — Thatcher, Yardley and Yates — sound vaguely like fancy soaps from a hotel called Downton Abbey.

It’s no wonder, too, that Megyn Kelly refuses to be called a feminist. What does being a woman have to do with ambition? She advises women, “the less time talking about our gender, the better.” Take the other path: “Be so good they can’t ignore you,” as a poster advised her news team at their pod at Fox.

Kelly says she wasn’t bothered a bit when an executive showed her into an office decorated with photos of nude women. Quoting Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s said that modern women can be “nurturing, maternal, sexual,” — Megyn Kelly says she, too, can be “playful and sexy,” as she was for GQ Magazine, or when she appeared “sophisticated and feminine” on the cover of Vanity Fair, or when she answered questions about her bra cup size and sex life during pregnancy on the icky Howard Stern radio program. “Even during the third trimester?” he asks as she sits there forcing a smile. Oh yes, that and more, she tells him, but in a YouTube clip she looks more like a sex slave than a news professional.

Sexy and playful in GQ magazine

All that is simply contributing to “a new archetype for women,” she writes, “that thankfully we’re seeing more often: multidimensional.” Or more testosteronal, or something. “I had just one path forward,” she writes.

How do we know this is true? Because Megyn Kelly seems fated to become the one journalist to stand up to Donald Trump in that male-to-male way he can’t tolerate, especially since it comes from a woman.

Seeing her rise at Fox, Trump first tries to woo her with gifts (Megyn returns them), flowers (she refuses them), even a vow to pay for a weekend she spent with girlfriends at the Trump Hotel (she pays it herself).

And so he gets miffed when Kelly is the only news anchor at Fox to realize that it’s wrong for a news program to cover “Trump being Trump: unscripted, unguarded, and fun to watch,” meaning not newsworthy. Too much of that Trump, she realizes, is the equivalent of “television crack cocaine.”

Giving Trump air time might raise ratings, she says, but featuring the crack cocaine Trump on a news show before the Republican primaries became a “questionable choice.” With Tom Lowell, her executive producer, Kelly issues a new directive — “no more gratuitous Trump coverage.”

Mr. “Television Crack Cocaine”

So that’s good, right? It shows us that Megyn Kelly has standards. Running clips of Trump actually saying something substantive, news-wise, is “a call to remember our journalistic duty, to provide balance and be judicious in our coverage, not to sell our souls for ratings or for our own entertainment.” But there is a price: When she makes sure that her own show, The Kelly File, sticks to that kind of hard news, Trump is furious.

This is where the book turns into a real surprise. For the first time that I know of, we learn the extraordinary lengths to which Trump goes to malign, ridicule and demean Kelly behind the scenes as well as in public; the phone calls he makes to Fox’s chiefs, including his pal, the now-fallen CEO Roger Ailes, to get her removed from the network’s host team at the Republican debates; the Tweets and e-mails he sends out to stir up his followers, who in turn bombard Kelly with hate mail, death threats and obscene texts.

Kelly refuses to relent, and the scary stuff gets worse — cars showing up at her house, strangers approaching her mother, retweets (by Trump Organization VP Michael Cohen) of a Trump supporter saying “we can gut her” — and soon Fox hires body guards for the whole family. When Trump tells her he knows about the top-secret question she’s planning to ask him at the first Republican debate (“You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs’ and ‘disgusting animals’ … “), she realizes he’s infiltrated Fox with undercover spies, and they’re targeting her.

“You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs’…”

But wait: Is Trump also capable of dirty tricks? On the morning of the first debate, a suspicious case of food poisoning (apparently from the cup of coffee brought to her by an unknown driver) nearly sends Kelly to the hospital. She recovers in time for the broadcast, where she asks Trump the question about women, and after that, he famously goes on the attack: “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”

More than demeaning Kelly, the comment reveals to millions that Trump is disgusted by natural functions of women’s bodies (Hillary urinating, Kelly menstruating). But he seems to think all men feel that way, so he uses it as bait.

“Trump wanted me to respond, so he got worse,” she writes, “I was a woman with power and couldn’t be brought to heel. I think he believed I could help or hurt him more than Anderson Cooper or Chuck Todd, both of whom also covered Trump with skepticism.”

Kelly “takes the high road” by following a “policy of dignity,” and remains silent. Reporters, however, dog her with questions about her “feud” with Trump. Again Kelly seems capable of focusing on the principle at stake. “I was still covering the news, but I was also being covered. Although I did nothing to stoke or even respond to it, the Trump-vs.-Me storyline was still regularly in the press.”

This is her hard-won truth: When a reporter gets in the way of the story — and in Kelly’s case becomes the story — legitimate news suffers. Kelly insists on following her goal: “To cover Trump fairly and without fear.”

Out and about with husband Doug and kids

We get the feeling that Fox would have loved Kelly to appear victimized by Trump, but she sees the damage starting when her young daughter tells her, “I’m afraid of Donald Trump. He wants to hurt me.” That’s enough for Kelly. She vows to put a stop to it.

How Kelly confronts Donald Trump personally without telling the Fox bosses makes for an eye-opening chapter. But doubly intriguing is the way she finally acknowledges that for years, Fox CEO Roger Ailes was guilty of sexual harassment.

It ranged from inappropriate jokes and comments about her bra size to chasing her around his office and demanding sexual favors. Facing that familiar dilemma — blow the whistle and get labeled a troublemaker; keep quiet and he’ll get worse — Kelly talks to “a supervisor” who seems to help Ailes see the error of his ways. For the next ten years, “Roger never sexually harassed me again.”

Roger Ailes, after chasing Kelly around the desk

Kelly, then, could keep quiet when allegations by other women at Fox begin to surface. But realizing how precarious their jobs become when Ailes lines up supporters to defend him, Kelly the Gladiator — the Fox star who’s so established she can’t be fired — is born.

It’s Kelly who makes the call to the Rupert Murdoch second-in-command (his son Lachlan) and says, “You need to get your general counsel on the phone. I have something to tell you.” And it’s Kelly’s testimony that pretty much cinches Ailes’ resignation.

I’m not a fan of Fox News so I never saw Kelly in action until I looked up a few of her interviews on YouTube. Heavens. She has an irritating habit of interrupting and arguing when she should be listening and guiding the conversation for the sake of viewer clarity. So it will be refreshing, I hope, to see what Megyn Kelly will do when, freed from the conservative hijinks of Fox News, she takes the reins in a more professional way at NBC.

I finished Settle for More still laughing at Kelly’s king-sized ego, but I came to admire her, too. She believes in her principles as honestly as her ambitions, and she’s got an iron will that functions as delicately as a Sherman Tank.

That’s what we need and should demand from every journalist in the next four years.