Monthly Archives: September 2018

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

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

I love the above reporter’s description of Richard Kirschman as a person who invents new things as well as petitions for acceptance of new ideas. He is an activist who’s been impatient and frustrated with bureaucracies all his life, yet he believes in the power of local community and what it takes to introduce the possibility of radical change. Plus he’s a persistent SOB when you come down to it.

Richard in his 40s

Let’s look at three remarkable examples:

GIVING THROUGH YOUTH: Teaching Kids Philanthropy

For some years, Richard had this Great Idea to do more than send personal checks and other contributions to charities he believed in. Instead, he wanted to give money to children in nearby schools and let them decide what to do with it.

At first he asked teachers to set up a curriculum in which students could learn about philanthropy. The kids wouldn’t just read about it; they’d contribute actual cash to a cause that they themselves had investigated, argued for and eventually voted on. That level of engagement would inviteĀ  a personal understanding of the value of charity, a word that could use a little updating, inspiration-wise .

Richard presents check to students

It was a great idea, the teachers and principal said, but it didn’t fit designated curricula set by federal and state regulators. Given crowded class schedules and strained budgets, the very educators who loved the prospect regretfully turned Richard down. It took six more years of research before he tried again, without success. Same problem.

Then in 2013, Richard took a different tack. He approached the West Marin Fund, a local foundation with established relationships on the nonprofit scene. WMF solicited volunteers from the faculties of several unified school districts in West Marin. In turn, teachers and administrators found space in the curriculum, adjusted appropriate classes and worked out time schedules with extra credit built in.

At last, Richard’s idea got underway, and fabulously so. Soon the students were at work investigating local groups like the Audubon Canyon Ranch, Bolinas Children’s Center, Institute for Bird Populations and Turtle Island Restoration Network.

As Richard had envisioned, Giving through Youth (the project’s title) grew into something that wasn’t just educational, it was fun. The kids went on excursions out of school, weighed various benefits of each group, wrote persuasive proposals for “their” nonprofits, held assemblies, argued for the candidates they supported and, finally, voted on the worthiest.

Students research nonprofits and propose candidates

And more fun: after the grants were given out, the recipients visited the school to talk about how they planned to spend the money, thus informing and encouraging the kids to stay engaged in the philanthropic experience.

In one six-month period, $6,000 was awarded to 14 organizations. Does that seem like too little money divvied up by too many groups? I thought so at first, but then realized how much Donald Trump’s $20-billion wall can distort a person’s perceptions about the value of a dollar.

Indeed, one of the best parts of Richard’s idea is that local students in local schools dig into the details of local groups struggling for every penny to benefit local causes. They see firsthand how smart budgeting assists every dollar to improve the quality of life for local people and the local environment.

Nonprofit accepts donation from students

And they learn something else: “Kids need to know that even if they’re in the third grade, they can make a difference in their community,” as WMF’s director put it. Who can forget how that feels? As Richard hoped, generations of students are growing up enjoying philanthropy as a personal commitment, thanks to his Giving Through Youth program, and they pass their excitement on.

Plus, it’s a great lesson for adults. When people talk about “philanthropy fatigue” affecting donors who believe in good causes but drop out because all they do is write checks and don’t know where their money goes, this is a big dose of fresh air.

It’s also a great example of Richard Kirschman never giving up, of going back and back to the well of his idea, and finding a way to make it work.

THAT SENIOR “COMMUNE”: Telling Do-Nothing Bureaucracies to Stuff It

Back in 1982, Richard bought several acres of property a few minutes’ walk from the main part of Point Reyes Station. He thought it would be a perfect site for affordable senior housing, and for the most part, everyone agreed with him. Plus he had a Great Idea.

Here’s how the Coastal Post described it:

“At the time, the West Marin Association for Housing was looking at the land for their own project, but with no capital, there was not much they could do. Kirschman agreed to advance them the capital to proceed on a larger portion of the acreage, and he would keep only a single family lot for his project. His plan was to build a senior citizens residence which could house ten people in five private living spaces, sharing a communal kitchen and dining area.” (I added the bold type.)

“My dream was that the plans would be a prototype to be passed along after the project was completed,” Richard said in an interview. “The plans cost $5,000, but I was going to give them free to whoever wanted to create more projects like this.”

That’s a lot of giving! But did you spot the one word that could throw a wrench in the works? Well, that word is “communal,” which got reduced to the word “commune,” which made some conservative groups worry about, you know, incense and hippies and group sex in the residence.

Point Reyes Senior Housing today

“Even a local minister said he didn’t like the idea of unmarried people living together.” Richard recalled. “These were senior citizens.” (I think he meant: these were responsible elders with fewer hormones.)

Today we can see that Richard’s vision was less a radical idea than a precursor of assisted-living units that have cropped up everywhere. In these locations, residents dine and socialize together in a communal (public) space and retire to private living spaces. Just as Richard envisioned.

But back then, the “commune” stigma, and the notion that an individual like Richard would donate land and the project designs without need for government assistance– well, that seemed a little fishy to some. Could a real estate developer be that benevolent? The project slowed, and “instead of assistance, he got red tape and negative feedback,” the Coastal Post observed.

Richard admitted he didn’t like “working on committees spending two hours trying to decide what color to paint the walls.” And sometimes the reasons for delays were crazy, like the question of aesthetics. “They didn’t want flat roofs, they wanted pointed ones,” he remembers. So he got the roofs redesigned, and he made them pointy. But the delays continued.

The last straw fell when the architect Richard chose for the residence – an award-winning designer listed in Architectural Digest as one of the hundred best architects in the country, “with over 50 homes to his credit right here in West Marin,” as Richard pointed out in a Letter to the Editor – was “disqualified on a technicality” about the current state of his license.

Richard blew a gasket. “The bureaucracy’s suggested remedy [placing another designer’s name on the plans] is nonsense! I will not pretend that someone else designed this building!”

Richard’s gift: Dr. Witte’s Community Health Center today

He withdrew the proposal and effectively walked away from his dream. But being Richard, soon he came up with … another dream! It took a while, but after “allowing the frustrations to heal (and) my personal batteries to recharge,” he walked into the office of Michael Witte, the town’s progressive M.D., and asked him to take a stroll.

They were minutes away from Richard’s now-abandoned property, the subject of so much argument and distress. As the two approached it, Richard said to Dr. Witte: “Wouldn’t this make a great location for that clinic you’ve always wanted?” Dr. Witte nodded, knowing he’d never have the funds. “Well, please take it with my blessings,” Richard said.

It’s fun picturing Michael Witte’s jaw dropping to the ground — in fact, to the very property in question. In any case, the now legendary medical clinic in downtown Point Reyes was born on that very day. In a complicated series of property separations and exchanges that kept big developers at bay, Richard was able to sell portions of his land to local nonprofits while donating to Dr. Witte the parcel that holds Point Reyes Community Health Center today.

Decades later, in a letter to the Point Reyes Light, Dr. Witte remembered the negotiation as “classic Richard Kirschman. ‘No!’ doesn’t mean ‘Stop!’ It means ‘Okay. Then let’s find another way to do the right thing.'”

THE GRAND JURY LAWSUIT: 40 Years Ahead of Its Time

Perhaps there is no greater example of government bureaucracy running amuck than the year Richard Kirschman served on the Marin County Grand Jury. That was 1975.

First, did you know there are two ways that people accused of a crime go to trial? I didn’t, despite watching years of Law & Order reruns, so here’s a little sum-up:

— 1. The usual way is through a preliminary hearing. The accused is represented by an attorney, hears the evidence against him and can respond. A judge then decides if the case warrants a full trial.

— 2. The lesser known way is through a Grand Jury. This is a group of about 20 citizens who meet in secret with the District Attorney, who explains to them how the law works in each case and why the accused has been charged. They’re free to question witnesses, and in the end, they decide if the case warrants a full trial.

When Richard was selected as a member of the Marin County Grand Jury in 1975, he went into it thinking what an honor it was to serve on a judicial body that acts as a needed check against overzealous prosecutors. He understood the importance of secrecy to keep the name of an accused person out of the news. Too often, innocent people were tried and judged in the media before a trial even began.

Halfway through his term, though, Richard came out fuming. The Grand Jury, he said, had become a “tool” to rubber-stamp charges by the District Attorney. Due process disappeared because the accused was not allowed to attend Grand Jury meetings, let alone be represented by an attorney or hear and respond to evidence presented. Much of the time the accused didn’t know of the Grand Jury hearing. The whole process had become “a travesty, incredibly and blatantly unfair.”

Even worse, he added, was the District Attorney’s bias against inmates at nearby San Quentin Prison, most of whom were African American. The facts told the story: While indictments from the Grand Jury accounted for 10 percent of the felonies charged in Marin County, 96 percent of those were against San Quentin inmates. Of those,100 percent went to trial via the Grand Jury process.

With another juror, a cook in Marin, Richard brought suit in federal court to halt the Grand Jury method of indictment and to expose the District Attorney’s prejudice against San Quentin inmates.

Richard had no hope of winning this suit – it was unprecedented, it was radical, it was incendiary – but he believed it would trigger a critical conversation among the public at large. At least people would learn what members of a Grand Jury did, and, more important, what they didn’t do: They didn’t hear evidence critically, he pointed out. They didn’t examine legal documents with scrutiny, and they didn’t make prosecutors prove their case. Instead they followed the DA’s wishes, Richard believed, like willing toadies.

It turns out he was about 40 years ahead of his time. Today, because of more publicized cases, documentaries and social media, Americans are increasingly concerned about Grand Jury members rubber-stamping prosecutorial charges.

Thanks to the emergence of groups like Black Lives Matter, the public is also becoming as suspicious of racial bias in the Grand Jury system as Richard was in 1975. The pressure he couldn’t have hoped to bring from a single lawsuit is spreading with greater force than he could have imagined in today’s political climate.

And what was once an out-of-left-field idea has become so prevalent that variations of articles declaring it’s Time to Abolish the ‘Inquisitorial’ Grand Jury System are popping up everywhere. As discussions grow, questions surface that were never asked in Richard’s time, such as: Why is it that the United States and Liberia are the only countries remaining that retain grand juries?

Did I quote the Point Reyes Light at the start of this post that Richard brought his ideas forward “always with a smile and good humor”?

Well, maybe not always. I think when Richard gets passionate about doing something to change a social ill, we should all listen. And when he does use humor, in publications ranging from the Point Reyes Light to the Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle and magazines like Mother Jones, the whole world lights up with possibility.


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.