Author Archives: Pat Holt

Richard Kirschman: Changing the World, One Idea at a Time, Part VI

I started this series wanting to describe only one thing about Richard Kirschman because it fascinates so many — that is, his role as creator of the now-legendary $3 Coin Project in West Marin.

The $3 Coin: Strength in Community

The “gold” coin (actually made of brass) is a beautiful $3 souvenir that has generated more than $50,000 for good causes without anybody spending a dime. (I explained how it works in Part I and still can’t believe it.)

But that was only a gate opener. The ingenious projects that Kirschman has launched over the years have been the subject of constant delight and surprise, especially in West Marin. Many account for all Parts II through V, yet they offer only a glimpse of an imagination so fresh and original that it’s been percolatin’ well into Richard’s 80s.

Hark the Herald

So now in this final post let’s turn to Richard Kirschman not as inventor or activist but as a modern-day harbinger. Very often, he’s the guy who notices some key thing the rest of us don’t see. He questions, he investigates, he provokes. He suggests, he teases, he inspires.

Sometimes he passes out buttons he’s made himself to stimulate public consciousness. People laugh, but they get the point, and on to lapels and jackets they go.

And many times he sends out an alert.

In the 1980s, when it seemed smart and liberating to switch to decaf coffee, Richard was among the critically thinking few who warned consumers (in Medical Self-Care magazine) to be on the lookout for carcinogenic solvents used in most decaf processes.

In the 1990s, when fears of acid rain hit the news but experts had little to report to West Marin residents, Richard tested the water at his Dogtown property and found the pH rating to be “much more acidic than toxin rain should be,” according to experts called in by the Point Reyes Light.

The consumer as Everyman

And in 2011 as state biologists assured beekeepers it was safe to use antibiotics in bee colonies, Richard, who’d been keeping bees for years, sent out an alert that antibiotics not only showed up in the honey people bought at the store (this is still true) but also masked symptoms of other diseases that then spread without detection.

Hoofing the Wild Boar

One has to say, too, that when there’s a chance to slip in a laugh or two during otherwise serious events, Richard-the-spoofer takes a little gambol.

Those monster hooves

Look at the time feral pigs began to overpopulate Mount Tamalpais. Although the park service began hunting and trapping to bring the numbers down, rumors spread that the creatures weren’t the small and harmless kind at all. Rather, hikers believed, big hairy wild boars with huge tusks and ugly snouts were actually seen terrorizing the trails.

Well. How could Richard resist enlisting fellow conspirators? How could he not carve a wooden facsimile of giant boar hooves, which he attached to regular (size 11 men’s) shoes? What could stop him from taking his fellow pranksters to hike along the trails, where boars had reportedly been seen?  And how could this merry team keep from stomping around in the mud until it was apparent the abominable snowpig surely ravaged the countryside?

It’s not recorded how many laughs were shared around Point Reyes when people discovered the phony wooden hoof prints. But years passed before boogie monsters would terrify the populace again.

Noosing the Eucalyptus

The reverse seemed to happen when the State Park announced that many of the tall, stately and beloved eucalyptus trees in West Marin were soon to be cut down.

A Eucalyptus grove

Perhaps people had been numbed by protests and counter protests over perceived dangers of the eucalyptus tree — as a fire hazard, a non-indigenous exotic, a shallow-rooted (about to fall down) danger, etc. Few of these problems were true, but even when residents didn’t believe them, they seemed to be apathetic about warnings of a massive cut-down.

Until: One morning in the wee hours, Richard and Doris drove to an area on Highway 1 where eucalyptus trees were not only visible but close enough to cars passing by that each driver could see the white dotted lines they had stenciled on the trees’ trunks, along with the message, “CUT HERE.”

Just enough trees bore those markings and just enough people saw them that soon a public outcry demanded new hearings with park supervisors and county commissioners before a single tree could be felled.

The Weakly Denial

Perhaps it was Richard’s lifelong exasperation with bureaucracy in business; or his horror at the way modern corporations monetize chunks of Mother Nature; or his penchant for tongue-in-cheek humor: Whatever the case, in the 1970s he began writing a playful yet blistering column called The Weakly Denial that would continue for years in the Point Reyes Light and Anderson Valley Advertiser.

Tomales Bay — perfect for “Apocalypse Now” sequel?

Most readers recognized that little bit of fibbing (“usually reliable industry sources”) combined with that little bit of fawning (celebrity names; sensational scandals) that we see quoted and gushed over in news stories all the time. Today there’s a name for bogus reporting — “alternate facts” — but at the time, the Weakly Denial delivered a satirical warning of what might be, in different forms, soon to come.

In one of Richard’s reports, we learned from those ever-popular “informed sources” that film director Francis Ford Coppola had denied leasing a private ranch in Tomales Bay to film a “partially animated musical sequel to his smash-hit Apocalypse Now.” Who could not chuckle at the thought of a cartoon Marlon Brando singing “The Horror, The Horror” in the movie’s opening scene?

In another denied item, according to “whispers of progress,” a downtown block in Point Reyes would soon be transformed as a “Ghirardelli Square North” for tourists disembarking from giant Pacific Orient Line cruise ships. On their way to a shopping spree, the visitors would be greeted “Hawaiian style” by local residents dressed as Miwok Indians.

No wonder the Weakly Denial column ran for years — Richard’s images of kitschy money-makers invading Point Reyes was too funny and, to some, too promising to ignore.

Pt. Reyes: soon-to-be cruise ship destination?

Other items — unconfirmed “classified plans” to pave over the legendary Bolinas Lagoon for an RV parking lot; a four-lane highway connecting Point Reyes National Seashore to San Francisco — were always so “weakly denied” in Kirschman’s column that a few outraged readers believed every word.

When they wrote to decry Kirschman for his “sloppy reporting,” the Light‘s editors asked Richard to deny the factual basis of his own alternate facts. It was all to the benefit of readers’ funny bones, of course, and happily, it made his modern-day alert all the more urgent.

Publishers Clearing House

Today the sweepstakes competition Publishers Clearing House has a relatively quiet website on the Internet, but in B.C. (Before Computer) times, this million-dollar lottery was all the rage. TV commercials and full-page print ads showed joyful PCH agents driving up to the homes of unsuspecting winners and ringing the doorbell with gifts of champagne, flowers and of course, the big check.

True, people who entered the sweepstakes had a one-in-2.5 billion chance of winning, but to a prankster like Richard, when April Fool’s Day rolled around, why spoil the fun?

With sidekick Doris (she carrying an official-looking clipboard), he outfitted both sides of his white SUV with an official-looking sign that said PUBLISHERS CLEARING HOUSE: PRIZE PATROL. Then the two took off to see what would happen.

I think Richard believed that because it was April 1, everybody would spot these two Dogtown dudes in a not-all-that-official vehicle and get the joke. But no. Wherever the SUV went, fans drove up right next to it, yelling and gesturing and nearly crashing alongside. In one gated community, a man ran out in his pajamas trying to flag them down.

“We were abashed at the reactions of people who hoped against hope that we were there for them,” Doris remembers. “Mostly it was funny, people waving and laughing and saying It’s me! You’re looking for me! But sometimes it was painful to see — like the guy who chased us down.”

A lot of people in West Marin still chuckle at the memory of that prank “because it was so well done!” says one resident, “and we all fell for it!” Although many wish Richard had rigged the SUV with Publishers Clearing House signs every April Fool’s Day, the fact is that for the driver and his Beautiful Assistant, one crowd-swarming incident was enough. “We never did it again,” says Doris.

The Seder Surprise

I don’t know if this is a prank, a protest, a blasphemy or a terrible secret exposed, but imagine how you would react as a guest sitting down at Richard and Doris’ next Passover seder, and you find a homemade facsimile of something holy.

Ordinarily the seder is the ceremonial dinner that celebrates a biblical story, that of God freeing the Jews from slavery in Egypt by visiting the cruelest of plagues upon their oppressors.

The Kirschman Haggadah

That’s the part of the Haggadah — the seder ritual — that Richard found untenable since he was a kid. He even did the math: “In Egypt, one of the plagues — killing the first born in every family — would result in the death of about 20 million human beings. That’s the awful story behind Exodus.” But few wanted to know it. “Even suggesting such a thing is considered shocking, probably a crime.”

Yet every year at seders around the world, the Haggadah is read aloud with the plagues alluded to in a manner deemed acceptable. “This legend has now been told so often and for so long that it no longer strikes us as the atrocity it is,” he wrote in the Point Reyes Light.

“Have we been desensitized to atrocity? Just as most people today no longer pay attention to biblical passages mandating death by stoning for rebellious children and adulterers … shouldn’t we be judicious with our telling of the Exodus?”

Well, so be it, as you would see at a Kirschman seder: There on the table sits a DIY version of the Torah, that ancient scroll so revered that it’s usually stored in the sacred ark of synagogues and taken out only as part of services.

The Exodus retold in Richard’s Haggadah

But Richard has always thought that “the story of Exodus is included in the Torah and could be retold” through “a new improved Haggadah.” There’s nothing new with re-interpreting the text (for vegetarians, Harry Potter fans, feminists, etc., as some 4,000 Haggadot demonstrate). But Richard wanted his to include some acknowledgment and discussion of God’s perpetuation of the horrors told in the story.

So he and his editorial expert Doris set about creating a Torah for the people. It’s entirely handmade with napkin rings, copper pipe, wooden dowels and Tyvec paper (the kind used in priority-mail envelopes that can’t be torn or damaged).

Dowel, napkin ring and Tyvec paper

With a reverence of his own, Richard has added other facts not known to many seder participants. Few know, for example, that as a child, Moses was raised in Pharoah’s household (some scholars believe that Moses and Aknaton, the son of the pharoah who ruled during this time, were the same person); or that on God’s instruction, Jewish women “borrowed” gold and jewelry from Egyptian neighbors and walked away with it to the promised land.

So the Kirschman torah is not a prank, not a protest, not a blasphemy; it’s a cultural lesson that helps us understand truths in the Bible that are rarely spoken out loud and, at Doris and Richard’s seder, give us a new perspective.

Here Comes the Colonel

Richard long ago agreed with fellow citizens that fast-food and chain-store outlets don’t belong in downtown Point Reyes. This manner of protecting the independent retail scene was never controversial in West Marin.

Entrance-wide KFC sign: The Colonel is coming

So when a big building on Main Street stood empty for many years, who could blame Richard for recognizing a climate ripe for poking fun? One day people walking down Main Street stopped in their tracks: Some anonymous soul had posted a big 6’x3′ sign on the unrented building that displayed the familiar KFC founder’s face.

The caption read only, “The Colonel says: Hi, Point Reyes!

Perhaps because Richard hired a copy shop to create the sign — no banners, no formal proclamation — most people kept on walking with a chuckle or two. But many took it seriously and with some alarm before they realized that Point Reyes may be an idyllic coastal town, but you had to watch out for the prankster in the shadows.

Chemical Consciousness Quiz

Richard’s knack for poking fun has as much appeal as his talent for combining education with entertainment.

Back in 1979, when few people understood the role of additives in everything from Hershey’s Syrup to d-Con rat poison, Richard sensed that a serious essay about Bad Things in Home Products would probably bore readers to death.

How much more fun it was, then, to invite readers to test their knowledge in Mother Jones magazine, “If you think you know the difference between Cool Whip and Preparation H, here’s your chance to prove it.”

Richard’s ‘Chemical Consciousness Quiz’

This was the “Chemical Consciousness Quiz,” a classic match-up game in which readers were asked to mate 20 products on one side of the page with 20 lists of product ingredients on the other.

Some lists were so long you’d never guess the product. Gaines Burger, a popular dog food, was composed of 25 ingredients, many of them unrecognizable, such as the Ammoniated Glycrrhizin, Calcium Pantothenate and Ethylene-diamine Dihydriodide.

Even the short lists baffled, like Preparation H, made only of Live Yeast Cell Derivative, Shark Liver Oil and Phenylmercuric Nitrate. (I paused on that one for a while: The one ingredient that seemed powerful enough to do the job was … oil from the liver of a shark?)

With its bent whimsy, the Quiz did what Richard had hoped — it entertained, it informed, and it probably scared the wits out of every consumer who read it.

Test the Test

This kind of let’s-see-what-we-think-we-know inquiry came up 40 years later when Richard learned that West Marin parents objected to a lengthy test, that public school students were required to take, called STAR (Standardized Test and Reporting Program).

The STAR sample test

The results of this week-long exam did not affect students’ records or their ability to attend college. Rather, STAR measured the AYP (“Adequate Yearly Progress”) of public schools themselves.

This meant teachers were pressured to “teach the test” rather than the students. Questions were arcane (example for 9th graders: “What is the factored form of 3a²-24ab+48b²?”). Multiple choice formats favored some students (white, affluent) over others.

So Richard decided it might be instructive and fun to test the test. He and his teaching assistant Doris invited a group of adults to take a sample STAR test of 146 questions, ranging from science to English and from 5th to 11th-grade levels.

Perhaps predictably, the results were “right on the brink of not demonstrating AYP,” wrote a San Francisco Chronicle columnist who had joined the group. All but one participant failed the test, and among the gripes about trick questions and obscure language, you could tell this was a home-based forerunner of the TV show, “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” That is, a revealing demonstration that adults don’t remember much from school.

Adults having a tough time with STAR

But Richard’s experiment with the STAR sample had its own educational value. On the one hand, it helped parents appreciate what was expected of students, so they might be less hard on their kids because of it. On the other, it offered adults an occasion to ponder the value of tests to begin with, to understand how unseen biases can make tests harder for some students, and to challenge the institutions that govern our kids so that everyone can learn something new.

STAR was discontinued in 1994 because of “controversy over portions of the test.”

Wild Turkeys

Then there was that sudden and “bizarre response” by West Marin residents to sightings of what seemed to be an overabundance of wild turkeys in 2003. “Myths about the turkeys’ so-called bad habits [ruining people’s gardens, eating quail] and danger to the environment are circulating like wildfire,” Richard observed in the Point Reyes Light.

To forestall what he suspected would be the next response — mass extermination — Richard explained that of course wild turkeys were more visible: it was mating season, after all. He himself had counted 29 on his property that morning.

Wild turkeys: an “absolute delight”

Rather than becoming a threat to the environment, he wrote, “these surprisingly intelligent birds are an absolute delight to watch and listen to.” They did not pose a threat to plants or quail, as some people thought. However, happily for gardeners, snails were another matter. “Wild turkeys seem to love eating snails.”

Then he offered this calm and beautifully composed reminder:

“The natural world is awash with misinformation: Bats get into your hair, lemmings rush to sea to commit suicide, and nothing grows under eucalyptus trees … So before we go off half-cocked and start killing these extraordinary birds, let’s learn to distinguish between those ‘undocumented’ life forms that are truly harmful to the environment and those that are just latecomers to which nature will gently adapt and accommodate, as it has to our roses, apple trees, honey bees, and English sparrows.”

The National Park Service did eliminate many wild turkeys from Park land, but they are still a common sight in West Marin and beyond.

Save the White Deer

Few controversies hit a more exposed nerve with Richard than the National Park Service‘s (NPS) campaign to eliminate the non-native Axis and Fallow deer — sometimes called the “White Deer” — from Point Reyes National Seashore in 2005.

NPS authorities said these deer — introduced by a hunter on his land half-a-century before — had now increased in such number that they “ran roughshod” over native Black Tail deer and Tule elk. They also spread disease, fouled the land and overpopulated the Park.

Fallow Deer, also called ‘White Deer’

Wildlife activists like Richard (along with, by the way, anthropologist Jane Goodall, politicos Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, groups like In Defense of Animals and Earth Island Institute) vehemently protested.

They believed the Axis and Fallow deer did not pose the kind of threat that the Park described. Quite the contrary: their existence had become a valuable contribution to the eco-diversity that made Point Reyes National Seashore legendary.

As Richard wrote in a guest editorial for the Coastal Post,

The axis and fallow deer are already here — and have been for more than 50 years — long an integral part of the park — along with the cattle, the roads, 2,500,000 annual visitors, horses, and thousands of local residents … There is no way to restore this area to some pre-Columbian Garden of Eden.

This last reference pointed to what Richard and others have long considered a naive but fashionable movement to wipe out all non-native plants and animals from government land, even when little or no threat exists. Attempts to turn back the clocks by a half or full century were inexcusably short-sighted, he suggested:

By one estimate 40 percent of all species in the Point Reyes National Seashore are exotics. That’s the way it is. Some are invasive and should be resisted — scotch broom, for example. Others are so integrated into their new environment that removal efforts would probably be harmful — the European honey bee, for example.

The magnificent Axis Deer

Soon the controversy grew into a nightmare. Richard and others wrote about established methods of contraception as a humane way to control overpopulation. The Park Service nixed that method as too expensive and slow, then hired an “ungulate (hoofed mammal) extermination firm” that specialized in the “discretion and efficiency” of what surely would become a controlled massacre.

That did it. Suddenly rhetoric was inflamed in articles about “Bambi vs. Bambi” in the “killing fields” of Point Reyes. The NPS countered with numbing statistics and per-square-foot extrapolations and bureaucratic formulas.

Richard’s voice of reason and compassion brought much needed balance to the conversation:

“This isn’t a college debate or lawsuit. There are life and death consequences at stake here — as well as issues of morality. For example, ask yourself how comfortable it would be to explain the extermination of these animals to your children.” (Bold type added.)

Yes, exactly. Using contraception darts instead of guns would have required patience and skill, an understanding of the life these deer were leading (having had no choice in the matter, it goes without saying) and a respect for peaceful outcomes.

Instead the Park Service, having none of the above, brought in the guns and hunters; they lured the deer to areas under trees where nets could be dropped to trap them. And in the end, they slaughtered all 1,200 of them.

His Legacy

I find it intriguing that Richard, who considers himself a skeptic, atheist, scientist, critic and objective reasoner, always argues for the sake of compassion, humane treatment of animals, and the legacy we leave for children.

Richard, 2017

In one controversy after another, Richard is the one who cautions against the “mindless and brutal” treatments — the gassing of bees, for example; routine castration and dehorning of cattle without anesthetics; expansion of the town dump without posting a surety bond; and as we have seen, killing wild turkeys because of fear-based rumors, and slaughtering rather than managing non-native deer.

Richard is not a father and never wanted to be, yet I’m touched by his fatherly way of keeping an eye out for all of us, and for the goings-on of West Marin. It’s this kindly, curious, receptive and open-hearted manner that has certainly made him, among many other things, a generous donor to good causes so numerous I’ve listed them below. These include:

Giving through Youth, Sound Orchard, Dance Palace, Bolinas Community Center, West Marin Community Services, Stinson Beach Preschool, CLAM (Community Land Trust Association), KWMR Radio, West Marin Senior Services, Marin Humane Society, West Marin School, Bolinas-Stinson Summer Camp, Papermill Creek Children’s Center, West Marin Fund, Gallery Route One, San Geronimo Valley Community Center, West Marin Chamber of Commerce, West Marin Review, Tomales Bay Youth Center, Coastal Health Alliance, Point Reyes Disaster Council, Tomales Bay Library Association

And let’s not forget the daily donation provided by the Richard Kirschman who’s certainly a prince among dogs. Up and down Main Street in downtown Point Reyes Station, every canine head lifts as this human treat machine ambles along, pretending not to notice dog adoration everywhere. And they (the dogs) realize that when Richard reaches into his pocket, it ain’t for the bits of dull kibble you can buy in bulk at Toby’s Feed Barn. Rather, Richard is the guy who can be counted on for the oh, so delicious duck breast jerky strip, time and time again.

Rehearsing ‘For My Doris,’ 2016

And if you sat at breakfast with Richard munching cereal inside his house, you’d be privileged to learn from him the names, habits, songs and origins of the many wild birds who fly onto his deck for equally premium birdseed. Remaining a bit longer, you’d hear about and maybe even see the raccoons, foxes, skunks, bobcats and other animals who seem to have adopted Richard and Doris as well.

By the way, at age 75, Richard decided to learn how to play the flute. He took lessons and practiced devotedly until age 80, when he was fluent enough to play in hospitals and senior residences around West Marin. At 83 he produced his first CD of beautifully interpreted standards with guitarist Tim Weed called For My Doris (with thanks to his wife for putting up with all the missed notes).

His second CD, Wonderful Standards of the 1920s-1930s, has just been released. It’s being used by the Alzheimer’s Association and UC Davis School of Nursing to help elderly people with memory loss.

Richard displays the gold coin at Point Reyes’ fabled Western Weekend parade.

For everyone in West Marin, a fun way to acknowledge The Richard Kirschman Model of Active Citizenry (my term) is to keep exchanging the gorgeous gold coins that he introduced years ago, and that, all by themselves (I can’t say it enough!) have raised over $50,000 for good causes.

For a sweet man with an incredibly creative mind and generous nature, Richard has pursued a fulfilled life while benefiting so many —  and it’s not just the dogs awaiting him on Main Street who appreciate this.

Richard Kirschman, Changing the World – One Idea at a Time: Part V

Part of the fun of writing about Richard Kirschman lies in discovering an entrepreneur of a half a century ago who might be unrecognizable today.

The young Richard Kirschman was a clean-shaven, sharp-dressin’, up-and-coming entrerpreneur, considered so cool in the 1960s he might have walked out of the pages of Gentlemen’s Quarterly magazine. As the society writer for the San Francisco Examiner realized in 1967, he was quite a catch with the ladies:

Richard in the ’60s (standing, second from right) with local movers and shakers, including restaurateur Enrico Banducci (in beret, right) and visitor Woody Allen (left)

“At 34, real estate developer Kirschman is hardly up to his ankles in the San Francisco financial waters, and he finds them very inviting. Socially a debonair, sought-after bachelor, he’s a fast-thinking, clear-eyed entrepreneur … the young executive who sails, skis, flies, glides, sculpts, bags and cooks his own ducks.”

Yes, a man who couldn’t have been more romantic for his time, was Richard K. Did he know the 180-degree turn his life would take soon afterward? As it happened, he was right on the edge of “the good life” all along.

The Question Always Out There

Richard grew up on Long Island in the post-World War II era, when it was possible to have liberal Republicans for parents. In 1946, his mother noticed a fledgling organization called the United Nations moving into a former weapons factory near their home. Peace was in the air, so she walked over to the nearly securityless building and offered to help as a volunteer. Soon the UN depended on her to run tours as one of its first official docents.

Gromyko’s desk plaque from early United Nations

The arrangement worked out so well that 13-year-old Richard got to visit the historic premises, too. He would drop by after school and find his mother having tea with Eleanor Roosevelt. He would walk by the desk of Soviet ambassador Andrei Gromyko and stare at the official USSR plaque. It looked so unofficial and homemade that Richard was  tantalized. He couldn’t resist nabbing it as a souvenir and has kept it for 70+ years.

On a break from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, Richard followed his mother’s bent for volunteerism and worked in the pediatrics unit at Bellevue Hospital in New York. His job was simple — to sit and “kibbitz” with patients — while all around him raged the horrors that Bellevue is still famous for: people having breakdowns, drug-addicted children, babies who had been stuffed into drawers or forgotten in closets now convulsed by screaming breakdowns he would never forget.

“What can you do for a baby who’s in withdrawal and has never been held in anyone’s arms?” he remembers asking, and still asks. That wasn’t his job, of course — “I was there to bring a little warmth and humanity to the children” — but the question stayed permanently in his mind.

In fact it was the first of several that would become a driving force in Richard’s life. Was it possible to contribute to society in a meaningful way while succeeding on your own terms? Could you keep  bureaucracy from clogging up the works when you’re trying to treat people humanely?  Whether it was a wheel gear for Indian rickshaws, a tube of first-aid cream for dogs, a device that turned fog into water or the easiest possible language guide ever, these were the kind of big questions behind every invention Richard created.

The Greatest Bureaucracy

Briefly a Marine. The one thing he agreed with: no standing up at rifle practice

But then, what could be more bureaucratic in terms of Doing It Our Way than the United States military, which required Richard to join after college since the draft was still on.

It’s telling that this high achiever signed up for the Marines but couldn’t wait to transfer out after boot camp. His body could take the harsh physical training, but the idea of breaking recruits down and building them back up as a “few good men”? Not something he wanted.

A better choice for Richard Kirschman was the Navy’s Officer Candidate School and assignment to the South Pacific, where postwar regulations weren’t so rigidly enforced. There a little authority-spoofing could be enjoyed up and down the ranks.

Navy Lieutenant Kirschman (at right) in the South Pacific, 1950s

Once on the Navy base, for example, he noticed that vehicles of high-ranking officers were outfitted with a plaque displaying the number of stars the admiral or general possessed. This gave personnel lower on the hierarchy enough warning to come to attention and salute.

Richard fixed up his car with a similar plaque, but as he drove toward a guard station and MPs drew to attention, what came into view for them was not three or four stars but a single silver bar, designating the lowly Lieutenant Junior Grade within. It was the kind of military joke that cracked ’em up in the military.

Whimsical pranks made life easier for Richard at a time when his job was pretty bleak. Night after night he flew out with a Navy crew to secretly patrol the coastlines of Taiwan and China — “endlessly practicing for World War III,” he would later say with a grimace. Anticipating war, spending money for war, deploying troops and officers to “practice”  war: that would also be a something he’d question for the rest of his life.

Turning Radical

Back in New York, Richard worked in real estate with some success but found the business world stifling. Then an offer came asking him to manage construction of the all new, controversial Fox Plaza building in San Francisco (controversial because it meant tearing down the revered Fox Theater.)  Richard took the job, grateful for a chance to travel West.

Fox Movie Palace, opened 1929, demolished 1963

Fox Plaza building, 29 stories, built 1966

That he found himself plunged into a vortex of business, art and city politics made life by committee all the more complicated and exhausting. Fox Plaza was both an acclaimed and maligned building after completion in 1966. Perhaps because of it, Richard began to strike out on his own.

He used press credentials from counterculture publications in the ’60s (Ramparts, Urban News West), and traveled widely, sometimes into the thick of revolutionary hot spots. At the very beginning of the “Troubles” in Ireland, he photographed Catholic residents tossing Molotov cocktails at Protestant police, who retaliated with tear gas.

Police at the barricades, Ireland 1969

Richard with his cameras and notepad looked every bit like an untested American reporter and could have been ordered out at any time. But his likeability and genuine curiosity held sway. “Wouldn’t you want your side of the story told?” he asked combatants on either side, and the barriers came down. “Hold it, boys!” they would shout in the middle of a barrage, “Let him cross!”

He sent dispatches home, traveled through France, studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and took a high-pressured job on Spain’s famous Costa del Sol. There a Swiss conglomerate struggled to finish construction on a vast thousand-unit apartment complex. It was work he knew how to do — taking diverse interests through a tangle of red tape and conflicting opinions to get the job done — but endless placating over deadlines and bureaucracies was not his cup of tea.

By the time he resettled in the Bay Area, Richard had become more than a questioner and a doubter; he had turned radical. Gone were the three-piece suits, the power luncheons and the Pacific Union (wealthy white men’s club) future.

Richard in France, c. 1970

In their place came that sense of outrage that overtook many during the Vietnam war, and a compulsion to do something to change a violent world.

For some years he had been a director at Delancey Street, the now-famous residential program for ex-inmates and drug addicts in San Francisco. Many programs with similar promise emerged in that era (Synanon, est, Rajneeshpuram), but Delancey Street was the only one that would last through the decades — and is still going strong.

He also joined the Bay Area movement to humanize conditions in California’s prison system, and somewhere along the line, Richard Kirschman went solo. While helping Delancey Street develop legitimate business and real estate holdings, he launched his own brand of prison activism in a big way.

A Two-Man Prison Cell on Wheels

Today we know that the prison system in America has become overcrowded and brutal, especially for African Americans and other people of color. But in the 1960s, as members of Delancey Street confided to Richard, conditions were  worse. The Black Panther Party, the Marin Courthouse Shootout and the killing of Soledad inmate George Jackson all pointed to cruel and inhumane treatment throughout the California penal system. But nobody at any level was doing anything about it.

Richard had an idea. He built an exact replica of the claustrophobic two-man cell in Folsom and San Quentin prisons, loaded it onto a flatbed and towed it around the streets to courthouses, shopping malls and police stations.

The postcard’s sketch of a two-man prison cell; beginning of letter to the governor

With each stop, as people crowded around, he invited them to walk into the cell and sit down on its hard bunk beds. That way they could experience for a few minutes that horrible feeling  of the bars closing in, of hopelessness spreading out for years and years to come. And then they would understand, and  were more open to learn, Richard thought, about the atrocities inmates had to endure.

As visitors departed, Richard handed out postcards they could mail to then-Governor Ronald Reagan to protest the bizarre storage and torture system that state prisons had become.

In an era of “indeterminate sentencing” that effectively buried politically active inmates, Richard’s exhibit proved stirring, tough-minded and urgent. As he had hoped, it inspired people to get off the fence and do something, even if it meant just putting a stamp on a postcard, scribbling a few thoughts, and dropping it in the mail.

I still find it touching that Richard, in a gesture people viewed as endearingly Californian, asked passers-by to write down their feelings when they experienced the prison cell. That way the Governor would know, and be guided by, how deeply emotions ran with voters.

You never know if a demonstration like that will make a difference. Maybe Reagan never saw the postcards, or if he did — well, emotions of the masses never carried much significance to his celebrity mind. I think the prison movement was strengthened by it, because more humane practices were instituted. But for Richard, putting the truth so dramatically in front of people and letting them decide what to do about it was his version of democracy in action.

Life in Dogtown, Pop. 30

Richard would later be characterized as a guy who must have made a bundle in real estate because he retired from business while still in his 30s. The truth is, he had a modest income when he left San Francisco and wanted that nest egg to be enough, if he used it wisely, to pursue his own adventures off the grid for the rest of his life.

Dogtown during growth spurt

Upon finding a deliciously reclusive spot on the coast of West Marin that appealed to his love of wildlife and personal independence, he researched its history, including the long-lost name of Dogtown. Later on, his partner Doris would explain it this way:

Richard liked to point out that there had been five owners of the Dogtown property between himself and the king of Spain. When he decided to build his house in the country in 1974, he sat down with county maps to identify lands that abutted the newly formed national park. He wrote or called 15 owners of such parcels, inquiring if they would be interested in selling. The owner of Richard’s then-undeveloped acres lived in Tacoma, Washington, had inherited the land, had never seen it, didn’t really want it, and was receptive to the idea of selling it.

Richard in Dogtown

In fact, the property was so remote and seemingly forgotten that he had to petition the local Board of Supervisors to resurrect its name and make sure an official road sign (Dogtown, Pop 30, Elev. 180) would appear on Pacific Highway 1.

In that thick, lush pocket of 10 acres in West Marin, Richard settled in to build what would become his eccentric and somewhat stupefying home. Colleagues at Delancey Street tipped him off to the sale of first-growth redwood lumber that had been stripped off the recently demolished Pier 41 in San Francisco. He jumped at the chance to haul it across the Bay to Dogtown.

Mr. Kirschman Builds His Dream House

This is the romantic side of Richard that has touched many a heart in West Marin. “He thought the wood might have been milled in Dogtown when it was a lumber town after the Gold Rush” a century before, Doris wrote. To Richard, there was a certain rightness in bringing that redwood home.

He designed the house himself with “unexpected angles and slanted roofs,” Doris recalled, and using a small local crew to assist, he built it by himself, too. It resided on a footprint of only 700 square feet but shot up five stories on nine separate levels. Inside, the staircases intersected like a painting by Escher. It was easy to get lost or turn the wrong way, but that was part of its charm. High ceilings and an abundance of windows and nooks made the place feel like every kid’s dream of living in a tree house.

The finished dream home, covered in passion flowers

Richard joined the Bolinas Fire Department, an all-volunteer brigade that seemed to be everywhere at once — on the beach with heart victims, at a burning farmhouse, with a fallen hiker in the woods. Living in Dogtown, about three miles north of Bolinas FD, Richard was often the first to arrive at grisly car accidents on Highway 1.

He learned CPR from the Bolinas Fire Chief who ironically became his first patient. After collapsing from a heart attack while the two were talking in the station house, the veteran EMT didn’t make it, and that was Lesson #1 during Richard’s 20 years of service. Life would not be easy that far out in the boondocks, as people used to say.

Many residents treasured their privacy so much that they removed every road sign directing travelers to Bolinas. Richard decided they had a point. Tourists were so hungry for authentic keepsakes that for years they tore down and kept every Dogtown sign Richard put up.

Prototype Man II: Romania

Perhaps it was his experience with addicted babies at Bellevue Hospital that compelled Richard to undertake a trip to Romania in 1990 at the request of Starcross, a monastic community in nearby Sonoma County.

Brother Toby of Starcross Monastic Community

Brother Toby, a former labor lawyer, and two Catholic nuns, Sister Marti and Sister Julie, had been caring for abandoned and abused children at Starcross for years when they learned of nightmarish conditions in Romania. After the fall of Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, an unbelievable number (130,000) of orphaned children had been locked away in dilapidated state-run institutions. Separated and neglected even further, nearly 2,000 children and babies with AIDS were considered too expensive to treat. Since they’d soon be dead anyway, they were “stored away in Auschwitz-like conditions,” Richard noted.

Richard in Romania: front page news

Brother Toby visited one of those hospitals in Constanta, Romania, and at one point an ABC-TV crew asked to go with him. He suggested that children locked in cots and cribs needed to be taken out of the hospital and treated as family members — loved and held and played with — rather than as dying patients.

As was true at Starcross, Brother Toby did not think special medicines or medical care were as important as a family setting, so he sought a space unlike a hospital that could be transformed into small apartments of five children each, where women trained as “mamas” would provide parenting and caregiving skills.

Starcross architect’s model

When Brother Toby asked Richard, his longtime friend in Dogtown, to develop the possibility of such a project, Richard contacted an architect friend in San Francisco who drew up the plans for a prototype.

Richard took the plans with him for his own three-month stay. It was perfect, all agreed, and it was doomed.  Working with a nearly worthless Romanian currency, a government in chaos and a dearth of doctors (who were paid the equivalent of $28 a month) became so difficult that many humanitarian agencies, like Doctors without Borders, had to leave.

Starcross might have foundered, too, if Richard hadn’t spent much of his time there simply “developing a path for money” from U.S. donors, and finding workers in a private sector that hadn’t existed before Ceausescu. Eventually the prototype led to Casa Speranta (House of Hope) in Constanta, Romania, where children routinely lived long past “the predictions of everyone,” according to one doctor, Rodica Matusa, “including all the specialists.”

Matusa later wrote in a book about what happened when the space away from the hospital began to look like a place for families inside: “… Even if the children were still using a bottle, they were put at the table to eat. They were not left to eat in their beds as we at the hospital had done. Their beds were cribs, but made of wood, not the old iron beds from the hospital … Even if their food was prepared in a central kitchen, when they sat at their table, every family appeared different. The apartments had been arranged according to the needs of the individual family and the taste of the mamas. It was like looking at real families. And the children, regardless of how small they were, began to feel that they had come home.”

In 1996 this same prototype led to a separate nonprofit group in Uganda called Starcross Kin Worldwide, where the House of Hope has cared for over 100 children.

Richard after return from Romania

Richard did not know how much of this was possible back in 1990. He sensed that other hospitals might one day adopt similar family units, and he donated the prototype plans to the Romanian government.

“It was “a good start,” he told the Pt. Reyes Light after his time in Romania had run out. “It was a model we hope will be replicated.” What an understatement, but that’s the good part of Richard being a stubborn SOB. Seeing a Great Idea through is always worth it, to his mind. The spirit of the thing does the rest.

Life in a ‘Salad Bowl’

As we follow Richard’s story, it becomes apparent that the more his life took root in West Marin, the more his creative side began to — oh, might as well say it — blossom.

Which brings us to that fateful day his lush and splendiferous 10 acres in Dogtown gave him a Great Idea: Why allow all this natural opulence — grasslands, berry bushes, fruit trees, giant oaks, towering eucalyptus, passionflower vines and giant redwoods — to be enjoyed only by humans?

Why not help the world by adopting rare species of farm animals in danger of extinction? Richard had been reading about the plight of Aracuana chickens, Scottish highland steers, San Clemente goats and Jacob sheep. Think of it, he said to Doris: these threatened creatures could launch new generations in safety and munch their way to old age in this magnificent “salad bowl” they could provide in West Marin.

Lloyd, the first llama

Of course, predators of those very species — raccoons, foxes, coyotes and mountain lions  — also lived on the property and were ready to welcome farm animals in their own way.

So the next Great Idea was to acquire a perfect combination of sweetie pie and murderous bodyguard called a llama.

Lloyd with the two ll’s, as they naturally called this first herd-protecting llama, looked to humans like a small unhumped camel with doll-face eyelashes and cuddly soft fur. To predators, however, he was an advancing monster with a ferocious glare, slasher teeth and a unique ability to spit.

That’s what they discovered after months of planning and trips to small farms to acquire tiny herds of goats and sheep and chickens (the giant Scottish Highland steers didn’t work out): Doris and Richard realized that gates and cages and fences and barn doors would never be enough.

Lloyd, then, proved an excellent shepherd and “a very funny guy,” Doris wrote later. With his camel-like body and brown-and-white coat, “he looked sometimes like a dancing mop … sweet and goofy and always smiling” — thanks ironically to those killer teeth.

Juanita and Zipper on a tree limb. Zipper was killed by a mountain lion a week later.

Llamas are known for their distinct personalities. Quentin, one of Lloyd’s (there would be two) successors, was not only tolerant of Juanita, one of the goats, playfully hopping onto his gentle-giant’s back, he would carry her under oak trees so that she could better reach and nibble the leaves.

Doris’s book, The Dogtown Chronicles, recalls the couple’s 20 years raising these animals, so I’ll direct readers to that eye-opener of a story to meet the family and see what really happened. Doris is an astute chronicler of the way Richard’s “salad bowl” turned out to be both heavenly and savage.

Richard speaking to Sheba on shearing day

For along with this bucolic scene, another, darker truth emerged: When you dig that deep into nature, unseen threats are everywhere, not only from animal diseases and complicated births, or poisonous plants and unexpected injuries; but also from the smart raccoon who hides for a whole day in the hen house and kills the girls in their sleep at night; or the puma who tears into a goat the one moment Quentin isn’t looking; or the unknown decapitator of geese who leaves half a ravaged head for the couple to find on their way to the mailbox.

Balancing the realities of nature with the idealism of good intentions had now become a way of life for Richard and Doris. After leaving San Francisco in the 1960s as that “debonair entrepreneur” climbing the ladder of acceptance and power, Richard learned how to carve out a vision of life entirely his own for the next 50 years.

And so it was in Dogtown and later in Point Reyes Station, where they moved up the coast about 10 miles, in 2010, that Richard became that walking contradiction of idealist, realist and passionate dissenter. And this, when you see him act it out in pranks, stunts, alerts and pop quizzes, you gotta believe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 invite  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.

 

 

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