Category Archives: Criticism

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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 I

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

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

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

Ellen Kirschman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burying Ben

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

Kirschman’s first mystery, ‘Burying Ben’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Melfi and Tony Soprano

Not a “Fun” Murder

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

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

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

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

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

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

Police psychologist Elizabeth Olivet on ‘Law and Order’

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

One Tear Could Ruin a Career

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

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

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

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

How Dot sees it

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

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

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

Next: Part II, The Right Wrong Thing

 


 

Ten Thoughts for the Nice Guys

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

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

Here are some ways to do it:

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

Kate Beckinsale, Seth Rogen at Golden Globes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Clooney

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Oliver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtney Love

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

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

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

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

Jessica Alba at the start of the movie

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

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

Jessica Alba after expressing her love in the movie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roxane Gay, Trevor Noah

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

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

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

Michael Che on Saturday Night Live describing Harvey Weinstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate Beckinsale, age 17

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

She’s Our Gladiator

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

On the cover of “Settle for More”

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

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

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

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

Those tight tight tight cocktail dresses

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

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

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

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

Sexy and playful in GQ magazine

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. “Television Crack Cocaine”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out and about with husband Doug and kids

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

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

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

Roger Ailes, after chasing Kelly around the desk

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Woody Allen’s Latest Excuse for Lechery

I’m late reading the New York Times Book Review from Sunday 1/1/17, so pardon the delayed outrage, but heavens:

Just what we don’t need on the front page is Woody Allen drooling over the purported sex life of a long-gone movie star as he (poorly) reviews Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936 by Edward Sorel (Liveright).

Mary Astor with Humphrey Bogart in “The Maltese Falcon”

The book tells us that Astor apparently wrote about her sexual affairs in an explicit “purple diary.” In Los Angeles, her estranged husband discovered and threatened to use it in a custody battle while Mary was having “four-times-a-night workouts” with playwright George S. Kaufman in New York.

How do we know this? Bad reviewer that he is, Allen never quotes from the diary, alluding only to accounts in tabloid newspapers, which aren’t quoted either. He prefers to snicker and chortle over “her hormones tintinnabulating” and the reason “deep kissing with a hot partner always trumps bacteria.”

The review mistakenly tells us that “the tabloids ran excerpts from the portion of the diary allowed in evidence” during the trial. But we learn from other sources that the diary was never entered in court. The trial judge ordered it sealed and impounded in a bank vault, where it was removed after 16 years and destroyed.

(This last from Wikipedia, a doubtful source, I know, but it does footnote its claims. Meanwhile shame on you, New York Times: Readers of a book review should never have to fact-check on their own.)

Woody Allen

But wait: Why does Woody Allen believe the author? Because “in the midst of everything,” Allensays about Sorel, “he suddenly channels the departed Mary from the beyond and converses with her as she candidly reveals personal feelings in a novel interview.”

Ain’t that great. The author “channels” his subject. The reviewer behaves like a lecherous old man. And Mary Astor is proclaimed by Woody Allen to be “a foulmouthed, hard-drinking, sex-hungry carouser.”

Of course you could say the same thing about many of Astor’s male co-stars, but where is the fun in that? Woody Allen believes his view is titillating, so he gets to have his way and himself in front of us.

I’m sure the trial was scandalous and coverage at the time amusing. But nothing about this review is credible, and all of it is a waste of time. Maybe the book was worth a passing mention in our nation’s “book review section of record.” The Times gave Woody Allen three full pages.

Remaindering “The Art of the Deal” for … $184?

Remember a few weeks ago when Donald Trump announced that he raised $80 million in the month of July alone? And most of it came through “small dollar donations”?

Original edition, 1987

Original edition (with manly turned-up collar), 1987

I chalked it up as another Trump exaggeration to put it kindly until recently, when those fine and funny reporters on NPR Politics Podcast mentioned receiving phone tips from multiple “Trump entities” that Trump’s first book, The Art of the Deal (1987), was newly available.

That was strange. A month ago I wrote about The Art of the Deal as a big bestseller 40 years ago but an embarrassment today, the first indication that Trump sold out to corporate media. Even Ballantine, publisher of the shoddy 2015 reprint, has soured on him.

Blurred photos from shoddy 2015 reprint

Blurred photos from shoddy 2015 reprint

So what was new on the NPR podcast?

“On my phone yesterday,” one reporter said, “I got five different appeals from five different Trump entities, all offering to sell me a copy of The Art of the Deal for … ”

“$184!” piped up another.

Stranger than strange, since anyone can pick it up on the Internet for ten bucks in paperback. The podcast folks joked that Trump “has got to give up his entire basement stash” of leftover originals. But it turns out the campaign is offering the book as a reward to donors of — ta da — $184 and more. The question is, what book is being offered?

Webpage for the "very limited edition issue"

Webpage for the “very limited edition issue”

The Art of the Deal is now out of print,” Trump writes on the website, “so this is a very limited edition issue and only available through this special offer through my campaign. I want you to read about the unique leadership and business acumen I will bring to the White House.”

I love that term “very limited edition issue.” It’s like those authentic-looking gold coins you see advertised to old people with poor eyesight. Something’s being commemorated that must be worth it for the unaffordable price they’re charging, but what exactly?

Well, by a “very limited edition issue,” Trump seems to mean he’s taken the shlocky 2015 reprint and slapped a signature plate on the front to dress it up as something worthy. The text is the same, so at least you get to see just how “unique” Trump will be as president.

Trump supporters probably don’t care about this, and neither do I if it’s just a ruse to get more donations. But the NPR reporters smelled something sinister about it, and so should we. Why would “Trump entities,” who ordinarily are religious about cultivating journalists by leaking secrets from inside a campaign, irritate those same contacts about an overblown, overpriced, decades-old book nobody wanted anyway?

I bet they were ordered to. I bet Trump wanted to bamboozle the press by saying he raised $80 million in small donations during a single month, and even if he had to launder his own money under the table, the campaign could point to $184 donations-with-the-book-as-a-prize and say, See? That’s how we did it.

You can subscribe for free through the Podcast app on your phone

You can subscribe for free through the Podcast app on your phone.

Oh, this is conjecture, of course, but we’ll never get a straight answer from Trump, and that’s why I’ve come to love the NPR Political Podcast: Here are four Washington insiders — I’ll list them with the full quote below** — who seem to have so much fun together it sounds like they’re at a bar after an incredibly fertile day for news.

So it’s fun for us, too, to listen in. Away from their keyboards, they challenge rumors, talk too fast, dig out facts and analyze strategies. They’re informed, opinionated, observant, gossipy and incredibly knowledgeable. They can’t give you a reason for something like a no-good book for $184, but they can toss around the data to see what has meaning and what doesn’t.

Alec Baldwin: Fuck or Walk

Alec Baldwin: Fuck or Walk

I think the meaning here goes as deep into Trump’s philosophy to put it kindly as we can get. It involves his gusto for winning every point in the short run and his fear of building a successful campaign in the long run. Who can blame him? It’s as much fun to watch Trump’s glorification of Self as it is to, say, witness Alec Baldwin berating his underlings in that famous “Always Be Closing” scene in the 1992 movie, Glengarry Glen Ross.

Remember that? A merciless sales manager (Baldwin) harangues his salesmen to the point of evisceration in a speech that’s so cutthroat and so Trump, it’s almost poetic. As with Trump, we can’t take our eyes off him. He’s, powerful, dangerous, cold-blooded and perverted. Here’s what he sounds like in this a partial and condensed quote:

(People are) sitting out there waiting to give you their money. Are you going to take it? Are you man enough to take it? Winner, that’s who I am. And you’re nothing. Nice guy? Good father? Fuck you. Go home and play with your kids. You know what it takes to sell real estate? It takes brass balls. If not, you’ll be shining my shoes. (I’d) fire your fucking ass because a loser is a loser. … You can’t close the leads you’re given? You are shit. You are weak. You can’t play in the man’s game? Go home and tell your wife your troubles. Only one thing counts in this life: get them to sign. You hear me, you fuckin’ faggots? It’s fuck or walk.

Trump on the cover of his failed magazine, Trump

Trump on the cover of another he’ll-fire-us-all book

Okay, he’s a little coarser than Trump at the podium, and yet Trump is the one who called John McCain, an authentic war hero after five years of torture in North Vietnam, a “loser” for getting caught. The Alec Baldwin character would never go that far. Trump does because he doesn’t care how you judge him. When the spotlight stays on Trump, he wins.

That tradition of the dictatorial boss whipping his inferiors into shape always has the same outcome. Trump is most comfortable as the swaggering alpha male. I know it’s a tradition because Ben Affleck makes nearly the same speech to stock market trainees in the 2000 movie, Boiler Room.

Ben Affleck: fuck you, Mom and Dad

Ben Affleck: fuck you, Mom and Dad

You are the future big swinging dicks of this firm. Anybody who tells you money is the root of all evil doesn’t fucking have any. I have a Ferrari, a ridiculous house, every toy you could possibly imagine and best of all, kids, I am liquid. We want winners here, not pikers. People work at this firm for one reason: to become filthy rich. We’re not here to save the manatees. You want vacation time? Go teach third grade public school. Parents don’t like the life you lead? Fuck you, Mom and Dad. See how it feels when you’re making their fucking Lexus payments.

Well, say. Haven’t we all met someone like this in our lives? Years ago at a book publishing panel I was placed next to Ishmael Reed, a talented author of experimental novels who was well known in the Bay Area for his outspoken political views. Ish, as he’s called, abruptly began speaking very loudly, pounding the table in outrage about the book trade, which he thought was rigged (not his word but he was right), interrupting everybody and drowning me out when I disagreed with him.

Ishmael Reed, c. 1980s

Ishmael Reed, c. 1980s

The audience sat there stunned; the moderator couldn’t get a word in edgewise, and I felt mowed over by a man whose books I admired. At the end, Ishmail turned to me and laughed as though we were in on some kind of joke. “Hey, you were a great sport,” he said, holding out his hand. And what did I do, pillar of righteous feminism that I saw myself in those days? Of course I shook his hand. I wanted to be the gracious one, remembering my mother emphasize peace in the family, believing that the book industry needed people who pound the table — and giving him, I’m sure he thought, the win.

(It goes without saying that Hillary is wise not to react when Trump so blatantly lays out the bait. Hillary co-founded Isis? Really, she can’t be bothered. Let him hang himself.)

I’ve thought of that panel many times since Trump started his run because I don’t think he wants to be president at all. Realizing he can’t win must be a big relief. His obsession starts and stops with winning in the short term– in speeches, tweets, interviews, debates — because that keeps him in the center of attention. He doesn’t mind being seen as a racist, a woman-hater, an ignoramus, a bully or a coward. To him, taboos exist to bring the spotlight back.

In terms of winning the whole shebang — well, look what happened to Trump the big businessman. He got tired of fighting the thousands of lawsuits, bankruptcies, labor problems, tax audits, the constant burden of accountability. That’s what The Art of the Deal tells us 40 years later: becoming a caricature of himself, making a million dollars to say “You’re fired,” reselling his books of dreck — well, who wouldn’t choose celebrity over responsibility?

as long as I'm not fired.

as long as I’m not.

That’s the role Trump likes to play now. He’s an accuser, a punisher, a winner of the moment. But eight years in the White House?. The TV series House of Cards couldn’t state the lesson more plainly: The candidate may be interesting as he bludgeons, manipulates, kills and screws his to the top, but once in the White House, he’ll have to placate, he’ll have to convince, he’ll have to lead. Let Hillary have the headache. Trump has already accused the national election of being rigged, so he can’t lose. Come January, when Trump can’t be blamed for the next president’s mistakes, he wins.

Anyway, I’m not saying Trump lined up campaign workers and tore them apart for not selling more of The Art of the Deal at $184. I’m saying he didn’t have to. Word came down that the boss had another scam going, and everybody fell into place. Whatever their contribution to the $80 million in “small dollar donations,” they helped him look like a winner, at least for the month of July.

**About that NPR Politics Podcast, which ran August 4, 2016

In this episode the speakers were host/White House correspondent Tamara Keith, campaign reporter Sam Sanders, campaign reporter Scott Detrow and editor/correspondent Ron Elving. I can’t tell most of the voices apart so no one is identified, but here’s the full excerpt about the calls they received regarding The Art of the Deal:

Judging by what I get on my phone — yesterday I got 5 different appeals from 5 different Trump entities, or agencies that were working for the Trump campaign — all offering to sell me a copy of The Art of the Deal for —

$184!

For 184 …

Whoa.

… every single one [of the calls was] the same, and they just kept coming in and coming in and coming in. There’s a little bit of expense involved in that, plus of course he’s got to give up his entire basement stash of old copies of The Art of the Deal —

Yeah, I bought The Art of the Deal on Kindle earlier this year for a story we did —

Did you like it?

It cost a lot less than $184 —

Gonna bet it did —

I think it’s important to bring the context back with the Trump fundraising.

Yes!

The fact is that two months ago he had the amount of money in his campaign account that was less than a typical House (of Representatives) candidate. He had basically no money..

He had less than Ben Carson at one point, right?

Yes, everybody was freaking out about this. Shortly after those headlines, the Trump campaign kicked it in gear, actually made an effort to start making money. They’ve now had two months in a row where they’ve raised a decent amount of money. It’s still not as much as Hillary Clinton, but we’ve also not seen them actually take that money and spend it on things.

Hillary Clinton still has a huge advantage in terms of the number of ads that she’s going to be running over the next two months. The Trump campaign just has not bought that much advertising, and the fact is, for all the stuff that we’ve talked about high-tech outreach, you still get to the most voters with big TV ads.

This is the place to acknowledge that … is how Donald Trump gets away with spending so much advertising and winning primary after primary. He’s the master of social commentary, he gets a lot of free television, and I think he might just be thinking he doesn’t need to buy the kind of ads that Mitt Romney or John McCain bought, because he isn’t sure [advertising] did them much good, and he might just thrive without them.

It’s actually something he talks about in ….

THE ART OF THE DEAL!

(they all chime in)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dumbness and Pornography at the New York Times

I used to enjoy the Sunday Magazine of the New York Times, in particular a page called The Ethicist. The writers there grappled with tough, snarly questions about ethics and moral clarity in our increasingly complicated times.

But something’s happened in recent months that make me want to toss the thing out the window. This once intelligent and thoughtful bastion of good writing has dumbed-down its content so much that kindergarten kids would laugh if they could read it.IMG_1938

Take this typical question: “Is it O.K. To Come to Work When I’m Sick and Sneezing?” Oh gosh, let me think. Answer: No.

Here’s another from a recent issue: “Should My Rich Friends Apply for Financial Aid?” You need an expert for this? Answer: No.

And Another: “Should I Help a Classmate Who Sexually Harassed My Friend Get a Job?” Are you nuts? Do you live on this planet? Answer: No.

And here’s one from the “Bonus Advice” column on the Ethicist page: “My husband complains that I use too much toilet paper. (We measured. I use approximately 20 squares per — .)” Answer: Never write to this column again.

IMG_1941Elsewhere, the New York Times Sunday Magazine has started a weekly survey that is so stupid and so appalling, I can’t believe anybody working there isn’t in jail.

The survey asks readers questions like this: “Would You Be an Anonymous Porn Star?”

That took my breath away. The editors write: “If you could star in a pornographic movie neck down and get paid handsomely for it, would you do it?”

To be kind, maybe the person who dreamed up this question is an older gentleman from the Penthouse/Playboy era who still believes that pornography portrays men getting laid by women who enjoy servicing them. Maybe this person thinks it’s fun to sidle up to guys like himself and say: Hey, it’s about anonymous sex with plenty of babes. You never get caught and it even pays well, so why not?IMG_1943

I’ll tell you why. We’re talking about the New York Times! Didn’t anyone research the fact that even 40 years ago, women “porn stars” were treated like sex slaves — beaten up behind the scenes; made to copulate with animals, submit to simulated and real gang rape, endure primitive breast implants and humiliating ejaculation scenes?

Remember “porn star” Linda Lovelace? She said the oral sex scenes in her famous movie, Deep Throat, were performed “with a gun to my head the entire time.” But let’s say women “porn stars” aren’t coerced — let’s say they need the cash and choose to appear being strangled or whipped while raped. Is this the kind of image you’d want your son to see at age 11 (average age of boys first viewing pornography), or your daughter to aspire to as a “porn star”?

411vFXivT2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Plus, that was 40 years ago. As any New York Times assistant editor would have discovered through a cursory search on Google, today, thanks to competition on the Internet, the pornography industry is much worse — much more brutal, cruel, ruthless and jaded.

As documented by Wheelock College professor Gail Dines in her book, Pornland (Beacon, 2011), escalating forms of violence in pornography have made the sight of ripped vaginas, bloody anuses and faces blinded by ejaculate lure younger and younger male viewers.

So the problem isn’t only dumbed-down information. It’s the New York Times Sunday Magazine pimping out women as objects of sick fantasies. Who takes responsibility for this? Ultimately, it has to be the publisher, Andy Wright.

Andy Wright

Andy Wright

And look, he’s not an elderly gentleman at all! Just a nice-looking white guy, like your typical John.

Granted, Andy Wright gets to take credit, too, for an excellent article elsewhere in the magazine just last Sunday (January 5) called “To Catch a Rapist.” It describes SVU (Special Victims Unit) detectives in New Haven working through a huge caseload of sex crimes.

But that’s all the more reason for the entire staff to keep professional standards high in every article and item, including — ta da! — a page called The Ethicist. Or maybe they’re counting too many toilet paper squares to notice.

Amazon: The Spoof and the Store

Here’s a fictional job interview from a recent novel about Amazo — pardon, a retail book giant on the Internet with the made-up name of Scroll. See if you recognize this novel:

“Tell me, Alice, how do you like to read?”

“Oh – well, I love to read!”

“I mean, do you use an e-reader or …?”

She leaned forward slightly, like she wanted to reach over and catch my answer in her hands.

“Of course. I have a Kindle, first generation. I also read galleys, manuscripts, hardcovers, basically whatever I can get my hands on.”

“So you’re agnostic.”

“Actually I was raised Catholic, and I’ve fallen pretty far from the flock, but I still consider myself a spiritual person, if that makes any sense?” (Why was she asking about religion? Was this even legal?)

“Good to know. But I meant platform agnostic, meaning you toggle back and forth between your device and carbon-based books.”

If you spotted this as a scene from A Window Opens by Elizabeth Egan, published by Simon & Schuster in August, you’re right.

"A Window Opens," hardcover edition.

“A Window Opens,” hardcover edition.

Egan, who once worked as an editor at Amazon’s New York publishing office, has given us both a cautionary tale and a spoof about the horrid place. Instead of parodying the book publishing efforts that she witnessed for about a year, A Window Opens envisions what might happen if Amazon were to climb down from its e-Ivory Tower and open an actual brick-and-mortar bookstore.

And so, ta da! That very thing happened just last month, when the online retail giant Amazon.com opened Amazon Books, a 5500-square-foot retail bookstore in Seattle. Rumor has it this might be the flagship for a coming chain of retail bookstores across the country, but we won’t know for a year or so.

Amazon's first bookstore (not a Benihana)

Amazon’s first bookstore (not a Benihana)

In the book, Egan’s vision of Amazon’s first retail effort is different from the reality, as we’ll see. But in both cases, the store and the spoof, observers get to see how easily the language of e-everythinge-readers, e-books, e-devices, e-families, e-marriage, e-idiocy and e-tyranny — affects modern life.

A Window Opens is about Alice Pearce, a happily married mother of three kids in upscale New Jersey, who holds a part-time job as book editor for a popular women’s magazine called You.

This is the first of several parallels linking author and character. Egan is also a mother of three living in suburban New Jersey, and You sounds like a combination of the real-life magazine Self, where Egan once worked as book editor, and Glamour, where she reviews books now.

Alice loves the fact that she can commute to Manhattan part-time and be a stay-at-home mother most of the time. When, however, her husband Nicholas is passed over for partner at his hotsy totsy Wall Street firm, he figures his only option is to start a firm of his own. With no start-up money, no office and no clients, he needs Alice to step up and find a high salary-paying job of her own.

Author Elisabeth Egan

Author Elisabeth Egan

Facing that all-too-common terror of the long-out-of-work “soccer Mom” leaving a cushy fun employer like You and returning to full-time work, Alice finds out fast that she’s practically unemployable. Then almost out of the blue, she’s asked to interview for a job as “content manager” at Scroll, a new chain of bookstores that may quickly dominate the retail landscape.

“Our mission is to reinvent reading the way Starbucks reinvented coffee,” says the Marketing Specialist at Scroll who discovers Alice – not through an employment agency or head-hunter, of course, but by following Alice’s cute literary bon mots on Twitter.

Scroll outlets will not be bookstores exactly. They’re called “reading lounges” because for one thing, there will be no physical (carbon-based!) books in the stores. Instead, customers will be able to, as Alice learns, “browse e-books on docked tablets and then download files directly to all their devices at once. Plans for the lounges include fair-trade-certified coffee bars and eco-friendly furniture sourced from reclaimed local materials.”

Although based in Manhattan to be near the mainstream book industry, Scroll is “tethered to its parent,” a giant chain of shopping malls called MainStreet that “curates” retail needs in one place. “So patrons could buy, say, a wheel barrow along with their gardening book,” Alice tells us.

You can see the author’s smart set-up. Words like CURATE, AGNOSTIC and CARBON-BASED all sound like exaggerations that could easily spring from a company like Amazon — or Google, Apple, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — where workers feel required to use language that sounds visionary, hip and brave.

At a Scroll store, customers can browse e-books in a recliner chair with cup holders that keep their organic beverage warm. And they can sit there as long as they like doing SSR (Sustained Silent Reading).

[DRIB (Don’t Read If Busy):

[I kept thinking that Scroll is the worst idea for a bookstore I’ve heard in years — for one thing because it’s already been done. The very first B Dalton store in Minnesota (late 1960s) looked something like Scroll, with big easy chairs, wide aisles, parquet floors, a helpful-to-obsequious staff and muffled quiet to inspire as much SSR as people could handle.

Pickwick Bookshop, founded 1938

Pickwick Bookshop, founded 1938

As I recall, that first B Dalton nearly failed until a management scout visited the noisy, congested Pickwick Book Shop on Hollywood Blvd. in Los Angeles. The aisles were covered with ratty flooring and crowded with so many piles of books that customers had trouble walking anywhere, let alone sitting down for SSR. Shopping was entirely self-service and the lines at the cash registers were packed with people buying (not reading) books by the armload.

The lesson at Pickwick was that bookstore customers didn’t want to interact with a sales clerk who might ask embarrassing literary questions they couldn’t answer. And they didn’t like SSR in a retail setting – too much like a library. They preferred to do their reading at home or in a crowded coffee shop.

B Dalton mall store

B Dalton mall store

So B Dalton’s management adapted to this model by not learning anything in particular. It simply bought and closed the venerable Pickwick Book Shop and its small local chain, copied the Pickwick approach and charged publishers for every inch of display space it could get away with. As a result, B Dalton’s junky, commercial-books-only shopping mall stores did well for a time, as did its competitor, Waldenbooks.]

Egan is clearly aiming her expose at Amazon, but she’s too smart to quote CEO Jeff Bezos’ icky coined words, like “customer-centric.” Instead she turns to his other icky ideas, such as “the empty chair.” When Alice notices that at least one chair is left empty no matter how crowded the meeting, a Scroll colleague explains: “The empty chair is for the customer,” because the customer, nobody should forget, “always has a presence in meetings.”

The "empty chair" theory as adopted by business consultant Gardner Customer Solutions

The “empty chair” theory as adopted by business consultant Gardner Customer Solutions

Yikes, how dumbed-down can Amazon get, you may scoff. But Bezos used the empty chair as “the ultimate boss at Amazon” — and the idea was picked up by so many management consultants for so many years, it became a clich. According to Forbes magazine, Bezos then replaced it with “specially trained employees” — actual human beings called Customer Experience Bar Raisers. “When they frown, vice-presidents tremble.”

In a similar way, Scroll increasingly takes on a kindergarten feel in Egan’s novel. As part of their “onboarding” (orientation) period, workers must learn “the patois of Scroll,” such as “dropping a meeting” on someone’s calendar, or showing team spirit by switching their candy preference to gummy bears made by Haribo, “the leading candy consumed by voracious readers,” Alice’s boss Genevieve declares with authority.

Customer-centric gummy bears: better than books?

Customer-centric gummy bears

True, the pressures on Alice are anything but child’s play. She must “liaise” with 30 agents and editors immediately and select 450 titles for Scroll’s first inventory; she must generate quickie e-books called ScrollOriginals (how close to Amazon’s “Kindle Singles” can you get?); and she must aspire to become a “ScrollCrier” who keeps the world “up-to-the-minute on our mission as it continues to evolve,” says Genevieve.

At first, workers at Scroll don’t have to punch in or account for their time, but soon an email circulates that everyone must “run their palms beneath our new Biometric Time Clock” each morning as a way of assisting “trackability.” No matter. Alice’s first email from Scroll arrives at 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday, so she’s on the clock 24/7 anyway.

And Scroll is not just any start-up. It’s backed by MainStreet, a hugely successful chain of high-end shopping malls founded by the Rockwell brothers – and here the author’s description sounds a bit like the brothers who started Borders Books, a now defunct but once tyrannical big-box bookstore chain. The Borders brothers sold out before they could do as much damage as the thuggy Riggio brothers of Barnes & Noble (not mentioned in the book, thank heaven). Still, they left their mark by contributing to the bankruptcy of every independent retailer in Borders’ path.

The first Borders brothers store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1971

The first Borders brothers store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1971

In any case, Scroll is set to become part of MainStreet’s new “lifestyle centers,” meaning shopping malls called Heritage Towne – and that’s TOWNE WITH AN /E,’ by the way. (Any time you want to evoke an old-timey feeling, just add an e or other letter, like the Bun Shoppe).

Heritage Townes are thriving, Alice learns, because they “mimic the hometown vibe of the very mom-and-pop stores they put out of business. Cobblestone, gaslit lanes connect Johnny Rockets (hamburger joints) with Hollister (clothing stores for “cool guys and gals”); phone charging stations are coyly housed inside old-fashioned phone booths; easy-listening renditions of folk favorites are piped to the furthest reaches of the parking lot, for the brave souls who forgo valet service. Heritage Towne has a gym, a movie theater, a band shell, a medical center, and its own Whole Foods.”

Liberty Bell topiary -- who could resist?

Patriotic topiary — who could resist?

Further, Alice notes, “all shrubbery was cleverly groomed with a patriotic theme. In the short walk around the place, I spotted topiaries in the shape of Uncle Sam, the Liberty Bell, and of course, a giant dollar bill.”

Alice doesn’t like the studied kitsch of Heritage Towne, but she is intrigued by Scroll’s boldness, even its vision, in the face of New York’s rickety old publishing industry. “It would be fun to be at the beginning of something,” she thinks naively. “How many years have I been listening to the death knell of magazines?”

Or books. “Who doesn’t want to see more bookstores, right?” says Genevieve, also thinking simplistically. Whether Scroll is good or bad for readers, for free speech, for capitalism, or for our democracy doesn’t seem to matter to Genevieve or for the most part to Alice. What gets everyone’s attention is the latest upgrade in buzz. In the “simulated Scroll lounge” that’s been constructed in the New York office, Genevieve points out proudly, “we have a roaster on the premises so we know our beans have been treated humanely.”

What sustains Alice through her exhausting 90-hour weeks at Scroll is that allure so often heard in real life from Wonder Boys like Jeff Bezos — that you don’t just have a job when you work for companies like Amazon; you are changing the future.

Unknown-6Remember Bezos’ 10 business philosophies in real life? Just to dip into them for a moment: #2 is Stick with Two Pizzas, meaning a project team should consist of 5-7 people, small enough to “feed with only two pizzas,” heh heh, pretty sophisticated, right?

Similarly, Scroll abides by its own Tenets of Winners, conveyed through acronyms such as:

WGIR Winners Get It Right

SADYC Surprise and Delight Your Customer

WTF not WHAT THE F-K as they say in Internet lingo, but rather Winners Talk Frankly

WATOQ, Winners Answer Their Own Questions.

Using the Tenets of Winners, Alice is told, every problem has a solution: “If you couldn’t find the answer you needed, you could file a ‘trouble ticket,’ organized by six-digit numbers. Your manager would be cc’ed on any trouble ticket you filed, so new employees were cautioned to file them sparingly or risk flagging themselves as poor problem solvers.”

At one meeting, the young team leader mispronounces the word Tenet as TENANT, as in the TENANTS OF WINNERS – a mistake only someone like Alice (considered an editorial type in this crowd) catches but can’t share. She’s older than her bosses and doesn’t dare instruct them.

Sandberg and Zuckerman: dress code even for them?

Sandberg and Zuckerberg: dress code for her?

Nor does she change unwritten rules, such as: When visiting MainStreet’s midwest offices, women wear blazers, blouses and skirts, while men come and go in hoodies and jeans. This is so close to the bone (see photos of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg), you hear yourself groan.

Finally, Alice learns that she must defer especially to Greg, the self-empowered youngest MainStreet brother and founder of Scroll. Greg has his own wisdom statement, often repeated, which is: We have to ask ourselves, by which he means the older generation’s truths may not apply to today’s realities, so “they” were wrong and we -Greg and his brothers – are right.

In a rare visit to her office, Greg looks at a stack of books on Alice’s desk that are soon to be released from New York publishers. He should know that Alice is one of the very few people outside mainstream houses to see these books so early, but instead, thinking of that “carbon-based” label everyone at Scroll uses by now, he says,

“You really want to pollute the environment with that crap?”

“Excuse me?”

“No, seriously, I just got back from a fact-finding mission at the Strand.** That place is a tinderbox waiting to go up in flames. We have to ask ourselves, what kind of impact is all that paper having on our planet?” He shuddered….

Alice begins to tell Greg how she’s curating her first list of recommended fiction titles for the Scroll customer, but he interrupts.

“All good stuff. But we have to ask ourselves, what does the customer really want, right?”

“Right.” I was still getting used to Scroll speak, which involved a semi-Socratic tic of inserting “Right?” at the end of every sentence.

“Wait, sorry, Greg, what do you mean?”

“I mean, does the customer really want books with his coffee, or might he enjoy something else?”

“Like …?”

“I don’t know. Isn’t that your job?” Greg gazed at me through heavy-lidded eyes. Was he high?

“I guess I’m not understanding your question.”

“I’ll break it down for you. What’s the best way for us to gain traction in the marketplace?”

“By creating a bookstore experience like no other? By giving customers something they can’t get anywhere else? Beyond that, I haven’t really thought -“

“Well, start thinking, girl!” Greg squinted at the picture on my desk.

“Hey, switching gears here, is that your family?”

“Yes, the kids are older now but – “

“Let me ask you, what video games do they like to play?”

I laughed. “Much to my son’s chagrin, we don’t have any video games…I want my kids to be readers and to live in the real world – not some fake universe. Not to mention the violence.” I congratulated myself on adhering to the sixth tenet, WTF: Winners Talk Frankly.

Oh dear. Well, we know where that’s going to get her. You only talk frankly to the company founder if his attention span is longer than the three seconds he allows himself to “switch gears.”

[**DRIB: Don’t Read If Busy

It’s worth taking a moment to note that Greg refers to his “fact-finding mission at the Strand” as though walking into a bookstore is a dangerous, heroic quest. All he sees are stacks of glued and sewn paper that make no sense to him in the Brave New World of e-bookstores he believes Scroll is bringing to life.

But something happens to customers at the Strand — it’s just a thought but it has the power of a thunderbolt — and I wish it had struck Greg when he was there. That is: It’s one thing to imagine the virtual universe of Amazon/Scroll’s access to a million books in the e-atmosphere; but it’s quite another to walk along the Strand’s incredible 18 miles of new, used and rare books that customers can actually see, pick up, open and start reading right there.

These 2.5 million books don’t represent anything — they ARE our reality; they bring to us just about everything humanity knows at this moment (in the English language mostly); and have been valued and traded in this one bookstore for nearly 90 years. That’s before and after the arrival of the Internet.

The Strand, interior shot

The Strand, interior shot from ceiling

It’s this thought — the astounding physical fact of the English-language world in book form right in front of you, surrounding you and if you’re not careful about to topple down on your head — that astonishes customers and staff alike, so of course Greg is unimpressed. To Egan’s credit, he is not a Jeff Bezos lookalike or a Mark Zuckerberg stand-in. He is a well-drawn Internet caricature with no curiosity, no sense of history and no interest in the way differences in customer tastes could strengthen rather than weaken a company like Scroll.

Of more importance to Greg: Everything he says has such kingly import that he needn’t worry about “staying on topic.” It doesn’t serve him to think more deeply than the platitudes he believes are making Scroll a success. He is a grown child, both a big baby and a paternalistic brat who should be out on the fringes but somehow feels all too recognizable in any business, especially the postmodern Internet start-up world.]

So now let’s turn back to see what we can learn from A Window Opens and the real-life Amazon’s first brick-and-mortar store ever, Amazon Books, which just opened last month in Seattle.

First a question: is Amazon Books in the University Village of Seattle really located “just up the road” from the historic (founded in 1900) University Bookstore of the University of Washington? (From a map it appears to be a dozen blocks away.) If so, do you think Bezos could have found a location more distant from another bookstore that sells, you know, books?

University Book Store, U. of Washington

University Book Store, U. of Washington

I ask this because barging into the neighborhood of an existing independent bookstore and stealing its customer base by offering heavily discounted books was the predatory method that chain bookstores used to cripple the competition in the ’80s and ’90s and early 2000s.

You’d think Amazon for once wouldn’t make that mistake, if only for the PR advantage of no longer being considered The Internet Bully of All Time. But no. Even the New Republic said “it’s difficult not to see Amazon’s choice of location as yet another act of aggression toward indie bookstores.”

Amazon Books, interior (not the Dish Room)

Amazon Books, interior (not the Dish Room)

Second, here is an excerpt from Amazon’s welcome letter to customers, written by Amazon Books’ vice president, Jennifer Cast: The books in our store are selected based on Amazon.com customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, popularity on Goodreads, and our curators’ assessments. These are fantastic books! Most have been rated 4 stars or above, and many are award winners.”

Amazon Books: signs show just how "fantastic" these books can be

Amazon Books: signs confirm high ratings of customers

Okay, got it. Only good books at an Amazon bookstore, right? And Amazon wants you to know they are good because customers like you — your peers — have said so. Signs make it clear not to worry, you are secure knowing the books are “Highly Rated” with a positive customer comment printed out right there on the shelf.

[We figure Amazon didn’t fall for any phony wowzer comments the author paid for, right? So let’s just bypass that conversation.]

Plus all titles, by the way, are sitting “face-out” on the shelf so you don’t have to lift your hand to pull a book out by its spine and turn it this way and that to examine the cover. Sort of like the Dish Room in the White House; kind of a static feeling. Books facing out take up so much space that Amazon Books offers a fraction of the inventory sold at an independent store, and yet customers on Yelp and other sites say the aisles are small and have that “cramp” feeling.

The real Dish Room at the White House

The real Dish Room at the White House

This is the difference between an Amazon bookstore offering statistically popular books and an independent bookstore employing buyers who choose books for different reasons than widespread acceptance.

In an independent store, the buyers meet with publishers’ sales reps as much as six months in advance to weigh the value of each title for every kind of audience. There is some guesswork in this process — publishing is always a crap shoot, after all — and sometimes these buyers will recommend a title that offends some customers. Or at least, that is the hope. These buyers are looking for quality in messge and style; they trust that enough readers are out there who’ll seek out or take a chance on titles that might not be as popular as they are adventurous, off the grid, a little wild.

I wonder for instance if Lolita or Howl or The Color Purple or Lady Chatterly’s Lover or The Autobiography of Malcolm X or The Naked Lunch would have received 4+ stars from customers when these titles were first published — you know, when they were banned and reviewed with disgust and when they caused booksellers to be prosecuted simply for displaying them in the store.

Today you’ll find the modern equivalent in independent bookstores because that’s why these retailers ARE independent — an experienced buyer with vision and a sense of literary ambition for the store is always looking for the unpredictable, that rare opportunity to pique our interests.

On the other hand, at a store like Amazon Books, offering titles that are already established among readers is a safe, dull and (to me) insulting way to enter the retail market. Yes, there is reference to “our curators’ assessments” (sheesh, that word) but these titles seem confined to a “staff-favorites section” rather than as part of a buyer’s decision to mix up the inventory.

[Plus: The staff-favorites section at Amazon Books includes several of Jeff Bezos’ own picks, isn’t that cozy? Maybe we’re supposed to think, Oh good, Dad’s entered into the fun, since one of his favorites is Traps by his wife, MacKenzie Bezos. Aw, Dad. you old softie.]

What’s missing at Amazon Books is that element of risk and adventure you can sense the minute you walk into an independent bookstore. Of course, best-selling titles are everywhere in an indie bookseller, but so are books by authors nobody’s heard of who may be so original and fresh they just have to be read. Unknown, controversial, up-from-nowhere works may not appeal to everybody — they may, in fact, take your head off with their decidedly UNpopular views or style — but heavens, what kind of democracy would we have without that kind of choice?

So it isn’t just that Amazon Books looks like an expensive chain restaurant that’s been overdesigned in wood and signage. (How much of the interior is “eco friendly” or derived from “reclaimed local materials” is not stated.) Rather, everything feels so tidy, so received, so Soviet, so data-molded that a blandness and prudency seem to settle over the place.

I’m sure many titles at Amazon Books do challenge us, but hell, you can get that kind of surprise from a spin rack in a drug store. What makes me nervous is the promise of statistical rankings (“4.8 Stars and Above”) that guarantee conformity.

What does novelist Elizabeth Egan have to say about all this? A Window Opens shows how an Internet company like Amazon/Scroll not only limits our choices in books but corrupts the very language we use about the book business. Granted, fashions in word use come and go, like using “curate” because it sounds classier than “select,” or tossing in the term “carbon-based” so you’ll feel guilty about — well, whatever it describes. But fashions are always short-term, thank heaven. The day everybody gets sick of “iconic” will herald a national holiday that I hope comes soon.

What scares me is that the narrowing of language leads to a narrowing of imagination, as represented in Egan’s novel by Greg and the Scroll team. When workers see no difference between the TENANTS and the TENETS of Winners — or like Alice they can’t say they do without sounding unAmerican — the core message of Amazon/Scroll turns out to be: Stay low, use approved buzz words, don’t read (who has time?), be a team player, lean out and shut up.

One last thing about A Window Opens: It’s a great send-up by a former employee of the metastacized Amazon empire that’s consuming the world. But it’s also a very good commercial novel with its own twists and surprises, its unexpectedly poignant moments about raising children and its intriguing subplots, some of which don/t involve an expose of Amazon.

Woven throughout, for example, are Alice’s brother, seemingly liberated from capitalism; her dad’s throat cancer (and the “Buzz Lightyear” appliance he uses for a voicebox); the children’s adjustment to Mom’s insane new job; and Nicholas’ own, very rocky transition from up-and-comer to failure to scaredy cat to independent thinker and Dad.

Plus there’s a very intriguing conflict between Alice and her best friend, who owns a terrific independent bookstore that may be the first to be knocked off by Scroll. This store seems to be similar to Elisabeth Egan’s own neighborhood bookstore, Watchung Booksellers (of Watchung Plaza in Montclair, New Jersey).

Remembering how much she has valued this store, Egan commented recently that “Watchung Booksellers is the first place that my kids walked to alone.” This was just a casual comment made without much thought, but it’s a tribute as touching as anything Alice Pearce says in the book. It means that the first time you let your kids walk anywhere on their own, you want the destination to be a trusted place where people know your children and keep an eye out to make sure they arrive safely. Local retail stores are like that, bookstores especially, because kids already know the way to story-time events, circle-time readings and the like.

Egan signing books at Watchung Booksellers

Egan signing books at Watchung Booksellers

And, more important than I thought at first, A Window Opens is the story of yet another mother trying to “have it all” by going back to work in a job environment so dictatorial and punishing that it may ruin her life. Here is Alice’s advice to the family’s indispensable baby sitter — who at 18 is leaving the family to start her own career- but the message applies to many:

“… please don’t waste time wondering whether it’s possible to ‘have it all.’ Banish the expression from your vocabulary; make sure your friends do, too. A better question is What do you really want? Diving headlong into the second quarter of your life without asking this question is like going grocery shopping without a list. You’ll end up with a full cart but nothing to cook for dinner. Figure out what you feel like eating, and then come up with your own recipe for the whole messy, delicious enchilada.”

This is in character for Alice but I’m kind of disappointed that she didn’t say what A Window Opens tells us, that “having it all” is a family thing. Everybody gets to have it all if everybody pitches in. Husbands need to balance priorities – not just to do the dishes or pick up the kids up but to assume full partnership with Mom and tackle that surprising array of family needs — and, most of all, experiencing those unpredictable heart-stopping moments when the kids do something that’s hilarious and serious and in character for the self-actualized beings they are still to become.

I think that’s what the book really proposes. It’s sort of a fictional take on Sandberg’s Lean In, and again I’m impressed that for all we learn about Amazon-type companies “reinventing the future” in an alarmingly bland, somewhat willy-nilly and domineering fashion, the book’s most valuable inside look is at our own humanity in the face of enormous change.