Tag Archives: West Marin

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

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

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

A Bolinas fire fighter for 20 years

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

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

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

The ‘Rickshaw Ring’ Project

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

Rickshaws — one empty, one full

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

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

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

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

Richard’s prototype gear (top) for rickshaw

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

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

The rickshaw school bus

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

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

The Unofficial Boy Scout Merit Badge

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

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

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

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

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

The Free Thought merit badge

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

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

Entrance to Mesa Refuge

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

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

Dogpatch: Too Bitter to Lick!

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

Victorian dog collar: How they hate it

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

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

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

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

Dogpatch: “Too Bitter to Lick!”

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

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

The DIY Fog Catcher

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

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

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

30-foot fog catchers at work in Ethiopia

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

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

Richard’s prototype fog catcher

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

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

The Resistor Movement

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

typical resistor as used in electric boards

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

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

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

Resist! as tasteful pin

Resist! as subtle jewelry

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

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

Resist! as dangly earrings

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

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

The PG-13 Bible

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

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

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

The PG-13 Bible, first edition

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

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

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

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

Second edition

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

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

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

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

Sample boldface: Leviticus 18:22 and 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Kirschman

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

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

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

Hope at a Glance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lists and lists: oh, how they deliver

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

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

Richard working with students today

Prototype Man

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

An Experiment Hits the Jackpot

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

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

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

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

From Zero to $50,000

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

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

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

Names of the 10 communities right on the coin!

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

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

It Works and It Baffles

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

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

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

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

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

How It Started

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

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

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

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

Signs explain coins to visitors

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

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

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

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

So Simple It’s Hard to Believe

Want to know how the project works in more detail?

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

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

    The box of coins

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

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

Even a chintzy casino token has value

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

The Hidden Joy of It All

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

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

What a lovely accessory

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

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

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

Why are lines etched on the rims of coins?

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

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

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

The Boy Scout badge

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

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

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

Gromyko’s desk plaque from early United Nations

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

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