The Penny Standard

The Penny Standard

Back home in LA, I find a penny on the sidewalk every week. One week, I found $30 on the street on Thursday and another $20 on Sunday. But usually, it’s just pennies.

My wife loves coins. Why? Who knows. But I live to make her smile, so when I find change on the street when we’re together I hand it over. What I find when I’m alone, I save in a jar.

I’ve been in San Francisco for work since Sunday and it struck me as remarkable that there were like no loose coins on the sidewalks. My eyes were peeled as I walked to work and then back to my hotel,on Monday, but no dice.

On Tuesday, I walked 40 minutes to my brother’s apartment, so he could feed me and so I could see my sister-in-law and give my baby niece a smooch. I walked another 40 minutes back home listening to Vox’s The Weeds podcast, a great deep dive into current events for the future old people of America (I mean that as a genuine compliment). I became well-informed, but my pockets stayed light. No pennies anywhere.

Wednesday came and went. No dull glint catching my eye. No reason to swoop down, touch my fingers to dirty city cement and collect my prize for paying attention.

On Thursday, again, I walked a couple of miles. My brother was out of town for work and my sister-in-law needed another pair of hands to corral my teething niece who’d decided she needed neither sleep nor dinner. Walk, walk, walk, listening to the news. My eyes sweeping the landscape. I saw little galleries and bars. People taking out their trash and stopping their cars quickly on the curb to let someone in or out. I saw plenty of dog shit dotting the sidewalk, but no lost pennies.

After getting baby niece to bed and drinking several glasses of wine with my sister-in-law, I headed out again. As I walked and listened to Voxers explain the nuances of the French election (a president AND a prime minister… now I get it), I began to formulate a theory about San Francisco’s dearth of sidewalk change.

LA is moody and hot. We move either too slow or too fast. A penny on the sidewalk can seem like a sign, but you don’t pocket every sign. Sometimes you leave them be, to work their magic just where they are. Angelenos are united by a loose bohemian creed that we are too cool about everything to care about any one thing. Drop a penny? Leave a penny. And then I come along and scoop it up, so I can see my wife’s cute teeth as she flashes a smile.

But San Francisco is a city on a schedule. Leave nothing unaccounted for, hold it all close. Or something.

And then it happened. I spotted, I swooped, I scooped up from the sidewalk not a dirty penny, but a bright and shiny quarter. It looked fresh the mint. I popped in it my pocket.

What does this mean? Maybe that you can’t formulate a hypothesis about cities based on the penny standard. Or maybe that you get what you want (and more) only after you’ve let go of the expectation that it’s definitely coming your way.





My Martha’s Month – Part 1

My Martha’s Month – Part 1

Page two of Martha Stewart Living is always “Martha’s Month”–a day-by-day window into the life of The Great Martha. She weight trains on Mondays and Fridays. Thursdays is cardio and core. Yoga? Tuesdays. She celebrates birthdays, crafts with her grandchildren, mulches her verdant acres, and polishes her silver. This month, I decided to live like Martha. Sort of.

October 1.
Martha: Have chimneys cleaned.
Me: I looked at the bricked-up fireplace in our living room and wondered, once again, “is it bricked up because the landlord doesn’t want anyone to use it, or because there are dead things hidden in there.” Either way, it’s nice to have a place to hang stockings.

October 2.
Martha: Go for a long walk. Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown.
Me: I walked along the Arroyo from the Rose Bowl to South Pasadena and back. There were many happy dogs.

October 3.
Martha: Dig and divide hostas. Weight training.
Me: I meant to google “hostas,” but forgot. I pumped a small amount of iron. I drove home from the Westside in record time (thanks Rosh Hashanah).

October 4.
Martha: Move tropical plants to the greenhouse for winter. Yoga.
Me: I did a sun salutation in the morning. How long have my joints been this creaky? I bought my wife a cactus from Trader Joes on a whim. This was months ago. She named him Carlos, and sometimes she’ll mention “Carlos” and I have no idea who she’s talking about, and then I remember “Carlos” is the cactus and I’m so charmed by the way my wife is. Carlos summered on our patio, but I brought him inside.

October 5.
Martha: Have horses reshoed.
Me: Got a haircut.

October 6.
Martha: Harvest tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. Cardio and core.
Me: I walked a bit more than usual. I did some sit-ups. I read an article about how sick many in Aleppo are of eggplant, because it’s a quick growing crop that a lot of people planted just so they’d have something, anything to eat.

October 7.
Martha: Clean and store summer clothes in canvas bags. Weight training.
Me: When I was 12, I visited my friend’s grandparents in Connecticut. She showed me their huge basement, which was already a foreign concept to this Californian, and then she pointed out racks of garment bags–their winter clothes. Winter? Clothes? How curious.

October 8.
Martha: Get seasonal flu shot.
Me: I meant to do this. I really did.

October 9.
Martha: Bathe dogs and cats.
Me: I’ve never had a pet. My dad always said we couldn’t, because he’s allergic. Two years ago, my mom and dad adopted a Mini-Aussie named Lily. I think my dad was lying.

October 10.
Martha: Go for a hike. Columbus Day.
Me: I flew to San Francisco for work. It was like a hike in the sky.

October 11.
Martha: Clean and refill bird feeders. Yom Kippur begins at sundown. Yoga.
Me: I made scrambled eggs for my niece. How much does Martha care about Yom Kippur? *joke about atoning, because Martha was in prison*

October 12.
Martha: Cut back perennials
Me: I just don’t really like San Francisco.

October 13.
Martha: Sharpen knives; clean stainless steel appliances with white vinegar. Cardio and core.
Me: My hotel was a block from my brother and his family, so they had me over to dinner. As my brother set out ingredients he said, “oh hey, do you wanna make this?” Nice try. I did stem and chop a whole bunch of kale, though. His knives were beautifully sharp.

October 14.
Martha: Pick apples and make a Dutch baby. Weight training.
Me: The hotel had a “continental breakfast”. I squeezed myself between two indecisive foreign children and their flailing tongs to pick a small croissant from a bowl with my bare fingers. There was no weight training.

October 15.
Martha: Prepare chicken coops for winter; install heat lamps.
Me: I came back from my trip, and since my wife had a family function, I was home alone. I took a long nap, ordered eggrolls and watched three hours of Halt and Catch Fire.

October 16. Half way.
Martha: Sukkot begins at sundown. Plant garlic.
Me: I planted my own mother fucking garlic. I used to live in the Fairfax District and my neighbors were Hasidic. They built a sukkah right next to the fence that separated us, and the men stayed out there late into the night singing and talking. It was charming. The first night. But Sukkot lasts a week. A year later when I saw the sukkah going up, I bought earplugs.



My Kingdom for a Public School

My Kingdom for a Public School

Public transportation is an incubator for observations and revelations. At least it is for me.

This morning on the train, I listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s latest Revisionist History podcast, the third in his series on higher education. Suddenly, I was able to articulate my passion for public school, using language I hadn’t had before. Thanks, Revisionist History.

Gladwell was talking about educational philanthropy, and comparing the societal worth of a $100 million donation to “a tiny, almost bankrupt school in South Jersey” to the multi-million dollar donations being handed out to elite American schools.

He set up a dichotomy between “weak link” games and “strong link” games. Soccer, he explained, is a weak link game. Mistakes are so costly, because scoring is so difficult, that a team is only as good as its weakest link. Basketball, on the other hand, is a strong link game. One superstar player can carry the whole team.

American society, says Gladwell, is a weak link game. It takes so many people working in concert to accomplish anything, that we need every link to hold its weight and do its best. So it would make sense, then, to give extra resources to strengthen the weakest links, or to institutions that have an influence over the greatest number of links. For example: the University of California, which Gladwell called “maybe the finest group of public universities in the world.”

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What Are We Looking For?

What Are We Looking For?

Last night my wife and I were talking about HBO’s Looking, a show I always enjoyed and will miss just a bit. I liked the characters, and their dilemmas led me to wonder what decisions they would make and how they would live with them. In one episode, two of the main characters–a man and a woman who grew up together and then escaped to the city together–return to their hometown to confront old ghosts and presumptions about who they might have become had they stayed. What did it mean that they left? Were they better people, or just different? That especially resonated with me, because it’s a conversation I have with myself every time I go “home.”

Anyway. I dug the show, which is really saying something considering it was set in San Francisco, a city to which I have a near-pathological aversion.

My wife and I were both aware that Looking was a polarizing show within the gay (male) community, but a tweet by my friend and astute cultural watcher Price Peterson made me want to find out why that had been the case.

Price on Looking

So I googled “Looking, HBO, criticism, gay men” to find my answer and, in a word, that answer was “boring.”

From Slate Why is Looking So Boring

From The Washington Post HBO Ends Looking Its “Boring” Show About Gay Men

From The Daily Beast Yes, Looking is Boring. It’s the Drama Gays Deserve

Continue reading “What Are We Looking For?”