Monthly Archives: December 2015

In God We Trusted (an Act in Two Bits)


I’ve always been something of a coin nerd.

It began when dad got me into collecting wheat pennies, the early coins minted from 1909 to 1955.wheat-penny-large I’m not sure why dad liked them, but I hunted them like Ahab on a bender. We tallied 147 of them. They may still lay congregated  somewhere, in an unused beer stein at the house (dad, unlike Ahab, wasn’t much of a drinker).

As I got older and into magic, I extended my geekreach to larger coins: half-dollars, silver dollars. I still pester friends traveling overseas to collect the coinage of the land. I have several arcade tokens I’ve kept simply because of their heft and shine.

Recently, cleaning out a drawer, I came upon a quarter that saved itself from the change jar. That’s where all coins typically go, to be amassed and then wasted on something like a magic trick or battery-operated toy or some such equivalent of beanstalk seed.

But this quarter caught my eye. It was dingy, beaten up, clearly around the block a few times. Still, its year — 1953  — shone like a new mom. I’m still not sure why I kept it. 1953 isn’t a memorable year for me, nor an important number.

But the more I thought about the coin, the more valuable it became.

It must have sparkled like Waterford when it was minted, either in Philly, Denver or San Francisco.

Who was the first owner? How many has it seen? Where has it been traveling for the past 62 years? Did it once jingle in a president’s pocket? Help Bob Dylan buy a pack of smokes? Sit in a kid’s first piggybank?

I began to research the year. Gas was 22 cents a gallon. Bread was 16 cents a loaf. The average annual income was $4,011 a year.

Then, another surprise: My quarter, probably handed to me in a handful of change at Yummy Donuts, was actually worth $2.55. Apparently, the U.S. Treasury put more silver in coins back then, when we paid our debts. One website said that, if it were struck at a certain mint, it could be worth as much as $6.

But this coin’s not for sale.

I know that when I’m gone, the coin will re-enter America’s economical orbit. Maybe it will wind up in a parking meter (for the hover cars we’ll all be riding, right?). Or Yummy Donuts. Or Bob Dylan’s great-great-granddaughter’s first piggybank.

For now, though, it remains safe here, in the admiring hands of a nerd in Van Nuys who took a shine to its shine. For we all have one, don’t we? We all are one, aren’t we? Looking to catch the light at the right angle, to rest among the treasured, to announce to the world: Kilroy was here.


It’s funny how priceless a thing becomes with just a little attention.




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Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself

(Warning: spoilers abound)

Much ink and many megabytes have been spent in praise of the season 2 finale of Fargo, all of it earned.

But in breaking down the cleverness of the final episode, perhaps we, as Lou Solverson would say, are missing the bigger picture there, yeah.

For all the brilliant Coen references, time jumps and links back to season 1, Fargo’s second season is really a retelling of the story of Job — with Hanzee as the devil, a well-dressed-but-indifferent stranger as God and Lou as Job.

The show foretold that in episode 1, when judge Mundt tells Rye Gerhardt the parable: That one day, the Devil challenged God that he could get a righteous man to denounce his faith. He plagued Job with loss, pain and suffering. But Job remained unwavering, and was returned his health and fortune for taking the righteous path.

In the same way, Lou was set upon by modern plagues. He is sent to serve in Vietnam — twice. He’s watched “his boys” die senselessly. His young wife and mother of his 6-year-old has cancer. He is threatened to surrender his faith by the Gerhardt clan, which owns local law enforcement, and by Mike Milligan, who has corporate backing to lure him with cash.

But Lou rejects the crooked for the enlightened path, literally following a pool of blood toward the the glow of the crime scene in creator Noah Hawley’s profound Palindrome in Fargo’s second season finale.

Hawley managed to do with season two what the Coen Brothers did in 2007 with the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s epic No Country for Old Men. The brothers took a bloody Western epic and turned it into a Biblical tale of Satan-angel rivalry. For who is Anton Chigurh if not Death, unstoppable and random as a coin flip, friend-o? And Tommy Lee Jones, as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, is more: a wizened angel who sees the pointless of engaging with madness, particularly after a simple man (Josh Brolin as Llewelyn Moss) loses his life and soul to greed.

antone hanzee at store tommylee

The canny interpretation would win the Coens a raft of Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Similarly, Hanzee is Death incarnate. Throughout season 2, he was present as a silent instigator: Between Dodd and his family, between the Gerhardts and the Kansas City mob, perhaps even between the white man and Indian in the West’s Manifest Destiny (Hanzee takes a long, unreadable look at the site of Indian hangings at Sioux Falls). His demonization is made visually official when he is cast in flames as Peggy imagines him outside, smoking her out of the cooler.

But the defining scene comes 52 minutes into the episode, when a scarred, bandaged and vanquished Hanzee awaits the stranger with his new identification. Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrenches, both children and both staples of season 1, toss a softball in a park. The stranger talks of Hanzee’s insistence of joining empires whose vanity assures their destruction. He issues Hanzee a new Social Security number and new name, Moses Trinity.

Fans have gone nuts over the name, as it’s a reference to a crime boss from season 1. moses

But, measured as a story unto itself, isn’t it God allowing the Devil to continue to wreak futile chaos — which Satan promises to do (“Head in a bag. That’s the message.”)? As a furious Hanzee storms off the field and brushes past the now-fighting brothers, you could nearly hear Sympathy for the Devil playing in the background. Hope you guess my name.

Meanwhile, the devil’s lieutenants are sent to their corresponding hells: The Gerhardt’s lose their entire family, Peggy becomes a literal prisoner of her pride, Ed left a slab of refrigerated meat for ignorance, and Michael made an emperor-turned-drone in a corporate hellscape for greed.

The faithful Solversons, meanwhile, retire to their version of heaven — and even gets a brief sermon from patriarch Ted Danson (Moses?) who dreams of a world with one language, not of tongues divvied like the Tower of Babel.

Which would also explain the alien visitors from above. Sometimes all people need is faith to make the following a true story.

The devilish question for the F/X network, which has green-lit a third season of Fargo, is how do you top it?


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The Latent Geek Gene


Magic tells you two things, about practitioner and witness.

For the practitioner, the indicator is obvious. A magician is inherently a geek. God knows where that DNA comes from, but that defective gene takes hold like Alzheimer’s and can’t help but make itself apparent to everyone — because magic requires that you publicly make a jackass out of yourself.

It’s more layered with the witness, however. I’ve found there are three types of magic spectators, which often underscore a larger personality trait (like the geek gene, but more subtle):

  1. The skeptic. A skeptic isn’t interested in watching the actual trick. A skeptic wants to catch you doing something that will reveal the secret.
  2. The believer. The believer is less interested in  how you do the trick than in being entertained. Magicians always prefer the believer, perhaps because we know what a silly thing it is to tell somebody you want to show them a mystical lie.
  3. Kids.

That last one is hand’s down the best witness, regardless of kid. Not only do they accept the presence of magic; it’s a perfectly acceptable answer to the inevitable question, ‘How did you that?’ Children typically will not ask  ‘Do that again,’ as adults usually ask.

Instead, they’ll respond ‘Do more magic. Make this disappear. Make that disappear. Make me disappear.”the magician-1

I had the profound privilege of being asked for more magic by two 5-year-olds this weekend, who finagled a sleepover at my mother’s house during my visit. I had recently suffered a severe bout of IGS (Inner Geek Syndrome) and had bought a preposterously expensive brass magic trick and was eager to bring it to the boys.

It’s a clever but simple trick: a cube with three colors. Choose a color, put the selected cube in the brass container, close it, and I guess the color. I add a dash of patter: Hold the container tight and think of the color while I read your mind.

I was surprised that Rafael, my nephew and one of the spectators, learned quickly what he was to do. He told me to close my eyes. With my hands. And turn away. Then he showed his buddy, Angel, the color as Angel stood on the restaurant bench, looking over Rafi’s shoulder. Rafi closed the container, handed it back. Angel sat between us, witness to both.

‘Ok, Rafi, think hard about the color,’ I said. Rafi furrowed his brow in concentration.’

I milked it. ‘I’m getting a feeling, Rafi. I’m entering your mind. You’re thinking about candy. And firetrucks.  And I see the color…yellow!’

‘What?I’ Rafi exclaimed in a tone that suggested he had the learn the tone use in bafflement.

Angel, though, did something equally remarkable. He leaned toward me, put a hand on my shoulder, and looked me in the eyes. ‘It was yellow!!’ He was either congratulating me on the luckiest guess ever, or simply telling me, in all earnestness, ‘Good job, champ.’

And so it went, through the night and into the morning when we woke up. ‘Can we make something else change color?’ ‘Can you make me as tall as you?’ ‘Can you make this flashlight disappear in your booty?’

Finally, as we finished breakfast, Rafi asked me the greatest question question any IGS suffer wants to hear:

‘Can you read my imagination again?’


I so wish, more than you can possibly know know, Rafi. That would be true magic.



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