“You are imperfect, permanently and inevitably flawed. And you are beautiful.”
– Amy Bloom
‘Penny wise, pound foolish’ or ‘A penny saved is a penny earned’. Clearly we, as a society, are fascinated by the penny. And me? While all my friends were spending theirs, I was collecting mine.
I credit my Uncle Paul for turning me onto penny collecting as my first hobby. And when it came to coin collecting, the man’s passion for his hobby was contagious…so much so that it wasn’t long before I caught the bug too.
Before you could call heads or tails, I had outfitted myself with those blueish-gray folding books to house my little collection of 1-Centers. In fact, the more I got into it, the more obsessive I became about filling the progressively older (and empty) circles taunting me from my books.
But a funny thing happened on my way back to my 1909-S-VDB. The further back my collection began to go, the tougher it became to find examples that could fill the holes in my books. I remember the wry smile on my uncle’s face when he asked if it was true I’d been visiting some of the local stores, asking if I could go through their change at the end of the day? “Yep.” And how’s that going for you? “Well, it started out pretty good, but everybody seems to have a lot of the same years…”
It was a few weeks later when he asked if I wanted to go with him to his monthly coin club meetings? Did I? Are you kidding! I was in 7th Heaven as the two of us walked into my first meeting for the very first time. Me and Uncle Paul.
Old and young alike were there that evening; all gathered together to enjoy the fellowship of like-minded collectors. As a group, they welcomed me into their hobby. They taught me things about the lowly penny’s history, the quality grades of my coins and the proper ways to handle my 1-cent treasures. Like a lot of things in Life, there was a lot to know…and I didn’t know much in the beginning.
First – there was ‘grade’. ‘Grade’ (like diamonds with their ‘C’s’) helped to tell you what kind of penny you were looking at. Now there are dozens of grades, but back then, there were only a few you had to worry about. They were: P (poor); G (good); VG (very good), F (fine), VF (very fine) and UNC‘s (Uncirculated). And to help you determine which grade your coin fell into, there were general indicators like: strike, surface preservation, luster, coloration and eye appeal. Even then I was simple so I made it even easier for myself with three basic questions whenever I was looking to buy or trade one of my pennies:
No collector worth their salt will recommend cleaning a coin. But there are situations where a coin carries residue from tape, glue or just plain old dirt from being buried in someone’s back yard for a few decades too long. What’s critical is not that you’re cleaning the coin as much as you’re simply restoring the coin’s natural surface. Wishing someone would have told me that before, I came to understand that it takes expertise, a healthy dose of caution and a respect for what the coin was originally intended to be in order to remove unnatural surface contaminants from the surface of my penny.
To the coin purist, the less wear on a penny, the higher the value. Being a kid of limited means, that was OK with me. Getting the year I needed was a much more immediate concern. For me, there was something cool about a penny that had been around the block…had seen things, paid for gum balls and in short, been places I could only imagine. Even though the high spots on the penny might be heavily worn, the details were clearly visible. Even if the date was weak or the wheat on the back was worn nearly flat, if the grains were still visible, I wanted it. I often wished scientists could invent some kind of a transporter machine that would let me see what my worn coin had experienced in its’ life before coming to me.
In a seeming contradiction to a collector’s pursuit of coins in UNC form, pennies that aren’t like the rest (a.k.a, ‘not normal’) put their peers to shame. My first one came to me for free when the convenience store owner called it ‘bad’ because half of its face was blank. Me? I couldn’t believe my good fortune. But wait, we can take the stakes even higher.
When is a penny worth $1.7 million? The cent pictured above is a one-of-a-kind Lincoln cent, mistakenly struck in 1943 at the Denver Mint on a bronze blank rather than the zinc-coated steel used that year to conserve copper for World War II. The ‘mistake’ sold 2-years ago for $1.7 million.
Even now, I must confess to feeling like, at the time, I was getting the hang of all of this pretty quickly. That should have been my first warning bell. But looking back, I can smile remembering the stunned look on my uncle’s face when I calmly explained my brain-storm on how I was going to get ahead in my collecting. At the core of my adolescent wisdom was a simple statement.
“Shiny old pennies are far better than dull ones.”
Granted, I was early to the whole coin collecting thing, but come on…how clever do you have to be to realize that if you buy a 1934 penny in G condition, dip it in a bath of Tarn-X and ta-da; you have magically transformed yourself into a proud owner of a VF ’34. Instant upgrade. How cool is that? Right?
“Uncle Paul? You OK?”
What came next happens all the time to the people you see on Antiques Roadshow. We’ve all watched as the PBS camera pans over to a retired machinist from Louisville who is standing there with what he knows, is a Louis XIV table. God bless’em, you can just see the excitement jumping out from behind his eyes. All he’s waiting for is the good news/confirmation and BAM! He and the Mrs. are on their way to Branson in their brand new RV.
But what happens?
One of the Keno brothers steps over to tell him (as gently as they can) that if he’d left the table alone, it’d be worth $45,000. But between the wire brushing and the turpentine (‘to get the dirt off‘), he’s now the proud owner of a $700 table his kids are just going to love him for. After my AS (artificially shiny) 1934 experience, I so feel his pain. It was mine. In fact, thinking back on that pain the other day made me wonder if maybe my pennies weren’t done teaching me things that had nothing to do with coinage.
We’re constantly worried about not being new or shiny. We fret that we might be dull or worse yet, defective. Hoping you aren’t reaching for the Tarn-X about now, let me propose a different grading scale for you to use the next time you do ‘that thing’ that other people are always telling you that you do. See if this makes sense for you and where you’re at right now.
If your life is filled with grit and grime, at least you can say you were on the field. Everyone has clean jerseys at kick-off. By games end, the only people with clean clothes are the ones in the stands. A hot shower and some soap and ‘dirty’ can be dealt with. We have much the same power in our lives. Washing off toxic people or old debilitating habits goes a long way to feeling better. And if you can’t seem to find your clean, ask for help. Talk to someone who cleans for a living. You are not intended for life in emotional squalor. But it won’t change until you stop accepting it. Women couldn’t vote until they stopped accepting it. Blacks couldn’t ride in the front of the bus until they stopped accepting it. You’re no less powerful than they were. I know it sounds trite, but it isn’t until you know better that you’ll be able to do better.
Some of my favorite things to wear are the ‘worn’ ones. They fit my foot. They know my body. They indicate time spent together. I trust them and their dependability. All they ask in return is that I wear them when I want to feel comfortable. How lucky are we if we have friends or loved ones that come across the same way.
God doesn’t make mistakes. I’ve known parents of a Downs baby that wouldn’t trade that child for all the tea in China. There’s something unique in them that makes us look at ‘normal’ from a different point-of-view. Such perspective is what makes the difference special. We are human-beings, not microwaves on an assembly line. “Zero-Defect” is a manufacturing term. It is not a term suitable when talking about ourselves and our fellow carbon-based lifeforms. The next time you catch yourself telling you that you’re defective, don’t. What you’ve unwittingly identified is actually (and precisely) the path you need to follow to find something extraordinary about yourself. Think about it. For all the humans populating this whirling sphere we call Earth, there’s not another one exactly like you. Your finger prints know it. So should you. What makes you different is what constitutes so much of your value.
To this day, I vividly remember walking out of a coin shop on Chicago’s Archer Avenue with my uncle and my 1909 “S” VDB. Even back then, I had spent several hundred dollars to get it. It was dull and a little worn. There were no red-carpet qualities to the uninformed eye, but I didn’t care. And it wasn’t just the penny’s rarity that made it valuable. It was what I’d done to get it. I had mowed acres of grass and painted a lot of houses to buy that one rare penny – one of the rarest Lincoln pennies there are. So that one day, penny in hand, Uncle Paul and I made the long car ride home, not saying much, but both glowing in the moment. In those moments, I knew there were not going to be anymore orange ribbons the next time I exhibited at a coin show. No sir – I saw nothing but blue ribbons and trophies (big ones) in my future. I had arrived and all for the price of a penny.
Have fun this week. It’ll be easy because you are imperfect and you are created permanently and inevitably flawed. What have you got to lose?
When others grade you this week, remember your own standard of measure. Why settle for P (poor) or G (good) when you are already VF (very-fine). The next time someone asks you ‘penny for your thoughts‘, remember you’re an original. Act like it.
Photo Credits and Attributions: Man Eyeballing Pennies: Photograph by Big Cheese Photo LLC/Alamy, 1909 s vdb Lincoln Cent – face and obverse: http://www.pcgs.com/Articles/Detail/2999, Boy Penny Collector: http://www.njfamily.com/NJ-Family/January-2012/Young-Numismatists/, 1943-denver-mint-bronze-cent: http://www.popfi.com/2010/09/24/rare-penny-sold-for-1-7-million/, Dirty Kid: http://www.break.com/pictures/kid-mud-2307956, Worn Topsiders: http://www.iamgalla.com/2011_09_01_archive.html, Defective By Design logo: License (from http://www.defectivebydesign.org/): Copyright © 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 Free Software Foundation, Inc. Verbatim copying and distribution of site content permitted worldwide, without royalty, in any medium, provided this notice, and the copyright notice, are preserved. Born This Way Poster: http://bornthiswayfoundation.org/
Amy Bloom (born 1953) is an American writer. She has been nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Trained as a social worker, Bloom has practiced psychotherapy. Currently, Bloom is the Kim-Frank Family University Writer in Residence at Wesleyan University (effective July 1, 2010). Previously, she was a lecturer of Creative Writing in the department of English at Yale University, where she taught Advanced Fiction Writing and Writing for Children for the decade 2000-2010.
She has been nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In addition to novels, Bloom has written articles in periodicals including The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Vogue, Slate, and Salon.com. Her short fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories and several other anthologies, and has won a National Magazine Award. In 2010, Amazon featured a page from a collection of Bloom’s short stories in an ad showing the screen of a Kindle being read at the beach. SOURCE: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amy_Bloom and http://www.amybloom.com/ Photo Credit: Elena Seibert
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