Planning staff was glad that I’d been appointed to the city Zoning Board. They thought it important that at least one board member be able to read plans.

I had learned to read them like tea leaves, watching the future settle out of murky intent.

Planning staff took me under their wing. The public hearing process was easy, they said: both sides lie, and then you decide. I thought they were joking.

Over time I learned to check my personal standards at the door. There is a ubiquitous community standard that is set like bricks- one at a time, course by course- until there is one wall to stand back from and say, “This is what we as a city build. This is what we believe. The rest is wishful thinking.” I was there to reinforce that wall, the fence that would make good neighbors.

And so I tempered the wistful thinkers who demanded that the other person’s house be a gem, that the next guy in the door be held to a higher standard. Almost by default, I become a ‘voice of reason.’

Most projects were contentious. There was always a lot at stake. It was always about money or change. Greed or fear. It was easy to become as cynical as a cop, to see everyone as a unique mix of fear and greed. Everybody was afraid of change: loss of privacy, loss of the parking space in front of their house, or just the loss of certainty in their lives. But they still wanted a little more for themselves: a third bedroom for the second kid, a second story for the ocean view, or a bigger nest egg for their retirement.

I weighed the pros and cons. Sometimes I felt strongly and tried to persuade my colleagues to see things my way. Sometimes it was a toss of the coin- pros equaled cons. Then it became politics. I had to vote one way or the other. So was the applicant a nice person? Did one of my colleagues- the one whose feelings I hurt last week- feel strongly about this one, and need my support?

Politics is all about a coin of any issue, tossed and turning in the air. Successful politicians advance by emptying their vessel of all standards, goals, ideals and values, and just keeping their eye on the coin. When all issues are reduced to a well-rehearsed coin toss, then winning is landing face up. Call it right and the coins of the realm are yours.