Friday, November 28, 2008

Ron: Memories of a Mentor, Part 2

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. Eating with friends means that my refrigerator isn’t overloaded with turkey (some will say that one turkey in a house is enough anyway). But it was a good day and a friend did a great job smoking a turkey and his brother-in-law brought in a wonderful mini-keg of Stout from a local micro-brewery. This should be a new tradition as the Pilgrims loved their beer. Below is part two of my memories of working with Ron… Here you get to see a little different side of him. I still need to dig out some old photos.

Ron taught those of us on staff to make the best of any situation. We were a small staff; there were only five of us. Twice a year, Ron would pull us away for a three day retreat. This was a time for planning and training, and we worked hard. But Ron was never one to let hard work get in the way of having a good time. Often we’d hold these retreats in beach houses owned by one of our council board members. In addition to planning out our work, we’d fish and take turns preparing fancy seafood dinners. If the water was still warm, we’d swim and I remember one such occasion when we all, after having worked all day and relaxed with drinks and a big meal, played football in the surf after dark.

One fall morning we all meet one such beach house for one of these retreats. Ron unlocked the door and we began to barge in with boxes of food, cases of beer, bottles of booze and bags of chips, along with flip charts and calendars and other assorted accruements. We were all shocked as a barely dressed woman stepped out of the bathroom and squealed and ducked back in. Then, in the commotion, a young man appeared from the bedroom as the coed returned from the bathroom with a towel wrapped around her. She asked who we were. Ron told her and that he’d arranged with so and so to use the house for a few days. So and so turned out to be this girl’s father. Embarrassed and concerned her daddy might learn she’d taken a premature break from college in order to entertain her boyfriend, she asked for a few minutes to pack up. Ron was polite and said that we were all in need for some breakfast and that when we return, we’ll have forgotten what we’d seen. We left. An hour later we returned; the woman and her illicit boyfriend were gone. I’m sure when Ron dropped a thank you note to her Daddy, he omitted the fact that it had been our pleasure to meet his daughter.

Ron had a temper and never liked it when things didn’t go the way he’d plan. In one staff meeting, where he learned that several assignments had been dropped, Ron started cussing and fussing and marched us into his office. Ron’s desk was always immaculate and he started giving lecturing us on how to organize our mail so that everything got done. He had a three bin file on the edge of his desk. His goal was to never handle a piece of paper more than twice. When he opened his mail, if it could be handled immediately, he did so. If it was of top importance and wouldn’t take much time, it went into this top bin. Second bin was for things that weren’t critical and the bottom one was for things he wanted to look at but was not so important that the world would end if he didn’t get around to it. In his rant, Ron picked up the stack of papers in his top bin. On the bottom of this stack was a Hustler magazine and we all started to smirk. Ron’s face got redder and redder as we all broke out into laughter. Finally, before Ron blew a gasket, someone pointed to the magazine. Ron looked at the bottom of the pile and laughed. His lecture had come to an end as he made a quip about his priorities.

Ron should have been on Madison Avenue. Not only was he a good salesman, he was a master marketer. Even when we were doing things like raising money to pay off debt, Ron could come up with positive campaign slogans and materials that turned what many would have considered drudgery into an opportunity to celebrate. He always told his staff that when an event was over, it didn’t matter how good it was. What mattered was how people thought it went. If it was the greatest event in the world and only those who were there knew about it, it was a flop and then next time we’d have to work just as hard. However, even if the event was mediocre, but everyone thought it was great, then it was a success and the next time such an event would be even easier to promote. Ron encouraged us to learn the stories from scouts and leaders and to tell them in order to promote the program. Knowing I was interested in photography, Ron encouraged me to shoot photos whenever possible. With the scouting program financing my film and developing chemicals, I photographed everything. As I was working in rural areas with smaller newspapers, I often had full page spreads of my photographs showing scouts in action. Although at the time my writing was limited to an occasional press release, I’m sure Ron’s insistence on telling stories influenced my writing more than I could have imagined.

Perception was also important in how we did our jobs. Ron taught us that you always left your business card and even encouraged us to stop by places in which we knew someone wouldn’t be home or in the office. Leaving a business card was almost as good as making a face to face visit. It didn’t take as much time and it left the perception that we were hard at work (in truth, when you have hundreds of volunteers, such time saving techniques were necessary to help everyone feel connected and cared for. He told stories about dropping off his business cards in mail boxes in the middle of the night. I never did that, but I wouldn’t put it past Ron. In addition to dropping off business cards, Ron was always writing notes to people—both to volunteers as well as his professional staff. Whenever we did something well, he’d write us a note and encourage us to do likewise. To this day, I always care a few note cards in my folder, a habit I learned from Ron.

A few years ago, in writing about Roscoe (one of my scoutmasters), I told about a forest fire that forced the evacuation of our council’s camp during a camp-o-ree which involved all the council’s districts with over a thousand boys on site. After everyone had been safely evacuated, the staff all stayed behind. Ron went into town to get more water hoses so we could have hoses available at all the buildings. He came back, not only with water hoses, but with a cooler of beer and snacks. That night, the humidity rose, the wind died, and the fire laid down, burning in a bay (swamp) at the edge of camp, not too far from the camp office. We were told to watch the fire and to let the forest service know if it started to come out of the swamp. Rod got the bright idea to haul lawn chairs and the cooler up to the roof of the camp office. We took turns napping and watching the fire, while enjoying cold beer and chips. The next morning, as the wind picked up and humidity dropped, we worked liked crazy putting out spot fires and watering down buildings, but that night we made the best of the situation.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Ron: memories of a mentor

Going home always seems to prime the pump when it comes to memories from the past. I’ve been working on several stories from my childhood and young adult years. This is my first installment of a series about working with Ron, a man who was my boss from February 1981 through February 1984. In addition to being my boss, Ron was also a mentor. Somewhere I have photos of Ron and of my scouting days and maybe I'll get around to copying them and including a few in this blog.

With our plates overloaded with barbeque, cole slaw, baked beans and hushpuppies, Ron and I went searching for empty seats at the makeshift tables that filled Clarkton’s tobacco warehouse. It was a month or so after market, but the sweet smell of Brightleaf Tobacco lingered. We nudged our way to a couple empty seats. Ron turned to the man and his wife sitting next to them and asked if these seats were available.

“Ya’ll good Democrats, aren’t you?” the man asked in a strong southern dialect.

“Hell yeah, wouldn’t vote no other way,” Ron shot back.

I about dropped my plate as I knew Ron had never voted for a Democrat in his life.

It was homecoming day for Jimmy Green, North Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor. Green had just been acquitted of some kind of corruption charge. I was a young district scout executive and since many of Green’s supporters were also scout volunteers, they’d arranged from him to give a sizable gift to our camp and I was there to be a part of presenting him a plaque in front of his friends and neighbors on this day of celebration. Ron was my boss, the council executive, and I had told him about the program and he asked if he could tag along. Waiting for the program to began, we ate our barbeque and drank glasses of ice tea. Ron, with his Mississippi accent, fit right in.

Ron was a salesman, and a good one. He’d recruited me to work for the Boy Scouts, taking a significant pay cut when I left the bakery. He was also a good teacher and mentor and to this day I am indebted to him. Under Ron’s tutelage, I learned to run successful fundraising campaigns which not only raised money, but empowered people to feel a part of the organization. Although on this day in Clarkton, we were honoring someone who’d given a large gift to the scouting program, Ron continually emphasized to his staff that we go after every gift, regardless of size. Emphasizing the importance of grass root gifts, Ron told and retold the story of Big Jim Folsom, a populist governor from Alabama in the mid-20th Century. Whenever Folsom spoke, he passed the hat and encouraged people to put in what they could. “Even if all you have is some change,” Folsom would quip, “that’s fine; every gift is important and we will use your gifts to fight for you.” Folsom’s advisors questioned this policy, reminding him he had plenty of fat-cats backing him and didn’t need to nickel and dime the poor folk, but Folsom knew better. “People make their commitment with money,” he told them, “and if they give me a quarter, I don’t have to worry when the next candidate who comes around seeking their support; they’ve already sealed their commitment to me.

The last time I saw Ron, I asked him about Folsom. We talked for a few minutes about the former governor. Ron, who had later in his career worked with many in Clinton's administration, told me that Bill Clinton could have learned from Folsom’s straightforward approach. According to Ron, Big Jim had once been caught going into a hotel room with a beautiful young woman who wasn’t his wife. He admitted to his constituents that he’d made a mistake, but went on to say that his opponents were out to get him and that girl had been the bait they’d used and anytime they use bait that appealing, they’re going to catch Big Jim.

"Ron," I said, “Monica wasn’t that good looking and furthermore, I don’t think Willie was set up.”

Ron laughed and told me another story. A rumor had circulated that Folsom was known to have cocktails with the Kennedy clan. “That’s a damn lie,” Folsom retorted. “Everyone knows I don’t drink cocktails, I drink my whiskey straight, just like you folks.”

Although Ron had learned the skills of motivating people from a populist governor who was also a racist, Ron worked hard to overcome the prejudices instilled in those of us who grew up in the South. That last day I’d spent with Ron, I reminded him of an incident that occurred one day, not long after I’d started working with the Boy Scouts. Ron and I made a call on a Baptist pastor in Evergreen, a small community in Columbus County which did not have a scout troop at this time. Several parents and kids in the community, most of whom were black, had requested that a unit be started. We just needed to find a chartering organization. We had pleasant chat with this pastor, but he insisted that although he’d love to see a scout program, his deacons would have a fit if black boys were running around in their church. I started to argue about this being an unchristian attitude, but Ron cut me off. He was nice and polite and told the pastor that if things changed, to contact us. We quickly left, but as we drove away, Ron muttered, “That lying son-of-a-bitch.” “Don’t you believe he really wanted the troop,” I asked. Ron said that he felt the pastor and the deacons were of the same mind. Then I asked why he didn’t want to confront the man and he said that there were no way we were going to change his mind while sitting in his study, that it was better to leave, letting him think better of us than we did of him.

Ron chuckled, as I recalled the incident that had happened nearly a quarter century earlier. He wasn’t doing very well, having had numerous surgeries and bouts of chemotherapy in an attempt to fight an aggressive brain cancer. His face was bloated from the drugs and he’d often forget what he was saying. I spent half a day with him while his wife ran errands. At about 11 AM, Ron insisted we have ice cream. An hour later, he decided we needed a sandwich and a beer. Ron was the only boss I had in my life that would treat his staff to drinks at lunch! We talked about working together in the early 80s and what had happened to the two of us since. Ron had risen in the scouting ranks to become the Scout Executive in Washington, DC, where he rubbed shoulders with many of these in government—Republicans and Democrats. He had done well, until his health forced to take a medical retirement, after which he moved back to Wilmington. Although we always exchanged Christmas cards, I had only seen him a couple of times in the 20 years since he’d been my boss. Ron talked about how he hoped to have a chance to write his memoirs before he died. That chance never came. In another two months, Ron would be dead.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Another week, another bailout and other news

We wake up this morning to find another huge amount of money going to shore up Citibank. 25 billion here, a 100 billion there, hundred of billions of guarantees elsewhere! Why do these crises always seem to occur and supposedly get resolved over the weekend? I remember from a history class of long ago that in the late 30s, Hitler did many of his actions, such as invading countries and breaking arm treaties, on Friday afternoon. He knew that by then, members of the English parliament would have all retreated to country houses. By the time they could reconvene and address the situation, they’d be reacting to “old news.” I know they are saying they need to have these bailouts in place before the markets open, but I wonder sometimes if it’s easier to pull the wool over our eyes on the weekend.

It snowed today and that makes me happy! It’s a big difference from a week ago when I was enjoying warm weather on the Carolina coast. The picture is of the new Johnny Mercer’s pier on Wrightsville Beach. The old Johnny Mercer’s Pier was like the Kure Beach one, with wooden pylons. Every time a storm came through, a bit more of the pier was washed away… This one is built of concrete and is said to be capable of handling a 200 mph hurricane. We'll see.

I woke at 1:27 AM this morning in the middle of a terrifying dream. Although I often dream and even write about them, and some of them are really weird, as a general rule they're not nightmares. This one was an exception. The dream started out pleasant enough. I was going home, but someone warned me of a voodoo threat for the bridges I'd have to cross. I laughed it off and headed toward my truck, when I found myself attacked by something I couldn't see but could feel it compress around me and I fell down screaming in pain and praying for deliverance. It took me while to get back to sleep. Any of you folks doing voodoo on me?

I’m working on some more memoirs that I hope to start postings by midweek. I’ll need to take a break away from any Thanksgiving preparations I have to make (dinner will be at someone else’s home, so I won’t have to worry about a turkey).

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Same River Twice (A Book Review)

Chris Offutt, The Same River Twice: A Memoir (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 188 pages.

About a quarter through the book, Offutt quotes Heraclitius, from ancient Greece, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” (54) Yet, metaphorically that’s what Offutt attempts to do, to step into the same river twice. This book tells of him leaving the security of home for a decade of wandering, and then finally settling down in his own home as with his wife who’s pregnant with his first born child. Again, there is stability in his life, yet the river remains, connecting him to the larger world. In telling his story, Offutt alternates between his wife’s pregnancy and his years on the loose.

Offutt begins his journey in his Kentucky home in the hills of Appalachia. He acknowledges that the popular view of Appalachia is less than flattering, “a land where every man is willing, at the drop of a proverbial overall strap, to shoot, fight, or f—k anything on hind legs. We’re men who buy half-pints of bootlegged liquor and throw the lids away in order to finish the whiskey in one laughing, brawling night, not carrying where we wake or how far from home…. The truth is a hair different,” he confesses. (19-20) Offutt’s first stop is New York City, a place he describes as having half the people being crazy and the rest being therapists. (36) While in the big city, Offutt, in good southerly fashion, defends a homeless woman that’s being harassed. After the incident, they get together and he discovers that she isn’t a she. He flees, and later hooks up with a black woman who serves as his mentor. In a way, this sounds tripe and a bit racist, a southern boy shocked at the big city and then learning the ways of the world from a black girl, but Offutt pulls it off well. Offutt describes sex using the analogy of sharpening a knife against a whetstone and as a baseball game. (And no, he doesn’t credit Meatloaf, whose song, "Paradise by the Dashboard Lights," also describes making love as stealing home in a baseball game.)

Offutt’s crisscrosses the country in this travels, stopping for a while in Minneapolis, Boston, and Flamingo, Florida. He does a stint with a circus travelling through the South. He notes that “Kentucky produced both Abe Lincoln and Jeff Davis.” And like his ancestors from the Civil War, Offutt see’s himself being loyal to no direction.” (109) Along the way, he identifies himself with Daniel Boone and Christopher Columbus, always striking out for what’s new, yet both whose lives ended up less that happy. It seems Offutt is following in their footstep. Each new location gives him opportunity for more adventures and misadventures: opportunities for drinking, drug use and experiencing life from the bottom of society. At one point, he notes that “like rotgut and rainfall,” he’d found his lowspot.” (160) He goes home for his brother’s wedding where he’s confronted for his lack of goals and finds himself feeling inferior, yet he also realizes that he’s the loved son and that his brother, by staying home and working hard, has been trying to earn the approval of the family. (120f)

Along the way, Offutt makes observations about life. He describes the human race as Icarus, “with melting wax and loss of altitude” (131) and the “underclass of evolution.” (133) His salvation comes from meeting Rita, his wife and the princess that helps him rise into respectability. With his wife’s prodding, he applies and accepted into the Iowa Writer’s School (obviously Offutt left out the schooling he’d picked up along the way as he’d quit school to go on the road). At the end of his book, like most new fathers, he’s excited and tells about it as if he’s the first to experience such joy, but also aware of the responsibility of he has and hoping to break his family’s mold of bad fathers.

I enjoyed this book. Although I’ve managed to avoid many of Offutt’s low spots, I found myself relating to the way Offutt explores what it means to become a man and a father and, as he travels around, he sees himself tied to the land and linked to history. I also agree with one of his mentors who remarked, “The West wasn’t tamed, it was corralled for slaughter.” (67) And finally, like Offutt, I want to hibernate in summer and get restless to strike out for new territories when the weather turns chilly. (54)
Click here for more of Sage's book reviews.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Update and a poem

I’m home. My flight home had been changed and I was going to be coming in on the late flight, so I was glad to take a bump in Atlanta and allow the airline to put me up and give me enough money for another trip… So I got home yesterday morning, flying back in to a landscape dusted with snow. What a change! Driving home from the airport, I listened to Stephen Cobert on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” Sunday, on Comedy Central, Cobert will present his “Christmas Special.” It sounds like a lot of fun. One of the songs played on Fresh Air was a parody of the commercialization of Christmas, sung by Cobert and Elvis Costello. I think I know what I’ll be doing Sunday evening.

Monday night, my last night in North Carolina, I spent some time thinking on the Kure Beach pier. When the moon rose a little at 9 PM, it was blood red and inspired this poem. I don't understand everything about blogger formating an why the second part is spaced differently than the rest!

Observing the Apocalypse from Kure Beach Pier

Gazing upon the firmaments from the end of the pier
I’m serenaded by waves lapping against the wooden pylons
and the sound of the wind whipping against my jacket
chilling the back of my neck and erasing my cares.
I see Orion, rise on his side, out of the sea,
as if pulled by his belt, one star at a time appearing
till the three stand on top of each other on the eastern horizon.
The Hunter’s club is raised, in his winter pursuit of the bull

And I saw a beast rising out of the sea…-Revelation 13:1
A woman behind me yells in Spanish
and her husband drops his rod and rushes to her side
to aid in her battle against the fish.
Her rod bent double.
he leans over the railing,
and hand over hand pulls in her line,
and the angry ray dancing on the end.
On the deck of the pier,
the fish, the son of the Leviathan,
lashes out at the gathering spectators,
whipping it’s tail around and exposing its lethal barbs
On that day the Lord with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish the Laviathan…
-Isaiah 27:1

I look back upon the firmaments and observe
to the north of Orion
a fiery red moon rises above the waters,
the waning gibbous lunar body
looks as if its a caldron of molten iron
slightly tipped, ready to pour it’s deadly contents upon the ocean,
In horror, I watch,
but too fascinating to run.
And even if I could, where would I go?

The sun shall be blackened and the moon to blood
Before that great and terrible day of the Lord.

-Joel 2:31

Mesmerized, I watch in awe
and a feeling of relief yet sadness,
as the moon rises higher,
its hue changing from red to yellow
and finally white. Once again, we’ve been spared the apocalypse.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Fishing off Harker's Island

This has been an emotional time at home, dealing with my mother and helping my grandmother pack up and move into an assisted living center. At the beginning of my trip, thanks to my aunt staying with Mom, I got to spend a few good days with my Dad up around Cape Lookout. This is the story of us trying to fish Thursday morning. Instead of fishing, we went to the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort. I didn’t take any photos while on the water on Thursday. (I never even took my camera out of the waterproof case). The picture of the sunset was taken from Harker’s Island later that day. The photo of my father fishing was taken on Friday. The seas had calmed, but the rain continued. I haven’t had internet access since early Friday morning. I’ll be returning back home tomorrow and will try to catch up with everyone by the weekend

The boat drops into the trough of a rolling wave, walls of water tower over our heads, obscuring everything and creating the feeling that we’re in a deep canyon. Then, we rise to the crest of a swell and see we were alone on the sea. It appears no one’s fishing at the jetty which juts out into the sea, west of the cape. With waves like these, there’d be no way to safely anchor off the rocks and any fishing in such rough water would require the finesse of a trapeze artist. We chicken out; Dad turns the boat around and we head back, surfing the crest of the waves and making good time with the wind to our back.

At the sea buoy marking Breakwater Point, he turns the boat 90 degrees into the channel. The inlet offers no protection. Instead of the long rolling waves of the open sea, we now have choppy ones foaming about the crest. Though violent, the water offers hope for fishing. In the distance I spot gulls and pelicans diving into the water where baitfish are jumping. Perhaps it’s a Bonita driving the smaller fish to the surface where they jump to escape the jaws of the larger fish. Life is precious at the bottom of the food chain. In an attempt to escape one threat, they expose themselves to the bills of awaiting birds. Dad maneuvers the boat toward the fish while I try my best to rig a line. By the time we get to the spot, the fish are gone and the birds have all settled down. We make a few casts, but the rain and wind are increasing. The few other boats fishing in what’s known as Lookout Bight are also heading in for safety and comfort and we do the same.

Dad is behind the wheel and I stand to the side of the console, holding on to the support for the canvas top that offers us little protection in the driving rain and splashing waves. I keep a lookout for the buoys that mark the maundering channel between Shackleford Banks and Cape Lookout. It’s a hard task for as we run, rain pellets my eyes. Sandbars cut across this channel, creating a maze to navigate. The boat pounds through the waves, splashing us with salt water. Rain and wind increase, dropping visibility further. The lighthouse, just a few miles away, can’t be seen but every 15 seconds we observe its faint light piercing the fog. Creating even more danger is the fact that we can’t see the next buoy and are soon in shallow water. Dad cuts the speed and turns on the depth finder. Luckily, the tide is high and rising. We move slowly off the bar as I continue to search for a buoy. When the rain lets up a bit, I spot a red one at 2 o’clock. We aim for it, keeping it to our starboard as we search of the next buoy, a green one, that’s to be on our port.

After we pass Catfish Point, we turn north, running through Barden’s Inlet with the wind to our back. Although it’s still hard to see buoys, rain drops are no longer painfully striking our eyes. We cross a few hundred yards in front of the lighthouse, its massive structure now visible, but looking ghost-like in the midst. We continue to follow the buoys pass Morgan Island and make the cut to Harker’s Island and into the safety of the break wall at Calico Jack’s. After securing the boat in the slip, we head to the bait shop for a cup of coffee and to talk with the staff and other returning fishermen about the weather. It doesn’t look like we’ll be doing any more fishing this day and it’s not even 10 A.M.


Click here for a map of Cape Lookout National Seashore (go to the bottom to see where we were at).


Click here for a story of surf fishing off Lookout in 2007


Click here for a 2005 trip to Lookout along with pictures of horses on Shackleford Banks

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Photos to help you pass time...

I'm with my Dad on Harker's Island for three days/two nights. We came up here to fish and since we're only here two nights, are camping out at the only hotel on the island (instead of camping on the beach. Today, that turned out to be a good choice due to the weather, but I'll write more about that at a later time. These are pictures from yesterday's fishing off the jetty southwest of Cape Lookout.Fishing wasn't great... Below is a blowfish, you rub it's belly and it'll swell up like this! I caught two of them and a 16 inch puppy drum (the limit size is 18), so they all went back in.
Below is the moonrise, looking across Lookout, toward the lighthouse.We fished till after sunset and ran back through the channel after dark (It was a lot easier than today with high winds and waves and rain and nearly zero visibility. Needless to say, I don't have pictures from today's expedition!).
A final shot of the fading day.
I won't be able to catch up with everyone's blog till next week. Till then, ya'll be good, ya'll hear!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Unconventional Success: A Book Review

It's been a while since I've done a book review and this is a new genre for me to write a review. If you're not interested, skip down to my post about scooping poop at a dog show or the tribute I wrote for Eddie, a friend who recently passed away. Or you might want to go to the end of the review, where I talk about the political implications of his comments (in relation to Social Security). I'm at the airport while I edit this, waiting for the first leg of a light to take to the Old North State. Catch up with you all soon.

David F. Swensen, Unconventional Success: A Fundamental Approach to Personal Investment (New York: Free Press, 2005), 402 pages, numerous charts and graphs

I put off reviewing this book long enough. Sitting on a board for a private foundation, I have heard the name David Swensen mentioned over and over from our investment advisors. Swensen is the Chief Investment Officer for Yale University and has attracted the attention of the investment world for his stellar results in that position. His 2000 book, Pioneering Portfolio Management, is a classic guide for foundation portfolio management. When I learned that a revised version of Pioneering Portfolio Management was being written and scheduled to be released in early in 2009, I decided to read his book for personal investment that was published just three years ago. I started this book in mid-September, when things look shaky on the Dow but hadn’t yet gotten down-right depressing. As I read, the market started to react erratic and I, along with everyone else, saw investments drop like lead sinkers. I’ve wondered what Swensen would say about the current turmoil in the market, but I feel he would stand by much of what he’s written.

Unconventional Success is not an “investment how-to book.” There are no “stock tips” here, only warnings. There’s no discussion on building a portfolio or any of those silly charts as to what might happen if we place a hypothetical $100 a month into investments for 40 years. Instead, Swensen takes a more academic approach. The first two parts of the book (roughly the first half) deals with investment theory. Swensen covers asset allocation and market timing. This section was well written and explores the various options for investing and provides a good introduction into the various forms of securities available. Swensen, like most investment gurus, is in favor of well diversified portfolios, where each asset class is large enough to matter but small enough that it mitigates risk. He illustrates a well diversified portfolio with the following targets:

Domestic equity.................................30%
Foreign Developed equity ...............15%
Emerging Market equity................... 5%
Real Estate ........................................20%
U.S. Treasury Bonds........................15%
US TIPS.............................................15%

Swensen prefers bonds back by the federal government and stays away from corporate bonds and foreign debt. Corporate paper limits one’s potential gain. If interest rates fall, corporations can refinance, calling the higher interest bonds and reissuing lower interest bonds, if rates rise, you’re stuck with a lower interest rates. Foreign debt is often risky, especially in countries where the government is shaky. Swensen splits his fixed assets between regular treasury bonds and Tips (Inflation protected bonds). There are some REITS (real estate investment trusts) that he likes for real estate investment component, but he’s also critical of many of them due to their fee structures. He sees REITS as long-term investments (and certainly those who have invested in REITS several years ago will have to take a real long term outlook before they can recoup their investment).

Swensen also sees stocks as a long term investment, although he warns not to be too sentimental over particular companies that you want sell when you need to rebalance. He realizes that most individuals have a hard time investing in individual companies. Traditionally, the rule has been it takes at least 30 different stocks, diversified in various sectors of the economy, to reduce risk. Swensen suggests it may even require 50 different stocks and agrees that the average individual doesn’t have time to make such selections. The alternative, the Mutual Fund Industry, is also flawed and Swensen attacks the industry throughout this book. He’s especially hard on mutual funds that are publically held, seeing a conflict of interest between the fund’s shareholders and the fund’s investors. He examines the various fee structures for funds and is critical of the ways they’ve developed hidden fees to transfer value from the investor to the fund managers and owners. He explores taxes on mutual funds and how when someone else sells their portion of the fund, it creates tax liabilities for all the fund owners. In the whole mutual fund industry, he only identifies three funds favorably. TIAA-CREF (Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association and College Retirement Equities Fund) is a non-profit fund set up for educators. Swensen does admit a conflict of interest with his approval of TIAA-CREF (he’s on their board). He has mostly favorable things to say about Vanguard Funds (it's non-profit) and a Longleaf Partners, a small fund that's mostly closed to new investors. Over all, Swensen prefers index funds (lower fees and lower turn-over of stocks which means less taxes). He also suggests there are some benefits for ETFS (Exchange Traded Funds), but admits that there is already signs of companies marketing EFTS with unfair fee structures.

Swensen warns against the practice of active management funds which try to beat the market, acknowledging that for every win, someone has to lose. Instead of trying to beat the market, he advocates maintaining a close what on ones asset allocations and frequently rebalancing. Yale’s foundation rebalances daily (which he admits is not possible for the individual investor). If the equity market rises, they sell and move it into fixed income. If the markets are down, they bring more money into equities. Such a strategy has enabled Yale to comfortably out perform the market in the long run, while avoiding the extreme highs and lows.

This book has political implication. He suggests that schemes like privatizing social security would be a windfall for the mutual fund industry and would not serve the individual investor. This industry has already received a windfall in most companies shifting from a defined pension plan to a self-directed plan, such as with the 401/403 programs. As an investment guru, he is highly attuned to investment schemes where the fund’s interest is not always aligned with the investor (such as mutual fund companies wooing companies for 401 accounts). Furthermore, he’s also critical of companies like Morningstar, that’s supposed to provide non-biased ratings of funds but often fail to serve the public. (Although he doesn’t address this, this critique seems right on in our recent market turmoil, where bonds had high ratings but were stuffed with subprime mortgages).

I don’t recommend this book if you are looking to start investing. But if you want a deeper understanding of the investment industry, I would recommend this book. He seems to go overboard selling the idea that he mutual fund industry fails to serve the individual investor. Reading all the details of tax implications (which if you’re in an IRA or 401/403 you don’t have to worry about) and of fees (which gets us all), is tiring, but also enlightening. I look forward to reading his updated Pioneer Portfolio Management when it comes out in January.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

A Day in the Dalits Caste, or why I should receive the father-of-the-year award and other stuff

It’s snowing and I’m happy. Adding to my glee is a fire burning in the fireplace, the first of the season. Listening to the crackling and hissing of the flames makes me happy. There’s a puzzle on the coffee table for when I need to mindlessly pass the time and it makes me happy. Even the Steeler’s loss can’t dampen my spirit.

Can you believe how gas prices have dropped? The photo was taken on Thursday and it has dropped a few cents more since then! I just hope that because the price drops, we won’t forget our need to reduce consumption and become energy independent.

Let me tell you about my weekend…

I spent yesterday cleaning up poop! My daughter’s 4-H club, as a fund raiser, had poop and piss patrol at a large dog show in a nearby city. The club made good money and this is the only fundraiser they do during the year, but 10 hours of cleaning up after dogs and hauling bags of excrement to the dumpster was humbling and enough to make me cherish my day job. An, coming home last night, I’ve never enjoyed a shower so much! This was my first dog show; I wasn’t quite prepared. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are dog people and dog-show people and, to two borrow from Kipling, “never shall the twain meet.” Dog-show people are weird. They dress in a mishmash of tacky sport coats and faux-leather shoes, looking like salesmen at a Vegas convention or actors trying out for the lead in “The Music Man.” They store their dog treats in their mouth and then feed them to their canine while running, with their arm holding the leash up high, like the British hold teacups. Their dogs get to spend hours on a table in a head harness while groomers comb and blow dry their hair. Racism still exists in the dog world; the dog show may be the only place apartheid is tolerated in the 21st Century. Mixed breeds and mutts are not allowed on the premises.

Now that I’ve offended just about everyone, I will admit that I had a good time. Actually, cleaning poop made the day bearable as I couldn’t have imagined sitting in the stands, watching dogs be shown in the rings for 9 straight hours. I did see a lot of neat breeds. But most importantly, my daughter seemed pleased that I was willing to go and help, especially with the really messy ones. (For such a small butt, it amazes me how much a Doberman Pincher with diarrhea can put out, but that’s probably more than you want to know!)

How did you spend your weekend? Did anyone else get down and dirty?

I’m off to North Carolina on Tuesday, to check up on my mom and grandma and the Blues (the fish, not the music). I’ll try to check in occasionally. Be good now, ya’ll hear!

Friday, November 07, 2008

A Lament for a Sheepherder

I digitally copied the photo of Eddie from a print I took in the mid-90s. I took the second photo of sheep on Cedar Mountain in the summer of 2007.

I got word two weeks ago that Eddie died. I liked Eddie and had over the past few years heard he’d been slipping. When I left Utah nearly five years ago, his hearing was fading and he was having a harder time getting around. He’d just sold his herd, but was still helping the man who brought his sheep. He no longer went up on the mountain or out into the desert every day, but he was still making the trek two or three times a week. I last saw him two years ago. Then, his eyes were going; macular degeneration, I think. He was no longer able to drive. About a year ago I heard he was in a nursing home. Age and illness had robbed this man of the things he enjoyed, running up and down the mountain in all kinds of weather and basking in the beauty of God’s creation. Now, he’s at rest.
Eddie proudly proclaimed to everyone that he was a sheepherder, even though for him it was business. He hired a herder to stay with the sheep, a man who lived in a sheep wagon and who generally liked being along. Occasionally his herder would come to town for supplies and drink, and after a few days of the latter, he’d go back up on the mountain or out in the Nevada desert, where he’d dry out while tending the sheep, protecting them from predators, and hauling drinking water. Eddie made almost daily trips to check on his herder and the herd, bringing in groceries and feed for the horses and helping him haul water for the sheep. I think he had around 1600 ewes in his herd, which considering that most ewes have twins, equals a lot of lambs. When that many animals are away from a watering hole, a lot of water has to haul. Such a herd also required a large number of rams, along with horses and dogs to help with the work. At night, Eddie did the books and dealt with government leases. Although Eddie was one of the largest landowners around, he still leased land for grazing, especially for winter pasture in eastern Nevada.
Eddie lived by the rotation of the earth. In the summer, the ewes and lambs would feast on the grass in the high mountains plateaus. Late summer or early fall, the lambs were culled from the ewes and rounded up to be trucked to market. It was always a guess as to how long to wait. The longer the lambs ate the mountain grass, the heavier they were and the more profit they’d bring. But there was always the risk of early snows trapping the herd and he’d have to haul in feed, which would eat up any profit he might have made. And then there was the year of the fire. With much of his range burned, the lambs had to be sold off early, when they were a good 20 pounds light. On another occasion, he told about an early snow. The lambs had already been sold, but the ewes were still on the mountain. The snow was so deep, his truck got stuck and he had to spend a day walking out, while his herder stayed with the herd which was nearly immobilized by deep snow. Getting back to town, he hired a bulldozer to come and clear a path so the sheep could make it down the mountain. In the fall, as the aspen turn bright yellow, he’d ride a horse, trailing the sheep down the mountain and around the south end of town, using a 100 year old livestock trail. As the days shortened, he and the herder would move the sheep from one alfalfa field to another, where the sheep would eat the remains left from the harvest as they moved toward their winter pasture in Nevada. By December, the sheep were roaming around the deserts of eastern Nevada, between Caliente and Pioche, where they ate sage and what grass was left from the summer. If there was snow on the ground, it was easy work for the herders for the sheep could also eat snow for moisture. But if there was no snow, Eddie and his herd would have to drive the old tank trunk to the warm springs at Panaca or another spring on the west side of his property, where they would fill it up and haul the water back to the sheep.

At the end of winter, Eddie’s sheep got to ride in trucks back east to the lambing barns near Kanarraville. The sheep would first be sheared, usually by men from Australia and New Zealand, who sheared the herds in the American West from late February through April, then returned home, shearing sheep Down Under in their spring which is our fall. Lambing came after shearing (there’s less problems with birthing when the ewe is sheared). For a few weeks, Eddie would hire a host of people to help him by serving as mid-wives to the ewes. Then, as the weather warmed and the snows retreated on the mountain, they’d moved the herd up to the mountain, where the cycle would repeat itself.
“How are we today,” Eddie would ask with a big grin, whenever he greeted anyone. He was always cheerful even though he’d known his share of heartache. His wife, the love of his life, had died of cancer a few years before I met him. In his living room was a photograph of a large aspen tree. When the tree was small, Eddie had carved a heart and added his name along with the names of his wife and daughter. Carving on aspens was common among sheepherders. Eddie had forgotten about this tree, but as it grew so did the carving and one day a hunter came upon it. He photographed the tree and gave it to Eddie as thanks for allowing him to hunt. Eddie was pleased.
Eddie also loved his daughter and doted on her and made sure she was well cared for. She was a few years older than me and mentally challenged. Although I never asked, I couldn’t help but wonder if his wife’s cancer and his daughter’s limited mental capacity had anything to do with those blinding predawn sunrises from the west that Eddie and his wife experienced back in the early 50s. Above ground nuclear testing was common in that decade and although the government assured them they were safe and there was nothing to worry about from the white ash sometimes fell afterwards, we now know otherwise.
I am thankful for the few times I took Eddie up on his invitations to take a day off and ride with him. We’d head out early. Sometimes we stop for breakfast or coffee. In his truck, he’d have some groceries and a few tools to repair fences or gates, maybe a salt block or two. Depending on where the herd was located, we’d drive an hour or two, all the while Eddie telling stories about his dad and about the sheep business and about how lazy the cattlemen could be (there is little love between sheepherders and cattlemen, a feud that goes back into the 19th Century). Lunch was always at the sheepherder’s wagon. In the winter, we’d all go inside to get out of the cold and wind. The smells were enchanting. Pinion burned in the stove as coffee perked. Mutton was always served. Some days we’d eat it with potatoes and carrots, other days we’d have it in a sandwich, the bread lathered with mayonnaise and cheese. We’d wash it all down with coffee.
Some afternoons we’d scout out the next spot for the camp. Others, we’d take the tank truck out for water. As we drove around, Eddie would show me how he cared for the land. He’d show me where he had been working to stop erosion and to restore the grass that use to be more abundant. Over-herding animals in the first half of the 20th Century had taken its toll. When Eddie got into the business, he decided to run half as many sheep on the land as his dad and the previous tenants. His decision was slowly paying dividends and he was proud of his work and of his land. After he’d do the chores for the day, as the sun was dropping in the sky, we’d head back toward town.
“When I was in my 20s and just starting out, I was told by another herder that sheepherding was a young man’s business,” Eddie confided in me one day. “Now I believe him.” And now Eddie can relax and let the Good Shepherd take over.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election Day Rant

A few years ago I’d said that we have about the same chance of having 70 degree weather at this latitude in November as we do of electing an African American to the presidency. Today, thanks to global warming (or a freak sign from heaven) combined with Bush’s eight disastrous years, it looks like both will occur. I voted at 8 AM this morning (wearing a short-sleeve knit shirt) and must have hit the polls at just the right time. I didn’t have to wait at all. But by the time I’d finished filling in all the little ovals on my ballot, a line had formed. They’d been busy earlier, too, but they seemed to have more staff than normal and it made the process go smoothly. I did have to show my picture ID, even though I knew two of the three women handing out ballots and they greeted me by name.

And yes, I voted for Obama. I admit, I did vote for McCain back in the Michigan primary, only because there were no Democratic primary and I feared a Rommey presidency. I feel sad for McCain. I was excited about him in 2000. Back then, he was a maverick. I was even excited when there was a rumor about him being on Kerry’s ticket in 2004. But the maverick spent the past few years kissing up to those on the extreme right and buying into the belief that tax cuts, when we have a 10 trillion dollar deficit, can do everything including cure cancer. McCain has become an old mare and it’s time for him to go out to pasture.

I voted for Obama for three primary reasons. First of all, I think he has the ability to restore our image in the rest of the world. Second, we need a radical change and barring something wild like having two different political parties represented on the same ticket, Obama may be the closest we’ll get to a seismic shift in politics in my lifetime. Finally, he’s a great communicator. I hope he comes to understand that we must make some serious sacrifices in order to rebuild our financial house and that he uses his oratorical skills to sell us on making the necessary sacrifices (as opposed to tantalizing us with new promises for things we can’t afford).

I fear, however, one party dominating both the legislative and executive branches of government. We saw what kind of chaos having no one mind the hen house caused in Bush’s first 6 years. If Obama is elected, I hope Congress keeps him accountable and doesn’t give him a blank check like they gave Georgie Boy. Our government depends on checks and balances!

I hope that whoever is elected will find some wise economic advisors. In the blog of my friend, the economic professor, I came upon this quote and I bring it up because I am a cynic at heart:
Doctor Memory at Blah, Blah, Blog explains the bailout: In a sane world, this would be the beginning of an epochal re-alignment in American party politics. Everyone who voted "no" on this monstrosity would immediately join a new party, let's call it for the sake of argument the "For The Love Of God Don't Do Completely Insane Shit" party. Everyone else would be in the "OMG FREE PONIES!!!11" party. Except that's too depressing a thought to contemplate, since based on the roll call, the Ponytarians have at least a 2-to-1 advantage. And by the way, whatever happens on November 4th, one of them is going to be President.

One final thing on the elections: Yesterday, Arianna Huffinton provides us in her blog the 60 most memorable commercials for the campaign. I’m not sure why Huffington (she’s far more beautiful than Sarah Palin or maybe I’m more drawn to a Greek accent than to a moose gutter), thinks we need to have these commercials available at our fingertips. Perhaps she’s hoping to provide a public service by easing the pain of those addicted to this seemingly eternal campaign. So, to keep them from having to withdraw “cold turkey,” they can listen to the commercials and slowly be weaned of the rhetoric. Or maybe she’s more like Sarah than I think, and has a sadistic streak that runs down her spin, and gets a kick out of tormenting us once more with all the hot air.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Halloween and other updates

I never got around to doing a Halloween post, but here is the pumpkin my daughter and I carved. She picked this one out—it was huge! Halloween was warm for this latitude, a light jacket was all one needed to be outdoors. Normally I have a fire after trick-or-treating, but this year it was too warm. Yesterday, I spent some time cutting, splitting and stacking wood and bringing in some of last years wood and storing it on the back porch for when it finally gets cold enough to use the fireplace.

I had a friend here on Friday and half of Saturday. We spent Friday afternoon on the river, catching the last of fall’s fading splendor. Mostly it’s the oaks that are still colorful, the maples having surrendered their leaves. It was perfect weather to paddle, the temperature being in the low 60s.

We spent the afternoon catching up on each other's life and talking about the books we've been reading, our thoughts on the election, philosophy and theology and other such subjects.
I love it when the sun drops low, later in the afternoon, and the water shimmers with reflected light.


Yesterday, I came across this quote from Sam Ervin, the late Senator from the Great State of North Carolina:

"Let books be your friends, for, by so doing, you can summon to your fireside in seasons of loneliness the choice spirits of all the ages. Observe mankind through the eyes of charity, for, by so doing, you will discover anew the oft forgotten fact that earth is peopled with many gallant souls. Study nature and walks at times in solitude beneath the starry heavens, for, by so doing, you will absorb the great lesson that God is infinite and that your life is just a little beat within the heart of time. Cling to the ancient landmarks of truth, but be ever ready to test the soundness of a new idea. Accept whatever your mind finds to be true, and whatever your conscience determines to be right, and whatever your heart declares to be noble, even though your act in so doing may drive a hoary prejudice from its throne. And, above all things, meditate often upon the words and deeds of Him who died on Calvary for, by so doing, 'ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.'"