Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Pool Boy, Part One

In the mid-1950s, when it was probably as prosperous as it would ever be, the civic-minded of the small town of Chase City, Virginia decided to build a swimming pool. A non-profit was formed, money raised, a loan taken out, and construction begun. Soon they had a place for their youth to learn to swim, boys and girls to show off as close to nekked as local standards of decency and fashion would allow, and mothers to dump drop off their children - to be relatively well supervised - for a few hours of peace and quiet at home. During the summer it was Chase City's afternoon center of youth culture, from one to nine, seven days a week. It was the Chase City Community Park.

The design was straight forward, three pools. The center main swimming pool varied from 3 to 6 feet of depth. Community Park Pool 1961At one end a baby pool was in front of the covered area at the top right in this 1961 photo. At the other end a 10' deep diving pool was to the right of the lifeguard stand which faced the cinderblock building containing the entrance, changing rooms, and concession stand. The pool water filter was located underground, just behind the lifeguard stand. This photo was taken from the diving board.

Operating the pool on a daily basis was a staff of local teenagers. There was a manager/chief lifeguard, an assistant lifeguard, and someone to oversee the admissions, changing rooms, and concession stand. The pay was low, the hours long, and the work contained a large janitorial component. But it was as close to Baywatch as could be found in our part of southside Virginia. Accordingly, there was no shortage of job applicants, most reasonably qualified. I was among the fortunate; during the summers of 1961, '62, and '63 I held each of the positions above in reverse order. I was a pool boy, with a whistle.

Pool Boy 1963

My assent to the lifeguard stand was a bit unlikely. My mother, a non-swimmer, was afraid of the water; she did her best to pass on her fears. On the other hand she wanted me to learn to swim, driving me on summer mornings what seemed like many miles for lessons at Clark's Pool. I managed to ignore the mixed messages and became as a minnow, one-with-the-water by the time I was about twelve. After taking the regular Red Cross sponsored swimming classes all that were left were for lifeguard. So I signed up for those as well.

In the summer of '61 when I was fifteen I was hired to operate the Community Park's concession stand. Although I was all of 5' 6" and weighed - dripping wet - 100 pounds, I was already a Red Cross certified Senior Lifeguard. (I may have lied about my age... OK, I lied about my age. Practice for buying beer a few years later.)

The photo above was taken two years later, after I had shot up six inches and gained maybe 30 pounds.

It was my first job, fifteen dollars a week. Averaging ten hours per day, seven days a week, I was making about 21 cents an hour, and worth every penny. That summer I had a learners permit in my wallet and a job at the pool. Life was good.

But this post is not about aqua-phobia or minnows, job descriptions or wages. It is an introduction to why I did not work at the Community Park in summer of 1964.


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

South Africa

In the early morning of November 13th, 1967 I rose early and went up on deck for my first look at Capetown, South Africa. This is what I saw.Capetown

I was a college student, among ~525 undergrads aboard the S.S. Ryndam, leased to Chapman College’s World Campus Afloat program. We were about a third of our way around the world, excited to touch land for the first time in 10 days, but we were apprehensive about our reception. Ours was a mixed race student body - we had a handful of non-white students - and we were about to step ashore into the land of apartheid. Some thought we should not be stopping at all. Probably none of us knew at the time that we had just passed an island in the harbor where Nelson Mandela was being held prisoner. He could have seen us arrive.

This afternoon I watched two matches of the 2010 World Cup, live from South Africa. As I watched the sides play on I could not help remembering my experiences in Capetown - and Durban a few days later - experiences that helped shape my view of the world, and myself.

Our voyage had not been scheduled to visit Africa south of Egypt. But in June of 1967 war closed the Suez Canal creating the opportunity to visit Morocco, Senegal, South Africa, and Kenya. The Mediterranean was out, Africa in. I still haven’t seen Marseilles, Rome, Athens, Istanbul or Cairo, but I would not change a thing.

Of course the South African government knew we were coming. Already somewhat a pariah among nations because of their racial policies, the country’s white rulers must have seen our visit as an opportunity to put their best face forward. I do not know what agreements were made between the college and our hosts, but all of our student body members were made whites for the duration. So all of us used the white’s only facilities, store entrances, transportation, parks, and beaches. If anything this added a surreal element to what was then a most unique educational experience. But for me, who had lived all of his short life in Virginia, the segregating signs were not the shock they were to most of my classmates.

Just to insure all would go well we were met first thing that morning by a launch which brought newspaper photographers. By the time we landed the Cape Argus was on the streets with two of our black students prominently shown on page one.

Our visit went well. Even though we were 60’s college students and were beginning to get adventurous the more we traveled, we were good guests, the South Africans gracious hosts. I am sure this was to the great relief of all concerned. This is not the place for details - my personal experiences - but I sailed away with three dominant impressions. First, the South Africa I saw was take-your-breath-away beautiful. Almost paradise. I could live there in a heartbeat. Second, Capetown was a thoroughly modern city, the equal of any I had seen. Last, my heart cried for the people, all of the people. Apartheid was damaging all it touched. Like many, I did not think it would end well; and it would end.

So years later, in February 1990 when Nelson Mandela walked out of his prison I watched my TV from the top of Mineral Spring Mountain and thought of Table Mountain with a lump in my throat. I watched him later become the country’s elected President and guide his people - all of his people - through difficult but relatively peaceful transition years. The feared bloody chaos did not happen. And while South Africa continues to have many problems as a nation, it is probably still just as beautiful as it was that morning in 1967 as it hosts this month the largest sporting event in the world.

So, here is to the South Africans, black, white, colored and Indian, who made it possible for me to get that lump in my throat again.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Mattaponi Queen

Mattaponi QueenLast week through a Library of Virginia email I learned of a new book, Mattaponi Queen by Belle Boggs. It is a prize winning collection of short stories set mainly along Virginia's Mattaponi River that separates King William and King and Queen counties. On its banks in Walkerton I lived for four years in the 1970s. I was intrigued.

King William County is my Edwards family's ancestral home, at least 10 generations and over 300 years worth of family history. It is also the focus of the book(s) I am writing. With so little in print about the area I immediately ordered a copy from Amazon and googled the author. It only got better.

Not only did the author live in Walkerton for a while - her parents still do - she attended King William High School where I worked for five years. Further, she currently lives in North Carolina about an hour north of here and her day job is a school teacher. That resonated. And she was beginning her tour of bookstores, giving readings and passing out promotional homemade jams, jellies, preserves, and pickles. Maybe it was the canned goods that sent me over the top, but I just had to meet her last Sunday when she was to talk in Charlotte. I sent her a quick email of self-introduction, told her I too had lived in Walkerton and was writing about King William. She graciously replied, agreeing to meet with me after her presentation.

After a very pleasant and well-attended reading we talked over a late lunch about King William, people and places we had in common, and writing. I came away from the time we spent together with admiration for her maturity which belies her age and the slightly disconcerting feeling that, although taking different paths, we still were on the same trip. We parted agreeing to stay in touch and assist each other in our writing. I was thrilled. At last someone else who cares to write about a place I love. What I had not done was read her stories.

Our UPS driver delivered the book two days ago and I read the first story I found when I thumbed open the book, Homecoming.

I have not a clue what readers who have never lived between the Pamunkey and Mattaponi rivers imagine as they read Belle's work. Literary types certainly appreciate her skilled writing.
“Strongly imagined, finely controlled and well-crafted. These stories are good because they are true, true in that way that only good fiction can be,"
wrote Percival Everrett, the fiction judge who awarded the work the 2009 Katharine Bakeless Nason Publication Prize for Fiction.

But for me her stories, especially Homecoming, sliced all the way to the bone. I was quickly back among my people, back along the banks of the Mattaponi, for better or worse, back at my high school. Belle Boggs has been paying attention and she gets it right. At her age I could have never written Mattaponi Queen, less because I lacked the writing chops than because I did not have her sensitivity, vision, and her understanding of that rich, multi-layered community we lived in. I hope I sound a bit blown away. I am.

I have not finished the book. I found I must set it aside after reading a story. Like fine whiskey or a rich chocolate cake it is best savored in small amounts, the characters and events thought about for a while. I suppose that is what good writing encourages.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Jim Cramer's Suggestion

Jim Cramer may be right or wrong, but he is always entertaining. His showman persona on Mad Money, while grating at times - well, frequently grating - sometimes obscures his considerable knowledge and experience in and around Wall Street. He certainly knows more than I do; so I sometimes pay attention to what he says.

Here is his yesterday afternoon's blog post. As it seems to be available only by subscription (I will be happy to remove it upon request Jim) and in the interest of full disclosure, here is the whole piece.
How about a moratorium on financial innovation until we figure out what the heck the Bush people approved during the reckless years of the Securities and Exchange Commission? We are hearing once again about a whole new group of products, ETFs that mimic exotic hedge-fund strategies -- last week's nightmare revelation -- and I am sure it will go right into the queue of the SEC and be approved lickety-split because of some ill-found principles ginned up under the anything-goes Bush SEC. Here's my suggestion. Just like we need to halt any new drilling in the Gulf until we figure out how to prevent the greatest ecological disaster, perhaps ever, we need to halt financial innovation until we figure out what the heck went wrong in the "flash crash" and the role of the ETFs and the other derivatives related to the super quickness of the new world. We keep hearing analogies to race cars that can go 160 mph that still have to obey a 65 mile an hour speed limit when driving in civilian traffic. All well and good, except that the people behind the machines don't believe there should be speed limits, and the exchanges themselves are so eager and greedy for market share that they cannot self-regulate. They will lose.

I think the better analogy is to World War I, where the technology of weaponry vastly overrode the ability of humans to deal with the newfound firepower. The financial markets, however, are not like wars. We need to protect soldiers, the regular investors, and we can do it. We aren't engaged in a titanic struggle between nations. We are trying to figure out how to get more regular players into the markets, not trying to figure out how to kill as many soldiers as possible with our fabulous new machine guns.

The financial innovation is like battlefield innovation, though. The innovators claim that they are providing liquidity, but they have turned the playing field into a battlefield, so the players are, justifiably, leaving.

It is worse. The SEC is busy trying to protect major and sophisticated financial institutions, such as the German bank that Goldman Sachs allegedly hurt, instead of trying to protect individuals from rapacious products like the Ultra ETFs. Think about it this way. We know that the Goldman product in dispute, which was meant to mimic the housing market, did exactly that. But the public believes that the Ultra products, particularly the short products, are meant to hedge or protect from down markets. All they really do is track volatility on a daily basis. They don't do what people believe they are designed to do. So we have this ridiculous situation where the SEC is protecting sophisticated investors from something that worked -- even though it went down -- and allowing mom-and-pop investors to be decimated by products that don't work the way that they believe they do.

Now, we add the new wrinkle of the flash crash, which shows that not only do these products not do what the public thinks they do -- driving the public further from the market - they actually affect the underlying stocks, because the markets are so thin, often in vicious ways, including the flash-crash action. The algorithmic programs of the high-frequency traders detect the big orders from some of the products that have been created under the Bush years and back away from the market. That's the mile-wide fraction of an inch-deep sucking of liquidity out of the market.

We need to halt these innovations until we re-evaluate their consequences on the markets and on the public. Just like the oil platform inspections were done in boom times for the oil group, the analysis of these products, particularly the Ultras, was completed during the greatest bull market in history, when there were many players and much volume. Even the faulty studies done by the SEC to justify approving these products said that they could influence the close if the markets weren't so deep, but we know from the flash crash that they aren't deep enough at all and certainly can't handle the volumes these innovations generate, particularly at the close.

Why not pause? Why not figure out the "worth" of these products for individuals, as the Senate debated the worth of the Goldman contraption that was Abacus?

The last time I heard such praise for financial innovation was the move by a handful of institutions to offer portfolio insurance that would protect these funds in a downside. What did it do? It both caused the downside and didn't work the way it was supposed to. That's what the innovations are doing again. Portfolio insurance went away.

These instruments should too. And I bet any study of their impact and uses now would show exactly that. No more innovation. Just analysis. A halt in the creation of new products until we figure out impact and harm. We say yes to it in the Gulf of Mexico. Let's say yes to it on Wall Street.
OK, that was too long. And not my thoughts exactly, for I really do not have the detailed knowledge to have written the above. But his tone and conclusions make perfect sense to me.

For better or worse, Cramer believes in the system, believes that what we now call capitalism is the best way to secure and distribute goods and services within our society. But he is also quite aware that greed and stupidity can foul that system no less than oil in the Gulf. So he gets pissed from time to time because greed and stupidity are themselves timeless. And so do I.

What I find amusing - and frightening at the same time - is that the individuals most responsible for these "innovative" financial instruments, most responsible for the lax governmental oversight, most responsible for the series of decisions that led to the well failure in the Gulf all would probably identify themselves as conservative. What on Earth - save their own status, wealth, and power - would they consider themselves conserving?

Finally, now that I am warming up, don't you think BP would have capped that well long ago if they knew how? Now that the well has blown out how about giving them credit for, and assistance with, the work they are now doing. Then let us nail arses to the wall for what happened before the well blew out, before people died, before the world knew or cared about the Deepwater Horizon. These failures occurred before the rig caught fire. There are plenty of questions to ask to all those who failed to manage the risks inherent at the ragged edge of the technology necessary to drill at that depth. Those questions should be directed industry wide, to governmental agencies at all levels, and to the elected officials who oversee them. Broad questions; detailed questions. Only by looking at what happen before the rupture of that well can change take place and the risk of something like this happening again minimized.

And for those of you with a two and a half ton, 17 mpg vehicle in your driveway that is most stressed bring groceries home, don't think you are not part of the problem.

AND for all you Tea Party bitchers and moaners who seem to want to limit governmental capability - and the taxes that pay for them - at every turn but then expect somebody to have been there to prevent BP and their contractors from cutting corners, somebody to step in and cap that well when its owners can't, and somebody to protect the marine life, the shoreline, and the economy of those who rely on those resources for their livelihood...

Oh never mind. Keep on blaming Obama. Explain how he should be doing more to help the economy, but not spending money or reeling in those who brought it down. Explain how limiting government oversight and capabilities would help as the oil washes ashore, wildlife dies, and taxpayers lose their jobs. Concrete suggestions please. We're all listening.