Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Diario de Oaxaca

This morning I was walking south on Broadway after leaving my son Isaac at school, and two familiar faces stopped me in my tracks. Peter Kuper and his daughter Emily. Peter, a friend, is the famed political cartoonist for Mad Magazine’s Spy vs. Spy. He gave me a copy of his new book, Diario de Oaxaca.

As I continued strolling down Broadway, I felt as if I had just won La Loteria. Right now, after you finish this blog, buy this book. It’s the best book I’ve read all year. Beautifully crafted. Well-written. Irreverent. Bilingual. The work of an artistic duende. ‘Reading’ is not quite the right word here: this book is an experience, into Oaxaca, political protests, bugs, Monarch butterflies, perros, and searching for the truth around and in front of you.

Diario de Oaxaca is Kuper’s sketchbook journal of his two-year stay in Oaxaca, Mexico to get away from George W. Bush, to seek peace of mind, to work. He and his family arrived when a teachers’ strike, for better pay and more funding for schools, was unfolding in the zocalo: sit-ins, barricades, marches, and eventually the response from the governor of the state of Oaxaca, which was to kill. October 27, 2006: three teachers and an American journalist dead.

The artwork of protest and death, buses aflame, bored soldiers occupying the zocalo, a woman carrying fruits on her head in front of a giant battering ram twice her size, the Day of the Dead ofrendas in Oaxaca commemorating those killed during the teachers’ strike. It’s breathtaking. It takes you to Oaxaca. It creates atmosphere in a way that prose cannot. Peter Kuper has created a remarkable eyewitness account of those turbulent times, which repeat themselves in Latin America’s version of Nietzsche’s Eternal Return.

Diario de Oaxaca is visual micro-history: what Kuper experienced in Oaxaca, from the teachers’ strike to an earthquake, both of which he complains were wildly misreported in the media. How do you make sense of a world in which the ‘news’ is often not true, but mostly spin? How does your immediate world fit into the major currents of history, particularly when you have experienced what people are writing about, and the 'official reports' hardly resemble what you have seen with your own eyes? These are questions Kuper is asking about Mexico as well as the United States.

After the teachers’ strike was crushed by the government, Kuper turned his curious eye to entomology. Bugs and butterflies. His family traveled twelve hours to Michoacan, to the remote forests where millions of Monarch butterflies return to have sex and die, presumably a glorious death. Every night bugs invaded their home in Oaxaca. Scorpions. Black widow spiders. Unfathomable creepy crawlies. If only we could stomp on some of our politicians too!

Diario de Oaxaca is a remarkable book. On display is a mind that experiences the world in an astonished play that questions this world at the same time that it communicates its fractures, absurdities, and terrors. ‘Political cartoonist’ as a term to describe Peter Kuper, even though he uses it himself, does not do justice to the work. This is a book I will never give up. It’s curiosity in action. In words. In stunning, thoughtful artwork. It creates an unforgettable new world.

P.S. Take a look at Peter Kuper's show of original art from Diario de Oaxaca at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, and read a recent interview at Design Arts Daily

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Yankee Fan

How and why did I become a Yankee fan? I watch almost every game on the YES network. I have gotten to know the players’ little routines when they come up to bat. Show me only a silhouette of a batter getting ready for a pitch, and I can tell you who it is in the Yankee lineup.

Jeter seems to signal a kind of “Stop” with one hand toward the umpire right before he settles into the batter’s box. Matsui looks at his bat up and down, his back becomes straight, and his shoulder muscles twitch right before he is primed for the pitch. Teixiera has the strangest stance: his neck juts forward, his back is rigid, and he seems almost off-balance. A-Rod reminds me of a coiled snake, his bat waving languorously behind his neck, ready to strike.

I used to be a more ambivalent Yankee fan. I had never been into baseball in Texas, where I grew up. Everything was football, and my team in El Paso, my brothers’ team, was and is the Dallas Cowboys. But I did go to dozens of games at Cohen Stadium to cheer the El Paso Diablos. But major league baseball? I didn’t care in El Paso as a kid; I didn’t care in Boston, even though I pulled all-nighters at Harvard College for four years and lived a jog away from Fenway Park for another year.

I moved to New York in 1990, and I still watched more football than baseball on television. The Giants were in the same division as the Cowboys. The Yankees were winning World Series then, in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000. Yet even during those glorious years, I can’t honestly say I was yet a Yankee fan. I would watch the important games; I saw snippets of the parades in the news when they won another championship. But I hadn’t bought into the team with my heart. I didn’t know every player. I had never been to a Yankee game in person.

Probably two or three years after the start of the millennium, I made it a point to see a game. I think I was walking my kids to a store, a play or a movie near or around Times Square, and I stumbled into the Yankee Clubhouse. You can buy tickets here? How do you get to Yankee Stadium anyway? I had stupid questions; but thankfully somebody answered them.

From the Upper Westside, holy mole, it was so easy to get to Yankee Stadium! Just a short subway ride to the Bronx. Why hadn’t I done this before? The kids cared more about the hot dogs and chicken fingers than about that first game, which I think was against the lowly Devil Rays. For a few years in a row, I bought tickets for three or four games during the summer, and I got hooked.

I began to know the players, their habits. I started watching the Yankees more religiously on TV. I have never gotten to the point of hating the Red Sox, but I do want to crush them in the playoffs. When the Red Sox won their first World Series in a gazillion years, the next day I gave a friend of mine, a transplanted Bostonian who dies for the Red Sox, a bottle of champagne. I knew what it meant to him. I was a fan too, and I knew what it would’ve meant for me and my team.

We’re playing the Toronto Blue Jays tonight, and losing in the seventh inning, 4-2. Last night, a nasty brawl begun by Jorge Posada and some bald-headed pitcher for the Blue Jays, I forget his name, emptied the benches. The Yankees have to keep playing well; they have the best record in baseball right now. But is this the beginning of a slide, or just a blip in a great season? My heart’s into it now. It matters if we lose now. I can’t imagine missing a single game now. (Don’t trade Matsui.)

(Matusi hit a two-run homer in the eighth inning to tie the game, and Cervelli slapped a single to center to score Gardner in the ninth: 5-4, Yankees win!)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Investment Character

I am reading the biography Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, by Alice Schroeder, and thoroughly enjoying it. Years ago I read Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor; I teach parts of Graham and Dodd’s Security Analysis; each year I read Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report to understand some of what they are doing and why.

I would not consider myself a Buffettologist in the sense that I copy whatever stock investments Warren Buffett makes. But I do try to understand what he does and why, and apply those principles to companies and industries I am familiar with. Do your own homework, I say. Understand where your money is, and why it’s there. That’s the way to be an intelligent, independent investor.

As I’ve read this biography, I am not surprised to learn Buffett was/is good at math and calculating odds; I am not surprised to learn his friend Charlie Munger is much the same way. Ideas pour out from their heads; they are passionate about investing, and they believe they are right. ‘Didactic,’ is how they describe themselves. Other words that come to mind are ‘relentless,’ ‘iconoclastic,’ ‘anti-social,’ and ‘obsessed with details.’ They are also honest, self-critical, and loyal to those whom they think deserve loyalty.

When I have taught my summer course on Investment Analysis, I have always argued that number-crunching is only half the battle to becoming a good investor. The other half, and maybe even the most important part, is having the right kind of character to be a successful investor. I think you can train someone to understand and calculate the right figures from annual reports, 10-K reports, and 10-Q reports. I think you can teach someone to use discounted cash flow analysis to get a sense of whether the current stock price correctly values, or undervalues, future earnings.

(I’m not surprised Ben Graham did not give much weight to future earnings, because I also believe projections into the future are dicey figures easily manipulated to prove whatever you want to prove. Understand the nature of the business at hand, and how it can remain profitable forever, or be easily susceptible to margin pressures, inflation, taxation and so on, and that’s how you can truly value ‘future earnings.’ You won’t get an exact number, but you’ll get a sense of whether this business is worth owning. It’s better to be approximately right than exactly wrong. I think Buffett said that.)

But my point is that while number-crunching is largely teachable, having the right investment character is for the most part not. I don’t care what anybody else thinks, and I don’t look for others’ approval of my investment ideas, nor for my clothing, nor for my unorthodox political positions, nor my blog entries. I have always been that way. As a toddler, my mother called me ‘viejo Josisah,’ which was the name of a crotchety old man she once knew in Chihuahua. I was grumpy; I loved being alone; I was, in a word, ‘didactic.’ Now I am a rumpled, ornery man on Broadway, with what I consider to be a plain look on my face but which my wife Laura says looks like a permanent scowl.

That kind of investment character makes it easy to go against the crowd, to not panic when others are decrying the end of capitalism as we know it, or to not join the party when the champagne corks fly to the ceiling because of Internet stocks, China, or whatever the next new fad is. I also don’t like debt. I try to keep things simple. I try to see things as they are, not as I wish them to be, at least for my investments. The recent market meltdown, although painful, was not enough to change my ways; I had enough liquidity to survive.

So ‘Know Thyself,’ that Socratic maxim, is so important to me as an investor. If you know you don’t have the right kind of investment character, then lowering your costs with an index fund is about the smartest thing you can do. If you think you have the right math skills and character, and you start running your own individual stock portfolio, and then you panic when others head for the hills, or you slavishly follow the momentum of euphoria, then learn from that. Those that learn from clear-eyed self-reflection and analysis will be winners on Wall Street. Those that don’t will embody Mr. Market’s schizophrenia.