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Monday, December 31, 2012

New years Ramblings on baseball , Markets and Life its Ownself

So another year is coming to a close. It has been a mildly eventful year with the move to a more southerly location. We had the great truck caper of 2012 and all the attendant adventure of having everything you own stolen along with your moving fan. That resolved with the miraculous recovery by the praiseworthy North Carolina State Police and is now just another story to tell. As a side note I love the State of South Carolina. The low country area is one of the prettiest in the country but I hope I never have to drive it end to end three times in one day in a car with no air conditioning in July ever again. We have pretty much settled in here in Windermere with the gators and Mickey Mouse. As I write this it is approaching 70 degrees at mid-morning and I have little to complain about.

Moving here was the latest stage in a transition phase of my life that began at about three years ago. The years between 38 and 48 were a high speed romp through life with fast boats, horse tracks, Rush Street reviling, Manhattan misadventures and just a scotch fueled extravaganza. There are a lot of memories in there that I would not trade for anything and friendships I will have for the rest of my life but after a decade of it I was starting to lose a step. More Saturdays found me on the couch with a ball game and a cocktail than in the dock bars or hanging onto the side rails of Tic Tacs boat as he once again misjudged a wake. Like an aging fighter I could still go when the occasion called for it but it hurt more the day after.

Then I met Erin and the process moved along at a rapid clip. It is hard to justify going out when the person you most want to be with is at home. There is still plenty of adventuring and excitement but it is of a more personal nature. She is my best friend and partner and hanging out with her is my favorite activity of all. The move to Orlando has seen us settle into a pattern of life that is slower but even more rewarding on so many levels.

I do not want anyone to get the idea that I have grown up or anything silly like that. I have not gotten religion or fallen down the twelve steps. I may not have the Grouse distillery working a third shift anymore but there are several vineyards that have no doubt seen an uptick in their bottom line. We have sniffed out some of the cool funky little bars here in Florida including some dock joints and beach bars. Most evenings can find me on my little lanai with a wineglass and a cigarette in hand enjoying my palm trees. This is merely the latest and best chapter of the adventure I call life. If the kids would move to Florida sometime soon I would have everything a man could want out of life. Good wine, lots of laughter, good music, good books and someone to share it all with. Perfection.

Now onto other items of various levels of importance. It has been a strong sports year. The Orioles made the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. Navy had a winning season and took home the CIC trophy once again and Beat Army once again. The Ravens have some serious choices to make as the offseason looms but for the 5th straight year are in the playoffs and should be able to handle Indy and move to the next round. My newly adopted Florida Gators are in the Sugar Bowl and will be in the top 5 if they snuff Louisville on Tuesday. I still don’t give a shit about the NBA and the hockey strike means pretty much nothing to me. All in all a good year.

Baseball has had an interesting off season so far. As if life in the AL East is not bad enough the Blue Jays decided to out Yankee the Yankees and made some monster signings. They now have a savage lineup and strong pitching staff. This is going to be on exciting team to watch and a very tough one to beat. The Yankees look old, Boston got a little better with some key signings. Tampa Bay remains a consistently good team with an ignorant and absent fan base. So far Baltimore remains pretty much the same.

Although many are concerned about the lack of moves by the form office it may be the right thing to do. If Nolan Reimold can come back and play like he did before getting hurt we will have an awesome outfield.  He hit for average and power and along with Jones and Markakis would form a solid outfield. Machado looks good at third and in addition to being occasionally Brooks like at the bag the kid can it and he is fast. Chris Davis needs to work on his position play but he is a solid bat. If JJ Hardy can get those 30 points back on his batting average we have a solid infield along with Weiters behind the plate. The hole is at second base. Brian Roberts is a mystery at this point . If there is any question about B-Rob we need to go get a second baseman with either power or speed to solidify the infield and improve the offense.

The pitching staff looks good to me. If we can bring back the same guys and the younger guys continue to improve the staff will be just fine. Dylan Bundy could break into the bigs full time this year and that would be another welcome young talented arm. I think we can ride this staff into the playoffs again.

We could use one big bat at DH. If we could get a 30+ homerun 100 RBI guy in the middle of the lineup we will be a tough team to face. The problem is that I really do not see anyone in the free agent ranks that looks like a decent fit. We will have to count on Buck to find a way to get some additional pop in the lineup. It’s a tough division and a tough league. On paper it’s the Angels and Blue jays but I like our chances of hanging around until the end of the year and maybe surprising someone.

 I suppose I have to tackle politics before moving on and that means it is time for the children and overly sensitive types to leave the room.  Dear Government: Please just do your job as defined. Provide a level playing field for commerce, provide for the common defense and leave me the fuck alone. The rest of this shit is simply not your job. I do not need you to regulate my behavior and provide me with some asinine safety net or somehow try to make an unfair world magically fair. Dear ignorant liberal: Please quit trying to have the government solve the words problems.  They cannot. Further I do not want your help or advice on living my life, raising my children or handling my financial affairs. I did not sign a social contract and you owe me nothing and I sure as shit do not think I owe you or anyone else one fucking thing as a result of your birth. You take care of you and yours and I will do the same thing. Dear Ignorant intolerant social conservative: really? Shut the fuck up. I do not care what you think of my sex life, what I do or do not do with my body or my religious views. Just shut you ignorant backwater mouth and keep your shit to yourself. If you want to sit there and believe all that ignorant shit about people do so quietly. And quit blaming it on Jesus. If Jesus came back today he would most likely beat the ever loving shit out of your close minded hate filled selves.  Above all please quit trying to legislate morality or perhaps best of all just quit fucking voting.

It boils down to this. Quit looking for the government to solve your problems. Take personal responsibility and act as the invisible hand of the market to change society. Practice the golden rule and take care of those you love. Help where you can and don’t hurt if you can help it. Work hard, be thrifty and responsible and quit asking me to bail you out. I don’t care if you are a third generation welfare queen or large bank who made fucked investments. You do not have a claim on my money so please just quit buying politicians with money or votes and leave me the fuck alone. Please just leave me the fuck alone and I promise I will do the same for you. Quit ruining my world and my country in the name of fairness, for the children, to save the financial system or any other bullshit reason you can come up with.

Now onto markets. First off I have no idea what will happen in the stock market next year. Neither does anyone else. If anyone tells you they know what the stock market is going to do and asks you to invest based on their beliefs, stop, think and then beat the living fuck out of the charlatan. I know some super smart guys who use higher math and super computers and they can predict the market with a high degree of success. That is for the next few hours or maybe a day or two at most. Beyond that it’s all guessing and mental masturbation. Why so many people waste so much time and energy trying to predict the market direction remains one of the great mysteries of our time.

The truth is that if you look for safe and cheap stocks and buy during down moves you should just fine over time in the stock market. Quit chasing the popular names and focus on businesses that can be purchased at an attractive price. Prices will fluctuate daily but business and asset values more slowly.  Read Graham, Whitman and Klarman and then act accordingly.

My list for the end of 2011 has done pretty well this year with an average return above 30%. I’ll take that. That doesn’t include the suggestion to buy small banks which was also a winning strategy for the past year with several takeovers and positive surprises. Lets hope we do as well with the suggestions for 2013.

Going into the year I find I am bullish on energy stocks. I am not oil expert but I see a few things. First to achieve energy independence and get the economy growing the administration is going to have to allow drilling, digging and fracking. They can pay lip service to the premature exploitation of renewables but the truth is we need oil gas and coal. Some doomsday types see oil going to $40. The Saudi oil minister is the most accurate indicator of oil prices I have found and he is pretty comfortable with the current price. I do not see prices going much lower for very long.

There my bullshit macro case for oil, gas and coal. The real reason I like the space is because so many of the stocks are cheap. Arch Coal (ACI) is trading at 60% of tangible book value. Nabors is at 70% of TBV. Swift Energy (SFY) is at 60%. Penn Virginia (PVA) is at 30%. Rowan is at 80%. Tesco (TESO) trades for TBV and has enormous upside in the oil services sector. I like the energy sector because it is cheap.

I like staffing as well. I have done okay with Kelly Services (KELYA) so far but its still at 90% of tangible book value. One of my favorite picks in Volt Information Sciences (VISI), a provider of technical staffing to many fortune 500 companies. I do not have time to get into the nuts and bolts of this special situation but it is an uber cheap stock with several catalysts. I don’t like these stocks because I think jobs and the economy will come roaring back. I like them because they are cheap.

I like the banks again this year. I even like some foreign banks again. I have a good profit in Bank of Ireland (IRE) but I still like the stock. Its at 40% of TBV and Wilbur Ross is on the board. The stock goes a lot higher over the next decade. I am looking at Latin American banks, especially Brazil but haven’t pulled any triggers there yet. The closest I have so far are Popular (BPOP) and First Bancorp (FBR) out of Puerto Rico. They are longshots but could easily rise many multiples of the current quote over the next few years.

I am not giving up the little banks I like as I see no need to create competition for myself in these thinly traded gems. If you really want to know make cash offer and I may discuss them with you. Of the larger community and regionals I like KEY, BERK, WFD,AF, CBF,CFNB, ESSA, ASBB, CPF,FFNW, and several others I will mention from time to time during 2013. Watch this space.

A few things to keep in mind. I do not buy up tapes. You improve your odds of success dramatically by buying fear and selling greed. Markets Fluctuate. Make that work for you. I stay small, move slow and scale in and out of stocks most of the time. Insider buying is hugely predictive. I have done a lot of work on this during the past year and found it be a powerful addition to the arsenal. I own stocks for a long time so if you are looking for three month holding you are probably best following someone else.

So 2012 is coming to a close. In 2013 I hope to move ahead with a few projects, increase my money management practice, maybe introduce a newsletter or web based project, and perhaps write a book. On the business side of things my goals are modest as I do not have any wish to be the biggest or the famous but to succeed and prosper enough to have a good life for me and mine.

There are far more important things to focus on in this life. In 2013 I will kiss my wife often and tell her I love her every day. I will try not to give her too many reasons to kill me in my sleep during the year. I will talk to my adult kids often and agitate the living shot out of them until they move to Florida. I will continue to restrict my little ones access to electronic crap and make her do unpleasant stuff like homework and reading books. I will make sure she continues to love art and explores her talents in that area. I will do all the things she hates now so she can have all the things she loves later.

I will read a lot of books. I will drink a lot of wine. I will go to the beach more often. I will laugh a lot. I will make new friends where ever and whenever I can.  I will avoid ignorant people. I will look for alligators every day. I will watch a lot of baseball games. I will go to more minor league games (I think there is a team called the Pelicans right down the road and I simply have to become a fan).I will listen to a lot of music. I will spend a lot of time on my lanai. I will find a swamp bar to go with the beach bars we have found. I will take a lot of naps. I will walk the dog a lot. I will do all the things I like with the people I love and together we will ride out any storms that my come our way during the year. I will try to emulate Ben Graham and do something generous, something creative and something foolish every day.

It’s a new year. A new chance to embrace life, to live, to learn, to grow, to love. Let’s make the most of it.

Monday, December 17, 2012

To Be Good, Be Different

During the course of my day to day activities I spend a lot of time talking to other folks involved in the markets. I am equal opportunity chatter and talk to investors, traders, growth guys, momentum guys, risk arbs, and even the futures and options folks.  On occasion I will troll around the web and read some of the various trading and investing websites and chat boards to get a feel form sentiment and activity. The more I read the more I have a question for all the retail and individual traders out there. Why do you do this to yourself? Individual traders seem to be determined to give away any edge they may have and become donors to the large funds and Wall Street profit machine.

Everyone seems to be trading the same stuff. Almost every individual trader I run across has the same stocks on their screen. They are all trading Apple (AAPL), Google (GOOG), Gold ETFs, Salesforce.Com (CRM) and other so called hot stocks and ETFs. All of you are poring over each day’s edition of a certain daily business paper looking for high ranked stocks with the same technical patterns. A huge percentage of traders are trading the same stuff in almost the exact same way and wondering why they are not more successful.
Think about what you are doing for second. You are trading the same highly liquid popular stocks that all the black boxes and leading quant funds are trading every day. You are competing against guys like Jim Simons who has so much computing power they have to install special air conditioners. The guy on the other side of the trade is likely to be Steve Cohen and his guys at SAC who are masters of short term trading or three guys with PhDs in computer science and Quantum Physics two blocks from the exchange. When you choose to trade what everybody else is trading you are getting into the shark pool wearing a meat suit.

I spent a good deal of time this week talking about the powerful market anomalies provided by insider trading information. Although I use it in my activities as an investor I am just befuddled as to why a trader would not use such a powerful edge. You have an easily assembled list of stocks that have a strong statistical probability of moving in a certain direction. Companies where insiders have been selling stock in clusters have a tendency to go lower. Those with CEO and CFO buying or cluster buying by insiders have a very pronounced expectation to go a lot higher over the next three to six months. Why aren’t you running your patterns and statistics on these lists where you have a huge edge and no competition from other traders?

Everybody and their brother it seems trade of the new high and top performing stocks lists. In the past year I have been doing a fair amount of work on establishing hedged portfolios using stocks trading at new lows. 
What we have found is a marked tendency for the stock that are down more than 50% in the past year to stage enormous rebounds. When we ran the data in the first week of November we had four stocks that made the list. All four are up today with the top two performers, Abercrombie and Fitch (ANF) and First Solar (FSLR) up by more than 30% in less than 60 days. Why are you trading the same stocks everyone else is, and the ones where large quant funds are gaming against you in highly liquid stocks?

I have had traders tell me they have to be in the same stuff as everybody else because that’s where the action is in the market. That’s the same reason guys go to the craps table as well and they usually lose. If you want to gamble, go to Vegas. At least they have free cocktails in the casino. To succeed in the markets you have to approach it as a business. Most individual traders do not have the same liquidity concerns of the big funds and don’t need to worry about getting off a million shares at a clip during the day. You have the advantage of being able to trade where and what they cannot.  You are not here for action you are here to make money. At least I hope so because action junkies go broke.

There are several very exploitable market anomalies you can use as an edge and find opportunities way from the competition. Traders tend to want to be in high volatility stocks to take advantage of price swings. Sounds good but did you know that according to several academic studies low volatility stocks tend to outperform the higher volatility stocks? I ran a screen of low beta liquid stocks and looked back over 2012. I found any number of successful technical patterns that would have offered huge trading opportunities.  I have done studies of S&P 500 stocks trading below book value and found extreme out-performance.  I looked at my list of candidates from January and found  a plethora of tradable patterns that my TA oriented friends tell me work pretty well.

If you are trying to day trade the same stocks all the other day traders are you are picking up dimes in front of bulldozers. It is highly likely that a bigger faster trader will eventually push you under the dozer and scoop up all your dimes. Change your time frame and your universe. If your methods and tools are valid you will make more money that you can doing what everyone else does.

Originally published on real Money

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Having the Inside track

Those that know me well know that I am something of a geek. I spend significant parts of my day reading, testing and reviewing information on everything from markets to baseball. I have also been known to sit down and read academic research on anomalies in the stock market that might help me make money for myself, clients and readers. One of my areas of interest has been insider buying as an indicator or catalyst in deep value situations. I have done a lot of work this year on top executive buying with very positive results. In a recent discussion with some friends I was reminded of the concept of cluster buying.

Cluster buying is several different insiders buying within a very short period of time. The earliest study on this was done by two of the legends of our business and academic research. Victor Niederhoffer and Jim Lorie (if you are not familiar with these gentleman break out your search engine and get busy reading) did a study back in 1968 titled Predictive and Statistical Properties of Insider trading that found that stocks with 3 or more insider buys in a short period of time outperformed the overall stock market by a wide margin. Further research by Jeffrey Jaffe of Wharton, Nejat Seyhun of the University of Michigan and others has confirmed the effectiveness of insider cluster buying.

Looking at the list I find that it confirms my view of the world right now. Real estate is probably the single cheapest asset on the planet right now and insiders seem to feel the same way. Inland real estate owns shopping centers in the Midwest and has seen strong buying by officers and directors in the past month. Seven different insiders, including the CEO and CFO, have made open market purchases of the stock in the past month. Their centers are usually anchored by national retail chains such as drug stores and supermarkets. The company has been aggressively renewing leases in the past year and their strong presence in their key markets of Minnesota and Illinois to do so at very attractive rates. Management has also been working to restructure and reduce the cost of debt used to finance their properties. At the current quote the REIT yield a very attractive 7.2%.

Mortgage REITs have much maligned in the financial press of late for what appear to be good reasons. The continual buying of mortgage backed securities by the Fed is pressuring spreads for these REITs and forcing many to lower dividends. Refinancing is also a risk as older high yield bonds are paid off and the proceeds have to be reinvested at lower yields. In spite of this insiders in the sector seem quite bullish over the past few months.

 ARMOUR  Residential (ARR) is at the higher end of the risk and leverage spectrum with a debt to equity ratio of more than 8. Because of the high leverage the current yield on shares of the REIT is an eye popping 15.410%. In the past month 5 insiders including the CEO and CFO have been buyers of the stocks. Hatteras Financial yields “only” 12% after the recent dividend cut has seen 3 insiders step and buy shares in the open market. The insider buying in this sector flies in the face of many Wall Street downgrades and negative press attention in this sector so it bears watching for contrarian opportunities.

The logical step from real estate is to those who finance all the properties.  It is no secret that I love bank stocks for the next several years and it appears insiders at many of these institutions are in agreement.   Many of the banks are too small to mention here but a few are larger community banks worth considering. MidSouth Bank (MSL) is a bank that I have mentioned in the past and the stock is still a buy. The Louisiana based bank has 40 branches in their home stat as well as neighboring Texas. Right now the shares trade at about 90% of book value and insiders like the price. Three different insiders including the Vice Chairman have purchased shares in the open market in the past month. Chemical Financial (CHFC) of Michigan has seen buying by 4 insider’s right around book value in the past four weeks.

The ground breaking work of Lorie and Niederhoffer has been followed up many academics and investment practitioners and it still works today. Cluster buying can help us identify undervalued stocks with the potential for outsized gains. Sometimes rather than reinvent the wheel it is good to stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us.

Before we move on from the subject of insider buying I decided to run one last screen for insider activity. One of my favorite screens to run is the search for what I call perfect stocks. A perfect stock in my world trades below tangible book value, profitable and pays a dividend. This has been a fantastic screen over the years producing some wildly profitable stocks. The final criterion is usually a high level of insider ownership but I decided to replace that with insider buying in the past couple of months and see what we found.

The first observation is that there is a serious struggle between Wall Street and insiders over the fate of Mortgage REITS right now. The conventional wisdom on mortgage REITS is that the run is over and the sector is too risky. The bear argument is that low mortgage rates are compressing spreads and making it very difficult for the MREITS to maintain their dividend. The housing market is stabilizing somewhat and we are seeing refinance activity that pays off higher yielding binds earlier than expected. At the same time home sales are still sluggish so not much new paper is being purchased. As a final bear blow they Fed is now a major competitor for what paper is issued as they are buying $40 billion a month of mortgage paper.

The argument seems to make sense and we have seen several mortgage REITs cut their dividend. Why then are the folks running these firms such enthusiastic buyers of their own stock? 3 of the ten largest insider buys by dollar volume on my list are Mortgage REITs. Officers and directors at ARMOUR Residential (ARR), Hatteras Financial (HTS) and Two Harbors (TWO) have all been sizable buyers in the open market. The CEO of one of my favorite long term MREIT holdings Invesco Capital Mortgage (IVR) has been an enthusiastic buyer of his own stock in the past month. Someone is very wrong in this sector and although they may be early I do not think it is the insiders.

The second thing that is apparent form the list is that the executives and board members of small regional and community banks share my belief in the Trade of the Decade. The vast majority of the bank stocks on the list are too small to talk about here but a few names standout. Westfield Financial (WFD) is one my favorite post thrift conversion bank stocks and one of their executive purchased 30,000 shares in the open market recently. A director recently picked up 25,000 shares of New York based Astoria Financial (AF), another stock I have owned for some time now. First Bancorp (FBNC) is growing though acquisition and FDIC assisted purchases of failed banks. The credit picture is improving and the CEO seems to believe better days are ahead for the North Carolina based bank. He recently went into the market and increased his personal stock holdings by 10%.

Positive news about strong sales of Gorilla Glass recently led to a nice pop is shares of Corning (GLW).  I still like the stock and so do as least one insider. One of the directors recently opened his checkbook and bought 170,000 shares of the stock. This company is in all the right industries for the next several years as their glass products are used in smart phones, flat screens, tablet computers, biotech research and clean air technology. The stock is cheap and the company is poised to be a growth leader over the next five to ten years. I am happy to see that the folks running the company agree with my positive outlook for the company going forward.

Two insiders including the CEO have been buying shares of leading grains processor and transporter Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). The shares have been trading right around book value and some insiders seem to think that is cheap enough to be attractive as a long term investment. Rising global demand for food will eventually drive earnings and the stock price of this company much higher and it is one my buy list for a substantial market decline. If I could get the stock at less than 80% of tangible book value in a protracted market decline I would be a wildly enthusiastic buyer.

The exercise of combining perfect stocks and insider buying didn’t provide much in the way of new information or opportunities but it did confirm that we are on the right track with many of our investments. The people running our many of our portfolio companies like them as much as we do.

The use of insider data to find profitable buying opportunities is pretty well documented. It is one of the stock market anomalies like price to book value and momentum that has stood the test of time. The Niederhoffer and Lori study came out almost 45 years and the data is as relevant today as it was then. Many anomalies are arbitraged away almost as quickly as they appear but these last. I suspect this is because they have to do with corporate valuation levels and human behaviors which are two constants of the market arena.

Another anomaly that has lasted is the flip side of insider buying. Individual insider sales of stock are almost random in nature. The fact that a director for officer sold a block of stock tells almost nothing about the future of the company or the stock price. The fact that an officer needs to raise cash to pay for a dream wedding for his daughter or to diversify his holding is not in and of itself predictive. However the same studies that confirm the predictive nature of insider buying tell us that when several insiders sell in a short period of time the stock is probably going lower. It is highly unlikely that a group of insiders all decide to diversify at the same time or are all building dream houses for their wives in the same short time span. It is an indication they are aware of declining business trends or an overvaluation of their companies stock price.

When I sat down and looked for stocks with insider selling some interesting names appeared on the list. Storm Ruger (RGR) has seen it stock surge as gun sales have strengthened in the past several years. Fear mongering about the administration’s anti-gun policies have helped to lift revenues and profits at the company. After years of stagnant sales and earnings the rush to buy a gun the past few years have seen sales and profits sky rocket and the stock is up more than 12 fold from the 2008 low. Insiders seem to think the stock may be ahead of itself as 4 insiders have sold stock in the open market in the past month. The sales were significant with some insiders reducing their holding by 30% or more. That is not diversification it is profit taking. Investors would be wise to do the same at these levels.

Another interesting name on the list is asset management and mutual fund provider Eaton Vance (EV). The company has done very well in the past year as their strong lineup of fixed income funds have attracted positive flows form investors. They have made some bolt on acquisitions to give them greater equity exposure but the firm is known as a faced income shop. The flagship equity product Large Cap Value Fund has been a laggard and is showing equity outflows of late. The stock is trading at 52 week high right now and insiders seem to feel it is fully valued at this level. Six officers and directors have taken profits in the past month by selling stock into the open market.

The most selling in the past six months has been in shares of orthotic and prosthetic patient care provider Hanger Corporation. 7 insiders including the CFO have sold shares in recent weeks. The company reported rising sales in the third quarter but fell short of the always highly accurate analysts’ estimates. In spite of that the stock is still closer to 52 week highs than lowers and insiders are cashing out. The President and chief Operating Officer reduced his holdings by 20% and one of the directors sold about half his shares.

Insider selling is not a guarantee that a stock will go lower right away. However there is a strong statistical tendency for stocks with clusters of selling by officers and directors to decline. It just does not make sense to me to be a buyer of something the people running the company are selling. No matter how good an analyst or observer I may be, there is no way I can know as much as those on the inside of day to day operations.

Originally published as a series on Real Money.Com

Friday, December 07, 2012

Biggest Game Of The Year

Tomorrow afternoon around 3:00 they will tee it up and kick it off for a college football game. There is no conference title on the line, few if any of the guys on the field will ever play a down in the National Football League, and the outcome will not factor in any of the polls. It is the biggest game of the year. For the 113th time Army will face Navy in the annual clash of our two oldest military service academies.

I grew up in Annapolis near the Academy. It was a different time and we all had pretty much free access to Academy Grounds as long as we didn’t do something too stupid. We played football on the proactive fields, boxed in the basement gyms using their equipment, swam in their pools and just generally ran amuck on the grounds. I can still recall the painted Tecumseh statue and the other pageantry that exploded across the Academy as this game approached every year. As a little guy I would go to the bell ringing ceremony at Bancroft Hall when they won and the team arrived back at Bancroft Hall to ring the bell. Sneaking into Navy football games was as much a part of local life as fighting with the Middies over the local girls. I have been to countless games and to this day carry a scar over my left eye from a well-aimed class ring reopening a childhood injury.  The Academy and the Midshipman were a huge part of life in Annapolis and we had pretty much the same townie-college relationship that exists in every college town.

The kids that opt to go to a service academy make a huge choice. These are intelligent kids at the top of their class. They have a choice of where to go to school because if you can cut the mustard at Annapolis or West Point you likely would have excelled at Stanford and Harvard as well. They chose instead to undergo a rigorous military education and lifestyle and commit to term in the armed forces of the United States of America. This is not four years of beer blasts and cramming for exams. This is four years of yes, Sir, no Sir, high and tight and a difficult curriculum. This doesn’t end in an entry level Wall Street slot or grunt work at a Big Three accounting firm. This ends in a uniform as Junior Officer in the military of a nation that has been at war for years and probably will be for years to come.

It hit me back in 2006 or so when a bunch of us went to a Navy game in Annapolis. As I watched the march on of the Brigade of Midshipman it struck ne that ever man and woman in that impressive cadre had signed up post 9-11 and knew that there was pretty good chance combat was in their future. This was especially true of the Hoo-Rah Heads that opted to serve in the Marine Corps. They were not forced to do this. They were not drafted or impelled by circumstances to join the military. They chose this service to their nation over other opportunities.

Needless to say this hurts recruiting for the top players. If you have a chance to go to the NFL and make a gajillion bucks the idea of five years ducking fire in the hills of Afghanistan is just not that attractive. This is especially true for the long gray line. You can go in to the Navy and serve your country without ever having to sight your rifle on some insane Islamic fundamentalists bearing down on you. If you choose West Point you are pretty much assured that having religious sickos trying to kill you is in your near future. In the paper this morning where some past and present Army coaches attributed this as one reason for the decade long Navy win streak in the series.

Unlike the football factories there are no easy course for service academy football players. You are going to learn engineering , math, science and military history. You will get good grades or you will be asked to leave, or worse flunked out after the start of Junior year and have to serve your commitment as enlisted personnel and cannon fodder. You will learn military drill and you will practice such. You will serve various other duties as assigned of a military nature. You will take the mandatory physical education and training programs assigned for all students. If you want to play football you will do so on your own time.

This will be a hard played game with a high level of intensity. They will hit hard and do whatever it takes to win and take the commander in Chief trophy back to the Severn or the banks of the Hudson. It will be as rugged as any big rivalry but there is huge difference. The safety that levels a receiver going over the middle tomorrow may well be calling him for air support next year. The O-lineman battling all day with a linebacker may well depend on the middle linebackers marine patrol to rescue his pinned down unit sometime in the next few years. The punter whose soring kicks push the opponent deep into their own territory may be soaring over the return man’s head in an F18 next year to provide fire support. The Navy scat back slicing through the Army defense may need be calling his would be tacklers for artillery support as his company of marines moves up onto the line. This game is different.

Someone will win tomorrow and someone will lose. Whatever happens the United States of America wins as once again our best and brightest have answered the call to serve their nation with their minds, bodies and even their lives if need be. It is the biggest game of the year.


Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Holidays Rant

It must be time for a tirade. I haven’t gone off on a wild ass hare brained tangent in some time now and frankly I think I am overdue. Given all that’s going on in the world it is shocking I haven’t been on a grand profanity laced vile spewing tirade long before now. We have the fiscal cliff with the whole world hanging on to see if a compromise is reached. We have Pravda calling US communists. There is Joe Flacco playing like an elite QB-in an all-girls school in the northern reaches of Maine. We have every asshole in the world opining on shit they know nothing about on the news networks.Every day you have to listen to alleged financial professionals talk about Apple like it’s the keys to the goddamn kingdom of wealth. The only people dumber than our President are in the House and the Senate.  Maryland is going to the Big Ten even though they can’t even win in the ACC. It is a 12 hour drive from Louisville to the Atlantic Ocean but they are joining the Atlantic Coast Conference. You look around at the world and it’s hard not to think the Mayans may have been a bunch of cockeyed fucking optimists.

There are lots of good causes and subjects for a righteous tirade but I am going to kick off with Christmas. What have you fucking sinister bastards done with Christmas? I used to love Christmas. I would turn into a happy, happy ho-ho-ho motherfucker around Christmas time. Christmas always kicked off right after the Army Navy game on the first Saturday of December. I can even put up with those who think it should start Thanksgiving weekend. But it is absolutely ridiculous to be picking fake pine boughs out of my nostril while trying to pick up a teenage mutant ninja Barbie cat costume for the kid two weeks before Halloween. I can put up with the Salvation Army bell ringers in December but if I see you before the Thanksgiving turkey is thawed or the point spreads for that days games have been posted I am going to stuff your head in your damn kettle and play a rousing chorus of Ina Godda Da Vida. If I have to stumble over the Johnny Walker holiday gift sets to pick up some hooch for Labor Day it’s not a good thing. Christmas starts in December not mid fucking summer.

I get the whole idea of Christmas. The date has nothing to do with the actual birth of Christ but was designed by the men in pointy hats to replace Saturnalia and other Pagan Winter solstice festivities in order to retain converts. Not sure it was necessary since most of them were converted under pain of death but I guess the early Church fathers threw the pagans a bone. Most of the culture of the time had a winter festival as the work in the fields had come to a halt and it was kind of a last bash before the harsh winter set in. Booze, ribald behavior, grand feasts and just general good old we are about to freeze our asses off and will be lucky not to starve kind of shindig. To preserve the party the birth of Christ was switched to December and many of the old traditions were assimilated. I get it. To keep the coffers full you have to keep the parishioners happy and they wanted a party in early Winter so let’s give them a big one. What’s bigger than Gods Birthday?

But that's not enough. Now we have to go back and turn a couple of the old Gods into Santa Claus. What better way to celebrate the birth of the savior than inventing lies to tell the children about a jolly old fat man who brings all the kids presents. Let’s throw in some elves and flying reindeer to make it more believable for the little tykes. Don't let them think their parents loved them enough to scrimp and saved to give them gifts to celebrate the day. Let them think that the magic fat man dropped them off for free. In order to be sure they grow up well rounded let’s spend the first seven years of their lives hard selling them myths of magic fat men and bunny rabbits dropping off gifts to honor the birth and murder of their god and then tell them the savage truth and shatter all their illusions when they are 8 or so. That sounds like a grand idea doesn’t it?

Still in spite of all the basic madness I can get into a little Christmas. Deck the halls, exchange some gifts, break out the good wine, cook a giant ass turkey and put some Sinatra Christmas tunes on the boom box. We have had some mad Christmas celebrations around Chez Melvin. I am sure we will have many more but I am not participating in this mad circus that passes for Christmas these days.

I am a dyed in the wool capitalist and for years I have passed off the grumblings about the commercialization of the holiday as demented mutterings of left wing religious whackos. But mother of god this is out of hand. Wal Mart opens for Christmas shopping before Aunt Ethel has passed out from cheap gin or fat ass Cousin Leroy has consumed an entire pumpkin pie at halftime. People actually camp out to buy television sets and laptops and other life changing devices. Of course if they had just gone to work all week instead of eating  grilled hot dogs in a Best Buy parking lot they might not need the discounted price as badly. They have riots at Toy Stores to buy some piece of crap toy that will be broken before the sun sets Christmas day.

I thought it would be safe to watch TV once the election was over but we kicked right into Christmas shopping commercials. YOU! SHOP NOW! BUY THIS CRAP! WE ARE PLAYING CHRISTMAS SONGS WITH THE WORDS CHANGED TO PROMOTE OUR SHITTY PRODUCTS! YOU MUST BUY THEM FOR PEOPLE YOU DO NOT EVEN LIKE VERY MUCH! NOW! BUY THEM NOW.

If you aren't in the mall you must hate God and be against peace on Earth you evil bastard. This is insane.
Consider this. The US economy is 70% consumer related in nature. Something like one third of all retail activity takes place in the fourth quarter of the year. More than 20% of the US economy can trace its roots directly to a pagan orgy to celebrate the fact they stood a good chance of dying before spring and they all wanted to get drunk and laid before they died. Think back over the past few years and tell me how many of those Christmas presents you still actually possess or would have purchased for yourself in the first damn place? We go on a spending binge to celebrate the birth of a man who preached love one another and help the poor. We actually let our children grow up thinking they must be rotten little shits because Santa didn't break in and leave as many presents at their house as they did the rich kids across town. Retail has built the birth of God, a drug addled fat man in a red suit who sees flying reindeer and talks to toy building elves along with a pagan orgy into an excuse to go into debt to buy shit for people we don’t like and that they will never use because it shows our belief in good will for men. The scary part is not that they would try to sell us that crap. That’s their job. The scary part is that we buy into it.

I am not anti-Christmas. We should all have Christmas. We should gather our family, friends, and people we love together on Christmas Eve and celebrate.  Play the Christmas music (an aside. I love Christmas music even the pop stuff. But please if you are a death metal or rap group resist the urge to cut a holiday record. “ Gonna kill dat bitch ho in da santa hat”  and “death to the mothfuckin cop on Christmas eve “is not in the spirit of the season), roast the bird, pour the wine. Give each other gifts but make them mean something like good books or great music. Spoil the little ones the next morning if you are able but for godsakes let’s focus on something besides this shopping gives meaning and purpose to life crap. Let’s take a step back and actually enjoy the holiday instead of obsessing on whether we got the right gift for the kid in the mail room who routinely reads your issue of the Wall Street Journal while taking a dump before delivering it every day.

Fuck all these meaningless mandatory gifts. Give a homeless guy a sandwich. Or better yet a blanket and fifth of Jack. Find some young mother with three kids struggling to do the right thing  and take her family a months’ worth of food and books for the kids.  If you live in a college town find those kids who couldn't go home for the holidays and throw a dinner party. Randomly pass out some money to harried looking strangers with sad looks in their eyes.  Donate some books to the library. Pick up a soldiers tab in the airport bar. Get an old dog at the rescue shelter and take it home to have a peaceful old age while making a decent donation to the shelter. Give some cool little gifts to people you love and throw a few bucks in the direction of those who need a hand in this world. Makes more sense than a Simpson’s themed cocktail set for some cousin’s kid you have haven’t seen in a decade.

Take the time you would have spent shopping and volunteer to teach a literacy class. Take your kid fishing. Go for a walk with your wife. Put Coltrane on with headphones and crank that shit up loud. Read a book. Make love to your wife under the tree (there maybe an age limit on this. You really don't want to get found there in the morning because your trick knee kicked in and her arthritis is acting up). Take your kids to a ball game or a concert. Teach your son to throw a spiral. Call an old friend and swap stories and lies for a while.

They sell us the idea that Christmas can be magic if we just spend enough. Quit buying that shit. Christmas can be magic if you spend the day doing things you enjoy with people you love. Take the pressure out of the holidays and make it about love and family. Make it about heavy drinking and wild sex. Make it about an NBA game and a good book on a lazy day. Make it about anything but this mad rush to spend on shit no one needs or really wants. Lose the intense pressure for it to be some magical religious experience with snow flakes and wrapping paper. Make the magic your way.

Me? I'm gonna mix it up. I’m going to spend it with people I love having a big ass feast. I will drink excessive amounts of wine and invite friends and neighbors stop by for Christmas cocktails. The kids are flying in for the week. We put a ban on presents for the adults and will spend it at the bar and the bookstore as it should be. If my knee works, my arthritis doesn't kick up, the little one goes to bed early and my wife doesn’t kill me in my sleep maybe we can  have some wild  Christmas sex. Christmas day when the madness subsides I will try to hang out the couch and watch a movie or read a book until the kids get their hung over asses out of bed and the madness starts again. There will be magic of our own making that has nothing to do with fat men in red suits or the churches desire not to lose its pagan converts over the winter.  It will be the magic of family and friends, of love and kisses, of wine and laughter, of life and being alive not of the malls bottom line. It will be Christmas, Melvin Style.