Sunday, December 19, 2010

Becoming The Trend

Above is the (great) video for "Icarus Lives!" by the band Periphery. I must admit that when my brother first turned me on to them I didn't necessarily know how to digest them. I dug their sound but looking back I definitely didn't appreciate just how unique their music really is. Judging by the 'e-chatter' floating around about these guys it is safe to say that they have made an impact on the metal community. Although I wouldn't say they are my favorite band of all time it does speak volumes that I have probably listened to their cd more in the last few months than I have any other cd I have. Why am I intrigued by this band? Because they don't sound like anybody else.

That got me thinking back to all the bands that I have really dug over the years. What do they have in common? They don't sound like anyone else. They have a distinct personality or dare I say it, brand. Of course there are copy bands that will follow in the footsteps of unique bands, but when a great band steps outside of what is common there is a period of time where they truly stand alone. I think those few drops of sand in the hourglass where a band is out ahead of the trends are really special moments. And it is those moments that generally shift the way a genre is headed. Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Megadeth, Metallica, Pantera, In Flames, At The Gates, Killswitch Engage, The Black Dahlia Murder are a few that come to mind over the last few decades that have truly been unique and influential and that stand alone for a brief period of time before eventually shifting the direction of the genre (list is definitely up for debate). So what happens when a band bucks the trend and ventures out into aberrance? They become the trend.

Although established social norms often reward conformance and toeing the line so to speak, it is these trips off the beaten path that can be the most rewarding and defining in the long run. How can I seek opportunities to break free from the status quo, to truly grow as a person, yet still remain tangible and enjoyable to be around as a husband, a friend, a professional, and a member of society? Where can I go against the grain and become the trend for the betterment of myself and those around me? That is the challenge, and if it takes analyzing metal bands on my blog for me to recognize this transcendent life lesson so be it.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Passion Barometer

"If I had all the money in the world, I would be doing exactly what I'm doing right now."

Can you say that about your job? Your life? Well that is exactly what Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan was quoted as saying in her interview with the CNN Small Business Blog. Simonetti-Bryan transitioned from a career in finance to achieve a coveted Master of Wine certification. Below are some details of her story with the full article available here.

Simonetti-Bryan had an existential crisis that many young professionals face: Working nights and weekends, staring at models on a computer screen, she felt bored and unsatisfied. Only 10 more years, a colleague told her, and she'd make managing director.

A few weeks after that, a fateful business lunch set the analyst on a new course. While giving a presentation in the corporate dining room of Citicorp's London office, Simonetti-Bryan was served an herb-crusted salmon paired with a Sancerre, a crisp white wine from France's Loire Valley. The way the acid in the wine cut right through the oil from the fish sparked her curiosity. She began taking classes in wine appreciation, and in the wake of Citi's merger with Smith Barney in 1998, she took the plunge, abandoning her six-figure salary for a wine shop job, then becoming brand manager for Cakebread Cellars and Domaine Carneros while collecting industry certifications.

One of those was the Master of Wine designation, the industry's highest honor. After passing a four-day exam that involves identifying 36 wines, applicants must write an original piece of research that furthers the industry. Simonetti-Bryan studied six hours daily on top of a full workday, sometimes suffering from "palate fatigue." "There were some days," she says, "where I was like, 'I don't want to look at a glass of wine. I don't even want to think about a glass of wine,' and then you get that one glass of wine and you go, 'Ah, this is why I'm doing this.'" In 2008 she became only the fourth woman in the U.S., and one of 289 people worldwide, to obtain the coveted title.

Although I enjoy a good glass of wine (or bad…..I must admit I cannot always tell the difference), wine is not what drew me to this article. What drew me in was someone going through a transition that is integrated in both their work and life. I am a big proponent of work life integration versus work life balance so stories like Jennifer's always appeal to me. Her quote above is a quote that serves as the barometer for how she is living her life. She loves what she does and wouldn’t change a thing about it. This wasn’t always the case for her which allowed her to recognize what she had once she got there.

I am going through a work/life change as I transition out of the Air Force this summer. Although I can’t say that I wouldn’t change anything if I had all the money in the world, I really do love my life. The only part of my life that wasn’t as fulfilling as it needs to be for successful work life integration is the work part. Although I am good at what I do and I enjoy it…sometimes, my heart is not fully invested in my current career path. Being a sports guy, I know what is possible when you are truly passionate about something. I need to find that something again.

Coming out of the service is tough because I don’t necessarily know what I want to be when I grow up yet. There are a few different avenues in business that interest me but as far as a specific job title goes I haven’t narrowed that down yet. I may just have to steal the quote from her to use it as my own passion barometer in determining what I want to do moving forward.

Perhaps I am an idealist. Perhaps I am just naïve. Who knows. All I know is that Simonetti-Bryan has what I want. She has a life and a career that are successfully integrated and she truly loves what she is doing. I am a little nervous but very excited to be breaking into the great wide open (hat tip Tom Petty), but I will trust my gut, work hard, and see if I can’t land my dream job too.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Full Circle - Lessons From One Sandbox To Another

Life is a funny thing. As you get a bit older and get some experience under your belt your perspective on things definitely changes. The older I get the more I believe that the majority of what has made me successful in dynamic team environments was learned at a very young age. This concept hit me pretty hard while I was deployed to Iraq.

Over the course of my time in Iraq I was in charge of a team of military, civilian, and contractor personnel. I have been in charge of different people, teams, and groups before but for some reason when I was deployed I was much more apprehensive about my capabilities as a manager and leader. Maybe it is because the military mission was smacking me square in the face. Stateside you do not necessarily always see the negative impact of your mistakes. On a deployment the stakes are high. My contracting team's failures directly impacted the war fighters and support troops in theater carrying out the mission. That reality was definitely something I took seriously. As my nerves and doubts got the better of me I was constantly trying to remember lessons learned from college business classes, from the numerous management and leadership books I have read over the years, and from the blogs I frequent. Due to the nature of my no notice deployment and the operational tempo in Iraq I was thrust right in without the convenience of being able to revisit and review leadership and management principles; I was forced to go with my gut and what I have internalized over the years.

Now that I have been back in the good US of A for a few weeks and have had time to reflect on the extremely positive management and leadership experiences I had in Iraq, I look back and my nervousness and insecurities and I almost laugh. I am amazed at how much of what made me successful as a leader over there weren't complex theories and cutting edge management formulas but lessons that I learned as a kid playing on the playground or in the sandbox. Here are a few lessons learned in the school sandbox that helped me immensely in the deployed sandbox:

Learn to Share: I tried to redirect all compliments and make sure that the credit went to my team. Careerists often struggle with this one. We all want to advance and be recognized but avoiding taking credit for the team's successes is crucial to continued team success. Your team will recognize your gratitude for their efforts and your superiors will, over time, see that you are a component of the team success as well even though you humbly redirect credit.

Quit Now Be A Quitter For Life: I distinctly remember my parents drilling this lesson into my head at a very young age and I am grateful they did. I think this simple but impactful lesson has been transformed into many clichéd life lessons. When the going gets tough the tough get going. Work hard and the rest will take care of itself. Quitters never win. The list goes on. Regardless of how its worded, the spirit of the lesson helped me immensely overseas. There were times where I just didn't think that I could do all the work that needed to be done. There were times that I didn't think that I had the stamina to make it through the remaining months. I was uncomfortable, tired, overworked, and most of all I missed my family and friends back home. Whenever I felt overwhelmed like that I just put my head down and worked through it. What other choice did I have? Not much to be honest but I think life is the same way. When you get dealt a bad hand you just have to keep working through it, because you can't quit life either.

TEAM = Together Everyone Achieves More: I still remember playing two hand touch in elementary school with my buddies. I can remember the exhilarating feeling I got when we put together a team that kept winning. That was my first taste of synergy in action. All throughout my hockey career and now into my Air Force career I have loved the feeling of being on close knit high performing teams. Those types of teams are not easy to come by but the feeling you get being a part of one of those teams is amazing. In Iraq being part of a team is a necessity. Deployments are not easy so you have to lean on people more than you are used to. But that vulnerability and shared experience creates strong bonds which was refreshing and reminded me of my old hockey playing days.

Cheaters Never Win: People always talk about integrity in the military. I often hear it described as doing the right thing even when no one is looking. That definition, although quite tangible and good to live by, does the spirit of integrity a bit of injustice. Having integrity in what you do and what you say makes you a precious commodity. Normally I am fairly non confrontational. Out there working with the Army things were a bit different than what I was used to working in an office setting in Boston. If you don't speak up and know what you are talking about in Iraq you will get stream rolled by higher ranking hard charging Army dudes! The stakes are high, the tempo is fast paced, and people are stressed out. It is definitely not the place to be timid. So saying what you mean and living by your principles and virtues is more important than ever. Over time I saw that the leaders above me recognized that I had an opinion. Generally that opinion was thought out, reflected my true feelings, and it was founded on a genuine concern for our task at hand and a desire to improve. Having that integrity to stand behind what I said and did made me a constant source of consultation for the senior leaders in our organization. It was a good feeling. It was refreshing to know that you don't have to be a "yes man" or a "brown-noser" to be recognized as valuable to the team. If you work hard and do in your heart what you know is right then you will be recognized for your contributions to the team.

I am sure I could think of a few more but these are the big lessons that come to mind. I would love to hear comments on other childhood lessons that have served people well in their lives. Thanks for reading and it is great to be back!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Optimist Optimized

Before I deployed for six months to Iraq I thought that I would write about the many lessons learned throughout my time there. If you read my last post you know why that didn't happen. I thought that upon my return I would write about some of the lessons learned during my deployment once I had some time to reflect on all that I had experienced. That really hasn't happened either so far. So I find it a bit ironic that after a week back in the states adjusting to my old (but seemingly new) life that my first inkling to write again is not on the topic of what I learned in the desert of the middle east but what I have learned about my life stateside.

I have always been an optimist. Not a blind idealist by any means, but definitely someone who seeks to find the best in most situations. However after being purged of all but a few remnants of my stateside life for last six months, I now find my optimism optimized.

Like balance in anything else sometimes it takes the tough times to appreciate the good times. Although I never want to deploy and be away from the life I have built again, I am grateful for the experience because it has given me the ability to truly see how blessed my life really is.

The first few days I was back in Boston with my wife I could not stop gazing outside at the colors that were almost blinding after six months of different shades of brown. The sight of people living, working, and playing together in the neighborhood was suddenly a beautiful glance into what we have in this country and what our freedoms are all about. Holding my wife on a nice comfortable couch enjoying some good tea and even better conversation was the most fulfilling and enjoyable experience in the world.

I feel that with my small contribution overseas I have been given the gift that many great men and women veterans before me have been given; the gift of perspective. I can see now why most veterans are passionate people that enjoy life and love their country. They have seen what other areas of the world are missing. They have tasted the bitterness of sacrifice, many of them much more so than I ever did. They have felt the deep longing for loved ones and for a simple life back home. Most importantly, veterans have experienced the overwhelming feeling of a return home to a familiar life with a completely unfamiliar but glorious clarity of just how great the gift of life truly is.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Goodbye Baghdad!

I am sitting watching a beautiful desert sunset at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. As I logged into my blog I realized that it has been over a month since my last post. With all the things that were going on during my deployment, all the commitments, all the people to stay in touch with, and my own personal mental sanity something had to be sacrificed and unfortunately that something was my writing. After I take a few weeks to relax and fully enjoy time with my wife I plan on getting back into a more regularly scheduled writing regimen similar to the frequency pre-deployment. What will likely be different are the topics I write about and my views of the world. I have been through so much in such a relatively short period of time and these past six months have certainly changed me and helped me grow.

As I look back now that I am out of Iraq I think that subconsciously I may have avoided sitting down and writing. I think I avoided writing because I was acutely aware that the multitude of experiences within my deployment were just too much to fully process. I am sure that over time I will have a better understanding of the magnitude of the reality I was living and how that reality was shaping me as a person.

I went through some tough times during my deployment but I also went through some great ones. The experiences I gained from my time in the desert are undoubtedly priceless experiences. I feel more confident in myself and what I can achieve moving forward. I cannot wait to taste my old life again and appreciate just how great it is, and I cannot wait to make it even better. Although I would never willingly seek out another six months away from my family and friends again, I wouldn't trade what I have experienced either.

Some of what I have taken away will undoubtedly be shared as it will not only benefit those who have not experienced what I have but it will help me understand and grow from my deployment. Some experiences will be shared with friends, some will be saved for my family, and some will remained locked within as the moments and emotions cannot be successfully transfigured into words.

I thank you all for standing behind me as I made this journey and I look forward to rejoining you and living the good life back in the best country in the world. Goodbye Baghdad!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Book Review: The Big Short

Coming off of one of the best books I have read in a while, Mustaine, I didn't think I would steam through another book so quickly. However, when I picked up The Big Short by Michael Lewis I was hooked instantly. The book is an incredible read that takes the reader on a surprisingly tangible trip through the subprime mortgage crisis.

Michael Lewis, most famous for his piece The Blind Side, which was recently turned into a major motion picture, does an excellent job of not only making what happened to our economy understandable but also entertaining. He does so by profiling a few interesting and important characters in the subprime mortgage meltdown. Although he does showcase some big name players and tell of their roles in how history played out, the real magic of his work comes from telling the tale through eyes of the few who saw it coming. Hence the title The Big Short.

The Big Short is not the story of the crisis, as the crisis is commonly understood. The failure of Lehman brothers and of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; the stock-market crash; the bail-out of Detroit; the fevered all-nighters pulled at Treasury and the New York Fed; the fears that the entire global financial system was on the brink of collapse -- little if any of that is in this book.

Instead, Lewis has found a different story -- one which he started mining for a spectacular cover story in the December 2007 issue of Portfolio magazine, and which has culminated in this book, over two years later. It's the story of what used to be called the "subprime crisis" before it metastasized into something much larger and more dangerous than that. And it's also, like all Michael Lewis tales, a human story, which takes us deep inside unique characters like Steve Eisman and Mike Burry.

Telling the story through the eyes of those betting against Wall Street's big hitters and the mortgage backed securities that eventually led to the chaos experienced in September of 2008 makes for a truly interesting perspective. It also allows Lewis to come off as less of an I know it all author who has forgotten that hindsight is 20:20. The story is told from the guys who can truly say 'I told you so' because the whole time they were putting their money where their mouths were.

Here are some notes from the book:

Prologue: Poltergeist:
- Predicted crash would occur almost 20 years ago in his first book Liar's Poker
- "If you'd gotten a few drinks in me and then asked what effect the book would have on the world, I might have said something like,'I hope that college students trying to decide what to do with their lives might read it and decide that its silly to phony it up, and abandon their passions or even their faint interests, to become financiers.'
- He kept waiting for a rebellion but it didn't happen

A Secret Origin Story:
-Steve Eisman was a nerdy badass
- "You don't even own stock in your company" said Eisman to the Japanese businessman. "In Japan it is not customary for management to own stock," said the businessman. Eisman noted that the guy's financial statements didn't actually disclose any of the really important details about the guy's company but rather than simply say that he lifted the statement in the air as if disposing of a turd. "This......this is toilet paper. Translate that!" he said.
- When asked about the pattern of upset he leaves in his wake, Eisman simply looks puzzled, even a bit wounded. "I forget myself sometimes."
- The big fear of the 1980 mortgage bond investor was being repaid too quickly not fear of not being repaid at all.
-"And the story they liked to tell was that 'we're helping the customer. Because were taking him out of his high interest rate credit card debt and putting him into a lower interest rate mortgage debt.' And I believed that story." Then something changed.
- None of his fellow accountants was able to explain why the traders were doing what they were doing. "I didn't know what I was doing," said Vinny. "But the scary thing was, my managers didn't know anything either. I asked these basic questions--like, Why do they own this mortgage bond? Are they just betting on it, or is it part of some larger strategy? I thought I needed to know. It's really difficult to audit a company if you can't connect the dots."
- Essentially a ponzi scheme. As long as they were growing the illusion was masked.
- Eisman wrote a report and trashed all the subprime mortgage originators. "Here is the difference between the view of the world they are presenting to you and the actual numbers." The subprime companies did not appreciate his effort. "He created a shitstorm," said Vinny. "All these subprime companies were calling and hollering at him: you're wrong. Your data's wrong. And he just hollered back at them, 'It's YOUR fucking data!"
- "You have to understand, I did subprime first. I lived with the worst first. These guys lied to infinity. What I learned from that experience was that Wall Street didn't give a shit what it sold."
- "The very first day we said, 'There's going to come a time when were going to make a fortune shorting this stuff. It's going to blow up. We just don't know how or when."

In The Land Of The Blind:
- Worst loans by Michael Burry's standards are interest only negative amortizing adjustable rate subprime mortgages
- "What you want to watch are the lenders, not the borrowers. The borrowers will always be willing to take a great deal for themselves. Its up to the lenders to show restraint, and when they love it, watch out." By 2003 he knew the borrowers had already lost it. By early 2005 he saw that lenders had too.
- You couldn't short the mortgage bonds
- Burry began buying corporate credit default swaps on companies he though may suffer from a real estate downturn but there was no guarantee these companies would go bankrupt and that is the only way he would get paid.
- He bought credit default swaps on subprime mortgage bonds in 2005 guessing in two years after teaser rates jumped his bet would pay off.
- The market didn't exist so Burry pitched Wall St. Only Deutsche and Goldman had any interest and no one saw what he was doing.
- He went from blogger to millionaire overnight because Gotham Capital was making money off his picks and offered him a million to open his own fund.
- White Mountain followed shortly after
- Volatility doesn't equal risk. "By and large the wealthiest of the wealthy and their representatives have accepted that most managers are average, and the better ones are able to achieve average returns while exhibiting below average volatility. By this logic a dollar selling for fifty cents one day, sixty cents the next day, and forty cents the next somehow becomes worth less than a dollar selling for fifty cents all three days. I would argue that the ability to buy at forty cents presents an opportunity, not risk, and that the dollar is still worth a dollar."
- He was turning away money after a few years. "He designed Scion so it was bad for business but good for investing."
- Charlie Munger said you can always predict how people are going to behave by looking at their incentives.
- "You can say everyone knows that. I think I've been in the top five percent of my age cohort all my life in understanding the power of incentives, and all my life I've underestimated it. And never a year passes but I get some surprise that pushes my limit a little farther," said Charlie Munger.
- He went against the industry fee standard to properly align incentives
- Their decision making was one guy in a room pouring over publicly available information
- 2003 Bury called the real estate bubble. "You just have to watch for the level at which even nearly unlimited or unprecedented credit can no longer drive the housing market higher. I am extremely bearish, and feel the consequences could very easily be a 50% drop in residential real estate in the US....A large portion of current housing demand at current prices would disappear if only people became convinced that prices weren't rising. The collateral damage is likely to be orders of magnitude worse than anyone now considers."
- In 2005 when he first tried to convince Wall St of the credit default swaps for subprime mortgage bonds his first big problem was that they didn't share his sense of urgency
- He started buying and was amazed that no one on Wall St cared which funds he was shorting. It was like all subprime bonds were the same thing
- "Burry devoted himself to finding exactly the right ones to bet against. He'd read dozens of prospectuses and scoured hundreds more, looking for the dodgiest pools of mortgages, and was still pretty certain even then (and dead certain later) that he was the only human being on earth who read them, apart from the lawyers who drafted them."
- He even found a mortgage pool that was 100% floating rate negative amortizing so the borrower could not pay any interest and just have their loan grow and grow until default. Goldman sent him a congratulations for being the first to buy a credit default swap on it!
- He tried to start a fund to do only CDS but no one would pony up money
- The S&P was down 6.84% in 5 years and he was up 242% but no one believed him when it came to credit default swaps
- People wouldn't give him money but started prodding Goldman on how to do it themselves
- All the Wall St players started coming to him to buy back his CDS all at once
- He sold back to Deutsche and then saw an email that said "Greg Lippmann, the head subprime mortgage trader at Deutsche bank was in here the other day. He told us that he was short 1 Billion dollars of this stuff and was going to make 'oceans' of money. His exuberance was a little scary"

How Can A Guy Who Can't Speak English Lie?:
- Greg Lippmann of Deutsche went to pitch Eisman as if the CDS idea was his own
- Lippmann used a Chinese guy to give credibility to his numbers. "Eugene Xu was responsible for every piece of data in Lippmann's presentation. Once Eugene was introduced into the equation, no one bothered Lippmann about his math or his data. As Lippmann put it 'How can a guy who cant speak English lie?'"
- Eisman had two questions: 1. How does a CDS work again? 2. Why are you asking me to bet against the bonds at your firm?
- "When he walked in and said you can make money shorting subprime paper, it was like putting a naked supermodel in front of me. What I couldn't understand was why he wanted me to do it," said Eisman.
- Burry didn't know who was to be left holding the bag from Goldman and others if the CDS turned out the way he thought. He knew Goldman wouldn't have done the deals if the risk was on them.....turns out it was AIG
- Goldman had created Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDO) which just lumped together a bunch of the mortgage bonds to supposedly mitigate the risk but that already happened with the mortgage bonds
- The did CDO's to get shit bonds re-rated as AAA
- The CDO was, in effect, a credit laundering service for the residents of lower middle class America. For Wall St. it was a machine that turned lead into gold
- After a while they didn't need to do CDOs of mortgage bonds they did them on the CDS. This essentially created a market and money for banks out of nothing
- Ratings agencies didn't know how to rate these
- Lippmann although forced into the shorting of mortgage bonds by Deutsche realized it was a gold mine
- He couldn't convince others to short so he went to AIG to try and blow up the market so he could cash in

How to Harvest a Migrant Worker:
- Joe Cassano was the bullying prick CEO of AIG
- Gene Park asked people most closely tied to CDS what percentage of the loans were subprime. They were all saying 10-20%. No one knew it was 95%
- No one believed housing prices could fall nationally all at once
- Park convinced Cassano to stop insuring but they didn't unload what they had
- Lippmann went looking for others who agreed with his beliefs and ran into Eisman
- The simple measure of sanity in housing prices was the ratio of median home price to income. Historically in the US it ran around 3:1 by late 2004 it had risen nationally to 4:1. "All these people were saying it was nearly as high in some other countries. But the problem wasn't just that it was four to one. In Las Angeles it was ten to one and in Miami eight to one. And then you coupled that with the buyers. They weren't real buyers. They were speculators."

Accidental Capitalists:
- A smaller number of people, more than ten, fewer than twenty, made a straightforward bet against the entire multi trillion dollar subprime mortgage market and by extension the global financial system. In and of itself it was a remarkable fact: The catastrophe was foreseeable, yet only a handful noticed.
- The few who saw it coming could be traced back to Lippman, except Mike Burry
- "I loved the concept of shorting a bond because your downside is limited. Its an asymmetrical bet." Said Paulson. He was shocked how much easier and cheaper it was to buy a credit default swap than it was to sell short an actual cash bond even though they represented the exact same bet.
- Charlie Ledley got a hold of Lippman's presentation
- He and a few buddies began buying options they viewed as mispriced and built their own fortunes in a short time
- They eventually got Wall St to sell them CDS
- "It took us weeks to really grasp it because it was so weird. But the more we looked at what a CDO really was, the more we were like Holy shit, that's just fucking crazy. That's fraud. Maybe you cant prove it in a court of law. But its fraud." - Charlie Ledley
- They were even buying the AA tranches of the CDS and they were the first to do so because they realized they were no better than the BBB but cheaper
- "A lot of people when we called them said hey why don't you guys buy some stocks? They couldn't believe that these young guys wanted to buy not just CDS but CDS's so esoteric that no one else had bought it."
- They didn't realize yet that the bonds inside their CDOs were actually credit default swaps on the bonds, and so their CDO's werent ordinary CDOs but synthetic CDOs or that the bonds on which the swaps were based had been handpicked by Mike Burry and Steve Eisman and others betting against the market. In many ways they were still innocents.

Spiderman At The Venetian:
- Eisman met Wing Chau a CDO manager and thought he would be hurting with the housing prices falling because the CDO managers had filled the void left by AIG. But the CDO managers were selling to Institutional Clients. Everyone was passing the risk.
- "He 'managed' the CDOs. But managed what? I was just appalled that the structured finance market could be so insane to allow someone to manage a CDO portfolio without having any exposure to the CDOs. People would pay up to have soomeone 'manage' their CDOs as if this moron was helping you. I thought, you prick, you dont give a fuck about the investors in this thing." - Eisman talking about Wing Chau a CDO manager
- Chau's real job was to serve as a new kind of front man for the Wall St firms he "hired"; investors felt better buying a Merrill Lynch CDO if it didnt appear to be run by Merrill Lynch.
- After the dinner Eisman grabbed Greg Lippmann and said "Whatever that guy (Chau) is buying, I want to short it." Lippman took it as a joke but Eisman was serious. He wanted to specifically bet against Wing Chau. "I want to short his paper. Sight unseen."
"Usually when you do a trade you can find some smart people on the other side of it. In this instance we couldnt. Nobody we talked to had any credible reason to think this wasnt going to become a big problem. No one was really thinking about it." Cornwall Capital guys
- People believed the collapse of the subprime market was unlikely precisely because it would be such a tragedy.
- Eisman, "In Vegas it became clear to me that this entire huge industry was just trusting in the ratings so they didnt have to think about it."
- "You know how when you walk into a post office you realize there is such a difference between a government employee and other people? The ratings agency people were all like government employees." - Vinny
- "That was the moment when we said, 'Holy shit, this isnt just credit. This is a fictitious Ponzi scheme." - Vinny
- "There were more morons than crooks but the crooks were higher up." - Vinny and Eisman
- Eisman got back from Vegas and increased his shorts by $250M

The Great Treasure Hunt:
- Charley traded with Morgan Stanley and literally overnight they said they couldnt do CDS anymore.
- In a portfolio of 30 million Charley and Cornwall Capital owned 250 million and were disappointed they didnt own more
- Charley even went to the SEC but they didnt get it and never investigated
- "We always asked the same question. Where are the ratings agencies in all this? And I'd always get the same reaction. It was a physical reaction because they didnt want to say it. It was a smirk. They were just assuming home prices would keep going up," Eisman said.

The Long Quiet:
- Mike Burry had 1.9 billion in CDS and he shouldve been recieving money as the market took its lumps but since he was one of the only players Wall St was setting the market price of his shorts
- So he started asking to buy at the prices they were telling him his shorts were worth but of course they wouldnt sell him any more. It was BS.
- "One of the oldest adages in investing is that if youre reading about it in the paper it is too late. Not this time."
- Burry's investors all wanted their money back including partner Joel Greenblatt. When he locked up their funds from withdrawal they started organizing to sue.
- Wall St stopped responding for a few days then all called at once saying they wanted to ensure the value of his shorts were fair. They were getting in on the shorts themselves before the crash.
- "When I first started shorting these mortgages in 2005 I knew full well that is was not likely to pay out within two years. And for a very simple reason. The vast majority of mortgages originated in the last few years had a rather ominously attractive feature called the teaser rate period. Those 2005 mortgages are only now reaching the end of their teaser rate periods and it will be 2008 before the 2006 mortgages get there. What sane person on Earth would confidently conclude in early 2007, smack dab in the midst of the mother of all teaser rate scams that the subprime fallout will not result in contagion? The bill literally has not even come due." Burry
- "Nobody came back and said, 'Yeah you were right.' It was very quiet. It was extremely quiet. The silence infuriated me." Burry

A Death Of Interest:
- Howie Hubler of Morgan Stanley is profiled as the stereotypical trader with the blinders on
- "It was more than a little weird. There was a lot of angst about it. It was sort of viewed as, These folks dont know what theyre talking about. If losses go to ten percent there will be, like, a million homeless people." Losses in Hublers group would eventually go to 40%.
- "They kept saying That state of the world cant happen!"
- "It is one thing to bet on red or black and know that you are betting on red or black. Its another to bet on a form of red and not to know it."
- "They werent lying. They genuinely failed to understand the nature of the subprime CDO
- Howie went on vacation and never came back. The losses left behind were 9 billion, the largest in Wall St history for a single trader
- The last buyer of subprime mortgage risk had stopped buying
- Cornwall began to worry Bear Stearns would go out of business and would be unable to pay up so they sought buyers of their CDOs.
- UBS offered 30 points up front. That means Cornwall's $205M in CDS were now worth $60M (30% of $205M) when it cost them only $1M to buy them
-"It's the first time were seeing any prices that reflect anything close to what they're really worth. We had positions that were being valued by Bear Stearns at six hundred grand that went to six million the next day." Charlie Ledley
- Mike Burry also started to make a killing. In a portfolio totalling $550M he maid $720M in one year
- "Even when it was clear it was a big year and I was proven right, there was no triumph in it. Making money was nothing like I thought it would be," said Mike. To his founding investor, Gotham Capital, he shot off an unsolicited email that said only, "Youre welcome." He'd already decided to kick them out of the fund and insist they sell their stake in his business. When they asked him to suggest a price, he replied, "How about you keep the tens of millions you nearly prevented me from earning for you last year and we call it even?"

Two Men In A Boat:
- "Being short in 2007 and making money from it was fun, because we were short bad guys. In 2008 it was the entire financial system that was at risk. We were still short. But you dont want the system to crash. Its sort of like the floods about to happen and youre Noah. Youre on the ark. Yeah youre okay. But you are not happy looking out at the flood. Thats not a happy moment for Noah." - Eisman
- Frontpoint's fund went from $700M to $1.5B
- "What, the entire American population woke up one morning and said, 'Yeah I am going to lie on my loan application'? Yeah people lied. They lied because they were told to lie."
- Sept 18 2008 all hell was breaking loose
- Eisman sold all his CDS back to Lippmann two months earlier. They were now back to stock market investors and shorting all the banks. On the 18th minutes after opening they were up $10M
- "There wer no bids in the market for anything. There was no market. It was really only then I realized there was a bigger issue than just our portfolio. Fundamentals didnt matter. Stocks were going to move up or down on pure emotion and speculation of what the government would do." Danny
- They were a subsidiary of Morgan Stanley
- "I'm thinking, Weve got the world by the fucking balls and the company we work for is going bankrupt."
- Mike Burry and Scion earned invesors a 490% gain in 3 years but all his investors were pulling their money out
- He shut down his fund and vanished
- Eisman ran into Merrill's CFO Jeff Edwards and said "You remember what I said about those risk models of yours? I guess I was right huh?"
- "I felt bad about it. It was obnoxious. He was a lovely guy. He was just wrong. I was no longer the underdog. And I had to conduct myself in a different way." Eisman
- "The investment banking industry is fucked. These guys are only beginning to understand how fucked they are. Its like being a scholastic, prior to Newton. Newton comes along and one morning you wake up: 'Holy shit, I'm wrong!" Eisman

Everything Is Correlated:
- The worst part of the crisis is that everyone came out rich. All the guys who called it and they guys on the wrong side of the bet. Even those who ran their companies bankrupt
- "What are the odds that people will make smart decisions about money if they dont need to make smart decisions--if they can get rich making dumb decisions" The incentives on Wall Street were all wrong; theyre still wrong."
- Handouts by the government
- "There's no limit to the risk in the market. A bank with a market capitalization of one billion dollars might have one trillion dollars' worth of credit default swaps outstanding. No one knows how many there are! And no one knows where they are!"
- Michael Lewis has lunch with an old associate who basically created the credit default swap. He is a former king of Wall St. Lewis says he is thinking about doing a book on the subprime, revisiting his old Liars Poker days. Wall St guy says, "I think we can agree about this; Your fucking book destroyed my career and it made yours."

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Book Review: Mustaine

I have gotten plenty of care packages since arriving in Iraq. Most have been snacks and toiletries which are always welcomed. However, I got the word out that I would like a steady influx of reading material and I certainly got my wish. I have received probably twenty books since arriving in Iraq so I have a plethora of different reads to choose from. A book that really caught my attention was sent out last month by my little brother Andy. Unfortunately, I had to make my way through a couple resume books that I had started in anticipation of next year's job search. But I knew that I soon as I finished the resume books that my brother's gift was next up in the queue.

The book that he sent me is entitled "Mustaine" by Dave Mustaine and Joe Laydon. The average person may not know who Dave Mustaine is, but any lover of metal will recognize the name as the frontman and rhythm guitarist of one of the greatest bands ever....Megadeth. The book is an autobiography of Mustaine's troubled yet amazing life.

The fall and rise of a heavy metal icon

Dave Mustaine is the first to admit that he's bottomed out a few times in his dark and twisted speed metal version of a Dickensian life.

Impoverished, transient childhood? Check.

Abusive, alcoholic parent? Check.

Mind-fucking religious weirdness (in his case the extremes of the Jehovah's Witnesses and Satanism)? Check.

Alcoholism, drug addiction, homelessness? Check, check, check.

Soul-crushing professional and artistic setbacks? Check.

Rehab? Check (seventeen times, give or take).

Near-death experience? Check that one, too.

James Hetfield, with whom many years ago Mustaine founded a band known as Metallica, once observed, with some incredulity, that Mustaine must have been born with a horseshoe up his ass. That's how lucky he's been, how fortunate he is to be pulling breath after so many close calls. And Hetfield is right. Mustaine has been lucky. He has been blessed. But here's the thing about having a horseshoe lodged in your rectum: It also hurts like hell. And you never forget it's there.

Mustaine has battled through it all to achieve dizzying heights. From the early, heady days of Metallica, being unceremoniously let go only to become a world-famous rock star—founder, front man, singer, songwriter, and guitarist (and de facto CEO) for Megadeth, one of the most popular bands in heavy metal—Mustaine's is a story that will inspire, stun, and terrify.

I picked up this 346 page gem and finished it in less than four days. Part of that is due to the fact I have had a case of the flu and have had a bit more rest/read time than usual. But most of it is due to the fact that the book is a great read. Now I am definitely biased. I grew up listening to, and still listen to, a ton of metal music. Megadeth has consistently been in my playlist and there are a few Megadeth records that I regard as some of the best metal records ever recorded. I even wrote a letter to Dave Mustaine when I was 12 years old and included some lyrics I had written to get his thoughts. I totally forgot about the letter but then one day when I was 15 years old and well into high school I got a letter back from the man himself. I thought that was pretty cool. A real classy thing to do. Matching up the timeline of when I wrote the letter with the story of Dave's life in the book it is pretty safe to say that he was an embattled drug addict at this time. This paradox is one of the things that makes the read so powerful. Dave opens the door to his crazy life, revisiting all his sins and regrets, yet you put down the book realizing that there is a really good person behind the drugs, the fights, the family struggles, etc.

You are probably asking yourself, "why would I want to read a detailed account of the ascension of the Bay Area Thrash Metal Movement and one metalhead's crazy role during that period?" If you are a metalhead the answer is simple. This book is a historical glimpse into one of the most exciting periods in metal through the eyes of one it's founding fathers. If you aren't a metalhead let me tell you why you should give this book a chance. This book, while set to a heavy metal backdrop, does an incredible job of simultaneously showing man's incredible ability to survive and overcome while also showing just how truly fragile we all are. Dave is an embodiment of these polar opposite ends of the human condition and many of the lessons from the book transcend the 80's thrash metal scene in which the story is told. This book receives my highest recommendation for metal heads and non metalists alike.

Here are a few notes that I took from this great read:

A Horseshoe Up My Ass:
- He no longer loves music until it is taken away

Daddy Dearest:
- He has sympathy for addicts. "....this did not make him an evil man. A weak man, perhaps, and a man who did some bad things."
- He fell in love with music and had plenty of people against him and his passion

Reefer Madness:
- "I wanted to fit in and belong"
- His father died of brain trauma in a bar. Couldn't reach the family to save his one cared about him.
- Sister told him he would end up just like his dad while his father was on his deathbed.

Lars & Me:
- Wanted to be the leader

- Metallica's ascent happened very fast
- Relocate the band for a bass player (Cliff Burton)? He was that good and we were that driven.

Dumped by Alcoholica:
- Its amazing how low they got on the trip to NJ
- When they kicked Dave out it was pretty ruthless
- He found the term Megadeth on a political pamphlet of the bus he was on back to California. Started writing what would become Set The World Afire.

Building the Perfect Beast - Megadeth:
- Caught in the lie that he had quit Metallica. But in that humbling moment he actually stated he wanted to start his own band. Inspiring moment that made him move forward.
- The drug induced life they lived sounds awful but you can see how easy it is to digress to that point

Mission: To Break All The Rules of God & Man:
- Chris Poland coined that mission statement

Familiarity Breeds Contempt:
- He learned the hard lessons of the music biz
- "All bands eventually break up because of one or more of the following: Power, Prosperity, Prestige, Pussy."
- Wrote In My Darkest Hour for Cliff Burton upon hearing news of his death
- He began to see that they couldn't go on like that forever

The End of Western Civilization:
- Alice Cooper told Mustaine he would either burn out or die
- It's pretty simple, really: when you are an addict, you don't listen to people. It doesn't matter what anyone else says or does. Very rarely will you find someone with a drug or alcohol problem who is easily influenced. Very rarely does the conversation go like this: "Hey man you should stop drinking and clean up your act." "Really? You mean I shouldn't get high and plow through this line of Swedish bikini models? Okay you're right. Ill stop. Thanks for looking out for me bro."
- Dave, even in a drug induced stupor, believed in merit

The Traveling Carnival:
- Even as a drug addict he expected people to be held accountable for their choices
- Talked about making up over the years and how when they look back they were all out of their minds

Against Medical Advice:
- I need help was something he thought he would never say

The Living Years:
- He is very passionate about his marriage

I Pray The Lord My Soul To Keep:
- Countdown to Extinction was #2 on the Billboard charts behind Billy Rae Cyrus
- He struggled with envy of Metallica

The Inner Weasel:
- Megadeth changed to a business entity

Soul For Sale:
- As they got more famous there were more and more money arguments

Some Kind of God:
- Metallica screwed him into doing Some Kind of Monster
- He would relapse after years of sobriety
- He realized family is what is truly important, not work
- "I allowed myself to become a victim"
- "I've seen the error of my ways and what drinking and drug use has done to me and my family, and what its done to my career and my body. Drinking and doing drugs, for me, makes about as much sense as pissing my pants on a winter's day: it'll feel good for a little while...until that cold wind begins to blow. And then it won't feel so great."

Megadeth Reborn:

- "You know that old joke about the guy stranded in the flood, perched atop the roof of his house, waiting for God to save him? He repeatedly turns away rescue efforts based on the belief that God will personally take care of him. The floodwaters ultimately sweep him away and he winds up at heaven's gate, wondering why God has forsaken him. St. Peter looks at the poor guy and laughs. 'What are you talking about? We sent three boats and a helicopter.' I feel like the boat has come by for me more than a few times. Whether I deserved it or not, I had success with Metallica. I had success with Megadeth. I had success with Megadath again after my arm was wrecked. I have a wife who has stayed with me through some very hard times. And I have two healthy, happy children. So at some point you have to wonder: how many times does God have to say, 'Dude, I love you,' before I straighten up for good? I've got everything a man could want, and then some. It's time."

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Deployment Mirror - Part IV

Chapter I - Monday:

I wipe the sweat from my brow as the crew and I walk into the entryway of the guard shack leading into the dining facility (DFAC). I hand my ID to a Ugandan guard in a SOC uniform. He adjusts the loaded AK-47 on his shoulder, glances up at my face to ensure I am who I say I am and returns the card to me. I walk around the corner and into the DFAC to wash my hands. The paper towel saturates and rips leaving remnants of wet paper stuck to my fingers as I open the door into the dining facility. For some reason all the paper towels over here are the consistency of toilet paper. One of the small annoyances that whispers in your ear not so reassuringly reminding you that you are not in the comforts of home.

I scan my ID as I enter and am hit with the smell of DFAC. It is not an entirely bad smell but the multiple visits a day cause the smell to become an all too constant presence in the groundhog day that has become my life. I grab a tray, a plastic plate and silverware, and make my way briskly over to scan the line.

"Chicken sandwich day dude!" Heichs yells from behind me. Like a bird returning to the flock I swiftly alter course and head to the chicken sandwich bar that has become a regular on Monday's. We spread out and grab our various drinks, salads, and other items and reconvene in the back hall that somehow has a bit better air conditioning than the main area. We find and open table and plop down for a much welcomed break from the monotony of the contracting workload.

We sit down and start catching up on the few hours we have been dispersed carrying out our separate niches within the organization. The hustle and bustle of the various troops and contractors in the DFAC provides a backdrop of noise and movement that at first was overwhelming but is now the norm. The conversion inevitably turns to stories about contracting, another glaring reminder that I am deployed. Our job serves as our lowest common denominator of shared experiences and thus is often the topic of conversation. This is out of necessity and definitely not out of enjoyment. I have recognized a pattern in our conversations though. We often start with a contracting story. The story then leads to complaining. Not the type of complaining that comes from tainted and bitter people, but the kind that arises from those that are hungry and impatient with bureaucracy, injustice, and plain idiocy. The topic of conversation inevitably leads to higher ideals and principles that transcend our common deployed experiences and align more with our common human experiences and values.

I am amazed at how no matter where we start we end up talking about very high level, simple shared topics. We start bitching about contracting, navigate our way into strategic discussion on the way the war is being fought and how we fit into it. We then talk about what we would do if we were king for a day, and inevitably end up talking about our life goals and values like happiness, the importance of family, fulfillment, cultivating human relationships, and experiencing this gift of life that we are given.

I am no Socrates or Aristotle, but some of my best memories from this chapter of my life will definitely be centered on those shared discussions with my peers. People will want to hear about my travels to the desert. They will want to know how hot it was, how the palaces looked, and if I met any 'real' Iraqis. I will patiently answer their queries as these experiences will undoubtedly be cherished. But my foresight tells me that my best feel good moments will be the connections I established with my buddies and those moments in time where we got a glimpse into each other's souls and recognized the ideals we all shared; the things that are truly important to living an amazing and fulfilling life.

"You guys ready?" I ask the group. We stand up in concert and take our trays over to the industrial garbage cans lining the exits. I push open the swinging door and am once again blasted with a combination of dust, intense sunlight, and heat that pulls me back to the reality of where I am at. We head back to the vehicle and make the drive back to the office.

To Be Continued....

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Deployment Mirror - Part III

Chapter I - Monday:

My Friends and I stride into the relatively newly constructed building we more or less have called home since our arrival. It is hardened for protection against mortar and rocket attacks and has powerful although relatively unstable air conditioning. The cool air engulfs me and I can feel the heat radiating from my uniform. My body reacts by emitting thin glaze of sweat that soaks my boxers and undershirt. We trek upstairs and through the door into our office.

My office in Iraq looks relatively similar to that of my office at Hanscom Air Force Base just outside of Boston. However, the workload is definitely a change from the comfortable pace stateside. The way I describe my workload to family and friends is that there is more work to be done that could ever be accomplished. So you put your head down sift through what is most important and give it your best. Strangely my mental pendulum swings between being overwhelmed and relaxed by the reality that there is more work than can be realistically accomplished.

I log into my computer and shove aside the two contract files that have accumulated sometime in between my nine o'clock departure last night and my eight o'clock arrival this morning. Many of the CACI contractors who work in my office opt for a to go breakfast in order to start their clock early. Two of my team members have already placed a file on my desk for review and release. I open my email and see that I have 22 new messages. I quickly delete a few base wide messages detailing upcoming 5k runs, magic shows, and road closures. I continue and delete 5 or 6 messages from Iraqi contractors who somehow know that I am a contracting officer and email me daily for new work.

My career, although extremely frustrating at times, does serve a very important function especially in these new times of war. Nothing works on base without Contracting. From generators to internet service to security guards. There is some pride and definitely some heavy responsibility that comes with that reality. Seeing as though we are spending government money there is also an immense amount of bureaucracy to deal with that has grown like a virus over the last hundred years or so of government contracting. It has become more of an art than a science to learn to navigate the complicated and often conflicting guidance of the Federal Acquisition Regulation. One begins to get a taste of how Washington works while being involved in government contracting. Most laws and legislation are enacted out of reaction to scandals, protests, and other issues that have forced our nations leaders to do something to prevent such a thing from happening again. But the fallacy is that you can reactively legislate to proactively prevent. There will always be new challenges and new scandals. As the rules change so do the problems associated with those rules. And thus it becomes more and more difficult to execute what needs to be done. Being in the desert brings you even closer to the way Washington works as you can trace the numerous taskers and requests for information right back to DC. It is frustrating to say the least.

I put my headphones and crank some metal tunes to start my day off on the right foot. A few interruptions and a few hours later and I get up to take a break. I look over at Bob who strolled in around nine all sweaty from the walk over and ask him if he is ready. It is his last week in Baghdad before he heads home. We talk for a bit and his departure begins to give me hope of my own successful return home. He has helped me from the day I arrived and I think back just a few short months ago and I can't believe how settled I am in this strange world. The human spirit is an amazing thing. We naturally adapt to the situations and challenges around us. We are on a constant quest for normalcy, for a peace of mind. Yet we are also constantly striving to become better and to grow through new and unique experiences. It is an interesting dynamic that I have become not only aware of but dependent on throughout my short but eventful time on this earth. Just knowing that in the most stressful and clouded times of your life that you can and will overcome is a good feeling. It doesn't always ensure those times will be easy but it keeps you moving forward.

"You ready for lunch," I lean over and ask Bob. "Yeah, give me a second," he replies. I walk off and around the office gathering the rest of the Captain crew. We exit the office loudly, joking around as we make our way out to the car to drive to lunch. The midday heat is almost unbearable this time of year and the buildup of government vehicles on base which was source of shock when I first arrived has now become a saving grace. Another half day down and one step closing to coming home.....

To Be Continued....

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Deployment Mirror - Part II

Chapter 1 - Monday:

I step outside my room and am once again slapped with the thick Iraq air. "Bob's not coming?" I ask Heichs and Sheeman. "What do you think?" Heichs replies. Bob has said he is coming to breakfast for the last week only to come franticly rushing into the office at about 9:10, sweating while explaining that he meant to sleep in.

The three of us begin the half mile walk to the DFAC (dining facility) sans Bob. We walk along the dusty road outside our CHU's on the way to the paved road and are blasted with a dust cloud from speeding F-250. "Fucking Joe Contractor," I say jokingly. We bring up the comfortable and common topic that we have been in this war so long that even our contractors have developed a noticeable obnoxious sense of entitlement. My worldly, witty peers and I seem to never to tire discussing our loathing of the stereotypical and aptly named "Joe Contractor."

Joe Contractor is a middle aged overweight male who has spent years working in Iraq and making a fortune. While his role is important and no doubt necessary to our efforts he acts as if the base is a contractor Disneyland. He drives an F-250 or a new SUV all over the base and never has anyone else in the vehicle. His gas is paid for by the US Government and is placed in a vehicle that the US Government leased but will eventually end up buying for more than we would have paid if we bought it off the lot from the beginning. Joe Contractor eats in the DFAC and always grabs two to go boxes full of food. My friends and I joke that we are not only paying these guys to get fat but that in 15 years they will hit us again as their healthcare costs make their way down to our level. The face of America's wars have changed since my Grandparents era, that much is certain. Our politicians make decisions based on votes and not on reality, and thus must fill capability gaps with Joe Contractors. These same politicians then slam our finest Generals during televised review boards over the amount of contractor personnel in theatre. This is not my Grandfathers' war.

We arrive at the DFAC, sweating from the heat that is substantial even before 7:30 AM. We hand our ID cards to the Ugandan guards with AK47's that man all the entrances to the public facilities. They too are contracted help. In fact the majority of the security over here is. Another strange departure from my dreams of what deployment would be like. They ensure that we are carrying our weapons and return our cards. We make our way through the breakfast line and plop down together to carry on our morning conversation.

My buddies in Iraq have been a saving grace. I was so paranoid that I would not find the friendship and camaraderie I so desperately needed in my first deployment. However, my fears were for naught. My peer group has not only been there as a friendly boost getting me through these tough times away from home, but they have made me proud of my generation that has chosen to serve. My fellow Captains are well educated, intrinsically motivated, have handled a large amount of responsibility at a very young age, and have done it well. We feed off each other's drive to succeed and we are competitive in a friendly and healthy way. Our group has developed a personality. An identity that arises amongst solid individuals with similar goals and values. We walk with a bit of a swagger. A little bit of attitude that we are destined to great things now and in the future. It feels good. We are cynical in a sense, disenfranchised with the things we see around us. However, I see us as more idealistic than anything as our most cynical moments stem from a frustration that things can be done better. We often find ourselves starting on observations that are close to our sphere of influence only to find ourselves miles above thinking of the big picture, how what we are doing fits into this crazy world, and how we want to make it better. My buddies here are guys that will undoubtedly go down different life paths and different journeys than me, however they are the kind of buddies that I will forever be honored to work with in any future endeavor, no matter the time lapsed between our last exchange.

It is a great feeling to be surrounded by great people. I live my life by constantly surrounding myself with good people. Being deployed is interesting because it amplifies normal life. You need about 10% of the time you normally need to read somebody through and through. With that enhanced people reading capability comes the good the bad and the ugly. I have used my time to see what I do and do not want to become as a person.

I finish my eggs, bacon, and mound of fresh fruit and we head for the exit. We begin the walk back to our office building and I can't help but notice how good the eucalyptus trees smell in the morning. I gaze to my left and see the man made lake that Saddam built. Victory Base Complex is showered with palaces, lakes, and a few leftover trees, all of which are out of place but are aesthetically pleasing nonetheless. I had heard that at one point Saddam stole 80% of Baghdad's water supply to create the clean water lakes that line what is now Victory. For an asshole he really knew how to decorate the place. I think how amazing the grounds must have looked before we got here. I wonder what they will look like after we leave. I am feeling grateful and thankful for the amenities that I have had on my first deployment. It is amazing how a little sunlight, a full belly, and a little walk in the morning can cheer you up....even with a 12-14 hour day ahead of you. We get to our building door and the day begins.

To Be Continued...

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Deployment Mirror - Part I

I was talking to my wife the other day and she asked me why I never write about being deployed? I didn't really have an answer for her. I guess I don't really think that my day to day activities are that exciting. When I told her that she said that she is constantly getting asked by friends and family what my life is like over here. She explained that she often did have answers to the little questions that people ask. That moment kind of made me feel bad like I hadn't let the ones I care about into my life over here enough. Perhaps I had been too concerned with my own sanity by wanting to know everything that was happening "on the outside" without me, and not concerned enough with giving my family and friends a glimpse into the world that has become my own over these last three months. After than conversation I actually started to get excited about the possibilities of writing a week in the life of post. My vision is to have the post read much less like a checklist of events and more like an experience through my senses. I haven't written in this fashion very often and I do not really know where this is going, so hopefully it turns out to be good. If you have any questions feel free to ask them in the comments and I will do my best to answer them.

Chapter 1 - Monday:
The wave is bright and swift. Dragging me upwards like a powerful fluid vine ascending rapidly towards a destination unknown. The awful noise started far off at first. A repetitive wailing that approached me with a hunter's precision. Familiarity crept into my mind, yet I still could not place the sounds flooding my memory. The light pulling me upwards increased its intensity and my pace exponentially increased. I could feel my heart beating faster as the pulsating far off noise that plagued my mind intensified. As my rapid heartbeat hit a final note my eyes clicked wide open in unison. I was awake. My Westclox battery powered alarm clock had reached the second stage alarm that was even more annoying and awful sounding than the first set of beeps.

I had been having intense and very strange dreams since arriving in Baghdad almost three months ago. Some weird, some good, and few awful night terrors. It is amazing how diet, long hours, and intense workouts can change your sleep patterns. I leaned over and turned off the alarm and saw that it was 6:22 AM. I had made it through two minutes of my mind piercing alarm while struggling to surface from my ethereal dream. I reached for my laptop and cracked it open. My email account, left open from the night before, had six new messages. After deleting a couple LinkedIn updates and a promotion I started to read an email from Chris, a friend who works with me on Checking For Charity. As great as it was to see the charity I helped create flourishing in my absence, it also stung a bit being separated from it. The opportunity to be a part of something like my charity is just one of the many things I took for granted just three short months ago.

I open my Skype account and double click the Heidicell icon. It rings three times and I hear the voice I love hearing every morning. Luckily my room is equipped with wireless internet capability, which has made Skype a godsend for myself and countless members of the armed forces before me. I quickly think of the experiences both my Grandfathers had during World War II and feel a bit of guilt for my "wartime" amenities. My guilt is rapidly washed away by my wife's voice. We are on a ten hour time difference so the call times actually work out relatively well. We talk during my morning time and at least once during my night hours. I wonder how much harder my experience would be if I didn't have the chance to talk to her at will?

We catch up on her day and what her plans are for the week. She asks what my plans are for the week. I say little and quickly change the subject. For some reason it has proven difficult to share to her and my family back home. Maybe their lives are my only escape? Maybe I am just to lazy to try explain experiences out here that are relatively mundane and do not exactly lift my spirits? I tell her I love her and that I have to get ready for work.

I get out of my bed catch the unpleasant whiff of whatever chemical they use while boiling my laundry. My legs are still stiff from Saturday's workout. I walk over to the small TV that was left behind in my room that is used more for a nightstand than anything else and I grab my electronic razor. I step around to the side of my wall locker where I have taped up a cheap mirror from the base exchange and I begin to shave. My beard has been ridiculous out here. I have five o'clock shadow by noon every day. I attribute my enhanced beard growth to shaving seven days a week. No full days off out here. I finish shaving and gather a few clothes off of the floor to place in my laundry bag. I look around my CHU (containerized housing unit) and think how appalled my wife would be if our room looked like this at home. I have had little free time since I arrived at the Victory Base Complex almost three months ago and even less time that I am willing to spend organizing my trailer. For me, it was good enough.

I threw on my bathrobe and flip flops, always a conversation starter out here, grabbed my shower caddy and opened front door to head towards the showers. My face is slapped with the thick desert air. Baghdad is hot. There is no way around it. I have been to Arizona, California, Mexico, Jamaica, and numerous other places all of which are pretty hot during their summer months, however there is not a place on earth that I have found that has hotter air than Iraq. Every day feels like a hot blow dryer is being directed right in your face. Luckily, I have just left the confines of my CHU where I have had an oversized air conditioner pumping in cold air since I arrived in May. The warmth actually feels good against my face. I turn around and lock my CHU door, not out of fear of theft during my time in the shower, but because my Beretta M9 and clips of ammunition are laying on the empty bed on the other side of my room. Another reminder that life is a little different out here.

I walk through the dusty gravel that has become my city's concrete out here and across my 'street' to the shower trailer. I weave through the giant concrete T-walls used to protect the CHU's from mortar and rocket attacks. The door slams shut behind me and I am greeted by the overpowering stench of mold and sitting water. I see Heichs' and Sheeman's towels and shorts hanging from their respective favorite shower stalls. "What's up rookies," I shout out. "Did you check out the new quotes," asks Heichs. I quickly gaze over to the wall and see the picture of a not so loved senior officer that recently returned home. Someone put up her picture with some quotations next to it. We gave up trying to figure out who did it a few weeks back. The weekly addition of new quotes next to the picture speaks volumes of the impact she had on the culture and morale of the office, especially since her peers frequent these same showers and had yet to take her pseudo shrine down. Her mocked persona is a blunt lesson in leadership, just one of the many I have been exposed to in my short time in the desert.

I jump in the shower and begin the challenging task of adequately washing in the 2x2 foot shower stall. The water pressure is good but it is difficult to wash without banging loudly against the cheap plastic stalls. I am grateful for a daily shower though. I rinse off and brush my teeth in the shower and crack a few jokes with the boys before walking back to my CHU. The heat has become a bit less pleasurable as my hours of nightly air conditioning exposure begins to wear. I unlock my CHU and catch a glimpse of the clock that plagued my dreams just a short while ago. It reads 7:01 AM. I had nine minutes to get dressed and head to breakfast.

I throw on my ABU's (airman battle uniform) and curse the bastard who designed it. The winter weight denim texture is a slap in the face to those out in Iraq. We can spend billion's on a war effort but we can't even give deployed troops a non-winter weight uniform in Baghdad. The Navy did it right by adopting the Army's lightweight, athletic cut uniform. The Air Force tried to develop their own identity and instead developed a camouflage horse blanket. The uniform had become a constant gripe amongst our crowd. I think back to the other amenities I have and the fact I am walking into my own room and immediately feel the guilt creep back into my psyche. I wash down a daily vitamin and cruise Facebook for a few minutes before the guys stop by and grab me on the way to breakfast. The social networking site is both a blessing and a curse while deployed. It can be a great way to remain connected to people stateside. It is a way to feel that you are still a part of people's lives stateside. But it can also serve as a constant reminder that your time over here is time away from the life you have built, and it is time that you will never get back.

My guilt is eased slightly by the realization that with the new ways of war come new challenges. My Grandfathers' way of war is gone, and with it the unique challenges they faced. My situation is what it is and all I can do is get by the best I can. The true sacrifice is being away from those you care about. It isn't the lack of everyday conveniences we as a nation have become so accustomed to. People always say that life is like a roller coaster. You are always faced with the ups and downs. If life is like a roller coaster, then deployed life is the biggest damn roller coaster I have ever been on. The ups and downs are much more frequent and they seem to be more intense, if only just in my mind. My morale and daily mood is of constant importance and I try to actively ensure that I am balanced mentally. I cannot imagine the effects that some of my Army brethren are going through 'outside the wire'. Once again, I feel bad for my self pity. Be grateful for what you have, I tell myself before....

Bang, bang, bang. The door handle rattles back and forth after the obnoxious knock of my friends. I stand up and shut down my laptop. It is time to head to breakfast.

To Be Continued.....

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Checking For Charity Beef & Beer Tickets Now On Sale!

WE NEED YOUR HELP! Help selling tickets to the Checking For Charity inaugural Beef & Beer event. Tickets are on sale NOW!

Here are the details:

Thursday August 19th from 6-10pm
PJ Whelihans in Cherry Hill
Chinese Auction, 50/50 raffle, games, food and more.
All the beer you can drink.
Cost is $30 per person in advance. $40 at the door.
We expect a BIG Turnout for this event and are not restricted to one room at PJ'S. Our goal is to sell over 250 tickets.

So go out and sell tickets.....wife, girlfriend, family, friends and co-workers.
Ticket sales will be by Pay Pal on our website or by sending a check to:

Checking for Charity Corporation
PO Box 31
Mount Laurel NJ 08054

**Please make your check payable to "Checking for Charity**

When you arrive at PJ's your name will be on the paid in full list. Get a wristband and have fun.

See you go out there and buy/sell some tickets!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Book Review: Start Where You Are

"Start Where You Are" is a book by Chris Gardner of The Pursuit of Happyness fame. I saw the movie and enjoyed it, however I never really sought out to find the book let alone a different book by the author. However during a long layover in Baltimore on my way out the door to my deployment I purchased Chris' book from the airport newsstand.

The book is described as a book that contains life lessons on getting from where you are to where you want to be. Although the book has some valuable lessons, I almost think I would have benefited more from reading the Pursuit of Happyness than Start Where You Are. For me it was one of those books that probably could have been written in about half as many pages. There were six separate sections with 42 lessons. Some of these lessons were pretty cool and told over the backdrop of Chris's unique life story definitely brings them into context. However, I felt like a lot of them were relatively mundane and repetitive. I almost got the vibe that the publisher mandated that the book be a certain length and left Chris to go back and fill in the gaps. The overarching message is clear. You should always pursue happyness, your destiny is in your hands, and start now! I just think that message could have been delivered a bit more succinctly. Overall, it was a fairly good read. Like I said before I think gleaning many of the lessons from Chris' life story would have been more impactful than having those lessons told to me through Chris's writing. But that just may be my learning style. I have included some notes from the book below.

Overture - Come In:
- Why not let the world be our true classroom? It offers everything we need for attaining our greatest good and highest aspirations.
- Whenever I am asked what happyness is to me, my first answer is that it is the ability to look where I am in the moment, wherever I am, to remember where I came from and how far I've travelled, as a father, a friend, a contributing citizen of the world and to be able to say - what a beautiful life this is, I'm so grateful to be here. More than anything happyness is being able to appreciate everything and know - wow, I created this!

One: Start Where You Are:
- "Live your life so that whenever you lose it, you're ahead." - Will Rogers
- The present throws out a welcome mat as an equal opportunity invitation to come into your own
- Every stage of the journey in what has been my life so far was exactly where I needed to be at that time

Lesson 1: Without a Plan a Dream is Just a Dream:
- The Navy gave me an education and taught me the fundamentals of pursuing those possibilities - discipline, character and initiative, all transferable skills that would serve me in every pursuit to come
- What is the single most important ingredient for successful pursuit? A plan!
- C5 complex: Clear, Concise, Compelling, Committed, Consistent

Lesson 2: We All Have The Power of Choice:
- We all have the power of choice in determining who we ultimately become

Lesson 3: The Calvary Ain't Coming:
- Reclaim the self reliant attitude that made him a hero in the first place
- Own up to where you are and how you got there. 9 times out of 10 I have come to the conclusion that wherever I am Ive arrived there by choice. Only then can you move to change your situation

Lesson 4: Start With What You've Got in Your Hand:
- Resourcefulness is next to godliness
- Believe in yourself and the infinite abundance of resources already at your disposal

Lesson 5: Baby Steps Count Too, As Long As You Go Forward:
- "Its always best to make friends before you need friends"
- MLK - "You may not see the entire staircase, but it is important that you that first step."

Lesson 6: Stop Digging Your Potatoes:
- Its often much easier to stay in our comfort zones, even when we've stopped being very comfortable, simply because it takes less effort to stay where we don't want to be than to summon the energy required to create the change to go where wed rather be
- Change is necessary for growth and if we don't instigate the change that we desire for ourselves, the status quo will eventually change on its own - in ways that can make adapting even tougher
- People want others to validate that their breaking the status quo will be successful and that they're ready, but no one can provide that
- "I was convinced the best was still ahead of me." - Ray Kroc

Lesson 7: What Would The Champ Do?:
- Meets Mohammed Ali and asks him if hes ever been scared
- "Yeah. I'm scared now. Ive got a disease and there is no cure. But I am still fighting" - Mohammed Ali

Lesson 8: Say Peace Be Still:
- The only way we can discover our true power is by living through the crisis we fear

Lesson 9: Even Lewis and Clark Had a Map:
- Start with the maps of others and eventually you will create your own path
- Don't be ashamed to copy your heroes

Lesson 10: Find Your Button:
- There is no plan B for passion, do what you love and love what you do
- There is nothing more practical than harnessing the power of passion
- You can and deserve to love something so much you'd do it for free

Two: The Thorny and Golden Past:
-History is a guide to navigation in perilous times

Lesson 11: Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Yesterday?:
- He revealed things from his past he never had while speaking to middle school

Lesson 12: In Your Library of Resources Value All Experiences:
- Everything we've experienced is relevant and part of who we are whether we like it or not
- "All true learning is experience. Everything else is just information." - Einstein
- "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." - Nelson Mandella

Lesson 13: Draw the Line of Your Life:
- Draw a line and illustrate important events and choices along the way
- Mark an X at critical decision points. You will see its your decisions driving your line not the other way around

Lesson 14: Whose Child Are You?:
- Your identity is important

Lesson 15: Check Out Your Own Version of Genesis:
- "Forgive your enemies but never forget their names." - JFK

Lesson 16: Who's Who in Your Hood?:
- "Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right." - Henry Ford
- The more you appreciate everyone who has played even a modest role in your past- whether to reinforce, challenge, entertain, or inspire you - the more you can trust you have touched them as well

Lesson 17: The Red or the Yellow Bike:
- Don't go with what is safe. Go with what motivates you

Lesson 18: Sometimes You Gotta Give Up Christmas:
- 1. Know yourself (authority) 2. Be yourself (authenticity) 3. Choose for yourself (autonomy)

Lesson 19: No Test No Testimony:
- Life happens
- If you haven't been tested you have nothing to say and nothing to add value to the conversation
- "....the world is messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around....But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this a way that men, in some strange way, are responding --something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up." - MLK

Three: Hitting The Anvil:
- "I learned the value of hard work by working hard." - Margaret Mead
- There is no secret to success or only the elite would be able to attain it and that is not the case
- Success is the result of tactical and strategic applications of learned knowledge toward objectives pursued with passion

Lesson 20: The Law of Hard Work Is No Secret:
- Initiative is available to EVERYONE!
- I went to school with every man I ever talked to

Lesson 21: Core Strengths Forged on your Anvil:
- Confidence is one of those intangibles that can take individuals much farther that the skills or experiences on their resumes indicate they will go
- Confidence is a transferable strength

Lesson 22: Wizards Begin as Blacksmiths:
- Invest in your transferable skills

Lesson 23: Are You Bold Enough to Get Back to Basics?:
- He was going door to door when no one else on Wall St was

Lesson 24: Supply and Demand Ain't Rocket Science:
- Everybody's got their hustle. What they are providing the market
- Everybody is selling something

Lesson 25: Truth is a Hit:
- Effective communication needs a message so low that a goat could get it. Lowest common denominator
- Speak from the heart and only what you are truly passionate about
- Truth is a hit
- Truth, honesty, and integrity always make good business sense

Lesson 26: Learn the Ropes First, Then Conquer Rome:
- Top attribute employers look for is passion
- Its not how fast you get to the top but the wisdom you gain along the way

Lesson 27: Who's Who at the Office and in Your Spheres of Influence?:
- Its always best to make friends before you need friends

Lesson 28: It Takes As Much Energy to Bag an Elephant as it Does a Mouse:
- Don't sweat the small stuff
- Focus on elephants rather than mice

Lesson 29: Share the Wealth:
- Give back with advice and time and shared struggles

Four: Your Empowerment Zone:
- "One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself." - Leonardo Da Vinci

Lesson 30: Seek The Farthest Star:
- To achieve mastery you must see the upsides and downsides and take the risk anyways to go for the gold
- The experience of failure not only teaches how to succeed the next time it is the only way to combat the fear of failure

Lesson 31: Seeing Ghosts Reading Signs:
- Reinvention

Lesson 32: Opportunities, Like Pancakes Are Best Served Hot, But Sometimes You Gotta Set The Table Before You Can Eat:
- I also believe no matter what your endeavor, when you're open to possibilities that can and do show up on your doorstep, all the elements of timing can click for you too

Lesson 33: Stay Open But Don't Wing It:
- Dare to pursue your life's work but do so with a readiness to adapt your plans when needed on the fly

Lesson 34: Mo' Money Mo' Options Mo' Problems:
- Pursue mastery over money
- 1. Does it control you or do you control it? 2. Do you work hard for the money or do you let your money go to work for you? 3. Does money represent the calvary that you've been waiting on or is it only one resource in your pursuit of happyness
- Seek balance

Lesson 35: Money Is The Least Significant Component of Wealth:
- Success is nothing more than doing the little things that unsuccessful people don't do
- Only you can determine your true worth

Lesson 36: Conscious Capitalism: A Personal and Global Primer:
- The caveman with the biggest cave and the best stuff isn't necessarily the happiest
- Contribution makes you happy
- 1. The opportunity to create value for ourselves 2. The opportunity to add value to the world
- Will it have mattered that I was here?

Lesson 37: Make Your Dream Bigger Than Yourself:
- Be the change you want to see
- Don't always seek a mentor be one!

Five: Spiritual Genetics:
- You don't have to subscribe to a religion to be spiritual

Lesson 38: Embrace The Best of Your Spiritual Genetics:
- We all have our lightness and our darkness. Our human challenge is to continuously claim the light of the best that is within us - the best of our spiritual genetics
- "I am a human being; nothing human can be alien to me."
- Alliance for a New Humanity website has instructions to meditate

Lesson 39: Breaking Generational Cycles:
- When confronting tough choices or circumstances we a. emerge and rise b. be beaten into darkness c. maintain the status quo

Lesson 40: Your Divine Inheritance:

Lesson 41: God's In The Details:

Lesson 42: Passing The Torch, Raising The Bar:
- Go make yourself Proud!

Six: The Good Old Everyday:
- "Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Would the child that you were respect the man that you have become?

Lesson 43: Don't Postpone Joy:
- Do one thing for yourself that makes you happy
- Do one thing that makes you happy every day. Top of your daily to do
- Don't spend too much time pursuing whats next and not appreciating whats now

Lesson 44: Claim Ownership of Your Dreams:
- Happyness is a responsibility
- "Paid the price to control the dice, paid the cost to be the boss." - BB King
- Always pursue happyness!