The Mary Lou tragedy

When Billy passed away last summer his obituary was a one-liner, date of birth and date deceased. A sad fate to befall anyone for sure, but it felt even more so because Billy came from prominence. Like any such tragic stories it’s complicated and nuanced and I won’t pretend to have all the answers – nor do I know all the details of the story – but what I do know is worth sharing.

Billy’s father, Bill Sr, was a well to do farmer in the Deep South. He was believed to be a direct descendant of a famous Revolutionary War general. The family owned and farmed large tracts of land, some of which was said to have been deeded to them by the British crown before the Revolutionary War.

Tobacco farming was big in those days. Bill Sr. was an excellent farmer and managed his money well. The story goes that one day Bill Sr. went to buy a new car and the salesman asked him which bank he’d draw the check on. Bill Sr. shrugged and replied, “which bank do you want?” He had enough money in any bank in town to pay for that new car. But Bill Sr. was also a tough character, a childhood friend of Billy’s who knew him well said Bill Sr. cursed a lot, even by standards of the day.

Many of the subsequent details are vague or missing. Billy’s childhood friend once confided in me that he has little or no memory for a period of about a year in the late 1960s. Drugs, alcohol, social change, it was a turbulent time and perhaps even more so for rural area kids of a certain privilege. One night Billy’s childhood friend drove his muscle car home from the beach as hard as he could. In the haze of alcohol he thought he was going north of 100MPH on a county road only to realize when he pulled into his daddy’s farm that he’d literally never gotten that Mustang out of second gear. That night Billy’s childhood friend quit hard liquor forever, he later enlisted in the US Marines and lived well through his adult years, as he still does today.

Billy always claimed to have spent time in Vietnam during the most difficult years of that conflict. I don’t know if that’s true or not but there was a DD-214 in his belongings when we eventually cleaned out the farm. As best as I can tell during his adult years Billy dabbled in real estate and invested in various businesses. Most of the time he teetered on the edge of trouble, eventually spending time in Federal penitentiary on multiple occasions for drug and other offenses.

Other than drugs and alcohol there was trauma in the family too. Billy’s sister had been in an abusive marriage for years when one night in a struggle she pulled out a gun and shot her husband dead. Bill Sr. hired all the best lawyers in the state and eventually she was acquitted.

When Bill Sr. passed away Billy and his sister inherited nearly equal tracts of land but by then farming in that part of the state had largely given way to suburban sprawl. As it were, Billy’s farm was close to a popular beach town and by virtue of booming land values Billy and his sister were millionaires back in a day when a million dollars was still considered a small fortune. Cars, boats, women, expensive homes, motorcycles and shady friends. I don’t know exactly how or when but most of the family fortune was eventually squandered. Around the time I met Billy about a decade ago he was believed to have sold a piece of land for nearly $4 million dollars. Only a few years later when we tried to protect the family farm from foreclosure we were never able to account for any of that money other than a handful of cars and motorcycles sitting in various shady shops around the county.

After his last stint in jail Billy’s health was poor and he’d fallen back into drugs and alcohol. One day late summer this past year his childhood friend went to check on him and found him dead. When I wondered out loud how a young man with so much promise could end up living so much tragedy Billy’s childhood friend offered his opinion:

“Too damn much money” he responded.

You could certainly argue that having more money than you need to live comfortably tends to invite trouble but I’ve always wondered about another issue: the tragedy of Mary Lou.

You see, both Billy and his sister are believed to have been adopted. Mary Lou, a third sibling a few years older than Billy, was Bill Sr.’s only biological child. Things were different back in those days and farming was still quite dangerous. One day little Mary Lou wandered around on the farm when she was kicked in the head by a mule. Bill Sr. jumped in one of his many cars that were sitting around the farm but in a tragic twist of fate, one of his quirky habits was that he had many cars but every last one was low on gas all the time. On the bridge over the river into town, Bill Sr. ran out of gas. By the time Mary Lou finally got to the hospital it was too late. She was only 3.

I’ve always wondered how that damn tragedy affected Bill Sr, was his gruff character related to some horrible guilt feeling? Life and the hereafter are complicated issues but I think the Coco movie put forth a defensible theory: little Mary Lou is not gone as long as somebody in this world is willing to remember her story.

Punacancha rock formation forest

About an hour’s drive up from the Cusco airport is the small rural community of Punacancha. Like most rural communities that are not on a main highway or near an established tourist attraction Punacancha is relatively unknown by outsiders.

Every year our kids’ school organizes a family run/hike event and this year Punacancha was the location for the hike. The school calls it a “run” but nobody runs except for one tall lanky teacher and a few family dogs, everyone else walks. The run/hike started in the community of Punacancha, up to the rock formation forest just outside of town and then back.

I’ll spare you the details of how our rescue dog who is supposed to be an Andean shepherd/collie is apparently scared of sheep now and the story of one of the modern mamacitas in our group who forgot how many of her kids were supposed to be with her (all 2, to be exact) only to say after a brief search the other kid showed up with his friends about 10 minutes behind.

The hike to the Punacancha rock forest formation is beautiful, relaxed, authentic. Highly recommended.

Laguna Qoricocha

No more than about 10 miles as the crow flies from the Plaza de Armas in Cusco you can find a perfectly quiet spot with not a tourist in sight. By taxi Laguna Qoricocha is about 1.5 hours from the Plaza de Armas, up a fairly steep mountain side behind the small town of Corao.

Laguna Qoricocha is at an elevation of just over 13,000 feet (~4,000 meters). The dirt road up to the laguna reaches about 13,500 feet at its highest point but in dry season it’s a relatively decent road. You won’t find any modern world things to do at the Laguna Qoricocha but it’s a nice place to stare at clouds, take pictures of llamas or just think about God and love.

Peru is burning a hole in its pocket

A girl I know is out shopping for a new TV with her mom right this very moment. The mother recently “came into a bit of money” as they say and she’s been keen to splurge on some nice things for herself and her family. Fair enough, particularly because the mom happens to be a retired schoolteacher who in years past certainly didn’t have all the luxuries I’ve enjoyed throughout my life.

In macro context the picture is a bit more complicated. Consumer spending and consumer credit in Peru are growing rapidly even while the economy as a whole has been slowing. If you think that might be a risky combination, I suspect you belong to a dwindling group of people who possess what was once known as common sense.

Peru’s economy and foreign currency inflows are heavily dependent on mining but there are relatively few “slam dunk” mining projects in the near future pipeline. Forget what the stuffed suits in Lima might say, I’ve talked to quite a few out-of-work mining engineers here in Cusco who are moonlighting as taxi drivers until they get called up for their next project and from what I hear, the pipeline is not particularly hot.

There’s probably a defensible argument to be made that if there is a bubble, we’re still in the early stages. If you feel like you can time these sorts of things and can stomach the risk, there’s still time for money to be made if you invest in the right places and get out at the right time.

However, I’m not interested in investing or buying stuff. I have 3 kids that for the moment are still growing up in Peru and I’m interested in the things that affect a deeper quality of life, the stuff that really matters beyond consumer goods. I’d like to see nicer parks, better hospitals, better schools, safer roads. I’d like to breathe cleaner air and have less potholes too. I wish there were much better residential neighborhoods, zoning, urban planning. A lick of paint wouldn’t hurt 95% of homes in Cusco. Speaking of homes, I wish there existed an acceptable system of recording titles and ownership in Peru so fools like me who pay taxes can actually take out a mortgage. I wish there were a sound financial system so people who carry around wads of cash are held accountable for the way they made those riches and if legitimately earned, pay a small slice of taxes so that all of the foregoing is actually possible, presuming there were a non-corrupt and competent public sector.

It’s a shame that all of the macro economic growth that Peru has enjoyed in the past 2 decades has only generated consumption and done little or nothing to affect true quality of life. Surely this isn’t a unique Peru problem but now that the economy is slowing down it will be interesting to see how the powers that be choose to address the challenge, more trickle down economics or make the hard decision to pursue real reform in the public sector, judiciary, the financial system, education, etc?

Everything that is wrong with Peru in a single headline

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The newspaper is at least a couple of weeks old. I only buy the paper to put on the floor of the bird cages so our budgerigars will rightly and justifiably be pooping on a headline that reads “More than 1,500 mayors will meet in Lima during 4 days”. If you care to read the blurb below the headline, it was essentially a meeting for the incoming politicos elected in last fall’s local elections on how to be a good mayor, hosted by the powers that be in Lima.

Now you could argue that only Lima has the facilities to host such an event and that most of the incoming politicos are badly lacking in qualifications for the job they are about to take on but I would counter that sometimes setting the tone is more important than the details and in this case, the message should be loud and clear that the powers that be in Lima need to get out and work for all of Peru, not the other way around.

The risk in saving the world – General Electric edition (GE)

A guy I know writes software for energy rebates and building codes. It’s great world-saving type stuff, at one point there was even a feature that showed you how many trees you had to plant to offset the carbon footprint of your new AC unit. The more high-end your new machine, the lower your carbon footprint. He makes an awful lot of money to write this software for big companies and works long hours. From time to time he sits down with a couple of gin and tonics at night to work on his software and doesn’t have time to read his kids a story. “Tomorrow” he’ll tell them.

His wife likes to watch the morning news on the TV. She talks to the TV and has answers for all the problems in the world. Alan Garcia, Keiko Fujimori, Maduro, Trump, no problem in the world goes unsolved except breakfast for her kids, usually she leaves that to the maid.

When I recently shared some thoughts on the current situation at GE with a few of my former co-workers there, here’s what one of them responded:

I don’t blame Jack Welch for ruining the company, that’s not giving Immelt the credit that he deserves for what he steadily did for 16 years. Sure, the accounting was flawed back but at least Neutron Jack held people to some level of accountability. People got fired when they messed up. Immelt, and for that matter the whole corporate gang, was more concerned about looking good in the press; making sure we are known for our “diversity”, “equal opportunity”, LGBTA and how GE single handedly saves the world….bla, bla. He made very bad business predictions and based his spending and acquisitions on those. He gambled with $30 bil of the pension fund and lost. He should have been locked up, but instead he got a fat $211 mil retirement check.

People will debate Welch and Immelt and write books about GE. I suppose only the “corporate gang” as my friend describes them truly knows their motives. Were they liberal progressives at heart, did they enjoy the media attention, was it easier to talk about LGTBA rights than the corporate balance sheet, or did they think pushing a liberal agenda was good for sales of windmills, ECM motors and expensive light bulbs? Whatever the motive, they sure didn’t take care of their own house while they were busy saving the world.

One thing is for sure: be leery of any large organization – for profit or not – that peddles their “saving the world” ideologies while moving millions of dollars.

New Year’s missive for the General

Every year a few old friends from my previous job at GE are so kind as to check in around the holidays, exchange best wishes and such. Naturally there’s always some catching up on the latest happenings at what was once one of the most respected companies in the world. One of my friends wrote “I’m sure you’ve heard about the General in the news. Nothing good coming from there for over a year now”.

Here’s what I responded:

… I actually quit reading any and all news some time ago because I just got tired of reading how the world is coming to an end and everything is the fault of middle-age white men. Having said that I did know that GE is in bad shape. They’ve actually been in bad shape for a long time, were it not for the government bailout GE would have been bankrupt in 2008. I felt bad at the time I was there (believe it or not) for being so critical of the company and some of its management but I always felt that GE’s corporate culture was horrible. At least in the aviation business you guys are doing well because you’re building good products that the market needs but the people most responsible for its success (ie. the technical people) were always the ones with the least career opportunities whereas the ones that just look and sound good but couldn’t tell which pointy end of the airplane goes down the runway first were the ones with better career opportunities. Long story short it’s not beyond the realm of possibilities that GE files Chapter 11 at some point (most likely a controlled type bankruptcy a la GM) which would wipe out the retail shareholders and significantly hit the “fixed” pensions of (ex-)employees like us. Jack Welch was really the bad guy here, with all his “financial engineering” he destroyed GE. Immelt was just too dumb or too timid to do anything about it, he only kicked the can further down the road and then made it significantly worse with some of his decisions. I mean, if you’re not fluent in French, you don’t launch head-first into the French corporate world. Here’s a guy flying around the world on a fleet of corporate jets, pulling in 8 (or 9?) figure paychecks, being a “jobs” advisor to the US Prez but he doesn’t know what anybody in a French cafe could tell you over 3 beers?! You could probably argue some of it was criminal, GE’s “financial engineering” clearly pushing the limits of acceptable accounting practices. Now you guys in aviation are like the spouse working a 9-5 job who just found out their ex ran up a $2M bill at a Vegas casino (in your name, while legally married, etc etc). I’m not saying they’re definitely going into Chapter 11 but you can’t rule it out either. Job-wise you guys should be safe but it does piss me off to think I might lose part of my pension while the schmucks responsible for the disaster got away with a fortune.

Anyway, don’t let it get to you. Here’s some pictures of the kids, would have you thinking that I lead a stress-free life with 3 well behaved kids. Entirely misleading to be sure.

https://www.icloud.com/sharedalbum/#B125oqs3q8sdOWe

Another New Year’s resolution bites the dust

Happy New Year! Same resolutions as always: fuss less and move to Canada or Australia. How’s that going you ask? Let’s just say I was doing good until I took my kids to the park yesterday morning.

You see, I shouldn’t fuss. I do realize how very blessed and privileged I am to have 3 healthy and happy kids, a wonderful wife and a job that allows me to live a very comfortable life. Only, I’m not the easiest person to get along with and every day I get up with the intent to fuss less than the day before. Fuss less is my go-to New Years resolution.

Then I went to our local park on Jan 2. It’s a piece of junk by any standard, worn out, dirty, typical Peruvian implements made out of heavy steel, dangerous for kids to play without supervision, etc etc. But it’s the best we have so I try not to fuss. Until the park attendant came out of her “office” like she does 4 times a day to yell at the kids because the 5 year olds are playing on the swings that are only up to 3 year old. I told her something about bird poop on the swings and paying taxes and what not.

Oh well, I still have 362 days to move to Canada or Australia.