Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Hyper Creative Soul: Ginsberg, Dingman & Lazaroff

Allen Ginsberg
By Michael Hooper

The artist is the sum of multiple parts. As they develop their own style, the students of art borrow from the masters of their craft, emulating techniques and ideas that will help them achieve their artistic goals.

My friend artist Joe Mettenbrink said there is a person behind my recent immersion into oil painting: The spirit of Arlen Lazaroff, a Nebraska poet and friend of mine for 20 years.

I was shaken by the thought, but Joe is probably correct. I made a turning point in my portrait drawing after I painted Arlen, his spirit was with me as I drew and painted him. I loved Arlen's total devotion to art and poetry, making paintings, found art displays, poems, stories and books, he was committed to art 24 hours per day, seven days a week. He worked on the art to the exclusion of everything else, including his health, like Vincent Van Gogh (Arlen died at age 46 in 2005). Arlen's artistic activism was sometimes crude but made a statement. His End of Sex is the Beginning of a Family was censored in Fremont, Neb., along with another piece by Margery Coffey. Arlen wrote the ghost town is a metaphor for the world's abandoned and forgotten people and places.

Photo of Arlen Lazaroff by Eadweard R. York

Arlen said he wanted to live as a poet and work on poetry 100% of the time. He failed at most of the jobs until he finally found his dream job selling records for Kanesville in Council Bluffs, during the final two years of his life.

Another influence in my life is Harry Dingman III, my brother-in-law, an artist and musician completely devoted to an artistic lifestyle. Harry showed us a way to make art in everything, including family, food, friendships, exercise, yoga, travel. Sketchbook always nearby, he documents life with drawings and paintings; everything Harry does is an opportunity for an artistic experience. His guitar style is distinctive yet versatile in the bands For Against and The Millions and Battleship Grey. When For Against toured Italy I was fortunate to go along and see this La Dolce Vita, the sweet life. The band was showered with affection. One night we had dinner with a group of artists, poets, writers, journalists and musicians and talked for three or four hours and ate all this fabulous food, one course after another all night with great wine and beautiful conversation. This was Food and Dining as Art. I met an Italian poet who was writing a book about Robert Smith's poetry in The Cure. WTF? This is way too cool.

Harry Dingman and Jeff Runnings in Brooklyn, NY. Photo By Michael Hooper

Harry and I toured The Vatican and saw the sculpture called the Pieta by Michelangelo, the luminescent Mother Mary with Jesus. The sculpture of granite is lifelike. All of this art left an indelible impression on me.

Meeting Allen Ginsberg was life altering in the early 1990s. He and I had a brilliant conversation together in the short time that we talked, he signed my book of his poetry and he drew a picture of a flower. He exuded art. He was art. He is an icon. He inspired a generation of radicals, beatniks and fairies. My encounter with him still lives. He asked me what brought me to Lincoln, Neb., and I said you, I've always wanted to meet you. He asked me what I did and I told him I was a reporter at the Grand Island Independent writing about rural life in 14 counties in central Nebraska. He said he once lived in a commune in a rural part of upstate New York with his lover Peter Orlovsky. Beatniks followed them there, and they had parties and worked on poetry and art projects. I especially remember how Allen Ginsberg looked into my eyes and down into my soul. I felt a lasting connection. That is why I want art with a soul, with eyes looking back at me.

I admired Ginsberg's way of gathering up a storm of poets and artists to march for causes that were important to him including fighting censorship, civil rights, the legalization of marijuana and saving the environment.

I learned a lot from these people. In a way I'm still emulating and learning from them while trying to come up with my own voice, my own distinctive style. This is perhaps the hardest challenge for every artist. They say there is nothing new under the Sun. Yet we create anyway, perhaps for the joy of creating, for the meaning it leaves behind. I think the artist must take chances in order to be independent, free, unique and an enlightened soul.

Life is short. Time is our most precious resource. I couldn't think of a more meaningful way to live than an artistic life devoted to the highest and best achievement in work, family, friends, art and life. It is the art of conversation, the engaging with all things in nature, people, animals, trees and land. We learn that to achieve great art, we must love deeply and profoundly. The greatest art is made with passion, desire and love. And that is the art of life.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Security Benefit Is Todd Boehly's Bank For Deals

By Michael Hooper

Security Benefit has become Todd Boehly's source of cash for investment deals.

Similar to Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway, Boehly is using an insurance company's cash to make bets on other investments.

Security Benefit has invested in assets managed by Eldridge Industries, including real estate in Los Angeles like the Beverly Hilton, media companies like Dick Clark Productions and the Hollywood Reporter, plus the Los Angeles Dodgers. Eldridge also has invested in NPC International in Overland Park, Kan., which owns 1,237 Pizza Huts, plus 394 Wendy's Restaurants. NPC was founded by Gene Bicknell of Kansas.

Boehly, 45, is chairman and chief executive officer of Eldridge Industries LLC, which owns Security Benefit and SE2, both based in Topeka. He is also a 20% owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

Eldridge Industries  describes itself as a private investment firm that manages businesses across diversified industries, headquartered in Greenwich, CT, with offices in New York, London, and Beverly Hills. 

Boehly and Guggenheim Partners invested some $400 million into Security Benefit in 2010 when the company was struggling during the financial crisis that began in 2008. Now Security Benefit earns nearly that amount of money in profit every year. Boehly later bought Security Benefit from  Guggenheim and put it inside of Eldridge Industries, effective Feb. 1, 2017.

The proceeds from the sale of annuities sold by Security Benefit are used for investments. The strategy is to make a high enough return to cover the expenses and obligations of each annuity with profit leftover for Security Benefit. The income from mortgages, bonds and investments provide cash flow to pay for annuity obligations.

In 2018, Security Benefit earned $370 million. And in 2017, the company earned $388 million (which does not include the month of January 2017, when it was still controlled by Guggenheim), according to the company's filing with the SEC. That document shows Security Benefit has a book of $3.2 billion in "related-party transactions," mortgages and investments in media, hotels and real estate in Los Angeles and Europe.

Page 98 of the SEC filing says the $3.2 billion in "related-party transactions" are investments in related parties, and are also included in mortgage loans and fixed maturity investments under consolidated balance sheets.

For example, Security Benefit listed investment of $215 million to American Media & Entertainment, LLC, a Los Angeles-based media group. Security Benefit owns a piece of KLAC-AM 570 in Los Angeles.

Security Benefit also provided $351.6 million to American Media Productions, LLC, a startup media firm launched by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Security Benefit began its partnership with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2014. The Security Benefit Field Level includes 11,000 seats in the stadium.

Security Benefit provided $595 million to Cain International LLC, a real estate investment group that owns the Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills and the Beverly Hilton, as well as properties in Europe.  

Many of the Security Benefit investments are to CBAM LTD, an Eldridge Industries company that is an alternative investment adviser and manager of collateralized loan obligations. CBAM has about $11 billion of assets under management, a lot of it from Security Benefit.

The book of $3.2 billion in investments/mortgages is just under the $3.3 billion in equity in Security Benefit. That seems a bit high of insider-related loans relative to the total assets and total equity in the company, said David Tangeman, a Houston accountant and native of Kansas. It's not a problem if the securities perform well.

Eldridge Industries is named after the Eldridge Hotel in Lawrence, according to an article by Barrons. When Boehly first came to Topeka in 2010, the hotel where he was supposed to stay was closed at the front door, when he arrived in the dark, early morning, the article said. So he went across the street and got a room at another hotel. But that room was smoky. So he took some blankets and spent the night on a park bench. The next time he came for a visit, he got a room at the Eldridge Hotel in Lawrence, the article said.

Another way Eldridge Industries benefits from Security Benefit is by offering financial advisory services, for which Security Benefit paid $93.9 million in 2018 to Eldridge. Eldridge also has received $30 million in dividends in 2018 and $20 million in dividends in 2017 from Security Benefit. Despite these payments, Security Benefit has received about $950 million in new capital from Eldridge in the past two years, to support the growth of Security Benefit and improve its ratings.

The improvement of the balance sheet has earned the company excellent financial strength ratings by Standard & Poor's and A.M. Best, both offering A- ratings. The ratings have steadily improved since 2009 during the financial crisis.

Security Benefit also filed financial information to regulators in Kansas.

Security Benefit has about 1,300 employees with about 1,100 in Kansas. The firm focuses on the U.S. retirement market with fixed, fixed-indexed and variable annuities and mutual funds.

The Standard & Poor's 500 Index did not perform well in 2018 dropping -4.38%. And while stocks didn't do well in 2018, most bonds didn't fair much better. Long-term bonds and intermediate-term bonds lost value in 2018 because of rising interest rates implemented by the Federal Reserve Board. Short term bonds actually performed best in the bond sector, posting modest gains in 2018. Security Benefit owns a lot of bonds, including government and commercial securities.

In 2019, so far, the value of intermediate and long-term bonds have recovered somewhat as the Fed has slowed down its projections of raising interest rates and may curtail or even cut interest rates. However GDP grew 3.2% in the first quarter of 2019, blowing away estimates by analysts, raising concerns that the Fed may consider more interest rate hikes.

Security Benefit has $37.4 billion assets under management. Annual revenue was about $4.2 billion in 2018. SE2 has about $90 billion of assets under administration.

When retirees consider how to fund retirement, sometimes they turn to mutual funds or annuities, or a combination of both. Security Benefit is in a great position to offer multiple products in the retirement sector including mutual funds and fixed and variable annuities. Security Benefit's SE2 subsidiary takes care of administration of annuities for a variety of clients and financial firms.

Mike Kiley has been CEO of Security Benefit since September 2011.

David Tangeman contributed to this article.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Flooding Hurts Railroads

Crews repair flood damage at a rail crossing in Plattsmouth, Neb., on March 22, 2019. Photo courtesy of BNSF Railway

By Michael Hooper

Damaging floods hurt railroads in the first quarter of 2019, contributing to a decline in traffic at Union Pacific and BNSF Railway.

Carload traffic at Union Pacific (UNP) was down 5% in first quarter 2019 compared to first quarter 2018 but saw a gain of 4% in intermodal traffic. Overall traffic in the first quarter was down 1% through week 13 at Union Pacific, according to weekly carload reports published on the company's web site.

Overall traffic at BNSF Railway was down 5% in the first quarter, with declines in coal, grain, and food but nice gains in the movement of petroleum, according to BNSF Railway's weekly carload reports.

BNSF Railway, owned by Berkshire Hathaway (BRKB, BRKA), moved 2.48 million car loads and intermodal units in the first quarter, down from 2.62 million in the first quarter 2018.

And Union Pacific moved 2.10 million car loads and intermodal units in the first quarter, down 1% from 2.13 million in the year-ago quarter.

Both UNP and BNSF suffered millions of dollars in losses due to flooding in the Midwest. There are places where rails  alongside rivers were wiped out, the ballast completely washed away. The railroads responded with a high degree of professionalism, helping people get to safety and rerouting traffic around the damaged rail lines.

BNSF and Union Pacific used technology like drones to inspect flooded railyards and bridges. 

The Association of American Railroads says that waters rose to historic levels in more than 40 locations in the Midwest, due to melting snow and ice and rain.

"BNSF and Union Pacific continue to work day and night to restore service as quickly and safely as possible," AAR said. "Collaborating with local and government agencies, the railroads are rerouting shipments, communicating with customers, assessing and repairing damage, and supporting local communities. For example BNSF recently used drones to keep employees safe while inspecting bridges and UNP used high rail vehicles to move evacuees out of the Missouri River Valley to a local shelter."

Meanwhile traffic at East Coast railroads and Canadian National Railway were less affected by floods. Canadian National Railway actually saw an increase in rail traffic of 13,400 car loads/intermodal traffic or an increase of 0.9% in the first quarter.

Norfolk Southern saw a small increase of 7808 carloadings/intermodal units in the first quarter to a total of 1.31 million.

CSX saw no growth in the first quarter, moving 1.5 million carloadings in the first quarter, the same as first quarter 2018.

It is likely the damage to Union Pacific and BNSF Railway will hurt earnings in the first quarter. Another factor that may affect them this year is the flood damage to farms.

Many farms in the river valleys saw destruction of grain from the floods. Some of that grain was stored on the ground and will be a total loss. Livestock also suffered from the floods. This may affect the amount of grain and food products that railroads move from the Midwest in 2019.

Railway Age reported significant damage to UNP and BNSF Railway. Here is what the rail media company said,

"Union Pacific has suffered widespread service disruptions from flooding and track washouts in the Iowa-Kansas-Missouri-Nebraska four-state area. Five subdivisons (Omaha, Blair, Columbus, Lincoln, Falls City) suffered substantial damage in the flooding. Service is expected to be restored soon on the Blair Subdivision. But in other areas, including Falls City, where water remains over portions of the rail, it’s just too soon to estimate when service might be restored.
"Meanwhile, BNSF Railway reported track closures in the same area, along with additional closures in North and South Dakota, and Illinois near the Mississippi River. “We are now confronting major flooding issues in the region, particularly in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa, as multiple subdivisions are currently out of service due to track washouts,” the railroad said. More significantly, much of the BNSF main line in South Dakota and from Alliance to Omaha, Neb., was out of service," Railway Age reported.

I have been buying stock in Canadian National Railway (CNI) lately, picking up shares at $86, $87 and $90 per share. CNI is the only transcontinental railway in North America with connections to the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. Canadian National's net profit margin is an outstanding 30%. And management has been getting 15% return on invested capital.

Disclosure: The author of this article owns stock in Union Pacific (UNP), Canadian National Railway (CNI) and Berkshire Hathaway (BRKB, BRKA).

Saturday, March 9, 2019

A Writer's Artistic Explosion

Painting No. 55 by Michael Hooper, titled, Joe Mettenbrink Artist Poet Musician, Oil on canvas 11 by 14 in. 

By Michael Hooper

Creativity is the highest form of living. To be engaged in a creative work of art is to use multiple levels of imagination, skill, knowledge, technique and dexterity. Such creativity can be explosive in color, form and beauty. Fall in love with creativity and you will be its keeper, with a desire to create bigger and better and greater works of art.

On December 25th, 2018, I painted my first oil painting. I like the feel of oil paint going on canvas. Since that day, I have painted about 60 paintings, most of them are oil on canvas. About 15 are worthy of keeping, the rest were good practice, a way to learn from my mistakes. I committed myself to painting a painting every day just like Vincent van Gogh did. I also have watched about 100 hours of art shows, most of them instructional videos on YouTube. I  also take instruction from Rosemary Menninger, an accomplished painter and longtime art teacher in Topeka.

I paint like I write, fast and furious. I learned that most of the work goes into the drawing. Whatever the subject, it likely needs a great drawing before it can be painted.

I started painting because I could not find the art that I wanted to see. I had even asked artists to paint me portraits of people but they never did. So I began my study of portrait painting, which is a very difficult subject with many tiny details in the eyes, nose and mouth. A false line will damage or destroy a painting. The wrong line and the subject becomes somebody else.

Over the years I observed three types of painters, accident art or intentional art or a combination of accident and intentional. The accident artist lets the work speak to him and guide him where to go with the painting. I am not that kind of artist. I go with 100% intention. I draw out exactly what I want to see on the canvas. Then I begin to apply paint. Drawing is painting. And painting is drawing. I use tiny brushes to draw lines and impressions. I'm not waiting for the beautiful accident although sometimes it happens. I'm inclined to think such beautiful accidents will happen while working furiously.

It takes courage to be an artist because the risk of failure is so high. I can see why some people stare at a blank canvas and can't get anywhere, afraid the first line will be a mistake. Draw it anyway. I could not learn without doing, and most of my works are mistakes and learning lessons. Ansel Adams took thousands of photos per year with the hope that he would get at least 10 good pictures.

Color fields are nice but mostly color puffed up. I need a human form in my art, I need a body, I need some connection to humanity. I want art to be full of life, with an epic story behind the look on my subject's face. The best works of art by the Masters have a soul looking back at you.

Woman Of Many Colors, Oil on canvas, 11 by 14 in. By Michael Hooper

For years I worked as a journalist documenting people's lives. I always looked for the people impacted by a story. There is no history, only biography, Emerson said. Perhaps that is why I'm so interested in portrait painting.

Hermann Hesse, the great German author, took up painting at age 40. Initially it was a therapeutic pastime, but art helped him to see better.

I worked seven years in restaurants, 20 years in newspapers as a reporter and editor, four years in banking and Investments and five years as a freelance writer and self-employed businessman. I have kept a diary for 35 years. Now I am 100% devoted to becoming a painter. 

Inspiration comes from three  sources: my daughter Hannah Hooper, an artist using pour techniques to create works of art. Another source of inspiration was an art salon with several artists, poets, friends, who shared their works of art. One of the participants, Carrie Riordan, talked about a piece of art that meant so much to her. It was a landscape with a river. She said the piece reminded her of the drives with her husband through the country, seeing the big sky, the open spaces and quiet country roads.

For me her connection to the painting, the evocative story behind it, was just as powerful as the painting itself.

The third source of inspiration was my lifelong fascination and examination of art locally, nationally and internationally, including the NOTO Arts District in Topeka, the Cider Gallery in Lawrence, the Vincent van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. I'm in awe of Pablo Picasso's 50,000 works of art left behind, his ability to draw with a paintbrush and create a work of art in minutes. He did 800 sketches and studies for his famous work of art of prostitutes in the brothel, Les Demoiselles d'avignon, in 1907.

When preparation and hard work come together sometimes you have genius.

There is a 24-hour cycle to my painting process. I spend several hours looking for the next image to create. I do some sketches. I meditate on the idea before I go to bed with the hope that I will dream about the idea in my sleep. Sometimes I wake up and know immediately what to do. I draw the subject very carefully and won't begin painting until the drawing looks like my subject. Usually the painting process goes fast except for the tiny details around the eyes, nose and mouth.  

Knowing the end in my physical life is eminent, I asked myself, what is meaningful to me? The answer is what I love. With art I want to celebrate what I hold dear and admire, my children, my wife, my dog, myself in the Walt Whitman way, the Song of Myself. I want to see art of my artist friends whom I dearly love. I wish to have a hundred portraits of the beautiful people I know. Now the ideas are pouring out 10 times faster than I can produce. I like the idea of combining figurative art with expressionism and abstraction. A sweeping line of colors may illustrate the complexities inside the mind of the subject. The right combination of form, color and texture will produce lifelike energy.

The study of art is an endless journey of exhilaration, illumination and joy.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Beautiful Nothingness

Beautiful Nothingness
At the end of the dock
With the breeze on my face
I hear water lap on the rocks
The South Bay mirrors pinks and blues.
Ponto Lake is far from
the world’s workplace
It evokes desires of having water,
Clear and cool,
On my skin. Tenderly
Floating and diving,
I’m suspended
in beautiful nothingness
children laugh, explore
and discover colored rocks
hidden in the sandy shore
They jump, splash and crash
In the water, pulling me under
Into beautiful nothingness

Dripping wet, I lay in the Sun
Heated and toasted
dried and baked
I close my eyes

My ego has disappeared
I'm suspended in animated waves
Every desire has left me
Nirvana is in my soul

Friends at the table give
Thanks and share
Phil’s spicy hamburgers
Lettuce, tomatoes and oranges
And watermelons
Fish and sweet corn
Talk of distant loved ones
Brings us closer together
Ending in contented silence
Tired bodies rest in hallowed peace
Broken only by
crying loons under stars
Calling me to go to sleep,
In this holy and treasured place:
where Nirvana and Beauty Merge
into Beautiful Nothingness. 

--Michael Hooper, July 2002

This poem is dedicated to Phil Anderson who, on vacation, said, “I’m going to do as much of nothing as I possibly can. How do you quantify nothing? Just you watch.”

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

How To Live A Serendipitous Life

Paul Porter and Michael Hooper meet at Gage Park to examine tree loss.

By Michael Hooper

It is possible to live a life filled with charming encounters that come together like magic. 

The seekers of serendipity may experience a new insight, a new way of thinking, or develop an entirely new direction in life.

Serendipity is defined as the occurrence and development of events that are happy or beneficial. I believe serendipity happens more often to certain kinds of people who have an awareness and willingness to experience something new. People stuck in a rut are out of luck.

The serendipitous lifestyle is achievable if a person sets a goal upon meeting likes of a similar kind.

Two exploratory minds may expand their universe as they generate larger, more complex, detailed and even mystic dimensions of thought. This occurs more profoundly as the conversationalists enter deeper levels of understanding and trust. They carry conversations to new places and sometimes have a bender in their brain as a never-before-thought-of concept becomes clear. This mind-bender is actually kind of a scary place to go but has rewards.

Probably my most profound serendipity was a night when I was lost in Barcelona. I was looking for a Gaudi-designed park. I was wandering on a darkened hillside. A lady came up to me, she suddenly appeared. I looked to my right at her. Her head was covered. She asked me if I was lost. Yes I said. She said Gaudi Park is closed but there's a small park up there. She showed me the way and disappeared. 

I went to the park and met some young men from the Czech Republic, they were art students who had just spent their days in museums like The Prado. We shared our images and postcards of all these famous works of art on whiteboard held up in the night sky.

We drew pictures in each other's Diaries. I still have a picture by Pavel Noga. There are cats roaming around and people eating pizza, in this little plaza, where we seem to enjoy the ambiance of art and the night together in Barcelona. Our conversations were so intense. We seemed to float into the Stars, excited by the expanding possibilities of art in our lives, as if contemplating Goya and Picasso and Rubens were going to change the way we think.

We found an abandoned mattress in the trash. Pavel  and  I slept on it with our sleeping bags and woke up in the morning and ate breakfast together and shared hot tea. The moment was so magical we knew we would cherish it forever. We bid each other farewell. 

Serendipity is being open to the idea of connecting with other people. These people could be family, friends, strangers, even people who may appear as angels like the woman who guided me in the dark of the night through Barcelona. 

Serendipity is when you are thinking of someone and they are also thinking of you at the same time. You might actually contact each other at exactly the same time, either by phone or text or something. And you may suggest doing something together that you both were thinking about doing. Let's go out for coffee. Or let's climb Electric Peak at Yellowstone National Park. Or let's look at the trees that were cut down at Gage Park as Paul Porter and I spontaneously agreed to do recently.

Serendipity is when your soul connects with another soul. 

A soulful connection takes vulnerability, trust and generosity.

Trust is hard to come by in a world of violence and abuse. Trust until given a reason not to. Pay attention to red flags. Maybe hitchhiking is not a good idea at this time. Better call an Uber.

Serendipity is the opportunity to learn something new, with someone you admire. To do something unique, inspiring and meaningful.

Serendipity is an inner phenomena that works in the mind and soul of humankind. Out of this, we may see huge numbers of paintings, books, the start-up of businesses, the investment in real estate, art studios, music, enterprise. When two like-minded souls get together they can do phenomenal things, and alter the direction of their lives.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Attributes of a Hyper-Conscious Mind & Enlightened Soul

By Michael Hooper

I have been striving for hyper-consciousness for years. I was most awakened by reading “The Philosopher’s Stone” by Colin Wilson when I was 18 years old. I was in awe of the breadth of knowledge known by the author and the great philosophers in history.

My personal quest in achieving hyper-consciousness has involved participation in multiple religions and philosophies, solitude, reading, travel, careers, marriage and raising children. This article discusses my spiritual awakening and evolution. I list 20 attributes of the hyper-conscious mind and enlightened soul.
To read more, click here