Thursday, April 29, 2010

Confessions of a Banker's Wife

This week I have been following the 'Goldman Saga' with interest. Our building stands at a right angle between Goldman's brand new glossy skyscraper on the West Side Highway and Wall Street to the south. So, I feel physically connected to the ups and downs of the financial crisis, to the point where the physical proximity has become an emotional one. I almost feel like I could be the hinge in the 90 degree angle, that could snap at any point. But why such an ego centric and personal view of these issues?

The most obvious answer is that my husband works for a bank and it was also my first career. Although, both of us work/worked on the other side of the 'Chinese Wall', through which knowledge and information on these deals does (should!) not pass. [ Note: If this sounds like I am being defensive, I am]. In those early, heady, days Goldman was the pinnacle of a banker's career. If you could make it there, you could make it anywhere. Goldman had a reputation, an aura, like it was almost tinged in gold...on a pedestal. But, like, anything, what goes up must come down. When I read the SEC's case last Friday afternoon, the first words that came to mind were 'Those slimey expletives!'. Like the rest of the world, I felt a sense of revulsion and anger. How could anybody think they could get away with it? But in the next heartbeat, I feel a sense of fear rising up...What if other banks were doing the same thing? What if the SEC doesn't stop at Goldman and digs into the books of all the other banks? What if this is the last apple to topple the apple cart? The simple truth is that if the apple cart tips over, our life in Manhattan could be over. And, well, regular readers will know that is going to be upsetting for all of us. Unlike some CDO traders, who are probably still enjoying the benefits of their windfall, we came to Manhattan on a wing and a prayer. If it all goes south, there is no underwriter waiting to keep things as they are . Not to mention the fact that we would have to leave the country within 30 days, according to the terms of our visa. Pretty scary stuff.

So, taking the issue at arms length, I agree with President Obama. The system should be fair, it should be regulated, greed should be replaced by the core banking values of creating wealth and opportunities for industry and business. As the New York Times said, Wall Street was originally created to provide leverage for the building of railroads, factories, jobs. That is not to say there is no place for derivative trading. If people want to gamble, play the game of 'who holds the hot potato last, gets burnt', then fine. It isn't even a problem, in Goldman's case, that they were wearing heat protective gloves, in the form of insurance like swaps, during the game. It is sensible business practice to hedge your positions. We all take insurance out on our mortgages. It is the fact that they had invented a new game, a bit like 'Musical Chairs'. According to the SEC, they set up the chairs, got someone else to choose the music, and then as the game started they pulled away all the chairs at once, plonked their well fed backsides in the only remaining chair and left their clients sitting in the side of the room, with no party prize.

Watching the footage of the grilling of the Goldman Executives by the Senate Committee, I again felt this mixture of emotions. Boy, they looked uncomfortable! I kind of liked it. But then, I started to feel uncomfortable, these people have wives, kids, mothers, fathers, friends, if it was my husband/friends under such scrutiny, it would be very difficult. If what the SEC says is true, then these people have made grave errors of judgement and they should pay the price for that. But I can't help feeling empathetic for the fall out that may descend all those that surround and depend on them. How far they will have fallen off that golden pedestal.

Still, following my usual pattern, I have catastrophised (Goldman has been naughty [allegedly]=end of the world as I know it) and now I will rationlise. Firstly, my cynical side, says that the SEC's case is just a big stick that the Democrats are using to drum up support for their financial reform bill. Goldman is the chosen pupil, they will get their pants pulled down, their bottoms smacked and sent merrily back to class. The end. That might work, if the financial reform bill really does clean the system up. The world will be a much better place and banks will go back to do what they do best - keep the economy ticking along, while keeping their nose clean. Secondly, my proactive side, tells me to take out some insurance of our own. Protecting our life here (school!, friends!, joy!, inspiration!) will take two forms and we have taken two important steps this week: we have applied for our green card and I have applied for a job. With these two things, I feel that I am supporting my husband and taking the pressure off all his shoulders and giving my kids the thing they need the most - an underwritten guarantee that if the music stops there will still be a chair for each of them. It is only fair.

yours, choosing her own playlist

Torie B

Friday, April 23, 2010

Rein it in, Cowboy!

This past weekend we all flew to Houston, Texas for a very good friend's 40th birthday. For the kids and I, it was our first time in Texas and we had a ball. Admittedly, it was as much about the company than the place, but the one down side was that we came home with more baggage than we had bargained for. My kids now want to live in Texas. REALLY want to live there. As in, sobbing in the cab as we drove over the Brooklyn bridge into Manhattan "WHY?WHY?WHY Can't we live there Mum". "You are so mean! I hate New York!". I felt so much conflict, sitting in the back of that cab. I was excited to be back and still got the buzz as we swept along the east river with views of the Gotham skyline.....why weren't they?

So, I took a deep breath and asked "Why?". According to my eight and six year old, the fact that there is space (vast sprawling acres of it) and warm weather, the fact that our friend's house was not just big, it was palatial, the fact that they had a swimming pool, a fountain in the front garden, a cinema room, the fact that they had the dog that my kids are desperate for, was enough to tip them over the edge. Well, yes, I reasoned, of course those are things that you would like, who wouldn't? I dug deep into my 'things parents should say' knowledge bank and talked to them about turning envy into something positive. " You should feel glad that our friends are happy, healthy and thriving in Texas, pleased that we live so close that we can go and hang out for a weekend. Why don't you think about the things that you have in New York that make you happy, then you will be able to put these material things into perspective." I gave it my best shot.

You get to go to a unique, amazing, progressive, inspiring school in the West Village, these types of schools are not as accessible in other parts of the world. Answer: BUT THEY HAVE LIGHTS THAT TURN THE POOL DIFFERENT COLOURS! More sobbing.

You get to walk to dozens of parks within five minutes, you have music lessons with the same teacher as the Edge's kids (for crying out loud!), you walk to the most amazing supermarket with the best, healthy produce money can buy. You are learning to be street smart, confident, all while you are getting exercise. BUT THEY HAVE A CINEMA ROOM WITH REAL CINEMA SEATS! Helpless tears.

You are getting to learn about different cultures, languages, points of views, art, music, fashion all in the first hand not through the editing eyes of the media. BUT THEY HAVE A TRAMPOLINE, A CLIMBING FRAME AND A SLIDE INTO THE POOL! Accusatory silence.

I then swung between lecturing them on the dangers of putting their material desires above all else, to explaining the concept liberalism, to why George Bush was a bad president (sorry, Texans, I know he does not represent all of you, but I was desperate), to the how the theory of economics means that Manhattan apartments are small and expensive . Obviously, all good parenting guides had gone out the window at that stage. By the time the cab pulled up at our building, I was exhausted and the kids were confused and sulky. So, I went into hyper warp speed and had them bathed and in bed in twenty minutes so that I could throw myself into a hot bath and let the bouncing marbles in my head begin to settle.

As the hot water started to soothe my mind, I too tried to turn it into something positive. They have just had a chance to remember what it was like when they had more space, a garden...but no pool! It is a kind of grief. But more than that, they now see themselves as mobile citizens of the world. They do not see any barriers to uprooting and moving. "Why not move to Texas, we moved to New York?". I hope that they hang on to that view of the world and apply it to their adulthood. In fact, on the way to Texas on the airplane I had listened to them discuss where in the world they would want to live. Israel, Morocco, France and Fiji ran off their tongues as if they were only a cab ride away. That sense of adventure and worldliness is something that moving here has given them. Sure, kids get that in other places, but my two have had the crash course.

The next day as we arrived back in our building after school, there as a notice in the lobby with instructions on what residents should do if the doormen were to carry out their proposed strike (they reached a deal in the end). As we rode the lift up to the 21st floor, both kids looked at me in horror as I read the list of instructions to them. What we would have to do with the rubbish, how to operate the lift call button (umm push it?), how to access the building. " There will be no doorman tomorrow??", " No one to open the door?", "No one to wish us a great day at school", " No one to make our trash room as clean as a hospital ward?". I jumped on the opportunity with the speed and grace of a lioness 'HA! Who doesn't want to live in New York, now? You two are having a melt down because you might actually have to feel the weight of your own door!". It was a low, cheap shot, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

So, throughout, this week I have watched the kids gasp in awe at the sight of the TriBeCa film festival red carpet. I have listened to one of them discuss with their friends how they want to be an author/artist/inventor/scientist/poet. I have laughed with them as we witnessed paparazzi literally falling on their backside trying to get a picture of a celebrity. As I listened to them talk with passion about the unique experiences, field trips, science fairs, that they have experienced just this week alone at school, from which they have bound every day declaring "I have had the best day ever, not just in the world but in the whole UNIVERSE!', I know that wherever we lay our cowboy hats, that's our home. Even if they don't yet know it.

yours, with a 'yeeha!'

Torie B

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Community Care

A survey was published this week in New York Magazine that caused more conversations over cappuccinos than any other hot issue of the moment: Which is the best community to live in in New York City? The winner was Park Slope in Brooklyn, a leafy, bohemian neighbourhood that has access to great parks, schools and transport links to the city. TriBeCa, where we live, came in fourteenth.

‘TriBeCa came fourteenth? Park Slope is better?’ I mused. I found myself feeling a bit short changed and territorial over my little tribe in Manhattan. It was a bit like turning up at your child’s school prize day and they don’t get to walk onto the stage and get the applause. You smile magnanimously, but deep down you are flicking through the excuses in your head as to why they didn’t win. ‘They have to give it to another area to make it fair’. ‘It’s because TriBeCa is so good that all the people who live there and answered the survey said Park Slope, so that thousands of people wouldn’t find out our great secret and come and live here, pushing up our property costs and squeezing our square footage’. As I eavesdropped and joined in heated discussions on the survey with other New Yorkers on the subway, in coffee shops, at the school gate, I began to realize that for the first time in my life I truly care about my neighbourhood.

I have lived in lots of places, where I have been very happy – not least my own home community in Northern Ireland, but none where I have felt this level of ownership and belonging. Of course, I belonged in my hometown, but that is a given. When you pop out of your mother’s tummy your place of birth is almost stamped on your forehead. It’s culture, attitudes, accents and beliefs, all unique to itself, all gradually sink under your skin and meld you to it. This is the first time I have lived in a place that has got under my skin and has taken ownership of me when it had no obligation to do so. I began to wonder how it could possibly have done such a thing in such a short space of time. And, is it really genuine, or would a few hundred more square feet of real estate make me want to belong to another tribe, perhaps in Park Slope?

The answer is found in how we live our day-to-day lives. We have no car and walk everywhere. As a result, we have built our family life in a concentrated area. The local store owners know us on first name terms and greet the kids with high fives, many friends are within walking distance, our music school, our swimming pool, our bike shop, our water parks, play parks, favourite coffee shops, restaurants, bars are all within a five minute walk. By the simple function that we cannot drive, we have focused our attention on our immediate area. The result is a very deep familiarity with a relatively small area. As we follow our daily routine of walking to and from the subway, we pass the same faces, stop and pet the same dogs, discuss the weather with the same newspaper guy, smile at the anonymous and familiar families who pass us on their way to other schools. It all builds up to making us feel safe and secure. We have become active in our community, getting involved in helping local organizations to stay afloat in difficult times. It is a community that we care about, that we feel safe in and that we have invested too much in to move on, even if it came fourteenth in the survey.

Caring for this community has its challenges however. Every we time we look out of our window, or cross a street, the ghost shadows of the World Trade Centre hang right over us. The great gaping hole in the skyline where the towers used to be is a painful and visual reminder of the potential fragility of our safety. Perhaps, some of those people who did not choose TriBeCa in the survey, had lived in the area on 9/11. I can only imagine what a desolate and frightening place it would have been. In the last few months, we came very close to ‘hosting’ the trial of the alleged masterminds of 9/11, right across the street from our building. It looks like it is being moved elsewhere due to local protests, but had that circus arrived in town; my family would have been living in a militarized zone that would have been a target for every nut job terrorist out there. Would I have cared about that kind of community?

Another grim and stark reminder of the underworld of a city was brought to life when yet another person was found murdered/dead in their apartment. This guy was living in a building just around the corner. We have now stopped putting local news on in the morning as it is starting to upset the kids. I think they realize how close by this stuff is happening. In just one week we walked past a man who was lying in the middle of the pavement, unconscious while people stepped over him, we had to move subway platforms to avoid some guy vomiting, we had to stop some drunk from trying to get in a cab we were in by opening the door when we were at a traffic light, all before lunchtime. The reality is that our school, friends, doormen and let’s be honest, money, are absolutely essential is keeping the real, but fragile sense of community around us.

So, as I joust, joke and debate with residents of other New York neighborhoods as to how the survey reflects our chosen enclave, I have in the back of my mind that city life can be messy, regardless of which community you choose. But, you know what? I am too much of a city girl to care.

Yours, going TriBal in TriBeCa.

Torie B

Friday, April 9, 2010

Spring Fever

Spring has arrived with a bang in New York. Overnight the temperatures soared to 85 degrees, the trees showed-off their short lived and fragile blossoms, waxing appointments became harder to get than a one to one with Obama as the hemlines went up and everybody threw themselves outside, filling up every bit of green space available. It was thrilling to spend my days wondering around the Village, Soho and TriBeCa taking photos for a travel blog I am writing. It was heavenly to spend some time with a friend, drinking coffee and eating pancakes at a shaded sidewalk table. Yet again, I felt the city filling up my happiness cup and it was running over.

I noticed other things were running through my veins. As I wondered the streets, stopped in cafes and hung out in parks taking my pictures, I was enviously watching the dozens of new Mum's out with their newborns in the sunshine. My mind wandered to my own family and I began to wonder if there was room for one more. But wooooahh there, a big dose of 'new baby' may cure my broody spring fever but it is not the right medicine for any of us. Deep breath. It is just the new beginnings and freshness of spring that is kicking in those hormones. So, how about a little dose of 'puppy' to fill the gap. Great idea, but our landlord would have us out the door before the start of summer. Maybe next year. Then, maybe I need to nest? You know, decorate, spring clean, buy furniture. Just like a mama bird who turns her attention to her nest in spring, I could work the hormones out with a tin of 'Minty Magnolia'. No, not the right prescription, the time to do that is when we actually own the nest.

All this spring fever was beginning to rub off on the rest of my brood. After school the kids bolted out of the door of school, excited about an afternoon in the sun. Instinctively they will remember days after school in the UK, where they felt the sun on their skin, ran in the garden and had tea on a rug under a tree. The problem is the new nest we have built does not have a garden. So, off we headed to the local park. I had been there earlier in the day and it was a beautiful oasis in the middle of all the chaos. However, the bell had rung and school was out! As we waded through the gate, waist high in New York's youngest, the calm oasis was left behind for a full on, brain jangling, pit of mania. My two headed with determination to the climbing frame, trying their best to find their own bit of space and fun. After ten minutes or so, my son checked in with me and asked if it was OK if he went over to the corner of the park, where behind some foliage there was a few square inches of space. He just needed somewhere that was his. After a busy, stimulating day of school what they both need is their own garden where they can carve out their thoughts and favourite games. I recognise that, but we can't provide it.

Still, this isn't an incurable disease. Maybe the medicine that we used to use is no longer available but there are always alternatives. Luckily, Daddy came to the rescue. He is going to take my son to play golf on Sunday, where for five hours he will be able to find his feeling of freedom on the fairway. For my daughter and I, a visit to the cool, light walls of the Museum of Modern Art will restore our equilibrium. As we soak in Monet's Water Lilies and play in the Shape Lab on a quiet Sunday morning, our nest will be waiting for us to return, relaxed. All in all, it will be just what the doctor ordered.

yours, fighting the fever

Torie B

Friday, April 2, 2010

In the Land of the Free

Last week we headed to Orlando for Spring Break. As we started our journey (well, actually as we sat at La Guardia for 8 hours due to bad weather), I began to wonder how I would view my relationship with Manhattan after a longer period of absence. Would absence make the heart grow stronger or would I enjoy spreading my wings in the sun and space and be reluctant to head back?

For the first few days it was so lovely to finally feel the warmth of sun on our skin and we all slept like babies in complete (now alarming) silence. No sirens, no midnight roadworks, no wind howling round the side of our tall apartment building. Our bedroom which has an uninterrupted view of the Hudson, also got the full force of all the recent storms, uninterrupted, all night, night after night. It was also a surprise to watch my son (8) literally 'come of age' right in front of my eyes. In the relative safety of our resort he quickly began asking for more and more freedom. 'Mum, can I go and swim in the other pool on my own', 'Mum, can I go down to the arcade on my own', 'Mum, can I go to the store on my own'?. My instinct was still on Manhattan time and thought 'No! You will get hit by a cab/kidnapped/hassled by a homeless person/lost'. But, I quickly realised that we were in a safe (ish) place and that I should really give him the freedom that he so craves and that I just cannot give him in New York. And guess what, the more freedom he had the more responsible, happy and carefree he became. It was a joy to watch but I felt a tightening of my heart as I realised how short lived all this freedom would be. I just cannot imagine scenarios in Manhattan when I can give him the longer leash that his age so clearly needs. Cue lots of ruminations over why Manhattan is so great: I started a mental list of all the things that I love about living there and, ergo, why my kids should too. You know, why they are going to thank me aged 16 for not allowing them to go to school on their own (ever!)...

(1) Good food. I know, it's crap but that is what I missed for all of us. In New York you can eat really good, healthy food anywhere at any time. Orlando, well, Jamie Oliver needs to clone himself and work overtime.

(2) Soul Cycle. I know, again, it's crap you can spin anywhere but the energy and positivity that is generated there is so New York. Slowly beginning to smell a whiff of desperation here.

(3) Good coffee. The Orlando 'cup of Joe' first thing in the morning made me want to go back to bed. Oh, for crying out loud..

(4) Hmmmm, this list is really bad, surely I can come up with a better reason that justifies not giving my kids age appropriate freedom. Must try harder.

So, for the next few days I tried to improve my list to a more sophisticated and justifiable level but the harder I tried the worse it got. As I boarded the flight to head home I tapped into how I was feeling about heading back. Did I feel the same as I did heading back to St.Albans after previous holidays? Was I more excited? The answer was 'Yes', but it was marginal.

As we woke the following morning I began to research a day out in the City with the kids. The answer was simple: it was free, it was ten minutes from our front door and it was one of the best days out I have ever had with the kids. The Madison Square Park Conservancy is currently exhibiting Antony Gormley's (sculptor of the Angel of the North) '31 Naked Men' (note:that is not the official title, but it is what my kids call it), where he has placed 31 life size iron and fibreglass sculptures of his own naked body all around the park, on rooftops, on window ledges, even precariously perched on top of the Flat Iron building. Armed with a tick list to mark off each 'man' that they spotted and a camera, the kids spent the day freely roaming the city, freely talking to random strangers about the exhibit, they let their minds be free to ponder the artist's intentions and what the sculptures meant, they showed zero inhibitions in discussing the relative size of the artist's private parts compared to other real ones they had seen (sorry Daddy!), they too romped freely in the fantastic Madison Square Park play area and as they tucked into their Shake Shack lunch with utter abandonment, I remembered why I utterly love this city and why I want my kids to spend their childhood here.

So, as I think up ways in which I can let my kids spread their wings in this city without getting them clipped by a yellow cab, I am looking forward to our next day out. Which happens to be a big pillow fight in Union Square tomorrow to mark International Pillow Fight Day....hopefully without a naked man insight.

yours, plumping her pillow

Torie B