Monday, August 13, 2007

A farewell

From the outside looking in, banks may seem like massive, impenetrable structures without any of the concerns us mortals face. But like everything in this increasingly interconnected world, they sometimes face their own struggles to survive. Little did I know, when I started this journal, that the bank I worked for would barely outlast my own temporary employment within its grand halls.

ABN AMRO Bank N.V., one of the most internationally recognized Dutch companies, and one of its oldest and biggest banks, is currently set to enter a merger that will see the company effectively disappear - either as a junior partner to Barclays, or broken into pieces and distributed to a consortium composed of the Royal Bank of Scotland, Spain's Santander Bank and the Belgian-Dutch bank Fortis. Either way, the green and yellow shield of ABN AMRO will disappear forever, and many of my former colleagues will be made redundant.

As for me, I stopped keeping this journal because I left Amsterdam and moved abroad. My time as a corporate lackey is over, for now. If you peruse The money tower blues and find anything you like, by all means search out my new online location. Catch me if you can.

Green Ghost

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Company hierarchy

Courtesy Hippiechyck.

Friday, June 29, 2007


Saturday, June 2, 2007

Plans for the future

The scene: a pathway along a canal on the outskirts of a mid-sized European city; trees overhanging the water, ducks paddling along peacefully. A two-year-old scampers through the underbrush along the path, discovering new things with each step.

Wife (hopeful circumvention): "Nice houses along here."

Husband (lost in thought): "Mmm."

Wife (wishful thinking): "Would be nice to have a house like that."

Husband (passive agreement): "Mmm."

Wife (innocent query): "When will we be able to afford one of those?"

The husband snaps to attention and looks at the millions of euros of real estate on the other side of the canal.

Husband (freelance writer/editor, soon to be re-unemployed): "Uh, never."

Wife (evident disappointment, quite possibly re-thinking life choices): "Oh."

The two-year-old emerges from behind a bush to chase some birds. He doesn't get very close before they fly off.

Husband: "You're not going to catch those birds, sweetie. Life's hard that way."

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Quip as artform, IV

Post-quip contemplation.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

They really do the golfing thing

Reality always kicks harder than fiction, doesn't it?

I was called to an informal meeting in the office of one of the bank's senior department heads. He was a tall man in his 40s, young for the position. He gave a relatively short but serious speech about some of the problems the bank faces. As always when someone in a suit starts talking to other people in suits, I lost focus after 35 seconds and my mind and eyeballs started to wander.

The big wrap-around view from the corner office certainly was inviting, but I thought staring straight out the window would be a little obvious. Instead I kept my eyes pointed downward. This caused me to notice a golf putter propped against the far wall of the office, with four golf balls on the floor next to a small practice cup.

Now, I know what you're thinking - come on, get real, only in Hollywood parodies and bad TV shows do bank executives actually practice their putting in the office. But there it was: a putter, four balls and a plastic bracket stuck to the floor. I stared long and hard to make sure it was not an illusion.

After seeing the alchemists and the monkeys in the coffee machine I've learned to take a moment to focus and make sure that reality is what it seems. And oh yes, it is: bank executives really do practice their short game in the office, with a bad carpet as a green and their desk chair and garbage bin as obstacles.

Thursday, May 3, 2007


The corporate experience is not complete without the threat of being downsized. I was convinced my job would be downsized when senior management decided to change the position of 'shadow experts' who work within many of the bank's departments.

'Shadow experts?' you ask. A fair question.

There are large departments for things like IT, human resources and communications. But in addition to these departments, there are also much smaller groups of IT or HR experts, sometimes just one or two individuals, working within functional departments like Finance, Compliance, Legal, and so on. These individuals are 'shadow' experts, as their work mirrors that of another full department, but on a much smaller scale. Sound complicated? That's why management wanted to change, by getting rid of these shadow experts and having absolutely everyone on HR issues, for example, report only to the actual HR department.

It's an amalgamation, in other words.

My colleague and I met with someone from Communications. He was new and we thought he just wanted to introduce himself. He had a serious air to him, and two minutes into the meeting he let us know that at his last job, for a British multinational, he was the chief communicator at a time when 5,000 staff were let go.

Well, isn't that a nice way to introduce yourself? Might as well change your name to Mr. Carpetbagger to ensure we all get the message.

My colleague and I sat there as Carpetbagger explained how his mandate was to look for synergies between communicators, which we understood immediately as an evil plot to fuck up our carefully constructed independence.

The meeting ended politely and we returned to our desks.

'What the hell was that about?' we asked each other, 'Was that the devil? Did you see any actual horns?'

This was just what I needed to keep my mind off work.

Quip as artform, III

Ye Olde Quipster
circa 1927

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Quip as artform, II

The phone quip:

You're going to spill that coffee, jack-ass.

Much better, but can the person on the other end see the cup?

See Quip as artform for background and definitions.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Quip as artform

Quip \ˈkwip\
– noun
1. a clever, witty remark; a cutting jest
2. quibble, equivocation
3. something strange, droll, curious, or eccentric
– verb (used without object)
4. to utter quips
sources: Random House, Merriam Webster

Survival in the office depends largely on the skilful and appropriate use of humour to, among others: draw attention to your strengths; camouflage your weaknesses; highlight, with subtlety, the failings of others; deter critique while inviting praise; and, at the far edge of the realm of the possible, to make friends.

To be precise, not all forms of humour are appropriate in the office environment. Slapstick, for example, unless carried out with the highest level of skill, would fall into mere corniness, and not win any favours.

There are, to be sure, many forms of wit. In my opinion, however, the highest level of workplace humour is the quip. If treated rightfully as an art, practiced, and eventually honed to a sharp verbal edge, the quip can, over time, advance, and perhaps make, your career. This holds true for all office-based professions. If you are a neurosurgeon of course you should focus more on your skill with a scalpel.

I work in a two-person team, and my colleague is a near-master of the quip. It is, in that respect, an honour to work with him. It would be banal to repeat here many of his best remarks, but I will provide a small canapé to whet the appetite:

> The scene: I arrive at work, wearing a dark taupe suit, solid black shirt and a flat, unadorned brown tie.
> Colleague (attired in conservative blue business suit, eyes on computer screen, mug of coffee in hand): "Hmm, fascist chic is back?"
> Me (looking down at shabby suit): "Ya, I was sort of going for the Italy-1930s-Il Duce look."

The comeback is irrelevant; the initial quip is the point of humour in this exchange. But as a non-expert in delivering the quip, it is not my place to advance your skills in the key verbal aspect. Merely, I would like to point out the often overlooked physical element that lies behind delivery of the cutting remark.

Office work is normally carried out at a desk, with a computer, keyboard, some paper arranged appropriately, and so on. As such, the quip is most often delivered while sitting down. The remark should be a rapid pronouncement, and eye contact with your subject is not necessary. In fact, as the sketch below suggests, it is indeed preferable that your gaze falls in neutral territory. Your computer screen is the obvious choice.

The reasons for this are: not looking at your subject reinforces the off-the-cuff, spur-of-the-moment element of the exchange; it helps remove you from involvement in any subsequent conversation; and, however crass to mention out loud, it affects a certain superiority over your subject that in the long run will reinforce your status as a wittician.*

The sketches highlight another aspect worth noting: the role of the coffee cup. The ability to deliver your verbal laceration just prior to taking a sip is, in the realm of quipdom, the master stroke. If you are calmly sipping your coffee or tea while others are laughing uproariously at your quip… well, need I say more?

The presence of a beverage is also the crucial component of the quip non plus ultra, but that awaits a future blog post. Next up: a discussion of failed and false quip postures that will reveal you as an amateur, and hence should be avoided.

Good technique:

Excellent technique:

* A person highly trained and/or highly skilled in delivering wit.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Trained monkeys

I used to joke with my colleague that we were the trained monkeys of the department. People come to us when new guidelines or instructions are developed for staff; if we can figure it out, then I guess everyone else can. Maybe we're the lowest common denominators on our floor.

In any case, I don't make the monkey joke anymore. Not after seeing what happens to the real monkeys who make our coffee.

"You know how it is,
they just give up after a while"

Soon after I started at the bank someone walked past my desk, bitterness evident on their face, holding a cup of coffee and muttering in disgust, "Bloody monkey screwed this one up."

I thought that was an odd turn of phrase, although I knew the coffee was very bad. It's just instant from a machine, though, so you wouldn't expect it to be good, would you?

I did notice that it was not uniformly awful, however. Some days it was almost palatable, other days less so. Then early one morning I made my selection on the machine – 'coffee, strong, with milk' – and I was greeted by what can only be described as hot, bitter piss-brew.

When others arrived at the office, I told them the machine was broken.

"Oh, that one probably needs changing," my colleague said in a somewhat distracted, nonchalant way. "It's about time anyway."

Someone called Building Services, and then everyone went back to their work. I waited quietly, to see what would happen. When a man with a large cart rolled down the corridor toward the coffee station, I followed him. I just had a feeling that watching him fix the machine would be interesting.

"Hullo," he nodded, when he saw me standing there.

I didn't feel out of place. This was after all my coffee station.

"Machine broken?" I inquired, making it look like I was waiting for a drink.

"Ach, you know how it is, they just give up after a while."

He whistled suddenly,
and tapped his finger on the panel

He shrugged like it was no big deal and then released a latch at the top of the coffee machine. The heavy front panel swung open.

The first thing I could see was the multiple stacks of plastic cups. The repairman refilled the empty rows and then leaned forward and peered into a dark space behind the second, inner panel.

Then he did something strange. He whistled suddenly, and tapped his finger on the panel.


He whistled again, and tapped a little harder.

And there it was: a very faint, intermittent hissing sound. I leaned forward as well, because the sound was somehow familiar to me. What was it exactly? I couldn't place it. But when the hissing became a little louder, a little sharper, it struck me that the noise, whatever its source, sounded like fear.


The repairman had put gloves on now. He reached out quickly and opened the second panel with a snap. What I saw then was almost too much to believe.

"They think it's the caffeine"

Inside the back panel, in a small cage, was a monkey. It had panic on its face and it pressed itself as far as it could against the back wall of the enclosure, its arms outstretched and trembling.

I could not believe there was a monkey in the coffee machine.

"They think it's the caffeine that does it to them," the repairman said. "They just have sugar, coffee powder, milk powder, so… you know," and here he shrugged his shoulders, as the result was obvious.

"Some last for a while, but they all need changing in the end."

The repairman had no hesitation or concern in his manner when he opened the cage and grabbed the monkey by the scruff of its neck. The animal seemed to just give up, and it barely struggled as the man removed it from the machine.

"Do they go back to the company or something?" I asked.

The man paused for just a moment, and looked at me with some concern.

"No, once the caffeine gets to them, they're gone," he explained.

He seemed puzzled by my ignorance, but it didn't stop him from carrying out his work. The monkey was clinging to the man's arm with growing desperation, like it was trying to save itself. With one quick, sudden motion, the repairman snapped the animal's neck, the head twisting right around like a rag doll. For a split second the little black eyes were pointed straight at me. The body went limp immediately.

He threw the carcass in his big cart, and reached down to a curtain that shielded the tray at the bottom. He took out a new cage, with another, completely calm little monkey, cleaning itself without a care in the world. He opened the cage and the monkey obediently crawled into the coffee machine.

It looked very much at home, and even began to fiddle around with some of the many knobs and dials that stuck through the wires.

"You have to know
when to pick your battles"

The repairman replaced the containers of coffee, tea and milk powder, and then closed the front panel. To test the machine, he punched the selection code for 'coffee, with sugar, with milk.'

The machine leapt into action with no hesitation. A cup swung into place and hot dark liquid poured in with a familiar woosh sound. The repairman took the cup, blew on the hot liquid a few times, then took a sip. He nodded in approval, then grabbed the cart and pushed it back toward the service elevator.

I stood there for a while, then went back to my desk. I didn't drink any coffee that day, or the following day.

I thought a lot about my new workplace. Questions I hadn't pondered before, like if trained monkeys make our coffee, what controls the window blinds that go up and down automatically? And what the hell is running the computers?

I remembered something the boss told me shortly after I was hired. During our first meeting, when we were just getting to know each other, he said something unexpected:

"You know, working at this bank, you have to know when to pick your battles."

"In a company this big, you'll always come across things you don't like. But everyone is careful about their own work, or territory if you will. So if you run into any problems… just pick your battles carefully."

This seemed a melodramatic statement at the time. I really didn't know what to make of it. But the monkeys in the coffee machine were my first test, in that sense. I decided not to kick up a fuss, because no one else seemed concerned.

After considering the problem for a long while, here's what I did: I pack my own lunches, and I always have some fruit or vegetables. Just before leaving to go home, I stop at the coffee station and slide an apple slice or a carrot stick as far around the back of the machine as I can. I have relatively small hands, and I can just reach a little ledge near the inner panel.

And come morning time, low and behold, the little snack is always gone.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

The perils of street photography

I'm peering into the viewfinder of a rather large camera when she surprises me.

"Do you take photos of people?"

I look up to see an extremely attractive young woman, face done up with a bit too much make-up, perched casually near my left shoulder. My camera was pointed at a purple wall, so I suppose it's a legitimate question. She's speaking in English, so I must look like the sophisticated international photographer of her dreams.

"I'm looking for someone to shoot my portfolio, do you take photos of people?"

"Uhh, ya, but street photos, I don't do glamour photography."

I didn't want to disappoint her, so I assured her that my network of contacts included some fashion photographers, and if she emailed I could put her in touch with someone good. She scribbled down my email and walked off. I returned to my work, trying to find the right shutter speed to catch the rapidly moving people traffic, with just a bit of motion blur.

I flubbed this one completely.

Those two are a marginally better. The girl never emailed, of course. The film shots weren't much better than these digital proofs. Not a great day, then, all things considered.

Catch me if you can.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Sunday, April 1, 2007

The alchemists in the basement

Now that I'm on contract, I can relax a bit, right? Take some time to walk around the two towers and get a feel for my new environment. The trading room, the artwork – there's a lot to look at in this enormous structure. But I never figured on finding a bunch of very small men in the basement, churning out lumps of solid gold.

I needed a break one afternoon last week, so I announced that I was going for coffee and slipped out of the room. On the far side of the bank, near where I park my bike every morning, there is a small café on the ground floor that brews the only palatable coffee in the building.

I took the elevator down to the second floor and headed past the trading room. It was the middle of the day and the dealers were busy. But I didn't linger too long above the action. Maybe it's bad form to stare down at the screens too long? I'm trying to fit in here and I don't know all the rules yet. So I moved on.

If this bank had a workshop,
I just had to see it

When I turned away from the dealers my eye caught a short hallway that I hadn't noticed before. There was a stairwell halfway down the hall. To get to the café, I had to walk all the way around the back of the trading room, then down to the first floor. Maybe if I took this staircase, I could find a shortcut on the first floor?

I took the stairs down and emerged into a long hallway that brushed up against the trading room. I turned down this hall and soon found another option to consider.

A door was held open by an old cardboard box. I walked toward it and stopped to listen. I could hear a jumble of noise in the distance. It wasn't voices, however, as I would expect in an office building. It was some type of banging and the sound of machinery, but muffled by a long distance or a number of walls.

My interest was piqued. If this bank had a workshop, I just had to see it. A printing press? Not in this age. A repair garage? No, everything like that is outsourced these days. I stepped over the box and through the door. Another staircase led down to the level below the trading room. Guessing this was just the parking garage, I almost turned back and continued down the hall. Only my curiosity about the noise moved me forward.

I was now in a narrow corridor underneath the trading room. No sign of the parking garage. As I walked forward slowly, the noises grew a little louder. Several pipes lined the ceiling of the hallway, which I thought was rather sloppy. Open piping underneath the dealing hall? Don't they have building codes in this country? Somebody should call Compliance, I thought.

I stepped forward…
and that's when he saw me

The strange hallway led directly toward the far side of the building, where I hoped to get a coffee, so I continued forward even though I was unsure of my precise location. When I reached what I thought must be the very centre of the complex, yet another staircase emerged, twisting down in a tight spiral to a hallway just visible below.

The industrial noises were much louder now, and I could make out some voices as well. There were some shadows being thrown around just outside my line of vision. I stepped forward to peak down the staircase, and that's when he saw me. The floor above the staircase was metal grating, and the hard soles of my dress shoes made a loud clang as I stepped forward. I found myself staring into the face of a peculiar little man wrapped up in a heavy apron, wearing a cap and a pair of leather work boots.

"Hullo there," he said, a smile emerging on his face once the surprise of seeing me faded.

"Can I help you?" he added.

He seemed completely unthreatened, so I took a few steps down the stairs.

"I was looking for a shortcut to the café," I offered, pointing in the direction I thought it might be.

"Well, that's two floors up from here. But now that you've made it this far you might as well follow through on your swing, so to speak."

I had continued walking down the stairs, and shortly I met the unusual man at the bottom landing.

He really was incredibly small, the top of his cap coming no higher than the middle of my chest. He had a round, cheerful face and long, bushy sideburns of the sort popular last century, during, say, the industrial revolution.

I was wearing a dark gray business suit with a blue and yellow tie, and in my slim pointy dress shoes I suddenly felt ridiculously out of place – as if abruptly I had become the freak in this unexpected meeting.

A hiss emerged from the press
and steam billowed forth

It was much darker down here than in the hallway above, but as my eyes adjusted I could see a room before me filled with similarly attired men, all of the same tiny stature, moving about with great industriousness. The air was dirty with an odor I couldn't quite place. The noise that had attracted my attention came from a row of machines that looked like presses of some type.

"Come, I'll show you how we get along," the man said.

We walked into the room, and several people looked over, one or two nodding hello.

It was a workshop indeed, and it took me several moments to take it all in. One of the men had just loaded a press, and after fiddling around a bit he grabbed the long handle at one end by reaching up almost on his tippie-toes, before pulling it down strongly with both arms. A hiss emerged from the press and steam billowed forth from the pan at the far end.

What the hell was this show about? I thought.

"Let's take a look shall we?" my guide interjected, before I could speak. He grabbed my arm and led me to the machine, which I could now see was an ancient-looking device of great complication. The second man lifted the handle of the press and quickly reached forward with a pair of iron tongs.

"Cool it off and let's have a gander," said my increasingly cheerful companion.

After dipping the tongs in water and waiting not a minute, the little technician pulled them out again and plopped the result of his work right onto the palm of my guide.

It was a chunk of gold the size of a squash ball. A bit rough around the edges, but unmistakable: solid gold.

"Now that's something you don't see everyday, ah?" the little man said with a wink.

The other workers all smiled at this, like it was a well-worn line, oft-repeated when the suits came down for a visit.

"Wow," was all I could muster, not quite believing my eyes.

But there was even more. As I looked around I found the source of the strange odor. In the corner of the workshop was a large container of pitch black rocks, and a small ray of light showed the air above the rock was heavy with dust.

The dry odor of impurities
wafted through the room

I pointed at the container in amazement, like a three-year-old at the zoo.

"Coal? That's coal."

"Yes, yes," my guide enthused, "Amazing isn't it?"

"Of course it's old hat for us, but I gather that you're new around here."

"I started a couple of months ago. I never knew this place… Can I… see that again?"

"Sure, sure. Frederick, line up another one," he said, waving at one of his fellow workers.

Little Fred grabbed a lump of coal, dipped it into some sort of liquid, then plopped it onto the small pan at the end of the press. Underneath the pan, he sparked a burner and a red flame shot up. He fiddled with the nozzle until the flame settled to a brilliant blue. Then he added a coating of what looked like a thick, gelatinous grease to the open side of the pan, before closing the two sides together. Back at the other end, he reached up to the long handle and pulled it down with all the force he could muster.

"I cannot believe you are turning lumps of coal into solid gold," was what came out of my mouth just as the steam hissed loudly from the end of the press and the smell of sulfur hit my noise. (Christ it’s not even good coal, I thought, as the dry odor of the impurities wafted through the room).

"Oh indeed, indeed," the little man said. "It's a fair game for sure. Of course it's not just coal, we do add a bit more to the recipe, so to speak."

"Has the bank always done this?"

He gave a pensive look and shrugged his shoulders. "Well, I've been here a long time, but this bank has been around longer than me. I should think they've been doing this a long while, in one form or another."

I could sense I wasn't going to get very clear answers from my otherwise helpful escort. I thought this whole scene might be some clever joke, but it seemed too absurd to be anything but true.

I decided humour was the only way to cope.

"Wow, you guys make a pretty good margin on this," I said, in an obvious understatement.

"You must even kill the folks upstairs," I added, lifting my head toward the trading room two floors up.

This got a good laugh from the workers.

"We do in a relative sense, the margin is quite pretty. But not the absolute numbers, mind you, as we're a small operation compared to the global deals."

Did my colleagues know
about the gnomes?

He was obviously enjoying the role of guide, my little friend was. But work called, and he hinted with a look that maybe I should move on.

"Does everyone know about this place?" I asked as we headed back to the stairs.

He gave an unclear shrug of the shoulders, as if that wasn't his concern. "Mostly the business side just sends someone down now and again to make sure we're meeting our targets."

"Sure, sure," I agreed readily. I'll fucking bet they do. No wonder this bank is so god-damn big.

"Wait, do other banks have the same thing?"

And here it seemed I had asked one too many questions, although I thought it was a perfectly reasonably query.

"I really don't know," was all the man said.

"Well then, take care," he added. "Maybe you could move that box on your way out, to close the door. We just wanted a little fresh air."

With this, I made my way back up the stairs, down the hall, up the stairs again, and back to the hallway outside the trading room. Now I realized that I had, in fact, covered a fair bit of ground. I quickened my pace as I walked to the elevators.

When I got back to my floor, I straightened my tie and instinctively brushed off my suit jacket, in case I had picked up some of the coal dust.

"How was the coffee?" my colleague asked when I sat down at my workstation.

I had completely forgotten about my drink.

"Ah…" and here I paused. What to say? Did my colleagues all know about the gnomes in the basement, turning lumps of dirty coal into solid gold?

When you're new to a place and you're trying to fit in, sometimes you feel uncertain of mentioning what you've seen. If everyone knows, then you look foolish for bringing up the obvious. And if they don't know, maybe you look like a braggart, or at the least very nosy. It seemed to me that people in these enormous companies keep their cards pretty close to their chest. I decided to play it safe.

"…Ya, the coffee was fine," I said. "Thanks for asking."

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Life under a flight path

Even relatively small airplanes make a lot of noise when they are only a few hundred metres above your bedroom.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The trading room

The first time I walked past it I stopped in my tracks. 'That room is awesome,' I said out loud.

My colleague beside me hummed nonchalantly in concurrence (he's been here a while, so he's part of the in-crowd already). I didn't know it would be there, although in hindsight of course the global headquarters of large bank would have a trading room the size of an airplane hanger.

It sits in the belly of the compound, occupying a huge chunk of the five-storey structure that joins the towers into one complete, money-making beast. From where I park my bicycle every morning underneath the east tower, I make my way west by passing along a hallway that overlooks the trading room.

Broad windows provide a panoramic view. The glass is tinted to deter photography; a discreet but clearly posted sticker of a crossed-out camera further sends the message home. I guess I won't be bringing my medium format rig to work anytime soon.

The room is nothing but row after row of workstations panelled with four or five monitors each. On one wall, a big LED panel shows a feed of the latest commodity prices, and on the far wall, an enormous, multi-coloured, glowingly back-lit map of the world reminds everyone, I guess, that world domination is the name of the game. The effect, seeing the banks of monitors lined one after another, is the inescapable feeling that the people down there must know what is going on everywhere in the world, all of the time. If the Illuminati still exist, surely they are the occupants of this very room. There's no running around and screaming like on the Wall Street floor. Everyone is very calm and quiet as they go about buying low and selling high everything the world has to offer.

I have a shaky personal relationship with capitalism. My schoolboy days were full of enthusiasm for the revolutionary approach to destroying the world as we know it. This has mellowed over time, rather like a good malt whisky, to an appreciation of the finer things that prosperity can bring. Do we have any better way to live than the one global capital provides? Is there really a more enlightened path to follow?

While I would never agree that greed is good, I've seen enough markets - from gleaming air conditioned malls to remote highland stations two-days walk from anywhere - to feel pretty comfortable with the basic principle they all share: buy low and sell high. Not quite a commandment, but definitely a hallmark of the human condition.

Anyway, whatever my conflicted thoughts on the matter are, it's irrelevant given my current view from the walkway between the towers. From here, there's no doubt about it - the trading room is a sight to behold.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Salary scale humour

Companies here normally hire temps and give them permanent contracts after a three-month probation. Last week the bank finally offered me a contract, after a delay caused by changes that emerged from higher up in the hierarchy (more on that later).

A few days after the offer was made, my manager and I met with our human resources liaison to discuss the terms of my contract. The HR staffer, an attractive young woman, took me through all the details involved. She told me that my salary scale was going to be set at level 6.9.

What? That's awesome!

I almost asked if I could keep this number even if I got a promotion, but I let the moment pass. The HR staffer went on to discuss pension contributions and holiday pay, but my attention span doesn't stretch that far so I just sat there thinking rather sheepishly how even though my actual salary sucked at least my rank was a number worth having.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Where I am

Where I am in my mind:

Winning races.

Rejecting some fool.

Where I am in reality:

Going up or down?

Friday, March 16, 2007

Mean, median, average

Banks do make a lot of money, don't they? 2006 was another record-shattering year for the world's top financial corporations. Shortly after starting work I see a story online announcing that at Goldman Sachs the average annual bonus for staff members will be US$622,000. For a moment I'm delirious and announce to the colleagues sitting around me that we're all in the money and can start planning for our retirement, next week.

A few bemused looks, a couple of blank stares.

Two realizations hit me: we don't work for Goldman Sachs, we work for some cheap-ass Euro bank; and while math was never my strong suit, I seem to recall that there can be sizable gaps between an 'average' bonus and a 'mean' or 'median' one. The guys in the mailroom maybe get $75.50 or something, while the CEO takes home $53.4 million on top of his regular salary.

We all ponder that number quietly. Some shuffle papers on their desk, others gaze longingly out the window. The only sound is the laser printer spitting out some more copy. We go back to our work as peon's of international capital.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

My colleague is funny ha-ha

Almost as soon as I start work on my first day, it's evident my main colleague is a very funny guy who finds great humour in the absurdities of corporate culture. At opportune moments he grabs phones and says silly things into them, for example.

Maybe, just maybe, I can do this.

Friday, March 9, 2007


This image of an abandoned building in the process of being pulled down is marred somewhat, as it looks like a still taken from a TV screen. That's because it's a photo of a photo.

The original is a very high-quality transparency shot on an old 6x9 folding camera, reproduced by holding the large negative to my laptop screen and snapping a digital photo. As you can see, this is not a high-fidelity means of reproducing slide film.

Sadly, this is the only image I have on film of this building, which has since vanished from the earth along with two other towers into a pile of concrete dust and long, twisted spaghetti strands of steel.

This group of deconstructed buildings is right next to the student housing block where I now live with my wife and son, having arrived in the city a few months ago. We did not expect grand accommodations, and we were not surprised. In fact, our building is so old and decayed it is rumoured to be coming down next year. Living here, now, is therefore inescapably depressing. The cracked and crumbling cement walkways outside the building are a constant reminder we live in a condemned space.

Shortly after arriving, I decided to photograph the nearby de-building site, which consisted of three old office towers, long abandoned, covered in graffiti from top to bottom, inside and out. I was inspired partly by my distaste for the apartment where I live – I have a long-held antipathy for mass housing – and partly by my general ambivalence for the urban environment. Too much cement, the depressing ice-solid shit of modernity that it is, let’s tear it all down.

So I got up early one winter morning and stuffed my two new-but-old medium format cameras into an undersized shoulder bag. My tiny digital camera would serve as a light meter. I walked across the road to a small oasis of trees that graced the backside of the old buildings. The site was fenced off, but not secured, so it wasn’t hard to lift one of the posts from its holder and squeeze my way in.

My first stop was immediately below the building you see in the photo at the top of this post. From underneath its belly, I pointed the heavy camera skyward and shot a series of huge airplanes, 747s and A340s, just as their noses appeared to touch the already crumbling walls of the top floors (those who know photography understand how a telephoto lens compresses distances, so it really did look spectacularly dangerous, particularly in this post-9/11 world). The image below, sadly, is just a small commuter or business jet.

Next I walked carefully, along piles of broken stone and cement blocks, to a building as-yet untouched by the wrecking ball. It was gutted, long ago, and full of graffiti from top to bottom. I made my way slowly upward, stopping every few floors to take photos of the artwork on the walls and outward to the surrounding urban sprawl. I reloaded the film in my main camera once, my fingers now trembling from the cold, then went right up to the roof.

What a feeling, to stand at the top of a completely deserted building site. To be near the centre of a crowded European city, one of perhaps a million nearby humans, and yet be so immediately alone. I snapped a few more photos and took a moment to look out at the horizon and ponder my place in the world.

After a few minutes I glanced downward, considering new angles for my mission. Outside the de-building site, a police vehicle crawled slowly down the street.

Holy shit! I was trespassing on a building site that had large signs outside saying ‘don’t come in here’ (albeit in a language foreign to me). What’s the fine for trespassing anyway? Did some local spot me and call it in? They’re so fucking rule-abiding in this country, you never know. I hauled my aging out-of-shape ass down sixteen flights of stairs, puffing like a criminal in the dock by the midway point. No elevators in the belly of this skeletal beast.

By the time I squeezed back out the fence I had a big shit-eating grin on my face. That was fun, and a little risk thrown in just made it all the more so.

And the photos? Well, the images included here are just the digital proofs I shot to measure the light. The real images were on film. Or were they?

Like I said at the top, there’s only one. I loaded the film incorrectly in my main camera (an old machine but a new purchase), and shot about 24 frames on the paper side of 120 film. You don’t need to know much about film photography to know that shooting on paper doesn’t leave you with much.

Just like the buildings, those photos are all gone, save for the memory of what I saw through the viewfinder.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The overseas contract

Most often, life as an expat means you live either way above your means, or way below them. My scruffy face has been on both sides of this coin – mainly the latter. Slumming as a young intellectual in the backwoods of Asia, I didn’t care that most of my friends at home were moving their way up the socio-economic ladder. I busied myself with exciting, non-remunerated tasks like learning a tonal language and spending late nights cavorting with dangerous people from the wrong side of town.

I was happy with that, and figured I could make money… whenever.

That moment came exactly three years ago, when I found out I was going to be a father. Being an expat now meant getting an overseas contract from a government or a multilateral agency. The overseas contract, if you don’t know, is the holy grail of overpaid, underworked extravagance.

Your salary? Bank it – you’ll be dining off your living allowance. Housing? Covered. Insurance? Covered. Business class travel? Check that shit off the list too.

Get yourself a big old house with a maid and a gardener, maybe even a driver if you’re lucky. Sunday afternoons by the pool, gin and tonics to keep you cool. Hey, they don’t call it imperialism for nothing.

Swell timing saw this contract come my way exactly six months before junior arrived. The next two years went by quick though, and when my wife got some low-paid but career-building work in Europe, we packed up the bags and off we went.

No overseas contract, however. Wow, Europe sure is pricy without a living allowance. I work at a bank, for fuck’s sakes, and we still come to the end of the month with a flatline for a bank balance. We live in a housing project, and I never leave home without my supermarket bonus card.

The other day I stopped to buy some veggies and almost had a coronary at the price of greens in this part of the world. I chose the cheapest option I could find – brussel sprouts.

I then went home to discover my wife had already been shopping, at a different supermarket. She had bought some veggies as well.

That’s right – brussel sprouts.

So now we had two big bags of brussel sprouts to chew through over the next week. After about the third day of eating the bitter little fuckers, it really started to sink in how far we’ve fallen.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

A game of green ghost

Do you believe in ghosts? I don't. But my childhood friends and I would play a game called green ghost, a slightly more sophisticated form of hide-and-seek. The green ghost would hide, and the others would carefully search him out. If the ghost jumped out and caught you, then next round you were a green ghost too. This would continue until one person remained, and they were the winner of the game.

You faced a dilemma with green ghost - play it safe, stay near home base and go for the win? Or venture out and search for the ghost? That's the riskier approach. But it's a game right? So do you play to win or play for fun?

I played for fun, so I searched out the ghost as far as my little neighbourhood could take me. I kept searching for ghosts right through my teens and into my twenties, and I landed in a far corner of the world with a head full of big ideas and a camera slung around my neck to record all I found. And yes, the journey itself was the destination. True words indeed. Oh I was far from home now, Toto. Chasing ghosts became a full-time job.

But life took an unexpected turn and before I knew it, the camera turned into a keyboard and work became a series of hollow office rooms with boring furniture, endless meetings, jargon-laced reports and just words, words, words. I went from Asia to Europe, but that didn't help much. If I can just find a way to recreate some of those childhood games and adventures, maybe I'll be alright. It's just takes a bit of imagination, right?

The tower

Every morning I descend into the very belly of the beast, the evil empire of my idealistic youth, the monument kapitalist carved from raw stone. Surely not mortal constructions, these two cold towers in slate and petrol gray. I arrive on a bicycle, oddly enough, and enter the first of the towers by walking my humble vehicle down a long, steep ramp that leads from a hidden corner of the building toward an enormous shuttered, underground gate. Every morning I imagine there will be menacing guards in black chainmail - orcs maybe, or hobgoblins - armed with long pikes, their steamy, fetid breath emerging from deep behind thick iron visors. A ghastly, subhuman face peaks warily from behind the gate, asking for my pass.

But sadly it's not that dramatic. I stop my bicycle halfway down the ramp and swipe an id card over a small black box. The heavy gate goes clang-clang-clang as it opens for me. And I'm in.

My vision of the place - a dark stronghold dealing in economic despair, an unholy bastion of global finance, a big-ass evil castle - retreats momentarily as I busy myself with wheeling my bicycle through the parking garage to the nearest empty rack and slotting the front wheel in place. It’s normally crowded with bikes already so I have to jimmy around other people’s handlebars and seat posts. I lock the back wheel clamp, of course, before making my way to the next set of secured doors. It's a maze alright. They're trying to trap me...

Wait. What the fuck am I doing here? Who gave me an id card to enter the headquarters of one of the world's biggest financial firms? Do I actually work here?

Well, my dear reader, if the answers were simple, I wouldn't need this journal.