On your mark, get set…

I sense I am encountering the opening bars of a crescendo of announcements that all my fellow mummy friends are expecting baby number two. So the opening bell of Round 2 appears to have been rung – ding ding – I was just oblivious to its call. The race is on (again) to get pro-creating. But this is a race I’m requesting a ‘time out’ from.

With each announcement my gushing congratulatory enthusiasm masks a deep set horror, disbelief, fear and (weirdly) jealousy. I’m not entirely convinced my acting skills have been suitably honed to disguise my incredulity and the resonating thoughts in my head of, ‘Are you having a moment of madness madder than that of King George?’

I am as ready for contemplating reliving the past twelve months as London is for 2012’s Olympics. But despite this, I start to wonder why it is that I am not ready where others are. Incompetence? Weak will? Laziness? Worse still, that old covetous thing rears its ugly ahead again (see post on 7 February 2009, ‘Are we all just big babies?’) – a niggling relentless obsessive desire, clouding my rational vision.

Child birth is like the marmite of life experiences – love it or loathe it; there’s no fence to perch on. I know which camp I firmly reside in – not the one full of women looking irritatingly beatific even mid throes of labour but the one for mental trauma victims verging on the need for rehab. Perhaps that’s precisely what the doctor orders though – rehab and jumping back on the horse.

The prospect leaves me feeling more than a little ill at ease and could go a long way to explain why Mr A complained he was prematurely awakened this morning by the sound of me grinding my teeth in my sleep.

Fear and self loathing in la Square Mile

[This article was first published on 23 February 2009, on http://life.hereisthecity.com/sound_off/877.cntns.]
I loathe venturing into the Square Mile these days. I spend the whole time furtively glancing around like a fugitive on the run – worrying I might bump into a soon-to-be ex colleague. However, I am feeling decidedly less lonely today, having read that my soon-to-be former employer ranks in the top 10 in the latest financial markets job loss league table. Who knew such a league table even existed last I looked, such league tables were reserved for schools, hospitals and football and the aim was to be as high up those leagues as possible. In the case of this league table, it was always going to be a tough competition for the top spots with the carnage-ridden likes of Bear and Lehmans around.

I imagine it to be not wholly dissimilar to bumping into an ex, after just being dumped, while experiencing a bad hair day, followed by him informing you of his impending nuptials; or perhaps like turning up to a school reunion to discover that all the ex-classmates are now knights or Nobel prize winners and the only cards you have to put on the table are that you just managed to move out from under your parent’s roof. Loser with a capital ‘L’ springs to mind.

No matter the number of people who insist that the R word is not a personal thing and simply an issue of unfortunate statistical cutbacks, there is undeniably an element of the personal involved. If not, then why not resort to a national lottery type draw to determine the unlucky losers?

It is darkly reassuring that I am one of a double digit percentage of the workforce relieved of their duties there’s a lot to be said for safety in numbers. As far as pride goes, it seems less wounding to know I am just the unlucky one out of every three or four. They’re not the odds I’d want to hear if my life depended on it; so push comes to shove, I’d rather sacrifice my livelihood to such stats. 

I can’t help staring at all the blank faceless statistics as they pass me by – those who have (so far) hung anchor-like to their jobs. A swathe of black coats echoing the doom and gloom; heads down, shuffling mutely to work (though a sign of the times is the vast number heading in after 9am – unheard of in the heyday). What has differentiated this bunch from those who are no longer privileged to walk these City streets? Luck? A Darwinian survival of the biggest brown nose? Does an absent status fulfil the opposite effect of making the employer’s heart grow fonder? Is it a process of LIFO or FIFO? Or is it more random than that? 

Times like this I am wistfully nostalgic of my old life (like the rose-tinted glasses through which a parent views their child, choosing to adopt a selective memory approach and ignoring the less pleasant aspects). But then nostalgia turns reality.

I suspect that my desk has become synonymous with the local dumping ground for all forms of useless paraphernalia; think out-of-date FTs, half empty (half full to some) cups of cold, mouldy coffee, unwanted (inedible) food gifts from passing guest visitors from out-of-town offices, piles of unread and never-to-be-read research that bears no relevance to the current market. In fact, I would willingly wager this week’s child benefit on there being a pile of ‘2009 Market Outlook’ research tomes that are already at serious risk of being out of date and factually flawed in their prophecies. I would also wager next week’s child benefit on the fact that my chair has found a new lease of life as the desk coat rack.

As my multiple PC screens gather dust and my name plaques begin to gather grime, like an unkempt gravestone in memory of my former existence, the most fear-inducing thought of all is that an imminent visit to my old haunt is looming on the horizon and I’m not looking forward to it one little bit.

Baby cakes

In a bid to exercise my domestic goddess muscles, I decided to bake a batch of baby cup cakes. It was a trial run in anticipation of Baby-Bel’s forthcoming landmark inaugural birthday. Trial runs are under-rated – in instances like this one. Following the recipe of the doyenne of baby nutritionists, the pre-eminent Annabel Karmel, I spent the good part of an hour grating (carrots), weighing, measuring, stirring, beating – generally making a pigsty of our kitchen.  

In an inspired moment of irreverence straight from the Jamie Oliver school of cooking, I decided to omit the food colouring, icing and sugar – the aim being to invent a healthier cake (an oxymoron if ever there was one). The sugar was one step too far I suspect, as BabyBel spat out her trial cake in disgust; her expression conveying, with the undisguised honesty of a child’s prerogative, that it was on a par with eating a slightly soggy bath sponge – which had been festering in week-old scum. Another bite anyone?

Actually, I did a taste test (of the remaining batch) and they were really not too awful – edible in a puritanical sort of way. The wheatgrass shot of cakes if you will. Anyhow, I’ve learnt my lesson not to tamper with the sacred art of baking. 

I have come to conclude that Baby-Bel’s palate has become a little too discerning for my liking and who can blame her? Yesterday she sampled the delights of a strawberry flavoured fromage frais – but not any ordinary strawberry fromage frais – it was subtly infused with chamomile (the peach version is fragranced with sweet fennel and the raspberry one has under notes of rosehip). Baby-Bel is not alone with her sophisticated taste in sustenance; the intensity of peer pressure for parents to ‘go organic’ rivals that of teenagers with alcohol. It would seem that the infant penchant for costly culinary delights has bypassed the crushing laws of the credit crunch. I have a confession to make though – I am wont to sneaking the odd non-organic item into my shopping basket then praying I don’t bump into another mum while doing the dastardly deed.

There was a year many moons ago when I subscribed to a weekly delivery of an organic seasonal veg and fruit box. I gave it up when I grew tired of throwing out unused rhubarb (what is one meant to do with rhubarb?) and washing out dead bugs from salad leaves. And though I don’t dispute taste (over aesthetics) is paramount, I draw the line when it takes the form of deformed apples the size of plums with skins covered in lesions. Had I not given it up then, I most certainly would have by now; if not as a casualty of tightening the purse strings, then the recent rumoured reports of organic farmers asking for a relaxation of guidelines defining ‘organic’ in order to improve cost-effectiveness would have definitely hammered the final nail in that particular coffin.  

Totting up my monthly supermarket spend (an arduous task), it has become apparent that the cost per head of feeding the smallest stomach in this household is well in excess of the proportion appropriate. 

So now I am wondering whether I have made a rod for my own back. Am I destined to fill the foreseeable future years of school lunchboxes with a selection of sashimi, caviar and artisan truffles? Will there be contemptuous disdain for my oft pedestrian concoctions in the kitchen for myself and Mr A – which in comparison to her gourmet baby foodstuff standards might come across as bordering on peasant food? To pre-empt and prevent any noses being turned up going forward, I feel I should consider correcting the error of my ways and begin the conversion to food heathenism sooner rather than later.  

Where to begin? Where better than with some great British staple stodge – the stomach-filling, cost-conscious rice pudding. I endeavoured to prepare a pot this afternoon and proudly proffered it to an unsuspecting Baby-Bel after her afternoon nap. Her eager ingestion of the initial mouthful was misleading – she promptly proceeded to gag. Masterchef accolade I wasn’t expecting but still, not entirely the reception I’d anticipated.

So it’s back to the fine food for now then. Perhaps Madam might care for a bite of fois gras for supper?

Same job, different office

[This article was first published on 15 February 2009, on http://life.hereisthecity.com/the_soul_clinic/at_work/872.cntns]

It strikes me that, in theory, being a stockbroker should have put me in much better stead for dealing with motherhood than mums to be of other career backgrounds. On close examination, there is a disarmingly alarming similarity in the required skill set and a shared goal of keeping the client (substitute baby) happy.

For starters, it’s forever pressed upon new mums that they will have to embrace early mornings as their new best friend (with a note of superior sympathy from those already with children and with a definite note of smug schadenfreude from those without). In reality, I now crawl out of bed at 07:00 most mornings, compared to the parallel world of my former existence, where I would be firmly ensconced at my desk by that time; feverishly tapping away at my computer, absorbing the overnight stock shocks and surprises, in preparation for the daily 07:30 morning meeting. Frankly, dealing with the pandemonium that is baby breakfast (regurgitated milk, extricating baby porridge from hair, mini temper tantrum etc) is really not so different from a morning of sifting through the stock market shifts.

Then there are the clients. If you’ve ever watched the film ‘Wall Street’, being a stockbroker is nothing like that. There might be plenty of wannabe Gordon Gekkos but for the vast majority it’s a desk job like any other – no overexcited hollering and fly by the seat of your pants unscrupulous ‘blue horse shoe’ trade making – that’s all pure artistic license Hollywood style. If anything, it’s the clients, higher up on the food chain, and on the other end of the phone, who make or break your day – and in a much more mundane way. These are the ones clutching the wallet and can choose to spend (or not) based on your stock recommendations (“Might I suggest, sir, that today Stock X is looking mighty cheap, earnings were jolly buoyant at last count, consolidation is rife in the sector so it might get a boost from an imminent takeover blah blah blah” – that sort of thing.) If they like it, you’ll get an order, and the corresponding commission, and so forth.

The key to being a good stockbroker (and mother) is to pre-empt and meet your clients’ (baby’s) needs, thereby keeping them happy and your commission (mental state) healthy. So, it might go something like this: Is their portfolio a tad scant and needing some additions? Feed them a stock (substitute, feed Baby-Bel a rusk, banana, rice cake or the like). Have they overloaded on risk and looking to scale back? Suggest they regurgitate a few stocks and help them deal with the mess (self explanatory). Are they feeling grouchy and overtired? Stop hassling them and let them sleep. And so on. You get the picture.

So the irony is that despite a seeming role reversal, nothing has really changed. It all boils down to wiping up someone else’s mess, dealing with attention-hungry clients, and recognising not to take it personally when faced with a ‘toys being thrown out of pram’ scenario. All bar the one difference that I am now notably without expense account to alleviate the task at hand.

Shooting from the hip

Mr A and brother in law (BiL) were at Bisley shooting (clays, not animals) this morning. Mr A returned sporting a sizable bump on his jaw, courtesy of his shotgun juxtaposed with arguably dubious gun-handling techniques. He will no doubt look like he has been decked with a right hook on Monday at the office and he claims he is going to inform his colleagues that his wife is a husband-beater. Charming.

BiL, on the other hand, returned waving the flag for James Purdey and extolling the virtues of teaching gun-handling at a young age, citing ‘gun safety and etiquette’ – I refrained from voicing my scepticism.

Fuelled with the testosterone only possibly derived from activities inherently manly as say, digging a trench, and rivalled only by the ultimate epitome of the alpha male, the caveman dragging home his freshly slaughtered sabre tooth tiger in one hand and waving his club in the other, there is something close to neanderthal about men with guns (or clubs, spears). Simultaneously, there is a sense of reverting to childhood (cf. cowboys and indians, police and robbers), accompanied by that child-like spark of boyish enthusiasm, which is hard to dampen or indeed frown upon.

When I was growing up, guns didn’t have quite the bad press they have today. Every other child (i.e. the boys) ran around wielding toy guns of every variety (ranging from the innocent ‘cork popping out the end’ type to the slightly more sinister, realistic replicas left to the more mature contingent. And those children without the guns (i.e. the girls) typically played host to the Barbie (or Sindy) who was either (a)infatuated with action man in his rambo-style fatigues and firearms, cruising in his tank; or, (b)Nurse Barbie, tending to her injured soldier, sowing the seed early for any nurse fantasies in later adolescence (and beyond). Bottom line was that the armoured warrior was revered, regardless of gender – guns were great; the hero’s weapon of choice.

My brother once thrust the barrel of his replica machine gun (complete with sound effects and red flashing lights) into the (fake) burning embers of our electric fireplace (this was back in the early ’80s, well pre-dating the era of obsessive child-proofing). He then proceeded to point the glowing (and melting) barrel at my unsuspecting sister. Fear not; no damage was done – not beyond that of melting her polyester puffer-style gilet (stylish bunch we were; I owned a similar, if not identical, one). The point is he clearly wasn’t berated sufficiently for his transgression; so much so that about a decade or so later in his teens we were graced with the presence of a policeman at our front door. It transpired that the neighbour had complained about the use of his cat in my brother’s air pistol target practice antics.

His collection of gun-related anecdotes wouldn’t be complete without reference to the long haul flight we were about to board that same year back in our teens. While going through the tedium that constitutes airport security, his bag was scanned to reveal the outline of his air pistol in his hand carry. What ensued was a flurry of activity amid hijack fears (this being the early ’90s, well pre-dating the real terrorist fears of more recent years). There was a genuine concern we might all be subject to a stint in police custody but the issue was eventually resolved by throwing the suspect weapon into the hold, supplemented with a solemn ticking off.

One thing I can be sure of in this modern era is that I’d rather see Baby-Bel toting Balenciaga than Beretta any day; much more airport security friendly for starters.

This is your life

It must have been an age ago that I last updated my CV – even my name retains its maiden form. So much information is now redundant (how apt) from its most recent incarnation (think nationality, marital status and DoB – all contentious additions) and useless padding in the form of trivial university achievements. I have a sneaking suspicion that any future employer cares not a jot about that book scholarship I garnered way back when; nor will any future job prospects be affected either way by the fact that I was a member of a novice rowing crew (until it was discovered after a term that I couldn’t actually swim and was therefore a liability).

A CV is a miniature DIY ‘This is your Life’ – not significant enough to warrant the presence of Michael Aspel himself and certainly no need for his red book – a sheet of A4 will suffice. I look back on my lifetime achievements with a distinct sense of ‘is that all?’ The condensed contents of my life so far, stripping out the superfluous trivia, are barely enough to cover a single side of A4 (though in fairness I have used quite a small font). Worse still, most of what is on the page consists of just standard résumé--type text, eg contact details and lists detailing every educational establishment ever set foot in, just in case anyone should want to corroborate any suspected inflated truths.  

Just to clarify, there are no untruths or even half-truths on the concrete subject of my CV qualifications; the only stretched truths were always restricted to the ‘hobbies and extramural activities section’ and nearly always included a love of travel and team sports – which is true if you classify being holed up in a spa hotel for a week as travel and aerobics as a team sport (lots of people all aerobicising in sync with each other has to count). So it begs the question, what have I been doing with my life?

I’d like to say that the meagreness of my professional life is counterbalanced by a full and substantial social life but that would be an exaggeration of the truth – and just like with my CV, I’m too old for that sort of behaviour. I can only conclude that the past decade has been so plagued with the daily toil of repetition that few words are required to sum it up. In the same way, if I were forced to summarise my most recent year in bullet points, I’d be hard pushed to fill more than a few paragraphs, despite the seeming endless uphill struggle and continual baby battles.  

This is the first time my CV is going to show unaccounted-for time; no employer to attribute it to and no synopsis of my role and achievements required. For certain, this gaping hole will attract a degree of attention and speculation in future years of jobs hunting. I haven’t quite decided whether to take the pity angle of having been made redundant or the selfless angle of taking a career break for family considerations – I sincerely doubt either will be particularly novel deal breakers. 

Either way, I sense that the longer this time-out lasts, the more difficult it will be to dig myself out of this jobless hole. Then in another ten years, will I be looking back at my CV and be even more disappointed that my life, according to this script, stopped here? No record of any further noteworthy achievements beyond this point. A thoroughly bleak thought for a Friday 13th. 

There is, however, one great thing about having my first break in my CV and that is I won’t have to undergo the chore of semi-annual appraisals. Then again, my harshest critic of all is still very much at large even without a David Brent in my life and that would be me.

Money, money, money

This morning my path crossed with that of Graham Norton; me with Baby-Bel in tow; him with two dogs (one big, one small) in tow and a miserable scowl etched on his (actually quite ageing off-screen) features – amazing what makeup, a camera crew and a baying sycophantic audience can do for one’s demeanour. It’s not that unusual to see Mr Norton doing his Starbucks run at ‘daytime TV’ time of day – as far as I’m aware, he doesn’t start his shift until the evening.

The thought that occurred to me though as he swept past was that in times like these, when all the media seems to harp on about is the issue of crucifying overpaid bankers and corresponding tactics for tackling bonus payouts (thereby putting paid to the free market mechanism in one foul sweep – back to feudalism then perhaps?), why there is not a similar angst targeted at other allegedly overpaid pockets of society, namely, TV personalities (and ‘celebrities’ of the loosest interpretation of the word), footballers (and any other sports people come to think of it), or (super)models being paid to pout.

At serious risk of sparking a backlash from WAGs of all calibres and sports genres, can there really be a justifiable argument for paying their better halves the equivalent of the GDP of a small nation for effectively kicking a ball about a large turf of grass? The majority of bonuses for a run-of-the-mill City-worker pale in comparison to the $20m a film star can command for donning the mask of a pretend persona. As for the modern day ‘celebrity’, drawing a regular and sometimes sizable salary courtesy of Hello! and Ok! for doing and being nothing notable, other than being notably more fame-starved than the average civilian and therefore willing to go that extra mile to air their not-always-clean laundry, don’t get me started.

Could it be that we side and sympathise with the other vastly overpaid, arguably underworked professions because their roles are simple to understand and, by definition, pose less of a threat? At the end of the day, how complicated is the process of kicking a ball; not that for a moment I’m suggesting that anyone could do it – I, for one, have the foot-eye coordination of a one-legged man in a kicking competition. Conversely, how many Average Joes understand the valuation of Credit Default Swaps (again, I, for one, don’t)? I suspect a certain amount of fearing the unfathomable is partly at play.

And is there an element of the aspirational when faced with financially successful people who, on the face of it, seem to be ‘just like us’ yet also like demi-gods, walking the earth with their mythical brilliance in their chosen field of expertise (or just their brilliant ordinariness)? After all, if someone as talentless and plain as celeb X can find fame and fortune, then it gives hope to the masses. Perhaps we too could be the lucky recipient of such prosperity.

I’m as guilty as the next gossip girl for indulging in a secret bout of Hello!-reading while at the hairdressers (I draw the line at buying my own copy). But in these contemporary times of celebrity worship, can we seriously condemn avarice in one social sect and condone equal, if not bigger, bucks for another at the opposite end of the professional spectrum?

My view on City bonuses is consistent with my view on the pay-packets of every other vocation the world over and it didn’t take an A level in Economics to deduct the basic concept of Demand and Supply – meddle with market forces at your peril.