by Gabriele Werffeli, Director of Finance at Columbia University, 20 May 2020
Gabriele Werffeli is a Director of Finance at Columbia University in New York. Roaming the shuttered city with her dog, she wonders what we will learn from the pandemic.
The end of building is ruin,
The end of meeting is parting,
The end of gaining is losing,
The end of birth is death.*
Open your ears and listen. What do you hear?
Look up now. What do you see?
What’s out there? Tell me.
Where are you?
As for me, I’m in Manhattan. You know where that is and what it’s like, don’t you? Don’t we all?
I hear traffic. Yes, definitely, this is traffic but it sounds so different. It’s as if an orchestra was playing Beethoven’s Fifth with two thirds of the musicians working from home. Oddly, we still recognize it as the Fifth.
Today, for the first time, I can hear the bicycle section, strong and clear. It’s hard for them to come through when everybody is playing at full force. But for now, they are all out, delivering. They are also being chased. In late March, some horns teamed up with the sirens and switched to punk rock. How long will it take to reign them back in?
At home, in Harlem, I lean out the window to catch the tiniest speck of the spire’s tip atop the Empire State Building, five miles down the road from here. Right across the street, the green dome of Malcolm X’s Mosque No. 7, embraced by prewar apartment buildings with high ceilings and hardwood floors, a few blocks of brownstone townhouses and their inviting stoops, Moorish style synagogues converted to Baptist churches, and clusters of Projects, our long, complicated and painfully unsuccessful attempt to provide affordable housing to those who work two and more jobs for wages that barely lift them out of poverty. Most all of those meager earnings went away overnight, when the Governor’s executive order ‘New York State on PAUSE’ took effect on March 22. It’s an odd choice we are forced to make: to save our lives we have to give up our livelihood. Full well knowing that no help is on the way to make up for those lost earnings, none. What will it take for all of us to make a decent living? Will we ever?
Twenty years ago, I came to New York to go back to school. Ten years had passed since the Berlin Wall had come down and the Soviet Union collapsed. Capitalism had won the Cold War but what kind of peace was that bringing us? I had had a good run as a journalist in the 1990s but it had become obvious to me that I would no longer be able to make meaning of the world unless I learned all I could possibly grasp about global capital flows.
Numbers had never been my friends, nor could I ever have cared less about making money if my life depended on it. But there I was, entering graduate school for a Master’s Degree in International Finance at Columbia University in September 2000. By the time I graduated in May 2002, I had received sufficient instruction in accounting, economics, corporate finance, and international capital markets to be hired at a boutique investment bank, specialized in emerging markets sovereign debt. I was delirious to get an opportunity to hone my newly acquired skills on a bond trading floor.
My first 18 months in New York as a mid-career student helped me discover something that went far beyond the set of shiny new tools that I was hanging on my belt with so much pride. There were days - and many nights, I was deeply in over my head with accruals, aggregate demand curves shifting left and right, stagflation, and diminishing rates of return. More than once I was crying into an xls table.
Early on, I realized I found comfort in being around people who were working very hard to feed their families. People who were dead set to make a living to make a life. I saw their faces on the subway. They were clearly exhausted but they were filled with resolve to stay the course. This is the look of people who make a difference. It’s because of them that the sum of New York’s parts is infinite.
Whenever I caught myself swallowed up by self-pity, I rode the subway. The 2/3 line became my reality check. A good half hour ride connected me with the world and cleared my mind. It also got me to the far side of the Brooklyn Bridge. By the time I had walked across that bridge back into Manhattan, my spirits had returned.
In an unexpected twist, I returned to Columbia after a few years on Wall Street, to work as an administrator. We say knowledge is power as if it were a commodity, something to acquire and wield over others. But the moment we believe we found the answer, we are trapped. The engine of life is learning: Where do we go from here? How can we get there? And where will we go from there? And from there? On and on. Slowly and deliberately. Onward, forever learning.
The Morningside campus is deserted. My dog Pickles Shlafmitz and I check on it every other day. We do our rounds. We run, tumble, and play ball. The silence is disturbing. Has this time and space continuum of study fallen under a spell, like a kingdom in a fairy tale? Is everybody in a slumber, from the cook to queen? If we bring pots and pans and bang them loud enough, will that wake them up? Will the students be back in the fall? Will they? Promise? And how do we get from here to the fall? And where will we go from there? Will we find balance? Will there be peace?
The Morningside campus is deserted.
The silence is disturbing.
Will the students be back in the fall?
These days, the subway is a no-go zone and, without a train to get me there, the Brooklyn bridge is a ways away from my home. A couple of weekends ago, however, Pickles and I did make our way downtown and walked across the bridge and back into Manhattan, greeting every building and every boat, blowing kisses to Lady Liberty. Picturing the many thousands of faces I have looked into in 20 years of riding our trains, my tears sparkled in the early morning sun.
The end of ruin is building,
The end of parting is meeting, The end of losing is gaining,
The end of death is birth.
* The Four Reminders, composed in Tibetan by Jamgon Kongtrul (1813 -1899), rendered into English by Ken McLeod
Photo Credit: Gabriele Werffeli, with the courtesy of Pickles Shlafmitz
About the author
Gabriele Werffeli, friend and follower of ETH Zurich’s global community
The thing that keeps me busiest:
Being the best boss lady I can possibly be. Using my cane to find a way forward, quietly tapping a funky beat on the pavement. Anything that makes it easier to follow along.
My favorite app:
One book or movie I recommend:
Just one? Okay, here goes: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson and The Overstory by Richard Powers.
If all else fails:
One look at Ms Shlafmitz, the seat of infinite wisdom and infinite mischief.