Rivkah Writes…

November 18, 2009

“Push,” Precious, and Perseverance

Filed under: Fiction,Movie Review — rivkahwrites @ 4:47 pm

I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver. That was in 1983. I was out of school for a year. This gonna be my second baby. My daughter got Down Sinder. She’s retarded. I had got left back in the second grade too, when I was seven, ’cause I couldn’t read (and I still peed on myself). I should be in the eleventh grade, getting ready to go into the twelf’ grade so I can gone ‘n graduate. But I’m not. I’m in the ninfe grade.

I got suspended from school ’cause I’m pregnant which I don’t think is fair. I ain’ did nothin’!*

I first read this opening paragraph of “Push,” the novel by Sapphire, about 12 years ago as an undergraduate. I was taking an Honors English class called “The Imagination of Childhood,” and the novel was part of an assigned reading list. The protagonist, Clareece Precious Jones, an obese,  black girl, pregnant by her father for the second time, does not mince words; having found her way to an alternative school and been inspired to write by her teacher, Precious tells it like it is and doesn’t let ignorance of grammar and spelling get in her way. And the horrific impact of her initial sentences, like sniper shot, gave me nowhere to hide. Like it or not, by the end of the first paragraph, I knew the grim catalogue of misery I’d be dealing with if I chose to read further:

  • Child abuse
  • Incest
  • Statutory Rape
  • Pre-teen and teen pregnancy
  • Early illiteracy and educational delays
  • Current educational deficits wrought by gross negligence
  • “Down Sinder,” or Downs Syndrome, possibly due to incest

Caught between shock, repulsion, and pity, I could have skipped the book and read an online review, checking in with more conscientious peers to see whether there was anything I had missed. But I didn’t – because by the second paragraph, I was hooked. Because Precious, who has seen precious few joys in her 16 years, mercifully buffers her readers from the worst of her trials with her matter-of-fact commentary; because she turns round and makes you laugh with some wise crack when you want to cry; because despite enduring monstrously adult hurts, she’s still a kid who doesn’t think it’s fair she’s being suspended due to her second pregnancy – after all, “I ain’ did nothin’!”

Bottom line, the combination of ignorance and knowledge, feistiness and victimization, child and woman, and the bizarre irony of situation that these qualities produce – as though Precious’ suspension from school comes anything close to the robbery of her childhood and innocence – all these elements made me want to stay with Precious, to persevere with her story, even though it was hard, just as I ached for her to persevere with her struggle, despite her many obstacles.

And “Push,” or perseverance, is what the novel is all about, something the brilliant movie version of the novel, “Precious,” by Lee Daniels brought home to me. First and foremost, Precious must push to transmute the negativity of her father’s pushing/assaulting – into the love she bears her children. She must also push to bring her children into the world, push to survive the unending misery of her daily existence, push to break through the literacy barrier, push to find hope and joy with her children, and push to transcend her anguish, as awareness gradually dawns upon her. Ultimately, Precious must push to take ownership of her name; to be valuable, lovable, cherished – to be Precious.  

From the novel “Push,” by Sapphire, Knopf, NY 1996

September 13, 2009

September Again

It’s September again; the time of year I take stock, mark endings, and note beginnings. Fall always carries an evocative bitter-sweet kind of nostalgia of its own: the end of summer, another year gone, chilly mornings, shorter days – all precursors to winter’s imminence. But then there are those perfect fall days that feel like a gift. Days when, as you hurry about your business, you can’t help but bask in the dappled sunlight dancing through the wind-swept branches. On those days, thoughts of winter recede, and fall envelopes you with the promise of hot drinks, cozy sweaters, skating rinks, and Christmas windows.

This September also marks the anniversary of my rebirth – 8 years since my escape from the World Trade Center where I worked on 9/11. I was one of the lucky ones – not only did I survive, I didn’t even know any of the victims. Both physically and psychologically, then, I remained intact. Somehow, I had been able to tune out all but the most important of survivor instincts – action and reaction – insulating myself from the horror until I was safe. What kept me going was the sense that I had to put one foot in front of the other, get out the building, and reach my family. That’s all I thought about, all I allowed myself to think about, and it saved me. Even once I was out of the building, I never looked up, never looked behind me – except when Tower II collapsed – and kept moving forward. Watching the planes crash through the towers on TV later that day and on successive days, I was horrified at how close I had come to death. At the time, though, adrenalin had buoyed me up and away from the terror of the moment.

September, of course, heralds the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days, which incorporates Rosh Hashanah, the New Year and, 7 days later, Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgment. During this auspicious period, God judges his people and determines their fate. Depending on the year, Rosh Hashanah will fall either in the beginning, the middle, or the end of the month. In 2001, Rosh Hashanah fell one week after the Trade Center Tragedy; the irony of this juxtaposition was lost to none of us. The liturgy for Rosh Hashanah includes Unesaneh,Tokef, or, “Let Us Relate the Power,” which describes how, on this day, God will inscribe our fate for the coming year: “…who will live and who will die…who by water and who by fire…who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning…” As I stood in the synagogue that Rosh Hashanah and recited the prayer, I realized that for the Trade Center victims, death had meant “all of the above.”

This Rosh Hashanah, I will have an additional reason to celebrate: the welcome change in my circumstances. After almost 5 months of unemployment, I am working again, as a freelance Communications Consultant, and have just begun my MS Ed in Mental Health Counseling. Five months of unemployment probably seems a relatively short period given the current market. Still, those were 5 arduous months in which I developed my blog, networked, applied for jobs, dutifully did a round of informational interviews, courtesy of outplacement training, and braved the questioning stares of my neighbors every time I walked by in my trusty interview suit. “Not yet,” I’d say brightly, before they had the chance to ask, “but soon – I’ll let you know when.” Occasionally, during that 5-month period, I’d lose it and cry as though the world was coming to an end, much to the distress of my family. Once the deluge was over, though, I’d dry my eyes, hug it out, take a deep breath, and move on.

It’s September again; this year, along with the end of summer and the anniversary of my rebirth, I’ll also mark the hopeful change in my prospects. And on one of those perfect fall days, as I hurry about my business, I’ll bask in the dappled sunlight dancing through the wind-swept branches, and envelop myself in the promise of new beginnings.

August 26, 2009

An Invisible Presence

I have a comfortable understanding with God. I accept that I can’t know everything, that the significance of a single event may elude me until the wider picture comes into focus, that on occasion, I may suffer and struggle, but will ultimately find relief. And in return, I believe God looks out for me, allowing me to find connections, clarity, and closure.

Of course, I have to be on the look out for signs of God’s protection. Daily existence is full of static that tends to drown out the sources of epiphany, so it helps to remain alert. That’s why, for me, concepts such as God, clarity, and the unseen aren’t limited to the synagogue and High Holy Days. Rather, belief, faith, and the Deity are omniscient and omnipresent in my world, and this helps me find answers or hope in the most unlikely of places. Like horoscopes. In the Jewish tradition, horoscopes are considered kishuf, or magic, and therefore forbidden. Nevertheless, nothing will stop me from finding my daily horoscope and testing it against my current reality. And here again, my approach is trusting and untroubled. If my reading is on target, God is obviously sending me a message, channeling it through the horoscope because he knows I read it daily. If my reading misses the mark, though, I overlook it; no one gets it right all the time.

I think my first inkling of the synergy between the divine and the secular occurred when I was 11. Doctors had found a benign lump in my shoulder and determined it had to come out. My parents didn’t tell me until the day before the actual surgery was scheduled to take place, and while I didn’t kick up a fuss, I was scared. This was not my first surgery, but it was the first time I faced the prospect of going under anesthetic with full knowledge of what that entailed: I would be unconscious for the space of time it took to perform the minor procedure, and it was this that filled me with panic.

The following day, sitting up in bed in my hospital gown, I waited to be taken to the operating room while my parents alternately held my hand consolingly or wandered the halls. Feeling sick with anxiety, I tried to take my mind off the imminent ordeal, and picked up a magazine. As I flipped distractedly through the pages, the horoscope section caught my eye. I’d never really paid much attention to horoscopes before, and given my current state of mind, didn’t even know for sure whether I was a Virgo or a Taurus; I settled on Virgo – who wants to be a bull? – and proceeded to read the following: “You’re very nervous about an event that will take place in your life. But don’t worry, everything will be all right.” That was it. For some reason, the simple sentences I’d already heard from my parents and doctors comforted me enormously. The fact that, as I later discovered, I was actually a Taurus, did nothing to dissipate my belief that God had sent me a message – on the contrary. I was in need and God had found a way to palliate my fears – it was wonderful, mysterious, and I was not going to argue with it.

Over the years I’ve continued to check my daily horoscope. In addition to the sometimes-apt readings, it’s become a way to mark time until my sign is first on the list, which means my birthday month has arrived. These days, though, I’m careful to check under Taurus rather than Virgo. Now that I know better, I can’t expect God to work overtime on my behalf.

August 18, 2009

Hurts So Good: War as a Drug in “The Hurt Locker.”*

Can addictions ever be deemed positive? And if so, by what measure? These questions are brilliantly explored in “The Hurt Locker,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

On one level, “The Hurt Locker” is an astonishingly suspenseful movie, focusing on a 3-man U.S. bomb disposal squad stationed in Iraq. On another, the movie serves as a canvas against which basic human emotions are played out, along with complex motivations for the action we see.

Staff Sgt. William James, the movie’s protagonist and the actual bomb disposal specialist, does not enjoy war per se, so much as the thrill of mastering what makes Iraqi bombs – well, tick. His approach to war is that of the obsessive, single-minded genius, fascinated by the bombs he defuses, challenged by their structural complexity, and determined to locate and disarm their operating systems, even when his actions endanger both his own and his men’s lives. By contrast, James cannot quite manage the humdrum routines of civilian life. He is a man for whom, as the voiceover at the start of the movie observes, “war is a drug.” You can almost see a pre-military James finding less acceptable outlets for his recklessness – until the army teaches him to sublimate those tendencies and live life on the edge in the name of patriotism. Like any addicts, then, James both loves and needs to diffuse bombs, even though the means to his salvation may one day kill him.

But while James is impervious to fear, he is no psychopath. He shows affection and concern for an Iraqi boy with the unlikely name of Beckham; continually encourages Specialist Eldridge, the most inexperienced and apprehensive of the 3-man operation; is reluctant to brag about his accomplishments; and clearly wants to save lives – those of innocent Iraqis as well as Americans. Yet James’ careless bravery, irrespective of its results, angers and terrifies Sgt. Sanborn and Specialist Eldridge, for whom survival is the name of the game in just another dangerous tour of duty. While they’re counting down the days to the end of their deployment, James revels in the daily peril and once home, pines for his next Iraqi stint. Back in the combat zone, the cockiness returns to his eyes and the swagger to his tread. James is such a cocktail of recklessness, compassion, and naïveté, that you find yourself sitting on the edge of your seat, uncertain whether to shake your head or cheer him on. He pulls off his protective gear to detonate a multiple bomb structure in the trunk of a car, claiming that “we’re dealing with enough ammo to blow us all to Jesus, so I may as well die comfortable”; is a pleased as a child when finally unearthing the deadly operating switch; and doesn’t even get angry when Sanborn, whom he technically outranks, decks him for ripping off his headphones in frustration. James isn’t in this for honor or pride – he just loves what he’s doing; nothing he’s done has come closer to feeding his adrenalin rush. Hooked, armed, and dangerously likeable, it’s no wonder James scares Eldridge and Sanborn; they never came to Iraq expecting to fight the enemy in their own back yard.

*A reference to a poem of the same name by Brian Turner, the Hurt Locker symbolizes, among other possibilities, the repository for the weapons and agents of destruction spawned by the war.

August 3, 2009

Expiation through Self-Sacrifice in “Gran Torino”

Many people would agree that the rational treatment for post-traumatic experiences is therapy of some kind. Nevertheless, this wouldn’t be everyone’s treatment of choice. Why? Because weakness, craziness, and/or femininity are stigmas that still cling to any kind of psychological help. As a result, fear of discovery may inhibit people in certain insular groups, such as holocaust survivors, and in certain professions, such as the army and the fire and police departments, from seeking this kind of assistance. Some turn to drugs and alcohol as an alternative means of numbing the memories; but others, stronger willed, draw a veil over past traumas, refusing to either talk about or refer to them. While this coping strategy allows many to function, it takes its own toll, forcing the individual to build a protective fortress around his or her emotions – a fortress that keeps family and friends out, and blocks meaningful human interaction. This theme has been visited frequently in literature and film, most recently and brilliantly in Clint Eastwood’s production, “Gran Torino.”

In the movie, Clint Eastwood is Walt Kowlaski, a retired auto worker and misanthropic loner so haunted by his painful experiences in the Korean War that he is unable to connect with other human beings, never mind his own family. Snarling, cantankerous, and unabashedly racist, Walt makes short shrift of the 27-year old priest who rashly promised his dying wife that he would persuade Walt to go to confession, dispatches his son and daughter-in-law with even less ceremony when they suggest Walt move to a retirement community, and churlishly rebuffs his new Hmong neighbors. With his wife gone, Walt’s only connections are to his 1972 Gran Torino, well maintained, but rarely on show – like Walt’s good heart – his dog Daisy, on whom he lavishes the affection he cannot show his family, and his barber with whom he exchanges heavily barbed racist repartee on a monthly basis.

Then circumstances throw Walt together with Thao and Sue, his young neighbors. Local gang members pressure a reluctant Thao into stealing Walt’s Grand Tornio as an initiation rite, but Thao fails when the old man catches him in the act. Gang members show up to “give him another shot” despite Thao’s clear desire to be left alone and his older sister’s furious attempts to protect him. When the altercation spills on to Walt’s lawn, he orders them off his property at rifle-point – and ironically becomes a hero to the descendents of a people he was once ordered to kill. Irony piles atop irony as we examine the full ramifications of Walt’s action. When he draws his rifle at the intruders, he doesn’t bother to distinguish victims from attackers. All he sees, in purely blinkered terms, is a bunch of trespassing gooks. Successive events, however, teach Walt to view his neighbors through a prism of grudging tolerance. After he saves Sue from hectoring young black men, Walt is exposed to this fearless young woman’s teasing attempts to draw him into her world. Having no trouble standing up to menacing gang members, Sue remains unfazed by the racist slurs Walt throws her way; she recognizes these as the defenses Walt has erected to keep the world at bay. In fact, she parries his verbal assaults with cheerful explanations of the people and customs Walt learned to demonize in surviving Korea’s daily horrors. Ultimately, Walt starts to run out of steam in the face of Sue’s persistence, along with that of his Hmong neighbors who continue to leave food on his steps as tokens of gratitude to their unwitting “hero.” He also reluctantly agrees to let Thao work off his Gran Torino-theft offense, and under his rough tutelage, watches the withdrawn young man gradually come into his own. In time, Walt becomes more connected to Thao and Sue than to his own family; more receptive to the community’s holy man than to his own priest; and more aware with every day that goes by, that this family will find no peace as long as gang violence against them continues unchecked.

When his neighbors’ home is subjected to a drive-by shooting and Sue is violently raped, events crystallize for Walt into an unspoken epiphany. Without articulating his intent to anyone, without even clearly articulating it to himself, Walt begins to prepare for battle: he has his hair cut and tips the astonished barber $10; he has himself fitted for a custom-tailored suit; he leaves Daisy with Thao’s grandmother, a woman with whom he shares a mutual bond of elderly mistrust – and he goes to church to make his confession, much to Father Janovich’s consternation – “what in God’s name have you done!” Never once amid these seemingly mundane events, heavily loaded with portent, does Walt’s grim humor flag, his courage wane, or his façade crack. He remains formidably cranky to the end. Significantly, the one sin Walt does not confess to is killing men under orders during the Korean War; he is about to atone for this in actions rather than in words.

When Walt confronts the gang members at their home, he draws out the tension until he is certain there are plenty of witnesses to what will ensue, secure in the knowledge that for him, this is the point of no return. Walt is not even carrying a gun when the gang open fire; significantly, he falls to the ground arms outstretched. Like Jesus, Walt dies to save others; unlike Jesus, though, his sacrifice expiates his own burden, redeeming his soul by bringing hope to the descendents of men he unwillingly shot in Korea. Precise and responsible to the end, Walt is ready for his burial – hair trimmed, custom-made suit ready to be picked up from the tailors. All that remains is for Father Janovich, the young priest’s forebodings confirmed, to deliver the sermon. And as the final pièce de résistance, Walt bequeaths his Gran Tornio to his emotional heir, Thao; freed of its owner’s burden, the material symbol of Walt’s goodness can finally see the light of day.

So what, actually, is Walt’s reasoning in his moment of epiphany? He comes to the realization, in common with his Dickensian analogue, another sardonic, nobly flawed character, Sydney Carton from “A Tale of Two Cities,” that nothing in his life is more important than saving those he loves, that nothing in his life stands in the way of his departure, and that ultimately, expiation through self-sacrifice is “….a far, far better thing I do now than I have ever done.”* We can only hope that, along with Sydney Carton, having fulfilled his destiny, Walt finds his way to “…a far, far better place…than I have ever known.”*


*A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. At the moment of sacrificing his life for his rival, for the sake of the woman they both love, Sydney Carton says:

“It is a far, far better thing I do now than I have ever done. It is a far, far better place I go to than I have ever known.”

If you enjoyed this article, you may also like Fallen AngelMan in the Mirror: Michael Jackson and Dorian Gray, Susan Boyle: From Transcendent to Transformed, and The Dream Lives on: an Open Letter to Susan Boyle.

July 21, 2009

RIFs, Terminations, and Other Delights of Corporate Etymology

You’ve heard that layoffs* are imminent – or, in the words of the Department Wit – RIFs are rife. What’s not clear is whether you’ll be RIF-d, fired, or canned.

Let’s take a step back and analyze some of more arcane of these terms, like RIF. For those of you who’ve managed to remain blissfully ignorant of the term, RIF is an abbreviation for Reduction in Force, which in its turn, is a euphemism for being laid off, which in its turn is one way of saying you’ve been let go, which in its turn…I could go on, but will spare you.

The point is, RIF joins the pantheon of wildly euphemistic expressions for losing a job. Why euphemize a necessary corporate decision? Because no company or CEO wants to be associated with human grief, humiliation, and all the nasty, messy stuff job loss entails. So any kind of language that throws a mist of ambiguity over the stark truth is an absolute boon to the corporate hierarchy.

The funny thing about ambiguity, though, is the variety of meanings it can disguise. After all, the only reason RIFs signify job loss to us, is the same reason Pavlov’s dogs started drooling for food when they heard a bell  – conditioning – the combining of a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus which, through repeated pairing, turns into a conditioned response. So after a while, we don’t think about the phonetic associations or actual denotation of RIFs, because like Dr. Pavlov’s canines, we’ve bought into the whole conditioned reflex scenario.

But humor me, if you will, and assume you’re one of fortunate few who’ve never heard of RIF or any of the veiled references to job loss. What might be the first thing to enter your mind when you hear one of these terms?  

Let’s start with RIF. Add another “f” to “RIF” and you’ve got, in essence, a joke or witty expression. Like my riff on the inanities of corporate etymology. So before conditioning turns the phonetic denotation of “riff” into its unmistakable connotation, the mysterious RIF could be misunderstood as a joke or sly aside – hardly subtle on the part of corporate when you think about it. I can see the headlines now, “Getting Fired Isn’t Funny!” or “RIFs – Nothing to Riff About.”

Here’s another favorite of mine: “Your position is being eliminated.” Now to “eliminate” means to get rid of – it also means to expel waste from the body. So as the possible meanings of this expression pass through your mind, you’d be forgiven for the accompanying restroom imagery. No wonder you run tearfully from the site of your “elimination” deeming yourself no better than toilet paper. As for being “terminated” – Schwarzenegger machine-gunning his way through your cubicle wouldn’t be an unusual stretch.

So what do we have here? Instead of some harmlessly bland expressions prompting employees to vacate the premises in a civilized fashion, we have arguably harmful expressions whose ambiguity connotes a variety of unpleasant meanings. Is it any wonder, then, that getting RIF-d, eliminated or terminated is seen as a personal affront?

In his famous 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote

“Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly…”

Precisely. Which begs the question – does corporate America seek to think more clearly? I leave you with this parting thought: on occasion, playing dumb isn’t the sole province of blondes.


*For more articles related to layoffs and unemployment, please click on Laid Off: Variations on a Theme and You Know You’ve Reached an All-Time Low When…

July 10, 2009

Man in the Mirror: Michael Jackson and Dorian Gray

In his 19th Century novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Oscar Wilde created an ingenious metaphor for corruption – a portrait of untarnished innocence slowly perverted by evil. In the beginning of the novel, Dorian Gray, the subject of the portrait, declares he would rather die than grow old and ugly, and makes a wish that the inevitable toll of life be visited on his portrait, rather than himself. Dorian’s wish comes true, albeit not quite as he intends. For Dorian doesn’t just grow older, he also loses his innocence. And, each step he takes down the path of degradation incrementally distorts and disfigures his picture, until it becomes a loathsome representation of Dorian’s ruined soul. When Dorian finally confronts what he has become, he recoils from his beautiful face, knowing full well what it conceals. Determined to destroy the picture, aka, his guilty conscience, Dorian stabs it. Yet when his servants hear Dorian cry out, they find the body of a man with a monstrously evil face sprawled beside his portrait – which once again depicts him in all his youthful innocence.

In many ways, we can use “The Picture of Dorian Gray” to understand the tragedy of Michael Jackson. As the beautiful, irresistibly talented young man soared to the heights of fame, his oddities seemed to grow apace. And, as the rumors of his behavior grew more insidious, the beautiful face grew increasingly distorted, plasticized, artificial, surreal. Unlike Dorian Gray, however, Michael had no painted doppelganger to absorb his disfigurements – he had to deal with them in the flesh. While the causes of Michael’s facial changes are well documented – vitiligo, plastic surgery, drugs, etc. – from a literary perspective, it seemed the alleged perversions of which he was accused had slowly turned outward, destroying the perfection of the once beautiful, mischievous – but for all that – innocent face. The change began innocuously enough – no longer a child sensation, Michael strived for more edge. In the process, though, the whoops of joy became whoops of anger, the handsome male, a handsome anomaly, the fluid movements, an exercise in jerky, twisted virtuosity. Ultimately Michael’s dead eyes, waxy-pallor, and frozen features became a parody of the dancing eyed, adorable dimpled, enormously talented man we knew. The adopted eccentricities – masks, veils, etc – served only to emphasize this irrevocable transformation.

Forced to bear his physical and moral disfigurements in life, in death, Michael has been given a second chance. And, as Dorian Gray’s death restored his portrait to its innocent perfection, Michael’s demise has restored his reputation. In our minds and in our hearts, he is the joyous, good humored, beautiful young man we remember him to be. And in memory of that man, we deal kindly with the poor, ruined face of the Man in the Mirror.

For more on the Michael Jackson tragedy from “Rivkah Writes…” see Thrill Seeker.

July 5, 2009

Going Your Way!

We’ve all got our subway stories – tales ranging from the horrific to the hilarious. From the rats on the tracks to the antics of idiosyncratic passengers, some days you’d give anything for the subway to go away rather than your way. As a tribute to this jewel of the MTA system, here are a couple of my own stories. 

Your  Bag, My Bad                                                                                                                        

It’s Tuesday at 7.00 pm, a sweltering day in June, and I am only just heading home. It was hard enough dragging myself out of bed this morning after only 4 hours sleep. This pathetically insufficient interval was all that remained of my “night” once I hit “send” and dispatched my paper on “The Misery of Modern Man.” And please, please, no snide little riffs on art imitating life – I really don’t think I could stand that right now.

Anyway, having silently harangued myself through the last ten hours, the last thing I need is standing room only on the subway ride home. So once the train doors open, with unusual determination, I make a bee line for the only available seat. Now said seat – actually more of space – is located between a pretty young woman and a craggy Master of the Universe type. Both are deeply preoccupied – the one in balancing a Louis Vuitton hobo and a bunch of flowers on her spandexxed thighs and the other in punching keys furiously on his blackberry. Between the two is a pole, which complicates matters somewhat, but does not deter me. I slip into the narrow lacuna afforded by the pole, feigning complete – albeit guilty – indifference to the older woman weighted down by “Macy’s Sale” shopping bags who has hurried in after me, no doubt in pursuit of the same seat.

“Sorry,” I tell her silently, “ordinarily, I’d let you sit, but you can always put those bags down, and you’re wearing flats, and someone’s bound to get off at Grand Central Station, or at least Union Square, whereas I am exhausted, in 4-inch heels, and will definitely pass out if I’m not sitting.” And as the woman glares accusingly at me, I retort wordlessly, “please – at least you got to take advantage of “The Macy’s Who-the-Hell-Cares-What-Day-it-Is-Anyway-Let’s-Have-a-Sale!” sale, while all I got to do was write a horrible paper I was too brain-dead to proofread, which is why I now have a splitting headache and will no doubt get a C…”

And so my thoughts run along, until, swayed by the soothing rhythm of the train and the sudden lack of mental activity that has kept me going throughout the day, I abruptly pass out. A strange, troubled sort of slumber this is – for while profoundly zonked, I’m still hyper-alert to my surroundings: the refrigerated train; the Spandexxed One’s legs occasionally touching my own in their bright yellow skirt – yes, I thought the color might inspire me to Tropicana-like feats of wakefulness; the intermittent elbowing of MOTU responding to yet another email; the laughter and loud remarks of some young guys – budding MOTUs themselves by the sound of it…the insistent poke of something near my lap…a note of worry creeps into my cocoon…”what is that object?” I wonder, “oh, of course, it’s my bag…but, aren’t I already holding on to it? And if I so, why don’t I feel the bag, only this poking?” Anxiously, I grab the bag’s handles, the more firmly to secure them in my hands – “no one’s going to take advantage of me just because I’m sleeping, that’s for damned sure,” I vow – and feel a sudden resistance…a pulling…what is it? Desperately, I try to open my eyes, but they are so heavily paralyzed by slumber along with the rest of me, that I just-can’t-make-it…until someone taps me on the shoulder, and I suddenly spring awake. Bleary-eyed, I look around me – and realize I have grabbed the Spandexxed One’s Louis Vuitton; the owner herself is trying to pry my fingers off the handles, a half-amused, half-annoyed expression in her eyes.

Stammering, dry-mouthed, I apologize profusely, subsiding into silence as the young woman assures me it’s fine and gently retrieves the hobo I am still convulsively clutching. Meanwhile, MOTU leans towards me and suggests, sotto voce, that partying a little less mid-week might help me avoid this sort of scenario. As I try to defend myself amid the general, ensuing laughter, I catch Ms. Macy’s smug glance. Clearly, her expression reads, I’d have done better to offer her my seat when I had the chance. Resettling my own bag – it was in my lap all the time – I resist the temptation to suggest where MOTU can shove his advice, and stare stoically into space as the train rattles on, unperturbed by its occupants’ shenanigans.

Saints & Sinners

It’s Friday morning in mid-August, and I’m settled in for the long train-ride from Brooklyn to Manhattan, lilac shawl wrapped tightly around me against the mandatory, May to September subway chill. Today, I’m not letting this bother me. It’s Friday, I’m meeting friends after work, and am wearing my favorite outfit. I know I look good, and the glances of other passengers confirm this, so I’m not going to let a little refrigeration ruin my mood.

As I let my eyes wonder lazily around the train, I notice the Make Up Diva opposite me and feel reassured. Make Up Diva (a woman whose skillfully sculpted features could put her age at anywhere between 35 and 55), is always on time, so her presence today bodes well for my punctuality which hasn’t that been that stellar of late. I allow myself a small smile as I watch Make Up Diva – her mouth and eyes open unnaturally wide – apply a third coat of mascara, constantly checking the result in a small pocket mirror. Sensing my gaze, she pauses mid-sweep and raises a well-groomed eyebrow in my direction; I get the hint and hurriedly look away, meeting the scrutiny of a handsome black woman with salt and pepper hair holding what looks like a well-thumbed bible. Shifting uncomfortably, I turn away, wondering how long this woman’s been staring at me and what she finds so fascinating, when the word “Jezebel!” is suddenly hurled in my direction. Startled, I turn to face my accuser who continues spiritedly, despite the stares of everyone around her, “So saith the Lord, the painted harlot shall meet her end, for she is the Devil Incarnate…” My body sprints up of its own accord and I start blindly for a seat in another part of the car. In spite of my better judgment – the woman is obviously deranged – I’m indignant. “Me – I’m the painted harlot?” I think angrily, as I wedge my way into a seat between two guys, “what about Make Up Diva next to you? Maybe you should take a look at her before you start hurling biblical accusations at me – at least I don’t put on my make up in public!”

Everyone studiously ignores the Preacher, though, so finally the sermon ceases and the Preacher goes back to studying her bible. I calm down and doze off. Suddenly, the train jerks forward, and I am drenched with water that must have collected behind the advertising pane during the last storm. I dart up, gasping with shock, aware of the scandalized gasps and giggles afforded by my predicament. For while my neighbors haven’t gotten off that lightly either, I’m the one who must look spectacularly foolish in my ruined favorite outfit. Sighing stoically, I examine the damage and shrug my shoulders, assuming the bravura needed to get me through this event. As I dab at myself ineffectually with tissues and decide against sitting down again, the Preacher rises slowly, turns to me,  and intones: “The Lord has spoken – all is vanity,” and with perfect timing, exits the train just as it slows to a stop.

Cheeks flaming with embarrassment, I clutch my bag, hold on to the pole, and keep my eyes locked on the Administration for Children’s Services ads in front of me while I wait for the next – and my last – stop. “Are You Tough Enough?” asks one intrepid Child Protection Specialist. “Are You Strong Enough?” demands another. “Sure,” I reflect wryly, as I exit the train, “I got through this train ride, didn’t I?”

And for my final encore…

Leg Room Only

I am wedged into the corner of the hard subway seats, trying to edge away from the hairy, outstretched legs of the young man beside me. Hairy Legs is hunched over, arms and curly head between his knees, shaking to the rhythm of the tinny screech clearly audible from his iPod. His earnest, be-spectacled face is transported, rapt. Eying him critically, I decide against calling his attention to the inequity in our leg room situation; the kid is clearly oblivious, not rude. Sighing stoically, I cross my legs, calculating – correctly – that I’ll have more room if the only part of me taking up space is my butt. Meanwhile, Hairy Legs continues to jostle to the beat, and, taking advantage of the extra half-inch afforded by my leg-cross maneuver, appreciatively moves his legs even further apart, the better to delve into the existential puzzle of life residing between his knees. I shoot him a murderous glance and, very deliberately, uncross my legs and reclaim my rightful half inch. Upon impact, and without either missing a beat or looking up, Hairy Legs instantly shifts over. Shutting my eyes and trying to settle in for 8 more stops, I muse upon the fact that ignorance truly is bliss.

June 28, 2009

Thrill Seeker

Growing up, I never paid much attention to Michael Jackson, although we were practically contemporaries. I always enjoyed his music – could anyone not move irrepressibly to the rhythm of his songs? – yet the paraphernalia of his idiosyncrasies never occupied center stage of my mind. I was too busy dealing with my own burgeoning angst, seeking an elusive perfection – in appearance, in accomplishments – that dog me to this day. Watching the retrospectives of the last few days, though, including videos of the hits I had (believe it or not) never seen before, I am struck by the fact that in our pursuit of perfection, Michael and I ran on parallel trajectories. The difference is, I’m still in hot pursuit, while Michael’s run out of time. And before anyone gets bent out of shape, of course I’m not putting myself in the same category as this musical legend. It’s not my talent I’m equating with Michael’s, just his thrill-seeking striving for perfection.

For some people, myself included, no joy comes close to that thrill of accomplishment. And that’s all well and good. The problem is not excellence per se, but the pursuit of excellence, which becomes a curse in and of itself. Like many tormented perfectionists, Michael was never content to rest on his laurels, to take a step back, to simply enjoy his accomplishments, because there was always another barrier to conquer, another goal to attain, another “first” to dream up, choreograph, and perform. But what’s a superstar to do once he’s created the best selling album of all time, conquered racial and cultural boundaries, used the cultural signifiers of his day to produce cutting edge iconography and videography, raised tens of millions of dollars for Africa, ripped his shirt, given back, and given his all, over and over again? The burden must have been enormous, unimaginable. And so by the time Michael was in his 30s, he had scaled the summit of his innovative powers and reached the dark side.

Despite his crotch grabbing, hip thrusting, chin jutting postures, Michael was clearly confused about his sexuality. Watch his video for “The Way You Make Me Feel.”*  See how he circles his female prey, hurls his desire at her like a challenge, yet neither touches nor dances with the supposed girl of his dreams. Never fully gown up, Michael took up the Peter Pan persona in earnest, turning his home into a theme park, and playing dubious games with children that had the media up in arms. And, as he slowly transformed himself through layers of surgical artifice, the grotesque result seemed to parody the songs that had brought him fame. Here was the “Man in the Mirror,” turning in horror from the “Thriller” he had spawned. Here was what happened when Michael, in truth, could neither “Stop” nor “Get Enough,” when “Beat It” became the command he used to drive himself to further and further feats of the bizarre until there was no turning back. From the pinnacle of fame Michael had reached the pinnacle of notoriety. What else remained but to bow out, tragically?

I am not and never was in Michael’s league, either professionally or personally. My struggle’s just that of your average OCD personality who, as I’ve said before,** can never cut him- or herself enough slack. Every day, though, my unhealthy tendencies are redeemed by a loving family that give me the kick in the butt I need to stay sane – and alive. It’s a shame no one could do the same for the legendary King of Pop.


* “The Way You Make Me Feel,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sEU9Q8NlOiY.

**In “The Dream Lives On: In an Open Letter to Susan Boyle” I wrote:

 “As a fellow masochist, I too make incredible demands of myself, get depressed for inevitably falling short, yet would never dream of imposing such demands on my husband, children, or loved ones. To everyone other than myself, I am kind, patient, encouraging, and tender – yet I cannot be that person for myself.”

June 22, 2009

Twilight Zone

Be warned – this is a “Twilight” movie critique. I wince at the echoing commentary ricocheting off my keyboard as I go about my task: “shoot me now!” “who cares?” and from devotees, “why now?” 

I am sensible to your disquietude; nevertheless I reserve my belated right to speak up on the “Twilight” phenomenon. So bear with me if you will.    

In the past I’ve mentioned my passion for fairy tales – Hogwarts, Narnia, Hobbits, Mordor – oh, and of course, vampire tales. Long before Stephenie Meyer dreamed of crossing over to the dark side, there was Ann Rice, Lestat, and the erotic, sensuous otherworld of the undead.

There’s a special atmosphere created by all classic works of magical fiction, and it is to envelop myself in this atmosphere that I re-read these books and anxiously await their screen debut, hoping this medium does not wreak havoc on my beloved tales. In most instances, my fears go unrealized. The movie versions of “The Lord of the Rings” and the Narnia tales, for example, are as wondrously realized as the original novels. I admit I may have tuned out over that whole Tom-Cruise-Brad-Pitt-“Interview-with-a-Vampire” phase. Still, once my daughter became enamored of the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” series, I matched her, book for book, movie for movie. But that’s when the trouble started. Because, while the Harry Potter movies depict a wholly re-imagined world, their setting and characterization as effective on screen as in their original conception, there is one major problem with the “Twilight” movie; its magic does not ring true.

Now don’t get me wrong. The “Twilight” books themselves are terrific.  Meyer brilliantly uses “good” vampires struggling valiantly against innate blood thirst as a metaphor for humanity fighting innate – but unacceptable – impulses. The novels juxtapose mystery and magic with teenage angst, and just enough romance to set the pulse racing. Oh the thrill of the shy, withdrawn maiden chosen by the gorgeous, tortured, demonic hero – oh the delicious constancy and devotion he manages to hold in check for 2½ entire books. Indeed, Meyer renders unconsummated yearning and desire so viscerally, Keats* himself would be proud. And in the movie itself, Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart admirably personify Edward and Bella. True, Edward could up the smolder factor a notch, but he is believable as the brooding, conflicted creature determined to transcend his blood lust through devotion to Bella. And Kristen Stewart re-creates Bella’s awkward self-consciousness with wonderful subtlety. I also loved the “bad” vampires – such devilishly sexy characters, their “good” counterparts seem pallid by comparison.

But the movie’s truly fatal flaw lies in its special effects; to be brutally honest, they left me cold. In a crazy way, the movie’s atmosphere is “Twilight”-meets-MTV-while-under-the-influence – almost self-consciously un-magical, using cult appeal and edgy music to inflate scenes as un-sinister as they are unbelievable. Edward’s incredible speed translates into a cartoonish immediacy that comes off as amateurish. Is it just me? Back in the days of yore, was “The Six Million Dollar Man”’s incredible strength interpreted that much more skillfully? Maybe I’m just older and more critical.

Moving right along, what about that horribly unrealistic snarling – was I seriously meant to be frightened by that? By contrast, think of Bilbo Baggins in “The Lord of the Rings” begging Frodo to let him hold the ring one last time. Think how the ring’s power turns that benevolent face terrifying in a matter of seconds. What’s a few second of terror within the elfish paradise of Rivendell, right? But that demonic face made my blood run cold.

Oh, and when Edward removes his shirt to reveal why he must hide from the sunlight, his sparkling, waxen-hued torso made me want to laugh rather than empathize with his undead condition. And no, you can’t just write me off as a middle-aged cynic. I mean, when Harry Potter teaches Dumbledore’s Army members the Patronus spell to combat Dementors in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” the resulting scenes make me smile with childish pleasure, so clearly I’m not cynical, right? Well then, why does “Twilight” magic make me want to rush for the exit? Because – and here’s the irony – successful fantasy feels real, even when it clearly is not.

So my message to directors filming “New Moon” – the “Twilight” sequel – is this: make magic I can believe in and a world I yearn for…edgy music optional. 

*From “Ode to a Grecian Urn” by John Keats  “Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”

June 14, 2009

You Know You’ve Reached an All-Time Low When…

Filed under: Humor,Unemployment — rivkahwrites @ 12:23 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

About 10 weeks ago, I wrote an article called Laid Off: Variations on a Theme, in which I concluded:                           

“…for me, getting laid off is more like lying in wait – I may not be actively employed, but I’m definitely in the game – tensed poised, and ready to spring into action.”

Inspiring, isn’t it? And on good days – or moments – I still feel that way. Nevertheless, I have to confront the fact that since April 5, despite having invested a ridiculous amount of effort, become a self-marketing pro, found fame on the unpaid bloggers circuit, and assumed poster-girl status for the overqualified unemployed, I still haven’t scored a single interview or registered even the faintest stirrings of interest on the job market scene. So please, allow me a moment to wallow.

Thank you. And now, in return for your indulgence, here’s a list to help you determine when you’ve truly hit bottom.

You Know You’ve Reached an All-Time Low When…

  1. Your kid makes more money babysitting than you make blogging
  2. You’re reduced to blogging for the Brooklyn Jewish Examiner at 1 cent a click
  3. You bookmark the “Certify Your Unemployment Benefits” page
  4. Your kid lends you money when you run out of cash
  5. You get an “A” in outplacement but you’re still out of a workplace
  6. You check your blog stats every half hour
  7. You ask your kid for babysitting referrals
  8. You find yourself humming “Suicide Is Painless”
  9. You dream of RSS feeds
  10. Your kid texts you from school to find out how you feel
  11. You find yourself singing “Suicide Is Painless”
  12. You have a meltdown every time the computer crashes
  13. Your non-paying gigs take up more time than your job ever did
  14. Your kid won’t let you watch the Lifetime channel because the movies make you cry
  15. You spend time on “Suicide Is Painless” Discussion Forums
  16. You begin to recognize the neighbors
  17. Your kid starts hiding sharp objects
  18. Your only exercise is walking the line between elation and desperation
  19. You miss the days when networking had something to do with telephones
  20. You stock up on tissues and Extra Strength Tylenol
  21. Your get carpel tunnel syndrome from keying in career info for your umpteenth search engine profile
  22. You give up setting your alarm
  23. You get bored by your own elevator pitch
  24. Your work friends stop calling
  25. You start doodling on your marketing plan
  26. You begin swearing at careerbuilder.com
  27. Your sleeping pills stop working
  28. You stop putting on make-up
  29. You get email alerts about security guard openings
  30. You begin to consider them

June 7, 2009

The Dream Lives on: an Open Letter to Susan Boyle

Filed under: Entertainment,On My Mind — rivkahwrites @ 6:11 pm

Dear Susan,

I am just one of your many fans, one of the many who have felt uplifted watching you perform, one of the many who has cast her vote in the “should she or shouldn’t she?” makeover debate, one of the many who watched your final performance on May 30. What an incredibly tumultuous journey you have traveled over the last few months. After a life spent in relative obscurity, you have gone from overwhelming acclaim, astounding success, and magical moments in the spotlight to…second place. And to you, who have always sought validation, this not-so-perfect outcome seems like the end of the world. As of course it must. Anyone who has fought to be recognized for his or her talent will understand the keen pain and disappointment you must be experiencing. You don’t know me, but I understand what it is to be called a star in the making over and over again – and then to never quite make it. Still, I am here to tell you – that dream you dreamed – it lives on.

Of course, we’re comparing apples to oranges here – at the latest count, I’ve had 1,225 hits on my blog, Rivkah Writes. Which is nice, but clearly, no one’s looked me up 100,000,000 times on YouTube or anywhere else. So by almost all standards out there, you have made it, you are truly a star, a gracious woman, a beautiful person, a devoted daughter, and as Piers Morgan put it best, an inspiration to us all during these tough times.

But Susan, I know you. So I recognize that anything less than winning that contest and performing for Her Majesty at the Royal Variety Performance does not spell success in your eyes. As a fellow masochist, I too make incredible demands of myself, get depressed for inevitably falling short, yet would never dream of imposing such demands on my husband, children, or loved ones. To everyone other than myself, I am kind, patient, encouraging, and tender – yet I cannot be that person for myself.

So Susan, let me put my dysfunctions to good use here – let me be kind to you. Let me hold up a mirror to show you what you have accomplished, and what you still stand to accomplish. Your second-place standing is not the end, but the beginning of the next chapter of “Susan Boyle Superstar.” Think about it. Out of the millions of people out there that voted in Britain’s Got Talent, you came in second – second in the entire country – a magnificent accomplishment in and of itself, and one, I might add, that many runner-ups have parlayed into hugely successful careers. Think of Adam Lambert, runner-up to Kris Allen on this year’s American Idol. Not for one moment does anyone believe that Kris Allen‘s win detracts from Adam’s star-studded prospects. Moreover, Diversity’s accomplishment, while notable, does not overshadow yours. You were not judged runner up to another singer, but to Diversity, a talented, euphoria-provoking dance group whose appeal cleverly dovetails with the ostensible purpose of the Royal Variety Performance: to introduce – well, diversity. But Diversity’s success takes nothing away from yours, because – apples and oranges again – Diversity’s talents are nothing like yours. You exist on polar opposite planes of existence, and can each succeed on your own terms, and in those separate planes.

So Susan, here’s what you need to do: have a good rest. Go on vacation. Take time to process what you’ve been though. Then put one hand on your hip, close the other around a mike, shake that booty, and go back to doing what you do best. Trust me, there will be no shortage of offers to do just that. As for losing the chance to sing before the Queen – my guess is she may request the honor of your presence before you get your second chance. Something tells me she dreamed a dream too – and it looked and sounded a lot more like yours than like Diversity’s. So you hang in there, you hear?

As for me, I’m working on pretending to be someone else. That way I can be kind to myself too.

All the best, Susan –


May 31, 2009

Plunged into Despair: Memoirs of a Backed-Up Toilet

Filed under: Humor — rivkahwrites @ 8:38 pm

The toilet overflowed again this morning. It does this without warning, so the genuine terror that washes over me is the same every time. Impossible to get used to, the slow climb of water to the rim of the toilet bowl as I rush about – unwiped, with nether garments pooling around my knees – frantically yelling for help. And as the water rises, so too do the substances I have been rash enough to deposit in to this receptacle of imminent doom. Even as – hiding my half-clothed state – I accept strategically proffered towels through a partially opened door; even as I impatiently remove said nether garments, wade through the mess, and mop the floor with saturated towels, swallowing my revulsion and gritting my teeth; even as I bear witness to the sad updates – “Mom, it’s leaking under the door,” “Oh my God, Rivkah, she’s gonna kill us”; even as I methodically wad and squeeze, my mind is on the impending confession to the dragon below – aka, my elderly landlady.

This tiny, gentle Italian soul, who never learned to speak coherent English, never misses an opportunity to renovate, but never includes our ailing toilet pump in her plans. She also has a tendency to explode into furious gibberish when ticked off; the flooded toilet would be one such occasion. So as my streaming nemesis is brought under control, pumped, cleaned, and reduced to a semblance of readiness for subsequent deposits, as I climb wearily into the shower to scrub away the detritus of my recent labors, as I prepare to confront the tiny harridan, my husband and daughters offer such support as they can, pat me on the shoulder, earnestly opine that “it’s not our fault, just tell her,” and utter similar words of encouragement. What they won’t do, is go in my stead. My husband looks at me beseechingly, my kids snort derisively – so what’s a sucker to do but shoulder the onus herself? It’s OK, though, I am made of sterner stuff than they. I can steel myself to withstand the onslaught – and you had better believe that I will exact payback in due course.

I make my way down the connecting stairs, knock at the door, and wait. No answer. Tiny harridan is as deaf as she is fierce. So, trying the door and finding it open, I walk to where she sits, almost buried in her armchair, watching an Italian sitcom. I tap her on the shoulder and a familiar scenario unfolds. Maria scrambles out of her comfort zone as I offer apologies for barging in. I lower my eyes and make my confession. Maria freaks out, as is her wont, drags me to her own toilet to show me her stained ceiling tiles, as is her wont, wags her finger at me menacingly, as is her wont, and swears she’ll evict me in the event of a recurrence – as is her wont. Twenty-three years and multiple floodings later, I am unmoved by such threats, but nonetheless maintain my meek and conciliatory demeanor – important to look appropriately contrite on such occasions. I do not interrupt or defend myself – such attempts would be useless and only delay the dousing of Maria’s rage. Waiting patiently, albeit uncomfortably, I pick up Maria’s monologue mid-stream; “Ahm a tellin’ you, ah canna take it no more, every time, I donna have da money to fix, you musta be more careful, or ah find new tenants, whadya think?”

Finally, when I feel the tide has ebbed somewhat, I utter several mea culpas, and begin to back away, slowly, slowly, lest the intermittent twitter of indignation fan once more into full-blow fury. Closing the door behind me with great deliberation, I climb the stairs to my apartment, make my way to my bedroom amid my family’s awe-struck stares of admiration, lie down on my bed, and, without looking at my husband, inform him I will be out shopping for the rest of the day.

May 20, 2009

Fallen Angel

Filed under: Entertainment,On My Mind — rivkahwrites @ 10:59 am

Back in high school, when my friends and I played Charlie’s Angels, I always chose to be Sabrina. It didn’t make sense, really. My two other friends, Syrit and Maya were the exotic ones – dark, sultry beauties from Russia and India, respectively. When I went out with Maya – with whom I was really better friends – some guy was always asking her where she was from while I, boring English rose that I was, watched patiently from the background. Maya’s answer depended on her mood; sometimes she was Brazilian, sometimes Greek, most often Israeli, but never Indian. Anyway, with Syrit and Maya being that dark, it made sense that I, the one with light coloring, should be Jill. But some willful tendency made me disdain Jill, exactly because everyone raved about her. Her looks, her hotness, her blondeness, her real life marriage to the Six Million Dollar Man – I mean, could you get anything more perfect than Farrah Fawcett’s life? But something about Sabrina resonated with me – her down-to-earth approach to life, her more sensible clothes, more sensible hair – all of this made me identify with Sabrina rather than Jill – after all, I may have had fair coloring, but that made me neither hot nor desirable. I felt that those descriptions suited girls like Maya and Syrit, not me. So when we played Charlie’s Angels, I was Sabrina, Maya was Kelly, and Syrit nonchalantly adopted Jill’s part, despite the discrepant coloring.

Poor Farrah; I didn’t want to be her then. And I don’t want to be her now. My arrogant 16-year old self viewed her character, and by extension, her actual self, through a mist of lofty stereotypes; Jill/Farrah was the dumb blonde. Who wanted to be a dumb blonde? I felt virtuous playing Sabrina/Kate, who was clearly the brainy angel.

I first became aware of Farrah’s depth as an actress/person when I saw her play an abused wife in 1984’s The Burning Bed. In this role, Farrah’s willingness to strip herself bare of artifice and assume the vulnerability of a physically and emotionally battered woman rocked my preconceived notions. Watching her, I wondered, how could I have thought Farrah superficial? Caught in the vortex of her husband’s abuse, her mother’s helplessness, and her in-laws’ resentment, Farrah’s character remains a quiet, poignant force, wanting nothing more than to be left in peace. When things get bad, she takes it on the chin without fanfare, literally as well as emotionally, warding off obstacles as best she can, for as long as she can, until she takes action to save herself and her family.

Watching Farrah on screen, I remember being blown away by the understated power of her performance, by her mute, palpable resilience, her incredible courage. And it is exactly these qualities I find so heartbreaking in Farrah’s currently documented fight against cancer. Once again, in life as in art, Farrah confronts her abuser with quiet fortitude, weeps silently, and remains unwavering in her resilience and courage. Of course, the cynical will say that Farrah is, after all, still in character, albeit playing herself. But what does it matter? Even if this is life imitating art, more power to Farrah if the role helps her through her ordeal. You see, I’m rooting for Farrah. Like I said before, I still don’t want to “be” her; I doubt even Syrit would want to be her now. But I wouldn’t want this to turn into the story of Farrah the Fallen Angel.  She doesn’t deserve that.

May 17, 2009

Of Food, Fairytales, and Other Delights

Filed under: On My Mind — rivkahwrites @ 11:34 am

As a child, my favorite stories carried elements of make-believe, and all of them, whatever the element of magic involved, were about food. For as much as I disdained my puppy fat and tried to control my food intake, budding teenage anorexic-to-be that I was, I still derived a comforting, vicarious satisfaction from reading about food – its abundance, smell, texture, taste, and my beloved fictional characters’ unapologetic enjoyment thereof. Was the magical aura a subconscious rationalization of my inappropriate preoccupation with food? I’ll get back to you on that one. At any rate, my food stories were glazed with the hallowed aura of childhood, which turned them into a mythology of longing for the past, for a carefree existence when I would play and read for hours, eat at will, and feel blissfully free of the demon guilt. Back in the day, food was food, not some furious ledger demanding accountability for every calorie consumed, every temptation indulged.

Even now, thinking back to those stories fills me up – as though the stories in and of themselves were – are – enough to stave off imminent hunger pangs. Once upon a time Teddy decides to have a tea party. He isn’t quite sure how to go about it, so Mouse and Dolly (don’t quote me on their names) offer to help him out. In the end, everyone in Toyland is invited and feasts on egg sandwiches and lemonade. Never in my life up to that point (I was 10 years old) had I eaten an egg sandwich, but from Enid Blyton’s evocative description, you would have thought they were a gourmand’s delight. Funny thing is, I was too young to even be anorexic at the time, and yet I can still taste those egg sandwiches, still remember them as the highlight of that story. Perhaps, even then, those innocent sandwiches carried the crumbs (pardon the pun, folks) of my adolescent struggle.

And what about the weird and wonderful lands to be found on top of The Magic Faraway Tree, another Blyton classic? Each time these lucky characters climb the MJT, they find another land to explore and enjoy. Predictably (duh!), my favorite was the one where everything was made out of food. Reality is sweetly juxtaposed with fantasy in good children’s books, so when one child is arrested and jailed in this edible paradise, he’s able to eat his way out of his cell’s chocolate walls – bliss!

My all-time favorite, though, has to be a story whose provenance, I regret to say, completely escapes me. In this magical tale, a wise Queen has a silly husband. The King’s counselors are in despair over his silliness, so they seek the Queen’s advice. The Queen, knowing her husband’s weakness for confections, knowing how wistful he gets after a particularly luscious dessert – “how I wish I could eat that all over again!” – buys a spell from a witch and slips it into a cake made especially for the King’s birthday. The cake is calculatedly designed to be so tempting, that it would melt even the most hardened of diet freaks. Predictably, the King is overjoyed with his gift, and after polishing off every last morsel, sits back, sighs, folds his hands over his tummy, and says “how I wish I could eat that all over again!” Lo and behold, the cake reappears, and with a cry of joy, the King sets to with renewed gusto. This state of affairs continues into perpetuity, the Queen is free to rule the country while her silly husband luxuriates in epicurean Nirvana, the counselors are happy, and everyone lives happily ever after. Luckily, the King never has a problem with indigestion, and the AMA’s warnings over the dangers of diabetes and a sedentary cake-eating lifestyle are centuries – nay galaxies – away (this is, after all, the age of innocence in every sense).

If could tell you how many times the child in me can still finish a massive slice of cake, sit back, sigh, strategically fold my hands over my dangerously distended gut, and say – or think – “how I wish I could eat that all over again!” you’d be astounded. That I can still recall the tale in such vivid detail would give any budding psychotherapist a month’s worth of neuroses to unravel.

Growing up, let me admit, has done nothing to destroy my vicarious preoccupation with food. The obsessions still come wrapped in fantasy and make-believe, and despite the fact that I am now self-aware to a fault, their pull on my gastronomic imagination is as strong as ever. In vain do I chuckle over my rapture at JK Rowling’s description of Hogwart’s groaning tables – the truth is, I haven’t traveled so very far from the edible delights of The Magic Faraway Tree.

Have I mentioned that my parents were born in Hungary?

Bottom line, food fetishism is probably encoded in my DNA. I may as well make my piece – I mean peace – with it.

 Bon appétit!

May 3, 2009

The Opiate of Tears

Filed under: On My Mind — rivkahwrites @ 11:17 am

I’m a big weeper. In fact, I personify all the stereotypical expressions around crying. I “cry as if my heart would break,” “cry my heart out,” “sob uncontrollably,” etc. Ironically, though, the torrents are usually unleashed for the most seemingly banal of reasons. So I cracked “Titanic” jokes while walking calmly down the water-logged staircase on 9/11, and over the years, have applied such composed compassion to a catalogue of domestic shockers including one child’s benign tumor and another’s sexual assault, that my husband has accused me of not caring enough – or clearly, like him, I would be a basket case. Noted.

At any rate, I will sail through these personal challenges seemingly unscathed – and then disintegrate while watching their fictional counterparts. So I’ve sobbed for hours watching Clint Eastwood brokenheartedly pull the plug on his champion boxer-turned-vegetable, Hillary Swank, in “Million Dollar Baby,” or Demi Moore recapture an enchanted moment with her dead boyfriend, Patrick Swayze in “Ghost,” or Carrie Bradshaw’s haunted face post-wedding debacle in the “Sex and the City” movie.

For me, at least, there’s something at once elegiac and cathartic about surrendering to tears. And believe me, like any alcoholic, I’ve suffered for my weakness. Watch anything remotely sad at night and I will awake with the mother of all hangovers – exactly as though I’d spent the night before downing tequilas rather than trying to control my wracking sobs over – get this – someone else’s pain and misery. Once, on a flight from New York to London, I cried so hard over Judy Dench’s depiction of mental disintegration via Alzheimer’s in “Iris,” that upon arrival in London, I had to stop the taxi at least twice to throw up from the impact of headache and nausea that set in about the same time as Judy’s dementia.

So why does it happen, all this crying? Well, I can’t control it, but I understand it all too well. I’m so tightly wound, so controlled, so on top of the logistics of this multi-layered pastiche I call life, as a daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, matriarch, writer, not to mention amateur therapist, coordinator of medical services, we-can-fix-it person extraordinaire, one-woman cheerleading squad; I try so hard to bring peace, harmony, health, and happiness into my little universe, that sometimes the flower-power-I-am-so-fine routine begins to crack at the seams. I’ll bravely attempt to stop the leaks with a little (OK, maybe not so little) therapeutic shopping, or a night out with friends, and it works…for a while. Until I sit down to watch that movie – and then all hell breaks loose. So when I weep, it’s not for poor Hillary, Demi, Carrie, or Judy although I feel for them, I do. Ultimately, these characters and their stories unleash the heartbreak I feel for my own soured expectations, disappointed dreams, and anguished self-awareness. They trigger my “what’s it all for?” moments of existential misery, when I feel that my whole life’s been wasted in striving for an elusive dream of beauty and fulfillment that exists in my own mind only…

Very sad. And yet, after an hour or two, I’ll do the Holly Hunter “Broadcast News” thing – stop crying and get back to living. I mean, I just have to. What would happen if I walked around all the time schlepping an existential albatross? I’d end up a DSM Axis I category – crazy (which, one might argue, would be a surrender of a different kind) – and of no earthly use to anyone. And that can’t happen. Not when everyone in my world looks to me to find the answer, to be the answer, the mother lode, the source, the oracle the – OK, I’ll stop now.

So yes, I know why I cry over fictional misery. Still, I’ve become wise to the dangers of abusing the opiate of tears. I avoid sad movies at night, and grimly surf the comedy channels on international flights. I tell myself “think laughter, think happy,” and then I’m safe. But sometimes, when it all gets too much, when I know a new pair of shoes just won’t cut it, I’ll find the right movie, down a Tylenol cocktail, grab a box of tissues, sit back, and prepare to enter the Valley of Emotion – vicariously, of course.

April 7, 2009

A Hole in My Logic

Filed under: On My Mind — rivkahwrites @ 3:04 am

What do my gums, a diabetic friend, and 16-year old Tanzanian girls have in common?  We all have – or in my case, had – something called a fistula. 

Speaking personally, I’ve always had a kind of sixth sense about language, especially since my professors taught me to deconstruct and demystify just about everything. Nevertheless, when my dentist informed me that the bump on the portion of gum above my front tooth was a fistula, deconstruction was the last thing on my mind. Instead, my thoughts ran more along the lines of: “What the hell’s a fistula? How do I get rid of it?” and of course the ever popular, “How much will it cost?” 

It turned out that the fistula,  a pus-filled boil, had developed above a front tooth on which I’d received root canal treatment. Some of the infection had remained in the root canal with no way to escape – hence the fistula. An oral surgeon cleaned out the area without having to redo the root canal  and that was the end of my problem.

The next time I heard the term, I was visiting family in England and had looked in on an old friend with advanced Diabetes. Given his condition, he had had a tube of sorts surgically inserted into his arm in preparation for possible dialysis. Complaining about the discomfort caused by the device, he referred to it as a “fistula.” I dismissed my perplexity, assuming that by some strange coincidence, tubes in the arm are to UK doctors what bumps on the gum are to their US counterparts.

The term came up yet again in February when I was reading an article in The New York Times* about young women in Tanzania. Pregnant at 16, these girls had lost their babies after prolonged labor which left them with a horrible internal wound called a fistula. The fistula rendered them incontinent and given their constant odor, they were shunned by family and friends. 

The recurrence of “fistula” in a context I found heart-wrenching finally spurred me to do some research. My findings were a perfect illustration of Occam’s razor – one explanation that fit each “fistula” situation: according to WebMD, a fistula is “a passage or hole that has formed between…two organs in your body.”

In other words, a fistula is a hole, and the hole in my logic was assuming it was just a name, when in fact like all words – even some names – it’s a descriptive term with contextual permutations. Which means a fistula is dental when it’s a pus-filled boil on your gum; arteriovenous when it’s a procedure  surgically joining an artery to a vein in preparation for dialysis; and vaginal when it forms in the walls of the vagina.

And the moral of the story is – never underestimate the power of words.


*After a Devastating Birth Injury, Hope. The New York Times, February 23, 2009.

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