Rivkah Writes…

April 30, 2009

Name That Flu!

Filed under: Humor — rivkahwrites @ 10:18 am

If you had to have an exotic form of the flu, which would you choose – the Avian or Swine variety? Personally, I wouldn’t exactly hog all rights to the Swine flu. Especially when you translate the term into other languages. In Yiddish, for example, the word for Swine is chazer – far less refined than the politically correct “swine,” I assure you – more like “pig.” Imagine being told you had the Chazer flu. Now that would unleash a plethora of kibbitzing on the Yiddishe circuit. “Hey, what’s the surprise? Abie mixed with chazerim so he caught Chazer flu!” or “You looked at chazerishe pictures, you putz, what did you expect, a headache?” Avian flu, on the other hand, sounds so much more elegant, don’t you think? Avian… Evian…spring water…purity…oh yes, you’d soon be practically virus free with a flu called Avian…


Anyway, you see where I’m coming from. It’s all about the tantalizing impact of words, their meanings, implications, associations – above all, their power to brand a relatively neutral object or person with the qualities they connote. Swine flu’s a more recent example, but suggestive words are out there every day, driving us to splurge on one brand or another. And what I love about brands is that, very often, they’re an inside joke – ask most people to explain a brand, and the response is a blank stare. Or, as my 18 year old would put it while rolling her eyes “Oh no, here comes the lecture!” Guys – I’m not here to lecture you, believe me. Just to open your eyes to the infinite humor itching to be extracted from everyday naming conventions.


Here’s another example – my favorite actually – (just don’t tell the Rabbi). Gentlemen! Having trouble maintaining your stand-up routine? You need endurance, stamina, vigor – you need Viagra! Looking to rise to the challenge? What better solution than the levitating powers of Levitra! Now there are exceptions to the rule as some of my friends have pointed out. It’s not as though Cialis conjures any evocative imagery. I mean, yes, every time you Ci-alis, hey presto, you Levitra, but surely that would be pushing it. So let’s leave well enough alone.


Moving right along. Car names. Now there are lots of self-explanatory ones out there like the Ford Explorer or Thunderbird – get a good look at either of these cars and the object is clearly to endow the driver with the sense that he or she (usually he – these particular vehicles are marketed to the action hero in all males) actually possesses the adventurousness associated with these brands. My personal favorite, another male marketed brand, is the Chevrolet Impala. One notch above the self-explanatory, understanding the brand requires that you know “impale” is actually a word. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, to impale is to “pierce with, or as if, with something pointed.” Suffice it to say the driver of the Impala may indulge in a little Levitra while on the way to Ci-alis.


Well, one can have a little too much of a good thing, so it’s about time I wrap this up. Let me leave you with a couple of parting thoughts. A rose is never just a rose; words are never just words; and branding taps into our identities, our personalities, and our aspirations. Proceed with caution.










April 28, 2009

Susan Boyle: From Transcendent to Transformed

Filed under: Entertainment,On My Mind — rivkahwrites @ 6:53 pm

Caught between disbelief and wonder, many of us who saw Susan Boyle’s extraordinary performance on Britain’s Got Talent mentally recast her appearance to match her incredible voice. Because, as human beings, our minds aren’t equipped to deal with dissonance – elements that don’t “fit” our value system or embedded set of stereotypes. We want things to be of a piece – so we expect ordinary looking people to have ordinary abilities, and extraordinary looking people, to be extraordinary. The truth, though, is that beauty doesn’t guarantee genius. And, by the same token, genius such as Susan Boyle’s can exist in ordinary packages. Still, most people remain blissfully unaware of life’s delicious ironies, and in the wake of Susan’s performance, their unconscious processes have gone busily to work on the tabula rasa that is Ms. Boyle. As a result, much blogging, twittering, and references to Cinderella, the Ugly Duckling, and God have been devoted to the Susan Boyle “Should She or Shouldn’t She?” makeover debate.


But has anyone noticed, amid the various back and forths, that we’re assuming a makeover would impact only us, Susan’s audience? That the only issue of importance is how we’d feel if Susan’s beautiful voice existed in a more becoming setting? When what we need to consider is that a makeover might have considerable psychological impact on Susan herself?


Think about it for a moment. Susan has spent her life in a small village in Scotland, working as a church volunteer and caring for her mother. Since her mother’s death, she has continued to live alone with her cat, Pebbles. By any standards, Susan’s life to date has been sheltered and she’s lived among people far less concerned with appearances than their American counterparts. Subject this woman now to cosmetic changes of even the most basic kind, and the consequences of suddenly rendering her visible, when she has been mostly invisible, added to the public attention generated by her newly discovered talent, and Susan may find herself bewildered, paralyzed and lost. The impact of transformative change on many people can render them self-aware and questioning about abilities they have previously taken for granted. The impact of transformative change for Susan could turn her effortless gift into a burden loaded with people’s expectations.


Writing in the nineteenth century, Charlotte Bronte also knew a thing or two about the dangers of transformation. In Villette,* she introduces us to Lucy Snowe, a young English governess who cannot risk articulating her emotional desires and needs because her social, physical and economic marginality make it unlikely that she will ever be able to find fulfillment; poor, plain, and destitute, she is considered at best, invisible at worst, ugly and unimportant. At the boarding house in France where she is employed, Lucy is compelled to accept a part in a play to be performed by students. At first reluctant to play her part, Lucy finds that once on stage, she transcends the mediocrity of her everyday self. As actress, she becomes another person, transforming her role and using it as a vehicle for expressing the person she cannot be, the feelings she cannot have, the desires she cannot accept. As with the prospect of a makeover for Susan Boyle, Lucy’s newly discovered talent suddenly renders her visible in a way she has never been before. Yet once the play is over, Lucy decides she will never act again. Why? According to the critic, Tony Tanner,** Lucy realizes that as an individual alone in the world, she can rely only on her self, and therefore recognizes the importance of knowing full well what that self represents, no matter how alien her surroundings or how inviting the new attentions of those that surround her. Consequently, Lucy struggles to keep the core of her personality intact, lest, as Tanner points out, by yielding to the role of actress, she shatters “into a multiplicity of discontinuous and unrelated partial selves which she might be unable to integrate.”


Lucy Snowe has much to teach Susan Boyle. Not about depriving herself of a makeover – we are, after all, in the twenty first, rather than the nineteenth century and no longer burdened by the kind of class system Lucy endured, a class system that would have made the governess feel her differentness no matter how famous she might become. No, Susan Boyle is supported by a network of family and friends who would all be cheering her on as she embellishes the setting that houses her magnificent voice. Nevertheless, the Lucy Snowe example suggests Susan’s most important tasks over the next few months – indeed, the tasks of every person in charge of molding Susan’s image at Britain’s Got Talent – are to keep the core of her personality intact, to maintain the integrity of her effortless gift, to ignore public expectations, and above all, to keep Susan transcendent, even as she is transformed.    



*Bronte, Charlotte. Villette. 1853. London: Penguin Books, 1985.

**Tanner, Tony. Introduction. Villette. By Charlotte Bronte. London, Penguin Books, 1985.



April 23, 2009

It Hath Passed – Over

Filed under: Humor — rivkahwrites @ 6:40 am

In my neighborhood, Passover is a big deal. And not just Seder night, but the weeks – in some cases, months – of behind-the-scenes preparation that take place prior to the big night. Passover, for all ye who are uninitiated, is a celebration of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt. Here’s the brief historical synopsis: God dispatched Moses to convince the Egyptian Pharaoh to release the Jews from captivity and enslavement. He refused, hence the ten plagues. In unleashing the tenth plague – the killing of the first borns – God “passed over” the houses of Jewish people with first born sons and only killed the Egyptian first borns, hence…you get the picture. At any rate, by mid-tenth plague, the Egyptians were only too happy to have the Jews leave. The Chosen People were evicted so quickly, that the bread they prepared for the journey didn’t rise – become leavened – and accompanied the Jews on their desert sojourn in its unleavened state.


So much for the history of Passover. Getting back to the present, depending on each Jewish family’s level of observance, celebrating Passover turns into a smaller – or much larger – disruption of the everyday routine. Just how great a disruption does Passover create in my everyday routine? Well, let’s just say that since marrying into a Hasidic family at the tender age of 19, my favorite expression has become “maximum discomfort = maximum holiness,” or, “why should it be easy when it can be hard?” So each year before Passover, my task is to clean the house of leaven, and believe me, if you’re prone to OCD, that innocent phrase “clean the house of leaven” can translate into an agonizingly daunting task.


Of course, over the years, I’ve come to side strongly with the rabbinical authorities who insist that Passover does not constitute spring cleaning. According to the Rabbis, anything a dog wouldn’t eat is not considered leaven. So I walk around the house waving my mop in front of me like a censer repeatedly chanting, “if a dog wouldn’t eat it, I’m not cleaning it – kosher…” a mantra that makes the whole process that much easier. Or so I’ve found. This year, though, with my layoff occurring only a few weeks before Passover, I found this strategy more challenging than usual. Imagine me, if you will, newly rejected by corporate America, assuming a brave face while preparing for the holiday and its attendant pleasures (cooking, cleaning, and washing up – ad infinitum, not to mention ad nauseam), and you’ve hit upon my Passover state of mind.


So ask me how Passover was this year and I will tell you, in no uncertain terms: It has passed. It is over. Amen.


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.

April 6, 2009

Laid Off: Variations on a Theme

Filed under: On My Mind,Unemployment — rivkahwrites @ 3:06 am

Lately I’ve been wondering about the diverse uses of the word “laid” – not surprising, perhaps, considering I was recently laid off. But think about this for a moment; just how did the term “laid off” come to be used in the context of pink slips, recessions, and RIFs? And what’s the relationship between “laid off” and other expressions sharing the same verb form? You know, like being “laid up” if you’re sick, having a “lie in” when you don’t have to be up early for work (like yours truly), “lying in wait” to ambush an enemy, and, dating from the fifteenth century, about to have your “lying in” if you were ready to go into labor. (There’s also another, more colorful usage form – but this is a clean blog, so we’re not going there.)

Some of these expressions, like “laid up” and “lie in,” make intuitive sense – when you’re sick or sleeping late, you are literally lying down, and given your condition, passive, even defenceless. But other usage forms are completely counter-intuitive. Take “lie in wait,” for example. You may be in a state of complete stillness as you wait for your target – you may even be lying down. But you’re definitely neither passive nor defenceless; every nerve ending is tensed, poised, ready to spring into action. As for “lying in,” despite the defencelessness implied by the state of childbirth, you would actually labor to bring that child into the world,  so no passivity there either.

Which brings us to “laid off.” Clearly, whoever coined the term had the idea of passivity in mind. When you’re no longer “actively” employed, what else would you be but passive? But in my mind a passive connotation only makes sense if you let it. No one’s arguing with the fact that getting laid off robs you of your income, your dignity, your self-esteem – that it makes you want to hide under your covers.  But that’s hardly the response that will help land you a job – especially in today’s economy. So 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.

April 5, 2009


Filed under: On My Mind — rivkahwrites @ 8:50 am

Hello All and welcome to the “Rivkah Writes…” blog, a forum for my musings, mental meanderings, etc.  

I thought I’d start off by giving you a little history. I’ve always told myself I ought to write regularly – it’s a discipline most writers-in-waiting probably subject themselves to at one point or other. I found myself to be most prolific when I was in undergraduate English classes, writing continuous essays, response pieces, etc. But once I left college, what with taking care of family, going to work, and just living from day to day, those resolutions just seemed to settle guiltily at the back of my mind. Until last Wednesday. Last Wednesday, I became a recessionista (in other words, I was laid off).  After stumbling out of my manager’s office, locking myself into a bathroom stall and crying the rest of the address off the severance package envelope (yes – they didn’t leave me destitute, thankfully) I made two grief-sodden resolutions: First, I HAD to stop crying, and two, no more excuses – I HAD to start writing. Because this incident, this dismissal, this redundancy, call it what you will – was really a message – my neglected literary ambitions had finally been given a kick in the butt by an omniscient and omnipotent foot.  So once the initial shock wore off, I dried my eyes, squared my shoulders, and…that’s how this blog came to be.

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