Rivkah Writes…

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.

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