Rivkah Writes…

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.

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