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 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 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

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.

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 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.


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