Rivkah Writes…

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.

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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…

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

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.

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