Rivkah Writes…

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

June 7, 2009

The Dream Lives on: an Open Letter to Susan Boyle

Filed under: Entertainment,On My Mind — rivkahwrites @ 6:11 pm

Dear Susan,

I am just one of your many fans, one of the many who have felt uplifted watching you perform, one of the many who has cast her vote in the “should she or shouldn’t she?” makeover debate, one of the many who watched your final performance on May 30. What an incredibly tumultuous journey you have traveled over the last few months. After a life spent in relative obscurity, you have gone from overwhelming acclaim, astounding success, and magical moments in the spotlight to…second place. And to you, who have always sought validation, this not-so-perfect outcome seems like the end of the world. As of course it must. Anyone who has fought to be recognized for his or her talent will understand the keen pain and disappointment you must be experiencing. You don’t know me, but I understand what it is to be called a star in the making over and over again – and then to never quite make it. Still, I am here to tell you – that dream you dreamed – it lives on.

Of course, we’re comparing apples to oranges here – at the latest count, I’ve had 1,225 hits on my blog, Rivkah Writes. Which is nice, but clearly, no one’s looked me up 100,000,000 times on YouTube or anywhere else. So by almost all standards out there, you have made it, you are truly a star, a gracious woman, a beautiful person, a devoted daughter, and as Piers Morgan put it best, an inspiration to us all during these tough times.

But Susan, I know you. So I recognize that anything less than winning that contest and performing for Her Majesty at the Royal Variety Performance does not spell success in your eyes. As a fellow masochist, I too make incredible demands of myself, get depressed for inevitably falling short, yet would never dream of imposing such demands on my husband, children, or loved ones. To everyone other than myself, I am kind, patient, encouraging, and tender – yet I cannot be that person for myself.

So Susan, let me put my dysfunctions to good use here – let me be kind to you. Let me hold up a mirror to show you what you have accomplished, and what you still stand to accomplish. Your second-place standing is not the end, but the beginning of the next chapter of “Susan Boyle Superstar.” Think about it. Out of the millions of people out there that voted in Britain’s Got Talent, you came in second – second in the entire country – a magnificent accomplishment in and of itself, and one, I might add, that many runner-ups have parlayed into hugely successful careers. Think of Adam Lambert, runner-up to Kris Allen on this year’s American Idol. Not for one moment does anyone believe that Kris Allen‘s win detracts from Adam’s star-studded prospects. Moreover, Diversity’s accomplishment, while notable, does not overshadow yours. You were not judged runner up to another singer, but to Diversity, a talented, euphoria-provoking dance group whose appeal cleverly dovetails with the ostensible purpose of the Royal Variety Performance: to introduce – well, diversity. But Diversity’s success takes nothing away from yours, because – apples and oranges again – Diversity’s talents are nothing like yours. You exist on polar opposite planes of existence, and can each succeed on your own terms, and in those separate planes.

So Susan, here’s what you need to do: have a good rest. Go on vacation. Take time to process what you’ve been though. Then put one hand on your hip, close the other around a mike, shake that booty, and go back to doing what you do best. Trust me, there will be no shortage of offers to do just that. As for losing the chance to sing before the Queen – my guess is she may request the honor of your presence before you get your second chance. Something tells me she dreamed a dream too – and it looked and sounded a lot more like yours than like Diversity’s. So you hang in there, you hear?

As for me, I’m working on pretending to be someone else. That way I can be kind to myself too.

All the best, Susan –


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.

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.

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