Monthly Archives: March 2014

Easter egg hunt in Ticino


My best memories of Easter involve a tiny bungalow overlooking a large, sloping garden ablaze with colorful spring blossoms; stone steps winding their way through the plants and shrubs to a grassy waterfront brimming over with yellow forsythia and shaded by a massive weeping willow, the tip of its branches grazing the water. At the end of the short dock is a small boat, gently bobbing in the breeze of Lago di Lugano.

That was Easter at its most glorious! My brother and I, eager to start our egg hunt, would gulp down breakfast. Then, armed with empty baskets, we searched high and low for the chocolate eggs our mother had hidden in the garden the day before. We ran up and down those stairs, lifting rocks, pushing leaves aside, inspecting every bush, even climbing trees. Maman had to be pretty creative to keep ahead of us since each year we got closer to figuring out where the treasures lay hidden. And treasures they were! Chocolate eggs with assorted fillings (gianduja was a favorite), mini-eggs coated in nougat, white chocolate rabbits–the sugary treats collected, counted, compared and sampled on the spot.

For years, during spring vacation, my parents rented the modest abode near Lugano, in Ticino, across the water from Italy, and this idyllic place looms large in my recollections of a happy childhood. The property came with the bare minimum in terms of mod cons, but made up for it with sweeping views, direct access to the lake, plenty of outdoor space to play volleyball, hide and seek, boccia, plus the occasional company of the owners’ dog, a tired, old, black terrier we adored. When it rained, we stayed outside, sitting on the sheltered terrace and playing cards until we got so cold that we had to go inside. In the minuscule room that served as living, dining, and eating space, my brother and I, wrapped in wool blankets, huddled on the narrow benches built on each side of the chimney, no doubt drinking Ovaltine and munching homemade cookies as we watched the dancing flames in the fire.

When my children were young, I tried to recreate my mother’s awesome Easter egg hunts. They were never quite up to snuff. One year, while we lived in England, my husband and I took the boys to Leeds Castle where they participated in an organized egg hunt on the castle’s grounds. As promising as it sounded, it turned into a disaster when our oldest son threw up after ingesting too many Cadbury’s creme eggs. Ever since then, in this family, the Cadbury creme egg has come to represent all that is bad about chocolate–although the winner on that front is still Hershey.

The moral of the story? At Eastertime, stick with Swiss chocolate.

Buona Pasqua!


Symbolic violence: The stealthy aggressor


Violence is a form a communication. Not a desirable one, to be sure, but inevitable as long as mankind lasts.

We know what physical violence looks like because it leaves visible marks. By comparison, symbolic violence may seem harmless: after all, no blood is shed. Blood, however, is tangible, it can be wiped off; not so the effects of symbolic violence, which linger and fester–invisible, insidious.

Symbolic violence is a recurring theme in the social theory of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. One may agree or disagree with his postulate that “all pedagogic action is, objectively, symbolic violence insofar as it is the imposition of a cultural arbitrary [sic] by an arbitrary power.” (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990, Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture)  In other words, schools, as purveyors of the dominant culture ideology, are the primary vehicles for exercising this type of violence. Education, for Bourdieu, is a natural conduit for indoctrination, but symbolic power is also wielded by means of “capital”: economic (i.e., wealth), cultural (titles and qualifications), symbolic (honor and prestige), social (connections).

In my interpretation of Bourdieu’s concept, symbolic violence occurs when society’s dominant groups (or institutions) use their capital to maintain power over those with less capital (e.g., women, minorities, immigrants), thereby securing their future as the rightful inheritors of a social order that is validated by the dominant discourse. In so doing, they continue to reproduce the social inequalities embedded in the system.

None of this is explicit, deliberate, or even conscious: It is considered a natural state of affairs by the ruling classes, which is to be expected, but also–surprisingly–by those subjected to their domination. Having been fed the same narrative since birth, the underprivileged become complicit in maintaining the status quo, questioning their own abilities rather than the legitimacy of the existing power structure. (Bourdieu &  Passeron, 1970, La Reproduction)

Bourdieu’s analysis, to me, is quite relevant in the therapeutic setting, especially as it pertains to hidden patterns of interaction in couples and families, metacommunication, upended hierarchies, and skewed power relations, to name but a few.

Although symbolic violence was never listed as one of the presenting problems during my clinical apprenticeship, it was frequently acted out in session with one family member “taking the voice” of another. (Minuchin & Fishman, 1981, Family therapy techniques)  In the language of family therapy, taking someone’s voice is an attempt to silence that person, and thus an act of symbolic violence. When your partner ignores you, excludes you, dismisses you, devalorizes you, how do you react? If you are neither heard nor seen by the person closest to you, do you still exist? What happens to your sense of self, your identity?

Symbolic violence, which must remain covert in order to be perceived as legitimate, is common in relationships where the power differential between partners is significant; it also manifests itself in contentious divorce proceedings. For example:

A husband exercises power over his soon-to-be ex by portraying her, with poise and eloquence, as lazy, volatile, greedy, and therefore undeserving of his money. The wife tries to defend herself, but his depiction of her is so unjust that she cannot find the words and falters. In that vulnerable, powerless state, she begins to wonder if, perhaps, her husband’s remarks are justified.

A young married professional woman, mother of a toddler, is a model of efficiency at work and at home. Born to parents whose substantial economic capital enabled her to pursue advanced degrees, she carries within her the prerogatives that come with membership in her country’s dominant culture. Her husband, equally competent in his field and a doting father, hails from another country and earns less than his wife. As self-appointed decision-maker, she doesn’t seek input from her husband. Instead, she takes his voice–without malice, but simply because her viewpoint is the “right” and only viewpoint: the one that mirrors the hierarchy of power relations that she internalized from a young age.

A divorced husband runs into his ex-wife in a shop. She greets him, not warmly, but with civility. He looks away, keeping his head turned, without responding. She shrugs and moves on. By not acknowledging his former wife, the mother of his children, the man communicates his contempt symbolically: You are nothing to me, I do not see you, I do not hear you, therefore you do not exist.

How do we help a victim of symbolic violence?

– Symbolic violence needs to be identified, named, and exposed as the serious and very real form of aggression that it is.

– The partner who is subjected to symbolic violence must resist attempts to be silenced by regaining his/her voice and continue to challenge the status quo.

– The partner who exercises symbolic violence has to be willing to examine his/her own role in the power dynamics of the relationship.

Not a small undertaking, I know. But it’s a start, wouldn’t you say?

What is it about St. Patrick’s Day?

ShamrockAs you must have gathered, I am not Irish.

One day I would love to visit Ireland–if for no other reason than to see the grass, which is alleged to be an extraordinary shade of green. For someone who was looking for greener pastures, how could I have missed the Emerald Isle?

Sadly, I know very little about the country, and since what I think I know is based on other people’s experiences, books, films, the internet, and so on, it is highly subjective and possibly suspect. When I think of Ireland, I picture a jolly farmer walking down a mossy hill towards me, cap sitting askew on his balding head, stick in hand, dog in tow. He interrupts his whistling just long enough to say “Top o’ the mornin’ to ya, miss!” as he makes his way to wherever he’s going.

Is that a true representation of Irish life? Is the grass that green? Are the sheep that woolly? Do Irishmen really break into song at any given moment? Those stereotypical images of Ireland will remain with me until reality, through my own observations, shatters or confirms them.

A common stereotype of the Irish is that they drink a lot. Which brings us to St. Patrick and the eponymous parades held in large cities and small towns across the United States at this time of the year. Parades are interesting. I don’t particularly like them–too many restrictions on where you can park, walk, stand, and pee is one reason–but I can see how people would enjoy a parade: the flags, the floats, the fanfare, all in good fun, a street fiesta for young and old, celebrating a holiday, an achievement, an ethnicity, whatever.

My oldest son is a graduate of UMass. So when I saw a headline in today’s paper about police in Amherst clashing with students at a pre-St. Patrick’s Day celebration called the Blarney Blowout, I was curious. In the article, it is reported that 55 people were arrested, not all them students, on “charges ranging from disorderly conduct to assaulting a police officer.” At least, I thought, no one got hurt.

And then I asked myself: What is it about college campuses and alcohol? I do not recall such rites of passage when I attended university in Europe. But that’s because I never lived on campus. There were no campuses at any of the universities in Switzerland: Students either lived at home, or rented a room somewhere in town. When, years later, I studied in England, I commuted daily.

“It’s just us trying to go outside and have a party, drink outside, have a good time,” a student is quoted as saying in the article. Okay, I’m all for a bit of outdoor fun after a long winter being cooped up in a dorm room, studying. But the Blarney Blowout?  No, that wasn’t the students’ idea. It was the local bars’ idea. Surprised?

Alcohol, when consumed moderately (yes, that is a matter of judgment), is enjoyable and legal in this country. When it is abused, it can produce all kinds of hellish outcomes–fatal car accidents, domestic violence, the destruction of entire families. I’ve seen it in session: that is the other side of drinking, after it has already caused damage.

I wonder: By getting drunk in honor of the patron saint of Ireland, aren’t we taking the saint’s name in vain?

I wish you all a safe St. Patrick’s Day!



Home Walk Fire (????) by Rosemarie Schiller

Home Walk Fire © by Rosemarie Schiller Fine Art

Many of my friends are visual artists. Just like books need to be read and music needs to be heard, so do visual art creations need to be seen.

I greatly admire Rosemarie Schiller‘s smoke-fired clay sculptures, particularly her installation “Migrations.”  It speaks to me on several levels: migration = movement, moving, motion, emotion, emigration, immigration, transmigration, transhumance, transit, transience, transformation, change.

Walking? We take it for granted. We lift one foot and the other one knows what to do. No need to have a conversation about it because the body-brain connection is there. Let’s get those neurons firing. Ready, set, go! The lady wants to walk.  Neurons to the rescue! Data in, data processed, data transmitted, NEXT! And all that, mind you, in less time than it takes to put a period at the end of this sentence. There.

Cherish your feet.  They are agents of change.





What therapy is NOT

therapy couch

Therapy is not just talk.

Make no mistake: Therapists are not mere conversationalists. They do not, as a rule, enter the therapy room unprepared and unaware of the responsibility that comes with the title. During session they assess, conceptualize, hypothesize, diagnose, set goals, intervene, evaluate progress. Between sessions they write letters to judges, probation officers, immigration lawyers, youth protection agencies. Throughout the day they confer with colleagues, supervisors, psychiatrists, teachers, school counselors, social workers. And, last but not least, they keep up-to-date records of all matters pertaining to the treatment of their clients. Having laid the groundwork, they go into session with a plan, knowing full well that it may have to be modified to meet the client’s needs.

The seamless quality of the therapeutic encounter is only possible because the therapist is prepared. Simply put, therapists work hard at making therapy look like it’s “just talk.”

There are, of course, exceptions. Every profession has its share of miscreants, misfits and misguided souls. I myself have met a few. As you, no doubt, must have.

Therapy, to me, is less about talk than it is about silence. Not the silence of defiance or avoidance. But rather the silence that lets clients hear their inner voices, the silence that fosters creative thinking and opens up new possibilities. Silence, as an intervention, is a powerful form of communication. It invites reflection which, in turn, enables clients to work through the issues that brought them to therapy. Like all interventions, silence is most effective in the context of a trusting relationship between client and clinician.

My training is in marriage and family therapy, and it is from that perspective that I broach the subject of silence. In my early days as a content-driven intern, I talked to fill the silence and asked questions that had little therapeutic relevance. To my surprise, the more information I gathered, the less I knew what to do with it. It took me months to shift from Grand Inquisitor to participant observer.

As my level of comfort with silence grew, my need to be central to the therapeutic process lessened. This led me to experiment with spatial configurations by moving my chair back a few feet while I instructed clients to carry on as if I wasn’t there. I discovered that the repositioning of my clients’ chairs prior to their arrival produced rich enactments with minimal intervening on my part.

Non-verbal means of communication such as silence, space, and touch are potent signifiers in the therapeutic setting. Making use of them requires a certain amount of creativity, which is one of the mainstays of therapy, the willingness to take calculated risks, and sufficient sang-froid to handle the fallout, should there be any.



This gallery contains 3 photos.

  Spring forward! Believe it or not, there will be an end to the snow, the cold, the slush, the ice, and Old Man Winter will be tossed aside, replaced by the much more attractive Queen of Spring. What does … Continue reading

Brazilian blast

clef flowerI love Brazilian music!

It has it all: exuberance and lyricism, hypnotic rhythms, exquisite chords,  melodious vocals.

Check out these albums by two of my favorite female vocalists:

Smooth, seductive Eliane Elias: Light my Fire (Concord Picante, 2011)   


Fiery, earthy, soulful Luciana Souza: Brazilian Duos (Sunnyside, 2001)  


And just for fun, here is a wild two-piano piece (Brasileira, 3rd movement of the Scaramouche Suite for Two Pianos, op. 165b) by French composer Darius Milhaud (1892-1974).




Wisdom du jour II


Epictetus (photo credit: wikipedia)

Epictetus (photo credit: wikipedia)

As we transition from snow days to tax days, it seems appropriate to quote our friendly philosopher, Epictetus, on the subject of wealth.

“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” 

Should we alert Macy’s, Bloomies and Abercrombie?







Watching the Olympics: At your own risk



The Winter Games are over–so long, Sochi.

Funny how much I miss the coverage… Bob Costas’ eloquence and sartorial flair, footage of skiers flying off the mountain, half pipers reaching for the sky, skaters taking leaps of faith, bobsledders in hot Lycra tights hurtling down an icy corridor at 75 mph. It’s beautiful to watch, and at the same time harrowing, the anticipation of imminent disaster always present in my spectator’s mind.

The athletes competing in the Olympics are all exceptional. When the difference between winning and not winning is measured in nanoseconds and millimeters, there are no losers. Yes, the Olympics are about medals and competition. But they are also about the stories behind the faces of these talented and determined men and women: stories of resilience, recovery, renewal. Pierre de Coubertin’s modern Olympics are testimony to the universality of the human experience. Whatever their nationality, participants will be transformed for having competed in these Games.

I, too, go through a transformation of sorts when I watch the Olympics. In matters of cultural identity, I belong to the not-quite-belonging category. I was born in Europe but made my life in the United States. I am a denizen of these shores, exercising my right to vote, to work, to engage in the pursuit of happiness as I define it. I see myself as a genuine American, and can pass for one as long as I don’t attempt to pronounce words like thwart or behemoth.

Enter the Olympics.

The goose bumps on my arms? Reserved for Swiss athletes. The shivers down my spine? Ditto. I root for my compatriots, I fear for them, I beg them to make me proud. Every morning I check the medal count in the Sports section of the New York Times. Do I want to know how many medals the US won? Not particularly. I’m more inclined to cheer for the Italians, the French, the Swedes. Sometimes, I get a little annoyed with the US-centric coverage, then I catch myself: Of course the TV network is focused on American athletes! It’s an American network with an American audience. Americans want to know about their team, just like I want to know about mine. The Swiss team.

This raises the inevitable question: What am I, Swiss or American? I am Swiss and American. Why should I have to choose? I cannot expunge the Swiss in me, nor can I claim to be as American as apple pie. I weave in and out of my two cultures, observing and participating in turn. Most of the time, the outsider position is one I can live with. Given all that, what is it about the Olympics that triggers this visceral identification with the Swiss athletes as they march in the opening ceremony?

While individual performance is recognized and rewarded, the national teams share in the honor of representing their country, setting themselves apart from the other teams by wearing outfits that may or may not be emblematic of their nation. Imagine how different the Games would be if the athletes all wore the same outfit! Similarity vs. differentiation: I think I’m onto something. Could it be that the pageantry of the Games, with its overabundance of flags, gripping renditions of national anthems, and poignant narratives of triumph and defeat taps into my own, primeval sense of belonging? That is powerful stuff.

Every two years, for a fortnight, I reclaim my Swiss roots. Then I return to my life as an American. Because that’s what I am. (Only not during the Olympics.)