Thursday, February 19, 2015

Selfies? What self?



Since this article was published the current "appearancist" trend is an obsession with presenting an attractive digital image of oneself. Different technology -- same obsession. Adjusted "selfies" and non photoshopped pictures of celebrities become newsworthy.

Has beauty become our beast?

It seems that almost every TV network has some sort of reality "makeover" show. Three of these involve serious plastic surgery and one even requires the participants to take part in a "beauty" contest after their transformations.
During a recent workshop for teenagers, I brought up the issue of appearance in their world. They reacted in a sort of resigned anger regarding the power of media images over how they should look and what they should own.
I asked if they thought we would ever reach the point where qualities that were not visible would matter more than appearance. Would that human tendency to aspire to what is rare or difficult to attain trump the obsession with "beauty"?
Now, it is easy to be plump - very easy. And so, the sought-after appearance is slender - very slender.
For example, in times of deprivation, it was beautiful to be a little plump. In times when only peasants were tan, it was beautiful to be as pale as possible - or to powder oneself to appear so.
I suggested that perhaps, now that medicine and technology make it possible to appear almost any way one wants - at least any way one is willing or able to pay for - could it be that positive internal qualities will become sought after? Could qualities such as perseverance, honesty, and compassion be things that people strive to develop? Will they come to qualify as the "rare things"?
The teenagers were not optimistic. I'm afraid I'm not, either, but I continue to hope.
I wonder if the maturing majority will help change the values of our society. Aging baby-boomers make up a huge market. Will what they value affect this trend?
It's a long shot.
Advertisers, whose revenues support most media, focus mainly on the young, considered a more malleable market. Perhaps more important, there is no sector of the economy that can profit by selling honesty, compassion, or perseverance as a commodity or product. So such values are not heavily promoted.
And, unfortunately, media images are the pool in which our cultural values are reflected and reinforced. What is valued in this pool is appearance - the material and the superficial.
How can a child who grows up in American culture not believe that billboards are altars to what is important?
I grew up hearing phrases such as "Beauty is as beauty does," "He has a beautiful heart," and "Don't judge a book by its cover." We were cautioned not to try to keep up with the Joneses. It was considered bad form to focus too much on appearance and possessions.
But now, as one wise old gentleman once said, "These youngsters are living in the kingdom of thingdom."
The trend to reshape oneself through plastic surgery is perhaps just another example of how our society often confuses the possible with the necessary. Still, one of those invisible qualities that my parents valued and instilled in me causes me to look for some positive implication in our current trend of transformation to meet a narrow standard of "beauty."
And so, I hope, as we search for the next rare thing, we start to look inside.
• Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year's resolution? In reverse.


Published 6 years ago and worth revisiting every now and then.


Breaking down New Year's goals into baby steps

Published 4:00 am, Wednesday, December 31, 2008
  • Embroidered sampler on how one can begin to accomplish tasks when feeling overwhelmed. Photo: Raymond Holbert, Demerssemans@yahoo.com / SF
    Embroidered sampler on how one can begin to accomplish tasks when feeling overwhelmed. Photo: Raymond Holbert, Demerssemans@yahoo.com / SF

This time of year a lot of lists are written. Unfortunately, many of the same goals keep appearing on these lists year after year. They often include things that need to be done around the house, home improvement or organization projects. In conducting stress-reduction workshops, I noticed how frequently people mentioned the perennial unfinished project list as a source of stress.
Part of the problem in accomplishing the goal is that it appears at the top of the page. We often don't think about the fact that the item needs to be at the bottom of the page with dozens of steps preceding it. It's clearly not as simple as placing the item at the bottom of the page, but that act realizes the truth that the lack of accomplishment is not a character flaw, but a lack of planning. We are not just being lazy or procrastinating - more often we're missing a clear path to the goal.
This faulty thinking reminded me of a sampler I embroidered with the phrase, "Plan your work, then work your plan." Most people in the workshops had not really planned their work, even though they were making stabs at it.
From that observation I began including an activity in the stress-management workshops that focused on the process of planning one's work. It also recognized the importance of giving a name to all the little obstacles that are between the goal and its accomplishment. I titled the activity the Yabut List and invited participants to work in pairs, but it is not a complicated exercise and can easily be done alone.
The directions are simple. First, write the goal at the bottom of a page, then start a series of yabuts, all reasons that the specific task can't be done. Write each yabut down, working your way up to the top of the page by answering each yabut with another.
One participant shared her reappearing goal of getting the bathroom remodeled. It started with: "Get the bathroom redone." The first yabut: "Yabut I can't do that until I get the name of a good contractor." So, her partner wrote, "Get the name of a good contractor."
The next yabut: "Yabut I can't do that until I call my cousin's neighbor, she had a great outcome." And her partner wrote down, "Call my cousin's neighbor."
"Yabut I can't call her until I find the gardening book she loaned me." And her partner wrote down, "Find the gardening book."
The process continued with each yabut translated into a step. "Yabut I can't do that until I can get into the garage, where we stored all the books when we repainted the office. Yabut I can't do that until I get my son's car out of the way. Yabut I can't do that until I get the garage door fixed. Yabut I can't do that until I get the number of the garage-door installer."
The final step was, "Yabut I can't do that until I get online and find his number." The partner wrote down, "Get online and get the number!"
When the exercise was done, the woman had a list of steps to get her started. Little did she realize when she began the exercise that her bathroom remodel hinged on the phone number of the garage-door installer.
I don't know if the woman ever got her bathroom remodeled. I do hope that she and the other participants gained a new strategy for chipping away at the annual list by understanding that most accomplishments happen through dozens of baby steps, formerly viewed as obstacles.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Taking down the Christmas tree


Taking down the tree 

Susan DeMersseman,
Special to The Chronicle Wednesday, January 1, 2003

        I'm sure there are people for whom taking down the Christmas tree is just another housekeeping task. But for me it is a ritual filled with sentiment. It is a melancholy process in which all phases of my life participate. There is the little me who wishes we could keep the tree up all year. Trying to persuade my parents to wait just one more week. There is the practical me of now, trying to find the magic way to wind up the lights so that we don't spend hours untangling them next December. The practical me tries to get up all the pine needles so I won't still be picking them up at Easter. And there is the future me, maybe wondering, like my mother did every year from 65 to 85, when might be the last year I'd be putting the Christmas decorations away.
     I like decorating the tree with the family. It's a lively, social event, but somehow it just feels right to take it down alone. And I don't seem to get a lot of offers of help, so it works out fine. I work slowly, trying to fit more into fewer storage boxes. I try to edit a few nonsentimental items, and I stop to admire some special ornaments. There are the ones showing the goofy smiles of kindergarten, photos framed by glitter and green macaroni.
       As my mother got older, her decorating for Christmas got more and more elaborate. As I pack things away, I wonder if I'll be that way. Her house at Christmas had an arrangement on every surface. The nativity scene on the mantel. Santa on the buffet. Rudolph on the bookshelf. Once in a while she would say, "I don't know, somehow this year just doesn't feel like Christmas." For me, it felt like Christmas every time I entered her warm little house after my long journey across the country.
     As I carefully wrap the porcelain choirboys that were once hers and the few ornaments from my childhood trees, I think of her and of the warm and twinkling place she created. And I drift again to the future and to my own children and hope that such warm and twinkling memories will stick with them.
     When the tree is empty and the storage boxes packed and stowed away in the basement, then someone else can take the tree to the curb, but the job of removing the decorations is mine and one I do reverently. I'm not at the point yet where I give a lot of thought to what might be the last year. Instead, this process is about memory and appreciation and a quiet, solitary ritual -- one in which all the times of my life melt into now.
      There are some memories to share and some to savor alone.

E-mail freelance writer Susan DeMersseman at home@sfchronicle.com. This article appeared on page HO - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle Posted by susande

Monday, December 15, 2014

Sandy Hook families sue gun manufacturer

Amid my posts about the season and heartwarming traditions I must post this article from the Christian Science Monitor from over nine years ago. For too many families this time of year just amplifies their tragic loss. The families of Sandy Hook have just brought a law suit. Like the suit  brought years ago by my neighbor and friend, I pray that the result is many more people able to celebrate this season in the future with the people they love.


One family's effort to make guns safer

By  

Congress has just passed legislation providing special protection from liability lawsuits for the gun industry. This may seem like a win for people concerned about ridiculous legal claims and outrageous financial awards as well as for the gun industry. One often hears the complaint of "too many frivolous lawsuits." It fits in with the mythic suspicion of trial lawyers and may sometimes be true. But a tragic incident many years ago has given me a clear perspective on this issue. I now believe that when human life is involved, the matter is never frivolous.
On our street back then was the dearest 15-year-old boy a neighbor could want, kind to the smaller children and helpful to the older neighbors. This boy was accidentally killed by a friend. His friend wanted to show the gun and first removed the ammunition magazine. He did not realize that a bullet was still in the chamber. He thought he was showing off with an unloaded gun. When the bullet remaining in the chamber discharged, he shattered the life of his friend - and his own.
The parents of the child who was killed sued the gunmaker. The contention of the lawsuit was that the absence of an effective way to indicate that a bullet was in the chamber constituted a product liability claim - that being one of the reasons for the boy's death. It has been almost 10 years since the accident.
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One trial ended with a hung jury, one trial had juror misconduct, and, with the usual workings of our legal system, the last trial was completed just last year. The family lost the case. To some, the decision in favor of the gunmaker may seem like a total loss. But what became apparent is that even bringing a suit can have a powerful impact. During these 10 years there have been significant changes. Three states now have laws that require more safety features, the gunmaker in question now makes guns with a safety feature they originally said wouldn't work, and other manufacturers now make guns with internal locks.

These are just some of the concrete and tangible results. Of equal importance are the thousands of people who have read about the case or heard about it on the news and have taken personal steps with regard to their own guns. Maybe they have purchased ones with a prominent chamber load indicator. Maybe now they store their guns unloaded. Maybe they lock them up more carefully. Or maybe, as my friend once said, they simply draw their own children close and realize how blessed they are to see them grow up.
My neighbor is a modest, reserved woman. She would never say it, but I hope that she knows that as painful and heart wrenching as these years of litigation have been, the battle has won the lives of many other children. Regret is just part of the job of being a parent, but her struggle has saved many parents from the ultimate regret.
Sometimes critics focus on the amount of money in the suit, as if the family is trying to benefit in some way from the loss. Just looking into one's own heart is enough to know that the money is so clearly not the issue. Money is simply the leverage that an individual has in trying to bring about a change in a product or policy - a change that those bringing the suit hope will protect others. The true currency in these matters is not a financial one, but the hope that their loss not be in vain - that a young life lost before it could bring about good in the world can still bring about good.
The companies that are sued are in the business to make money and to hold on to that money. It is not remarkable that they wage a battle to maintain their position. Yet many of the people in these companies may know in their hearts that they and their own children are safer because of previous lawsuits.
What is remarkable is that there are families willing to put themselves through the reliving of a tragedy and to deal with the suspicions and criticisms to accomplish an outcome that benefits the rest of us. There are no doubt some frivolous lawsuits and ridiculous awards, but for every one of those there is a family who is fighting through their anguish to make sure that others do not have to suffer the same.
• Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Jesus' birthday, not yours.


I think this piece is worth sharing each year. This and the advice a wise man offered  years ago -- to not live in "the kingdom of thingdom."



“It’s Jesus' birthday, not yours.”

That statement was once said gently by my Grandfather, Ralph Kochenderfer, and repeated for years by other family members. Ralph was a reserved and kind man, but he had his priorities straight. He never missed an event his four children took part in and he would even let them play hooky on good fishing days. With a lunch of oatmeal cookies and cheese they would spend the day by the creek. But Christmas traditions were different.
Grandfather was Pennsylvania Dutch with what seemed like a significant Amish streak. A dignified and honorable man he kept all the secrets of his little town in South Dakota. As the railroad depot agent he was the telegrapher in town in the twenties and thirties, so he knew the contents of every message sent and received.
While he did not believe in the frenzy over gifts he enjoyed the celebration. The depot waiting room was the largest site in town and every year was the location for wonderful holiday parties – food, music, and spirit provided by everyone in town.
I’m grateful that this simple statement became part of the family culture. While others scurry around purchasing for people close and not so close to them, most of us are decorating our homes or arranging little (or sometimes big) parties. There’s a lot of empty space under our tree, but our homes are filled with friends and festivities.
My husband and I started early with our own children, not to expect volume. Our family event on Christmas Eve takes very little time for package opening with only a few small thoughtful gifts. Now that our children are grown we give them a little money to add to their savings for a special purchase. And there is sometimes a handmade gift card for a special activity for the family. One year when they were younger we took them for dinner at a nice French restaurant. That experience was so special and memorable it has become a point of reference for them. I just made reservations at the same restaurant and am certain the memory of the upcoming dinner will stay with them longer than anything they could unwrap from under the tree.