Monday, December 28, 2009

Why Does Rita Wilson Overact? It's Complicated

I saw It's Complicated yesterday. I laughed myself to tears and enjoyed every minute of it. The setting, dialogue, familial structure, social milieu -- they all had a ring of truth and familiarity about them that made seeing into the emotional complexity of the story a more profound experience than I had expected from what was billed as a light romantic comedy. I'm still thinking about feelings that came up for me while watching this movie, but I'll write about those another time.

Today I have a question that truly perplexed me: why does Rita Wilson overact?

In this movie, she plays one of Jane's (Meryl Streep's character) three friends, with Mary Kay Place and Alexandra Wentworth. They represent us in the movie: it is to the three of them that Jane confesses to having begun an adulterous relationship with her ex-husband Jake (Alec Baldwin). Two of the three, Mary Kay and Alexandra, respond with subtlety. They both appear a little surprised, a little confused, even a little incredulous; they want to know more about the situation and all the details that led up to such a possibility's even having presented itself. They want to know how Jane feels about it, what she's going to do next. They hold her up with their good will. Yes, of course they have lives of their own. But right now those lives are offstage. This conversation is about Jane.

These are Jane's friends. They know her. We sense that they have witnessed her growth during the past ten post-divorce years, and while they are curious about what is going on between Jane and Jake, they also appear concerned about her, protective of her, unwilling to stand by and watch if she is at the point of sliding backwards into something that hurt her terribly in the past. You get the feeling that if Jane goes off track too much, these women will support her and help her find her way back.

Rita Wilson is another story altogether. Her character gets the news at the same time as the other two women. Instead of trying to take it in the way they do, however, she fairly bounds up from where she is seated on the sofa and exudes a glee for details that to me demonstrate more interest in salacious considerations than the heartfelt concern the other two women demonstrate for their friend's well-being. This is not friendly enthusiasm. It's bad acting.

That's not all. Rita has a few more lines. She delivers each with the fervor of a chorus line dancer determined to stand out from the crowd, who, in placing her personal goals over the success of the group, ruins everything. It's as if a member of the Greek Chorus in a classical play were to step out toward the audience and mug a particularly pained response to lines being delivered by the main character. What???

I asked myself why I was so annoyed by Rita Wilson's performance. First, I thought, maybe no one has the courage to criticize her acting; she wields power as a producer, and her husband (Tom Hanks) is a powerful player in town. Second, it is probably safe to say, simply, that if she knew any better, she'd be a better actress. But still, there was something nagging at the back of my mind that couldn't be explained by Hollywood. This morning when I awoke I realized what it was.

Rita Wilson's performance annoyed me because she reminded me of the person who makes your problems all about her. You break your leg: she tells you about the time she broke her leg. You get a divorce: she compares every step with what she went through during hers. Your daughter is getting married: she tells you about all the details involved in planning her daughter's wedding.

You feel as if your role with a person like this is Topic Chooser.

You leave such a conversation, if that's what it is, feeling slightly less well than you did before. You also feel the nonverbal message was It's no big deal; get over it. Lots of times, it may well really be no big deal, but that doesn't mean you didn't want to talk about it, explore it, just to be certain it was, in fact, just as you suspected, no big deal. You don't bring up something personal just to have someone else short circuit your process.

And you certainly don't bring it up as an oratorial platform for her.

I don't know what you do with someone like Rita Wilson if you're directing the movie. I do know, however, what I do in my personal life when I encounter someone like her; or, more accurately, I know what I don't do.

I don't invite her over for a glass of wine when I'm seeking compassion and feedback from friends during a transition in my life.

For times like that, only the best friends will do.

Photograph: Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin in It's Complicated, courtesy of Universal Pictures

Sunday, December 13, 2009

My First Crush

My first crush wasn't a star from the movies or television. And he didn't sit across from me in homeroom.

My first crush was Ludwig van Beethoven. I even had the sweatshirt to prove it.

Something in his work resonated within me well before I had the sense or sensibilities to understand such dynamics, and certainly well before I had the words to describe it. I knew it when I felt it, however, and through my fingers at the piano the circuit was completed: I played with the passion of a child on fire, my heart set on Julliard and the concert stage. It was a calling so intensely present in me that I didn’t even say it out loud. I had no need to say it. I was it.

Then I moved on to college. As an undergraduate in marine biology, I also studied German, and as one thing led to another, as it does in the labyrinth of our university days, I decided to spend my junior year in Vienna, Austria.

There were many reasons for this, not the least among them being the intense love I had developed for the work of Johann Wolfgang Goethe, who would come to serve as guide for me during the rages of late adolescence and remain on duty to this day.

Vienna was also the city of residence for such luminaries as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert, Sigmund Freud—and Beethoven. These attributes overpowered the very real problem that Austria, being a land-locked country, was not a hot spot for marine biology. I switched majors.

As a result, I had the life-changing opportunity to live daily with the music I loved—concerts, the opera, in the theater, in the churches. It was nerd bliss.

So this morning, as I sit at my computer trying to weave together the strands of a paper for one of my classes, who drops in for a visit? LvB himself in the form of the Adagio Cantabile of his 8th piano sonata, which we call The Pathetique.

My fingers fall from the computer’s keyboard and onto the keys of the imaginary piano on my tabletop. I close my eyes.

The theme captivates. It draws me into its beauty the way a lark’s call alerts us to her presence. It is at first a naked line, hanging in the air single note by single note, a linear progression across the scales, which, on the piano, lie at the command of the right hand.

We move forward in enchantment. For a few moments I am transported to the place where beauty lives.

Then the melody stops. The notes of the left hand come into the fore. They assert several changes in direction, subtle but unmistakable, as we range through several key shifts. This moves back from dominance as the melody line reasserts itself. This is when I realize that it is because of the gentle support offered by the lower notes that the melody line is able to continue its path. Because it is grounded in a nest. Because it is echoed, supported, and then even challenged from its depths through the key changes. The supple melody persists and thrives.

The pace quickens. I hear the base notes intensify as they reflect the shape of the melody line, and, perhaps more profoundly, offer it an inverse reflection, asking the melody to look at the other side, to hold in awareness the full range of possibility for expression.

The main melody is restated, only stronger this time, with less the quality of a moonlit rosebud and more the presence of a blossom opening in the morning sun.

I think, Well, that’s a pretty picture. I like the symmetry. Oh, that Beethoven! I fall in love once more, just as I do every time I listen to his music. The tension, the Sturm und Drang, ultimately settles in a dynamic balance of energy expenditures and rest. Beethoven demonstrates for us that peace is not an endpoint. It is a symmetrical mean, and it moves as the music changes. So does it move throughout our lives.

I ask myself, What is it that supports us the way the left hand supports the right in this sonata? What is our left hand, and what is it doing?

I believe this is the knowing self. It is the self of all our experiences from youth to this moment, the frame we erect for our lives, the very structure in which we live our days. The extent to which it is comfortable depends on the degree of conscientiousness we use while we are building it. We can only soar to the heights supported by the foundation we set down, and this foundation building is a personal job undertaken in the quiet of the interior self.

I might point out here that the Adagio Cantabile is the second movement of Sonata #8, and that it follows the tempestuous Grave first movement. Beethoven seems to have known that we are all so serious when we are young. Humor and light are the prizes that come with enduring the first movement of our own lives.

If you think past divisive discussions of left brain and right brain, and move toward a holistic model that includes the transportation of information and feelings across all parts of the brain at once (indeed, all parts of the body, but we can discuss that in another post), then you can sense the fibrous underpinnings we build day by day, moment by moment, that become our lives.

Here’s the gift I received today as the piece came to a close, and I offer it to you for consideration. Next time you listen to the Adagio Cantabile, listen to the way the last few bars slip into the center from both directions, and then meet at the point on the keyboard where the ranges of both the right and left hand converge.

Let us all rest in that point of energetic tension. We can soar to the extent that we are grounded, and once again return to the balance of a peaceful heart.

And by the way, Beethoven will always sit enthroned in my life. You know how it is with first loves.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year--Well, It Could Be

What a wise grandmother might be able to do to help her grandchildren get through a dysfunctional Christmas...

Imagine a household on Christmas Day. The fire burns brightly and lights twinkle on the tree. Everyone is dressed nicely, cashmere and pearls, slacks and argyles. Adults drink champagne as they prepare the meal and watch the game. Then someone does something someone else doesn’t like. The sniping begins, quiet and measured at first, until all hell breaks loose. The children are hushed up, sent off to play, turned outside.

More alcohol flows. Now the adults sit purposefully with their backs to one another in a classic pose: “Did you see what she did to me/hear what she said to me? I’m ignoring her. She doesn’t exist.” They say things to each other that are so mean a child would be sent to detention for less. Worse, they say things about each other, behind each other’s backs.

And the children sit by and watch.

They can’t stop the chaos. They can’t drive away and go somewhere else. They are stuck. They are one big throbbing ache as It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year plays menacingly in the background of this cruel family ritual called Christmas. Their memories of this day will be a mélange of anxiety, grief, embarrassment, anger, hurt—but right now, they don’t even have the words to use to tell themselves what they think or feel. They go numb. It’s what they always do to get by.

Then Grandma arrives.

She just missed the latest spate of name-calling and finger-pointing, but she can feel the tension that still hangs in the air well after she has removed her coat and set her pumpkin pies on the counter in the kitchen.

Grandma has choices.

She can pretend she doesn’t notice. The advantages here lie in the fact that it is a pretty safe bet that as long as she is present, things will not explode again. Once she leaves, she can only imagine the chaos that will re-enter the household, but for now, at least, a semblance of peace will prevail.

She can say something to her daughter or her son. And what might she say? And is this the time, Christmas Day, to be bringing up such an enormous issue? Wouldn’t things only escalate? Wouldn’t she just be drawing the battle lines?

Or, she can resolve to bring this up later, another day, after the flames have died down and the embers have temporarily cooled once again.

Meanwhile, there is something she can do right now, today, that might be the most important gift she could ever give: she can offer herself to her grandchildren. I don’t mean she should sit them down and have a heart-to-heart. The kids don’t want to talk about it when they’re in the middle of the worst day of their young lives. What they do need is a sense that somewhere in this chaos there is a loving adult who recognizes their presence in their otherwise thankless existence at the periphery of the adult drama ratcheting up around them.

Tell them, one by one, privately, how much you love them. Ask them about their lives. Listen to what they say, and ask them questions related to things they bring up, not to things you’d like to talk about. Make your presence all about them. This is the loving support they don’t have when they are growing up in chaos.

By doing this, you are holding up a mirror to your grandchildren, and in this mirror they see that the ground is not moving, that they are solid and real, and that they matter, or you wouldn’t be sitting there.

It’s not much, perhaps, but it’s a start. You may not be able to stop the war, but you can protect the innocent from being trampled to death by blinded warriors.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Coming in from the Cold

In a support group for co-occurring disorders, I listened to a client (clean this time for 14 days) articulate his reasons for being grateful that he has just moved into permanent clean and sober housing. Until this, he had been on the street for three years.

He said, It’s getting cold out now, and I’m tired.

It was such a simple statement.

Tears welled up in the corners of my eyes, because I realized his words are probably true for all of us, in one way or another. There may be a part of our lives—sometimes well hidden from others--where discomfort or discontent, confusion or pain, has nagged at us for so long that we could also say, It’s getting cold out now, and I’m tired. We may not all be trying to put down crack, but most of us are trying to put down something in our lives that we realize is causing us grief.

Where do we go with the unsettling realization that our version of reality is not doing us any favors, and that we need to make changes?

This client is making choices minute by minute to set aside a multi-year crack habit. He knows how many times he has tried to do this in the past. He knows how often he has relapsed. But his will to overcome his habit is now driven by a new set of emotions. He feels tired, and he feels he is living on the slippery boundary between the things he can control and the things he cannot. He is beginning to sense the wisdom that allows him to know the difference. This is where God lives in him. The scales are tipping in favor of his staying clean. His reasons to quit are coming from within.

The support this client gets at the mental health clinic has helped him reach the point of being able to respect and value his own mental health. Now he is moving into self-reliance as he realizes he can provide himself respite from being cold and tired, by staying clean and beginning to look for part-time employment, while continuing to take advantages of services at the clinic.

He may not succeed in these goals all at once. But he has cleared a significant hurdle in realizing that he feels his need to come inside and get warm by the light of the spirit. This is not a man attempting to follow someone else’s rules or suggestions: this is a man acting from felt need, who is starting to regain control of his own life.

I plan to talk to this client after the meeting this morning to see if he would like to make an appointment to explore these new strengths he is demonstrating.

Where do you see signs of newly emerging strength in your life?