Archive for August, 2012

Hope Springs

I would watch Meryl Streep read the phone book. She is that compelling onscreen. She is, in fact, the most gifted actress of our generation, the same way Katherine Hepburn was the most celebrated actress of her time. Streep has been nominated for an Academy Award seventeen times, winning three, for Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Sophie’s Choice (1982), and the latest, Iron Lady, in 2011, whereas Hepburn was nominated twelve times, winning four.

The movie Hope Springs features Streep in an unusual, highly effective pairing with Tommy Lee Jones. The story shows two married people growing apart, mired in routine. In some ways it examines what I would call the uncomfortable nature of familiarity. When you are deadened to real feelings, having substitute conversations rather than saying what is actually on your mind, your marriage is stagnant.

Kay and Arnold seek outside help from a highly touted marriage therapist, played by Steve Carell. He first suggests an exercise where they hold each other. Watching Streep’s character reach out to touch her husband, the audience sees her hand shaking, nervous to disturb the status quo. As the most talented actress working today, Streep doesn’t waste a single gesture, be it a hand shaking, a nod of the head, repressed tears welling up, the magic as a smile as it colors her face. She shows love, fear, trepidation as well as, eventually, hope, simply by knowing the exact gesture to fit the moment.

Jones’ character Arnold learns that the adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” can indeed be turned on its head. The movie celebrates the change from meaningless, mundane activity to the point where a couple might find a way to reconnect. The therapist tells the couple, “Sometimes when a connection is lost, we forget about how to want one another.” That is the journey the couple must take.

At one point, midway through the movie, Streep’s character declares, “You know how you always think you’re headed toward something. There’s always something to look forward to.” She despairs that now she’s grown too old to be surprised, to experience a feeling of wonder and hope. She fears she’s sliding on a downhill slope toward the end of life, and she can’t even rely on her husband to be her stalwart pillar of strength and, perhaps more challenging, to be present to her as they live out their life together.

His reaction to her attempts to resuscitate the marriage is to say, as a stoic figure, “There are some things in this life that you don’t say for a reason.” As a tax analyst, he values routine and predictability, and he is challenged by his wife to move forward rather than stultify in fear. As Carell’s character notes, “Even great marriages have terrible years.”

The trick, in my mind, is to love in spite of the obstacles. Who wants to get to the end of life, only to wonder, “Have I done all I could to make my life mean something?”

The title says it all: Hope Springs.


Go Mental

I was struck during the Olympics as to how drive, determination, and positive self-talk leads to success.

In gymnastics I found myself cheering for Jordyn Wieber to make it to the all-around competition, though I understood the joy of Aly Raisman in her quest to win an all-around medal in the same way as Gabby Douglas. My heart, of course, belonged to Gabby, but I felt moved by the tears and sadness of Jordyn, partly because she was expected to medal and represent the United States as the brightest, most talented gymnast around. The public and commentators had dubbed her the best of the best. It goes to show that what is expected is not always the way things turn out. To me, it’s the difference between trying to win versus trying not to lose. Fear factored into the results, and truly, the gymnasts needed to approach the competition with all attack and no fear. If athletes are able to contain their fears on one of the largest public competitions around, they can maximize their performance.

On a much smaller level, I recently joined a suburban tennis league, and played my first match. I won the first two games, but lost the match 6-3, 6-0 to someone I was nearly certain I should beat. Again, fear factored into my mental attitude, and I was trying not to lose, full of fear, instead of trying to win.

Just having people watching you, rooting for you, can motivate and lead to success. Britain, during the 2012 summer Olympics won sixty-five medals, twenty-nine gold, whereas during the Beijing Olympics they won a total of forty-seven medals. No wonder commentators talk about home court advantage.

Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee from South Africa, competed against able-bodied athletes and made it to the semi-finals in the track and field competition, spurred on by the crowd’s overwhelming adoration of his accomplishments. We talk about dreams a lot, but let us not forget that mental focus all by itself can add up to enhanced success.

I hope we can all find a way to cheer on our own successes, be they big or small.