Monday, November 25, 2019

Further thoughts about "Joker"

A couple weeks ago I posted this piece about having recently gone to see the movie "Joker". And what I wrote to you, I also wrote to Marie.

But then we discussed it some more and I so I expanded on what I'd said, as follows:

You understood that when I talked about living with mental illness, I was talking about my 30 years with Wife, right? Interestingly, I’ve been looking up reviews (or just articles) that specifically address the question of mental illness in the movie, and I’ve found two types.

(1) There are some that condemn the movie bitterly (or just sadly) for linking mental illness with violence: these writers all quote the statistic that people who suffer from mental illness are more likely than the average person to suffer violence (not commit it), and so they blame the director (who also wrote a lot of the script) for adding to the popular stigma around the disease. All of these writers appear intent on burnishing their credentials as Concerned Liberals, and they all sound like they have learned about mental illness from books.

(2) Then there are articles by writers who say up front “I have suffered from mental illness for decades” or else “I work with the mentally ill every day of my life.” These articles breeze past the link that the movie allegedly makes between mental illness and violence, because — geez! — it’s a supervillain origin story. Of course he’s going to end up being violent. He’s the Bad Guy. What they focus on with laser precision is how hard his life is, and how little anyone else in the world cares about him — how little anyone else in the world wants to deal with him at all or even to be around him, and how this invisibility and isolation make his already-difficult life twenty times harder — and they all say the movie NAILS IT! Yes, exactly that. That’s what it’s like. 

There’s actually a point right near the end where he’s talking to another character about all the bad things that have happened to him, and about the crimes he has already started committing ... in response? ... as a result? ... post hoc ergo propter hoc? ... well, whatever. And the other guy gets kind of huffy and says, “I’m hearing a lot of self-pity from you. Do you really think your bad luck justifies the things you just now confessed to doing?” And maybe I didn’t hear the Joker’s answer correctly, because I’ve seen nobody else pick up on this part of that conversation. But I really believe that at that point Joker says, “No.” No, he doesn’t believe that his bad luck justifies his crimes. But he does see a connection that the bad luck nonetheless caused his crimes. His bad luck doesn’t make his crimes acceptable, but does make them happen. As I say, maybe I heard him wrong. (I’m getting old, you know.) And even if I heard him right he took a lot less time with the point than I have taken right now. Even if I heard him right, 75% of the explication I’ve just given is mine, unpacking what I think he said. But I think in that moment he showed that he may be mentally ill, but he’s not crazy. In other words, he understands the difference between right and wrong and knows that A does not justify B; but he’s also trying to make the point that — regardless what moral theory might say — you can’t expect anyone to suffer the things he has suffered without snapping and reacting the way he has reacted. 

One clarification. In all this, I have to add that when I talk about “his bad luck” that’s a little like describing an elephant as “his house pet”. Really. This man has the most phenomenal bad luck you have ever seen. But then so did Wife, which means I believed it instantly rather than treating it as a weak plot device. But I have to warn you that at a certain point your ability to sympathize over bad luck shuts down from overload — or mine did in real life — and you start assuming that, statistically, nobody can have random luck that bad so she must have done something to cause it somehow, by pissing people off or whatever, so that they then treated her badly. Likewise him, the Joker. See, I really do hear an echo between them, even though Wife never became a supervillain.

Thanks be to God. 

But could I have ever imagined her turning violent the way the Joker does in this movie? Based on the many bad things she suffered; and also on her (perhaps) diminished capacity (because of illness, physical or mental) to absorb suffering, roll with the punches, and bounce back? Sure, why not? That’s part of what I found totally plausible in the movie. And I chalk it up to good luck (for a change) that it didn’t happen in real life. 
Here are some of the reviews I found that agreed the movie portrayed mental illness well.
Happy viewing.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

What if Wife had become a supervillain?

I saw "Joker" this afternoon. ( It's very intense. Afterwards I texted Son 1, who asked me if I liked it. I wrote him,

I don't know yet. There's a lot there and I'm a little stunned. Reviews criticized it for pushing a narrative about the mentally ill and social services that isn't a well thought through platform, but for Pete's sake it's not a frapping political platform in the first place. It's a super-villain origin story, and a very dark and heavy one. But then ... he's the Joker. It would have to be.

But part of what I thought was that it was a little bit like Wife's story. The protagonist, Arthur Fleck, suffers from mental illness; so does Wife. He has chronically bad luck; so does Wife. He reacts to things with emotions that are out of phase with the emotions of the people around him; so does Wife. He has a very difficult and slightly creepy relationship with his mother, to whom he is nonetheless deeply attached; so did Wife. His mother has emotional problems of her own, and is either delusional or very badly used by others; so was Wife's mother. In fact, I almost thought I could summarize the movie for Son 1 by saying, "Take your mom's story; make it even worse; give her a slightly different set of diseases; and have her end up as a supervillain." (I chickened out in the end, and didn't say it.)

At one point, though, we look over his shoulder as he is writing in his journal, and we see a sentence that I'm sure she could agree to:

"The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don't."

Yup. I've watched that be Wife's experience, and I've also been the one expecting her to behave as if she didn't. It's tough.

I guess it's good she never became a supervillain, huh?

Sent from my iPhone

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Not actually wrong

I've visited Debbie twice this year, both times on the occasion of a trip to Sticksville for work: once was at the beginning of June, and the other was in mid-October -- just recently. And both times I mused on choices she made during the visit that triggered me to wonder if she still had some kind of romantic feelings underneath the clear outward show of Good Behavior. Back in May she had us read Walt Whitman poems back and forth to each other; in October, she selected "Our Souls at Night" as a movie to watch.

Of course it would be no surprise if she did: how do you get rid of memories like that without replacing them by some other emotion? My feelings for D now are overlaid with frustration and anxiety; my feelings for Wife, with anger and fear and disdain and disgust. But I don't feel any of those things for Debbie, and so (as I have shared freely with you) I still feel a wistfulness towards her. Why shouldn't she feel something similar?

And then about a week ago I got an email that was a little clearer. I had written her about the rest of my trip: after visiting with her for a weekend I had gone on to work in Sticksville for a week, then flew the long way home so I could spend a few vacation days with Schmidt. The visit was very low-key for a lot of reasons, but Marie visited me there (we were all three friends back in college) and we had fun sitting round the table at dinner drinking too much wine and telling funny stories. Anyway, several days later I wrote a short email to Debbie that included the following:
I always enjoy visiting you, and this time was no exception. Always you give me a chance to shift into a different gear, I’m glad to spend time with your daughter and her husband, and our time together (yours and mine) is simply good. And thank you for the movie! I’d never heard of it before we watched it, but the reviews I looked up later said all the same things we did: that it was a remarkable piece of work done in a very understated way.
Her reply, a few days later, ended as follows:
I agree that our time together while you were here was simply good.  I will be honest and say that during your last two visits, I have found my heart opening to you.  I don't mean to complicate things.  Given all the context, including my personal commitment to respecting other people's relationships, it is not something to be acted upon but simply acknowledged and enjoyed for what it is.  I just think it might diminish the little bit of awkwardness that is present in our interactions to name it.
Bingo. I'm glad to know that my sense about this hasn't been actually wrong, all this time.

It took me a couple of days to think what to say back. I didn't want to wait too long -- when someone declares her love for you, a faster reply is always better.  But I also didn't want to say the wrong thing, and I thought that was altogether too likely. In the end maybe I said too much, though I hope not. What I wrote her went like this:
Your last paragraph made me feel very happy and ... what’s the right word? As if I were snugly wrapped in a soft, warm blanket. I know what you mean. There will always be a part of my heart that is open to you, too. At the same time, you are completely right that it doesn’t have to mean anything beyond or outside of itself. We can enjoy it for what it is, exactly as we have been doing. And we don’t have to carry it anywhere that makes a mess of the “context”. I know I felt the same thing on my side, but was concerned that saying something might be unwelcome; so thank you for naming it. 

With love and metta always,

Thursday, October 31, 2019

It never happened

A few days ago, as soon as I drafted by poem on the FMEA method, I sent it to Marie and asked for her feedback to make it better. A few days later she sent me a reply that she hadn't done anything with my poem yet, but that a book she was reading had inspired her to write one of her own.


“The shadow past is shaped by everything that never happened.” Robert Macfarlane, Underland.

it never happened
that i wed you as a girl
that we ran lightly
among trees hung with yellow fruit

it never happened
that i threw myself away
into the dark
it never happened
that we never
met again
we are here, and all that
never happened

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Training in the FMEA method

I'm sitting here in a training class in Sticksville on the FMEA methodology, and the instructor just finished introducing a typology of failures. Briefly, any kind of tool, product, or service is defined by having a certain kind of function. And once you know what the function is, then a "failure" is a deviation from the desired function. And there are five possible kinds of deviation:
  • No function at all ("total failure")
  • Quantitative deviation (it does the right thing but in the wrong amount, too little or too much)
  • Time deviation (it does the right thing but too early, or too late, or it misfires somehow)
  • There is an unintended or undesirable function
  • There are impermissible side effects (noise, heat, radiation)
So far, so good. But it got me thinking: do these same types apply to human failures as well? I think they do ... and here is my first pass at thinking through how that could work.

“How many kinds of failure are there, now?”
The trainer asked us, reading from the screen.
And answered, “Five — it all depends on how
“The non-fulfillment of the function’s seen.”

“There’s total failure: nothing’s done at all.
“Then quantitative: little or too much;
“Early or late; wrong functions great or small;
“Or side-effects, like noise and heat and such.”

I harbor all of these deep in my heart:
The sluggard who just dreams, I know him well;
The one who does it backwards, end to start,
Who’s thoughtless, and whose voice clangs like a bell.

For every type of failure we define
Is surely one that I can claim as mine.


Monday, October 21, 2019

Visiting Debbie, 4 ... and another movie

After my last visit to see Debbie (see here and here) she commented several times how much she had enjoyed my visit, and that I was welcome to come back. So I took that as a hint. This week I am back in Sticksville for another training class, so I flew in on Saturday and spent the weekend with Debbie instead.

As usual, it was a quiet weekend … last time I called it a "Sabbath" and that's not wrong. We visited with her daughter and son-in-law and their son (now about one-and-a-half years old). We meditated together. We went to church on Sunday. It's too cold to work in the garden and anyway she says the season is over: they've already gotten the first frost. We cooked. And (as always) we didn't fuck. We didn't even kiss, because Debbie had a cold and didn't want to give it to me.

And then we watched a movie on Netflix, one she called "one of the sweetest movies she has seen lately": "Our Souls at Night" with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. (See this article here for one review.) She's right. It is a sweet movie -- about a man and a woman around the age of 80, who are neighbors and who finally discover each other at a deeper level after living across the street for 40 years. And I'm left wondering … is she trying to say something?

You remember that during my last visit we read aloud Walt Whitman poems to each other. This time we watch Robert Redford and Jane Fonda slowly falling for each other on-screen. But she made no move to cuddle with me on the sofa as we watched, and she was careful to put me in the same guest bedroom where I have always slept. So … is there a deeper meaning to these things? Or maybe not? It's hard for me to say.

And perhaps I don't need to know. But it is always pleasant to visit with her, and she always seems to feel the same way. It's all good.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Movies about broken people

You know, it's interesting .... Normally I go out of my way to communicate with Wife as little as possible; but after the last two movies I've seen I have shot her a quick note each time suggesting she go see them: I mean "Where Did You Go, Bernadette?" and now "Judy". So I started mulling why that might be?
The first thing is that in both movies there is something about the main character that reminds me of Wife.
  • With Bernadette it is her problematic social skills (and total lack of interest in improving them), and her general contempt for the people around her. Nonetheless Bernadette gets something kind of like a happy ending, so in a way I suppose my subtext to Wife was, "Get up and go DO something and you'll be happier than you are just sitting around!"
  • With Judy Garland it is her narcissism, her magical thinking, her roller-coaster emotions, and her total inability to see herself from the outside. (Though the boys tell me that Wife has gotten better about the roller-coaster emotions now that she has been ordered to give up drinking for good.) Of course in real life Judy Garland didn't get a happy ending, but I also know that Wife is a big fan of hers.
So in a sense both movies are about broken people, and I wonder if that is what I have a taste for ... or at any rate an interest in. Of course it is also true that in both cases the main characters are not simply broken: Bernadette and Judy each has some kind of greatness in her past and somehow in her reach if only she can figure out how to stretch out her hand towards it. And for me that makes the stories more interesting and more poignant. Hell, there was a long time when I tried to find some way to tell myself that kind of story about Wife, as a way to reconcile myself to the way that she seemed to be caving in before my very eyes. Ultimately of course I realized that was the wrong story template in a number of ways, and also that the features which I was seeing ever more clearly had in truth been there all along. But clearly that hasn't diminished my interest in brokenness ....