If you feel beset on all sides by the tyranny of misfortune, or perhaps you feel undeservedly persecuted and maligned by others, or maybe somebody’s just pushing your buttons to get a response.
Don’t get angry (or at least don’t stay angry), and don’t let these negative forces drag you down to their level. Instead, remind yourself of who you are, and remember that no one can take that away from you. Then take a deep breath, square your shoulders and steel your resolve.
Let me be clear: I’m not a comic book movie kind of guy. In fact, I wasn’t a comic book kind of kid. So going to see a movie about a character in the Batman franchise is kind of out of character for me. But I sensed this was going to be something different, mainly based on seeing Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in the trailer, so I headed off to the local multiplex and checked it out.
Let’s not beat around the bush – I’m just going to cut to the chase: Joker is genius.
This movie exists in it’s own universe – there is virtually no mention of Batman, and maybe two or three scenes with Thomas Wayne (Bruce Wayne’s father), who is presented as a Trump-like figure running for Mayor in a Gotham City that looks suspiciously like NYC in the late ’70s.
But those scenes are kind of incidental – the whole movie works as a very, very dark character study that the casual viewer would never recognize as having anything to do with the Batman franchise. There are no “action” set pieces, indeed, no real whiz-bang special effects of any kind. There is just Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin, in virtually every scene of a two hour movie that felt half as long.
I can honestly say that, after 55+ years of seriously watching movies, I have never seen anything quite like the performance Phoenix gives us. Reviewers have rightfully made note of the film using both “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” as touchstones, but the connection is more in spirit than anything else. Both Travis Bickle and Arthur Fleck are characters that start out alienated and suffering from mental illness and then slowly descend into full-blown psychosis, and without question Robert De Niro’s performance is both haunting and disturbing in a way that is once-seen-never-forgotten. But beyond that, there is no common ground between the two characters.
Joaquin’s performance here is simply jaw-dropping. His slow metamorphosis will definitely bear repeat viewings, and whether or not he wins the Oscar seems kind of irrelevant. This is acting at a level that will be discussed and dissected for a long time – like Walter White for Bryan Cranston, this is a once in a lifetime performance of an unforgettable character. Sometimes the stars just line up.
Phoenix subtly manipulates his voice, face, body, walk, and expression to give a performance that slowly changes and builds an arc that culminates in an ending that is truly chilling. But it’s really all there from the very first scene where a single tear smears his clown makeup as he prepares for another street job holding up a “Going out of business” sign on a trash-laden city street.
Joaquin lost somewhere around 50 lbs. for the part and there are lots of shirtless scenes where he contorts his body in grotesque fashion. His “dancing” throughout the film is incredibly creepy and stunning – especially when you realize that most of it was improvised. The “laugh” has to be seen and heard to be believed – it’s this weird, almost convulsive tick that is impossible to distinguish between laughing and crying – and with each breath it sounds like he’s choking on his own pain.
The violence is not gratuitous, and there are only a few scenes of it – which makes it all the more shocking for it’s sudden and graphic depiction. This is a trick Scorsese understood intuitively throughout his career. Massive credit to Todd Phillips for directing this masterpiece – how this ever got made is a mystery to me, and why it is resonating with the public seems a little ominous, but hey – this is America. We wrote the book on psychotic loners.
An agent of chaos seems like an eerily disturbing yet appropriate metaphor for our time. Watch this film and prepare to be amazed and disturbed. There’s not a humorous or feel good moment in the entire movie.
There’s a very big news story making the rounds right now, but like so many advances in technology it probably won’t register much in the cultural zeitgeist. But make no mistake: it has the potential to change everything.
Quantum computing just went from something that might happen to something that is happening now. Google has announced the results of it’s first definitive example of functional quantum computing, and it looks like ground zero for the next phase of technological development. According to their report: Google’s first quantum computer just finished a task in 200 seconds that would take the world’s most powerful supercomputer 10,000 years to complete.
William Oliver of MIT compared the feat to the Wright Brothers maiden voyage at Kitty Hawk. It is the moment where human culture takes an exponential leap forward instead of following the easier to understand linear trajectory.
But the through-line that jumps out at me is the massive global push to develop General AI, now coupled with the apparent successful demonstration that Quantum computing actually works.
You don’t have to be a genius to see where this is going. If Ray Kurzweil is right and we are hitting the knee of an exponential curve of technological development (indeed, technology has been developing exponentially from the beginning – it just began so slow we didn’t see it), then breakthroughs are going to continue to happen in all sectors at an ever accelerating pace…
Where all this is going to end up is anyone’s guess, but if I were a betting man I would say that General AI is the next step in human evolutionary terms. Exactly what part humans are going to play once that moment arrives will determine the fate of the species.
Carbon based evolution may very well just have been an evolutionary tool for technology. It needed us to create something that in the end would be more powerful than we are.
The question is: Did we create our own existential threat, or will we go along for the ride?
For the longest time growing up, I thought my family was
normal. I mean, when you’re a kid, you only know your own experience, so
whatever that is seems like it must be normal, right? It wasn’t until I started
to go to school that I began to suspect that something was wrong at my house.
Before first grade, I thought it was normal to be beaten on a regular basis,
often for no reason, or at least no reason that made any sense. I thought
everyone’s mother had wild mood swings that always ended in psychotic episodes.
I thought it was normal to be neglected – in fact, for me, that was the best
possible scenario. As long as I was neglected, I could live in my own little
world where no one was hurting me. Except being hungry though – that part
wasn’t good. I thought it was normal for your father to be absent, I didn’t
know that fathers were actually supposed to do things with their kids besides
Here’s something I learned much later in life – if a child’s
parents don’t love them, they will make up a story that somehow explains their
parents behavior in a way that proves that they do. Because children must feel
loved, it’s hard-wired into their consciousness. They know they are weak and
vulnerable, and can’t survive in the world on their own – so even if in reality
no one loves them, they will invent a scenario where someone does. It’s a
survival mechanism – unfortunately one that’s often built on lies.
My story was that they really did love me, they just
couldn’t help it and were doing the best they could. I figured there must be
something wrong with me, that’s why my father didn’t seem to want to do anything
with me unless I was a receptacle for his anger. In my mother’s case, I would
think She can’t help it – she loves me but she’s just too crazy to show
it. In reality, none of this was true, it was just my fantasy explanation of a
very bad situation that didn’t seem to make any sense. It was the best I could
come up with as a child, so I made that my story and I stuck to it. It kind of
worked until life brought the whole thing crashing down like a house of cards –
but I’ll get to that later.
No, my childhood just seemed to go from bad to worse.
Fortunately, I possessed a cluster of character traits that would help me get
through it. It wasn’t pretty, and I won’t say that no one got hurt, but I had a
survival instinct that simply couldn’t be extinguished. I always knew one
thing, deep down, that was true – and I repeated it to myself so often it
became a kind of mantra. No matter how much abuse I took from them, I would say
to myself I am stronger than you.
I can only judge you based on your actions. I don’t care about your shield of irony or “layers of context,” and I definitely don’t care about your apathy.
I just care about what you do.
Everyone mis-speaks and sometimes says things they regret. Maybe you were trying to be funny and failed – that’s all cool and ok, because you’ve got the irrefutable record of your actions to back you up.
We can over-intellectualize this stuff and end up chasing our tails – I don’t really give a shit about that.
I will, however, make my judgment based on what you do and not a single mis-step you made publicly.
When I was a kid I never felt broken, because to be broken implies that you were whole at some point, and then something happened and you became broken. No, I just felt defective, like I was somehow missing parts that other people seemed to have. I wasn’t sure what those parts were, mind you. How can you miss something you never had? I just knew there was a whole lot of shit that everyone else seemed to know and I had absolutely no idea WTF they were talking about. So there was a pretty steep learning curve of figuring out how to be a functional human.
It didn’t help that I got pretty much zero guidance from my
parents. And to make matters worse, I seemed to be pretty smart, so naturally
people would just assume that I knew whatever obvious shit they were doing,
when in reality I was just trying to figure it out on the fly. I remember in
first grade, in one of my first classes, the teacher had all the kids get up
and stand in a circle. Dutifully, I did as she said and joined the other
children waiting for instruction. She proceeded to say Now we’re going to
practice our vowels.
Ok – there’s two things you need to know about me before I
go any further. The first one is that I somehow learned how to read early. I
don’t really remember how, I just remember reading books from a really young
age. They seemed to have a magical ability to transport me to unknown worlds,
and as a result they were like drugs to escape the chaos of my abusive home
life. The other thing is a very weird quirk that’s probably some kind of
learning disorder – I’ve always mis-read and mis-heard words, usually imagining
they say something dark and inappropriate. For example, I used to regularly
drive down this stretch of highway where there was a billboard advertising a
shopping mall that said “Valley Fair Mall.” The problem was, every time I drove
past it, I would read it as “Valley Fear Mall.” It didn’t matter how many times
I saw it, I always read it the same way. It’s like I’m constantly interpreting
the world as a sinister place, only instead of frightening me or make me
anxious, I somehow find it comforting. I know, weird.
Anyway, so now I’m standing in a circle with the other kids
in first grade and the teacher says Now we’re going to practice our vowels.
Only I didn’t hear it that way – instead I hear her say Now we’re going to
practice our bows. Just as I’m thinking Why are we going to practice
bowing – is the Queen coming to our classroom? This is weird, ‘cuz we’re in
Virginia and I think if royalty was coming to school I would have known about
it – she looks at me and I freeze. All the other kids are silently watching
and the teacher has that look on her face that says Go ahead. It’s funny
the things you remember; that one seems to be burned into my brain because it’s
still fresh 55 years later.
Like a deer frozen in headlights, I just stood there. Even
at that young age, I already knew better than to trust my interpretation of any
new situation. After a moment, the teacher turns to the chalkboard where she
had written A, E, I, O, U. Pointing at the first letter, she looks at
the class and says What letter is this? All the kids intone A in
ragged unison. Meanwhile, I’m thinking Jesus Christ, I almost just bowed in
front of the whole class. Everyone, including the teacher, would have forever
thought I was some kind of idiotic lunatic. That was a close one…
It was at that precise moment I realized that my brain
didn’t work the same way other people’s did. It was an important lesson.
Don’t kid yourself – whenever you “remember” something, your recollection is just that: it’s your memory of something that by it’s very nature is somewhat subjective – because you are remembering not just the event itself, but also how it affected and changed you, and to make it even more complicated the memory of this event will change over time. This doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, or even that our memories are faulty – it just means that as our memories become part of the fabric of our life, they become filtered through our own perceptions and the stories we tell ourselves.
Can there be more than one “truth?“
Yes, I’m afraid their can. In fact, I would go so far as to say that no two people who experience the same event will remember it the same.
Are these multiple “truths” all true?
In the end, I think they are. They are the stories we have convinced ourselves to believe, for better or worse. Even the lies become true, at least in the sense that we have made them so – by replaying them over and over in our minds.
This, however, should be noted: We have the power to change these perceived truths, and in fact we do it all the time. We have the ability to recognize lies and correct them, as we also have the power to distort the truth into a lie.
It’s always good to periodically remind ourselves the limitations of human nature.
What does this even mean? And what the fuck does it say about the personality and character of the person in question? Sheesh… I certainly picked the right job, but it’s weird – sometimes I start my day feeling out of sorts, and as soon as shit starts ramping up and feeling chaotic I start to feel comfortable – I actually look forward to it.
And on the flip side, on the rare occasion when things are actually slow, I begin to get uncomfortable. And if it persists, I start to get creeped out – I mean palpably uneasy.
I want to be clear, though: I am not one of those people who will start trouble just to create drama – not my style. Instead, I just go in my head and amuse myself there until something more interesting happens in my environment.
Then I’m fully engaged – ready to try and figure out another catastrophe.
“Always assume the worst case scenario and work backwards from there.”
This is how we (medicine and nursing) think in the ER. We come at it from slightly different angles but the end result is the same. Medicine uses the paradigm of the “differential diagnosis,” which is really just a process of elimination. The doc looks at the patient and, based on symptoms and presentation, will begin eliminating worst-case scenarios.
Nurses, on the other hand, are more concerned about the nuts and bolts of the situation. When people are critically ill and/or dying there isn’t a lot of time to dick around thinking about what to do next. You learn to think five steps ahead so that you’re ready when shit goes south – and oh my friend, make no mistake – it will go south.
But if you already assumed it was going south, you’re good. You know exactly how to respond because you’ve played out this scenario, or something very close, many times before – even if some of them were only in your mind.
Mind you, I’m not saying that this is a good way to live your life outside of a profession that demands it.
But it sure can come in handy if the situation requires it.
The reason it’s so important to answer this question is this: You can’t say that you failed at something without having had a clearly defined vision of what success would have looked like.
I’ll go even further and say that success for any given endeavor may not necessarily be a stationary target – I would argue that your idea of what success looks like should organically evolve with the work.
But there is another adjacent but critical concept to always keep in mind. Even if you fail to achieve something you had a clearly defined outcome for, if you find yourself thinking “I am a failure,” you must immediately stop and recognize this as a cognitive distortion, a toxic script you are playing out in your mind that has no basis in reality.
You should instead be proud of your failures, because they are proof that you are growing and moving forward. Understand that this is what successful people do.
They fail. Over and over and over again, until they finally get it right. So if you’re failing, just remember this: