Monday, July 31, 2023

7 Harry Potter Characters We Love to Hate

Today is Harry Potter’s birthday and this probably isn’t the best way to celebrate him but I’ve been thinking a lot recently about well written characters from the series. As I finish up my reread of the series, I want to highlight five characters that are written, so well that we love to hate them. We all pretty much agree about number one, but I’m curious about your thoughts on the rest. 

7. Gilderoy Lockhart

Sadly, in many ways, Lockhart is the most benign of the characters on this list. He’s so obnoxious and self-centered, even with his memory raised, that you can’t help but roll your eyes every time he comes on the scene. And then you add into the fact that he ruined other peoples lives to make his writing a success. Sad thing is, he was obviously a talented writer, but he had to take all the glory for himself. 

6. Peter Pettigrew

With a betrayal as heinous as his, he ought to really go further down the list. But I'm putting him here towards the top because in many ways he's just so forgettable. We love to hate him, yes, but I almost didn't put him on the list. After Prisoner of Azkaban and especially after Goblet of Fire, he takes such a back seat that sometimes I honestly forget what he did. I guess that's the fate fitting for someone was cowardly as him, to be forgotten.

5. Rita Skeeter

With all the horrid, slanderous content on the internet, her journalism could be considered tame. But all the same, Rita spent years making her name off misquoting and misrepresenting people just to sell articles and get her name published. She had a small moment of redemption when she told Harry's side of the story in Order of the Phoenix (which was cut from the movie), but she had to be blackmailed into that. And over the course of the series she slandered Hermione, Hagrid, Dumbledore, and probably more. At the very least I can give her at that a lot of the Dumbledore content was accurate... but it presented the late headmaster in such a dark light, trying to tarnish his memory. 

4. Cornelius Fudge

He’s your typical politician, or anyone in leadership in any organization, for that matter, that is scared to be wrong, all for the sake of keeping his status. He was willing to expel Harry from Hogwarts to avoid admitting that they  dementors might not be in his control. And that’s a relatively minor sin compared to giving Voldemort the ability to grow his army and secret, just by being in denial.

3. Vernon and Petunia Dursley

Essays could be written, and maybe have been written already, about how awful the Dursleys are. When I was younger, I knew they were bad people just by virtue of how rude they were to Harry. But as an adult who has been to therapy, they’re not just rude or mean, they’re abusive and neglectful. It’s not just their hatred of magic, but how they treated Harry to try to sniff it out. All because Petunia was jealous of her sister. The extended version of Deathly Hallows Part One has her saying that she lost her sister when Harry lost his mother, but I have a hard time feeling any sympathy for her with how she treated her sister's son. 

2. Bellatrix Lestrange

I’d be curious to know what she was like before going to Azkaban. Was she just as insane as after her escape? Or was her confinement the reason she was unhinged in the 90s? Either way, her psychotic behavior and sycophant nature is what makes us love Bellatrix. Yet at the same time we all cheered when Mrs. Weasley defeated her. 

1. Dolores Umbridge

Naturally, this infamous professor/headmistress/politician is number one on my list. She is power-hungry and dark. She had no qualms with torturing a teenager, both with her quill and with a curse. And then later, on when the regime changed, it was all too easy for her to come on board with it. Her loyalty changed to whoever could bring her power and she showed her ruthlessness by condemning muggleborns. Heck. She was so dark that she could wear a Horcrux all day every day, and only feel her mood improve. That ought to say something.

Who have I missed? With over 200 named characters in the Harry Potter franchise, I’m certain my list is incomplete. I suppose I could have put Snape on this list too, but I’ve already discussed him a bit too much. And he sort of redeemed himself. So did Dudley, at least more than his parents. 

Friday, July 28, 2023

Escaping the Web of Perfection

Lately I've been thinking about why we get stuck. I'll apologize in advance, this post is being written in the middle of the night, but hey, if you can relate to my journey of learning to let go of perfectionism, there might be something in here for you.

Before we get into all my rambling, the main takeaway is this: go as big as you want with your life, but find joy in the little things. Some people don't need this lesson, but it took me years to figure it out. Lots and lots of years. Anyway, here we go.

Perfectionism traps us in a cycle of unrealistic expectations.

We love stories about The Chosen One. Although this trope has savior-based themes, there’s a more Arthurian ideal to these stories than there are biblical principles. The comic book heroes in TV and movies have dozens of forms of this trope, and of course Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, and others show a main character with either singular powers or a destiny that forces them into a quest to save the world, the universe, the multiverse, or reality itself.  

Only YOU can save the world from Voldemort, Harry.

In TV and movies, there are hero and villain versions of perfectionism that depict unattainable strength and capacity. My favorite trope for villains is the One-Winged Angel, a fantastic villain with an alter ego of an other-worldly monstrosity. Sephiroth, the namesake of this trope, has his bizarro form, and his seven-winged angelic form, which complement his already intimidating human form. The villain is the ultimate barrier between the hero, and a peaceful world. Once defeated, the world can finally return to equilibrium. Of course, the villain is obsessed with his legacy, and may or may not have a ridiculously long lifespan, perhaps even an obsession with immortality. I’m looking at you, Emperor Palpatine.

"I will never be a memory." - Sephiroth

In reality, we mere mortals blur the lines between fiction and reality all the time. I’ve taken a lot of music history classes, and looking back the narratives in those history books were really depressing to me. Prodigies like Mozart, and Mendelssohn, or unspeakably dedicated masters like Beethoven or Brahms are on such a high pedestal that 200 years later people drool over their musical creations. We struggle to comprehend how much back-breaking work is required, not to mention the bio-psycho-social lottery at play in the production of genius-level creative work.

On top of that, as a musician, you’re expected to strive toward impossibly high standards, and keep a mental catalog of performance based norms that guide your many, many hours of practice. Every rehearsal and every performance requires Olympic levels of concentration and awareness. And then musicians at these high levels of world-class performance just live there. The career-span of professional musicians may be longer than that of professional athletes, but the cost maintaining that level of performance often goes unspoken, because we might think twice before setting out on that journey if we truly knew from the beginning what it would take to succeed.

The quest for near-perfection can be exhilarating, but it is absolutely exhausting. This is part of why my professional music career morphed into a career in mental health. I earned a master's and doctorate in music performance at a big ten university, but in the midst of that work, my mental health was plummeting. I became much more fascinated in the language and art of building a healthy mindset because of all the therapy I had to do to maintain what sense of well-being I could still muster in my quest to graduate, and become a music professor.

I realized that I was living with a hustle culture mentality that was being glorified and praised, despite the fact that being a single-minded musician was a big part of the recipe for my silent internal anguish.

In fiction, unrealistic expectations are the undercurrent that props up the drama and wonder on both sides of the morality spectrum. To fight an out-of-this-world villain, you need a superhero. In real life, our roles are labeled with different words, but I’m afraid we put similarly fictitious expectations on ourselves.

For me, perfectionism was a constant demand for work with no access to fulfillment. It was a personal quest to reach a final yard line that inexplicably kept inching farther away.

Perfectionism is very event oriented. It might seem to be based on skills and progress, but in truth it is about scoring a hit from an imaginary audience. Perfectionism is an addiction to the dream of being good enough, better by comparison, or freedom from human weakness. Even a huge success can be ruined by a tiny flaw, no matter how trivial. Perfectionism has a childish tendency to blow up over even the most innocent reality check.

Is there any escape from this web? I’ll tell you what has worked for me.

My perfectionist journey is still with me all the time. I’ll probably always have the tendency to be hard on myself for little things. But practice in basic gratitude and acceptance shifts the value from achievement to processes.

Instead of rewarding myself just for completing big goals, I reward myself for the simplest, smallest bite-size tasks that lead the way to reaching those goals. For example, I give myself a pat on the back just for opening my computer, instead of beating myself up for only typing fifty words instead of one-hundred. I acknowledge that getting out of bed in the morning is one of the hardest parts of my day, rather than focusing on the fact that I slept in an extra twenty minutes after my alarm went off. The shift from self-criticism to compassion has been slow, discouraging, and very quiet. But it has made a huge difference. Getting out of bed in the morning has become easier. I have more reasonable expectations for myself, and other people. I laugh more. I am more confident. I even have more energy for work and my family. 

I kid you not, perfectionism can be an enormous challenge to your mental health. 

Making the transition to a more intentional perspective with gentle expectations and detachment from the outcome of your goals can seem like giving up, or choosing weakness. But nothing could be further from the truth. The reality for me was that my perfectionism was motivated by fear. I was terrified I would never be good enough. I had to prove to people I was smart, funny, lovable, strong, and I was obsessed with any evidence that people could see my true humanity or weakness. Showing of my strength was not really about impressing people or getting their praise. It was what I did to prevent them from rejecting me, to avoid ever being told I was worthless. Of course, by constantly obsessing with maintaining a campaign to prove my self-worth, I had a really hard time relating to anyone on an authentic level. Look no further than Azula for an example of how obsessing about perfection is a recipe for a mental breakdown.

Perfectionism makes you deeply insecure. The idea of being normal sounds like a wonderful break, but the idea of losing what makes you “special” feels unbearable.

But that’s just it. Human worth itself is not achievement or even behavior based. Paychecks, concerts, research papers, harvests, awards ceremonies, all these events are a little blip on the journey of life. Of course if we glorify these moments to the point of neglecting the entire path to getting there, the path starts to feel like drudgery and we would rather skip our way through it to get to the good part. But what if the good part IS each step after step after step of getting from one milestone to the next?

Journey before destination.

Our worth is the constant. However, our beliefs and behaviors have a huge impact on whether we feel well or worthless. Perfectionism isn’t unhealthy because high expectations are a bad thing. It’s unhealthy because it sucks away our ability to find happiness along the way. It’s a continuous dissatisfaction with reality, ideas about how awful it is to be average, have human flaws, to fall short in any way of our dreamed version of the way things SHOULD be. Perfectionism is a sense that black and white is all there is, and people are just a bunch of winners and losers. Perfectionists never stop competing, training, fighting, strategizing, and they cannot ever accept defeat. They hustle themselves from one obsession to the next.

Yet, there are many people out there whose days are filled with small miracles. They fulfill roles at every level of society quietly and confidently, because they are comfortable focusing on the process instead of the outcome. They keep themselves moving in the right direction because each step matters, including the steps they take to care for themselves and others along the way. They can admit their faults because they don’t have to compensate for them out of fear. They are able to delegate when it’s best to do so, and when it’s time to burn the midnight oil, they do it, with a deal that they will get more sleep the next few nights and not feel guilty. In contrast to team Azula, team Avatar find ways along their journey to find little joys, and bond together, despite many moments of falling short.

We’re all just humans in this world. And just being human is glorious. We are each the hero of our own journey. The big bad guy at the final boss level isn’t conquering the world with eldritch horror, he’s undermining our ability to find true and abiding satisfaction through our relationships and daily routines. The villain in our lives isn’t our human weakness, it’s the happiness trap that says you’re failing if your life isn’t constantly maximizing. We conquer that bad guy when our ability to accept reality with gladness expands.

Last Sunday we had a discussion surrounding this talk. It's a beautiful ten-minute piece on allowing things as they are to take on divine meaning. We can see the hand of God in our lives without pushing ourselves constantly passed the point of diminishing returns. I looked around the room full of adult men, and it seemed every one of them could relate to the theme of perfectionism, often very deeply. I would hope that all of us will find more compassion for ourselves first, and take moments to acknowledge that life is hard. What a great idea it is not to make it harder for yourself, except in the direction of finding real, enlivening fulfilment.

Men are that they might have joy. And there are so many ways to really be happy and joyful. You don't need to be a superhero. Chances are more than one person in your life sees you as a hero, just because they watch you being you. That is good enough.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

5 Books That Are Better Than Your Average Self-Help Book


Artist: Unknown

Self-help books are nice. They do a good job teaching us how we can improve as individuals. I usually will read one self-help book a year and try implementing that in my daily life for the whole year trying to make it my habit. Last year I read Make Your Bed by William H. McRaven, and I made my bed every morning that year. I still try to do it this year. I missed a few days, but it has been a nice habit to have, and it does make me feel more accomplished when I do it. This year, so far, I have read 3 self-help books because of a book club with my in-laws. I have read Essentialism by Greg McKeown, Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, et al, and How Full is your Bucket by Donald O. Clifton. I realized that the formula for each self-help book is essentially the same: 1. Be vulnerable 2. Improve yourself, and 3. Follow this guide to become a better person. Following all their commitments to improve yourself becomes increasingly impossible for each self-help book you read. After some frustration about not being perfect I realized that there are books out there that have helped me more than self-help books.

In this post I will go over 5 books that I believe have encouraged me to become a better person.

Lord of the Rings

Of course, the greatest fantasy book ever will be on this list. There is a reason that this book has been cherished over the decades. Besides the great story, almost every character is a similitude of the Savior that we can emulate in some way or another. Do we associate ourself with Gandalf who must actively avoid touching the ring (sin) because he knows he will be corrupted if he does, or do we feel like Frodo who has a burden he feels that he must carry alone, or Sam willing to be the best support you can be, or even Aragon who helps others to succeed?

There are so many great relatable characters in the book and most of them are good characters that emulate the Savior. Don’t worry we all have a little Gollum in us, but we can succeed where he failed.

The Boys in the Boat

I might be a little biased here because I am from Washington, but if you have never read this book, it is really motivating. It’s a true story about eight-oared rowing crew from University of Washington competed and won in rowing during the summer Olympic in 1936. The story focuses on a nine-man crew and how different each of them are, and how they became synchronized to win first place.

I liked this book because it talks about the crew’s personal stories. We read how each of them come from different backgrounds but ended up having one purpose: winning first place. When one of the members got sick during the Olympics the boys kept him on the team because they would be better synced with each other. It's a good message that we need to stand up for and support each other. 

Way of Kings

Brandon Sanderson is one of my favorite living authors. He is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and when he writes his stories he includes gospel messages in them---like in Way of Kings. Near the end of the book Dalinar Kholin, King Gavilar's brother, wants to buy Sadeas bridgemen (slaves that carry bridges during the war with no armor to protect them. They usually have a short life span). He trades his sword (Shardblade) that is “worth fortunes. Cities, palaces, kingdoms” for the “worthless” men (according to Saedes).  Kaladin being one of the bridgemen has the following conversation with Dalinar:

Kaladin shook off his numbness. He scrambled after the highprince [Dalinar], grabbing his armored arm. “Wait. You—That—What just happened?”
Dalinar turned to him. Then, the highprince laid a hand on Kaladin’s shoulder, the gauntlet gleaming blue, mismatched with the rest of his slate-grey armor. “I don’t know what has been done to you. I can only guess what your life has been like. But know this. You will not be bridgemen in my camp, nor will you be slaves.”
“What is a man’s life worth?” Dalinar asked softly.
“The slavemasters say one is worth about two emerald broams,” Kaladin said, frowning.
“And what do you say?”
“A life is priceless,” he said immediately, quoting his father.
Dalinar smiled, wrinkle lines extending from the corners of his eyes. “Coincidentally, that is the exact value of a Shardblade. So today, you and your men sacrificed to buy me twenty-six hundred priceless lives. And all I had to repay you with was a single priceless sword. I call that a bargain.”
“You really think it was a good trade, don’t you?” Kaladin said, amazed.
Dalinar smiled in a way that seemed strikingly paternal.

In Doctrine and Covenants 18:10 we are told: Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God. We are all priceless to God. We have worth.

Artist: TotemofHorror

The Screwtape Letters

The Screwtape Letters, written by C.S. Lewis, is a compilation of letters written from a senior devil, Screwtape, to his nephew Wormwood with advice about in tempting his "patient," the average man.  When they are talking about God, they refer Him as the enemy. They mention how selfish gain and power are seen as the only good and how they can’t comprehend God’s love.

This book is a reverse psychology on how we should be. Instead of being selfish and gaining power for unrighteous purposes we need to be loving and serve those around us. I definitely feel like a better person when I try to be selfless than selfish and reading this book makes me want to be on God's side.

The Bible and The Book of Mormon

As someone that has grown up as a Christian and still lives it today; I have never found a set of books that have been more impactful in my life. From reading the scriptures I have gained faith that Jesus Christ did come and still lives today. He is the embodiment of what we should be and, as I study the scriptures, I get inspiration from God on what I need to improve on. Sometimes I am successful while other times I am not, but when I am, I feel like I am able to do more than what I expect from myself.

I feel like the scriptures are handbooks on how we can be the best versions of ourselves. No other self-help book can do what the scriptures can. They might tell you how to succeed in some respects, but the scriptures will show you how to be perfect in the things that matter most. 

Monday, July 24, 2023

Ahsoka Binge List

After what feels like forever, we’re only a month away from the premiere of Ahsoka. This show has been teased ever since Ahsoka Tano appeared on The Mandalorian years ago. And it’s almost here! I went through all of Ahsoka’s Clone Wars stories and rewatched Rebels to get this highlight list together. So if you need to get to know Ahsoka (or reacquaint yourself with her), here’s what you need to know:

Tales of the Jedi

Season 1, Episode 1

So let’s start at the beginning… and I mean the beginning. This short features Ahsoka’s birth and her initial jedi powers manifesting. I covered this when the shorts first came out, but I would have loved to see that lead into her being taken by Master Plo as a youth. But anyway, it is what it is. So enjoy some Baby ‘Soka.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (Movie)

If you’re going to check out where Ahsoka came from, you ought to watch this. This animated movie is her first appearance during The Clone Wars. The movie starts right on the tail of episodes 2.16 and 1.16 (in that order) and it introduces Ahsoka Tano as Anakin’s new padawan. While not my favorite story, it’s her first story and it begins to develop the relationship dynamic she takes with Anakin.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Season 2, Episodes 6-8

This story brings us back to Geonosis and the droid factory. Ahsoka and her new friend Barriss take down the factory… but not before bringing a parasite back to the ship. All ends well and you’ll want to keep an eye on this character, Barriss.

Season 3, Episode 7

This is the perfect story to illustrate Ahsoka’s bond with Padme. There are hints throughout Clone Wars that Ahsoka might know of Padme and Anakin’s secret marriage, but regardless she ends up friends with both of them independent of the other. Plus this shows the epicness of Ahsoka’s trust in the force.

Season 3, Episodes 15-17

An accidental trip to the planet Mortis, leaves Ahsoka, Obi-Wan, and Anakin stranded. Though their memories of the adventure were erased at the end, this story showed Anakin’s draw to the Dark Side and his potential as a Sith. Also, the Father, Son, and Daughter seen on Mortis were later seen in a mural during the final episodes of Rebels, but we’ll get to the Ghost’s adventures in a moment.

Season 5, Episodes 17-20

This one was heartbreaking. After being accused of murder, seeing Ahsoka so totally abandoned and desperate, to the point of turning to Ventriss for help… my heart hurt for her. Even after her name got cleared, the damage had already been done to her faith in the Jedi Order.

Season 7, Episodes 9-12

Beginning right on the tail of the events of episodes 7.05-7.08, Ahsoka and Rex are off to finish what the Jedi Order couldn’t, bringing Darth Maul into custody. For episodes required to understand Maul’s rise to power on Mandalore, check out the list at the bottom of this point for the Mandalorian Conflict. But before the ex-Jedi and her Clone Troopers can safely deliver Maul to Coruscant, Order 66 begins. Long story short, she’s able to save Rex, but only they and Darth Maul survive the crash of their starship. Again, heartbreaking.

Tales of the Jedi

Season 1, Episode 6

After the events of Order 66, we see Ahsoka secretly attending Padme’s funeral. With two of her very best friends dead or presumed dead, she’s at an all-time low. But Senator Organa gives her a pep talk (and a communicator) which helps her know who to call when she decides to join the Rebellion.

Star Wars Rebels

I loved Rebels way more than I expected (especially after feeling meh about Clone Wars) and it seems the Ahsoka series is being set up as a direct continuation of this story, as we’ve had Sabine, Hera, and Chopper confirmed to appear. If you can afford the time to binge watch the whole series, I’d recommend it. If not, here are my highlights to hopefully prep you for more live-action Ahsoka

Season 1, Episodes 13-15

Under the codename “Fulcrum”, we hear Ahsoka’s distorted voice throughout Season 1. But in the finale, we get her back in person. We don’t see her until the very end of this story arc, but the whole trilogy of episodes is worth it.

Season 2, Episodes 1-2

Having just reintroduced Ahsoka in the previous episode, it was nice to the Ghost team working together with her during these episodes. All things considered, Ahsoka’s involvement in this story is pretty minor, but it’s the first glimpse that she or Darth Vader has into the force to realize the other is still alive.

Season 2, Episodes 3-4

Ahsoka only appears at the beginning and end of this story, so it may seem inconsequential. However, these episodes bring back Captain Rex, the Clone Trooper that Ahsoka freed from Order 66 in the Clone Wars finale. Is it too much to hope that we’ll get old man Rex in the Ahsoka series? That’d be cool. Supposedly he fought in the Battle of Endor, so he ought to still be alive I suppose.

Season 2, Episodes 18, 21-22

Kanan, Ezra, and Ahsoka go in search of a way to stop the Sith and the Inquisitors, first stopping at a Jedi Temple for direction and then to a daunting Sith Temple. They team up (temporarily) with Darth Maul against the Inquisitors. Until finally he shows up: Darth Vader. To see Vader fight his old apprentice and for her to realize who he is. WOW! And then everything goes crazy and Ahsoka is left to die in the temple… or maybe not.

Season 4, Episodes 13-16

A pair of two-part epics. Ahsoka only appears for a short portion of each, but the last four episodes of Rebels set the stage for (according to what we know) the plot of the Ahsoka series. “A World Between Worlds” explains how Ahsoka survived the battle against her former master at the Sith Temple in Season 2 and it kind of blew my mind the first time. To me, it said that nothing is off-limits for the Star Wars mythos. And then as Rebels closed up, Ahsoka appeared in the epilogue of the series finale, setting the stage for her mission in the Disney live-action era.

The Mandalorian

Season 2, Episode 5

The first time I watched this episode, I hadn’t watched Clone Wars, so I was kind of blind to who Ahsoka was. So re-watching this episode, after finishing Clone Wars and Rebels, was quite the treat. Only nine years after the main events of Rebels (four years after the epilogue), we rejoin Ahsoka. Being sent by Bo-Katan, the Mandalorian intends to leave the Child with her. Instead they team up against a local tyrant before sending Mando onward (to eventually meet Luke Skywalker). What excites me after watching Rebels is that she’s looking for Thrawne. And I assume Ezra, along with him. So this episode, which will lead into the Ahsoka series, would be considered a direct continuation of the Rebels epilogue. 

The Book of Boba Fett

Season 1, Episode 6

Ahsoka only plays a minor role in this episode, but just as Book of Boba Fett is the bridge between the second and third season of The Mandalorian, this episode serves as the bridge between Ashoka’s animated adventures and her new series. At the very least, it establishes Ahsoka as a “family friend” to the Skywalker clan (or at least Luke).

Now we wait. This is very possibly the Star Wars series I’ve been most excited for (except perhaps Obi-Wan Kenobi). Andor was fine and I was slow to get into The Mandalorian, but I have hopes for Ahsoka. Here’s to them being realized!

Mandalorian Conflict:

  • Season 2, Episode 12-14

  • Season 3, Episode 5-6

  • Season 4, Episode 14

  • Season 5, Episode 14-16

  • Season 7, Episode 9-12