Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Some Musings on Making Music

I mentioned to my therapist last week that I hadn’t practiced my violin for a while, and she kind of told me off for “burying my talent” in favor of other pursuits. Over the course of the last week, I have gotten out my violin to practice, mostly in anticipation of a performance at an upcoming family reunion that I should have started preparing for weeks if not months ago. But these are a few thoughts I’ve had on the subject.

I don’t like playing my violin. I have to get it in and out of the case nearly every time I use it, and I’m not very good. I practiced for hours on end when I was in middle school and high school simply because my violin teacher(s) asked me to. I didn’t take much pleasure in it.

My immediate and extended families, mostly my dad’s side, are very music-oriented. Music is an important part of our family traditions and I learned violin partly so I would be able to participate. There was kind of an expectation that when I got to college that I would study music on top of whatever else, if not make that my major. But that wasn’t what I wanted for myself. And of course as soon as I got to BYU and figured out how competitive and labor-intensive the music program there is I knew that wasn’t happening.

I enjoy listening to music but making it is kind of an offense to my inner sloth. Since moving out to college, I have gotten out my violin only for the Fourth of July and Christmas. In fact there aren’t a lot of my friends who know I play the violin at all. But in addition to satisfying my own self-indulgence, not making my violin a part of my regular hobbies has been a kind of rebellion against the family paradigm, or at least my perception of it.

So last week I started playing again. I’ve not only been practicing the piece for my upcoming performance, but I’ve also been playing old Suzuki pieces and favorite hymns to warm up. In light of recent personal struggles, taking time to make music has been refreshing. Somewhere in between and after all the hard hours of practice, I forgot that there are violin pieces that I enjoy playing. I forgot what all those hours of hard work were for--so that I could play the music.

I moved to Arizona my junior year of high school. One of the perks was playing in the high school orchestra. I got my violin in and out of its case every day for eight months. At home I would practice on my aunt’s violin, and I would pick out the hard parts and play them over and over again so I wouldn’t trip up when performance time came. Belonging to a legit high school orchestra was one of the best experiences of my life. I practiced my parts the best I could so that I could felt like I’d earned all of it--because the field trips and the friendships would have meant nothing to me if I’d gone home and slacked off. The last orchestra concert of the year we played a medley from Pirates of the Caribbean with the band and it was amazing. I practiced and practiced and PRACTICED because I love Pirates, I love the music from the films, I went on the ride twice when I went to Disneyland, and I wanted that final performance to be the best it could be--and I wanted my part to be the best it could be.

E! Online
After high school, I told myself that I would keep playing the violin and singing in church choirs so that I could make other people happy. I’ve done ward choir a lot less than I would have liked, especially after graduation, and I’ve touched my violin even less. But I remembered something last week. I do the things I do--the cosplay, the writing, the fan art and memes--for the same reason that I need to keep up with my music. It’s not about me, it’s about the happiness I can bring to other people when I share my gifts. And those other people include, oddly enough, myself. I practice so that when I’m called on to perform, I can do ____ to the best of my ability. You have to practice hard in order to be good at something, and you learn something ahead of time so you can enjoy it later. You have to master the basics in order to do the hard stuff.

Yes, focusing on my chosen field of study in college was important, but, now especially after graduation, it is also important to focus on all of my talents and interests, to enrich myself in as many ways as possible. Listening to beautiful music is wonderful, but being able to make it is a gift in itself.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Reality Check

I am currently seeing a therapist. Yesterday we had a very frank discussion about the direction I've been taking with some of my hobbies. There's nothing wrong with fandom or cosplay, my therapist suggests, or with using these as an escape. But one thing she was concerned about was that it's getting to the point where it's easier for me to find purpose in my fantasies than in real life.

The worst thing about having OCD that it can turn anything--ANYTHING--into a bad thing. It's not that I have lost myself completely in my fantasy life. It's just that I'm afraid that I'm going to. I'm afraid that there is going to be a negative impact on my ability to take care of myself and to have normal, healthy relationships. I brought this up with my counselor because I've been struggling with that fear lately.

As I mentioned in a previous post, your focus determines your reality. My OCD is so focused on the fantasy stuff (because it attacks the things you love) that it can appear to be dominating my life. At the same time, partly due to my OCD, I focus a lot these days on escaping reality. It's partly because my reality is less than satisfactory. It's also because I've reached the point where, thanks to cosplay and other means available in fandom, I can bring my fantasies to life. It's empowering and, at the same time, addicting.

I think one solution is balancing my life with other activities. Because let's face it, my worst fear is going to the other extreme and falling for the lie that I need to cut out everything geek-related in my life. Or, even worse, I do something stupid to act on that lie.

One thing my therapist suggested was to go home and write down my thoughts on the matter--not write as an escape, but use writing as a tool. She wanted me to start thinking about what gives me purpose in real life and what I could use to keep myself attached to the real world. And I thought, why not make it a blog post?

Things that give me purpose in real life:

  • Making music--I'll have a post about that next week
  • Friendships--being with the people I care about is what makes me happier than anything else
  • Service, especially helping other people with mental/emotional disabilities
  • Travel--I love going to places I've never been to, but I always like revisiting places I love
  • Scholarship--literature and history in particular. Now that I'm done with college, I am nowhere near done learning. And I want to learn for fun! I want to fill in the gaps in my favorite subjects and to discover new ideas as well. 
  • My family--Spending time with family is about building real relationships and creating real memories, strengthening bonds that are meant to be eternal
  • Animals--I love being with or working with animals. I'd love to own a pet someday--it's not as practical, I know, in my circumstances, but something to think about
  • Reading books--let's face it, there are already millions of books out there to read, and there are more to come
  • Following my natural curiosity--when you come across something by chance, don't let it pass you by, find out what it is and see where following it can take you
  • Theater/drama--the more serious side to entertainment, storytelling without cameras or special effects or editing
  • Nature--including occasional hiking and camping, but I'm really more of a relaxed walk kind of person
  • Watching movies--there are always old ones to rewatch and new ones to discover
  • Socializing--I love going out and meeting new people and spending time with my friends.
  • Cooking and baking--I haven't really done a lot of baking lately. 
  • Service and participation in the Church

Well, that's a start.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Liz on "Les Miz"

Last month for cleaning checks I had the first act of the Les Miserables 25th Anniversary Concert playing in the background. For this month I did act two.

I've been thinking a bit about Arizona lately since it's my second home. Arizona is important to me for a number of reasons. One of them should be, perhaps, the fact that Arizona is where I had my first exposure to Les Mis. It was the night before Girls' Camp. It was my first year and was going with my cousin's stake. While my cousin and her friends were outside playing in the pool, I went inside while my aunt was cleaning house. She had the original cast recording of Les Miserables playing while she worked (hence I guess the association with Les Mis and cleaning). I remember that some of the songs were fun to listen to.

Via Mi Isla Creations

We were at Camp LoMia over Sunday, and that night we had a fireside with Jenny Prince, whose theater camp I had been in for the last two summers. Jenny told the story of Jean Valjean's change of heart at the beginning of Les Mis--but at the time I had no idea that it was part of the same musical that my aunt was listening to the other day.

My junior year of high school, I moved to Snowflake/Taylor for a year. Best experience of my life. One of the reasons that was the case was my English class with the late Ms. Carolyn Cunningham. Ms. Cunningham required us to write up three book reports per semester on reading we had done on our own. One of the books available for our reports from her collection was an abridged version of Les Miserables. Ms. Cunningham told us at the beginning of the school year--heck, it may have been the first day of school--"If you don't read Les Miserables while you're in high school, you are not human."


There were a lot of things I learned from Ms. Cunningham that I took to heart. That line about Les Mis must have been one of them. I checked out the abridged version in January. Between all of my other assigned readings for Ms. Cunningham's class and the homework for my other classes (I was in nearly all honors/dual credit courses) it was slow going. But it was in class that I read about Jean Valjean's conversion. I finished Les Mis at the end of February. I loved it. I was just blown away by the feeling I had while reading it--like drinking orange juice. It made me feel excited. That was about all of the story that made sense to me at the time. I was able to keep the plot straight, but I couldn't quite put my finger on what the major themes were.

I've had the Mormon Tabernacle Choir album Showtime since high school and it's one of the CDs I have listened to OVER and OVER again. So I was familiar with the song "Bring Him Home." But I didn't quite have the context for the song after reading the book. I had yet to see the musical in any form.

Junior year, of course, was when Susan Boyle happened. I was blown away by the video like everyone else, but the song "I Dreamed a Dream" really spoke to me at the time.

In 2012, two things happened. The movie version of the musical came out. I have yet to see it, but for now let's just say Honest Trailers (link) and recommendations from other friends have ruined the chances of that for the time being. But 2012 was also when Alfie Boe guest starred with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for their annual Christmas concert. I had the privilege of being able to attend and watch him sing Bring Him Home IN PERSON. There is nothing quite like that. And I have never heard louder cheering in the Conference Center than when he performed that.

I have an aunt on my mom's side who LOVES Alfie Boe. She got me a copy of the Les Mis 25th Anniversary Concert on DVD in 2012, so that was how I finally saw the musical all the way through. I have watched it a handful of times, but it's an amazing experience every time. The 25th Anniversary concert in particular is when you get the reunion with four previous casts and it's awesome (I may just be biased but Alfie is the best Valjean. In any event, he's my Valjean).
Via makinghugospin.livejournal. Too good to pass up!

I haven't seen any other versions of the musical but I would like to.  I really regret not seeing it when Provo High School did it a couple years ago. (I also saw the non-musical movie starring Liam Neeson not long ago--it was an okay movie, a little different). I've heard from some friends that I'm not missing much by not reading the unabridged version of the novel. We'll see if that happens. And now I'm in the bad habit of listening to "One Day More" the day before a major movie comes out.

I think what has helped me to understand the story is listening to the musical over and over again, and paying attention to the story and the words. After his conversion, Jean Valjean spent his life serving others. He did what he could to help Fantine, and then he gave Cosette the best life possible. And then he rescued Marius so that he and Cosette could be together. Social justice and revolutions can only do so much. It is individual acts of service, kindness to others, and love that truly changes the world. "To love another person is to see the face of God." I truly believe that.

And I don't care if there are restrictions on being a Les Mis fan. I don't care if I don't have the most cultivated taste on Les Mis. I am a fan whether you want me in or not.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Bucky Bewitched? Getting Scholarly on 'Civil War'

The SparkNotes Version ;)
  • The ten code words used to control the Winter Soldier are a modern/sci-fi twist on a magic spell
  • The understanding of magic in the middle ages and today agrees that specific words or chants can create certain effects, including control over other people’s behavior
  • In the middle ages, science and corrupted scientific understanding were seen as a form of magic
  • In the popular imagination, magic is the unseen power behind events that are hard to explain or understand
  • Scholar Rosalind Morris states that in the mid-twentieth century Russian communism was a source of misunderstanding and, hence, a source of fear and unexplainable events
  • To certain scholarly points of view, elements of popular beliefs on about magic in Bucky’s story are effective in explaining how Hydra controls him and how he could possibly be saved

Warner Bros. Via Odessy Online

The Full Version: Get ready to LEARN

Okay, first let me make the disclaimer that I do not write this post to endorse certain worldviews or ritual practices.  I am only making a scholarly point.

Secondly, I don’t really have a good working thesis. This isn’t an official scholarly paper, but me using some of the things I learned at BYU to offer perspective. Look at these ideas more as the seeds of a scholarly dissection of some themes in the MCU. I don’t know enough about anthropology or folklore or medieval legends to know what I’m talking about, but I know enough to think I’m on to something

Third, if you haven’t seen Captain America: Civil War yet (and it’s been out for over a month), I would highly recommend that you do go see it before reading this.

Captain America: Civil War came out a few short weeks ago. While being the long-awaited third installment of the Captain America trilogy, like Marvel's other films it also came with some new symbols and motifs for the fandom to have fun with, notably the plums Bucky never got to eat and “Mission Report, December 16, 1991.”

Marvel via Moviepilot

And then there’s the ten Russian code words that trigger the Winter Soldier’s programming. There’s something different about this aspect of Hydra’s Asset--it’s not like anything we’ve seen in the MCU before, nor like anything in other recent action/sci-fi films. It’s more like something out of a twisted fairy tale or a horror story.

To be honest, I don't like seeing the fandom joking around about the code words. It's gotten to the point where something that hurts a fictional character shouldn't be spoken of lightly. But why did the fandom take the code words in particular and run with them?

Longing...Rusted...Seventeen...Daybreak...Furnace...Nine...Benign..Homecoming...One...Freight carWhat’s going on here?

I was up late one night getting ready for bed but thinking intently about the “cursed” words as I like to call them. I thought jokingly to myself, those words are so evil they could summon Satan.

And then I realized: WHAT IF THEY COULD?

Disney via Rebloggy

My inner English major/Medievalist woke up.  I grabbed my copy of Richard Kieckhefer’s Magic in the Middle Ages and pulled up my old term paper on medieval magic and started combing for evidence. Because, let’s face it, Bucky’s arc in Civil War did not end on a happy note.  I needed answers.  And I found some.

A Summary of Medieval Perspectives of Magic

Magic itself, I argued in my paper, is behind the things that cause surprise and wonder because of its inability to be explained--both for good and bad. Rosalind Morris writes that belief in the supernatural is the cultural explanation for trends and events that are harder to understand. It is what undermines reason, creates illusion, and defies the laws of nature. It is a foreign element that possesses the individual and causes random or tragic events to happen.

“Witchcraft is, in fact, the discourse that turns accident into violence, attributing agency to seemingly random events.  In other words, witchcraft is cathartic theater in its purest form--tragic, universal, written in blood, and always failed.  That is what anthropology teaches us” (Morris 115).

In the middle ages, the understanding of most people was that regular, controlled movements and sounds create effects that are out of the ordinary. Magic charms to invoke the effects of nature and/or supernatural beings carried over from antiquity, and the rites of the medieval Christian church took a similar role in common and elite culture. When a person went to church, for instance, the ritual of the Mass produced the effect of Transubstantiation, and being in a ritualized, spiritual environment created spiritual elation and awe in the participants. To the medieval imagination, the repetitive sounds of liturgical chants (particularly in Latin) and music and the spiritual perks of the worship service had a cause-effect relationship. Magic among the common people was a mix of liturgical rituals and folk superstitions, to generalize it badly. Among the clerical elite, necromancy involved a perversion of liturgical material in order to control demons. What was being said or done in these incantations and controlled movements or behaviors--crushing rocks, mixing certain plants, drawing diagrams--could have little or nothing to do with what was actually being done or why.

Via Pinterest

The main distinction between the magical and the miraculous is that while miracles happen without human volition, magic invokes or controls supernatural forces. Magic is not religion or spiritual energy, but in some traditions, it can manipulate spiritual forces as well as forces in nature.  It is “the other.”

Kieckhefer explains that spoken words, the more mysterious the better, are central to the use of magic. “The use of arcane language, whatever other significance it has, at least suggests...mysterious ingredients or processes” (68).  He also cites the ideas of the writers of late antiquity and the medieval period:

“For the Egyptian writer Origen it is words that have magical power, and especially names. The names of demons, if pronounced in the right way, can be used to invoke them, command them, or exorcise them. Their names must be used in their original forms; they cannot be translated into different languages or they will lose their power” (39-40).

Monsters and Magic in the MCU

So, we have ten words in Russian, spoken to a brainwashed victim to control his behavior, usually while he is strapped to a chair. Specific words, in a specific language, in a specific order, spoken to a specific person. Even if it has been months or years since he has heard these words, they send him on a bloody rampage in seconds. He is helpless to resist the power of these words.  It must have taken years of torture and conditioning to get this to work on Bucky.  
Marvel via Propcake

It doesn’t look like the “magic” we see in the Thor movies or the “magic” that will be explored in Doctor Strange. But, in my personal opinion, a lot of the magic we see in the MCU isn’t literally magic, it’s moments when moments when unexplainable things happen--when Peter Quill grabs hands with the other Guardians in spite of being ripped to shreds by the Infinity Stone, when Scott Lang returns from the Quantum Realm, when Steve Rogers acknowledges the little kid who recognizes him at the museum.  And on the flip side, when Hydra does terrible, evil things to Bucky Barnes.

From the Medieval perspective, magic and science don’t have that much distinction.  The methods that Hydra used over the decades to subject Bucky to their will look like corrupted science, knowledge of psychology and conditioning and human behavior put to evil use. Kieckhefer emphasizes that magic that controlled the will was considered evil or at least frowned upon in medieval society, a misuse of what ought to be used for good (81).

Furthermore, in Captain America: Civil War we have two elements that popular culture and medieval mindsets associated with magic: Hydra’s secret knowledge of how to control the Asset, and the secret book that contains this knowledge. Part of what makes Helmut Zemo such a terrifying villain is that he went to great lengths to obtain this knowledge for his scheme.  He found the book buried behind a concrete wall and killed the guy he took it from. Medieval alchemists and magicians only shared or passed their knowledge amongst themselves, and what gave them their aura of mystery was the value they placed on their ideas. Their work was “cherished simply because it brings hidden things to light, or at least to the dim visibility of the shadows” (Kieckhefer 142). The books by which they accessed their power were prized highly and came to be considered talismans in their own right. They were not necessarily bloodthirsty for power, but people who didn’t understand what they were up to could have thought them to be.

Via Screenrant

The Russian language itself is one of the “arcane” languages of the modern age. Rosalind Morris points out that during the Cold War, literal magic and witchcraft became benign in popular culture, while the public menace ferreted by the McCarthy “Witch Hunts” was Communism (117). The Winter Soldier was housed in Siberia, his handlers spoke to him in Russian, and his metal arm still had a communist red star before it was torn off violently by Tony Stark. In the cursed words themselves, there are three numbers: one, nine, and seventeen.  One fan on Facebook pointed out that if arranged just so, you get the year 1917, which is the year Bucky was born.  More conspicuously, however, 1917 was also the year of the Russian Revolution. Human minds and cultures are wired for symbols. Communism, facism, religious fanaticism, and ideological movements of any sort are based on rhetoric, and from the rhetoric springs the heavily loaded words that identify the movement.

Communist conspiracies once took the blame for the misfortunes of the twentieth century.  In the twenty-first century, terrorism is the new witchcraft, being created by foreign extremists and causing mass destruction and societal chaos.  World governments struggle to control this insubstantial force with laws that are met with protests that they are encroachments on personal freedom. In Civil War, the governments of the MCU pass the Sokovia Accords to control not just the terrorists but the superheroes supposed to protect the masses from them.  No sooner has the signing ceremony begun than the building where the nations approving the bill is bombed by Zemo, masquerading as Bucky. The Winter Soldier is by all definitions in a world that closely resembles ours a terrorist--and it is a label he cannot escape. Terrorism is an unacceptable behavior, and yet Bucky becomes a terrorist as soon as someone says the “magic words.” Even without the specific triggers, Bucky Barnes is, by some scholarly definitions, a victim of sorcery.

Marvel via Vulture

The Search for the Cure

I heard it said recently that superhero stories are fairy tales for adults. Playing with the metaphor just a little bit, the ten “cursed” words are of interest to the fandom because they are a twisted, modern version of a magic spell. They are yet another connection that Bucky’s saga has to popular stories and fairy tales about enchantments and curses. And for me, anything I’m obsessed with gets automatically connected to fairy tales and magic. It’s easier to explain this different world in those terms.  

Any lover of fairy stories (like myself) knows there can always be a remedy for a curse. Bucky has already come across a few instances of “good magic” on his journey that significantly countered the effects of Hydra’s brainwashing and torture. If you remember in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Steve got the Winter Soldier’s attention when he called him by name. To quote the narration in the new Cinderella, “Names have power.” And Kieckhefer’s book makes the exact same point.
Via Tumblr

Then at the climax, Steve repeats the words “I’m with you till the end of the line” to Bucky. Those words sparked a memory: they meant something to him. The fandom has been nuts over the phrase “Till the end of the line” because of what they did. They changed his behavior: they changed his whole story. If those words aren’t magic, I don’t know what is.

While there wasn’t much evidence in the final cut of the film to back this up, Sebastian Stan spent the weeks leading up to the Civil War premiere teasing that Bucky’s backpack contains notebooks upon which he’s written his memories. The idea itself is powerful because it’s Bucky’s alternative to the trigger words and other secrets about the Winter Soldier written down by Hydra in that evil book Zemo had. You could say he’s creating his own “books” of good magic to counter the evil.

Definitely want to keep anything bad from happening to those notebooks--Via Tumblr

But, as far as the actual MCU is concerned, that’s the best that Bucky and Steve have been able to do so far. And it’s not enough to keep Bucky’s inner demons at bay. It’s not enough to help relieve the guilt of the terrible crimes that Hydra used the Winter Soldier to commit. It’s not enough to keep Bucky from feeling like a monster.  

The mid-credit scene in Civil War brings up more questions for Bucky than it answers--and leaving him hanging like that isn’t going to help anything.

Perhaps, like the way I have just divined the folkloric elements of the curse words that have power over Bucky, maybe the MCU will tap into a non-scientific or pseudo-scientific source for his remedy. I can’t help but think of the comment that the grandmother made in Leslie Silko’s Ceremony: “that boy needs a medicine man.” (Friendly reminder that the protagonist in Ceremony is a WWII vet with PTSD).

True, Bucky’s story is already trippy enough without bringing pagan and shamanistic remedies into the mix. But maybe there’s bits and pieces of something like that that could work for him. Wakanda is technologically advanced, but do they have traditional shamans and sorcerers who would know how to help Bucky? Do medical and psychological treatments in Wakanda involve a mix of traditional cures and modern medicines? It’s not unheard of in China, where according to a documentary I saw once acupuncture is mixed with modern medicine.
Via Superhero Hype

But...if Bucky’s back on cryo, there weren’t any doctors in Wakanda who had any ideas for treatment off the top of their heads, traditional or otherwise. I’d like to think I’m on to something. Maybe I am reading too deep into this. I doubt the MCU will go that route but it's worth putting out there. Traditional cures work best for people within their cultures because they believe in them.

But there’s more than one way to eat a plum, I guess. To Tolkien, the modern industrial world was one of terror and the inspiration for Sauron and Saruman’s evil machinations. To him, the alternative was going back to traditional stories and legends as sources of comfort. Looking at the MCU, Bucky is a victim of the evils of the late twentieth century, of corrupt science and mental manipulation and foreign ideology. Something more ancient--more magical--could be available to help him. Some magic from Asgard or some of Doctor Strange’s mysticism. Maybe even an Infinity Stone. ( I haven’t read the comics, but I am aware that it was the Cosmic Cube that fixed Bucky at one point). The final solution might not be that straightforward, but it’s something to think about. As I said before, magic isn’t necessarily an actual power or spells and illusions. It’s something unexpected. Bucky needs whatever help he can get, and it may come from some place even I haven’t thought of.
New Line Cinema via LOTR wiki

As for the cursed words, the fandom is just beginning to pick them apart. In the meantime, my gut reaction when I see them online or hear them spoken aloud is to cringe. I’m not saying the rest of you shouldn’t be writing them down and using them in memes to poke fun at Bucky. I am saying that it’s good to be aware of why the trigger words work in his story--and why I don’t like them.

Link: My Term Paper for ENGL 371, which I drew from heavily for this piece