Monday, February 24, 2020

Happiness, Joy, and Peace

Happiness, joy, and peace are three very different things. It is possible to have them all at once, but those moments are kind of rare in the grand scheme of things. The first two words in particular are sometimes used interchangeably, and so it is that I often find myself defining the difference between them. Now I find it important to introduce that third element as well.

We each get happy over different things. I am happy when I go to Disneyland, when I find a cool new chocolate bar to review, when I finish washing the dishes, when I'm watching my bearded dragon eat her morning salad, or when I see a really great bolt of lightning. None of these are bad things. But they don't really matter much in and of themselves. Some of them are fairly superficial and unimportant in a certain sense.

Joy is a little different. Think of things like seeing a newborn in your family for the first time or spending time with people you care about (not for the sake of the place or activity but for the sake of the time together) or your first kiss with someone. See what I'm getting at? Joy starts moving outside of the self. Happiness is self-centered. It can involve others, but it's mainly about you and things happening to you. Joy is more about connection. It can still be solitary, depending. But it mainly involves a connection outside of yourself. And this would be why the phrase "the joy of the Lord:" that's ultimate connection outside of the self.

And peace, peace is certainty and assurance. Peace can exist outside of and apart from happiness; it can even exist inside sadness. Peace is greater than the worries of the current moment in time. And peace is what allows you to fully enter and appreciate those moments of joy, and peace is what helps you to be thankful for the happinesses rather than expecting the things (the Disneyland or the ownership of an exotic pet) to be things that you must possess in order to be content.

Maybe peace is being, joy is interacting, and happiness is receiving. I mean, you receive peace and joy, too, but I was trying to build a nice and neat sentence there. And it loops it all back around, right? Receiving joy and receiving peace are, as I mentioned, what can bring you back around to gratefully receiving happiness. So as I started with, the three are interrelated but don't necessarily always overlap.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Scottsdale's Parada del Sol

Think of the Pony Express as the token of a bygone era, a phrase long passed away? That may be so, but the Pony Express is also still alive. It still runs its route once a year from northern Arizona down to Old Town Scottsdale, where a celebration kicks off the Parada del Sol the next morning. I have not yet been to see the Pony Express mail delivered, but this year I did finally make it to the Parada del Sol.

Scottsdale founder Winfield Scott and his wife.

The day begins with the Parada itself. Not really being overly a parade person, I took my time getting in and only caught about the second half (maybe less) or the parade. It's a community parade, with local schools, organizations, some knights in armor, and plenty of horses. Families are going to go to see their kids in the parade and so that their other children can have fun and get candy. If you love horses, there are some absolutely beautiful horses. And people in general are going to go because it's just a celebration of Scottsdale and central Arizona--and that's great.

There were horses wandering around afterwards, too.

After the parade, you have the rest of the day to enjoy the Trail's End Festival and the Arizona Indian Festival. Though they're all pretty much the same thing for the casual attendee, there is a division between them. The Trail's End Festival takes place in the street (which is of course closed off for the day) and the Arizona Indian Festival is off to the side in the Civic Center Plaza. After glancing at the food options available in the main area (these are the things that are important to me), I headed to the Plaza area first.


This park-like area is a wonderful, quiet place to spend time even when there isn't a festival. And during the festival, if you walked just a little apart, it also gave a chance for a quieter atmosphere for anyone needing a break from all the noise and people. The Indian Festival had vendors selling art and jewelry--a great opportunity if you're in the market for those. Of course there was fry bread for sale. There were kids' activities and cultural demonstrations. Various tribes also had booths to share their culture, and plenty of spots were giving info on tourist sites and tours, that sort of thing. Which is quite nice: there are many beautiful places to visit that are on tribal land, where there are separate rules about how to do things. So it's nice that they have people there who can answer questions or let you know what you might need to visit some of these places (whether a specific spot needs a permit and how to get one of if you can only go on a guided tour, that sort of thing).


Back in the Trail's End zone, there were more kids' activities. Plenty of them free, so this really is a great family event. There were three stages, as well. Two with bands, the style of music you'd expect at a community event, and then the Fiesta Stage had Mexican music and dancing.


I admit that I did skip out on the historical reenacting group. I'm not into focusing on gunfights and prostitutes--the nineteenth century and the history of the West and of Arizona are much more than that. So that's media, not history. What about the settlers and the ranchers--or hey, what about what all the rest of the festival is about? It kind of clashed to me.


Now back to the food. I wanted to scout it all out before I decided on anything because the one thing I was allowing myself to spend money on was food. (I had expected there to be more vendors than there were, so I had already beaten it into my head to not get overwhelmed by all the nice jewelry or whatever caught my eye.) They had some of the fair food type things and burgers and the fry bread. But I was trying to decide between tacos from this truck or that truck--so I got some from both. And they were both very good--and I don't say things like that lightly. So A+ on the food.


I sat for a while enjoying the sun after I'd eaten and watching the dancing. My favorite things were the food and the horses--and you know what, also the sun. It was an almost hot day for being winter, the type of day where you're glad for an excuse to just get outside.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Antidote: Rose Salt + Lemon

Some chocolate companies have an intense marketing/design team behind them. Antidote Chocolate appears to be one of those companies. Maybe it's largely due to the vision of founder Red Thalhammer; maybe it's because she knows how to build a good team. But Antidote is oozing with that cool and hip vibe. You can see it in the design. You can see it in the words on the packaging and on their website. There are references to the Greek goddess of youth, Hebe, and to chocolate as an antidote to whatever is troubling you (stress, hunger, sadness, low energy, etc.). And of course there is the obligatory talk about the Ecuadorian Arriba Nacional cocoa and about how it's all direct trade.


When things are marketed so "well" and on trend you almost begin to wonder if it's too much. Trends change, after all. But style is just style, and flavor remains apart from all that (or does it? what do the blind taste tests show?).


Sadly, I once again have some chocolate with very bad bloom on it. And this isn't due to an impending expiration date: that isn't until a year from now. That's Arizona, I guess. This is why there used to be no chocolate makers in Arizona, eh? It's winter right now, so this damage must have taken place a while ago. I wonder if it happened when it was being shipped to the little shop where I bought it, and then it's been sitting in that little shop with no one buying it for months since that time . . .


Anyway. This naturally would have been quite an attractive bar before the bloom. The back of the bar has a look almost like chocolate bark, with the salt and lemon peel sprinkled onto it. The front has round bumps on the squares that spell out "Antidote." These are the chocolate pills you can pop as the antidote to whatever ails you. Personal preference here: it's nice to consider good quality chocolate as something you can turn to when you need a little something special, but do we really want to make light of the concept of pill-popping?


The chocolate has a straightforward, Ghirardelli type semisweet chocolate aroma. I tasted it first with the salt side down. The salt almost tasted smokey for a second, but no, that wasn't it at all, it was just salt. The chocolate unfortunately didn't want to melt. A combination of this being winter and therefore the chocolate being currently at a cooler temperature and also the damage done by the blooming. So I went ahead and chewed the chocolate a little; I didn't want to sit with it an hour until it became warm enough to melt.


In this fashion, I did get a slight bitterness early on. I think that was mainly because I got a full hit of the chocolate instead of easing into it: this chocolate really isn't what I'd normally call bitter. It's warm and red and nice. The salt was gone by the time I got to the chocolate and I didn't notice any rose or lemon flavors. The chocolate's flavor stayed pretty much the same the whole time, which isn't necessarily a bad thing; it's just the way it is.

Going with the salt side up for the second piece, I started on a little chewing again, then tried to keep up a light chew rather than settling in for melting. This way the salt was able to mix in with the flavor of the chocolate more. This time, the feeling was more of a chocolate spread, which was kind of a cool effect. This happened both because of the way that the salt worked in and because of the texture. There's something about this chocolate's texture that feels different, a little thicker. I can't say grainy, just thicker somehow.

By this point, I was really wondering about the missing rose and lemon. So I turned to the ingredients list and finally realized that rose and salt are not two separate words: it is fact rose salt. I've come across plenty of flavored salts, but never rose salt. It doesn't seem to make sense: isn't rose too tender to stand up to the bold taste of salt? No wonder I don't taste any rose. I tried licking the salt on the bar to see if I could taste it in a more isolated way like that, but I still just tasted salt. Granted, the salt did taste a little different to me on that first bite, but that doesn't mean that I ever tasted rose.

Now, not being one to favor lemon chocolate, I wasn't exactly looking forward to the lemon element, but still, where is it? I did end up with a tiny piece of lemon peel in my mouth at one point, so I could taste it then when it was by itself like that. But that's different. And it did make me see why the lemon is nigh invisible: the lemon peel pieces are pretty tiny. Going subtle on lemon is probably a good thing, but maybe if the pieces were just a little bigger, they'd be part of the flavor instead of just images on the packaging.

So this is mainly just salted chocolate. I mean, it's possible that because this chocolate has been through some temperature changes or whatnot, that affected the flavors. But I doubt it affected things that much. As salted chocolate, it's nice. It's a good level of salt. Not overly salty and yet not super subtle either. Given that Antidote focuses on flavored chocolate, I would have preferred my first look at their products to be something with a little more flavor going on, something a little bolder maybe. But this was good. It's a solid, widely-appealing dark chocolate base with some fun flavor added in.


Monday, February 3, 2020

Aurora, Little Women, & Artistic Release

Okay, last week I was listening to Breaking Benjamin while writing about Puccini's La Boheme. This week I'm taking it one step further and comparing the generation of the latest version of "Dear Agony" with Southwest Shakespeare's production (by Tier 5) of "Meg Jo Beth Amy & Louisa."

I can't just talk about the play because my feelings on it are mixed. On the one hand, it delivered striking emotional chords the likes of which I don't remember seeing since the January 2017 Hamlet (oh, that was one was amazing). On the other, I'm uninterested in mixing things up and modernizing things just for the sake of mixing up and modernizing--for instance, why does the audience get so excited whenever they add in cuss words, is that really that creative?

And I also can't just talk about "Dear Agony." It's part of Breaking Benjamin's new acoustic album, Aurora, and it has the exciting first collaboration with Lacey Sturm formerly of Flyleaf (their Memento Mori is probably my top album of all). So I can say, yeah, that's a great song and so is the story about how they came to collab and the possibility of them doing a whole album together. Her comment to him about how the song is Jesus in Gethsemane is really a reflection of the relation between art, the artist, and the processing of emotion.

And that's where we come back to the play. It is so-titled as it is because it shows Lousia May Alcott writing Little Women and fighting with her publisher over what she doesn't want to write (we all know she had no interest in writing a book for little girls). She is literally onstage with her characters, deciding what they will do, trying to find a connection by writing about her own family, and then along the way realizing that she is invested in this story because it has become something that she does care about.

On one hand, Little Women is as flat as her publisher wanted. On the other, it is quite a contrast to other moral stories of the day and that's why it has continued to be read even today. She did what was asked and somehow tweaked it just enough that it wouldn't be too shocking as to not be published and yet that it would be enough that it would subtly start to shift things. Meg's Mishaps particularly stands out to me; she didn't just write about the good wife, she wrote about a young wife crying over the jelly that didn't jell and getting into the first friction with her husband over buying expensive clothing fabric. So Louisa wrote the moral tale--but she somehow also wrote real at the same time.

What does this have to do with Breaking Benjamin and Lacey Sturm? Throughout the play, we see Louisa struggling with her relationship not just to her publisher but also to her past and to her family and to her society and to herself. Through the creation of the book and the unraveling of her memories that comes with it, she is able to forgive people in her life (whether her sister or her father), to appreciate things in her life (particularly her sisters), and to better come to terms with her place in the world. So it is essentially an emotional unwinding process. Like what led to the Aurora collaboration.

On the one hand, you have Benjamin Burnley writing a rock song with whatever inspiration. Then Lacey Sturm comes in (I love that picture of them where she doesn't even come close to reaching his shoulder) saying, this is what your song is about. And then he in a way agrees to take on that interpretation by inviting her to collab with him on the new version. So the song starts angling into a new or perhaps simply more full meaning as the artist's relationship with it develops. Emotional unwinding.

The play is over, but here is the Spotify link to the Aurora version of "Dear Agony."

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Valerie Confections: Grand Elle Assortment

Normally I steer clear of Valentine's Day chocolates (and honestly of Valentine's Day itself, as well, do you not find it odd also?); however, I've always found Valerie Confections enticing and last year I started working my way into their Valentine's Day offerings. I looked then at the Grand Homme Assortment, so this year it's the Grand Elle Assortment. You really don't have to choose these based on whether you're buying for a man or a woman. Everyone's palate is going to be different, so just go off of what they (or you, if they're for yourself) tend to like best. Though I'd thought that the Pour Homme flavors sounded more appealing, it turns out that I definitely favor the Pour Elle chocolates.

Instead of the bold red ribbon of the other box, this one has a soft pink. And the chocolates inside are so pretty and feminine. The addition of those four white roses just does me in. I mean, I fell for Valerie Confections over their Rose Petal Petit Fours, so I guess I'm already weak in the knees for rose chocolate from them. It's the same type of set as the Grand Homme box, except that you have the roses instead of more little hearts and the most plentiful (and also alcohol-flavored) chocolates are rounded instead of sharp and angled in shape. And the flavors are quite different.


Liquid Caramel Hearts - I had to start with these because I'm finally getting actual caramel. Yes, it's liquid caramel, not toffee masquerading under the name of caramel. It's excellent caramel, too, tasting of vanilla and sweetness to balance out the semisweet dark chocolate. Using dark instead of milk chocolate here gives it more of a classy feel. I do really have to emphasize that the caramel is great because that's what makes Valerie great, elements like that. These aren't quite what I consider confections and not quite truffles, either; they're "chocolates," if that distinction makes any sense to anyone other than me. There are three of these in the box.


Champagne Truffles - These are the round dots of milk chocolate that are most plentiful in the box. They're smooth-looking like fabric-covered buttons on an elegant settee. They taste like decadence and elegance, too. This is what I mean by chocolates rather than truffles or confections. These chocolates make me feel pampered like a 19th century Parisian lady lounging around in silk and lace and perfume. The smooth ganache has a definite champagne flavor but also lots of cream and a light chocolate flavor. It's more reminiscent of a chocolate cream than a traditional champagne truffle. So indulgent.


Blushing Berry Truffles - These are the three squares with little red specks of dried rose petals on top. The ganache here is a little firmer and the chocolate a little thinner than in the Champagne Truffles. Immediately you get a rich berry flavor that doesn't taste so much like a specific berry but more like a medley. It tastes like a berry jam spread on scones at an afternoon tea served on flowery china outside with a view of a grassy lawn or a forest. Again, elegant and feminine.


Rose Petal Passion Fruit Truffles - The pictures don't show how great these look in person. White roses with just a little gold painted on them. They look so special, like wow, that's done just for me--that means I'm so special to have these. Initially I felt like I enjoyed the rose taste but would maybe have preferred not to have the greater pizzaz of the passion fruit. But as the bite went on, I literally fell in love (kind of a repeat of the Petit Four experience). Rose is a watery sort of flavor and passion fruit has more zing, so the two come together to create something that dances between flavorful and gentle. The white chocolate is perfect here because it just gives creaminess to everything. Milk chocolate and passion fruit with be too cloying and this would be too harsh with dark chocolate; so white chocolate is the best. The aftertaste is rose. This chocolate makes me feel female. It puts me in the rose garden at the Huntington Library, or sitting in the tea room and then strolling through the art galleries. No surprises as to which truffle is my favorite, eh?


Bittersweet Hearts - And we'll finish with the simplest item. These are the two big hearts with stripes. They're just plain dark chocolate, which is kind of disappointing. I was a big fan of the Almond Toffee Hearts in the Pour Homme box. And I don't go to Valerie Confections for plain chocolate. I mean, they're nice chocolate hearts. A light bitter twinge and a little sweetness move toward a nice warm and red finish; it's pleasant, balanced chocolate. But I would have preferred to have more truffles, or some other type of flavored something. I can see how someone who doesn't have stacks of chocolate bars at home like I alway seem to might enjoy getting some plain chocolate, too, but that's just not what I prefer in this context.


Even so, my overall opinion on this box was much more favorable than with the Pour Homme box. So maybe they're aptly named after all? I didn't dislike anything in here, I was okay with the plain chocolate, I greatly enjoyed all four truffles, and I loved most of them. Visually they're appealing and flavor-wise they set up beautiful imagery. This is chocolate to spoil a girl, for sure. And I use that diction on purpose: yes, there will be men who like this chocolate and women who don't and women who like this chocolate but also like rich and dark truffles that focus on cocoa origins more than floral additions, but this chocolate selection expresses that traditional concept of femininity. And I'm really into it.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Me to We: 65% Dark Chocolate

Here I have the second fair trade chocolate bar that I found at Barnes & Noble last month. At just under $4, at first I thought it was kind of inexpensive (especially given that, if anything, chocolate would probably cost more at Barnes & Noble than at another place), but then I noticed that it is only 40 grams. About half the usual size means it's about the usual price for this tier of chocolate. And I'm always up for a smaller chocolate bar. One, it does make the price tag look lower even if the price per ounce is the same. Two, it encourages eating less chocolate--which is something that I think should be part of the whole move toward fair trade cocoa (and yes, I am aware that by reviewing chocolate I am in a sense promoting eating more, not less, chocolate--but I'm also promoting awareness and appreciation, which can in turn help limit).


And I can go on all these ethical tangents here because the packaging of this chocolate is extreme on the socially ethical look. All the wording about a brighter future and education on the card box and then the picture of the smiling girl with her book on the inside of the box all contribute to a World Vision type style. And naturally so: Me to We is not specifically a chocolate company. They're the other side of WE Charity; in addition to chocolate, they also sell coffee and jewelry. I didn't think that I recognized the name, but the bracelets definitely look familiar, so I'm sure I've seen them before.


All this is great but it also made me wonder how the chocolate would actually taste. Not to be making a point of pointing fingers, but Equal Exchange, for instance, has good motives and sells different types of products and they do have good tea but their chocolate isn't very good.


The cocoa is sourced in Ecuador (the package says that it's made in Ecuador, as well, which is nice because often the beans are exported and then processed into chocolate in another country). So the wrapper has a traditional pattern in homage to the chocolate's heritage. The bar itself has a youthful and trendy vibe that reminds me of Girl Scout cookies, like something that you can say is for a cause but is also nice to eat in a casual sort of way (admittedly and unsurprisingly I never buy Girl Scout cookies anymore but that's the idea that Girl Scout cookies evoke).


Boy, this chocolate has been through some rough times, though. The stamp seems to say it was made in October 2018 and expires in April 2020. Chocolate has a long shelf life but it is usually less than ideal to get it so close to expiration. What surprises me about this is that I thought that Barnes & Noble just started selling these pretty recently. Usually I think of the approaching expiration dates belonging on chocolate bars that have been sitting untouched on the shelf of a little random shop for years. But this just goes to show how much chocolate sometimes has to travel and how many hands it has to go through before it gets to you. There is lots of bloom on this chocolate's surface; it's definitely been through some temperature changes. That bottom left corner especially has been through some times. Ah, that's life.


The chocolate immediately on unwrapping releases a sweet dark chocolate smell in that marshmallow flavor note zone that reminds me of a chocolate I used to get at Trader Joe's. Now, while I did like the bar's design, the squares are too big. Maybe it's just me, but these are much too big for one bite and I don't like to bite into dark chocolate; I like to place a piece in my mouth instead. Which means that I had to break one of these apart, which meant that I could tell that it was getting a little hard from being on the old side. Still, the chocolate had a good snap apart from that.

Initially, I thought that the texture had suffered for sure, but then it seemed to normalize. Or maybe I just got distracted by the flavor. It begins with a Ghirardelli-like semisweet chocolate taste, nice and silvery. But it doesn't stay there; it keeps developing. I want to say it gets a stewed fruit or banana taste, something like that. Then it starts mellowing and quieting, finishing gently and leaving a quiet and tender warmth.

Now I did see on their website that Me to We has won awards from the International Chocolate Awards and the Academy of Chocolate; awards like that are nothing to be modest about. But I still wasn't expecting this. I was expecting this chocolate to be mediocre; I truly was. I also wasn't expecting to care for it given that it's at 65% cocoa content. But this chocolate is good. I can see why the company holds its own at awards.

What this chocolate shows me is that they know how to use good cocoa and play to its strengths. This chocolate is neither at all bitter nor that weird middle range "sweet dark." It has some sweetness, but not too much. Instead, the slightly lower cocoa content keeps everything light so that the chocolate won't be intimidating. It's just a nice pleasant chocolate with mild flavor notes. If I were to do my nature metaphors, this chocolate would the moment when you're sitting and staring at a pond in a park. Absolutely wonderful when you're there and so many things to look at when you take the time for it. Less in-your-face, fireworks jumping into the sky but no less detailed. I would definitely recommend picking up some Me to We chocolate if you come across it.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Victoria the Beautiful T-Rex

Victoria the T-Rex is currently next to the Victorian house the Rosson House. These are the things that amuse me.


I am referring, of course, to the traveling exhibit that is currently at the Arizona Science Center. These traveling exhibits are great for the museum. I hadn't been there since I was eleven years old until I decided to go see the Pompeii exhibit a year or two ago. And now I was back again already for Victoria. The changing exhibits give families a chance to make a yearly visit and give adults an excuse to go, too.

And of course when there are dinosaurs involved, I'm in.

Victoria is certainly a beauty. While the exhibit is mainly just built around one skeleton, they did try and bulk it out a little with a cool intro video, a couple of interactive features, and an exit walk through a dark and jungley path. And we are looking at a more current approach to dinosaurs here. (Honestly, they keep discovering new things every day that I'm still skeptical about how much we actually know, but I guess that's beside the point.) Even when you look at Victoria herself. You can see the horizontal line her spine and tail make that's parallel with the ground versus that Godzilla posture of yesteryear. You can see the much wider ribcage whose shape is in fact a very new realization. And the text and interactive things had info not just about feathers but also about what kind of feathers a dinosaur like the T-Rex probably had.

Obviously, of course, if you just walk straight through, you'll be done in two minutes. But if you take the time to check out Victoria and her awesome bone structure, take some pictures with her, look at the interactive displays, and enjoy the little jungle walk, it's a nice time. Dinosaurs hit that sweet spot between science and fantasy and that's kind of what the exhibit aimed for, too.