Friday, February 5, 2016

The Connection Between Person and Place

Do you see this place? Do you walk about on this ground and feel each of your footsteps touching the earth? Do you look up at the sky, the same sky that covers the entire world, and know that it looks entirely unique from here? Do you glance forwards and backwards and sideways and commit to memory everything you see and then later remember it all? Do you imprint everything that you are feeling or thinking to this place, this one place?

Place is powerful, as is its connection with us at certain points in our lives.

When you visit a place at a specific time (an anniversary, a birthday, a first date, the first time you take your child out of town, after you received news about a new job, etc.), you will always associate that place with what you felt at that time. I've given happier moments, but it can be sad moments, too: after a family member has died or something of that nature. Either way, the theme in your life begins to meld with the theme of the place.

The roses at the Huntington Library strike you with perfection and remain so in every memory of them that you have. The rugged coastline of Cambria is exciting and adventurous, the start of a new era. The Painted Desert is simply beauty, as an image and as an action.

I realize that I have always been interested in place. I would read about thick forests and try and picture them in the woods on the drive up to Flagstaff. Or driving down to Phoenix, I would imagine that the fellowship from The Lord of the Rings was walking across the open plains. I could read Charlotte Bronte's vivid description of the emotion of a storm in Villette and feel the very same thing as I watched the monsoons here in late summer.

Every book that I like best evokes place so strongly. Sometimes it is a place I am familiar with and sometimes not; other times it is a place that I know is different but always picture as a place that I do know (like my example above of The Lord of the Rings). And everywhere that I go, I think of place. I always want to remember what a place feels like, what I think of when I'm in it, what the atmosphere of it is--what the impression of it is. And in trying to remember these things, each place naturally becomes who I am in that moment that I am there. In this place I am young, I am sad, I am free, I am remembering, I am acting, I am joyous. In this place that I will always remember this way.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Chocolate Amatller: Chocolate Basket

A whole basket of good chocolate? Really? What graces of product placement made such a thing available to me? How wondrous it is.

At least, I hoped it would be. I've had some experience with Chocolate Amatller--not much, just enough to make a positive impression (which is a big deal, though, when you think about it). A box that is more like a deep tray holds two full sized chocolate bars, two small bars, and a little tin of chocolate leaves. Everything is plain, no distracting flavors. In fact, for being a basket (which is generally a festive, glitzy sort of collection), it's all very plain. Yet the plainness is exactly what made me consider this basket promising.

I reached first for the little tin. Maybe not everyone would do this, but it came naturally to me as my way of working up through everything. I imagined that the tin would have more casual chocolate as opposed to the bars. Previously, I've had another tin of chocolate leaves from Amatller, except that those were milk chocolate. That tin had the art nouveau picture that you can partially see on the small chocolate bars here. These small dark leaves are a completely different shape from the milk chocolate ones, with a little more detail, too, in the veins and all. The taste is of fudge, dark in that sweet/bitter, thick way that I'm not always too much of a fan of. But in this case it's better done, and they are pleasant little chocolates.

Next I started with one of the small bars, the 70% Cacao Origin Ecuador. It's just 0.63 oz. The bar looks rather plain after the pretty leaves but is nicely molded. Its flavor is much more floral than the leaves are. This chocolate has more of a delicate sweetness, perhaps with some citrus, too. Essentially it's just a balance of simple flavors, not at all bitter. Sweet in a gentle way that is simply another flavor element. I really like this one: it's lovely, gentle, and fragrant.

For the other small bar, the 70% Ghana 0.63, I'll have to pass: I didn't personally try any of it. So we'll just assume that one was good, too.

With the full-sized bars, we have the 85% version of the Ecuador. Inside the pretty card box (as opposed to the simpler wrappings of the small bars) is a matte black wrapper with tiny orange flowers, rather a nice change from plain wrappers. The bar is quite pretty, too: all the squares have little leaves and declare the Amatller name in a wacky yet elegant font. As the chocolate begins to melt, you get a slight hint of bitterness followed by a slightly dusty texture. While this texture is a little unnecessary, the flavor is good. It's a continuation of the softness of the 70%, just with more deepness and the addition of bitterness into the flavor profile. While definitely not as delicate as the 70%, neither is it very dark for an 85%. And once your mouth gets used to the slightly dusty texture, you do keep wanting to eat more and more. It leaves a warm, red, rich aftertaste that gives me that particular feeling of wanting more that chocolate hasn't given me for a while.

Moving into the 85% Ghana bar, we're definitely moving into darker territory. It's a little more bitter and slightly dusty from the start. The flavors are more of raisins--those dried, darker fruits with less of the sprightliness of the Ecuador bars. The warmth and sweetness increase as the chocolate melts. Then comes a creamy, rich, chocolate taste that's like a very fine dessert, rich and complex. Makes me very regretful I never tried the 70% version. Though it is a little more bitter in the first half than the 85% Ecuador was (which I must warn you about in case it might make a difference to you), this chocolate becomes so tender and wonderful in flavor that the bitterness ends up meaning nothing: the result is worth it. Another very good chocolate.

Basically, then, everything's pretty good. The leaves are definitely the most basic, as I had expected given their casual place in the tin. I'd recommend starting with the 70% bars to get a grasp of the flavors without too much seriousness, then moving in to the 85% bars to experience a little more depth. In fact, it was all so wonderful that I hesitate to mention that I used a good deal of this chocolate to make first a batch of brownies and later a flourless chocolate cake. Needless to say, they were both stunning. I just wish I saw Chocolate Amatller around more often.

Monday, February 1, 2016

January Favorites

1) Metamorphosis Calendar by Perrin for Anthropologie - I like a unique calendar--but one where the numbers are still big enough to see, otherwise I don't see the point in hanging a calendar instead of just a picture. This one is very pretty, with animals transforming into other animals or into flowers. January had butterflies turning into birds February has a peacock with pink flowers growing as feathers from its tail. Subtle fantasy and elegant design, with a sort of muted colorfulness.

2) Star Wars Aurebesh Translator Ring - There are some Christmasy things still scattered around this list, including this ring, which I'd been wanting for a while. It has the regular alphabet along with the main one from Star Wars; I'm trying to learn it but I just haven't sat down to memorize everything yet (if I did, I'd have it down quickly). So I've been wearing this ring sometimes and just spinning it around to look at all the letters when I have a free moment and I'm already learning.

3) Darth Vader Moleskine - No, I didn't need this notebook, but I have an addiction to notebooks. So. A notebook with Darth Vader is naturally something that I'm going to end up owning.

4) Califia Farms Horchata - After enjoying Califia's almond milk egg nog this Christmas, I thought their horchata might be good, too. They make it with rice milk, tiger nut milk, and almond milk. The main flavor, as it should be, is cinnamon. And it's pretty good. Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever bought horchata from a store. I think I've made some before and I've had some mediocre kinds from restaurants and some very good kinds from other restaurants. This one's one of the better ones (though, sorry, not as good as the best I've had).

5) Fossilized Trilobite - I've mentioned before how I love Discount Gems & Minerals in Sedona. Sometimes they have such great prices on random items. I couldn't pass by this great trilobite. It's nice and clear but not ruined with shine (okay, maybe shine also preserves pieces and gives them an expensive artsy look, but don't they sometimes also look cooler without it?). The fossil itself is five inches long.

6) Jason Jojoba Shampoo and Conditioner - I can't remember if I shared this particular shampoo or just another one I used to use from Jason. I like this one more. Sometimes long hair formulas (from natural brands, that is) tend to be greasier, which is not helpful. This one isn't, though I've been using it for a while now. It has a floral scent which honestly isn't my favorite but is okay. I do find, though, that I use quite a bit more product with this one than with some other shampoos. Or maybe my hair's just getting longer.

7) Star Wars Coloring Book - And now I have a second of these coloring books. This one is a little odd: it's a paperback that has cardboard covers glued to it (and the front cover/title is weird). And the pictures are all in art nouveau style, which works well sometimes but other times is just strange. Still, the good pictures make up for the weird ones and I do like both art nouveau and Star Wars.

8) Petrified Wood Ring - I love it when booths at antique stores have everything half off. This ring is made with a piece of petrified wood. I think the tribe the ring comes from may have been Navajo . . . but I can't seem to remember for sure, which is terrible of me. Anyway, it's a wonderful ring and perfect for me since the Petrified Forest/Painted Desert is one of those places that speaks to me. The ring is tiny, even for me; it can't be bigger than a 4 1/2. So I wear it on my pinkie, where it's a tad loose--I'm thinking it'll fit better in summer (on the opposite side, I have a different ring that feels too tight when the weather is warm).

9) Orange Juice - I've never been much of an orange juice drinker. I can't have sweet things first thing in the morning; they make me feel sick. But I've strangely been craving orange juice lately, so I've been trying some from different brands. The Naked Juice one is pretty good. And no, this still isn't a morning drink.

10) Downton Abbey's Sixth and Final Season - I watched the first few episodes on TV, then was able to see the rest on DVD. So maybe I'll have to do a post on the end of the series soon?

Friday, January 29, 2016

On the Changing Temperatures

The air was so cold there for a while in the first half of January. Insulated shirts plus cashmere sweaters plus jackets and hoods and scarves and gloves and wool socks were all necessary items. It truly was winter.

And then came this past week, when the sun seemed so much stronger and the sky was often clear and the temperatures rose up to the high sixties in the afternoon and only dropped to about thirty at night. It's been energizing. I've spent some time doing some work outside. Inside, I've been encouraged to do more or to go about things more enthusiastically because it isn't as dark and as cold. And the sun is finally staying out a little later in the evenings. Almost it has seemed that spring is here.

Until we realize and remember that it was only a warm spell. February, generally the coldest month around here, is yet to come. Late March is the beginning of spring--and that is a ways still away. Today (Friday) the high is seventy, the low thirty-six. But on Monday the high is forty-six and the low eighteen, with a chance of snow. So one day you can be out in short sleeves and just a couple of days later you have to be all bundled up to step outside. Or maybe I should rephrase: at one time of the day (early afternoon) you can be outside in short sleeves and at another time of day (early morning especially but also at night) you have to be all bundled up to step outside. This is why I check the weather app on my phone at least twice a day, often looking also at the hourly temperatures: it makes such a difference toward what you need to wear.

The weather is bipolar out here. (I realize that other parts of the country also have cold fronts and warm spells around the same time--I'm talking more about the regular, drastic changes between cold and warm.) Up and down and back and forth. Sunny and cloudy. Dry and rainy. Warm and freezing. Not only do we experience all four seasons throughout the year, but sometimes we seem to get all four within a week or even a day.

It certainly affects your mood, too. Halfway between melancholy and joy. Bright again just when the winter was starting to wear you down. Rested again just when the warmth was getting to be too much. Never complacent, always moving, always changing, always rotating. That is the weather here, and I can't imagine it any other way.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Life and Death

That sounds like a philosophical title, like I'm just about to go into an exploration of the human condition, the meaning of life and the inevitability of death and all that. But no, it isn't that at all. I'm sure most of you (to whom such a thing would be of any interest) already heard last fall about the tenth anniversary edition of Twilight that Stephenie Meyer released on us all without any forewarning. Instead of just writing a foreword, she explains, she decided to gender swap a couple of chapters of the book and ended up doing the whole thing . . . which is now titled Life and Death and is included together with Twilight (you flip the book over to begin Life and Death at the "back").

If you have been uncertain on whether or not to read this superfluous, silly little thing that I think none of us were sure what to make of when it came out, let me suggest that you do read it (if, that is, you have any curiosity--and if you don't you're probably not still reading, anyway). If nothing else, it is . . . interesting. Now I will go into more details--which you may or may not want to read if you haven't read Life and Death yet.

As the book begins, it's hard to keep track of the characters. I was constantly rearranging them in my head, trying to remember that this character is supposed to be that character and that when it says "he" here it really means "she" in Twilight. Actually quite a mess to keep track of because instead of just reading the story like new, I was trying to fit it in to the images I already had of the characters and the story. I got more used to it as it went along, though. (Every character is gender swapped except for Charlie and Renee and the Volturi--even the cab driver towards the end of the book is a woman instead of a man.)

Most of the lines and content are the same. A few of the phrases are changed, some words here and there. Sometimes I recognized better wording and sometimes I kind of missed the carefree style and tone of Twilight (the writing style, that is: Bella herself isn't, of course, always carefree throughout). Where things are most different are where there are (subtle or greater) changes in the plot--except for the ending (which I'll get to later), these pretty much all have to do with the change in gender.

Bella is switched out for Beau and once you get used to the idea that your narrator is a he instead of a she, the transition is pretty seamless, more so than I'd expected. It's a very fluid change--for the most part. The small changes are sometimes funny, like when Beau finishes all the leftover lasagna so that there isn't any more for Charlie when he gets home (there was with Bella). The saddest change is the whole Port Angeles ordeal: for such a danger to happen to a teenage boy, guns and a bit of a backstory have to be involved. But for Bella, just being a teenage girl on a dark street was enough to put her in danger. Sad but true (pretty much--Beau's threat could've just been people beating him up for his wallet, but it had to be more dire in order to quite match Bella's situation and therefore stir up the same rage in Edythe as it did for Edward).

The fact that Carine (Carlisle) had to work as a nurse instead of a doctor for many years is also a little inevitably disappointing--because of course it has to be that way. I don't get, though, why there is no mention of the Civil War with Jessamine (Jasper): she could have been one of the women who pretended to be a man and enlisted in the army--I'm kind of disappointed that that wasn't in there because I think war was always such a big part of Jasper's life even before he became a vampire. But it's a pretty small thing.

Edward translates pretty easily into Edythe, too. This really helps emphasize, as Stephenie had hoped, the fact that Bella is the human in the face of the supernatural world versus the girl who needs to be helped by a guy. Edythe is stronger than Beau in exactly the same way . . . and gender has nothing to do with it. The only thing is that Edythe and Beau relate to each other just a little bit differently, even when the conversations are the same. Beau takes the lead in certain ways just a little bit more--and not just him feeling like he has to open the door for her. I suppose this could be a remnant of the fact that Edythe is from an era when women were trained to be more subservient to men, so she naturally lets him take the more dominant role (where appropriate--because, of course, she still yells at him and tells him what to do in certain other situations).

But Beau is less, hmm, submissive than Bella. Bella can have quite a stubborn temper, so submissive seems like the wrong word. But I think you know what I mean. Stephenie says that Beau doesn't have the "chip on her shoulder" that Bella has. I kind of wonder why. It makes Bella's quieter, more unsure of herself, hesitant personality seem more of a negative portrayal of a girl because that personality trait doesn't carry over into Beau. There are quiet, unsure boys, too (though, of course, the stereotype is for girls to be this way more than boys). But I think there is another reason. This book ends differently from Twilight. This book sees the end of Beau and Edythe's story, sees it come to resolution the way that Bella and Edward only did at the end of Breaking Dawn. Bella needed the time of four books to learn about herself. Beau, with only one book, has less time to work through his issues. So he kind of has to start off with less issues than Bella had. (Although I still don't know why a boy has to be OCD in order to care about organizing the kitchen, making dinner, and doing laundry--can't he just be neat and responsible like Bella was when she did these same things?)

It's interesting to see how the end of this book plays out with the "what if" of Joss (James) halfway wins and Beau turns into a vampire now instead of later. Strangely, it feels so wrong--not just because it's different from the ending of Twilight. It's wrong because he didn't have time to say goodbye to his other life, time to realize why he wanted a new life, time even to simply fall in love with Edythe in more detail (honestly, they only had a few days to get to know each other). So it's an imperfect ending, and yet that's what's interesting about it. It kind of takes you full circle and makes you realize, after you've been watching these other characters, what it was that worked so well about Twilight. The four books really allowed for the four stages in Bella's personal journey in a way that only one book can't quite cover.

So Life and Death was interesting. It's an interesting look at gender (although the claim is that gender makes no difference, what's interesting are the moments, however small, that have to change because of gender). It's a strange way to revisit a familiar story. And there's no pressure involved: it isn't really a real book, after all. The fact that it's included in the back of Twilight shows that it's just a novelty, just something fun to take a look at. And the "new" ending means that we need have no fear of sequels, either.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Trader Joe's: Cabernet Sauvignon Truffles

Mostly this box of truffles is interesting as an example of how to do a moderately nice set of truffles that still have a shelf life of longer than two weeks. Obviously the fresh truffles (which only last two weeks because they're made with fresh cream) are going to be better, but not everyone always has the time (or money) or even the means (they just don't sell fresh truffles where I live) to buy such truffles. So sometimes you want truffles with a long shelf life. Trader Joe's sometimes sells some cocoa-dusted truffles that I used to think were good--but that I now find less interesting. These are better.

They started selling them last year with the Christmas items (I know I said I was done with Christmas items, but I wasn't sure if I was going to do a review of these or not--and they're not really Christmas-y, anyway, right?) and the best by date is at the end of March. So at least a few months of a shelf life. Instead of cream, the ganache is made with caramel, corn syrup, and butter (no partially hydrogenated oils). And then there is the cabernet sauvignon (the maximum alcohol content is 0.5%). When you first open the box, the truffles do taste a little boozy. But if you let them get closer to that best by date, the alcohol taste seems to fade away somewhat. It seems that it was never intended to be strong, anyway: it's mostly there to elevate the taste of the chocolate, to make it seem richer and more complex.

And it works. The chocolate here is an average 70% cocoa content. A little dusty in flavor, definitely not too sweet and leaning a little more toward the bitter side (though also not really bitter, especially when tasted in such close proximity to the ganache). The chocolate shell is also about average thickness, neither too thin nor too thick. The ganache is smooth and cool, tending toward a silky texture (probably because of the caramel).

Oh, yes, and I've almost forgotten about the box (have I just been completely ignoring packaging lately? I used to talk more about packaging than the product inside). A thin, flat circle edged in silver calls to mind gourmet, bulk foods. Wrapped cheese and meat, for instance--especially what you might choose to pair with wine. Given the generally casual nature of Trader Joe's packaging (even when it comes to their Christmas cookies and confections, which are often put together to be gift-giving-friendly), this box is quite classy-looking. Very simple but with just the right touches--maybe that's why I thought these truffles would be worth trying (well, that and the fact that there's no partially hydrogenated oil)?

And you know what's also great? The lid just lifts right off and slides right back on, so you can keep using it to store the truffles for as little or as long time as you need. This may seem like a small thing, but I hate when an opened package can't be used again if you don't finish everything in one day. And these truffles are well enough made that just one or two is satisfying; they float just above the level of confections (which often have to be eaten by the handful).

So for those of us living away from fresh truffles . . . Trader Joe's is a good friend.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Why Kylo Ren Is the New Darth Vader

Yes, Episode VII spoilers.

Months ago when the merch for The Force Awakens started showing up in stores, I was somewhat indignant that Kylo Ren was everywhere, trying to replace Darth Vader as the main villain. I didn't know who Kylo Ren was, so why would I be interested in seeing him everywhere (well, I did like Rey just because of her costume--but that's a different matter)?

And then we come to the character he establishes in the movie. When he first appears, it seems that he is an attempt at another dark, ruthless, evil character. So your first instinct is to compare him to Vader, to see how his mask's voice is different from Vader's, how (though tall) his figure is not as physically imposing as Vader's, how he walks about with such force and power and yet not somehow quite the same command that Vader had. And then at some point you realize that all of this is intentional; for me, the moment came when he takes off his mask while talking to Rey. In that moment, his character clicked into place.

As I've said before, I came to realize that Kylo Ren isn't just a character we call a wannabe--he is written as a wannabe. He wants to take the place of Darth Vader. He isn't wholly successful yet--but he's trying. And that's just as sinister, if not more sinister, than if he were a full, blown-out, flat baddie character (like Darth Maul, who always felt rather temporary and therefore not terribly powerful or important in the long run).

Back when I started thinking about Episode VII, I wondered how it was possible to continue the story, where the writers would take it. Both the OT and the PT are Vader's story, Anakin's story: it is his character arc that informs the most important part of both trilogies. He was Star Wars. So how do you make Star Wars without Vader? (And I realize that there are and have always been plenty of books and such that focus on other characters--but I'm focusing on the movies here.) Well, you have to create a new Vader. And what made Vader Vader not just as himself but also as an important feature of both trilogies was his character arc. That was where the value was, where the themes were, and where all my greatest interest was. So if you want to try and replace that, you can't just create a villain: you have to create someone with a significant and engaging character arc. And Kylo Ren is just that.

I keep getting more obsessed with this character (Vader will always be Vader--liking a new character doesn't have to replace the old ones). I love the theory that he's secretly trying to take over the First Order from the inside; it's so easy to find evidence for this. But the reality is more complicated, isn't it?

I keep pausing on his conversation with Vader's melted helmet. "I will finish what you started . . . grandfather." We've been so focused on the first phrase that what about that last word? "Grandfather?" Does that seem a little odd to anyone else? Okay, it can just be a line in there to reveal who Kylo Ren is, but that isn't really necessary because Han and Leia (and even Snoke) talk about who he is. Think about it. If he's such a fan of Vader/his accomplishments, then wouldn't he feel the need to have a little more decorum? Wouldn't he have some other title, something else to call this powerful, dark figure? Grandfather? It's such a familiar term, so informal, and it hints so much of kindness. (This could also just back up the idea that Ren simply believes he is in the right and isn't "evil"--but I like to think otherwise.)

So perhaps people are right. When he says grandfather, it means that he is talking of Anakin, not to Vader (Anakin's Force Ghost for Episode VIII, anyone?). And when he fears that he will never be as strong as Darth Vader, it is that he fears he will never have the strength to turn away from the darkness in the end as Vader did. There is that line of his, where he talks of feeling the pull to the light again as if it's a bad thing--but maybe it's a bad thing just because the timing isn't right? Or just because he knows he needs to continue the farce for a little longer, in order to accomplish something.

Whenever I try and remind myself of how creepy and sinister Kylo Ren could be, I keep getting reminded of that constant duality that is in him. When he's talking creepily/threateningly to Rey, he also could seem almost reluctant to actually look in her mind for what he wants--it's like he's trying to put it off (which could also mean that there is something about his "mind power" that works at a cost to himself, even that it's simply unpleasant to do). When he kills Han Solo, he cries. He talks for the whole movie about hating his father but then he cries when he kills him. It's just the best thing ever. Is he trying to be dark or secretly trying to be good--and does he even know what he's trying to do?

There wasn't so much mystery around Darth Vader in Episode IV as this, was there? Kylo Ren, if you're just getting started, this is a good start and I can't wait to see what else is in store. . . . So many years of guessing and theories and imaginings, that's what. (This reminds me of the time before Episode III came out. There was a joke about how Darth Vader's face was burned when he was taking cookies out of the oven . . . it's so funny now to think that we once didn't know how Vader became the burnt, mostly-machine figure he is in the OT.)

(Oh, and what's with the face-slashing of Kylo Ren by Rey? Usually the bodily deformations [hands and arms getting chopped off] happen in the second episode of a trilogy. So why does he get them now? Will he have scars? And why do the slashes on his face look suspiciously like the scars on Snoke's face? Snoke must be him from the future [has anyone built up evidence for that theory yet?] Maybe the slashes are just a physical representation of the deterioration that took place within him when he killed his father. I could talk about this all day--but I've already filled up the space of two or three posts, haven't I?)