Sunday, July 26, 2015

July Favorites

1) Disneyland's 60th Anniversary - The only bad thing about Disneyland turning 60 is that I remember the 50th Anniversary Celebration as if it were only a couple of years ago, and that makes me feel old. Pretty soon it'll be the 75th, and I'll be saying the same thing about being there when the park turned 50. Anyway, I'm very excited about another decade going by for The Happiest Place on Earth, not least of all because I got to be there for it (not the actual day, but the same month, at least). More on that later.

2) Gemstone Pendant - This was a gift brought over to me from Colorado. What's so nice about it is the oval shape, which makes it blend in nicely with my cameos, except instead of a face in the middle there is a glittering stone. Very pretty.

3) Cameo Conch Shell - Speaking of cameos, I went to an antique store with a friend; I was just stepping inside, really, and I most definitely wasn't planning on buying anything (saving for Disneyland, you know). But then I saw this thing and it was like the world ended: I didn't want to spend any money but I really wanted it. I hated myself for wanting to spend money, but I knew I would hate myself for not getting it, and I am so glad I did (side note: I did have the money for it--it's not like I didn't, and I'm not advocating spending beyond your bounds). I love cameos, which are carved out of shells, and here we have a cameo carved straight into the shell. Wow, what a beautiful, one-of-a-kind piece.

4) Arnica Salve - I do a lot of writing and such with my hands and so sometimes they bother me. I've started using this arnica salve from Cave Creek (which is near Phoenix). Arnica, rosemary, thyme, olive oil, rice bran oil, beeswax, shea butter--all good ingredients. I just wanted to give it a shout out as an alternative to other, less natural products; wherever you live, I'm sure there is a comparable product available to buy. (If not, you can always blend arnica and rosemary into some shea butter yourself.)

5) Taking some time off - The end of July here is my vacation time, so with that I'll end my favorites early; I really don't have anything much more to add. Until next time.

Chocolat Stella: 80% Dark

Do you have a cocoa content preference? I tend to say that chocolate in the 80% range is my favorite--provided it's nicely done, there can be a wonderful range of flavor as well as an all-encompassing deep taste that is quite unlike anything else. 

Now, I've been feeling like World Market hasn't had much interesting on the chocolate side these days--at least, the interesting things they have are things that I've already tried, and I always like the chance to try new chocolate. Chocolat Stella is, however, one of the brands I've been seeing there lately. The simple packaging strikes me as boring enough, though, that it's taken me a while to get to trying one of the bars, despite glancing at the ingredients list to see positive signs. 

Just cocoa, sugar, and vanilla, and all three are fair trade and organic. Those are good signs. And, honestly, so is the fact that it's made by a Swiss company: I've had better chocolate from Switzerland from Belgium (it seems like the only Belgian chocolate that makes it to the U.S. is cheap and mass-produced, meaning that I'm more likely to avoid something that says it's Belgian than to go after it). After all, there are a lot of important points in chocolate's history that took place in Switzerland. So should I forgive the bland packaging? I mean, it's okay: a brown box with a black cacao pod could be simple and sleek, but somehow the way the design is carried out doesn't hold my eye. 

The answer to my question is most definitely yes. Let my bland photographs (sorry, it was bad lighting when I had to take the pictures) express my slight misconceptions about this chocolate: what I wasn't excited to try turned out to be very good. 

Aromatic and just lightly bitter in its scent, the chocolate has a good and clean snap when it breaks. The taste is dark and bold as it begins to melt in your mouth and the almost bitterness fades into warmth and richness. Usually I call dark chocolate either blue or red in the feel of its flavor (I was never so great at flavor notes, so I settle for colors instead, I suppose); this chocolate appears to be neither. Maybe it's purple, a combination of the two feels. The warmth of the red but with the coolness also of the blue. Overall: extremely chocolate in its flavor. It's also smooth and not at all either gritty or plasticy. It does perhaps leave a slight bitter aftertaste, but not bitter in a bad sense--just bitter as a flavor.

You know what I know one of the secrets is with this chocolate bar? Good ingredients. The cacao has to be good and anything you add to it has to be good. The vanilla is listed as vanilla pods, so I figure that means that Chocolat Stella isn't just using any vanilla they find lying around: they're using good quality vanilla. Sugar, too, I deem. This is just a completely plain dark chocolate--and that is its strength.

If you're craving a good dark chocolate, definitely give this one a try. Despite 80% cocoa being a little higher than average (which is more around 70%), I wouldn't call this an overly dark or intimidating chocolate: I'd call it approachable. And being that it tastes primarily of chocolate without piles of flavor notes, it will also satisfy a regular chocolate craving. I'm impressed. I'll have to try more of Chocolat Stella's bars the next time I'm at World Market.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Divergent & Mulan

I've been meaning to do this post for so long--I think I just had to contain myself because I was doing a lot of Divergent-related posts back in March, and I thought it was getting to be a bit much. After all, I try to make this blog be about multiple subjects at once, and so if I focus too long on one thing, I always end up feeling like I need to give it a rest. But now that Divergent has had a rest, I am returning with my old post idea.

Though I saw Mulan in theaters when it came out, I didn't see it again until just a couple of years ago. I remembered the basic concept, but that's all--so I was surprised to see how much I enjoyed it. Overall, it's a pretty good movie. And then when I was watching and reading Divergent this spring and every thought and every story seemed to bring me back to Tris and Co., I found myself thinking back to Mulan again and, wham, it was like the two stories were mirrors of each other.

They're both stories of young women who exit from a relatively secluded, more subdued lifestyle (at least, a life where they're taught to be subdued, though neither is particularly good at it) to enter into military training, where they at first struggle greatly but manage to do well through strength of will and perseverance. Oh, yes, and along the way, they make friends with their fellow trainees and fall in love with their trainer and then they all save people in some kind of battle at the end. Yeah, pretty simple and similar.

Tris is Mulan. The Abnegation faction is the domestic life that Mulan was raised to believe was her only path: both settings tried (unsuccessfully) to subdue certain traits in these characters and to tell them that only through subduing these traits could they have success in their lives--when in reality it was these very traits (different, perhaps, from the demeanors of the other people around them) that were their strengths. The initiate training at Dauntless is the army training Mulan goes through in preparation for the war: both characters start out low in this because they have no experience in anything similar, yet they prove themselves in the end because they decide to succeed. Instead of Christina, Will, and the rest, Mulan has Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po; a core group of friends is necessary to both characters.

And then we have Four and Shang, in charge of training and both good at what they do. Both Tris and Mulan make enough of an impression on them for love to quickly follow working-together-relationship they started with. Interestingly, both young women have something to hide: Tris her Divergence and Mulan the fact that she is a woman. Two dangerous secrets that Four and Shang accept without trying to make Tris and Mulan suffer for them: Four doesn't tell anyone Tris's secret and Shang spares Mulan from the death penalty after she is found out.

Bottom line: figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are and promote the former while working on the latter, and don't forget to surround yourself with other people who can recognize your good traits, too (and whose good traits you recognize in return). Discovery of personal identity and strength leads to unified strength. Divergent and Mulan, you both have a great theme.


Friday, July 24, 2015

Peter Pan & the Doctor Flying Through Space

He's found a way to live forever, he's a bit arrogant, he brings travelers to places they had never imaged were possible (and certainly not possible to visit), he can fly, he has lots of friends but can somehow never get too close to any of them, and he's a beloved character to many, many people.

Who is he? Well, he's two people: he's Peter Pan and he's the Doctor.

I love it. Peter Pan and Doctor Who have so much in common.

Peter stays forever young through sheer mind power: he thinks to himself that he is young and that is enough to keep him that way (movies tend to say that Neverland keeps you from aging, but in the original story other characters there do age and it's only Peter who doesn't). The Doctor regenerates, which other Time Lords did, as well, but now he's the only one left and so it becomes a singular, strange, and rare thing for him to do. And both Peter and the Doctor are very thrilled at what they're able to do.

The Doctor's arrogance is usually funny or endearing or at least something you're willing to put up with, but Peter Pan is probably even worse. Though he has managed to become a beloved character because he reminds us all of our childhood, he can be quite rude and irresponsible and so self-centered that he either annoys or is a danger to the characters around him--which is not always endearing. Then again, the Doctor often puts the people around him in danger, too. But they don't necessarily mind, do they?

That's what both characters offer: adventure beyond the scope of sight. Peter takes Wendy and her brothers to see Neverland and she is in awe of this land up in the stars. The Doctor invites Rose and all the rest to be his companions on his endless journeys through time and space, showing them worlds they would never otherwise have visited and time periods they never thought they could enter; most of them love it so much that they get almost addicted to it and have a hard time leaving.

But no one stays forever with Peter Pan and no one stays forever with the Doctor. Peter's friends all grow up: there's that (semi-disturbing, if you think about it) line in the book that explains that he finds a way to let the boys who are getting older die, or characters like the Darlings leave Neverland and go on to live adult lives in the regular world. It's the same for friends of the Doctor: they either die in one of the Doctor's dangerous adventures or go on to live essentially normal lives (some choose to leave and some are forced to by outside circumstances). It's the choice, tragic at times, that we all must face: do we try and make adventure last forever until it tears us apart, or do we put an end to it and live the life everyone else leads? Peter looks in on Wendy only to find she's an adult with a daughter of her own, and the Doctor meets Sarah Jane again only to find that she's over the hill--and that gap is so deep, despite the fun adventures these characters had together when both sides were young.

Peter wants to remain young because he keeps making himself so, but he does feel pain at moments like this: there is tragedy that he, unlike Wendy, will never grow up. But he accepts that cost. The Doctor, on the other hand, has no choice: all he can do is continue to live while everyone he has known withers away. Both characters are eternal--all characters are eternal because they live forever within the (metaphorical) pages of fiction, yet these two characters are doubly eternal because they are literally living forever within those literal pages, as well as the metaphorical ones (not that Doctor Who is a book instead of a TV show, and therefore the main bulk of the story isn't on literal pages, but I'm taking "literal pages" to mean the content of the story as it is presented to the audience and "metaphorical pages" to mean what the audience can always go back to revisit, whether through rereading, rewatching, or going back over in their heads).

Oh, yes, and when I said that both characters can fly, I was naturally referring to the TARDIS. Through it, the Doctor can fly--through both time and space. Peter Pan just literally flies through the sky. Two characters, forever flying away from the stable life they will never have--forever flying away toward adventure.


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Theme of Bondage in Star Wars

Did you realize how much slavery there is in Star Wars? There is literal slavery and there is servitude and there is bondage so weighty that it becomes equal to slavery. Let's start with the literal slavery.

In the original trilogy, of course, there is Leia's slavery under Jabba the Hutt. It's temporary and all part of the plan to free Han Solo, but still: she's powerless there for a moment. Yet Leia chooses the (strong) possibility of being put in this situation in order to free Han, and then there is that wonderful moment when she kills Jabba with the very chains he used to enslave her. Talk about powerful symbolism; now that's triumphant.

Then in the prequel trilogy we have the slavery on Tatooine. It is because Anakin and his mother are slaves on this far off planet that the Jedi don't find him sooner, as they generally find children in the Republic who are sensitive to the Force. And it is because he left his mother on a dangerous planet that Anakin remains haunted by his worry for her (although she is in fact no longer a slave when she dies). I don't know if there is anything triumphant here. Yes, Anakin proves himself to Qui-Gon and Qui-Gon manages to free him and bring him to the Jedi, but there's still enough sorrow (and doom, you might say) attached to this action that it kind of ruins any jubilance over becoming free from slavery. That and the fact that there are still so many slaves left on Tatooine, including Shmi; Anakin's dream of returning and freeing all the slaves never comes true.

Now let's move on to servitude, willing and non-willing. I'm mostly thinking of the droids here: they're constantly following along their owners without being asked what they think of what's going on, though they seem to feel fear and doubt. C-3PO's the more reluctant one, constantly wishing he didn't have to go up into space or out into battle scenes; he just wants to sit quietly and act as a butler in a nice house, it seems, but he hardly ever gets his way. R2-D2, though, seems to love the action and being a little hero: he's like a dog who is only to happy to serve his master and really relishes his role. For all the able masters the droids have over the years, they all seem to need help from their servants the droids.

There are also other servants who, like R2, perform their roles willingly (and who also have the option of leaving if they choose). Padme's handmaidens, for instance, are her inner circle, and certain of them also act as her decoy at the risk of death--just because they believe in her and want to help her. This isn't so much choosing slavery as choosing to serve something you deem worthy, and that's admirable.

Then there is the Jedi Order. It's funny because, while the Jedi choose to remain in the Order, they're also raised within it from infancy, greatly decreasing the likelihood that anyone will choose to leave the only thing they have ever known. It isn't slavery because they can leave, but it is complete servitude that encompasses every aspect of their lives. The Jedi, though, like Padme's handmaidens, believe in their cause and are willing follow its guidelines--except, of course, for Anakin.

Which brings us to an interesting point. Anakin begins as a slave on Tatooine, the property of Watto. Qui-Gob frees him only to introduce him to the Jedi Order, where Anakin willingly accepts servitude as Obi-Wan's apprentice and then as a Jedi under the Order. So he's kind of still a slave--from a certain point of view. He still can't do what he wants: he can't return home to free his mother or check up on her and he can't (according to the rules) act on his love for Padme.

But Anakin breaks the rules. And then what does he do? He switches from the Jedi to the Sith, from obeying the Jedi Council to obeying the Emperor. What? You mean Qui-Gon freed the slave boy just so he could go and throw his life away to obey Darth Sidious? So he could become a slave again? Except this time Anakin willingly chooses his bondage--and it isn't the noble choice of serving under something you believe in. This is bondage to the Dark Side; this is letting himself be controlled by forces that destroy everything that once was good in his life. He loses Padme, he loses his friendship with Obi-Wan, and he loses his ability to help other people that was once so strong (stronger than his willingness to obey orders). Anakin becomes more a slave than ever he was before.

It is only his son who can convince him to break free of his bonds, leaving behind the Dark Side and killing Sidious; it is his son, who also had a bit of a taste of slavery (of a very mild sort) when his uncle kept him at the farm year after year and also when he saw how much power the Empire had over people, no matter how "unimportant." Perhaps that's why Luke is so unwilling to fall prey to the same bondage that took in his father: he knows that even if he lets go his lightsaber and becomes completely vulnerable to the Emperor (let's him throw deadly bolts of lightning at him, for instance), that will not be worse than if he were to let him have power over his self.

Bondage can mean lots of things, but it would seem that the worst kind is the kind that does not allow you to be who you know it is right to be. And so slavery can be self-imposed--which is all the more tragic given that there are people who are unwillingly enslaved and there you are, willingly putting bonds on yourself.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Disneyland Encyclopedia

Disneyland is, I believe, in the blood of people who are born in California. And I, like many Arizonans, was born in California--and so I have my eternal allegiance to Disneyland, that place of hopes and dreams that just turned 60 years old on Friday.

Though I am interested in Disneyland past and present and spent hours during my middle school to high school summer breaks reading about Disneyland online, I haven't really read many books on the park/s. So a couple of years ago I bought this one, thinking it would be a good way to dig in. The Disneyland Encyclopedia: The Unofficial, Unauthorized, and Unprecedented History of Every Land, Attraction, Restaurant, Shop, and Major Event in the Original Magic Kingdom by Chris Strodder (mine is the Second Edition). Yeah, exciting and first and then a bit intimidating.

The text is basically about 450 pages of encyclopedia-style entries, which was enough for me to let this book sit in waiting for about two years. But this year being Disneyland's 60th Anniversary and considering that I'll be there later this month, I thought to myself that now was the time to read this book. I thought it would be good to read about ten pages or so, slowly, over two months. And you know what? It turns out that this isn't as intimidating a read as I thought it would be.

There are some very pretty Disneyland pictures out there with artful pictures and historical pictures and all sorts of things that make them nice to flip through. This book isn't like that. There are a few (mostly present day) pictures just to set the scene, but mostly it's about the straightforward text. Names of attractions, dates they were open during, people who worked on them, descriptions as needed, and even a bit of guests' general reactions. It's all very informative and the format makes it easy to quickly look up a fact without having to skim through a whole chapter.

Most of the entries are short, a couple of paragraphs, but the longer ones merit a couple of pages, usually not more than two or three. So if you do choose to read cover to cover, it's all at your own pace, and you can go as slowly as you like without having to stop right in the middle of something.

For being so straightforward, the writing style is also easy to read: it isn't dry or overly "factual" because there is just enough personality to keep you interested in continuous entries of extinct attractions. And it was all very fascinating: there were many things that I had heard of before but never really knew the details about or other things I was familiar with but didn't know the full story behind them. 

This is the perfect book if you're interested in Disneyland's history (or facts you can use as trivia), whether you're just starting to dig in or you already know quite a bit. In the first case, you can read it al the way through like I did; if the second, you can also read through or just flip through individual entries from time to time. Either way, it's a useful reference book that I wouldn't mind having with me in the park: just imagine using it as a way to pass the time in line, quizzing your friends/family and reading out the sections that have to do with the part of the park you're in. If it were just a bit smaller, I really would bring it. As it is, I'll leave it either at home or the hotel and call it a great purchase. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Rancho Gordo: Drinking Chocolate

Forget Swiss Miss hot chocolate; I used to drink it all the time when I was ten, but eventually I upgraded to Nestle's Abuelita chocolate (Ibarra is very similar). As far as hot chocolate (sorry, I make no distinction between hot chocolate and hot cocoa: I always think of hot cocoa as an old-fashioned, not a technical, term) from the grocery store, I generally consider Abuelita one of the better options: the round discs of sugar and chocolate appear to have more chocolate in them than the powdered milk, sugar, and chocolate powders of the Swiss Miss and similar varieties.

A friend of mine brought back this hot chocolate from Tucson, where the woman in the shop had claimed it was her favorite ever. Honestly, I'm a bit confused on how to label it. The name up top is Rancho Gordo, but that's the importer based out of Napa, California. The little snippet on the side explains that the chocolate is "grown, roasted, and ground by the Mujeres [women] de Xochis Collective in Guerrero, Mexico using local cacao and evaporated cane juice. The chocolate beans are roasted on clay pans before being stoneground with soft cinnamon." And the box has "Chocolate" written all across it, while this little section calls it "hand crafted stoneground cacao for drinking and cooking." So I've settled for leaving Rancho Gordo as the company and drinking chocolate as the product name.

The style is very similar to Abuelita, except for the details. This six-sided box is just a tad smaller and thinner and is plain, uncolored brown with brown lettering as compared to the bright yellow Abuelita box. This natural look is, from my view, much preferable, and promises something more natural and (hopefully) of greater quality.

Inside, the five round discs are individually wrapped in wax paper and then stuffed into this clear bag; it's all perfect for keeping them fresh. 

The minimalist look continues onto the discs. Instead of being divided into eight pieces as both Abuelita and Ibarra chocolate are, the circle is plain and without markings of any kind. You decide if it looks sad or rustic or elegant like a flourless chocolate cake. Funnily enough, even though I'd thought that the lack of markings would make this disc harder to break, it in fact breaks easier than Abuelita chocolate tends to. Just pierce a knife into it where you'd like it to break and you'll find that the chocolate is quite soft and willing to work with you.

I've come to admit something to myself: except for a small cup of elegant (and usually flavored) drinking chocolate from time to time, I don't like to drink thick chocolate. I'd go so much as to say that I'd rather melt a bar of chocolate and eat it with a spoon (which, of course, I have done before) than to drink certain hot chocolates as thick as the instructions say to make them. I have found that I like this particular hot chocolate with half of the chocolate that's recommended: that means one quarter disc per cup as opposed to half a disc. And this is, in fact, more like the ratio for Abuelita, in case you were wondering. 

Note that, as always, I'm doing my review of this chocolate as made with almond milk. 

There are simply three ingredients to this chocolate: cacao, evaporated cane juice, and cinnamon--in that order. Abuelita places sugar in first place, adds vegetable oil, and uses artificial flavor. So if you're just looking for purer, better quality ingredients, this chocolate definitely wins: I give it much respect for that alone. And hearing all of that info about how the chocolate is roasted on clay pans and stone ground makes me really look forward to something special. The question after tasting, though, is whether or not I prefer this flavor.

It's good hot chocolate. It tastes like chocolate and only faintly like cinnamon. It isn't bitter or dark and yet it isn't particularly sweet, either. There's almost an earthy flavor to it that I can't quite place--I'm not sure if it's the lack of sugar that gives it this flavor, if it's a flavor from the chocolate itself, or if it's a product of the way this chocolate was prepared and the tools with which it was prepared. 

You see, when I drink this chocolate, I enjoy it. But I'm not left in awe of it. And then when I pick up the box of Abuelita chocolate and sniff it, my mind smiles at the familiar aroma and happily pictures the taste. Is it just nostalgia?

I don't know. It could be. But the fact remains that I'll continue buying Abuelita chocolate and if I were to come across Rancho Gordo hot chocolate myself at some point, well, I might or I might not buy it. It would just depend on whether or not I felt like buying hot chocolate on that particular day: I wouldn't feel like this chocolate was so delicious that I absolutely couldn't pass it up.

With that said, however, I still highly recommend it for the sake of its ingredients: this is more how hot chocolate should be made and it shows in the fact that this drink tastes primarily of chocolate--the main ingredient for which it is named and which so many hot chocolates out there barely use and therefore barely taste of.