Monday, June 30, 2014

June Favorites

1) Flag Pillow - World Market had two varieties of these, one in cloth and one in burlap. While the burlap one was pretty, I know from experience that burlap does not make for a comfortable pillow. I could just leave out the pillow for Fourth of July, but I like it so much that I think I'll keep it year-round.

2) Outremer Rose Perfume - Oh, you know, I was just glancing at the Anthropologie sales and I saw this perfume that I had liked before, so I had to get it. It's a pure rose scent, floral with a little bite to it; the bottle is classic and pretty. Love.

3) Green Bird - I picked this one up at the Flagstaff Botanical Garden's gift shop. I love a little shop. The bird is such a unique material, a cute handmade piece, and comes in a happy shade of green. It's more of a garden piece, but it's been sitting by my jewelry.

4) California Aromascapes by Yosh (Montelena) Perfume - This perfume is from the aforementioned sale. I thought, then, that I really liked its scent--but when I got home, I wasn't sure. Maybe I like it more as a room spray. It's warm like wildflowers baked in the sun, mixed with a soft powder. Like potpourri. It kind of reminds me of my aunt's house when I was younger.

5) The Hillywood Show Doctor Who T-Shirt - To go along with their new parody, The Hillywood Show has come out with a Doctor Who-themed shirt. There was also an option to have it signed.

6) Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue - My latest points purchase from Sephora is another Dolce & Gabbana one, this time in a more beachy version. It's okay; I like it for the bottle, but I might also end up wearing it.

7) Vintage Purse Necklace - I had passed by this necklace more than once at the antique store, until finally it was time to buy it; I do believe it was waiting for me. It's just a random trinket that adds uniqueness to an outfit.

8) Lollia Breathe Perfume - This perfume is not from the aforementioned sale: it is from a later sale at a different Anthropologie location. I have a friend who loves Tocca perfumes, but I think I love Lollia perfumes. This one is basically rose-based, which makes me happy. There's also a more watery floral note in there that gives it more of a spa feel than the Outremer perfume. And the bottle is gorgeously girly and vintage-inspired.

9) Flower Bracelet - Also an antique store find, a low price made this bracelet come home with me. I am, after all, wearing a lot of bracelets these days.

10) Flag Necklace - I point and scoff when I pass Charming Charlie. I mean absolutely no offense to anyone who shops at the store, but it goes against the entire basic of my personal style. I like to accessorize with unique pieces that are either made out of real materials (silver, rocks) or are vintage and timeless. But when I was passing by, I saw that they had a Fourth of July display--and nothing makes me happier than seeing Red, White, and Blue on display. So I decided to walk in. It was all so exciting that I got this little necklace, which makes the perfect addition to any patriotic outfit. Bring on Independence Day.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Independence Week

You see, I think it's silly that you can go to stores, year-round, and buy all sorts of products with the British flag*--but products with the American flag are fewer and tend to pop up only around the one or two national holidays. Even then, you usually have to be devoted to find anything more than cheap flags and flag bunting, maybe some napkins and cupcake papers. Why? Why? Why?

Let's be patriotic, I say. I wear my U.S. flag scarf on the national holidays. I even wore it in at least 110 degree weather last year for the Tempe Town Lake fireworks; that's devotion, I tell you. This year, I quickly snatched a flag pillow from World Market, and the Fourth of July display tempted me to walk into Charming Charlie for the first time and buy a flag necklace. I did my toenails flag-style: alternating red and white on the small toes and blue with white stars on the big toes. I wore my flag necklace already today, and got excited when I found out that my church is doing a Fourth of July Sunday next week. Bring on the Independence Day spirit, I say.

Fourth of July should be all week. Let's make this our week. Let's decorate ourselves in red, white, and blue. Let's rejoice in the open hillsides--or glittering cityscapes--that we call home. Let's recall our favorite characters out of history. Let's think of how many states we've visited and which we love best. Let's read our favorite American authors, watch our favorite American shows, listen to our favorite American bands. Let's remember what is good about our country and set aside this or that little worry about whatever.

Let's lead up to the fireworks on Friday night. Let's let each day focus on one of the many aspects of this country that there are to love. Let's celebrate.

*Don't get me wrong, I love some British-ness as much as the next person. I have my morning and afternoon and sometimes evening tea every day and greatly love a good British TV show and would be slightly concerned to visit the Great Island because I think I might very much like it.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Mast Brothers: Vanilla & Smoke

Once again, the universe is answering my plea and providing me with quality chocolate when I was beginning to think I could find nothing new where I live. This time I was at Sur la Table, which I've known to carry chocolate more for cooking with than for eating straight. They usually have some Valrhona, Guittard, things like that. This time, however, there were also a few bars by the register. And guess what I found there? The Mast Brothers.

The Mast Brothers have become infamous to me. Back when I wrote for Chocablog, there were often reviews of Mast Brothers chocolate, and I regretted the great distance between me and New York. So to finally find this brand before me, that was exciting. But as I gaze at this infamous chocolate, I want only to forget everything I know about the company and all the positive reviews I've read about their products. I want to taste it for myself, in complete isolation from everything else. (But by all means, do go and read about the company if you've never heard of them before.)

You know what this bar, on the outside, is? It's beauty. Thick paper, decorated in black and white, enfolds the gold foil-wrapped chocolate. The look is simple, catchy, handmade, and artisan all at once. You feel special buying it for yourself and very thoughtful giving it as a gift. On the inside, the bar is standard. No markings grace the smooth faces of the 28 small squares. It is, by the way, a 2.5 oz bar that was priced originally at $11.95 but that I got on sale for $5.99. Pricey, but not the absolute highest price I've come across.

When encountering an infamous chocolate company, one would like to try first a plain bar. But there were only three flavored selections available, so I tried to get the least flavored of them. That turned out to be the Dark Chocolate Vanilla & Smoke, which contains only cacao, cane sugar, and vanilla bean. Most chocolate has vanilla, so you could almost look at this as a plain bar, anyway. The description runs thus: "Smoked cacao from Papua New Guinea and bourbon vanilla bean from Madagascar are slowly stone-ground over the course of days and then aged." It's a 71% cacao. 

On tasting, there is a definite smokiness. It's combined with that light bitter tinge of the dark chocolate, but it quickly becomes accompanied by the sugary vanilla flavor. Then the chocolate notes come in to coax the bitter and sweet elements back together into a warm and rich embrace. Ever so slightly dusty mouthfeel towards the finish. It's what I would call a silvery taste, putting in mind Guittard's Quevedo Bittersweet bar. Then comes the best part. Once the chocolate is gone, you're left with a brownie taste, intensely warm and red and rich. At first bite, I wasn't quite sure how thrilled I was--once I'd gone through the whole tasting, however, I was converted. This is a lovely bar of chocolate. The flavors feel fresh and good quality, and there is just the right amount of whimsy and sweetness added against a darker, smoky background. I like being alone with this chocolate.

Saturday, June 14, 2014


If you haven't seen the movie yet, yes, there will be some spoilers.

Fairy tales, as they used to be written, were more about stark contrasts between good and evil, with different characters or places representing either side. Nowadays, however, we're tired of such strict morals and need the story to feel more personal by having the conflict take place within the same character or place--that's why so many characters are written as being neither strictly good nor evil. We need to see how a single character can be when he chooses to act on the good or on the bad.

Maleficent was built around this difference between then and now. In many ways, it echoes Disney's original animated movie; the gifting scene even borrows lines directly from it. But it isn't simply an exact rendering of the movie from animation to live-action, and I think they found a good balance between familiarity and newness. The main character who exemplifies the good/evil conflict is, of course, Maleficent. She stands in contrast to Stefan, who faces the same conflict but handles it differently.

Much of this is nothing new. We've seen villains turned into sympathetic characters. We've seen true love mean other kinds of love than romantic (in Frozen and Once Upon a Time). But this movie was still a rather sweet retelling of the importance of choosing love over bitterness. Stefan abandoned love for greed and power. Maleficent, hurt by his malice against her, refused to believe in love anymore and sought vengeance. Then she, through watching Aurora, began to love again--while Stefan, consumed by guilt and the fear of losing his power, let his rage and violence grow even more. Somehow, the final conflict between Maleficent and Stefan was very much like the final sequence in Sleeping Beauty, where Philip must take on weapons of virtue in order to slay the dragon of evil.

The movie kept us guessing nicely about how the conflict would be resolved. We all know the story already, but this version was different. Maybe Philip would come in and break the curse, or maybe not. For a moment, I thought it might be Diaval, but then there was too much of an age difference there. I did think it might be Maleficent, but then they brought in Philip and so I thought that it must be him, after all. But, no, this movie presented true love not as something fated by destiny but as something that must grow. Philip and Aurora liked each other right away and possibly do have a future together. But their love had not grow yet. Maleficent, by taking care of Aurora and spending time with her, had cultivated love. She came to love Stefan's daughter the way he, who never spent any time with her or cared at all to get to know her, never would.

While the Moors did have a bit much of a Dr.Seuss/Bridge to Terabithia/Avatar look, the character arcs in this story made up for it. This role really was perfect for Angelina Jolie--and the scenes with baby Aurora were marvelous. Maleficent reminded me of Morgan le Fay from the King Arthur legends and Mystique from X-Men, maybe with a dash of Mary Poppins. One of my biggest complaints was the cover of "Once Upon a Dream" for the credits. I love that song, but that version was terrible. After watching the movie and feeling pretty favorable about it, it was such a shocker to hear that song and want to quickly run out of the theatre.

End credits song aside, Maleficent brought into balance the familiar elements of Disney's animated tale and a more modern approach to conflict. With this wave of fairy tales, I'm now looking forward to seeing Cinderella next year (especially after looking at the cast and crew list).

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Sylvia, the Bearded Dragon Lady

This is Sylvia. She's a bearded dragon. I recently discovered that she wants to be a model when she grows up:

It figures: she has always loved jewelry and makeup, that sort of thing. She's such a girly girl--but with that right touch of toughness. 

So I thought, what's the first step she can take toward her goal? Why not give her a portrait? (Okay, that isn't why I painted her. It's actually become a custom of mine to paint pets. I've done six or seven already.) Did you know how difficult it is to try and paint scales? I'm used to painting fur, which mimics brushstrokes. But scales are completely different. I was at my wit's end, painting in layer after layer while watching Star Wars behind the scenes. Sylvia came in to investigate my progress and make a few helpful suggestions.

She's such a sweet little dragon.

Monday, June 9, 2014

On the Meaning of Art

I usually have a bit of an issue with Oscar Wilde--and with the aesthetes in general. I can't feel that aesthetics are all there is to beauty and therefore to art. Art involves aesthetics, certainly, but I can never place as much value on aesthetics as Oscar Wilde and others do. I consider art expression as well as beauty--and the expression itself can be beautiful, apart from straight aesthetics.

But then we run into another question: whose expression? Is it personal expression, as in the expression of the artist? Does that mean expression as direct from the artist's perspective or not? Is it expression of the character/speaker/etc? Is it expression of a culture? How much separation is there, after all, between the artist and the speaker and between the artist and the culture? It's a web of lines, intertwining back and forth, and that perhaps is why people have such differing explanations of what art is.

Art is vision given physical form. Physical form can, of course, also mean words: it's the distinction between things within and outside the mind. Aesthetics, on their own, have no vision. The shape of a circle is aesthetically pleasing, but without vision it is nothing. The small metal mirror hanging on the wall in front of me is beautiful not just because it is a circle; it is beautiful because it is handmade, shaped into perfection and punched with a pattern of small dots and delicate edging; it is beautiful because of the hands that made it.

That's why not everyone agrees about what is beautiful: beauty is more than aesthetics. And if art were simply aesthetics, artists would have run out of creation long ago. I see beauty when I look outside, at the shades of brown and white and yellow and green that stretch toward the mountains of blue that look up toward the broad and bold sky. Someone else sees beauty in the curved metal of their car. We can both see that the other has a valid concept of beauty, even if we don't see things in the same way. And that is where the expression side of art comes in.

Art is aesthetics with the personal perspective added in. Art isn't just the artist speaking to you directly out of their thoughts. But it is shaped by how the artist sees the world. I am of the land and any art that I create, in some way, expresses that identity. Some artists love simplicity and clean lines, and viewers who love the same will connect with their art and enjoy it.

That's what it's about: the artist connects with the art he creates, and then the viewer connects with the art the artist has made. It's about connection . . . so then art is language. Language is a collection of forms and rules but only receives life from the mind that controls and forms it.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Vintage Plantations - 90% Cacao

The universe has answered my plea. I was, you will recall, complaining about the lack of fine chocolate available to purchase where I live. There is still very little variety, but I did happen on a good find. I am in Prescott quite often; while there, I ducked into a candy store seeking a lollipop (I've been obsessed with lollipops lately for some reason). Well, it isn't so much a candy store as a praline store, but I have learnt not to buy the chocolate products they make themselves. And it was there that I found a few pleasant looking bars from Vintage Plantations. 

I glanced at the ingredients (just the cocoa beans, cocoa butter, and sugar) and decided to take a nice plain, dark one--the 90%. If the 90% was good, I figured the brand would be good: there's no chocolate test like the very dark chocolate test. If a brand can't pull off a dark, dark chocolate and still keep in good flavor and texture, then that brand just isn't on par. 

As it turns out, Vintage Plantations sounds like just what a chocolate company should be. The company began in 1997 from the observations and plans of Pierrick Chouard and Allen Suarez. They wanted to bring back focus on the quality and flavor of cocoa beans instead of just volume, and they wanted to work directly with the plantations and farmers. Vintage Plantations was the first chocolate company to be part of the Rainforest Alliance. The chocolate used to be made in Ecuador, but the company had to move production over to the U.S. in 2008. Everything up to the pre-grinding, however, takes place in the country where the cocoa was grown. If you'd like to read up more, I'd highly recommend the articles on their website. Although the text could use a bit of grammar type of editing, it's full of good information. I particularly like that their tasting steps include Your Opinion. That's what I'm always trying to explain: there are certain traits of better and lesser chocolate, but ultimately the best kind is the kind you enjoy the most. If I understand correctly, Vintage Plantations sources their beans in Ecuador, Peru, and Nicaragua. 

So. You've already seen the pretty wrapper. The painting is by Charlotta Janssen; if you look closely, you can see that the bottom half shows cacao trees growing. Inside the paper envelope is a sealed wrapper that protects the chocolate. Mine had a very thin coating of bloom, but that's nothing out of the ordinary for a 90% chocolate bar that was sitting in a random candy store in Arizona. Other than that, it looks good. Nice reddish color and molding, along with perfectly sized pieces. 

After I break off one piece, I like to put it in my mouth and give it two soft chews. You definitely want to let the chocolate melt, but sometimes a soft chew or so helps, especially with a very dark chocolate. Guittard's 91% bar (the Nocturne) is probably one of my favorite chocolates and I've sampled at least three different 100% bars, so I'm not coming to Vintage Plantations with no experience in darkness. What I've noticed is that it isn't just flavor that's difficult to get right. We all expect a chocolate with this high of a cocoa content to be bitter; we're prepared for that possibility. Texture is the one, I think, less people think about beforehand. If you don't have a careful chocolate making process down, the texture suffers. Lindt can't handle very dark chocolate: their 99% bar feels like it's almost falling apart in your mouth, rather than simply melting. Vintage Plantations handles it all better. 

For all my talk about experience, I do usually have to have a piece or two to get my mouth used to the chocolate and akin to any bit of bitterness; it reminds me of taking a first sip of a mixed drink, where all you can taste is the alcohol, and then by the second sip you can appreciate all the flavors. This bar's aroma is blue, like cacao nibs. In fact, the first taste was like putting a few nibs into my mouth. It definitely felt bitter. But by the second or third piece, the bitterness faded and I was left with luxurious chocolate slowly melting in my mouth. The texture is just a tad on the dusty side, not quite as smooth as some chocolates of this percentage that I've had; I wouldn't, however, consider this an issue. Instead of the bitterness on my tongue, I was ending up with just the slightest bite on the edges of the flavor, which became increasingly warm and red. The heart of the chocolate, that last lump left before it melts all away, is soothing and soft. It leaves you with a gorgeous richness in your mouth that is terribly enchanting. Take me away, my dear; I'll go where you go (I'm mimicking the lyrics to "My Reason" by Keedie). 

Although I paid $6 for this bar, it's $4.95 online straight from Vintage Plantations. Do note, that's five or six dollars for a 100 gram, good quality, bean to bar chocolate. Definitely not the most expensive chocolate out there. I don't know if Vintage Plantations is my absolute favorite chocolate company, but I am very glad to have made their acquaintance and am enjoying this bar. I may return to the shop to buy the other varieties. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

I, Toto

The Phoenix Art Museum has been running a Hollywood Costumes exhibit, which I visited a couple weeks ago. There is quite a range there: Indiana Jones, Sweeney Todd, Queen Elizabeth I, Darth Vader, various Hitchcock heroines, a motion capture outfit (surely I wasn't the only one who noticed that Andy Serkis's quote was mislabeled as coming from Randy Serkis? That was terrible), and Dorothy's dress and slippers, among many more. 

So there were many movie books and such available for purchase, including many Wizard of Oz items. I wished I were 15 or so years younger so that I could get the toy basket with a Toto doll inside. Instead I ended up with the autobiography of the dog who played Toto; that's almost as good, anyway, isn't it? 

Willard Carroll put together this book; he describes in his introduction how he found the text in an old metal box on the site where Toto lived, trained, and was buried. Toto was originally known as Terry, and yes, she was a girl. Her owners were frustrated by her because she had accidents in the house, so they left her with Carl Spitz the dog trainer. Many of his dogs worked in movies, and he had no trouble training Terry until she, too, was ready for the acting business. She worked first with Shirley Temple, later on The Wizard of Oz, and on various other films over a course of years. 

This book, at just under a hundred pages, is short. It's also sweet. To accompany the text, there are also old photographs of Terry with the other dogs she lived with and the actors she worked with. A few newspaper clippings, illustrations, and reviews accompany the pictures. From a learning standpoint, this book offers a look into an area that is much-less explored, though it is within another area (The Wizard of Oz in general) that receives much attention. This book answers the question of who Toto was and also of what it was like for a dog to enter the acting business. The old-fashioned voice and style are quaint and simple, making you quite adore the dog who became Toto.