Monday, February 27, 2017

Sharlot Hall & the Arizona Strip

Once again, let me emphasize that you can get a great selection of books from antique stores. I love to get all sorts of books about Arizona's history at antique stores because they're generally at low prices (sometimes very low prices) and often they're books that you can't really buy new anymore or if they are available new they're only for sale at specific museum stores or online. I've picked up a couple of Sharlot Hall books in this way, and I randomly started to read this one first because it looked short and I wanted a break from the "newer" books I've been reading lately.

At about ninety pages, I thought that this would be a book I could finish in a couple of days. But I'll be honest and say that the first quarter or third of it was dry and not overly interesting to me. As you can see from the front cover, this book is Sharlot Hall's travel diary of her trip through Northern Arizona in 1911. Now, I've read travel diaries and memoirs and such before without any problem, but I think it was mainly the content that would slow down my interest in this particular diary. You see, Sharlot made this trip in order to observe and record this particular section of Arizona and to explain to Arizonans what the land, together with its resources, was like. So she'll talk about the geography and the plants and the types of animals that do well there and what crops she thinks might grow there--and given that this is all talk from a completely different time in history and has therefore lost some of its relevance, it just didn't keep my interest.

However. Once the journey really starts taking off, right about at the point where they pass Flagstaff, there is so much beautiful land that they cover that this writing does take on a more poetic quality, which is what is more interesting to me to read. Now, I had never that I can recall heard the term "the Arizona strip" before. It's that piece of land above the Grand Canyon that used to be fairly inaccessible to the rest of the state, so much so that it was more connected to Utah than to Arizona (when Utah became a state, they did want to annex this land). At Sharlot's time, you could only access it by Lee's Ferry (which is around present day Page, to give you an idea of location). So at the time when Arizona was getting a bridge into this isolated bit of land, Sharlot was advocating for making use of this land (and not letting all the profit go up to Utah instead of to the rest of Arizona) and also for showing people the beauty of it and encouraging tourism there. So from a historical standpoint, this is all very interesting.

Once they passed through Flagstaff, they started to get Painted Desert views. Now, I love the Painted Desert; it's one of my favorite places. It's such poetic land that speaks a thousand stories in a thousand colors. I adore it. Sharlot, too, was quite taken by the views. So I really enjoyed hearing her perspective on it all. For that content alone, this book was worth reading. And I say the Painted Desert, but it's also the red rocks and such as you get closer to Utah that she describes. A little bit on the Grand Canyon, too, but not as much, maybe because she knew that other people had already given descriptions of it.

If you weren't aware, Sharlot Hall did write poetry, as well. Hence the beauty of her descriptions and her ability to quickly provide an assessment of a scene or situation. Honestly, I really only knew her name from the Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott; I knew that she was a writer, I guess of poetry and non-fiction--but that's about it. This book has an introduction that explains a little about who Sharlot was, what she did, and why she was such a significant figure in Arizona's history. Absolutely fascinating material; I definitely enjoyed the introduction more than the first quarter of the book itself. Sharlot Hall was a fascinating person. She was the first woman in Arizona to serve in public office, as the Territorial Historian of Arizona in 1909. Hence her explorations of various undiscovered corners of the state and her writings on what she found there. She's also the one who restored the governor's mansion at the Sharlot Hall Museum and put together much of what is now at the museum (it's a great museum to visit, by the way). So while this particular book may be one of her more random writings that will perhaps appeal to less readers, it is a worthwhile read if you're interested in Arizona history or in Sharlot Hall.

I'll leave you with one last thing to think on. Did you know that Congress wanted to admit the Arizona and New Mexico territories as a single state? Can you imagine? They have such different personalities today and the two are both so big that it's hard to imagine them being one huge state. Sharlot Hall wrote her poem "Arizona" in protest of this statehood bill. Of course, eventually Arizona and New Mexico were allowed to enter the union as separate states, which is how we know them now. I just never knew that the idea of combining them like that was once on the table.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Theo: Salted Toffee

I'm going to transition out of the two-in-a-row salted chocolates with a salted toffee chocolate this week. It's Theo's 55% Dark Chocolate Salted Toffee. As you probably know, Theo uses organic and fair trade ingredients, making them acceptable under my new (or maybe I should say "more fully self-enforced") standards. I also generally enjoy Theo's chocolate, milk and dark and flavored and plain.

On first look, I expected this bar to be pretty similar to the Nutcracker Brittle bar that I reviewed a couple of Christmases back. In many ways, it is related, but there are a couple of key differences. The Nutcracker Brittle was 70% cocoa instead of only 55%, that one hard plenty of hazelnut shards in it, and it also had more salt (which I know because I have some of that same Nutcracker Brittle left from this past Christmas, so I'm able to compare these two side by side).

It's harder to say whether the "toffee" is the same thing as the "brittle," though they do appear the same to me. They both have that light sugar crystal crunch that I compared last time to rock candy. It's a nice crunch, and without the hazelnuts in this bar you're able to focus more on these little pieces of sugar crystals. There is some taste here and there of salt, in some places more than in others. The salt is definitely more of a companion piece or an accent, as the name implies; the emphasis there is on the toffee rather than on the salt.

As with the Nutcracker Brittle, this is a bar that you have to chew on because of those little pieces of toffee in there. I think that, as far as the chocolate goes, I prefer the 70% to the 55%, but it's still basically the same chocolate, just . . . a little more watered down, if I may. It's hard to say that it's sweeter because it isn't really that sweet and it's hard to say that it's not as dark because the 70% isn't really that dark. It's just lighter; let's go with that description. If I might point out here, as well, Theo has set up a 55% dark chocolate that I'm neutral toward, instead of my usual negativity toward with cocoa percentage. This chocolate has a sort of rich flavor to it and a smooth mellowness that is unlike that thick, almost syrupy taste that's normal in the 50's range. I let a corner that had very little toffee in it melt in my mouth just so that I could test the chocolate's taste on its own, and it was able to stand on its own.

Given this lower cocoa content and the candy-bar-like inclusion of sugar crystals, Theo could make a miniature version of this bar if they wanted to try a different marketing angle. Even like this, it's something nice to reach for when you want a munching chocolate, when you're maybe craving something slightly sweet but not too much. Something to keep in your desk, maybe?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Disney Princess Analysis - Part 9: Tiana

Click to read Part 1 (Snow White)Part 2 (Cinderella)Part 3 (Aurora)Part 4 (Ariel)Part 5 (Belle)Part 6 (Jasmine)Part 7 (Pocahontas), and Part 8 (Mulan).

At long last, it's time to return to my analysis of the official Disney princesses. Rest assured that the long break I took from this series was not due to a lack of interest: the next princess, Tiana, is one of my favorites. If I were to put together a list of my top three Disney princesses it would probably be (in the order that their movies were released) Aurora, Belle, and Tiana. The last time I watched The Princess and the Frog I realized anew how much I deeply admire Tiana and genuinely want to learn from her. People talk about animated characters being potential role models for children, but Tiana is a role model for adults, too.

The Princess and the Frog came out in 2009, eleven years after the last princess movie, Mulan. Yet rather than being the long-awaited film, it was the movie that held onto the past by being the last one done with traditional animation (I'm so weird that I still miss traditional animation) and also introduced possibly odd elements that audiences just didn't know how to respond to (the fairly modern New Orleans setting and the great amount of time that our prince and princess spend as frogs). So I think all of that perhaps distracted from the wonderfulness of Tiana's character.

That is, it's also a possibility that Tiana was less popular than 2010's Rapunzel because Tiana is black and Rapunzel is blonde--even though everybody clamors about wanting representation for all types of people. I mean, we all hope that that isn't the case. (Note: The Princess and the Frog was, I believe, well-received. I'm talking here more about how much demand there is for Tiana merchandise or character meet and greets with Tiana or people dressing like Tiana, that sort of marker for popularity.) I think it was certainly exciting to have the first black Disney princess to follow after the previous racially diverse additions of Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan. It seems possible that the filmmakers didn't just want to design this character visually; they also wanted to include race in the film itself. Instead of just choosing a fantasy setting, they chose the early-ish 20th century New Orleans setting so that they could show the contrast in social settings of Tiana's family and Charlotte's. 

Other than this being probably the first instance of a Disney princess film making note of race affecting a person's social situation (I'm not counting Pocahontas because that was two established cultures meeting for the first time, rather than showing the later results of that meeting--aka. reservations), this is also the first time that a princess is poor and lower class. Mulan wasn't a princess and I don't think she was upper class, either, but her family had a higher social class than Tiana's. Tiana's family is just barely making ends meet by working from sunup to sundown. I can't decide whether or not it was necessary to create this background for Tiana, but it is interesting and it does set up a wonderful character that I suppose wouldn't have existed if she had come from a different background. (I'm almost forgetting to state one obvious fact: once again, Tiana isn't born a princess and doesn't become one until she, like Belle, marries a prince.)

This brings us around to my reason for admiring Tiana so much. This movie came out during my first year of college, that time when I was getting myself used to a thorough method of studying and analysis while also looking forward to where all this work could bring me. So to hear Tiana talk about dreams and about working hard to achieve dreams did speak to me. Snow White and Cinderella teach us virtues, Belle and Mulan teach us the importance of sticking up for ourselves and for the people we care about, and Tiana teaches us to persevere. She is truly untiring, working all of her jobs and saving her pennies so she can reach her dream of opening up a restaurant. 

But it's a Disney movie, you say, where's the magic in that? That's exactly the point. Tiana did so much right, trying to stay positive even when she was tired, just like her father taught her to do. But along the way, all her hard work was leaving something out. Her father kept on a smile for her; this shows that our relationships with other people are important, more important than all of these goals we set up for ourselves. Of course, the goals are important and we should work on those. But not at the expense of finding reasons to smile. Tiana never goes out with her friends. She just works. This is why her relationship with Naveen works out so well. Naveen shows her not to forget about the magic.

Naveen is the opposite of Tiana: he seeks entertainment all day and has no idea what work is. The theme is not entirely unlike that of Chocolat (more the book than the movie): the contrast between asceticism and hedonism and the question of how it is possible to balance them. Naveen reminds Tiana that she can smile and not just because she's trying to be positive but because she wants to smile and have fun and enjoy a moment just for the moment's sake. Tiana, in turn, reminds Naveen that these moments of joy or pleasure only truly matter if you have done your part to earn them. So it's nice that this Disney relationship truly tries to have each character offer something to the other; they don't just fall in love, they complement each other. It's that concept of don't ask what you can get from a relationship, ask what you can give to it.

Add to that Anika Noni Rose's fabulous voice and Tiana is a terrific character. I prefer the less pop-sounding music in animated films, so while I'm not overly fond of Randy Newman and some of the music in this movie, I do really like Tiana's singing voice (actually, I guess I do like most of the music now). She sounds elegant and classy (as compared with the pre-teen pop sound of Rapunzel's voice, but I'm getting ahead of myself). 

Tiana is a character who stands utterly independent. She speaks for herself, she makes decisions for herself, she works for herself and her dreams, and she always takes charge of a situation. She's always positive and kind to the people around her because she knows that this is a part of achievement. She's patient and diligent. And yet she's not perfect or designed as perfect (like Snow White and Cinderella). I genuinely want to learn from Tiana, and for that she receives high marks in this analysis series. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

A United Kingdom

Almost three years ago, when I saw Belle, I described the film as being like "a piece of a person's life." (Click here to read that post.) Coming from director Amma Asante's latest film, A United Kingdom, I see that same stylistic fingerprint that I found so refreshing in Belle.

Unfortunately, A United Kingdom is one of those smaller release films with multiple release dates--so I thought for a moment that I might not be able to see it. In Arizona, you can currently see it at the new Harkins Camelview over at Scottsdale Fashion Square (which, by the way, is a very nice theatre). Anyways, because perhaps not everyone has heard of this film yet, I'll provide a basic summary.

It's a love story between a man named Seretse and a woman named Ruth. The details: it's 1947, he is about to take his role as king of Bechuanaland (present day Botswana), and she is white and British. They decide to get married because they love each other and they've resolved to overcome any issues that might come up. But the issues quickly become as much political as racial, and they're caught up in so much more than they had ever imagined they would have to deal with.

It's that very progression that works so well in this film. The early scenes are stripped of political and racial connotations. A man and a woman meet at a social event and immediately grow interested in each other. They meet again. They go dancing. They talk. They walk around at night talking. It's very intentionally just two people falling in love in the usual way.

Then the scene starts to change up a bit--once again in the usual way. A couple of issues start there in England because Ruth and Seretse are an interracial couple and this is 1947--again, though, this is expected, by both the characters and the audience. Not that they don't mind it, but this is what they know is coming, right?

Once they're married and they go to Bechuanaland, there are similar issues, only in reverse. This time it's Seretse's community rejecting Ruth, which she didn't really expect or at least not to this degree. And as I said, these issues soon escalate to (or perhaps I should say switch to) political issues.

Here's the thing. Ruth, in this film, is just a woman. Her characterization is carefully controlled. We know that she had a job but we don't know why she has that job or how she felt about that job or anything like that. We don't see any of her friends in England, just her parents and her sister. So there is no indication that she is someone who would have chosen to be in a political situation, or that she wanted to be in a social environment where she would have to adapt--nothing like that. She's not characterized as being the nicest woman on the planet--she's nice, yes, but that isn't supposed to be the point of her character. The point is simply that she fell in love with someone and she kept her word to love him and stand by him and to, by extension, love and stand by his country and his people. She makes adjustments and gains the respect and love of his people because she decides to do her part in making this union work.

Seretse's characterization matters more, of course, because as a ruler, he is political and he was raised to be political. He knows that his choice to marry Ruth will have political effects, but he also considers this a personal decision that he should be allowed to make on his own. Further, in the way that he sees it, this marriage can have a positive effect on the socio-political scene of his country; he wants equality and he sees acceptance of this marriage as a step in the right direction. It's like when he explains why he's going to the film screening even though, as king, he is the only black person allowed to go; he says he goes out of defiance and out of the hope that things will be better someday. Seretse is smart. He knows what issues belong to which category and he can see from where exactly conflict derives--and he in turn uses that awareness to try and improve everything. He sees how things are and why they are and how they could be and how he hopes for them to be.

Amma Asante, as a director, has the ability to portray the personal side of political situations. There is the sense of daily life, daily people, and daily choices to this film, as was also the case with Belle. People who are just trying to live their lives in the best way that they can see. People who see things in a straightforward way and have the world tell them that, no, it isn't so simple, you can't do things this way or be this way because we won't allow it. People who take those obstacles and look at them and elegantly overcome them--for personal reasons and so that other individuals can live better because the road is being paved for them.

That elegance is what I responded to so much in both of these films. Sure, it's exciting to watch films that show the defiance that led to social reform. But remember all my talk lately that I don't like rebellion for rebellion's sake? Sometimes with films that focus so much on the defiance, I feel like we're focusing too much on rooting for people talking back to others when the point is supposed to be finding a way in which we can all work together. So we have to start in looking at our daily lives and seeing how we are or aren't doing that.

My final note is just to say that I encountered in this film a bit of history that I knew essentially nothing about. I don't know how it was for everyone else, but my world history classes consisted of the Fertile Crescent, Ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, Medieval and Renaissance Europe, and the World Wars--and little if anything else. I feel like I've learned more history from my literature classes than from my history classes (okay, yes, I've taken more literature than history classes, but even in high school). At one point in the film, Ruth is asked if she knows the word apartheid. I didn't know it until I took Holocaust Studies my junior year of high school--and even then, there was only so much time to learn about everything connected to this . . . one word. So I'll just take a moment to appreciate that A United Kingdom was a film I could connect to on a personal level while also being a film that showed me places and situations and history with which I was entirely unfamiliar.

I hope I haven't talked too much about the plot of this film. My point is, go see it if you have the opportunity; it's wonderfully done. And especially with the types of running conversations relating to politics and socio-politics that I've been hearing lately, I wonder why more people aren't getting excited about this film and talking about it.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Salazon: Dark Chocolate with Sea Salt

It took me just over a year to try something else from Salazon Chocolate Co., even though I had favorable comments for their Gingerbread bar last Christmas. Unintentionally, I came back this time with the non-gingerbread version of that same bar. That is, the 57% cocoa Dark Chocolate with Sea Salt. So the same deal as before: organic/non-GMO, Rainforest Alliance Certified, fairly traded. The same Dominican Republic sourced cocoa. The question is, will I still like this chocolate without the winter spices?

The packaging is less cluttered than it was for the holiday bar. There are still a lot of elements, but they have a simpler look since they're mostly all in the same shade of pink. My only problem with the pink is that it's almost the exact shade of Himalayan salt: at first glance, this bar looks like it's salted with Himalayan salt. The label, of course, clearly says sea salt--but I would like more cohesion with the coloring.

Once again, the chocolate bar is beautifully molded with an image of Central America and the top of South America. There is no border this time, which is a small change that does improve on an already good design.

Here is where I start to have something of an issue.

Last time, I also reviewed a chocolate bar with salt. And I gave Seed and Bean's Cornish Sea Salt positive comments. So maybe I was coming to this bar expecting a similar experience, which I didn't get--and I'm rather wishing that it had been more similar.

There isn't much salt in this chocolate. I'm aware that, as I mentioned in my review of them last year, Salazon likes to keep the salt to a minimum and use it as a seasoning, the way that salt is used in food. I praised them for this last time: some companies do use too much salt for their salted chocolate. But last time, in addition to the chocolate flavors, there were all of those gingerbread spices--and so it made sense to keep the salt to a minimum. This time, it's just chocolate and salt, and so the salt is able to have more of a presence. I wanted more salt.

The salt isn't within the chocolate; it's sprinkled on the back of the bar. So it's usually don't to hit your mouth first, but if you're letting the chocolate melt instead of chewing quickly through it, then the salt will fade long before the chocolate is gone. And when I'm eating chocolate from a company that specializes in salted chocolate, I don't want to forget straight away that the chocolate is salted.

Further, I'm not overly thrilled about getting the chance to taste this chocolate without other flavors mixed in. As you know, I don't usually care for chocolate in the 50% cocoa range; last time, I said that this cocoa content worked because it was like a dark milk chocolate, which suited the gingerbread flavors. But without those flavors, I find little reason for this chocolate's flavors. There is too much of sweetness to it and too much of that middle-ground taste of chocolate in the 50% range, when it isn't a milk chocolate child and yet not quite a dark chocolate adult, either. When it's undecided about what it is, and therefore it doesn't offer the right tasting experience. (For the record, yes, I am aware that there is also a 72% version of this bar.)

It's possible I'm being harsh here; as I said, it's a personal preference. Some people will probably appreciate that this chocolate is dark without getting in too deep. Some people will like that touch toward sweetness. And I don't mind it. The chocolate tastes fine, certainly better than what I'm going to call "grocery store chocolate" and I've already eaten through a whole row of it while I complain. It has kind of a dessert chocolate taste, like cold cream and chocolate chips.

That's not very memorable, though. In fact, it was because I wasn't overly interested in the chocolate that I wanted more salt so that I would have something more interesting to taste. So this bar really didn't work for me, and I'm at a loss with how to conclude. Maybe the issue I'm having is visible right away in the label: 57% organic dark chocolate with sea salt. The type of people who care about how their chocolate is made and where it's sourced from are generally going to be comfortable with a more standard 70% range. The 50% range is usually for cheaper chocolate, flavored chocolate, or truffles and such--am I right? So I'm just confused about who this chocolate bar is. If it's so refined as to keep salt at the correct minimum amount, then why isn't it refined enough to avoid the awkward 50% cocoa range except when that angle makes sense, as with the Gingerbread chocolate?

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A Reflection on Symphony Hall

I guess this is just my week for long, rambling posts. Apologies.

If you've only been to Symphony Hall in downtown Phoenix once, chances are it was for a Christmastime performance of Ballet Arizona's The Nutcracker. They put on a wonderful performance, with many, many shows each year--and it's supposed to be one of the best productions of this ballet in the nation. I can see why: the dancers are talented, so many elements are timed to perfection, and the sets and costumes are detailed and beautiful. So if this is the one event that brings people to Symphony Hall or to go see a ballet or to hear the Phoenix Symphony live, then that's great and I'm certainly not complaining about that.

I'm just wondering about something.

This past week, I went to see Ballet Arizona's Romeo and Juliet. Not because I'm the biggest fan of the story of Romeo and Juliet but because I wanted to finish off this run of shows I've been going to see with just one more for now. Plus, it was the third medium: two plays, an opera, and then a ballet. I had to round it off. Now, I'm not going to give a general reaction to the ballet this time; instead, I want to consider something that I observed about the audiences at these shows. (Reminder: this is the Phoenix area. The audiences here are obviously going to differ greatly from a show in, say, New York.)

The plays draw people for different reasons. A lot of retired people. A lot of college looking people who are probably seeing it for a class or because they're feeling particularly cultured and educated right now and therefore going to see a play feels like the thing to do (and because they get tickets for the price of an IMAX movie). So a quieter, more niche group.

The opera, as I mentioned before, brought in the classy people. You can tell when there are people with money in the room--people who are letting that money show a bit tonight because it's the opera and they wanted to dress up and they paid hundreds of dollars for their tickets. Other people really want to be there and are really excited to be there because they really enjoy the experience of the music and the singing; so these people, given that they've probably been planning this night for a long time, also put a lot of thought into what they were going to wear. Maybe they even went out and bought a new dress. In general, they're artistic people with taste--so that shows in what they choose to wear. Simple elegance. I'm not saying everyone was wearing diamond tiaras or that I think everyone should have been; I'm just saying that everyone, in their own way, put themselves together for this night. I want to try and guess that the age range was more around 30's through 60's for this one. Not as many white-haired heads in the crowd, and also not quite as many very young faces.

Now, when you go see The Nutcracker, you get quite a variety of ages and types of people, and it was pretty much the same for Romeo and Juliet. Maybe not quite as many families this time, but still a similar scene. There were children sitting in the seats near me ranging from probably about nine years old to fifteen. Still plenty of adults, ranging from the very young to the less young to the more mature and so on. People who looked monied. People who looked like they just really wanted to come see this show. People who looked artsy. People who didn't. The dress style? Much less formal and therefore a bit less elegant. More like "church clothes." Whatever you have in your closet that looks presentable. (I feel like I'm starting to sound borderline rude here. I don't mean to say that you should only go see a show if you buy a new outfit; I certainly didn't do that. Nor do I mean to suggest that clothing is the only thing that matters.) Basically what I'm getting at is that the crowd was more varied at the ballet than at the opera, and I'm wondering why.

I know that people make fun of opera, in a way, and most people can't imagine going to see opera. But people kind of make fun of ballet, too. So why do more types of people consider going to the ballet than to the opera? I enjoyed the ballet, but I vastly preferred the opera; it was in fact the opera that held my attention more and moved me more. I know everyone won't feel the same way, and of course our reactions also vary depending on the particular opera or ballet that is being performed.

But here's the thing. Music, singing in particular, resonates with people on a deep level. This is why you can listen to a song in another language, without knowing what it means, and feel what the song is saying and what the singer is portraying. Dance resonates, as well, and of course there is music to dancing. But if modern people don't listen to much opera, they also don't listen to much symphonic music. So I would imagine that most people who aren't musicians who are going to a ballet are seeing more of the dancing than the music. And dancing is fascinating to watch. The choreography, the athleticism, and the emotion of movement. It is wonderful, yes. But for me, it was easier to focus on the emotion of song for over two hours than the emotion of dance.

In general, I enjoyed the group dances more than the pair dances, even though I felt like my favorite parts should have been the dances between Romeo and Juliet since it is their story. The fight scenes were probably my favorite; I had never seen ballet sword fights before. I guess I mainly liked when there was more to look at, more places for my eyes and my head to wander. And maybe that's why some people would sooner go see a ballet than an opera.

I didn't like my mind wandering; when I lost focus, I took that to mean that I wasn't enjoying the show as much as I might have liked to. I said that the opera took my full attention for all of its duration--but that was because the music touched me. And if other people feel like they won't be touched by the music of opera, then when their attention wanders they won't have much else to focus on. The singing is the star of an opera. Some attention goes to costumes and sets and I guess some operas have more choreography to look at. But the two operas that I've seen have had a much simpler stage than the elaborate productions by Ballet Arizona (I said I wasn't doing a reaction post, but I have to add in here that the backdrops to Romeo and Juliet were absolutely gorgeous, and I loved all the dresses).

When your mind wanders at the ballet, there are multiple things to focus on. When your mind wanders at the opera, there is less.

This is why the audience crowds differed. There were more types of people at the ballet because they were there for more reasons. The opera crowd was mainly there for one reason: we knew that we would be moved by the singing. Some perhaps because they grew up with the "culture" of fine arts and don't see opera as a foreign genre, and others because they discovered later on that this music speaks to them.

I'm beginning to understand this much: performance is art. When I go to the art museum, I spend most of my time looking at the European and American art from medieval times through the 19th century; I walk into the modern rooms only to quickly walk out again because the art there doesn't speak to me, even though I see people there who are mesmerized. Performance is the same way. We all find what speaks to us and realize that we prefer certain things over others. The main thing is to go ahead and look. Walk into the modern art section just to see if it speaks to you. Go to the opera just to see what it's like. If it doesn't speak to you, then that's okay; find what does. But it's fascinating to see all the many reactions we can all have to the same piece of art and the ways in which we settle on the art that we're comfortable with.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Sentiment & The Space Between Us

Warning: this post is a rant that probably runs lengthier than it needed to.

Basically I'm only speaking on this film because I looked at some of the critics' reviews of it, and I don't quite understand why they all seemed to give it two thumbs down. I in fact enjoyed The Space Between Us, and while I'd agree that it wasn't the best movie ever made (which of course not all movies need to be in order for them to be enjoyable), I find some of the critics' comments unfair.

The main point is sentiment. Sentiment is a weird word since it can simply refer to emotions or it can refer to excessive focus on emotions. Critics complained about this movie being too sappy, for including a teen love story and for including tragedy. (Odd enough, they criticized its tear-jerker status while I did not consider this movie a tear-jerker at all. I thought it was more of a power message. Just because a character might die in a story doesn't mean that that story is necessarily sad.) Here is my question: what is wrong with portraying emotions in fiction? What is wrong with sentiment?

It seems appropriate here to mention that I don't care at all for films like The Notebook. I find those boring. And I can only watch the standard Hallmark movies if I'm really trying to avoid doing something else. So it isn't as though I have a history of enjoying the mass-marketed sappy material of fiction (I don't read much genre fiction, either). But I don't think that The Space Between Us was the standard mass-marketed YA love story that the critics were all complaining about.

The trailer certainly made it look like a YA love story. But I'm not convinced that it was (this could lead to an entire conversation about what it means for something to be YA). My main reason for this is that I don't think the film is from Gardner's perspective (or Tulsa's). He's the main character, yes, but the perspective of what you come away with after the movie is over pertains more to Nathaniel Shepherd's perspective and somewhat also to Kendra's--that is, the two adult main characters.

Sure, there are some nice little sequences of Gardner's wish to visit Earth to be around people his age and then of him being so thrilled about every little thing that he experiences on Earth. I don't find it necessary to ignore the sweetness of the way in which he falls in love with Tulsa: fiction, even teen-centered fiction, rarely shows the sweetness of love. Passion, yes. Newness, yes. But sweetness not so much. Gardner's love is sweet and innocent and altogether positive, and that's refreshing to see, as is his general optimism toward life and toward every person that he meets. I'll take this moment to appreciate Asa Butterfield's acting skills; even the critics couldn't ignore all that he was able to do with this role.

However. Despite Gardner leading the film in many ways, the story comes down to something more than a teenager wanting to become part of a community of peers. It's Shepherd's story of the vision that he had--and of the unexpected detail that came in and threatened to destroy or at least forever change that vision. He tries to flee the truth for many years, to flee what he must do--but in the end when all the pieces fall in and he stops fleeing, he is relieved and even glad. Kendra has a similar story on a lesser level. She's trying to move on with her dreams after something happened to bring the potential for sadness--and along the way she discovers a new focus to bring her joy and fulfillment. So the heart of the film (sorry, I couldn't resist throwing in that phrase) is in fact how the adults come to terms with certain aspects of their lives, set against or in terms of their relationship with the two teenagers.

The critics who mentioned the uneven writing of this film were more on target, the way I see it. With some tweaking here and there, the main point or theme could have been more obvious and more focused. Or the film wouldn't have jumped from sci-fi to YA to family drama but rather kept a consistent blend of the three throughout. I don't mind the dialogue, however. This brings us back to sentiment. I don't mind lines about fear and courage or about falling in love. If they're nice lines, I don't care if they're sentimental because don't we praise fiction for portraying emotions? An entirely different subject matter, but wasn't I just praising the opera Madama Butterfly for its excessive portrayal of tragic emotion? Opera is what you would call fine art--so why is a movie considered extremely low art for excessive emotion? (Note: I am not calling this movie fine art, nor am I drawing a direct comparison between it and the above opera.)

I enjoyed this movie because it was fun to watch, the actors were good, and it made me think about the human condition. About living, about relationships between people, about how much we give back to the world that gives us what we have and what we experience. I didn't love it for the love story because the love story was only one almost small aspect of the film--and even it was more important because of what it said about Gardner and Tulsa as individuals rather than as two people falling in love. And parent/child relationships were more central to the film as a whole than romantic relationships. So you know what? There is nothing wrong with film portraying the sentiment of various types of human relationships--because these are often the most important aspects of life, and art explores life.

Sentiment or sentimentality? I guess one calls something sentimentality if it is sentiment that one prefers not to dwell on. One person's sentimentality can simply be another person's sentiment.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Beauty of a Single Serving Cake

A few months ago, I came across a recipe by Alice O'Dea for chocolate cake for one person. (Click here to go to the article with the recipe.) It sounded like a great idea, so I saved the article. I already have a wonderful recipe for chocolate cake, but that recipe takes a lot of time and ingredients and makes a lot of cake--even if I half the recipe (which I usually do now) it's still a lot of dessert unless you have a big group of people. And dessert is good, so you never want to feel overwhelmed by it or unable to finish the sheer amount of it. And of course I am all for moderation. I don't find it at all necessary to try and cut out sugar; when I want something sweet, I eat something sweet. But I don't eat sweet things all day long, and I definitely try and keep processed foods to a minimum.

"Processed" is the key word there, isn't it? You can, of course, go to the store and buy cakes and desserts that are small. Grocery stores sell single slices of cake, and you can always buy a box of Hostess or something so that you can keep the box for months and only eat one serving at a time. But if you can make a single serving dessert at home isn't that better? That means less processed and more control over ingredients. And honestly, it's fresher and nicer.

That being said, it took me quite a while to finally try out this recipe. I finally made it to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of one of my favorite shows, Primeval, so that I could take this ridiculous picture. I wanted the characters to get their own cake to celebrate.

So now I can come and describe my experience with this recipe. It's very simple to make, much quicker than making a full cake. Not only are you using less of each ingredients, you're also using less ingredients. By habit, I mixed the dry ingredients in one bowl and the wet ingredients in another bowl and then mixed them together, but I think you can just stick to one bowl (after you've mixed the dry by themselves, of course) in this case. I felt very silly mixing such a minimal amount of batter, as if I were playing rather than truly baking something.

I mostly followed Alice's recipe. I did use Dutch-process cocoa powder--which she didn't expressly say not to do but I know some recipes say not to use it. It worked fine for this recipe. I also used regular sunflower oil instead of coconut oil because I don't have any coconut oil at home right now and because I wouldn't want to taste the flavor of coconut in the cake (and because I imagine she specified coconut oil because it's healthier than canola oil, but sunflower oil is also better than canola oil--which is why I always use it instead of canola oil). I unfortunately haven't bought more measuring spoons yet, so I had to measure 1/8 teaspoons of some of the ingredients with a regular teaspoon; my measurements on those probably weren't perfect, though I tried my hardest. Oh, yes, and I didn't add chocolate chips, mostly because I don't see the point (it's a cake not a brownie).

Alice used a toaster oven, but I have a pretty small oven so I didn't feel bad heating it for just a tiny cake. She cooked her cake for a total of 20 minutes; mine was done in 15 and could possibly have gone one minute less. So do check on your cake. I used a small glass storage container to bake the cake in. At about four inches in diameter, this meant that the cake was only about a quarter inch thick. So if you have a container that's just a little smaller, that might work better. Then again, you probably don't want the batter too thick because there are no eggs to help make it fluffy; so you don't want it to end up too dense.

My cake wasn't dense. It probably was less fluffy than the usual cake, but it is thinner, too. So there was enough air in there to make it feel normal. It tastes normal, too. No, not as good as that other cake recipe that I said I use. This one tastes much more standard than that. Remember that, as always, it'll take on the flavor of the cocoa powder you use, so whatever you do don't use Hershey's or Nestle; try to get something from a store like Whole Foods or even Tuesday Morning instead. I used Guittard cocoa powder, which you can get at World Market. It gave the cake a mildly rich flavor. And it really did taste quite nice; I found myself craving more later in the day.

Because I may not have done my 1/8 teaspoon measurements accurately, I did worry that I added too much vinegar or baking soda (I intentionally let myself measure extra vanilla). I kept wondering if there was a slightly sour taste, or if I was getting a slight bitter aftertaste. Still, this was a small enough question that I'm going to ignore it, and I imagine that if it was there it was due to my measurements.

As you can tell, ultimately I'm spending a whole post talking about someone else's recipe because I do find this concept exciting. In her article, she talks about the multitude of single serving cake recipes that are out there, but this is the first one that I've come across. I'm very taken with it, and it worked well for me. I would love to find more recipes like this for other desserts. This is the type of thing that you can make once a week to treat yourself, an everyday type of recipe that you use so often that you end up memorizing it. Don't say no to dessert; learn how and in what way you can say yes*.

*Organic flour, organic sugar, non-GMO cocoa powder, aluminum-free baking powder, Himalayan salt, organic/unsweetened almond milk, cold-pressed sunflower oil, Madagascar Bourbon vanilla extract, and white vinegar. That isn't what the ingredients look like in grocery store cake. And note that if you also use a milk alternative, this recipe is vegan, mainly because it doesn't have eggs (not that I'm vegan, but many people are).

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Nonna Urban Eatery & the Art of Food

You know how locals usually don't find themselves in the tourist areas very often? That's how it is for me and Old Town Scottsdale. There are a couple of shops there that I like, but I don't have the need to visit them too often. I used to love eating at Distrito at The Saguaro Hotel--they had some of my favorite food but regrettably it was always empty there, so they closed last year (there is now a new restaurant at the hotel, but it isn't at all the same).

So when a couple of us found ourselves headed to Old Town Scottsdale looking for somewhere to have dinner, we had no idea where to go, despite knowing the names of several restaurants there. You see restaurants while driving by but you don't necessarily ever go to any of them. By chance, we ended up walking down Main St. and we saw a sign for Nonna Urban Eatery. The name sounded promising, so we went to look at their menu, which also looked promising.

This is the sign that led us toward the restaurant, but I took this picture another time (during the day).

On learning that this is a new restaurant (they hadn't yet had their official opening when we were there this past weekend), I felt similar to how I did visiting Moscato in Camp Verde back when they first opened. There's something special about being there to see the beginning of a promising restaurant.

But it's Scottsdale, you say? Surely there must be plenty of good restaurants. Yes, there are. But there are also plenty that I don't care for and many that I'll eat at but won't get excited about. I like restaurants that serve food, and sadly that can be hard to find. Sometimes these days the restaurants with more natural foods also have a "healthy style" and I don't want kale wraps or sweet potato fries.

Nonna is more hip and adult, less trendy-rustic. They have a selection of wines and such and their plates are small, giving, well, the urban feel. This is a place where you can go to spend time and a place where you will enjoy every aspect of your food.

Iced tea, tilapia, and a taste of both the chocolate cake and tiramisu. These are all simple dishes, foods that I've had before. But in this restaurant they were all unique and all full of flavor. Chef Gian Franco Brugaletta, according to the restaurant's website, seeks "to bring back simple, nutritious food, through traditional and creative flavors." This is exactly what excites me in food, and this is why I immediately felt at home in this restaurant. I don't need dishes that I have to Google or dishes that required advanced chemistry to make. Just give me food made with good ingredients that you have formed in a way to make the flavors dance.

That's exactly how the tilapia was. Tilapia is a light fish, so it already tastes nice even if you don't do much with it (I've made it with very bare seasonings when I've made it at home). But here the seasoning added so much flavor and together with the side accompaniments, this was a unique dish that I wouldn't have been able to put together myself and that I wouldn't come across in a restaurant the next street over. There is art in this kind of simplicity, where "simple" doesn't mean boring or lacking in detail.

As usual, this isn't a review. It's a reflection on how satisfying it is to find a restaurant that does so well with its food. This is food that I would (and do) look forward to returning to. Given that they use seasonal ingredients, there will probably always be something different to try. Just note that they currently close for Sundays and Mondays. Go there during the week or on a Saturday for fresh food and a stylish atmosphere.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Madama Butterfly & the Beauty of Tragedy

Can I officially say now that I love the opera? Don Giovanni at the Santa Fe Opera last summer was my first opera and I enjoyed that immensely, and now I've also seen Madama Butterfly here by the Arizona Opera and it was absolutely amazing.

(Yes, yes, I've possibly been having too much fun going to see all the shows lately, but let me assure you that I stick to the cheap seats, I've been waiting to be able to do this for a while, and shows kind of have on and off seasons and this just happens to be the time of year when there's a lot going on that I want to see.)

Let me start with one superficial note. Arizona Opera's website explains that the opera is the place you can get all dressed up for, and I love that this is true. I like the concept of dressing up. I grew up watching things like I Love Lucy where everyone puts on their best clothing and takes all of this time to get ready to go out somewhere, be it dinner and the movie theatre or a show. Nobody really does that anymore, at least not here. Movie theatre? Casual. Nice restaurant? Slightly dressed up. A play? Almost casual. But Symphony Hall? Expect people to dress up, especially for the opera. The men who weren't wearing suits were at least wearing collars. Many women had full length gowns, and dresses ranged from classic black to a bit of glitz. (I went with classic black.) A little more glitz than in Santa Fe, where everyone paired elegant yet comfortable shoes with their black dresses rather than the more expected high heels. Either way, I love the dressing up.

In many ways, Madama Butterfly was an entirely different production from Don Giovanni. That set was very sparse, while this one was filled in more with the Japanese house, a bit of garden, and a background showing the sea. The lighting, as well. I don't have such a photographic or cinematic eye that I notice lighting in any particular way--but I had never seen lighting done so artistically in the theatre before. The light produced the effects of night and day and different tones, as well as drawing attention to particular spaces. It was very beautiful.

Whereas the subtitles in Santa Fe are attached to the seat in front of you, these are on a screen above the stage--which I thought wouldn't be as nice but in fact worked just as well. And you really do need the translation. Don Giovanni had more conversations and so you needed to know what the characters were saying to follow each scene, but Madama Butterfly is more about long songs that are poetic and flowery in their depiction of emotion. As you're listening, you're also reading these pretty words and so you're experiencing two art forms at once.

The music of the two operas is also quite different. Madama Butterfly is by Puccini, with whom I thought I was entirely unfamiliar (except for "O Mio Babbino Caro," which Downton Abbey informed me was by Puccini). I can't explain his style in musical terms, but to me it sounds fluid and soft and elegant and piercing at the same time, like pink dye running over fresh silk. You might say that the music together with the lyrics are a little sappy in their emotional intensity--but I like that. In fact, a couple of lines that the audience found funny I thought were very sad and did not laugh at.

While all of the singers were excellent, Sandra Lopez stole my heart (or my ear?) as Cio-Cio-San, or Madame Butterfly herself. Oh, the way she sang. Her delivery brought not only amazing musical sounds but also amazing emotion. I didn't know that the song "One Fine Day" was from this opera until its music began--and when Butterfly started singing the familiar lines I felt like I had never heard it before, because I had never heard it like this before and I had never known the context for the words. She broke my heart and I literally cried. Her innocent vision of hope when all the audience knows that her hope will not come true is unbearable. This opera made me want to weep. It was tragedy indeed.

When the music stopped and the performers finished and everything came to an end, I had a genuine shock. I was so caught up with what I was watching unfold on stage that it was jarring to see an end and then to see the performers come out as themselves and to see that they're not these characters. It was so much like I was watching something real--because they did create something real and tangible.

If you've never gone, go see an opera when you get the chance. It's an experience like no other, immensely powerful.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Seed and Bean: Cornish Sea Salt

You know what? I think that it was the name of Seed and Bean that led me to look past their chocolate before. World Market's been carrying their products for I think at least the last year (while they keep certain brands in stock, usually the ones that they rotate in and out stay for about a year). "Seed and Bean" perhaps implied to me that this was a "healthy" bar filled with sunflower seeds and pepitas and maybe flax and chia or something strange like that. Such, however, is not the case. I suppose, then, that the name must simply come from the fact that we call cocoa beans beans when they are in fact seeds.

And using "seed" in the name does give more of an organic sound to the name, which I'm sure is intentional. Seed and Bean is organic chocolate, and it carries the stamp of The Ethical Company Organization, which I had never heard of before. The inside of the paper wrapper further explains that they are the only UK chocolate company to receive 100% ethical accreditation from them. This means, they say, organic ingredients, fair deals to farmers, and respect of the rural environments. That all sounds wonderful.

The bar that I chose is their Cornish Sea Salt, which is a dark chocolate with 70% cocoa content. The cocoa is sourced from Ecuador, and the salt is smoked Cornish sea salt.

The simple packaging gives a handmade yet polished and up to date look. The "foil" wrapper is in fact cellulose, which the wrapper informs me is home compostable. This is a nice touch. Not only is it nice to have a material other than foil (foil is pretty horrendous, environmentally speaking), it's nice that you can compost this wrapper at home (not that I can personally have a home compost right now). Something that I bought recently made a big deal about having compostable packaging and then mentioned in fine print that it wasn't home compostable--tell me, where would you take such a thing for composting and who would go through that trouble just for one wrapper? Anyways, this cellulose foil is a little more like film, so it is true that you might go through more trouble trying to rewrap the rest of the chocolate--or you can just finish it all at once.

Unfortunately, World Market (where I bought this bar) often sells chocolate with bloom. I don't know if it's because they keep old chocolate or because they don't always keep it at the right temperatures or simply because they sell chocolate that has been shipped from far away. The fact is, you really can't see how pretty this chocolate bar must have been when it was first made because it now has that unfortunately layer of bloom on its surface. But at least you can still see the nice cocoa vine that runs across the twelve squares.

Reminiscent of some of the chocolate I've found at Trader Joe's, the aroma is fairly standard and simple with a sort of marshmallow hint to it.

At first taste, the chocolate is a little bitter. Here I must note that this bar's best by date is already in August, which must mean that it's almost getting old--at least, the chocolate feels like it's getting old. It really isn't melting very well, and I've had to chew it a bit to get it to start melting, which unfortunately affects both texture and taste. Still, I have positive comments.

That slight bitterness quickly fades and then the salt comes in. It's just the right touch of salt, and it's good quality salt, and it's spread all throughout your flavor experience. So you don't just taste it once all in one go: it appears and then fades and then returns. As such, you don't really get a good chance to taste just the chocolate on its own; what you can taste of it, though, is perfectly fine. It's rich and warm. But this is flavored chocolate, so the salt is constantly working as the flavor companion. And, in fact, this is probably one of the better salted chocolates I've had. It's such a popular combination these days and yet it's one that you need to execute in perfect balance. And of course, if your ingredients aren't good quality, that'll come across. So I commend Seed and Bean for getting the balance and quality right.

For ethics and flavor, Seed and Bean is going on my decreasing list of chocolate companies I'm allowing myself to focus on.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Do You Ever?

Do you ever feel like you've missed something? Or rather, like you're looking for something or waiting for something and you haven't quite settled on it yet?

That's what I've felt like today. As if I have everything arranged there and there but over here there is something more that could be or should be. Did I glance the wrong way and miss it? Is it just around the corner? And what exactly is it?

I'm reminded of two poems: "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost and Bilbo's "The Road Goes Ever On and On" from The Lord of the Rings. It is no wonder that there is so much written about paths, though I feel as though I have only truly understood it all today. The road not taken. If you had done this one thing or talked to this one person or something so seemingly small as that, then you might have lived completely differently--not necessarily better or worse. Just differently.

And sometimes it is better. Sometimes there are things that fill our lives with so much that we only happened on seemingly accidentally.

Do you ever feel like you need something like that? A chance meeting or a chance turn in the road that leads you to think of something you had never thought of before, to do something you had never before thought to do. That's what I feel like today, like I'm as yet unformed because I'm still searching or waiting for something that I don't know what it is.

Springtime makes you feel that way, I guess, and this week has been springtime weather. There I was twirling in the snow on Christmas Eve a month ago, and now here I am moved just a little to the South, where days of January cold have given way to warm February afternoons of 74 degrees. Maybe I'm just a little in shock at the extra quick transition of the weather.