Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Xocolatl: Chocolate de Oaxaca

Likely this ought to have been one of the first items I reviewed from the Chiles and Chocolate Festival at the Desert Botanical Garden a couple of months ago. But then again, hot chocolate is one of those things that you like to keep for a while so that you can try it again multiple times before making comments. This hot chocolate isn't like others: it's made in Oaxaca in small batches as part of a family tradition. So it's similar to the Mexican hot chocolate (Abuelita or Ibarra) that you can buy at any store--just much, much better.

I prefer Abuelita chocolate to Swiss Miss, sure; this one from Xocolatl, though, I prefer to nearly all of the hot chocolates I've had (I'm just using "hot chocolate" as a general, umbrella term today). And it's no wonder. The cocoa beans used in this chocolate are grown in Chiapas, Mexico, which is in itself less common; I don't come across much Mexican-grown cocoa. The only other ingredients are cane sugar, cinnamon, and almonds. No fluff, no fuss, no fillers, no junk.

Instead of coming in the familiar round discs, this chocolate comes in sticks. There are three sticks attached to one another and four of these sets of three in the bag that I bought. So that's twelve dollars for twelve sticks; expensive only compared to the price of cheap hot chocolate, but completely reasonable otherwise. My only complaint about this chocolate is in that stick style. I like hearing about how the chocolate is hand rolled into sticks, but I don't like trying to break off just one stick. If any of you buy Abuelita of Ibarra, you'll know that when you have trouble breaking a piece off of a disc, you just stick a knife into it and presto, it becomes easy to break. Not so here. Even using a knife, I usually can't break off just one stick, so I end up having to use two half sticks or something like that to get the right amount. Maybe if you're making more than one serving, you won't have as much of an issue with this.

The proportions are one stick per cup of milk (almond in my case). Most often, I end up using half of what a hot chocolate label recommends. To my surprise, then, I found that this proportion was exactly right--so much so that I haven't even been inclined to try adding less chocolate per cup, even just to experiment. I did choose the 60% cacao instead of the 70%; I don't normally like my hot chocolate to be too dark. I leave that for the chocolate bars. So maybe this lower percentage is also why I was happy with the full amount. I heated the chocolate in my usual method: in a small saucepan, with a whisk to mix it all in. I did find that this chocolate was much easier to froth than Abuelita and Ibarra are--which was exciting.

The only explanation I really want to give about the flavor is that it's exactly right, for me at least. There is rich chocolate flavor, but it isn't overwhelming. There is sweetness, but not a huge amount. I can taste a little cinnamon, but mostly I don't notice it (maybe also because I always add cinnamon to hot chocolate, so maybe it's just a neutral flavor to me). And the almonds are stronger than what I would expect (considering that they're not mentioned as a flavor, just in the ingredients list). They make the chocolate taste very Old World. I can almost taste rose and orange right along with the almond just because my mind is associating the flavor with all of those historical drinking chocolates they have at Kakawa Chocolate House in Santa Fe. No, this isn't flavored chocolate--and I might be making the almond taste sound stronger than it is. What I mean to say that the flavors here are textured, simultaneously simple and complex. That's traditional, isn't it? Food that is approachable and recognizable--and wonderful.

I highly recommend this chocolate, if you ever see it around (well, they do sell it online, as well). This is hot chocolate.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Disney Boys - Part 6: Aladdin

Click to read my introduction to this series, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4, and Part 5.

Interestingly, with the list of characters I put together for this series, 1992's Aladdin is the sixth film that I cover--and it was also the sixth film in my Disney Princess Analysis. Instead of focusing on Jasmine, this time I'm focusing on the title character. Aladdin is the character who is in a princess movie but isn't a prince. He would start a trend with this trait: the male love interests in the next princess movies, Pocahontas and Mulan, and then later in Tangled are not princes, either. 

Instead, Aladdin is the "diamond in the rough," the "one whose worth lies beneath." What does that mean, though?

Aladdin is poor: he lives on the streets and steals food to survive. He says that "you're only in trouble if you get caught," so obviously he doesn't have any moral qualms about stealing constantly. But should he? His need to steal is based off of a corrupt society; he is literally just surviving, not trying to take from others. And in fact he normally gives to others rather than taking things for himself. He can't help but give the children the bread he's about to eat. And rather than urging Abu to give away his piece, too, Aladdin just walks away and leaves Abu to make that choice for himself. It's all about personal choice, right? Rather than just feeding children, Aladdin also defends them, like when he stops the children in the crowd from getting hit with the whip. So his instincts are all positive; they all look outward, at others, rather than inward.

Still, it's hard for Aladdin not to let the "street rat" comments get to him. He knows better and tries to convince himself that they're wrong to call him that--but it's hard. And instead of watching Cinderella looking out her window at the castle, here we get to see a young man instead of a young woman looking out in the distance at the palace, dreaming of riches and a better life without any problems. Everyone can dream--and everyone can have life try and squeeze the dreams out of them. 

After Aladdin helps Jasmine get away in the market (where he shows off his cleverness with quick improvisational skills), he is eager to share his dream of the palace with her. This, of course, leads to their shared expression of feeling "trapped," which continues the film's theme of freedom and bondage. Both Aladdin and Jasmine feel bound by their places in society; they are not free to live in even the simplest ways. 

In prison, Aladdin falls for Jafar's trick because he is a dreamer. Is he tricked because of his innocence or dumbness? Is he just too pure to realize it's a trick, or is he blinded by his dreams of riches and his newfound infatuation with Jasmine? Maybe a little bit of both. 

Now, Aladdin always seemed likable to the other poor of the city. He makes it a point to treat others well. For instance, he's kind to the magic carpet--which reaps rewards because the carpet subsequently saves his life twice in a row. And of course Aladdin is also quick to promise the Genie that he will use his last wish to free him. Might I add here a note about Aladdin's description to Genie of Jasmine: "she's smart and funny and--beautiful." Of course he has to like her physically, as well, but isn't it interesting that this film makes a point of having Aladdin remark on Jasmine's character rather than just her looks. Generic comments, sure, but it's just an animated movie.

Let's get back to Aladdin's dream of riches. When he comes in, all triumphant, in his Prince Ali garb, he tries to woo the Sultan more than Jasmine. So pleased with his new images of wealth, Aladdin shows off and in so presenting himself as a wealthy prince, he neglects the very traits that made Jasmine fall for him. All of this leads to his later conversation with Genie, in which he claims that he can't give Genie his freedom after all. From this, we can see that Aladdin really does have some self-worth issues, after all. He has trouble breaking free from the "street rat" comments even now: he feels like a worthless poser in his fancy robes and he thinks that, without Genie, it will become obvious to everyone that he is nothing. 

None of this, of course, is true. In the end, it's Jafar who, in wishing for ultimate power, receives ultimate bondage. Aladdin, by risking losing Jasmine, decides that he must use his last wish to free Genie, after all--and in so doing frees himself, too. The "diamond in the rough" proves his worth by choosing someone else before himself, and in this way he shows that he is not a street rat but is instead a person who makes good choices with what he is given.

You know, I didn't really grow up watching this movie, so when I watched it (as if for the first time) a few years back, I didn't really care for it. But it's growing on me. Particularly I like how Aladdin shows some of the traits that often characterize the princesses, traits that people sometimes complain about as being weak but are in fact simply human characteristics. We all have our moments of struggle, and it's seeing characters who come up on the right side after the struggle that provides inspiration. And writing up this post has made me realize just how big that theme of freedom and bondage is in this film. When it all comes to it, Aladdin's a pretty inspirational character. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Romeo & Juliet

Well, you know, Romeo and Juliet wouldn't exactly have been a play I would want to rush out and see, except that I do like to keep an eye on most of Southwest Shakespeare Company's productions. You just never know which ones will click with you and resonate in a powerful way.

Romeo and Juliet (directed here by Patrick Walsh) began and I thought I was seeing things that I expected. The prologue, the two families, and the comedy. But then something happened. I want to say it was around Mercutio's Queen Mab speech that I noticed this production was taking a different angle. That speech is dirty even for Shakespeare--I remember finding it dirty in high school even though I probably didn't even realize then just how dirty (why, again, tell me, is Romeo and Juliet the main required Shakespeare text [even though there are other Shakespeare plays out there] in high schools, even when sleeveless shirts or shorts that don't come down to your knees are considered too inappropriate for school? I digress). That speech is usually just played as comedy, but here it became a frenzied bit, where Mercutio starts entering his own zone, which made the scene fall in an entirely different way from what I am used to seeing.

That concept of actors entering a zone reminded me of Hamlet last January.

And then I thought more of Hamlet as the play continued to unfold, greatly slimmed down. As I continually mention, I prefer Shakespeare's tragedies to his comedies. And though Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, it's still full of all of the comedy that I generally dislike. This production cut most of that away, leaving us with the core love story. Romeo and Juliet a love story again, a story where you can genuinely feel these two characters falling in love? Wow, that's impressive simply given how familiar this storyline is. It all had so much to do with the performances of Sasha Wilson as Juliet and Kyle Sorrell as Romeo. They did that thing of making the audience believe what we were seeing on stage, of entirely bringing us in.

Some versions of this play emphasize the youth of the two characters. This one didn't. Their age was mostly irrelevant. Their doomed love was central.

Maybe also watching this play brought all of the emotions of falling in love because of the music. Ben Vining provided live cello music. The cello is already one of those instruments that speaks with a human voice, and the way that the music was mainly subtle and yet always just perfect for the moment established the emotional tone. Cello music can be tender and it can be heartbreaking--like love.

Romeo and Juliet runs through this Saturday. And it's exactly the type of production I like to see from Southwest Shakespeare.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Chocolate Smith: Paris Tea Dark Chocolate

Yes, yes, I still have chocolate to review from the Chiles & Chocolate Festival a couple months ago. Now that Christmastime is over, hopefully I can quickly get the posts up for the last of these.

When I saw that The Chocolate Smith, out of Santa Fe, would be at the festival, I was excited. Years ago, when I was writing for Chocablog, they sent me quite a few of their products, including some of their wax chocolate. They call the wax chocolate weatherproof chocolate: it's ganache dipped in cheese wax, so you can carry it with you in warm weather here in the Southwest without it melting in the same (quick) way that a bar of chocolate would. I'd loved the wax chocolate before, so I couldn't wait to get some again (as you know, I don't normally order chocolate online).

Turns out, though, that they didn't have any wax chocolate at the festival. Instead, they had plenty of displays of chocolates and chocolate bars and chocolate covered nuts. Given that I came in wanting a certain product and that I also didn't want particularly to get anything with chile in it (Chiles & Chocolate Festival or not), I just couldn't make up my mind on what to get. (Also given that I was buying from so many different companies that I couldn't get much from each one.) So I decided to just go with the most random item on the table, a bar of Paris Tea Dark Chocolate wrapped in a paper lace doily and tied with a blue string. Definitely not a typical Chiles & Chocolate choice. But I do love my tea.

This is the type of bar where there isn't really a front and back. The front is the side with the full label, right? But there is also a small label on the back and the back is equally appealing-looking with the frilly edges of the doily and all of the loose tea showing on the chocolate's surface. Nice and feminine and pretty.

The chocolate here lies somewhere between sweet and dark; it's similar to Ghirardelli in that way. Not sweet sweet and definitely not bitter, either. Now, tea doesn't always make for a strong flavor in chocolate. I remember reviewing a yerba mate chocolate bar oh, about seven years ago that hardly had any recognizable yerba mate flavor. Similar situation here--sometimes. Sometimes I don't taste the tea at all. Sometimes I'm not sure if I'm tasting vanilla from the chocolate or from the tea. And sometimes I do get the aromatic tone of Paris tea. Other times I feel like I can sense the tea most after the chocolate has melted. Part of this likely happens, as well, simply because the flavors in Paris tea are flavors that tend to already come in chocolate. Vanilla and fruit notes. On some bites, when I do get a lot of the tea, I get a strong fruitiness that feels like it's coming from the chocolate but must be coming from the tea.

And, you know, Paris tea happens to be one of the most delightful black tea blends. So getting even some of the sense of the flavors of this tea into a chocolate bar is nice and pleasant. Let's go with that: nice and pleasant. Maybe not as unusual as ganache dipped, cheese-style, in wax. Yet still pleasant.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

When I Spoke

When I spoke to you last, I couldn't speak. So you turned away.

When I speak to you today, I can't stop. So you stop listening.

When I speak to you tomorrow, I will know how to make a conversation with you. So you'll stay.


I was talking with someone today about our progressions from quietness at a young age to more and more comfort with speaking (both in conversations and in public speaking). More than anything, it all takes time. I remember when I was in fourth grade, I went on a field trip with another school and someone from that school started talking to me. He assured me that he used to be quiet like me, too (he wasn't at all quiet anymore, from the ease with which he struck up a conversation with me); he meant to show me that I would develop out of quietness, too. But I thought, no, I can never be like him; I'm not him; he doesn't realize that I really am quiet.

But what is quiet? We should all be quiet at certain times, just as we should all speak at certain times. As you get older, you begin to realize more about yourself and you also begin to see more of the people around you. You become able to interact with others, even if that once was difficult. It isn't just with practice; it's with the change in perspective that takes place as you realize things about life in general.

I didn't become louder or more boisterous. But I did come to a point where I became comfortable. I can speak in front of a group because I care about what I am presenting and that I am presenting it to them. I can have a conversation with a person because I do want to interact with that person who is in front of me.

Am I like that other student now? No, not really. I'm not usually the one to start the conversation (in a social setting, that is, excluding specific work/volunteering situations). And I still don't know how to mingle. But I'm less bothered by those facts because I realize that we all have our areas that we work on throughout our lives. We're all continually learning and growing--hopefully. You can't focus on what someone else can do that you can't; you have to focus on ability, not disability.


When I spoke to you last, I couldn't.

When I speak to you today, I almost can.

When I speak to you tomorrow, I will know what to say and how to say it. Will you be patient with me until then?

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Magic of Opus Cactus

I'm living through this magical phase right now. I'm always busy doing something and I'm nearly always thrilled about where I am. Life is shiny.

For instance, Saturday I rushed home to take a quick half hour to change clothes and eat before heading downtown for Ballet Arizona and the Desert Botanical Garden's presentation of Opus Cactus. Though 7:30 suddenly felt like much later in the evening than it perhaps should, I felt like I was sitting in a dream there in the theatre, like I was drifting through an ethereal ending to an awesome day (part of what made the day awesome was that I pet a beautiful alligator, but that's another story).

So what was this Opus Cactus? Initially I thought it would be one of the performances to skip (I don't, after all, aim to see every production from Ballet Arizona). Then I allowed a second glance and realized that it's a show inspired by the desert and that's exactly the type of thing I say I love and want to support. Though the show was presented by Ballet Arizona, the performance was put on by MOMIX, which is a touring company under the direction of Moses Pendleton. So it wasn't exactly ballet; the style was more modern, I would say, but not exactly "modern." More like dance with a twist of Cirque du Soleil, actually.

There were a series of scenes that played out essentially as separate tableaus, each one representing something about the desert. We started with Desert Storm, where tumbleweeds bounced about the stage. We saw saguaros and snakes and lizards and representations of the sun. So everything had a poetic quality to it that formed a celebration of not just the Southwest but also other deserts in the world. The music, likewise, began with Southwest inspiration and moved on, in later scenes, to include other music from around the world. Such sounds also combined the traditional and the modern.

Let me get back to that Cirque du Soleil reference. The MOMIX dancers are amazing. Such strength and agility and ease of movement. They were literally forming the shapes of the desert with their bodies. Often a scene would start with just silhouettes; the lighting might later increase so that you could then see the people in costumes, or sometimes the light stayed dim enough that all you saw were silhouettes. Either way, the visual scene was carefully controlled. When you're watching in awe of what bodies can do and how they can move and work together, the general feel of a dance tends to be sensual. But somehow this all felt like such high art that that it wasn't sensual at all: you became aware of, for instance, how one person was holding up another to form a shape and yet the effect was simply awe at the shape rather than focus on the two people. If that distinction makes sense. The point is, yes, it enhances the experience to realize how the dancers, as people, are moving. But the images that they are creating are the most important thing that you see on the stage--and they're images of plants and animals, desert imagery, not imagery of people.

Some scenes I liked more than others. And sometimes I wished that instead of seeing separate tableaus (the show was short compared with what I'm used to at only about an hour and a half), we were seeing more of a complete and connected piece. But overall it was such an amazing performance and visual image that it turned out to be one of my favorite shows from the past year.

And what made the evening more magical was the fact that it was not in the usual Symphony Hall but rather down the street at the Orpheum Theatre. This was my first time at this theatre, and I do admit that I found the inside layout a bit confusing at first (I like to always know where exactly I'm going, so it throw me off when I enter a new place where the layout isn't immediately clear). It's a much smaller location than Symphony Hall and has a completely different style. This theatre, outside and then both in the halls and in the theatre itself, is beautiful. The peacock ceiling above the farther staircase and the art nouveau (at least, that's the style it looked like to me) wardrobe and oil paintings upstairs and the chairs in the downstairs bathroom and the dusky, starry sky in the theatre. So many details all around to look at and take in; I can see why there are tours of the theatre during the day. Maybe because of the setting, I almost felt like people were more dressed up here than they are for the ballet or opera at Symphony Hall. Even if that difference was just my imagination, I felt at home in the beauty of it all.

Petting an alligator at work and then dressing up in green sequins to watch dancers imitating the movement of a gila monster. What a day, eh?

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Untamed Confections: Midnight Gold Pecan Dark Chocolate

One more chocolate sweetened with honey from Untamed Confections. This time we have their Midnight Gold Pecan Dark Chocolate, made with organic, fair trade 72% chocolate sourced from Peru. The face of the bar looks the same as usual, but flip it over and you'll find a treasure trove of pecan halves. Such big pieces give everything almost more of a chocolate bark look than a chocolate bar look. In a couple of places, you can see some honey over the pecans.

Given that I've already talked about the plain chocolate from Untamed Confections, I find that I don't have much to add about this bar; maybe my mind is just bouncing around too much lately to sit with all the details. So I'll get right to the point: this is a pleasant bar of chocolate.

Though there are so many large pieces of pecans, the amount doesn't feel like too much because the chocolate is thick enough to handle it all. And the slightly different texture of the honey chocolate lends itself well toward chewing and crunching. You don't taste quite as much of the honey element in here as you do with the plain chocolate because of course the pecans take up a large part of your attention. And how lovely the pecans are; they have plenty of warm flavor.

Occasionally, you do get a slight taste of salt (it's fleur de sel) and sometimes even a stronger hit of the vanilla. So each bite isn't exactly the same (as is naturally the case, anyway, for a chocolate that has another product sprinkled on it in this style).

Untamed Confections has a good thing going right now. Because of how closely it resembles bark, this bar is more in the confection range. And yet the ingredients are good--and also not in that, um, hippie style that shall we say, alternative chocolates sometimes have. This chocolate still tastes and feels like chocolate, even if the use of honey instead of sugar makes it a little different. It's more natural without being too odd and has quality ingredients without being all shiny and posh; the general style is more natural. I almost want to call it chic. Distinctly Arizonan, that's what I would call this chocolate--because of the Sonoran Desert wildflower honey but also particularly right now because of the pecans. Pecans make me think of all of the pecans in Camp Verde. Yes, distinctly Arizonan chocolate.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Luke Skywalker & the Dark Side

Yes, spoilers for The Last Jedi. You haven't seen it yet?

Alright, then.

Not that I intend to come around and bash Luke (he's just a person, after all), but isn't he a bit hypocritical here? He looks at Rey with wide, fearful eyes and says in shock, "You went straight to the dark." How scary for him! First Ben and now Rey, too! Poor Luke with all these evil apprentices.

Think about it, though. What was one of the first things that Luke did when he was training with Yoda? He felt cold (which is a sign of the dark side) and he felt called to go into the cave in the tree that festered with the dark side. When Yoda advised him to leave his weapons, Luke ignored him and went and had a vision of violence and darkness. He dreamed he fought Darth Vader and then saw himself in Vader. All very dark. But was Luke overcome by darkness, or did Yoda say, oh, my, you're so deep into the dark side, boy? No, no, no. Luke just had to be aware of the dark side. He went, he saw, he left, he moved on. A couple decades or so later, Luke needed to let Ben and then Rey do the same.

He looks at Rey with such fear. Sure, he has bad memories of Kylo, but doesn't he treat Rey a little unfairly? She was just aware of the darkness under the island in the same way that Luke was aware of the darkness in Dagobah. Rey even went into that dark place and had her own vision--and it wasn't even a very dark vision. She just saw herself, a visual image reflecting the very fact that it is her own choices that shape her identity. For all that Luke pretty much washed his hands of guiding Rey from the dark side (though honestly all he needed to tell her was what the Force was and what what light and dark mean when it comes to the Force), Rey handled herself pretty well.

And Ben? Luke's reaction to Rey makes me wonder how much Luke also overreacted with Ben. No, I'm not saying that he completely made up Ben's infatuation with or weakness toward the dark side. But Luke did make up the fact that Ben was automatically aligned with the dark side. He says now that such "raw power" didn't scare him enough then, but I think the opposite is true. I think Luke was so scared by Ben's potential to be a second Vader that he withdrew himself and he forgot that it was the very connection between individuals, specifically between family members, that brought Anakin back from Vader. Rey says it herself: Luke's mistake was acting like Ben's choice was already made. Did Luke create Kylo Ren? No, everyone makes their own choices--but Luke did label Ben as something dark and evil. And Ben, already conflicted, believed him.

The first ill that Luke did Ben was to pull out a deadly weapon against him. The second ill was to tell him the lie that he was born of the dark side, that he was darkness who could only rise to be darkness. That is the lineage that Ben received. He was already an adult when he learned that Darth Vader was his grandfather (and that his parents and his uncle knew all along)--and then right after his uncle tries to kill him. So he embraces the darkness, the only thing he has left.

But isn't part of it true? We are all born into a certain darkness. In our galaxy, we call it sin. In the Star Wars galaxy, it's the dark side. Everyone has that legacy and that capability. The important thing is to choose the light over the dark. Kylo's still stuck thinking that the darkness is all he deserves. Leia gave up on him. Luke gave up on him. Snoke was just using him. Now even Rey has closed the door on him. So he's left holding the locks on his own chains, ignoring the key because it must just be a phantom vision, it can't be something real.

Ah, Luke, you didn't put the darkness in your apprentice--but you might have forgotten to tell him about the light of hope that extinguishes darkness.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Disney Boys - Part 5: Taran

Click to read my introduction to this series, Part 1Part 2Part 3, and Part 4.

Taran who, you ask? Why, Taran from 1985's The Black Cauldron, of course. It's one of those Disney films that doesn't get mentioned much--especially by Disney. Although Disney sometimes gets criticized (quite unfairly, I might add) for being too bright, here is an example of when people just don't accept a darker tone. The Black Cauldron was Disney's first PG animated film, and even though children nowadays tend to watch plenty of PG-13 films, I would say that this film is darker than plenty of those. Maybe it has less fighting than, for instance, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but it's still darker and genuinely terrifying. 

So who is this Taran who lives inside this dark movie? Well, given that the story is a basic good and evil one, Taran is our hero. He's the boy who starts off daydreaming about going off to fight. He imagines becomes a famous warrior because of his great bravery. Like Arthur and Mowgli, Taran also starts off asserting that he isn't afraid. Dallben, his mentor, of course tells him that he would be foolish not to be afraid of the Horned King.

Yet on his first test, Taran fails. Dallben sends him off to get Hen Wen to safety and what does Taran do? He starts daydreaming again and Hen Wen gets away. Still, Taran doesn't hesitate to try to save Hen Wen from the dragons that are after her--and neither does he hesitate to enter the Horned King's castle to try and free her. He does seem to have courage after all; he even admonishes Gurgi for not coming with him. 

Inside the castle, same thing. Taran loses his safe lookout spot in his desperate desire to save Hen Wen and he stands up for her even though he is face to face with the Horned King himself. Taran even gets away from the King and all his minions. Then he makes the choice to put Hen Wen over the wall first, the consequence being that he is captured while Hen Wen gets free.

Taran finds power but also his own weakness in the magical sword. He is thrilled to see what it can do, and having it fuels his high hopes for himself. Later, when the group escapes and Taran tries to prove himself to Eilonwy, all he does is the opposite. All he shows her is that, despite everything, he is still just the boy daydreaming about fame and greatness and not really understanding what it truly means to stand up for someone else (even though he has in fact stood up for others by this point). 

When Taran offers the sword that he loves in exchange for the cauldron so that he can destroy it and all of the Horned King's evil plans, he begins to understand. He gives up his chance for fame in the hopes of achieving something greater. Later, when he has the chance to trade the cauldron back for the sword, he can't do it because he realizes that the sword itself meant nothing. "I'm not a warrior . . . what would I do with a sword?" Taran realizes that it's the role he has been given that has been most important. He played his role to protect Hen Wen and now it is his time to help Gurgi, who helped him by taking his place in the cauldron. Helping others matters more than fame. 

In this the darkest of the Disney animated films, we have a character who learns what sacrifice and friendship and courage mean. And many of the lessons he learns, I might add, he learns with the help of Eilonwy; more than "strong female characters" (I find that phrase vague and unhelpful toward anyone) I value male and female characters (each with their own sets of strengths and weaknesses) who can work together. The Black Cauldron offers us that. Eilonwy is optimistic and brave, and Taran is hopeful and brave. They show the difference we can make by choosing the side of good. 

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Mountains Around Me

I used to find South Mountain strange. A long and skinny range below Phoenix that looked so much shorter than the mountains I was used to higher up north. The little peaks seemed sad somehow.

Maybe I just wasn't familiar enough with them. Now I quite like that little mountain range, now that I see it more regularly.

At dusk, the peaks take on an ethereal look in the fading light; they become little shadows of mist. And when the Phoenix sunrise comes right around them, the colors blossom. During the day, I've realized that South Mountain is notable not for the mountain itself but for the profile it makes against the sky. A jagged outline creates not a sad shape but an active one.

Years ago, the Papago Buttes used to disturb me slightly. Huge, rounded apertures in these sandstone formations looked to me like mouths crying out. The land seemed to literally express the pain of the world. Now, though, the perspective has changed. Now I don't look and see the crying mouths; now I look and see the outline of the buttes themselves. Lumps of rock with circles inside them like dents made in clay. Instead of seeing pain I see something sculpted.

And Camelback Mountain? Well, Camelback was never hard on the eyes, but now I see it so often from so many different points of view that I enjoy it especially. I've learned that you get the best view of it from the intersection at Scottsdale Road and Indian Bend, facing south. A distinctive camel shape, again often lit up from behind with the explosive Phoenix sunlight.

Then there are the Superstition Mountains, looking closer than they are and yet somehow also so far away that you can't quite see all of their details and splendor from the city. Sometimes they are foggy; other days they look clear. Often they are majestic, standing off there in the distance.

The city is flatter than what I realize I am used to. But still, if you look, there are plenty of shapes to follow. They are mainly on the edges, off on the outskirts, though some are right in the middle, as well. Maybe none of them are very tall, but they are all distinctive, such singular shapes that they take on the look of friends as you pass by them day after day. Such shapes, always appearing different throughout the day or with various types of lighting, always keep your eyes drawn in. Always there is plenty to see.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Reflections After 2017

When I was eight years old, I wanted to be either a paleontologist or a geologist. Yesterday, I worked helping delighted children dig up "dinosaur bones."

For nearly a year, I have been volunteering at a local anti-poverty organization's thrifted clothing store, removing tissues from the pockets of donated jeans in the back room and helping women who come into the store find free clothing that they can wear to new jobs and job interviews.

Since late summer, I've been volunteering as a tour guide at a historic location, telling people stories and history and learning their interests and piking their interests with what angle I take when giving the tour.

I have learned so much in the past year. 2017 was a year of changes and development. I started out knowing that it was time for steps. I started working into the year in discouragement and confusion about details. But that volunteer work really helped me and ended up leading me to a day job that I'm loving.

In this past year, particularly since late summer, I have learned to be open. I have always been a compact person, a person who lived inside myself. Now I know what it is to be bold and wide, to let myself be visible, to even want myself to be visible. And not in a vain way: I want to be visible because of the impact I can make on other people. There comes a time, for instance, when you are giving tours, that you realize that you have just said the exact same sentence an hour ago and you're going to say it a third time in another hour. And then you realize that that's okay: the sentence may be familiar to you, but it's new to your audience. Your spiel becomes the basic, surface level area that you need to know, and the real substance of your task is reaching your audience. What makes the difference is realizing that you are repeating these words, this story, for them.

Everybody likes to throw around the words extrovert and introvert, and I think everyone would always have described me as an introvert. But don't they say that it's extroverts that feed on other people's energy and interactions with other people? I, introvert though I seem and may be, do that. In the past, I have been happy to observe others, to enjoy seeing them and watching them. Now I'm taking that a step further; now I can be the one guiding a conversation or initiating an interaction. I get happy when I see other people happy. I get excited to see them excited. I become thrilled to know what a difference I can make.

I volunteer telling stories about historic architecture and people who were part of the early days of the city. I work guiding people towards a couple of hours of fun and entertainment, a free time away from the cares of the day.

I've learned so much about customer service--about serving people, I should say.

And I thank God for the boldness to realize that I can be visible and I can be one of the people to start the chain reactions of positive leading into positive into positive. Praise be. In 2017 I finally realized. Happy New Year.