Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Tris & Tiana

So I have already compared Tris from Divergent to Mulan. Now she, or rather her story, is striking me as being quite similar to Tiana from The Princess and the Frog. It's that theme that is similar also to Chocolat (more to the book than the movie), where it's specifically asceticism versus hedonism. With Tris that theme is Abnegation versus Dauntless, and with Tiana it's hard work versus taking a break.

There is a fine line between finding power within yourself and also not letting yourself become absorbed in that sense of power.

Tris grew up in Abnegation, where the philosophy was to be selfless and live only to help others. Then she joined Dauntless, where the idea was to be bold and always strive to be the best and to let everyone know that you're the best. So she had to find that line of realizing her own abilities while also wanting to use those abilities not just for self-centered reasons. Tiana grew up with the idea of working hard for your dreams, so she worked dusk to dawn every day, giving up any and every opportunity to go be with friends or to take a night off. From Naveen she learned that enjoying moments is also important; you can work hard but you can also enjoy life because otherwise the working hard isn't worth it. You see the Chocolat thing here, right? Do you hold yourself to a strict lifestyle, or do you give yourself up to pleasures? Ideally, neither one.

Reading Tris's story was so inspiring to me because she is a small person, a person who moved from the background into the foreground. Her journey of discovering how to balance these two life philosophies fascinates me. And Tiana. The Princess and the Frog came out while I was in college, and I wanted to be like Tiana. She was so hardworking; I felt like I needed to be that. But then time passed and I realized that I can sometimes be more like Tiana than I think: I sometimes need to learn the lesson that she needed to learn, too. That lesson is, of course, about taking those moments. And that's an important thing: finding that balance makes such a difference.

And yet there remains that fine line. You find that power. You find that ability in yourself, that capacity to be Dauntless or to go wild out in the bayou, and you still need to hold on to some of the things you learned in Abnegation or from all those years working 5AM to 11PM. You have no power if you do think you're powerful. The power doesn't come from yourself. That's why hedonism doesn't work. And that's why you also can't fade into the background; it isn't your right to do that, either.

Am I making any sense? This post made sense in my head, but I fear I'm not being very clear. Asceticism versus hedonism; you get that, right? All I'm saying is that a balanced, fulfilled life lies in between the two, not at either end. And Tris and Tiana, their stories teach us that.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Lewis & the Direct Approach

Well, well, there I was thinking I would read more C.S. Lewis--at a steady pace of about one new book a year. I believe, though, it has been quite a while since I last picked up one of his books. This time I decided to go with what felt would be a core Lewis read, Mere Christianity.

What I didn't know was that this book was originally a series of talks on the radio during WWII; the BBC asked Lewis to speak on Christianity during that difficult time. So the title of "mere" refers to the fact that Lewis, here, aims to describe Christianity in its most basic context--that is, in the things that apply apart from everyone's individual religious subdivisions and interpretations and such.

So while certain parts of the beginning of The Problem of Pain, for instance, were a little more challenging perhaps to read and follow or wrap your head around, Mere Christianity is very easy to read. Being originally a radio talk (and being C.S. Lewis), the tone is simple and approachable even when he is describing abstract and large ideas.

And his audience? A bit of both sides. Part of what he does here is correct certain incorrect concepts about what Christianity is--many impressions of which still exist even all these decades later. So all of that is especially helpful for any non-Christian readers. But Lewis also gives reminders to Christians. There are certain things that we might either forget or ignore or maybe even some things that we haven't quite realized before that he reminds us of. He talks about beliefs and about how those beliefs then affect behavior. All of this makes me think of something that I think people tend to forget: when people talk about certain guidelines for life/behavior that are in the Bible, they tend to ignore the fact that those are guidelines for Christians. Like if someone doesn't eat a certain food for their religion--you won't expect other people to not eat that food as well or for that person to be surprised that other people eat that food. A Christian lifestyle just means that people, who have already accepted to follow Christ, have decided that there are certain guidelines for living that they would personally like to follow. The belief comes first; then the lifestyle starts to follow. It isn't the other way around. Anyways.

Overall, Lewis does a good job here of getting to the core of things, even of certain things that we would might like to forget. So definitely a good read, from whichever side of things you're coming. Also a nice starting place if you've mainly read Lewis's fiction and want to move on to his other writings. All of his talk about shadows or mere glimmers of things to come is, of course, very reminiscent of what he talks about in The Last Battle (the last book in The Chronicles of Narnia). We are in the Shadowlands and "there are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal" (Lewis The Weight of Glory). We were all created to be immortal. How's that to give you a heart for people, eh?

Friday, February 23, 2018

Elixir Chocolates: Truffles Selection

As I mentioned last week, I went over to the Art of Chocolate A'Fair in Gilbert earlier this month just to see what they had going on. Their featured chocolatier was Elixir Chocolates from Albuquerque, New Mexico. While I don't know what it meant for them to be the featured chocolatier, I did want to try out some of Elixir's chocolates. They are a confection company, so among their products are also things like toffee and brittle. You can already get that sense from the style of the white box here.

For a confection company, though, these chocolates have style. (Not saying that confections don't have style--but they usually have more of that handmade, plainer sort of look, if you know what I mean.) The shapes and designs are varied and many of them have those patterns or pictures on top, which is something I usually see more on straight truffles rather than confections.

Hazelnut Latte - I went for dark, milk, and white options. So the first here is a dark chocolate heart; inside of it you can see that there were white/black layers for a cream and chocolate look. The flavor is exactly that: cream and chocolate and coffee. What must be the hazelnut comes across more like coconut to me for some reason. I wouldn't say that this chocolate reminds me exactly of a hazelnut latte; more it makes me think of a cream-filled chocolate donut. The chocolate is the sweet kind of dark chocolate. Decidedly a confection, then.

Chai Tea - Moving on down to the milk chocolate, we have a square with a golden pattern on it. You can taste the chai spices here instantly, ginger especially with a little cinnamon. It's a nice little zing of flavor but nothing terribly exciting.

White Chocolate Irish Cream - Obviously, this one is the one with the cool boxy shape. A little Irish Cream hit comes first in the flavor, then that creamy, kind of chalky taste of the white chocolate. I'm enjoying it simply because I've been enjoying white chocolate lately. Also, though, I don't tend to find a flavor like Irish Cream added to white chocolate and in fact the combo works well: the two sweeter kind of flavors make for a good match.

Mexican Chocolate - "Dark Chocolate, Red Chili, Cinnamon & Almond" - I didn't see the description when I chose this little red circle; I didn't realize, then, that it's a spicy chocolate, which, as you know, I don't usually favor. I was just thinking cinnamon, not chili. Yet it turned out to be the most interesting of the four. It begins with a nice fudge flavor. Then you get a cinnamon flavor that is specifically of cinnamon candy; this flavor is strong and spicy. The cinnamon next builds into more of a chili spice; I may possibly have picked up some almond towards the end. While I may still not be the biggest fan of chocolate burning me and white I do find it a little odd that the cinnamon tasted like candy, I am a fan of how all of these flavors came together. The sweetness perfectly combines with the spices to bring out the flavors rather than burning. And that's more of the idea of spiced chocolate versus spicy chocolate anyways, right? I wonder if, given that Elixir is based out of New Mexico, this might even be something of their signature chocolate. It could be: it's unique enough and its flavor profile fits well into the Southwest.

In general, I prefer chocolate products to be either fully in the truffle zone or the confection zone rather than in this in-between truffle/confection space. In general, chocolates like this leave me wanting something more. But with that being said, most of these were nice and the Mexican Chocolate did offer something unique. So I certainly prefer these to mass-produced, grocery store chocolates. I probably wouldn't go out of my way to get more from Elixir, though.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Disney Boys: Part 7 - Simba

Click to read my introduction to this series, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5, and Part 6.

Simba will be the second exception to my decision not to include animal characters in this series. After all, 1994's The Lion King has characters even more like people than in Bambi or 101 Dalmatians. The 90's Disney films started getting deep, too, didn't they? (Just wait until we get to The Hunchback of Notre Dame next time.) Not that Disney was ever not deep; it's just that Disney is traditionally more simply good versus evil, which is simple deep. The Lion King, though, is all of the crazy mess of inner life conflict reacting against the outer world that is Hamlet. And Simba, as Hamlet, has quite the personal journey there.

He begins as a normal child: eager, adventurous, positive, and friendly. He's excited to get into mischief and excited about the idea of being the king someday. But Simba's childhood ends early with the great shock that is the death of Mufasa. Following Scar's manipulation and bad advice, Simba flees into the "adolescent failure" stage. People nowadays call it "experimenting." Simba runs and hides, ignoring all that was important to him (his family, his home, and his friendship with Nala) in favor of looking out for himself only. He gives in to fear and, almost in a way, hedonism. And yet, even during this self-centered time, Simba's social side and his care for others still shows through in his friendship with Timon and Pumba. He doesn't just go off on his own; he finds a new posse, a new "family unit" to try and replace the one that he abandoned.

As the story goes on, you could say that this story is an instance where the princess saves the prince, assuming here that we want to consider Nala a princess (technically, after all, she's probably Simba's half-sister, right? though we'd probably rather not think about it that way). Nala, venturing far from home to try and help her people/family, finds Simba and tells him to come back. They talk about it and though Nala doesn't in that moment convince him, this conversation does lead in to Simba's encounter with Rafiki and then his vision of his father, all of which then leads to his decision to return to Pride Rock and take his place. So you can say that Simba and Nala make a good team.

Now, maybe everyone won't like this perspective, but I find Simba a great example of the male head of household setting up order for his family. What I like about this perspective is that Simba's taking on of this role emphasizes not the power of the role but the responsibility of it. This responsibility is what Mufasa tried to explain to the young Simba--what Simba could only understand for himself once he grew up and experienced that position for himself of seeing what it meant to stand up for his family/pride. And if you don't want to see it as specifically the "male head of household" thing, then you can simply see it as one person looking out for other people.

Or you can even see Simba's move to take his place as king as his move to take his place in the world. We all tend to struggle with wondering what our place is and finding out how to settle into it. It isn't always easy. So Simba's story shows what it means to realize what your role is and how you can perform it and how your own choices affect so many other people. That's life. Ah, these deep 90's Disney films. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Prokofiev's Cinderella

Is there a running theme here? Ah, there are always running themes. And actually, there are a couple of running themes this time. They are the themes of falling in love and of the classic rags to riches story, Cinderella.

Last spring, Arizona Opera put on their production of Rossini's Cinderella, and now this February, Ballet Arizona performed Prokofiev's Cinderella. So an opera version of the story one year and a ballet version the next year. This time there was more of a touch of fantasy and less of that socio-political angle--of course this would make sense given that there could be no dialogue in the ballet, just visuals. When the scene opened on Cinderella in her "rags," I did have a feeling of deja vu, as if it hadn't been nearly a year since I'd last watched this character on the Symphony Hall stage, but that quickly dissipated as we launched into an entirely different type of production, complete with the usual high production standards.

While I still probably enjoyed Swan Lake last October more, I did find Cinderella more to my tastes than Romeo and Juliet last February. Speaking of Romeo and Juliet, I've just come off of Southwest Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet last month, where I commented about the strong feeling of falling in love that was in the play. I got that same type of feeling at times from this ballet, when Cinderella and the prince danced together. I don't know why I got that from Cinderella but not from Romeo and Juliet (the ballet). I just know that you could tangibly feel that tone.

Our story, then, was of nature drawing like to like. Cinderella, through her grace, drew the attention of the fairy godmother and then of the prince. Her stepsisters, on the other hand, scared everyone away and drew only disdain with their wiling and presumptuous attitudes.

And the stepsisters, my goodness, they were definitely an audience favorite. The stepsisters aren't supposed to have social graces, which would mean that they don't dance well--but here we had talented dancers portraying poor dancing. Quite an art there. They weren't just dancing; they were truly acting, with such great physical comedy. They were the element of levity in a story that, while a fantasy, is also quite serious.

Now "Someday My Prince Will Come" from Snow White and "So This Is Love" from Cinderella are going through my head simultaneously. Valentine's Day month really is hanging on forever, isn't it?

Saturday, February 17, 2018

XO Confections: Truffles Selection

I'll say this about XO Confections: they make a good show at all the local events. If there is an event to do with chocolate even in the slightest, they'll be there. I first saw them at the Glendale Chocolate Affaire a couple of years ago, they were at the Chiles and Chocolate Festival last fall, and earlier this month I caught them at the Art of Chocolate A'Fair in Gilbert (it was mainly a craft and candy/fudge fair, so there wasn't enough material for a separate post just on the event).

XO Confections makes chocolates, some plain, some flavored, and some with caramel. They always put together a sleek booth, with a glass case of chocolates and big displays listing the flavors so that everyone can see it all while waiting in line. Because there is usually a big line, despite the fact that there will inevitably be a stray comment from the crowd about them being pricey (these are just average truffle prices, perfectly reasonable for what you're getting). Pristine and colorful, the chocolates make great gifts or special treats for yourself. I picked out a box of four.

Piedmont Sunrise - "Espresso Dark Chocolate Ganache atop a Hazelnut Praline" - The design here mimics the shape of the sun on the horizon. Initially you taste the espresso and then the hazelnut comes in. I am less used to hazelnut and espresso being together in a chocolate, though maybe for people who are more used to multi-flavored coffee drinks the combination will flow naturally. The hazelnut is good and fresh, the espresso is espresso, and the chocolate adds the sweet element. It's nice.

Oceania - "Cream Caramel with Sea Salt" - A blue chocolate with what I've begun calling the powdered sugar effect on top. And the description here is perfect. A cream caramel? This is exactly that: a free-flowing, creamy caramel. It has a whiter, cloudier color than the usual orange of caramel. The taste also is more of cream, which gives the truffle more of an effect like a milk chocolate confection. I don't taste much salt--which is fine because salted caramel can really be overdone these days. A messy one with all of that caramel, but definitely a fun one.

St. Marron - "Chestnut and Honey Infused Milk Chocolate Ganache" - A slightly sparkly, deep bronze color with dark chocolate spots on this one. The honey taste here comes early on as a strong hit, like a honey stick specifically. I don't know if it tastes different from other honey chocolates I've had because it's a different type of honey, because there is more of it, or because it is added in differently. This tastes sweeter versus rich, stronger and less earthy. Since I never eat chestnut themselves, I can't say that I detect chestnut flavor specifically. Perhaps there is a nutty flavor to the chocolate; maybe this flavor is even what's making the honey taste stronger. Overall, it's a good chocolate. Honey and chocolate do go well together (one of the reasons why I make hot chocolate with honey instead of sugar); it's just all sweeter than I might have expected.

Veracruz - "Kahlua Infused White Chocolate Ganache atop a Crunchy Almond Praline" - Finishing off with the chocolate with the white top with that pattern on it. Once again, great description here. There is a layer of white chocolate to give that touch of sweet white chocolate flavor; underneath that is a layer of praline. The praline gives texture with that little bit of crunch. In addition to the white chocolate and almonds, you also get a bit of chocolate and that coffee Kahlua flavor. Almost this sounds like it would be too many flavors all in one, yet in this case too much feels reckless and fun. Maybe it's just because it's Kahlua. Kahlua is great for creating a feeling of childish adultness. So we have another smiling flavor mix here.

So the Veracruz and Oceania were my personal favorites. Overall a fun way of approaching flavored chocolate with some slightly different angles on familiar flavors.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

What It Feels Like to Start Writing Again

I've been telling everyone that yes, I have started work on a second book. The reality, though, is that, while I do have a decent start at that second book, and while I do think about it frequently (which is part of the work of working on a book), it had been months since I had added anything visibly significant to such book.

A few days ago, I started up again. And I can feel the change.

I can feel it physically in my wrist. Nothing irks my wrist more than writing with a pencil (a Sharpie, for instance, is okay--I do a lot of writing with Sharpies these days, but I guess they're fine because they're thicker--so maybe I need a thicker pencil). Yet I prefer to do most of the early stages of writing with a pencil. The later stages can be done on a keyboard. But there is something . . . less visible about working with a pencil on paper; it's an effect that frees me to write out words in a sort of free write style, to be unconcerned with what I am putting out. Later on you can remove or change whatever needs removing or changing, but at the moment you just need to write down whatever comes--because the process is what breathes whatever needs to be brought into existence.

I can feel it in my mood, too. Jubilation mingles with sitting on the edge. I felt free when the other night after being unable to sleep I got out of bed for a free write and then returned to bed feeling a sense of weightlessness. But I feel . . . caught up when I think of the issues this book will be bringing up: I have to feel emotions and themes in order to write them. So here I am, perfectly happy (well, you know, on average), trying to stir up feelings practically of a mid-life crisis. I can be sitting inside of my skin and then suddenly jump into my mind into this other skin, this skin I'm making up, and feel so caught up in that other skin that I in fact do start mingling that life with my own (which is dangerous territory to fall into, I realize).

What else do I feel? Pleased. I've been letting these "early stages" of this next book drag out rather long. It feels right to know that I'm finally starting up at it again and that when I tell people that more will be coming, it is true. Maybe it would have been better to get a second book out close on the heels of the first, but I think that the more time elapses between the two, the more I will realize how I can make improvements. I'm realizing certain things that I didn't do with the first book that I can do with this one, certain things that I held back on before that I don't need to hold back on this time.

I am free and I am taken because my veins have started to bleed words again.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Museum Rundown: Pueblo Grande Museum

Sometimes I want to talk about museums; other times I don't know if it would be weird to blog about museums (but when has weirdness ever stopped me from blogging about something?). So I've decided to try out a new series (which won't run on any type of schedule) in which I talk about various museums and places of that sort, just to give my impressions and any thoughts I might have.

Today's location is Pueblo Grande Museum, which is part of the City of Phoenix Parks and Rec. The crazy thing about Pueblo Grande Museum is that it's one of the sites of Hohokom ruins--sitting right up against Sky Harbor International Airport and Downtown Phoenix. After you go through admissions and step outside to the trail, you're in a curious mixture of emptiness/isolation and city-ness. At one point in the trail, you might feel like you're out in the middle of a wide open space. At another point, you're almost a stone's throw from the freeway--or maybe an airplane passes by just overhead.

If you read all of the information on display throughout, you'll come across some critiquing of kind of the very fact that there is a museum there. Not because of the location but because of culture. These are Hohokom structures but it's an American, not Hohokom, museum. Yet the fact that it is a museum means that these structures are preserved and protected, even though they're sitting in such a "valuable" part of town. (And I'm not replicating what the displays said; I'm probably adding plenty of my own commentary.) One of the problems seems to have been that the initial excavation wasn't exactly perfect and so later steps had to be made to undo what had been done. That, of course, brings up the question of whether such an excavation should even be done--though it's a roundabout question because without the excavation, this whole place probably would have been destroyed for development.

As a place to go as a visitor, though, what is it like?

The trail outside is 2/3 mile. So not long, but still probably best to visit at any other time of the year than May through September. The main feature is the platform mound, which is currently only excavated on one side. The ball court was probably my favorite; it's also kind of a rarer piece. Then there's the irritation canal, which is always fascinating as the link between the far past, the recent past, and the present. (Phoenix was named Phoenix because the city, through those same canals, rose up from the ashes, so to speak, of what was left of the previous civilization.) There are also some replicas of Hohokom homes from different periods in time; these would be nice to see, I suppose, for people who are visiting from other parts of the country or the world and are completely unfamiliar with dwellings like this. For children, too. For myself, though, I didn't feel like I really needed the replicas.

The museum exhibit indoors isn't big but does have some good information if, again, the Southwest is unfamiliar to you or if you just want to refresh. While their pottery collection was of course not on as large of a scale as what the Heard Museum has, they had some nice pieces. I felt like I hadn't really seen much of this style before because I found myself loving the colors and shapes. There was a lot of emphasis on the trade that went on among the different tribes, resulting in things like shells and chocolate ending up in regions that are now the American Southwest. I appreciated that because sometimes we think we're so modern and that everything we can do now is more than or better than what people in the past could do--when that isn't really the case.

The changing exhibit had some information about attitudes toward archaeology. There were some quotes from Native American people about the difference between archaeology by Native Americans and non-Native Americans and about the importance of the land to them. Very interesting quote there about mountains as being the constant between the past and the present because they are what remains unchanged--and also the subsequent problem with cutting into mountains for modern development (I am doing no justice to how he worded things, and if I had known I would be referencing his quote, I would have written down his name). (Also, I've just realized that it was after reading this quote that I dreamed that they had dynamited off the top of Mingus Mountain, which is the mountain over the Verde Valley up north. That was a devastating thing to dream.)

So if you do take the time to read all of the displays, there is some good information and commentary both gathered there. Granted, I know not everyone wants to do that. While I was standing there reading everything, a pair of people came through to just literally walk through (which doesn't do much good because you can't actually read anything in that way). One of the reasons why museums are in fact a good place to visit by yourself and when you're not in the least bit of a hurry. Even though this is a small museum and I was expecting to spend less time there (they recommend allowing an hour and a half), I think I spent about an hour and forty-five minutes (and I didn't read absolutely everything in the main gallery).

Definitely, then, Pueblo Grande Museum is worth a visit. If you live in the state, you'll want to stop by at some point. And if you're visiting and it happens to be one of the nearby places that focuses on Native American history, then it's also an important stop. I'm kind of focusing here on what the museum does offer rather than what it doesn't.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Zak's Chocolate: Valentine's Day Selection

As you may know if you've been reading here for a while, I have complicated feelings about Valentine's Day. Sometimes I find it an even stranger holiday than Halloween. And the "chocolate" and gifts that stores market? Most of it is nothing that I would want to give or receive, especially if we're talking in the context of a gift to a special someone. What would be better than cheap, mass-produced, compounded chocolate with a stuffed bear or other article destined for the landfill? Quality, ethically-sourced chocolate from your local chocolate shop, of course.

My local chocolate shop? Zak's Chocolate--and what a treasure it is to have this place nearby. I swung by this week to see what they had on offer for Valentine's Day and they are definitely prepared for one of the biggest chocolate-buying times of the year. If you're looking for just a small something, there are chocolate hearts for just $2 each. Something more grand? You can order an edible, heart-shaped chocolate box filled with six truffles for $50. Or you can go for a classic Valentine's Day box of chocolates; you can either get one that's pre-filled or choose your own truffles. For a more simple approach, there are also plain chocolate bars with hearts on them; these are available in white, milk, and dark chocolate.

Which of those three bars did I choose? White, of course. (I did also buy a non-Valentine's milk chocolate bar, which I'll review at a later time.) My current trend is to seek out more white chocolate and this bar was the most intriguing and maybe also the prettiest of the three (not that the others didn't look nice, as well, especially the one that had the "powdered sugar" effect that I observed on the Peppermint Mocha truffle back in December). Rather than being as light as the average white chocolate, this chocolate looks almost more like a super pale milk chocolate. The unique look simply begs to be tried. Now, this may sound odd, but I must observe that the aroma of this bar is chocolate, and the reason that I must observe this is because white chocolate generally smells not necessarily of chocolate but of specifically white chocolate or even simply vanilla and sugar.

Instantly this chocolate has more of a buttery texture on the tongue, nice and cool and easy to melt. It does seem to melt slower than white chocolates tend to; whether that is the result of a different proportion of ingredients or because this bar is slightly thicker than some, I'm not certain. Quickly in, you do start to get that distinctive white chocolate flavor, yet following right along are caramel flavor and vanilla ice cream notes. Another flavor comes in towards the finish; I can't quite identify it. Almost it reminds me of cloves or maybe licorice, though not so strong or (in my opinion, at least as far as licorice goes) unpleasant; it's just an additional flavor note.

I also tried out chewing this chocolate. The effect with that is pretty heavenly, like caramel with the texture of chocolate. In fact, I find myself completely in love with this chocolate. It has so much flavor, which is so unlike the average white chocolate, that it's unbelievable. (Reminder: the only ingredients here are cocoa butter, cane sugar, whole milk powder, and natural color for the hearts.) I don't even feel like I can call this chocolate sweet because that word simply doesn't come to mind when I eat it, even though obviously this chocolate is sweeter than dark chocolate. Which, once again, is what I love: sweet chocolate doesn't have to mean bad chocolate or chocolate without complex flavor. So while this bar does have a higher price tag to it ($12), it is most certainly worth it. Beauty, quality, and flavor.

Normally it would be best to do a separate post to talk about the truffles, but given that this is all Valentine's Day material and Valentine's Day is coming up before we know it, everything is going in one long post today. I picked out six seasonal truffle flavors, skipping the Raspberry Passion Fruit Mousse and the Raspberry Rose since I'm not a fan of raspberry. I also skipped the AZ Queen Bee Honey since I've reviewed that one before (this time, though, it comes with the "bee" mine picture image on top). More shapes and colors right now than usual, it seems; now is the time for extravagance.

Earl Grey Lavender - A heart with white and purple coloring. Instantly, this truffle gives that zingy zany flavor of bergamot and lavender in tea; incidentally, Lavender Earl Grey happens to be my usual morning tea right now. This truffle definitely captures the flavor of this tea in a stronger way than how tea usually comes across in chocolate bars; this route, then, perhaps works better to truly express flavor. The chocolate is a steady base for this trio of flavors, and the ganache is nice and smooth.

Rose - This one is, of course, shaped like a rose--which puts me in mind of all of the beloved Beauty and the Beast imagery. Flavor-wise, though, I don't get this one. I want to really like it because I am a fan of rose, as a scent and in chocolate. But this ganache seems to have more of a general floral flavor than specifically a rose flavor; I'm used to rose being sweeter, whereas this is tangier. Not at all bad, just not what I had expected.

Marshmallow - A dark heart. I bit into this one and found a surprise: there is actually a marshmallow inside the chocolate shell. Not a regular marshmallow, though, of course; this is a gourmet marshmallow. It's soft and almost liquid, so it feels like you just roasted it by the fire. And is it just my imagination, or did they add something to give it a hint of roasted flavor, as well? With the marshmallow plus the dark chocolate, in any case, you definitely get a s'mores feeling with this one. So this was a fun surprise, a cute addition to keep the levity in your box of Valentine's truffles. A happy element.

Hibiscus Caramel - A lovely flower shape. The caramel inside is stiff enough to not be a free-flowing liquid but not so stiff as candy caramel. Its flavor is fresh and sweet; the hibiscus becomes more recognizable as the chocolate melts away and as the flavor has a chance to settle into your mouth and mind more (because, of course, being caramel, it sticks around for a bit). The caramel is definitely sweet, which makes me think of those times when I've ordered jamaica at a restaurant (I always call hibiscus the flower and jamaica the beverage) only to find that it's sweetened much more than the way that I drink it at home. But of course a caramel would be sweet. The casualness of the caramel put together with quality chocolate and with the floral element works well for both Valentine's Day and for springtime.

Prickly Pear - The square with pink and white hearts on top. The ganache here is different; it's the denser kind. Biting in to this texture feels almost more like biting into a brownie. It's quite sweet, too. Do I taste the prickly pear, though? And what even is prickly pear as a flavor? Generally, prickly pear products (like syrups and jellies and lemonades and even margaritas) are prepared with so much sweetness that sometimes it's hard to think of what prickly pear itself tastes like. So I don't know if I'm the only one who would say this, but this truffle mainly just tastes like a light chocolate truffle to me. It tastes nice--and sometimes when I focus on the ganache I can detect prickly pear flavor. Just, once more, maybe not quite what I might have expected.

Strawberry - This one has the fruit/berry on top. And you'll notice that I somehow skipped this one when doing my tasting--but since I tasted it last, I have to give my comments last, as well, rather than presenting in the order that's in the picture. The flavor of the ganache here is of a tangy strawberry jelly, you know, the all-fruit kind versus the kind loaded with sugar. So I love that this is more of an actual strawberry angle versus that extra-sweet idea of strawberries and strawberries/chocolate that people tend to focus on most. That ganache is wonderful in its freshness and strength, and it works perfectly with the flavor of the chocolate. The only problem is that the bottom part of the shell is much too thick. Even if the idea might have been to thicken the shell in order to not have too much of the ganache (and have the effect become possibly too tangy), there still shouldn't be this much chocolate in one layer on a truffle. Proportions.

The main point, as per usual, is that whatever flavors sound the best to you will probably be the best to you. As far as flavor compilations, the Earl Grey Lavender and Hibiscus Caramel were on top. The Marshmallow and Strawberry were also pretty nice. So whatever assortment of truffles you put together for your Valentine, your friend, or yourself, there is plenty to choose from and it is all much, much better from the shelf-life-of-a-thousand-years "truffles" you'll find at the grocery store. And let's also not forget my beloved white chocolate bar with all the hearts; you would certainly win me over if you gave me that one.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate Company: Strawberry Champagne Truffle

Wow, I found a Valentine's Day chocolate bar to review. How unusual. Normally there isn't much available and what is available I may have already looked at in the past (like Theo's My Cherry Baby bar). This is from the wordily-named Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate Company, and as you can see, the bar is a Strawberry Champagne Truffle Dark Chocolate.

Not that I have ever had a glass of champagne with a strawberry inside and an edge rimmed in chocolate, but the image does look nice on the cover. Honestly, I've never eaten strawberries and champagne together, either, but these are classic pairings. The bar is in the usual clear wrapper; its eight squares are sleek and shiny. And I seem to have neglected reading the chocolate's description before tearing in, because I was surprised when I went to break off a piece to find a light pink center inside of the squares. You know, Ghirardelli style. That description calls this "a fresh cream truffle." I don't know that the effect is like a truffle, but okay.

The aroma is a little boozy, though the flavor really isn't. The first taste is some regular dark chocolate, then some sweetness, and then everything melds into a complete chocolate covered strawberry experience. The strawberry element comes from strawberry puree, so I have no complaints about the strawberry flavor. While normally this isn't the kind of chocolate I would praise on its own, it works here because this is confection territory. This "kind of chocolate" is the kind that is mainly just sweet and not in fact dark in any sense of the word other than its color. Honestly, too, this is better chocolate than the kind that most places use to dip strawberries in (aka. compounded chocolate, which is chocolate that is made with oil). Maybe because that's the most common reference for chocolate covered strawberries that this whole chocolate covered strawberry chocolate bar effect comes across as so pleasing.

And the champagne part? I don't usually taste it at all. It seems to lurk in that pink center, so when you get a bite that includes a good amount of that center versus more of the chocolate edges, then you do get a sort of richness and a certain flavor that, while not necessarily the same as drinking a glass of champagne, is different from the flavors of either the strawberry or the chocolate. While this doesn't sound like much, it's enough. Unless this really were a truffle, just getting the strawberry to go along with the chocolate and have a hint at champagne is already covering sufficient ground.

One random note: I have no idea why white chocolate is listed in the ingredients list.

My comments, then, are pretty similar to what I said about the first bar I looked at from this company. While their chocolate isn't the absolute best, they handle flavors well, which most of the time is going to be enough. Most people don't even mind sweet dark chocolate (and would never even think to describe this chocolate in that way)--and even I said that it works in this context. So I will recommend this chocolate bar either for yourself or as a gift. It's an indulgence.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Sunset & Sunrise

People ask if you're a morning person or a night person, if you prefer sunrises or sunsets. Now, I never knew about the whole "morning person" thing (the most important thing has always seemed to get the right amount of sleep, no matter how early or late you wake), but I could always answer with sunset over sunrise, if simply for the fact that I was much more likely to see a sunset than a sunrise. Even at times when I was awake for the sunrise, I would be indoors getting ready at that time rather than outside watching the sky. And if I did see the sunrise, almost I would be sad that I was up early enough to see it.

The sunrise never seemed as good as sunset, anyway. The sunrise seemed cold, a quick moment in which the sun peeks over a pale horizon to turn the sky bright blue. Sunset, on the other hand, faded from blue to a thousand shades of pink, orange, yellow, and red; sunset was a brilliant masterpiece of warmth.

And then something happened and my perspective shifted.

I can't always sleep anymore. I do sometimes need to get up earlier these days, which at first meant going to bed much earlier. But then that was too much, so I had to shift the going to bed time to a little later again. Yet still, I often wake up at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning, feeling like it's the beginning of the day, only to glance at the clock and see that I really should try to sleep more (then usually I can, but I still have that initial early waking--which I never used to have). If I can get myself to sleep in until 7:00, that's really something. I just can't stay asleep anymore; I need to be awake.

So last week when I spent a bit of time up north, I woke up early. Really early. So I made my tea, got a blanket, and went to sit outside in the 30 degree weather and watch the sunrise. And do you know what? The sunrise is not what I thought it was. The sunrise begins much earlier than the moment that the sun appears, just as the sunset lasts much longer than simply that one moment when the sun disappears. Sunrise begins while the center of the sky is still deep blue and home to melting stars. Slowly, the deep blue begins to lighten and the stars to fade. Pink colors appear, the colors I had convinced myself only belonged to sunset. The change from a starry sky to a pink sunrise is much more drastic than the change from a daytime blue sky to a pink sunset.

Instead of being sad that I was here to witness this moment, I was excited. I was thrilled at the beauty, thrilled at the idea that only one of my hands (the hand holding my tea) was numbly frozen outside of the blanket, and thrilled that I had this quiet moment to gather.

Sunset is a reflection back, the enjoyment of what has pleased you throughout the day. Sunrise is excitement about going forward, the joy about getting ready to take your place in the day.

I want to reflect--but I also want to be a person of action. The sunset is beautiful for those cozy moments, but to rejoice in the sunrise is to rejoice in all aspects of life and to be glad that you are waking.

I can't sleep anymore because I need to be awake; does that mean, at least for now, that I'm turning into a sunrise person?

Monday, February 5, 2018

Why I Have No Interest in the Solo Trailer

The simple fact of the matter is, Han Solo isn't one of my favorite Star Wars characters. He's a main character, yes, but in terms of themes, he is generally more on the sidelines. He does have a character arc, yes, in which he chooses to stay with the Rebellion rather than just go his own way seeking profit. Overall, though, he just doesn't interest me much. There is nothing for me to analyze about Han Solo (unlike, for instance, with his son).

So when I heard that the next standalone film after Rogue One would be based on Han Solo, I couldn't work up any excitement. Still, you always wait and see how things will unfold before trying to make opinions beforehand, right? Right. And then along came all of the news about this film, about switching directors and reshooting and all the sorts of things that suggest that production has been a mess. Not exactly encouraging. Still, you try and wait for the actual movie.

Then along came the trailer today.

Did it pique my interest? No, not at all. Instead, it made me more apathetic. This trailer just looked like it belongs to an action movie, or a sci-fi action movie, not a Star Wars movie. It tried to give out coolness but not theme. It got started on the "cool rebel" concept--but more than being about rebellion, Star Wars is about making personal choices that are the right rather than the wrong choices. You don't rebel for the sake of rebellion; you make a choice that might be a rebellious choice only if that is simply the right choice in the situation. So. Not a fan of all that.

And what else did we see? Different actors playing familiar characters and new actors playing new characters. Okay. Nothing really exciting. No lines of dialogue or delivery of dialogue that got me excited, either. Just nothing.

The question is, is this great absence intentional? I would think not because Star Wars trailers usually do a great job of hyping everyone up without actually giving anything away. However, it is possible that they are intentionally letting this trailer play out as simple in order for audiences to be pleasantly surprised when they actually see the film in May. There is, after all, a pretty big chance (as in, I would be surprised if this didn't end up being the case) that even if this movie is great, it won't be as good as the episodes. So it probably shouldn't be hyped up as much as the main films are. (Oh, yes, and does the "Solo" logo look like a parody to anyone else? I have to keep reminding myself that it's real.)

I'll definitely go see this movie when it comes out, of course. And hopefully I'll enjoy it. I'm just . . . still not excited to see it yet.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Black Butterfly: Bark & Truffles

Has it really been months since I last looked at anything from Black Butterfly in Prescott? I guess I'm just not in Prescott as often as I used to be, so it's getting a little more difficult to work in a chocolate shop trip while I'm there.

Today I have two truffles and two types of bark.

We'll start with the Creme Brûlée truffle. The shape is a half circle, with white chocolate on the bottom and milk chocolate on the top. Naturally, then, it's nice and sweet. I feel like there is a slight lemony taste, as well; I don't know if that's just me. On the inside is a white ganache of sorts with a type of caramel on top. There are also tiny, crunchy, sugar bits in there to represent the brûlée topping. Not as rich as some white chocolates can be. Sweet in a positive and not overwhelming sense. So overall nice and pleasant and definitely evocative of creme brûlée.

I believe the other was a Maple Pecan. Its shape is more of a raised dome, like a cherry cordial. Milk chocolate with a white swirl, then a yellow slash and a spot of gold. Simple and subtle and yet so artsy and not minimalist. Pecans have such a recognizable earthiness and sweetness, and combined with the milk chocolate, the effect is warm and sweet and rich. Tiny pecan pieces give the truffle full pecan flavor, and the ganache is much richer than I might have expected. This last effect works particularly well: milk chocolate is good and so I never want to say that dark chocolate is "better" when it all depends on a variety of factors. This is an example of milk chocolate doing the type of thing more generally associated with dark chocolate. Maybe this truffle is more straightforward than the Creme Brûlée, but the accumulation of factors that won me over meant that this one is just an ultimate personal favorite for me.

Now on to the bark. I have had some bark from Black Butterfly before; I've just never reviewed any of it. The first is the Eggnog Pecan, which immediately caught my eye with its prettiness and because I've been trying a bit of eggnog chocolate lately. Probably also the pecans appealed to me, naturally. With the bark, you can buy either a box of it or just a piece from the case where the truffles are. This piece ended up being about three dollars, and since the truffles come in at the average price of $2.50 each, if you are worried that you'll just finish them off in one bite, try the bark instead. It's a great alternative if you're not necessarily a truffle person.

On first taste, I found this bark a perfect representation of the taste of eggnog, absolutely stellar, just maybe less thick and eggy. But then maybe halfway through, I started to get a weird taste. I can't quite place it. Is it nutmeg? Is it the egg element? I don't know, and it isn't exactly strong and it's probably just me finding it odd, but this flavor is keeping me from enjoying this bark as much as I'd wanted to. Other than that, this is still a good bark. Along with the pecans, there are also some candy pieces that are halfway between caramel and toffee. They're like that hard caramel that becomes flexible the moment it reaches your mouth; that makes for a fun texture element. Except when you get the big pieces of them, they don't add much to the flavor, and the pecans don't necessarily, either--but it's one of those things where you'd notice if they weren't there. Lastly, I'm enjoying the fact that this is white chocolate bark, given that I'm kind of on a roll to find and enjoy more white chocolate these days.

Now for a dark chocolate bark, we have a Cardamom Pistachio piece. This is the one of the three pieces I'm reviewing today that I didn't specifically choose myself, but as long as there was some around, I might as well sneak a piece to review, right? It's quite pretty, with the pistachios mainly on the inside and salt and rose petals up on top. Now, while I wouldn't say that I specifically dislike cardamom, I can be hesitant around cardamom. Often I don't like the overall effect of dishes that contain cardamom (or maybe the flavors that tend to be mixed with cardamom), and it is such a strong spice that it can be overwhelming.

Here I wouldn't exactly say that the cardamom is subtle, but it's also not so strong that it overpowers you. The pistachios add an element that I tend to come across less often in chocolate, and the salt adds that little zing here and there. I don't know that I specifically taste the rose petals but again, I might notice their absence. The dark chocolate isn't bitter: it's just stable and strong enough to be able to keep up with the strong flavors the cardamom and pistachio. So while it's dark, it makes you think of sweeter things (like chai) because it's full of spices and nuts and flowers.

These were the weirdest collection of flavors for me to put in one review, weren't they? Or maybe not. Some fall feeling with the pecans, some winter with the eggnog, and some dessert with the creme brûlée, and some spices with the cardamom bark. Colorful, visual flavors, that's what we covered today. And that really is the heart of Black Butterfly: Tracy Taylor has this way of putting together flavors that always keeps me eager to try more, because I feel like I'm getting something each time that I haven't had before. There is such style to the flavors that she put together.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Candide: A Depressing Comedy?

Well, well, one year after moving back into the greater Phoenix area, I've turned into quite the Arizona Opera regular, haven't I? That is, hopefully I'll be able to finish with Das Rheingold in April and maybe The Barber of Seville in March. This month it was Candide, which I had read was more like a musical than a usual opera. So definitely a little different.

They also used this opportunity to try out something different with the stage. Instead of having the usual physical sets, there were projections on the backdrop, the side walls (sorry, what are they called?), the floor, and sometimes also around the middle of the stage. For most other shows, I would feel like something was missing with not actually having physical sets. But this was the perfect show to try out this method. Candide is a kooky, weird, random, comedic bundle--and the kaleidoscope of projections fit it perfectly. Cityscapes gave the view the look almost of a live-action/animated film, the forest made for a beautiful backdrop to Candide's somber songs of solitude, and the scenes with the ships and the hot air balloon (that would have just looked silly if the tone were serious) looked hilarious and cool in a positive sense.

The music? I don't really know. Because the instrumental portions sounded much like a film score, it was once again great to hear the Phoenix Symphony playing all of this music live. The songs were different from opera, yes, but also sometimes similar. As I somewhat alluded to, Candide's lonesome songs were quite pretty, breaks from all the, ah, stuff that goes on throughout this show. And Katrina Galka, I've said positive things about her in the past (actually I think it was partly because I knew she would be in Candide that I decided I did want to go see this one). She really stole the show with "Glitter and Be Gay," when Cunegonde is showering herself in jewels to try and cheer herself up. That piece alone made the whole show worth it. She has power, both to sing and to express. You could tell, too, that the entire audience was captivated by her performance there (you've gotta love an opera audience: they are entirely honest and will clap loudly when they're pleased and only quietly and politely when they're neutral--oh, and another side note, you know how with any other show if one person does a standing ovation at the end then the rest of the audience stands up, too, even the person sitting next to you who couldn't stop yawning just because they're all sheep? opera audiences don't do that; each person only stands if they feel led to stand to express their honest appreciation. I like that).

The plot? Now I have no idea what I think. I got the idea that this show was going to have a couple racy moments, and it did, though honestly not much (then again, not much seems that racy to me even years after that one Greek plays class I took in college). I just share this because there was a big group of students that attended this production, and as we were all walking out I heard a couple of them talking about all of this. You know, the awkwardness of sitting next to someone else's parent during those scenes and hearing their teacher express apology about not realizing that that content would be in there (that's the surprising part: didn't he/she look up the show at all before planning to take the class?). It was just kind of funny, not the type of conversation you usually hear while walking out of the opera.

Anyways, back to the plot. Even with reading the synopsis before each act, I had a hard time keeping up. There are so many characters and places and everyone brutally dies and then randomly shows up again in some other setting that I eventually just gave up on trying to keep up and settled on watching each moment instead. The gist of it is that this group of young people have a teacher who tells them his philosophy in life, which is that everything in the world is for the best. Basically everything has a reason and nothing is bad. But then everything that happens to everyone in the story is worse than bad. War and natural disasters and rape (another side note: there would not be so much about rape, including jokes about it, if this show were written today; that part really started to get annoying by the end) and hangings and shipwrecks. It's all terrible--but it's all treated in that same kooky, comedic tone so that it's all comedic rather than tragic. When the crowd is all excited to hang Pangloss, for instance, (and I really have no idea who the crowd was or why they wanted to hang him) you want to step back because, well, hanging someone just because you want to is horrible, and yet they were acting out the scene so silly that it was funny. The board chair, John Johnson, said it himself in his message in the program: Candide is entertainment. Whatever else it is or isn't, it's entertaining.

The theme did feel a bit depressing towards the end there, when all of the characters are broken and feel like nothing was worth what it cost them and nothing in the world occurred as promised. There was definitely a moment of despondency there after all of the comedy. And yet everything did wrap up with a final message of, in a sense, saying that yes, you do need to simplify your view. Nothing in this world will be perfect and therefore you need to ground yourself in something real and solid and simple. No palace of jewels, Cunegonde, just a little farm. No gold and status. Candide, just a little farm. No perfect people, just Cunegonde and Candide.

So while I can't say that this was my favorite show that I've ever seen, it did give me an evening's entertainment and also more to think about afterwards. And I'm fine with that: when a company has a whole season of shows, they have the opportunity to do different thing with each show. You don't necessarily want them all to be Madama Butterfly and Tosca.

Africa in Arizona

Not that I ever take good pictures at Out of Africa, but sometimes I do like to share them because the content is good. I go there pretty regularly, so often I think I'll just wait and make a compilation post from different trips. That never seems to happen, though--so here I have some pictures from when I was there earlier this week.

Jericho the rhino is elusive. Yet I caught sight of him last time I was there, and this time he was also out and about, napping in the sunshine. A true dinosaur if ever I saw one.

These ladies are usually napping, too. Normally, though, they're underneath their shaded patio. On this day, they were out in the sun, too, fully stretched out on their backs. The ultimate poses of contentment, eh? 

Kumba (the lioness) and Chalet (the white tiger) were also at rest (Do you sense a trend here? The day was so beautiful that all of the animals were really taking advantage of the weather.). Chalet is the star of Tiger Splash; you have a good chance of seeing her there if you go on a busy day or a weekend. She does such wonderful jumps into the water to catch the toys. When she leaves, though, Kumba cries for her--and everyone walking by assures her that her friend Chalet will be back soon, like she always is. It's adorable. 

Even Fisher was out, smiling in the light. 

Since it was a Monday (aka. an off-day), Tiger Splash was a little different. It was only young Zarah's fourth time being in the show, so they were mainly just getting her used to the arena and the pool and the toys and the audience. As someone who has seen Chalet's wonderful jumps many times and also the other tigers many times (they all have their different personalities and preferences, which makes the show different each time and for each tiger), it was great to have a chance to see something entirely new--and to see Zarah at these early stages. She's working up to be a little star herself. 

Normally I only take one or two pictures during Tiger Splash, but baby Zarah got several more. Here she is jumping up for a toy:

And here she is in a mild game that will probably lead in to the full tug-of-war later.

Jeff gave her a bottle at the end of the show. There isn't much cuter than seeing a (big) little tiger drinking from a bottle.

And speaking of cute, isn't this landscape shot cute, too? Do you see what I see? 

How about now? Think golden.

Now you see it, right? 

There she is, a lovely lioness blending in with the landscape. This is why you never know, when you're out hiking, if a mountain lion might be watching you. Don't worry, though, they're probably just minding their own business and have zero interest in approaching you.

And I must include at the end the picture I've already shared elsewhere, in which I am representing for the dear Pangaea: Land of the Dinosaurs whilst visiting with Pilgrim. Kibo came to his side of the fence to say hi on the way in, and Pilgrim came over to say bye on the way out. They make for wonderful greeters.