Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Butterflies in the Desert

I've been sharing an abnormal amount of pictures lately, haven't I? Not because I have suddenly developed an interest in photography, no: I'll never have the patience or desire to learn to take good photos. As a writer, I take pictures more as records than as the art itself.

My latest batch come from Butterfly Wonderland. After viewing their short 3D film about monarch butterflies, you move into the butterfly zone. I'm used to the butterflies at the Desert Botanical Garden since, you know, I have membership there. So the question was, how different would this be?

Naturally, with this being the main feature rather than an addition to a main feature (the gardens) as it at DBG, the space was much larger. There was also more walking space, which meant that instead of everyone all moving together as in a circle, here everyone has the chance to take a different route or find a spot to just sit/stand and look. 

I also felt like the butterflies were flying around much more here than at the garden. Maybe that's just my memory failing me (I don't usually go see butterflies at DBG, honestly) or maybe it's because I visited at a different time of day than when I'm usually over there. Or maybe it was behavior or the time of year or the temperature or the amount of butterflies in the space. Who knows. 

This butterfly variety kept on flying around these red flowers; I wanted to catch a picture but they flew so fast like hummingbirds that it was hard to catch them. 

One did land on my head. At least, I feel certain that I felt something on my head; I went by myself so I had no one to ask. And one did land on my arm, later, too; it tickled like it was licking me. (This all reminds me of the butterflies at the Arboretum in Flagstaff. One landed on my head there just where I had on a headband, so it looked like it was part of my hair accessory.)

Can you tell that I was stalking these brown ones with the eyes on their wings? Brown on the outside but when they flew, you could see bright color on the inside; they just never landed with their wings open. 

And they also had reptiles. Because, well, I guess you don't need a reason to include reptiles, do you? (No, no, they had a reason; the reptiles are all from rainforests, like the butterflies. But let's just say there are reptiles there just for the sake of coolness.) 

Lizards I find so beautiful. 

I only got a terrible picture of this one, but it was amazing and gorgeous. The panther chameleon. Bright blue and green and orange coloring and hands that split like some type of gloves with two fingers on each side so that it could grip the branches while climbing around. I was just standing there in awe of it while it showed off its cool fingers to me. 

The finish is a mini aquarium section, just one room with a few little tanks in the walls and some little stingrays and sharks in the middle. I, um, have a fear of aquariums (I'm sure I must have brought this up here at some point or another), so I was fearful of the fact that I was going to have to exit through an aquarium section. But it was small enough not to bother me much and one of the employees was playing with one of the stingrays (I had no idea stingrays could recognize and interact with people like that) and that helped distract me. I don't mind more of the "pond or pool water" type of setup; it's the fish tank type ones that disturb me. Maybe I'm not ready to go to Odysea Aquarium yet, then, eh?

Monday, April 23, 2018

Penelope & the Theme of Beauty

The thing that I liked about 1991's Beauty and the Beast that the live-action retelling kind of threw to the side (if not completely disregarded) was the theme of "looks don't matter because it's the inside person that matters." I've heard that Shrek was the story, more than Beauty and the Beast, that successfully expressed this theme--but I tend to disagree. Shrek liked Fiona because she looked like him--so their story is more along the lines of "everyone's beautiful to someone" than "looks don't matter." The movie that does, without a doubt, express the latter theme is Penelope.

This is a random movie that I don't even know if most people have seen or not. It's kind of a blend of genres: fantasy, family drama, rom com, etc. It's also the type of movie that starts to take on this cult film tone (for me at least); the more times you watch it, the more entertaining it gets. It's a modern fairy tale not in the sense of having princes or princesses (it has none) but in its plot and theme. A family is cursed but it takes generations for the curse to show up--in the face of Penelope. So you have this girl growing up and into her twenties hearing from her mother that her own face is not hers--that she will only be herself once the curse is broken.

They all think that she needs to get married (to someone from an upper class background) to break the curse. Plot elements, plot elements, turns out the truth is a little different. Point is, Penelope goes on this journey of realizing that her face is just her face. She doesn't suddenly look in the mirror and say, wow, I'm so beautiful. She doesn't say, I don't care that I'm ugly. She doesn't say, there are all different kinds of beauty. She just says that this is her face and she likes herself the way she is.

It's like her face becomes completely irrelevant: she and her family spent so many years obsessing over what she looked like that she finally became tired of it and realized that her face wasn't her entire person. She no longer cares about her face. Her face was the entire reason that she put up with the whole marriage plans mess; once she decides not to take part in all of that, she is also deciding that she doesn't care if her face never changes.

Think about what happens later, too. When Penelope and Max/Johnny finally meet again, he doesn't know that her face has changed. But he doesn't care; he still loves her and still wants her to know that. And when she does show him her face? He really does hardly seem to care. He's happy if she's happy but he cares about her either way. And notice, too, that for anyone who likes to be picky about such things, Penelope doesn't need Max to break the curse for her and she only goes back to him after she's all settled in herself first.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder doesn't just mean that everyone has different tastes (which of course is true; I can't deny that). It also means that you have the choice to see what you want to see. What do you see when you look at a person? Sure, there are some people so striking that you can't help but think that they look like models. But mostly when I look at people I see their expressions. You start inward and then move outward. If someone is always positive and upbeat and excited, probably you'll notice their eyes and find that they have nice eyes. If someone is always smiling, you'll probably find that they have a nice mouth. That sort of thing. It all goes to such a point where you don't even know how to physically describe someone because you just see them when you look at them, not what they "look like." Looks matter, sure, because we're in a physical world--but looks also don't matter at all.

Friday, April 20, 2018

De Villiers: Intense Cocoa 70%

For a time, World Market was the best place for me to find chocolate, what with having a more limited variety of stores available to me than people living in other areas probably have. Lately, though, I had been starting to feel like they had very little. They've been introducing more and more World Market brand items, including chocolates--and I have no interest in those when it comes to chocolate. Their steady chocolate brands are things like Ghirardelli and Lindt and Cadbury, companies of which I have only slim interest nowadays.

World Market has, however, now been seeming to stock more interesting chocolate products--for a limited time. They'll get in a small stock of cool-looking chocolates, so if you don't buy them when you see them, they might not be around next time. So again, I've been buying chocolate at World Market quicker than I can post reviews (unless I post more than one a week, which I usually try not to do because that becomes a bit much, doesn't it?). That means that by the time everyone comes around to read my reviews, World Market probably won't have each of these bars in stock anymore--but perhaps you'll run into them in other places.

The one I'm looking at today is the Intense Cocoa bar from De Villiers Chocolate. Besides the whole non-GMO and sourced from cocoa grown with "respect for people and planet" thing (the cocoa beans in this bar are from Uganda, by the way), I was also interested in the fact that this company is from South Africa. Most of the chocolate I come across is made in the U.S., the U.K, or France (and occasionally other European countries). I've come across a couple from Central or South America, as well. But I think South Africa is something new for me.

Also new is the packaging. Though there is quite a bit of pattern to the illustrations on the wrapper, the black and white color scheme keeps the look plain and subdued, making for a unique look.

Let's not dwell on the look of the surface of the bar too much: it has a little layer of harmless bloom on it, as per usual for chocolate at World Market and honestly for most chocolate that has made its way out here from a distance. The style is simple with nothing complicated in the design; a basic cocoa aroma comes from the surface.

Now, after ten years of reviewing chocolate, I've come up with my own vocabulary. I talk more about colors than about actual flavor notes. I know this; it's just my style. So the first flavor that I pick up from this chocolate is what I call a silvery flavor. Next in is a cocoa powder flavor and a bit of what I call Nesquick flavor, you know, that taste that has the idea of darkness but is in actuality more sweet. The Nesquick flavor here, though, isn't also thick like it tends to be; I like it much more than I usually do. Here it is pleasant and simple (simple seems to be the keyword today). A little bit of redness comes in and develops into more richness just past the halfway point. The finish has a touch of sugar but in a welcome way: the taste is of sugar and chocolate, not overly sweet chocolate, if that makes sense. The mouthfeel throughout is steady and smooth.

I notice also that the ingredients specifically list unrefined sugar. I wonder if that difference in sugar is what makes the difference in how I perceived the sweetness of this chocolate--especially given that I didn't look at the ingredients before tasting it the first time. Whether or not that's the case, this is a solid bar of chocolate. I'm not waxing poetic about how it transported me through time and space, but it tastes nice and it would be a great sort of "beginner's level" dark chocolate for people who tend not to like the very dark chocolates or are less accustomed to them. So De Villiers gets positive marks from me, and I would definitely try more chocolate from them if I ran into the brand again.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Reflections on Age

I'm always edging myself older than I am. Not to appear older or because I want to be older. Not quite that.

It's more probably that it used to be the usual thing for me to be the youngest person in a group. Those September birthdays mean that you either start kindergarten a little early or kind of late; I started early. So I was usually one of about three youngest people in my grade. I started college when I was seventeen--and in college, sure, there are other seventeen year olds but there are also people in their mid and late twenties and up. So I was always the younger person--and also the seemingly even younger person given that I am small and apparently do look up to ten years younger than I am depending on context.

So I guess I was accustomed for a while to being at a certain stage past what people my age were at. I graduated college at twenty-one. Sure, plenty of people do that and some are even younger, but still that's generally a little young.

Nowadays I find myself in so many different contexts and around so many different age groups. I used to have just one setting; now I have four or five. In some, I'm the older person. In others, I'm the younger person. In others, I think that I'm about the same age as the people around me--until I sit and think about it and remember that they're probably in their thirties and I'm still in my twenties. And then that makes me realize that in my head I'm nearly thirty but in actuality I'll only be twenty-seven this year and so I'm really only in my mid-twenties. And yet there I am so quick to consider myself already in my late twenties that I already think I'm just around the corner from thirty.

But I feel like I'm at that age where I do mentally align myself more with people in their early thirties than people in their early twenties. (Not, of course, to say that everyone is a certain way at a certain age. Of course there is variation among individuals; I just mean that in general certain things are more the case at certain ages than others.) People in their early twenties are still in that absorption stage: they're still looking bright-eyed at the world and taking it all in and feeling like there is so much in it for them. People in their early thirties have more of an idea of daily living.

I'm not, in saying that, trying to say that I'm all "responsible adult." (That is a completely separate concept.) I'm saying that I carry with me more of the mindset of the constant positives and negatives that are in life. Nothing will ever appear perfect and nothing will ever be all bad. Each day, you have your tasks to complete (literally and mentally) and your decisions to make. And I think it's that as you live more days, you become more aware of all of those days as a fabric. They all thread together to make one piece, so even if one seems to go over a bit rough it won't ruin the whole thing because there are all of those other pieces, too. It's what it all comes together to express that makes for the important part.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Desert Dinos

While I do work with the dinosaurs and therefore the temporary Dinosaurs in the Desert exhibit at the Phoenix Zoo was somewhat our competition, similar things don't have to be competition, right? They all work together to keep up interest in a topic or to combine to make everything greater and more interesting. And you can never have enough dinosaurs. So I had to make it over before the exhibit closed this month. It was in the mid to upper nineties, but I decided I didn't mind--and the weather made it the perfect time to go because I got to be alone with the dinosaurs.

The setup is pretty cool. You're walking along and you see this around the bend:

It's a Carnotaurus, the flesh-eating bull, just perched there on the top of a slight hill and looking down at you. 

Around another bend, an Ankylosaurus waited among the saguaros. 

These guys looked like raptors, but they're actually Coelophysis. They looked pretty awesome with the rocks in the back and the saguaros and teddy bear cholla all around; they also made their honking/barking sounds to one another to communicate while out on their hunt. 

You can tell I don't usually take selfies, but I had to get at least one, right? 

Approaching the Quetzalcoatlus is an intimidating thing. The huge feathered serpent has a beak like the ones people used during the time of the bubonic plague. It's a nightmare-like creature that towers above everyone. 

And beneath it: baby feathered serpents. 

What's that in the bushes up ahead? 

Look out, it's a Utahraptor! Honestly, I was quite taken with this one. It reminded me of the ostriches at Out of Africa; I love to admire their claws because they remind me of dinosaurs--so I guess this all brought me full circle to have the dinosaur now remind me of the ostriches. All feathers and claws, this beauty was one I wanted to keep. 

Almost at the end, a baby T-Rex stood underneath a tree. Its striped tail matched that of its much taller parent . . . 

. . . which was the full-grown King of the Tyrant Lizards. I stared him down for a while, imagining the power of those teeth and that jaw and imagining this animal as a giant chicken--which is quite a terrifying image if you've ever seen a chicken go chasing after a junebug to eat it. 

And that was the last of the dinosaurs. I did skip quite a few here for simplicity's sake; these were just my favorites. 

The dinosaurs were great because dinosaurs are always great. They didn't have quite as much detail or move quite as well perhaps as some other dinosaurs that I know, but that's because this was an outdoor and temporary exhibit versus an indoor and permanent one. And these were still a lot of fun. The setting, too, really made this exhibit. As you know, I love the desert. So to have these dinos just hanging out among all the cactus plants and trees and orange-toned dirt just made it something special. Honestly, too, having it all to myself on that hot day was awesome, too: it let each one catch me by surprise as I turned each corner and it let me unleash my imagination more to picture myself out in the wild with living creatures. 

Friday, April 13, 2018

Stone Grindz: Hacienda Victoria 85%

Maybe it was the name of this bar that drew me in. "Hacienda" reminds me of the Southwest, the land that means home. "Victoria" reminds me of the Victorian era, my favorite historical and literary era. And as I mention, the 85% cocoa content range often ends up being one of my favorites, as well. Everything, in this strange misuse of logic, just seemed to add up correctly.

Stone Grindz sourced the cocoa from this bar from western Ecuador. There is some additional information on the inside of the card box about the cocoa variety (Nacional Arriba Ecuador) and the cocoa farm from which it came (Hacienda Victoria). The tasting notes are almond butter, raisin, and toast. The chocolate's aroma is perfect: it brings that silvery scent that is light yet also rich and smooth.

Most definitely this chocolate tastes of raisins. Almost immediately you get that deep, dark, dried fruit flavor. While raisins aren't necessarily my favorite food (I guess I do like them on their own, just not baked into anything, you know? I know I'm not alone in this opinion), the raisin flavor note in chocolate tends to be quite nice. In this case, it becomes a little springier and redder after a moment, then a hint of bitter zing sweeps by. This zing comes across not "bitter," though, simply as raisin richness. A sort of sweet taste comes in towards the end, like some kind of sweet spice. The finish is smooth and tender in flavor.

The line between rich and sweet. The place between bold and light. The moment between calm and action. That is this chocolate, balanced at a perfect place that simply feels like purity. This is the kind of chocolate that makes you fall in love with it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Springtime at the Desert Botanical Garden

Springtime in the desert means cactus flowers, the scent of desert marigolds in the air, and bright yellow flowers topping the green branches of the palo verde trees.

Springtime at the Desert Botanical Garden, when caught at just the right moment, also means that the Texas Mountain Laurel has its purple flowers, the ones that smell like grape soda.

I sat for a while and watched this bird perched in the sunlight. There was also a lizard nearby; it was unbothered by my presence and held still while a couple of other people passed right by it without even seeing it. 

The blossoms were mainly unopened and only just starting to come out when I was there last week.

The wildflower path is perfectly suited toward this time of year. 

Bunnies, too, were plentiful, hopping about and hoping to be unseen and darting for cover when they suspected they'd been spotted. 

The ocotillo are awesome when they get their red tips. They're like thin hands holding bright bouquets.

And those yellow flowers I was talking about? Here they are:

A closer look reveals something else, too. This little guy was sitting up in the branches, munching away.

Life, life everywhere.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Das Rheingold

Perhaps I should be calling these posts "an outsider's view on attending the opera." The more I watch, the more I remember that I know absolutely nothing about opera. But that's okay: it just goes to show that you don't need to already know anything in order to go and enjoy a good show.

So. Wagner's Das Rheingold. From the Lord of the Rings-esque descriptions of this one, I had a feeling it would be one not to miss. An opera that's also a fantasy about nymphs and magical gold (that can be formed into a ring that ends up being cursed) and dwarfs and giants? Awesome, right? And it was. The first act probably was my favorite because, well, nymphs are great--and having them float around live in front of you in a sea of mist while singing opera just makes them even better. All of the fantasy elements were great fun to watch.

The production choices were fascinating, too. The orchestra sat up on stage, and the orchestra pit could then be used for some of the other performers in certain scenes. For instance, it was the water in which the nymphs swam and played. A high platform ran the width of the stage above the orchestra so that performers could be up there above the musicians. And the giant screen was back on the far end of the stage, providing backdrops that moved with the rhythm of each scene. They did also use the semi-transparent screen that drops in front of the stage; projections on the screen allowed you to see the orchestra behind it while also seeing the images. And the giants. They stood towards the front of the stage (well, actually above what would be the orchestra pit) and in front of a small camera; this camera was linked to a big screen on one side of the stage that showed them live but in like black and white night vision or something like that. It gave them a creepy, WWI, Borg look. Rather than making the story feel "modern" (which I say in a negative sense--or I suppose I could just say "too modern" or "modern in the wrong way"), these elements just kept it all interesting and fresh (even though, since this was my first introduction to this opera, it wasn't exactly stale to me--but something can still feel fresh even if it's only new to you personally).

The singers were wonderful. The giants had this striking way of projecting. And Loge had my attention the way he gave flourishes to both his singing and his movement. The music? It was . . . good. It just . . . dragged. Before the show started, I overheard a conversation in which one person asked the other if they had to stay for the whole thing because they didn't want to listen to Wagner for that long. And after seeing the show, well, I get it. Instead of having the usual intermission, the opera was presented as one two and a half hour piece with just the four acts but no intermission, no breaks. Just one long piece. And whereas some operas have more recognizable "songs" in them, pieces that a singer or group of singers perform, all of the music here just kind of flowed into one long, unbroken train. Opera audiences usually clap all throughout at the different pauses. Here there was literally no clapping until the show water over; that was strange. So I do have to say that the long, drawn out style of the music and how it was put together didn't entirely suit me.

This show, then, had that double effect: on one hand it was wonderful to watch, and on the other I kept wondering how much longer until it was over. It was a lot to take in without pauses and yet still it did end up being one not to miss.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Zak's Chocolate: Haiti 100% Cacao

When it comes to chocolate bars with a 100% cocoa content, there seem to be two types--at least from what I have observed. The first 100% bar I ever had was from Pralus and I loved it (that was so long ago that I'm curious to try it again and see what I would think now). I've had others that I've liked and others that I haven't. I hated the one from Bonnat. The difference between the Pralus bar and the Bonnat bar is what I meant when I said that there were two types: the first was dominated by chocolate flavor and the second by cocoa bitterness. Chocolate flavor can be either straight chocolate or various flavor notes. Either way, it's distinct from the biting bitterness experience.

The Haiti 100% Cacao bar falls more under the category of the Bonnat bar. Its scent is deep and felt slightly floral to me, but perhaps that was just how I was registering the high cocoa content. An initial bitterness on the tongue builds and increases, only decreasing and mellowing a bit around the halfway point. It is important to note that with a chocolate that only has cocoa in it (no sugar, no nothing, just cocoa and some more cocoa butter), it can be helpful to start with a much smaller piece than what you would normally consider. A bigger piece will mean more bitterness. A smaller piece will mean that it's easier to take in.

Still, you get my point: this chocolate wasn't for me. I don't mind a certain degree of bitterness in chocolate, the kind that teases around the edges. I don't mind very dark chocolate: I've loved certain bars in the 80's, 90's, and even 100% ranges. But this one just isn't my style.

Back in November, I did review the Haiti 70% bar (and of course yesterday I reviewed the Haiti Milk Chocolate). That chocolate was one of my favorites from Zak's, which is what makes me surprised that the darker version didn't work for me. Maybe because I described it then as being "featherlight" and a 100% bar, by its nature, can't really be featherlight. (Interestingly, too, I also described that bar as having floral notes to its aroma but not its taste.) So having tried three versions of Haiti origin chocolate from Zak's, the 70% remains my personal favorite.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Zak's Chocolate: Haiti Milk Chocolate

Zak's Chocolate doesn't always have milk chocolate bars available to purchase. Like with the white chocolate, it's something you'll want to get when you do see it. And do you see this chocolate bar?

Beautiful, isn't it? The clear bag allows you to see its pretty face, where a fun font and a cocoa pod smile out at everyone. And when you open up the seal? An aroma so rich and enticing emerges, with the creaminess of milk chocolate and a sense perhaps of berries.

The chocolate tastes of cream on the tongue, then of cocoa butter. As it melts, a light citrusy pepperiness (like bergamot) emerges, followed by more creaminess. Everything grows warmer with more of that sense of richness from the aroma as you come to the finish.

Is it what I'd expected? No, not really. Usually when companies like this do a milk chocolate, it ends up being a darker milk chocolate: after taking the selection of cocoa beans and the details of production of chocolate so seriously, I suppose they hate to lose flavor by "watering down" the cocoa with milk and sugar. This isn't like that, though. This is milk chocolate, and it isn't pretending that it isn't. Sure, there is richness to it, but mainly you have that traditional milk chocolate creaminess and more of the cocoa butter flavor than deeper cocoa flavors. So that is definitely interesting.

While I do enjoy this chocolate, I'm not as head over heels for it as I was for the white chocolate (which is also interesting) I also got at Zak's. This chocolate is good (yes, better than what I call the grocery store brands like Lindt and Ghirardelli), it's ethically sourced, and it's local for me. And all of that is sufficient: I don't need to be head over heels for everything. And as I keep stressing, we do need products like this. I enjoy a good dark chocolate, sure. Cocoa origins and flavor notes, they're great--but the world needs good milk chocolate around, too.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Kittens at Out of Africa

Time for more Out of Africa pictures. I had to squeeze in a trip there a couple of weeks ago to see all of the tiny big cats. There are so many right now. Since they'll be grown in no time and I'll spend years seeing them full-grown, it means so much to also be able to see them when they're small.

The young tiger, Sunrise, was awake and chewing on a toy when I went by.

The three little lions, Kitanga, Ajabu, and Jabari, were playing and walking around in the morning and then napping in the afternoon. 

Even though it seems like a long time since Out of Africa took in the rescued otter who has since been named Totter, this was the first time I saw the slippery critter, who was sliding through the water and the land with plenty of energy. 

And what's Out of Africa without all the great views of the Verde Valley? I love seeing the San Francisco peaks standing white with snow on the horizon: they speak of the diversity of the Arizona landscape, all visible in just one glimpse. 

You can't see him very well in this picture, but Ted is back there (to the right) sitting on his high platform while his women, Lady and Kayla, are up close. Lady and Kayla always seem to give the opportunity to stand just a few feet away from lions; that feeling of seeing all their power and yet getting to admire them through the safety of fences never stops being incredible. 

And yes, the little lions are Ted's. Here they are sleeping in the afternoon. I just sat and watched them for a bit: they're truly adorable. 

And who did they bring in for Wonders of Wildlife? Sage, the young mountain lion. This was his first time being in the arena for a show, so once again they were mainly getting him used to the space and to the different types of toys and to the audience. 

You can get an idea of his size from these pictures. Sure, he isn't full-grown yet and mountain lions are smaller than tigers, but still, that's a big cat with claws and teeth--and a big cat with claws and teeth who doesn't have as much experience playing games with people as, for instance, Chalet the white tiger who stars in Tiger Splash does. 

Cue the moment where Jeff, while narrating the show, explains that they all have to take an IQ test before starting work there. If they score at all high, they don't get hired. 

Yes, as much as I'll go to watch someone play with a mountain lion even to the point of letting it climb on top of them, I, ah, wouldn't do that myself. But that's why I love Out of Africa: they love these cats and they let us have a glimpse into those relationships that they have with them. 

And speaking of everyone there being crazy. They built a cardboard house that they put in the arena. Why? Because it's fun. They didn't even coax Sage to go in or anything; he just went right in on his own as part of his exploration of the space. 

And he came right back out through the front door.

Sage did so well. He looked comfortable with everything and he was really with engaged with everyone and interested in the toys. 

He even did some nice leaps into the air.

Sage, we shall watch your career with great interest.