Monday, October 29, 2018

'Tis a Strange Garden

Around Halloween, the Desert Botanical Garden has their Strange Garden event a couple of nights. Now, if you're like me and you don't have kids that you'd want to take specifically to the event and you have membership so you usually try to avoid high traffic times, you can still get a taste of Strange Garden by going during the day around the time of the event (or even in the evening on a night near the event night). You will still get to see the wonderful pumpkin scenes this way.

I went during possibly the worst lighting time of the day, especially since I wasn't expecting to bump into the scenes right away in the Wildflower Trail (last year they were set up in another part of the garden that I walk through more on my way out instead of first thing).

First I found this delightful family playing with their child.

Then these pumpkins were doing some work in the field. 

These were swinging from the palo verde branches. 

And some more goofing off, skateboarding and biking and such. 

This one was just sitting and enjoying the peace of the garden. 

These two were on a hilltop enjoying the peace of each other's company beneath the teddy bear cholla. 

And behind some other cholla, I caught glimpses of a campsite. 

Then there was this one jumping rope in the bushes. 

And these I think shoeing their horse (it's kind of hard to tell from the picture and I didn't stay to look at this one too long in person because there were other people nearby taking their time checking it out so I didn't want to get in their way). 

Even some mariachis playing tunes to the plants. 

This girl with her ponytails was just wandering around waving her ribbon wand. 

And the hula dancers were hula dancing. 

And the diver was diving into a little pool beneath. 

Not part of Strange Garden, yet still fitting with the theme, the Giant Starfish are in bloom right now. Yes, that flower is from the green sticks behind it (and you can even see some of the unopened, still forming flowers on the right side). They're one of my favorite flowers at the garden because of how amazing it is when they finally appear (most of the year you won't see the flowers, so they're a special treat to see). 

And then there were some eyes here and there on the prickly pear. 

And on this guy, too.

And again, not part of the extra theming, but I was excited to see these cactus in bloom, too. They're also one of my favorites (I mean, look at the great shapes they make on the ground) and I usually only see them in bloom in spring. We've just been getting so much rain lately that all the plants are rejoicing. 

And here are some pretty green sticks growing around a palo verde. Lovely, aren't they?

One more Starfish to finish it off. You can't tell from the picture, but this one was huge, much larger than the others that I usually see. If you're familiar with the garden, this one was over by the Patio Cafe; maybe because I walk there less often, I hadn't even realized that this plant was over there, too. (Well, they do also move some plants around, so it's possible that it hasn't always been there, but it looks pretty settled to me, don't you think?) And it's so far from its plant that it's even more amazing to think of from where it's growing. 

'Tis a strange and lovely garden, indeed. 

Astor Chocolate: Halloween Selection

A little early in the week to be doing a chocolate review, but that would be because I wasn't planning on reviewing any Halloween chocolate until I suddenly happened upon these two at World Market and decided that I might as well. This is chocolate I would normally avoid, but given that specific holiday chocolate can be scarce (especially strange given the abundance of candy around Halloweentime), I'll sometimes just go ahead and cover a little bit of novelty chocolate like this.

There were in fact three Halloween bars for sale from Astor Chocolate. I picked up the Jack-o-Lantern and Frankenstein's monster bars. There was also a witch, which I skipped because it was simply a plain dark chocolate. There is never much to say about plain (milk or dark) novelty chocolate.

These are part of Astor's Moodibars line. Most of them are emotions, like Grumpy or Happy or Tired. These are a little different, though. The Pumpkin Spice Milk Chocolate is Scary and the S'Mores Milk Chocolate is Monster. And you know what's scary about them? How plain the bars look. Especially when it's novelty chocolate, you kind of wish there were more novelty to it than just a boring Halloween label. But that's just the way of novelty chocolate, so perhaps I shouldn't complain.

Let's start with the Monster bar. Immediately, the chocolate smells like milk chocolate with a hint of marshmallow and tastes pretty strongly of marshmallow, as well. The milk chocolate is milk chocolate; nothing to say there. A slightly crunchy texture at first seems to come from the marshmallows since they're the strongest taste but is probably in fact from the graham cracker element. They don't add anything to the taste. The vanilla flavor is a taste you'd already expect to get from the marshmallows and the chocolate so you associate it more with them than with the graham crackers--and anyways, there is no vanilla in the "graham crunch" in the ingredients and in fact the last ingredient is "french vanilla," so that vanilla flavor is in fact separate from the chocolate and the marshmallow, as well.

It's a nice chocolate candy. I won't say that it isn't. I'm going to finish eating it, kind of gladly even. But the chocolate itself isn't great and the flavors aren't anything that another company couldn't do just as well.

Now we'll move on to the Scary bar. Pumpkin Spice is definitely a scary concept these days, so this one is aptly named. The smells is warm like nutmeg, so nothing scary there. When I snapped off a piece, I was surprised to see a kind of filling inside. You know, the type that looks and acts almost the same as the chocolate but is visible as a separate, softer element. That seems to be where the flavor is. And um, this is not one of those cases of pumpkin spice as in the spices you use for pumpkin products; this is pumpkin spice as in spiced pumpkin. There is a weird, wannabe pumpkin flavor and simply a bad flavor that my mouth is rejecting as either a spoiled taste or a taste so artificial that it is foreign and unpleasant to me. Just adding cinnamon and such to milk chocolate is in fact quite nice and this could have been another pleasant chocolate candy--except that it tastes bad. When I checked the ingredients here, I did see the culprits: pumpkin powder, pumpkin pie flavor, and pumpkin spice extract. Those are apparently part of the "pumpkin spice ganache." I hate to put a bad name on ganache with this. If Astor used better ingredients, they could avoid such negative flavors. But I guess that isn't what they aim for. This one is so unpleasant that I won't even be finishing it.

I do dislike to be so negative. I thought I was just going to go with the casual "they're fun to eat but they're not great" comments. Instead I'm illustrating why I normally just avoid reviewing chocolate like this: it isn't fair to dwell too much on the negative. Yet this post also ends up being a commentary on the need for more seasonal chocolate of decent quality (with a long shelf life, that is: chocolate shops do make seasonal truffles and things that are often quite nice). And Halloween, too, seems to keep getting bigger and bigger year after year. Instead of just having scary bad chocolate, why can't we get some spooky and delightful chocolate, too?

Sleeping Beauty

Ah, I've been waiting for Ballet Arizona to do Sleeping Beauty again because I've been hoping for years to see this ballet. I absolutely could not miss it this time, no matter any inconvenience. Because Tchaikovsky, Tchaikovsky is just the best.

With a ballet, as I've mentioned before, especially one like this one, watching is much like viewing a silent film. The performers are portraying a story with their movements and the accompanying music provides the backdrop for it all. Except that when it's music like this, the music itself is so stirring and so rich and so gorgeous that it is the music that is holding you and guiding you. Just to go and hear this music played live would have been worth it.

And yet it wasn't just music. There were also the usual elaborate and beautiful costumes and sets that Ballet Arizona does so well. The Nutcracker is the one that gets all the attention, but really they do a great job with their other productions, as well. Sleeping Beauty, too, just lends itself to visuals. The interior of a castle or a peaceful woodland. The dresses of royalty or the garb of fairies.

I sometimes don't entirely know what I think of ballet. Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake are amazing because, you know, Tchaikovsky. So I think that's what I need with ballet. I need a bit of magic to it. Whether it's magic in the awe of it like with Opus Cactus (although was that even entirely ballet?), or with the fairy tale quality to every detail of the production that exists with shows like this one. The magic is what gives me the connection.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Woodblock Chocolate: 70% Dark

How could I possibly resist the packaging of this little 70% Dark Chocolate bar from Woodblock Chocolate? How? I'm a Victorian at heart in many ways, so the fluffy roses against the cream background and the name and the whole "handmade in this one city in Oregon" thing just won me over. The tiny bar doesn't really have any info on cacao origin, so I knew I was possibly bending my chocolate rules a bit by buying this one, but I decided that the whole handmade thing would be enough, if nothing else.

Now, I'll note here that I didn't look up the company until after I'd put together my tasting notes (you never want to read the good things a company has to say about itself until after you've tasted the chocolate, otherwise you'll bias yourself, one way or another). But it turns out that they do have specific information on their website about the plantations where they obtain their cocoa. This bar is their house blend, which is the Cajamarca, Peru together with Balau, Ecuador. Woodblock adds nothing to the chocolate except for sugar. They describe this house blend as essentially being an elevated version of the familiar, what I would call something approachable that is also better than what you might be used to. That is, something that will be easy to take in for someone who hasn't had much artisan chocolate and also something that will work well with added flavors.

This chocolate is exactly what they promise.

I've already mentioned how lovely the packaging is. The roses, by the way, are there because Portland, Oregeon is apparently the "City of Roses." This bar is quite small at just 25 grams, which I naturally like because I think that most chocolate bars are in fact too big. Smaller bars will encourage us to support better quality and better ethics in the chocolate that we consume.

The design of the chocolate goes along with the "woodblock" concept. The more masculine, woodsy look sets nicely against the feminine, rosey look of the outside. The chocolate smells deep and silvery, akin to something like Ghirardelli. It snaps well. Initially a little hint of bitterness plays around the edges of thought, not quite tangible but just enough to give it a little twist. There is that taste of sugar in there where it's kind of a separate element. A little bit in, the flavors develops more into a chocolate richness, becoming warm and deep. Essentially ti's that straightforward and strong and great cocoa flavor.

What this chocolate is is a wonderful example of a nice and solid dark chocolate. Familiar, endearing, comforting, and straightforward. The elegant, handmade look of the packaging (and Woodblock's own description on their website) perfectly describes what this chocolate brings. Nicely done. This was another chocolate I found at World Market and I only picked up the one bar. So while I don't know if I'll be seeing anymore around, I'll now feel free to get more if I do come across more.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Thrawn: Alliances

Of course everyone who loves the character of Thrawn was excited about the sequel book Thrawn: Alliances that came out late this summer. I, however, was excited when I found out late in that the book was going to feature Padme--and Padme/Anakin. (Who else is super excited that Claudia Gray has a book about Padme coming out next year? We need more Padme. And then how about a book about Shmi Skywalker? No? Anyone? Just me on that one?)

One half of the story takes place in the "present," which is during the time between Episodes III and IV. The other half takes place in the past, which is the Clone Wars era. There are interesting aspects to the present storyline: you get to see dynamics between Vader and Thrawn and all of that. Mainly, though, it was the past that lured me in.

I love to see that time. I like to see Padme at her best, as the double figure of ambassador and heroine. And I like to see Padme and Anakin's relationship, specifically the ways in which they lived that double life. They're steadfastly connected and they do work together publicly but they're also trying to pretend that they're just casual acquaintances.

And then there is also the Vader/Anakin connection. That's where the present storyline was great to watch, as well: you saw the shadow of Anakin over Vader. There is this sense of the past that he suppresses and tries to pretend doesn't exist--but it's still there.

Hmm. Obi-Wan said that Vader killed Anakin and that when Vader came into being Anakin died. But did he? Can you truly kill a good person? A good person can let destruction reign, yes. But does goodness die so easily?

So, anyways, while I didn't overly care about what the plot was or wasn't (it had an element of mystery/curiosity to it, but I was never curious to discover what was going on), I did enjoy what this book offered as far as characterization, which is of course what I'm after from Star Wars in the end, anyways.

(And yes, Disneyland fans, including me, will love the inclusion of Black Spire Outpost, as well.)

Monday, October 15, 2018

Writing Adventures: Part 13

So. I've had this draft sitting for a while. I only add to it bit by bit because it's hard right now to have time to really sit with it and let it develop more. However, I think I'm going to let it sit even more because I think I have something else to do first.

The idea first came in to my head some months ago. Now it's more prevalent, and it's one of those things where I feel that if I'm considering it at all, then that means I must see it through.

So my second book may not in fact be my second novel. Instead, it might be what I suppose for now we'll just call more of a non-fiction piece. Probably something quite short, unless it develops into more that I can't see yet.

As I've had some more days here and there to myself and as simultaneous contentment and concern have bubbled within me, I've felt more content to spend a random hour or even just half hour in the evening writing. I'm not just tired wanting to relax; I want to work on this my chosen craft. (Did I chose it, though? Or was it chosen for me? If the latter, then even more reason for me to develop it.)

I have things I want to share and maybe need to share. With how many people I don't know and that doesn't matter; even one person would be enough. So the other manuscript will continue sitting (maybe I'll still work on it at my turtle pace; we'll see) while I try and focus on this new project.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Blanxart: Milk Chocolate with Hazelnuts

The chocolate reviews are starting to pile up again, so it's time to maybe start doubling up once more.

When I went to World Market in September, it felt like I hadn't been there in a while--and felt even more so when I walked in and found many new products, including chocolates. Now, World Market used to get in new chocolates around the new year and they would pretty much have those for a year before switching out again. But these days I'll see a different brand for a few weeks maybe and then never see it again. Or maybe I'll randomly find it months later on the sale shelves. So I've learned to just go ahead and buy what I want when I see it, otherwise I might lose my chance.

I, as you know, am trying to keep certain standards when it comes to chocolate. Certain ethical standards. But sometimes I'm flexible. This bar was just too tempting with its rustic, Old World. And it's made in Spain. There's just something about chocolate made in Spain that lures me in, makes me want to at least try it. And it always seems to be milk chocolate that I find from Spain. All of this plus the fact that there are hazelnuts in this chocolate meant that I just had to get it.

The thick bar has a simple and plain look that adds to the old-fashioned style. Biting into one of the chunks reveals first the taste of the hazelnuts. You only begin to taste the chocolate really towards the end, once it's more melted. By that point, you have plenty of hazelnut taste in your mouth, so the two flavors really blend, which is of course wonderful. I'm also getting something of a cinnamon flavor. Either there are spices hidden in the ingredients list or it's just the way all the flavors are put together or I'm just making it up. However it is, I do get more of a warm flavor to the chocolate that makes me think of cinnamon. It makes me feel very at home.

All of that said, this chocolate bar is light on chocolate flavor. As you can see, it's a 33% cocoa content chocolate, which is light, although light is also pretty normal when it comes to milk chocolate. I don't, in this case, mind at all, though. It's milk chocolate and it's hazelnut chocolate and there is enough flavor going on that it doesn't need to be all about the chocolate. Not always.

Sure, this isn't what I'd call a gourmet bar at all. Yet I'm quite fond of it. If I had a little more info on sourcing and if it were readily available to buy all the time, I'd recommend it as a go-to candy/snacking bar.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Black Butterfly: Fleur de Sel Caramel Snack Bar

After telling everyone of the prettiness of Black Butterfly's new Snack Bars this summer without showing any pictures, now I've at last had one of these chocolates smuggled over to me, intact and unmelted, from Prescott. And this time it's probably a flavor more after my tastes, the classic Fleur de Sel Caramel.

Now you can see the pretty (even with my lack of photography skills). You see how it's basically a combination of a chocolate bar and a truffle? An approachable twist and a sure temptation. In this bar, the little bubbles are what contain the caramel.

While some salted caramels are subtly salty, this one isn't. This one is salty enough that salt is probably the strongest flavor element of all. I like best to just bite a whole bubble off, so that you burst through the chocolate base and the chocolate shell into this flowy, salty, and sweet caramel. The Snack Bar concept kind of allows shall we say a more reckless approach. I never put a whole truffle in my mouth--yet I don't feel bad to eat one of these bubbles in one bite. And doing so is what allows that complete texture experience.

Besides the salt, the caramel of course also comes in with its pleasant vanilla flavor. While sometimes Black Butterfly's milk chocolate (which comes in at 41% cocoa) tastes sweet to me, here I do taste more of that richness of the higher (for milk chocolate) percentage). The chocolate also amplifies the vanilla flavors.

Possibly the caramel might be a tad too salty for me, yet I've still much enjoyed this chocolate. When you have a flavor that's more to your tastes and you have such a setting as this, it's very easy to just eat the whole bar in one go. Which, as I keep mentioning, is kind of the idea of these Snack Bars. Wholeheartedly approachable and tempting.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

It's Fall

The later part of September was a tad warmer than usual this year. Normally by that point the edge of the heat has come off, but this time we had an earlier cooler spell (as in, less hot spell) followed by one last hot spell before the switch to October brought the sudden onset of Fall.

The nights cool off enough now that it takes a little bit of time for the day to heat enough to actually be hot instead of just comfortable and pleasant. In fact, the nights are suddenly cool enough that I just switched to my winter sheets.

The air tastes different. The baked scent of summer is gone, turned crisp instead. The colors around the Phoenix area don't change much until January, but if you drive even just a little north, you'll find the greens beginning to fade and the leaves beginning to disappear.

The light has changed. It's now dark in the morning when I get up. And the sun is already flirting with the horizon by the time I'm heading home--the nice part about that is that I get to see all the brilliant pink colors while I drive.

These changes have been happening over the last few days, but it was this morning that I felt wrapped up by Fall. I felt cozy and comfortable and happy. I made a second cup of tea. In the morning, I put on my cashmere house sweater (that means that it's mended and not for wearing out but still ridiculously comfy for home use), and by late morning, I had all the windows open to finally let the place air out after the long summer.

I felt wrapped up by all that Fall beckoned. A touch of Halloween perhaps, but mainly the promise of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Turkeys and tablecloths and cookies and pies and family. The holiday season is a good time, a time when we're constantly thinking of ways to bring cheer to the short and dark and (sometimes) cold days.

Thanks be for the beauty of the changing seasons.

Friday, October 5, 2018

La Naya: Juniper & Natural Orange Flavored Milk Chocolate

I have some more orange chocolate for you this week, this time because La Naya just makes chocolate bars look and sound so appealing that I had to try this one despite not being too fond of orange chocolate. And once again, the risk paid off: this chocolate is quite good.

The fact that this Juniper & Natural Orange Flavored bar is also a milk chocolate also seemed a little odd to me: isn't orange paired more often with dark chocolate than with milk? That being said, the citrus smell when I broke the seal on the packaging was refreshing and, despite any hesitation on my part, kind of enticing. Once more, it's a pretty La Naya bar design, geometric and soft at the same time.

The taste surprised me. It didn't taste like orange in the same way that it smelled like orange. Along with the orange, I also tasted strong flavor notes in the milk chocolate. Spices. The effect made the milk chocolate appear deep and complex. The flavors mellowed out somewhat as I approached the end, which was creamier with a zing of orange zest.

I mentioned that I enjoyed Chocolate Organiko's Orange and Pepper bar because it was a different and successfully different interpretation of orange chocolate. The same goes here, except perhaps in an even stronger and more poetic way. I feel like I've never tasted chocolate like this. Such flavors (mainly with the addition of juniper) usually only come in with truffles. That's where people will experiment a little or add the essence of flavor less commonly associated with chocolate. Yet why not have the same freshness in a chocolate bar, as well?

I might add in the description that La Naya provides. "Emotional structure: Easter morning in Vatican, orange fruit, sunlight, imminent victory, juniper." That is absolutely a lovely description of this chocolate. And I don't need to wax poetic about its flavor because the chocolate has already done so itself. It's absolutely fascinating and fresh and intriguing and highly recommended, even if you also hesitate about orange chocolate.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

We Honor Your Memory

There was a time, for several years, when I couldn't watch movies to do with war or anything like that because I was still struck by the very real human experience of tragedy. I was, after some of the reading I did in Holocaust Studies in high school (particularly The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak) still heartbroken by the fact that bad things happen to real people, not to "the people bad things happen to." It's almost like I was in mourning and couldn't get near anything sad to do with war, etc. because it just brought up anew the pain for these people.

And then, as this maybe started to fade without me realizing it, I kind of started to feel like maybe I didn't want to watch war movies or such because I wanted to watch movies for entertainment and so real tragedy wasn't entertainment.

And now I think I've been easing back in. A Tale of Love and Darkness, which is interesting to see if you're used to seeing Natalie Portman in Star Wars and forget that she was born in Israel. It made me realize how little I know about Israel's (recent) history. Or The Promise with Oscar Isaac; that certainly made me feel ignorant. So by the time I finished Colonia with Emma Watson, I resigned myself to the fact that there are so many countries with so much history that, well, I wouldn't know all of it unless I made world history (especially recent world history) my area of focus (which is not, of course, to say that we shouldn't always strive to know more than we currently know).

Especially with that last film, there was kind of this sense as it ended of the fact that the audience was simply giving acknowledgement to the people who experienced sorrow. This world is filled with darkness. And sometimes films simply allow us to remember people's sorrow or to give voices to the people who were silenced. We don't have to be going in to war films for the horror factor; we can simply experience such films in order to honor the memory of the people portrayed. In doing so, we are acknowledging the fact that every person matters and every person's life is important and significant. Every smile and every tear is precious.

May we never not be saddened by tragedy.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Maria de Buenos Aires

'Tis that time again, the time in which I wander around to the theatre and the ballet and the opera. The first of the season was also part of Arizona Opera's new McDougall RED series. With these, they're going for shows with a slightly different tone or style and putting them in the smaller Herberger Theatre rather than the grand Symphony Hall. 

Even that change means quite a big. While Symphony Hall is so big that you can buy last minute tickets for the opera no problem, Herberger is small enough that seats were getting filled up much sooner. As per usual, I took the very back balcony row, even though this was my first time at Herberger and I wasn't sure how a seat in that row would be. Turns out, though, that this seat was perfectly great. Though the balcony is greatly tiered, it wasn't to the point that you felt like you were going to fall over (like at a big arena), simply that it was tiered so that you could be closer to the stage and with a clearer view than if there were little or no tiering. The small size of the theatre was more comparable to watching a play at the Mesa Arts Center than to watching an elaborate opera or ballet at Symphony Hall.

Indeed, the show itself, Maria de Buenos Aires, was almost more like watching a play than an opera. Celeste Lanuza as El Duende made me think of something like spoken word in the way that she wasn't quite singing but not quite just speaking, either. And while opera tends to be about big shapes and movements that you can see far away (with the main emphasis on sound rather than sight), this show made a little more of movement. It's a tango opera, so of course there was dancing, but also other types of movement that went along to help tell the story. 

And the story? A story of sorrow, the story of a woman who is born from the toying meddling of El Duende to a life of pain. Yet also the story of a woman who feels deeply and, led by a song in her soul, pictures great things. Is it a story of triumph over darkness? No, not really. Triumph hardly seems to describe what the ending felt like: it felt more like taking a breath after struggling to hold it beneath water for a very long time. 

I don't know. I think this opera was more about the feeling of each moment than a particular theme. As you'd expect from a tango opera, it is often deeply moving and sensual and striking and bold and did I mention moving? 

The audience knew going in to expect something different. You could get the vibe in the first few scenes that everyone was kind of trying to get their bearings and figure out what type of a show this was, but by the time Maria (portrayed by Catalina Cuervo) sang "Yo Soy Maria," we were all enthralled in this weird web of red darkness. I don't have the words to describe Catalina Cuervo singing as Maria. She has been in this role over 50 times, and so it would seem that she has entirely embodied the passion and sorrow of this character. She took hold of the whole audience. And when Luis Alejandro Orozco joined her as the Payador, it was . . . like this beautiful passion of love that they were singing. 

While an opera is usually close to three hours, this was only an hour and a half (which is kind of nice for a modern audience because you can just focus in on enjoying rather than getting either antsy or sleepy before the end). Yet it felt like it covered so much that it couldn't have been so short as that. Fascinating and striking. That is what Maria de Buenos Aires was.