Monday, November 30, 2020

Wild Hats in the Desert

I best know Carolyn Schmitz for her greeting cards, which I eventually started to put up in frames because they're so lovely. They show various desert animals wearings hats and jewelry made out of desert elements: cactus, ocotillo, wildflowers, rattlesnake skin, and the like. The concepts are full of whimsy and yet there is realism in the detail with which she portrays the animals and the elements, especially given that she chooses a wide array of plants for the hat-making materials. 

Published in 2019, her book, The Wild Hat: A Fable of Fashion Intrigue in the Desert, contains 45 of her paintings along with a story about how all of these animals came to array themselves in such fanciful accessories. So it's halfway between a coffee table art book and a storybook. Just the thing for adults who still love whimsy.

The story is simple; the text is more about describing the persona of each animal and what the various parts of their accessories are made from. You can go back and forth between the text and the image to find the devil's claws, rattlesnake weed, globe mallow blossoms, ladybugs, and scorpion tails. I said that this book was for adults, but this would be fun to go through with children, too, and help them find each element. 

With the greeting cards, I just like to see how they look. But with this book, I found myself more wondering which animal I was like, which persona I matched. While we'd all perhaps love to be the dancing Gila monster, maybe I'm more like the javelina girl who found her beauty. Sometimes I feel like the striking, walking-alone jaguar but maybe I'm actually the "shy and pale" fox who surprises everyone with accessories of colorful visibility. Am I the free-spirited gray fox who decides not to come out lest he be spotted in his blue colors, or simply the mule deer who is somehow soft and striking and defensive all at the same time? 

I love Carolyn Schmitz's style because it expresses love for the desert and also interacts with the desert in a unique way. So these paintings are wonderful as Southwestern artwork but also beautiful pieces on their own. Whether you choose to get the book or maybe just buy a card for yourself or for a friend, these images certainly bring smiles. 

You can find Carolyn Schmitz's book, cards, prints, and more artwork on her website at

Friday, November 27, 2020

OCHO Holiday Selection

Thanksgiving being now over, we are fully into the Christmas season. So I will continue with the holiday time offerings with OCHO. Unlike their Halloween variety bag, for winter each flavor comes in a separate bag. But given that two out of the three flavors I have already talked about, I'll just include them all in one review. After all, I will often choose not to do a review at all when it's just an existing product in seasonal packaging.

The first of the three, Peppermint, is completely new, though, and a timely comparison to last week's Peppermint Creme Bites from Chocolove. On first glance, the three bags look like they're all the same, but there are a couple of differences, the biggest of which appear on this one. The snowman and sleigh are on different sides and the pine tree is decorated with peppermint, with the snowman also holding a piece of the candy. So you could say this is the most festive of the three bags, though the individual wrappers are also the least festive. I'm not sure why on that last part: since this is a seasonal flavor, you would think that if anything it would have the most seasonal wrapper.

Not sure if this was just me, but while the other two bags each had ten pieces, the Peppermint bag only had eight. They were all priced at $3.99, which means $0.39 each and $0.49 each for the Peppermint candies. I like the first value more. 

The candies are plain squares filled with a fluffy peppermint center. The peppermint is slightly chewy and almost nougat-like; it's quite a nice texture, probably the result of the egg whites in the ingredients list. I would say that it's perhaps slightly less minty than Chocolove's version; those are more of an after-dinner mint style, while these are chocolate mint candy. The sweet dark chocolate is comparable, though not so waxy and therefore more appealing to me than Chocolove's. So they're both nice, just slightly different from each other.

Both the Peanut Butter and Caramel flavors I have talked about before. The differences you can see in their bags are in the designs of the sleigh and in the placement of the robin, who sits on the tree in one and on the snowman's fingertips in the other. It's like playing one of those coloring book games to spot the difference between the pictures. 

What I'm happy about is that there are still some pine trees on the individual wrappers, and the white dots on the colored part on top give the effect of falling snowflakes. That gives them a little more of a festive look to be ready for stockings or gifts. And once more we have a Christmas tree shape. This design is simpler than the one by Chocolove, and perhaps that is why these are also molded much more neatly. The lines of the branches all came out nice and clean and there is no denting. The only flaw is that the Peanut Butter trees have some light bloom on them, but the Caramel came out clean (which makes me think that, for once, this must have happened before they came into my care, otherwise wouldn't they both have it?)

As I've mentioned, OCHO's Peanut Butter candy is alright but not necessarily their best out there, and their Caramel is pleasant and even a bit unique. Each filling goes all the way up into the tip of the tree so that the chocolate shell is a pretty even thickness throughout. So the proportions of chocolate to filling are good. With the Peanut Butter they felt pretty standard. With the Caramel, though, perhaps because caramel flows a big more freely, it felt like an indulgent little pocket of the vanilla goo. That's the way to fill up a chocolate Christmas tree. 

So whatever your favorite flavor (or your kids' favorite flavor) is, these chocolates can be a welcome part of your Christmas traditions (stockings have long been a favorite of mine). The biggest mystery remains why the Peppermint chocolates couldn't also be shaped like Christmas trees; then they would have easily b been my top suggestion of the three. 


Wednesday, November 25, 2020

To Breathe Thanksgiving

I recently saw the trailer for Raya and the Last Dragon. Being a Disney film, sure, I'll probably end up seeing it and it looks like it might be a good movie. But the trailer brought up a growing concern in our cultural mindset. We like to say that there is something off and one person must go on a grand adventure and perform one great task that will fix it all. But is that really how our actions work and is that really how healing change comes to the world? 

Now I understand that there are such things as fiction and archetypes and symbolism and applicability. The Lord of the Rings and Frodo's great quest to destroy the Ring is one of my favorite books. So I'm not complaining that individual stories would contain the concept of one act to fix the world. (And anyways, isn't one act on the cross what healed the world? Not that Frodo is a Christ-like figure--that would be more Aragorn. Tangents.)

I simply want to comment that most of the time it is not "great deeds" that heal the hurt and light up the world. Most of us have small spheres of influence--and that's okay. Each of us works positively in our own little spheres, and when the little spheres connect, they will be light meeting light instead of hurt or hate meeting hurt or hate. If you feel called to activism, go ahead. But if you simply feel the value of every little interaction in your daily life, that is just as good because that matters, too. Indeed, all the aims of activism will fail if all the people are not living daily lives with significance. 

I say this as much to myself as to anyone else. What is my sphere of influence? I suppose my family, my neighbors, my church, this blog, and anyone I come across at the store or doctor's offices. Sometimes I walk through the world thinking I'm invisible, that no one can see me. But people can see me, so what impression do I want to leave? It makes a difference, it does.

There's a song for that, the aptly-titled "That's How You Change the World" from the Newsboys. Just a little something to contemplate this Thanksgiving: every moment matters, and it is the small and daily moments that add together to create a unified and healed whole. 

For life, we give thanks. 

Monday, November 23, 2020

Come Away from the World

With stories like Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, what I like to see in movies is real engagement with their themes. Children's fantasy of that mid-nineteenth century to mid-twentieth century time was deeply psychological, so there is a lot to play with besides just bringing the characters and imagery to life (as has already been done plenty of times, often I might add without much engagement with the themes). Brenda Chapman's Come Away provides a unique interaction with the themes of children's fantasy stories.

While movies like Finding Neverland are essentially made for adults and films like A Little Princess are made for the family, Come Away lies somewhere in between. At its darkest, it has almost a spot of Pan's Labyrinth. But at its lightest, it is slightly reminiscent of Bridge to Terebithia. It is not a retelling of Peter Pan or Alice in Wonderland because those already exist. Instead, it is the story of a family in their darkest hour.

I will take a moment to praise the racial diversity of the cast (and to wonder why, especially given all of the 2020 conversations, films like this don't get more attention). Gugu Mbatha-Raw and David Oyelowo are pretty familiar faces to me at this point as they're both had some pretty great roles in the past few years. Besides the Littleton siblings, we also had diversity in the troupe of children they meet in London. Even though they're the equivalent of the Lost Boys, the oldest boy in particular reminded me of the Artful Dodger--especially after my comments after David Copperfield about how there could easily be a non-white Dodger casting. Anyways, Fagin's boys are a lot like the Lost Boys, aren't they? 

We also have a Victorian interracial marriage. There is something very subtle and deliberate about the opening scenes. We see the children first, then Angelina Jolie as their mother, and then we see David Oyelowo as their father and confirmation of the interracial marriage. We see both she and he dressed in upper class clothes, so when we first see him in his workshop we're not sure if it's just a hobby or his living (aka. a trade and not an upper class role). Then we realize that yes, he is a tradesman, and we see his wife working in the kitchen with only one servant to help. So Rose's sister's comments about him have this subtlety to them: she is talking of class and never brings up race, but it's a visual that we do see on screen. So it's like the beginning scenes portray this magic, beautiful family--and then the rest of the film introduces all the messiness of life.

Notice this, too, in how the fantasy/play sequences are portrayed. Initially, we see the three siblings playing at being Peter Pan and Tiger Lily and they have these broad smiles of joy on their faces. Later, though, we see other scenes. The Lost Boys tumbling out of a tree to entice Peter to come away. Alice shrinking down below her bedside table after drinking her mother's "potion." The fantasy has becoming heartbreaking instead of heartwarming. It is no longer happy imaginations running wild; it is hurting hearts trying to escape their pain. 

And this is how we come to the curious thing about how this film is put together. Peter Pan, you see, never grows up (it's Wendy that does that)--and the story portrays this with awareness of the tragedy that he will never grow up. But Alice in Wonderland is a coming of age story; Alice walks into Wonderland a child and walks out ready to begin her growing up and the formation of her identity as an individual. This duality is exactly what happens to the Littleton children: one grows up and one does not. One is Peter Pan and one is Alice. One falls away to fantasy; the other uses it to help her make her way in the real world. That is engagement with theme. 

It's quite a heartbreaking movie, and there is some great material about the parents and Rose's sister and Jack's father and brother, as well. But I only have so much space in one post. While perhaps the ending of the movie felt a little unresolved in comparison to the careful subtlety of the earlier sequences, overall this was a good film. It has appeal both to be a family favorite and to satisfy the eager analysis of viewers like me. 

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Chocolove: Peppermint Creme Bites

Thanksgiving is late this year and I do have quite a pile of Christmas chocolates, so I'd best get started putting these out before Thanksgiving. Subject number one is Chocolove's Peppermint Creme 55% Dark Chocolate Bites. For setting the wintry, Christmas tone, this one definitely captures the look. The bag portrays a classic starry night with pine trees decorated in all festivity of candy canes and lights. It's a pretty bag to bring home, but also nice enough to give as a small hostess gift or such. 

Beside the Non-GMO Project and Rainforest Alliance stickers on front, there is also a Sustainable-Social-Ethical badge on the back. From what I understand, Chocolove does maintain fair trade values and keeps supply chains clear, but doesn't have fair trade certification on all their chocolates (which is fine given that certification is . . . complicated). This bag came with 20 pieces of chocolate and I bought it for $8.79, which comes in at about $0.44 per piece. Nice and average. 

While not quite as appealing as the main bag, the individual wrappers are still alright. Their blue color is missing the touch of whimsy that the red and white Christmas trees give the bag. But the pale snowflakes still give enough of a festive look that these are good for either adults or children. Maybe they'll go in your candy bowl or you'll sneak them into Christmas gifts, but I imagine mainly they're going to be going into stockings. 

The little chocolate trees do look about as good in person as they do in the picture. Some are slightly imperfect surfaces, but only slightly. Not bad especially given that they're only protected by their thin wrappers. In fact, they're cute enough to use as a dessert garnish or to unwrap a set of them and put them on a dessert board. 

The trees give off a classic mint aroma and the flavor is exactly that, as well. There is not much more to say. The 55% dark chocolate is sweet and almost even seems slightly oily, so it appears best when it is eclipsed by mint like this. The mint is the focus. It's that sweet and creamy mint flavor we all know so well--a sure crowd-pleaser of a mint. The only note I would give is that the mint is inside the thicker part of the trees; that is, the top part of each tree is solid chocolate. This does mess with the proportions slightly: there is balance in the bottom of the tree, but not in the top. On the top, you can taste the chocolate more without having any mint. Yet it's a small detail and even smaller if you eat the whole tree in one bite. And the trees are pretty enough that even I agree that a slight imbalance in proportion is worth it. 

So while I hope that these won't be the best out of the six Christmas chocolates I have so far obtained, they're a good start. Again, just a very classic chocolate mint candy put together in a festive packaging and shape. I'll be saving some for stockings for sure. 

Friday, November 20, 2020

Theo: Coffee & Cream Cups

If Theo's Peanut Butter and Jelly cups weren't so much to my personal tastes, the Coffee and Cream Cups are much more so. Instead of medium dark chocolate, here we have the dark milk chocolate that Theo does so well, their 45% milk chocolate. Add a coffee center and it all sounds much like the Double Silver Latte Bar from Zak's Chocolate--but the comparison perhaps should end there because that bar is pretty flawless and stands on its own (maybe the better comparison, anyway, would be to the Coffee Break Bar?). 

Inside the package are the same familiar heart-shaped chocolate cups, just in a paler shade than last time. The aroma is of, yes, coffee and cream. Pretty straightforward. Inside each cup, you will see that there is a darker color for the truffle-inspired inside. 

The coffee takes half a breath to appear in the taste, since it is just inside that truffle-like center. It's strong but only for the barest moment--and comes with a slight, almost bitter taste. So it is good to have the milk chocolate to temper it with those cream and sugar notes. I would also add that this isn't a particularly strong coffee flavor overall. 

There is a smooth texture from the coconut oil that's used for that center filling. Here is one case where the use of coconut oil isn't to make the chocolate vegan: the outer chocolate is still regular milk chocolate, that is, with milk. Instead, the coconut oil is used in place of a cream product to give the chocolate a long shelf life (like what Alter Eco does so well with their truffles), as compared to using cheap palm oil or something like that. While generally this is a good method (despite all of my coconut oil bashing these days) and while it does contribute to a smooth texture, I find myself wondering if the somewhat bitter taste of the coffee is in fact due to the coconut oil. After all, it's listed as coffee infused coconut oil, further reinforcing the connection between the two. 

Potential coconut bitterness aside, though, these are good chocolates. They're a casual indulgence. While I don't drink much coffee, it's one of those flavors, like hazelnut, that pairs so well with chocolate--especially when you add a creamy element like milk chocolate. The chocolate here, while being that creamy element, is also stable and rich enough on its own that it makes for a good and solid base and keeps it all from becoming cloying. Like with the Peanut Butter and Jelly Cups, the Coffee and Cream are angled at being adult chocolate candies. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Theo: Peanut Butter & Jelly Cups

I know Theo best for their chocolate bars, but they make other chocolate products, too. Now that the weather is cooling off, I should soon be able to place an order for some of their flagship confections (which they normally only sell at their storefront but are offering online this year). And I'm also finally getting around to some of their chocolate cups--which have probably been around for long enough by this point that they're not considered new anymore. I've had Theo peanut butter cups, of course, but today I have their Peanut Butter & Jelly Cups and I'll follow next with the Coffee & Cream Cups. 

The packaging maintains that simple and clean style that is Theo's norm, though in a smaller and more casual look for candies versus chocolate bars. Like with the peanut butter cups, these are two slightly-heart-shaped cups that sit directly on the paper tray; there's no need for a wrapper because they're not so greasy as Reese's Cups.

When I cut one of them open, I was somewhat surprised to find a barely noticeable amount of jelly hiding beneath the peanut butter. The little dash of dark liquid certainly looks nothing like the half-and-half of tan and red in the picture. But when does the real thing ever look like what the picture on front shows? Biting in, naturally I tasted the peanut butter and chocolate first, and then the jelly. Pleasantly, though, when the jelly comes (just half a beat later), it does hold its own. The balance is proper between the peanut butter and the jelly. It's also a pretty good balance of these two flavors with the chocolate itself.

For me personally, though, there remain two issues. One is that this is raspberry jelly, and I'm still not overly fond of raspberry. But the fact that this smattering of raspberry jelly turns me off is in fact a good thing: it means that it does taste like raspberry. This isn't some artificial/catch-all, berry/fruit flavor. And I suppose they chose raspberry instead of the more traditional strawberry to give it a very slight twist (I say very slight because raspberry would probably be the next most common jelly after strawberry, right?). 

The second thing is that this is 55% dark chocolate. While I greatly favor Theo's dark milk chocolate and I like their standard dark chocolate just fine, dark chocolate in that medium range in general doesn't win me over. This chocolate is sweet, despite being dark. If a chocolate is going to be dark, I prefer to just go with milk chocolate. The choice to use dark chocolate instead of milk (the regular peanut butter cups come in both dark and milk, but so far these are only in dark) is probably another way of trying to make this a nostalgic, adult candy. 

While, again, the balance of flavors here is great and the concept is fun, I would only buy these again in milk chocolate and/or with a different flavored jelly. Granted, this is a better sweet dark chocolate than many I've come across. And while the dark chocolate is an issue for me, for someone else it might be a plus because that makes it vegan while still maintaining the sweet, candy tone. 

Monday, November 16, 2020

To Give Thanks

I feel the need for a How the Grinch Stole Christmas moment--but in reference to Thanksgiving. I'm beginning to hear comments about skipping Thanksgiving this year and going straight to Christmas. If you want to put up your Christmas decorations now, go ahead and do what you like. But what is this talk about cancelling Thanksgiving? 

Just as the Grinch learned that Christmas doesn't come from a store and isn't all about presents, Thanksgiving isn't just about giant groups of people and piles of food. Maybe this is easy for me to say because most of my Thanksgivings have been with only four to seven people (even just three once) and the biggest group one time was still under 30 (maybe under 20). But because I'm used to smaller gatherings, I can say that it still feels like Thanksgiving. 

It doesn't matter what you eat, either. By saying that we shouldn't cancel Thanksgiving, I'm not advising anyone on what type of get-together to have. So if you're going to stay home and be just two people for Thanksgiving, maybe you don't want to make a turkey (you can even get a little chicken instead if you just want something smaller). That doesn't make it not Thanksgiving. You can have tuna salad by yourself and still celebrate Thanksgiving. It isn't about what you eat or how many people you are with.

Granted, I do hope that most people can be with at least a couple of others. And I'm all for a turkey and a pie at least. But those are details. 

Thanksgiving a pretty holiday of culinary gatherings. But it is also a prayer; it is an entire day dedicated to a prayer of thanks. To give thanks requires no specific traditions. And so whether your Thanksgiving this year is spent gathered with your close family or by yourself putting up the last of your Christmas decorations and pausing for a canned soup, what I suggest is that we not forget to take a moment to give thanks. The sun in the sky, food on the table, and breath in our lungs, that is enough for us to pour out our thanksgiving. 

Friday, November 6, 2020

Zak's Chocolate: Belize 70%

The Belize 70% bar I have from Zak's Chocolate came in one of my favorite of their paper patterns (the other would be the green and gold). A pale, pale blue fills in the spaces between the gold shapes. Once you unwrap the paper, you find a classic semisweet chocolate aroma--what I call silvery, which fits well in with the pale blue paper. 

From such a silvery aroma, I had been expecting the chocolate to taste like a gentle, calm breeze. But it came on with a rougher and more heady flavor, more like a mossy wood whose ground is covered by thick fallen logs. I don't mean to use the word rough to imply distasteful; I'm just describing the tone of the taste. You might also perhaps call it more hearty than delicate. That rough flavor develops into a rich, muddy chocolate taste with tender undertones. Again, I don't mean for muddy to sound negative. Mud is nice; it's thick and cooling and full of nourishing moisture. 

The tender notes increase as the chocolate melts, but still maintaining that black/green tone versus warm red tones. The finish is sleek in comparison to the mossy wood that the chocolate begins with. And it leaves a chocolate mouthfeel behind, which is actually fairly unusual.

The tasting notes describe "fruity notes with a honey-like finish." I definitely see the honey finish; that would be what I described as tenderness. Honey is a more sophisticated and detailed way of putting it, certainly. It would also explain why I meant to distinguish this flavor from what I find in other chocolates: honey isn't the most common tasting note. The mossy wood I described doesn't seem to have much kinship with fruity notes. So if these are fruits, I would say they're the deeper kind, as opposed to springy citrus. 

This chocolate is a real adventure. Eating it is like going hiking. It begins with a natural world feel and takes you up up and up to a beautiful and peaceful view--like climbing up a mountain and then looking down on a soft valley. We all have our preferences as far as flavor notes, and I find that this bar is one of my favorites from Zak's. It isn't so much bold in the sense of piles of strong flavor notes or bits of bitterness; it's more that it's angled just slightly differently from the norm. And I often end up liking things that are just a little bit different. 

Monday, November 2, 2020

Fireflight Returns

Fireflight has been one of my favorite bands. When I first found them on Pandora years ago, I saw the album cover for Unbreakable with Dawn standing there in the stormy setting and holding onto a giant candle and I thought, yes, light in the dark, that's what I like. Not all bands last forever, so while Fireflight did put out a good amount of music during their active years, I think most of us had begun to think we'd seen the last of them. But then in August I heard the news about their October release of Who We Are: The Head and the Heart

This is how I always end up with physical copies of Fireflight albums, even now: all the pre-orders. This package came with a t-shirt and a handkerchief, as well. And so this is also how I end up with oversized tees (tiny five foot ladies don't fit in unisex size small tees). I used the other one (from For Those Who Wait) to sleep in. This one, I don't know, I might just be able to wear it if I play with it a bit--though I don't wear many t-shirts, anyway. We'll see. And the handkerchief I really don't know. Maybe it'll end up in my hair.

But enough rambling about the accessories. The album is composed of two. The head and the heart each appear on one side of the imagery, and there is a CD (with five songs) for each one, as well. Just saying the words makes me think of logic and emotion, but I don't think that's quite what I get from this album. After sitting with the songs for a bit, here is what I find. The Head contains statements and declarations of power and resolution. The Heart contains outpourings of struggles.

I have been learning that sometimes two things can exist at once. You can declare good things--and you can also feel the struggle. That's what I find in this album duo. Even though I'm very much an emotion-centered person (it's just how my mind works), I find that I lean towards the songs in The Head more. Again with that whole light in the dark concept, I like songs that can tear me upwards and remind me to be alive and positive. "How to Fly" in particular speaks to this. "Ready for More" and "Who We Are" call to mind the single that Lacey Sturm released this year, "The Decree." The time is now to choose who we are and what we believe and to act on it. Christian, eh? Live it. Right here, right now.

While I get the concept behind "Welcome to the Show," which starts up The Heart, I don't really see the re-listenability of a song like this. Because, yes, we are an audience listening to a song. "Bury the Dead" I think will speak to so many of us, though in all our different ways depending on our own individual life experiences. Fireflight has always been about acknowledging struggle, and this song expresses the difficulty in living out forgiveness/moving-on/etc. But you know, if you're going to have resolution and power and revival, you have to bury the dead in order to move forward.

So I find that this album is quite relevant to me personally and to the 2020 mindset in general. Live each moment with resolution. Make those strong statements. And allow your emotions to exist but to not tear you down. Welcome back, Fireflight.