Friday, December 31, 2021

Releasing the Pressure in Encanto

So it's been quite a while now since Encanto came out; I've been wanting to talk about it for weeks. While its theme of family fit it well into the November-December holiday season, the themes of identity fit equally well with New Year's. There are two forms of identity in the films, personal identity and community identity, and the way in which the two intersect is the basis for the primary conflict.

Mirabel first comes in introducing us to her family. She seems so proud of them all--but gradually we realize that she is too perfect of a poster child. Beneath Mirabel's proud words is her great pain at not having a magical gift like everyone else in the family. She has this grand idea of her community but not of herself. She think she is the only one who has nothing to offer or who has no acceptance--which is why she tries even harder to be that poster child of all that is wonderful about her family.

But over time, Mirabel realizes that she isn't the only one who has feelings like this. Her sisters Luisa and Isabela are both breaking into the pressure of expectations. They also don't feel loved and accepted for who they are: they feel like their value is in direct response to what they do to serve. Her cousin Dolores lives under the pressure of keeping family secrets, and Dolores's brother Camilo is literally always shifting identities. Only Antonio, as the youngest, seems to still be untouched by the family drama. Note that his gift is to talk to animals--that is, to communicate. Communication is what the family as a whole needs to learn.

Take Pepa. Her emotions affect the weather, so she is always trying to stuff down her feelings. But pretending issues don't exist is never very helpful towards problem solving, is it? Instead, the different memories of the family need to learn to be who they are personally and then within the group. No stuffing issues. 

Mirabel admits her pain. Isabela admits she is living a life she doesn't want--even getting engaged to a person she doesn't want to marry. Luisa admits she can't do it all. And their grandmother admits that she has been controlling the family too much and pushing them to her idea of perfection instead of simply loving the miracle of their survival. Mirabel was "rejected" by the house when she wasn't given a gift--but the first rejection was when they pushed Bruno away because his gift couldn't be controlled in predictable ways. Bruno's reunion into the family shows acceptance of that which is unpredictable and even imperfect. 

So when the house "left out" Mirabel, it forced the family to remember the family members rather than just their gifts. And it forced Mirabel to ask questions and bring to light the individual hurts and start a conversation. Mirabel sees that her identity isn't formed by her lack of a gift anymore than her sisters' identities are based on the gifts that they do have. And so she has a better idea of herself and of herself within her family. Both the individual and community identities experience wholeness and healing. 

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Illuminated Chihuly

Familiar places are new with light and dark and with sound.

The Desert Botanical Garden is a familiar place to me. 

But this month started their new Chihuly exhibit.

And I had never been during Las Noches de las Luminarias.

There were lighted paths.

And the Chihuly glass sculptures appeared in brilliance in the night beside the luminarias. 

Several spots were home to live music that echoed throughout the garden.

Two weeks ago I walked the familiar paths in new light.

No wonder the Luminarias are a tradition for so many.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

She Is Her Own Fair Lady, Not His

From time to time, you'll hear me mention how I watched Pygmalion back in 2008 and grew positively obsessed with the play and the performance. I suppose I had a bit of a literary crush in Henry Higgins: the actor portraying him gave him that charming, infectious energy that made him more into a lovable madman than a disgruntled and egotistical and rude bachelor-scholar. A lot pends on how his character is played--and on the overall structure of each particular version of the play.

I don't believe I had ever watched the entirety of the musical version, My Fair Lady, until last week when the touring production was at ASU Gammage. I normally see a lot of plays and shows, but not at Gammage. I've only seen on there, and that was several years ago. But my "maybe" to see this one turned into a quick yes because it's a story I have so much history of enjoying.

I had mistakenly believed that the difference between the play and the musical was that Higgins and Eliza do end up together in the musical, even though they don't in the play. I guess I got that impression from the greater emphasis on love story type songs in the soundtrack. So I was a little surprised that that was not the case--and that there was in fact less chemistry between the two characters in this production than in the play I had watched before. In a way, that was a little disappointing given how fun their banter can be. And I prefer Higgins to be a lovable madman than just a grouch. 

But the musical made its own exploration of Eliza herself. The shift was a deeper emphasis on her perspective. She asserts herself as a woman secure in her own identity, despite society's (and individual people's) impressions or ideas of her. She moves between classes, yes, but she is still Eliza. Henry didn't give her that--just as he cannot take it away from her when he continues to disrespect her even after she has done everything she can to please him. Eliza has always been secure in herself. She used to hold her own against her father: she kept money to herself instead of giving it all to him. So Higgins is no different: she gives him what she chooses to give him but she doesn't give him charge over her dignity or identity. 

This is why we have the famous quote: "I sold flowers. I didn't sell myself." Eliza tires of Henry's game of changing class based on speech. She learns to speak well and so can pass as upper class and go places she couldn't have gone before when her words exposed her low social standing. But it all means nothing. She doesn't want to play a farce; she wants to be herself. She doesn't want to be seen as what role she can play; she wants to be seen as herself. So she doesn't want Higgins to see her as his successful language project; she wants him to see her as a person who has worked hard for him. And because he cannot, she leaves. 

Like I said, I did miss the emphasis on playful banter from the play. But the musical gave a great exploration of identity and one person's self-assertion of identity. Given that identity has been a main topic of focus in my life right now, this was a welcome theme to explore. And of course I'll not say no to good singing and wonderful sets. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Christmas Trains

Normally a winter drive by Scottsdale Road and Indian Bend draws your attention to the light-wrapped trees at the McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park. It's the time when a long stop at the intersection is actually welcome because it gives you a chance to turn your head and enjoy the lights.

This year I decided to actually visit the park for their Holiday Lights. I've never even been to the railroad park during the day; it was time to satisfy my curiosity. Tickets are $15 for the lights and $10 on certain weekdays. So it's definitely a lower priced, less hassle option compared with some of the other Christmas events in town. 

The park appeals strongly to the toddler crowd. So admission to the lights includes rides on the train and carousel and pictures with Santa, in addition to the model railroad building. But Christmas is the perfect time to experience fun and play no matter your age (except for the Santa pictures--I didn't go see Santa).

Their train will take you first through those lit trees--but then it goes off to the side where there is a generous collection of Christmas light displays. In fact, it was more than I had expected. There were penguins and leaping reindeer and candy houses and camping bears and holiday saguaros. Along, of course, with the light tunnels you'll tend to see in their promo pictures. 

Though short, the train ride alone was fun, even without children, though of course it'll be an even bigger hit for families. And don't pass up on the carousel; carousels are classic. 

Depending on your interest in trains, the model railroad building could take up a lot of time or none. Either way, it somehow seems more special at night with all the lights glowing outside. There are a few holiday photo ops, too. For the playing. After all, playing is all what a Christmas railroad park should be all about. 

Friday, December 3, 2021

Alter Eco: Hazelnut Butter Bombs

Sometimes we experience disappointments. Such, unfortunately, is one of Alter Eco's newer products, their Hazelnut Butter Bombs. When I first heard of these, I couldn't wait until they showed up in my usual grocery store. I do enjoy hazelnut and chocolate (not Nutella--Nutella is just oil). But now that I have them, well, I could do better without them. Let me elaborate because perhaps you will feel differently.

The bag contains nine individually wrapped chocolates. Below the rainforest greenery is a combination of blue and purple that, when carried onto the wrappers, gives a spacey look. (Or maybe I'm just thinking too much sci-fi these days now that I renewed Netflix so I can watch Stargate.) Really, don't they look like little round globes?

Colors aside, both the wrapper and the shape, though, aren't exactly new. This is the same concept as with Alter Eco's truffles, except that there is hazelnut butter inside. (There is also an Almond Butter version.) Not to many visual surprises with the filling: it's pale tan. There is perhaps a slight hazelnut aroma to it. The surprises come on tasting.

Okay, surprises is probably too strong of a word. The gist of it is that this isn't quite the effect I had anticipated. While normally Alter Eco's truffles have such a winning texture (for grocery store truffles) because of the coconut oil, here it is the texture that is off. Here there is an element (I think in the chocolate) that is too silky and slippery, as well as an overly buttery element in the filling. The filling also tastes too buttery, without having the sweetness of sugar to balance it out. (There is sugar added to the chocolates, but apparently not much.) And then you get a slight bitter twinge from the chocolate that doesn't go along with the butteriness. There is hazelnut flavor but not much; it gets lost.

So the texture is wrong as well as the flavor. I thought I might be exaggerating the slight bitter twinge of the chocolate until I saw the tiny print on the back that says that the shell is 80% dark chocolate. Now, 80% on its own is fine; I often enjoy that percentage more than the more common 70%. I'm just saying that it felt a tad too dark for this context. If the hazelnut filling gave more richness rather than butteriness, maybe darker chocolate would make sense. On the opposite side, if the filling were a tad sweeter and the dark chocolate a tad lighter, then things might feel more cohesive. Whether we're going for rich and dark or for sweet and nostalgic, pick a side.

Besides sugar, other ingredients in here are agave fiber and butterfat, as well as coconut oil of course. No wonder there is so much slippery texture and buttery flavor. If they weren't going to add more sugar (I can't believe I'm asking for more sugar), some salt could have done wonders. Because of Reese's Cups, Americans already have an association between peanut/nut butters and salt. But these are marketed as being Keto--does Keto have anything against salt? I frankly have no idea. 

Back to the chocolate. I know I mentioned it seemed darker than expected. But remember that I also said it felt like it added to the slippery texture element. So my question is, is the chocolate the one with the coconut oil in it? If so, it's smart from a manufacturer's standpoint: you can use less chocolate that way and also portray a silky texture that people less picky than I am might even appreciate. But I feel like I can taste the coconut this time, whereas I usually don't notice it in Alter Eco's truffles. 

So I'm obviously not satisfied. Both the texture and flavor are off for me. However. Let's get back to that Keto thing. I've been seeing a lot of companies making chocolate energy ball type products these days. They'll stuff them with random "healthy" ingredients and market those ingredients or their health benefits. So more than reminding me of truffles or chocolate candies, these butter bombs remind me of such chocolate energy balls. That is, someone might buy them because they need something that will fit into specific dietary desires rather than something that simply tastes great. They taste fine; they're not detestable. I just don't particularly like them and would gladly give away the rest of the bag. So if I really needed a nut butter chocolate and this was somehow the only product that fit within certain restrictions, I'd be okay with them. I'm just not sure what those restrictions are. I would think there are other products on the market already that would fit the same restrictions and yet would be more palate-pleasing. But again, I don't know the details on Keto or plenty of other diets. So if something about the ingredients makes these appealing to you, they're worth a try. Otherwise, I'd recommend passing them up.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

From Thanksgiving to Adoration

Decorating for Christmas is generally a day after Thanksgiving thing for me. But there can be variation in how the week is going. This year, for instance, I did the Christmas switch on Thursday night after the turkeys were all put away (including the cooked one). I took away the metal pumpkin sign on my wreath proclaiming "Give thanks for this day" and replaced it with another sign exclaiming "O come let us adore Him."

I tried to wait until it was late enough that anyone passing by would have already had Thanksgiving dinner. I don't mind lights going up a little early, but I didn't want to take away the Thanksgiving sign too soon. But as I replaced the sign of thanks with the sign of adoring, well, that didn't feel like a quick change between holidays. It felt like one holiday preparing our hearts for the next.

Besides the fact that I simply like turkeys, I also greatly appreciate Thanksgiving as a holiday because it is intended to be about giving thanks. There is such importance in being grateful and expressing our thankfulness for what we have been given--even life itself. And being in that state of thankfulness is the perfect place to begin looking to the birth of Jesus. 

We express our gratitude and we adore our God who came to save. This is why, more and more, Christmas isn't just about one day to me--it's about the holiday season. It's a time for reflection of the past year and the coming year; it's a time to remember blessings and refocus on what is important despite whatever struggles we have had. On this December 1st, I'm celebrating through it all.