Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Olivespa: Chocolate Mint Lip Balm

Tucked away by a corner at Kierland Commons in Scottsdale is Queen Creek Olive Mill, where you will find not just olive oil but also various other olive products and a few miscellaneous other culinary items, like jellies and honey. You will also find the Olivespa section, filled with products made here in Arizona at the Queen Creek Olive Mill location itself. 

The product I have an excuse to talk about is the Chocolate Mint Lip Balm. It sits along with other scents like Vanilla Bean, Lavender, and Orange Blossom. (There is also an Unscented option.) The white case is slightly flattened instead of being completely round, so it won't roll away when you set it on a desk or table. The colors of the labels vary depending on the scent, but each one is still fairly soft in coloration and simple in its use of lavender or, in this case, cocoa pod icons. It all hits that balance between handmade and elegant. 

I've used various handmade or small batch type lip balms over the years and I've used olive soap, but I've never used a lip balm that highlights olive oil the way this one does. The balm is the color of olive oil, not tinted light brown like some chocolate balms are. The chocolate element comes in from "natural cocoa oil and flavors," which has some room for interpretation. Other ingredients are olive oil, beeswax, coconut oil, shea butter, red raspberry seed oil, and peppermint oil. The olive oil being the primary ingredient is what's different from other balms I've tried. And it definitely makes a difference.

The first time I tried this balm, I could taste the olive oil right away--which felt different for a lip balm and also not entirely in line with the chocolate mint. After that, though, I hardly ever seem to notice it. What I do notice, though, is that this balm is much more moisturizing than others and also longer-lasting. It reminds me, more than anything else, of the agave lip balm that Bite Beauty used to make before they, essentially, went out of business. And that lip balm was the best.

Chocolate is tricky when it comes to products like this. You can't really add pure, real chocolate flavor/scent to a balm--at least, I haven't seen it done. The Chocolate Lip Balm that I tried from Eldora Chocolate a couple years ago was even labeled as unscented rather than add faux flavor. The chocolate here is okay; it's miles better than a chocolate balm from Lip Smacker would be. But it still gives off a little of that faux feeling; it just doesn't quite match the taste of real chocolate. It goes well with the mint, though; the mint flavor is fine, given that it can come directly from peppermint oil. 

There might be some irony in the fact that the chocolate element was my excuse to buy and talk about this product--yet I'm coming out saying that I really like the product, just not the chocolate part. That is, if you don't mind this type of chocolate scent, go for it. For myself, I probably won't be buying the Chocolate Mint again. But I may have found my new go-to for lip balm, just in perhaps the Lavender or Vanilla Bean or Herbal Infusion instead. 

Saturday, March 18, 2023

The Fantasy of The Magic Flute

What caught my attention and began my journey of dabbling in as a casual opera-viewer a few years ago was the emotional intensity of the art form. It's exciting. It's pure emotion in the form of sound. And that's genuine escapism as a viewer/hearer sitting in the theatre. So when I came across the trailer for a film entitled The Magic Flute that appeared to be a fantasy storm about entering into the Mozart opera of the same name, I just had to see it.

While the theatrical run was so limited that it appears to already be over after a week, I am glad I got to see it in theatres because there you have the benefit of theatrical sound quality for all of that Mozart music. Going off of reviews, it seems that people knowledgeable in music and opera did not find this film notable for its singing talent--but it isn't an opera as a film. It's a fantasy story that happens to have an opera as its fantasy world. And I love that concept.

It's like Narnia, in the sense of the fantasy world. The lead character, Tim, is a teenager whose father has just died and who has just started at a prestigious music school. He wants to do well but finds that he is lacking something. And what he finds is a portal in the school into The Magic Flute, where he is the opera's protagonist. In his journey to escape into the fantasy of the opera, he finds the tug back to the real world--as the plot thickens in the fantasy, he finds that he is also missing out on more from the real world by trying to get back to the fantasy. So the way that he "wins" inside the fantasy is by pulling in from his experiences in the real world. It's a classic concept of finding out how much the real world matters by finding mirrors for it within fantasy. And also a return to that concept of art theory, of remembering that the sharing of emotional experience is part of the core of art--so if you lose the emotion, which is rooted in real world experience, then you are also losing the very point of cultivating art.

Perhaps the frame story of the real world was imperfect. We bounce from Tim's dying father to his new female friend/crush, to his school roommate who is dealing with the aftermath of his own loss--and the layer of their themes basically fits but could use some refining. Though the mirror of these elements with those of the opera isn't perfect, I don't necessarily mind. Though perhaps most theatergoers won't connect with the extended length of some of the opera sequences, I didn't mind. Maybe some of the pacing, the back-and-forthing between the two worlds, could have been tweaked a bit, but I still really enjoyed this movie.

I probably would have enjoyed it for the mere fact that you get to see the main character singing his dramatic song while a giant snake is attacking him. That was wonderful. It brought back echoes of Black Swan. I didn't like everything about that movie's content, but I really enjoyed the way that it emphasized the edgy emotional quality of the ballet music. The same type of thing went on in this movie--just through the filter of a YA fantasy school story instead of a psychological thriller. Mozart's music could make up the score and bring in its full emotional weight reinterpreted for a new era of CG monsters and castles. I loved that this movie just went for it and did something completely fresh, though still based on familiar tropes. I wish it had been marketed more; I barely had a chance to know that it existed and barely was able to catch it in the theatre, so it didn't have much chance to introduce new audiences to opera. I'd love to see more content like this, in the sense of reworking classics into new formats and playing around with them. 

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Ritual Chocolate: Lover's Leap Bar

The chocolate and tea makers of the world have heard my cries. Where before I asked for more rose products, now I am finding them often. Rose coffee. Rose tea. Rose chocolate. And rose tea chocolate, as in today's Lover's Leap Bar from Ritual Chocolate. This is a limited edition flavor, a 70% dark chocolate made with Lover's Leap black tea from Smith Teamaker. Along with the black tea, the blend also includes rose petals, chamomile petals, black currant natural flavor, and bergamot oil. That just sounds like my own personal tea blend right there.

The pink flavor label contrasts nicely with the black card box for that classy, feminine color combination. The box unfolds in the usual, unique way that Ritual Chocolate has, with the little fold tab on top and the two wings on the sides. Beneath the brown paper wrapper is also the same geometric-yet-also-frilly design to match the outside. I sniffed the chocolate curiously but found only semisweet chocolate aroma with perhaps a faint orange/citrus/bergamot or maybe even rose note.

After taking a second to get settled in, the chocolate released a definite rose flavor--though the flavor was accompanied by a distracting, slightly dusty texture. The rose is strong enough to be noticeable but not too strong as to overpower. The bergamot I'll call more of an accompaniment; it isn't necessarily noticeable on its own, but its lack would be. Mainly what the bergamot seems to do is to simultaneously help make the rose stand out and to keep the rose from being cloying. It adds gentleness while also sharpening the flavor. Somehow the two elements put together are reminiscent of the jellied side of things, whether rose jelly and marmalade or rose and orange candies dipped in chocolate. Perhaps it's partly due to that connotation of chocolate-dipped Turkish delight or candied orange peel. 

I admit that I literally forgot about the black tea until my first bite had just melted. Which means that I don't notice the tea at all--unless it is the one responsible for that distracting texture element. But I don't believe that's the case: the chocolate doesn't seem to have any tea leaves or any other ingredients within it. This seems to be more of a case in which the tea was infused into the chocolate, rather than simply sprinkled on top or mixed in. The black tea, flavor-wise, may be lurking within the darker side of the chocolate. There is a certain edge to the chocolate that might well be enhanced by the tea. 

By my second bite, I was getting more of a sense of bergamot along with the rose and also more of a general floral feeling, like walking through a garden. There is a pleasant, lingering rose aftertaste. The dark chocolate makes for the perfect base, a neutral canvas to steady out and balance the girly flavors and keep it all from being sweet. Rose tends to be assembled as a sweeter flavor; this approach, while feeling completely natural, is also a little more unique. It's a perfect blending of soft and bold flavor. My greediness asks for more like this, please. More rose, please. Rose coffee and rose tea and rose chocolate and rose tea chocolate. More, please. 

Saturday, March 11, 2023

The Newly Inspired Sound of Music

Arizona Opera often looks at ways to widen the audience or broaden the definition of opera. The latest example is their production of The Sound of Music, directed by Ian Silverman and starring Cadie J. Bryan as Maria and Jonathan Bryan as Captain Von Trapp. So how does a musical look as performed by an opera company?

Quite beautiful, it turns out. It's already a pleasure to hear live music and singing--and having this put together by an opera company means that the singers have different backgrounds than those you'll find at a typical musical. They add that extra, luxuriant quality to their singing. So the emphasis becomes even more on the singing than normal--or perhaps more on the technical delivery than just on the general tone of the songs.

Not that we lost the tone or the story. I've only watched The Sound of Music once, so it was a delight to delve back into the story. The themes around Maria's character center so perfectly around the idea that we each have a role in life, even if we don't always know what that role is. We see her trying to fit into a place that doesn't quite work--so the nuns offer her a different way to serve God and Man, as a teacher and then a wife and mother. Doing the right thing can take many shapes; it takes all of us, all of our shapes, to make the world turn. And Maria's very delight in the world and in life and in singing and joy that didn't make her fit in well at the convent are the very things that make her thrive in the Von Trapp household.

I have little to say on the technical sides of this production. The sets were beautiful, as usual; the way that the mountains were lit for day or darkened for evening was lovely. Having so many children on stage, all singing along, was impressive. But really it was just the way that everything expressed the story of this family coming together that made this opera's production of a musical just as elevated an experience as one of their operas. I wouldn't mind seeing more musicals show up in the season occasionally. 

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Stone Grindz: Wild Raspberry Jam

While Stone Grindz makes excellent plain dark chocolate, I've also found that their flavored chocolates are generally incredible--and uniquely so. They're always coming out with small batches of different flavors, and the one I'm looking at today is one I've been hanging onto for a while. It's the Wild Raspberry Jam. And it is, yes, incredible. 

Packaging is according to the usual Stone Grindz look. When the seasonal flavors are in card boxes, a sticker label has the info for the individual flavor, so that the same packaging can be used for all the different flavors they can come up with. You'll note that, besides the standard sugar and vanilla, the only non-cocoa ingredient is freeze-dried wild raspberries. Nothing sounds too unusual at this point.

But once you put one of those little alpaca-bedecked chocolate squares into your mouth, the magic begins. We know the whole fireworks exploding metaphor--but it isn't an exaggeration in this case. The cool, rich dark chocolate (which is on the "sweeter" side at 60% cocoa) barely has a chance to begin expressing itself before your taste buds are embraced by fresh berry jam flavor. While you are intoxicated by the berries, the chocolate's flavors weaves within it all like the two are enjoying an embrace. Past the halfway point, you might get a hint of tang that could be either trace cocoa bitterness or berry tartness: the two are so blended together that the idea of either or feels one and the same. But it's just a hint: otherwise, this is a mellow and soft and smooth chocolate, in terms of chocolate darkness.

It's also just the right level of sweet. This is not a cocoa content (60%) that generally works well. Usually it ends up being too sweet or not quite right, with the chocolate developed enough. But here, it's just right to add a touch of sugar to the berries but not enough to take away the chocolate's qualities. I'm still getting myself accustomed to eating most berries--and raspberry jelly/jam is probably the last berry jelly I would reach for. But if I could spread this chocolate bar on a piece of bread, well, that would be another story. Just the thought makes me imagine I taste cream in the chocolate, like it's part of a cream-and-jellied scone at afternoon tea. 

I've had freeze-dried berries in chocolate bars before. But not like this. This tastes more like the flavor of a berry truffle, especially when paired with the soft smoothness of the Stone Grindz chocolate. While you may not happen on this particular flavor again, I do recommend any other similar flavors you might come across. Like I said, they're always trying out new ones. And this one turned out to be one of my favorites. 

Thursday, March 2, 2023

C.S. Lewis and the Quest for Truth

C.S. Lewis wrote about his early work, The Pilgrim's Regress, to express his dissatisfaction with it. If the author himself didn't think he was successful, then how do you approach it as a reader? Naturally, I expected imperfection; but I still thought it would be an interesting read, one piece in the collective body of Lewis's work. I was quite pleased then to find it a better read than expected. 

Granted, one of Lewis's critiques of the book was that he felt like it wasn't easy to understand all the references simply from the text itself. And that is true. I did need the headers on each page to help me follow along with the symbols--but when I read The Pilgrim's Progress two years ago, my copy was simply crawling with footnotes and endnotes. True, it's some centuries older than Lewis's book, but my point is that, even with a text that needs no notes when it is new, it will quickly need them as the years go by. Besides this, I also knew that I was following along with the text fairly easily because I'm pretty familiar with Lewis's writing. I've read most of his non-fiction and fiction alike, and he kind of has his favorite topics that he likes to revisit and keep exploring. It was fascinating to see those same concepts at play in this book, before he wrote Narnia or The Space Trilogy or his non-fiction. But, of course, I can see how a reader would be at a disadvantage trying to read The Pilgrim's Regress without having read his later works.

All of that aside, this is a genuinely good book. Sure, it may need a little explaining or notes or previous familiarity with Lewis, but it's a wonderful look at a man's intellectual pursuit of Truth. He wanders and pokes into all the wrong places and keeps finding himself dissatisfied until he finally starts looking into the right places and finally starts reaching clarity. When he embraces the Truth, the world looks completely different. He goes back to where he started and it's all completely changed because his perspective has completely changed (which is like a predecessor of thought to Till We Have Faces or the dwarves in The Last Battle who think they are still in a dark barn--but we could go on all day about "references" like that). 

As I was finishing up this book, the movie Jesus Revolution came out--and what an overlap there is between the two. Lewis's other criticism of his own book was that it was too obscure. He believed that he came to realize the Truth of Christianity in an uncommon way, and so therefore his description of his process of exploring different lines of thought and philosophy until finally accepting this one was not one with which many people can relate. Now that may be true. But I was struck by how similar the coming to faith in this movie was to what Lewis describes.

The film covers the early days of Calvary Chapel and how Chuck Smith came face to face with the hippie generation. At first, he doesn't understand them and has no thought of trying to reach them. But through people he meets, he comes to realize that the hippies are just young people searching for the Truth in all the wrong places. As they're introduced to the gospel, they embrace it by the thousands. While C.S. Lewis was never out doing drugs to have a spiritual experience or protesting on the streets, he was sitting philosophizing about life. He even dabbled in the occult. He was aware from the start that there was some sort of meaning to life--and he kept pondering it until he finally had to admit that he knew that there was a God and then eventually came to accept Jesus, too. Is that so unlike the hippie generation's quest and the eventual realization by people like Greg Laurie that Jesus wasn't just another high but the ultimate Truth?

Greg's baptism scene in the movie is also reminiscent of the ones Lewis writes. He writes a great scene in The Pilgrim's Regress about having to dive right in and pass through death--like how Greg feels like he (that is, the "old man") is sinking away into the water only to break through the surface to new life. Lewis also writes that wonderful baptism analogy in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader when Aslan turns dragon Eustace back into a boy. Maybe I just haven't watched a lot of baptism scenes in movies, but this one really carried the symbolic weight of the act--in a way that matches how Lewis describes it.

Lewis's book focuses on the self's realization. The film, though, focuses more on how, after we've had our individual realizations, we can spread what we've found to others. By a few people being willing to get to know and talk to and love the young generation, whole waves of change begin; they allow themselves to be used by God to enact these changes in people's lives. And that's the convicting part. I consider this primarily a movie by Christians for Christians. Maybe it'll reach some non-Christians. But what I primarily consider its goal is to wake those of us up who already say we've found the Truth. If the hippie generation felt so unreachable and people let God use them to reach them, then the same can be done today. Even though the searching may look a little different for different generations, we're all born searching--we just need a few people willing to act as signposts to point us in the right direction. 

Monday, February 27, 2023

Alter Eco: Mint Creme Truffle Thins

Last week, we took a look at the Silk Velvet and Classic Dark Truffle Thins from Alter Eco. Now it's time for what is perhaps the more exciting of the Truffle Thins line, the Mint Creme variety. The obvious product comparison here is Andes Mints. Ingredients-wise, Andes Mints contain artificial flavors and colors, in addition to the palm oil (versus the coconut oil that Alter Eco uses). So even if you don't consider coconut oil enough of a step up from palm oil, there is a definite step up in not having those artificial ingredients. Everything with Alter Eco is also organic and in theory the cocoa is fair trade. 

As soon as you open the foil seal, the peppermint oil aroma breaks free. Like with the other Truffle Thins, Mint Creme is also a regular truffle from Alter Eco. So it's the same concept here as with the truffles, just smashed into a chocolate bar instead of a sphere. We have the same white filling, just in a thinner layer. The result, once more, is that you can taste much more of the chocolate. If we're making the comparison to Andes Mints, the basic effect is the same, just much purer and more chocolatey. This is true dark chocolate here. While it isn't strong or deeply dark, it does have simple dark flavor that isn't overpowered by the peppermint oil. If you enjoy tasting the chocolate, that alone makes this a superior product.

The mint is still strong, of course, as mint is. You also get some sweetness from the sugar and milk and added cocoa butter, giving it that sweet indulgence feel. All of the different flavors, particularly the two elements of mint and chocolate, are well-balanced. It's been a while since I had a Mint Creme Truffle, but I do believe I prefer the proportions here. Of course, though, I'm sure that will vary depending on the person. 

Because of its familiarity, this is a super straightforward product. But it's enjoyable. Though I have little specific to say about it, I do call it a success. 

Friday, February 24, 2023

One Hundred Years of Solitude of Living

While definitions tend to be hazy on what exactly magical realism is, the general idea of it has fascinated me for a long time. That idea of having non-real-world elements take place within a story as if there were nothing odd about them--often of having emotions become concrete, physical parts of the story. So, of course, I was long overdue to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. The very ways in which this book defies definition are the ways in which it acts as a definition of magical realism.

I knew this book would be . . . different. But I don't think I knew how different until I actually got started in it. It definitely has some odd content, like some close relatives lusting after each other. But even content like that that's usually a turn-off I didn't mind so much because I was just really enjoying the writing style. And this is reading the book translated into English. It has to have such a powerful original way that it was written in order for that uniqueness to come across in translation (and it's also praise to the translator, Gregory Rabassa). 

I realize that not everyone will enjoy this writing style of which I speak. It's long-winded and colorful and rambling. Long sentences stack up into paragraphs that are pages long. One side note becomes a whole extended side story with vivid details. One character's emotion literally blossoms into flora and fauna. Butterflies start flying around the house when one character falls for a certain guy. Ants start to take over the house as the family is deteriorating. The livestock are extra productive when the one guy keeps a relationship with his mistress. One character lives off of eating dirt. Another preserves dead bodies by keeping mercury in the room. It's all past random--and yet it's cohesive at the same time. The "non-real-world elements" make sense within the emotional context. They're not just random; they go along with the story (which I believe is the difference between magical realism and surrealism, after all). So as long as you as the reader can go along with it all, it's a fascinating read.

Notice that I say that a certain character does this or that--instead of naming the character. If you thought it was difficult to keep characters straight in Wuthering Heights where there are only a couple generations and only a few characters who share the same name, this is a whole other level. One hundred years from the title is literal: we see generations pass for the Buendia family. And they all keep naming their children the same three names. The best advice truly is to not even try to keep track of who is who. Just keep reading. As long as you follow along with each side story, that's enough. I only referred to the genealogical chart a couple times. You only need to keep more detailed clarity if you're doing an analysis of the book. Just for a casual first read, you can just take it all as it comes.

There are plenty of specific themes that you could get into if you were studying this book. There's plenty of content about the political situations in the country. There are musing about life and death. About industrialization. About age. About family. But the most basic concept that you will find within it all is the passage of time and life. People are born, they grow up, they have life-changing experiences, they die, they are remembered for a time, and then they are forgotten. Life becomes a swirling wheel of repetition. It repeats because what came before is no longer remembered. It's a fascinating portrayal. And I so appreciate that writing style of vivid, emotional, metaphorical detail. It's refreshing to read something so unique. What's the fun of reading a million books that are all the same?

Monday, February 20, 2023

Alter Eco: Truffle Thins -- Silk Velvet and Classic Dark

When taking a look at the Peppermint Creme Truffles from Alter Eco this past December, I mentioned my excitement to try their new Truffle Thins chocolate bars. The comparison for the mint version will, of course, be to Andes Mints--but those will come next. First we're taking a look at the plain versions, the Silk Velvet and the Classic Dark, which correspond to existing Alter Eco truffles.

The basic concept is the same as with their truffles: coconut oil is used in place of fresh cream so that the chocolates can have a long shelf life in order to be on grocery store shelves. You may want to note that both of these chocolates do still have milk in them, so the purpose of the coconut oil isn't to make them non-dairy. The difference in having the ganache as a layer inside of squares of chocolate versus inside truffle-sized spheres is significant. 

You get more chocolate this way and less ganache. This is preferable to hide the ultra smooth texture. What do you mean hide the smooth texture, you ask? I realize that coconut oil is a preferable oil to use than others--but is still gives a slightly different texture than cream does. So when you have a smaller proportion and thickness of the ganache, you're going to notice that texture difference less, if at all. If you really enjoy that extra smoothness, that might be a downside. But if you prefer having more chocolate, then this format may be your preference. Generally, a rounder texture feels smoother and more luxurious because it has to melt in your mouth more. (Think about the difference eating a Hershey's Kiss versus a square of a Hershey's bar.) So the overall feel of the Truffle Thins versus the truffles is a little darker--with the ganache as an element rather than the main focus.

The Classic Dark is described as dark chocolate with a chocolate creme filling, whereas the Silk Velvet is supposed to be a blend of milk and dark chocolate--I believe it's still just dark chocolate on the outside, but with a milk creme filling. Both fillings still contain whole milk. There is a subtle difference, though perhaps not the one you would expect. I find I prefer the Classic Dark because it feels more, well, classic and straightforward. Whereas the Silk Velvet, though somewhat milkier, feels somehow darker, as well. It does have more of a contrast between the idea of milk chocolate and dark chocolate. 

While perhaps I should be advocating to eat more plain chocolate versus chocolate with added ingredients, like the coconut oil here, I do really like the idea of these chocolate bars. It would be nice to see them in a smaller size, as well--sort of a more candy bar like style. They're an everyday indulgence type of chocolate. I'd much rather reach for Alter Eco cocoa than many other brands--and the coconut oil is the "worst" ingredient. As a halfway place between a chocolate bar and a truffle, this is a satisfyingly indulgent product. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Giselle: Ethereal in Tragedy or Beauty?

Nothing stirs soothing feelings of tragedy so much as a live stage production. Ballet Arizona's Giselle promised just such a pleasing concoction of ethereal sorrow with its description of a scorned almost bride who returns to haunt her lover in the graveyard. But I'm left wondering whether the ballet entirely met my Gothic expectations.

First, though, a note on the venue. This was the first time I had attended the Madison Center for the Arts, so I was curious about the venue itself, in addition to the ballet. There is benefit to being off of the 51 and away from busy downtown, especially on Super Bowl weekend. It's also a plus that the center has its own free parking; parking is always something to factor in when planning to go to Symphony Hall or another downtown venue. No worries about safety, either, especially if you're going alone, as I often do. This venue is much smaller than Symphony Hall, and so also has quite a small lobby. The design is simple but elegant enough for the more well-dressed ballet crowd. 

Seating is all on one level; while the rows are tiered, it isn't by much. At Symphony Hall, there are a few seats that can get even those of us shorter folks with lower sight-lines a clear view--but there didn't seem to be much avoiding all the heads in the way, unless you are all the way in the front rows. This may seem like nitpicking, but it really is an annoyance when you can't see the dancers' feet in a ballet--and when your view often cuts off at their waists. (I realize that I took a last minute, less-than-perfect seat. But being a few rows in wouldn't have made much difference.) Add to this the fact that the music was played from speakers instead of by a live orchestra and, well, I'm not sure that this venue is good enough for Ballet Arizona (especially at normal pricing).

Venue comments aside, what I most enjoyed about this production was the set design. Act I opened with a Snow White scene: physical, peasant cottage in the foreground and dreamy, royal castle in the background. Absolutely exquisite. And the pastoral setting perfectly conveys that feeling of innocence that we have in Giselle's early moments, when she believes in the love of Loys/Albrecht. Equally stunning was the cemetery backdrop for Act II, in which the moon glows with that ethereal beauty for which we were all hoping. 

What was odd to me was that, without reading the synopsis, I don't think I would have at all realized what was going on in the cemetery. That in itself isn't entirely odd: it's because you need a synopsis that one is included in the program when you go see a ballet. But what I mean is that I wouldn't have understood not just the plot but also the emotions of the scenes. The Willis are supposed to be these "malevolent spirits" set on bringing the male characters to their deaths--but when they're all dancing together, it just looks pretty. I don't feel the characters' fear. There is a little darkness when the set of spirits come out with their wedding veils on; it's reminiscent of the bride in Disneyland's Haunted Mansion. But I was expecting more of a push-pull type of dance when it came to their interaction with Hilarion and Albrecht. Something more deeply disturbing like what you get in Swan Lake (although perhaps I didn't feel like I got that because Giselle isn't quite as famous as Swan Lake and Swan Lake is famous for good reason). Still, it had its moments. The pretty music had its moments of becoming achingly tragic. I do love the achingly tragic. 

So while I had mixed feelings about this ballet, ultimately I'm left with images of the gorgeous sets and the emotional expression it all conveyed. And perhaps that was the ethereal that I craved to find. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

The Moon Rises over the Desert

We are accustomed to the moon waxing and waning. Now is your chance to see it; now it is hidden. Of a similar nature is the latest exhibit at the Desert Botanical Garden. Museum of the Moon by Luke Jerram is only here for one week, starting today. The garden is open a little later to give visitors more of a chance to see it at night (though I'd imagine it's also a daytime novelty). 

You'll first catch a glimpse of the giant, 23-foot diameter moon while driving to the parking lot. The moon's surface is taken from NASA imagery and it is lit from within, so it truly does look like a giant moon. Your mind does a little excited double-take because it looks real except that you know the size is too big to be real. 

Though you can get up close to the moon in the Desert Terrace area, you can also play a bit of hide and seek from the surrounding areas. Off to the side, halfway towards the Wildflower trail. Or from the Desert Portal, to see the moon peaking out from behind the plants. The view is nice and clear from the Herb Garden. It's almost more fun to see the moon from these areas because it plays with your sense of reality a bit.

But the main viewing area is right next to or even under the moon itself. There are a few seats and beanbag-like-cushions to sit or lounge on while looking at the moon. It truly is huge, so the encouragement to take your time looking at it is welcome. Lying directly under it gave me more awe about having something so big perched above my head and not falling on me than awe about the moon's beauty: this was a little too close, close enough that I could see the fakeness of the printed photos on the surface. But walking around the moon and viewing all of its sides is fun: we usually don't get to check out all the angles of the moon.

The accompanying soundtrack by Dan Jones is quiet--or at least it was when I was there. I much prefer this more subtle approach to sound. I think everyone else did, too. That is, people seemed to be enjoying lounging, taking a few pictures but mainly just sitting and contemplating and quietly talking. There were also telescopes on this night to look at some real views in space. There is a whole schedule of events for the week, with music and yoga and crafts and photography.

The setup is like a modern art installation--but it has "museum" in the title and is more about photorealism than art, so I enjoyed it in a casual way, a way I don't generally enjoy modern art. But because I found myself enjoying looking at this moon for its realism, I wondered why I was going to a real live, natural garden in order to look at a fake moon. (And I realize that this is a traveling exhibit that will be in many different places, probably not all botanical gardens.) Maybe the answer came with sitting around this group of people surrounding said fake moon.

While gazing up at this moon, we got to have the same type of feeling of awe that we get in looking at the real moon. The lighting in it was great. But because it was bigger and closer to us, we still got to look more closely at the details of all the craters on that familiar surface. We got the chance to study a little more. And in staring up at the fake moon, we got to see glimpses of the real, skimpy stars visible from inside the city. We had a shared appreciation for taking a moment to enjoy the idea of nature. 

And then, while driving home, I saw the real moon. It was golden, the color of glowing sunflower petals. And I asked myself again why I had just been staring at a fake moon when there is a real moon in the sky tonight. But you know, that might just be the answer, too. Of course Man's fake moon pales in comparison to the real moon. Man's creation can't match God's creation. But we do love to create just like our Creator did, don't we? We see the moon that gets us excited for reasons scientific and aesthetic, and we make our own version, and then in turn we are inspired to go back to that original source. If having a giant, fake moon travel around to different exhibits gets people to renew their awe for the real moon, then that's rather nice. I wouldn't go out of my way to see this exhibit, but if you fancy a garden visit this week, it makes a pretty complement to the naturescape. 

Saturday, January 28, 2023

An Opera as a Graphic Novel?

Remember 2020? Course you do. Remember how all the shows and events were cancelled? Remember how long it took to get them started up again? So, in that in-between time, companies tried out different things. Online streaming. Behind the scenes videos. Arizona Opera put together The Copper Queen, which came out in theaters in 2021. But filming an opera as a movie instead of producing it as a live show is still a visual medium with performers and sight and sound and song. It was different--but not altogether. Their other experimental project that came out of that time was even more different.

I'm referring to the graphic novel of Carmen, which was adapted by Alek Schrader, P. Craig Russel, and Aneke. A graphic novel is long in the making. I believe it was announced in December 2021 and the Kickstarter campaign began the following spring. Kickstarter can be a bit of a set-it-and-forget-it type of thing. Even though there were updates in the following months, I was still caught pleasantly by surprise to find the actual, physical graphic novel in my hands this week. 

One hardly knew what to expect from such a project. But it's quite a nice volume the team put together. It's big and hardcover (and printed in Canada). I haven't read many graphic novels, so I'm not the best judge of this. But it was easy to read and follow along with. The dialogue and action flowed. While the visuals were kept to a simple style, they still conveyed strong emotions--in the same dramatic way that emotion comes across when I'm watching an opera on stage. I also have never watched Carmen. Rather than taking that as a negative, though, it meant that I was able to see just how much I enjoyed the story in its own right and felt each emotional beat as I flipped the pages--even without having any previous knowledge of or connection with the story.

I left off hoping that I do get to see the opera in person sometime. The book was emotionally stirring, with plenty of action and drama. I enjoyed following the story and picturing the music. The bold color palette matches the bold plot and characters. 

The idea of a project like this seems like it's to get more people into opera who wouldn't normally be. But I wonder if it doesn't work the opposite way, in getting people who enjoy opera more into graphic novels. Someone who has never read a graphic novel before is probably more likely to read this book (because of the opera) than it is likely for someone who has never seen an opera (but is into graphic novels) to read it. I could be wrong about that. (And this conversation is also going along with the assumption that there are two different groups of people--those who watch operas and those who read graphic novels. But since they're both sort of niche things, I wonder if there isn't more crossover between the audiences than one would think. People who like one niche type of content tend to like many niche things.) But either way, crossover and artistic experimentation can be fun--and they really did do such a great job with this volume that it will be a satisfying read for whoever it is that comes across it. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Blue Stripes: Madagascar Vanilla Cacao Water

A few years ago, I wrote about the Cacao Juice from Repurposed Pod that I got at Black Butterfly over in Prescott. More recently, I picked up a bottle of Cacao Water from Blue Stripes Urban Cacao. I'm not entirely sure if this is a separate company or if it's just a newer name for the same company. Either way, Blue Stripes is definitely worth checking out. They like to focus on cacao as a superfood. As such, you will find not only plenty of cacao water on their website but also cacao fruit smoothie pouches and dried cacao. Dried cacao? I must needs check that out.

As I mentioned last time, the idea of cacao water or juice or whatever you want to call it is that a great deal of what's in a cocoa pod gets wasted in the production of chocolate. This makes me think of something Art Pollard of Amano Chocolate once said; he said that his favorite way to taste chocolate was as the cocoa beans surrounded by pulp, fresh from the pod. At the time, I never thought I would get the opportunity to taste such cocoa, as I'm not exactly planning any trips to a cocoa plantation anytime soon. (I have since found that you can guy cocoa pods online from specialty fruit importers--maybe someday I'll have a cocoa pod party.) But cacao water does get you just a step closer to looking at the whole pod, not just a processed product made out of its seeds (aka. chocolate). 

Most of my comments from before still hold for this product, except that this time I got Madagascar Vanilla. Other flavors are Mango and Chili Lime. Vanilla seemed like just a mild flavor element, which is why I started there, though the others probably go quite well, too. After all, remember, this is a tangy beverage. I likened the honey-colored liquid to a type of lemonade. So when you add vanilla to it, the effect isn't entirely unlike honey lemonade. Especially on the first couple of sips, your mind doesn't entirely know what to do with the flavors. Honey lemonade just seems like the most familiar thing to latch onto.

How do you describe it, besides to say that it is tangy? It isn't sweet, though the vanilla gives a hint of sweet flavor--and yet it is more sweet than some fruits. This is where the lychee comparison came in last time. Lychee also has that tangy almost sweet type of flavor. There is a thick and heavy aroma to the beverage this time that I don't remember noting last time--so I'm going to say that it comes mainly from the vanilla and not as much from the cacao. While, in theory, vanilla should make such a drink more palatable, I feel like I enjoyed the plain version more. It's been a few years, so I really can't say; I would have to do a side by side. It could be that last time was just when the whole idea was new to me, so I was very excited about the overall product. But I didn't feel like it was lacking in anything when it was plain. My recommendation at this point, then, would probably be to either get it plain or to try the Mango or the Chili Lime. 

But whatever flavor you settle on, the product is great. I like the idea of it, and I like the way it tastes. If it's a superfood beverage, well, it's a fun one. It doesn't taste anything like chocolate, if you hadn't realized that by this point. But it's a nice drink to keep on the refrigerator shelf between the coconut water and the açaí juice for days when you just want a little extra boost. 

Friday, January 20, 2023

Something Stirs in the Night

A rustle comes from deep in the dark of the desert. No, several rustles. Small and swift. Jackrabbits, maybe? The sound isn't right for a heavy javelina. Just turn to the side and take a look and see. There, in the light, a swarm of slippery critters, teeth gnashing in tandem. Perhaps their small size will be enough to keep you safe.

But oh, what's this? Something louder but just as quick. Maybe a slender, muscular mountain lion this time? Is that what haunts the hollows bellows the saguaros? But no, those cannot be raptors so fierce and so bold? Never have I heard of raptor desert-dwellers--unless they be the birds-of-prey type of raptors.

Just then a tearing, ripping noise enters in. Maybe accompanied by a snarl. Or was it a gurgle of pleasure? For just there, in the next patch of light, a feathered raptor dips into its moonlit dinner while its hungry friend approaches with hopes of communion. Let the unholy feast continue so long as the toothed mouths are filled with something other than you or me. Let's just try and keep moving, hope they haven't seen us, aye?

Alas, however, the last sound we hear is the loudest of them all. Surely no desert creature was ever so big as this. Two mountains of teeth and claw stand poised against each other, with the fell full moon between their jaws. Muscles ripple beneath scales and limbs stiffen in preparation for the conflict. Never was such a fight as this seen in the Sonoran--at least not for many years. If we were not so affrighted for our lives, perhaps we would be honored. Let's run now, shall we?

Pictures taken at Dinosaurs in the Desert at the Phoenix Zoo. 

Friday, January 13, 2023

To the New Year

New Years can be times for reassessing. Some years, I'm so excited to put together a new year's post about the perspective I want to keep to in the new year. But this year I've let half the month go by without posting anything at all. I think perhaps part of the reason is that I am too busy living to spend time chronicling the hopes--the hopes are here. I don't say, I hope for this or I hope for that. Instead, I say, I have this or am doing that. So I haven't been itching to post my thoughts--because I have been speaking them.

With that being said, however, I do have my new year's post here at long last. I think perhaps this year I'll reorganize my posting schedule. Years ago, I would post every other day. Then I switched to Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. By last year, I started just trying to get two posts out per week--and I stayed very flexible on that. So I think I will go with the two posts per week idea more fully now, keeping the flexibility but also planning for it a little more than I did this past fall/winter. I still need to rethink which days of the week might be best. 

As far as general themes for the year, I have been so focused on identity the last couple of years. I needed to reset and remind myself that my identity stems from God, from who he says I am. And I want to continue that, of course. But now I think I am shifting more towards living things out. I spoke in abstract terms, in the starting place, at the core or base. Now I think I am building out more. You put on your clothing in the morning--and then, all dressed as yourself, go out to face the day. I'm moving past the morning, past the bridge--I think 2023 might just be the new day. And in the new day, I want to remain thankful. Sometimes it's almost easier to cry out to God during the storm than to keep acknowledging him as the giver of every good thing in the bright, sunny day. 

So this year I think the theme this year is reverence toward God through every season. He is the guide through them all.