Phoenix plant life: weird, but real

In the East, the plants are well-behaved, leafy, green and they follow the calendar in their growth. In the desert Southwest plants grab whatever moisture they can when it’s there, bloom, spread their well-protected hard-cased seeds through wind, hooks, or by serving as food, and then the next time it rains, the cycle repeats. To make it work, plants put out big, bright flowers on tall stems, or a flower that has lots of opportunity for birds and butterflies.

agave in bloomI have no idea what this is, but it’s doing its best to be around for a few more years.

Addition on May 1, 2008:  It’s an octopus agave. After about 20 years of life, the agave sends up a stem, blossoms wildly (the yellow part is actually thousands of small blossoms) then dies.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach who is amazed at how busy nature is in the desert Southwest. See her work at QuinnCreative.com Photo and words (c) Quinn McDonald 2008. All rights reserved.

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Target Chocolate Taste-Test

Chocolate is my Waterloo. I could make serious life-choice mistakes while under the influence of chocolate. So when my local Target began to carry dark chocolate flavored with amazingly exotic flavors, I grew weak in the knees and strong on directional instincts. My car knows the way to Target all by itself. All I have to do is wave an empty Lindt wrapper under its nose and it’s off.

Target has a house brand called Choxie. It offers a variety of flavors in light and dark. Being a dark-aholic, I tried the dark Key lime flavor. I also purchased a Lindt dark bar flavored with Orange bits, a dark with chili peppers, and a Frey dark chocolate with lemon and pepper. I really like the flavors of peppers, although I am not a fan of spice so strong that my mouth hurts.

chocolate comparisonThe Choxie Key Lime had an interesting filling–bright taste, which might be limey. Had I not had the bright green package to remind me it was lime, I might have simply thought “sour,” or maybe “lemon.” But the greatest disappointment on this bar is that the chocolate doesn’t taste like dark chocolate. It tastes like white chocolate, which is to say, not like chocolate at all. I remember in the 70s someone told me that carob tasted just like chocolate and was much better for you. I bought a carob bar and thought I’d bitten into the wrapper. Nope, it was the carob, which, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, tastes completely not unlike wet cardboard.

If you are a white chocolate aficionado, my apologies, but white chocolate has less chocolate flavor than the skin tanning coco butter, which it resembles in taste, if not smell. Coco butter tan cream smells more like chocolate. There are a few white chocolate producers who substitute solidified vegetable oil for coco butter in their white chocolate. Makes it easier to work with. Which sums up my interest in white chocolate.

Back to Choxie. For the price, not so bad, if you are not deeply into chocolate. Unfortunately for Choxie, it’s got no Moxie. Not for me.

Lindt is a Swiss chocolate maker for whom I have deep respect. Their dark chocolate is deep, rich, and avoids the pitfalls of many of the darkest chocolates–sour, sharp aftertastes. Their intense Orange is just that–it tastes intensely and unmistakably of real orange–the slightly bitter pulp and the rich, sweet juice. The bar is thin and the orange bits a bit crunchy. At less than $2 a bar, this is worth driving to Target for.

Lindt also makes a dark chocolate with Chili peppers. So far, it’s a clear favorite. The peppers make their presence known as a warm heat on the tongue and palate, balanced by the intensity of dark chocolate. It is absolutely perfectly balanced. Even the picture on the wrapper is wonderful, with a pure red chili pepper against dark chocolate–exactly what to expect.

Frey (the bar tells you to pronounce it “fray”) is another Swiss chocolate maker. I purchased their Lemon/Black pepper bar. How could a pepper love like me resist? I was hoping for a tang of tart lemon, followed by the floral spice of good pepper. It didn’t happen. The dark chocolate was fine, no complaints, but the lemon was simply sour and I still haven’t found any evidence of pepper.

I’m willing to give Frey another chance with another flavor, but so far Lindt is the quality winner. Guess I’ll just have to head over and pick another couple of bars.

–Image: Choxie Key Lime bar and Lindt Intense Orange photograph by Quinn McDonald, who is loving the idea of reviewing chocolate. As she buys wine by the graphic design of the label, she may be better off as the chocolate critic. She also teaches writing, journaling, and is a certified creativity coach. (c) 2008 All rights reserved.

Tutorial: Altered Photograph

An artist sees nature in a new perspective every day. In a different slant of light, with different shadows, with different meaning.

On my early morning walks, I noticed that the tiny water-saving sprinklers are hard at work before the sun evaporates the water. When a breeze kicks up, the spray hits the sidewalk. The water here is hard, so the place where it hits the sidewalk deepens to blue-gray. The edge of the stain is often a red or pink color, depending on the material the sidewalk is made of.

water puddle, dryingThe patterns are quite ordinary, except when they are in the process of drying. At that point amazing things happen to them. They dry from the outside in, leaving Rorschach-like patterns. I photographed one of the drying puddles with my iPhone camera, which produces remarkably good close-ups. I printed it out and took a closer look. I printed the picture on non-photographic paper, 100 percent consumer-waste recycled, slightly heavier than normal. I chose this paper because I wanted to use Prismacolor light-fast pencils as the art medium, and they work best on an uncoated stock.

I saw a tree, clearly at the top. I was surprised to see the Lady-of-Guadalupe-like pattern around the figure, giving it a spiritual feel. Using Prismacolor pencils, I began to pick out the design. First I darkened the edges using French Gray 70 percent, then overlapping strokes of Indigo Blue and Dark Grape.

Next, I used French Gray 30 percent and 10 percent, along with Sky Blue to give more contrast between the light lines and dark lines. I started with a light touch and used a bit more pressure once the picked-out lines made sense and created a pattern.

There were several possible figures that could have emerged from the center, under the tree. To begin, I(c) Water Tree, Quinn McDonald called up the face I saw, using Cream and Light Peach, blended together. The work is still in progress, but it is clearly an image of a tree with a strong aura, reaching out beyond the light above and the dark below. The woman is most likely an earth-goddess, awake and watching beneath the tree.

There are other possibilities and I will create a series, each with a slightly different image. It’s always surprising and sheer joy to find such wonderful art already existing in nature. It just needed a few highlights to bring it out.

–Images and tutorial (c) 2008 All rights reserved by Quinn McDonald. Quinn is an artist and certified creativity coach who runs workshops in writing, presentation, journal writing and collage. See her work at QuinnCreative.com

Latest Fad “Disorder”–Eating Well

Really, it makes me want to slap my forehead. Or put my head between my knees and not look up till people come to their senses. It’s the latest fad “disorder,” coming to a doctor’s office near you. It has a name– Orthorexia. Sounds serious, doesn’t it. Know what it is? Eating well. Yep. Orthorexics are largely vegetarians and vegans, people who check labels, avoid junk food, plan menus and eat a healthy diet. The “disease” has even worse symptoms–Orthorexics don’t limit their calories, because they don’t eat junk food. They avoid artificial ingredients, trans fats and high fructose corn syrup.

I’m not making this up. Dr. Steven Bratman made up the disorder’s name in the 1990s. He fretted that these people couldn’t be treated, as they had a mistrust of antidepressants, which is the “cure.” I’m guessing that you then get some sort of treatment to succumb to peer pressure and head for the nearest fast-food place to nom down on cheese fries.

French FriesBratman has a book out (of course) called Health Food Junkies. “if you get a thrill of pleasure from contemplating a healthy menu the day after tomorrow, something is wrong with your focus,” Bratman says.

Today’s “normal” diet consists primarily of highly processed, empty-calorie, industrially produced food. I’d love to see if there was a grant from some giant food processor to help Bratman along. I have not looked it up yet, and am not implying he did. The reason I’d like to know is that the best decisions for giant food conglomerates are certainly not in the good-for-you range of food choices.

Ensure, the wait-gain liquid often given to nursing home patients is mentioned as a food Orthorexics avoid. Well, as Ensure is loaded down with chemicals (the label lists 40 artificial ingredients), it looks like I have a case of orthorexia. Sign me up, and no, I don’t want your antidepressants. I’ll just grab my journal over here, and feel better writing about it.

Image: http://www.newscientist.com
–Quinn McDonald is married to a persona chef. She is a writer and transition coach. See her work at QuinnCreative.com. (c) 2008 All rights reserved.

The Oxygen Mask

She was struggling as the middle layer of the sandwich generation. Kids in college, still needing a safe haven; elderly mother in another state, not doing too well.

airline oxygen maskWhen the phone call came in the middle of the night, it was time to drive through the darkness into the heart of the struggle. Mother may die, that would be awful Mother may live, that would also be awful. Because mother can’t be alone, needs help, doesn’t want to accept help. The story’s pages are smoothed by thousands of worried hands who have written down the words of struggle: what do I do now? How can I take this on and have it end well?

Because I’ve made that middle-of-the-night drive myself, I suggested the one thing sandwich women forget: take care of yourself first. You can’t help anyone else if you aren’t functioning.

As most women, this is not easy to hear. We are used to taking care of everyone else first. As I asked how she could take care of herself, there was a pause. Then a slow, smiling voice came back, in the singsong of a flight attendant:
“In case of emergency, reach for your own oxygen mask first. Put on your mask before helping others around you. The bag may not inflate, but oxygen will flow through the mask. Tighten the straps and make sure you can breathe. Then help others.”

She knew what to do. She would be fine.

Image: firesomeonetoday.com

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and a certified creativity coach. She is also a transition coach, who helps people reinvent themselves to cope with new careers, situations, and people in their lives. See her work at QuinnCreative.com (c) 2008 All rights reserved.

Tortillas and Passover

There is not a matzoh to be had in Mesa. Well, not quite true. I could have purchased a case, propped up against the old Easter Peeps and Paas egg-coloring kits. And I’m not overly concerned that in Mesa, many people think Passover must be the same time as Easter. The city was founded by Mormons, and their 114,000 foot temple is a major site in the city. About 80 percent of high-school graduates in the Mesa/Chandler area identify themselves as Mormons. To Mormons, Jews are “gentiles,” which always makes me smile. And if you want to talk about persecution and immigration, Mormons can add a big chapter to that book.

MatzohsBut there I was, on the second day of Passover, having been in five grocery stores in Mesa and not turning up a small package of matzoh. There was no other Passover food available, not even a display, not even dusty bottles of gefilte fish on a shelf next to Ramen noodles in the “International Food” section.

What to do? Matzoh is unleavened bread, made in haste, by a people who were not wanted in the area. So it seemed to me that a great stand-in for the bread of affliction would be tortilla. Flour tortillas to be precise. They are made without a leavening agent, and cooked one at a time, made at meal time to be eaten. It was a good match. I purchased a pack of the kind you have to finish yourself.Tortillas

If you compare the picture, the largest difference seems to be the shape.

When I got home, I wanted to prepare a Passover snack, so I turned the front electric burner on “low” on the electric stove and tossed a tortilla on it. Flipping it over to keep it from sticking to the heating burner, I got a good facsimilie of a hot tortilla. I buttered it, sprinkled agave sugar on it along with cardamom, cinnamon, corriander and, yes, a few grinds of red chiles. Hey, it’s a tortilla. I then rolled it up and enjoyed a wonderful Passover snack, while contemplating all the peoples in the world who are pushed from one geography to another, who choose a better life in a place different than the country of their birth. It seemed a fitting thought for the day.

Images: matzoh: http://www.exploratorium.edu, tortillas: http://www.sacatomato.com

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and workshop leader who teaches communications, including writing, giving presentations and corporate culture. See her website at QuinnCreative.com

Gratitude Journal: New Age Hype or Useful Tool?

The first time someone suggested I keep a gratitude journal, I suggested they set their hair on fire. I was a little cranky at the time. I didn’t want to be grateful, I wanted to seethe and be angry. Once I got finished with anger, I wasn’t sure why I should be grateful. And that’s the point.

Being grateful and writing it down helps slow down all that galloping emotion. In the mood I was in, my approach was a “revenge of the gratitude journal.” I wanted to prove that idiot who suggested the gratitude journal that they were wrong. Hah! So I wrote down, “I have nothing to be grateful for.” So there. I looked at it for awhile and felt a little dumb. Except for the thing I was angry about, which had taken over my life, I had a roof over my head, clean clothes to wear, a caring spouse, enough food to eat. I knew that other people didn’t have all of that. But hey, I was still angry.

So I wrote down, “My cup of coffee was not total crap this morning.” That seemed about right. The next day, I wrote down, “My annoying cube neighbor has the flu.” Then I added, “Traffic was OK. I got to the client on time.” I found that having a few small things to be grateful for seemed to reduce my anger. Only because all that anger was exhausting me.

Over time, I began to notice the quality of items I was grateful for changed, almost as if I could predict a bad mood, a new project coming my way, and when I was in problem-solving mode. I began to dare to notice that I was good at some things and write them in the gratitude journal. I could see the big picture and the details to get there. I was a good problem solver. Being grateful for what you are good at and noticing it makes you better at it.

A gratitude journal sharpens your skills. The first time I suggested it to one of my coaching clients, he tactfully suggested I set my hair on fire. (Well, no, he was quite polite. But I could feel the shock wave over the phone. This was no girly-man.) But he kept up the gratitude journal. I promise my clients anonimity, so I can’t quote his entries, but they started simple and got quite complex. It was working for him, too.

Here’s what he wrote to me this morning:
“You can tell your tough-guy clients that when I got laid off, the journal had mentally prepared me to view it as a blessing and an opportunity rather than a death sentence.
It allowed me to think clearly and focus on what I really wanted to do. Kind of like boot camp mentally prepares a “green” soldier for his first combat mission.”

Thanks so much for letting me know. You and I discovered the same thing about gratitude–it’s not a new age emotion, it’s a business tool. Particularly if you own your own business.

Note: Tips for keeping a gratitude journal.

—Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach and a life coach who specializes in guiding people through transitions. She holds workshops on writing, corporate culture, and giving presentations. See her work at QuinnCreative.com

Her other website, Raw-Art-Journals, is about her art life. Follow Quinn on Twitter.