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random musings of a crazy cat lady

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Prelude to My Post on College Admissions-gate

I'm procrastinating, but not enough to write a full post on the college admissions scandal, so instead I'm going to write about Homestead High School circa 1982 and the myth of equal access and opportunity.
When I was in 7th grade, the local high school district closed one of its schools and redrew its boundaries, so instead of going to Fremont High I was slated to go to Homestead.  This was not noteworthy in and of itself, since in the Gen X baby bust era lots of schools were closed. My first elementary school closed after I completed third grade, and the other junior high in the district closed while I was in junior high.  My jaded little young biddy self did not give the high school change much thought other than to look at which one was further away from my house.
Homestead drew the majority of its students from higher income areas.  It was not a drastic difference back then, but it did result in the kids from Cupertino Jr. High having access to somewhat better educational resources than the ones from Mango Jr. High.
I did well in school so I was in the most advanced classes available at Mango.  I headed off to Homestead at the start of ninth grade and got a rude surprise - I had gotten some shitty advice about class selection from the junior high guidance counselors. They had told us to not take science as freshmen because the UC schools didn't count freshman grades so I ended up taking an art class which tanked my GPA instead of biology.  There was no consideration of the fact that some of us might end up going to places that cared about freshman grades, might like science, or might want to do another academic class instead of a non-academic elective, etc. No one suggested taking another language as my elective, either (I was already taking French).  My parents, although educated, were not tiger- or helicopter-parents, even by 1980's standards.  They didn't know to advise me to do anything different than what the advice counselors suggested.  Meanwhile, most of my counterparts from Cupertino Jr. High were taking biology as freshman.
I remedied the lapse by taking physics and biology my sophomore year.  Meanwhile, Homestead started a AP History and an Honors Chemistry class my junior year.  AP's were just becoming a thing back then so it wasn't common knowledge like it is now.  I took the Honors Chem, of course, but I didn't take AP History because history just wasn't my thing and no one thought to tell my that it would look good on my transcript and push me just a little bit.  Seriously.  Virtually all of my classmates in the accelerated track took AP History but no one thought to remind the girl who was getting A+'s in physics, biology, trigonometry and French that AP History might be a good idea.
Anyway, my lack of AP History and the horrible art grades didn't have any ill-effects long term and I mostly forgot about it.  The funny thing is that I didn't realize that there was anything unusual until yesterday, when it suddenly hit me that this wasn't just a tale of Gen X slacker woes but actually a very poor excuse for guidance counseling at best. At worst it's an illustration of how minor school inequalities at the junior high level and a lack of understanding of what is necessary to get into college can get amplified at high school, even for kids in the accelerated track.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Minimalist dreams

I have a recurring fantasy of achieving the perfect state of minimalist lifestyle for me.  It's a cross between the empty white room of A. S. Byatt's novel Possession and a Marie Kondo'd perfect Craftsman-style house with Shaker style furniture, or maybe a fabulous apartment in a big city.  And, of course, minimal emotional labor.  I've had these fantasies since grad school, when I actually did come a lot closer to reaching the minimalist ideal than I do now.  In reality, I live in a McMansion and Joe and I have way too much stuff.   Sometimes I get a bee in my bonnet and get rid of some of my stuff, or encourage Joe to pare down the duplicates and the stuff we really don't need.  He's definitely not a minimalist, but I can't really blame him for my minimalist dreams, since I've been having them for many years before I met him.
The minimalist dream extends beyond my house.  I daydream about having a cute capsule wardrobe consisting of cute drapey outfits from JJill and Eileen Fisher and a few perfectly matched workout outfits.  There wouldn't be any clothes that seemed great in the store but fit weirdly when I gain or lost 5 lbs or my weight shifted with impending menopause, underwear that falls down, or shoes that end up bugging my knees.  Naturally I would also have a perfect palette of makeup with no extraneous products or colors, one or two perfumes that I actually wear, and a skincare routine that works for me so well that I never buy any other products just to try them out.  I would use up all my products and replace them when empty. There would never be more than two types of shampoo and conditioner in my shower.  Or maybe three....
In my minimalist kitchen, I would cook perfectly healthy meals only when I wanted to, and eat out the rest of the time.  Somehow I would know my preferences in advance so I'd always have just the right amount of stuff in the fridge, which would always be nice and clean. 
I'm a 50 year old woman who is financially comfortable and likes to shop.  In reality I'm a mix of conspicuous consumption and residual frugality.  My minimalist dreams are unfortunately very influenced by consumer culture. I'm not fantasizing about moving to a cabin in the woods, eating rice and beans every day, and having a not so carefully curated wardrobe of three pairs of jeans, two bras, ten pairs of underwear and seven shirts yet.  Maybe I'll do it when I retire. 
Ironically, my residual frugality is keeping me from achieving the perfect minimalist wardrobe.  I don't like paying high prices for the 'perfect' clothes, when I know that my tastes and predictive ability varies.  I make my best guesses, but there are beautiful higher price items in my closet that I don't wear often because they just don't work the way I hope they will, and random $15 sweaters and pants from Costco or the Columbia outlet that get worn every week for years on end, and vice versa.  If I gain or lose 10 lbs, my favorites shift as well.  Attempting to pare it down to a capsule wardrobe or even to give away stuff that I haven't worn 1 year would end up being more expensive.
Nonetheless, the minimalist daydream lives on.  As I get older and lazier, I buy less stuff, so that may be the one thing that ultimately helps me.

Better-than-Toll-House Chocolate Chip Cookies

Note to readers: I am now putting the recipe first and the commentary at the end.  

Old Biddy's Dollar Store meets Cook's Illustrated Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe

2 cups and 2 tbsp flour (10 oz)
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup white sugar
3/4 cup butter, melted + cooled slightly
1 tbsp vanilla
2 eggs
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
12 oz chocolate chips or coarsely chopped chocolate (chopped chocolate seems to work better)
1 cup nuts (optional)
1 cup Ghiradelli caramel chips (even more optional than the nuts)

Preheat oven to 375F.  Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper or spray with cooking spray.  Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt and mix well.  Mix the melted butter and sugar well, then add the eggs and beat until blended.  Add the flour blend and mix, then add chocolate chips and nuts.
Drop heaping tablespoon sized balls of dough onto the cookie sheets.  Bake for 9-10 minutes, then pull pans out of the oven briefly and smack the pan onto the counter to deflate the cookies somewhat.  Return to oven and bake for an additional 4-9 minutes, checking them often.  Remove when cookies are golden brown around edges but still somewhat soft in the middle if you like them chewy, or until they start to firm up in the middle if you want them crispy.
Makes 24-30 cookies

I have a confession to make.  I have never had good success with the famous Toll House chocolate cookie recipe.  Maybe it's my oven, maybe it's my technique, maybe my butter is always too cold when I cream it, but they never have the proper texture.  Or maybe other people have been using a different recipe all along and I just didn't know it. They always end up too poofy, or, if I take them out early to get the ooey gooey texture,  they end up too gummy.  Of course, chocolate chip cookies are like pizza, and they taste good anyway, but that hasn't stopped me in my pursuit of a better and more reproducible recipe.
I found my Holy Grail on the back of a bag of some Ghiradelli caramel chips that I got at the dollar store.  Combined with a few hacks I learned from Cook's Illustrated, the recipe is easier and a lot more reliable than the standard one.  The recipe is almost the same, but has slightly less fat, sugar baking soda//baking powder relative to the flour.  Rather than making it dryer, they will be chewy in the middle if you take them out earlier, and uniformly crispy if you like them more well done.  The other difference is that the butter is melted rather than creamed.  This is more convenient since you don't have to have softened butter.  For extra textural improvements,  I take them out halfway through, smack the pan on the counter to deflate the poofiness somewhat, and put them back in.
On putting the commentary at the end.  I started recipe blogging in 2009.  At the time, everyone was putting amusing commentary at the beginning and the recipe at the end.  Since my friends were the only ones reading my blog, it made sense for me to do it that way too.
Now it's 2019.  The novelty of food blogs has worn off and I read them more for the recipes than the commentary.  I get most of my recipes from the internet now, and there's nothing more annoying than having to scroll through lots of commentary and pictures to get to the recipe at the end, or, worse yet, on a separate page.  So I'm putting my money where my mouth is and switching up my format.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Double Broth/Pressure Cooker Marathon

I'm lazy a bit of a pragmatist when it comes to broth.  I make it whenever I have leftover bones or corn cobs, but use canned broth if I don't have any homemade stuff on hand.  I also skip the broth for most vegetable-based soups because I like having a cleaner flavor.
I had never heard about double stock before this week, but happen to read about it when I conveniently had 4 turkey carcasses and a ham bone in my possession.  Basically, you just use broth in place of water when you cook up the bones.  If you're starting with canned broth, use the low sodium kind.  If you've got a lot of bones, just take the first batch of bones out after the first cycle and add the second batch.  This is easy if you're using a pressure cooker or Instapot.
I made two batches of double turkey broth.  The first was cooked sequentially, but for the second batch I just threw twice as many bones in and cooked it once. Both batches came out well.  Surprisingly, the batch that had twice as many bones but was only cooked once had a lot more gelatine.  I'm not sure if this is coincidental or if the act of cooking it twice denatures some of the gelatine proteins or interferes with the extraction.
Anyway, I was very pleased with the results.  It's probably not necessary for creamy soups or stews, but it adds an extra flavor intensity for brothy soups.
We hosted Friendsgiving last week, which is why I am in possession of so many carcasses.  I've been using the pressure cooker practically every day processing the leftovers and making soups. 

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Montreal Massacre 1989

Forward: This post has been sitting as a draft in my Blogspot folder for a very long time.  Ever so often, usually as the anniversary approaches, I think about publishing it.  More and more frequently, a mass killing occur and even before I hear any details, I can make an educated guess about the profile of the killer (alienated white guy, varying only in age) and the demographics of the victims (women or ethnic or religious minorities).  Last week it was a synogoue and a grocery store.  This week it was a yoga studio.  But Montreal, on the eve of my 21st birthday, was the first time that I realized it could have been me and not some abstract person.  College students now have not had the luxury of not thinking about school shootings.  They were just babies when Columbine happened.  Now it is an every day occurrence.

I remember exactly where I was on Dec 6, 1989, when I heard about the mass killing of female engineering students in Montreal.  News traveled more slowly then, so I heard about it in the evening while I was listening to the radio. I was in the Stanford physics department in my dad's office, finishing my grad school applications and procrastinating on studying for finals.  I was thinking about my upcoming 21st birthday, which was the next day, and I wanted the symbolism of sending in my MIT application on my birthday.  I also wanted to have it out of the way so I could party with my friends.  I didn't completely admit it to myself at the time, but MIT was my first choice.  I remember typing in the fill in the blanks part of the form before adding my personal statement.  I pondered the section asking for a photograph of myself and ultimately taped a picture of a frog in there.  Even as an innocent young biddy I didn't want my chances to be influenced one way or another, but it was a atypically gutsy move for me to do for my first choice school. As more and more details came out, I was shocked by the killing and by the fact that the killer targeted female engineering students.  Those women were my peers.  They had names like mine and they looked like me.  At the time, the media made it out to be the work of a mentally unstable person, which, indeed, it was.  But it was more than that as well.
My actions that night  is etched in my brain with surprising clarity, forever reinforced every year on December 6. I have only vague memories of doing my other grad school applications and finals. I did not really think of it consciously for a few years afterwards.  I was busy with grad school and didn't really start spending time on the internet until 1994.  As time passed and mass shootings became more common, I realized how indelible these memories were, because it could've been me.
At 29, I was home sick with chickenpox when the Columbine shootings occurred.  I did not make the connection then.  My memories of that are blurred from fever and acute itching, so it's all a vague blur.  Now I am rapidly approaching 50. Each new shooting happens and is supplanted by another one before we can even process it.  It's not disreprectful of the dead and grieving to make it political - it's disprectful not to use these events to push for increased gun control. 
So on that note, I will just say please go vote on November 6. 

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Too Good for Half the Senate Smoked Bean Soup

I distracted myself from stressing about the Kavenaugh hearings and did some cooking today.  Joe was smoking turkeys in preparation for Friendsgiving, so I decided to smoke some beans for soup.* We've smoked chick peas for hummus before, but had never tried doing it to white beans. I cooked a pound of dry beans in the pressure cooker, then we put them on a cookie sheet with a few cloves of garlic and put them on the smoker for about two hours. They dried out slightly and picked up a nice smoky flavor. Then I cooked them up into bean soup with an onion, some carrots, bacon and kielbasa. Totally coincidentally, it's essentially a smoked version of Senate Bean Soup, which is a basic bean soup made with ham hocks. 
It came out really well - way too good for at least half the Senate.  The smoke flavor really improved it, even though I didn't use a ham hock or pre-made broth.  You could probably use a few drops of Liquid Smoke or some smoked paprika to approximate the flavor.

Too Good for Half the Senate Smoked Bean Soup

1 lb dry white beans, soaked and cooked and drained (or 4 15 oz cans, reserve liquid for soup)
1 qt water, broth or liquid from cooking beans or reserved from canned beans
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
4 oz bacon
1 lb kielbasa or smoked sausage, chopped
3 carrots, chopped
1 tbsp vinegar
salt and pepper 

To smoke the beans, put them on a cookie sheet and put the sheet on a smoker for two hours or so, stirring occasionally, until they pick up a nice smokey flavor.

In a large dutch over, fry the bacon.  Remove the bacon, chop and set aside.  Saute the onions and carrots in the bacon grease until they are slightly browned. Add the sausage, garlic and reserved bacon and saute.  Add the water, broth, or bean liquid and the smoked beans.  Cook until soup has thickened and carrots have softened.  Taste and add salt and pepper to taste.  If desired, add vinegar to brighten the flavor.

Quick version: Use 4 cans white beans and carefully add a little bit of Liquid Smoke or smoked paprika.

* We were originally going to smoke chick peas, but didn't have any so I decided to experiment.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

On coming of age as a woman in the 80's

Forward: This post and several others have been written and rewritten many times in my head over the last two weeks.  I will likely continue to formulate it after it is posted.  Many others have written similar articles recounting their experiences, and I have gleaned insight from those essays as well.  I'll add additional posts later, but this one just deals with the 80's party culture and my own personal experience.

Like many Generation X women, and women and girls of all ages, the last few weeks of Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation hearings have been rough on me, and have brought up a lot of repressed memories and prompted me to reexamine my high school and college years.
I have been very lucky.  I have never been raped or experienced any sexual violence beyond cat calls, butt grabbing, frotteurs and flashers.  As most of you know, I was a geeky kid in high school and did not go to parties.  In college, I was still geeky and mostly went to dorm parties, with the occasional frat party thrown in for good measure.  The dorm parties typically had lots of alcohol but also semi-attentive RAs who made sure there were non-alcoholic drinks and kept an eye on things.  I surrounded myself with my brotherly gang of male buddies, and typically had one or two drinks.  Once I started hanging out with graduate students (senior year) I began to drink more and didn't bring my undergrad buddies with me. In grad school and beyond I partied more.  It turns out I like drinking and hanging out with interesting people.

For years my official interpretation to myself is that I was a geeky late bloomer who didn't find high school/frat parties that appealing.  There are elements of truth to that, but the last few weeks have made me realize that I was hiding from the 80's heavy drinking culture because I suspected it would not be kind or welcoming to people like me. At best I would be excluded and laughed at and at worst I'd be raped or worse. I grew up in the same culture as Kavanaugh and his peers. As a tween, I watched the same movies and I internalized the same messages that they did as teenagers.    Like most of my peers, I grew up watching the Benny Hill Show, and read Mad Magazine and my brother's copies of Playboy and Penthouse.  In junior high I snuck into Porky's with Missy and saw "Revenge of the Nerds" and "The Last American Virgin" with my brother.  I still have a fondness for crude slapstick humor. I laughed at all the gags and was so steeped in the culture that I barely remember the voyeurism and rape scenes.  The only bit of pop culture that actually creeped me out enough that I remember it was watching a Woody Allen movie when I was at a sleepover when I was 9 or 10.  My conscious radar wasn't completely broken, but it was severely dulled from the murky messages that I was getting all day, every day from the dominant, Baby Boomer, male-centric pop culture.* Subconsciously, though, I was reading these messages loud and clear, and I was scared and repulsed.
When I got to high school, I didn't party at all.  In my sophomore and junior years, as my neighborhood friends started to party more, I withdrew into an eating disorder and isolated myself from the party culture.  At the time, I would've said the timing was coincidental and that people weren't inviting me to their parties, but now I'm not so sure.  It was just easier to retreat into myself and not deal with it at all. Once I was no longer starving myself, I remained a homebody until I got to college.  At first I was kind of judgemental about people partying, until I realized it was actually fun.

People ask why women go to parties if they know they might get raped.  Even asking this question, rather than telling men not to rape women or not to go to parties, is a flaming bag of conservative shit, but I am going to answer it anyway.  I know the answer, since I have done the experiment.  Parties are fun, even for geeky introverts like me.  Hanging out with old and new friends is fun.  Drinking is fun for many people, including women.  When you go to a party, no matter how much due diligence you do, you have no way of knowing in advance if things are about to go south.  And even if you never go to parties and don't drink, things can still go south.  This is not a "Just say no" or "Don't give in to peer pressure" thing, despite what my mother thinks.  I'm very good at doing both those things, but it came at a price.   I missed out on a lot of fun and probably delayed my own social development by avoiding parties in high school.  To those of you who knew me in high school or freshman year of college, I'm sorry for the times I was judgemental.

I bellieve Chrisine Blasey Ford.  I believe Debbie Ramirez.  I believe all of my friends and acquaintances and strangers who are now coming forward with their own stories. 

* We didn't have a TV at my mom's house when I was a tween/teen, so my TV watching was limited to when we stayed over at my Dad's place or at friends' house.  Perhaps this made me less subject to pop culture, and I am kind of shocked by how much I did absorb.