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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.