Disappointing Dining in San Jose (with some exceptions)

Last night, Peter took me out to Paolo’s Restaurant to celebrate our 22nd anniversary. We honestly hadn’t been there in a dog’s age, but it has held a place in our heart thanks to previous romantic dinners there. It’s one of San Jose’s oldest restaurants, known for its elegant Italian cuisine, and Peter had a hankering for their veal saltimbocca.

Sadly, it was another disappointing upscale dining experience in San Jose. After we’d perused the wine list, our server asked if we were ready to order — and we had to point out we’d received no menus in order to see what the offerings were, other than the special of the day she’d told us about. Then when we ordered — the saltimbocca and the special (halibut) — our server confirmed by saying “the halibut and the fish, then!” and we had to call her back and make sure it was the halibut and the veal saltimbocca. The food came out surprisingly quickly, which isn’t bad and these are after all, dishes which can be cooked quickly if all the prep has been done. But I suspect the speed is also due to the fact that much of their business must be coming from the theatre patrons going to nearby shows at the Center for the Performing Arts. It may date our last visit, but then our date coincided with a show, and Paolo’s had put out a buffet to cater to people who wanted to dine and dash in style. It may be the buffet wasn’t a hit, so now all dishes are designed to come out quickly.

Unfortunately, Peter’s veal saltimbocca was disappointing. He thought it tasted frozen. Not having tasted it myself, it might just have been too dry or overcooked (having made saltimbocca myself, I know it’s really easy to accidentally overcook it.) He bit down on something hard and found the stem of a large sage leaf inside. When our waitress came up to “see how things are” (note to restaurants — on a romantic date, I don’t want to be talking to your staff unless I need their attention), I thought I may as well point out the stem, and that the chef may want to be more careful in prep, because it was an off-note. She offered Peter a refire, but once you have to send back a dish on a romantic date, the experience is ruined, as the lovers have to take turns watching each other eat. It wasn’t that bad, but it really wasn’t that good. My halibut was ok, with no faults on the chef. It’s a bland fish to begin with, and it was seasoned and cooked just enough. But then the waitress sent up the a manager to quiz us about our concerns, and I thought I would just die. He told us we’d get an extra dessert to make up for it, and I imagined the chef spitting in it in anger. For the record, we ate the desserts, which were delicious, and I’m pretty sure (I hope), they had no markings of kitchen revenge.

Unfortunately, it’s not our first disappointment with a San Jose restaurant that should have been better. We celebrated Valentine’s Day at McCormick and Schmick’s. First of all, they confused our reservation, which was for 5:30 pm. They couldn’t find us, but seated us anyway. Later, at 7:30, Peter got a call asking if we were a no-show, and had to tell them we had shown up at 5:30, the time we’d scheduled dinner, and the time we’d confirmed before coming over, only to have confused people at the front. Peter’s steak was still bloody on the inside, and he did have to send it back for a refire, so I was almost done with my steelhead before he got his dinner. It has a nice location, looking over at Plaza de Cesar Chavez, but we left a big tip for the waiter, and I don’t think we’ll be back.

And then there’s Morton’s, which I’ve already written about. And A.P. Stump’s, with such boring bland food it’s demise was overdue.

So is there any decent romantic dining to be had in San Jose? Yes, but in unexpected places. A former employee told us about 71 St. Peter , a small romantic bistro (at 71 San Pedro street — get it?). The menu is always small, and seems to be different each time we go, but whatever we order, it’s always delicious. If your timing is right, you can get a seat outside, right on San Pedro street, so you can enjoy the party people strolling past. We’ve twice dined there during the zombie crawl (which often coincides with our anniversary, go figure), and luckily, the restaurant has some voodoo which keeps the zombies at bay. The staff always hits the right note, making sure you’re comfortable, but not interrupting conversation. And while the dishes are just as good, they’re less expensive than they are at other San Jose counterparts.

Another personal favorite of mine is Chez Sovan, the Cambodian restaurant on Bascom Avenue. It’s also not marketed as quite as upscale, but the food is delicious. Peter doesn’t like Asian cuisine so much so it’s only a destination for my celebrations (like my birthday), but their appetizers were fine for his palette. And then I got such delicious ice cream for dessert.

So I don’t know what’s up with fine dining in San Jose. For one thing, Peter and I cook nice food at home more often now, so we know grades of meat, we know what should be in a dish, and our own quirky preferences (i.e. I like my pasta mushy, so I don’t order pasta dishes, because my special request is an affront to pasta-loving chefs.) San Francisco restaurants typically don’t disappoint — the only one I can remember as bad was a sorry pizza place in North Beach. So why can’t San Jose deliver? I understand it may be difficult to bring forth one’s cooking talent at an upscale McChain or with  56 year old recipes, but, good god, it can be done. (At the very least, you should be able to cook a steak to the proper temperature.) Looking at Yelp, it looks like the gourmands are fleeing our downtown for Saratoga and Cupertino, but I’d rather have someplace great to eat in my own city. So I keep hoping, but it may just be that the little places like 71 St. Peter and Chez Sovan are really where the San Jose’s dining soul lives.

Three Crazy Things I Did This Summer

Kelly and me in front of the glider we just flew down from 6000 feet elevation.

Kelly and me in front of the glider we just flew down from 6000 feet elevation August 2014

This summer, despite my plans to have one particularly lazy and low-key, I did not one, not two, but three crazy things I’ve never done before and hadn’t even imagined doing.

In June, I volunteered as adult staff for a week a local Girl Scout camp. Kelly’s girl scout troop leader, Allison Vickery, had capriciously decided our council needed a local camp so she became a volunteer camp director and rounded up her family and friends to help. All she had to tell me was that Kelly would get to go to camp for free, and I figured, well, I may have no idea what I’m doing, but why not? It did involve a fair amount of training before the camp. In particular, Allison stressed the importance of leaders interacting with the campers, rather than standing by the sidelines. And so it came, that over the course of a week, I learned the silliest songs like “Bill Grogan’s Goat” and “Weenie Man” and played the craziest games like “Run and Scream” (just what it sounds like) and “The Tickle Fairy” (also known as “Murder”). My group was a bunch of 9- and 10-year-old girls, and I slid down the slides, swung on the swings, and climbed up the jungle bars with them. It was a bit of a revelation to note that the more mature girls would opt to sit out with the adults when and if we did, which makes me wonder if the reason we don’t play so much as adults is because when we were young, we started copying the sedentary adults, rather than revelling in the sheer joy of running around. Also, the real counselors were middle-school-aged girls only slightly older than the campers who took on the leadership roles easily; the adults were there for gravitas and authority, but I was impressed by the young counselors. And the younger girls eagerly absorbed every personal tidbit the counselors could offer; quite a highlight was when the counselor “Superwoman” facetimed herself and her group (showing off a shelter they’d made) to a male school friend named “Taco.” Oh, the pleasure of pure girly silliness. The little Goth girl within me died a little.

In July, I hiked 20.5 miles from the Santa Cruz Mountains to the seashore. This was also not in my plans. I’d been taking Neil along on mid-week hikes with a favorite Meetup group of mine, so he naturally gravitated towards completing the Hiking merit badge towards his Eagle Scout ambitions. When one of the leaders in Neil’s troop organized a series of hikes towards the badge so that his son as well as any others in the troop could get the badge, I figured it was all taken care of. But very quickly, all the boys except for Neil and Gabriel (the leader’s son) dropped out, and since scout activities require a minimum of two adults, it was up to me or my husband to join the hikes — and Peter was busy working on ComicBase 2015. And so, on Saturdays in June, Neil and I and Steve and Gabriel were out taking long hikes through the Bay Area. I’ll say the 10-, 11-, 12- mile hikes became progressively easier and we learned how to face the typical hiking hazards of blisters and bugs and dehydration. And we set the date for our “boss battle” hike — one of 20 miles — for July 13, down Skyline-to-the-Sea from Waterman Gap to Waddell Beach, with a leg up on Sunset Trail parallelling Skyline in order to make distance. I prepared for that mentally and materially. My boots were broken in. I made a Gatorade-like drink to make sure I would stay hydrated. I had lots of snacks and sandwiches. We set out at 6 am, and Peter dropped us off on the trail at 7 am, as the redwood trees were still dripping dew. We made it to Big Basin by late morning, and set up to the waterfalls after a long break and refilling our water. We reached the waterfalls by early afternoon, and then wandered down the long fire road and got to the beach by 4:30 pm. Steve’s wife was there, waiting for us, and I was ready to pour myself into her minivan, but I’m glad she convinced us to pose in front of the kitesurfers to document our achievement:

Gabriel, Neil, Steve and me at Waddell Beach after having hiked 20+ miles from the mountains

Gabriel, Neil, Steve and me at Waddell Beach after having hiked 20+ miles from the mountains

And now, it’s August, and for my birthday, Peter bought me a ride in a glider. Kelly joined me because, well, she could, and there was room in the cabin for her. The ride officially began at 6000 feet elevation (1 mile+ up) when I released the tow line from the airplane that pulled up the glider. I had expected it to be far more frightening than it was, but it was more enjoyable than riding in a small airplane. Perhaps it’s because I instinctively understand the aeronautics of gliding on air better, or because it was a nice day and we had no countercurrents pushing the aircraft askew. We just drifted towards the ocean (which was regrettably fogged in) and glided down over the lettuce fields of Salinas and Hollister, gently circling around until we were back in sight of the airport. The hardest part, in fact, was getting down, since the heat created updrafts which wanted to keep us up.

View from above through the glider cockpit.

View from above through the glider cockpit.

And, yes, in the meantime, I’ve done other fun things (so far) to round out my summer. I saw Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in Vasona Park and after having gotten context on it via a Teaching Company Course (which I got for only $1 at a Rasputin Records sale), it’s now my favorite Shakespeare play. I discovered several new authors I love, Margaret Coel being my most favorite current addiction. I swam in the waves in the ocean, and spent an afternoon speaking Russian with an emigre linguist. And I’m about to start some personal training classes, which I won in a Facebook context. So, so far, it’s been a great summer — but most of all, for the fact that I could do some crazy things, and that I did them.

The Long Hot Dry Summer of 2014

I regularly go hiking, and it was already clear at the beginning of the year that we were in for a long drought. We had only a few sprinklings of rain during a season which typically includes several storms, and it rarely if ever rains during the summer.

By the time June rolled around, the trails were dustier than ever. The non-native grass was yellow and tinder-dry. The creek behind my house faded in to a few puddles, and is now down to its bare cement bed gathering dust and a few hardy weeds.

And summer traditions had to be cancelled. Memorial Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains closed down: the dryness made the ecosystem too fragile to withstand the stress of campers and campfires. The annual waterfest at the nearby Lutheran Chruch was cancelled due to impending water restrictions, as well as respect for the limitations. My son’s boy scout troop revised its plans to go rafting down the Russian River, which is lower than ever.

It’s hot and dry. It’s not hotter than its been in our hottest years, but the dryness adds a level of parching which just makes you feel the need for yet another glass of water to follow the one you just drank. I learned the word estuation, which is a reverse sort of hibernation which many California species do in such weather — when there isn’t adequate water, they just go to sleep/dormant until there is.

Yet water restrictions are spotty, and irregular. Our lawn is near death due to not getting watered, but climbing up into the hills around the valley, you can still see the lush golf courses with natural groomed non-native grass glistening below. We gleefully splash into our swimming pool. Back during California’s last epic drought, my fellow Californians remember each household being given a quota of water per day, which once exceeded meant you had no water at all until the next day or week. (And since it was based on previous consumption, these Californians have no incentive to cut back in advance now, since cutting back now means having less later.)

Next year will be different. California weather goes in cycles, so next year, it will probably rain so much people will be complaining about floods and overflowing reservoirs, and we’ll have a different sort of disaster on our hands.

Enjoying Comic Con from Afar

This marks my 6th year of not attending Comic Con, and this year, it was the best ever. My friends, family, and colleagues have been manning a booth at the show since 1994, and I worked beside them up to 2003, and the last time I set foot on the convention center floor (as their guest) was in 2008.

It always drove me crazy for its logistics — even in 1994, the show snarled traffic and packed sidewalks — but by 2008, my inner claustrophobe was ready to lose it* as just crossing the street had to be done in groups of huge compressed mobs being screamed at by some security person.

All the Comic Con attendees have their priorities, and being the hard-core fanatics they are, they will do anything to fulfill them. One of my priorities was having a nearby hotel room to which I could escape easily to get away from the horde and sleep, especially when we had to be at a booth at 7 am for a 13-hour day which includes the occasional but inescapable attacks of energy vampires. As it turns out, every single other person who attends Comic Con also has the utmost need for a hotel room in the Gaslamp district, too, and is offended that I might think my priority overrides his. One needs to be in the midst of the party scene and to be able to drop in on others, as if it were a college campus, and it would be the end of the world if he missed out on a 3 am catfight by being 15 minutes away. Another requires a nearby place with a private bathroom he can use as he’s sitting in line for 2 days. Yet another has a disabling phobia of public transportation and traffic jams and the doctor’s note to prove it. And as the show biggered, biggered, and biggered still, there was just no way all those people were going to be accommodated. For the record, when early exhibitor hotel registration (bemoaned by non-exhibitors) placed us in Hotel Circle, we cancelled and booked a house for the whole staff, which has the added advantage of a kitchen, so we don’t have to scrounge for seating and overpriced food in overcrowded restaurants.

sheldon

How anyone manages to see anything these days also boggles me. Back when I was working the booth, it was possible to look at the schedule and beg off on booth duty to see an interesting event. I could head over a few minutes before a talk began to see creators talk about writing for comics, meet a favorite science fiction author, or see some indie film shorts. These panels still exist, and they’re not as hard to get in to as the panels about TV shows with no connection to comic books, but the rooms are now half-filled by bored people texting on their cell phones as any particular panel is something to sit through while waiting for their event to begin. And booths with giveaways are so mobbed that if you just try to go past, there’s a fair chance you’ll be sucked in to the vortex and end up being handed, say, an oversized purple SyFy bag you have no idea how to use.

This year was by far the most enjoyable for me not going. Shiaw-Ling dubbed this year’s event “line con” because (in her experience at least), there were more lines than ever: a line to get a wristband so that you could go stand in another line; a line to use the bathroom; lines you end up standing in just because you were standing in the wrong place as the line formed, etc. The line for Hall H reached truly epic, news-making lengths this year, and it’s almost like people just got into that line just for being able to say they stood in that line, which is a level of groupthink I don’t get into. Whoever it is you want to see can almost certainly be seen somewhere else, and/or isn’t worth giving up days worth of your life for. So all you line-standers, I’m glad I’m not you.

As for what there is which is to be enjoyed, my friends had me covered. Tony volunteered for booth duty in exchange for being able to go to the show, and he peppered his Facebook feed with pictures of fun cosplayers and geeky show floor goodies. Peter and Neil wandered out into the Gaslamp district, which is now a public Comic Con in its own right to check out the experiences. Petco Park now typically gets turned into some sort of pop-culture-themed obstacle course, and I’ll almost certainly hear the details of that from Shiaw-Ling or others. And one, if not several people I know, will scoop up free schwag for me such as fiction books, bags, and t-shirts. Meanwhile, Joe stayed behind to man the office for the entire week, so I didn’t have to go in.

Despite my daughter’s desire to see the show, it’s far too crowded for me to contemplate being there again. I was there the year the fire marshall shut the exhibition hall because it was too crowded, and the next year, the floor was reconfigured with wider aisles. But as far as I can hear, it’s even more difficult to get around now, and were there a need to evacuate the hall, people almost certainly would be trampled. I reconnected with a high school classmate who is now covering the show for a local radio station, and while being the cheery person he always was, he groused about the speculators who just come to buy exclusives which they can then resell, and the stargazers, which is a natural complaint for a long-time attendee. But it’s a circular game. Exclusives are crafted because they then have a guaranteed sell out product due to the speculators, and the speculators come to buy the exclusives. The stars come for the stargazers, and the stargazers come for the stars, each exclaiming that there is no other venue like this in which they can enjoy each other.

And so the show goes on. And I enjoy not being there.

* Who am I kidding? More accurately, I managed to hold it together more or less, but I was screaming on the inside. For four years afterwards. And I still shudder at the prospect of being squeezed and blocked in an an inescapable position by all those sticky people, ever again.

The Exploited College Athlete and the Revenge of the Nerds

As Peter and I were reviving a series of old 80s college movies (most of which are terrible), we realized our son had missed out on life by never having seen Revenge of the Nerds or any of its sequels. Quite frankly, I suspect the only value in it is for Neil to see the character Booger, who was clearly based upon my college Ivy League boyfriend.

These days the people I like and hang out with are openly and happily nerdy. Whether it is that we were attracted to one another through mutual nerdy interests, the fact is that I now live is a world were one can be openly nerdy and not embarrassed about it. Since the successes of Silicon Valley and Route 128 (linked for my California friends – no, it’s not a new start-up), being smart and geeky is associated with wealth and success in a new exciting changing-the-world way. And in Neil’s lifetime, that’s expanded into pop culture, one he embraces by going to Comic Con and Maker Faire each year.

In Revenge of the Nerds, it’s the college athletes who are the big men on campus, and who denigrate the weak and unattractive nerds competing for girls and status. I’m not sure that was fair to student-athletes, but I went to a small liberal arts college, and the only athletes I ever met were football players from Williams College or Amherst College, where the sport was more of a fun extracurricular rather than the reason said scholar had matriculated at the school. (Nerdy fact: the Ivy League and Little Ivy League are a football leagues, though you’re unlikely to see their games nationally televised. Mount Holyoke’s rugby team was scarier than any of them.)

And these days, after seeing the documentary Schooled, I have sympathy for the athletes who are pressed to train and perform at their utmost for a full scholarship at a college, to the detriment of their education. According to the documentary, 98.5% of the college athletes won’t go on into pro sports, where the real money is. They will have had access to great scholars, great classes, great knowlege, and great contacts, in part due to the money their success brought into licensing their college’s brand and being spokespeople for it. But as one athlete pointed out, his regime consisted of getting up at 5:30 am to train until 9 am, going to classes for three hours, training further through the afternoon, getting personalized tutoring (needed if the athlete came in unprepared), and then doing homework until 11 pm at night.

Athleticism requires discipline and that’s something to be respected in athletes, and especially in athlete-scholars. But where is their room to develop rhetoric? It was what Neil’s homeschool education led to, and I’m so delighted he’s a poised young man with his own opinions and passions, as well as someone who can respect other’s points of view, and discuss ideas. If you’re a team athlete, you know you’ve been blessed with a great and healthy body and gifted with the ability to use it to its best ability in challenging competitions. There are other gifts athletes often demonstrate, such as an ability to present themselves confidently and to be able to read others (especially teammates and opponents) discretely and play a game based on that knowledge. Behind that, you need the ability to think critically, to be able to run numbers, and to have a core knowledge of the literature and history which underlies the present.

So in Schooled, the real argument is how much is that free tuition and board worth in exchange for the athletic skills the student-athlete brings to the college? If he or she is truly a scholar who’ll be able to put as much passion and effort into soaking up the knowledge and connections the college offers (and I suppose to my nerdy mind that requires nerds happily hanging with jocks, or better yet jocky nerds and nerdy jocks), it’s something that works for everyone. If the athlete can’t keep up with the classes, it’s not. Furthermore, the training and NCAA rules precluded the athletes from having a campus job, even one which would have fit in quite well with the athlete’s gifts, like say, getting a disabled student out onto a sports field, or modelling for an art class — and which would have kept the most destitute students who lacked spending money enough to cover their costs.

Overall, the documentary criticized the NCAA, which commercialized college athletics without letting any of the money trickle down to most athletic students. I would criticize the colleges for making big sports of importance beyond academic studies, so much so that they would prioritize accepting a talented athlete disproportionately to his academic skill. It might also call for us having more private minor leagues, where those looking for the next pro talent can find their next stars, exclusive of a college setting. Personally, for many years I enjoyed the San Jose Giants, a feeder baseball team into the big leagues, and that largely not for the talent of the athletes, but even more for the organization’s connection to our local community and its businesses.

Most of all, nerds and jocks need no longer be adversaries. Neither is more important that the other. The nerds can help the jocks get their proper due, and get the knowledge and skills that will help the jocks enjoy life even when their bodies begin to slow down. And the jocks can teach the nerds how to make the most of their physical bodies; as we become increasingly sedentary and fat, we should have those who teach us the joy of running and playing and catching things, and for challenging oneself, both physically and mentally, not just on a video screen but also in real life.

The Perfect SAT Score and the Quest for the Right College

Yesterday, we got some amazing news: Neil scored a perfect 2400 on the SAT test he took earlier this month. I’ve got to hand it to him, he’s always been smart, but he really sweated the SAT, running himself through practice test after practice test, and  even mastering the devilish essay which gets the best of so many other bright kids who are great at math and reading. Our entire family is overjoyed at his accomplishment, and there’s a real sense that it might open doors for him.

As impressive as a test number might seem, anyone who knows him knows it doesn’t sum up what he’s really about. I started homeschooling him after fourth grade when a teacher nixed his desire to do a book report on Brian Green’s book on string theory. After I started homeschooling him, he fell in love with Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science and became fascinated with cellular automata (when he was 10). During his first year of homeschooling, he was beyond thrilled to encounter one of his heroes, Bill Gosper, who became his mentor. Over the years, Neil got into developing algorithms for solving mechanical puzzles, particularly sliding block puzzles, as well as 3D printing with a MakerBot he saved up for and constructed himself on our kitchen table over a period of days. He set a world record for calculating the continued fractions of Pi when he was 13. Thanks to his mathematics blog, he managed to snag an invitation to the Gathering 4 Gardner conference which he’s now attended three times, twice as a presenter.This gave him an amazing chance to meet his other heroes and like-minded academics who share their love of recreational math with him. He’s kept up his mathematics blog, and contributed to The New York Times‘ Wordplay column. But math isn’t his entire life: he’s also studied literature, history and foreign language, works part time as a production assistant, and he’s working towards becoming an Eagle Scout.

Neil wants to go to college. It’s where he can meet and hang out with other kids like him, and drop in to run ideas past a professor or grad student. The problem is that college is obscenely expensive these days, and despite all the repeated assurances of financial aid, it’s all meaningless  until my husband and I fill in several intimidating forms and get a resultant bill, which we will cringingly compare with our household finances.

As every parent knows, finding the right college for all that money is really hard and unfortunately the countless similar-looking glossy brochures aren’t really helping much. It must be equally difficult for the college admissions officers, who are under pressure to both sell their school’s brand but are tasked with deciding which candidates fit from among tens of thousands of hopeful applicants.

With so many thousands applying, it’s impossible to know students as anything but a score to identify the candidates who are capable of handling the school’s curriculum. This is complicated by the fact that the hard-working kids with good scores often apply to dozens of top universities, instead of focusing on the one or two that they most want to attend.

So I’m left with a feeling of hopeful irony. It may just be that this particular number is one which allows someone at a college to take a pause and really look at him as an individual. From there, we can hope they can make a pitch for why their college would offer a great opportunity for him specifically and whether he would be a great fit for their campus.

 

The College Fair

Yesterday evening, Neil and I went to Exploring Educational Excellence, a college fair, a first for him. More than anything, in the frustrating sameness of college solicitations, we wanted to hear what the unique qualities are for any school. In that, the fair excelled. The admissions officers for each school only had 10 minutes to talk about their university, and all focused on its differences versus all the other hard-to-get-into national universities with good research opportunities for undergrads.

The admissions people may be as frustrated with the candidates as I am with bland school solicitations. I asked the poised young woman near us if she wanted to go to school on the East Coast, and she told me, no, she hates snow. So then…the only one of the 5 schools she’d have any interest in would be Rice University, though she had the brochures from all the schools in her lap. As the session was about to begin, a fellow parent took the lone remaining seat next to me (in the 375-person capacity room!) I asked about her child, and she said her son had stayed behind to do his homework as both his parents came in his place. So, um, how’s he going to be able to decide if he wants to apply to any of the schools? It was as if some people were hoping for that one of the seats would have an envelope beneath it with a guaranteed admission ticket to one of the schools glued underneath it.

Brown University was up first. In my mind, it’s the East Coast hippie university. I didn’t know that it has no general requirements, so you can indeed math out to your heart’s content, if that is your heart’s content, though you’ll almost certainly want to check out the rest of the scene. I also didn’t know that Providence, Rhode Island is a foodie mecca, though I’m not surprised. There is a new all-glass classroom building which just had me thinking of being a bug under a magnifying glass. It would be no fun at all in a heat wave. And true to my expectations, it’s the only university in the US offering a year abroad in Cuba.

An alumna had already tipped Neil on to the University of Chicago, where the t-shirts say “If I wanted an A, I would have gone to Harvard.” So it was also no surprise to  hear about their strong core curriculum, interdisciplinary thought, and the Hogswarts-esque fact that students live in the same “house” for all 4 years. It was the alumna, not the admissions officer, who made the Harry Potter reference, by the way. All the admissions officers felt it necessary to comment on winter weather at their campuses, to which this admissions officer said “I have three words for you. Get over it.”

Columbia University recently sent Neil a tome of material. Pros of Columbia: NYC. Cons of Columbia: NYC. The admissions officer was particularly amusing, and I did learn some things about the university I didn’t know. The core curriculum sounds especially classical, with an emphasis on history and serious literature, appealing to the classical homeschooler. There’s a swim test based on a tradition from the days of the American Revolution, when the university wanted to make sure its students could swim across the Hudson River to safety in case the British invaded the campus. Engineers are excused from the test, on the presumption they’ll be able to build an alternate way to get across the river. Most classes don’t meet on Friday, leaving you free to explore the city on long weekends, and (OMFG) your student ID gets you into every museum in NYC for free. Unfortunately, I was having Seinfeld flashbacks, though I didn’t know where Neil belonged in the cast.

Neil’s grandparents went to Cornell, and he visited it two years ago, so we really wanted to see something about the school that would make it a top choice. But alas, the presentation cemented it as the countryside college where the urban kids come to get away for four years. There’s a center for the study of inequality, and it’s not in the math department. They have a school of labor-management relations, which made me wonder how often the professors go on strike. But if you love food science and hospitality (as Neil’s grandparents do), this place is it. You can invent your own ice cream flavor, and if it’s good enough, it’ll be produced and sold in the campus creamery. There’s a tongue-in-cheek feud between the Vegetarian Club and its counterpart the MEAT (men eating animals together) clubs.

Last, but certainly not least, was Rice University from Houston. It had not been on my radar at all, but its handouts included a brochure noting that it has full tuition merit scholarships for top candidates to its engineering school, which includes math and computer science. Helloooo, Rice, you’re singing my song! I didn’t know what to make of the fact that 10% of its students are varsity athletes, and wrote down one of my insane reasons for not liking the school — possibly too cool. All the kids in the presentation looked so happy! What’s up with that!

At the presentation’s end, each representative gave a “pearl of wisdom” about the admissions process, most of which I know but which was good to hear again. Ellen Perlmutter from Cornell stressed the importance of having the student, not the parent, own the college selection process, and advised us to make the car a no college conversation zone. Neil nixed that. He’d much rather talk about prospective colleges with me than have me force him to decline Latin nouns again. Javier Placentia from Columbia stressed the importance of an original essay, and I once again got an idea of what these admissions officers have to go through, reading hundreds of paraphrases from this book, hastily typed out at 10 pm on December 31. Also, he noted, get someone to proofread your essay. Columbia is not spelled y-a-l-e.

Students were welcome to talk to the admissions officers and alumni directly afterwards. I hung back, because I am #6, and I think those reps had suffered enough already. They sincerely wanted to speak to the kids, not the parents; perhaps to that end, I quipped, they should have free beer, and perhaps a sign up for discount coupons, for say $10 off the deposit on the school of your choice (please indicate in advance), given that next year, almost all of these parents will be coughing up thousands of dollars to some university. As Neil joined the mobbing students to listen in on questions and answers, I chatted with the fellow parents, who are all as neurotic as me. I’m worried that the jank homeschooler transcript I’m cobbling together will be incoherent. Oh, it’s original alright, but it may get an equally original response, like “WTF?&^%$!” (As I said earlier, Columbia’s upside, NYC, Columbia’s downside, NYC.) But a father was worried that his daughter’s high school wasn’t rigorous enough to get her through the admissions process. And he lived in a posh suburb known for its excellent schools! And many of the students will be sending off applications to all the colleges, not for any specific appeal, but simply because they’re hard to get into, despite the fact that they’re hard to get into because everyone is sending them applications.

I drove back and Neil and I chatted about all the schools; I wish more of the material we get was as distinctive about their schools as these presentations were.

 

The Frustrating Sameness of College Recruitment

Neil is now at the stage of his education where I’ve tasked him with identifying a few colleges he might like to attend. And so, when he started taking College Board tests, I encouraged him to let them sell his information to various colleges who think he’d be a good fit for them. Soon glossy brochures and well-crafted letters started showing up in the mail, and emails filled his inbox. Since I’m homeschooling him, I’m his guidance counselor as well as his teacher as well as his mom, and after the pile had gotten large enough and we looked at all the material to see if there were any colleges we hadn’t heard of previously which he could put on his prospective colleges list.

Alas, what stood out more than anything was the sameness of all the colleges. They all have good-looking friendly students, great professors, beautiful campuses, and are committed to diversity and caring for the environment. Come tour the campus and you’ll meet students from all over the world, and enjoy their new state-of-art fitness center/library/student center. They’re also all phenomenally expensive (though they offer need-based financial aid, which I understand as ruinous loans) and so exclusive in their admissions process you better be able to walk on water if you want to get in.

Part of the low admissions rate is due to the fact that applying for college is online, so if you apply to one college. you can almost as easily apply to 40, and many students do. I was curious about the other end of the process — how many of the accepted students end up going to a certain school. This is called the yield rate, and like many of the other statistics, such as number of students and average SAT score, you can look it up.

Not surprisingly, most of the students accepted at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or MIT ended up there: all those schools are well-known and have a great reputation. What stood out, however — especially in the case of schools classified as liberal arts colleges — was that the ones with the highest yield rates weren’t necessarily exclusive, but rather ones which offered more unique sort of educational experience. That the U.S. Naval Academy has an 86.7% yield is no surprise — when you have to make the effort to pitch a member of Congress of choosing you as their favorite candidate for the school, it’s almost certainly your top choice. But others with a high yield rate stand out because they are unique, such as the only college for religious sect (i.e. Principia College, Soka University), or with a markedly different course of study than that at mainstream colleges, such as Thomas Aquinas College, which is one of the few in the nation offering a classical Great-Books-based education.

For  just like the admissions officers who have to pore over thousands, or tens of thousands, of applications from eager teens across the nation and from all over the world, what we want most of all is a good “fit.” I want each college to stand out, and tout its unusual qualities, but the endless brochures only exclaim how unique each school is in exactly the same way. Collaring an actual student or recent graduate gets you far more information in a minute or two than the glossiest brochure with eerily similar demographic students mixes as all the other brochures.

I would much prefer if the colleges captured that and put that into their marketing. Go ahead, and point out that students party so hearty at your university that beer pong is a varsity level sport; or that your foremost criteria is academic merit so everyone (except the professor) in the Combinatorics class is the kind of person who got beat up in high school for skewing the grading curve. If you’re a small school in the Upper Midwest, go ahead and tell everyone what we already suspect — that it can get down to 40 below during finals week (in May) but that it fosters a particularly close-knit student body and the kinds of friends you’ll still be tight with 50 years from now. It would be so refreshing to know why the students at your college which I’ve never heard of before chose to go there. And if the answer is “because I couldn’t get in anywhere else,” um, well, I guess the picture of your verdant lawn will do.

And in this age of advanced data marketing, why can’t the information also be better targeted? From the letters and pictures, it’s pretty clear almost every college wants the Hispanic valedictorian who’s been helping the homeless in her community, and that’s great for her, but that’s not Neil. You’d think with all the information he ticked off on the lengthy College Board application, there might have been one or two pieces which actually reflected him, such as a note about how to apply as a homeschooler, or stories about some of the cool math professors and what they teach. So regrettably, almost all of the carefully crafted brochures and viewbooks went into the trash. Which isn’t very green at all, despite the school’s commitment to the environment.

Gordon Ramsay’s BurGR

Peter and I have been watching the Gordon Ramsay shows for years, and we enjoy them. They’re reality shows, so you know they’re edited for maximum drama. But I always wonder if everyone else’s food is really as bad as Gordon Ramsay thinks it is. Sure, sometimes it is obviously bad, like when a cake has mold on the bottom (ugh), or the refrigerator’s gone off, and no one realized it. But almost every single episode of Kitchen Nightmares has restauranteurs swearing that whatever may be remiss with their restaurant, it’s not their food. Whereupon Ramsay takes no-thank-you bites of 3 or 4 of their dishes and exclaims them all inedible.

So on our last visit to Las Vegas, we decided to check out one of the Gordon Ramsay themed restaurants there, and late Wednesday night, got a seat at BurGR in the Planet Hollywood casino. I will note that this is not my style in restaurants. First of all, I think the whole gourmet burger thing is overblown — every celebrity chef and celebrity restauranteur has a place which specializes in serving up $8, $15, $25 burgers (see Kerry Simon, Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse, Wahlburgers, etc. etc.) And Las Vegas already has plenty of colorful burger joints already, like the Heart Attack Grill and Holsteins Shakes and Buns. It’s definitely a competitive space, and I don’t even care that much for burgers, much less $15 ones.

Plus, the Gordon Ramsay restaurants are phenomenally popular in a town which has hundreds of great restaurants to choose from. We first tried to get into Pub at Caesar’s Palace on Monday night, and at 8 pm, the expected wait was 1-1/2 hours. I try to avoid restaurants that make me wait, because I know there’s typically an equally good competitor happy to find me a seat (even if it’s on a card table they have to bring out from the back.) But we had to sate our curiously, so we went to Planet Hollywood earlier on Wednesday night, and went to the magic shop during our 45 minute wait for a table.

To my huge — and pleasant — surprise, it was worth the wait and the money. Between the four of us, we ordered three different kinds of (beef) burgers. Peter got the Uber Cheese Burger (no umlaut), Neil got the Hell’s Kitchen Burger, and I got the Chantarelle Burger. Kelly ordered the truffle Parmesan fries and couldn’t eat them all. Both kids ordered an Oreo cookie shake with creme brulee pudding; I had a banana shake with butterscotch pudding; and Peter had the chocolate shake with caramel pudding.

BurGR delivered up to Gordon Ramsay’s standards, as shown on TV. Peter carefully examined the cook and consistency of all our burgers, and they were all cooked exactly as ordered, and carefully assembled. We’re still trying to reconstruct exactly what was in the burgers, but they were delicious and did not taste like standard grilled ground chuck. One part was that they were grilled over hardwood, but there were other flavorings, and probably alternate ground cuts (yet, not pork) involved. Peter and Neil are notoriously picky eaters, in different ways. Neil, who mostly doesn’t eat, loved his burger so much he was moved to write a review of it — again, mind that this is the kid who generally picks at his food and leaves most of it behind. Peter hates for anything except cheese to touch his meat, but he much enjoyed his taste of my burger, which had arugula, mushroom and figgy jam; as well as of Neil’s, which had spicy sauce, jalapeno peppers, and pickles. The shakes were all amazing, too. You could tell both the thick milkshake at the bottom and the pudding at the top were freshly made, and the pudding and milkshake worked well together. Kelly is open-minded about food so she’s tasted a lot, but she raved her milkshake was the best thing she’s ever tasted in her life.

I also watched the wait-staff. They not only had cute matching uniforms, even their sneakers matched. And the food came out quickly enough. That shouldn’t be a surprise for a restaurant with a small, specialized menu and a consistently full dining room, but I’ve eaten at other restaurants in Las Vegas with a smaller menu, and inexplicably long waits for decidedly rank food.

The only downside was that the restaurant was very noisy, and it was hard to hear each other, even at a small table. It’s the downside of having a restaurant in a casino, because they are notoriously noisy places.

So, yes, the reality here does match up to the hype and reputation. Until and unless I can make burgers like that (and I will try to get close, because I can’t afford $15 burgers every week), Gordon Ramsay is free to critique my cooking. And, no, I don’t have aspirations to be a chef, or run a restaurant, so it’s unlikely to happen.

Trapped in MARTA

Atlanta, Georgia has an excellent public transportation system named MARTA. If I’m not renting a car, it’s my way of getting around town. So on my last trip to Atlanta, we took MARTA directly from the airport to the Ritz-Carlton at Ellis and Peachtree, where we were staying for Gathering for Gardner.

When we got to the Peachtree station, however, we blindly took the first elevator we saw, and couldn’t figure out which side to go out. I asked a security guard, who told me we should have gone up on the other side. Helpfully, he used his pass to let us get back in, and advised us that we would have to use (what I understood as) the “mercy gate” on the other side. I will note that he did not have a thick Southern accent; most of the people in Atlanta don’t, but rather a genteel drawl.

And “mercy gate” does sound like just the thing at Atlanta metro would have, doesn’t it? I can imagine back when the plans were being drawn up, the planners discussed the likely problem of Yankees and other d*** fools trying to go out the wrong side, and added mercy gates to all the stations.

However, when we got to the other side, there was nothing marked as the Mercy Gate. We swiping our Breeze cards on one of the exits, but having already used them to exit the other side, they didn’t word. There was a set of huge emergency gates, but they were scarily marked for emergency only, alarm will sound. Being from the Bay Area, we are well trained to fear the transit police. Quite famously, get on the wrong side of BART cop and he will shoot you. We could only imagine more dramatic consequences in Atlanta, with us Yankees storming through gates, being beset upon by the MARTA patrol, and then having a slew of locals denounce us as “those d*** fools” who barged through the emergency gate. We’d be lucky if we only got tased, and I wanted none of that.

So, obediently, I used the phone near the exit to call MARTA central. A very annoyed person on the other end advised me that I couldn’t use the Breeze card twice, and when I told her what happened, sighed audibly and said she’d send someone over to let us out.

Then we stood there, forlornly staring at the exit gates. Rush hour was beginning, and Atlanta commuters stopped to wonder why we were just standing there sadly, with our big suitcases. One tried to help us swipe out, but as before, it didn’t work. Finally, some commuting construction workers told us we really could just go through the emergency gates. Really, no one would shoot us. The alarm probably wouldn’t go off, either.

So nervously, we gathered by the emergency gates, pushed them open and rushed through. To our pleasant surprise, no alarm shrieked. No phalanx of gun-wielding MARTA security guards propelled down to wipe us out. We gave a nod of thanks to the commuters who’d assured us it was ok, but skedaddled out as fast as we could anyway. I don’t know if a security guard eventually showed up, or if the MARTA staff at headquarters watching on their camera and had placed bets on how long we’d wait, but in any case, we had no further problems with the system after that.

by Carolyn Bickford

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