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.

Elite Universities Don’t Understand Financial Hardship

Many elite universities seek out poor, but smart students, for the sake of diversity, and they go to some lengths to seek them out and reassure them that they, too, can go to, say, Stanford or Harvard, even if they don’t have the $60,000 a year it takes to go there.

However, all I see to letting such students know it’s accessible is a promise of financial aid. Being one of those families who is unhappily foreseeing a lot of correspondence with financial aid offices — at any university which accepts my son, public or private — I boggle at the thought that university officials think it’s as simple as having someone fill in a form and having them dole out some money, commensurate to what said form discloses.

First of all, previews of such forms show them to be complicated and intrusive. And the first form of all is not one for a grant, but rather for scary federal student loans, which carry a high rate of interest, and are non-dischargeable in bankruptcy. So if you don’t have the $200,000 saved up for a degree, you can borrow that fantastic sum of money, and try to set it aside, bit by bit, for the rest of your life — on the suspect assumption that straight out of college you’ll have a career which pays you enough to make your own way in life and pay off a huge loan. Hm, being a doctor is supposedly one of the most lucrative professions there is, but I know doctors pushing 50 still paying off the end of their student loans. It’s not a prospect I like for my son.

Plus, how do you fill out such forms if, say, your parents don’t file taxes, or don’t have verifiable income? I know it’s illegal, but I’ll confess my mother, an East German refugee, pathologically feared the IRS forms, and preferred to have whatever income she got garnished instead. And there are those who don’t earn enough to pay taxes, but who also won’t accept government assistance, for reasons of pride, or living under the radar. A form asking one to fill out forms so the IRS can release your tax records to a school, or wondering how many houses you have, is pure gibberish for many families.

And beyond that, it’s not just money barring the impoverished bright kid from matriculating at MIT. Even at a young age, there are many children whose families rely on their support. There are small family businesses who rely on family members lending a helping hand. Or sick parents or grandparents who need the kind of extra care no home health aide could ever provide. Sure, getting the attention, support, and friendships at an elite school will springboard a child from such a family into a more lucrative lifestyle, but there’s a personal cost, in abadoning — even temporarily — those who need you while you enjoy a halcyon world of catered meals and unbelievably posh fitness centers.

And last, but not least, the “rack rate” cost of college tuition is downright off-putting in itself. When your family’s gross annual income is lower that the annual cost of attending an institution, it all but screams “your kind does not belong here.” The implication is that most people who go there can afford that price, but you are the charity case who will have to make up the difference by washing dishes and mucking out cages in front of your financial betters. And it’s made even worse by the fact that the “rich” families who pay full fare may have preferred their money go to other causes than subsidizing other people’s kids’ educations. Why can’t the elite schools forego the latest climbing wall or poor-student-acquistion officer and roll the difference into a discount for all?

In contrast, take a look at what San Jose State University does. It’s not as selective as a private college, and students get on waitlists for a seat in classrooms already packed with 40 or 200 students, and the difficulty of getting a spot in all your classes in all the right semesters means many students drop out or take more than 4 years to finish their degrees. But it’s much more accessible to the middle class and lower middle class students, some of whom already work to support themselves and cover their tuition by working 20 or more hours a week.

For instance, recently, the university experimented with some (hybrid) online classes. A San Jose State instructor streamed each lecture online, where the student could access it at any time, and send back the classwork electronically. The final exam was proctored on-campus. It gave students time flexibility, as well as an instructor who could be found on campus during his or her office hours, and best of all, it cost a fraction of what an on-campus course would cost. (It’s had a rocky start, however, since not all departments like this model.)

Students from Tau Beta Phi also told me the university will soon offer a 7-year engineering degree. Who would want to go to college for seven years? I thought. But it’s not uncommon at San Jose State for some of the students to have full time jobs, and this model allows such students to finish the degree instead of having to pick it up in pieces here and there as patches of unemployment or downtime allow.

Personally, I graduated from a posh college (with the help of lots of financial aid). So I can vouch for the non-academic advantages you enjoy at a private college, such as uncrowded swimming pool lanes; nice students with amusingly different problems than yours, as in worrying about meeting the Queen of England at their mom’s luncheon; a lot more academic freedom to go in any intellectual direction; and professors who know and support you, so much that I continued to stay in touch with several, personally and professionally. But it’s also an educational model based on the assumption you can afford to take four years (or more) years off from life in order to build the foundation for something better. And while that model still worked in the 1980s when college cost a lot less and it was easier to get a job straight out of college, it’s not a model that works for those on the lower end of the economic scale, not at today’s tuition prices, and not with today’s economy.

If elite schools are sincere about having schools based purely on merit, they may have to retool their model and/or their costs to be truly egalitarian. Or we may see a divide which takes us back to the 1920s, wherein only the well-to-do were able to send their children off for a higher education — at a handful of top schools, where one is exempt from “real life,” and ambitious souls without such blessings go to the modern equivalent of night school, in the form of public colleges with flexible schedules, online courses, and vocational education.

The Puzzler and the Magician

Kristine Hjulstand from Norway was one of the magicians performing on Saturday night at Gathering for Gardner 11. It was not only her first performance at Gathering for Gardner, but also her first in the US. She opened with a delightful performance piece set to classical music, pulling scarves of color out of painter’s palette and turning it into a painting. Afterwards she took off her coat to reveal a sexy dress underneath and cheekily announced her need for a man — not just any man, but preferably a newly-married man, whose ring wedding ring was still loose. She called for any volunteers who might meet that criteria.

A hubbub burst out in the middle of the audience. “Pick him!” “I got married just 14 days ago!”

Perfect, the still-innocent Hjulstad thought, and called up Wei-Hwa Huang. Obediently he reached out his left hand to her, and she pulled off his wedding ring….only to have it fall apart into three pieces.

A small buzz circled around the attendees as Hjulstad laughed in shock at the jumbled ring. Bill Gosper leaned over and informed me and Neil that Wei-Hwa is the multiple-time world puzzle solving champion. So it’s not the least bit unexpected that he would have a puzzle wedding ring.

I know Hjulstad had at least one dear friend among the more experienced magicians, but he was naughty enough not to warn her. Just a word to any performer: Gathering for Gardner is the worst possible place to call for volunteers blindly. They look so innocent, but they egg each other on to see if they can trip you up. I love magicians, but in among that bunch, even I’m tempted to mis-shuffle your cards and palm a few just to see what you’ll do.

Hjulstad asked Wei-Hwa if he could put his ring back together again, and he said he could, but it would take a while. So rather than turn over her act to feature Wei-Hwa’s puzzle solving mastery, Hjulstad found a back-up husband and borrowed his ring. Wei-Hwa was still the man whose (borrowed non-trick) ring was stolen away by Hjulstad multiple times. And I think the back-up husband had a good time, too, though he didn’t even up with Wei-Hwa’s ring in the end.

Hjulstad rewarded them otherwise for their participation. The back-up husband received a pretty pink paper purse, and Wei-Hwa proudly sauntered off with a a lovely pink paper bonnet on his head.

The Portuguese Conspiracy

At Gathering for Gardner 11, a group of Portuguese mathematicians gathered together and announced themselves to be members of The Portuguese Conspiracy. I first got hip to this when Carlotta of the Portuguese Conspiracy finished her talk and pointed out a table which had been taken over by herself and her fellow countrymen. After that, the were no longer individuals, but members of a grand collective, known as the Portuguese Conspiracy.

Being the curious type, I wondered what the ulterior motives of the Portugese Conspiracy were. They never declared it outright, but by their frequent references to history, I suspect they plan to make Portugal (once again) the center of recreational mathematics in the Western World, and possibly for the entire world. And how could a small gang of Portuguese academics manage such an audacious feat? For starters, Portugal now hosts a biennial conference on recreational mathematics, and publishes not one, but two, international journals: one on recreational mathematics, and the other on board games.

I caught Carlos of the Portuguese Conspiracy in a moment away from his co-conspirators and asked him how his conspiracy expected to get people to come to conferences and publish articles in Portuguese. Oh, he told me coyly, everything is done in English, the “international” language. Tell that to an Italian in Rome! After a bit of nudging, I got Carlos of the Portuguese Conspiracy to concede that he, too, is aware that English is not that universal, not even in Europe. I suspect English is the “international” language of recreational mathematics for now. That is, until the Portuguese Conspiracy succeeds in their nefarious plot, whereupon serious scholars of recreational mathematics will have to learn Portuguese, and the next Martin Gardner will be Portuguese.

But the Portuguese Conspiracy had failed to identify a hole in their plan. I noticed that French game historian Lisa Rougetet was hanging with The Portuguese Conspiracy a lot, and often was one of the only non-Portuguese members of their circle. But she doesn’t speak Portuguese! As they say in France, cherchez la femme. Once the Portuguese Conspiracy succeeds in cornering the thought-leaders of recreational mathematics, they may find all the material and conferences are not Portuguese, not English, but rather in the “international” language of French (once again.)

Keep your eyes on those guys, and whatever you do, don’t pay any attention to the California Cabal.

Smart San Jose State Student Engineers Face the Education Bubble

With a mathematically inclined son, Pi Day has been a big day in our household since we discovered it, but it’s been even more significant once we found a like-minded community with which to celebrate it, such as San Jose State’s Math Department. When I checked in with a professor about this year’s event, I found out that tragically, most of the professors didn’t have Friday classes, so they weren’t doing it. But he helpfully forwarded me the invitation from San Jose State’s honors engineering co-ed fraternity, Tau Beta Phi, which had sent the math department an invitation to join them at their celebration/50th anniversary.

I proudly put on my Pi Day t-shirt and Neil and I (and later Peter) went over to join them. Besides pie, they had a contest who could figure out the correct volume of a specific pie — though I don’t know how they determined that later, whether by throwing it in a blender and then measuring it, or calculating its density and then submerging it in water. The prize was the pie itself, which after that, may not be such a great prize after its volume has been accurately determined. There was also a raffle for a Tau Beta Phi sweater. And of course, lots of pie.

I made small talk with the student engineers and made sure to introduce Neil to all the mechanical engineers. To my delight, Neil got along well with the engineers.

It was also interesting to hear all their stories and how education is transforming itself with them within it. San Jose State is one of the few remaining public universities it’s still possible for a middle-class family to pay for with savings. But even so, with its big classes, many of them impacted, most students expect to spend 5 to 6 years getting a degree, whereas at the far pricier private schools (where it may be possible to get a scholarship to offset the insane costs), the administration practically pushes you to get through in 4 or less years — and that theoretically gives you two more years of working life.

The student engineers aren’t worried about their post-college career prospects: the valley’s high-tech recruiters are waiting to snarf up electrical, computer, and mechanical engineers as soon as that diploma hits their hands, if not sooner. And San Jose State, according to the students, has good engineering programs. One student was getting a biomedical engineering degree, which is new for San Jose State — as well as for many of the recruiters. I pointed her to a meetup group I’d heard of, which sounds like it’s trying to hack on making biomedical printers from scratch, thinking she’d might meet like-minded people on that cutting edge of science.

Most interestingly on the practical end, San Jose State is creating a 7-year engineering degree. It’s especially for students who work 40 hour weeks — with a lower per-semester number of credits required, it’s possible to pay your own way through school and life, rather than having school be a hiatus from a reality you hit hard with a gargantuan student loan on your back.

I also mentioned that Neil has turned to taking online college courses and that has been a blessing, much like the San Jose State math department has been. One student’s girlfriend is an online teacher herself, teaching high school mathematics for Stanford’s online high school.

So as my son contemplates college, there’s a lot more in the pictures beyond the traditional university as presented in, say Monsters University. (Kelly thought the event looked a lot like a scene in Monsters University, albeit with the kinds of people you’d see in Big Bang Theory instead of monsters.)

Oh, and by the way, still no one knows what the Physics department does for Pi Day, or if they celebrate it at all.

Duck Dynasty Imitators

Upon seeing my choice in light entertainment, my daughter’s dentist recommended we check out the TV show Duck Dynasty. I had heard of it before, but I had had no interest in watching a show about rich duck call manufacturers from Louisiana. As it turned out, it was a refreshing new sort of entertainment for our times. A reality show, but one clearly staged by select members of the Robinson family themselves, playing on the quirks and quibbles of their loved ones. There are no cat fights or feuds, or those left in tears. It looks like a close family which enjoys interacting with one another, and teasing each other in good nature. The situations are set up like a sit-com, and similarly resolved, such as the time the keystone character, Will, “buys” a winery online and the family proceeds to make “wine” haphazardly, or when zany uncle Si proceeds to down an extraordinary number of donuts and passes out in a sugar crash in the trailer he “won” in the donut house’s raffle. Each episode ends with the family around a dinner table, being led in prayer by the family patriarch.

It’s had such wide-spread appeal that last year, it broke all records for reality-TV viewership, and it is a marketing powerhouse. You can buy books, t-shirts, garden gnomes, and bobbleheads featuring the show’s core characters. The area vineyard which was shown in the Wil-buys-a-vinery episode now produces Duck Dynasty wine with national distribution. (I know it isn’t made as presented on the episode, but, personally, I’m not buying it.) And Duck Commander/Buck Commander, the Robinson family’s business, is undoubtedly getting more distribution and sales itself.

So it’s no surprise Hollywood has caught on to the appeal and various celebrities are trying to recreate it. I recently caught a few episodes of Wahlburgers, which brings together two famous brothers and one not-as-famous sibling who runs his own chain of upscale hamburger restaurants out of the Boston Area. The famous brothers are professional actors Mark Wahlberg and Donnie Wahlberg, who are very comfortable in front of the camera, and know how to play themselves to make an interesting show. Not as famous is their brother, Paul, who presents himself ably as an experienced chef and businessman. In the mix (so far) are their mother Alma, who seems to keep the whole mess under control by her intimate knowledge of all three. It hits on the same appealing themes of Duck Dynasty: family, friends, community, and enjoying funny stories about our friends. But after the third episode, Peter and I were already at the “meh” stage. I now know that Mark Wahlberg plays a lot of golf. He has a zany friend named Nacho who eats everything and literally anything. The famous brothers use their fame to promote their brother’s business. They grew up poor in Dorchester (which I already knew was Boston’s ghetto suburb because my friend Kyra lived there). So what? It’s not that exciting or exotic to me. I can get just as interesting a story without the celebrity angle by calling Kyra. However, I am more inclined to try a dish from Walhburgers, if I see one. I also suspect an Alma Wahlburger cookbook is already being printed in anticipation of a Duck Dynasty marketing boom.

On top of that, I see that actress Leah Remini is also now doing her own reality TV show about her family….because they, too, are bunch of funny, zany characters with amusing stories to share. And I am sure they will be amusing stories. But I’m already beginning to feel we’re on the verge of seeing a new style of TV show not much more entertaining than talk-show fodder stretched out onto a reality TV stage. And I’m getting tired of it already.

Adieu and Farewell Collage Video

Late on Tuesday night, I received an email from my favorite go-to place for exercise videos, Collage Video, announcing they were closing down and were putting their entire inventory on sale, with all sales final. Like most of their other fans, I am deeply sorry to see them go.

Though they were unable to compete on rock-bottom pricing against the big general online businesses who also sell exercise videos, they excelled in customer service and information. For instance, every video they sold had a brief description written by one of their own staff (rather than by the video manufacturer), letting you know what it was like, what kind of background music it had, how chatty the instructor was, and what kind of moves it had. The descriptions also included an information bar with information on the difficulty, emphasis, and length of each DVD’s workouts.


It was really quite addictive. After doing a workout, especially if it was new to me, I could go to Collage and see how hard it was to give myself a pat on the back. Then I could browse other user’s reviews of the workout, giving me kind of a virtual water cooler post-workout camaraderie. One exerciser likes Ellen Barrett‘s encouragement, another used heavier weights than the workout recommended and liked it better that way. Mike Donavanik obviously attracts crazy hard core exercisers, since a number of them run all three of his advanced-level half-hour workouts back to back into a 100-minute sweatfest, and then post reviews exclaiming how awesome it was to almost die from fatigue.

It also guaranteed I’d never have an excuse not to work out — all I needed was a slightly different video to jump start my routine again. When I couldn’t motivate myself to do my one-hour, or even my 40-minute workouts any more, I bought some which were only 30 minutes long, and still challenging. And like the Mike Donavanik fans (ok, I’m one of them, too), I could chain two shorter workouts into a long one whenever I did have the time.

Collage was also adept at introducing me to other instructors and new kinds of workouts. I had never heard of Jillian Michaels. But a few years ago, I had the chance to buy The Firm Vol. 3, an exercise video I’d owned on VHS and had to transfer to DVD myself, in an official release (and for $19.99). College only gives free shipping for orders $25 and above, so I looked around for a cheap video to pad out the order. If I didn’t like it, per Collage’s liberal return policy, I could return it within 30 days. Jillian Michael’s $8 Ripped in 30 looked like it was good enough to warrant a go, and most of the reviewers gave it glowing reviews.

I ended up loving Ripped in 30, and it is one of my favorites to this day. I praised it so often my husband (who has only recently realized that giving your loved one an exercise video is not a negative comment on their fitness or shape), bought me a 3-pack of her other videos. She’s hit-and-miss on some videos, but Collage pointed me to another similar instructor, Kelly Coffey-Meyer, who also has fun and challenging half-hour workouts that don’t require memorizing a dance routine. And meanwhile, all my fellow exercisers are dishing out their opinions of the instructors and referring to others in the reviews.

But now it’s gone. Within an hour of hearing the bad news, I was on their site, stocking up on random videos — those with instructors I’d heard of but hadn’t tried (and whose videos are not available on Amazon, BTW). I grabbed some cheap, short videos for less than $5 each, since it’s always possible to be pleasantly surprised, and I may try out exercise bands for the first time. I certainly wasn’t alone in the sad splurge. Even while I was shopping, titles were selling out, and today, most of the titles I purchased are no longer up on the site (which is why I had to link elsewhere). I wouldn’t be surprised at all, if by the time they finally put my order together, that I may not get a few of the videos I ordered, and have to make do with a refund instead.

No matter how cheap Amazon or eBay or Overstock or Walmart may be, their algorithms are nowhere near Collage’s for helping me find new videos. I’m afraid that from now on (excepting any new instructors I discover liking during my splurge), that if I buy in the future, it’ll only be those who are known to me or best-sellers of unknown quality or appeal.

You will be sorely missed, Collage Video.

2014: A Year of Transitions

Every year brings its own changes and transitions, but they usually come so gradually or well-spaced, you don’t notice them, and then only in retrospect. I’ve been homeschooling my son so long now, I choke up a little when I realize I only have little more than a year to continue doing so. In the past year, I’ve heard people exclaim “he’s taller than you!” more than I care to hear it, but I know I won’t be hearing it much longer, because it’s no longer novel. My daughter is able enough to cook dinner for us when I don’t want to. And I found my first grey hairs, which I promptly hid under hair dye.

But 2014 is coming in like a storm, probably a good storm, for me and my friends. I’m posting it just to keep abreast of it all. My friend in Las Vegas is finally selling the BIG house she bought with her ex-husband and moving to a house better sized for herself and her daughter in a better neighborhood. A couple I’ve known when both were single, and then as a couple, are getting divorced. The first magazine I worked at, and where some of my colleagues had continued to work for 17+ years, is suddenly laying off its staff. The scoutmaster of my son’s boy scout troop is leaving as his son becomes an Eagle Scout and ages out. And my husband is somewhat regretfully leaving his W-2 “day job” to return to becoming a freelance consultant.

It all seems sudden because all these things are happening at the same time. But I can’t say they were totally unexpected. My friend had been talking about moving for almost a year. The couple were often separate, in a somewhat unconventional marriage, albeit one which looked happy. Print magazines are disappearing; I may work at one of the last, and most of my writing and publishing work this century has been in digital form. We knew the scoutmaster’s days were already numbered when his son presented his Eagle project to the parent committee. And I am one of the snarkiest people about the “cage” of being a regular employee, though I saw how my husband enjoyed building long-term relationships with colleagues and clients.

It just puts me in mind of what is to come. A lot of what I took for granted in the past came and went as time went on and we matured. But it just seems this month that everyone decided to take action and change their life — to move on to whatever it is that the rest of the year promises to bring.

My Crappy SAT Essay

I misspelled "illiterate," and have never read "The Snows of Kilimanjaro."

I’m a professional writer. This is my SAT essay. I misspelled “illiterate” and reference a story I never read. I also have no illiterate classmates.

Last November, Neil took the SAT for the first time. At least one fellow homeschooler has opined that someone as accomplished as Neil needn’t jump through such a hoop, but the sad fact is that many scholarships are tied directly to having an SAT score, and, after all, it didn’t seem like such a stupid hoop at the time.

We were both thoroughly flabbergasted when his score was drastically affected by his essay score. We got the essay back, and it was his typical style of a well-thought out answer giving his opinion, but giving the counterpoint as well. There were no spelling or grammatical mistakes, and he’d managed to put in several solid examples behind his point of view, and managed to get in a conclusion within the 25 minutes. That in itself is miraculous, since he typically spends hours researching and thinking about his papers. For that, he got a 3 (out of a possible score of 6.)

We quickly did our research, and discovered that the SAT essay test has nothing to do with testing writing ability. According to several sites and SAT preparation books, the key to getting a good score on the SAT essay portion is to 1) stick to your opinion like a wart on a toad, 2) write big and fill both pages, and 3) use the longest, most pretentious words you possibly can. Obsequiously referencing long books and tedious chapters of history may help. Being coherent, and factually accurate are completely optional.

Just the thought of it made me want to break out in a primal scream. My lifelong career has been as writer and editor. I would like to think I’ve taught my son well, and besides writing literature essays for me, he writes this blog, and has written puzzles for The New York Times.

But if he needs to learn how to write crappy essays in 25 minutes or less to get a good SAT score, that is a useless skill which may be learned (and hopefully unlearned afterwards.) We’re practicing now, and in sympathy, I’ll spew out an essay on the same prompt alongside my son, and then we compare. It is amazing what nonsense even this experienced writer will fart forth, given the real constraints of this test. Our first effort was so embarrassingly vile, both papers had to be put to the shredder lest an innocent person with any critical thinking skills be poisoned by its prose. Just to give you an inkling of what you’re missing, I spent half of it referencing War and Peace, which I have never read.

I truly out did myself today, however. I misspelled “illiterate” and rambled on about “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” which I have also never read in my life, and got it epically wrong. Well, I did get the author right. And I did fill both pages in BIG almost-legible writing. And I used the words “eschew,” “hencetoforth,” and “perspicaciously” correctly. I think. I’m also not sure what “perspicaciously” means, but I know it looks like a big, pretentious word which will hopefully impress the grader. And that is what these essays are scored on, so I bet it’s worth a “5,” if not more.

by Carolyn Bickford

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