Archive for October, 2009

Notes from the Front: College Applications

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

If you were standing on our front porch and hearing snippets of the dialogue taking place inside, it would sound something like “Blah blah blah college. College blah blah college.” That is because most of the conversations in our house these days center around the college application process. “I need to write another essay for this college.” “I don’t know how I get my transcript sent to the colleges.” “Does this college require a supplemental app?”

And especially as it gets closer to November 1st which is the date that the UC schools begin accepting applications, if you have a high school senior in your family like we do, things are getting pretty intense.

From the start of the college selection process, our daughter, Valerie, has been afraid that her hard work in high school wouldn’t be rewarded by being accepted at a school that she saw as being prestigious. All along, we’ve assured her that it’s the student who makes the school and not the other way around. So she is applying to a mix of private, state and UC schools. We believe she could go to a state school and get an excellent education; a big-name school doesn’t guarantee a better college experience or more career options down the road.

We want her to know that hard work always pays off in some form. If not now, later in life. So even if heavy duty financial aid isn’t forthcoming from the college that is at the top of her list, and that means that she ends up attending a state school so that she doesn’t graduate with $200,000 in student loans, she is still the same talented, diligent person that she always was.

So we’ve trying to temper her perceptions about what is a “good school,” particularly after doing some research and finding out that getting into a UC is even more competitive that it was a few years ago.

She recently got some encouraging news. First came a postcard from UC Riverside saying that Valerie was guaranteed acceptance. “Nice,” but not on her list. Then letters from UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara arrived, again saying she was guaranteed acceptance. Like Steve said, “Now we’re getting warm.” And then a day later, an acceptance letter from UC Irvine, one of the nine schools that she is applying to. We pointed out to Valerie that this was proof that her hard work was recognized”¦whether or not she ends up going there.

Goodbye to Gourmet

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

I certainly don’t consider myself a foodie yet I felt pang when I read that Gourmet magazine was folding. It’s always a little shocking when something that has been a part of your life and that you feel a connection with dies unexpectedly”¦whether, as in my case, it’s a magazine, or for millions of people, a celebrity like Michael Jackson.

When I was about 10 years old, I can remember sitting on the couch and looking through Gourmet with my older sister, Carolyn.  She aspired to a more sophisticated style of cooking than the very basic meat-and-potatoes fare that our mother prepared. So when she found a recipe in Gourmet that appealed to her, she cut it out and filed it in a binder under the appropriate tab of soup, salad, appetizer, etc. And then at some point she would cook from the recipes; complicated directions and hard-to-find ingredients never stood in her way.

What I took away from that time with Carolyn was that if you really wanted to be someone who knew about food and entertaining, Gourmet was the essential magazine to read. So when I got married, I began subscribing to it. I pictured myself being the gracious hostess and using recipes from Gourmet for the many dinner parties we were going to have.

My image of evenings filled with luscious food, sophisticated cocktails, and witty conversation turned out to be more fantasy than reality. But even when our children were little and plain pasta and chicken tenders were standard fare, I still looked forward to Gourmet arriving in the mail each month. I would read it cover-to-cover and if I found a recipe I liked, particularly in Gastronomie Sans Argent, I would highlight it in the index with the hope of making it.

The lush Thanksgiving and Christmas issues were like a gift arriving in the mailbox. I loved looking at the tables set with layers-upon-layers of china and reading the recipes that required so many steps to make that a person would have to quit their job to be able to have time to make them. And the gorgeous cookies. I still have on my shelf the December 1992 issue that has the recipe for Biscotti De Greve. Page 164 of that issue is now very splattered and wrinkled; I’ve been making that recipe for biscotti to give as Christmas gifts for the past 17 years.

I had probably been subscribing to Gourmet for more than 20 years when I began noticing changes in it that were certainly the result of Ruth Reichl being hired as editor. The most obvious difference was that the photos in the magazine started to be staged with models. Previously, the photography that accompanied the recipes was only of food; people weren’t shown eating it.

Once the editors added people, the food was no longer the focus. Instead of looking at a gorgeous cake or beautifully plated meal, my eye was drawn to the models who were cast to set the scene. The photos that accompanied recipes for a child’s birthday party or a family gathering all looked so artificial and staged. They always seemed to be saying, “The setting is perfect, the food is perfect, we look perfect and we know it.”

When only the food was photographed, I could have the hope that if I made a particular recipe, my finished product would look as beautiful as the one in their photo. But now, there was no way I could ever measure up to the scene they had set.

It was enough of a turnoff that about two years ago I decided not to renew my subscription.

When I read in the Wall Street Journal article that Condé Nast Publications which owns Gourmet told its editors to only fly first class and stay in top hotels, the editorial attitude of the magazine began to make more sense to me. These people indeed felt privileged and that came through in the magazine. Gourmet’s motto of “Good Living” had become “Smug Living.” That’s not a quality that tends to keep readers.

Called to Clean-Up

Sunday, October 11th, 2009

A few weeks ago, there was an announcement in church that City Ministries of Petaluma had organized a fall clean-up day for October 10. Volunteers were needed to put in a few hours of time to spruce up the city. In advance of the clean-up day, the city departments would come up with a project list and take care of all the behind the scenes organization. All we had to do was show up at the Fairgrounds on 7:30 that morning and pick up our assignments.

When anybody asks for volunteers, you generally won’t find my name on the top of the sign up sheet. But this request was hard to ignore; it was only for the morning, my calendar was clear for the 10th, I could procrastinate cleaning our own house, and it was an opportunity to give a little something back to the city that has been our home for the past 15 years.

People were already chatting and holding cups of coffee to keep their hands warm when I arrived at the Fairgrounds parking lot. At 8:00, when Mayor Pam welcomed the volunteers and thanked everyone who was involved in the putting the day together, several hundred people ““ all dressed in grubby clothes and ready to work ““ had gathered. After a brief blessing was offered on the event, we regrouped to get the details of where we would be working.

I don’t really know the full scope of the jobs that were done, I overheard talk about painting fire hydrants and picnic tables and picking up trash. Our church was assigned to spread mulch around the bases of trees at five different parks and that 10 yards of shredded bark would be waiting for us at each location thanks to good advance planning by the Parks Department. My daughter and I had spread 20 yards of mulch around our backyard last summer, so I felt highly qualified for the task at hand.

We divided ourselves into teams for each of the parks, and since I live on the west side of town, Walnut Park seemed as good a place as any to put my mulch moving skills into action. There were four of us who headed off to Walnut Park and thankfully one who had thought to bring a wheelbarrow. I shot home for reinforcements: more shovels and a couple of garbage cans that are my mulch moving medium of choice.

Experience should have shown me that 10 yards of mulch looks like a deceptively small amount to move. About half way through we were joking that the pile of mulch was like the Bible story about the oil that never runs out because the mulch seemed to be replenishing itself.

We kept at our weeding, hauling, dumping and spreading and in a little less than three hours, the last of the mulch pile was swept up and all the younger trees in the park wore collars of clean mulch.

What did I get out of the day besides sore latissimus dorsi  muscles? An opportunity to get to know some folks in our church who I didn’t know before yesterday, gratification that I took part in an event that beautified Petaluma, and gratitude that I was moved to serve in this small way.

College Shakedown

Sunday, October 4th, 2009

For those of us with college-age children, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of good news coming our way.

It’s tougher to get in to college because more kids are applying so the standards for acceptance have gone up. At University of California schools, C+ students need not apply: the average high school GPA of the freshman class of 2009 at UC Davis was 4.0.

It’s rapidly getting more expensive. In 2000, tuition at a UC campus was about $3,500. California Regents are expected to raise next year’s tuition by 45% which takes it to over $10,000 a year. My husband, Steve, remembers attending UCLA in the 1960s when tuition was $60 and a parking pass was $90.

And because attending college is getting more expensive, students are having to borrow more to pay for it. An article in the Wall Street Journal said that now two-thirds of students borrow to pay for college and the average debt load by the time they graduate is over $23,000.

I’ve certainly done my share of whining and stressing over these changes. I get a little twinge in my stomach every time I think about the amount that our son will be paying off for his student loans over the next decade. And I worry that our over-achieving daughter will be disappointed if her only option is to attend a much more affordable state school even if she gets accepted at a more prestigious UC or private school.

Okay, so getting into college isn’t as easy as just sending in your application and if you really want to go, you had better be prepared to make some sacrifices. But is that necessarily a bad thing?

The attitude today seems to be that a college education is a right. And as such, there would be funds to pay for it, whether from your parents or the state. In fact, student protestors at UC Berkeley last week are so convinced of this, that they went so far as calling for tuition to be free. “No cuts, no fees! Education should be free!” But isn’t going to college a privilege?

The value you place on something is in direct proportion to what it costs in terms of time, energy and/or money. And I say this as someone who has just recently begun to understand the value of my college education. My tuition was paid for and I didn’t even have to adjust my living situation when I went to college; I continued living at home, so really the only difference I felt between going to high school and going to college was that it was more difficult to find a parking place. The achievement of a college degree didn’t really mean anything to me because I there wasn’t any struggle involved in getting it. So although it’s becoming more difficult to get a college education, the students may actually value it more.

And is a college degree really necessary for most jobs? For many of us, we have gotten the mindset that going to college after high school is a given. If you’re going to compete in the professional job market these days, you had better have a Bachelor’s Degree.

I have read that the narrowing pipeline into four-year schools, state schools, and eventually junior colleges might mean a resurgence of vocational schools that teach specific, marketable skills. In a tight job market, that certainly sounds like a positive consequence.

So the college system is changing. But what comes out of it could be really good.