Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A sweet recipe to usher in 2009

I love making cupcakes using regular cake recipes. They're easy to eat and convenient to store and serve. We're being invited for New Year's Eve dinner and I decided to whip up a batch of chocolate chip cupcakes to bring along. I was feeling lazy so I used Betty Crocker's Yellow Cake Mix, added chocolate chips and made the frosting.

But if you have time, here's a banana cake recipe I use all the time that my family loves. I make it with chocolate chips and chocolate frosting for the kids but make a couple of plain ones for Kenneth, who likes his banana cake unadulterated. That's the great thing about making cupcakes instead of cake in a pan, you can make individual ones to suit different preferences.

Ingredients for Cake

125g butter
375g self-raising flour
180g brown sugar
1 large egg
250g very ripe bananas (about 3 large ones), mashed
60g sour cream
½ tsp baking soda
pinch of salt
1 tsp banana essence
1 cup chocolate chips (optional)

Ingredients for Chocolate Frosting

125g butter
150g Hershey's cocoa powder
2 cups icing sugar
80ml milk
1 tsp vanilla essence
Rainbow sprinkles (optional)


1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees celcius.
2. Mix flour, baking soda and salt in a bowl.
3. In a separate bowl, beat butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.
4. Beat in egg until combined, then add mashed banana, sour cream, banana essence and beat well.
5. Reduce speed, add flour mixture.
6. Stir in chocolate chips (batter will be thick and lumpy).
7. Pour into greased pan or muffin tray.
8. Bake for 25-30 mins (cake pan) or 16-20 mins (12-muffin tray) or until skewer comes out clean. Do not overcook.
9. Cool completely before icing.


1. Melt butter.
2. Stir in cocoa to slightly cooled butter.
3. Add vanilla essence. Alternately add icing sugar and milk, beating well. (You may need to adjust amounts of icing sugar and milk to your preference).
4. After putting frosting on cake, add rainbow sprinkles.

Your cake should be very moist and light. I know the cupcakes don't look as well-dressed as Lilian's, but they do look cute and kids just love chocolate and sprinkles. Mine do anyway!

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Gifts from kids? Priceless

We attended church service on Christmas morning and on the large screen were the silhouettes of Mary on the donkey and Joseph making their journey to Bethlehem. I asked Andre, "Look, what does the picture show?" He replied, "A horse and two men." I think the spirit of Christmas is somehow lost on him.

Anyway, after a long wait, another Christmas has just zipped by. As usual, we received lots of presents from very generous family and friends but the most precious gifts for me came from my kids. Lesley-Anne has always had a very giving nature and from a tender age, has made gifts for all of us. (When she was eight, she made a picture book for Andre). This year, her creative juices went into overdrive. For Andre, she gave him a teddy bear and a bouncy egg she made using water and many balloons. It really does bounce!

For me, she made me this terrific hedgehog bookend (right). She cut and pasted pictures of hedgehogs she had found on the internet. The 3D hedgehog at the bottom is made from a correction tape shell and toothpicks. I thought it was wonderfully resourceful.

(Lesley-Anne had a gift to her daddy as well, but it's bought so is not featured here).

Not to be outdone, Andre made Christmas cards for everyone. Here's the one he drew for me (front and back):

He made one for everybody, even the maid. True, they were done in a hurry on Christmas eve when it dawned on him that he was the only one without gifts to present, but still, at least he spared a thought for someone else other than himself! I'm a lucky mummy indeed.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmases past and present

I always get nostalgic towards the end of the year - activities like buying new books and school supplies, saying goodbye to the old year, always make me wonder where the year went.

Recently, I was looking through the Christmas photos of past years and I noticed that true to our inclination towards tradition, we have shots of the kids and ourselves in front of the Christmas tree (which I realise has been placed in exactly the same spot for the past five years!) I have Christmas photos that go back longer but only digitally from 2003. So I thought it would be nice to show how we have evolved since then.

This was Christmas 2003. I miss this Andre - he was three and at his most adorable. Lesley-Anne was also so sweet and innocent then, she was in k2 and still liked pink and frills.

Christmas 2004. One of the rare shots with Kenneth - he's usually the one behind the camera. And yes, I realise I'm wearing the same t-shirt as the year before! I like wearing red at Christmas, it makes me feel festive.

Christmas 2005. This was the year Andre received a fireman outfit from a very generous lady in the US. He loved it so much he wore it everyday until it practically disintegrated.

Christmas 2006. Andre has grown up a little in terms of his features but Lesley-Anne was largely the same as the previous year.

Last year, Christmas 2007. When I compared this with the picture above, I couldn't believe how much Lesley-Anne had changed in a year! Not just physically but also mentally. It was the end of her first year in GEP, I really think the programme has helped her to mature, in terms of her outlook and attitude towards life. *Sniff sniff* my baby girl's all grown up!

And finally, this is 2008. Don't we look happy? Financial crisis or not, family is always a blessing and Christmas is a wonderful reminder of what's really important in life.

May you all experience the blessings and goodness of God this season. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Nativity story - the unofficial version

Saturday night, we were just just lounging in the living room after dinner, listening to Christmas music. We asked the kids what they would think of on Christmas eve before they went to bed and Andre instantly said, "Presents and turkey!" Lesley-Anne, being slightly less worldly, said, "It's Jesus' birthday. I wish Him Happy Birthday before I go to bed."

We thought it was an opportune time to remind Andre that the season doesn't revolve around his material and gastronomic desires, hence the conversation below ensued.

Me: "Andre, Christmas is Jesus' birthday. Did you remember that?"

Andre: "Oh yah hor."

Kenneth: "Do you know the story of how baby Jesus was born?"

Andre: "He was born in a stable."

Me: "That's right. Then what else happened?"

Andre: "There was a star."

Me: "Very good. Who did the star lead to the baby?"

Andre: "Jesus."

Me: "No, I mean who did the star bring to Jesus?

Andre: "God?"

Kenneth: "No lah, who followed the star?"

Andre looked blank, so Kenneth prompted: "The three...?"

Andre: "Wise Men"

Thank God, I thought for a moment he was going to say the three little pigs.

Kenneth: "What did the Wise Men bring to Jesus?"

Andre (slowly): "Gold, myrrh... and Frankenstein."

Wah, that must have been a scary sight, the third Wise Man leading Frankenstein to baby Jesus.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Playdates to suit different interests

Yesterday, Andre went for his last badminton coaching session with his school. It was a bittersweet session for many of the boys as the school will not be having a badminton school team next year. I still think it sends a wrong message, that only sports able to garner medals are worth cultivating. Here are so many kids keen to take up the sport and the school is not willing to groom them. But anyway, that's the school's decision.

However, during the holidays, I have organised a few badminton playdates for our kids, together with three other parents. We book a court for two hours and the boys meet up to play together. This is the first time I've organised a playdate which involved an outside activity and it has turned out to be very successful. The boys can meet up with their friends, expend their energy in an activity that they all enjoy. Imagine if you have four boys tearing around a house for two hours! Not a good idea.

I feel this sort of playdate works well for boys. During these holidays, Lesley-Anne had her friend Ryan and his brother come over to play and that was pretty fun for them too, although there were slight differences in interests. Here, you see the three kids playing a board game (I think it was Lord of the Rings Trivial Pursuit) while Ryan's brother was more interested to test his skills in the Spiderman video game.

I like playdates - it gives me a chance to know my kids' friends and their parents better. However, as the kids grow older, it gets harder to arrange playdates. Eventually, we'll just let them invite their friends over on their own. Lesley-Anne already knows her friends are welcome at our place. The rule doesn't apply to Andre though - I can just imagine boys turning up at our doorstep without warning! But definitely when he's older.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Lights! Camera! Err... turkey?

Did I mention that we loooove Christmas? And part of the excitement building up to Christmas is always the pre-Christmas activities. Last week, I brought the kids Christmas shopping at Orchard Road, although to be honest, we didn't buy much. It was more fun just soaking up the atmosphere. Some of you will probably think this is kitschy and commercial but I'm such a sucker for packaging - all the glitter and lights just make us happy.

Armed with my relic of a camera and made worse by my questionable lens skills, here's a pic I took of the gorgeous tree outside Paragon Shopping Centre.

And here's a "tree" along Orchard Road made from Coca Cola bottles (below). Ok, free advertising I know, but quite cute lah.

Usually every year, we organise a Christmas party for friends to gather and share the joy of the season together. Sadly this year, we were unable to find a common date that could accommodate all or even some of them, so it was cancelled - first time in more than five years. So we thought maybe we should have a family Christmas dinner just for the four of us. We didn't want anything elaborate, just a quiet special time. In the end, we went to NUS Guild House at Suntec City over the weekend.

You know, my kids are not perfectly behaved all the time but if there's something I can be proud of, they do know how to conduct themselves at restaurants, even a fine dining place. I guess loving food is a big part of the reason!

It was a four-course Christmas set dinner. Some items were better than others, the crab quiche appetisers and pumpkin soup were yummy. For entrees, the gammon ham wasn't great but the lamb leg was tender and tasty. Here's Andre waiting to dive into his Turkey Cordon Bleu.

And chocolate cake for dessert. This is called pre-celebratory bingeing before Christmas! We're going to have to avoid the weighing scales for a while... the year-end parties will definitely do more damage.

Finally, we walked Suntec City for a bit, again just absorbing the festive mood. As Lesley-Anne just reminded me today, only 9 more days to Christmas!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

When English gets in the way of maths

So I've been trying to teach Andre some of the basic maths topics for p3 during the holidays, just to give him a little headstart. It's been tough going, I think he needs constant repetition in order to grasp concepts - something he'll get in school more than at home from an impatient mum.

Sometimes the results are just off the wall - his brain is wired so differently that it gives me a glimpse of his world view (which is probably very different from the average person!) It also makes me think that for kids like him, English is probably a handicap when it comes to maths.

Take this example. He was trying to do a problem sum which entailed finding out the age of Bobby. I was perplexed as to why he couldn't solve it as he had done similar sums many times before. Finally, I had to lead him step by step until he arrived at the answer.

Andre: (incredulously): Bobby is 66 years old?

Me: Yes.

Andre: He can't be 66 years old!

Me (puzzled): Why not?

Andre: Because Bobby is a boy's name! How can he be an old man?

Me (amused): So if a boy called Bobby grows up, what should he be called?

Andre (thinks for a bit): Bobbious!

No wonder he couldn't solve the problem, he had gotten the correct answer but assumed it was wrong because in his understanding, Bobby couldn't possibly be that old. (By the way, when you're only eight, 66 might as well be 100.)

Another day, Kenneth came across the word "dozen" and asked Andre whether he knew what it meant. I'm sure he's been told this before but his memory is like a flour sifter (ie it only retains the useless bits). Andre brightened up at a question he thought he knew the answer to and replied, "Like a dozen muffins."

Kenneth: That's right, so how many is a dozen?

Andre: A lot.

Me: It's a specific number. How many?

Andre (without hesitation): Eight.

Me: Nooo...

Andre: 10,000.

Me: !!!!!

Kenneth: It's 12. And do you know what's a baker's dozen?

Andre (confidently): 12 bakers lah!

I think 2009 will be a difficult year...

Saturday, December 13, 2008

All calm on the "see"-front

Lesley-Anne was recently due for her annual eye checkup. We had assumed that her myopia would worsen as is common with kids her age, so we had pre-ordered a new pair of frames for her at an Optic Point sale. During the sale, frames plus lens go for only $39.90 a pair so it's a pretty good deal.

But to our surprise, the checkup revealed that the degrees of Lesley-Anne's have not increased at all after a year! It's truly good news - it means she's only mildly short-sighted, about 75 degrees on each side. It also means that her myopia stands a chance of not deteriorating, great news from the point of view of a (previously) extremely myopic mother.

Since we've already bought the new frames, we went ahead to make her a new pair of glasses anyway, using the same degrees. Now, Andre is officially more short-sighted than his sister.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Computer games that make you think (at least a little!)

In my last post, I mentioned how I love computer games. But knowing their addictive qualities, I have forbidden the introduction of Wii, Xbox or Playstation at home. I have, however, made a small compromise by buying online games. This enables me to control the type of computer games that my kids play and ensuring that they do not promote over-the-top violence or other unedifying materials.

I buy my games from Big Fish Games because they have a large variety. The first game I bought was Cradle of Rome, which is... surprise, surprise, a puzzle game! It's a Match 3 game where you have to match three tiles to complete each puzzle piece. There are 100 levels and by the time you get to the last 25, they're pretty challenging. I've since bought many other Match 3 games but this one remains my favourite, must have played this more than 20 times (do the sum how long 20 x 100 levels takes, I can't believe how much time I've spent just playing games!) Cradle of Rome is great - the levels are tricky and creative, they really make you think. The graphics and bonuses are also very appealing.

Another great puzzle game (especially if you like maths) is Gemsweeper. We have also tried other puzzle games like Dream Chronicles (adventure type), Luxor (marble popper) and Elven Mists (brainteaser). The last one was more frustrating than fun though, in my opinion.

We also like arcade games, particularly the brick buster type and as a reward to Andre for doing well in his mid-year exams this year, I bought him Ricochet Infinity. This turned out to be a really great buy. Wonderful graphics, lots of variations and the best part is, after you've completed all 216 levels, you can download an infinite number of new levels at no extra charge! (These new games are created by users and are literally never-ending).

Another brick buster game I bought is Magic Ball 3. I bought this not because it's very challenging but purely because of the graphics. The 3D images are just hysterical - sharks, sheep, pirates, dragons, even princesses at ye olde beauty pageants toppling when the ball hits them. Lesley-Anne and Andre love to play this just so they can giggle at the sight. A fun, entertaining game for younger kids.

I still like Cradle of Rome and Gemsweeper best but really, it's up to your individual preference. How it works on Big Fish Games is that you buy Game Club credit packages. The more you commit to, the cheaper each game becomes. It costs US$9.99 each for two games down to US$6.90 each if you commit to 12 (no time frame for completing the purchases). The big plus is that you can try the games for free first so you avoid buying duds - download any game you're interested in and you get to try it for one hour before committing. You may think you only want one or two, then after you start, you find yourself wanting more. How do you think they got me hooked? Sigh...

Just a quick bit of advice - even if you set a limit for computer games for your kids, I would still keep an eye on the clock. It's not an issue of trust, it's just that ALL computer/video games are highly addictive. I've come to realise that my kids usually have every intention of keeping to the time limit but once they start, they lose track of time or find it impossible to stop. So when I say "half hour", I would normally pop in half an hour later just to remind them it's time to stop.

Happy gaming!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Trivial pursuit

I've been tagged by Eunice! Apparently, this means I have to write 6 random bits of information about myself. I've got a slight complication - since my blog is about kids and education, I've imposed the additional burden on myself to provide 6 pieces of trivia about moi that somehow relates to kids and education. Hmm... let's see if I can rise to the occasion.

1. I set up my own business in 2002 focusing on copywriting and to a lesser extent, other sorts of communications like branding. Although one reason for this was that I got tired of all the corporate crap, the primary reason was so that I could set up a home office and be with/scream at/chase after (delete where applicable) my kids who were only five and two years old then. My company is Hedgehog Communications - how I arrived at the name was pretty unusual. I initially wanted a clever name starting with M, but everything I liked was taken. Then while I was having chicken rice with Kenneth at a coffee shop, I suddenly thought, why am I taking myself so seriously? Let's make it fun. I told Kenneth, "I'm going to pick an animal" and would you believe, a hedgehog was the first animal I thought of? Really strange but I was instantly drawn to it. So Hedgehog Communications it became.

Since then, my official line when asked why the name is "because it's sharp and to the point, like good communications should be." But you know the real story behind how it was chosen lah. And it has given me the added fun of collecting hedgehog memorabilia. Here's my treasured hedgehog collection - they're from all over the world and many are from friends. At last count, I have 24.

2. In school, English was always my favourite subject and one of my ambitions was to be a writer. Funnily enough, this became reality although not the type of writer I envisioned! My compositions in school frequently featured girls named Lesley - see how long I've loved the name! But never Andre though, I never wrote about boys since they were like alien beings to me, what with having only a sister and coming from an all-girls school.

3. When I was in JC, I took up Accountancy. I enrolled in it because I was undecided at secondary 4 and God knows, there was no such thing as career counselling or course advisors back then. So I was persuaded by my dad, the accountant, who thought his career offered stability and financial security. It turned out to be the most miserable two years, academically, for me. Although I love maths, I have absolutely no head for financial figures. My balance sheet could never balance, all the charts on hedge funds and economic theories bored me to tears. I could only keep awake at lessons if I popped a sour lemon sweet.

After I received my dismal 'A' level results (where the only subject I did well in was General Paper - figures, doesn't it?) I opted to go to the Arts faculty in NUS where I found my fit and enjoyed myself thoroughly studying Sociology and English. I even won a gold medal for graduating top of my Sociology honours class, which proves the point that you're more likely to excel if you do something you enjoy.

4. I love puzzles. Ok, you probably already figured that out. But did you know that I also love computer games? Not the violent shooting, blood-squirting types. The puzzle and arcade types. Also word games, which is why I'm currently playing 5 Scrabble games simultaneously and chasing my Prolific score on Facebook. I sometimes find it hard to limit my kids on computer games since I understand the allure. That's why I refuse to have Playstation, X-box or Wii in our home because I know we are likely to turn into addicts.

5. When I was younger, I used to draw a lot. I don't consider myself an artist however because I'm more of a "copier", ie I find it difficult to create original drawings. As a kid, I copied all the Walt Disney cartoons and drew animals from books. Even in NUS when I stayed at the hostel, I drew lots and lots, as decorative pieces for my room and as advertising material for the many hall committees I joined. It was all tremendous fun!

I don't do it anymore, due to time constraints but here are a couple I did in coloured pencil for the kids' room before Andre was born (again copied from books).

And this is one of the few I did from scratch - I wanted to do a family portrait but I can't paint or draw faces, so I used handprints instead. I was experimenting with oil paints for the first time, so the background is terribly amateurish but it is personal and meaningful only to us, so it hangs in our living room.

6. Finally, since I was young, I'd always wanted two kids - a boy and a girl. So in that respect, I've been pretty blessed. Although in my dream, the two kids would always be loving and kind to each other, not clawing each other's eyes out. Hey, I was innocent and idealistic - I also wanted a cat and a dog that would live harmoniously together! Oh well, nothing is perfect. But God is good.

So there's my 6. I realise they're not so trivial but I wanted to share stuff relevant to this blog. It's actually quite fun so I'm passing on the baton - tagging Lilian. Go on girl, your turn!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Work timetable for the holidays

Usually during the major school holidays, I want the kids to do schedule some work either to revise past topics or learn a little of new ones. You may say, "What? Do work during the holidays?" but like most parents, I know that if I leave my kids to go wild and play throughout the month-long vacation, the few brain cells that have been dedicated to academic work would have perished from disuse by the time school re-opens (overpowered by the brain cells in charge of computer games).

We all know that getting kids to do work during the holidays can be a real chore (I can envision the moans and groans even before they happen). But after a few years, I've found a solution that has worked for me and minimised the pain.

What I do is let the kids come up with a holiday time-table. I will impose what I think is a reasonable workload, like for this vacation, I've asked my kids to include one heavy and one light activity every weekday. An example of a heavy activity would be a maths assessment paper or a tuition session and a light one would be reading or practising the piano. Weekends are exclusively for finishing work doled out by the Chinese tutor.

This is Andre's timetable for this holiday period:

There are some "off" days like when the kids have playdates or when there's a party. Of course no work is assigned on Christmas and they're let off the last few days before school reopens (I'm not an ogre!)

I think it's reasonable - most of the work in a day can be completed within 1½ hours, which isn't a lot to ask. The rest of the time, Lesley-Anne and Andre can do whatever they like - watch tv or play computer games, within a sensible time limit.

I've found that having a timetable is very useful, for several reasons:

1) When you don't have a timetable, it's much harder to assign work. From your kids' perspective, you will be seen as trying to "eat into" their holiday time and this inevitably causes resentment. When I tried this with Lesley-Anne in the early years, I often had to cajole or nag and the work, if done, would be done reluctantly. Whereas with a timetable, since the work has already been assigned and negotiated, it's more readily accepted.

2) When coming up with the timetable, I give my kids a certain level of leeway, eg. they can choose which day to do maths or english. If Lesley-Anne wants specific days to be free, she can opt to load up on another day instead - it's a tradeoff. Since my kids have a say in how the timetable is drawn up, they take ownership of it and also take more responsibility in ensuring the work is completed.

3) A timetable also creates structure and certainty which is sorely needed in this family of procrastinators! Eg. by noting how many sessions of maths I have with each child, I can plan beforehand what I want to cover by the end of the holidays because I don't need to negotiate for extra sessions when needed. On the part of the kids, they prefer this because they know exactly what needs to be done and won't have the dread of not knowing whether mummy will spring another test paper on them at the last minute. In fact, Lesley-Anne often looks at the schedule for the next day and asks me for the set work the night before, so that she can complete it in the morning and get it out of the way.

I normally use construction paper to draw up the timetable and let the kids use stickers or markers to dress it up. The objective is to make it look as unintimidating and as fun as possible. Afterall, it is the holiday season!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

'Tis the season to be jolly

Taking a short break from travel blogging to write a post on my favourite season - Christmas!

In our household, the Christmas feeling begins when we take out the Christmas tree and trappings from the storeroom. This ritual has become something of a tradition and an event that Lesley-Anne and Andre look forward to every year.

The first sight of the decorations is always an exciting reminder of the season (for me, it's a reminder of how quickly the year has flown by!)

Christmas music sets the ambience, the tree is carefully erected, the lights draped on, then negotiations ensue as to which decorations should be used and where each should go. Even hanging decorations has to be a fair process, which each kid given an equal number.

(Wearing the Santa hat was Andre's idea, I guess it puts him in the mood!)

Then the other accessories come out of storage, like these Christmas toys (below). They only emerge once a year which make them seem especially precious.

Also these reindeer candle holders, in danger of rusting but carry much sentimental value.

Finally, here's the tree.

If you don't have a special Christmas tradition, I highly recommend starting one - it's very memorable for the whole family and something that I'm sure your kids will look back with much fondness.

And now the celebrations can start!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The hazards of being an IA

I'm baaaaaack.

You would've thought that after 7 days of holiday in a terrific city, I would be all relaxed and zen but nooo... today, I'm a ball of tension - it feels exactly like BEFORE I left for the holiday. Why? Let's see...

I happily thought I could blog while on holiday since I would be staying with my cousin and she has a computer. But as petit fleur pointed out, I couldn't blog in Beijing cos the authorities there block certain blogspot accounts. Apparently it's not all accounts, and the blocking is random, doesn't matter whether you're blogging on something as innocuous as fishing. So there I was with all these great photos and memories still fresh from each day of adventure and unable to share it. I couldn't even log in to publish the comments, for Pete's sake. I thought of posting a comment on Lilian's blog and would you believe it, I couldn't even access her blog to read it! I couldn't go into Facebook either, I felt completely cut off from the world.

We touched down late last night and the first thing I did on waking up this morning (even before breakfast), was to turn on my computer. Or at least, try to turn on my computer. IT WOULDN'T TURN ON. It seems that one week of neglect was just too much - it died sad and alone. I realised right then and there that the joke I made about how a bunch of us (with Lilian as president) should form the IAA (Internet Addicts Anonymous) was not really a joke. Cold sweat, curses, short of hallucination, I could've sworn I was going through withdrawal.

How am I posting this, then? Well, thank God we have a spare laptop that Lesley-Anne uses - she's not getting to use this today, I'm commandeering it until the IT service guy comes this afternoon to see if he can revive my baby. I'm praying the miracle happens - me and my Compaq have had many precious years together (plus too much un-backed up information).

So I will still post on my travel blog as promised, but delayed. I just hope it will be via my baby and not the substitute.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Beijing, here we come!

I haven't been blogging because it's been a mad rush trying to settle all my work before we leave for Beijing. There is also that business of packing - this will be the first time the kids are experiencing winter in any part of the world, so we've been trying to get all the warm stuff together. I hope the smog won't be too bad.

Beijing will be an interesting experience as this is the first trip we're taking with the kids that's not to a destination with theme parks or lots of kid-friendly places. It's going to be primarily culture - thousands of years old. I'm curious to see how my kids will react. Will they be enriched? Or will they be bored out of their minds after the first day? Already, Andre has expressed interest in climbing the Great Wall only so that he can take the ride back down!

The next time you hear from me may be from Beijing, if I can get internet access. I will try to blog from there, but if so, it will be on my travel blog, so do keep checking in there, ok?

Happy holidays and you'll hear from me real soon!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The tricky business of unconditional love

Since it's Sunday, here's a little soul food for thought.

Last Sunday at church, the pastor gave a particularly thought-provoking sermon which I felt had a worthy lesson for parents. He was explaining how as Christians, we all know intellectually that God loves us despite our sins. Yet, we often feel that He somehow loves us less if we do something wrong. Does this speak to you? I know I feel that way sometimes. Eg. if I miss my quiet time, I feel guilty because I think that God disapproves and He probably loves the other more devoted person more.

This stems very much from our own relationship with our parents, and more importantly, mirrors our children's relationship with us. Although our love for our kids is unconditional (as with God's love for us), our kids haven't necessarily internalised it. And can you blame them? We only praise them when they do good things or get good grades. When they do something not to our satisfaction, they are scolded or punished. I think that's why so many kids get caught up with chasing achievements because they think that will earn them their parents' affection.

It's a sobering thought - that our kids do not know (or believe) that we love them no matter what.

In case you're thinking, "but if I don't scold them, they will keep making mistakes and stop trying hard!" I think it's ok to correct but be careful that it's not perceived by our children as a withdrawl of love. Again using the parallel of God's relationship with us, as the pastor put it, God's love is like a safety net. Once we are secure in the fact that God loves us (and blesses us) regardless of what we do, we will no longer have performance anxiety. Instead, we will strive to do good because we are grateful for His grace and we want to love Him in return. We won't feel guilty because mistakes are ok - they don't deprive us of His love.

Likewise, if our children are assured of our unconditional love, I believe it will motivate them to do good and work hard, because they will want to please us, not because they are afraid of displeasing us. Get the difference? In this manner, they will also be more willing to try, to make mistakes because the degree of our love and approval is not dependent on them being perfect.

"But where sin increased, grace increased all the
- Romans 5:20

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Last day of school and thoughts on friendship

Last day of school yesterday! But I suspect my nightmare is just about to start. My two kids were not home together for 5 minutes before they'd already started to bicker.

I stuck an imaginary microphone at Lesley-Anne and asked, "So how do you feel about your school year?"

Lesley-Anne: "It was fun! The most fun year I've had, I think. My p5 class is very lively and we all had such a great time together."

I asked Andre the same question, "So how was your school year?"

Andre: "Good."

Me: "That's it?"

Andre (thinking): "Very good."

I had spoken to Paul's (Andre's good friend) mother just a couple of days back and she told me that many of the boys in their class were in an uproar because they didn't get into the same p3 class as their friends. (At their school, the kids are streamed at the end of p2 according to their results). The group of boys that Andre hangs out with will be completely split up. One of them was so upset despite having gotten into the best class because none of his friends did. He protested by refusing to go to school the next day (see what happens when you're smarter than all your pals!!) Paul's mum told me Paul was upset that he wouldn't be in the same class as Andre.

When I mentioned this to Andre, he said nonchalantly, "Tell Paul (me? Tell Paul??) that I will meet him at the same place at recess and we can play badminton." I asked him whether he was disappointed that they wouldn't be in the same class. He replied, "yes." Pause. "But maybe when we go to p3, we will make new friends and forget our p2 ones."

Wah. Very insightful but I never took Andre to be so pragmatic and unsentimental. Not sure if it's due to his live-for-the-day attitude, and not sure I like it. Sometimes out of the blue, he comes up with these views that belie his innocence. Just the other day, I overheard Lesley-Anne complaining that our maid didn't cook her macaroni the way she liked it. Andre piped up, "Don't be like that, che che. Everybody makes mistakes." Nothing you can say to that!

Anyway, back to the friends issue, I think Paul has been a great friend to Andre. Andre had recounted how he was being called names by one of his classmates and Paul was there to comfort him. More than once, these two have stuck together so I will try to encourage the friendship as long as I possibly can.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Fun countdown to Christmas - an Advent calendar

The Advent season is drawing near, so I want to share something nice you can do for your kids - an Advent calendar.

An Advent calendar is a calendar which counts down to Christmas from 1 December. If you see the one in stores, it normally has 24 windows taped shut. Each day starting 1 December, you open one window, the last one you open on Christmas eve. Behind each window is an image of either the Nativity story or something related to Christmas. Some others have a piece of chocolate or candy behind each window.

I came across this idea of making an Advent calendar when I saw it in a kids' activity book. Lesley-Anne was in p1 then. I thought it would be a great way to build up the excitement, as well as make the wait for Christmas more bearable (kids always feel that Christmas will never come!) But I didn't like the thought of just putting pictures or candy behind the windows - what's so interesting about that?

So Lesley-Anne and I made an Advent calendar with 24 pockets - she decorated the pockets with stickers (right pic, it's very beat up I know, it's 4 years old!) I created 24 little rhymes - each night when she was sleeping, I would creep into her bedroom and slip one into the appropriate pocket for her to find in the morning. (Andre was only 4 then, so the Advent calendar was primarily for her.)

It gave her something to look forward to everyday - each rhyme described a word, and she had to solve it. When she had finished opening all 24 rhymes, the starting letter of each word in that order would form a sentence related to Christmas.

Here's the first one I did for Lesley-Anne. She was only 7 then, so the rhymes are pretty simple. I'm happy to share this and you're welcome to copy the rhymes if you like (but of course change the ones that don't apply to you!) The part in purple is the answer to the rhyme, so when you print out the rhyme, don't print that part. The final sentence spells out "Christmas means love and joy".

1. C is for Candy Cane

Red and white
Sticky and sweet
Plenty at Christmas
What a treat!

2. H is for Hope

A toy, a book, a bike
All children are alike
Hope for presents galore
What do you hope for?

3. R is for Reindeer

Dashing in the night
With Rudolf’s nose so bright
Delivering lots of toys
For all little girls and boys

4. I is for Ice

The Eskimos build igloos
Made completely out of ice
They’re freezing all year round
Which isn’t very nice

5. S is for Story

We tell this every night
Of three bears and three pigs
Why not have some new ones
For 2005 and 6?

6. T is for Tree

Tall and majestic
Green or white
Pretty and dressed up
In tinsel and light

7. M is for Mummy

She’s not very good at sports
She really can’t cook too
She is a terrible driver
But she’s great at loving you!

8. A is for Advent

A calendar like this one
Makes December really fun
Starting out each day
In a very special way

9. S is for Snow

Something in Singapore
We have not got
I wish it’ll snow some
Then it wouldn’t be so hot!

10. M is for Manger

Born in one
God’s only Son
On a bed of hay
Little Jesus lay

11. E is for Eternity

It’s a really long time
It means forever and ever
Sometimes it seems like
Christmas comes never!

12. A is for Angel

They live up high in heaven
Watching us from above
Sent to us by God
To show us care and love

13. N is for Noah

When the flood came
Everyone ran helter skelter
Except his family and animals
Who had the perfect shelter

14. S is for Stocking

It’s what Santa uses
To stuff his presents in
But since it’s very narrow
You may only get a pin!

15. L is for Lesley-Anne

Pretty, smart and sweet
An example to the rest
God made you with love
You are truly blessed

16. O is for Obey

Do what God asks
Do what your parents ask
With respect and love
No matter the task

17. V is for Vacation

Six weeks you’ve had
They’ve flown by very fast
But indeed I truly hope
Your holiday was a blast!

18. E is for Evangelise

Learn a new word today
It’s really good for you
It means tell others about God
Which is a great thing to do

19. A is for Andre

I know you don’t like
A pesky little brother
But later on in life
You’ll want no other

20. N is for New Year

In a few days more
It’s goodbye to 2004
I hope you had your fun
And enjoyed Primary 1

21. D is for Daddy

Sometimes he’s smiley
Sometimes he’s not
But whether he is or isn’t
He sure loves you a lot

22. J is for Jesus

Born in a manger
Though he knew the danger
He is the reason
We celebrate this season

23. O is for Overeat

The danger of Christmas
Is everything looks so yummy
First we stuff the turkey
Then we stuff our tummy!

24. Y is for You

Someone special
Someone unique
Tomorrow is Christmas
Let’s get to bed quick!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

GEP service learning

Lesley-Anne brought home her service learning file so I thought I'd write a post on what she'd done during the year. Service learning is their form of community service. This year, they had to mentor p2 kids who were weak in English. As part of service learning, the p5 GEP had to create their own lesson plans and materials for the sessions, in teams of two. They met up with their p2 buddies for an hour every week for a term. For the first week, the teams used the materials they developed, then for subsequent sessions, they swapped materials with other teams.

This was the lesson plan Lesley-Anne's team came up with:

Show the children the picture and tell them to talk about it (like in oral). If they can't, show them examples and then, let them try again. Also, encourage them to use adjectives to describe things. This is to help prepare them for the composition they are going to write on the picture.

Development/An English Game
Instructions: Each player will be given a set of cards and a picture. On each card is a sentence. The sentence describes the picture. The cards are all jumbled up. The players must rearrange the cards to form a coherent composition based on the picture. The first player to rearrange the sentences into a coherent composition will win.

Reward: Winning person get chicken crackers while losing person gets two sweets.

Give them the composition template with the same picture (as introduction) and tell them to write a composition. Tell them to use adjectives like they did in the introduction to improve their story. When they are done, go through their mistakes with them and tell them how to improve on them. (Covers grammar, punctuation, spelling and tenses).

At the end of the lesson, pupils should be able to write a four to six sentence essay and to sequence and organize sentences.

It's not the most sophisticated lesson plan but I think it's great to get older kids to help younger ones. Kids tend to relate better to each other and understand where the possible stumbling blocks might be. (Too bad Lesley-Anne won't mentor her own brother!) According to Lesley-Anne, they make their buddies take a simple English test during the first session and at the last session of the term. All of them had scored significantly higher in the second test, which I took to mean that they had benefited from the mentoring sessions.

For the GEP kids, I feel it gives them perspective to help kids who might not be as mentally agile as they are, to shift the focus from themselves and onto others.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Thinking (and fun) games for kids

Since the school holidays are approaching, I'll be writing more about leisure activities and less on school work (I'll probably have plenty to post about those during term time!) Today, I want to recommend some fun games for kids, in case you're wondering what they can do during the long vacation without having their brain completely disintegrate by the time school re-opens.

This game is not very new - it's been on the market for a while, but I think it's worth highlighting because of its entertainment and educational value. It's called Rush Hour by Thinkfun. Its objective is simple - basically, get the red car out of the gridlock using problem-solving and sequential-thinking skills (now you know why I like it! Yet another puzzle!) You set up the traffic as provided on a card and try to slide the vehicles around until you can get the red car out.

This game has won a whole string of awards - it's ingenious because it's visually interesting and easy to play, yet it makes you think. A set comes with a deck of 40 cards in increasing difficulty. Rush Hour is so popular that the makers created refill cards that you can buy if you finish the original 40. You can play all 40 of the original cards online, but I do recommend you buy the actual game because it's just more fun to physically move the cars around. Plus you don't really want your kids glued to the computer any more than they already are, right? It comes in a handy box that can be easily packed away and it can be played alone (great when you need your kid to entertain himself for a bit!)

Thinkfun has created some really intelligent games for kids that are simply terrific. We've since bought some others, including River Crossing (left) and Tipover (right). You can find them at any department store.

But my kids' (and my) favourite is still Rush Hour. The original and the best!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Pets for children? Start small

One of Lesley-Anne's long time ambitions is to be a vet because she adores animals. So naturally, the subject of pets came up. Both Kenneth and I are animal lovers, but we are also very pragmatic, forward-thinking parents. We've heard too many stories of how kids pester their parents for a dog or a cat, then once the fun wanes, it's the parent who has to bring the dog out for a walk, clean the poo, etc etc.

We resisted for a long time, but we also know that owning a pet instils a sense of responsibility, so we were two-minds about it. I had a mental list of disadvantages in my head: Dog - must walk, must clean poo, can be noisy, can be smelly. Cat - will drop fur, will scratch furniture, maybe will scratch children. Both - expensive. So we were at a stalemate... until a friend of mine offered me two hamsters. The story was that someone had given his kids two hamsters, but he had also just purchased a dog so the kids were now no longer interested in the hamsters. (In pet hierarchy, generally the bigger the pet, the higher the priority).

Well, since he was offering me free pets with free cage and trappings, I thought, why not? Hamsters would be easy pets to start with. We brought them home, the kids named them Hammie and Hyper. These are dwarf Winter White hamsters, very pretty. Lesley-Anne chose Hyper (and named her so) because when we were at my friend's place, that hamster kept running on the wheel at top speed, so she thought she'd like the active one.

Little did we know that Hyper was active because she was trying to escape from Hammie who was quite the queen tyrant! This one was a real spitfire alright - for the first few months, no one dared to take her out of her cage because she would hiss like a cat and bite any hand that wandered into the cage - vicious enough to draw blood. I would curse and swear everything I had to take her out to clean the cage. In fact, she attacked Hyper so badly that we had to separate the two eventually. Kenneth found another friend whose kid's pet hamster had just died and we took over the cage. (Look hard enough, you'll always find abandoned pet homes because pets die or kids lose interest!)

Hammie and Hyper are a great source of amusement to the family. If you think hamsters are not real pets, think again. They have their own personalities like all other pets. If you've watched Ratatouille, then you'll understand when I say that Hammie is exactly like Remy (the chef) and Hyper like Emile (the brother). Hammie (left pic) is super active, picky about food and now that we've tamed her, very affectionate. She's great fun to play with and will even lick my hand and let me rub her belly. Hyper turned out to be the antithesis of her name. She is fat, lazy... and fat. Her sole interest in life is eating. Ever since she's been released from the torture chamber with Hammie, her life consists of eating and sleeping. Sometimes, she even sleeps in the food bowl, probably to save herself the trouble of waddling to her munchies.

It's been over a year, the two hamsters are living the good life, though probably not for long as the life span of hamsters is only up to two years. Lesley-Anne is quite good about looking after the hamsters, which convinced me that her love of animals is not a passing phase. However, we've long delegated the washing of the cages to the maid (any surprise?)

Hamsters are great starter pets because they're very low maintenance. Fill up their food and water, clean the cage once a week and they're happy. If you use recycled paper pellets as bedding, you hardly get any smell. We've even left them unguarded in the house when we went to Hong Kong for 4 days, they were still happy and alive when we got back. In fact, we enjoy the hamsters so much that I suspect when they go on to Hamster Heaven, we might not move on to a cat or a dog, we'll just get more hamsters.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Watch out, black cat on the loose!

Over the weekend, Lesley-Anne was invited to a friend's birthday party. It was a theme party, so the guests were asked to dress up in costume. But since the guests were all self-conscious 11-year-olds, it must have been quite a task trying to find outfits that were "costume-y" enough without being too attention-seeking.

I brain-stormed quite a few with Lesley-Anne before she finally agreed on one which wasn't too "embarrassing". Eunice, I'll confess right now, I borrowed the idea from the Garfield costume you made for Sean!

It was very simple to make. A regular black t-shirt and bicycle shorts, a mask copied from the internet and painted black, two cardboard ears stuck onto a black hairband, and a bag strap as a tail.

Tah-dah - Catwoman! I told her not to cross anyone at the party or they'll all end up with seven years of bad luck, hehe.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

"The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination"

In June 2008, JK Rowling gave a commencement address at Harvard University. Some of you may have read it as it was widely circulated on the Internet. Since I write speeches occasionally, I immediately recognised how well-written the speech was - with dazzling clarity, masterful use of the language, a generous dose of humour and wit, and delivered with impeccable style and sincerity.

But more than being an articulately written speech, the address touched on extremely pertinent issues for parents - the key ingredients that breed success in children, however we define success. It also makes an impassioned plea for us to remember our larger responsibilities as human beings - to make a difference to the lives of others.

The speech itself is about 20 mins long - it's well worth listening to because JK Rowling is a very persuasive speaker, but in case you prefer to just read it, I've reproduced the full text of The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination below the videos, which are divided into Part 1 and Part 2.

President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents, and, above all, graduates.

The first thing I would like to say is 'thank you.' Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honor, but the weeks of fear and nausea I've experienced at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and fool myself into believing I am at the world's best-educated Harry Potter convention.

Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing this one, because it turns out that I can't remember a single word she said. This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.

You see? If all you remember in years to come is the 'gay wizard' joke, I've still come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step towards personal improvement.

Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that has expired between that day and this.

I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called 'real life', I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.

These might seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but please bear with me.

Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is a slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that she has become. Half my lifetime ago, I was striking an uneasy balance between the ambition I had for myself, and what those closest to me expected of me.

I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was to write novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that could never pay a mortgage, or secure a pension.

They had hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English Literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern Languages. Hardly had my parents' car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.

I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.

I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you. What is more, I cannot criticize my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticized only by fools.

What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.

At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at university, where I had spent far too long in the coffee bar writing stories, and far too little time at lectures, I had a knack for passing examinations, and that, for years, had been the measure of success in my life and that of my peers.

I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.

However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person's idea of success, so high have you already flown academically.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned.

Given a time machine or a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone's total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

You might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. This revelation came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working in the research department at Amnesty International's headquarters in London.

There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes.

Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to think independently of their government. Visitors to our office included those who had come to give information, or to try and find out what had happened to those they had been forced to leave behind.

I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting him to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.

And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just given him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country's regime, his mother had been seized and executed.

Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.

Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard and read.

And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.

Amnesty mobilizes thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people's minds, imagine themselves into other people's places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathize.

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces can lead to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the willfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

What is more, those who choose not to empathize may enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy. One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people's lives simply by existing.

But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people's lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world's only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.

I am nearly finished. I have one last hope for you, which is something that I already had at 21. The friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life. They are my children's godparents, the people to whom I've been able to turn in times of trouble, friends who have been kind enough not to sue me when I've used their names for Death Eaters. At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience of a time that could never come again, and, of course, by the knowledge that we held certain photographic evidence that would be exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for Prime Minister.

So today, I can wish you nothing better than similar friendships. And tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom:

As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.

I wish you all very good lives.

Thank you very much.

(Reproduced from Harvard Magazine, 5 June 2008)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Throwback to the 1960s - Sheryl Crow

I'm still trying to keep up with my one-post-a-day target but some days, I just hit a blank (I suspect I'm gonna break the streak soon, finally I'm getting busy with work again! Yay!) On days like these, you either get fluff or something I dredged up from my writing store somewhere. This is one of those days.

Since my last music post brought all the closet '60s and '70s singers fans out of the woodwork, I thought I'd write another music post. Someone more contemporary this time - Sheryl Crow. I love Ms Crow because her voice has that unique wistful quality that projects her inner strength. She writes her own music and often, the instrumentation in her songs is so reminiscent of the Flower Power days of the 1960s. That's why I thought the parents here might enjoy her albums, if you haven't already discovered them.

Her latest two albums are very reflective and soulful. "Wildflower" I absolutely love because it so fits in with my melancholy streak, but don't listen to this if you're feeling blue because it will likely make you utterly miserable! I really feel she was robbed of her "Best Pop Vocal Album" Grammy in 2006 for this album (which went to Kelly Clarkson! What a miscarriage of justice!) Sheryl Crow's lastest offering is "Detours", which I feel is not on the same level of brilliance as "Wildflower" but still well worth listening to. Anyway, this is a review I wrote on "Detours" for a youth organisation that I volunteer with (that's why it's addressed to youths).

Detours – Sheryl Crow

In recent years, Sheryl Crow has blossomed into a serious artiste, moving into more thought-provoking and artsy songs. This is very different from her early albums which were full of sunshine-y and bubblegum pop like “All I Wanna Do” and “Soak Up The Sun”. Her previous album “Wildflower” (another terrific production) showed a more soulful side of Sheryl Crow and her latest album “Detours” continues this vein of heartfelt self-expression.

Sheryl has never kept secret her strong views on issues such as politics, the environment and relationships. In Detours, all these come across with conviction and sincerity. “God Bless This Mess” talks about the trauma faced by soldiers who return from Iraq while “Gasoline” hazards a guess at the uncertain future. “Peace Be Upon Us” is her passionate plea for people to live in harmony and features very catchy Indian instrumentation. She also shows great vulnerability, singing about her personal life. “Diamond Ring” laments her broken engagement with Lance Armstrong, “Make It Go Away (Radiation Song)” is a poignant reflection of her breast cancer experience and “Lullaby for Wyatt” is a tender dedication to her adopted son.

But at the end of the day, it is the music that Sheryl excels best in. She has the knack of writing captivating melodies that are simply lovely without being sugary and superficial. Examples are “Love Is All There Is”, “Love is Free”, “Detours” and “Now That You’re Gone”. These songs have the ability to transport you to a world of sweet (or maybe bittersweet) memories and happy times.

Sheryl has come under some fire, with some saying that she thinks her views (especially political) overly important. I say, it’s a nice change from the usually mindless pop. It would be an inspiration to all youths who wish to express themselves through their music.

And the great thing about Sheryl Crow is that her songs continue to have very appealing tunes, especially with repeat listening. So if you find the themes too heavy, you don’t even have to pay any attention to the lyrics and just enjoy the music. If you want a change from the usual teenage angst of Avril Lavigne, just for a while, I highly recommend giving this album a try.
Here is a video of one of my favourite tracks in the album, "Love Is All There Is". Enjoy!

Friday, November 7, 2008

A life lesson I learnt from my son

Being clueless is part of Andre's DNA. Take a recent incident for instance. One of his friends called and he chatted away animatedly on the phone for a full ten minutes. When he finally hung up, I asked, out of curiosity, "Who was that?"

Andre (shrugs): I don't know

Me (incredulously): Huh? You talked on the phone for so long and you don't know who it was?

Andre (indignantly): He didn't tell me his name!

Apparently, the name of the caller was just a minor, unimportant detail. I told him he should always know who he's talking to, so since then, every time he gets a phone call, he would demand, "Who are you?"

But yet it is this same cluelessness that enables him to enjoy life. Sometimes, I think it must be great going through life as Andre - never worrying about tomorrow, always living for the moment. He doesn't care what other people think of him, not as a strategy for a happy life but I suspect because it doesn't even occur to him to care.

Just this Monday, Andre told me it was "Be Yourself Day" at school, so he could wear anything he liked. I had recalled reading it in a note but had misplaced it. Nevertheless, I took his word for it and let him wear his Ben 10 t-shirt to school.

When Lesley-Anne came home from school (she's in the morning session, he's in the afternoon), I happened to mention it to her. She exclaimed, "It's not today, it's TOMORROW!" OMG, I almost died. (Lesson: never take Andre's word for anything, always check with the clued in elder sister.) I imagined him sticking out like a sore thumb in his Ben 10 t-shirt amidst a sea of school uniforms.

My dread deepened when Lesley-Anne recounted how a girl had mistaken the wrong day for Racial Harmony Day and starting crying because she was so mortified to be in her red cheongsam when everyone else was in their school uniforms. If this had happened to Lesley-Anne, I'm sure it would have scarred her for life.

So you can imagine my concern while waiting for Andre to return home. When Andre stepped through the door, I casually asked, "Wrong day?" To my immense relief, he smacked his own forehead and laughed, "Yah!! It's tomorrow!! Hahahaha!!!" Andre has a very infectious laugh, so pretty soon, we were all in stitches. Then he added, "Can I wear my other Ben 10 shirt to school tomorrow?"

It's not often I learn something from Andre but this is a valuable lesson: when you don't take yourself too seriously, you're more likely to enjoy life to the fullest.

(Picture Andre drew of himself when he was in p1)

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Understanding your tween

My late piano teacher, having taught hundreds of kids over the years, used to say, "Something happens to kids once they hit p5 - suddenly, they think they know everything." I never took this seriously... until Lesley-Anne entered p5.

Overnight, my sweet, thoughtful little girl, who's as close to an angelic child as you can get, became sulky, rude, emotional and hyper-sensitive (ok, she always was a sensitive child, but now magnify it x10). What happened? I was bewildered to say the least. After speaking to some parents who faced the same problems, we decided it was probably hormonal and a bad case of "growing pains".

Now that we're nearing the end of the year, I can say that Lesley-Anne has calmed down somewhat compared to the beginning of this year. Maybe she has managed to resolve some of the issues on her own, or maybe I'm learning better how to deal with them in a way that is acceptable to her.

Last week at the library, this book caught my eye - The Everything Tween Book: A parent's guide to surviving the turbulent pre-teen years. I thought, hmm... interesting! So I borrowed it.

For those of you who don't know, tweens are defined as those between the ages of 8 and 13. There is lots of talk about the "terrible teenage years" but hardly anything before that. But considering that during the tween years, kids go through a whirlwind of physical, social and emotional changes - it deserves proper attention.

The book itself is nothing ground-breaking, in my opinion. Like most of the books in the series (as well as the For Dummies and Idiots series), it is meant to give a general overview on the topic, written in a simple way. It covers all the related topics but doesn't go into in-depth discussions, if that's what you're looking for.

But there are some interesting titbits in this book that I thought would be worthwhile sharing. First, a quote that captures it all in describing tweens:
"Tweens are a mass of contradictions. Even as their bodies are maturing in preparation to create other human beings, they can have temper tantrums worthy of a two-year-old, sleep with stuffed animals, and need Mom to remind them to wash their ears when they take a bath."
That is so true. Lesley-Anne is mature for her age - she has the patience of Job when mentoring a p2 student, yet she needs to be told repeatedly to dry her hands after she has washed them.

According to the book, here are some of the characteristics of tweens:

1. All-or-nothing logic. Tweens tend to see everything in black-and-white. People are either good or bad, situations are either fair or unfair. There is no middle ground with them. But yet, these perceptions can change in an instance. You can be the world's worst mum, but do something nice and suddenly you're the best mum in the world.

2. The silent years. Those who have tweens will know you sometimes need to pry information out of them. Standard answers to your questions are: "Dunno", "Whatever" or even just a shrug. What I found comforting was that the book says it's not that you are losing touch with your child, rather, your child has lost touch with herself and is unable to identify and express her emotions.

3. Looking for authority. In the early tween years, parents or other adults tend to be the kids' role models. In the later tweens, this authority is transfered to their peers. Mum and dad know longer know it all. (In fact, sometimes they know nothing!) Instead, their friends are the fonts of wisdom. This is also the time when peer pressure is very strong.

4. Emotional basketcases. Tweens (especially girls) have intense and unpredictable mood swings. Even a normally placid tween can suddenly become emotionally charged and explosive, sometimes for seemingly no good reason. Tweens often over-dramatise events ("my life is over!").

So what can we do to help our tweens (and parents!!) during this difficult transition period?

There is one very interesting point in the book I want to highlight. I'd always assumed that hormones was a big reason for the roller coaster emotions. But apparently, this belief has not been established scientifically. I was surprised to learn that the testosterone level of boys at age eight is approximately five times that of boys entering puberty. Wah! So if we believe that hormones influence behaviour, Andre is more likely to act aggressively now than when he's a teenager. No way!

According to the book, the more likely reason for emotional older tweens is a combination of immaturity and social pressure, NOT hormones. It was a little disturbing to read this (of girl tweens):
"By age twelve, too many girls define their self-worth almost exclusively in terms of what their peers think of them - or in terms of what they think their peers think of them. No matter how much emotional support and reassurance you try to give your daughter at home, you may feel impotent to combat a peer group that seems to be catching her more tightly in its grip with each passing day."
In fact, many older tweens will hide or give up their special talents if they feel their peers will not approve. As parents, it's all too easy to tell our kids, "Don't give in to peer pressure! If your friend jumps, will you jump too?" But in reality, it is very difficult for tweens to stand tall in their individuality, especially since kids in school can be very cruel. The solution offered by the book is to take your tween seriously and don't belittle or shame her for feeling the need to fit in. Acknowledge her feelings and just keep telling her that when her peers mature, their values will change and they will be more accepting and even appreciative of differences. Continue to be supportive so that she will know she can approach you to share her feelings.

Here's the encouraging part: even if your tween talks back to you, tells you that you're the worst parent in the world, most girl tweens still consider their mothers as their biggest role models, and boy tweens their dads. So look out for the moments that they are most communicative (which may be rare!) and show your affection and support either physically or verbally.

I find that sometimes, when Lesley-Anne is in one of those black moods, it's not that she doesn't want to come out of it, she doesn't know how. Snapping at her almost always makes it worse. I find that humour sometimes diffuses the situation. By saying something totally silly or doing a funny action, it lifts the tension and she'll then laugh and say, "Mummy, you're so silly!" Or sometimes, she just needs time to be by herself, and the storm will blow over on its own.

In short, what I've learnt over the past year is that the main thing required to deal with your tween is patience - oodles and oodles of it.
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