Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Judging a book by its shelf space

I have a love-hate relationship with my Ikea bookshelves. The love is easy to explain - they're so pretty. White, simple and pristine, they keep my office orderly in an understated, elegant way. Heck, they even allow me to display movie posters on the cupboard doors.

Why hate? Well, they've begun to sag. Actually, I think the sagging process started the minute I put my books on them. Ikea reduces the price every year but what they don't tell you is they also reduce the quality until it's virtually just a couple of cardboard sheets acting as shelves. Is it only me who thinks it's ridiculous to sell a bookshelf that's not designed to hold the weight of books? Damn you, Billy Bookcase. If only you didn't look so good.

Maybe it's partly my fault - I have way too many books. So many that my bookshelf sagged from intimidation. It would be justifiable if they were all great books but the fact is among the gems, I also have lots of duds. Books that should never have been published and did the trees which gave up their precious pulp a grave disservice.

Take Paul Theroux, for example. He used to be a brilliant story-teller. I love his earlier writing and could even forgive him for his petty, anti-Singapore grudge. But in his old age, his books have become self-absorbed and incomprehensible drivel. It's like seeing John Lennon degenerate into Justin Bieber. Yet, I keep buying his books, hoping beyond hope that he would revert to his glory days. Three strikes, you're out. Utter waste of paper, waste of my time and waste of my bookshelf space.

Why do I bother to keep them, then? Because, ladies and gentlemen, I'm a book hoarder. Here's roughly my thought process:

"That book was pretty bad, I should dump it."
"But I paid good money for it."
"I'll probably never read it again anyway, so why keep it."
"But some day, my kids might..."

Inevitable conclusion: "Ah well, it doesn't take up much space anyway."
Result: sagging bookshelves

I do give away some books that I really cannot tahan on my shelf anymore but not nearly enough. I have Enid Blytons, Agatha Christies and a whole series of Disney books from my youth, that no one else in this household will ever read. I faithfully saved them for my kids, not realising that Enid Blyton had long gone out of fashion. But when I remember how I've lugged them from house to house (I've moved 7 times in my life, 8 if you count the move to the university hostel), it seems a little sayang to throw them out now. My books are a bit like family - they give you baggage that drive you insane but you feel guilty parting with them.

I recently did a count and discovered that I have 18 unread books on my bookshelf. The crazy thing is, I keep buying more. Sometimes, for no reason other than there was a 10% discount coupon on bookdepository. I have to force myself to edit my buys at book sales. I even have a book entitled, "So Many Books, So Little Time". I don't think I ever finished it.

I don't just buy books, I buy book sets. I have a compulsive urge to collect entire book series, preferably in the same edition, thank you very much. My kids are beneficiaries of this obsession - I rarely turn down book requests (unless it's Twilight or Archie comics).

Please don't ask me why Andre has toy soldiers guarding his books.

You know, being a book hoarder has its plus points. Whenever Lesley-Anne brings home a required reading list for literature, chances are she needs to look no further than my bookshelves.

And when her friends came over and saw my shelves, they went a little berserk. "You have the coolest mum!" they gushed. It's nice to be a hero in the eyes of your child's friends.

Yes, I am a hoarder. But as a friend said, better books than shoes.

“Of course anyone who truly loves books buys more of them than he or she can hope to read in one fleeting lifetime. A good book, resting unopened in its slot on a shelf, full of majestic potentiality, is the most comforting sort of intellectual wallpaper.” - David Quaimen

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The failure of success

Lesley-Anne's arch nemesis is maths. It's always been the subject that gives her the most grief. Despite this, she has managed to do reasonably well in maths thus far through sheer hard work.

When she hit sec 3 this year however, the struggle really got to her, particularly in A Maths. So much so that she asked for maths tuition as she was unable to follow the lessons in school. Despite this, she still flunked her mid-year A Math exam dismally. She was terribly upset because she had spent a lot of time working on it, at the expense of some other subjects. Yet when she told me the news, I said, "good!"

Before you gasp and call me a sadist, I want to clarify that I do appreciate the work she has put in and I do empathise with her disappointment. However, I find that for high achieving kids like Lesley-Anne, failure can be such a foreign concept. While she's not one of the truly top scorers, she generally does well academically even in a competitive school and is able to juggle lots of other activities like piano, ballet and a heavy CCA.

I understand how some parents might think this is a dream scenario but in this respect, I actually worry more for her than for Andre. For kids like Andre, failure is part and parcel of their everyday life. He has to put in twice the effort as Lesley-Anne to achieve half the results. And even then, he often doesn't get the results he desires, both academically and in sports. Ironically then, his successes are celebrated more because they're not expected, they're a bonus.

To me, kids who have not tasted failure are in a much more vulnerable position. In an achievement-centric system like Singapore's, kids like Lesley-Anne tend to link their self-esteem with their accomplishments. This comes about because they are constantly praised by teachers and parents for their academic and other achievements, so that they internalise the message as, "I'm valued because of what I've achieved, not who I am."

I've definitely been guilty of reinforcing this. When my kids were much younger, I used to wonder why it was that my very accomplished daughter seemed to have a shakier self-esteem than her much less academic brother. Lesley-Anne was the typical high achieving student in lower primary, always aiming for high marks and striving to please us. But she was also inward-looking and shied away from trying new things.
Contrast this with Andre, whose self-esteem is not linked to his academic achievement (thank God for that!) He may be disappointed with bad marks but they don't cause him to think less of himself, at least not for long. He's also less worried about the unknown and more ready to laugh at his own mistakes.
It was only later, I think when Lesley-Anne was in p4, that the reality dawned on me. Her teacher asked each student to stand up and tell the class what he or she is most afraid of. She stood up and declared, "I'm afraid of failure." That's when I realised that all those times of praising her for her achievements and scolding her when her results didn't meet expectations (like 99% of other parents), were actually having a damaging effect on her character.
Time for damage control then. From then, I tried to de-link achievement and value. I consciously encouraged and praised her for trying new things out of her comfort zone (even if it's something as trivial as going on a roller coaster). I told her it's the effort that counts and I tried to mean what I said, so if she came home with an unsatisfactory score, I wouldn't berate her for it because I know she had worked hard for it. The score was inconsequential.

I do feel that these measures have made a difference and even though she still strives to score well (nothing wrong with that, by the way), I'd like to believe that her scores no longer affect her self-esteem.

I strongly believe that this lesson is an important one. For kids who have always succeeded, the fear of failing can become crippling. Afterall, the higher you go, the further you have to fall. Inadvertently, they start fashioning their lives around not falling, by doing only things they think they will succeed in. It prevents them from trying new stuff, from enjoying their lives. It imprisons them.

This brings me to this book, "The Happy Student" by Daniel Wong. Daniel is a product of the Singapore education system and offered to send me a copy of his book. I'll admit when he first contacted me, I was skeptical. I told him I wasn't going to use my blog as an advertising platform and I'd write about it only if I felt it had value.

After reading parts of it, I thought I'd mention it here. I like that Daniel was a local student (he attended Tao Nan, Raffles Institution and Victoria JC) because that's definitely something other students can connect with. Essentially, he recounts all the anxiety and disatisfaction he felt with chasing grades and tries to bring about awareness that academic achievement does not equate fulfillment, based on his own experience. I also like his casual writing style - it's friendly and easy to read.

However, don't expect any earth-shattering revelations. Most of what he says is common sense, nothing new. Basically he says what I've been saying all along, it's the journey, not the destination that counts.  I think the book might be useful for high flying students who face the same dilemma of grade-chasing for its own sake, to give them some perspective from someone who's been there, done that. If I have one criticism of the book, it's that Daniel seems too much like the perfect student to be true, that he risks alienating some readers. I think he would have come across more real if he had included some instances where he'd failed and how he got back on his feet, but that's just my opinion.

As I was flipping through the book, I came across this page, which confirms what I've been saying earlier - that focusing on academic success is actually detrimental to character building and learning:

"When you've attained superficial success, there's a lot of pressure on you to continue succeeding... I performed well academically throughout my schooling years. Consequently, I felt the need to keep up my grades. I began to fear the possibility of not getting an A for a class. In order to ensure that I kept getting A's, I only took classes that I'd already demonstrated an aptitude for. I shied away from classes or activities where my aptitude hadn't yet been tested. This meant that I never tried my hand at things like dance, theater or literature.

This resulted in more A's but less education, more awards but less fulfillment, more accomplishments but less growth - and this was driven entirely by fear."

- The Happy Student, Daniel Wong, p132
I therefore truly believe that the occasional dose of failure is healthy, especially when you're young. It will help you recognise that failure is an essential part of life's journey, and that picking yourself up and trying again is nothing to be ashamed of, in fact, is part of the process of growing as an individual. A caveat though, I'm not talking about failing something that you didn't have time to work on or didn't bother to put in the effort. I'm talking about failing despite the effort and long hours.

As part of my work, I interview many doctors and healthcare professionals. A senior doctor in charge of education at SingHealth once told me about a very tough medical exam which has a high failure rate of 75%. The medical students who sit for the exam know that passing would be a challenge. Yet when they fail, some of them behave like it's the end of the world and start questioning their own abilities. That's because they have become so accustomed to success that they are completely unequipped to deal with failure. The senior doctor looked amused, "It's just an exam! Pick yourself up and try again."

That's what we need to teach our kids, folks. And so to Lesley-Anne, I say, "you failed your math exam? Good! It's ok. Try again next time."

"Succeed by failing." - Gretchen Rubin

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Pasta and pig trotters

Warning: Although this is a post on Mother's Day, my sole intent is to indulge in food porn. So if you're not a foodie, skip this!

We decided to partake in a double celebration this year. Since my mother-in-law now lives with us, we thought it called for two Mother's Day meals. (In case you haven't noticed, this is a family that will use any excuse to makan.)

Saturday evening dinner was for my benefit and I requested for Italian cuisine, to satisfy my craving for gnocchi. I don't usually hanker for Italian food, but ever since I first tasted gnocchi about a year ago, it's been on my mind.

For those who don't know, gnocchi is pasta made from potato instead of wheat. It has a gooey texture and is less chewy than your regular pasta. It's actually quite jelak, so I can only manage a small portion of it at one sitting but it's decadently delicious with a cream sauce.

After checking out a few menus and reviews online, we decided on Pasta Fresca. This restaurant is one of the pioneering Italian restaurants in Singapore and we've been there a couple of times but for some reason, it's never been a regular haunt with us. In fact, this was our kids' first time there.

Here's what we ordered:

Croquettes (made from mashed potato, egg, mint and parmesan cheese) $9.80.

Lightly battered so it's crunchy outside and fluffy inside. The sauce with a dollop of cheese is fabulous.

Gnocchi with Mare e Monti sauce (tomato and cream sauce with crab meat and mushrooms) $18.90.

This was the star of the show. I was worried the dish would under-deliver since I had such high hopes for it. My worries were unfounded - it was YUMMMZ. The texture of the gnocchi was sublime and after tasting it, Kenneth and Lesley-Anne became gnocchi converts too. The sauce was superb, with generous pieces of crab meat, but we may order a cream sauce the next time (yes, there's definitely gonna be a next time!)

Tortellini with Mama Rosa sauce (tomato and cream sauce with mushroom and parmesan cheese) $17.10

This was Lesley-Anne's order, she loves tortellini. You can't really taste the meat filling but the pasta is very fresh and the sauce again, is excellent.

Quattro Formaggi pizza (4 cheeses pizza with emmenthal, Danish blue cheese, parmesan and mozzarella) $19.90

Andre chose this one and he loved it, declaring it the best pizza he'd ever eaten. The rest of us thought it was good but it wasn't our favourite. I think we prefer some meat toppings on our pizzas whereas Andre is Cheeseboy.

Ending with dessert - Tiramisu al Mascarpone e Caffe $9.30

This is a generous size, great for sharing. Some may feel there's not enough of a liquor taste but it's perfect for us with kids. It lasted all of 5 minutes at our table. I had to practically fend off poised forks and yell "Don't eat first! Let me take a photo!" to get this shot.

Mother's Day part 2 was Sunday lunch at Chui Huay Lim Teochew Restaurant. Located at the Chui Huay Lim Clubhouse at Keng Lee Road, this is a relatively new restaurant by the Jumbo group. My mother-in-law is Teochew and so am I, so this is a return to our roots!

And here's our order:

Traditional liver rolls $8

Deep fried prawn balls $12

"Puning" Fermented Bean Chicken $15 (half a chicken)

Jellied pig trotters $8

Stir-Fried Baby French Beans $10 (small)

Signature cold crab $38 (large)

"Gooey" oyster omelette $12

Fried mee suah $24 (medium)

For dessert, yam paste ("orh nee") $4 (individual serving)

This was our first visit to the restaurant and I must say, we were all wowed by the quality of the food. All the dishes managed to keep the authenticity of Teochew cuisine while bringing out the freshness and flavours of the ingredients. The chicken was an unexpected hit with tangy slivers of salted vegetable and the cold crab was divine.

It's not easy to impress our family when it comes to Chinese food cos my mother-in-law is a 5-star cook and we do eat out a lot, but this restaurant got top marks from all of us. Most definitely worthy of a visit (and re-visit).

The mandatory potent Chinese tea to complete the meal.

And so you don't say my Mother's Day was only about food, here are the cards made by my two very thoughtful, very sweet kids. (No prizes for guessing who made which card).

Here's hoping all you mums had an equally (to borrow Lesley-Anne's phrases) fun-filled, food-filled, family-filled Mother's Day!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Ankle aweigh!

It's been slightly over 3 weeks since Andre injured his foot and being immobile has been tough on him. Looking on the bright side, his condition has led him to some memorable experiences, such as riding on this stair contraption for wheelchairs (we happened to be at a building that didn't have a ramp). The security guard looked almost as thrilled as Andre, apparently it was his first time operating the equipment.

Finally, it was time to remove the cast. About time too - Andre's restlessness was beginning to translate into recklessness - like hopping on one foot to the bathroom or zipping about in his swivel chair, brandishing the crutch like a machine gun. It was another accident waiting to happen.

Making the cut...

... and the foot's free at last!

The news is great - his foot is fully recovered and there's no discernible swelling. This calls for a celebration with a large platter of fish and chips at Fish & Co!

The foot's not entirely back to normal though. Since it's been in a cast for so long, it still feels tender and sore when Andre puts weight on it, so he continues to use his crutches. To help with the recovery, he's been going swimming everyday, something he relishes. Not only will it improve strength and flexibility in his foot, it should also help him rebuild his stamina.

Praying he will be back on his feet real soon!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Sleepover for dream girls

You've probably figured out that we're big on sleepovers. It's enormous fun for the kids and they get to hang out with their friends for more than just a couple of hours.

Lesley-Anne organised a sleepover as a belated birthday celebration over the Labour Day holiday and invited the female classmates from her primary school. It's funny but even after being in different secondary schools for almost three years, many of these girls are still closer to their primary school classmates. I think it has something to do with the small class sizes of GEP and there are so few girls that close bonds tend to form among them.

Most of them came over late after school and we provided dinner - shepherd's pie (which was a great hit at Lesley-Anne's last birthday party three years ago), broccoli soup and garlic bread. These girls love food and tucked in with relish. One asked Lesley-Anne, "do you eat like this everyday??" According to Lesley-Anne, one of the girls was once asked to write a Chinese composition on anorexia and she said, "Teacher, I can't! All my friends like to eat!" Heh.

Then there was the mandatory cake ritual and I thought it would be interesting to compare the photo with the one three years ago, when Lesley-Anne turned 12.

This is 2012:

and 2009:

It's so nostalgic to see how much the girls have grown (not all of them are in both pictures though). They're all blossoming!

They spent the rest of the night yakking and playing their favourite board game - Gift Trap. It's a terrific game for social events and tells a lot about the personalities of individuals. Basically, you move forward for giving gifts that people like, and also for receiving gifts you like. If you tend to give good gifts, it shows you know the people around you well. If you tend to get good gifts, it shows that others know you well.

One girl in the group kept winning and I wasn't surprised, she's a very perceptive individual. I predict she'll go far in life. Another turned out to be a disaster at both giving and receiving. Hmmm...

One of the girls gave Lesley-Anne a giraffe t-shirt and it was only later that the girls realised she had drawn it herself. The other girls were surprised, apparently the giver could only doodle stick figures back in primary school. Talk about hidden talents!

Here's another thoughtful, home-made gift. I love it, it's so creative.

Not all the girls could sleep over but they stayed up till almost midnight before they left. They were chatting and laughing so loudly that a feeling-left-out Andre came out of his room and pouted, "can you tell them some people are trying to sleep here."

In the end, only 2 girls could stay the night so it was a cosy affair.

Breakfast in the morning - simple fare of toast with Nutella or cheese, or cereal.

In the late morning, 2 of the girls from the previous day returned to rejoin the party, so the fun started all over again!

I know I've said this before but really, organising a party for girls is child's play compared to one for boys. Unlike at Andre's party, I didn't have anyone:

1) attempt to destroy my furniture
2) tear around the house trying to "shoot" each other
3) leave food and water trails all over the floor ala Hansel and Gretel
4) visit the kitchen 100 times to test out the fridge water dispenser

The girls even collected all the rubbish in a plastic bag and discarded it neatly after they were done. Civilisation, thou art female.

Lunch was spaghetti and they requested for the leftover broccoli soup cos they enjoyed it so much the night before.

Lesley-Anne really enjoyed the birthday/reunion party and it was great to see the warmth and camaraderie. These are lovely girls - they're bright but not full of themselves, sparkly and not catty, like some girls can be.

There are few things in life as precious as true friendship. I hope these girls will treasure each other for life.

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