Aug 23 2016

10

Published by under This Week

10

10

Layla turned 10 a week ago, and I think we’ve finally put the birthday party tradition to rest; it was fun while it lasted and I love that we made special effort every year to get creative, but I also think some of it was extravagant. It didn’t necessarily celebrate our daughter and who she is, and focusing on themes took away from the party spirit of just spending time with people and getting to know them better.

Ten is pretty grown up. We didn’t have a “party,” but we did have a low-key gathering where we invited a few girls from the neighbourhood, and together with Layla, they impressed me with their manners and maturity. For one, they included Z in everything, even Pokemon Go, never once saying he was too little to get it. Dinner was delivered to us from McD’s and one of the girls said her burger was so yummy and thanked me for it. Someone threw up after her McChicken dinner, quietly in our bathroom, and another watched over her just like a sister would, checking on her and nagging at her for not remembering she was lactose intolerant.

There were no goody bags at our celebration and I don’t think it was expected either. The cake was the off-the-shelf variety from Polar, and after making sure everyone had a slice, I brought some over to our next-door neighbour’s home too. One girl realised I hadn’t had any cake yet and stopped eating midway to ask if I wanted some. When I was dishing out ice cream, and finally got around to serving myself, a spoon magically appeared in front of me, courtesy of another guest. Everyone disposed of their trash without being asked.

There were a few phones in sight but for several hours, the kids played old school games like Telephone (pass the message), A E I O U, and some sort of murder mystery game. As they entertained themselves, Alf and I chatted, I did the dishes and laundry, and when everything was in order, at slightly after 9PM, we dropped our guests off at their respective homes. I actually think this ranks up there as one of my favourite parties.

To be honest, I’m not sure what to write about my 10 year old anymore that doesn’t infringe on her privacy, and she’s almost at the age where she’ll be crafting her own digital identity, according to new rules that I probably won’t understand. To give her a fairly clean slate, I’ve spring cleaned this blog yet again and removed a good portion of school-related posts, along with anything that might cause strangers to judge her unfairly. I’m conscious about photo taking when it comes to her and her friends; I do share pictures with a smaller audience on Facebook, and even those are deleted after a brief spell.

There’s still Z of course, but I should find a new blogging focus that I can commit to, which isn’t tagged with an expiry date. :)

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Aug 19 2016

Esperanza Rising (Scholastic)

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Esperanza Rising

The cool thing about YA (young adult) fiction is being able to get through a story in a couple of hours; it’s a sense of accomplishment that I don’t often get with my own books, some of which are left hanging for years!

Layla and I read Scholastic’s “Esperanza Rising” during the June holiday break. We didn’t discuss it much. I’m a big believer in reading for pleasure and not everyone fancies a bookclub-style conversation, well at least not my daughter at this point in her life. I do feel the book is pitched above her level of understanding (as many YA books would be), not in terms of vocabulary but context—it’s a riches-to-rags story about a Mexican family forced into forging a new way of life in the US during the Great Depression. Homelessness, poverty, and discrimination are some of the major themes of the book, and I trust Layla will build up her awareness about such issues as she grows up. I’m still reading and learning about these every day.

The YA books from Scholastic often feature a back section with trivia and related information. There’s usually a glossary, but for this book there was a Q&A with the author, a recipe, instructions for a yarn doll craft, and a section on cultural proverbs. I found the Q&A particularly enlightening; it even highlighted something that I’d missed, that the chapters were all named after fruit and veggies! From the author, Pam Munoz Ryan:

That wasn’t something that came about early in the planning of the book. It came about later. I started to feel that Esperanza’s life was taking on the rhythm of the harvest, so I called my editor and said, “What if I named the chapters after the harvest that she’s experiencing in each chapter?” She said I should give it a try, and it worked. Then I went back and reworked the chapters a little to pull that thread a little tighter and to make those chapter headings more symbolic.

Reading about this made me want to reread the book and hunt for those symbolic connections, which I’d missed in my first reading. But if we’re talking about harvest themes, here are some quick thoughts on the novel.

Life: This is the theme of the prologue, where Esperanza’s father helps her understand that nature is alive. “This whole valley lives and breathes,” he says, before asking her to lie on the ground and “feel the earth’s heartbeat.” It’s a significant memory in the book.

Death: Tragedy strikes early in the novel: A loved one is lost, life-threatening situations ensue, and Esperanza is forced to leave her home (a ranch in Mexico) and her entire existence behind. This chain of events is inspired by the author’s own family history, and you can read more about it here.

Rebirth: In a new environment (California), Esperanza struggles to find her identity and, stripped of her wealth, discovers that her true value is her strength and ability to be a team player.

Growth: Much of the book centres on Esperanza’s character development, culminating in an episode where she risks her own safety to help a farm striker Marta, barely older than her, escape arrest and deportation. Her memories of Marta taunting her while they were living in the same labour camp (for Mexican farm workers) are fresh, but her desire to help Marta reunite with her mother overrides the hurt and resentment. It’s a sign of how much Esperanza has matured; at the beginning of the story, she refuses to let a little girl touch her doll because she is “poor and dirty.”

Life comes full circle: One of the takeaways from this story is that nothing lasts forever: Happiness is fragile, and tragedy is temporary. There is a happy ending, and it’s one of reunions and renewed hope. The final words of the story are suitably uplifting, with Esperanza imparting words of well-earned wisdom to a younger girl: “Do not ever be afraid to start over.”

If you’d like to find out more about Esperanza Rising, Scholastic has a wonderful resource site.

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Jul 28 2016

If Kids Ran The World (Scholastic)

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If Kids Ran The World

These days, I wake up every morning to yet another horror story about some grown-up or other trying to ruin the world, so yes, I wish we could hand the reins over to the kids.

If Kids Ran The World

And I’m sure that’s exactly what they would do.

Note the racial diversity in the opening pages of “If Kids Ran The World” by Leo and Diane Dillon; it’s a running theme throughout the book.

We’re a biracial family–in fact our extended family is a rainbow by now, so integration is built into our network and it’s not something I think about much anymore. But I’m reminded of an article I read, claiming that kids “who make friends with kids of other races tend to be more socially well-adjusted, more academically ambitious and better at interacting with people who are different from them.”

I’m not sure about the first two outcomes; as for the third, I’ve always made friends across racial lines, even as a kid, and I don’t think it’s because I’m better at navigating differences. Differences are interesting, but ultimately I search for commonalities such as similar tastes or values, and I truly believe that as people, we’re much more alike than we think.

If Kids Ran The World

If Kids Ran The World

If Kids Ran The World

In this idealised world, children do tangible things to fix our brokenness, and if you look closely, you’ll see that every child on every page is smiling. We can all be the bearers of joy for someone else, but first, we must find it in ourselves.

There’s another valuable message in the book, and it’s this:

[The] most important thing in the world isn’t money, or being king or queen, or pushing other people around. It’s love: giving it, sharing it, showing it.

The book closes with a note for kids, giving them ideas for making a difference–apart from volunteerism, it addresses attitudes such as acceptance (“not saying hurtful things about our differences”) and inclusiveness (“in our playground, everybody is included, and everybody gets a turn”). The note acknowledges that our world’s problems are staggering, yet there is always hope. This is what we want our children to believe, especially in these times.

But even the smallest things we do make a difference. As the old saying goes, “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer: “One bite at a time.”

See more of the book and download free material on Scholastic’s Story Corner page.

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Jul 06 2016

A Mid-Year Update

Published by under This Week

Layla & Z

It feels like I keep saying this, but we’re all fine, and busy! I should get organised and designate one or two nights a week for blogging–there is enough time for that if I plan it right, but I’ve been doing more sharing over on my new Facebook account lately, where I’ve only added about 100 friends, so perhaps that’s taken care of my personal broadcasting needs. (I haven’t been actively adding people, so do look for me if I’ve inadvertently missed you out!)

I’ll probably revert to blogging regularly again though; it seems less invasive (to others), and less impulsive as well, compared to Facebook/IG sharing.

We spent the June holidays relaxing and catching up with friends. I didn’t accept any workshop review offers, and the kids took a break from their regular classes and lessons. Layla still had gym training as there was a minor competition in June, but it was stress-free and she was entered in a new category where her coach choreographed the routine and picked the music–she emerged with several medals and was very pleased about that.

For academics, we let Layla set her own targets for the mid-year exams, and she decided she’d aim for Band 1 (85 and above) for every subject. Her final grades were two Band 1s and two Band 2s (70-84), with everything above 80%. Her science grade was surprisingly good, 91%–well above the median score for her level (79%). I feel the science support in her school is lacking because I’ve seen Layla stare blankly at questions, and she was only equipped to answer them after weekly revision and drilling over at our nearby enrichment centre, thinkBIG. We’re paying for our classes there now, by the way. They’d offered to sponsor Layla for science classes all the way through to Primary 6 but I didn’t think it was fair. Also, there was only so much coverage I could give them on the blog.

Layla’s grades for composition remained unchanged, but she did well for her orals this year, thanks to a lenient examiner and a last-minute prep session with thinkBig’s Teacher Diana. After some consideration, I decided to pull her out of the writing classes at thinkBIG, as time is in short supply and she needs room to breathe. Also, I didn’t want her to develop an over-reliance on cliches and exam strategies for writing–it sucks the soul out of something that’s supposed to be an art, and as much as we’re trying to play the game, I don’t want us to become total sell-outs. I do want Layla to be able to write with ease in future, for practical purposes, but for now I’ve decided we’re not going to obsess over composition scores. She’s still devouring books and you can’t go wrong with that. I would recommend the teachers at thinkBIG for their dedication and enthusiasm, and if you’d like to ask me specific questions about our experience with them, do leave a comment or send me a mail! You can read my other posts about ThinkBig here.

For Z, I think he’s developing well despite my inattention, on account of work. I still need to convince him to switch over to using the toilet–he has full control but doesn’t fancy the splashing in the bowl, so he’s basically using his diapers like a potty. I’m hoping to check this off the list in the next two months, so he’ll be comfortably diaper-free by the time we go on our first big trip (in years!) to New Zealand in December, to visit family and friends. For reading, I will step it up and get him through the fourth book in the Peter and Jane series by year end; he’s now on the third book. No kindy yet but he’s being dropped off at two classes currently; one’s a science workshop at thinkBIG, and the other’s soccer.

It’s his imagination as well as his logic and questioning skills that I’m particularly impressed by, and that’s got nothing to do with me. He plays independently for much of the morning, while I work, and we have this arbitrary six-minute rule for gadgets that he abides by, even when I’m asleep. He questions everything that he sees or hears, and we’ve had conversations about serious topics like death, where he’s asked questions ranging from the innocent (involving the fate of his toys) to the spiritual (where do our bodies go, and when can we wake again). It’s really a wonderful age, and Alf and I are once again at the stage where we’re debating if homeschooling is a viable option for us. The good news is that Justina of Mum In The Making has moved nearby to our home, and we’ll be checking in with her soon for some advice! (Read her homeschooling posts here.) I also interviewed her for a homeschooling story (for work), and I’ll share that when it’s up.

So that’s our year so far. I’m happy with everything that’s happened. I’ve reconnected with several friends from the past and that’s been enriching. I’m also working at a level that’s given us more leeway to spend and save, and I have to say that feels good. I’m still easily lured into a conversation or distraction while I should be working, but hey, I’m only human.

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May 09 2016

Coding Classes In Singapore: Tink Tank

Published by under Reviews + Sponsored Posts

A science educator that I’ve been following said last year that all children should learn to code, because one day, it’ll be as important as English. (Update: She may have said “mother tongue” instead, but my friends don’t call me The Embellisher for nothing!) That got my attention, and I started to realise that yes, there was indeed a buzz around coding. But how relevant is it unless you’re planning for a career in computer science?

And then, quite coincidentally, a school called Tink Tank contacted me inviting Layla to attend an introductory coding workshop. It was a full-day session, very well planned (for our review purposes) as parents were allowed to sit in halfway to observe the class, and even participate in a board game that would ease us into understanding coding language. The trainers also gave a mini-presentation where they showed us the video above (a must-watch!), and talked about why they set up their school–to show kids that they’re not limited to consuming technology, but that they’re able to be technology creators themselves, inventing solutions for real-life problems. Continue Reading »

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Apr 26 2016

Work

Published by under This Week

Work

First, read this quote.

The year didn’t start out that well for me, in terms of work. The lull was too long (maybe three weeks, plus the break I took in December to bond with family), and as much as I relished my 80s movie binge, there were only so many times I could watch The Terminator and Aliens. I also felt guilty for not being more productive, considering our expenses are higher this year—Layla’s gym fees have risen, and we’ve started Z on one-on-one Chinese lessons and a weekly science workshop.

I had several meetings for potential retainer projects; for a freelancer, a retainer project is like putting a ring on it, where someone likes your work enough to commit to you. How it works for writers on retainers is that we would deliver a set number of articles—or some form of writing—each month, indefinitely, and get paid a fixed monthly salary. I’ve had two small retainer deals for some time, and several enquiries for larger-scale retainers, which I didn’t hear back about. For last year at least, I was too busy to follow up on retainer leads. I did hit my earnings target last year, but thinking about finances on a month-to-month basis is draining.

And my work routine. I’ve given up on working early in the morning. I tried but I was too dazed to write anything that made sense, and I decided that those two hours before Z gets up are better spent on sleep. So it’s back to working nights. My official hours are 10PM-2AM but I’ve definitely stretched it. Sometimes Z thinks he can keep grown-up hours, which pushes work to 11PM or later. Other times, I’m so… bored from playing mom and keeping house all day that I want a break to inject some levity into my life. So I spend time listening to songs where people cuss and talk dirty, reading gossip, hanging out on Facebook, and crushing on TV/movie heroes, and that eats into work time—but I swear I haven’t clicked on a TV series or movie in the last two months, no time! And then I’m up at 5.30AM to braid Layla’s hair, fetch her socks, and fill her water bottle, and again at 7-ish or 8 for Z’s breakfast. No afternoon naps, although I do have a lie-in if I’m flat-out exhausted.

But I’m in a good place currently. The last two months have been filled with new projects—everyone needs change and I do too, perhaps more than most. Also I firmed up a new retainer deal. It’s with an educational site that seems out of character for me as I’m known for being a chill parent (and I am, generally), but I do read it, and I have a fair number of hits coming in from their forum as well. I’ve just started with them and I’ve been given freedom in the planning and writing process. I’ve already learned a few things that are useful for me, as a parent, and they’ve been happy with my submissions so far. The articles I’ve written aren’t too different from the learning tips I might’ve posted on this blog; if you’d like to read them, leave me a comment and I’ll mail you the links.

I’m not sure how long this will go on. Like any partnership there will be ups and downs, and I’ve freelanced long enough (10 years) to not expect anything to last forever. I don’t expect anything in life to last forever! But I have a healthy work attitude—I always try to find something to enjoy about work, I’ve never missed a deadline, I’m open to feedback, willing to make changes, and I know when to exercise restraint or let go and not push a point, for my own sanity and to preserve relationships. Ok I procrastinate and I’m easily distracted. But the client doesn’t get to see that!

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Apr 21 2016

The Everybody Feels… Series (Scholastic)

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The Everybody Feels series, Scholastic

A very nice lady named Cindy from Scholastic Asia got in touch with me earlier in the year about doing a series of book reviews for Scholastic, and I was so impressed with her as she took the trouble to find out what Layla and Z are reading now, and to make a list of recommendations that fitted our needs, as well as my preferences! Our books arrived about a month ago and I’ll be sharing our thoughts on these books here as well as on Instagram.

We’ve been reading the Everybody Feels… series. Dealing with feelings isn’t something I’m great at—writing provides some release, but I think I’ve always believed that certain feelings are best kept under wraps, until they get so big that you can’t contain them anymore, which most times spells trouble. I’m glad both my kids are a lot more open about their emotions; they may not know how to process their feelings, but they are willing to reveal how they feel. Still, Layla’s on the brink of teenhood and Z’s not over the tantrum phase yet, which means we have our fair share of explosive episodes at home—there are healthier ways of dealing with feelings, and that’s why books that can teach these strategies are valuable, at any stage of life.

The Everybody Feels… books are suitable for kids aged 4 and up. They’re pitched at Z’s level of understanding, but I see sections that might come in handy for Layla too. The first book Z and I read was Everybody Feels… Anger. It’s the most relevant title for us because I have a short fuse and my son takes after me. Like the other books in the series, it does some important things: First, it gives kids the vocabulary they need to describe their feelings, and the reasons behind those emotions: “something you own got messed up,” “I felt like a balloon about to burst”… Second, by showing two examples of a little girl and boy blowing up, kids realise they’re not alone and that their feelings and reactions are normal. Finally, the book discusses resolution, where the other parties apologise and reconciliation takes place in time for a happy ending. Of course real life is never as straightforward and kids eventually have to learn that peace is best sought internally, instead of depending on someone else’s actions to feel better. But that’s a tough one, even when we’re all grown up, so I think the lessons in this book are a great start.

What I loved about all the books in the series was that they provided examples of little girls and little boys going through similar emotions. Girls do get angry, and boys do get scared, and sometimes we’ve been so conditioned by stereotypes that we forget people are entitled to their feelings, regardless of gender. I liked that they provided a model for dealing with feelings that is relevant even for adulthood, for instance, talking to a friend to feel less scared or angry, or trying to recall happy moments when one is sad. There’s also a glossary to explain words like “wobbly,” which is helpful for Z, who probably doesn’t know as many words as some of his peers. And there is a section for the grown-ups, explaining what next steps they can take, be it discussions, role playing, or using storytelling and art to reinforce the themes and messages of each book. Essentially, all bases covered.

If you’d like to find out more about the books, you can download samples from Scholastic Asia’s website. There are activity sheets that you can use too!

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Mar 24 2016

Throwback

Published by under This Week

From Amy

People who know me assume that I throw everything away, especially since I’m in my minimalist phase, but I have my sentimental side. For one, I kept this note from a girl who loved me a long time ago. Y’know it’s a wonderful thing to be the object of a girl’s affections? She gave me rides whenever she could, and there would always be a Coke Lite (the only fizzy drink my sensitive tummy can tolerate) and some snack or other to tide me over night classes, and if she spotted me listening to something at Tower Records, she’d buy the CD and loan it to me—permanently. I also remember that she always smelled of fresh mint and we both used deodorant from the men’s section, I think we fancied ourselves as being more tough than sweet.

Although we were friends and not dating, I have to say that the guys in my life have never been as solicitous. There’s a lot they could’ve learned from her!

How did I know she was attracted to me? My instincts are off in many areas, but I haven’t been wrong about attraction yet. And I did ask her, since I spoke my mind back in my 20s.

Did I reciprocate? Well I was flattered, mildly curious, and not seeing anyone at the time, but I liked boys too much to switch sides. Also she was so petite and pretty and if I were ever attracted to a woman, it would be to one who actually looked like a boy. :) I had friendship to offer, but I cringe when I think about our relationship because I was a terrible friend. I don’t think I expressed gratitude often, I was petulant at times, and ultimately, non-committal. Right before I met Alf, I wanted to overhaul my life, friends included, and I quietly exited many of my social circles. I guess she was collateral damage.

Anyway, that note: She was apologising for showing up at my home late one night, unexpectedly, to collect a school paper from me so she could help me submit it the next day! I never understood the need for that apology, and it makes me sad to think about how much doing something for me meant to her. We probably met up at least once after, and that was it. I’ve tried looking for her on Facebook and googling her, but if I can’t find her, I doubt anyone can. My googling skills aren’t half bad, after all. I don’t feel the need to make amends to a lot of people, but it’d be nice if I could get a second shot at this friendship.

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Mar 15 2016

Adventures In Spotify

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Spotify

A couple of years ago, Alf and I were having dinner with a friend, when a stranger sat down at a neighbouring table and started talking to us. Nothing heavy, we talked about music, he recommended us a few bands to listen to, and he encouraged me to visit New York, which I still haven’t done. But Alf said later that when he went over to the counter to pay the bill, he half expected to return to find me and the stranger making out. It wasn’t like that at all!

My husband was very good-natured about it though, which shows how much space he gives me, and today, I’ve somewhat mastered the art of giving him plenty of room to breathe as well.

Anyway, of the bands the stranger recommended to us, we checked out one. And of that, there was only one song that I really liked, so much so that it’s one of my favourite tracks to listen to today. So I think the moral of this story is that you should share your music freely with others–they might find something that speaks to them, and it is a wonderful feeling to fall in love with a song. You never know when you might need it.

I forgot how I found Spotify and started using it. If you don’t know know what it is, click here.

I’m actually a late Spotify user; when I first got on it, that was probably about two years ago and I had no idea what to do with it. I wasn’t even aware of how many songs were on it, so I only used it to alternate between two artistes–The National and Ed Sheeran–while I was working, and whenever we had company. This went on for months, and Alf said he started to hate The National after that!

Eventually I figured out that just about every song I had ever heard in my entire life was on Spotify. (Except anything by Taylor Swift, who’s removed herself from the network.) I started making playlists, and then realised there are very few songs that I like enough to listen to repeatedly. So my lists were paltry 10-song collections–I’m trying to add to them, but slowly. And I had these rules like, oh, this list has to only have songs in minor keys. Or the mood/tempo has to be similar. Then I would have a list of songs that sounded like rip-offs of one another, which wasn’t ideal either. And because I don’t listen to lyrics much, I might have a happy playlist with a sad song that made the cut because of its upbeat melody.

But I like fussing over my lists; it’s a healthy obsession.

Lately, I’ve been using songs to connect with friends. I’ve been sharing what I’m listening to on Facebook, and one of my friends from back in school switched from Apple Music to Spotify, and she even sent me a song via Spotify mail, which I thought was so cool–I haven’t received a song from anyone in years! I’ve also gone digging into my friends’ public playlists, which is fun. It’s interesting to see what people are listening to, and what they put in their lists, and how they name their lists and organise them, or not. I went through a girlfriend’s lists today and as I heard all these songs that I remembered from a different phase of my life, I wanted to hug her and cry, especially as I was listening to this.

Well, that’s me and what I’ve been up to, apart from work, life, the kids, and the usual. What have you been doing?

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Mar 12 2016

For Cindy

Published by under Read

Cindy

In 2012, I joined a mom bloggers’ group for the first time, and with these online interactions it’s like dating, in that sometimes there’s chemistry, and sometimes not. A mother named Cindy started reading my blog during that time, and I think she’s the only person, aside from a handful of friends and curious family members, that has cared to read almost everything I’ve written since. Continue Reading »

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