Saturday, January 30, 2010

Playing for the school team

The last two weeks of January were the start of the zonal inter-school badminton tournaments. This was the first time Andre was participating in competitive badminton as part of his school team and it was an eye-opening experience... not just for him but for me too.

Andre is in the Junior boys team which is for p5s and below (the Senior team is for p6s and below). This was the first time p4s were being fielded for the Junior boys team in his school, as the coach felt that they had the potential to do well, plus she wanted to let them gain the experience of competing. Out of the 10 players, there were three p4s, including Andre.

In Round 1, each group of randomly selected five schools plays round robin against each other. The top two schools from each group advance to Round 2 and so on, until the semi-finals and finals. The four top schools in the zonal competitions will proceed to play in the nationals. Each school plays five matches in each meeting - three singles and two doubles - takes three matches to win.

I'm going to describe the matches in chronological order, just for my own record so I won't forget the details in time to come. I won't be revealing the names of the schools though, for privacy reasons.

The first match was on 20 Jan 2010 and as luck would have it, they met the 2009 zonal champions. Arrrrggghhhh. To their credit, the kids didn't let the name of the school intimidate them. Or maybe they were simply oblivious to the threat, haha.

The coach fielded Andre and his good friend, Paul in one of the doubles matches. It was probably a strategic move on her part to ease them into competition mode. It was a good call too as both Andre and Paul were a bundle of nerves. Plus they hardly practise playing doubles, so their coordination was completely off, they were like a couple of headless chickens.

They conceded the match but the plus side about being the underdogs is there isn't the pressure to win. More importantly, it gave them a taste of competition conditions.

They met School 2 on 22 Jan 2010 and the coach decided to field Andre in his first singles match. I think I was more jittery than Andre! Would he deliver? Or would he crumble? Much to our relief, he overcame his nerves to win the match in straight sets, 21-12, 21-6. The win was a great confidence booster for him, especially since it turned out to be the only match his school won that day. We found out later that his opponent was the Junior team captain, no less.

26 Jan 2010 was the match-up against School 3. Andre played singles and delivered another win. He had to work harder for this one as he lost the first set, but came back to take the match 15-21, 21-15, 21-8. Here's a short video clip of a couple of points from the match (you can hear Kenneth cheering in the background, LOL).

video

Finally, they met School 4 on 28 Jan 2010. This was another wipeout as School 4 is one of the badminton niche schools. Luck of the draw, sigh. Andre played singles again and gave it his best shot but he was simply outplayed - his opponent's standard was heads and shoulders above his. Final score: 12-21, 12-21. Another short clip to show the level of play we're talking about.

video

Unfortunately, the inter-school tournament ends here for Andre's school as they didn't make it to Round 2. But for Andre, this experience was priceless. He loved feeling part of a team and relished the opportunity to represent the school. It was a bonus that he managed to get two wins under his belt and as for the matches he lost, the opportunity to spar with better opponents was thrilling in its own way.

For me, I was just blown away by the standard of competitive play. Some of the top badminton schools had students who played like pros, my jaw literally dropped when I saw some of the matches. They even had the luxury to field reserve teams against schools that were not so strong, to save their top seeds for the big leagues. Amazing.

Through these two weeks, I've learnt more about competitive sports for kids than in the past 10 years. Even though there are many plus points, it's not without its stresses, as I've discovered. I will share my reflections in a separate post.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A crabby celebration

I love, love, love crab. Well, lobster too but crab is the cheaper alternative.

Anyway, it used to be that when we went out for a crab meal, I'll have the best part - the claws. That was, until both my kids started loving crab too, then it became a fight for the precious claws. And I almost never win.

We used to have crab at Long Beach Seafood or occasionally, Jumbo Seafood, until we discovered this place - Big Eater at Simpang Bedok. The crabs here are just magnificent and the other dishes aren't too shabby either. It started out as a modest little place the size of a coffee shop and quickly expanded to three times its size within a few years, a testimony to its popularity. On weekends, this place is packed - you'll be hard pressed to find a table if you don't make a reservation.

Kenneth decided to celebrate my birthday over the weekend and I wanted just a quiet dinner, so we ended up at Big Eater.

We ordered just a couple of other dishes, one of them was hot plate venison. Unbelievably tender, melt in your mouth quality.

Simple pan fried beans with minced meat, very fresh and even my kids love this green dish.

And the main attraction - the crabs! We ordered one chili crab with mantou (I think we walloped 16 mantou among the four of us). The chili crab here is not too spicy, and the gravy is thick and creamy, just the way we like it.

That's not all - we had another crab in salted egg. This is Big Eater's specialty. We've tried salted egg crab in some other restaurants and none of them even come close. This one has a sweet, eggy sauce flavoured with laksa leaves and a light sprinkling of chili.

Andre and I adore this crab. Before we left the house, he'd resolved to give me the claws since it was my birthday but let's just say, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. He just cannot resist this! I did manage to get half a claw though and lots of the other parts. The taste is just undescribable, you'll have to try it yourself.

Here's a picture of the shell with the roe.

By revealing one of my favourite haunts, I probably risk aggravating the crowd situation there. But all good things should be shared, so there you go! For all crab lovers, I would rate this place as one of the best kept secrets in Singapore.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Book recommendations for 9-year-olds

I mentioned some time back that I've been trying to widen Andre's repertoire of books as I feel that the Beast Quest series by Adam Blade, which he's very fond of, is getting to be too simple for him. The challenge is that his reading interests are very limited. He's mostly interested only in fantasy, he doesn't enjoy reading about real life adventures.

I scoured the web for book recommendations for boys but I found the fantasy suggestions were mostly too advanced for him. Then Lesley-Anne suggested trying Philip Pullman's books as she finds his writing very engaging.

I first borrowed The Firework-Maker's Daughter from the library and Andre enjoyed it so much that I borrowed two more the next time - The Scarecrow and His Servant and Clockwork.

Just a short intro on Philip Pullman: he writes mostly fantasy books that are very popular with older kids. These three books I mentioned are suitable for Andre's age group - the language is simpler and while they're not exactly fantasy, they appeal to him because they have an imaginative, make-believe quality, like modern fairy tales.

Another recommendation I found on the web was The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart. When I first found the book in the library, I was afraid it might be too difficult for Andre but to my surprise, he seemed to take to it quite well. The Mysterious Benedict Society is about four children who pass a series of tests and are sent to a school called The Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened (L.I.V.E.). There, they meet Mr Curtain and try to prevent him from taking over the world by destroying "The Whisperer", his brainwashing machine.

Once again, this is not fantasy but it's creatively written with a compelling storyline. However, I have to say that the length of the book (almost 500 pages) is quite daunting for Andre and being unable to finish the book after three weeks (one installment every other day) has caused the interest to wane somewhat. So it's probably more suitable for slightly older kids or those with a longer attention span.

However, I feel these are great recommendations for 9 to 11-year-olds, if you're searching for ideas. Meanwhile, let me know if you come across any other finds.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Turning 40 - milestone or millstone?

Sometime this month (I'm not revealing exactly when), I will be turning the Big Four-O. Unlike most milestones, this was one that I was not looking forward to. I'd always associated 40 with the start of ageing, when everything goes downhill. Afterall, 40 is middle aged, right?

Even as I'm creeping up to my birthday (despite my attempts to apply the brakes), I already feel all the signs. I turn bottles towards the light to read the faint lettering (muttering at the inconsideration of probably 20-year-olds who designed the bottles). When I miss a few sessions of exercise, it gets harder to return to the regime as my back aches in protest. And of course, where there used to be muscle, now it's flab.

It doesn't help that in Singapore, you're considered over the hill prematurely. Weeks before your 40th birthday, you'll receive an envelope from the government marked "Eldershield". Employers in Singapore notoriously favour the young. In most other parts of the world, 40 symbolises experience. Here, more often than not, 40 is associated with being outdated and irrelevant. Having spoken to many friends and ex-colleagues, it seems like the single biggest fear among workers in Singapore is to be retrenched at 40.

I know there are many sentiments out there which try to paint 40 as a coming of age. Quotes such as "Life begins at 40" and "40 is the new 30" are such examples. But I've always scoffed those as feeble attempts at self-consolation. I know the truth! You can't fool me!

Then a few weeks ago, my sister called to inform me that one of our friends from NUS had passed away from breast cancer. We weren't particularly close but she had stayed in the room opposite mine in the hostel. When I saw her laughing demeanor on the obituary photo, I felt a pang of regret. She was 39.

Every now and then, we are reminded of our mortality through incidents like these. Throughout history, people have tried in vain to look for the elixir of youth, to prolong what they feel is the prime of their life. But gradually, I'm beginning to realise that to dread growing old is to scorn life because ageing is an integral part of life.

My friend never saw her 40th birthday. It's sad not because she was struck down in her youth, it's sad because there was still so much more life to be lived. And that's what turning 40 should be - to have lived the first part of your life, and to embark on Part 2. That in itself should be a celebration.

So I'm not going to moan anymore about turning 40 because being able to hit this milestone is a gift. My eyes may not be as sharp and my body less sprightly but by golly, there's still a lot of life to be lived. And (with the help of a few jars of anti-ageing cream), I will try to live it as gracefully as I can.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Moving towards real learning in secondary school

I've always hated looking at my kids' primary school time-tables. It seems to me that the school is trying to cram in as much syllabus and content as possible within a finite number of hours. Simply looking at the subjects squeezed into intensive half-hour blocks makes me feel ready to hyerventilate. Non-core subjects like PE look like they're thrown in as afterthoughts and if that's not bad enough, these are often being usurped to make time for even more lessons. It's one big drill.

I was expecting Lesley-Anne's secondary school time-table to be much of the same, if not worse, particularly as new subjects are being introduced at the secondary school level. Much to my surprise, academic subjects take up just about two-thirds of curriculum time in her time-table. The rest of it is filled with non-academic modules. Apart from the usual art, music and PE, there are (or will be) other interesting periods such as research, IT, culture, even drama and dance. I was struck by how holistic and diverse it was. It certainly had a leisurely feel about it, a complete contrast from primary school.

Naturally it didn't take me long to figure out that reduced curriculum time means that the students are expected to do much of the learning on their own. For instance, with only one history period a week, there is only so much content the teacher can cover. The students are clearly expected to do their own reading and find their own information to supplement their learning, no spoon-feeding of content. With just two weeks of school under their belt (one, if you discount orientation week), the kids have already been handed out written assignments requiring research and reflection.

Fortunately for Lesley-Anne, she is familiar with these independent learning techniques, thanks to the GEP as its curriculum centres around such methods. Since p4, she has learned how to embark on research, how to organise and execute both team and individual projects, as well as how to use a variety of IT tools.

And I feel strongly that this is what learning should be about - not drilling of content but exposure to a wide variety of topics and intellectual exploration through guided and self-discovery.

Everyday, Lesley-Anne comes home from school all chirpy and eager to share some fun or interesting moment in school. I can see that she's engaged and interested, and that makes learning even more effective.

It's early days yet and of course I can't speak for all secondary schools, only Lesley-Anne's, but here's my verdict so far: I absolutely like what I see. Check with me again in a year's time to see if I've changed my mind!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Andre to the rescue!

One morning, Andre excitedly recounted to us the dream he had the night before. This was how it went:

"I was in a space roller coaster. As I was riding it the third time, it came to a stop. I saw che che and other people running away. I looked out through a window next to the roller coaster and saw a big, fat scary monster. Auntie Joy (our domestic helper) and I started running away. Auntie Joy asked, "where did che che go?" I replied, "I let her go." We started screaming and running away. When I was outside the building, I saw che che at the exit. I met my friends too. All of us ran away. As the monster got nearer to us, we hid behind a wall. Then the big monster transformed itself into a small monster. When the monster looked left, we hid on the right. When it looked right, we hid on the left. Suddenly, we saw goblins coming after us..."

"What did the goblins look like?"

"Ugly and no clothes. Like the MouseHunt goblin mouse. We started running away to another wall but the goblins caught up with us. The goblins caught all my friends, Auntie Joy and che che and put dragon signs on their legs and hands and turned them into steel. I was the only one who survived and ran away to a food centre. The goblins outside the food centre surrounded me. I said, "I'm Stupidous Man!" (this is a standing joke in our family, it's a cross between Calvin & Hobbes' Stupendous Man and tv show Scien-trific's Stupid Man). All the goblins laughed, mwahahahaha!!

I ran under their arms and escaped into the food centre. Two goblins were disguised as an old man and an old lady. I took out a mustard gun from my pocket and sprayed at the old lady. She ran away. the old man was too far away so I changed my gun to "far" mode and sprayed at him. It was so hot the old man died. I shot the old lady too and she melted. I noticed that I had run out of mustard so I threw it away. Suddenly I saw Mummy. She waved at me. Two goblins appeared and faced us. So I used my fast punch. They still didn't die so I used my ultimate punch. Then they died. Another goblin came and tapped Mummy, she turned into steel. But I tapped Mummy and she became normal again. The goblin said, "how can like that?"

"Wah, your goblins can speak Singlish eh..."

"I said, "I'm Stupidous Man! If I tap someone, they'll become normal again." Then I punched him as hard as I could and he died. Mummy and I celebrated and she went to buy an ice-cream for me. I did not know that one of the goblins was disguised as an old lady at the ice-cream stall. When Mummy was buying the ice-cream, the goblin pulled her in. I pulled Mummy's leg but another goblin pushed me. I managed to hold on to Mummy as I took out my spare laser gun and I shot the old lady goblin. She fainted (a laser gun is not as powerful). I pulled Mummy out and the other goblin fell down. I punched the goblin that fell, flung the other goblin in the air like a lasso and threw her right at the glass window. I picked up the goblin on the floor and threw it on the same spot as the other goblin.

Five more goblins approached us. I got fed up and used my ultra force. The goblins died. All the people who were turned to steel transformed back to normal because of my powerful ultra force. Mummy and I finally bought my ice-cream and we sat in the food centre eating it. The End."

Epilogue: Lesley-Anne mutters, "So unfair, you only save Mummy."

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The comedy routine of sports trials

One of the first things many secondary schools put their newbie sec 1 kids through are sports trials. These often take place during the first week of school or orientation, as the various sports attempt to identify and recruit potential players for the school teams.

The sports trials at Lesley-Anne's school were held last week and every sec 1 student had to undergo them. Basically, they had to try out at the sports stations to see if they would be shortlisted. The advantage is that you get to try out for a ton of different sports, many of which the kids probably would never have experienced before. The downside is that many of these kids, as I discovered, are decidedly unsporty and having to undergo one sports trial after another must be nothing short of torture.

Lesley-Anne was recounting what happened and it was just hilarious. Sports ranks lowly on her range of interests and it appears that she's not the only one. They had to shoot hoops for netball and basketball, do leaps for wushu, run sprints, do a long distance run, flip an opponent for judo, do catches for volleyball, among other tests. The kids huffed and puffed. They complained about how heavy the short putt ball was. For gym, they had to jump on a trampoline and many bounced awkwardly in circles before falling off.

The seniors would call out, "Who's interested in basketball?" *silence* "Who's keen on volleyball?" *crickets chirping* Finally they said in desperation, "You can't ALL be interested in the performing arts, right??"

When Lesley-Anne told me that she recorded one of the fastest times in her class for sprints, I figured her classmates were no Flo-Jos. Then I discovered she was even shortlisted for softball.

"Wah, maybe you got hidden talent! Did you hit the ball very well?"

"Err... the first time I hit the stand. The second time the ball bounced off."

I thought maybe it's just her school with the sports duds, until Elan shared similar stories of the sports trials in her son's school. According to her son, the standards for the trials fluctuated, ie as the coaches got more desperate, the standards got lower. By the time it came to her son's class which was the last one, he got selected for softball even though he didn't know what the sport was, as well as soccer even though he knocked down half the cones he was supposed to dribble around!

The wushu test initially was to squat with one leg in front and one extended behind, then jump up and kick until your leg is parallel to your cheek. By the time the last class did it, the test became: "see how high you can jump".

Thanks for allowing me to share, Elan. I laughed until my sides ached. No wonder schools nowadays are putting more focus on sports DSAs. If they had to rely on all these bookworms with two left feet, the schools ain't entering the Sports Hall of Fame anytime soon.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Chocolate cake... not from a box!

I've not made chocolate cake from scratch for years, although this seems like a basic recipe for folks who like to bake. The reason for this is that the recipes I've tried in the past have not been satisfactory. They tend to have the cocoa powder taste which I'm not fond of, never even close to some of the moist, true chocolate flavours that you get with store-bought ones.

So whenever the occasion calls for chocolate cake, I've always copped out and used the cake mixes by Betty Crocker. Still, they're not wonderful by any standard so I usually just end up making banana or yellow cake and compensating for my chocolate obsession by topping it with chocolate frosting.

This changed when I stumbled across a recipe for a chocolate layer cake. Honestly, it was the photo that did it. Wah, when I saw the cake, I wanted to eat it there and then. So when a few of us mothers decided to arrange for a meetup, it was the perfect opportunity to try out the recipe.

It turned out better than I expected. The true test is Andre - he has a habit of eating only the frosting on cakes that he doesn't like, so when he finished his portion, I knew this cake had potential. It's still not like the store-bought ones but it's a credible alternative, certainly better than other chocolate cake recipes I've tried.

I didn't want the cake to be too sweet since I was going to use chocolate frosting instead of cream cheese frosting in the original recipe, so I adjusted it slightly. The batter also turned out to be quite substantial since it's for a layer cake, but I found that it makes exactly two pans of 12 muffins each (I prefer making muffins instead of a whole cake, for convenience).

Here is my version of the recipe. If you want the recipe for the chocolate frosting, click here or for cream cheese frosting, click here.

Ingredients

250g unsalted butter, softened
2 cups plain flour
1 cup brown sugar
½ cup granulated suger
4 large eggs at room temperature
¾ cup (6oz) unsweetened melted chocolate (or semi-sweet chocolate chips, melted)
100ml sour cream
¾ cup buttermilk (or add 2 tsp white vinegar/lemon juice to ¾ cup milk and let it stand for 5 mins)
1 tsp baking soda
pinch of salt
1 tsp vanilla essence

Recipe:

1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees celcius.
2. Sift flour, mix together with baking soda and salt in a bowl.
3. In a separate bowl, beat butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.
4. Add eggs one at a time until combined, then add chocolate and mix until well incorporated.
5. Add flour mixture in three parts, alternating with buttermilk and vanilla, and beat until smooth.
6. Stir in sour cream (you'll get a thick, chocolate milk-like batter).
7. Pour into greased pan or muffin tray.
8. Bake for 25-30 mins (cake pan) or 20-22 mins (12-muffin tray) or until skewer comes out clean. Do not overbake.
9. Cool completely before icing.

The mums gathering was such great fun. Lilian, Elan and I met up at Slim's place and bonded over Nespresso, bak chang and chocolate muffins (the piping was done by Lesley-Anne since I was too lazy). It was also my first time meeting Elan, long-time reader of my blog, and it was so great to finally put a face to the name. The fun part about meeting readers is that we often feel like kindred spirits in no time!

Thanks for the fun time, ladies. Let's do it again soon!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Higher Chinese

We have been trying to inculcate a love of Chinese in our kids, which is no mean feat considering I can barely read a primary level Chinese textbook. Thankfully, despite our rather haphazard methods and many mistakes, Lesley-Anne has not developed an aversion to Chinese. In fact, she can even lay claim to having interest in the Chinese culture and language which is nothing short of a miracle, I think.

This interest will be of paramount importance to Lesley-Anne because *deep breath* she will be embarking on Higher Chinese in secondary school. It's a huge leap of faith for her, considering she didn't take it up in primary school (leaving a couple of our friends scratching their heads, thinking we're crazy). Let's just say, nothing ventured, nothing gained and if she truly can't cope with it, she can always choose to drop it later on. We're not putting pressure on her to ace the subject - as long as she can emerge from the experience with a greater love and appreciation for the language, I would consider the venture a success.

So anyway, we have been encouraging her to read more Chinese books over the holidays and as usual, interesting Chinese stories seem to be terribly hard to come by. After some trial and error, she found a series which was pretty interesting, so I decided to share it here, in case other parents face the same problem.

This is a book she found quite engaging. Once again, as per my previous observation with Totto-Chan and Les P'tite Poules, the interesting Chinese books tend to be those translated from another language. This is the Chinese version of Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert O'Brien, a Newbery Medal award-winning book which tells the tale of Mrs Frisby, a widowed field mouse, who enlist the help of a group of former laboratory rats in rescuing her home from destruction by a farmer's plow. The rats had previously escaped from the laboratory and developed into a literate and technological society. Fascinating story.

According to Lesley-Anne, the other titles released by this publisher are also generally quite good. This is another she borrowed but has yet to read. It's originally in French but I couldn't figure out the name and author of the book. I think it's Reynard the Fox (which is a famous wily character in French folklore).

Lesley-Anne picked these books because she loves reading about animals but there are also other types of stories. Do check them out! I would place the reading level at about 11 to 13 years old.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em

It's the start of the new school year and I think I hear the collective sigh of relief from parents across Singapore.

Every opening of the academic year, I feel a sudden release of freedom, especially if the kids have been bouncing off walls due to an accumulation of festive starch and sugars in their metabolism-enhanced, hyper little bodies. By the last week of the school holidays, I'll usually be counting down the number of days until they're out of my hair again.

But you know, even before I can enjoy the peace, I'll notice something else... the silence. No sounds of bickering, of toys crashing against hard floors, of tears and childish giggles. And in a perverse way, I actually miss it all.

Therein lies the contradiction - I can't wait to get the kids out of the house and the minute they do, I find myself waiting for them to come home. Especially this year since Lesley-Anne is starting secondary school, I have been warned by other more experienced parents:

"I have to make an appointment with my son if I want to talk to him!"
"Her school hours will be worse than that of a work day."
"I think I've forgotten what my kid looks like, I never see him in daylight anymore."

I've long realised that my child will come to spend an increasing proportion of her precious growing years in school, out of my reach. My selfish desire to monopolise her time is nowhere as important as the fact that her teachers, peers and friends will have a far greater influence on her from now than me, simply due to frequency of contact.

It is no coincidence that the teenage years are often the ones where many parents complain of being distanced from their kids or despair over their kids going astray. An iron fist may be tough but it's no use if the child is far away. We may spout words of wisdom but they will have limited effectiveness against the constant chatter of friends, ten hours a day.

What's a parent to do? For me, I feel that the panacea is to ensure that the foundation is built during the primary school years. I've often shared this view with my friends that steadfast character traits need to be constructed and fortified during the tween ages, to form the basic building block that will hold the child steady and guide her steps in the future.

This is not to say that the child can't still wander off the straight and narrow later on - it's free will afterall - but the chances of this happening are less. It's risky to wait until the child is a teenager to try and instil values, when parental influence is greatly reduced (not to mention the distasteful condition characterised by teenage angst and anti-establishment tendencies *shudder*).

We've always been rather strict when it comes to ethical lessons for our kids, sometimes to the point of being naggy, as our kids will testify ("Yeeeeeess mummeeeeee"). With Lesley-Anne hitting secondary school, I recognise that these opportunities will taper off.

But it's ok because that's the way it should be. As she matures, she should be allowed to chart her own path and make more decisions on her own. She knows I will always be there if she needs me, but it's too much to hope that she will share every detail with me. In such instances, I can only hope and trust that her moral compass will direct her steps, and help her back onto the path when she takes a misstep.

The quiet beckons. Maybe it's not so bad afterall. I'll just have that cup of coffee and finish some work... only a few more hours till they're let out from school.
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