Wednesday, December 28, 2005

What about sustainable development?

I went to bed last night thinking about how unsustainable the current consumer-driven economy is and woke up this morning to read: 90% underground water in China polluted. Cities in northern China have been the most polluted with increasingly more pollutants, causing economic losses worth of [sic] dozens of billions of US dollars.

When I say (in many places in this blog and on Organic-Ally) that buying 'cheap' has its long-term repercussions, readers might think that I am a snob. So perhaps I should change my tune and say 'cheap' is not sustainable.

Just before Christmas British fishermen were told that their quota of cod that could be landed is to be reduced by 5% (if I remember correctly). Demand for cod has led to over-fishing in the North Sea. Even juvenile fish have been landed resulting in their not being able to reproduce, thus further reducing the stock of cod.

Very soon, there won't be any cod and the cod fishermen will simply have nowt. Is this sustainable?

Fishing and agriculture might seem a far cry from what readers here might be familiar with. So let's take an urban example.

Public transport in a major city. Poor public tranport makes people decide to drive to work. More cars on the road lead to more congestion. Ultimately the roads are gridlock and no one goes any where.

I remember vividly my short work stint in Jakarta where as a pampered overpaid management consultant we were chauffeured every where. Coming back from lunch break one afternoon we were stuck in gridlock traffic (as usual). But as work still needed to be completed (well, yes, us overpaid management consultants really did work our socks off) we decided to walk the five minutes back to the office.

Our driver turned up an hour later. Is this a symptom of sustainable development?

Which brings me to cheap clothes and stuff we do not need. I was thrilled to find a (fellow) social scientist Juliet Schor making a case in Social Justice vs the Cheap Sweater.

Here the author is arguing that globalization is making products so much cheaper that consumers are led to buy more. Conventional political wisdom says that this is a good thing. But from the point of view of the planetary ecology, and perhaps even from the point of view of consumers' welfare, it's a more complex picture.

Schor goes on to note that the "cotton used for all those free t-shirts is pesticide-intensive and depletes soil at a rapid rate. Textile dyes use carcinogenic chemicals, such as azo-dyes, which have been banned in Europe, but not the United States".

Then she asks the ultimate question of "whether consumers are really better off because they've been snapping up clothes, shoes, accessories, bed sheets, TVs, computers, and toys at historically unprecedented rates".

"The fact that they're also discarding many of them almost as fast should give the proponents of cheap imports pause. And when we add into the equation the loss of domestic jobs, the exploitation of foreign workers, and the degradation of the environment locally and globally, the whole package looks a lot less appealing, and the failures of the global economy more glaring."

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Monday, December 26, 2005

How to have a stress-free Christmas

It has been my most stress-free Christmas.

I have memories of in-laws rushing about fretting over bread sauce and stuffing and the lot, mum-in-law lamenting that my table was not dressed properly as I did not have any table decorations.

"O! I'll make you one next year."

She hadn't noticed that we have a very narrow table and there is simply no room for decorations.

As a Christian, I know full well that Christmas is about remembering the birth of Jesus and its implications on my personal life. It is also, for me, a celebration of time with loved ones. As someone who had spent several Christmases on my own when I first came to work in this country, Christmas is also a time to share hospitality with those with no family, as a sort of replay of that "no room at the inn" scenario.

Last year, with husband being so ill that Christmas nearly had to be "cancelled", I am thankful that he is in good health this year.

In the run-up to Christmas I have been asked several times, "Are you all ready?"

My answers were variations on the theme of "No, and so what? If things go wrong, things go wrong."

One response to that was, "You are so calm."

And then it suddenly tweaked as to why I seemed so calm.

I realised that a lot of the stress is centred on how the meal would turn out and what we have on the table. People with no money don't worry about these things. To many around the world, the question on Christmas day is not "turkey or goose?", "mince pies or Christmas pudding?", "with or without brandy butter?". It is "Would we have food today? Or tomorrow?".

Another stress comes from "Have we bought all the presents?". I don't think the Wise Men were stressed up about what to bring to Jesus. They brought what was at their disposal. Just as my five-year-old drew little pictures and put them in envelopes he had fashioned out of paper, and wrote "To Mum with Love from ----" and the same "To Dad ...."

Even if we didn't manage to buy presents by Christmas, the shops re-open on Boxing Day. Why buy presents before Christmas when they cost half as much after Christmas? It's not what I receive that matters, it's whether it comes from the heart. Why buy when you could make?

So I realised that I should be thankful that we even have food on the table and a roof over our heads. If we happen to have a bit more to spare, then it's great to be able to celebrate. If not, life goes on.

With this perspective, it became clear that Christmas is not about cooking a meal in a certain way by a certain time to feed x number of people. It is not about how the table looks. It is not about buying and receiving the "right" presents.

It has been a glorious weekend for us, relaxing with family and friends, eating well, but not over-eating.

Bing Crosby sings "And may all your Christmases be white."

I say, "And may all your Christmases be just as stress-free." Enjoy!

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Friday, December 23, 2005

Cheap, plentiful, harmful Part II

I forgot to mention in my last post that retailers and supermarkets in UK have been up in arms about a EU proposal that seeks to stop China from "dumping" cheap plastic bags here. See article here.

The article also tells us that every year an estimated 17.5 BILLION plastic bags are given away by supermarkets, equivalent to about 290 bags for every person in the UK."

Well, I don't collect 290 bags a year, and neither does my husband nor my son. So someone else must be collecting our 290 x 3 bags every year.

We are also told that "The average plastic bag made in China costs between 1p and 2p, although fancy bags used by fashion shops could cost double that. A retailer such as Marks & Spencer might use 200 million bags every year."

The retailers are afraid that a tariff on these bags from China would increase their overheads. This proposed tariff has come about because "30 EU manufacturers complained that Asian competitors were selling bags for export more cheaply than they were sold on their domestic markets."

It did not come about because EU manufacturers are concerned with the health and safety issues surrounding the manufacture of such bags in China, or fair trade, or ethical trade. The proposed tariff is solely protectionist (ie selfish).

Then, look at this piece of news I had missed earlier this month: "Plastic bag tax dropped by MSPs". The Scottish Parliament, or part of it, were more concerned about "the potential for job losses in the plastic bag industry". Again, it's jobs (ie votes) before the environment.

We are told "there was strong opposition among Labour MSPs who saw the proposed levy as a tax on the poor".

How could it be a tax on the poor when it could well mean that "poor people" (which ever way you choose to define it) will now think twice about shopping on an impulse because they don't want to be paying 10 pence for a plastic bag?

If they don't have to worry about that 10 pence, they cannot be that poor. If they are that poor, they should not be impulse buying.

For the rest of us, there is something called "Bring your own bag".

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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Cheap, plentiful and this harmful

So there is a second toxic chemical spill in a China river today:

The first spill, resulting from a Nov 13 explosion at a chemical plant upriver from Harbin, has reached Russia:

Eventually, these harmful chemicals are going to reach the sea.

According to a report in,1518,387392,00.html, authorities cited human error at a tower that processed benzene, a toxic, potentially cancer-causing chemical used in making plastics, detergents and pesticides.

Here's some information about benzene:

Another reason to reduce the use of plastic?

Developed nations accuse China of being slack in their health and safety regime resulting in such environmental disasters. If there isn't a demand for cheap plastic and pesticides, would China be producing these chemicals in such quantities and under such conditions?

If there was an even greater demand for organic food, for example, wouldn't a country (including China) rush to meet those demands instead?

The market is based on supply and demand.

So it good that today's news also tell us that "British organic food sales soar":

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

This day last year

Is not a day I wish to re-live. Yet I cannot forget it.

Until last year December 22nd was remembered as my late mother's birthday.

Last year husband was so ill he didn't get a wink of sleep, and neither did I. He had to go to the toilet about, we've lost count, twenty times? during the night, throwing up both ends.

He suffers from an inflammatory bowel disease and was on heavy medication with very undesirable side-effects. His condition was so serious that this standard medication did not work on him. He was also very susceptible to infection and something triggered off this horrendous flare-up.

After that sleepless night I emailed family and friends all over the world to say: Pray! If he couldn't keep his food down, he would have to be put on a drip. That means being in hospital over Christmas. That would have been quite unthinkable for young son. I also needed wisdom as to what to feed him to get his energy back.

Meanwhile, we had invited a girl who was going to be on her own at Christmas to eat with us. We were not sure whether we would be having Christmas at home at all. I had to contact her to give her a chance to make alternative arrangements.

We had ordered food which needed collection. I had to ring a friend from church to go on 'stand-by' in the event that we could not go collect this order ourselves.

Son's godfather and his elderly godmother were to be picked up at the airport. I had to try to make alternative arrangements for them to be picked up as well as try to get a message to him. No, the airline was not very helpful.

And on and on it went. Frankly, at that point, I really didn't want to bother with all those other people. It was more important that husband could get out of bed and eat. We've had many episodes before when husband just could not get out of bed from sheer pain. This time it seemed worse than ever.

He was 'dosed up' with tea with glucose and buttered toast. Meanwhile emails were coming back from all over with assurances of prayer.

Husband managed to get some sleep, and managed to keep some food down. I also snatched a few minutes of sleep while son played by himself. Then, miraculously, by about 4pm, husband was able to get out of bed.

Through it all, son was good as gold and did not present any problems -- thank God! I managed to keep going, somehow.

We had a quiet Christmas, just the three of us with a friend who lives on his own and within walking distance. Husband barely had enough energy to keep him going, but put on a brave face and soldiered on.

It was not until July this year that the consultants finally sorted out a 'concoction of chemicals' to help his body cope, and I am pleased and thankful to say that as of August he has been officially "in remission".

So we are looking forward to Christmas this year with special gratitude. I shall have my niece and nephew visiting from different continents. And I shall remember for a long time that sleepless night when my world threatened to fall apart.

Thank you, Lord!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

What's the point? (Why I Hate Shopping, Part III)

The lines in front of "customer service" at M&S after Christmas. And Next, and BHS, and you name it.

Gift-buyers labour over what to buy before Christmas and recipients labour over returning these gifts straight after Christmas.

What's the point? Stick to gold, frankincense and myrrh the next time?

Years ago before husband became boyfriend: What would you like for Christmas?

Me: I don't need anything for Christmas.

Him: I didn't say "What do you need?". What do you want for Christmas.

Me: I don't want anything for Christmas.

His aunt insists on buying us stuff and she has to lug it all the way to us on the Tube. This year she is only allowed to buy us both a box of chocolates and a book for our son. I bet she'd show up at the door laden with pressies.

I shall have to say to her, as if she was at the airport: Sorry, Ma'am, the parcels have gone past the weight limit. We can't accept this.

The thing is she had rung to ask my son what else he would like for Christmas apart from the book How to beat your Dad at Chess. Son did not want anything else.

What's the point?

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Monday, December 19, 2005

Why do I hate shopping? Part II

I took my son and visiting nephew to lunch last Friday.

Then son and I looked around a couple of shops for some reading material and shoes for him.

At WHSmith I suddenly felt -- rather strangely -- hey! my phobia for shopping meant I am missing out on all this festive atmosphere. It's actually quite fun. There's a feeling of adrenalin in the air as people strive to complete their shopping.

About twenty minutes later, after son had decided on the Horrid Henry book he wanted from another shop, we stepped out into the shopping precinct and I felt like we had been invaded.

There were hordes of high school children out and about. They seemed to be hunting in packs. Some of them were behaving in such a manner that at least one shop pulled their doors half-shut and stationed a security guard at the door.

I felt so threatened and son and I made our way out of those crowds as quickly as we could.

I still hate shopping.

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Sunday, December 18, 2005

How not to shop. Or Why do I hate shopping so much?

There is nothing in my size and colour and the heaving crowds put me off.

My eyes get tired from looking at the range of clothes and useless items on display.

I think of the poor girl/young lady/young man/boy paid a pittance for long hours of back-breaking, fine-finger work and I can't bear to part with money that would only fund the profligate lifestyle of the (often corrupt) owner/businessman who might just happen to be at the right place at the right time, or who network with the right people, or who have the means to make donations to certain political parties, or all of the above.

There is no room in my wardrobe and until I throw out something that I have outgrown or needs replacing, I do not need another cheap jacket/blouse/skirt/pair of trousers, etc. And then only if I have the means to arrange for these to be recycled properly.

Living simply does not mean living cheaply. It means learning how to spend one's money wisely.

As an impoverished undergraduate I once bought a pair of cheap sandals. I thought I had a bargain. But the sandals broke within a day or two. We didn't have a culture of returning faulty goods in Singapore then. Mama taught me you get what you paid for (In Cantonese: yaat fun tsin, yaat fun for.) . I paid little and got little in return.

So I had to scrape together money to "invest" in a pair of expensive sandals. This pair lasted me several years.

I am often tempted to buy "cheap" these days when I do get out to the local shopping precinct. (I have to, to get to buy food.) Then I remember "cheap" comes with a price. It's either paid by myself (through goods that do not last or of poor quality), or the producer (underpaid, disadvantaged worker) or someone else in the next generation (through long-term environmental damage, see eg signpost to Boreal Forest).

"Do-gooders" say: But if you don't buy these goods, the poor, hard-up producers won't have a job.

My answer: Instead of buying useless trinkets, why not save the money to give away to charities that do make a real difference to people's lives? Give, so that young children and young people get a chance to be educated instead of work in a sweatshop, and be condemned to a life of meaningless labour that is "productive" only in theory if it only serves the purpose of assuaging our desire to own useless things.

Instead of buying another toy that a child does not need, why not save it to give away to a charity that makes a real difference to people's lives by, for example, building a well to provide drinking water?

Ultimately, the secret to living simply is to say "enough" and not "more".

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Monday, December 12, 2005


Our son came home from school last week with this in his school bag:

Both Husband and I had a good chuckle.

For those who find it difficult to decipher what he has written: It's entitled 'egg Poem' and it says "I am a stupid egg. I don't know a thing."

He calls this a 'shape poem'. They had been doing one in the shape of a Christmas tree in class. Somehow he was inspired to do this during his 'golden time'.

I was a bit concerned with the sentiment expressed. 'Do you feel you are stupid?'

'No, Mum, it's only a poem.'

My boy is growing up so fast.

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Saturday, December 10, 2005

Stamping out waste

The Royal Mail has announced that it is going to raise the price of its First Class stamps again.

My son made a catapult out of two toilet roll cardboard tubes.

What have the two in common? The humble elastic band.

Son had collected two tubes. He asked for Mummy's help to make two diametrically opposite holes near the rim of the first tube. He cut up an elastic band, threaded it through these holes and stretched the elastic band across, and taped the ends of the band down the outside of the tube.

The second tube he cut right down the side and snipped off a piece of it and joined it up together again with tape to turn it into a narrower tube. He then cut notches on diametrically opposite sides of one rim. This second (now) narrower tube is pushed, notched rim end first, into the first wider tube against the stretched elastic band. The notches in the inner tube ensures that the elastic band on the outer tube is properly engaged. He turns it over on the floor to get a grip on both tubes, turns it back up again, aims and lets go. Son has made himself a very respectable catapult. Quite a feat for a five-and-a-half-year-old.

Then, disaster. The elastic band broke.

Never mind, Daddy will bring home an elastic band from the office.

Next day, after dropping him off at school, Mummy noticed elastic bands on the pavement on her walk home. She picked one up for him. His face lit up when he saw the elastic band when he came home.

These bands have been abandoned by Royal Mail staff delivering post. Letters are often bundled together to make it easier for post workers to handle, but once the mail is delivered, they just drop these bands on the ground.

Then Mummy and son started noticing more and more red elastic bands on the pavement. Today we counted 23 down one side of our road as we walked to the bus stop to get to the library, and 25 up the other side when we came home. Forty-eight elastic bands on our one road alone.

How many elastic bands are our postal workers throwing away every day on their rounds up and down the country? How much money is the Royal Mail spending on the purchase of these red elastic bands every day? In other words, how much money are postal workers throwing away every day, literally?

How much money could the Royal Mail save if these bands were collected and re-used instead of having them strewn all over our streets by their staff, thereby saving us Royal Mail users from another round of stamp price rise?

My Mama taught me how to: waste not, want not.

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Friday, December 09, 2005

Tiffin on sale

Been very busy lately with fund-raising projects at son's school to organize and just back from a Christmas party we organize for parents-and-toddlers who come to our weekly groups.

But I must tell you about what I discovered late last night. Bishopston, the people who supply my organic cotton fabric with which I make gift bags now sell a tiffin carrier for Christmas. Here's the link (sorry, link broken).

If you've missed previous blogs about the use of a tiffin, you can catch up here, or here.

I am not sure if they would still have these after Christmas.

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Sunday, December 04, 2005

Men who multi-task

This piece has got nothing to do with the environment. It is just an observation I made recently.

Last year I had the privilege of being awarded a research grant by the British Academy to conduct research on graduate stay-at-home mothers in Singapore. It was an interesting topic of study as mothers in Singapore are expected to work. Many leave their two-month-old infants to the care of foreign maids hardly out of their teenage years to return to full-time work.

Graduate mothers, especially, are expected to return to work full-time after the 'investment' by the country in their university education. To quit work altogether to become a stay-at-home mother is very much counter-cultural.

One of the most interesting interviews I conducted was with a woman engineer, a mother of three young children. As with every other interviewee she mentioned that one of the skills she honed as a stay-at-home mother is to multi-task.

"I am talking to my friend on the phone while watching my children play, and in my head I am planning tonight's dinner."

Why can't men multi-task? She brought in her Christian perspective.

"What was Adam made of? Dust! A bit of rubbish! But Eve was made from the rib of Adam. You start with a different material, you'll get a different product." She should know. She's an engineer by training.


Take my husband, for example. Engineer by training as well (but no more practising). I've done well to train him not to stand around with arms folded as the kettle is boiling.

"Don't do nothing when you can do something! Empty the dishwasher while you wait for the water to boil. Or tidy up." Waiting for the kettle to boil is one task. To do something else while waiting ... O! that's too much hard work!

When we have a pile of clothes to fold -- and I do it in front of the TV -- and he purports to help, his hands are often frozen mid-air. When something exciting happens on TV, his hands stop. No, men can't cope with something exciting happening on TV and folding clothes at the same time.

Ah, have you noticed what they are like in a car?

We joke about women drivers. But it's true, some women can't reverse their car. My excuse is that I am so small I can't see where the car ends. Apart from the driver's side of the bonnet, I have no idea where the other extremities of the car are.

I always fear that I cannot anticipate well enough what other drivers would do due to my limited field of vision. That is why women love 4x4's. Seated higher up then normal motorists, they can see further afield. They might still not be able to reverse.

I used to be given lifts by a friend who didn't dare raise her hand to say 'thank you' to a driver who had given way to her. She didn't dare take her hand off the steering.

But men -- those creatures who cannot fold clothes while watching TV -- put them behind the steering wheel and they can:
  1. curse and swear,
  2. describe how badly the driver who had just overtaken him on the motorway had been driving while behind him,
  3. notice attractively (or strangely) attired women and/or women with 'jelly on a plate' bouncing in the opposite direction, and continue to watch them in the rear view or wing mirror,
  4. change radio stations, adjust volume of sound,
  5. open various compartments and cubby holes and either deposit or retrieve items from these

while driving and without swerving one tiny bit.

Who says men can't multi-task?

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Saturday, November 26, 2005

Wiping away ancient forests

For those who have not come to this blog via links I posted in other forums, this might be of interest:

Destroying the Boreal Forest

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Thursday, November 24, 2005

Dragons' Den or Parasites' Puddle?

I've watched two or three Dragons' Den programme so far and I was really cross with what I saw in the last programme.

A Yorkshire man who invented a device that would save water when flushing toilets was slagged off for being an 'eco-warrior' and written off as uninvestible. He was deemed more interested in saving the world than succeeding in his business.

This inventor-entrepreneur was described as arrogant and questions were raised about whether he expected people to look at their own p-- before flushing. This requires a change in habit and the 'Dragons' were not convinced that the device would sell.

These 'Dragons' simply didn't get it, did they? The environment has come to such a state that people MUST change their habits and if there are gadgets and tools to help people to do so, then such are to be applauded. They have no idea how fast the market size for earth-friendly products is growing.

(As an aside, there is such a high incidence of colon cancer in this country that people of a certain age have been advised: Don't blush. Look before you flush. It is good to study one's p--. Mothers with young children do that all the time. Too light: not enough iron. Too hard: must drink more water. Floaters: not chewing food enough or bad digestion!)

This Yorkshire inventor was also viewed as being anti-capitalist. I didn't actually hear what he said (due to his accent) to warrant such a conclusion by one of the Dragons. If the inventor was anti-capitalist, would he have gone to these out-and-out capitalists to try to get some investment?

Then we saw a young man who claimed to have developed a puzzle cube. There were several 'Dragons' bidding for this product. They wanted to invest in his company or his product for high percentages of equity.

'Don't do it! Don't do it!' I kept shouting from the comforts of my sofa.

The Dragons' faces lit up when they were told that the puzzle cubes, manufactured in China, cost $2 (presumably US) to make. They are being retailed at above £15. Whoa! High profit margin. They want a slice of it. You can imagine them rubbing their hands together in glee, cerebrally.

No questions were asked about the working conditions of the worker-producers. No reservations were raised about the use of plastic AND wood in making the puzzles. What sort of plastic? Is it coated in harmful chemicals? From where does the wood come from? Where do you think a Chinese manufacturer would buy wood from?

A fellow PhD student conducted research amongst Chinese factory workers in Shenzhen and her thesis contains some really woeful tales of what these young girls have to endure while the big bosses and foreign investors soak up the profits.

Do these 'Dragons' care? No. They were each only keen to negotiate as big a slice of pie (cake?) as they could get from this young man. What is £100,000 to any of these when they have millions at their disposal? Yet you see them trying to claw away at as much equity as possible from this young man.

Publicity on this programme paints each of these 'Dragons' as being successful beyond measure. But look carefully. From selling ice-cream to owning a chain of nursing homes? Impressive. Who wouldn't make money out of nursing homes in this country when the government has to pay to support their aged?

Some of the 'Dragons' obviously came from privileged families where there was money to spare. Sure, they had done well buying and selling businesses. That is the name of the game and I do not have anything against it per se. But how much of success in life boils down to being at the right place at the right time? How many of these could profess to be whiter than white when it comes to (evading) tax matters, for example, especially when they were starting out in business?

I don't begrudge the hard work these 'Dragons' had put into their businesses to make them successful. Along the way they would have learned many skills and tricks to help other entrepreneurs, I'm sure. That is why I watch the programme.

But I cannot bear their arrogance. On another programme when another inventor decided not to accept their investment for a large percentage of equity he was not prepared to give away -- much to my relief -- one of the 'Dragons' described him as 'barking mad' and another said he could not have bought advice from one of them for the price he was willing to invest.

They are not so much interested in developing a product or person as such, they only want the profit at the end of the day. Just because they have come to a certain station in life where they have the money to invest, they are simply acting out their natural instincts as predators.

They are capitalizing on the hard work of invention and product development put in by others. Others who have already done the legwork, established good working relationships with suppliers and manufacturers, researched their market, registered the patents, etc, etc. To accept their temporary injection of money and lose equity would be like inviting a parasite to make a home in oneself.

Which is why I'd rather view the programme as 'Parasites' Puddle'.

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Sunday, November 20, 2005

Mustard Seed Conspiracy

A lay member of the congregation preached today and reminded us of what Jesus said about a mustard seed:

MT 13:31 He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches."

I first read the book Mustard Seed Conspiracy by Tom Sine many years ago when I was asked to lead a three-session workshop at the Varsity Christian Fellowship Annual Conference on 'Living Simply'.

I didn't like the title of the workshop. It implies that we must 'simplify', reduce and do without. In other words, be poor. As I mingled incognito with the undergraduates, it was clear that many of those coming to my workshop were there only because they did not get their first three choices of workshops and had to come to mine. Poor things!

These are undergraduates, the elite of Singapore society, at the brink of starting a career that will make them far richer than the other 75% or so of the population. 'Living Simply'???

I changed the title of my workshop to 'Simply Live'. Having read the Mustard Seed Conspiracy and Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ronald Sider, I was convinced that 'living simply' is not a question of 'doing without', it is a challenge to do the most with what we have.

Simply live. Live it to the full. Await joy that overflows.

I cannot remember in which of these books I read (probably Sider's) that Christians were challenged not to be afraid of making money. God is looking for Christians who can make a million dollars in one day. Hang on, the writer did not stop there. He says God is looking for Christians who can make a million dollars in one day, AND give it all away the next.

That I found and still find very refreshing for my soul.

Why do I go on and on about the environment? What impact might my efforts on challenging others have on this earth? I don't know, and might never know. But it's a mustard seed idea and a mustard seed idea must lead to mustard seed action. I must start small, and this tiniest of little seeds might take root and grow into a big tree where birds could nest in and give shade to the weary.

Why do I want to start a business? Because I would like to give myself a chance to make a million dollars some day ... and give it away the next. I know I will never win the lottery because I don't ever play it. By the same reasoning, if I don't give myself a chance to make a million dollars/pounds (well, metaphorically at least), I won't have any to give away!

For all the criticisms that Bill Gates gets, I admire him for his philanthropy. Sure, the reasons behind his publicized generosity might be questionable, but the fact is he is putting his millions to work for the disadvantaged.

When one has all that money (see previous post), buying tangibles does not give pleasure any more. What is another aeroplane? What is another villa? It is far more blessed to give than to receive.

The worship leader today started with reading Psalm 24:

"The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it ...."

This earth does not belong to me. It belongs to God and that is why I feel I am personally responsible for stewarding its resources. When God said to Adam to 'have dominion over it', God meant that we are to look after it.

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Saturday, November 19, 2005

Home-made Gift Wr-pper

Or Killing Two Birds with One Stone

I think single-use p-per* wr-pper is such a waste of space. I shan't rehearse the arguments against it here. But you can read more about it here.

I've been presenting gifts to my son's classmates in my cloth gift bags. But I was stuck once when a gift didn't fit in any of the bags I have and I was still awaiting delivery of the new stock of organic cotton fabric I had ordered.


It was the summer holiday and I needed to keep my son occupied. We did some potato printing.

We'd done this when he was much younger and he enjoyed it. You know the pap-r that comes in parcels as p-ck-ging? I smooth these pap-rs out for making (star) charts and for son to draw on. You can also use these for potato printing, kitchen-roll rolling (tie and tape jute string around the cardboard roll, brush over with paint and roll onto pap-r to make lovely patterns) or simply sponging.

We became a little 'factory' making pap-r wr-pper and used all of it wr-pp-ng birthday and Christmas presents. A friend thought that I should go into proper production with that idea. Obviously I hadn't.

It does not matter if this pap-r is slightly creased and there are tiny holes, really. When a child gets a present, all it wants to do is rip the pap-r off.

So last summer we went back to doing potato printing. It meant son and I had something to do together -- and got a bit messy -- and we had pap-r to wr-p his friend's present in. Two birds, one stone. See picture below:

His friend's mummy might have thought we were a bit miserly, but that is up to her.

So, this Christmas, if you have large pieces of pa-kaging paper -- or better still, flipchart pap-r that has been used only on one side -- lying around, and you need to give your kids something creative to do, try making your own gift wr-pper.

* Apologies for having to leave letters out of words here. It's my lousy attempt at confusing the Robot crawler so that it does not put unsuitable ads on this site.

Back to Organic-Ally.

Friday, November 18, 2005

What do rich people do for a treat?

Son won the Junior School Shield this week. (Yay!) The Shield is awarded each week to a different boy for different achievements apart from showing 'the most consideration for others'.

The boys know that it is an honour and my son was delighted. When Husband came back and asked him what he wanted for a reward for that unexpected achievement, his answer was: eat in front of the TV.

He was watching his Children's Bedtime Hour and all he wanted was eat in front of the TV.

Obviously this is not something he is allowed to do. We make it a habit to sit down for dinner and the TV is always switched off at meals.

Husband came into the kitchen where I was and chuckled, 'That's all he wanted, eat in front of the TV.'

Which reminded me of a conversation we had in the run-up to our wedding. We were in Singapore with the friend who was going to give the 'exhortation' at our wedding, and his family. His wife worked with very rich children in an international school and was telling us about some of the excesses that these children and their families indulge in.

What do rich people do for a treat?

They fly first class to Japan for a shopping trip. Amongst other options beyond the likes of us.

That really set us thinking? If we were really, really rich -- I mean really, really fithy rich -- when there is nothing that our money cannot buy [pause there now to think about holidays, yachts, aeroplanes, villas, businesses, all the branded goods at the most obscene prices, et infinitum], what then can we give ourselves as a special treat?

'Eh, you won the Shield! Well done! I think you deserve a special treat. What would you like?'

'Eat in front of the TV.'

Back to Organic-Ally.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

How green is your competence?

I'd just sent off a courier who's driven up from Bristol to get my signature on an important form and now must get it back to Leeds.

It was a matter of urgency as we were haemorrhaging money with each passing hour. The root of this? Incompetence.

A simple thing like a document sent by registered post was signed for and then mysteriously disappeared meant that this courier needed to drive those miles with one piece of paper in one envelope to get to me, and drive many more miles even further away (to a third destination) to stop this haemorrhage.

Incompetence costs money, I've always known that. But it made me realise that incompetence, a lousy work ethos, a lack of initiative, ignorance, etc all contribute to unnecessary damage to this earth.

It's not only just a question of what we eat and drink, or wear, how we use water and power, etc.

Back to Organic-Ally.

How unethical would sir like his chicken?

So I ripped off the title from The Times writer Martin Samuel. This is his piece on how 'Our food is either cheap (yes, please) or organic (gosh, a bit pricey). Amazingly enough, you can't have both':,,171-1872148,00.html

As I said before in my original website, BSE came about when people wanted to buy cheap. Cheap now often means a higher price further down the line. Changing the vegetarian diet of cattle led to disastrous results. The only people who did not get blamed for the BSE crisis were the consumers who wanted to buy cheap. There is a much higher price to buying cheap.

Chicken is now cheap. As Martin Samuel said, this is achieved by 'putting fowl together in wire cages, with a legal space requirement per chicken that equates to three-quarters of a sheet of A4 paper'. So these chicken live and sleep in their own p--p (being very wary of the AdNoSense effect).

Moral of the story: 'You can’t have cheap ethical chicken'.

And now bird flu that might jump species to infect human beings and cause a pandemic is on the horizon. Still believe in cheap?

As for organic food, much of the organic food in Britain is imported while our own farmers are being forced into bankruptcy because of the ludicrous outworkings of the EU's CAP (Common Agricultural Policy), employment and immigration policies, and the big supermarkets that squeeze them dry.

This country is not working, is it?

Back to Organic-Ally.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Fathers and Discipline

During our 'weekend away', the speaker also dwelt on discipline as we continued our study of the Book of Hebrews:

HEB 12:7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? 8 If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. 9 Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it.

The speaker shared of her knowledge of Chinese families where parents give no encouragement at all to their children. If they came back with 95% on a test, they are asked what happened to the five per cent they did not attain instead of commending their children for doing well.

I understood what she said. Mother was the encourager. She was the one who checked my homework and made sure I had all my sums right. She expected me to go to university. I worried about not being able to pay tuition fees. She said, 'You just continue to work as you do. If you are really good, you'd get a scholarship.'

Father was 'somewhere else'. His normal day started at 3am. Mum always made him a hot drink and he would go to the abbatoir to pick his pig(s). Then he was at the market where he tried to sell as much as he could. At 12 noon precisely he would be knocking at the door.

He was at home most of the day, sorting out his accounts with his fingers flying over the abacus, sending mum to the bank to deposit his takings and prepare the 'float' for the next day, reading the Chinese newspapers, having his lunch, shower, sleep, as if by clockwork. But he was not actually 'there' for us children.

Till school report time. Top of the class (42 pupils), top of the form (84 pupils), 'not good enough'. 100% in this subject, 100% in that subject. 'Not good enough'. Why did you not get 100% in those other subjects? You cannot imagine the wrath I had to bear when one day, in secondary three in the formidable Raffles Girls School, I came in nearly bottom of the class. The fact that I averaged above most of the other girls in the form (400 girls) did not matter.

I used to play in the school band and sometimes brought home my instrument to practise. 'What was that? That grates on my ears.'

Sometimes I experimented with cooking. 'This is awful! It does not taste like anything.'

I write this for my nephew who said his own father (my brother) does not tell him much about his grandparents. That's perhaps because my brother did not really know my father except the 'not good enough'.

For twenty-odd years I lived with this feeling that whatever I did was 'not good enough' for my father.

Then one day while Mum was in hospital (again), and I was a research scholar at university, I bought some fish on my way home. There used to be a couple of shops along Pasir Panjang Road selling fish which have just been landed that same afternoon. I walked there from my nearby office at the university, bought a couple of fish and took them home.

Father took the fish and cooked the meal. By then he had stopped working and was happy to do the cooking especially when Mum was ill. We sat down to dinner, in silence as usual. Out of the blue he said, 'This is good fish. You chose well.'

Let's just say I quickly bent over and continued to shovel rice into my mouth with my chopsticks, tears welling up in my eyes. 'Good fish'! My father said 'Good fish', I had 'chosen well'!!!!

That must have been the first compliment he paid me for as long as I could remember.

Our relationship changed after this. One afternoon I found him in tears telling me about how he always felt he had this big, big chip on his shoulder.

In so many ways Mum had married 'down'. Grandma came from a well-to-do family and always had servants. Father was her only son-in-law who could not speak English, or had a comfortable government/office job. He always felt the other relatives looked down on him, which explains why he never joined us in visiting Grandma at Chinese New Year, until that year my brother was graduating university.

All the 'not good enough' was to spur us on to better things in life.

Would I prefer him to have been different? Sure, but as much as I remember the pain of being 'not good enough' for Father, I cannot imagine what pain he felt for all those years thinking that he was 'not good enough' for the family his wife was born into.

Still, uneducated as he was (he taught himself much of the Chinese he knew) he raised a family of six children on the strength of his own tenacity, struggled to give us a good education, and in the end made us people and professionals that any parent would be proud of.

All the best to Victor as he sits his A levels!! Aren't we blessed to have a Father in Heaven who does not think that we are 'not good enough'? And it is because we are true sons (and daughters) and not illegitimate ones that our Father chooses to discipline us.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Running the marathon

I've just come back from a lovely church 'weekend away'. The speakers were missionaries out in Asia. We were looking in Hebrews 12 and how we are to 'run the race'. This was compared with running a marathon. There were also many references to Eric Liddell made famous in the film 'Chariots of Fire'.

I first met the speaker many years ago in Bangkok on a mission trip. He later came to speak at my university and impressed on me the need to 'travel light' for those who are preparing to go into missionary service. I have taken that advice very literally. I left Singapore in 1991 with one suitcase to go into full-time Christian ministry.

We sang the song 'Majesty' (Worship his majesty, unto Jesus be all glory, power and praise ....) and immediately it took me back to a Varsity Christian Fellowship camp on the beach back in Singapore, O, so many years ago.

The question heavy on my mind was 'Where are all my mates from the Christian Fellowship all those years ago belting out the 'glory and power of God'? Are they still in this long marathon we run? How many have done a 'Paula Radcliffe' and given up on that kerb in Athens? How many more had returned to run even when the going has got so very, very tough?

Where are those friends who have risked discipline from school principals (head teachers) and parents (to the point of being thrown out of their homes) in order to practise their faith?

There have been many ups and downs in my own life too. There have also been many temptations to stray along the way. I have been very blessed that there have been friends and teachers along the way to sustain me. I don't think I have been 'stronger' than most, but I've learned that I am allowed to be angry.

There have been many times when I had been 'angry with God', just pouring out my pain in tears. Most recently it was over my husband's debilitating illness that had caused so much uncertainty in our lives. It was impossible to make plans when we knew that husband could go to bed one evening and finds it impossible to get out of bed the following morning.

I was angry, SO VERY ANGRY, and fearful, yes, that too. But I was angry with a God who also said that He will be my Rock.

Praise the Lord, O my soul. Let all that is in me praise His Name!

"Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.

"He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.

"Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint."

Isaiah 40:28-31

Help me, Lord, to keep running this race.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Exams for under-threes

From which planet do our government ministers come from?,,172-1864565,00.html

In a new Bill being proposed, under-threes in the care of nurseries and childminders will be legally required to be taught a National Curriculum. To be policed by Ofsted, this is to ensure that children are taught mathematics, reading and writing.

Why? Because three-year-olds have been found to enter PLAYschool (NB emphasis on PLAY) without the necessary basic knowledge.

Yet three-year-olds are known to be excluded from playschools for their ability to swear.

How do you square this? Who teaches young children to swear? Who teaches young children to count?

Is the government now saying that mothers cannot be trusted to teach their own children? Or are they waking up to the fact that too many children are left in the care of institutions and now these institutions must step up on their surrogate parent roles?

In either case, the reasoning is flawed. The government is treating the symptoms of a problem and not the root of the problem.

One category of children not learning are children left in the care of childminders. Childminders provide a safe environment for children while parents work, but they are not obliged (till this Bill becomes law) to provide intellectual stimulation. That is why I chose to stay at home to look after my own kid.

'[Beverley Hughes] argued that research showed that earlier education helped children to develop faster both socially and intellectually.' Us real parents know that.

'The children will be expected to have mastered skills such as comparing, categorising and recognising symbols and marks.' Us real parents do that when we take children on walks, talk about the different shapes and colours of leaves on the ground (comparing), as we read car number plates and road signs (recognizing symbols and marks), sort out the cutlery, clothes and toys before putting away (categorizing).

Solution: Parents (either father or mother) be helped to remain at home when children are nought to three to give them their best attention during their most formative years. There are related issues like mothers (especially) returning to work, having to re-train, etc, but these are to do with employment practices and cultures that legislation alone cannot resolve.

Another category of children are those whose parents do not have the resources to teach them, mainly children of immigrant parents with limited English and those who have little education themselves. The mothers of these children are not likely to be able to earn enough money to make it worthwhile to work and so won't benefit from this scheme.

They are best helped through themselves being better educated. They need classes where they can learn English and other skills (parenting, playing with children, doing craft with children) ALONGSIDE THEIR CHILDREN.

If three-year-olds can learn to swear from their parents, they can also learn good habits, maths, reading and writing. If parents are not equipped to do this when their children are under-three, these same children will not get the necessary support when they become five, eleven, thirteen, and so on.

Isn't it strange that a government that does not believe that babies born to single teenage mothers (who are themselves children) should be encouraged to put them up for adoption to give these babies a headstart should now consider giving carers outside the home the responsibility of teaching these babies?

Why have a baby in the first place? Why let a fifteen-year-old mother keep her baby when she should be given a chance to move on to make something of her own life? What chance have such babies got to get out of this vicious circle of unplanned parenthood?

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Garbage in, garbage out

I just thought it might be a bit of fun to sign up for Google AdSense to see what ads they might place on this blog spot. Before you sign up, they tell you that you can filter out undesirable ads.

So imagine my shock when I checked the site early Monday morning and found that they have listed pl--t-c b-gs and pap-r stuff like that, on a site that is trying to get people to STOP using p-as-i- ba-s and p-p-r.

I'm not spelling those words out in full in the (vain) hope that the Robot crawler that scans the site might be confused and not place any more of those offending ads on the site.

In my simple mind, one should be able to write instructions to tell a machine/software to 'exclude', 'negate', 'ignore' etc so that it does not do what it is doing to my site.

Imagine a site extolling the virtues of vegetarianism. We live in world of binary opposition. When we talk of vegetables, we often do so as in opposition to me-t (muscle from animals). The Robot, it appears to me, would see 'm-at' and goes, 'Ah, 'me-t'. Put 'm-at' ads on that site!'

By the same logic, if I were to launch a site promoting my Christian belief, and at some point mention 'Sat-n', the Robot would then pick up on 'S-tan' and list a whole bunch of ads on 'S--anism'.

I can't believe the technical team cannot do something about this. But they insist that they cannot, at least for now. Meanwhile I spend much of time filtering out pla-t-c ads. Very frustrating.

So if this experiment does not work and the AdSense become AdNoSense, then every ad will be removed. It's not as if I'm being paid lots of dosh for this. For whatever reason, my account stands at a remarkable $0.00. But every penny/cent earned, I thought, could be given to charity.

My charity would have to wait a long while, I'm afraid.

Back to Organic-Ally.

Monday, November 07, 2005


For those of you (yes, all eight of you!!) who do read this blog, you would know where my stand on plastic is. So why are there GoogleAds on p_a_stic on this site?

I don't understand either. But I am getting the technical people to sort it out. Meanwhile, just ignore the 'pl_st_c' ads.

Back to Organic-Ally.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Bag it!

I'm delighted that the silk wine gift bags I ordered some four months ago will be available for sale later this week on the Organic-Ally website. Here are some pictures:

These bags are made from silk, locally sourced and woven, by women of Tabitha in Cambodia. This organization has been helping the poorest of the poor in this country for the past ten years. Tabitha provides a regular income for widowed mothers, land mine victims, displaced war and famine victims, etc. Every item of craft they produce is unique and beautiful.

I had some of these bags for sale at an event promoting 'fair trade' at Milton Keynes last week. The lovely customers there tell me that I was selling these bags too cheaply. Organic-Ally will also be returning all post-tax profits to Tabitha.

It is a rare phenomenon these days when the purchase of a lovely object would mean that (1) the producer is genuinely helped, (2) the recipient of this gift would be delighted, and (3) the environment will also benefit through a reduction of paper use.

Check out the 'wrapper that does not eat paper' at Organic-Ally.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Lazy parent or vindicated?

My son's headmaster drew parents' attention to this report in the Daily Telegraph:

The gist of it is that middle-class parents who try to give their children a headstart by filling their children's days with all sorts of 'enhancement' activities (French, dance, piano, violin, swimming, computer, etc) might be stunting their children's development. Children need to develop at their own pace. Filling their days with structured activities does not always guarantee desirable results.

Tee-hee! I thought, rubbing my hands together (mentally). Vindicated once again.

In Singapore for our first holiday since son's arrival I was trying to get books in Chinese to get him started on a second language. A former professor said, 'Books? Who reads books these days? Get him CD-ROMs. Teach him how to use a computer.'

It echoed friends' and neighbours' comments that I should invest in software and a children's keyboard that goes over a standard computer keyboard to help my son learn numbers and colours. My reply to friends and this professor was the same: I prefer to sit son on my knees and teach him those basics. (And besides my son had already mastered the colours and 1 to 10 with coloured wooden blocks, but I didn't want to say this to my well-meaning friends.)

Teach him to use a computer? My belief is using a computer to this generation of children is like using a telephone. They learn through 'modelling', just as boys in some cultures learn to hunt or fish for a living. They learn to do what their fathers and mothers do. There is no need to sit my son in front of a computer to explain 'CPU, monitor, keyboard, mouse'. The computer is part of his habitus and he would soon learn how to use it.

Which was exactly what happened. My son watched husband and I use the computer. He asked questions. We supplied the answers. He observed over weeks. One day he asked to try using the computer. We let him. Mouse - click on left button. And away he went.

He couldn't read very well then, but he discovered an e-card site and kept going back to it (on 'Favourites') so that he could click on a card and watch the animation. Soon he had learned how to navigate around the various children's sites he had asked us to bookmark for him. Scroll down a list of 'Favourites' to find a certain site? No problems.

My son thrives on structured activities. He is a creature of habit to a great extent. Even at a few weeks old when we had friends over for dinner, I nursed him at the dining table instead of my usual chair. That night he could not get to sleep. As he grew however, he also learned to use his unstructured time profitably. Construction toys and marble runs can keep him busy for hours. And now he could read for hours on end if we let him.

Unstructured time also means he has to learn to make choices and live with the consequences.

As for tennis, football, piano, etc, and even Chinese, we go on the principle that he learns best when he is ready and happy to learn. So we speak some Chinese, or French or Latin (which I am trying to learn, occasionally) when he shows interest and learning remains fun (especially when Mummy makes mistakes too). We let him play on the piano, guitar, violin, etc, when he wants to play and he tries to get sensible sounds out of those instruments. But we don't push. We don't expect him to pass his Grade Eight exams before he turns ten.

Maybe he won't be a good musician at all. It does not matter. Maybe his spoken French will never be fluent. But so what? He won't ever win at Wimbledon. O! we are devastated -- not!

But we sincerely hope and pray that son will be happy, and he would be able to look back at his childhood and say to his own children, he enjoyed growing up with Mummy and Daddy around him. He is now keen to go on to university if only to take part in University Challenge. If he decides NOT to go to university at all, I am not going to force him. (Husband has different ideas.)

He is probably going to be more useful to society if he became a really good hairdresser, as far as I am concerned. It is his life, he has to live it. My only desire is that he lives it to the glory of God. Then everything else will fall into place.

Back to Organic-Ally.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Save Water, Cut Hair

Those readers in the UK who have been following avidly Penney Poyser's series on No Waste Like Home might remember the scene where she shows us how to shower.

Yes, wet, soap and rinse. No problem there. But when it comes to hair, her advice was wet, turn off shower, shampoo, and then rinse. We saw footage of her shampooing her beautiful long black hair.

My toes froze.

The idea is that we do not waste water by leaving the shower on while we shampoo. Easy to do that in the summer, but in the freezing weather, we tend to leave the shower on (I do, I'm afraid), face away from the shower and shampoo while the warm water keeps me, well, warm.

This is a far cry from being in Singapore where typically we turn off the shower to soap and shampoo. But it's constantly 33 degrees C out there.

In fact I remember when we had droughts and the daily national water consumption and (lack of) rainfall were closely monitored.

As we do not have large porcelain/enamel/whatever bath tubs in our little flats, children are usually bathed in plastic bowls ('basins' as we call them in Singapore) serving as bath tubs. Adults use a large sturdy plastic bowl to hold warm water (boiled in a kettle and mixed with the cold) for a 'splash bath'. Only in more recent years did electric showers with instant hot water become a feature of new homes.

In a drought, my practice was to shower standing in one of these plastic basins. After the standard wet-soap-rinse, the water collected is then reused, usually to flush the toilet.

Although we had a flush toilet in our flat, for years Mum would keep water from her laundry (all done by hand) in huge buckets by the toilet and we then used this water to flush the toilet. Even after illness took a toll on her health and we bought her a washing machine, she still piped the waste water from the washing machine into as many buckets and basins as she could find to save this water for flushing the toilet.

Saving water, or rather not wasting it, is not something we did only in droughts. It was a standard practice in our household. But if you thought using water twice was primitive, think about using water three times.

I made two visits to rural North Thailand villages in my undergraduate days on 'mission trips'. In the first the five of us in the group didn't realize that the trough of water in a little shed with a squat toilet was for flushing the toilet. We used that water to brush our teeth. O, and we prayed really hard.

On my second visit, this time on my own, I learned that in this particular set-up (an orphanage), they keep drinking water (rain water or water from a well) in a trough outside the kitchen. Typically, water used to clean food (vegetables eg) or to wash our hands was retained to be used again for washing up after meals. Water that had been used twice and now a bit murkier was then put into the trough in the toilet (from which my friends and I had been using water for teeth-cleaning two years earlier).

Imagine my shock when I saw my husband leaving the tap running while brushing his teeth. (He's been set right since.)

For those who can't, like Penney, bear to turn off the shower while we shampoo, my solution is simple: keep your hair short. We use less shampoo, we clean it quicker and therefore use less clean water.


Back to Organic-Ally.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Forming Good H-A-B-I-T-S

In a previous post I noted the need for people to form a habit for recycling and caring for the environment.

Here's a lesson I learned from my Art teacher at 13, and I have never forgotten it.

The word HABIT.

Take away 'H', and you still have A-BIT.

Take away 'A', you are left with BIT

Take away 'B', you are still left with IT.

You see, HABITS are rather difficult to get rid of. So, let's make sure that we only try to form good habits instead of bad.

This is a serious lesson for us parents, I think.

Back to Organic-Ally.

No more paper kitchen towels (almost)

I am showing you a picture of my forlorn looking empty kitchen towel roll languishing on its stand.

Why? It is testimony to what happens when one switches to cloth table napkins.

When this roll was full I didn't think anything of tearing off a sheet or two to clean the table, wipe my mouth, etc. Since reverting to cloth table napkins, we don't actually miss the paper.

The down-side is we often get our napkins (in natural unbleached organic cotton) mixed up*. No, to say that we use a clean napkin at every meal would be telling a lie. But if they are used only once at the end of a meal to clean some greasy lips, there is no real need to wash them after each use.

*Solution: I'm buying different coloured organic cotton napkins from the Hankettes range so that each member of the family has a different colour napkin. Well, until I am able to find eco-friendly napkin rings that could be personalized.

As for cleaning the table, well, I've learned to be less lazy. Because our dining room cannot be further from the kitchen (it takes a full three seconds to get there!), we used to resort to the kitchen towel to clean up spills, wipe down the table, place mats, etc. Now I make it a point to use a cleaning cloth instead.

Let's be honest now: Don't we ever use paper serviettes and kitchen towels?

Yes, we do, when we eat with our fingers in which case we might need two or three cloth napkins, or when we entertain a large number of people and we simply do not have enough cloth to go round.

Since we normally do use proper cutlery and we are a small family, cloth napkins are usually adequate.

If you are keen to do your part in cutting the use of paper, consider using cloth napkins again. Try it with any old bits of fabric you might have or recovered from old shirts and stuff and see how it goes.

When you choose to go down the organic cotton route, you know where to find me.

Back to Organic-Ally.

Monday, October 31, 2005

25 hours a day, every day please!

Here in the UK the clocks were put back on Saturday. Effectively we had an extra hour.

Sunday mornings are usually manic in our household as we try to have a lie-in (but not too much) and get ready for church. Well, yesterday, despite husband having to drive to Gatwick to make an unexpected pick-up (his brother lost the car keys while on holiday in Florida), son and I actually managed to get things done.

We even managed to get on the bus and got to church on time!

So having an extra hour a day does help. The problem is: we can't have this extra hour every day.

And then we lose that hour come summer.

You win some, you lose some.

Back to Organic-Ally.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Farmers' Market 2 and plastic bags

We managed to get back to the Farmers' Market this last weekend (see previous post).

Some of the prices were crazy. We got a large punnet of Egremont Russet apples for £1.50. Husband didn't mind the £1.50 but was thrilled that they were ER apples. We asked the stallholder to just tip the apples into our organic cotton string bag, which he did, and he was able to re-use his pl_stic punnet.

Later on we saw another stallholder tip a punnet of pears into a pla_tic bag another shopper had brought with her. Further along another lady shopper told the butcher, 'No, no, I've got my own bags.' She had a lovely wicker basket and several 'long life' pl_stic bags. At the baker's, he simply wrapped up our loaf in recycled paper and put it into the string bag I was holding open. None of that 'Would you like a plas_ic bag?' business.

I was really encouraged to see how in the space of a few minutes we could observe several people consciously doing their bit for the environment. It takes effort to clean out bags and to remember to carry those out with us. The sooner we make it a habit, the better.

Last stop, our soup man. He was there. Son wanted his soup. Again, my tiffin carrier came in handy. Soup man filled all three compartments with soup. Again, there was much curiosity -- and approval. No foam or pla_tic containers this time. Neat.

Back to Organic-Ally.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Child-friendly=family-friendly restaurants?

While on holiday I could not help but notice how much space some restaurants have 'invested' in play areas. One restaurant we went to had a space that could easily take another 35 to 40 diners devoted to children. They had built a wonderful obstacle course and soft play area that my son kept wanting to return to.

When I first worked in the UK the only children we saw at restaurants were Chinese ones, in one particular Chinese restaurant. There was, and still is, no play area for the children. Children were expected to sit quietly during the meal and ate just like adults.

The only distraction was a fish tank.

My own childhood experience of restaurants was just like that. We sat at huge round tables. We sat and made polite conversation. We sat and answered questions by relations we do not recognize at wedding banquets, etc. We sat and ate what the adults ate. When we got bored we were taken to the aquarium to watch the fishes.

Some restaurants have other types of fish tanks. Occasionally a member of kitchen staff would appear with a net, scoop up a fish from the tank, show it to the person who ordered fish, and return to the kitchen. Twenty minutes later we would have succulent steamed fish on the table.

In recent years I've noticed a movement towards more children being taken to meals at restaurants and pubs. The Italian pizza/pasta outlets seem most open to having young kids about. Colouring pencils/crayons and pictures/puzzles became a standard even at department store restaurants. Balloons are a hot favourite. One pub-restaurant near us thrives on being children-friendly. It is also my son's favourite.

But the noise level is horrendous for those not used to children.

I am not sure the whole idea of taking children to a restaurant is so that they could run wild in a soft play area while grown-ups eat and struggle to have a decent conversation amidst all that noise. While I appreciate distractions that would keep my son happy, I am not sure I like him disappearing between courses to play with new-found friends.

And what do children eat at these places? Chicken nuggets, hot dogs, hamburgers, scampi, all served with baked beans or peas with chips, spaghetti bolognese or pizza. O, and ice cream concoctions of one kind or another.

A large part of me wishes him to learn to sit and wait and eat a meal with the rest of the party. I look forward to taking him to a proper 'grown-up' restaurant when he's old enough to stay up late, to eat 'grown-up' food just like I had to as a child. Otherwise what's the point of taking a child to a restaurant?

Am I being old-fashioned, asking too much of this younger generation, or am I right in thinking that I am not the only one who thinks that some restaurants have gone a bit too far in being 'child-friendly'?

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Friday, October 21, 2005

See how they grow

Just back from a much-needed break with husband and son, to a holiday place with lots of children. 'Family-friendly' they are called these days.

It was fascinating to see very tiny babies being taken on holiday. Some didn't look more than two or three weeks old. We didn't go any where when our son was that young. I think my first trip out of the HOUSE was going to the local sub-post office two minutes walk away. Son was about three weeks old. Even then it took me a long time to pluck up enough courage to do that.

I was so nervous. Never used that pushchair before. Not sure how things click and unclick in and out of place. What if I failed to secure the seat and baby falls out?

After 30-plus hours of labour and an emergency Caesarean-section I was still feeling a bit sore where they had cut me open, and I wasn't sure I could lift the pushchair (just one end of it) across the threshold to get out, and then to come back in again. It was like I had to will myself to complete that little task for a long, long time before I finally dared to take son out.

So I marvel at the young (NB. young) brave new mothers who seem to cart their babies about with no fear at all, often with one or two older ones in tow. Ah, that's the point: practice makes perfect. After the first baby, number two and number three would be a doddle, I imagine.

Sadly, I will never know.

But this time away brought back many memories: especially of that time when I was completely at the mercy of my young son.

He slept well at night. We trained him to do that and he was fine. It was the days that I found difficult. When he had regular sleep times I could easily switch to academic mode to write my conference and journal papers.

Did I say 'easily'? Actually it required what I called elsewhere 'cerebral calisthenics'. It took a lot of discipline to switch between nursing a baby and singing nursery rhymes (in English and Mandarin) and writing serious, contemplative, academic papers (eg) on why some old people behave the way they do, and why they need the kind of support they need, and how best to prevent the same problems recurring with other immigrant groups, etc.

However, it was this academic outlet that kept me going as a 'full-time mother'. I couldn't cope with the idea of my mind turning to mush, or of watching day-time TV -- I did watch quite a few episodes of 'Diagnosis Murder' starring the incredibly talented Dick Van Dyke, but only because son would only sleep in the TV room -- or of incessant baking just so that a tiny tot could decorate some cupcakes, ad infinitum.

But then there came a time when son dropped his last day-time nap. For a period of some nine months he didn't sleep a wink in the day at all. He was still too young to start nursery (play) school. So, yes, Mummy was on call every minute of the day.

What kept me going was the thought that come September, son would be off to school and I would have three (THREE!) glorious child-free hours of my own, not just on Monday and Tuesday, but EVERY week day.

You see, children grow up.

It was funny how people used to say, 'You won't know what to do with yourself.'

What utter rubbish! I dropped him at school on that first day, rushed home, and promptly 'set up shop' in the warmest room of the house, reading a book. Having not done any empirical research for a long time, I had no material to write up papers with and had taken to reviewing books for academic journals.

On this holiday we could not help but notice how much son has grown. Physically he's bigger than most boys his age. I guess it helps that even his Chinese grandfather was above-average tall. Emotionally he's much less clingy (which I believe comes with being an only child). Whereas he used to be afraid to attempt new challenges, he now was eager to give most things a try.

Socially too it was heartening to see that he was beginning to relax and make friends with 'strangers' in play contexts. He befriended children in the play areas of the various restaurants and enjoyed playing together. He didn't cry when pushed but learned to cope with that all on his own.

It is wonderful to see how our children grow. At the same time I have to remind myself (and husband) that we must also soon learn to let go. Thankfully, both of us know that we can 'let go, and let God'.

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Saturday, October 15, 2005

Tiffin for two (or three)

Cousin took us out to lunch as she normally does during her stays with us. We went to Oriental City in Colindale where there is a 'food court'. It's a concept familiar with us Singaporeans.

Different stalls sell different types of food in a 'court' (ie large hall) and we can purchase from any of the vendors, pay for it, wait for our order number to be flashed up on an electronic board, collect the food, and eat it any where we could find room to sit.

There's a wide range of foods ranging from Vietnamese to Japanese, different types of Chinese to cuisines from different parts of south-east Asia (Malaysian 'nasi goreng', Singaporean 'Hainanese chicken rice', Thai green curry, etc).

We had our greasy fill -- we do indulge once in a while -- but found that we could not finish the Shanghainese ('little dragon') dumplings that cousin ordered. To be honest, I didn't like it all that much. Usually, that would have gone to waste. Not today.

Today, in my organic cotton string bag, is my stainless steel tiffin carrier (see a picture of one here -- sorry, link broken). I went prepared, like a good former Brownie Sixer that I was.

So dumplings went into the bottom tier of the tiffin. Son thought it was a novelty and wanted to put his Japanese bread rolls in the middle tier.

We went out into the concourse and bought some 'kueh-kueh', Malaysian cakes made from casava (tapioca) and stuff like that, all laden with grated coconut.

'I can give you a plastic box,' said the nice man at the stall.

'No, thanks,' I said. The 'kueh-kueh' went into the top tier of my tiffin carrier. It does not add to the landfill.

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Going organic and chicken tales

Well, cousin has flown in again to attend classes as part of her PhD programme. She looked at the stuff we have in the fridge.

'Wah, you're buying all organic now.'

My reply was, 'You know, in my mother's time, everything we bought was organic. Then they brought in intensive farming. And now we are paying a premium for "organic".'

While we were both growing up in Singapore we could drive down fairly main thoroughfares and catch a whiff of organic manure. (I am thinking of Potong Pasir and Braddell Road.) There were vegetable farms and pig farms where now high-rise flats are standing. Fruit and vegetables were plentiful and not too expensive. Meat was dearer. Chicken was only for celebrations.

I remember my sisters having a school reunion in our little flat. Can't imagine how brave they were to even think of that. They gathered a group of school friends from primary school and they partied in our tiny little two-bedroom flat in Queenstown. The highlight of the menu: fried chicken wings.

It was the epitome of sophistication then to have chicken wings on one's menu. Pork and fish were everyday meats. The innards of pig -- liver, kidneys, intestines, stomach, etc -- were also used in everyday cooking. But chicken, it was only for special occasions.

My family was a bit different. Because my father sold pork in a 'wet market' and Mum and Dad were devout Chinese religionists, Dad always bought a whole chicken for the 1st and 15th day of the lunar calendar. The chicken was cooked with watercress which turned it into a tasty but slightly bitter soup, and the chicken was then 'presented' to the Chinese gods as an offering.

After the ceremonial bit Mum chopped up the chicken with her trusty cleaver on the huge wooden chopping board on the kitchen floor, and we ate it. Whatever chicken was left was braised in soya sauce the following day for another meal.

Chicken is plentiful and every where now, as we know. Why? We've seen those pictures of chicken battery farms where thousands of chickens are reared in a space scarcely large enough for them to stand in. Why are such chickens susceptible to disease? If you pack any living organisms -- chicken, goats, cows, human beings -- in a small space, eating and sleeping in their own poo, isn't it inevitable that when one catches an infectious disease, the others would have little escape? Wasn't that how huge human populations were wiped out in epidemics of any time?
Is avian flu a threat? Of course it is. Is it preventable? Of course it was.

British friends tell me that like us in Singapore, chicken was an expensive meat. Pork and beef were eaten every day, but chicken was special.

Even then, only chicken breast was eaten. My hypothesis is that the Brits never ate any bit of any animal that they could not cut and pick up neatly with a knife and fork. But chicken wings, drumsticks, and even chicken feet have now crept into our ordinary culinary experience. (Think of pizza outlets and a certain colonel who's supposed to have a special recipe for cooking chicken.)
A Chinese acquaintance from Hong Kong is convinced that it was the Hong Kong Chinese who taught the white men how to eat chicken wings. O! The joys of eating with one's fingers and chewing the crunchy cartilage on the joints of chicken! With the Chinese, no part of the chicken was wasted, right down to the boney chicken wing tips and feet (which they call 'Phoenix claws' or 'fung jao'). These are boiled to make tasty stock or enjoyed on its own as a gelatinous treat dipped in a nice sauce or rice wine -- but only if you know how to spit out the tiny bones with some finesse!

As usual, I've drifted, but I'm allowed to do that in a blog. 'Organic' was the standard and only type of agriculture when I was growing up. Then someone came along and told us using animal manure was dirty and unhygienic and we were prone to catching horrible diseases and we needed to clean up our act. Was that 'someone' involved in providing 'cleaner' alternatives?

'Cleaner' as a result of feeding animals substitutes eventually meant cheaper. But 'cheaper' came with poor animal welfare, indiscriminate use of antibiotics, and a new generation of human beings that seems to be susceptible to allergies of all sorts.

What about fruit and vegetables? Pesticides and chemical fertilizers replaced the organic manure that had served previous generations well. These chemicals cannot be washed away. They merely seep into the soil, into the water, which then gets into our bodies. Any wonder that the incidence of cancer and other similar diseases has rocketed?

And now it is so much more expensive to buy organic.

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Friday, October 14, 2005

Because Mummy is an old woman

I was brushing my son's teeth. Once or twice a week I feel I have to make sure his teeth are brushed properly.

While I was doing this he raised his hand and ran a finger down my face. 'What's this?' he asked.

'What's what?' I replied, being a bit miffed.

'What's this?' son repeated, running finger down one side of my nose and past the corner of my mouth.

'That? O, I suppose it's a line. Your mummy is old. She's an old woman. Old women have lines on their faces, you know. You don't mind your mummy being an old woman, do you?'

'No,' son said, 'I don't mind.... Actually I do, because that means you would soon die, isn't it?'

'Yes, but I hope to live a lot longer and not die so soon.'

That is what happens when one has children late in life. We have never tried to hide from son the painful realities of life -- like death. And he has worked out that Mummy and Daddy, being older than most (possibly all) of the parents in his class, are likely to die, well, a bit sooner.

People often tell me (some ask nicely, but others TELL me) that it is time we had another child. I maintain that if a woman requires reading glasses to read dosage directions on medicine bottles, she is past having any more babies. Many people do not accept that husband and I are older than what they think we are.

This morning I asked a friend at church how it was possible that they were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary. 'Did you get married at 18?' I said.

'No! I married at 25.'

'Gosh! That makes you 50. You can't possibly be 50. I was sure you were younger than me.'

'Well, I chose my parents very carefully.'

We might have 'chosen our parents' well and look younger than our age, but our bodies feel our age. I pray that, by the grace of God, both husband and I would live long enough to see our young son accomplish something special in his adult life.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Exploding Chestnuts!

Went to the French Market happening around here last weekend. Bought some chestnuts for son as we could not find any conkers around here for him.

Thought I should roast some of these in the oven, it being a cool-ish evening. BANG! went one. Oops! Better get the rest out of the oven quick. Retrieved the tray, put in on the hob, and BANG!! went another one right before my eyes.

Bits of chestnut every where in the kitchen. Bother!

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Sunday, October 09, 2005

My tiffin arrived

It has been an incredibly hectic week. There was a fund-raising event to help organize at son's school and a major church project to take care of.

At very short notice we were given a video project to sort out. I ended up having to edit 90-plus minutes of video footage into 12 minutes. On Friday I had to, unexpectedly, shoot some new footage to add to these 12, and eventually had to sub-title the whole project.

There was no script, no guidelines, no concept to work with. It was just: produce 15 minutes of video that we could show to the public.

I like hard work. I like the adrenalin of getting things done by a deadline. But I was so tired by Friday evening. When I started making mistakes and a pain was creeping up my wrist, I knew it was time to stop.

Saturday morning found me frantically splicing the video. Husband took care of son while I did this. Then it was his turn to complete the technical bit while I entertained our son ... well, more like getting him to complete his homework. Had to drop in at son's school to make sure someone was indeed making the salad for the evening event.

The video was required at 2pm. We finally completed it at 1pm. Got it down to church by 1.30pm and found a machine -- not the original one intended -- that would play it.

The good news is: my cousin arrived later on Saturday evening with my stainless steel tiffin carrier. Took it to the French market happening in our town this afternoon. The friendly French vendors did not know what to make of it, but were very happy to comply with my request.

I am chuffed.

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Truancy, poverty and food

The title to this section of Letters to The Times is 'Poor kids can't have their cake and eat it'.

One letter-writer pointed out that the 'humiliation of poverty is a reason for truancy' as poor families 'are unable to respond to the peer pressure in the playground that results from brand targeting by advertisers'.

When in my first year of school in Singapore I was asked to bring in twenty cents to buy a plastic cover for a workbook. My mum could not find those twenty cents. Instead my eldest sister sacrificed an old plastic cover from one of her old books.

A wealthier girl at school laughed at me. I was so embarrassed I went home and cried my heart out. The following week, Mum squeezed twenty cents from the housekeeping money and I had my new plastic cover like everyone else in class.

So I understand where this letter-writer is coming from in terms of peer pressure. But he goes on to note that the same single mother of four children on unemployment benefits could not afford a computer for the child to surf the net and complete her homework. As a result, the child decided not to attend school.

Many public libraries now offer subsidized or cheap Internet services. So that is not a fully valid excuse. In any case, teachers could be told of the child’s predicament, and surely some suitable arrangements could be worked out.

The difference between myself and this kid is that I had parents who pounded the importance of a good education into my head. There were six of us kids and no unemployment benefits.

We had no luxuries, no new clothes, no family holidays. No TV, no fridge, no nice furniture, until hand-me-downs from richer relations became available. My clothes came out of a trunk that Mum kept under the bed. In it were dresses that belonged to my cousins. I had one pink dress which I wore on the first day of Chinese New Year every year for about five years. (The dress was very big when I first wore it, and very small when I wore it last.)

Mum would collect old textbooks from relatives so that we had books to read. My parents always made sure we had both English and Chinese newspapers to encourage us to read. I was taught to use the public library from a very young age.

Dad worked as a butcher every day of the year bar three rest days at Chinese New Year for years. At one point he had to borrow money from loan sharks to pay for uniforms and textbooks.

If you want to talk about poverty, come talk to me.

Other letter-writers to this section commented on junk food being sold in and around schools. Ironically, because we were so poor we could not afford junk food.

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Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Stomach Ulcers and Barry Marshall

Dr Barry Marshall has just been awarded a Nobel Prize for Medicine for his work (with colleague Robin Warren) in the research of stomach ulcers. Having injected himself with the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, Dr Marshall developed the symptoms of stomach ulcers and then proceeded to treat himself with antibiotics.

I've come across the name Barry Marshall about ten years ago when I saw a documentary featuring his work. I was interested because my selfless mother nearly died from stomach ulcers back in the 1980s. Thankfully her doctor managed to control her condition by drugs, but she was then put on a very expensive drug for years.

Dr Marshall's finding suggested that sufferers of stomach ulcers could have lived in poverty at some point where a combination of poor nutrition and bad hygiene could have allowed the bug to enter the body. The bug could lay dormant for years and manifest itself only years later.

Mum fitted this profile exactly. During the Japanese Occupation, Mum, an uncle and grandmother were moved to a little village in a rural area of Malaysia. She called this place 'Wun lau' in Cantonese. The closest match I could find to this name is 'Endau' somewhere in deepest, most rural Johore, just north of Singapore.

There they eked out a living, growing vegetables and rearing chickens to feed themselves. Mum always loved flowers and had green fingers. I wonder if it was during this period in her young life (about 14 years old) that she found the growing of flowers such a pleasant departure from having to farm for food.

It was here that Mum learned about coping with want and lack. Her parents were fairly well-to-do people. Grandmother told me of the three servants that she had at any one time before she was married. But Mum recycled and reused everything, as I noted in Becoming Mother

One of my enduring pictures of Mum is her sitting at a table counting her Zantac tablets before her regular visits to the consultant at the university hospital. (She was also diabetic, had high blood pressure and eventually died from massive organ failure when her heart couldn't hold out any longer.)

She counted these tablets out very carefully because we had to pay for every single one of those. She needed to know precisely how many to order when she got to the pharmacist. The doctor invariably prescribed more than she needed and she refused to have a stockpile at home. (The excess was due to her intermittent hospital stays which resulted in tablets not being used up at home.)

Singapore, for all its wealth and advances, still does not have a free health service. Mum was a heavily-subsidized elderly patient, but she (and us as family) had to bear much of the cost of her care.

A bit primitive? I hear you say.

Well, contrast this to the picture of a 90+ woman I befriended in the UK. Under her all-purpose table is a huge bucket of unused medicine.

Every time she went to the doctor or called out her GP, which she did very often, she was given new prescriptions which, as you know, she could fill for free being 90-something. She took the medication for a few days and because she still felt a little unwell, would get the GP to call again. More prescriptions, more drugs, and they simply pile up.

You won't see this 90-something great-grandmother counting out her tablets. Not when all these drugs are issued 'free'.

Anyway, back to Dr Marshall. I think he is a most deserving recipient of the Nobel Prize.

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