Monday, May 21, 2007

Sceptical again

The organic movement is often hijacked by large corporations seeking to make profits from what is clearly a fast-growing sector.

I was appalled to read about factory-farmed milk being labelled as 'organic' in the US of A. See article here.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Becoming Mother

Mum used to have this habit of working on her sewing machine between all her essential chores (buying food from the fresh market, cooking lunch, serving lunch, cooking up the fatty leftovers from my father's market stall into lard -- very popular with the char kway teow sellers -- and going to the bank to bank his takings and getting his float ready for the following day) and cooking the evening meal.

When I say 'sewing' I don't mean anything fanciful. Mum used to cut up tiny bits of scrap cloth into rectangles. She would then match these up in size, roughly, and pile them up. Then she sat at her treadle sewing machine to sew these bits two by two together into a long, long line, not cutting the thread in between to save on thread.

If two bits did not fit together nicely after sewing, they were trimmed into a rectangle.

Now armed with larger rectangles, she again arranged these bits two by two together again into a neat pile. She would then sew another long line of rectangles together. This process was repeated ad infinitum until she has two large madly 'quilted' sheets together.

The two sheets were sewn together and voila! we had a new blanket with the perfect weight for hot and humid Singapore!

She had so many of these at one point they were taken to an old people's home where they were received with much gratitude.

O, I have digressed. I meant to say: At 5pm sharp, she tidied everything away to prepare the evening meal. The rice will be put on to cook at 5.30pm and dinner would be ready at about 6pm.

Recently I found myself doing virtually the same. Not with making lard from fatty leftovers, but working on chores, the websites, the accounts, the marketing, etc, getting orders ready for despatch, going to the bank to bank cheques, etc, picking son up from school.

He's allowed some time to 'chill' in front of the TV at some point. But by about 5.30pm, I down tools and concentrate on getting the evening meal -- which is the only meal the family has together on a week day.

Some time ago my brother (who works in the UK) visited and I had to take out my sewing box to repair something.

He laughed: "That's just like Mum!"

Yeah, a little metal biscuit box holding all sorts of bibs and bobs, scissors, etc, different coloured threads, buttons of all colours and sizes, for all the little sewing jobs.

Husband despairs sometimes seeing the things I hoard because I am sure these things could be reused. He has never experienced 'want' as I did, and finds it quite hard to understand.

The other fascinating phenomenon is our faces.

My eldest sister is beginning to look just like Mum. Second sister is looking more like Eldest Sister. Third Sister is looking -- hmm -- they always said my looks resembled Third Sister the most. Not any more. I'm more like Second Sister.

So, yes, in a few years' time, I will look just like Mum.

Becoming Mother. It happens to all of us.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

I don't need new blinds!

Nice lady phoned to check up on the state of our conservatory roof blinds.

We had these installed several years ago when the conservatory was added to give us extra room. This room, south-facing, has been great in being my 'drying room'.

I didn't have to wait for sunny days to hang out the washing in the garden or use the tumble dryer any more.

Whatever the weather, my clothes dry nicely -- if into a hard thing -- on the clothes-horse in the conservatory.

"What about the window blinds? We have new blinds on offer. We are having a special sale."

No, thanks. My curtains -- very expensive to make to order -- are doing its job very well.

"But there is a special sale on, up to 25% discount."

I understand, but what do I do with my perfectly good made-to-measure curtains?

I explained to her that it is not eco-friendly just to exchange these curtains for new blinds simply because there is a special offer on.

Why buy/use something new when the old ones are serving me very well.

"But there is a fantastic sale on!"

This young lady hasn't a clue. If people were to spend two to three thousand pounds (at a guess) for new blinds, then they are probably not going to quibble over 10% or 25% discount. So leave me alone.

My cloth curtains -- which had taken lot of pesticides to produce, I imagine -- are doing an OK job. Until this lot falls apart, we do not need new ones.


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Monday, May 14, 2007

Remembering Mother

Yesterday was Mother's Day in Singapore (and America and the rest of the world). UK's 'Mothering Sunday' follows the (Anglican) Church calendar and comes a few weeks before Easter.

Tomorrow would be eight years since my mother died.

I'd been married eight months. I had just completed a first draft of my PhD thesis, writing a chapter in two weeks, about nine hours every day, Monday to Friday.

I planned to visit her in Singapore in June, but when news came that she was unwell and had been in Intensive Care again, we decided that I'd fly back a month earlier.

While I was in Singapore she got well enough to leave the hospital, but only for a couple of days, if that.

I soon had to order a private ambulance to rush her back to the university hospital where all her records were. Dialing emergency service would mean her being taken to the nearest hospital on the wrong side of the island and that was no good to her.

I spent most days by her side, reading my drafts of conference papers, or notes that I had made from when I was able to sneak off to the university library when she was able to sleep.

She was in so much pain that the drugs had become useless. She kept asking her consultant to 'give me something so I could go'.

We planned and strategized what we needed to do when she left the hospital. We would need to move her to another sibling's abode, and hire a maid to look after her full-time. She would have needed to undergo 'water dialysis' to clear her kidneys.

Those of us children who are Christian were also concerned for her spiritual well-being. We shared our faith, read the Bible and prayed with her. But she was very fearful. Very fearful that the God we believe in would not forgive her for what she had done.

But what had she done that was so sinful that she thought an all-forgiving God would not forgive?

She had two back-street abortions. There was a famous Chinese dispenser of Chinese medicine (we tend to call such people 'quacks') to whom all women with unwanted pregnancies went to. He dispensed Chinese herbs for a small fee and the women were rid of their foetuses.

Just like that.

Anyway, after having four babies in little over four years, my mum was in no fit state either physically or mentally to have another baby. There were no family planning methods other than these Chinese herbs.

We talked and we talked whenever she had the energy to talk. Why, she asked, could she not just die when she was in so much pain?

I said, "God will not let you go until you have made peace with Him."

I left her unusually early one evening to meet with some friends for some dinner. Mum was in constant pain and could not rest for more than a few minutes at a time.

I was at the hospital early in the morning again, to help her eat, if necessary. I had the biggest surprise to find her fast asleep. I'd not seen her asleep so peacefully, so deeply, for a very long time.

I couldn't wake her for breakfast. So I left her and found my way to the university library to do some more reading to beef up my thesis.

I remember meeting an old friend and we chatted. She asked, "Why don't you come back to teach. Part-time tutors are paid $x an hour now."

She asked about my mum and I said she was fast asleep at the hospital.

Lunch-time, I headed back to the ward.

Eh? There was an empty space where her bed had stood.

O no! Had she gone into Intensive Care again?

I checked at the Nurse Station. The junior nurse informed a senior nurse that I was the daughter of the patient at bed so-and-so. The senior nurse quickly finished whatever she was doing and took me to a private room and sat down with me. I knew it was not good news.

"Your mum had a massive heart attack soon after you left. We did all we could, but we could not save her. Your brother and sister were here but they could not reach you. "

She told me where the body was lying further down the corridor. I walked gingerly towards the room, opened the door ever so slightly, peeked in to see that she was lying with a very peaceful look on her face, and shut the door.

"Don't you want to spend more time there?" asked the nurse.

"No. She's not in pain any more."

I managed to track down my sister and brother-in-law on the public phone (I didn't have a mobile phone) and we met up at the hospital cafe. It transpired that my brother-in-law had gone to the library, begged the staff there to try to locate me (there are at least five floors in the library). They kindly obliged but they failed to find me.

I had a bite to eat. Sister-in-law joined us and told me how she was there soon after it happened. The three doctors on duty tried to resuscitate her. After several minutes they emerged from behind the curtains, sweating profusely. But Mum was gone.

Then life became a complete whirl as we dispensed jobs to different siblings: organizing the casket and booking a funeral parlour, putting an announcement in the newspapers (I was charged with wording it), collecting the death certificate, deciding on what the funeral 'dress code' would be for the family (do we wear sack-cloth or not?), notifying all the important uncles and aunties, collecting younger children from school, etc, etc. Elder Brother had in fact already made a headstart.

Funerals have to take place very quickly due to the hot and humid weather in Singapore. Even though the body would be embalmed, there was always an urgency. We had to make the decision of whether my husband should fly in from London. We decided against it.

We were very busy for the next couple of days. There were literally hundreds of friends, colleagues and relatives at the wake for three nights. Even former neighbours and people she went on tour with came by after they saw the announcement in the papers. Attending funeral wakes is a social obligation that we learned to discharge from a very young age.

For me it was nice being able to meet up with cousins I had not seen for ages. Then there were concerns over whether feuding factions in the family would behave. (They did, out of respect for Mum).

For the sake of the non-Christian siblings in the family, we agreed to a funeral with Chinese religious rituals. Yet deep down in my heart I wish to believe that my mum did make peace with God before she died.

How else could I explain her having such a peaceful and deep sleep when I left her that morning when she could not doze for more than 20 minutes at any time during all the two weeks that I was by her side?

It does not matter now. The important thing is we each had our chance to do our best for the mother that we loved while she was alive.

I am very thankful that God had given me a mother who, despite her many shortcomings, gave me the wonderful support that she did throughout my life, and not least of all, teaching me that the practical ways in living a 'green' and eco-friendly lifestyle.

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Sunday, May 06, 2007

Enter Steve Biddulph

My husband alerted me to Steve Biddulph's response to the report that nursery places are being shunned by mothers.

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Saturday, May 05, 2007

Another letter in The Straits Times

Someone responded to my last letter in the press and my response was published on 5th May 2007.

Spread the 3R message - reduce, reuse, recycle

MR CHIA Hern Keng raised a very good question to my letter, 'Live without plastic bags? Here's how it can be done' (ST, April 28) about whether biodegradable bags are any better.

I, too, have my doubts. Older versions of degradable bags require light to degrade. So putting these in landfill is no good. Newer bags made from corn starch are touted as a greener alternative.

Between the devil and the deep blue sea, however, the biodegradable bag is 'better' than the conventional.

But I think it woeful that food that can be grown to feed the starving millions is used instead to feed our insatiable habits for convenience.

By the same token, I think it is undesirable that bio-fuels are promoted as the alternative to fossil fuels. It is not ethical that even more (subsistence farmers on little family plots) will starve as their lands are acquired by big corporations to grow food to turn into fuel.

Typically the cash the farmer get runs out quickly, they have nothing to feed themselves, one or more members of the family migrate to the city, often landing up in the sordid criminal margins of society there.

If we are happy that our desired lifestyle has those effects on other parts of humanity, then yes, choose bio-fuel.

The real alternative is 'drive less', or use more public transport, or cycle. Walk.

Using less is the 'reduce' part of the '3R' strategy.

I never suggested that 'thick plastic-padded envelopes, empty cereal boxes, plasticised juice cartons, plastic bags that come with loaves of bread, deliveries, junk mail, tissue-paper rolls' were 'free' in any way.

However, if they are already in existence then instead of throwing these away empty into landfill sites it is far better to 'reuse' them a second or even third time. My point was: There is no need to fret over not having plastic bags for our rubbish as we already have alternatives.

My late mother, like others in her generation who went through the Japanese Occupation and experienced deprivation, taught me how to reuse everything. (Yaat mutt yee yung in Cantonese.) She didn't throw away a single jute string, rubber band, newspaper, plastic bag, et cetera, that came into the flat.

She also taught me how to 'recycle'. We did not use the flush mechanism in our toilet as Mum kept bath water and washing machine water in buckets for flushing the toilet.

Even food was recycled. Leftovers were cooked up again, slightly differently and any real waste was put in a 'swill bin' to be collected by the swill collector.

I grew up rebelling against the clutter she was making in our small flat. Now I realise the wisdom of her ways.

Reduce, reuse, recycle.

Dr Lee Siew Peng

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Who messed up my washing?

Or boys who know their recycling

As I wrote to my customers in our occasional newsletter:

"For the first time in a while I had a load of washing plastered in shredded paper. My son quickly owned up. Well, it was his seventh birthday and we had taken him and his best friend to a theme park. Every time they were given something to eat and drink they examined the containers to look for the 'recyclable' sign.

"They are studying recycling in their Science topic this term. These little boys can now tell me, 'It says PET and a number one, so it can be recycled.' Not bad. They kept collecting containers to take to the school for their sorting exercise. At some point, son decided to keep the 'recyclable' serviette that was wrapped round his ice-cream cone.

"It was my fault really for not checking those pockets."

The truth is I take for granted that only cloth hankies are used in this house that I've become quite lax (is that the right word) in checking pockets these days.

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