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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Taken Over

I have blogged about our new helper, M, before HERE. It must really be a once in a lifetime lottery strike to get a helper like her. She is so conscientious that I have slowly been eased out of many tasks that I used to do.

Ok... maybe "eased out" are not exactly the right words. Perhaps, I should use the words, "muscled out" instead. I used to tend my plants, dispensing fertiliser and picking off worms. Soon, my helper would tell me, on the morning that I normally dispense fertiliser, that she had already done it at 6 am that morning. To compete with her, I would need to wake up at 5 am. So, I left it to her.

I then found that I couldn't even walk in my own garden without her hovering at my elbow telling me, "I have already done this. I have already done that."

When I bought a pressure cooker and was experimenting how to cook rice in it, she looked a bit anxious because she had been cooking rice in the thermal pot. She wondered if she had done such a bad job that I had had to take over the rice cooking. After 2 days of watching me cook rice in the pressure cooker, she told me, "I know how to cook rice. I cook rice today."

Yesterday, I wanted to make risotto. I went downstairs and said that I would cook rice instead. She looked at me funny and when I was making the risotto, she was hovering at my elbow... hovering... hovering... I almost felt that she experienced my rice cooking as a personal affront.

Frankly, I kind of felt that she did not want me in her kitchen.

This has never happened before. We have never had a helper of this calibre and character before. We have never had a helper that commanded so much of our respect by sheer weight of her character and intelligence. Her hovering at my elbow made me uncomfortable and I confided in my children my sense of unease. The children both said, "Mom, she is insecure. Like you, she is a perfectionist. She wants to do well and her measure of whether she is doing well is whether you leave it all to her or not."

So, after dinner, I had to have a heart to heart talk with this lovely lady on Google Translate. I explained that she is by far the best helper we have ever had in our lives. I explained that I cook because I enjoy cooking and that we all love her immensely. That made her ever so happy.

I REALLY love this helper. She is intelligent, good-natured and scrupulously honest. The only thing though is that I am afraid that my own skills will degenerate. What if I forget how to cook and garden? These skills need practice. If you stop cooking, you lose it. Gee... I don't want to become a spoiled tai-tai and if this helper takes over more and more of my tasks, that is what I am going to become!

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Beware! Unpleasant Experience at the Bank

I shan't say WHICH bank because I presume that this is a practice that cuts across ALL banks.

So, I went to a bank to get a Time Deposit account (also known as a Fixed Deposit account). From days of yore a fixed deposit account attracts higher interest rates than a normal savings account, for the simple reason that you commit to leave your money in the bank for a fixed period of time (without withdrawing it). This means that the bank can count on your money being available should it need the money to invest or to lend out.

The bank offered an FD (fixed deposit) interest rate of 1.5% interest per annum (fictitious interest rate). I requested to open an account. The banker was smooth enough at  first.

Banker: Do you need these funds after the FD term is over?

Me: Nope.

Banker: Might I interest you in another type of account that will give you 3% interest per annum instead?

Me: 3%? Nice! Tell me more! Is it an FD account?

Banker: No... it is a savings account. Let me explain to you. However, I need to ask you a few questions.

Me: (still naive and clueless) Oh! Ok!

Banker: What are your household expenses?

Me: I don't really know.

Banker: Do you save at least $2000/mth?

Me: I think so.

Banker: Oh good! Then, here is what I propose. How would you like to park your $XXX FD money into a different type of account and every month, you contribute a further $2000 to an XYZ Insurance's endowment plan linked to this account. This will give you an interest rate of 3%. The advantages are that you can withdraw your money any time... you earn a higher interest rate than an FD.

Endowment plan.

I waited for the gentleman whom I shall now call Wolf in Sheep's Clothing (WiSC) to detail the...
(1) guaranteed payout and the non-guaranteed payout Click HERE to understand guaranteed VS non-guaranteed.
(2) the maturity period (Click HERE to understand maturity period)

WiSC didn't. His sales pitch focused on (a) higher interest rate (b) can take out money anytime. Both facts were true BUT.... BUT... BUT...

Higher Interest
There is a reason for the higher interest rate. The endowment plan is a RISKIER proposition VS FD. The money you put in an endowment plan, is used by the insurance company to invest. You thus open yourself to investment risk. The guaranteed payout is less than the money you put in. The non-guaranteed payout depends on the skills and foresight of the investment fund manager. If he invests well, I get returns. Basically, someone else gets to experiment with my money whilst I bear the risks. I don't even know who that fund manager is. Why would I want to open myself to that risk?

Can Take Out Money Anytime
Of course, you can take out money anytime. You can take out money anytime from anywhere. After all, it is your money. From an FD account, I can also take out money anytime. Simply, I don't get the interest rate of 1.5%. I have to content myself with a much lower interest rate. However, I recover my entire principal sum.

In contrast, in an endowment plan, if I take out my money before maturity, I get much less money than I put in. I do NOT recover my entire principal sum.

Hard Sell
I nicely declined, after WiSC had repeated points (a) and (b) a few times. He wasn't giving me full information and he was wasting my time rehashing 2 points again and again. I tried to nicely brush him off.

Me: Hmmmm... I really prefer the FD. Could you please open my FD account for me?

WiSC: Hmmmm... why don't you hear me out before you open your FD account? You may decide you want to open the other type of account.

Me: **Still nice** Hmmmmm... why don't you open the FD account now? Then, give me the fine print to read. I am not good at internalising information through my ears. I can always come back and open another account. I suppose I can scrape together another $XXX for the new account.

WiSC: Why don't I open your FD account for you? It takes 15 minutes. In that time, my colleague can tailor an endowment plan to your NEEDS?

Wah! Now he was getting reinforcement. They were BOTH going to pressure me to buy an endowment plan. The running commentary through my head was, "I don't NEED an endowment plan. Endowment plans are for people with no self-discipline. Unless the insurance company hounds them for premiums, these people don't have the fibre to put the same amount of money in the bank every month. Basically, you give the insurance company a cut of your savings so that the insurance company can force you to save. Capisce?

Then this lady with a wide smile that looked like a wolf's snarl, sat down in front of me and opened her laptop. She started asking questions I was not prepared to answer. Salary. Savings.

Me: **Still trying to be nice... so I delivered it with a giggle (and my best little girl voice), and a wide smile that looked like a wolf's snarl** Heeheehee! I find it a bit irritating... heeheehee... that you guys are trying to hard sell me an endowment plan I don't want.  Hahaha! I am quite familiar with endowment plans. If you want, you can give me the payout table and I will explain it to you? Hee!

That got their attention! There was an uncomfortable silence for a bit before he said that he was going to proceed to open my FD account. At the end of that, he had to give me my temporary online banking ID. He wrote it on the same piece of paper where he had scribbled some points when explaining the "other type of account". I did not want to carry around a tiny slip of paper in case I would lose it. I asked for the full page.

WiSC REFUSED! He was afraid that I would take his incriminating written words and complain.

I am so disappointed. Banks were created on the basis of trust. That is why people put money in banks. Trust. The last thing I expected was a Sim Lim Square sales style from a bank. Tell the truth but hide some.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Life With Adult Kids

I did not expect life with adult kids to be so sweet.

When my children reached their teens, I missed their baby selves ever so much. I ogled other people's babies to such an extent that The Daughter would whisper in my ear, "Stop it Mom! You are being creepy!" I spent a full decade bemoaning the "lost" years.

Lately, I realise that I have reached the 2nd sweet spot in my life with kids. I can now regress into the Baby of the Family role. The baby is now me.

My children worry about my health. They help me with chores. They handle for me tasks that I find stressful. When the kitchen drainage pipe got stuck, I became unreasonably worked up and unnecessarily miserable. My children took over. They liaised with the plumber, picked his brains and sorted out everything right down to a detailed written report on drain maintenance, I kid you not. It was a 2 page typewritten report, with photo illustrations.

When travelling in Croatia, The Daughter took over all the packing. It was she who knew where every item was and she who made sure all the glass bottles and fragile items were packed safely for travel in the suitcases. She searched online for eateries providing gluten free options and she took it upon herself to make clear to servers how important gluten free was to me.

One night, I worried about not having enough mineral water to see us through the night. Once I was tucked into bed, The Daughter placed a glass of water at my bedside saying, "This water is for you tonight, Mom."

When Grandpa collapsed at home and I was at my wits' end on how to get him from his bed to the car, The Son said, "Don't worry, Mom. I will handle it." Not only that, the children offered wise opinions when we discussed the long term management of Grandpa's healthcare. For 20 years now, The Husband and I have shouldered the bulk of the family burdens on top of having to carve out our careers. It feels so good to share some of these burdens with our grown children.

There are some minor adjustments to my relationship with my children, however. They tend to like telling me what to do now. Sometimes, it almost seems like they are my parents. At Plitvice Lakes, Croatia, we encountered a very friendly cat. It rubbed itself against my legs and made eyes at me. I bent down and scratched it behind the ears. The Daughter said, "Mom, you should not touch stray cats. They could have mange and then you will catch scabies from them."

Such a Mommy-like thing to say, don't you think?

On another occasion, I was tickled by a somewhat risqué video which I tried to show The Son. He made a disgusted face and gravely stated his disapproval of such smut.

Such a Daddy-like thing to say, don't you think?

I don't mind you know. I quite like my kids telling me what to do. The person who tells others what to do, shoulders the responsibilities that come with decision-making. I am just glad to have lighter responsibilities and I feel happy that my kids view me as their responsibility now. Make sure Mom eats safely. Make sure Mom doesn't get so stressed she cannot sleep. Make sure Mom doesn't fall into a ditch when we are hiking.

I used to have one best friend... The Husband. Now, it seems that I have 3. Us 4 best friends like hanging out. We linger at the dining table to chat and yesterday, I excused myself to go upstairs to rest after dinner... and before long, the children had crowded onto my bed to further carry on the conversation.

I am content. I may not do yearly trips to Paris, Tokyo and New York for shopping but I think peace in the family is an underrated luxury item on par with or surpassing the latest Chanel. Every word said in love and every service rendered to each other en famille is the harvest reaped from years of tending to the family and bearing the burdens for all of them. The children enjoy hanging out with us and that is such a rare privilege.

All those years when I thought I might break under the weight of The Husband's work stress and the children's school stress have paid off. Way back then, each would relieve their stress burdens with me. They would go back to their rooms lighter. I went back to mine somewhat more burdened. Those years are over.

Now, I am their burden. I hope I am light.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Rastoke's Water Mills

The Husband and I were so charmed by Rastoke that we resolved to return after we are retired and book a lodging in the village for a month in summer and just stay there.

The place has a series of small natural waterfalls ideal for watermills and trout farming. The place was picturesque beyond our expectations and even in the failing light of the dusk, it was stunning.

Water falls onto the spoon mill and turns machinery above, which can be used to grind flour etc...

Believe it or not, this is a washing machine. Water falls from above and crashes into the pail full of clothes. Water escapes through the holes. Leave your clothes in there for half a day and the throughput of pure mountain water will get the clothes all clean. Ingenious, huh?

Eating Peka at Konoba Roca, Stankovci

On the way from Mali Ston to Plitvice Lakes, we stopped by a well-known family owned farm restaurant known as Konoba Roca. The place is in the middle of nowhere, so the GPS had better be working. The place is known for miles around as the place to go for eating Peka. When we got there, the place was filled with Croatians. 

That says something.

Peka is a traditional Dalmatian meat and vegetable dish baked under a cast iron dome topped with hot coals. The tradition is very much alive because even in modern houses in the country side, there is an outdoor fireplace with a well-used peka dome stacked on it. The dish requires about 2 to 3 hours of preparation so one needs to order the dish at least 1 day in advance for ANY restaurant.

Cast iron dome and fresh coals.

Cast iron dome encases a peka within being cooked by the glowing coals.

Peka all ready to be eaten.

Served with fresh salad greens glistening with olive oil.

Served with a large tureen of soup.

Grilled vegetables (so yummy that we only remembered to take pictures near the end).

Crusty bread. If you give them a few days' notice, they can do gluten free bread.

Served in a large dining room with a roaring fire and large pieces of rustic furniture.

So hobbit like to have an old tree serve as a coat hanger within a huge underground cave that was the dining room.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Kids With Tuition Fare Worse

This post may seem like I am shooting myself in the foot because I do run an enrichment centre after all. Therefore, it is in my best interests to do all I can to challenge the notion that kids with tuition fare worse.

I am not going to do that. In all intellectual honesty, I confess that I truly believe that tuition destroys a child's ability to learn independently.

I do believe that kids with a lot of tuition fare worse. Long time readers of my blog will note that The Son and The Daughter had mostly no tuition. The Daughter had Economics tuition for 3 months before the A levels at the cost of $160/hour. The Son had group Chinese tuition for 2 months at the cost of $200/month. For us, tuition was a temporary solution to access learning materials and approaches that could be accessed nowhere else... and before we went into tuition, I would have exhausted all other avenues of learning - books, free online courses, youtube. To prepare for PSLE, my kids read books from NUS and NTU libraries.

Having taught other people's kids for 4 years, I also note that those kids who perform the best at PSLE, are those who do not have 4 subjects tuition. My 2 top scorers of 2016 came to me, never having had tuition before. One scored 270. The other scored 263. My English enrichment was their very first enrichment class, or the only one they stuck with.

On the other hand, I have highly intelligent kids who perform well below expectations  because they have so much work to do that everything is done mindlessly. Such children complete tons of worksheets with zombified brains. 

Overworked GEP Child
I have GEP child who had 4 subjects of tuition (from what I gathered, he was working 7 days a week, 12 hours a day). and despite his high IQ and good grasp of the English language, he barely passed comprehension tests in school, and in my class (after 2 years with me).  Yet, he refuses to leave my classes because "Saturday afternoon is my only happy day in the week," says he. On the other hand, the high-po with no tuition until he started mine in mid-P5, improved easily from 15/20 to 20/20 within 6 months with me.

Overwork can make an intelligent child stupid. 

Ok... some people may say that maybe that GEP child was not truly a GEP. Perhaps, he was hothoused into the program. I can concede that there is some amount of error in IQ testing. However, the margin of error cannot be so great that a low IQ child be let into the GEP. Even if errors were made into the GEP selection, the errors would still be at least high-po. If we assume that my underperforming GEP child is a high-po, then we are comparing high-po with high-po. Error does not explain why my GEP (perhaps, hothoused high-po) scores 10.5/20 whilst the other high-po scores 20/20.

Overworked Child of 2 Scholar Parents
In a previous year, I taught a girl whose parents were both highly intelligent. One had a PhD. The other was a scholar with a Masters degree. When I asked the child's parents whether the child had playtime, the answer was, "She sleeps at 10pm every night." If you read between the lines, this  effectively means that the child works through to 10pm every night, and no playtime is scheduled.

This child was highly intelligent, with an iron will. In Sec 1, she joined her school's squash team a complete neophyte. To excel in sports, you need hard training but you need intelligence too. You need to analyse what you are doing and improve, improve, improve... Later in the Sec 1 year, this child won the national squash championships.

This child scored A* in only English at PSLE. Both her parents had Science and Math degrees. However, both her parents were intent to capture their money's worth of tuition services and despite my constant entreaties to them to skip selected HW, both continued to put their child through that punishing schedule. When I proposed that this child skip some of my HW, the child herself told me that her parents would scold her for wasting their money.

When will parents understand that more work does not mean more learning and what use is it to get your money's worth of marking from the teacher when the child's brain is churning out work mindlessly?

Abdication of Responsibility
When The Son failed Chinese in Year 2, I removed his unofficial Chinese tuition. His octogenarian Grandmother, in her quest for a purposeful life, would well-meaningly schedule Saturday morning to read the Chinese newspapers with him. His grandmother worked very hard to prepare for these sessions. The Son assumed that his grandmother's hard work would pay off in his exams. 

I decided to stop these weekly sessions so that it became emotionally and rationally clear to The Son that he was the only one able to work hard for his own results.

Zombified Brain
When new students join, one of the most shocking things they experience is when I throw badly done worksheets into my dustbin and refuse to even mark nor return the worksheet. I have found that when I mark such a worksheet (and comment that it is not well done), the child will proceed to do the next worksheet mindlessly. Until 2015, I saw kids do HW religiously every week, for a year, learning little/nothing. It really isn't how many worksheets are completed but whether the brain was switched on. Too much work switches the brain off and then no learning ensues. What does it matter if you have your money's worth of marking when your child is not learning anything from all the work done?

However, when I throw away the poorly done worksheet, parents start thinking about how much money they are wasting since I did not give them their money's worth of marking, and they then actively ensure that HW is done mindfully by...

- ensuring the child has enough rest.
- ensuring the child is not hurrying through the worksheet.
- throwing back and asking for a redo if there are careless mistakes, incompleted questions and overall sloppiness.

This is when learning happens.

Limitations of the Above Research Study
I note that the above-mentioned research study was done with 15 year olds. I am absolutely against tuition of any sort (unless only temporary) for secondary school. Kids of 15 and kids of 8 are very different. You can't allow an 8 year old to go traipsing to the library to do research without some parental escort. When The Son was in P4-P6 and I did not want him to get tuition, I had to open to him learning resources from the university libraries, Amazon and online subscriptions, to learn from. Relying on his primary school's materials was absolutely insufficient. Perhaps the primary schools have upped their game by now?

Even though The Son had had no tuition in primary school, it was because I helped him extensively at home. Once he reached secondary school, I did not help him at all. His school taught him everything he needed to know. Parents of primary school kids who cannot teach would have to make up the shortfall with tuition (and have been doing so). I really don't think that will change anytime soon.

I just wish that parents would be wiser about children's workload.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Truffles and Truffles and Truffles

Truffles are a sort of ectomycorrhizal fungus. This means that it is a sort of mushroom that grows on plant roots, absorbing nutrients such as glucose and sucrose, whilst helping the plant absorb minerals. There is black summer truffle (tuber aestivum), black winter truffle (tuber melanosporum) and white winter truffle (tuber magnatum). Of these 3, it is the winter white truffle that is the most pricey.

White winter truffle (tuber magnatum).

Black winter truffle (tuber melanosporum).

People have been eating truffles since the 20th century BCE. This is 2000 years before Christ. Ancient peoples believed truffles to be good for longevity and also an aphrodisiac. It is somewhat interesting that Croatia has both oysters (aphrodisiac) and truffles (aphrodisiac) but has only 4 million people on 56,594 sq km, whilst Singapore has only 720 sq km for 5.5 million people.

Truffles thrive on the roots of trees that grow in rocky soils. This winter of 2016, in Croatia's Motovun region, the weather has alternated between dry, sunny days and wet, foggy days. This is perfect weather for truffles to grow.

In less than an hour of truffle hunting, we found 2 truffles.

Truffle hound - this is a Lagotto Romagnolo dog breed. It is a very popular breed of dog for truffle hunting. This crazy looking one is called Aaron and he is the WORST truffle hound in a pack of 4. From what I observed, this one was just dashing about the forest for the sheer joy of running and when the other dogs found truffle, he would come and paw all over us to get the treat meant for the other dog.

Buying Fresh White Truffles
One truffle shop along the main street of Motovun quoted us SGD 3,020 per kg of fresh white winter truffle. Karlick Tartufi (we found on TripAdvisor) quoted us SGD 2,265 per kg. We were quite blessed because I managed to locate a part-time truffle hunter (full-time carpenter) who had just spent his morning truffle hunting. He sold us his stash for SGD 1,888 per kg. Karlick Tartufi buys from these individual truffle hunters anyway and then sells to tourists and restaurants with a mark up. 

We simply just went straight to the hunter. If you are interested, Igor and Vojka Kotiga can be reached via whatsapp at +385 9881 4560. They live at Motovun Gradiziol 5. Right opposite Igor's house is the well-known restaurant, Mondo, which was featured by Anthony Bourdain in an episode of No Reservations - see HERE.

Update on 11 December 2016: Having bought fresh truffles, I advise that tourists refrain from buying fresh truffles. There is no way to preserve the extraordinary aroma of the truffle. With every minute that passes, the truffle aroma disappears into the air.

Igor's front door. Just ring the doorbell.

Igor will poke his head out of the top window to have a good look at you. Just tell him you want his fresh truffles. Make sure that the truffles are firm to the touch (not soft and spongy). Also, don't hesitate to smell the truffles. If there is no aroma, don't buy. We were blessed. The truffles we bought had been hunted that morning itself. The aroma hung thick in the air and formed a bubble of truffle gas around me as I walked around with it in my pocket.

Konoba Mondo

Preserving Fresh Truffles
There is no way to preserve fresh truffles. The fragrant oils are simply too volatile. After 3 days, the truffles are no good no matter how hard you try to keep them fresh. Think your button mushrooms. They go soft and black in the fridge after a week, no? Out of the fridge, they last barely a day or 2. The flesh of the truffle is bland and tasteless. The magic is in the smell.

I managed to figure out a way to transfer the essence of the truffle out of the truffle. I made truffle salt. The salt sucks all the aromas out of the truffle into itself. The next morning, the truffle will be soft, spongy and smells of nothing at all. The salt, however, lent magic to our scrambled eggs this morning.

Update 11 December 2016: the truffle salt was tasteless by the time we got home. So disappointed.

Truffle in salt.

Scrambled eggs with truffle. Once you have sprinkled truffle salt on the eggs, the truffle slices are just for show. You can do without the truffle slices and still have magic happen in your mouth.

The truffle shops sell preserved sliced truffles in olive oil (has added artificial aroma), cheese and truffle pâté (cheese locks in the small, so yes... worth buying), truffle olive oil (has added artificial aromas, whole truffle preserved in brine (tasteless and smell-less). Don't bother with those. They taste of nothing unless artificial truffle aroma has been added. Buy your truffles FRESH and buy high quality Adriatic sea salt. Wash your truffles under a running tap to brush away the soil. Dry thoroughly and put them in a jam jar buried entirely in sea salt. Make sure you pour some salt at the bottom of the jar (before you put in your truffle) so that the salt also covers the bottom of the truffle.

Truffle salt can last months in the fridge and you can enjoy the truffle smell at home too. In a sense, it is like transferring the soul of the truffle from its original corporeal body into another.

Update 11 December 2016: the truffle salt was tasteless by the time we got home. So disappointed.

Truffles are priced for size. Class 1 is biggest and Class 3 is smallest. However, the aroma is the same no matter the size. So, don't go for size. Make sure you sniff the mushroom and buy for the smell. At times, the big ones don't have as much smell as the small ones.

These are very expensive truffles. Each is bigger than my hand. The whole plate will be sold for about SGD 10,000.