Friday, January 30, 2015

Flashback Friday: R at Seven Months

This is R at seven months, shortly after we'd moved to Singapore. She has grown up so much! It's really incredible to see the difference.
R three days ago, talking up a storm as usual.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Books Read: October and November 2014

October 1st: The Diving Pool, Yoko Ogawa. Interesting and highly creepy short stories by a Japanese author. Grade: A-.
October 8th: In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, Gabor Mate. A bit disappointing, this book about addiction began really well but peters out into jeremiads on the author's pet theories. Grade: B+.
October 11th: The Happy Return, C.S. Forester. Excellent entry in the Hornblower series as Horatio deals with sea battles and crazy power-hungry dictators. Grade: A.
October 12th: The Conscious Parent: Transforming Ourselves, Empowering Our Children, Shefali Tsabary. Parenting book too hippy even for me, which is saying something. I also found it repetitive. Grade: C-.
October 16th: Messer Marco Polo, Donn Byrne. Very charming tale of Marco Polo's (mythical) affair with Kubla Khan's daughter, as told by an Irishman. Grade: A-.
October 17th: Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem. Detective fiction starring a misfit adult orphan with Tourette's syndrome. Quirky, funny but occasionally veers into cliche and caricature. Grade: B.
October 28th: My Alien Self: My Journey Back to Me, Amanda Green. Autobiography about an otherwise rather ordinary middle class Brit with Borderline Personality Disorder. Self published and it shows. Grade: C-.
October 29th: Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel. Wonderful historical fiction: vivid, accurate and fascinating. A must-read if you like this genre. Grade: A+.

November 3rd: A Ship of the Line, C.S. Forester. Another great entry in the Hornblower series. Grade: A.
November 3rd: A Handful of Dust, Evelyn Waugh. Very good novel about morally degenerated upper class Brits, though this means every character is unsympathetic and vaguely repulsive. The ending scenes in the jungles of Guyana are especially fine. Grade: A-.
November 6th: Sherlock in Shanghai: Stories of Crime and Detection, Xiaoqing Cheng. Chinese detective fiction inspired by Western models, in particular Sherlock Holmes. Most interesting for the setting of 1920s and 1930s Shanghai. Grade: B.
November 13th: Flying Colours, C.S. Forester. Hornblower becomes a prisoner of war, then escapes and goes on the lam in Napoleonic France. Drags a bit but overall excellent. Grade: A-. 
November 15th: The Tiger's Wife, Tea Obreht. Magical realism set in the contemporary and 1940s/50s? Balkans. Beautiful writing and some haunting scenes. Grade: A-.
November 17th: Red Mandarin Dress, Qiu Xiaolong. Another Chinese detective story set in Shanghai, this time in the early 1990s. Setting is great, the rest not so much. Grade: B-. 
November 18th: Dark Matter, Michelle Paver. Seriously creepy ghost story set in the wintry Arctic. Characters are interesting and the supernatural elements are extremely well done. Great example of the genre. Grade: A. 
November 19th: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Winifred Watson. Slight but fun fluff about a life-changing day in the life of a middle-aged unsuccessful governess. Grade: B.
November 26th: Frankenstein, Mary Shelley. The classic is much more Romantic and emotionally overwrought (two things I don't really like) than I remembered. The plot is also ridiculous. But some scenes and images (monster and creator pursuing each other via dogsled in the high Arctic, for example) are fantastic, as is the concept. Grade: B+.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

R in 2014

I spent most of last year either being or recovering from being mentally ill. Among other, more important, things, this meant blogging took a serious hit. I didn't blog at all for long periods (like nearly the entire first half of 2014) and only wrote 38 posts for the entire year. This means a lot of things didn't get blogged, including our trips to Myanmar, Phuket, and Vietnam; R's third birthday; most things about R's three-year-old self, etc.

I plan to blog about the trips separately, but for the rest here's a photo dump about R in 2014.
She loved pretending to go on trips in the mountains to find the Yeti: her obsession for a while was rescuing Chang (from Tintin in Tibet). All set here with snow boots, jacket and "noculars" (binoculars)
 Her third birthday party was at her preschool on a weekend
Everyone singing Happy Birthday to R: we had around 17 kids there plus their parents
Three Year Old R
With her birthday cake, a Hello Kitty one 
Blowing out the candles
She did it!
R at the SEA Aquarium: we got memberships here and visited many times
Swimming on Sentosa
At the zoo pretending to be a baby elephant: she loves elephants, maybe because Ami is one
Decorating a present for Father's Day: R chose this egg and spent a long time painting it
Visiting the fire station and getting to use the hose was fun
But pretending to drive the truck was her favorite part
We visited the offshore island of Pulau Ubin several times. Here's R with a coconut she found.
It's one of the few places she can experience nature in Singapore 
Running amok at the children's section of Singapore Botanic Gardens
Hugging one of her little friends: R has a large acquaintance because we are out so much 
At 3.5 years old
She loves swimming in the pool, which we can do almost every day thanks to the climate here
Me and R swimming
She became good at climbing this year and enjoys doing it at every opportunity
Playing at Labrador Park

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Visiting the Hot Springs in Japan: Okuhida Garden Hotel

View from our hotel window
The last stop on our Japan trip was a stay in a hot springs hotel. This is a uniquely Japanese concept as far as I know. A hotel is built next to/around a natural hot springs, so that guests can freely bathe in the waters, which in addition to being relaxing is supposed to have various health benefits. We stayed at a very traditional hot springs hotel on our last trip, and had such a good time we wanted to repeat the experience.
Surroundings of the hotel
However, where we stayed previously was 1. very far away from where we were traveling and 2. more importantly, fully booked up for the dates we wanted (the downside of traveling during Japan's biggest holiday season). Instead, we stayed near Takayama at the Okuhida Garden Hotel. While accessible by public transportation (a local bus runs directly to the hotel, albeit not very frequently), it is in a remote and beautiful location.
B and R in the room: at night the table is put away and bedding is placed on the floor
 The rooms were very comfortable and spacious. The best part of the hotel, though, were the hot spring baths, of which there was an entire complex, with baths for every taste: single sex baths, mixed sex baths (meaning we could go together as a family), indoor baths, outdoor baths, saunas, cold baths, warm baths, hot baths...With nine different baths, it was easy to spend a long time playing in the water. R loved it.
Beyond the hotel and hot springs, there isn't much in the immediate vicinity. One exception is the Shinhodaka Ropeway, the longest ropeway in Asia at 200 meters. It takes you up in two stages to a truly splendid viewing platform, where you can admire the scenery of the Japanese Alps. Taking the double decker gondola (the only one in Japan) was pretty fun too.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Potty Training for Lazy People

Newly potty trained R
I had a lot of angst about potty training. It's such a milestone in toddler life, and I had no idea how to go about it. I was also reluctant to embark on the whole process, because it seemed like so much work

All the potty training methods seemed to separate into two (unless you count elimination communication, which sounds like a ridiculous amount of work and demands a much closer attention to your child's pee and poop than was attractive to me). 

1. Dedicate several days solely to potty training, during which you cannot leave the house or do anything else. Your child will pee and poop on the floor multiple times, so you will spend a lot of this time cleaning up disgusting messes.

2. Do the slower method, which requires you to make your child sit for long periods on the potty trying to produce something. Since most toddlers hate sitting still, you usually get them to do this through bribery (stickers, candy, small toys have all been suggested). Again, the parent is highly involved in every step of the process.

The problem with both these methods is that both are parent-driven, meaning that the parent is the one making everything happen and expending all the effort. Philosophically I have no problem with this, but practically just thinking about having to come up with cute ways to reward peeing made me feel like going to bed.

In the end I invented my own "method" aka potty training for lazy people.

Haha, no diapers!
1. Introduce the concept of potty training to your kid. Buy them a potty and show them how to use it, buy a book about potty training and read it, let them watch you use the toilet, etc. This should be easy because children are naturally curious.

2. Wait until your child expresses interest in using the potty. When they use it, praise them (but no stickers etc). You are excited because they did something hard, not because they did something for you. They keep wearing diapers.

3. At some point your child will not want to wear diapers anymore. You let them get rid of the diapers, as long as they understand about using the potty. You buy them some cool underwear.

4. You are done.

Basically R trained herself. She woke up one day right around her third birthday and said she didn't want to wear diapers anymore because she was a "big girl". Since then, she has had very minimal accidents (and none of the bad kind, ie number two). The same thing happened for night training about a month later. The whole process was really painless because it was all her idea (which means we didn't have any power struggles about it).

I do still have to be involved to some degree, in helping her to wipe (especially at first), reminding her to wash her hands, and making her visit the toilet if logistical reasons make it necessary (like we are going to be somewhere with no toilet handy for an extended period of time: ie traveling). But compared to the more standard methods work was minimal.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Flashback Friday: 2008 Shanghai

Typical street scene in Shanghai, China, where B and I lived 2008-2009. Shanghai is an extremely vibrant city full of lively street life, an exciting cultural scene and constant change physical and otherwise.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Shirakawa-go

While Takayama is a charming town, we visited it this time primarily as a gateway to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Shirakawa-go.

Here's what UNESCO has to say:
 Located in a mountainous region that was cut off from the rest of the world for a long period of time, these villages with their Gassho-style houses subsisted on the cultivation of mulberry trees and the rearing of silkworms. The large houses with their steeply pitched thatched roofs are the only examples of their kind in Japan. Despite economic upheavals, the villages of Ogimachi, Ainokura and Suganuma are outstanding examples of a traditional way of life perfectly adapted to the environment and people's social and economic circumstances.

Basically, though, the houses are just darling. B and I both felt that the site got UNESCO status primarily because it was so cute. The setting is pretty beautiful too, though: the main village is surrounded by lovely mountains. The main point of access for visitors is on foot, crossing a long bridge spanning the nearby river.
Bridge to Shirakawa-go
R and B on the bridge
It had snowed heavily the day before, so we got to see the houses in their native element: their design is primarily a response to the winter conditions of the region, where snowfall can easily top 32 feet annually (or over 415 inches), with two meter high snowbanks developing. The snow may be a nuisance (Japan's government gives subsidies to areas with extremely heavy snowfall to help them with snow removal, etc.) but it also looks magical.
The Village
Buddhist temple entryway covered in snow
 The houses are quite interesting architecturally. They were built primarily without nails, metal being too expensive, and are held together with rope lashings as seen in the picture below. As the area was a silk producing region, the houses are designed in multiple stories: the lower for living quarters, and the open upper stories for storage and silkworm areas (the rising heat would provide the high temperatures silkworms need to thrive).
Shirakawa-go is a bit of a victim of its own charm, though, being heavily touristed and occasionally full of tour groups. To experience the same buildings in a less crowded environment, Takayama has a "folk village", where historic buildings from across the prefecture have been transported. It was almost deserted when we were there.
I still preferred seeing the buildings in their original environment, though. The crowds weren't terrible despite our visit on a holiday Saturday, and since most visitors come in a tour group, are fairly easily avoided.
One of the gassho-zukuri houses
Closeup of the thatched roof: it's easily two feet thick



Visiting Shirakawa-go, at least if using public transportation as we did, is an all day trip. The Hida Folk Village can be visited in a few hours (it's also accessible via bus). R was tired after our full day touring "ancient buildings" (what she calls them), but not too tired to request a present from the gift shop. It was Hello Kitty toy piano and here she is serenading us to her own accompaniment.
I love this little person.