Sunday, 24 January 2016

Growing (away) a Teenager

My husband is driving our son some 70 miles back to where he boards. Son had been asking to board since he was five, and nearly three years ago he made this wish come true by sitting some of the toughest exams to win a scholarship.

I look at Facebook photos of my friends and envy them. They all seem to have perfect families.

My 15-year-old, on the other hand, does not want to have anything to do with me.

It has not been very good for my mental health as such, thinking: I spent 13 years of my life as a full-time mother. When this one son reaches 15, he completely ignores me. In fact, he seemed to hate me.

Why did I bother?

If I had left him at four months old -- I attended an interview for a postdoctoral fellowship but decided that this wasn't something I wanted to do -- would I be a professor by now?

Instead I am unemployed, and worse, possibly unemployable.

This friction between mother and son was not unexpected. Some years ago, in anticipation of this phase, I read a well-known Christian writer who noted that teenage boys go through this as they are awakening to their own sexuality.

Yeah, sure, I was a teenager once and I never had that problem with my mum or dad.


When teenage boys first awaken to their sexuality, who is the female that he knows and loves best? Usually the mother. There is no need to bring in the Oedipus complex at this point. My son is not neurotic.

On the contrary, he wants most to grow AWAY from his mother. He needs the confidence to know that he is not in love with his mother. That is why teenage boys row with their mothers.

This also explains why he says "It feels weird" when I sometimes give him a hug.

I turn again, naturally, to studies in other people groups where young males undergo rites of passage. I conducted research amongst some teenage girls in secondary school many years ago. The main finding I had was that it was difficult to be neither child nor adult in your parents' eyes.

Sometimes they treat you like a child: Do this because I say so. At other times they expect you to be an adult: "Why did you not do that? It was your responsibility."

In anticipation of this period I talked to my son often, "Sometimes you would feel like you need to be a man. But sometimes you wish you are a child again. That's OK. We can occasionally do childish things together." (Like a bubble-wrap dance.)

Would it be easier if teenage children have a clear-cut status: You are an adult now. You make your decisions. You bear the consequences.

Even so he might still have issues about relating to mother. (So often, rites of passage involve taking the boys away from their mothers for a long period.)

I see my redundancy in this mothering role as being imminent. When my son was born I had set myself the objective of teaching him to be an independent person, to grow away from us eventually.

I watch his 'growing away' with some ambivalence. "It was so much easier when he was younger," I kept saying to husband. Those days are gone. While I treasure the memories of us mother and son together doing all sorts of silly things (cooking 'numbers curry', dancing madly to "Lovely Day", going for a 'shadow walk' around the block, etc)*, I don't particularly want to relive those moments.

I am pleased that he is growing up into a ... what?

Hopefully a well-adjusted, God-fearing, fully-functioning adult. Not asking for much there.

This past weekend was such a pleasant weekend. He was back on Friday for an 'exeat'. He gave me a hug when I came home. We went out for a meal and we had a lovely conversation. He hopes to get a summer job. 

Yesterday we had trouble ordering a pizza and he took over. (He does this a lot at boarding school, we learned.)

This morning he was up and showered in time to go to church. No arguing, although when we parked up he moaned, "O! We are 15 minutes early. Could have had an extra 15 minutes of sleep." (Husband who usually goes ahead to set up the AV rang to say there are temporary traffic lights on our route; start earlier. Which we did.)

I said to him just before he left how I had enjoyed his time at home. Not because he played Rachmaninoff on the piano as he thought, although to hear him play the piano is always a treat. I had enjoyed our discussions on philosophy, which he is thinking of reading at university. Together with Physics.

This was really special to me because I was a Philosophy major as well. After I was sacked by my son from bed-time reading when he was five, he occasionally said, "Mum, can we read Philosophy together?"

I had bought Philosophy for Kids (David White) and son enjoyed reading this with me because I could explain some unfamiliar concepts to him (but Dad could not). Hmmm. Maybe I had done something right after all.

Three months to go before he turns 16. Has he finally grown 'up and away'?

* Numbers curry: his Godmother gave him wooden blocks hand-carved into numbers 0 to 9. We used to put these in a pot, gave it a good stir and pick out a block from our numbers curry. We went, "Number five. Mmmm. Yummy." This was a play activity to help him recognize numbers.

We were given a free CD. Sometimes when I ran out of ideas while waiting for Dad to come home, we would play "Lovely day" (Bill Withers) because the last note went on forever, and we danced madly around the living room, repeating, "lovely day, lovely day, lovely lovely day". He used only to see Dad for a few minutes before he was put to bed.

Shadow walk: We noted which way our shadows fell and talked about how they change and why as we walked round a corner, or between lamp-posts (if we were out in the dark, as winter days are very short here).

Monday, 11 January 2016

David Bowie est mort

Update on 16th January 2016: I agree that the 'grief-fest' was a bit OTT. 'Celebrities' had been jumping on the bandwagon to share their association with DB. Typical.


Je suis très désolé.

Tuned in to BBC Radio 4 early this morning and heard the shocking news that David Bowie had died.

"What? Surely not," I thought.

Then confirmation was 'double-confirmed' and interviewees were 'wheeled in' (on phone lines). Even the Archbishop of Canterbury had to share his view on David Bowie.

I think 'Space Oddity' was what woke me up to pop music, thanks to Rediffusion. Prior to that, I was listening to my siblings' songs and suddenly there was "Ground control to Major Tom".

When I finally got to FB I posted: David Bowie est mort: Starman has undergone eternal Changes to become Space Oddity. (I once requested Space Oddity to be played on Rediffusion.) From Ashes to Ashes. Sorrow.

Somehow "est mort" ("is dead" in French; mort as in mortuary, post-mortem, etc) seems to say it better.

Throughout the day tributes had been pouring in. The Telegraph is a good source. I look forward to tonight's TV Tributes as the stations replaced their advertised programmes to honour DB.

He was just a man, you know. I don't think they are going to name an airport after him and all that. But what a talent he was.

Would Singapore see the equivalent of one like him? Anita Mui (Hong Kong, sadly also late) reminded me a bit of him in the way she kept re-inventing herself.

The Chinese (as in many other cultures) have this thing about the number of people attending your wake/funeral as an indicator of your importance or impact on their lives. Makes me think again: what would people say at my funeral?

Sunday, 10 January 2016

True Lies [not the film]

I've moved from doing advice triage to giving advice at my charity.

The former required me to assess as quickly as possible the needs of the client and then send them to another agency ('sign-posting'), give them the information they need (usually available online) or book them an appointment with an adviser.

I have become that 'adviser' after many additional hours of 'initial' training, and there are still many hundreds of hours of training I still need to undergo. For now I am given clients needing help in the areas in which I have been trained.

My supervisor had promised me 'simple cases' to start off. But none of my first cases is simple.

The first client had loads of debt and I had to go through his bank statements forensically, matching payments with demands for payments, etc, to figure how much he owes to whom. This client is so much in debt he has no idea how much he actually owes.

The second one is the most straight-forward so far requiring the client to get her medical practitioner to complete some form with which I have grounds to ask her creditor to write off the debt. (The creditor should have done so previously and what they had done amounts to harassment.)

The third one should never have been my case as she was recently seen by another adviser (L) and should have been passed back to her. We are looking at council tax arrears, rent arrears, benefits overpayment (all = debt) and possible eviction.

We are trained to ask questions. Sometimes it becomes obvious when clients are not telling us the whole truth. My fellow volunteer adviser L and I had been discussing the facts for this third client. We kept saying, "There is something she is not telling us."

How do we know? Client does not volunteer any information. We had to ask, and ask, and ask again. Slowly, bit by bit, the information is given -- but only if we are able to pin it down with a direct question. The charity requires us to take the client's word as truth.

So having got what we think was the picture I phoned a government department to try to establish why the client was in such a situation.

The officer at the end of the line refused to divulge very much. Client was visited before Christmas by two officers. A report had been submitted and on file, but I was not allowed to know the contents. This was very frustrating. Without this information we cannot take the case forward such as check the regulations to see if the department involved had followed the right procedure.

Officer on the phone said, "You have your client with you. She was at the interview. Why don't you ask her what was said at the interview?"

I pressed on nevertheless but was told, "Your client is there. Why don't you ask her what she is not telling you?"

I hung up and asked the client, "Is there anything that I should know and that you have not told me?"

She hesitated for just the slightest moment and went on to tell me another story.

I stepped out to seek advice from my supervisor who, incidentally, had also said that there is something that the client was not telling us. We decided that the only way to find out was to write to the department, but we needed the client's permission to do this, to ask for a decision letter which would have stated why the client was in such a pickle.

I proposed this to the client.

"I will draft this letter. We will need your authorization. That way we can get a copy of the letter which states why your benefit was stopped. Would you like me to take this forward?"

Client declined, saying that she is tired that we seemed to be going round in circles.

We at the bureau will probably never know the truth. Data Protection rules are strict here. The fact that the client was unwilling to let us pursue her case shows that there was something she did not want us to know, because a letter from us (with her permission) could mean allowing the department to tell us exactly what were the charges against her. (We suspect fraud of some kind.)

I had been trying so hard to make sure that this client and her elderly husband are not going to be evicted, but I felt really let down that after all the effort put in, she was still not telling me the whole truth. It has been such a waste of my time.

We are now still duty-bound by the principles of our charity to help the client with another part of her problem, but if she is actually made homeless -- I have had to write begging emails to ask for court action to be adjourned, etc -- she only has herself, her husband and possibly another family member to blame.

It is a good lesson learned at the start of my 'advising' career that I should remind every client about telling the truth right at the start. Otherwise it will be a total waste of their time and mine, and they will still have to, ultimately, face the music (ie pay up).

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Rhodes to Eunoia: a conspiracy theory?

Update on 14th January 2016: Interesting comment here.

At Oriel College, Oxford University, a group of vociferous students, led by Mr Ntokozo Qwabe from South Africa, are agitating to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes, the British colonialist that gave his name to Northern and Southern Rhodesia (presently roughly equivalent to Zambia and Zimbabwe)
Annie Teriba, a ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaigner, was known to have said, ‘There’s a violence to having to walk past the statue every day on the way to your lectures, there’s a violence to having to sit with paintings of former slave holders whilst writing your exams.’

(You can read more about Ms Teriba’s own violence-related misdemeanours
Commentators have compared this campaign to erase the past to ISIS tearing down statues and destroying other ancient artefacts.
All these brought to mind a conversation I had with an English friend, several decades ago, as I showed him around the Central Business District. He was amazed that we still used names like Shenton Way and Anderson Bridge.
I said Singaporeans were (are still?) comfortable with these names. We were confident enough in our own place in the world to acknowledge that we had benefitted from being a colony.
Besides, I said in jest, it will be absurd to rename “Shenton Way” as “Lee Way”.
In the intervening years I have noticed that many commercial and residential buildings have been given some really bizarre names, featuring a random usage of “la”, “le” or “de”. It indicated to me that there was some embarrassment about our Asian migrant past.
We were afflicted by the opposite to xenophobia (a fear of anything xenos, meaning ‘strange’ in Greek). We were being gripped by xenophilia: liking anything ‘foreign’, so long as this ‘foreign’ was not Chinese, Malay or Tamil ‘foreign’. Any other type of ‘foreign’ was ‘good’ and ‘progressive’.
Were the people behind this odd naming convention the same people who then led us into the current dependence on ‘foreign talent’?
Now I do not personally have anything against the appreciation of Greek culture, language, history, mythology, et cetera. In fact, I will be the first to cheer should the Ministry of Education were to say tomorrow, “Students who have the interest will now be allowed to study Greek and Latin at school.”

Here are some reasons.
Recent research has shown that teaching Latin and Greek to students who had “fallen behind their classmates” has given “a huge boost in deciphering English and even helping with maths and science”.
I can never get over how before the breaking of bread at church one morning, someone explained how the word “comPANy” or “comPANionship” comes from the word “pan” (or “pane”) meaning “bread”, indicating that company/companionship had something to do with “eating bread together”.
How cool was that! To just take an English word, any English word, ascertain its roots in Latin and/or Greek, and then get an (approximate) idea of its meaning. Little wonder that pupils in the above programme began to understand English so much better.
(We have a parallel in the Chinese language, of course, where an understanding of the root radicals helps us to establish quickly whether a character is an action word (with a “hand” radical), a plant (with a “grass” radical), or something to do with food (with the ‘mouth’ radical), exempli gratia.)
On the home front I have been taken aback by how a certain young man who everyone assumed would have a bright career in Maths or Physics has now been gripped by all things Greek (and I don’t just mean the olives) and Latin.
This was the young man who pronounced to the amusement of his primary school teachers, prior to his first Latin lesson, that Latin meant learning to say, “Let-us go-us there-us.” But it was Ancient Greek, which he started learning last year, that has captured his imagination to the point that he is now contemplating a degree in Classics.
So I understand how Greek can get quite addictive.
The furore about the proposed Eunoia Junior College is understandable. Typically Singaporeans only encounter Latin in our school mottos and even then, many of us cannot even decipher their original and various meanings. Basically there is nothing in the Singapore DNA that makes a Greek-based “Eunoia” an obvious choice.
Has anyone done ‘user experience’ research (or due diligence) to find out how Hokkien speakers would enunciate Eunoia?
From the press statements released, it appears that the powers-that-be are adopting the Wikipedia definition of the word. As serious researchers know: never rely on Wikipedia. Has some civil servant googled the word and convinced the committee that this was a good name?
If one is into conspiracy theory, one might think that this is a sinister sign of elitism – particularly if you look at the list of feeder schools: “If you (or your parents) can’t pronounce this, then don’t bother to apply (id est you do not belong)?” Rather like, “If you have to ask the price, then you can’t afford it.”

Maybe the name was chosen deliberately to exclude.
There is a time and place for everything, I used to tell my young man.
Context matters.
Can we not come up with a name more relevant to Singapore history and culture, the history of the feeder schools, or just an aspirational virtue like ‘righteousness’ or ‘honour’ in Chinese, Malay or Tamil?
Everything in context: Just as Rhodes was what he was, a man of his time and place.
Putting it in context, Mr Qwabe is a Rhodes scholar. Now how does one say "You should not bite the hand that feeds" in Greek?