(Honing your observations skills assignment by Cecilia Mahendran.)

It was about eleven o’clock when my daughter and I reached Bedok Food Court. Only a few stalls were open. Consequently, and also because it was still too early for lunch, only a few tables were occupied. The whole food court seemed to be shrouded by a shadow except for the middle, where the sun shone through.

My eight-year-old daughter wanted to eat carrot cake. I scanned the whole line of signboards for the one advertising carrot cake.

“Sorry, no carrot cake,” I told her pointing to the stall’s silver shutter that was still drawn down.

She reluctantly settled for minced meat noodles, which was also what I had chosen. I paid the stallholder after telling him my order and my table number.

Back at my seat, as we were waiting for the food, I noticed a blue poster glued onto our table. I noticed also that there was a blue poster on every table in the food court. The same blue posters, bigger in size, could also be seen on almost all the pillars as well. I took a closer look at the poster on my table and saw that it was a campaign to get customers to return their empty bowls and glasses to the collection stations after their meals. I looked all around to see where this collection station was. Not being very observant by nature, I could not at first spot any. It was after I mentally told myself, “Good, we can just leave our bowls here,” that I noticed the first mobile shelf tucked discreetly behind a pillar. Then I noticed another, then another. Almost all the pillars had one – a metal casing, taller than a tall man, with groves along the insides that enabled food trays to be slotted in.

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Our group did an exercise to help us hone our observations skills. We were to station overselves in a place (home, train station, kopi tiam, hospital, airport, etc) and just observe using our senses and write down our observation. Here’s mine.

It is 7.30 am. I take forever to get myself dressed. I am both half asleep and hungry. Armed with a pen and scratch paper, I make my way to the nearby coffee shop. I expect to see a crowd – that was the way it was when I went there two months ago after it was newly renovated. The newness has died down. There are fewer people than I expected.

The upgraded coffee shop is clean and airy – miles of improvement from the dark, cramped and dirty looking shop that I remember. Half the stalls are still dark. The poh piah seller arrives and begins turning on the lights to prepare for a hopeful business day.

The permanently fixed tables have orange tops and backless chairs. I am spoilt for choice as to where to sit.

I scan the backlit sign boards that show mouth-watering familiar local favourites like char kway teow and chicken rice; iced lemon tea, lime juice, half-boiled eggs and kaya toast, but my mind is already made up – it’s oily crispy roti prata for me this morning. There is no queue and I get my order very quickly.

I plunk myself strategically. Good morning senses.

There is a quiet hum of the fast spinning ceiling fans above. Mental spoons clink again the cups as customers stir their kopi or teh. The kopi counter is crowded with cups and canned drinks. A neat row of cigarettes of every brand are in the display just above the counter. Coffee servers in blue and white stripped polo shirts and a Tiger beer logo ply around to take orders. Read the rest of this entry »

Ramona and Her Father
by Beverly Cleary

“Ramona and Her Father” is part of the Ramona Quimby series by American author Beverly Cleary. It is a story of how a second-grader copes with her father’s unemployment and her hopes of getting her father off the smoking habit.

Ramona and her older sister Beezus are expecting their father to bring them out for burgers as it is his pay day. Ramona is also excited about Christmas (which is three months away) and decides to prepare a Christmas wish list in advance. The girls’ hopes are dashed when Mr Quimby comes home with the news that he has been laid off work.

Changes have to be made. For one, Christmas gifts need to be dropped from their list of priorities. More pressing needs such as groceries and loan repayments are necessities that force Mrs Quimbly to move from a part-time to full-time job. Mr Quimby takes on the role of stay-at-home dad. Part of the effort to save costs involves having to put up with many days of dreary dinners, prepared from a huge pumpkin that was part-eaten by Picky-picky the cat.

The mood of the family also changes. Mr Quimby’s sense of humour diminishes as he waits daily for the phone to bring good news of a successful job interview. Mrs Quimby is always tired from the rigours of her new job. Even Picky-picky the cat becomes picky about its downgraded cat food. Beezus, as usual, gets the periodic mood swings which Ramona’s mother attributes to “that age”. Ramona’s insecurity stems from not being able to help out financially as none of the options in her mind seem to be viable. Then one day, she sees a child in a television advertisement and that brings possibilities of making a million dollars. Now in good spirits, she attempts to unsuccessfully lift the family’s spirit as well. Her father gets even crosser when he has an argument with Beezus one night and she criticizes him for his smoking habit. This incident pulls Ramona back into a state of insecurity which is now rooted in concerns for her father’s health rather than the family’s financial situation.

Through the dark days of financial uncertainty up to Christmas, Ramona learns that a “happy” family does not mean a family that is constantly in a good mood. She realizes that her family members will have good days and bad, just like her.

I like how symbols are used in the story as a form of expressions eg. crayon colours which represent Ramona’s feelings and the crown of burs that show how something initially attractive can have undesirable consequences. This book is excellent for discussions with children on how to manage difficult situations and to distinguish between conflicts and the commitment to love.

The Ramona Quimby series has been translated into many languages as well as into a television series. The character has, in fact, been “immortalised” in the form of a bronze statue in The Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden for Children situated in Grant Park, Portland.

Cecilia does it again… another Straits Times Online Forum published in response to a Straits Times Article that appeared on Wed, 8 April 2009 entitled ‘Using death to sell marriage’

Taking the plunge: Fear may stem from cheating hearts rather than absence of Mr or Miss Right

I REFER to Wednesday’s article, ‘Using death to sell marriage’.

It was reported that the television advertisement ‘was spurred in part by a 2006 survey which showed that many respondents were waiting for a suitable partner to show up’. The advertisement aims to impart the message that beautiful relationships can develop, despite imperfections in spouses.

A few years ago, I attended a Reaching Everyone for Active Citizenry@Home (Reach) discussion aimed at getting more Singaporeans to marry.

One participant revealed how her sister and many friends were put off marriage because of unfaithful boyfriends.

They also saw many instances of marriages breaking down due to adultery. Therefore, the more pertinent imperfection to address is cheating partners.

It would be instructive to see the results of a survey on fear of unfaithfulness as an impediment to marriage and how this could be addressed in advertisements.

Cecilia Nathen (Ms)

ivan2by Anne Fine

Do not be mistaken. Ivan the Terrible, which won the 2007 Nestle Children’s Book Silver Award, is not about the 16th century tyrannical Russian ruler. It is instead about Ivan, the new boy at St Edmund’s, a Russian who does not speak English. Boris, who understands Russian, is requested by the Principal, Mrs Blaizely, to be his interpreter. He unwittingly agrees and thus starts the fiasco.

The humour in the story stems from Boris’ desire to be a model “civilized” student, an attitude ingrained in him by Mrs Blaizely’s constant emphasis on good manners and positive attitude. For Boris, this means understanding Ivan’s insecurities during his first day in school and looking after his welfare.

But Ivan proves to be more than what Boris can handle. His first shock comes when Ivan is introduced by Mrs Blaizely to all the students during assembly. After Ivan addresses the students very rudely in Russian, Boris is caught between translating the truth and preventing Ivan from becoming an unpopular new student. In the spirit of having “good manners and a positive attitude”, Boris decides to protect his new friend and this decision sets the stage for a very unsettling day.

As they move together from one lesson to another, Boris begins to regret his role as interpreter. He realizes that the little white lies he created during his translations have given all the staff and students a very good impression of Ivan . Nobody will believe Boris now if he were to speak the truth. Despite this, he continues to cling on to having “a positive attitude” and hopes that some of his own “civilized” behaviour rubs off on Ivan to make him a more pleasant person.

Soon, however, Boris’s disdain for the new boy becomes so overwhelming that he decides chucks his positive attitude aside and starts giving Ivan a taste of his own medicine. He dreads the thought of being stuck with Ivan for more than a day and starts to think of a way to relieve himself as interpreter. This, of course, will involve more lies.

Anne Fine has formed a successful plot of mistaken impressions with Ivan the Terrible. You can’t help feeling sympathy for Boris, for the unanticipated web of deceit he spun came out of the honest intention of looking after Ivan’s well-being. You will also empathize with Ivan when a possible explanation for his conduct emerges towards the end of the book.

While the language is geared towards the six to eight-year old reader, there are a number of British expressions that may be baffling, such as “a brilliant spoof” and “feeling a bit of a wally”. Also, a few sentences were so long (one containing as many as sixty words) that they needed re-reading several times. Despite these glitches, the book is still an enjoyable read.