Friday, 11 December 2015

Countdown to Christmas: Week 2

It has been a difficult week.  Tiger has been very ill with high fever and severe headache all this time.  It took three visits to the GP to find out that Tiger has a middle ear infection, which most likely resulted from his weekly swimming lessons.   There is no a lot to be done apart from taking the prescribed antibiotics and waiting for the bacteria to be gotten rid of.  The infection is a nasty one, causing such a spliting headache for Tiger that he (and consequently, I) has been woken up by the pain several times in the night for the past week.  Hence, all external activities have been cancelled, with Tiger spending most of his time lying on the sofa.  He is only well enough today to play with LEGO and his train set.

Compared to how active Tiger normally is, this week has been very boring for him as all external activities have been cancelled due to his being ill.  With all my not-so-well-planned December plans out of the window, luckily we have been able to manage some continuity with the daily unwrapping of Christmas-related storybooks.

  and rewatching a Christmas classic:

When he felt well enough to get off the sofa, we continued to look through the RI space-themed advent calendar, watched the second week of the Angel Trail, and made tin can lanterns that turned out to be very pretty.

At the very beginning of the week Tiger felt really terrible so in order to distract him from the physical pain that he was experiencing, my husband had the brilliant idea of introducing Tiger to a classic movie that he (my husband) has always wanted them to watch together:

No, Tiger will not be getting any Star Wars-related presents.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Countdown to Christmas: Dickens' Carol

We have read A Christmas Carol in the past two Christmases such that the book has become a part of our Christmas tradition.  This year, however, I think it would be a good idea to expand our scope a little wider by reading the other Christmas stories written by Charles Dickens at Tiger's bedtime so that A Christmas Carol does not become the only Dickensian Christmas story that we know.

However, even though we are not reading A Christmas Carol this year, we find ourselves not being able to get away from it totally.  As a result of Tiger being ill with fever most of last week, we found ourselves having a lot of time on our hands that we could spend on video watching.  To my surprise, Tiger watched the 1999 movie version without his usual complaint that most movie versions are poor substitutes for the original storybooks.  There have been numerous movie adaptations of the story, but the 1999 version is the one that stayed most true to the original, and it helps that Patrick Stewart (who played Scrooge) is a most excellent actor.

After we watched the movie, we thought we might as well review our knowledge about the origins of the story:

What I find interesting about reading/reviewing the same story each year is that not only does the story become part of our family's tradition at Christmas time, but my own understanding of the story grows with each reading.  This sense of getting to know a story at a deeper level with each passing year comes with no surprise.  What is perhaps surprising is how easily recognisable many universal human values, such as compassion and redemption, are in this very traditional, English story.  Then again, isn't that what every good classic story is supposed to do?

Another reason for us not being able to completely ignore A Christmas Carol this year is that it is currently being discussed in the BerkerleyX Book Club, which is another free MOOC offered by edX.  Tiger and I looked at the first week's coursework, which we felt has helped us consider a few points that we had not discussed in our previous readings. 

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Countdown to Christmas: Week 1

The best way to describe our first week of Christmas countdown is that it's a mixed bag.

After announcing that I am not going to come up with 24 different activities this December, I found the advent calendar that my mother-in-law bought for Tiger when he was a baby and thought it best to take it out and use it before Tiger's childhood is over.  So, I stayed up on the night of November 30th to do some last minute brainstorming and managed to stretch my initial short list of activities to fill 24 days.

Since I have the habit of over-preparing than under-preparing most of the time, I wrapped the Christmas-related books that I borrowed from the library in Christmas wrappers to act as another form of advent calendar (just in case the other one doesn't work, for whatever reason), so that Tiger can unwrap one book each day to read a Christmas-related story.  That's the least we can do, if we don't do anything else for the month.

I really needn't worry, because the RI has a space-related advent calendar ready so we have been unveiling it each day, after I read aloud a section from our spine book for the month, The Christmas Almanac.  The book covers a broad spectrum of Christmas-related issues from history to traditions, both religious and secular.

There is a section in the book explaining the origins and different ranks of angels in the Western tradition which coincides with the weekly video of the Angel Trail organised by the National Gallery, so we watched the first episode of that.

The rest of the week was interspersed with the making of mince meat,

as well as mince pies.

We would have done more this week if Tiger hadn't been ill with high fever most of the time.  In fact, he spent most of the week lying on the sofa, recovering from nights of broken sleep.

He is still suffering from fever as I type.  We are taking him to see the out-of-hours doctor in a little while, since our usual GP does not work on weekends.  I hope next week will be a better week.

This post is linked up to Christmas In A Box ~ Week 1 Link Up.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Countdown to Christmas: The Beginning

Our countdown to Christmas has begun with the consumption of mulled wine and mince pies, as is my little personal tradition.

I started accumulating the mince pies from the supermarkets at the end of November, having forgotten that I had already done a survey of the various mince pies last year.  I was wondering what to do with the over supply of mince pies when my attention was turned to the homeless.

Ever since the extent of homelessness in the UK came to our attention in May this year when we studied about the Victorian poor, I have become more aware of the signs of the current rising food and housing crises around us, for example the increase in the number of food bank collection points in town and the number of people selling The Big Issue (a magazine sold by homeless people).  The trend is both worrying and upsetting.

We already make regular donations to the food banks and to the charity shops, but I feel compelled to do a little more this December.  I thought about volunteering at a homeless shelter over Christmas, but knew I would be too upset when I come face-to-face with real people who are in such a desperate situation, so this year I will just make donations of winter clothing and 10% of our weekly grocery to the shelter, including all the extra mince pies that I have bought -- although I seriously think that homeless people have bigger problems to worry about than having mince pies to eat at Christmas time.  Maybe next year I will find the courage to actually go and help out at the shelter.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Plans for December

With December only a few days away, I feel I ought to share what our plans are for the month.  I am going to call ours a 'December plan' rather than an Advent plan because we are not Christians, so I don't feel right about using the term 'advent' when we don't actually celebrate the days leading up to Christmas Day in a religious way.

In our own secular way, we honour Christmas Day as a major festival with our own family traditions, which include setting aside time each December to do something special.  To me, the significance of Christmas Day to the English side of our family is on par with that of Chinese New Year to the Chinese side of the family.

Since we are not calling our December activities 'advent' activities anymore, I feel a sense of relief that I don't have to come up with 24 different activities for us to complete in order to earn our place at the Christmas table.  I have come up with fewer than 24 activities because I would like to spend some time this year to observe the Dongzhi Festival (冬至), which is another important Chinese festival that takes place near Christmas Day.

Below are our Christmas-related activities for December, in no particular order:
  • make Christmas cards
  • make lanterns
  • watch Christmas-related movies
  • listen to Christmas music
  • see Christmas lights
  • learn to sing three Christmas carols
  • learn to recite one Christmas poem
  • decorate the house
  • decorate the tree
  • watch a Christmas-related documentary
  • go for two nature walks
  • make mince pies
  • read Christmas-related stories
  • draw Christmas-related drawings

I aim to be more diligent with blogging in December, so having a planned list of activities for the month will give me a good reason to do so.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Wizard and Wand

After all these years of dressing up, Tiger is still fond of doing so (although I suspect not for much longer).  At Halloween, he often dresses up as a wizard, this year being no exception.

He has been fascinated by magic and wizardry so has been practising magic tricks using a few books and a "Magic Tricks Box" that I picked up from the charity shop.

While this is all just fun to a very imaginative boy, I have a strong aversion to conjurors and magicians as I find the idea of deception, a principle on which most 'magic' we are shown is based on, rather objectional.  Therefore, I tried to redirect Tiger's fascination with wizardry to more 'useful' outlets, such as studying the entire Harry Potter series using the related issue of The Arrow for discussion and other English-related work.

We were at King's Cross station the other day, so we went to look for platform where Harry Potter boarded the Hogwarts Express for the first time in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

The station was refurbished a few years ago so it is now very bright and spacious, nothing like the dark and slightly dingy King's Cross station that I knew and missed from more than a decade ago.  The station is now almost too modern, cheerful and well-managed for the setting of the story.  While back in the dark and dingy days anyone could walk up and down the platforms freely and tried one's luck at running into a wall without bothering anyone else, there is absolutely no chance of doing that now without looking like a total fool to everyone in the station since there are now no dark corners in the station where one can hide in shame or embarrassment.  Moreoever, new and shiny electronic barriers are now up in front of all the barriers so there is no way to even walk between the actual platorms 9 and 10 to look for platform unless you buy a train ticket beforehand.  In short, more progress but less spontaneous fun.

The station authorities have no doubt thought about the station's significance in the Harry Potter story, so a few feet away from platforms 9 to 11 is a wall dedicated to being the famous platform , where tourists and fans can pose for photos and visit the shop.

As a result of our dislike for the commercialised aspect of the story, Tiger is adamant that he would not watch any of the Harry Potter movies despite my repeated encouragement.  I thought he might enjoy the movie's special effects so I started watching the first movie.

Tiger watched for 10 minutes and decided that, "The movie has left out too many details.  The book is better."  So that put an end to movie-watching.  Consequently, we need not go to the Warner Brothers Studio Tour too, which saves me a small fortune.

We used the time and money saved from not watching the Harry Potter movies and not going to the studio tour on some real magic, where Tiger made an electronic wand by soldering bits and pieces of resistors and other electronics bits to create a programmable wand using binary codes.

I have not captured the video very well, but the wand was programmed to display the word "bye".  Apparently the wand is able to be programmed to display different six-character words by changing the codes, but I don't really know how the wand works or how to programme the codes to change the word display.  Luckily Tiger paid attention in class and knows how to work it.


Saturday, 31 October 2015

Where's the Pumpkin?

Last year I made an attempt to wean ourselves off the neigbourhood trick-or-treaters by making it a low-key event that involved just us, indoors.  I neither put our pumpkins outside nor put any decorations out.  Still, they came knocking on our front door, and I had to tell many small, disappointed English witches/wizards/ghouls/zombies/vampires that I was not celebrating Halloween.... I felt like a total villain by the time I said that to the tenth junior vampire who appeared outside my front door.

This year, to redeem myself, I decided that we would be better prepared for the trick-or-treaters.

We started preparing our pumpkin yesterday.  I used a marker pen to draw Tiger's chosen template onto the pumpkin before he proceeded with carving it to the music of Mussorsky.

I must say that we are very pleased with our pumpkin this year.  We think it really captures the essence of the spirit of Halloween.

After we had enjoyed the roasted pumpkin seeds, I put the Jack-O-Lantern out while Tiger decorated the front porch in preparation for night fall.  My husband even donated his car for a few hours to let a skeleton sit in the driver's seat, which totally scared a little four-year-old witch who refused to let go of her mother's neck when she spotted it.

All went really well this evening.  We were graced with visits from over 30 young English witches/wizards/ghouls/zombies/vampires, resulting in the sweets being nearly all taken.  We were all enjoying giving the sweets away when, about 20 minutes after nightfall, I noticed that our pumpkin had disappeared! 

I thought it might have rolled off the front step -- which is quite impossible to begin with since it is huge and heavy -- so I looked for it all out at the front of the house, but I could not see it anywhere.  Since I was not expecting anyone to take our pumpkin away, I only bought one this year.  For the rest of the evening, we had to rely on our milk jug ghost to annouce to the neighbourhood children that we are playing Halloween this year.

How bizarre it is to have a Jack-O-Lantern stolen on Halloween night!  This has never happened before so we are all quite perplexed by the incident.  Who would do something like this, and what can anyone do with the pumpkin after tonight?  The pumpkin is neither expensive nor particularly difficult to carve.  Our conclusion is that the foxes living in the nearby woods must have carried it off to their dens to have their own Halloween celebrations, or maybe the cats might have done so...

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Chongyang Festival

The above clip is a very famous verse, 《醉花阴》,written by the Song dynasty female poet, Li Qingzhao (李清照), about how badly she missed her husband who was away on official business on the Chongyang Festival (重阳节).

Chongyang Festival falls on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar, hence it is also called the Double Ninth Festival.

The festival took place a week ago on Wednesday.  As is customary with traditional Chinese festivals, there are special food to go with it, so I spent a whole day in the kitchen making the various desserts from scratch, as these specific festive food cannot be bought in the UK.

These are by no means the only type of dessert to be had in the traditional sense.  I only made what I can manage to do with the ingredients I could find:

  1. Chrysanthemum Tea (菊花茶)
  2. Chrysanthemum Crisp (菊花酥)
  3. Goji Chrysanthemum Cake (枸杞菊花糕
  4. Tricolor Chongyang Cake (三色重阳糕) 
  5. Chestnut Chongyang Cake (桂花板栗重阳糕)
Tiger's favourites are (2), (4) and (5).

Besides eating specific food, there are so specific customs associated with the Chongyang Festival.

Usually the Chinese people will go for a hike on the hills or mountains on this day to be in touch with nature.  Since we don't have hills or mountains near us, Tiger and I got our nature fix by doing some gardening.

You might have noticed that the chrysanthemum flower features very prominently at the Chongyang Festival -- hence Tiger's gardening task was to pot a bunch of chrysanthemum.  To the Chinese people, the chrysanthemum flower symbolises elegance and courage.  It is therefore a significant symbol of autumn for us.

Tiger asked whether there is a poem that goes with the Chongyang Festival, to which I replied that there are many but the most beautiful is the verse by Li Qingzhao, which is shown in the clip at the beginning of this post.  He is not ready to learn it yet though, as the depth of emotions described in the verse and the masterful use of language are beyond his comprehension at present.

Friday, 16 October 2015

No Two Days Are the Same: Friday


Despite saying last night that he would have a major lay-in today, Tiger actually set his alarm clock for 7:45am and got himself up at that time!  However, I didn't get up early today so once again, our expectations of each other are not quite synchronised -- more work needed there!

We had breakfast, completed our long-than-usual morning chores (we have a few additional chores on Fridays), and settled down to start work at 10:30am.  Tiger started on the second part of his science homework which involved researching on and writing about how clean drinking water gets to UK homes.  As usual, I asked him whether he needed my help.  When he said no, I went to the kitchen and started cooking lunch because last night's dinner was so well received that there was none left for today's lunch.

Tiger completed his research and wrote his report on the water treatment process.  He then brought his completed report into the kitchen and read it out to me.  It was spot on.  No mistakes at all.  I then asked him to prepare for his class this afternoon by looking through the topic, photosynthesis, as we waited for lunch to be ready.


Lunch was ready at 12:15pm.  Pan-fried venison with blueberry sauce served with mash and steamed vegetables (a modified version of this recipe).  Yum!

The rest of the afternoon was taken up by science class.  It is a small class attended by five children.  Two of them were absent this afternoon so it was almost like a one-to-one tutorial today.

I sat at the back of the class as usual, half listening in on the lesson.  Most of the time I read but the science class is always quite lively because of the many hands-on experiments and I find it difficult to concentrate on what I am reading.  When that happens, like it did this afternoon, I work on something else that requires a different type of concentration, such as drawing or hand-lettering.

During the 10-minutes break this afternoon, Tiger's science teacher was interested to know what I was reading because he has seen me reading the same book for weeks.  I showed him the title page and he became interested to know what a liberal education is.  I tried to explain it to him but felt that I have had a failed elevator speech moment.  He is an ex-school teacher and has a young son who attends elementary school, so if I have not explained the concept clearly (I don't always feel up to it), perhaps I have piqued his interest such that he may look into it more closely at his own time.

We arrived home around 4:15pm and my husband took Tiger out to a nearby skate park to play with the remote control car.  Meanwhile, I start drafting the blog post for today and changing the all the sheets in the house -- Fridays are all-sheets-change day so every towel, hand towel, bed sheet, pillow case, etc go into the laundry basket.


The boys came back in time for me to take Tiger to his swimming lesson.

It is 8pm at the moment, and we are just about to have dinner.

Next week, according to my calendar will be somewhat different from this week, so it is true when I say that no two days are the same for us.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

No Two Days Are the Same: Thursday


I looked through Tiger's history homework last night before I went to bed, and saw that although he had written a summary of Mesopotamia well in terms of content and coherence -- a result I attribute to oral narration), his written narration is, well... sloppy.  His writing transgressed a few points (such as poor handwriting, careless spelling and a disregard for grammar rules) that warranted a "This is unacceptable.  You have to rewrite it." from me, which he was very unhappy about.

After breakfast, Tiger rewrote the summary in its entirety.  I'll be lying if I told you that he rewrote the assignment cheerfully.  No doubt he was seething with anger over the injustice of being made to write it a second time but he did it anyway, and the final copy was perfect.  It just shows that the poor quality of the original piece of writing was not due to an inability to write well but was caused by carelessness.


We then headed out to a centre where we spent most of the day with many other home educated children and parents.  I usually sit at a corner while Tiger attends his English and history classes as I like to listen in on what he is learning.  Sometimes I read my own book and make notes in my commonplace book while listening to the lessons (a skill that I developed in primary school), but more often than not, I make write out plans for the following week.  At the centre there is a waiting room where most other parents congregate as they waited for their children's lessons to end.  I usually join them at lunch break to socialise while Tiger has his lunch with the other children in one of the other rooms.

After class, we stopped by the supermarkets to pick up some groceries and reached home at 4pm.  I reminded Tiger that he had not started with his science homework yet so he buckled down and did a part of it (the other part he will complete tomorrow).


It was Tiger's turn to cook dinner tonight.  He is capable of preparing dinner by himself now so while he was busy in the kitchen, I wiped all the non-carpeted floors in the house.  Tonight's dinner was a modified version of Duck with Plum Sauce and Noodles.  You might have noticed that we always modify recipes.  It is because we follow certain dietary restrictions for health reasons.

Tiger was ready for bed by 8:55pm but he came downstairs in his dressing gown again (as he did on Tuesday) to draw a tank before he felt happy to go to sleep.  I read to him again tonight and finished the second half of the Samuel Morse story.

Before I left his bedroom, Tiger announced that he will have a big lay in tomorrow.  Hmm.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

No Two Days Are the Same: Wednesday


My cup of tea arrived at 6:46am this morning.  The tea was very hot so I read a chapter from the book on my bedside table as I waited for the tea to cool down.  Today's chapter is on the topic of kindness.  I was soon engrossed in it and lost track of time, hence I was on the exercise bike a little later than yesterday, resulting in coming back in a quarter of an hour later too.

I ate my breakfast as usual then started on today's main chore: wiping windows and surfaces.  I break the household chores down to smaller tasks and aim to complete one major chore each day so that I don't feel overwhelmed by having to do everything all at once.

8:45am.  I was wiping the windows in my bedroom when Tiger came in to find out what the noise was (he's a light sleeper).  Seeing that it was just me, he went back to sleep for another half an hour.

It was 10:15am by the time he finished his breakfast and his morning chores.  We started with memory work, still working on the same three poems as yesterday.  After that, I read a chapter from The Golden Age of Myth and Legend while Tiger drew another helicopter.  No narration this time but we discussed the similarities between the stories of Pyramus and Thisbe and Romeo and Juliet.

Then it was on to the meat of the day: history.  We are still in the homework-completion mode, today it's history.  Tiger's homework from his history of medicine class has to do with Mesopotamia, so I thought it would be a good idea to start using the History Odyssey: Ancients (Level 2) curriculum that we have to go through the Mesopotamia section as part of completing his class homework -- I had a look at his homework requirement and found that there are a few overlaps.

Right before we started work, Tiger took put a CD into the player.  It was our music for the week: Mozart's Quintet for Clarinet, 2 Violines, Viola & Cello, in A major KV581!  Would you believe it?  The boy certainly has the right idea about things.


After lunch, we took a 30 minutes break after watching a documentary on ancient Iraq.  Our dining table looked like this at break-time:

We were to resume at 2pm, but my mother called right on the hour so she and I talked for 30 minutes as she updated me with news from her part of the world.

At 2:30pm, I was off the phone so I read another chapter from The Story Book of Science from which Tiger narrated orally.  At this point, my husband came home from work!  He has a flexible work arrangement such that he works from home half the time and today is one of those days.  Another half hour was taken up with us fussing about him before all of us resumed work - my husband to his work in the home office, Tiger and I back to the Sumerians in the dining area.

By 4:30pm, Tiger has completed four lessons in the History Odyssey: Ancients (Level 2) curriculum and said he has had enough of Sumerians and cuneiform for a day, so I asked him to take a break.  While he was enjoying the Blueberry Bakewell Cake (a modified version of this recipe) that I made yesterday and a cup of mint tea, I got started with dinner.


Tiger's final commitment for the day was tennis.

It was 8pm when we got home.  My husband had a work-related call to take then so we waited until 8:30pm to have dinner together.  This evening was a short one but we spent it together as a family, which is nice.

Tiger is in bed now, and I am going to join my husband to watch a movie.

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