Sunday, December 30, 2007

No Unpaid Tickets Here

I have to say that in several ways, Singapore has a leg up on the U.S. in terms of efficiency. This is most obvious when it comes to transportation. The public transport system here is spectacular, which is good because it's a tiny island with 4 million people and you can't have all of them running around in cars.

I've mentioned a few of their nifty systems before. This week I landed on the wrong end of one of them, but I'm still impressed by it. I got a ticket for "non-payment of ERP charge." Specifically, the letter sitting next to me says, "We would like to bring to your attention that on 18 December 2007 at 5:46 PM, you vehicle SFU2512U was detected passing through the ERP gantry at CTE Northbound before exit to PIE without a CashCard properly inserted into the In-vehicle Unit."

What that means is that I didn't pay a road toll. Our cars here have a box on the dash where you put a credit card that has money on it. As you drive into high traffic areas, there is a Electronic Road Pricing overhang that automatically deducts money from you. That is, if your card is in there. Mine was low on cash, so I had pulled it out because otherwise it beeps annoyingly. Plus, I was going north AWAY from the city, so I was surprised to come upon an ERP at all.

I've done this once before. It's a horrible feeling driving under that thing without a card. You hope that somehow they didn't see you, but within days you get a ticket in the mail, and you just can't argue with it. They KNOW it was you. If I don't pay the $10.50 within 14 days, my fine will increase to $70. If I pay it online it will decrease to $8.50. What a bargain! I don't imagine there is any issue with unpaid tickets here in Singapore.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Brief Gingerbread House of '07

Gingerbread houses still make me twitchy. If you don't know why, you probably haven't read this post. And yet, here's another year where I found myself buying a gingerbread house for my kids to make. We made a treasure hunt of it, hiding the house out in our complex, then giving the kids GPS clues to find it (this was partly an attempt to make geocaching more exciting for Megan, because right now she's not down with this being a family hobby).

It started out ok, after the hiccup of realizing we needed to make our own icing. We knew we couldn't keep it up for long (see ant post of previous day). But we didn't realize how not long that would be. See for yourself.

Looks good so far doesn't it? No apparent structural faults.

But what's this? It appears the roof is beginning to cave in, and the side is starting to buckle. Must be the excess of icing making it soggy, or perhaps the weight of way too much sugar.

As I was writing the word "condemned" on the side, the roof gave in, making my statement rather obvious.

And then it collapsed completely. That lasted all of about 10 minutes. But the kids had fun and will eat as much of it as I let them (not much) later. Why do I do this to myself?

All the Lovely Losers

I lived in Mankato, Minnesota for two years of my life. You may have heard of Mankato if you watched Little House on the Prairie, because sometimes Pa would load up the lumber and haul it off from Walnut Grove to Mankato. Yes, those are real places. Once on the evening news I heard that Walnut Grove had beat Mankato in high school basketball. That was weird.

Why am I telling you about Mankato? Because it is where I first heard one of my favorite artists, Jason Gray. At the time he was Jason Gay, but as you can imagine that led to some undesirable sites when googled. So he changed his name. But I saw this guy when he was just starting, playing coffee houses and church functions. I was in love with his CD The Singer and the Song, particularly with the song Psalm 16, which led me to my favorite verses, Psalm 16:5-6.

I rediscovered him this summer with his new CD All the Lovely Losers, and I'm glad to see he's done well. I'm telling you, if you've never heard this guy, you need to buy this CD. I can't get enough of it. My favorite song, in terms of lyrics, is Blessed Be, (from which comes the above title "All the lovely losers") Here's a bit of it:

Not for the strong, the beautiful, the brave
Not for the ones who think they've got it made
It's for the poor, the broken and the meek
It's for the ones who look a lot like you and me
Blessed be the ones who know that they are weak
They shall see the kingdom come to the broken ones
Blessed be

Here's another, called Weak:
I was afraid to be weak
Afraid to be me
I was afraid because I didn't want them to see
What's broken in me
But I guess I was wrong
Should have known all along
When I'm weak You are strong
in me
You make up what I lack
You shine through the cracks
Where I was shattered
And You pour out your grace
Through my broken places

Cause if they're afraid I stand too tall
They'll burn all the bridges and build a wall
But if they know I stumble
The walls might crumble down

Most of the songs on this CD are on this theme - being broken and finding the blessing in that, seeing that when we are weak and broken, that's when God can use us. Ministry isn't about having what other people need, having the answers, having it together. It's about being able to say to someone, "I don't have what you need, I don't have all the answers, but I can show you where to find what you need, because He's given it to me." So give yourself a Christmas present and pick up All the Lovely Losers.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The problem of ants

I am something of a recovering sugar addict. I had quite a sweet tooth up until recent years. I still like to indulge in some good dark chocolate and other occasional goodies, but for the most part I've decided that my health is more important. And I've found that the less I eat, the less I crave it. But I am still a firm believer in the healing power of baking therapy. When I'm down, I like the peace and satisfaction of baking something good (and then passing it along to someone else to eat). This time of year calls to my inner baker, but in my new house, I'm finding a major obstacle: ants.

Ants like sugar, among other things. In my new apartment, there is already an army of ants waiting at my back door to scurry in and carry away any minute crumb we leave out. Erik left the wishbone on the front of our stove on Thanksgiving. A few hours later it had been moved to the back of the stove by ants, I kid you not. So me spreading sugar cookie dough on the counter is like a call to arms for them. Thinking about making a gingerbread house with the kids and leaving it out overnight sounds like a recipe for infestation. It's put a damper on my merry cookie making for holiday gift giving tradition.

On the up side, I am becoming an immaculately clean cook.

Monday, December 17, 2007


Something is happening in our house, the likes of which I thought only happened in China. Last night the air con in our dining room turned itself on and refused to be turned off. We had to leave it running all night. In the morning, I climbed up and manually switched it to off (which Erik tried unsuccessfully a number of times before) and it stopped. Five minutes later it started again. I finally figured out that if it starts on its own, I can turn off the main switch and make it stop for awhile. This is not a long term solution. When I called the AC guy he laughed and said he'd be by later to check it out.

This sort of quirky thing happened in China all the time - stuff that makes you scratch your head and say, "Oh well. What can you do?" Like the time my friend opened her window and it just fell out. When that happens on the 20th story of an apartment building you just yell "Four!" and hope for the best. Thankfully we lived on the back side of the building. Another time a friend's washing machine spontaneously caught on fire - just out of the blue, with no apparent instigation. My upstairs neighbor's tile floor buckled. We didn't have hot water for the first month or two in our bathroom. When they came to check it out, all they had to do was open a valve that had been covered when we first moved in. Not only was that keeping us from having hot water, but it was keeping everyone who lived below us from having it too. Oops - sorry. And my personal favorite - my neighbor turned on the shower one day, not knowing that they'd shut off the water that day (this happened often - usually there was a notice at the bottom of the building, but that's not helpful if you can't read Mandarin). She left to go shopping, but left the water on and a plunger over the drain (because otherwise the smell came up). Since her bathroom had no bathtub, when the water came on it poured out of the bathroom, down the hall, into the living room, and was making its way to the bedrooms by the time they returned.

Stuff like that happens there. It made life more interesting. So this quirky AC thing brings with it a bit of nostalgia for me. And after that quickly passes, I hope it will be fixed before our electricity bill goes up too much.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Merry Christmas!

What do you do when you're short on time, it's raining constantly outside, and you need to take a Christmas picture? You go to Spotlight, buy two and a half meters of black fabric and make your own photo studio is what you do! Or at least it's what we did. I did several test shots with just the kids - as you can see, they got a little wacky. I like the last picture of me better, but if you look closely (and I always do) you can see the effects of me leaning sideways over the camera to check the shot before jumping in - my hair is flipped the wrong way over my head. I didn't realize that until I was editing the pictures. I subjected my poor family to a second round of shots and the second to last shot in the post was the one was the best we got.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

It's Beginning to Look a lot like Christmas!

Well, we had to get a second set of lights and borrow a saw to hack off the bottom of it, but our tree finally looks and smells like a real honest to goodness Christmas tree! I have never seen the appeal in making a tree all matching and beautiful. To me, it's all about family and memories, and I could tell you a story about every one of these ornaments.

Here's the view of our window display. You can't see very well the fake snow we sprayed in the window per the kid's request. Now we just need a few more gifts under that tree.

I decided when I came to Singapore to start over with my Christmas decorating. I want to collect nativities from other countries. This is one Erik gave me a few weeks ago. It was hand carved in the Philippines. I think it might be my favorite.

This was sent to us from some friends in China. No, Jesus, Mary and Joseph probably weren't Asian, but they weren't white either! When I consider that God is every color and every culture and every language, it tells me how great He is.

This is from right here in Singapore, but I suppose technically you could claim it's from Malaysia, because it's made from cinnamon trees grown there. They hand make these at Tay Guan Heng, up in Ang Mo Kio. If you live in Singapore and haven't been there, it is a must see! I have a list of creations I want to buy there in the future. They are the nicest guys and it's fascinating to watch them work.

I told my mom I wanted to collect nativities and she said, "I think you should go open your Christmas present from us." It was this nativity from Chile! Very fun - now we're truly global. I'm opting not to show you our Playmobil nativity, but that's here too. If you're traveling to another country and see a unique nativity, would you pick it up for us? Ethan keeps asking me why we have so many "activity sets." He also wants to know where I've stashed all the baby Jesus figures (they'll come out at Christmas). Merry Christmas from the Butz house!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Embracing Weakness

Today I was reflecting on my past life, by which I mean, "Life before Singapore." It was quite different from my life now. Or rather, I'm different. At least I like to think so. Before Singapore, I thought I had it all together. I was balancing raising two preschoolers, learning a second language, living overseas, and having a personal ministry with joy. I thought I was a Super Mom. Turns out I was just a mom with a part time maid. So God in His mercy saw fit to shatter my illusions by bringing me to Singapore.

Coming to Singapore has been a continual and deepening lesson in seeing my own inadequacy, lostness, self-sufficiency (God's not impressed with that) and pride. He's slowly stripped away or added things into my life to make me feel my desperate need for Him. It's been one of the hardest and most frustrating lessons of my life. Many times I have had to side with Rich Mullins when he sang, "I can't see where you're leading me, unless you've led me here, to where I'm lost enough to let myself be led."

I have no illusions anymore about having it all together. Oh sure, I try to do my best, but I know at the end of the day that if I accomplished anything, it was because of God's grace. I don't want to be someone who is perceived as strong and put together. I want to be real and approachable. As one of the speakers said at our conference this summer, "People don't draw close to strength - they admire it, respect it, but don't draw near to it . . . When you're wounded, you're just getting qualified."

So my encouragement to those of you who feel like you can't keep it together, are feeling inadequate, or lost, is to embrace it. That's where we meet God and see that His resources are so much greater than anything we imagine. It's also where we become instruments of grace to others - not because we are strong, but because we understand weakness.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God." Mt. 5:3

It seems a little cruel . . .

There is a bathroom next to the gym in our complex that is for handicapped people. But there is a sign on the door that says, "This door is locked. If you need the key, please come to the guard house." To get to the guard house, you would have wheel your way up the circular ramp in that area, hang a left, then another left, then another - all uphill by the way. Then after rolling for about 100+ feet, you turn right and heft your way another 30 feet further up hill, around the barrier and up to the guard house, where the window might be too high for you to see in. Once you get the key, you'd have smooth gliding back down to the bathroom, provided you made it that far.

Does this strike anyone else as a bit cruel? At the least not exactly inviting to those physically restrained.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Lazy Winter Day

The sun is going down, though we never saw a peep of it today. I know this only because the light in our house is dimming. The candles and Christmas lights we've had lit are no longer sufficient light for reading books and playing games. It's been as close to a winter day as I've ever had here - the kind of day when nothing can induce you to go outside, and everything invites you to hunker down with a good book and a cup of something warm and stay til the storm blows over.

It hasn't been a lightning storm, but an unrelenting heavy rain that has poured since this morning. I'm glad we had nothing planned other than homeschool, because the laws of physics keep me bound here - I am an object at rest. After homeschool and lunch our kids vegged out with Scooby Doo (can I just comment that as an adult, you see your favorite childhood shows in a different light. How dull were those teenage sleuths that though they solved dozens of mysteries, they always began their operations on the assumption that ghosts were real?). I indulged in one of my favorite forms of therapy - baking. I made brownies, a failed attempt at apple cranberry oatmeal muffins (never mess with a recipe you haven't tried) and baked sweet potato fries. Our living room is scattered with half a dozen board games which the kids got out. They haven't made it completely through any of them - it was like game overload. We ate the fries, they splashed in the tub, and now Ethan is conducting experiments with ice and water (specifically how long it takes ice cubes to melt in different temperatures).

So that's as close as I'll probably get to a lazy winter day. When I talked with my parents this morning, they were holed in by winter weather as well, but significantly whiter and prettier. My upside is no shoveling.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Our Christmas Tree

It is a running joke in the Brenna family that I hate Christmas tree shopping. I may have described it before, but our memories have morphed into one recurring episode: We choose to hunt for a tree on the coldest day of the year. I am underdressed as usual. My parents choose a new Christmas tree farm that promises the best trees. When we venture into the lot, we discover one tree that we all love, but my mom insists we must look around to make sure it is the right one. Then my family starts to take sadistic pleasure in my negative attitude by throwing snow at me. My mom finds a "perfect" tree at the other end of the lot, but by the time we gather everyone together to assess it, someone else is cutting it down. Defeated, we go back and cut down the first tree we found.

It probably only happened like this once or twice, but I gained such a reputation that when we flew back for Christmas in 2003 and I was in a friend's wedding, my mom said, "Ok, so we'll take the kids to get the tree while you're at the wedding," to which I replied, "You can't get the tree without me!" No one was more surprised than me at that statement.

Well, our Christmas tree outing was quite different here. I might grow to like it. Our artificial tree that we purchased in Asia 8 years ago for the bargain price of $12 finally bit the dust last year. We decided to spring (and I mean spring) for a real one. The kids were thrilled. We went to one of the nurseries on Thompson Road where trees stood in rank according to their height. Even within height (we chose a 5-6') there was quite a variation. I think we got the best of the bunch.

Erik was a bit out of sorts (and if you know Erik, you know things have to be seriously wrong for that to happen) because the tree stand we bought leaked. He drove back and got them to replace it, and now our beautiful tree is filling the front window. This is the first year in Singapore that we've had space for a tree this size! I'll post decorated tree pictures as soon as I get my camera's battery charger back from its trip to a friend's house, and after we get more lights. You can never have enough lights.