A mad mother and her DIY kids

A mad mother and her DIY kids

The ex-swampland is alive with the sound of thwacking typewriter keys.

At least, it is in the little corner of Potong Pasir I call home, where I have trained my elder son to hunt and peck out words on a second-hand Olympia Traveller de Luxe portable typewriter. A manual model I bought for $100 recently from a man named Sergio who was leaving town.

While the nine-year-old bashes out a magnum opus on his new-old toy, his kid brother is training to be a paper-marbling artisan.

Wearing a plastic apron, he stands next to a tray filled with a few inches of water. Taking up a small tube of Japanese ink, he squeezes a small drop into the water, swops the tube for that of a different colour, squeezes another drop and so forth, until the entire tray is blooming with abstract tear-drop patterns.

Using a Mickey Mouse straw, he blows gently on the water's surface, creating more ink swirls and patterns. Then, he deftly drops a thick piece of acid-free, watercolour paper into the tray, letting it absorb the inks. Lifting out the paper, he lays it flat on kitchen paper towels to dry and we all marvel at the peacock's tail and bubblegum dreams he has created.

In a world chock-full of electronic devices and cheap mass-produced objects, I often feel that I'm fighting a losing battle against the purveyors of digital time-suckers that compete for my family's attention and turn them into zombies with little boxes in front of their faces.

True, some apps are great for learning and expanding the mind - for instance, I am a fan of a Chinese writing game that trains you to trace characters onscreen with your finger, stroke by correct stroke, as a timer runs out.

Yet, for all the advantages of allowing kids to be tech-savvy from a young age, it is important to me that my children experience the joy of making something from scratch and embracing the do-it-yourself spirit.

I find myself having to counteract the Supportive Spouse's penchant for handing his cast-off devices to our children with very lo-fi activities.

There is much to be said for the deep learning and satisfaction that occur when one deliberately chooses to do something the hard way. Witness, after all, the hipster rise of crafting and urban farming.

Enter: book-making.

Even the advent of the printing press has not completely eradicated the romance of the hand-made book or the beauty of rare illuminated manuscripts that take monks an entire lifetime to produce.

My ambitions, however, are more modest. I simply require the half-men apprentices in my secret workshop to write, illustrate, decorate and bind their own chapbooks.

To that end, the nine-year-old and I attended a free book-binding workshop at The Arts House, conducted by writer-book artist Pooja Makhijani earlier this month, where we learnt in an hour to sew a simple pamphlet stitch.

The five-year-old is honing his writing skills by penning letters to his father and leaving them in a toy mailbox.

Meanwhile, his elder brother and I are working on content creation - making sure there are enough stories that can be bound into books, never mind that these books will most probably be read by no more than one family in the world.

Soon, soon - I relish the day! - I will have a little assembly line up and running in my living room: the tiny typist, the little craftsman creating ornamental end papers and the seamstresses (okay, just my domestic helper and me) stitching everything together.

At times, the doubts creep in, of course. What is the point of teaching my kids to appreciate and operate obsolete technology?

But then, the spectre of an electronic apocalypse rears its head in my paranoid soul and I have visions of mankind groping around in a post-digital world after a massive electromagnetic explosion that takes out all cellphones, the Internet and anything with a microcomputer in it, and I feel more justified than ever. (If I sound crazy, I blame novelist Reif Larsen and his recent excellent novel I Am Radar for making this scenario seem plausible.)

At the very least, a love of old tech will ensure that my kids will not be like those American tweens featured in humorous YouTube videos, goggling their eyes and shrieking "What is that?" when confronted by Sony Walkmans, boom boxes and MS-DOS-running desktop computers from the 1980s.

When it comes to the great chain that is human innovation, my children will hopefully be able to recognise the links, the incremental advances in knowledge, that has made what we have today possible. My mother-in-law once told me that her father, who received a scholarship to go to Harvard from the Chinese government, once built a radio out of a biscuit tin while they were hiding in the jungle during the Japanese Occupation.

No amount of swiping iPads and watching streaming videos prepares you for that.

School our young in the history of objects. Impress upon them the awareness of our material evolution - and to not take anyone's version of this evolution at face value, as a given or for granted.

In other words: Don't blindly accept the future handed to you.

One day, I will whisper in my book-making elves' ears as they are hard at work: You come from biscuit tin-radio-making stock. Don't forget it.

Right before I teach them Morse code and Ruby programming language. And when they grow up, they could regale their friends with tales of growing up in a semi-Luddite cult presided over by their mad mother.

stlife@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on April 19 2015.
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