Archive for February, 2009

white-house1Los Alamitos, California, is a small city not too far away from where I live. It’s the usual quiet, peaceful suburban city. But in the last few days, it has found itself in the national news, and not for good reasons.

The mayor of the city, Dean Grose, sent out an email from his personal account that showed a picture of the White House with a watermelon garden imposed as the White House lawn. The picture comes with the heading: “No Easter Egg hunt this year.”

City volunteer and local businesswoman, Keyanus Price, who is African-American, received the email, and was appalled and offended by it. It has since been talked about in the papers, CNN and other news outlets. Grose has sent out an apology, saying that he did not intend to be offensive.

There are many people who understand the connotations of watermelon with blacks in American history, and maybe there are some who don’t. The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia of Ferris State University, whose mission is to promote racial tolerance by helping people understand the historical and contemporary expressions of intolerance, gives an excellent explanation of this symbolism:

“The Jim Crow Museum itself has hundreds of images of African Americans — usually with very dark skin, blood red grinning lips and raggedy clothes — eating watermelons. These images on postcards, sheet music, ashtrays, and souvenirs are visual expressions of the stereotype of Blacks as ignorant, mindless buffoons…

“It became part of the image perpetuated by a white culture bent upon bolstering the myth of superiority by depicting the inferior race as lazy, simple-minded pickaninnies interested only in such mindless pleasures as a slice of sweet watermelon.”

Here’s the link for the full article: http://www.ferris.edu/JIMCROW/question/may08/

It was reported in the Los Angeles Times that Grose said:  “he was unaware of the racial stereotype that black people like watermelons.

He said he and Price are friends and serve together on a community youth board.

“Bottom line is, we laugh at things and I didn’t see this in the same light that she did,” Grose said. “I’m sorry. It wasn’t sent to offend her personally — or anyone — from the standpoint of the African American race.”

I find his explanation rather hard to believe. If he is unaware of the racial connotation of watermelon and blacks, then why did the “joke” depicted only watermelons in the White House lawn. Why not strawberries, squash or a mixed fruit garden? C’mon mayor, people are smarter than that.

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Can love be distilled into a formula? Can a numerical figure help you keep your marriage happy and thriving?

Dr John Gottman, a research psychologist at the University of Washington, seems to think so. Recently, I read about his work in an article on relationships.

Dr Gottman has studied marriages for over twenty years, and has discovered a formula that is almost guaranteed to make a marriage successful. In all close relationships, there will be both positive and negative interactions. Positive interactions that keep the marriage thriving include compliments, fun, shared activities, expressions of love and co-operation. But there will also be negative interactions such as disagreements, hurt feelings and complaints.

Gottman’s formula is to apply the ratio of 5:1 between positive interactions and negative interactions. That is, for every negative interaction, there needs to be five positive ones.

Gottman observes that spouses who have five time more positive interactions to every negative interaction are highly unlikely to divorce, and that marriages which are headed for divorce show slightly more negative than positive interactions.

This is an interesting theory, and one that makes sense. As in all human relationships, a positive interaction give good feelings to both the giver and the recipient, and makes the recipient more willing to take the action again.

I don’t mean to be sexist here, but I have observed that with some couples, the husband is very nice and polite with friends and visitors, but is gruff and brusque with his wife. Hm…

It also make makes me think of a negative interaction like complaining or nagging. Okay, this time it may apply more to the wife. Sometimes, when one starts complaining, the activity takes a life of its own and you just can’t stop. In fact, you yourself don’t even know where you’re going or running with your words, but you just feel compelled to go on!

But back to Dr Gottman’s easy-to-remember secret of marriage. So next time, when you want to snap at your spouse, perhaps it might help to visualize or recall the 5:1 ratio. It might go a long way in strengthening the relationship.

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Blue helps you think outside the box.

Blue helps us think outside the box.

Color affects how our mind works. I have always been interested in color psychology, and how different colors can influence our moods and feelings.

I came across this study by a team at the University of British Columbia . It was published earlier this month and it highlights how the brain reacts to the colors red and blue. Red appears to improve a person’s attention to detail while blue inspires creativity.

The participants in the study were given a series of cognitive tests, involving computer screens colored either red or blue. When the tests were done on a red screen, the participants memorized more words.

Those who used blue computer screens to perform creative works scored much higher than those who used red screens. For instance, when told to think of different uses for a brick, the red group thought of practical things like building a house, whereas the blue group came out with other imaginative uses such as using the brick to make a paperweight or a pet scratching post.

Juliet Zhu, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of British Columbia, who conducted the study with doctoral student Ravi Mehta, said in The New York Times: “If you’re talking about wanting enhanced memory for something like proofreading skills, then a red color should be used…”

But for “a brainstorming session for a new product or coming up with a new solution to fight child obesity or teenage smoking…then you should get people into a blue room.”

It’s probably impractical for most of us to find a red or blue room to work in. A more practical method is to surround ourselves with blue objects to ignite creativity and red ones for detail-oriented activities.

Personally, I find yellow to be a great color that sparks creativity and mental energy. In fact, in color psychology, yellow is associated with the sun, optimism, creativity and is said to stimulate the intellect. Even a small object, like a yellow mug or a bowl of lemons can have a positive effect.

Red helps in detail-oriented tasks.

Red helps in detail-oriented tasks.

Yellow stimulates the intellect. (Photos courtesy of Photos8.com)

Yellow stimulates the intellect. (Photos courtesy of Photos8.com)

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February feels like a month in transition. The year is still new, and we also know that it is moving fast, getting into the “meaty” part of the year.

And for a change from all the gloomy economic news that fill the newspapers these days, let’s talk about the good things about this month.

In Asia, Chinese New Year often marks February. In Singapore and Malaysia, we look forward to the long holiday break. My favorite festive food is love letters, a rolled up crispy, creamy cookie, especially ones made the old-fashioned way, on the portable charcoal stove.

Here, in the US, Chinese New Year is not a public holiday, but it marks my February too. The Malaysia Association of Southern California holds a Chinese New Year banquet every year. Malaysians, Singaporeans, Indonesians and those with ties with, or affection for, these countries celebrate together. Every year, we are entertained by a Thai duo who includes Chinese and Malay songs in their repertoire.

And every year, we clap and smile heartily when the band plays the songs “Rasa Sayang” and “Bengawan Solo”. When you are away from home, believe me, these songs have a power of their own and go a long way towards curing some homesickness.

I know many people have become somewhat cynical about Valentine’s Day with all the over-commercialization of the day. Whether one spends the day quietly or in big way, I think it’s still worth to take some time to reflect for a while, not just about romantic love, but for all kinds of love that color our lives.

The love of family and relatives, the love of friends, and the love of our animal companions. Love can be complex, and whenever you love a living thing, you take a chance of sometimes being hurt, or being disappointed. But life would be very bland without all these different kinds of love.

As in the famous quote of Gandhi: “Where there is love there is life.”

Consul General of Malaysia (based in Los Angeles) Mr Norman Muhammad celebrating with the community.

Consul General of Malaysia Mr Norman Muhammad celebrates Chinese New Year with the community in Southern California. (photo by Lee M.)

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