Hard Earned Smiles

30 Jun

When Alphonse smiles, our whole world is alright. Each smile he gives us is our sought-after prize, a reward for all the days and nights of gnashing our teeth and bleeding our hearts dry. And even for just a while, we can pretend that our lives are as ordinary as they come.

Over the past eight months, as we dealt with changes in our household one after another, Alphonse struggled. He became fearful and anxious, needy and clinging. And while his anger towards us was difficult, it was even more gut-wrenching and heartbreaking to see him hurt himself, punching his eye, boxing his ears, hitting his head on walls and tables that it sprouted unsightly lumps and awful bruises. After two ear operations and several months of constantly forcing him to wear a UFC padded helmet, Alphonse (knock on wood, I hope I don’t jinx ourselves) seems finally over the hump of self-injurious behavior. When he smiles these days, his face lights up with pure, unadulterated joy. I think he is finally happy again.

And so I share with you the smiles that make our world go around again.

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I heard this song on YouTube the other day. It’s called “Hard Earned Smile” by David LaMotte. The song spoke to me, as it reminded me of how hard we worked to earn Alphonse’s smiles this year. Allow me share them with you:

Hard Earned Smile (David La Motte)

If faces tell stories, and I think they do
There have been some hard chapters in the story of you
There’s some dark and some lonely in the lines ’round your eyes
A thousand nights’ tears, promises and lies

So we sit at the diner and talk until dawn
Lay it all on the table ’til the coffee’s all gone
All the hard people you’ve known and you’ve been
Wounded and healed and opened again

And you said it best when you played your guitar
“From where you come isn’t what you are”
I can hear the song ringing out over the miles
And there’s nothing so true as the hope in a hard earned smile

We all have our trials and our lessons to learn
If your dreams are on fire then your heart might get burned
But to choose to be strong and have courage to heal
Lends truth to your song and the hope that I feel

And you said it best when you played your guitar
“From where you come isn’t what you are”
I can hear the song ringing out over the miles
And there’s nothing so true as the hope in a hard earned smile.

~0~

Thank you for all those who prayed with us and sent us messages of hope. You are our angels. :-)

Happiness is… Old School Love, Retro Games (xxii)

5 Jun

GB 02 I’ve had a Game Boy since it was first released in the eighties. I was fortunate to have an aunt who lived in Japan so the very first one I owned was sent in as a gift for my siblings and me. She then brought home a couple more (a second fat one and a pocket version) when she came back to visit with her kids. Somehow, I ended up with all of them, perhaps because of the five of us, I was the one most addicted to them.

In my adolescence, I met a young man who shared many of my interests and obsessions. Nintendo was one of them. And while he was not my “first love” as I was not his (we were just great friends in high school), it was our shared history that led us to rediscover one another as we transitioned into young adults. Almost 34 years of friendship later, 24 of those married to each other, he and I continue to hold many of the same passions in life, Nintendo still being one of them.

When it comes to handheld consoles, I’ve owned almost all iterations of the Game Boy line. I’ve gone from the original gray, monochromatic, fat Game Boy to the Pocket and Color versions, all gifts from my favorite gaming partner. I shared the GB Advance with my eldest son because we could only afford one then (and the son wanted it so much he bombarded the North Pole with daily letters to Santa). My husband later made up for this injustice (hehehe) by giving us individual GB Advance SPs- a blue one for our son and a pearly pink one for me. Despite the many Nintendo upgrades I’ve had since then, jumping from the GB platform to the DS systems, I still have a fully functional, sleek Game Boy Micro, also A♥’s gift, tucked away in my games box for safekeeping. Just because.GB 01

Last night, when he came home, my husband handed me a small bag. Since my birthday last week, he has been handing me gifts every day. The day before last, he gave me Hello Kitty bento tools and a Blythe doll. Before that, he gave me a light blue Gameboy Advance, more dolls, and the Sims4 gaming CD. I had made him promise not to go overboard with gifts this year because I already knew what I was getting for my birthday (a trip!). Alas, he’s still a little stubborn when it comes to this. (Not that I’m complaining.)

He looked at me expectantly as I opened the bag. Normally, I like to indulge his enthusiasm with some heartfelt squeals but I was a bit surprised when I saw what was inside. It was a fat Gameboy, one very much like the old one we still have in one of our bottom drawers. I looked at him funny, my smile turning upside down.

“Try it out, try it out,” he insisted. “Turn it on and see,” he egged.

And so I did. This is what I found:

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This is an original 1989 Gameboy model DMG-01 modded with a screen that came from the Gameboy Advance SP AGS-101. (Insert squeals here.) My husband was right. As soon as Tetris came on, I could not put the Game Boy down!

“I still have my Tetris moves,” I bragged to my chuckling husband. Pretty soon, I was all praises for his ingenious gift. Now you know why my gaming partner is my best friend. He knows me really well. :-)

This mod plays Game Boy and Game Boy Color games. (Hello Kitty Cube Frenzy, here I come!) While its insides are GBA, it does not play GB Advance games for two reasons; one, the visual window can not accommodate the entire screen and two, its port only allows the insertion of basic Nintendo cartridges. The contrast slider no longer works (there is no need for it) but everything else does. The speakers are amazingly crisp and clear, loud too. For me, however, the second coolest thing about it is that it no longer uses batteries. The genius who modded it, a young friend of my husband who goes by the name Hai Hai (thank you!), gutted the innards and replaced it with the SP’s motherboard and rechargeable battery.

For the first time in weeks, I was able to put down my 3DS last night to play something other than Story of Seasons. Lost in the game, I found myself humming to the Tetris theme all night. (That song- “Tetris Type A theme,” a mesmerizing version of the 19th century Russian folk tune Korobeiniki– how do I even get rid of Tetris LSS when it’s been playing in my mind for years?)

Once in a while, however, I paused my game and reached over the other side of our bed to give my gaming partner a kiss. It felt strangely comforting to share these moments with the best friend I grew up with, the very same person I shared so many other Game Boy moments with. And it felt absolutely right.

Old school love and retro games, what’s not to celebrate?

John Lewis in the Philippines

27 May

I first stepped inside a John Lewis store on a short visit to London in June last year. My husband and I were meeting some London-based high school friends that day and they suggested meeting somewhere near the Olympic Park. What I didn’t know was that Westfield Stratford City, an imposing shopping center in East London, houses a large, multi-storey John Lewis with a great view of the park. And while the Olympic Park was, in itself, a great tourist destination and made for some really memorable pictures with dear friends, my first visit to a real brick-and-mortar John Lewis store was no less as exciting. I only hoped that my next visit to a John Lewis would no longer need a visa and a 15-hour plane ride.

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John Lewis is here! SM does have it all for you! (Photo credit: Anthony Cuaycong)

As if my wishes were the stuff of precognition, UK’s John Lewis finally made its way to the country last Thursday, May 21, via the inauguration of the John Lewis Department at SM Home (Level 5) in SM Makati. Officials from both John Lewis and the SM Group, as well as from the British Embassy in Manila, were in attendance for the momentous occasion.

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In this picture (from left to right): Ms. Katie Jordan, Head of International Development, John Lewis; Mr. Trevor Lewis, Deputy Head of Mission of British Embassy Manila; Mr. Jorge Mendiola, President, SM Retail: Ms. Pascale Jimenez, VP-Business Development, SM Retail; Ms. Louise Jones, Manager- International Development, John Lewis; and Ms. Asuncion Yap, VP-Operations, SM Retail (Photo credit: Anthony Cuaycong)

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Mr. Trevor Lewis of British Embassy Manila in his welcome remarks (Photo credit: Anthony Cuaycong)

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Ms. Katie Jordan, Head of International Development of John Lewis, with a brief overview of JL’s notable history (Photo credit: Anthony Cuaycong)

This partnership between two retail giants took more than a year in the making. That SM prides itself in providing Filipinos with affordable yet great quality products aligns it closely to John Lewis’ corporate identity, making this collaboration a dream come true for local consumers.

Aside from the recently opened John Lewis at SM Makati, John Lewis Departments will soon be found in 10 other SM locations- Aura Premier, Megamall, Mall of Asia, North EDSA, and Southmall in Metro Manila, Cebu and Lanang (Davao)- both major provincial hubs, and three Our Home stores. This move to the country follows its successful introduction into the Asian market in 2012 through its partnership with South Korea’s Shinsegae Department stores. To date, seven of these concessions are in operation, selling products from John Lewis’ exclusive furnishing lines. The success of this joint venture has prompted John Lewis’ expansion into other Asian markets, with the Philippines’ SM Retail and Singapore’s Robinsons (to launch in July 2015) as its handpicked partners in these collaborations. It is noteworthy to mention that the Philippines is only the brand’s second international market.

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High quality, well-priced bed and bath products- affordable luxury for everyone! (Photo credit: Anthony Cuaycong)

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Tasteful home decor and luxurious beddings are hallmarks of this  wonderful line. (Photo credit: Anthony Cuaycong)

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JL sales personnel will assist customers in choosing products that will fit their home and lifestyle. (Photo credit: Anthony Cuaycong)

Each John Lewis Department of these major SM operations will feature own-brand home products in a 300-1000 square feet dedicated selling and display area. Like South Korea’s shop-in-shop model, the JL-SM partnership focuses on bringing the British lifestyle through bed, bath, tableware, and home accessories. More than that, however, John Lewis brings with it its “Never Knowingly Undersold” policy, a guarantee of service, competitive pricing, and quality which has been the cornerstone of its business since 1925.

The first John Lewis store opened its doors to London in 1864. It was a humble enterprise that grew from a single haberdashery to a 4-billion-pound business. One hundred fifty years later, it continues to grow, innovate, and open new doors to the world. The Philippines welcomes you, John Lewis, with open arms! Mabuhay!

No Means No

20 May

These days, when Alphonse says NO, we have to believe he means it.

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Communication is difficult for individuals with autism and Alphonse is not an exception. For those on the tail end of the spectrum- those whose disabilities are considered severe or profound- like Alphonse, speech is a most challenging obstacle. It is a huge credit to his ABA manager/teacher, Teacher Rod, that he even learned how to give “yes” or “no” answers by nodding or by shaking his head. But perhaps because the act of nodding is easier than moving the head sideways, Alphonse’s default answer to everything is “yes.”

In the beginning, we tried to find things he would object to just to emphasize the difference between a “yes” and a “no.” With food being such a strong reinforcer in his case, we thought of introducing bitter things such as ampalaya (bitter gourd) to elicit a negative reaction and associate this with the gesture and the word “no.” Weeks later, however, he began enjoying the taste of bitter gourd and we lost a reinforcer to his voracious appetite. After that, we tried chili peppers and hot sauce and even those became enjoyable to him after a while.

We had pretty much given up on ever teaching him to make “yes” or “no” choices until I inadvertently discovered he hated having his eyebrows trimmed. The pair of tweezers I use to trim and shape eyebrows scared him witless and he would shake his head and push my hands away. Of all negative reinforcers, this elicited a consistent “No” over multiple trials.

When Alphonse finally found his “no,” he began using this in earnest, answering us in the negative even with repeated questioning. Throwing in another question that is answered by a definite, unequivocal “yes” (like “Do you want bubbles?”) eliminated the uncertainty of his disagreement. I was so proud of this milestone that I whipped out the tweezers every opportunity I could get just to see him say “No.” Pretty soon, he could answer “yes” or “no” when asked if anything hurt (we go through a checklist, point to the body part, and asked if it was “ouchie”) and if he needed medicine for it. What a milestone it was!

Sometimes, however, even I forget that Alphonse’s choices do matter. This morning, after breakfast, I decided to trim his beard and clean his face. I dabbed some Cure aqua gel to exfoliate his skin and gently rubbed in circular motions to massage the product. When I got to his nose, I asked permission to rub harder.

“Alphonse, can Mama rub your nose?”
Alphonse shook his head. No.

“I need to rub your nose to clean it, Alphonse.”
More shaking of head, harder this time. A definite No.

“Well, Mama says she needs to do it, okay? So just be good.”
And so I did, completely ignoring his hands pushing me away.

I saw him look at me as a flash of anger darkened his eyes. Then, he began to pull my hair with both hands. He screeched loudly as he tore my hair from their roots.

I said nothing as I waited for the nannies to remove his hands from my head. I grabbed my hair by the roots to prevent them from being pulled but I was no match for the violence of his angry hands. My scalp stung in places but I was also still grateful that Alphonse had not employed full force. I was chastened.

I knew it was my fault. I knew that I had pushed him too far, that I had failed to respect his choice. He had tried to communicate his needs with me and I ignored them willfully. Sometimes, I forget that he does know what he wants. Sometimes, I forget that even the most well-meaning mothers have no absolute right over their children’s choices, disabled or not.

Later, as I apologized, I asked him if he was still angry with me.  He shook his head and looked at me kindly.
No, Mama. I could almost hear him say.

“Do you still love Mama?” I asked timidly. He nodded. Yes. And then he bent to kiss my hair.

As Alphonse slowly finds his voice, I have to remind myself to be more sensitive and respectful of his choices. Whether I am ready for this change or not, his ability to choose for himself- however simple these choices may be- means he continues to change and evolve. I know he cannot be my baby forever.

I have to let him grow. It is time.

Weekend Cinema

26 Apr

We caught Avengers: Age of Ultron on its first day last Wednesday at TriNoma. My husband and I were able to drag Alex along for the screening, enticing him with the promise of barbecue popcorn and Brothers burgers. Unfortunately, while we enjoyed the movie, both my husband and I felt the sound system at Cinema 1 was off that night. For some reason, it wasn’t loud or clear enough so we ended up missing some dialogue. Well, either the cinema sound system was on the fritz that night or our hearing is going, ouch!

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The IMAX schedule at SM North EDSA this weekend

Anyway, we wanted to watch it again, this time thinking of going all-out with the IMAX immersive experience. Yes, the price of tickets would require us to fork over an additional P200 for each of us (regular cinema’s P250 compared to IMAX’s P450). And yes, we knew that unlike, say, The Dark Knight Rises, Avengers: Age of Ultron was not filmed using IMAX cameras and was simply converted to 3D postproduction. But just imagining that humongous screen- all 15 meters of it- was enough to quiet our second thoughts.

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As if that was not enough, we learned that the IMAX Theater at SM North EDSA would have 24-hour screenings for this weekend only. Now, how could we say no to that?

Still, the last time my husband and I stayed up late for a midnight first screening of a movie, we were too cross-eyed with sleep to actually enjoy it. So considering our aging body clocks, we opted for what we thought would make more sense: an early morning screening. Five am early, to be exact.

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I’ve never been to the malls that early, truth to tell, and it felt eerily like being in a scene from Dawn of the Dead (both the 1978 George Romero original and the 2004 remake), where the survivors of a zombie apocalypse hide out in the mall. A♥ and I walked leisurely, amazed to have the mall almost to ourselves. While walking, I quickly scanned the empty stores for possible hiding places, figuring that I’d probably head first to the supermarket for food anyway. Ah, but I digress.

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The ground floor of SM North EDSA was empty at that hour. (Brain thinking: too many glass walls and zombies can see you!)

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Heading to the theaters on the second floor

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Have you ever seen this flight of stairs without people? Nope!

There weren’t so many people for Sunday ‘s five am screening, which was to our liking. I’d have thought more people of our age group (with our unusual predisposition for waking up early) would be there but before the family seated behind us came, A♥ and I seemed to be the only “old folks.”

The IMAX experience of Avengers: Age of Ultron certainly lived up to our expectations. The sound system was a huge improvement over our first date with Avengers:AOU, allowing us to laugh with the punchlines and double entendres. The larger screen was perfect for detailing action, blowing them up in full detail and rich color. If you’re watching Avengers:AOU before its run finishes, I’d fully recommend doing it the IMAX way. The extra money is definitely worth it.

As far as dates go, this one was unusual in that we’ve never ever taken in a movie at 5am before. A♥ and I have done many things together in our almost 24 years of marriage and I guess when you’ve been with someone far longer than you have been without them, it’s easy to take the things you do together for granted. Watching movies has always been our thing because my husband is a movie addict.

That we continue to enjoy the same things we did many years ago tells me that while many things may change, there are also things that stay the same. Thank God for that. :-)

The Summer of Alphonse’s Smiles

22 Apr

My friend Mayet dropped in on us with a surprise for Alphonse the other day. It was one of my son’s favorites, a homemade flour-free rellenong bangus (deboned stuffed milkfish) that could be fried easily for his afternoon snack times. I knew Alphonse would appreciate the visit so I dragged Mayet inside to say hello, and lo and behold! Alphonse was in his birthday suit, heehee.

I can’t blame the boy. It started to sizzle in the city late in March, with temperatures slowly rising to the mid-3o’s (°Celsius). The other day, we hit 37°C, with no respite in sight. Yesterday was a degree cooler and we had unexpectedly strong rain (with hail in some parts of the island) so we slept better than we have of late. Still, we expect higher temperatures in the next couple of weeks as summer goes into overdrive. The boys and I are hunkering down for the long, hot summer. We stay in darkness or under the shade during the day so we can cut down electricity costs. We settle for electric fans during the day, using only airconditioning at night before Alphonse goes to bed. With a cold drink in hand and the almost-daily afternoon halo-halo, we manage to survive this heat wave one day at a time.

Alphonse does have it better than us. While Alex and I make do with fans and mist sprayers, he has a mini inflatable pool. We can’t set up his large pool (the one big enough to accommodate four large adults) because we need to conserve water so this will have to do for now. At least it gets him cooled down. Water play has always been his favorite activity next to blowing bubbles. :-) alphonse in pool We’ve had to let his hair grow a while now because of his ear problems but with the heat bearing down on us, it made sense to give him a short buzzed cut. He’s been tugging at his curls often these days, so even with the open wound on his ear, we went ahead and got him a hair cut. Alphonse summer 01 Judging by the pictures, he enjoyed the visit to the barber. His dad said he kept smiling and giggling the whole time. Props to his barber too, for getting it done really fast and without a fuss. alphonse summer 02 As much as the weather oppresses us with its searing heat, summer has its good moments. When the weather cools down in the evening, the boys gravitate to our bedroom for shared airconditioning. I like these times best, when the boys spend time together. Alex is often preoccupied with his usual pursuits- music, computers, chatting with friends- and Alphonse is so very far behind his big brother’s interests that finding them a common activity has always been difficult. There are times, however, when nothing needs to be said or done, when all that is needed is a touch or a hug to reconnect and strengthen the bonds of brotherhood.

I love that my boys, despite their ages, still have these moments. Autism, for all its difficulties and challenges, does have its gifts and this is one of them- a loving look that passes between siblings, even when both are fully grown. alphonse summer 03 If we continue to measure our lives by Alphonse’s struggles and successes, we do so because we are all he has. We make no apologies for that anymore.

This summer, just like the others that have gone before it, is another chapter we save gladly in our memories. We will draw strength and inspiration from it when the good times become difficult to remember. And until the darkness comes, we will soak in this bright, beautiful world that is Alphonse’s smile and be grateful that the light is here for a while.

Sylvanian Page Update!

6 Apr

SF Cleaning TipsI am reposting the Care tips from PH Sylvanian Families in this blog to make it easier to find. Mobile Facebook, unfortunately, does not make accessing notes easy for fans of the page. I’ve added a new section in my Sylvanian pages called ” Sylvanian Play Tips: Collecting, Organizing, and Taking Care of Your Sylvanian Families Toys.”  You can either click this link to go there or click the tab and scroll to the subpage.

If you have any more suggestions and helpful tips, please feel free to comment so I may add to the lists.

Happy Sylvanian collecting!

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