Wednesday, December 23, 2009

My Christmas 2009


Two more days and it's Christmas. In the past (and I mean that other lifetime when I was single), this would be around that time when I would go into 'melancholy mode' and simmer in my pseudo depressive state. The routine looks something like this: I would wait until everyone in the house is either gone or off to bed. Then I would turn off all the lights at home and turn on the Christmas tree lights. I would then sit or lie down on the couch facing the tree while playing all the sentimental Christmas songs I can find. For the most part, I normally play different versions of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" over and over again since to me, this is the most beautifully melancholic holiday song. As I listen to the song/s, I try to think of the past year and how lonely I've been for not having a love life. I can guarantee you that 100% of the time, those 'Christmas Tree moments' were all about pining for someone who I thought was my perfect 'destiny'. Now whether or not that person was real or imaginary is a different matter altogether.  My point is that it was really all about desiring, expecting, whining about what I didn't have in my life.

Well, news flash!....Old habits do die hard..somehow. So last night, I decided to keep true to my semi-masochistic tradition.  I turned off all the lights in the house save for the Christmas tree lights, played my medley as usual and sat on the couch.  Something was very different though, this time around.  I found it hard to want, expect, whine and look sadly at the past year because this time, I felt my hands were so full.  I had AJ's hand in one, and held Noah's with the other.  It didn't make sense to complain because everything I truly need I knew I already have.  

It's very cliche to say that we need to appreciate what we already have instead of looking at the things we don't have, in order to be happy.  Much as I would like to disprove that kind of thinking, I really can't.  Though I am no stranger to wanting and insatiability (as I've said countless times on this blog site), and there are so many things that I still do want and feel lacking in my life, at the end of the day, there is really just one thing that fills my heart and spirit to the brim.  It's the fact that when AJ, Noah and I lie down together in bed, I sincerely feel that everything I could ever need is right there on that bed. These are two people who love me to the core and whom I am able to love deeply as well.  We have our health, we are together and happy with utmost simplicity. Believe me when I say that those very basic things do bring unfathomable joy. After all, the only real deal and ultimate bottom line is and will always be 'LOVE'. And what better time to celebrate love than Christmas time?  


For most of us who celebrate Christmas, may we not forget what we truly are celebrating.  It isn't the festive lights, the gifts, the crazy spending, parties and feasts.  All those are utterly peripheral.  Truly at the center of it all is the birth of Christ; our Lord's gift of coming to be with us, to sacrifice, and eventually suffer, all for our salvation...all so we may realize the meaning of LOVE.  


Let me end this blog, my last blog for this year, with one of my favorite quotes on love...


For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation. ----- Rainer Maria Rilke
                                                                                                                                        


  

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

My Fairy Grandmother


I've been thinking about Mommy Rita a lot. She's my maternal grandmother and my only living grandparent. She's 83. In the past months, I've had countless dreams involving her and a few weeks ago, I remember lying in bed, remembering memories of her and then found myself silently crying.

At 83, Mommy Rita (or Mommy Ritz as I call her), is not doing so well as she has been suffering from intermediate dementia. But it's not just because of this that I often feel sad thinking about her but perhaps more because I just plain miss her. My Lola (Tagalog for "grandmother") is one remarkable human being, and I say that with much objectivity. There are so many amazing adjectives I can use to describe her but if you asked me to come up with just one, I'd probably say that above all else, she is courageous. That seems to sum up all the wonderful things that she is.

She lived through one war, married quite early and to my American grandfather at that. To a young Filipino woman with very humble rural roots, going through an interracial marriage in the 1940's must have been daunting. But I can imagine my Lola thinking, 'Bring it on'. She is that kind of woman. I remember as young teenagers, my sister and I were both saying how nothing, no task, is ever too daunting and unmanageable for our Lola. We never really saw her get overwhelmed by anything...from a seemingly insurmountable mess in the house, to catching snakes in the farm. She does worry about family though and tends to be overly concerned about other people's safety all the time. However for that, she turns to prayer. Actually, I suspect that prayer is at the cornerstone of her being and this is probably where she gets much of her courage from. This I will always treasure and remember about her.

Mommy Ritz is fearless in the kitchen. In my mind, she will always be the most amazing cook and there seemed to be no dish too difficult, too unmanageable or too tedious and taxing for her. I think I have grown old associating her with 'comfort food'. How can I not when growing up, seeing her, having her around simply translated to 'great meals', 'feasts' and 'wonderful treats'? She definitely influenced my love for food immeasurably because with Mommy Ritz around, all your senses seem to experience Nirvana with her culinary concoctions. As she gets busy in the kitchen, you get lured to the stove as you smell something really appetizing, only for you to find that it's just plain fried pork slices...nothing really fancy. Every time we would stay at her house in the province, you can expect great tasting meals from start to finish. And speaking of finish, every meal always ends with some amazing dessert. I will forever associate the smell of fresh lime with Mommy Ritz. This is because she makes the most wonderful Leche Flan topped with specks of lime zest which gives it a hint of freshness and is a great complement to the richness and decadence of the flan. She also makes the most unique and mouth-watering Tamarind candy which, unlike the ordinary ones sold at most Filipino stores, are sweet and seedless! She mixes the tamarind with mashed 'kamote'/ sweet potato and I'm sure there's a lot of love that goes into rolling them into half-inch balls that make them so sweet and addictive! Another unique dessert I will always remember her by is her 'Minatamis na Kasoy' (Sweetened Cashew Fruit). I have never eaten that elsewhere but at my grandmother's home and the chewy texture of the cashew fruit coupled with its sweetness makes it quite memorable. And there is no getting over my Lola's 'Sopas' (Filipino Chicken Macaroni Soup)...very tasty and creamy, and buttery at the top as she not only saut├ęs everything in butter but also drops in an additional tablespoon or two when it's about to be done! Yummmmm.......I can spend forever talking about my Lola's culinary masterpieces but I know you get the picture!

I'm now reminded of something Maria Shriver said on an interview regarding her father who has Alzheimer's disease. She said, "...all she can do is love and accept him for who he is now, not who he was or who she wants him to be." Often times we are consumed by the grief brought about by missing the person's old self. After all, Alzheimer's does that..and dementia in my grandmother's case. However, we must not forget to celebrate the person that is still around us and that being in the moment, still celebrating the same loved one that we have in front of us, is the right approach, the ideal frame of mind. This is all much more easily said than done, I know. This is very difficult even for me, who's only a grand daughter. What more for my mom who has known her, the great and amazing person that my grandmother is, for much longer?

But let this blog entry be about a celebration of who Mommy Ritz is, and not a lamentation over the passing of the happy and bountiful times.  This is a celebration of who she always has been and forever will be, and not just of what she used to be able to do and give to us.  Maybe that is why we are blessed with the capacity for memory...not so much for our own remembrance of our selves, but for the remembrance of those who have touched our lives so that we can remember for them when they can no longer do the same for themselves.  In this way, their legacy lives on, way beyond the capacity of their bodies, their minds.  At the same time, as we remember, we are continuously enriched by the memory of these great beings.

I am remembering my Lola.  I will always remember the sound of her ring when she knocks on our gate and how excited it made us all feel knowing that she'll be around for a few days to visit.  I will always remember how she took care of us, pampered us and also kept us busy during all those summer breaks my siblings and I spent at her house in the province .  I will always remember how she tolerated my insane fixation with celebrities like Michael Jackson, Wham, Spandau Ballet, Greg Louganis and others despite our age gap.  I will always remember how she remained calm during those times I felt so sick and just prayed by my bedside as she comforted me the way she knew how.  I will always remember that small wind-up toy she gave me one Christmas morning when I was a very young child and how, to this date, that remains to be the single specific childhood Christmas memory I have.  I will always remember her generosity not only towards us, her family, but also to her community.  Above all else, for as long as my own memory will allow it, I will remember her unfaltering faith in God which I am certain is the source of her courage even in these most trying times in her life now.  

Though she may feel lost in her own memory, lost amidst all that is going on around her these days, I am confident that a lot of people, the countless souls she has touched, will remember for her and be her anchor.  

Monday, November 30, 2009

JOY PAGE MANUEL at 36

Around two weeks ago, I celebrated my 36th birthday.  I thought that there's no better way to mark the occasion than to reflect on the things I've learnt and finally took to heart just this past year....not a decade or a year ago, but just this past one.  Just as a fetus painstakingly develops inside the mother's womb, so should all of us each year within the caring wombs of our respective lives experience growth no matter how subtle.  I now believe that it is important that each year, each celebration of another year of life lived, brings us some added value and equip us further for future experiences.  It may not always be an enjoyable journey, just as I'm sure fetuses are not always having a grand time during gestation.  We may feel like drowning at certain points but the beauty of it all, is that each birthday we reach should also be a celebration of that first gasp for breath, that first cry of declaration to the world that we are here, we have arrived and equipped for what life throws our way no matter how objectively inadequate and subjectively insecure we are.

I have thought long and hard for those foremost salient lessons or realizations this past year and this is my list:

If you can't beat them, join them; If you can't (or refuse to) join them, go form your own!
I've been beating myself up for not finding enough friends I can be close to and have something real with here in the U.S.  I can't entirely say that I'm guilty of consciously isolating myself because I know in my heart I've taken steps to go out of my comfort zone just so I can meet new people and hopefully find what I'm looking for.  Unfortunately, and as expected, things weren't as easy as they seemed.  (Nothing ever is!).  It was difficult finding like-minded people who I can easily relate with.  At some point it felt as if I was either not American enough, or not even Filipino enough, if that makes sense.  

The thing that makes friendships difficult is that you need to have some common history, some common ground from which to start and spring.  And since I am fairly new to this society, having conversations most people find almost automatic and totally taken for granted just to break the ice actually need extra effort from me.  It's like entering a room for a quiz where everyone else was born with the required knowledge whereas I'm the only one that required some studying.  For instance, I'm not familiar with the schools and their reputation here when people converse about their alma matter.  Talking about geography and directions are even a bit alien to me sometimes.  Heck I did not even grow up being able to pinpoint in a flash where North, South, East or West is.  It's simply not how Filipinos orient themselves and give directions.  (This is also precisely why I am filled with puzzlement when the GPS unit in our car utters "head northwest"....Duh?!?)

On more than one occasion, I have felt sorry for myself for feeling left out.  I see other people around me forming cliques and I remained an outsider.  I've even reached a point where I started questioning myself, my own personality, likability, and ability to relate to people.  I kept asking myself if there was really something wrong with me or is it them.  Finally the zen in me kicked in and I realized that I was likely asking the wrong question; that I was wasting time figuring something that did not really matter.  Of course it's Me!....AND Them as well!  The combination just didn't work out.

So what was left for me to do after being cognizant of this?  I needed to start my own group of friends  instead of beg to be included in one.  This way, I knew I can filter better who I can really nurture worthwhile friendships with.  If something out there doesn't fit, why force it?  Go create one that suits you perfectly.  It will take serious hard work but in the end, the camaraderie is always worth it.  At this age, I feel I can do without further social rejection.  I think I've had enough of that in my teens!
  
Every opportunity for choice is a pill for my mental health.
This past year, one of my most valuable realizations was how my self-assertion skills were proportionate to my sense of fulfillment and mental health.  Given the unplanned and unexpected nature of my migration, at some point it felt as if things were just passing me by and that I was losing control over certain aspects of my life.  At times it also felt as if I was losing my sense of self, with all my previous statuses shed and new ones surfacing. The most effective remedy to this sense of unease (or more like 'dis-ease', to borrow a term from Lou Marinoff in his book Therapy for the Sane, 2003), as I've found, is to keep practicing choice.  You see, with every choice we make, we are actually making a statement and that statement is "This is me; this is who I am".  When we make choices, no matter how seemingly insignificant, we define our  boundaries.  With  every choice we make, we are saying "This is where I stand...not there, but here.  This is my preference and this shows who I am".  


It was priceless to realize that making choices strengthens one's sense of identity, and that lack of self-assertion can, in turn, make you miserable. Being a migrant who has had to shed much of her previous statuses, roles, constant contact with friends, family and basically everything that defined her and showed the world who she really is, the opportunity to make choices was all that was left for me.  I could no longer allow anybody or any circumstance to rob me of that.  At 36, you simply cannot undermine the importance of knowing who you are and letting the world see that.

Notwithstanding all my complaints and tendency for insatiability, I do like my life.
This past year was especially difficult for many families here in the U.S. due to the economic recession.  Financial insecurity felt overwhelming at times for no matter where you went, whoever you talked with, nobody could say for sure that they would still have a source of income the next day.  The most beautiful blessing amidst all this fear and anxiety was that everyone was forced to re-evaluate their values and experienced a deeper sense of gratitude for still having those that truly mattered in their lives---family, friends and the basic necessities most of us still had the privilege of possessing.  


Every time I stepped back to 'take a look' at my life, all I felt was that sense of gratitude.  Everyone in  the family is healthy.  I have a husband who loves me and is an excellent and reliable partner and father to our son.  My son is developing normally and gives me joy every single day despite the constant exhaustion I feel.  We have a house that is just the right size for us and our lifestyle, and is affordable that we didn't have to worry so much about the mortgage crisis.  We are able to enjoy the simple comforts of life and really, how much more does one need....really need?  What I've been most grateful for is the fact that we have been able to survive with one salary.  Yes, we do wish we had more savings and maybe way more extra money for more 'stuff'.  But those are all just that....'stuff', 'things'.  All of those are peripheral.  The thing that matters to me most is that what we earn is enough to allow me to spend every single day with my son and witness every moment of his early life unfold.  Given my personality, I simply cannot picture it any other way.  Staying and working from home full time to raise one's child is a choice, and it was, and still is, a choice available to me.  For this, I will always be grateful, to both my husband and God.

There is nothing that touches my spirit most than acts of generosity.  
Whether it's my own or others extending themselves to me, nothing makes my spirit soar more than to witness generosity in action.  It's a deep joy that you know will forever change you and how you relate to the world.  Generosity can be a sharing of one's possessions, time or energy and which ever it is, it is simply a sharing of your self to others.  Noah recently asked me what our food donations were for and why we give.  The simplest answer I could give was "Because we can".  I think this is the essence of generosity.  It really does not matter how much you have, how much you can give or spare.  The only thing that counts is that you have the ability to give and there is always something to give to others.  We always CAN give.  Be it a sincere word of encouragement or praise, an expression of sympathy, kindness and support, an act of unexpected thoughtfulness, or actual material things that another person needs more than you, the intrinsic rewards of giving are priceless.  I suppose the reason I view generosity so highly is because it is an act that acknowledges our common humanity.  Any act of giving, to me, always invokes your higher self; that spirit of love and concern that governs our being.  When I see genuine acts of generosity, I simply cannot help but believe that we all have it in us to make life (and the world) better.  In other words, generosity plants in me such seeds of hope...and that brings me unfathomable joy.    

Monday, November 2, 2009

Pork Feast

For all you pork lovers out there, here's a good one!


I accidentally found this recipe online while I was searching for an interesting, but not too complicated, way of cooking pork shoulder.  You see, I've never dealt with this cut before but when I saw it on sale at the supermarket for 99 cents a pound, I couldn't resist purchasing this gigantic and intimidating-looking meat.  I just thought you can't go wrong with something that's bone-in and with a beautiful layer of fat on top.  I knew it was going to be flavorful and moist.  And did I mention that the skin that's left on this meat made me drool as it summoned images of freshly cooked 'chicharon' (fried pork skin) or 'lechon kawali' (crispy pan-fried roasted pork)?  


After taking this beauty home, I decided that I can cut a portion of it to use for other Filipino recipes like Batchoy Tagalog perhaps, and some more extra small pieces just for sauteing with some vegetables in the future.  All this went back in the freezer.  Money saved!


Then I was still left with a huge chunk of the shoulder and decided to cook it the Jamie Oliver way.  The ingredients are few and easy to find.  The only two difficult things about this recipe are (1) the scouring of the skin and fat layers for salting, as you need an extremely sharp and pointed knife; and (2) the long wait since the recipe takes 6 hours to cook....yes, you read it right....6 long hours.  I am telling you, though, it's worth the wait!  By the fourth hour, your kitchen will really start filling up with the aroma of the pork.  By the fifth hour, when you take it out of the oven to add the vegetables in the pan, you will be sorely tempted to just jump right in and start devouring it.  The pork is practically ready at this point and it will be extremely tender that you will see parts of it beginning to shred.  


When I took it out of the oven last night with one more hour to go, I admit I made some modifications to the recipe.  After roasting for 4 1/2 hours and spooning all of the fat out of the roasting pan (and saved it, of course!), I placed the pork back in the pan and broiled it on high for about 3 to 5 minutes.  I did this to make the skin more brown and crispy.  After this, the skin will look irresistible but be strong and try to look away.  Look away AND walk away to grab your vegetables and all the fat / drippings that you set aside.  Lift the pork shoulder out of the pan again and do this carefully as it may shred and break into pieces.  Place all the vegetables on the bottom of the pan and pour in all the fat.  I saw no need to save any liquids for the gravy since I wasn't intending on making it.  I felt the drippings and the vegetables were going to be fabulous enough to eat with rice, the Filipino way!  That's just me.  You can of course follow the recipe to a "T".  Finally, I let the pork sit on top of everything and placed the pan back in the oven for another hour, uncovered.   


 









After one more hour in the oven with the vegetables, I promise it will be heavenly.  When mine got done last night, the pork was so tender it was melting in my mouth.  The garlic cloves that roasted with their skins on became buttery and sweet.  There was just a hint of flavor from the laurel leaves that added an interesting depth of flavor to the dish.  The saltiness of the pork mostly rested on the crunchy top layer while the meaty parts just had a mellow flavor to them.  


Well, enough said.  Here's the link to the recipe and I hope you enjoy it as much as our family did!  I've gotten so hungry just describing it that I think I need to have more of it now.    


Monday, October 19, 2009

The Gift of Nothing

Noah and I were watching 'Curious George' one morning when I was struck by something that the Man in the Yellow Hat uttered.  He was in the process of teaching George about the concept of numbers when he realized that, though George had successfully learnt so many numbers, he had no idea what 'zero' meant.  The Man in the Yellow Hat said---

"I thought I was teaching you everything.  I forgot 'nothing'".
That was an epiphany for me.  Parents spend so much time, effort and material resources to teach their children every conceivable lesson, whether it's to equip them academically or for practicality's sake.  But then I began to wonder how many parents really do take the time to teach the concept of 'nothingness' in its different facets?  I am not referring to the mere abstract idea of non-existence but instead am more concerned with the concept of being able to live with, and appreciate 'nothingness' in daily life, in the mundane.

Have we been taught how to live with no, or very little possessions, for instance?  In this modern age when most of us are so used to having, so used to accumulating way beyond what we need, have we considered living a much simpler life?  Are we prepared to cope with 'having nothing'?  With the younger generations, especially in the more developed societies, I've observed a remarkable sense of entitlement and insatiability that overwhelm and puzzle me at times.  I often ask myself how such individuals cope when they don't get what they want and think they deserve.  I wonder if they were ever socialized either by their parents,  or some other significant other in their lives,  to be accepting of defeat, of being empty handed and still be able to graciously move on.  Are we teaching our children enough about 'not having' or has it been all about 'something', 'wanting', 'possessing'?  Do our children know how to give and let go, or do they only know how to open their arms when they receive?

Do we teach our children about the value of silence, saying nothing, not speaking?  We often hear about encouraging speech and expression.  We reward and value assertion.  We like making our presence known by speaking out and some equate power or leverage with how much they say and how loud they can say it.  But wisdom tells us that there is also much power in silence.  Sometimes, all we need is a pause, a break in the cacophony that surrounds us, to afford us more clarity.  Sometimes silence also says more than words and sends an even more powerful message.  And sometimes we need to silence ourselves to hear another person's truth and in the process, validate their spirit.  It is in that kind of empowering silence that we find authentic power for ourselves.

Do we teach our children about the value of doing nothing, being still?  I know that sounds contrary to the emphasis most cultures place on productivity.  However, we all know that balance is of utmost importance.  I am just at a loss sometimes when I watch our children perpetually jumping from one activity to the next.  I see families who are horribly beyond exhaustion and yet still flood every hour of their days with countless activities and social engagements as if it were some incurable compulsion.  Do we really need all that?  Do our children really, genuinely thrive in such hectic environments?  Are all these activities and the stresses that go with having to cram all these demands into a child's daily schedule really nourishing them, or are we breeding toxicity?  I am not proposing that children be idle and confined at home.  I am merely suggesting that we keep these things in check and as the adult, that it is our responsibility to ensure that our young ones are not drowning in such a fast-paced life that they no longer know what it means to be still.  We cannot lose sight of our responsibility to also teach the value of slowing down.  Anything that goes too fast, wears out much quickly as well.  And the faster we go, the less likely we are able to see the details in things and appreciate that which surrounds us.

Finally, are we teaching our children enough about the value of being alone, having nobody else around but themselves?  Yes, we teach our children about friendships, being kind, social and pleasant towards others; the value of getting along, forging alliances, building relationships.  But what about one's relationship to one's self?  I believe that there is nothing greater or more important than that.  Each of us needs to be equipped with confronting our own selves.  Believing that someone else will always be there for or around us is an illusion.  Believing that in every second and ultimately, in the end, we can really only count on our selves to be there with us, is clarity.        

There is much richness to be gained in nothingness.  Contrary to the despair and general negativity often times associated with it, I choose to believe that nothingness is replete with possibilities.





Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Alone Again...Naturally





I have always loved airports.  The coming and going of people, to and from different destinations, all with different stories to tell.  I've always found it exhilarating and thoroughly fascinating, as I wonder what story lies behind the suitcases and the hurried foot steps.  To me, they all spell out countless possibilities and I think there's something profoundly seductive in that.  As of late though, I've come to realize that the Chicago airports, the O'Hare and Midway to be specific, have become the valleys of both deep joy and despair for me.

You see, I've grown to accept that for the most part, my life story now is about leaving or being left...repeatedly.  Since migrating, I've had to adjust to the reality that I only see a few of my family and some of my closest friends once a year, IF I'm lucky.  As such, going to these airports ultimately spell out either eager excitement when picking up family members who come to visit me, OR dreaded isolation when it's time to bring them back for a flight to Manila or wherever home is.  

Just two weekends ago, Mom had to head back home after a five-month visit. She surprised us when she came over in May and her arrival that day remains to be one of the joyous moments in my life.  I thought it was an apparition when I saw her standing in our dining room.  Thanks to my husband, the whole surprise was just perfectly orchestrated!

For the past five months, I had Mom assist me in everything, from plain household chores, to child-rearing, and even with trying to keep my sanity (in more ways than one!).  For five months, I was able to have more breaks during the day.  I was able to enjoy meals without rushing to Noah in between.  I didn't have to worry so much about cooking because meals were always ready and my stove kept churning out delightful home cooked Filipino dishes.  And did I mention that when I washed clothes, they just magically came out either folded or ironed?  In truth, even without all those perks, just her plain presence in the house felt reassuring to me.  It was like being allowed to exhale freely after a long period of having to hold your breath and perpetually rush through everything.  I've been taking care of Noah and with my Mom's arrival, I had my Mommy back to take care of me.  I'm not saying that my husband doesn't look after me.  It's just that in my opinion, a mother's care will always be different.  Mom just feels like home.  The sounds I hear from her are familiar.  The smell of the house with the dishes she makes for us is like a warm blanket you can wrap yourself in.  The conversations are like comforting echoes from the past.

Mourning my Mom's flight back to the Philippines was postponed for a little while because the day after she left, my best friend Fetle came to visit with her family. We've been best friends for 10+ years now and unfortunately, she's based in Tennessee.  It was a wonderful week just hanging out with them again.  I could only wish for them to move to Chicago or any of the suburbs so that we could hang out every week.  Unlike most people with long time friends living in the same vicinity, and with whom they share a common history, a common memory, I've accepted that things such as being able to call your closest friend/s to go out with you for coffee, shopping or some fun girls' night out are no longer part of my taken-for-granted reality.  I now need to both embrace this new (bitter) reality and reconstruct a different, more acceptable one.  Both are necessary for my mental and spiritual health.    

At this time, everyone has flown back to where they live and goodbyes were said once more.  These goodbyes in my life are much harder than most people's experiences simply because when I take my loved ones to the airport, there's really no telling when I'll see them again.  It's not that easy either for anyone to fly and see one another more often because a plane trip to the Philippines takes approximately 20 hours and almost always costs more than a $1,000.  The need for Filipino citizens to have a visa when they enter the U.S. further complicates the situation.  This is exactly the reason why I have not seen my brother for a long time now.  It's depressing to think that it takes so much effort, time and money just for my family to be complete once again.  It saddens me that Noah won't be growing up with his cousins from my side of the family; that two of his grandparents are not witnessing how he's developing; that he's really only exposed to one side of his family and that my side only seems like a faint shadow that can easily be blurred.

Despite all this brooding, believe it or not, I'm actually much better now than before.  Yes, I still lament about all these things and will probably do so for the rest of my life.  However, the difference is that I have also proven to myself that I am capable.  My parents' physical absence does not incapacitate me as a parent and household manager.  My friends' physical distance has not deterred me from wanting to find new true friends (though I've come to realize how difficult this is).  My sense of isolation, among other things, has driven me to appreciate what I do still have around me and most importantly what's within me.  I've come to realize and more critically observe my own resilience and have learnt to find creative outlets for exorcising my own demons (hence my consistent blogging).  I still have a long way to go and that is an understatement.  And when all else fails and I feel close to diving into that valley of despair once again, I try to find solace in this quote:

"So now, all alone or not, you gotta walk ahead. Thing to remember is if we're all alone, then we're all together in that too." (Patricia, played by Kathy Bates, in the movie P.S. I Love You, 2007)



  

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Our Perfect World

Upset, Overwhelmed, Stress, Tired, Frustrated, Stressed


I really do wish someone can 'tell me how to get to Sesame Street' (as the song goes). Won’t it be divine to live on a street like that, where everyone is accommodating, taking time to help each other out, polite and sensitive to each others’ needs?...a place where there doesn’t seem to be any need for money because familiarity and friendship seem to be the only relevant currencies, and socio-economic stratification doesn’t seem to exist?...a place where even the ‘monsters’ are pleasant and immeasurably optimistic?

These days we all seem to need a dose of Sesame Street, or at least the idea of it.  Fall has officially arrived and though I’ve said multiple times before that this is my favorite season, it also signifies more challenges for me as a parent and a citizen.  This seems to be true more so now than before given the relatively new social concerns that confront us these days.

Up until last year for me, Fall just signaled the need to avail of the regular flu shot for yourself and your children.  This year, you also need to worry about the H1N1 flu.  As if I’m not yet sufficiently paranoid, I now have to think twice (or more!) about taking my son out to some public play area this time of year.  I was hoping to be able to take him out more despite the colder weather and perhaps just visit some indoor play facility.  However, the thought of taking him out in public and him being with strangers, touching what every other child  has touched, freaks out the germophobe in me.  And speaking of public places, we now also need to worry about MRSA and other resistant infections.  Might I also add other concerns I have as a parent that have nothing to do with the season?...concerns such as my son contracting e.coli, salmonella and lead poisoning through toys.  Oh and of course there will always be the fear of child predators.   

Not only is there a fear of the diseases (both biological and social) themselves but also of the economic repercussions.  The painful truth is that this is just not a good time to get seriously ill because of the cost of health care particularly here in the U.S. (yet another social disease).  The current economic recession that the U.S. is barely trying to survive doesn’t seem to have fully ended.  Though experts say the recession has crested and that better days are inevitable at this point, no one can ever be too sure, too secure.  No American these days seems to be getting a full night’s sleep, secure in the thought that their job, their primary source of income would still be there the next day, and everyone here knows that ‘no job’ practically translates to ‘no health insurance’.  And how many people can truly afford health service in any shape or form without the aid of insurance?  That is the sad truth and much as I hate to admit this, I have never felt so economically insecure in my entire life…not even when I was living in the Philippines.

Let’s add one more variable to our never-ending equation for inducing modern-day paranoia…terrorism.  Just this past week, Homeland Security elevated the security alert in Chicago and warned that Al-Qaida may target public places such as hotels, stadiums and mass transit systems.  Come on!  Can they challenge my ontological security any further?!!

I am willing to bet that today, by far, is the most difficult time to be a human being, let alone be a parent.  It is particularly in this milieu where, perhaps more than ever, we find forces beyond our selves impinging on our daily lives.  We not only need to constantly contend with forces within our immediate spheres but also with global ones which we often feel we don’t have much control over. 

What I just wrote above may seem familiar to those who have read C.W. Mills’ ‘Sociological Imagination’ (S.I.).  Simply put, this refers to a way of thinking, a ‘quality of mind’ as Mills calls it, that allows someone to see the interconnections between ‘private troubles’ and ‘public issues’.  It is a frame of mind / a way of looking at the world or events as intersections of the personal and the social / the private and the public.  It is the ability to understand your biography as intertwined with history.  In these insecure and overwhelming times, one cannot afford not to possess such a quality of mind.  It should be common sense to realize that everything creates a ripple effect.  You are part of the world, just as the world is as much a part of you and your daily life, whether you like it or not.

Though that thought---that each of us and everything in the world are more connected than we'd like to acknowledge---may seem daunting to some or just plain bad news to others, there is immeasurable reward in embracing this.  Not only does it humble all of us, it also underscores the fact that we are all not as insignificant, nor inert as we perceive ourselves to be.  Other than having the power to act on things and even initiate changes, every issue that presents itself to us urges us to evaluate our values, both on a personal and societal level.  Whether we are confronted with 'issues' regarding our own sick children, or the way our society treats the sick in general, such crises force us to ask ourselves what is important to us, what our focus should be and what goals we want to work towards.  

It would be ideal if everyone agreed on core values and fought for those.  I don't think it would be such a bad idea to suggest that we all look to the utopic world of Sesame Street, where everyone is accommodating, taking time to help each other out, polite and sensitive to each others’ needs;  where there doesn’t seem to be any need for money because familiarity and friendship seem to be the only relevant currencies, and socio-economic stratification doesn’t seem to exist;  and where even the ‘monsters’ are pleasant and immeasurably optimistic.  This doesn't seem to be a bad place to start, don't you agree?   

  







Thursday, September 17, 2009

Taking Away the Binky : The 3 T's

I feel like I've accomplished the seemingly impossible!  No, I have not magically transformed myself into a 120lb woman.  I'm talking about weaning Noah off his pacifier (or the binky as we call it at home).  

Last Sunday, September 13, my Mom pointed out how Noah seems to have developed a slight overbite.  Being the paranoid mother that I am, I said, "That's it!  We definitely have to take the binky away....starting TODAY!"  Don't get me wrong.  I knew it needed more than just my will power and paranoia.  Note too that we have attempted several times before and failed.  We've always known that we have the perfect formula for disaster or failure.  Noah is such a strong-willed, not to mention, extremely loud cry baby, while I was never the patient kind.  I can't stand too much noise and non-stop crying most of all.  It just drives me totally insane!  When I tried taking away the binky so many months ago, Noah just ended up losing his mind and taking mine with him in the process.  In the end, I was the one who surrendered.  Admittedly, it was as if I was the one that paid ransom to Noah in the form of his binky, just so I can have my sanity back.  I was no match to my own son's stubbornness.
This time though, I knew it was going to be different.  It just had to be.  I knew I didn't want to spend a ton of money on retainers or braces for my son in the future.  Neither did I feel guilty anymore for taking it away from him mainly because I felt that NOW was the right time.  

To any parent needing to take on a similar mission, my realization is that the 3 T's are crucial:



TIMING

Noah is now 29 months old.  He is talking and understanding so much more at this point.  He's also beginning to be toilet-trained.  Given his development, I felt it was a good time to take away the binky without me feeling too guilty.  Most parents and  experts would say that ideally, you should take away the pacifier before the child turns 2yrs old.  For most of us parents who have had to deal with this sort of thing, we know that that is easier said than done.  When I tried before, I just ended up guilt-stricken and angry both at Noah and myself.  I was angry at Noah because I felt he was just deliberately making things hard for me.  And I felt self-loathe not only because I felt powerless and ineffective as a parent for not being able to enforce the 'ideal' / the 'rules' given by experts, but also because I felt mean and unloving.  This time though, it was clear that he is no longer a baby and I knew I wouldn't feel like I was depriving a poor little helpless and clueless child if I took away this one source of comfort.  In other words, I felt justified in doing this at this time.  

The other side of timing is doing this during the day and not just at night.  From mid-morning, we all talked to Noah about taking away his binky.  We kept telling him all morning that starting from that day, there would no longer be a binky and that he was already a 'big boy' and therefore didn't need it anymore.  Come nap time at mid-afternoon, when it was time to ask for the binky, the battle began.  Noah asked nicely, then incessantly, until finally the requests elevated to deafening screams as if being tortured and abused.  Had I done this at night time, I would not have withstood all the drama for fear of waking up the entire neighborhood.  But since it was afternoon, I had the strength to resist all sense of propriety and just let my son scream his lungs out.  I just did not care if my neighbors heard.  I knew I wasn't seriously annoying anyone anyway.  

After 40 minutes of non-stop screaming, rolling around in bed and head banging, he finally gave in to exhaustion and fell asleep.  Sure I was a bit more deaf than when he first started crying but at least I did not feel defeated.  He woke up another 40 minutes later and continued to cry for another 15 minutes but that was it.  When night time came and it was time to hit the sack, I think Noah was too tired to ask for his binky.  It seemed as if he has cried it all out of his system and that was it.  I felt triumphant!



TECHNIQUE

I have only two words for you...Cold Turkey.  I've tried the slow and subtle technique of cutting slits on the pacifier. Experts say it would make it less pleasurable for the child and therefore would make them want to give the habit up.  It did not work for my son.  Then I thought of snipping off the entire tip until Noah was just left with half an inch of the nipple to suck on.  He still didn't give up on it.  These techniques don't work for highly stubborn and desperate beings such as my Noah.  Only plain and simple full-time deprivation works and most parents I've spoken to know this.  Complete withdrawal is key.



TENACITY

Regardless of your chosen technique and timing, this I think is the most important factor.  You have to be THE parent.  You can't be his buddy, friend or nice baby sitter.  You need to be clear about your objective and stand your ground.  You need to focus on the bigger picture and know within yourself that this is the compassionate thing to do.  Like I mentioned above, I feel that it is easier to be persistent and consistent if there is less guilt to battle with, if you feel justified in doing this.  When Noah was so much younger and I wanted to take away the binky, after 15 minutes of crying and begging, I thought to myself, "Is enforcing what experts recommend worth my baby's suffering?  He doesn't even understand what's going on!  He's JUST A BABY!"  After this internal conversation, I just willingly surrendered and didn't think it was worth the struggle.  
This time around though, none of my old justifications felt right.  He's no longer a baby and I am being a good parent by doing this.  I was clear about that and there was nothing to stop me in enforcing what I set out to do.
Good luck to anyone out there who is still struggling with their toddlers when it comes to the pacifier.  Aside from my 3 T's, the only other piece of advice I have that we cannot lose sight of as parents is this....that all children are unique and that in the end, YOU are the REAL expert when it comes to YOUR CHILD.

   

Sunday, September 6, 2009

FAREWELL SUNNY DAYS



Tomorrow is Labor Day here in the U.S. and the long holiday weekend is done.  Most people get quite sentimental about this because other than just signaling the transition from summer to the fall season, it translates to interesting (translate: potentially drastic) lifestyle changes.  It took me quite some time to understand the extent of this. 

Coming from a country with only two not-so-distinct seasons, the idea of seriously planning your life around the seasons/ climate/ weather was foreign to me.  In the Philippines, particularly in Metro Manila where I grew up, there are only the wet and dry seasons.  The rains normally come around June and lasts until approximately September.  October and the rest of the months before June are considered the dry months for the most part.  Other than the need to anticipate rains and some flooding, the temperatures don’t vary all that much from day to day or season to season.  As such, I never really felt the need to plan my life, from the major activities to the mundane, around the seasons.  


When I was a kid in school, it was all about looking forward to the start of summer vacation come March/April, and then feeling sad about the end of that ‘season’ come June.  At the same time, June spelled out the initial excitement about going back to school and meeting friends, as well as celebrating the arrival of rains or storms which spelled out school closings or holidays!  Other than these highs and lows in my juvenile life, everything else seemed pretty constant.  The style of my clothes was pretty much the same the whole year round.  Leisure activities were also more or less predictable and not too seasonal.  You can just imagine the adjustment I had to go through during my first year here in the Midwest, particularly where I am where you can sometimes experience all four seasons in a single day! 

I’ve had to get used to more planning when it came to leisure activities or vacation plans.  For the longest time, my husband would keep telling me that vacations here need to be planned a year ahead and that people here take those vacations seriously, especially if it’s during the summer.  And speaking of summer, I never understood the elation that Americans feel when the sun starts shining and days get warm.  I couldn’t help but feel a bit perplexed every time I heard someone getting excited over the thought of barbecue, picnics or the beach.  I’ve always had to remind myself that where I am now, you only really see the sun and feel its heat for only half of the year….if you’re lucky.  (No wonder anti-depressants are so popular here, but let’s save that for another blog, shall we?).  On the reverse, I also remind my American friends and family that since I’m from a tropical country, it’s the cold that has novelty for me.  I always get excited and genuinely look forward to fall and winter!  I love how it gets cooler and absolutely adore the changing colors of leaves and the sight of the first snow fall of the year.   
   
I think a list is now in order.  Let me just share the few things I will miss, as well as the things I can’t wait to leave behind as we say goodbye to summer and greet fall with open arms:
I will miss ---
*driving on dry roads and not fearing skidding
*late sunsets that let you stay out longer
*my sandals and skorts
*seeing my son Noah in shorts and sleeveless shirts that make his thighs and arms absolutely irresistible to me
*boating and feeling the cool, comfortable breeze on my face
*sweet bi-colored corn and smoky ribs for dinner
*transporting Noah from the car to his stroller and through a parking lot without rushing and freezing to death
 *seeing the wonderful colors of flowers, especially of tulips, along Lakeshore Drive in Chicago


I can’t wait to ---
*enjoy late sunrises and have that ‘extra’ hour as we adjust our clocks in November to mark the end of daylight saving time
*be inspired by the poetry of the reds, purples, browns, oranges and all the wondrous colors of the fall foliage
*be all covered up again in sweaters, fashionable jackets, cardigans and coats….My body has neither preferred, nor attempted to wear, tank tops or any sleeveless shirts, in public.
*not see ants, flies and bugs that bite when I’m outdoors
*forget about pedicure and just have my feet celebrate comfortably in my boots
*welcome the new season of all my favorite t.v. shows back in my living room:  CSI Las Vegas, Medium, Lost, How I Met Your Mother and other new interesting shows the networks are launching
*see Noah wear a bonnet that emphasizes his chubby cheeks
* play in the snow with my family

There are a lot of things to hate about the colder seasons but to an almost 36-year old person who spent 30 ½ years of her life in the tropics, you can say that I am just a kid looking at the same old Midwestern things but with fresh new eyes.  How exciting!