Monday, January 28, 2013

Clevelanders like their kimchi

We brought this favorite Korean comfort food for the international potluck at Caden's school.
Wasn't much left at the end of the night. Clevelanders like their kimchi. I'm impressed!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Fortune cookie prophecy

Do you believe God can speak through a fortune cookie? I sure do.

I was feeling really low last week. Looking for a job is brutal on your self esteem. Especially when you're looking for a journalism job in New York City. The pundits say the economy is "bouncing back" but to me it feels more like molasses. Seems like every reporter is out of work, about to get laid off, joining the dark side (public relations) or switching careers and forgetting the written word altogether. The odds out there aren't good, they say. But I'm kind of having a Han Solo moment. "Never tell me the odds," he tells C-3PO as they are fleeing the Imperial fleet. 

As much as I try to keep my chin up, mustering a can-do attitude on a daily basis wears on you. Day in, day out telling the monster of self doubt to please bugger off starts to chafe. I was beginning to wonder if visualizing a triumphant life in New York and those "Just Do It" Nike ads I was playing over and over in my head was all just bullsh*t. So in my desperation I asked God for a sign.

"I'm tired, this looking-for-a-job thing is getting old, and I just want to get on with the next chapter of my life," my bratty inner-child whined to the creator of the universe. "I need your help. I feel lost. I need a sign. Please, anything."

We were craving Chinese food. It's hard to find good Asian grub in Cleveland. Thankfully the joint down the street serves up a decent chow fun. The kids left no greasy noodle behind and the husband and I overate. The waiter brought the check and obligatory fortune cookies. I cracked mine open. "Your next interview will result in a job," it said. 

And there it was. My sign. A message in a cookie.

I can't really explain how or why I know he was speaking to me in that moment. But if God can communicate to Gideon through a fleece and Moses through a burning bush, I'm pretty sure a tiny piece of paper isn't a stretch of the imagination. What I love about it is that it's so modern. And that's what God is: relevant to our time. Besides, I don't believe in flukes or dumb luck or coincidence. Nothing is random or happenstance. 

It was just what I needed. A little encouragement. A gentle nudge to keep pressing forward. To not give up.

Thank you, God.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Middle class in Mad-hattan

Woody Allen's Manhattan is a wonderful portrait of a city at the center of
everything. I love you, NY! But can I afford you?

Yes, I am crazy. I want to move my family to New York... But after reading this article in last weekend's New York Times, it begs the question: Can a middle class family afford a quality life in New York?

Living in Manhattan? My husband and I already threw that idea out the window when coming up with our war plan to get our family to New York. "We could live in Manhattan... If we moved into a grimy apartment in Chinatown," we discussed one night. "At least we'd eat well -- and on the cheap." But living on chow mein, mu-shu pork and xiaolongbao every day for months on end we cannot do (although my husband would beg to differ).

What shall I make of an island where, "There's McDonald's, Mexican and Nobu, and nothing in between?" Doesn't seem to give my dreams much to work off of. But even this article -- a snapshot and nothing more -- cannot take the breath out of my dream. I'm going to stubbornly hold on. I'm willing to trade economic pain for the emotional gain of museums, Central Park and being at the center of the world.      

Plus, there's always Brooklyn...

Maya Tolstoy, an associate professor at Columbia, could be considered middle class in Manhattan.
She and her son are able to afford the city in part because their building is owned by the university.
(Piotr Redinski/NYT)

What is Middle Class in Manhattan?
By Amy O'Leary
The New York Times/January 18, 2013

DRIVE through almost any neighborhood around the country, and class divisions are as clear as the gate around one community or the grittiness of another. From the footprint of the house to the gleam on the car in the driveway, it is not hard to guess the economic status of the people who live there. Even the landscape is carved up by class. From 15,000 feet up, you can stare down at subdivisions and tract houses, and America’s class lines will stare right back up at you.

Manhattan, however, is not like most places. Its 1.6 million residents hide in a forest of tall buildings, and even the city’s elite take the subway. Sure, there are obvious brand-name buildings and tony ZIP codes where the price of entry clearly demands a certain amount of wealth, but middle-class neighborhoods do not really exist in Manhattan — probably the only place in the United States where a $5.5 million condo with a teak closet and mother-of-pearl wall tile shares a block with a public housing project.
In TriBeCa, Karen Azeez feels squeezed. A fund-raising consultant, Ms. Azeez has lived in the city for more than 20 years. Her husband, a retired police sergeant, bought their one-bedroom apartment in the low $200,000 range in 1997.
“When we got here, I didn’t feel so out of place, I didn’t have this awareness of being middle class,” she said. But in the last 5 or 10 years an array of high-rises brought “uberwealthy” neighbors, she said, the kind of people who discuss winter trips to St. Barts at the dog run, and buy $700 Moncler ski jackets for their children.
Even the local restaurants give Ms. Azeez the sense that she is now living as an economic minority in her own neighborhood.
“There’s McDonald’s, Mexican and Nobu,” she said, and nothing in between.
In a city like New York, where everything is superlative, who exactly is middle class? What kind of salary are we talking about? Where does a middle-class person live? And could the relentless rise in real estate prices push the middle class to extinction?
“A lot of people are hanging on by the skin of their teeth,” said Cheryl King, an acting coach who lives and works in a combined apartment and performance space that she rents out for screenings, video shoots and workshops to help offset her own high rent.
“My niece just bought a home in Atlanta for $85,000,” she said. “I almost spend that on rent and utilities in a year. To them, making $250,000 a year is wealthy. To us, it’s maybe the upper edge of middle class.”
“It’s horrifying,” she added.
Her horror, of course, is Manhattan’s high cost of living, which has for decades shocked transplants from Kansas and elsewhere, and threatened natives with the specter of an economic apocalypse that will empty the city of all but a few hardy plutocrats.
And yet the middle class stubbornly hangs on, trading economic pain for the emotional gain of hot restaurants, the High Line and the feeling of being in the center of everything. The price tag for life’s basic necessities — everything from milk to haircuts to Lipitor to electricity, and especially housing — is more than twice the national average.
“It’s overwhelmingly housing — that’s the big distortion relative to other places,” said Frank Braconi, the chief economist in the New York City comptroller’s office. “Virtually everything costs more, but not to the degree that housing does.”
The average Manhattan apartment, at $3,973 a month, costs almost $2,800 more than the average rental nationwide. The average sale price of a home in Manhattan last year was $1.46 million, according to a recent Douglas Elliman report, while the average sale price for a new home in the United States was just under $230,000. The middle class makes up a smaller proportion of the population in New York than elsewhere in the nation. New Yorkers also live in a notably unequal place. Household incomes in Manhattan are about as evenly distributed as they are in Bolivia or Sierra Leone — the wealthiest fifth of Manhattanites make 40 times more than the lowest fifth, according to 2010 census data.
Ask people around the country, “Are you middle class?” and the answer is likely to be yes. But ask the same question in Manhattan, and people often pause in confusion, unsure exactly what you mean.
There is no single, formal definition of class status in this country. Statisticians and demographers all use slightly different methods to divvy up the great American whole into quintiles and median ranges. Complicating things, most people like to think of themselves as middle class. It feels good, after all, and more egalitarian than proclaiming yourself to be rich or poor. A $70,000 annual income is middle class for a family of four, according to the median response in a recent Pew Research Center survey, and yet people at a wide range of income levels, including those making less than $30,000 and more than $100,000 a year, said they, too, belonged to the middle.
“You could still go into a bar in Manhattan and virtually everyone will tell you they’re middle class,” said Daniel J. Walkowitz, an urban historian at New York University. “Housing has always been one of the ways the middle class has defined itself, by the ability to own your own home. But in New York, you didn’t have to own.”
There is no stigma, he said, to renting a place you can afford only because it is rent-regulated; such a situation is even considered enviable.
Without the clear badge of middle-class membership — a home mortgage — it is hard to say where a person fits on the class continuum. So let’s consider the definition of “middle class” through five different lenses.
The Money You Make
We’ll start with an obvious marker: If the money you live on is coming from any kind of investment or dividend, you are probably not middle class, according to Mr. Braconi.
If you live in Manhattan and you are making more than $790,000 a year, then congratulations, you are the 1 percent.
Most researchers define the middle class by calculating the median income for a place, and grouping people into certain percentages above or below the absolute middle.
By one measure, in cities like Houston or Phoenix — places considered by statisticians to be more typical of average United States incomes than New York — a solidly middle-class life can be had for wages that fall between $33,000 and $100,000 a year.
By the same formula — measuring by who sits in the middle of the income spectrum — Manhattan’s middle class exists somewhere between $45,000 and $134,000.
But if you are defining middle class by lifestyle, to accommodate the cost of living in Manhattan, that salary would have to fall between $80,000 and $235,000. This means someone making $70,000 a year in other parts of the country would need to make $166,000 in Manhattan to enjoy the same purchasing power.
Using the rule of thumb that buyers should expect to spend two and a half times their annual salary on a home purchase, the properties in Manhattan that could be said to be middle class would run between $200,000 and $588,000.
On the low end, the pickings are slim. The least expensive properties are mostly uptown, in neighborhoods like Yorkville, Washington Heights and Inwood. The most pleasing options in this range, however, are one-bedroom apartments not designed for children or families.
It is not surprising, then, that a family of four with an annual income of $68,700 or less qualifies to apply for the New York City Housing Authority’s public housing.
What You Do
“There’s no room for the earlier version of the middle class,” Mr. Walkowitz said. Firefighter, police officer, teacher and manufacturing worker all used to be professions that could lift a family into its ranks. But those kinds of jobs have long left people unable to keep up with soaring real estate prices.
A police officer with five years’ experience in New York makes about $69,000 a year. A teacher with the same number of years in the city’s public school system makes $64,000 to $75,000.
The shift toward a knowledge-based and service economy has created a new set of middle-class jobs, like graphic designer, publishing professional and health care administrator. Positions that would nudge a family into the upper class elsewhere — say, vice president or director of strategy — and professions like psychologist are solidly middle class in Manhattan.
The same holds true for jobs in higher education, a growth sector for the city.
The average tenured university professor at New York University or Columbia makes more than $180,000 a year, according to a 2012 survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Sweetening the deal for those looking to buy, N.Y.U. has offered mortgage assistance and discounted loans, while qualified Columbia faculty are eligible for a subsidy of up to $40,000 a year. Some faculty members benefit from university housing that rents well below the market rate, in prime locations on the Upper West Side and in Greenwich Village.
Maya Tolstoy, an associate professor at Columbia and a marine geophysicist who studies seafloor earthquakes, lives with her 9-year-old son in a small two-bedroom apartment in a doorman building on Riverside Drive. Because her building is owned by Columbia, her rent, about $1,800 a month, is manageable on an associate professor’s salary, which averages about $125,000. A similar market-rate apartment on the Upper West Side costs about $6,000 a month, according to a monthly report compiled by MNS, a brokerage firm.
“I think it’s much tougher for people with my income to survive in Manhattan without subsidized housing,” she said. “I am very lucky to have it.”
Are Children the Last Straw?
One way to stay in Manhattan as a member of the middle class is to be in a relationship. Couples can split the cost of a one-bedroom apartment, along with utilities and takeout meals. But adding small roommates, especially the kind that do not contribute to rent, creates perhaps the single greatest obstacle to staying in the city.
Only 17 percent of Manhattan households have children, according to census data. That is almost half the national average, making little ones the ultimate deal-breaker for otherwise die-hard middle-class Manhattanites.
Not only do children strain the wallet as that one-bedroom becomes infeasible, but many middle-class families have little confidence in public education. Tuition fees at private schools can reach $40,000 a year. So families decamp to the suburbs or hope that their offspring will test well enough to get into the public school system’s gifted-and-talented program, which offers a more challenging education free of charge.
“The trauma of kindergarten I still have not forgotten,” said Ms. Tolstoy, who beyond hitting a jackpot of sorts with subsidized Columbia housing, struck gold again when her son was accepted into a gifted-and-talented program.
But to get her son that far, she found it necessary to hire a consultant, costing about $800 for two sessions.
When Did You Get Here?
More than 280,000 units — nearly half of Manhattan’s apartment stock — is rent-regulated in some fashion. These apartments are either godsends to those who occupy them, or daggers that twist in the hearts of everyone else, left to pay market rate or compete for the borough’s remaining vacancies — 2.8 percent of the housing stock, as measured in 2011. But 30 percent of the residents of rent-stabilized apartments moved in more than 20 years ago.
An intriguing definition of what helps a person gain entry to the Manhattan middle class was ventured by Jonathan Bowles, the executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, who issued an in-depth report in 2009 that examined the city’s changing class dynamics. “Understanding who is middle class, in New York, but especially Manhattan, is all about when you got into the real estate market,” he said. “If you bought an apartment prior to 2000, or have long been in a rent-stabilized apartment, you could probably be a teacher in Manhattan and be solidly middle class. But if you bought or started renting in a market-rate apartment over the last 5 or 10 years, you could probably be a management consultant and barely have any savings.”
Sabrina Dent was born and raised in Manhattan thinking she was middle class. Ms. Dent grew up attending a private school on the Upper East Side. She did not realize what normal life was until she left Manhattan to attend a public university in Rhode Island, where she paid less in rent than her father had been paying for a 12-by-6-foot parking space in the city.
“That radically readjusted my barometer,” she said. Now Ms. Dent is a Web designer in Cork, Ireland, living a regular middle-class life, and unable to imagine why anyone would want to stick it out in Manhattan on a moderate income.
“The only artists I know now who are still in Manhattan,” she said, “either made it big and bought, or are still in the rent-controlled studios they landed in 1976, and will leave in a coffin.”
Values That Define You
People define class as much by association and culture as they do by raw numbers — a sense, more than anything, of baseline financial security garnished by an occasional luxury like a vacation, and a belief that things can get better through hard work and determination.
“Middle class, to me, is having a pretty good job, enough money to pay bills and rent, and then a little extra,” said Desiree Gaitan, 29, a manager of social media forShairporter, a tech start-up that arranges shared taxi rides to New York airports. She says she feels middle class even though she makes about $40,000 a year (equivalent to about $17,900 a year in a more typical part of the country).
Ms. Gaitan stays afloat by shopping at thrift stores, picking up baby-sitting gigs when she can, and hanging onto a great deal: she pays $600 a month to share a rent-regulated two-bedroom apartment near Columbus Circle — a place her roommate’s parents found years ago.
“It’s tough,” she said. “I have a good work ethic, and I think I would like to stay as long as possible, as long as I’m enjoying my career. All of that is worth it at the end of the day, for some psychotic reason.”
Are They Dying Out?
“Manhattan has serious affordability problems,” said Mr. Braconi, the economist. In the last decade, the percentage of people who are paying “unaffordable rents” (defined as more than 30 percent of their income) has increased significantly, according to a report issued in September by the city’s comptroller.
If that trend continues, it will feed the perennial panic that Manhattan’s middle class is on the brink of extinction, no longer able to cope with the city’s prices and fast retreating to its natural habitat, the suburbs.
It is true that the middle class here is smaller than anywhere else in the country. It is true that price pressures from both real estate and the cost of living are not slowing down anytime soon. But it is also true that calamity has been forecast for over a century now.
“Soon, there will be no New Yorkers,” proclaimed the Sunday magazine of The New York Times in 1907, in an article that detailed how families making $1,000 to $3,000 a year — $24,000 to $72,000 a year in today’s dollars — were being pushed out because of increasing rents, and servants’ wages, as well as the crushing cost of ice and coal. Adjusted for inflation, laundry alone for a family cost $115 a week. A pound of chicken? $8.08. Rent, on the other hand, for a “small, middle-class flat in a decent, but unfashionable locality,” would seem to be a bargain in today’s market, at the price of $272 per room per month.
In 1968, New York magazine documented the mad scramble for affordable apartments in a cover article detailing the extreme lengths to which average people went to secure one. “Surgeons have postponed operations, housewives have gone back to work, hippies have cut their hair and families have destroyed their pets,” the magazine reported. “Little hope is held out for the middle-income ($15-20,000 a year) people, career girls who do not want roommates and couples with more than one drawer-sized infant.” Brownstones that had sold for $125,000 in 1958, according to the article, were selling 10 years later for twice that much (in today’s dollars, a jump from $827,000 to $1.65 million).
Reports of the middle class’s demise also appeared in 1978, 1998, 2006 and 2009, when The New York Observer chimed in with “City to Middle Class: Just Not That Into You.”
But members of the middle class remain, scattered among the elite and the growing numbers of the working poor, in that place where lucky deals and tiny kitchens converge, wondering, just as they did in 1910 and 1968, how long they’ll be able to stay put.
Ms. Azeez in TriBeCa is pondering the question. The only young people she sees moving in around her are often buoyed by parental support, given an apartment at graduation the way she was given a Seiko watch. As her own friends and neighbors age or die out, she wonders, “who is going to take our place?”

Monday, January 21, 2013

Second inaugural

"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort or convenience,
but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."
-- MLK, Jr.

It was so moving to watch President Barack Obama being sworn in for a second term. Like watching history happening in real time. And on this day -- a day where our nation honors the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. It couldn't have been a happier coincidence. 

Moments like these remind me how thankful I am for this country. How proud I am to be an American. My father and mother looked West and saw a land of limitless opportunities. They left behind families, childhood friends, college degrees and familiarity and adopted a new way -- life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They left Korea with empty pockets but built a beautiful life here in the US.

My brother and I stood on their shoulders and now we each have our own children, who will stand on ours.

This part of President Obama's inaugural speech spoke to me:

That is our generation's task — to make these words, these rights, these values — of Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness — real for every American. Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life; it does not mean we will all define liberty in exactly the same way, or follow the same precise path to happiness. Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time — but it does require us to act in our time.
Progress requires us to "act in our time." I love that. This is our call as citizens of this wonderful experiment called democracy. 

One Day
Inaugural Poem by Richard Blanco

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
over the Smokies, greeting the faces 
of the Great Lakes, spreading 
simple truth
 across the Great Plains, then charging across the
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story

told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning's mirrors, 

each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights, 
fruit stands: 
apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows 
begging our 
praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, 
teeming over highways alongside us,
 on our way to clean tables, 
read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries 
as my mother did 
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
 the same 
light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
 equations to 
solve, history to question, or atoms imagined, 
the "I have a dream" 
we keep dreaming,
 or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that 
won't explain
 the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light 
breathing color 
into stained glass windows,
 life into the faces of bronze statues, 
 onto the steps of our museums and park benches 
mothers watch children slide into the day.

One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
 of corn, 
every head of wheat sown by sweat
 and hands, hands gleaning 
coal or planting windmills
 in deserts and hilltops that keep us 
warm, hands 
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands 

as worn as my father's cutting sugarcane 
so my brother and I 
could have books and shoes.

The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains 
mingled by one 
wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it 
through the day's gorgeous 
din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony 

of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways, 
the unexpected song 
bird on your clothes line.

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling, 
or whispers 
across café tables, Hear: the doors we open 
for each other all days 
saying: hello, shalom, 
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días

in the language my mother taught me—in every language 
spoken into 
one wind carrying our lives
 without prejudice, as these words break 
from my lips.

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
 their majesty,
and the Mississippi and Colorado worked 
their way to the sea. 
Thank the work of our hands:
 weaving steel into bridges, finishing 
one more report
 for the boss on time, stitching another wound 
uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
 or the last floor on the 
Freedom Tower
 jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes 
tired from work:
some days guessing at the weather
 of our lives, some days giving 
thanks for a love 
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother

who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
 who couldn't give what 
you wanted.

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
 of snow, or the 
plum blush of dusk, but always—home, 
always under one sky, our sky. 
And always one moon 
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop 
every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars 
hope—a new 
 waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.

Following the inauguration, President Obama takes one last look at the crowd,
an estimated 800,000 people, before heading into the Capitol.

Monday, January 14, 2013

From my table to yours: spinach and cheddar-stuffed pork

Cooking is much like writing. There is the researching, planning, improvising, revising, re-working
and constant editing editing editing -- whether it be sentence structure or an ingredient list. 

After a frustrating day of writing, 
I turned to the kitchen to release my creativity. 
The result: spinach and cheddar-stuffed pork tenderloin 
with sauteed grape tomatoes and 
a delicious vegan potato leek soup.  

Take that, writer's block!


spinach and cheddar-stuffed pork tenderloin
(from Jacques Pepin: More Fast Food My Way)

What you'll need:
  • 1 large pork tenderloin (about 1 1/4 lb)
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 package baby spinach
  • 1 package grape tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup white wine (I like Chardonnay)
  • handful of chopped Italian flat leaf parsley
  • 1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese 
  • salt and pepper to taste

What to do:
  • Heat 2 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil in a pan over medium-high heat. Saute garlic and onions for about 1 minute.
  • Add spinach and about 1/4 tsp salt and pepper. Cover and cook over medium heat for 1 1/2 minutes, or until spinach is wilted. 
  • Remove the lid and cook until all the liquid is evaporated. 
  • Transfer to a plate and let cool.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

  • Trim the tenderloin of any fat. 
  • Butterfly the tenderloin and tenderize with a meat tenderizer (I use plastic wrap and cover the meat when I beat it into submission). 
  • Sprinkle salt and pepper on both sides. 
  • Add half the spinach mixture to the center of the tenderloin and top with cheese. 
  • Add the rest of the spinach. 
  • Carefully roll your tenderloin. 
  • Make aluminum foil strips and wrap your tenderloin so the spinach and cheese mixture doesn't spill out.
  • Heat another 2 tbsp of oil in a large nonstick, ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. 
  • Place the tenderloin on the pan, browning it on all sides (about 5 minutes each side). 
  • Remove foil strips from the tenderloin and bake in oven for 10 minutes. 
  • Transfer tenderloin to an ovenproof plate, cover and keep warm in oven (make sure you turn it off) while you prepare the tomatoes.

  • Add grape tomatoes to the skillet you used to brown the tenderloin. 
  • Add wine. 
  • Add chopped parsley. 
  • Add salt and pepper to taste. 
  • Saute over high heat for about 2 minutes, until tomatoes are soft. 

  • Slice the tenderloin crosswise into medallions (about 8 of them) and place them on a serving platter. 
  • Pour sauteed tomatoes over the medallions.
Vegan potato leek soup
(adapted from Jacques Pepin: More Fast Food My Way)

What you'll need:
  • 3 leeks, washed and trimmed into 1-inch pieces
  • 1/4 cup chopped onion
  • 1 package button mushrooms, sliced
  • 8 cups veggie stock
  • 2 cups instant mashed potatoes
  • 2 cups unsweetened almond milk
  • salt and pepper to taste

What do to:
  • Heat 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil in skillet over medium-high heat. Saute leeks, onion and mushroom about 2-3 minutes, until veggies are soft. 
  • Add stock, bring to a boil then lower heat and simmer for another 3 minutes. Add instant potatoes and almond milk. 
  • Add salt and pepper to taste.

Don't be surprised if you slurp up two or three bowls of this stuff!


Tune in below to Episode 219 of Jacques Pepin: More Fast Food My Way on KQED. You can see Jacques prepare the pork tenderloin and potato leek soup recipes (start the video at 4:15).    

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Modern family

Family, at last. All six Moghadam kids together for the first time in Ghana.
(Photo: Sol Moghadam/June 2012)

We are surrounded by ordinary people living extraordinary lives all the time. It could be the person standing next to you in line at Starbucks. It might be the busy mom pushing a full grocery cart while rowdy children follow close behind. Or the guy on the subway who's got his nose buried in a book. We just need to pause, take a good look and wonder, "What's their story?"   

I first met Christine Moghadam at a women's bible study two years ago. We were in the same small group at Newsong Moms Ministry -- a rock-solid community of mothers based in Orange County, California. Though she was one of the leaders of this group, we rarely saw her. She would pop in occasionally. Some days she looked exhausted. Other days it seemed like she was in a trance. I surmised Christine was probably going through some kind of life-altering season (either that or "Motherhood is sucking the breath out of her, poor thing," I thought). Little did I know God was calling her to the greatest and most transformative adventure of her life.

It was around that time Christine and her husband, Sol, were looking to expand their family. And by expand, I mean double. Though they had always shared a deep-rooted desire to adopt, they had no idea it would mean welcoming four additional children -- at the same time.

It was around Thanksgiving in 2011 when Christine saw siblings Stephen, Derick, Phylis and Elyana on her adoption agency's waiting list. The moment she laid eyes on their faces, something happened. Something wonderful and cosmic and crazy in that soul-stirring kind of way. "I scrolled down and then felt prompted to look at their photos again and again," Christine remembers of that late November evening at her computer. "I kept thinking, 'Four without a family. I wonder who would take four kids?' The next few days, I couldn't get those pictures out of my head."

The photos that started it all.

It's like when you meet the love of your life and you're in that fog. You can't think straight. Christine thought maybe she was supposed to pray for these kids, that they would find a forever home. But it became obvious she and Sol were the answer to that original question, "I wonder who would take four kids?"

God clearly told her, "These are your four children." How can you ignore a message like that? So she and Sol pursued them. They spent countless hours preparing their dossier. Gathering official papers -- medical records, marriage and birth certificates, tax returns, updated home studies, fingerprinting, interviews. They prepared their home for four more. Closets filled. Rooms arranged. Pantry stocked with familiar foods. Hundreds of hours spent in prayer. Sleepless nights. Vivid dreams. Hopes and fears. Anxiety. Joy. Anticipation.

Clockwise from top left: Derick, Phylis, Stephen and Elyana.
(Photos: Sol Moghadam)

Then last summer, the moment had arrived. Christine, Sol and their two biological sons, 7-year-old Ethan and 4-year-old Isaac, would travel to West Africa to meet their new family members for the first time.

The Moghadam's journey in Ghana is a whole other saga within a story. It was supposed to be a joyous occasion. A Ghanian judge had approved the adoption of Stephen, Derick, Phylis and Elyana. The Moghadams were now a complete family of eight! But the dream took a terrifying turn when Ghanian police detained the family as they were en route to a restaurant for lunch. You are being arrested for child trafficking, officials told Christine and Sol. But look at the court documents, they explained, these are OUR KIDS. Dubious, the police separated the family. All six children were sent to an orphanage while Christine and Sol spent the night in a crowded jail cell.

Armed with a mobile phone, Christine started making calls, sent emails and posted desperate messages on her Facebook page. Then she prayed like she had never prayed before. Within 24 hours, she had mobilized an army. Friends and family bombarded the US Embassy in Accra with letters and petitions. The international media picked up their story. 

One of the many articles written about Christine and Sol's arrest in Ghana.
This one's from the Daily Mail in the UK.

The false charges were dropped and the family was freed. But the experience was traumatizing. An intensely private person, Christine hated the media attention. They were waiting for her when she returned to the US. They hounded her. Even waited at her doorstep. She shut down her popular blog. She needed space. But more importantly, she wanted to protect her children. 

"I have finally allowed myself to catch up on emails, journal and actually complete a thought... let alone... just cry," Christine wrote when she returned to her blog eight weeks later. "Crying is good... tears are healing. It's good to finally FEEL again."

This past September, Christine, Sol, Ethan and Isaac welcomed home Stephen, 13, Derick, 10, Phylis, 7, and Elyana, 2. Finally, a family united! I was lucky enough to be at the airport for the reunion. I felt honored that Christine and Sol allowed me to be a part of something so special. I will never forget the tearful hugs, the cheers, the laughter, the look on Christine's face as she embraced her kids. All six of them. Here was a woman who fought, truly with all of her heart, wits and strength, for the family she had always dreamed of. 

One year before this photo was taken, these children were
separated by an ocean. Today, they are siblings forever.
(Photo: Christine Moghadam)

And the fight's not over now that all of her kids are home. There are new battles and new hurdles to overcome. Parenting has become something like climbing Mt. Everest. "One of the greatest challenges we face every day is homeschooling four and entertaining our other two," Christine writes in her blog. "Unfortunately, we were told by their previous school in Ghana that all of our kids were academically at their appropriate grade levels and received perfect grades. To our surprise, our 10-year-old is barely at a 2nd grade level and our 7-year-old is between K-1st grade. It has been a rough road for all of us."

In spite of tantrums and meltdowns, the sound of laughter always rings louder from our house, she says. "Tomorrow provides me its challenges... but it also gives me the joy of watching all six of my beautiful blessings learn from their weaknesses and grow in their strengths."  

I think one of the most beautiful things about Christine is her authenticity. She doesn't pretend she's supermom. She'll be the first one to tell you having six kids is hard, hard work and that it's not always filled with high-fives and fist bumps. She takes risks and questions the status quo. She seeks adventure. She's never chased after a safe and predictable life (which makes her the perfect culture shifter in safe and predictable Orange County). She loves her kids with the ferocity of a mama bear. She loves God with all her heart, mind, soul and strength.

I admire her greatly and I look forward to how her journey continues to unfold...

My beautiful friend Christine Moghadam and her beautiful child, 2-year-old Elyana.
Both are strong,independent and free-spirited. Like mother like daughter.
(Photo: Sol Moghadam) 

What is family? 
They were the people who claimed you.
In good, in bad, in parts or in whole, 
they were the ones who showed up, 
who stayed in there, regardless. 
It wasn't just about blood relations 
or shared chromosomes, 
but something wider, bigger.

From Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen

Below is the Moghadam family's CBS2 interview that aired on November 16, 2012: