Thoughts on my recent diplomatic work in Jordan

Women's initiative event

Showing Jordanian women how to make buttermilk biscuits

I just returned from a culinary diplomacy tour hosted by the U.S. Embassy Jordan in Amman. It was my first time to the Middle East, and I thoroughly enjoyed it in spite of the turmoil happening in neighboring Syria. The people I met in Jordan were friendly and hospitable, the food fantastic, and the overall experience memorable. I ate the national dish of Jordan, mansaf, which consists of braised lamb shank, rice, and a fermented goat milk sauce. I ate falafel, shawarma, kibbeh, kofta, kebabs, hummus, labneh, tabbouleh, and tomatoes stewed in amazing olive oil called galayet. Perhaps two of the most memorable things I tasted were eggplant and kanafeh. The eggplants were often grilled or roasted and tasted superb—never before had I loved eggplant as much as in Jordan. They would be mashed into yogurt or tahini and made into a dip called moutabel. Kanafeh is an Arabic dessert consisting of melty cheese topped with crispy vermicelli-like pastry, doused in rose syrup, and garnished with pistachios. I loved it, and I’m not even a sweets person.

But I digress…

Mansaf

Mansaf, the national dish of Jordan

While in Jordan, I participated in several events with key messages ranging from women’s empowerment, disability awareness, and youth culinary education. The main takeaways I tried to leave behind were the universality of food and, thus, the relations between America and Jordan and, therefore, humankind.

Petra

Petra: one of the 7 wonders of the world & where Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was filmed

Every time I am invited to participate in events like these, I am reminded of the bigger picture of my life: that is, I lost my vision, which made my story and accomplishments unique on MasterChef, which allowed me to achieve a certain amount of fame, which I can then use to raise awareness and advocate for social issues like the rights of women, Asian-Americans, and those living with disabilities and/or vision loss. I am also reminded of my fortunate circumstances in that, being a Texan, I was provided certain resources through the Division for Blind Services at the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services; without this agency, I would not have been able to receive orientation and mobility training, learned how to use computer screen readers, go back to school for my MFA, relearn how to cook, and live a more independent life. I feel lucky that I come from a place where such support is available. In countries like the Dominican Republic, where I also recently visited, and Jordan, such resources are still in their infant stages, if they even exist at all.

Arabic dishes

Our dinner spread of Arabic dishes

My message today is just to remind us of our blessings and that the world can still use our help, no matter our abilities and backgrounds. You don’t have to fly to the Middle East for Embassy work; you can just start with small things. Donate $20 to a charity in whose mission you believe. Educate your friends, family, and community of a cause about which you feel strongly. Identify your gifts and talents, find your passion issues, and think of a way to contribute. They don’t have to be big leaps. Remember that all movements started with one person taking one small step forward.

Dead Sea

Dead Sea: A mini-holiday between days of work

I truly believe it’s this attitude that has helped me remain resilience throughout my setbacks with Neuromyelitis Optica/NMO and vision loss. We feel the most joy when our lives have purpose. Today I challenge you to do one small kind thing for someone else. If we could all think and act this way, maybe one day, there will be peace in the Middle East.

Kanafeh

In Amman, I fell in love with kanafeh.

17
Apr 2017
POSTED BY Christine
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Season 4 of Four Senses, my cooking show, currently airs on AMI TV

Since winning MasterChef U.S. Season 3 in 2012, I’ve gone on to co-host my own cooking show. Our studio shoot is in Toronto, which gives me the chance to visit with Jenna at least once a year.

Something of which a lot of people may not be aware is that a TV show’s shoot schedule is often highly intense and squeezed in to a short amount of time. One season of Four Senses, for example, is thirteen 30-minute episodes. We shoot two episodes a day (each one taking about 4 hours to shoot), and we film them all in seven days straight. The reason for this is it’s often very expensive to rent studio space and film equipment, plus everyone on cast and crew are contractors that have other work projects scheduled, so a producer can only snag people for X amount of time.

Many people I meet assume we are shooting each episode the day before it airs, or sometimes, people even think it’s live television (like in the case of MasterChef, people would meet me in the street while it was airing and be confused why I wasn’t in the kitchen that day).

There’s a whole different world called “television.”

I can’t believe it’s been five years since my season of MasterChef shot and aired, and four years since I started Four Senses, a cooking show with an accessible twist. Season 4 is currently airing on AMI TV in Canada on Thursdays at 7:30 PM ET/PT, but if you miss an episode or don’t live in Canada, you can catch the episodes online at AMI’s Four Senses website.

Happy watching and cooking!

16
Jan 2017
POSTED BY Christine
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The Holiday Season is Here!

As I am gearing up for the next few weeks it’s going to be very busy time. First I would like to wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving! We are traveling to Kansas to see my husband’s family this year for 4 days. This time of the year just seems like chaos for everyone till after New Year’s. As NMO patients this can be challenging for us trying to keep up with everything and trying to take of ourselves. I know for me this time of year is very exhausting and for that I need to thank Starbucks since I will be visiting them everyday till after New Year’s.  Once we get back from Kansas I will be decorating the house for Christmas. I am one of those weird people that put up four Christmas trees because I love Christmas trees! Also it’s that time of the year for Elf on the Shelf to appear and this year we are having another elf joining our elf Buddy I love doing elf on the shelf even though I stress about it too much some times. The look on Allen’s face is just worth it every morning when he is looking for Buddy. The following weekend we are staying downtown for one night and will be watching the Christmas lights parade. Then it will be my 35th birthday which I am absolutely dreading to me that means I am 5 years closer to being 40. I think I will have a hard time with that one well I know I will. I recently watched that movie “This is 40.” Yes I will be like her and will be celebrating my 38th birthday for several years. Four days after my birthday I will be doing my Rituxan which we all know that’s a party in its self. Which means I will not be feeling well for a couple weeks. The next thing on my schedule is my husband’s company Christmas party. Which means Eric and I will be wrapping about twenty gifts for the Christmas party gift raffle. Also squeezing in wrapping all the gifts for the kids and family members. I am hoping I will have time to do Christmas cookies with the kids. Started this tradition with Allen ever since he was a baby. Alana was not into it last year but I think this year she will be more into it. Well at least eating the frosting out of the bowl when I am not looking. Then before I know it will be Christmas. We are staying home this year for Christmas so the kids can enjoy playing with their toys.

Even though it will be a hectic time of the year, I am very thankful for the many blessing in my life such as my family. I think we all can to relate to that when it’s the holiday time we forget what matters the most sometimes.

 

 

Recap of my recent trip to Canada

Christine Ha and Carl Heinrich, hosts of Four Senses on AMI

Processed with VSCOWith my co-host, Carl Heinrich, owner of Richmond Station in Toronto and season 2 winner of Top Chef Canada

I was in Canada the second half of September filming the fourth season of my accessible cooking show, Four Senses. TV is much less glamorous than one would think: I get picked up around 6:45 AM every morning. We film two episodes a day, which has me on my feet for most of it, while trying to be energetic, making conversation with our guests, cooking, and then throwing scripted lines to camera. Because I’m vision impaired, I have to memorize my throws and try to find the camera with my eyes at the same time. This was what I did for seven days straight, as we filmed our entire 13-episode season in 7 days. Then after we wrap each day, I have a meeting with our director, producer, and my co-host to go over the next day’s scripts. Then I grab a quick bite and then study the next day’s scripts and guest bios until I finally get to bed around 11 or midnight. Then I wake up before sunrise and do it all over again.

All that said, being part of the industry has given me a new appreciation for the efforts that go into making a TV show. production is definitely labor intensive, and it takes a strong, hardworking team with everyone doing their job to pull it off. A production is only as strong as its weakest link. This season, our team consisted of 23 cast and crew.

What I like about television is the challenges it’s posed. TV really forced me out of my comfort zone—I’m an introvert and not naturally great on camera—and it’s gratifying to work hard together and know we’re doing something that helps others. In our case, it’s making educational entertainment that challenges those who are vision impaired to regain independence by returning to the kitchen.

I had a few days off in between my field shoots and studio run, so I got to see Jenna, her husband Mike, and their daughter Sophie. It was a rainy day, but we managed to grab lunch and some drinks at Mill St. Brewing before I attempted to hit hockey pucks in the downpour. (It was the hockey World Cup, and Toronto’s Distillery District had been transformed into a cocky village complete with carnival stations..)

The rest of our afternoon was spent traversing the mall downtown. My hubs, John, bought a Blue Jays hat, and Jenna and I combed Aritzia while our men discussed with disbelief about how long women can take in a single store.

As always, Jenna and I talked about the goings-on in our lives, how we’re doing with the Neuromyelitis Optica/NMO, and then made sarcastic remarks about everything else. It’s nice to hang out with people who get our illness but whom don’t make it the center of conversation. We may have NMO, but NMO doesn’t always need to have us.

Overall, I had a good experience in Canada (with the exception of some piss-pour service from Air Canada, but I’ll save that for another time). I’ll end this recap with a few notable observations which, I hope, you’ll find amusing more than anything.

What I learned about Canada, Canadians, and Toronto in 2016

  1. Bears are a common sighting during the fall season. Apparently they’re searching for food to fatten themselves up before winter hibernation.
  2. People who live in Toronto are called Torontonians. Despite what I, a Houstonian, might have thought, Torontonians do not eat poutin every day. In fact, they only ingest it late at night after many drinks.
  3. Torontonians really love their Blue Jays. Unfortunately, I was told Toronto now holds the record for North American city with the longest streak without any sports championships. (The former record holder was Cleveland, but the Cavaliers had changed that.)
  4. Three Canadian snacks you should try are ketchup chips, all dressed chips, and coffee crisps.
  5. Many Canadians are wary of Texans. (Believe me when I say not all Texans open-carry guns and support Trump.)
  6. Whenever they find out I’m American, almost every Canadian without fail brings up Trump. Please know I’d much rather talk about Netflix shows, dogs, and poutin.
  7. September is a great time to be in Toronto because the weather is amazing. Get your breezy, sunny days now before the harsh winter sets in.
  8. Toronto has great food. You can get fine dining, French, Caribbean, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, and American all within a few city blocks.

Till next time, Canada…xoxo!

P.S. Here’s an interview I did with CBC Toronto’s Dwight Drummond about Four Senses.

Four Senses season 4 cast and crew

It takes a village to make a TV show.

My cooking show, Four Senses, is returning for a fourth season

Christine & Carl Four Senses 2 (Varner Productions Limited)

My co-host, Top Chef season 2 winner Carl Heinrich, and me in front of our Le Creuset adorned set

Next week, I’ll fly to Toronto, Canada, to begin production of season 4 of Four Senses, a cooking show geared towards the vision impaired and novice cook. The show airs on Accessible Media, Inc or AMI, but even if you aren’t Canadian and don’t get this channel, you can catch the show on AMI’s website, complete with a fully accessible media player.

If you asked me a couple of years ago if I’d ever thought I’d have a cooking show going for four seasons, I would’ve shrugged and said, “Who knows?” If you would’ve asked me five years ago if I thought I’d ever be on TV, I would’ve laughed in your face. It goes to show you just never know with life—both good and bad things happen to us during the course of our lifetimes, and all we can do is make the most of them.

Every season has gotten better and better, and I attribute it to more support; growing funding; and, perhaps most of all, a stronger and more experienced team of cast and crew. I think you’ll be able to tell the difference in caliber if you watch our first season versus our third and most recent.

I’m looking forward to yet another season. People often don’t realize how much hard work goes into producing a television series—one 30-minute episode takes at least four hours of filming (and that’s not including the out-of-studio field pieces we shoot on a different day, plus the hours of post-production editing). Being in the entertainment industry is not as glamorous as one may think, but I love what I do—it’s the best feeling to wrap a shoot and know that all the hard work everyone put in together will result in something great. It’s an exemplary example of how teamwork is essential to success.

I won’t get too much time off—we shoot our in-studio portions of the season seven days straight (which is how most television production schedules go)—but when I do have a little downtime, I’ll be vlogging and visiting with Jenna.

Canada, here I come!

06
Sep 2016
POSTED BY Christine
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ALLEN 1st year playing Tball

YouTube Preview ImageThis year marked my 1st year being a sports mom. Allen started Tball in April and finished playing the end of June. We signed him up to play Tball for a few reasons one main reason was so he could play with other kids and second was his best friend from school was also playing Tball. I was nervous about not knowing if he really would enjoy playing and of coarse his attention span. For this being his first year he did a pretty good job. Allen really enjoyed hitting the ball but that’s about it. When he was suppose to play in outfield he would just sit there and play in the dirt. It took him a little while to learn the base patterns but for 4 years old he did a pretty good job! He was Happy T ball was over the end of June since it started to get hot and some of the games he played was almost 100 degrees. The most important thing out of this is that Allen had fun and he met new friends. Hope you all enjoy the photos and the video of him playing. The lesson I learned out of being a sports parent that I wanted to be one of the parents that helps with the team and get to know the kids that are playing on the same team as my son. The other lesson was learning to juggle everything on Saturday for games that were right in the middle of the day.

 

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18
Jul 2016
POSTED BY Erin
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Guest Blogger Lisa McDaniel talks about: Why she is a strong advocate for NMO Patients

Why?

Why do you do it? How can you work with NMO patients after you lost your son to this horrible disease? Those are questions I hear quite often as I work within the Guthy Jackson Charitable Foundation as well as from those in my personal life. There is a simple yet complicated answer. The simple answer is I do it because I care and because it is important to me. The complicated answer goes much deeper.

For those who don’t know our story, I will give you the short version. Our son, Collin, was barely 5 in 2007 when he first lost his vision. It took a few months before he was diagnosed with NMO. His course was very severe with constant flare ups of optic neuritis as well as transverse myelitis. After 4.5 years of suffering and fighting with everything he had within him, Collin passed away on March 29, 2012, at 9.5 years old (we must remember the .5 according to what he always told us). Yes, it is a very sad story if you stop there. Of course, we were and are still heartbroken and we still miss him tremendously. However, those who have followed this story and lived it with us know our story did not stop after his death.

A google search in early 2008, led me to very negative information about NMO. It also led me to an email group where I met some amazing people online. Those people became my family’s lifeline and helped me to learn everything I needed to know about NMO. I learned about the correct medications for NMO, the differences between medications for a flare-up versus medications for prevention of future flare-ups, what to look for to recognize a flare and other things NMO patients and families need to learn. The information I learned was great, however, well beyond the information I gleaned was the sense of support and family I received.

In 2009, I was able to attend the first ever NMO Patent Day in Los Angeles, CA. It was overwhelming as well as amazing. It was the first time our NMO community had been able to come together outside of the email support group. I met and interacted with doctors who took an interest in Collin and did their best to help us figure out the right combination of medications for him. I remember leaving LA filled with hope for the first time since Collin had been diagnosed. I vowed then to attend every Patient Day I could.

Throughout the years of Collin’s battle, I became close to many of the patients and families, as well as doctors in the NMO community. When Collin passed away, it was devastating to our family, however, it was also devastating to the extended “family” we had met through NMO. It was at then I knew I had to stay in contact with those incredible people, but I also knew it was time to change the role I was in with them. It was time I gave back to them a little of what they had given me and my family. Not long after Collin’s death, I had the opportunity to go to work with the Guthy Jackson Charitable Foundation as the Consulting Advocate.

I am honored to be able to serve the NMO community. I love working with the patients and families as they seek information and support. One of the best things about working with the families is empowering them with knowledge and helping them learn to advocate. Advocacy is very important when a rare disease is involved, whether it is advocating for a loved one or for one’s self. As we build knowledge, we can build awareness in the world and with awareness, a diagnosis may be quicker. Education is important so patients know when to call their doctors and fight for what is needed. We don’t need to have huge plans and goals to advocate, we only need to make our minds up to take any size action. To quote Edward Everett Hale, “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.”

It is incredible to make a difference in the lives of others. It amazes me how I am called upon to help educate doctors and medical staff about NMO, which in turn helps future patients. I am just a simple mom who wants to make a difference and wants to continue fighting a battle one little boy started. I, like Victoria Jackson, am just a mom on a mission! I have a heart for my NMO family and I have a passion for helping them. That doesn’t make me special, it just makes me willing. I am humbled to continue the work Collin led me to. I am not writing this to toot my own horn, but rather to share a beautiful story with you. Realize, this story is not about me, but about what can happen when a life is changed. If you want to know anything about Collin at all, know he was an incredibly compassionate child and I have no doubt at all he would want me to be helping those who are going through the disease which took his life. I am not stronger or better than anyone reading this and everyone is capable of doing what I do.

Another way Collin encouraged me to make a difference was through The Collin McDaniel Hope Foundation. My family and I started CMHF along with our Co-founder, Johnnie Sue Gilbert, whose son Nathan is living with NMO. It is our mission to make life just a touch easier for families who have children diagnosed with NMO. CMHF helps with medications, travel, wheelchair ramps and other things children diagnosed with NMO may need. While it is a small non-profit, we have been able to help many families in the last 3 years.

While my work is incredibly painful at times, it is also incredibly rewarding. Why do I choose to do it? All because God chose me to be the mom of one little red headed boy who changed my life and touched immeasurable others in his short life. To me, this is Collin’s legacy and that is the real answer to the question, “Why?”.

Surviving the Holidays with NMO

As we all can agree with from Thanksgiving all the way to New Years is just chaos for a lot of people. I just survived my first year hosting for twenty people at my house. While trying to manage my NMO, having a terrible cold and two sick kids. For people who have never cooked a Thanksgiving dinner may not realize what a production it takes. It takes me a couple of weeks to organize and make a menu. Then a few days to go shopping and pick up everything then a few days of cooking. Then a few days after Thanksgiving to clean it all up and put everything back. While trying to get all this done I try to rest whenever I can even if that means sitting on a tall bar stool to cook. Try to nap when the kids are napping and breaking up my shopping trips into a few days rather go all day running around to all the stores. This year I had two very helpful helpers my mother and Mother in law. They helped me cook, clean or watch the kids. That was so very helpful.

Next during the busy holiday season is my birthday, which is not so stressful on me I get to enjoy being with my family and spending time with them. Eric treated me to a hotel in downtown Denver to watch the parade of lights. It was so nice and enjoyable for all of us especially the kids I didn’t have to worry about if they were getting cold. Now that Christmas is going to be here before I know it. I am buying a lot of my gifts online this year so I don’t have to load and unload kids and bags from the car. Plus how can you argue with buying most of your gifts online while sitting on the sofa with your pajamas on. I just can’t deal with crowds like I use to before NMO and shopping all day. I simply can’t do it. It wears me down so fast then I am in too much pain to deal with Christmas stuff. I want to enjoy Christmas especially with Allen getting older he has been so much fun this year with Christmas. This will be Alana’s first Christmas and that’s always a fun one too. We also decided not to run around to a bunch of houses this year during Christmas. We all can agree its hard living life with NMO then you add all the holiday things that need to get done this time of the year. It can be very hard and can wear you out very quickly. I just try to pace myself the best I can and do a little bit every day so I am not pushing my self too much.

 

Happy Holidays!

The Miller Family

 

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Candace Coffee May you in RIP

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Our NMO family is grieving today,as we lost another family member Candace Coffee. I remember when I was first diagnosed Candace and Collin were the first videos I watched of other people having NMO. Sure was very active in spreading awareness for NMO and loved her twin boys so very much! Below is a video about Candace also a link to her Gofundme account that they have setup for a college fund. Please if you can please donate! RIP Candace.

http://www.gofundme.com/yzt34w

 

Snowboarding without Sight

This should be the last you hear about snowboarding for the season.

Following up on my January post about adaptive skiing and snowboarding and Jenna’s post last week about her family trip to Whistler, I’m posting my most recent Blind Life YouTube episode called How the Blind Snowboard. My husband, John, took footage from our Colorado trip and put together this episode highlighting our winter adventures from snowmobiling to snowboarding. NMO has taught me the true meaning of carpe diem, and I’ve become much more adventurous and brave since my diagnosis years ago. I figure, if I can survive NMO, I can do anything. This video is proof that you can still enjoy life in spite of Neuromyelitis Optica/NMO and vision loss. Happy watching!

23
Mar 2015
POSTED BY Christine
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