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Monday, September 28, 2009

The First on Our Block

My parents were raised with radio, and it looked like my brothers and I would be too, until the day new technology arrived as a Motorola television set. We didn’t know what to expect when dad unpacked the large, cardboard box. It looked a lot like our radio in its big wooden cabinet; but instead of a speaker, there was a screen in the middle.

Our parents were excited, so we knew this was something special, not like the way they acted when we got a new car. This occasion was more like the anticipation of getting ready for a family outing to Cedar Lake.

With great curiosity we watched our dad fiddle with the antenna and knobs and waited for the screen to do something. Up until now, the only screen we watched was at the local movie theatre where on Saturday afternoons for 25 cents, we could fill up on popcorn and Good N’Plenty candy while we laughed at Bugs Bunny cartoons and cringed when Tarzan wrestled a crocodile.

Could this new fangled contraption, this TV, bring that kind of adventure and fun into our home every day of the week? All the time? It was an exhilarating possibility. As my dad tuned the fuzzy little screen and adjusted the antenna, we eagerly awaited to be greeted by the daring deeds of our movie idols.

What emerged was our first commercial for Texaco gasoline introduced by someone who called himself Uncle Miltie. He made us laugh. We decided that “TV” was fun, and we could even watch it while we ate dinner. And so my family transitioned from radio to television.

We sat mesmerized in front of the screen watching anything that moved: live demonstrations of food being chopped and people showing how to get stains out of the carpet. With only two channels, and most them on at noon or dinnertime, we were captives of whatever appeared.

We were also the envy of the neighborhood. No one else had one yet. Kids would ask to come over and see it. We felt a real pride of ownership and the distinction of being the first family on our block to have a TV.

Dad took our newfound technology leadership even further by buying an accessory for the TV. It was a plastic sheet divided into three color stripes. When overlaid on the screen, we had “color” TV. It didn’t matter if everybody’s face was red, torso yellow and legs blue. It was color TV. We were ahead of our time. We felt rich.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Comfort Food

The sweet, sugary scent of my mother's rice pudding is unforgettable. As I stepped off the school bus, the breeze carried a strong whiff of cinnamon that conjured the steaming bowls that waited for me on our kitchen table. Its aroma was intoxicating. I could hardly wait and ran across the park and onto our home’s porch, eagerly anticipating the pudding’s soft heat melting in my mouth. What a welcome! Cinnamon mixed with warm, milky rice I could already taste accompanied by an inner sigh of being home.

It wasn't just rice pudding. It was my mother's being there to feed and nurture me. The hot, heaping mound of rice dusted with cinnamon awaited me along with my mom, my best friend, who I told everything about what happened at school as I gulped down her love offering.

She knew all about my friends, classes, and activities. She was my confidante and adviser and understood my adolescent insecurities. Mom’s rice pudding was soothing, a warm food hug that embraced my teenage angst and me. Not chicken soup… but rice pudding for my soul.

How I long for my mother's rice pudding, a recipe of safety, fullness, and comfort. It made everything OK…food for the heart, mind, and stomach…delicious mouthfuls of mother food to warm and fill me with her love and protection.

There has not been any food like it since. For years, I have searched for rice pudding like hers in restaurants, delis, and gourmet grocery stores, but never found any that compared in taste, texture, or feeling. Like Water for Chocolate, there was a special ingredient from my mother in the pudding that cannot be duplicated in someone else’s recipe. It was uniquely hers…never written down…but saved nevertheless in my memory. It satisfied my hunger like only she could.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

D.C. to LA: A Monumental Change

Whenever I lost my way in DC, I looked for the Washington Monument, the tallest building in the District of Columbia, an obelisk sentry overlooking the city. I remember relaxing as I navigated my way home on Constitution Avenue flanked by its powerful Federal buildings.

Today I look to the Santa Monica Ferris wheel as my compass with the sea on one side and the canyons and hillsides on the other. Wide-open space accompanies me home now, nine months after the move from East to West. Along with the change of geography came a cultural change.

Even though I'm in the same country, speak the same language, I feel like a foreigner. Here are some of my observations as a newcomer to LA. One of the oddities of LA is that people who live here give each other directions constantly and never go anywhere without their traffic Bible, The Thomas Guide.

Perhaps the unwieldy sprawl of the place and the sardine freeways necessitate that Angelenos tell each other how to get around. It's part of their way of life. In a town where image is everything, billboards, "big screens," are everywhere, touting causes, movies, and designer fashions throughout the city. The images are built into LA's geography for maximum visibility. Sides of buildings display giant TV and film stars who gaze upon their fans like mythical gods and goddesses imbued with the power to dictate fashion and cultural trends.

Youth and beauty reign in LA. Younger women glide evocatively like island women in their city village. Aware of their physical power, they exude a sensual beauty and confidence. They have attitude; they are liberated, reminiscent of 1920s women, seductive in their natural bodies in clothing that provocatively reveals their charms.

Older women can't compete with the "bodies" of starlets and models in LA, but they haven't stopped trying. Regardless of age, there are almost no flat-chested women in LA; bodies are rebuilt here, "youthinized" to attain perfection and admiration. It is not unusual to see elders who look more like Zsa Zsa than grandma.

I discovered that I'm at an awkward age again, midlife adolescence, not comfortable with the seniors or the hip, caught between the too old and the too young. I studied other women to see how I could fit in better. I grew my hair longer, put in blond highlights, started working out at a gym, wore tighter clothes and more makeup, in hopes that my new exterior would help me blend into the LA "look" and wondered if I was headed toward Botox and collagen next.

I tried to meet people by attending singles events, singles everything: sailing, skiing, Christian, Jewish, cultural happenings. One gathering, under the guise of being a "spiritual" workshop, was actually a front to coax women to proposition men. Another singles function, a dating service's Valentines Party, initiated courtship by having singles find the people who matched the numbers on their admission ticket.

Contacts are what count in LA. The established protocol is an introduction. As laid back as LA is, the custom of an introduction is quite formal. Behaving like the hierarchy of a royal court, insiders grant favors to outsiders with an introduction. Soliciting without one is not readily accepted by LA's contact rules. To become acknowledged in the right circles, an introduction is required from someone who knows the "prized" contact. Such favors are chits, IOU's that are banked and exchanged like currency in the contact system.

Life outside of LA seems not to matter to the natives. Local TV news coverage ranges from 30-second reports on world events to detailed stories about cosmetic surgery procedures and, of course, a car chase, the LA news staple. I now understand why Jay Leno's jaywalking interviews feature people who don't know what's going on outside of LA. The external world seems to be of no consequence, so there's really to need to pay attention to it.

In this new place, at least I speak the language, movie speak. It is the common dialect of a sprawling cityscape and multicultural geography. Everyone is a film critic whether it's at the supermarket checkout line or the local video store. I also participate in one of the local spotting. Off screen in their life-size bodies, actors appear surprisingly small in contrast to their celluloid images.

LA's most famous celebrity is its weather. Angelenos delight in being weather blessed as if the sun favors the city with divine weather fortune. No matter what else is happening in LA, the weather seems to be a constant source of pride to the locals. It is a privilege that sets them apart from other cities, and it makes them smile whenever they talk about it.

For all of LA's eccentricities, as a writer, I find its creative energy exhilarating. The culture values artists. It's as if self-expression is an inalienable right in LA's creative democracy. I know I will not have this perspective of LA indefinitely. It's my ninth-month view. I'm still exploring its glitter, glamour, and illusion as well as its creative life. In the meantime, I look for the Santa Monica Ferris wheel, a lighthouse on the pier, to guide me home.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Sunday, September 27, 2009


OK. I'm 60 something. The American dream of getting married and living happily or at least securely thereafter didn't happen. It wasn't supposed to be like this. I followed the script at 22: married my college sweetheart, became a lawyer's wife with two kids and a house in the country in a small, safe town in the Midwest.

At 47, I had another chance for the American dream: a professional career and a second marriage to a charming therapist, ten years my junior.

Now I'm pursing a different reality as a single woman in her 60's. I'm moving to Phoenix after almost four years in Marina del Rey, LA's sailing area known for singles. At this point I thought I'd be approaching a comfortable retirement and enjoying wonderful trips to exotic places along with free time to write, do pottery, and volunteer for worthy causes.

Instead, I'm relocating to a more affordable city to start again. According to the original script, at this age I was looking forward to relaxing in my paid for home, enjoying leisure time and grandchildren.

So it's time for me to take the advice of my philosopher son, "Blaze a trail, Mom. You have before." And, I'm not alone. The majority of the women I know my age are still in search of the dream through Internet dating, singles events, and speed dating...seeking that happy ending.

We are educated, attractive women with no defined role for this unexpected passage. We exercise, play tennis, and pursue hobbies; but mostly we are solitary figures who previously defined ourselves as wives, mothers, and career women. We live longer, look better, and lead active lives only to return to our single lives in apartments and condos.

There's not a prescribed identity or path for single, mature women. We don't fit in the conventional roles of matron or grandmother. Our social life is primarily with other women like ourselves. What is our place now in the tribe?

Sure we've thought about the bag-lady syndrome and worry about getting sick. The stats for remarrying at this stage of life are not promising. There seem to be too few available knights in our age group. Some of us prefer to remain single and free, but most of us still want to relate and be connected.

What are our options? We talk about living together and creating new family units in group houses and modern communes.

As for me, I'm not giving up. It's an adventure far different than what I expected. Today's script is being written by those of us living it. So I'm on the road again with Phoenix as my next destination. Will I find community there? My place? I remain hopeful.

There needs to be a name for this phase of mature women's lives. Post something: postmarriage, postchildren, postcareer. I think we could call it womenpause. I can say I'm going through womenpause.

I have no roadmap and few role models. With the others, I will blaze a trail so the women that follow us will know how to navigate womenpause.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Flight from Phoenix

Back in L.A. driving my daughter’s Land Rover she’s named Lola. Passing through my near past in southern CA where I lived until seven months ago. Familiar but no longer home…remembering and lingering only for the moment. The vehicle carries me through the changing scenery and the memories with it.

I’m here for a UCLA writing class back on the campus where I taught a year ago. Still feeling a bond…still a part of me…wondering if at some point, I’ll return.

Last night for a split second, I considered going back to the marina, parking in the dark, and walking back to my former home. Just before the light changed, I moved the car back into the left lane to return to Manhattan Beach where my daughter lived and not back to the Marina where I had lived for almost four years.

Not sure why I couldn’t go back…would it make me feel bad? Am I emotionally letting go of the past and that chapter of my life? Is that symbolic of my move from LA to Phoenix, especially now since I’m moving my possessions from storage and signing a year’s lease? Is it the final parting and commitment to a new place and new life? It’s as if with my name on a contract, I now have to stay and start over though I’m not sure I want to.

Other than a piece of paper, internally I have not signed myself to a life in Phoenix. It’s the desert where I will stay inside for the summer and age when I’m not ready to do either. Did I choose a place I’m not ready for and perhaps will never be ready for?

If not Phoenix, where?

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED