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Sunday, December 18, 2011

One Soldier's Story: "A Dignified Transfer" by guest blogger Jorge Duarte

On September 11, 2001, America witnessed a terrifying nightmare. We all felt a sense of helplessness as we watched it firsthand on national television.

Preparing for school, I began to watch the morning news, wondering what happened and trying to figure out what I was seeing on the screen.

As I continued to dress, I kept my eyes fixated on the television. News footage continued about the North Tower of the World Trade Center, and I saw what most Americans watching the news saw that morning, the second plane striking the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

At that moment I was overwhelmed with a sense of urgency; I did not know the reasons, but I felt that something was not right.

I discovered that my school was on high alert for anything suspicious. Every class had a television with the news channel broadcasting the events.

Many Americans would come to know, the events that unfolded on September 11, 2001, were acts of terrorism against the United States. As the days continued, the individuals responsible for the attacks began to surface and the rest was history.

In 2006, I would make a decision that would change my life. I decided to enlist in the United States Air Force.

Many people believed the acts of September 11th were my deciding factor, but that became one of many. My decision to join the military began on a routine day at a local food store where I worked as a pharmacy technician.

While I was performing my duties, I was interrupted by a news broadcast on a portable television inside the pharmacy. The news broadcast was about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is the moment I remember as the main reason for my decision to enlist.

While the news aired, a female coworker said, “My husband wants to join the military so bad, but they won’t take him because of a medical condition.” I remember thinking, “If a man who is not medically fit is willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice for his country, what does that say about an able bodied man like me?”

I remember going home and contemplating the decision to enlist. I remember the local news broadcasting tributes to the fallen Arizona natives that served in the armed forces.

I decided to enlist in the military, not because I was angry and wanted justice for the acts of terror that affected the way many people lived.

I joined to replace the soldier that was deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, to give them a chance at seeing their loved ones again.

The endless stories of a family’s sorrow and knowing that I may have the ability to bring a soldier back to their family was more than what I needed to join the military.

I joined the Air Force, and my first duty assignment was at Dover AFB as a cargo aircraft mechanic on the Lockheed Martin C5 Galaxy and the Boeing C17 Globemaster III. My duties involved preparing the aircraft for missions, launching, and recovering.

I soon realized that many aircrafts recovered by our unit came from bases embedded in the Middle East. I also discovered a unique characteristic of Dover AFB that no other air base had.

I discovered Dover AFB was the only port mortuary for all the armed forces.

Every soldier killed overseas would have to make the stop at Dover AFB before continuing to their last resting place. It was not long before I realized that many of these soldiers were transported on the aircrafts I would be recovering.

I still remember the briefing I had regarding “Dignified Transfers.” Our squadron would get briefed on the time an aircraft would land carrying the remains of our fallen soldiers.

The reason we were briefed was to make sure all engine driven equipment on the flight line were shut down. The ceremony for a dignified transfer required complete silence on the flight line.

 Much of the aircraft recovery for dignified transfers were tasked by a separate sister unit on base. The ceremony conducted by the Honor Guard was private; neither public nor media were allowed to attend.

In April 2009, President Barack Obama lifted the media ban on the dignified transfer ceremony. Among the media, the families were also allowed to attend.

In late August of 2009 I recall arriving at my squadron and being briefed on my assignment. I was tasked to conduct maintenance on top of the tail section of the aircraft.

While I was working on the aircraft, I was interrupted by a broadcast over my portable radio, “Attention on the net, attention on the net. Please be advised aircraft 5007 will be arriving with a dignified transfer.”

As the plane landed, I could see personnel gathering near the aircraft. I was unfamiliar with this scene as I was only used to seeing the Air Force Honor Guard during the ceremony.

Sitting on the top of the tail section 60 feet in the air and about 400 yards away, I could still see the Honor Guard preparing. I also saw a group of people that were not in military uniforms.

 The ceremony began as the coffin was carried out of the aircraft. As I sat there, fixated on the events unfolding before my eyes, the night’s silence that blanked the flight line was shattered by the soul wrenching screams of a mother. The sight of the coffin holding the remains of her child triggered her uncontrollable actions. When the ceremony ended, the family was escorted off the flight line.

 Before the media ban was lifted, I had become complacent with the ceremonies that were conducted during a dignified transfer. It had become a routine that was normal on the flight line.

Not until I witnessed the pain and suffering that was endured by the family was I brought back to reality and found the purpose of my duty in the military yet again.

As I look at the picture of the dignified transfer, I relive the moments of why I joined the military, hoping that the public realizes the reality of duty for a soldier.

No longer shielded by a government ban, the public can witness what was once emotionally endured by a selected few. This picture brings meaning to my purpose; I can only hope it brings purpose to others around the country.

Photo by: (U.S. Air Force photo/Roland Balik) “Dignified Transfer,” 4/6/2009 - An Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center carry team transfers the remains of an Air Force Staff Sgt. who died April 4 near Helmand Province, Afghanistan, from wounds suffered from an improvised explosive device. He was assigned to the 48th Civil Engineer Squadron, Royal Air Force Lakenheath, United Kingdom. His family is the first to allow media to cover the dignified transfer under the new Department of Defense policy

Dignified Transfer. (2009, April). Official Website of the U.S. Air Force.Retrieved from

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Graduation Flashback: Then and Now

As I watched the college students march proudly in procession into the stadium, I nostalgically remembered the excitement of that day in my life years ago at my undergrad college graduation from the University of Illinois in Urbana.

I never imagined that one day I would be watching my students' graduation. I sat in the front row ceremoniously attired in my cap, gown and hood to support the commencement ritual for the new grads.

Scanning their faces, I could see the pride and the relief that they had made it to the prize. I watched them accept their diplomas while their families and friends whistled and applauded as their names were called.

As they came down the stairs, some shouted out; one did a cartwheel, and another did a victory dance.

As I reminisced, I remembered that sunny day when I stood beaming in my cap and gown, clutching that hard earned diploma in front of the University's Assembly Hall. I was on top of the world.

I remembered the look on my face preserved in the photo my parents kept on display for years. I was glowing, filled with hopes, dreams and goals for a bright future.

A college degree was my ticket to a new life, better than my parents had, to live the American dream...the first college grad in our family, let alone the only female.

My four years of study prepared me to be an English teacher K-12. I believed that was the life ahead of me.

Graduating from college is what my mother had encouraged me to do after her own education was cut short by a depression that required her to quit school as an 8th grade honors student and work in the local factory to help her family put food on the table. My father managed to graduate high school which was typical for his generation.

I could relate to the students who pursued a degree while working fulltime, raising families and going to school at night. I appreciated their struggles and determination.

It had not been easy for me either. If it hadn't been for three scholarships and working three jobs, I could not afford to pay for my education. There were no other funds available at the time.

Looking back at that day when the world was my oyster, I thought I knew where the journey would take me: marriage, children, a teaching career and a comfortable life in a small town in the Midwest.

I had a master plan and a script to follow. I was all set.

Little did I know, how differently my life would go. I had college credits and a degree but little life experience for what was to come.

Years later after my divorce, I moved East to pursue a corporate communications and marketing career and even became a vice president of a high-tech start-up as my career advanced.

I raised my children as a single parent, then married and divorced again, and ultimately returned to teaching after many years in the business world. Along the way I earned my MA from the University of Richmond.

That was not the plan the day I stood proudly clenching my diploma ready to take on the world, or so I thought.

Where will the journey take the new grads? The one thing I can tell them is that it will be an adventure they cannot imagine and wouldn't want to miss.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2010-2011 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

mortar board 1 photo by renata jun

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What I Learned from a Cockroach

Like most people, I find cockroaches disgusting and repulsive, but one cockroach taught me a lesson just at the time I needed it.

I'm afraid of bugs...always have been. I remember them knocking and buzzing at the screen as I tried to sleep on a hot "unairconditioned" night in Chicago when I was a young girl. 

It was the mid '90s on a sultry afternoon in New Orleans. I just left our company's partner conference. I was in turmoil about whether to leave the company that was faltering; it was just a matter of time before it would go belly up. Layoffs were underway, and the high-tech giant was floundering.

I was burned out; and as the workers left, the rest of us shouldered more of the load. I had reached a fork in the road--stay or go before the end. I was offered a corporate position, but it was really too late for a turnaround. If I left, I had no idea what I would do next. I felt "stuck" by my responsibilities and could not see a way out.

On the way back to the hotel, I discovered an art glass studio where students were shaping lava-like, molten glass into beautiful, decorative vases and bowls.

I love art glass, so I couldn't pass up the chance to watch the amazing process of golden, liquid glass being fired. It was an old warehouse with a tall, arched glass skylight, a dramatic rooftop for the fiery ovens below where the glass was given its final form.

Suddenly a storm blew in, the sky blackened, and lightening streaked above the skylight putting nature's fireworks on display, a theatrical production of fire and rain clashing as the glass was creatively brought to life by the glassblowers.  It was a dramatic moment of blazing fire, pounding water and lashing wind.

A deluge struck the building and we were caught on foot in a flash flood. The street quickly filled up with rushing water. We took off our shoes, rolled up our slacks, and waded into thigh-high murky water, feeling the pavement under our feet, but unable to see what was beneath the quickening current.

We sought higher ground and saw an historic townhome nearby with a dozen steps up to its landing.  We climbed as quickly as we could to safety as the water continued to rise.

We were not the only ones seeking dry ground. Below us, we watched a giant roach instinctivelyly inch its way up each concrete step to avoid being swept away.

Once again I felt that familiar revulsion, but I was stuck in place.

As I observed the roach work its way to safety, I became fascinated by its behavior. It knew what to do and how to survive.

I realized in the storm that the roach moved forward to live. That was the sign I needed.

I, too, had to move on and flee the corporate storm that was destroying my spirit and future.

I still am squeamish when I see a cockroach but am grateful for the lesson it taught me that day when I needed to escape the murky turmoil around me and regain my footing on solid ground.

Sometimes life lessons come from the last place we would look for them.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2011 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

power of nature by nespresso
steps1 by vasantdave

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Perfect Day in Tuscany

Every now and then, I experience a perfect day...where everything seems just right. I had such a glorious day last fall in the magical city of Lucca, northern Tuscany, Italy.

Lucca dates back to 180 BC as a Roman colony.

Today it is a charming, hillside town fortified with double thick, massive red-brick walls built from 1504-1645 that provided centuries of protection and defense to its citizens from invaders who sought the wealth of the thriving silk merchant families.

Lucca managed to keep the marauders at bay and then had the good fortune to be protected and ruled by Elisa, Napoleon's sister, so its beauty was enhanced and its history preserved.

Even now there are portals with massive gates for entering the town where pedestrians, mopeds and small cars wind their way around shops, cafes, open markets, piazzas, and gelato stands in the gentle bustle of the town.

The wall, wide enough to be a two lane road, towers above the city as a 3-mile park circling Lucca and  offering views of the medieval look-out towers and exquisitely landscaped gardens of the villas it rings and embraces. Outside the wall at ground level lies the newer city and the surrounding countryside abundant with vineyards of olives and grapes.

On top of  the wall, families stroll with their children, lovers walk hand-in-hand, cyclists stop for a picnic lunch, and runners jog under the shade trees.

My perfect Lucca day started with a stop at a small grocer's inside the walled community where Gina, my traveling companion and guide from, and I selected the ingredients for a fresh sandwich plus fruit and cheese for our bike ride and picnic atop the wall.

Next we rented our bikes at the foot of the wall and began our climb onto the multi-story high walls and ramparts to enjoy the ambiance and the magnificent vista on our bike ride.

The weather was just right, sunny, comfortable and clear, so we could see for miles. A garden show and exhibit hugged the wall's banks where local flowers and plants were artfully displayed to the pleasure of passersby.

We could have been in Central Park with people leisurely enjoying the day on the promenade along the tree-lined wall. Midway we paused at a grassy spot to eat our delicious lunch of prosciutto, tomatoes, pecorino (sheep-milk cheese) and fresh, juicy peaches.

Gina shared a legendary story of the great jazz musician Stan Getz being incarcerated in Lucca for a month for smoking pot. The locals sat outside the jail and listened to him play from his cell every night as if they were at a concert.

After our relaxing ride, we entered Lucca through one of its portals and stopped at a famous cafe where Puccini and other creative artists of his day sipped their coffee.

We wandered through the city's narrow lanes, still intact in their ancient Roman street plan, to the piazza where a bronze of Puccini, legs crossed, sits and looks out at the square. We watched children climb on top of his lap while adoring parents took their photos with the composer.

The shops nearby displayed the latest fashions of stylized, supple leather and haute couture from Milan and Rome's finest designers.

For dinner we ate at a small cafe that was recommended by Elizabeth Gilbert in her book, Eat, Pray, Love; like her, we had the risotto with wild mushrooms and a fine red wine.

The most magical part of the day was yet to come. We went to the cathedral, where Puccini was once the organist, to hear aspiring opera students, accompanied by a grand piano, sing Puccini's famous arias.

A small audience, seated in folding chairs, listened in rapt appreciation. The night was balmy and the music enchanting. Some of us were moved to tears.

It was the perfect ending to a perfect day in Tuscany. Bellissimo!

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2010-2011 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Autumn in Lucca by Jscarreiro
Pusseggiata delle Mura by Tango 7174
toscana2 photo by Gabriella Pataky

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Romancing the Stone: Reunited with Michelangelo's "David"

Returning to Florence, Italy, meant seeing Michelangelo's David again.

I remembered the impact he had on me at 25 and wondered how he would affect me this time, some 40 years later.

I had kept him close to my heart since our first encounter.

I've always had a special place for David in my fantasy world of men I adore and admire, a celebrity crush on a man of stone, whose magnificence seems so alive and present as if he could turn at any moment to his throng of admirers like a rock star facing his fans.

Would David still inspire me with his beauty and grace after all these years? Would the proud, yet gentle young man, toned and muscular, fit for Goliath, still stir me with his restrained power and reflective, protective gaze?

Though many years have passed, I still am captivated and charmed by his elegance and beauty. He remains a prince preserved in marble as if the Gods had frozen him for us to behold, a monument to eternal youth and strength that exudes courage and confidence.

I no longer have a schoolgirl crush. Instead my wiser eyes perceive "a peaceful warrior," with immortalized energy, ready to do whatever is required of him.

In my mid 20's, it was love at first sight; in my mid 60's, I am totally smitten by his gentle, powerful figure and adore him all the more.

Next time I see him, I will place a "love is eternal padlock" (L'amore è eterno dei lucchetti) on a Ponte Vecchio bridge rail to symbolize my commitment to an Italian Idol who will never change, who is perfect just the way he is.

Till we meet again. Ciao.

L'amore è eterno finchè dura photo by Veronica

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sweet Ride: Discovering a New World

At 10 I inherited  an oversized boy’s bike from my cousin.  It was officially my first bike since we couldn’t afford the popular Schwinns of the day.

It made me happy to have my own "wheels." I cleaned and painted the secondhand bike red and even added a silver thunderbolt to the fender to make it look fast and ready to roll.

Once it was "restored" and no longer looked like a dust catcher from someone’s basement, I took it for a test drive.

The first step was to find a place to mount the boy’s bike since I wasn’t tall enough to reach over the frame without starting from a stoop. Then I had to manage to stay upright and balanced.

After many falls and scraped knees, I wobbly made my way over the streets and sidewalks of our immigrant Chicago neighborhood in the ‘50s.

I was curious about what was outside the safety of the few blocks I already knew. I decided to risk a ride beyond the boundaries of my Greek, Irish, Polish and Swedish neighborhood. There was a bigger world out there; and my bike, like a trusty steed, would take me there.

So I headed for the nearest stoop, straddled my bike, and set off for my first trip across neighborhood borders into foreign territory with other nationalities on Chicago's South Side.

I was breaking the rules by leaving my neighborhood, but I couldn’t resist the adventure.

As I rode, I heard new languages and saw different ethnic faces.

Even so, the lifestyles seemed familiar to my neighborhood with open market tables covered with fresh breads, fish, and produce, many displayed just outside of family-owned shops housed under their apartments.

Some of the food and the odors were unfamiliar.Other sidewalk tables held clothing and trinkets for sale.

I didn’t feel comfortable getting off my bike just yet.  After all, these were strangers I was told not to go near.

When I returned home, I didn't dare tell anyone of my explorations just a few blocks away. I kept my travels a secret so I could return to discover more about the new territory.

As time passed, I grew bolder and got off my bike to taste and touch the foods and wares of the other immigrants' lives.

Thanks to my secondhand bike, I got to discover a new world and its inhabitants in Chicago's immigrant melting pot of the '50s.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009-2011 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Saturday, August 6, 2011

I "Heart" Blogging:)

Ninety blog followers and counting on Blogger; 51 followers on Facebook's Networked Blogs:)

Every time a new follower appears, I experience a childlike excitement.

It's like opening a gift whenever a new face shows up, and it's inspiring to dialogue with those who leave comments.

Who has come by? from where? We are now connected through my stories and comments and their thoughts and reflections on what I've shared.

It's been a year and a half since I set up my blog. At the time, I had no idea where the blog journey would lead me.

It’s been an amazing ride so far. I have shared stories from my youth with my children that were new to them. Followers I will never meet have commented on my blog from Greece, Australia, NYC, Indiana, Canada and elsewhere.
At local events people tell me they have shared my blog with their friends and relatives, and each time I am thrilled and grateful.

Blogging expands my world in delightful ways. I'm often surprised that the writing speaks to such a diverse group of men and women, ages and beliefs.

I always wanted to write a memoir to share my life experiences and the wisdom from them, but a book seemed so daunting. Blogging moves me one step closer to that dream.

A new world has opened with readers from all walks of life. My blog was featured on twice and is ranked on the three Top 50 lists on Facebook’s Networked Blogs.  And there are more followers on other blog sites, such as

Each follower is part of my blogging life, and it makes me smile when they show up or share their thoughts.

But the most important discovery from blogging is the joy I feel every time I write.

My creative process springs from ideas that emerge in the car, the bathtub, anywhere, to finding images to enhance and complete the story, and finally to publishing it. I feel euphoric when I see it published and more so when someone "likes" it.

For me, blogging is the ultimate way to connect and share with those I know and many I will only meet in the virtual world. It gives me a natural "high"every single time. I am following my bliss.

Heart by pitabox987
Diversity 6 by bsk

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2010-2011 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Doing "Nothing" is "Something"

Don't feel like “doing” today…want to relax this morning after teaching my college class for four hours last night.

Slept in…looked at the clock…and rolled over. Permission to self to take the day off.

List of things to do can wait till tomorrow. Instead, sip coffee in my pjs on the front porch and write while the birds sing and the soft breeze and checkered sunlight caress my neck ever so gently. Enjoying a sunny day in Phoenix.

Ah, the luxury of musing, reflecting without deadlines, appointments and obligations for the day.

Simple and delightful and so different from my former self, the Type A, overly responsible, overachieving Super Woman who tried and at times did do it all…single mother, professional career woman, wife, hostess, etc. Exhausting.

No more. I have officially retired my Super Woman cape, and I don’t feel the least bit guilty about it.

My “self” has earned and deserves time without the requirements of work and responsibilities that compete for my time with me.

Putting me first is a relatively new experience after years of doing just the opposite for bosses, family and friends. It’s very liberating and peaceful to not have “to do” anything. I never had that choice or so I believed.

How lovely to finally know what it’s like to be free and not have to answer to anyone but me, a heady thought indeed. Just floating for now…see where the current takes me. During my life, the raft has taken me over the “falls” (divorces, moves, layoffs), and I’m still here.

The fears and worries of those times no longer have power over me. I realize now I did learn survival skills on my life journey, but the angst isn’t worth it.

Is my glass full or empty?

Both, I think: Full from my life’s experiences with some wisdom from my life's challenges and Empty of the cares and struggles of the past with space available now for what comes next.

Doing nothing for a day is good for something:)

 Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2010-11 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Alarm clock photo by Zvone Lavric

Sunday, July 17, 2011

By the Sea

I’m with my old friend, the sea…just the waves, a few sailboats, occasional shorebirds, scattered shells, polished stones and shifting sand.

The sea, my sanctuary, my place of worship and salvation… soothing, grounding, sacred, peaceful... calming and beckoning me...a place to be alone and protected where I can shut out the distractions of the world and my mind and become whole, balanced and connected—a respite for my soul.

Here I am free of worry, stress, responsibility and uncertainty, safe from a world of money, relationships, deadlines, and demands, uncluttered and unfettered.

The sea is a where I find serenity and basic shelter from life’s storms and disappointments with powerful forces that mirror my unconscious, shifting, mysterious, creative, unknown.

I am awed by the sea’s strength and endurance, its unceasing change: beauty in the bright sun, dusk and blackness—reassuring, lasting, and transforming like life itself.

Its shoreline provides an ever changing altar of glass chards, sparkling in the sun like tiny stain glass windows, hallowed ground for fish sacs, driftwood and seaweed.

The sandy tableau displays the sea’s random creativity and many moods reflected in the sun’s mirror complemented by the sky’s  backdrop, brilliant in crimson at sunset and stunning in black velvet with shimmering stars at night.

The sea is my sanctuary, life affirming, reliable and unpredictable, free to be itself, stormy or placid—no limitations, no should’s or have to’s, no one to answer to—a universal constant that transcends love, war, politics, career and family. It only answers to itself.

For me it is a deity without icons, saints, incense, catechism and hymns, and I come to worship as a parishioner who speaks and prays for strength, wisdom and direction.

This is where I become centered, renewed and readied to be part of the world again, a spa for my senses where I can reconnect all my parts and return revitalized to life.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009-11 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Sea Photo by Jack Oceano
Shell Photo by Karunakar Rayker

Monday, July 11, 2011

"Stand Up" Biology by Guest Blogger Brian Leiken

Third block biology is a bitch.

The class has improved slightly from the first two weeks, when the freshman capered about like wild spider monkeys as they devoured their sole source of nutrients, small orange bags of red hot chili nachos.

At first they dropped the refuse into the two foot deep lab sinks, treating the wash basins like trash pits.

Now they just stuff waste in the cabinets beneath the counters. I found close to sixty empty nacho bags in one of the back cabinets, complete with candy wrappers, plastic gatorade bottles, and miscellaneous junk food trash worthy of Homer Simpson.

I've never had to follow so many students outside of class wearing my Parrot costume; usually it's an effective deterrent. Embarrass one kid, and the rest fall in line out of fear of the same happening to them.

By the seventh or eighth victim. the class finally catches on that I would follow each and every one of them to their next class, squawking and chirping while flapping my wings, calling out their name at the top of my lungs in a squeaky parrot voice.

I've never had to follow the same kid twice.

Even then we had to call in the Dean and threaten to expel five of them.

And 90% of them had to fail the first half of the course before it dawned on them that they would have to repeat the class again.

So now it's better, if by better they (mostly) remain in their seats and they (mostly) do their work, even if that means copying from a friend. I'll take it.

When I enter the class now, there is a smattering of catcalls, mostly "LEIKEN" followed by two minutes of my making the rounds. Every boy, and some of the girls, want me to acknowledge them with the "ghetto" handshake of pounding hands.

"Mr. Leiken, I've got an important question! Who would win? Iron Man or the Hulk!"

"The Hulk." This is part of our tradition. I've got four boys who are obsessed with super hero match ups. So long as they do their work, I placate them.

Plus I really like talking about superheroes. If my college friends, John, Steven, Vinnie, or even my roommate Christopher were around, I'd be way out of my league, but the kids don't read comics. They only know movies, so among them I'm like a trivia genius.

"Okay, who would win, Superman or the Hulk?"

I grimace. This is going to take a while. "I told you before, Superman. He can fly, and they had a special Marvel vs DC crossover where the two fought and Superman won."

"Okay, who would win, Batman or Superman?"

"Batman." Four boys immediately begin protesting. How the hell can Batman beat Superman? I cut them off. "Batman cheats. He would trick Superman, and failing that use a kryptonite Baterang."

"Okay, who would win? Iron Man or Batman?"

I pause. That is a good question. "I'll tell you.... after you finish this worksheet."

The boys let out a collective awwww.

I make the rounds around the room, talking with students in clumps of two's or three's. Sometimes we can discuss biology; sometimes we go off topic. What can I do? I'm lucky to get them to pay attention for even a few minutes.

"Mister Leiken, Mister Leiken!" one of the girls calls out. "I've been calling your name and you've been like ignoring me for the past five minutes!"

"There is one of me and forty of you. What is it?"

She thrusts the worksheet out in front of her. "I don't understand it!"

I put it down in front of her and have her read the first paragraph. It's about the water cycle. After we read it, I ask her the first question. She answers it.

"Did you even read it?" I ask her.


"Why not?"

She actually looks embarrassed.

"Hey, Mr. Leiken! Yo Momma so fat when she gets on a scale, it says to be continued!"

I look at the clock, five minutes until the end of class. I should yell at him, I should give him a stern lecture, I should do a lot of things.

But I can't let that pass. My mother's honor must be satisfied.

"Oh yeah," I snap back, "Yo Momma so ugly that when they put a bag over her head, and she looks in a mirror, it still breaks."

The class cracks up and lets out a giant oooooohhh!

Unlike the kids, I've got fresh material. I think of yo momma jokes on the way home.

Don't ever mess with a writer.

"Yo momma's so big," I continue, "they had to put in a double wide garage just to let her in the house!"

The class is laughing hysterically. Another, another, they cry! I give the kid a chance to make a come back. If you don't use original material, the kids will call you on it. You can't repeat an old yo momma joke; that earns you no respect.

Time to move in for the kill. "Yo momma is so fat, when she steps on a dollar bill, you get back change, minus fifty cents!"

My heckler is silent. A chorus of boys in the back begins to chant Cu-ler-o! Cu-ler-o! This basically means "girly man."

Who knew that my years of doing "stand up" would pay off in class?

Copyright 2009-11 by Brian Leiken

Biology 9 photo by Sabrena Carter
Hulk photo by Mauro Martins
Man with Michophone photo by Michal Zacharzewski

LA Teacher Blog

Brian Leiken is an L.A. inner-city, special ed teacher and author of Crossed Out, a book about and for his students. Oh yes, he's also my son:)

Crossed Out by Brian Leiken at

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Different Kind of Tree Hugger

I was having a bad dream and woke up to the sound of a buzz saw to discover the mangled corpse of chopped wood chunks and strewn branches, the remains of the beautiful tree that protected my balcony.

The former golf course owners sold the land to a developer; and the tree, a victim of drought and greed, lost its caretaker.

I am up on the second floor, and though the tree was 20 feet away, it was home to mourning doves and hummingbirds. The mature tree was a sanctuary for them and a natural shade and privacy screen for my living space. I felt a mixture of sorrow and anger.

I have a special kinship with trees.

I grew up in a immigrant Chicago apartment building encircled with asphalt and concrete and envied the girl who lived in a house adjacent to the apartments with a backyard filled with trees and a yard to play in. I told myself that someday I would be in a home embraced by trees.

And my wish came true. After I married and was living in a small, bedroom community in central Illinois, we moved onto a five acre, semi-wooded lot with wonderful, century old, sugar maple trees.

With all that land, being a former city kid, I eagerly planted a huge vegetable garden and experienced great delight watching the surrounding trees change their wardrobes with the passing seasons.

We even drank the sap from the maple trees, nectar fit for the gods. Nothing manufactured measures up to fresh maple syrup’s unique and rich sweetness tapped from the source.

One buckeye tree had the honor of housing a tire swing for my children plus offering beautiful mahogany nuts every fall for Xmas wreaths and decorating the fireplace mantle in the winter.

I experienced a cathartic therapy from trimming the branches and letting the trees breathe and more light shine through.

It was as if the trees knew I was caring for them, and I sensed their appreciation.

During a troubled divorce period, pruning the trees helped me redirect my frustration and anger by cutting off the dead branches, allowing new shoots to grow.

But I couldn't protect them from nature’s fury. For two years, tornadoes spiraled through the Midwest with a vengeance.

Spared one year but not the next, a fierce tornado tore my beloved sugar maples out of the ground taking away their beauty and protection.

I took it as a personal loss as my tree friends and guardians were devastated by the unrelenting winds. In the spring I planted redbud trees further back in the forest giving them more shelter from the storms.

When I moved to Virginia, my new home came with stately white oaks for a hammock and a playground for squirrels, Baltimore orioles, blue jays and wrens.

Only on a third of an acre on a cul-de-sac, these trees also attracted possum, occasional raccoons and even a fox.

It was my wooded sanctuary, harmonious and nurturing.

The trees gave me a sense of being grounded and balanced while I watched my children grow up.

Once again nature tested the trees. They were besieged by gypsy moth caterpillars, hordes that were out of control and devouring forests at night.

The white oaks were under attack by a relentless pestilence. Every day I removed the obnoxious caterpillars feeding off the trees and weakening them. The battle seemed endless, but I persisted to save the trees.

During that “infestation” period, I also was fighting an inheritance battle with my father back in the Midwest over my mother’s will which split the proceeds from the house among my father, my brothers and me.

I was the will's executor, but my father was ignoring my mother’s wishes; and I had to hire an attorney to be certain the inheritance was allocated as my mother had wanted.

Battling the gypsy moths helped me release the anger I felt towards my father’s bullying, and the trees served as an outlet for my difficult emotional storm.

Though the tree behind my condo was hauled away, there is still a fragrant orange tree tucked in a corner below that perfumes the breeze and shares its sweet fruit with all the neighbors.

I have a special connection and history with trees. I have cared for them, and they have cared for me providing me pleasure and a release from pain. I am a different kind of tree hugger.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2010-2011 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Tree photo by Joe Zlomek
Raccoon photo by Troy Schulz
Orange tree photo by Jose Luis Navarro

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Grandfathers and Cigars

My Greek Grandfather

It was the Great Depression. My immigrant Greek grandfather’s fruit and vegetable stand in Chicago was defunct. He was broke, but a proud man, too proud to let the other Greek men know how bad things were financially.

To uphold his position within the community, he continued to meet with them in the evenings just as he always had to smoke a cigar and play cards. The nightly ritual was his way of holding on even though he was desperate.

My mother, only 12, adored her father Vasileios, a man who stood tall with erect, stiff posture, strong cheekbones and groomed moustache, an honest, hardworking man who came to America from a small village in Greece to build a new and prosperous life.

To help the family get by, my mother worked long hours at the factory and visited her father faithfully every evening where she discretely slipped a quarter into his jacket draped over his chair to pay for his cigar.

Nothing was ever said…no thank you or acknowledgement of the child’s nightly gift to her father. It would not have been fitting. The ritual continued until his death of a broken heart, according to my mother, from having lost everything, including the American dream.

That is the only story I remember being told about my grandfather, but it gave me a portrait of a proud man who kept his dignity in times of adversity.

My Jewish Grandfather

My father's father, Grandpa Harry, was a true entrepreneur who came from Hungary to also build his fortune in the new world. He started working in Minnesota for the Edward Hines Lumber Co. and soon became an interpreter for the other immigrant men.

He spoke seven languages and was a clever man who seized opportunities wherever he found them. He also became the banker of sorts for the other men helping them as they found their way in a new land.

Grandpa Harry had many businesses, some succeeded, some failed, but he never quit. After the stock market crash, he pawned his wedding ring to pay his bills and start again. Tall for the time, over 6 feet, he dominated others, including his sons but adored his grandchildren, especially the girls.

I was one of his favorites. He gave me my first instrument, a second hand clarinet. He wanted to give me a piano but there was no room for it in our small apartment in Chicago. He also gave me a used typewriter that I still had when I went off to college.

There are many funny stories about Grandpa Harry like the time we woke up to find new bushes he  planted in the dark in our yard while we slept in our new house in the suburbs. We never knew where the shrubbery came from. It was just the way Grandpa did things.

One of my memories of him was his cigars. They were one of his favorite things; there was always a box of cigars with him.

Every time he took one out of the cigar box, he gave me the seal which I immediately made into a shiny ring for my finger.

It was a game we played, a special ritual in the bond we shared.

In my family, a cigar was not just a cigar. My grandfathers' cigars were tokens of affection and love.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009-2011 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Photo of Two Cigars by Josiah Gordon

Sunday, June 5, 2011

"Cap and Gown" by Brian Leiken, Guest Blogger

Six years, five graduations, nine hundred school days.

A relatively short period of time in the lifespan of a human, 900 days.

If all the hours I had spent teaching in school were added up into one continuous, non-stop marathon, at 6.6 hours a day, I'd be only 247 days old.

Six years teaching and I'm still just a baby.

This year only two of the students on my case load are graduating, but only one will be at the ceremony, only one will walk across the stage. The other should have graduated last year, but doesn't want to "walk" when most of his senior class graduated a year earlier.

But the girl who is walking across stage is a success story. I've seen her grown from a shy, dependent girl into a slightly less shy but independent young woman. It's been a struggle: building her confidence, teaching her to believe in herself, getting her to work on her own.

"Looking forward to graduation?" I ask rhetorically.

"I'm not going to walk," she says flatly.


"I don't want to walk. It's stupid."

Oh no, this is not happening. "Graduation is a rite of passage, it only comes once. In life, there are no do-overs. You should go."

"No, Mister. I don't want to, it's embarrassing."

"Embarrassing? Everyone is walking across stage. It will be over in like a second."

"No, it's okay. I don't want to. Graduations are boring."

"Of course they're boring!" I exclaim. "Graduation is supposed to be boring! It's for your parents, and your teachers, and your family! Graduation is for everyone but you!"

The girl looks at the floor, unwilling to meet my gaze.

It occurs to me there is more going on here than meets the eye; the benefit of six years, five graduations and 900 days experience.

"If you don't do this," I continue, "you may live to regret it."

The girl mumbles something. I ask her to repeat herself, leaning in.

"I don't have the money, Mister."

"Money for what?"

"It's a hundred dollars for the cap and gown."

"A HUNDRED DOLLARS! Cold hard cash?"

The girl nods, quietly embarrassed.

"What about your parents?" I ask. "Don't they have the money?" The girl shakes her head. I've known that her family is poor, I once had to "loan" her and her sister money to go see Eclipse. "Do they want you to go?" The girl nods, gaze furtively darting about the room.

"I want you to go the rehearsal today at lunch. You are going to graduate."

"But I don't have the money."

"I'll take care of it. Don't worry about it."

"But, I don't have the money."

"I'll get you your cap and gown. Go."

I go the special ed department first, explaining the situation. Borquez and Khazani immediately start asking their students.

Some seniors short on credits have already bought their cap and gown but won't be needing the gown since they won't be graduating.


An aide who graduated two years ago says he'll bring in his blue and silver cap and gown, after all, he isn't using it. Caps and gowns don't really change; South East's 2005 graduating class would fit right in with this year.

But his father has already thrown the aide's cap and gown away. Turns out he didn't think his son would ever need to use it.

Ms. Owens finds a website that sells the gowns for $15, but time is short and it will cost me through the nose to have it shipped.

Eventually, I go to the head of leadership and ask her if I can buy the gown at cost, or about $50. The head of leadership agrees. Khazani, Martinez and Solorio all help contribute cash.

I go back to the girl, handing her the money. I could have paid for it directly, but I want her to buy it for herself. She deserves that.

Two hours later she enters my room with a small plastic bag containing the gown, cap, a black embroidered sash, and a small medal. (In today's world, graduation is worthy of a medal.)

"I have my cap and gown, Mr. Leiken."

I nod, looking up from where I am helping a student finish up a paper. "Awesome, so how was rehearsal?"

"It was okay."

The girl goes to my window, looking out over the football field, where students are lining up for the senior photo. She stares in silence, twisting the cap and gown bag in her hands in endless loops.

"Aren't you going to join the seniors for the photo?"

"No. It's too hot."

"You should go. Be a part of it."

"No, I don't want to." she answers, staring at the crowd outside.

I stop lecturing her. Sometimes you have to let people do what they want to do. Nothing is said, nothing is spoken. Neither of us is bothered by the silence, the lack of conversation.

The bell rings, and the girl turns. "Goodbye, Mister," she says, exiting the room.

It's her way of saying thanks.

Six years, five graduations, 900 days.

It never gets old.

Copyright 2010-2011 by Brian Leiken

LA Teacher

Crossed Out by Brian Leiken at

Brian Leiken is an LA inner-city, special ed teacher and author of Crossed Out, a book about and for his students. Oh yes, he's also my son:)

Photo of cap and diploma by Mary Gober
Photo of We're done! by Kati Garner

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Memorial Day Reunion

Dad led me there. I know that now. I had gone back to Illinois for a couple days, back to my roots, to the remnants of family still there.

On a wet, early Memorial Day morning, Dad requested that we visit my mother’s grave. I complied, feeling  a sense of obligation to them both.

Dad seemed determined to reunite us at the grave site. I never really knew my father except through my mother’s perceptions and judgments.

There was a family tradition of an annual pilgrimage every Memorial Day to our relatives’ graves. We always packed a spade, bucket, and scrub brush and stopped by the open market for flowers for the gravesite.

I watched the annual ritual of my parents filling the bucket from the nearest pump and scrubbing the flat headstones until the inscriptions could be seen.

As the years passed, the graves seemed harder to find, overgrown under unkempt grass with weeds sunken below the mowing level.

Dead people I had never known were conjured from memories. I was linked to these family ghosts by my mother’s stories and recollections. Over the years, I felt as if I came to know them, and they were no longer strangers.

Today my father and I stopped at a small flower stand near the cemetery. The plant selection was limited to a few shelves of drooping flowers.

Drizzle spattered mud on the leaves. I pruned off the dying petals and soggy leaves to make them more presentable. As always for these occasions, Dad brought a bucket, brush and spade along.

It was eight years since my mother’s funeral, the last time we were all together. At that time I was unable to cry. She had died when my life was coming apart; and I was experiencing another death, my divorce.

But today was different. I couldn’t seem to stop my tears. I couldn’t even speak as I watched my father clear away the debris and clean the gravesite the way I remembered it from so long ago.

As I planted, he spoke of coming to my mother’s grave often to talk to her. He told me that no one would ever stand up for him like my mother did.

He never said he loved her. In fact, he said he was happier with his new wife.

I couldn’t reply. Once again I was in the middle between them.

And then he told me something I never knew… he was always lonely with my mother.

In the quiet rain, I heard his pain and regrets as he apologized, saying there were things he shouldn’t have done and was sorry for.

Could my mother hear him? Did it take this long for there to be peace? He told my mother and me as we completed the gravesite ritual together for the last time.

It was a moment of truth at my mother’s grave and the beginning of forgiveness. It was the day I got to know my father a little better.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2010-2011 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Crying Rose photo by Joanna Kopik

Planting photo by Rodrigo Roveri

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Sweet Music, Sweet Memories

Has music ever taken you back to a place and time, a sort of jukebox of memories that the music brings back as if it were just yesterday?

Sweet music evokes sweet memories.

There seem to be songs attached to moments in our lives that conjure up those unforgettable memories we've stored in our hearts and minds of people and places that we carry with us forever. All it takes is a few notes and we're there.

As I listened to the solo clarinettist masterfully hit the notes so perfectly at the public symphony, I flashed back to when I took up the clarinet because of a handsome Irish boy who played in the school band and whose auburn-haired, freckled sister was my best friend.

The clarinettist's notes transported me to seventh grade and my struggles with the instrument's reed and intricate fingerplay as I tried to hit the notes correctly. My motivation to play was Michael, who didn't seem to know I existed.

I was a gawky, shy girl with a secret crush on a tall, proud boy who was, unbeknowst to him, my Prince Charming, standing proudly in his sky blue and white, satiny band uniform.

It helped that my grandfather found a used clarinet and a music stand (to make it official) at a local pawnshop. Grandpa would have preferred for me to learn to play the piano like my grandmother, but there was no room in our tiny apartment. So it had to be the clarinet.

Unfortunately, hard as I practiced, I had no musical talent. The sounds I created were squawky and screechy; and though I played "I Am a Happy Wanderer" over and over, it never got better. The neighbors in the old Chicago apartiment building didn't complain about my rehearsals, at least not openly.

I had the uniform, the instrument, sheet music and stand, but I clearly was not musically inclined.

However, to be near my secret crush, I continued to faithfully practice "Edelweiss" until I was out of breath, and my cat hid under the bed.

Needless to say, I never got the boy, who didn't even notice me; I don't think we ever had a conversation. He had no idea how I fantasized about our holding hands and my being his girlfriend.

I did look the part in my blue and white cape and marched with the others to the school assembly performance, probably sounding like a scene from The Music Man.

The next year we moved to the suburbs, and the clarinet was put to rest in its weathered case. I never played it again, and no one seemed to mind.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2010 -2011 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Music Band 1 by Robert Proska

Clarinet by Nina

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Exit through the MOCA: Thumbs Up for Street Art by Brian Leiken, Guest Blogger

Banksy's Bat Papi
I don't like modern art.

Modern art doesn't have to be explained, it doesn't have to follow any rules or guidelines; modern art can be formless, shapeless, messy, non-sensical, even ridiculous.

If I were to write a blog with no paragraphs, no sentence structure and no standardized spelling it would be unreadable garbage, literate trash not worth the encrypted bits of data it's written on.

But splatter some paint on canvas, cover a painting in abstract geometric shapes, take a picture of a soup can, and suddenly it's "art."

I despise modern artists - these new age con-men that hide behind their pseudo scientific etymology that criticizes the viewer for not understanding their post-modern, post-minimalist, conceptual-realist, impressionist via post-impressionist, neo-expressionist movement.

The modern artist does not have to be "great," only to have others perceive them as "great"; their art requires no study or great skill - it's meant to be mass produced, copied, emulated. Modern art requires nothing on the part of the artist or the viewer: technique, style, and form are irrelevant; all that matters is how the art makes you "feel."

An eight year old, Autumn de Forest, began producing art pieces when she was five - she's already raked in $200,000. Doesn't matter if she's a child prodigy or if she's just lucky - people like her work because buying an 8-year old's art makes them feel "good."

Not even war has managed to escape the touchy-feely modern day art movement. In the early days of operation "Iraq Freedom" bomber crews would write epithet's on the sides of their bombs:"Take that Camel Jockey!" or "Hope you've got 72 virgins waiting on the other side, Mohammad!"

Reporters took photographs, there was an uproar, and the Air Force apologized, promising a quick stop to the practice of writing insults on bombs. It was evidently okay to blow someone up, just not to call them a name while doing it.

Better to hit me with sticks and stones and break my bones because y'know, names can really hurt me.

One of the newest movements in modern art is "Street Art," an art movement that started about twenty years ago off the streets of New York and LA.

Street artists are modern day surrealists that create guerrilla style art by placing their images on unsanctioned public space.

Many don't consider them artists at all, but unlicensed vandals who should be fined and jailed for spraying "graffiti" on public buildings.

Growing up with '70's and '80's pop culture, street artists don't appear to be interested in redefining art, but simply questioning its meaning by stating it doesn't have any meaning.

In other words, they delight in thumbing their nose at the establishment, especially the post modern art movement.

Last year, Banksy, the Andy Warhol of the street art movement, made a documentary entitled Exit Through The Giftshop. The movie was supposed to be a documentary about Banksy until he takes over the film and spins the cameras on filmmaker Thierry Guetta.

Although Thierry Guetta has no discernible talent, Banksy lends him credibility, transforming Thierry into Mr. Brainwash, a non-talented overhyped genius sensation. A couple testimonials, a write up in the LA Weekly, and Thierry's Brainwash originals transform into priceless gems worth thousands of dollars.

Bat Papi is my favorite.

Starting this weekend the LA museum of contemporary art (MOCA) put on the first major museum "Street Art" exhibition - Art in the Streets.

Like a midwesterner avoiding a vegan restaurant, the MOCA is the kind of museum I would never enter unless I wanted to make myself irrationally angry watching people ogle over puddles of dripping ooze; but for Street Art, I'll make an exception.

Street Art doesn't pretend to be anything; it is just as devoid of meaning as any other kind of modern art, except Street Art is both an incessant celebration of pop-culture and never ending mockery of the modern art movement.

My uncle Bernard is in town, so I decide to take him and my cousin Arlie to the exhibit. We park and Arlie pops for the tickets, $10 a piece.

After nearly running a couple of pedestrians over, we discover we're at the wrong part of the museum, we'll have to take a shuttle to the exhibit which is being held in another part of the MOCA downtown. Ironically this was the best thing we could have done because the line for tickets outside the actual event looks to be about an hour long.

Inside we are greeted by a mural of dead animals covered in doors that function like a macabre pop up book, when the doors are flipped "open" they reveal the animals interior organs. Brains, guts, the digestive system. People open the doors then scurry away in revulsion.

Looking out over the museum the entire building strikes me as a carnival. The MOCA's interior is covered in graffiti, stencil art, and posters with videos playing in the background.

It's packed with Hollywood hipsters wearing ironic T-shirts and coiffed hair, faces masked under thick McNamara glasses, bodies decorated with sleeves of tattoos, wrapped in so many lairs of irony one wonders if there is a person beneath the "look."

The crowd is an exhibit unto itself, young MILF's with adorable children who function not as kids but as fashion accessories, manicured metrosexuals, 5'1 lesbian couples with matching chain tattoos, unshaven intellectuals wearing leather jackets and sneakers, dolled up Asian girls being towed by their dopey white boy boyfriends, Echo Park Bohemians and vogue Westsiders who look like they rarely cross East of the 110, teenage taggers who drool over the cholo graffiti with wonder and envy.

As they say in LA, it's not an event, it's a "happening."

The art is as varied as it is bizarre; some of it I recognize because I've already seen it decorating the streets of LA for years; Shepard Fairey's Andre the Giant entitled "Obey" (he's also done the blue and red Obama poster), Invader's trademark Space Invader coming down to Earth, Lady Pink's Buff Monster - and of course Banksy.

Banksy's I Hate Mondays!

interior subway car two feet wide
There are ceilings hung with paper fighter jets riding skateboards above armored shogun warriors, disembodied arms spray painting buildings, cars pimped out with blue and pink chrome, a 3-D replica of an interior subway car two feet wide, a drum set just sitting out in the open waiting for anyone to play it, murals of cholo's drinking 40's and chola's wielding uzi's dressed as angels.

It takes me a moment to realize that much of the art isn't even on canvas, but spray painted or stenciled into the walls of the MOCA itself - someone is going to have a time cleaning this all up.

"I like it," Bernie declares grandly, "I like it because it's an act of free will. I just can't tell if they are doing it to make a statement or make a buck."

"Probably both."

"I normally hate museums," Arlie adds, "but this doesn't feel like a museum at all."

She's right, it doesn't feel like a museum. The exhibit isn't confined to the art on display, but is a part of the walls themselves, even the crowd feels like a part of the show. This is art not for the elite, but for the masses; subversive, irreverent, flippant - it requires no "specialized" training to appreciate.

Street Art is both a celebration and inditement of the billboards and advertisements that have become such a part of our architecture we can no longer imagine life without them.

I don't like Modern Art, but for Street Art, I'll make an exception.

Banksy's Police Beating Pinata

Copyright 2011 Brian Leiken

LA Teacher

Brian Leiken is an LA inner-city, Special Ed teacher and author of three books for and about his students available on He's also penned I Went Into Teaching for the Money about his first year of teaching in LA. And best of all, he's my son:)

Crossed Out and Messed Up by Brian Leiken at

Monday, April 18, 2011

Greek Easter & Passover: Sharing Food and Feud

Traditional family holidays meant sharing food with a dash of feud.

I have memories of Easter with my original family and Passover with my acquired family.

Just as they gathered annually to celebrate their respective religious beliefs and distinctive holiday dishes, they also shared their personal differences.

My Greek relatives took turns hosting holidays: Christmas at our house; Thanksgiving at my uncle’s; and Greek Easter at my aunt’s home in Chicago’s South Shore. Greek Easter is typically celebrated the week after American Easter.

I recall entering my aunt’s house exclaiming, “Christos Anesti,” (Christ is Risen), hugging my cousins and enjoying the warmth of family bonds, celebrating our reunion since our last holiday together.

Like my Catholic friends, it was our tradition to fast before Easter and then gorge ourselves during a huge feast on Greek Easter Sunday.

Greek Easter was a banquet of mouthwatering spring lamb, mounds of creamy mashed potatoes, authentic Greek salad tossed with black olives and feta cheese accompanied by a bounty of side dishes laden across a long, narrow dinner table. I always tried to sit next to my handsome blonde, blue-eyed cousin who I had a secret crush on.

We crowded around, eagerly gobbling the women's speciality dishes to compensate for our week of  fasting. Though we stuffed ourselves, we always left room for the desserts, including baklava and my favorite powdered-sugar cookies (kourembiathes). And of course, the adults drank ouzo, Greek liqueur.

We looked forward to these family events with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension.

What would our cousins look like since Christmas? What was the latest gossip? At what point would our mother and her brother have their annual argument which was part of the holiday ritual as well?

They had fought for many years, and a truce of sorts was declared for the sake of family during the holiday meals. The peace lasted throughout dinner; and then, on cue, the predictable and loud argument erupted.

They had contrary opinions on just about everything, and neither would give in to the other and remained in a resentful standoff until the next family gathering.

This "feud" ritual  following the hearty, celebratory meal would be re-enacted at the next family holiday dinner.

We cousins understood these family feuds and looked forward to being together for the future disarmament at Thanksgiving or Christmas. The coolness would last until then.

After my marriage, my Easters became Passovers.

For me, Passover rituals seemed solemn compared to the joyous Easters I remembered. During the Seder, we gathered to honor Jewish liberation from persecution and their suffering while enslaved.

All the dishes served had symbolic meanings, and the elders read passages to accompany foods that represented those difficult times.

I participated in the ceremony out of respect for my in-laws but couldn't identify with the occasion.

I couldn’t relate to the unappetizing gefilte fish, unleavened bread and bitter herbs. I came from another tribe and heritage.

I missed the celebration of my original family’s Easter holiday, even with my mother and her brother sniping at each other.

Though the traditions represented a contrast of cultures, customs and foods, the families did have some other "rituals" in common.

My mother-in-law and sister-in-law didn’t get along either, and their cold silences were felt by everyone throughout these obligatory occasions.

The official Passover ritual was strained by their dislike for each other. It, too, was predictable like my mother and my uncle.

It wasn’t expressed loudly like my Greek relatives. After the meal, the women separated from the men and gathered in the kitchen.

By this time, they could no longer tolerate being around each other. The dispute would be acted out as criticism and complaining usually over small things.

Like my original family, my acquired family understood these matters and accepted them. It was part of the ritual of sharing food and feud. Pass the lamb and gefilte fish. Opah! Oy Vey!

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2010-2011 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Sweet by Yucel Tellici

Matzah for Passover photo by Alex Ringer