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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