Repost: Childhood Play as a Clue to Ideal Career

You know how sometimes you read that if you go back to what you loved doing when you were a little kid – 4, 5, or 6 – then that will tell you what your ideal occupation should be? Well, in my case, this is exactly true since when I was a little girl, my favorite thing in the world was to teach my imaginary students all about reading and writing.

When I was a little girl, I had my own schoolroom (the south porch) where I “taught” my students. I went to Woolworth’s Five and Dime and bought not only writing and phonics workbooks, but also grade books in which I kept meticulous records of my students’ attendance and grades. I made up names for all of my students and each had marks for participation, as well as homework and test grades. I stood up at the front of my imaginary class and used my little chalkboard to go over grammar concepts. I called on students, reprimanded them for talking, and praised them for trying their best. Clearly, I was a child with an active imagination and a deep love of teaching.

Fast forward a few years, and there I was getting my Master’s degree in Counseling and starting off in the field of Mental Health. Lord knows, I really wanted to teach, but counseling was a close second and paid a bit more. Then my husband came along and lured me into the world of antiques and off I went on the adventure of learning about art, antiques, history, buying and selling, and small business ownership. That was an education in itself, but I must say as much as I enjoyed all of that, I still longed to teach. I wanted my students and my classroom back in my life. I couldn’t shake the allure of chalk dust on my fingertips.

Then, I came to LA and after my brother died and we were trying to figure out a way to survive here, I answered five blind ads for teaching jobs in the LA Times, got five interviews and five job offers. I must admit that it was mid-summer and these schools were desperate for teachers, but somehow I landed a job at one of the top private elementary schools in LA, the movie industry school. I saw Jack Nicholson bringing his children to school and Jamie Lee Curtis walking through the halls. I was hired to teach 4th grade Language Arts and, of course, I was in heaven. No longer imaginary students, but real ones and they were smart and excited and loved to write.

The problem came in the form of money – or lack of it – since even though that school charged a hefty tuition, I was down at the bottom of the totem pole and my salary was hardly enough to help support our family in rural Texas, much less Los Angeles. So, after one year and a long talk with my husband, I decided to go look for a job out in the “real world,” hopefully with a higher salary attached. In the meantime, I had a few deep-pocketed parents who approached me to work with their kids during the summer while I looked for a job. Was I willing to teach writing to their kids privately? They would be happy to pay me well if I would.

That was 16 years ago. Those students turned into more students and here I am sitting in my living room where I sometimes actually pull out a chalkboard and go over grammar. I don’t have to have a grade book, but I have lots of workbooks and I get a stream of students coming in for small group lessons and one-on-one. They range from 4th grade all the way to adults. I praise them when they do well, shush them when they’re too talkative, and generally recreate my 5-year-old classroom almost every day. And I couldn’t be happier.

There clearly is wisdom in looking at what you loved when you were a kid to help you gain clarity about your career. It certainly has worked for me. I could never shake that love I felt for teaching when I was five. I hope I’ll get to continue until I’m seventy-five.


Orange Picking Day in Ojai

We are up at the orange grove with  two sets of out of town friends: Jan and Richard Davies from Wales and Jared Tredway from Texas. This is a treat in itself since these are folks who appreciate the rustic charm of the grove. It also gave us the chance to be here when the pickers arrived to strip our trees of all the ripe oranges (the green ones are in mid growth).  Here are photos of Rich and Jan plus the pickers, who arrived promptly at 6:30 am. 

The pickers were a lively group, chatting from one tree to the other as they worked. One sang as he picked. Another brought a boom box and had happy Latin music playing. They smiled as I snapped their pictures. A big truck came and gathered up the large white boxes full of oranges headed to Sunkist.  A neighbor visited and remarked, “Your trees are beautiful.”  Overall, a positive event. 

We have had a lovely and relaxed time. Tomorrow it is back to LA for me, off to San Luis Obispo for the Welsh and the continuation of a project here in Ojai for Ray and Jared.

I am grateful to have such a refuge to share with family and friends. What a gift. 

Two Thumbs Up: Hell or High Water

Tonight we saw the new movie starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster called Hell or High Water. This was shot in New Mexico, but the setting is West Texas. I don’t want to say much about the film in case you see it, which I would highly recommend. Superb acting and a story that explores several major themes: brotherly love, bad choices, duty, poverty, and justice.

A definite must-see.

Here’s the trailer:

Repost: Best Chicken Noodle Soup Recipe EVER

I have made one of the most delicious chicken noodle soups that I’ve ever tasted and I want to share the recipe with you. The key is making the stock from a whole chicken, of course, and then using that meat for the soup. But the other nice addition is the use of Chinese noodles instead of regular egg noodles. A third element is to use LOTS of celery and a normal amount of onion, garlic and carrots, which are sautéed before adding to the soup base. Finally, the seasoning is simple: only salt and pepper and garlic. No basil, oregano or thyme. The simplicity of the seasoning allows the chicken stock flavor to stand out and the profusion of celery makes for a clean taste. This is my most successful and satisfying chicken noodle soup recipe ever so feel free to give it a try. I have been eating on mine for the past several days and would be happy to have it again tomorrow and the next day. It is that good.

Here is the recipe:

Chicken Stock and Boiled Chicken

1 whole free-range chicken (about 3½ pounds), rinsed, giblets discarded
2 carrots, cut in large chunks
3 celery stalks, cut in large chunks
2 large white onions, quartered
1 head of garlic, halved
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper


Place the chicken and vegetables in a large stockpot over medium heat. Pour in only enough cold water to cover (about 3 quarts); too much will make the broth taste weak. Toss in the bay leaves, and peppercorns, and allow it to slowly come to a boil. Lower the heat to medium-low and gently simmer for 1 to 1½ hours, partially covered, until the chicken is done. As it cooks, skim any impurities that rise to the surface; add a little more water if necessary to keep the chicken covered while simmering.

Carefully remove the chicken to a cutting board. When its cool enough to handle, discard the skin and bones; hand-shred the meat into a storage container.

Carefully strain the stock through a fine sieve into another pot to remove the vegetable solids. Use the stock immediately or if you plan on storing it, place the pot in a sink full of ice water and stir to cool down the stock. Cover and refrigerate for up to one week or freeze.

Recipe for Chicken Noodle Soup

Serves 1
8 oz fresh noodles
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 tablespoon oil
1 1/2 cups homemade chicken broth
1/2 cup water
4 fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced
4 slices carrot 2 celery sliced stalks
1 dash white pepper
Salt to taste
4 oz chicken, boiled, cooked, and hand-shredded into pieces

Prepare your noodles first by boiling the noodles al dente. Rinse the noodles with running water, drain and set aside.
Stir-fry the garlic in the oil until they turn light to golden brown. Add onions, celery, mushrooms and sauté.

Prepare the broth by bringing the chicken broth and water to boil.
To serve, add the noodles in a bowl, and top with the shredded chicken on top. Ladle the soup on top of the noodles and top with the sautéed vegetables. Serve immediately. If you like, you can serve it with cut red chilies in soy sauce.

chicken soup

Repost: My Father’s Words

These are things my dad used to say:

1) “That old dog won’t hunt.” This meant that excuse won’t work; that plan isn’t any good; that behavior isn’t what it should be, etc.
2) “Hasta La Stinko” This was accompanied by a smile and a wave to a bunch of teenagers who seemed to constantly occupy our kitchen.
3) “If everybody would just wash the dishes they use and put them away, we would never have a sink filled with dirty dishes.” I still don’t have a dishwasher and I find myself repeating this phrase as often as my dad must have said it. It is the truth, after all.
4) “If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all.” My father was one of the nicest people I have ever met. He didn’t spend time saying mean things about people. He didn’t believe in that. Instead, he focused on the positive. That may be why so many people regarded him as their friend. He was a genuinely kind-hearted human being.
5) “Make friends, one at a time.” This meant walk into a room and just turn to the person next to you and introduce yourself, then move on through the room getting to know people, one person at a time.
6) “I believe I’ll go up for my nap.” This was said everyday after lunch for my entire childhood. Daddy would sleep for an hour and then proceed with his day.
7) “Whenever you meet someone, look them straight in the eye and extend your hand so you can give them a firm handshake. Just say, ‘Hello. I’m Len Leatherwood. Now what’s your name?’” This has served me well over the years, for sure.
8) “A man needs a woman who is strong enough to pull a plow in hard times.” My dad was raised on a farm. This was often in response to my question, “Am I too fat?”
9) “Your body is in perfect proportion.” This was the other response to my question, “Am I too fat.”
10) “Have I told you today that I love you?” My dad said this to me every day of my life until he died.
11) “Could you be any cuter?” My dad was happy to have a little girl back in his life since my sister, who was 11 years older than I am, was his only other daughter.
12) “Stop chewing that gum, you look like a cow chewing its cud.” This somehow never deterred me from gum chewing.
13) “Gun Smoke (or Bonanza or Paladin or The Rifleman) is on!” My dad loved all the westerns on TV and we spent a lot of time watching these shows together.
14) “You’re a little jewel.” Happy words for a daughter to hear.
15) “You’re a gem-dandy.” Again, nothing nicer than these words of praise.
16) “Is your mother over at that church again?” My dad was a churchgoer, but not quite as devoted as my mother.
17) “I’ve cooked up a mess of mountain oysters for the boys at the barn. They’re coming over to eat them this evening.” Mountain oysters, for those of you who don’t know, are bull calves’ testicles.
18) “Come go with me to feed the cows.” My dad went every afternoon out to the pasture north of town to feed our cows. I often went with him and, if I were lucky, he’d let me drive the old truck through the pasture once we had closed the gate and went bumping down to where we threw out the bales of hay. I loved those trips.
19) “Look at how pretty that alfalfa is out in that field!” My dad used to drive slowly down the Farm to Market roads and comment on the alfalfa, corn, cotton, or maize that was growing. I remember being impatient that we were going so slowly. Now I can appreciate how focused my dad was on being in the moment. A good lesson in life. Pay attention and marvel at what surrounds you.
20) “The people in your family are the most important people in your life.” My dad was close to every one of his 9 brothers and sisters and he expected us to be the same with our siblings. We all have been close, as well as close to our cousins. That intimacy has brought a lot of joy to my life, not to mention deep friendships.



A Letter to a Long-Dead Friend

I was thinking about your death the other day. About how you had been reluctant to let me know you had lung cancer, and then pretended you were getting better just before you died. I was disappointed that you didn’t trust me enough to tell me the truth, or was it that you just couldn’t tell yourself the truth? I guess I’ll never know. It seemed more than coincidental that you died on the day that your propane tank ran out. But then again, you always were a practical sort.

We arrived two days later in the dead of winter in north eastern Missouri and met your sons at your home. They had missed your death by a few hours because they had gotten stoned on the way to the Houston airport and missed their flight. Your daughter-in-law who stayed at home swore she saw you walking in her back yard at the exact time that you passed away. I wondered about that since you had made it clear to me that she wasn’t high on your list of favorite people, and as a new ghost couldn’t you have chosen instead that old Chevy van your boys were driving ever so slowly? They would have been happy to see you.

I think you would have been pleased with the turnout of the Amish who came to pay their respects. They clearly appreciated the time you had spent driving them to and fro to town or to weddings or funerals in your van. They came that cold night in dark blues and blacks, the women in their bonnets and shawls, the men in their waist coats and dress pants, the children little miniatures of their parents. They stood in a circle round your dining room table where you lay in state in one of their homemade pine coffins. They remained there in silence for several minutes before the women turned and started serving the pies and cakes they had brought and filling big mugs with steaming coffee that we had brewed up for the occasion. The Amish were in no hurry to leave. They stood in small groups and chatted among themselves, leaving us “English” to do the same. After an hour or so, they headed out into the cold to their horses and buggies and quietly climbed inside. The sky was cold and clear with no city lights obscuring the view of the Milky Way or Orion. The air was clean as it had followed the same path you had when you’d tried to outrun your past, first in Canada and then in the US.

Back inside, I sat with your family and friends around the kitchen table and we told stories of you and your exploits. How you’d pulled drowned rats out of the cistern of that very house when you’d moved in and only boiled the water for a day or two before deciding that was good enough. How your dog had kept you warm when you’d fallen two nights prior, before a friend had discovered you prone on your kitchen floor, in the coma from which you would not emerge. How when my husband and your younger son were moving your body from the undertaker’s van into the house, your son broke down in tears and left my husband holding all 5’ 8” and 150 pounds of you in his arms, dead-weight. “She had the last laugh, for sure,” he said, knowing too well what a love/hate relationship you two had had.

I couldn’t believe you were dead so soon, only 64, when you had survived so much: World War II in Germany, the dual suicides of your parents when the Russians invaded, the “scales falling from your eyes” when the camps were liberated and a Jewish woman knocked on your door to ask if you had a comb, the years post-War as a German woman in England with a sadistic new husband who hated your German sons. How could something as small as the endless cigarettes you smoked finally succeed in bringing you down?

You knew I was angry that you had harshly disciplined my oldest daughter when she had “misbehaved.” You narrowed your eyes when I said, “If you ever touch her or any of my children again in anger, I will throw you out of my house without a word.” Perhaps that’s why you didn’t want to tell me about your illness. Maybe you thought my reaction was overly dramatic. After all, your second husband had thrust your oldest son in a water barrel and held him there by his heels. You said you picked up a brick to hit him, but he brought the child up out of the water just in time. Perhaps you thought that spanking with a board or a light slap to the face were nothing in comparison. You surely could tell that I didn’t give a good god damn what you thought when it came to the welfare of my children.

The day of your funeral was cold and gray and filled with the sound of horses and buggies as the Amish formed a procession to their cemetery. They had already dug your grave in that cold ground before we came and then used ropes to lower your casket into the earth while we watched. Each person walked by and tossed a handful of dirt on top of your casket and then all the men grabbed shovels and quickly filled in the hole. I knew you’d be pleased that you were on top of a hill looking out on pasture land; that the Amish made an exception and allowed you, an English driver, to be buried among them; that your closest family and friends were there to see you properly planted.

I do miss you. I miss your passion and vigor; your gypsy nature and sense of adventure. Your big laugh, gold-sprinkled front tooth, your deep-blue eyes.
You were the first woman I’d ever met who lived life like a man, never limiting your vision or considering a task too big. I loved that you travelled cross-country without a thought; kept a German shepherd as a guard dog so you could walk at night whenever and wherever you pleased. I admired how free you were of all the fears that women share. Of strangers, dark alleys, and breakdowns on a lonely road.

Not you.

Too bad your temper got the best of you when it came to my kids. That breach was not an easy one to mend no matter how deep our affection. After all, it required looking a situation straight in the face and naming what was going on.

Trusting in the truth.

I hope you wander across that pasture land and enjoy the open country and the bright shimmering stars. You deserve some freedom and peace after that life of yours. You deserve some peace indeed.


A Child’s View of My Adult Life

What would the child I once was think about the adult I have become?

I think she would be happy with much of my life. She would love the orange grove, my children, their partners, Luna and Nico, plus she would think Ray is funny. She would be pleased that I write and that I am also a writing teacher. This would make her smile. She would wonder why in the heck I don’t ride my bicycle more or swim or take more time to hang out with my friends or by myself doing nothing. She would love that I create worlds in my head – novel writing – and she would be extremely pleased that I enjoy doing this. She would wonder why I don’t go almost every day to spend time at the ocean because she knows that I am restored when I do that. She would also be happy that I have expanded my knowledge in literature, music, art and antiques. She would be glad that I enjoy cooking and have developed some tasty recipes. She would be pleased that I have kept the Episcopal church in my life since that little girl spent a lot of time as a child in that church and felt a real sense of community there. She would also be glad that I have a Texas home so that I can stay in touch with my roots. She’d be happy that I have 2 dogs and a cat since we always had dogs and cats at the same time. She would be especially pleased that I stay in touch with many of my childhood friends. She would wonder when I am going to travel more outside of the country, and she would be glad that I have done as much traveling as I have. She would be exceedingly pleased that I now live in California, especially since that is coupled with going “home” as often as I can. And she would be proud of the fact that my husband is also my best friend.  She would wonder when I’m going to get a horse and start riding routinely, and she would think it was odd that I haven’t already written and published many novels by now.  She would wonder why it’s taking me so long to take my writing seriously and also carve out the time I need to achieve my goals.  She would be glad, however, that my life is not one-sided, but rather multi-faceted.  That might please her the very most.



Flash Fiction, Memoir and Essay

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