Category Archives: Writing as a Discipline

Photo Essay of A Few Pieces from the Chicago Institute of Art

Ray and I are in Chicago visiting our friend Shireen Baker and also spending as much time as possible enjoying the art and architecture of this fabulous city.

Here are a few photos of some of the highlights from the Chicago Institute of Art.  Suffice it to say, we are both exceedingly happy to be here on an art vacation, and also getting a chance to spend time with our friend.  Hooray!

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Repost: My Sister’s Eulogy and a Touching Request

Of the 1707 posts that I have written for this blog, the one entitled, “My Sister’s Eulogy Complete with a Few Jokes,” consistently gets the most hits. And today, I had a first. A woman wrote in the comment section of my blog that she had stumbled upon the eulogy for my sister in a google search. She said, (I paraphrase): My dad died on Friday and now I have to write and deliver his eulogy…would you mind if I used yours as a guideline and borrowed a few of the phrases, but used my own examples?”

I told her I would be honored.

I was deeply touched that this tribute to my sister might be used to help another person who is now suffering a profound loss. The woman said that her dad and my sister had dementia in common and that they had both died near the same age.

Talk about connecting on a human-to-human level.

My sister’s birthday is coming up and since she has been brought to mind today, I will share this eulogy here for any who have not read it already. Let is suffice to say that I miss my sister and her gentle ways. My friend who is now far away. I get to visit her again in this eulogy. Just for a little while…

My Sister’s Eulogy Complete with a Few Jokes

Good afternoon. My name is Len Leatherwood and I am Leslie’s younger sister. On behalf of my entire family, I’d like to thank you for coming today to help us celebrate Leslie’s life. We are all here because we loved her. So, thank you.

Leslie. How do I best describe her?

First, my sister had a great sense of humor. With that in mind, let me say that according to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. So, given that statistic, I suspect Leslie is having a good laugh looking down and seeing me quaking in my boots right now. So, thanks, Sis.

All right, back to business. What is the best way to describe Leslie?

I could focus on my sister’s kindness, which was great. Anyone who knew Leslie is aware that she was a kind and gentle person. Or I could talk about her strength, which sent her into an overflowing storm drain to save our brother George from drowning when we were kids. Or, her perseverance, which propelled her to finish her Ph.D., while working full-time as a single mom with two kids. Then again, there is her athleticism, which caused her to be referred to as “the toughest boy on 13th Street” when we were growing up because she loved to play tackle football with the boys. And which kept her running, skiing, golfing earlier in her life and finally walking, walking, walking up until a few days before her untimely death. These are all parts of the Leslie I know and love. All parts, which make up a bigger picture, that’s harder to define.

My sister, even with her dementia, was sensitive. She knew how to read faces and emotions and could say, “Ah, you look a little sad today,” or “Oh, how beautiful you are.” Leslie had a gift of truly seeing you when you spoke to her. And as her dementia progressed and the filters came off, she also had a way of saying exactly what she thought. In the case of my husband and his voice, which gets louder and louder when he’s happy or excited, she’d turn to me and say, “Oh boy, here we go again!”

Leslie felt no need to be the center of attention. Instead, she liked to come into any room and blend in, settling back to observe and quietly participate in whatever was happening. She was comfortable with herself, and this quality made her very good at her work as a psychotherapist. One of the most poignant moments for me during those last days of Leslie’s life at St. Joseph’s Villa was when one of the nurses said, “Oh, yes, I know Leslie. I knew her before.” I didn’t understand until Kevin told me that because Leslie had been a psychologist working with the elderly, she had worked in all of the facilities where she would later come to live. The staff knew her “before,” when she was a fully functioning professional there to aid the residents. I found myself sad and happy at the same time knowing that information. These nurses knew my sister before dementia took her, and they all spoke of her deep compassion. How wonderful that they had a fuller picture of her.

Life has a way of shifting and changing in unexpected directions and Leslie’s life had several of these twists and turns. Who knew that a concussion from a bike accident was going to take such a toll? Who knew her scoliosis would twist her back and reduce her height by 4 inches? How could any of us have predicted that this woman who exercised every day of her life would be dead at 70, when so many other people suffering with dementia and Alzheimer’s live on for years? And yet, here we are, and she is free. Happy, I’m sure, since I said something about living to 100 a few years back and she said, “Oh Lord have mercy, I hope not.” She had not been free of pain in a while by that point. I expect she knew there would be more, not less as time passed.

So, what do I say about my sister? I can say without any doubt that she loved her children, grandchildren, and pets beyond measure. That she valued her family – in whatever configuration – above all else. That she was loyal, decent and kind, smart, well read, athletic and a risk-taker. She loved a good joke and she loved a big hug and she liked broccoli more than anyone else I’ve ever met. She also had a secret passion for sweets and loved to sneak them to my kids when they were little. Was she perfect? Far from it. Was she good? Absolutely. Will we miss her? Without a doubt. Is she happy now? I’d like to think so. And I can say that my life is better for her presence because of her enduring love, as well as the legacy that she has left in the form of her two fine children, Kevin and Jim, and her grandchildren, Eli and Sophie (and her beloved, Addie). I expect the rest of you feel the same way.

A minister told me once that death is healing and I can feel that here. Leslie is now whole and we are still healing as we hold her close in our hearts. Any time we hear someone happily whistling, I expect many of us will think of Leslie, who happened to be a whistler of the first order.

And since my sister loved a good laugh, it is only fitting that I include a few quips:

George Carlin liked to say, “I’m always relieved when someone is delivering a eulogy and I realize I’m listening to it.”

Garrison Keillor said, “They say such nice things about people at their funerals that it makes me sad to realize that I’m going to miss mine by just a few days.”

And Bob Monkhouse is quoted as saying, “I want to die like my father, peacefully in his sleep, not screaming and terrified, like his passengers.”

Hopefully, my bad jokes have made Leslie (and you) smile.

So because I know Leonard Cohen was one of Leslie’s favorite songwriters (as well as my own), I’d like to end with the chorus to his song, Anthem, which, lucky for you, I will not be singing. This is particularly fitting because the bells here at St. Mark’s Cathedral will ring 70 times in honor of Leslie’s life immediately following the service.

Ring the bells
The bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Thank you for joining us today, and thank you for loving my sister.

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Publication of my flash memoir,”My Oldest Brother”

The Provo Canyon Review wrote me the other day and said:

Hi Len,

We are delighted to say we would love to take your latest submission, if it is still available for publication.  Please also furnish the bio and photo you’d like to accompany your piece.
Congratulations again for a job well done.
Chris and Erin
Here is the link:
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From Rural Texas to Beverly Hills: A Few Observations

I have lived in Beverly Hill (or BH to the locals) for 21 years. I came to LA with my family when my brother Jim was sick and needed support during the last year and a half of his life, and we moved to Beverly Hills because we needed a good school district for our kids. Who knew what unlikely lessons I would learn from living here?

1) Everyone in Beverly Hills hesitates when people outside BH ask them where they live. Most – including my family and me – hem and haw and say, “LA.” Only when people press with, “Where in LA?” do most of us answer. Why you ask? Aren’t you proud of where you live? The answer is prejudice. Most people have a stereotypic view of Beverly Hills residents, mainly that everybody is rich and snotty. People get a look in their eye when you say, “I live in Beverly Hills,” and it’s not a particularly friendly look.

2) Not everybody in BH is rich. Many are well off, of course, and some are rich – usually the “above Sunset Boulevard” set, but there are also a fair number of average citizens in Beverly Hills. The people who do “well enough.” There are even some people who have several generations of family living together in one apartment, primarily so their kids can attend the school district.

3) One of my biggest misconceptions when moving here was that people were so rich that they didn’t have “real” problems. Imagine my embarrassment when a BH housewife and mother of one of my daughter’s friends sat in my living room and told me about her child with severe birth trauma and her father, who lived far away and was dying. I felt so ashamed that I had pre-judged her as someone who couldn’t possibly understand how “the rest of us” feel.

4) Beverly Hills 90210 is not an accurate reflection of Beverly Hills and especially BHUSD. When we first moved here, I expected to see the non-actor equivalents of the 90210 show on the schoolyard in Beverly Hills. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that BHUSD has a very large contingent of Persians Jews and that in the elementary school my kids attended, 26 nations were represented. My children were in the distinct minority as Christians and I would soon need to educate myself on Jewish traditions.

5) Iranians here call themselves Persians and have a poignant history. Don’t mind me, but before moving to BH, I hadn’t spent a lot of time on Iranian history. I have had the occasion now to know many Persian Jewish families. Many of my students are Persians. I have heard poignant stories from many of their parents’ and grandparents’ escape for Iran when the Shah was overthrown, and their arrival in the United States with traumatic memories and sadness over leaving their beloved homeland. I have had the opportunity to learn much about this lovely and lively culture.

6) Jews come in as many varieties as Christians. Probably most people already know this, but coming from a little Texas town where there was only one Jew, and he was only half and a practicing Unitarian, well…to say I was underexposed is an understatement. Most of the Jews I know are Reform, but not all. It’s been educational to learn about this rich religious tradition and to get to know people who range from being Jew “ish” to Orthodox.

7) You really can see celebrities at restaurants and in the grocery stores here. Not always, but often enough. I have seen over the years a whole range of well-known people: Arnold driving down our street in his Hummer, Ben Stiller jogging down our street, Katie Holmes (a while back) walking in West Hollywood, Rod Stewart at Coffee Bean, Keanu Reeves waiting outside a movie theater, Jane Fonda in the elevator in the parking garage of that same theater (ArcLight Hollywood), David Arquette in an auto accident near our house, Lindsey Lohan emerging from the high-rise across the street from our house, Dave Navarro at a local bakery, Christina Ricci sitting at the next table at a restaurant, Jeff Goldblum grabbing take-out from a restaurant where we were having breakfast, K.D. Lang at Whole Foods. More, I’m sure, but those are the ones that quickly come to mind. That’s always a little fun. The whole “celebrity sighting” thing. Half the fun of living in LA.

8) People in Beverly Hills are just like people everywhere else. I have spent a lot of time in Beverly Hills working as a volunteer with PTA. I coordinated the parenting workshops for the BHUSD for over ten years – that was my gift to the district for educating my children so well – which meant one workshop in each of the five schools every year. I have met with the core people in each of these schools many times and I’ve come to realize that the same type of people in every town and city across the U.S. (and the world) join together to help children. They are down-to-earth, generous with their time, and civic-minded. Never mind if they arrive in a ten-year-old Toyota or a brand new Bentley, they are cut from the same cloth.

9) Beverly Hills has no discount stores. Damn. I have to drive 45 minutes to get to the nearest Costco. And don’t think I don’t see half of Beverly Hills there. They are there.

10) People in Beverly Hills (and LA) dress down, not up. People are more dressed up in North Dallas then on Rodeo Drive, for the most part. “California casual” means you can walk into Gucci in your shorts and flip-flops, and salespeople never know if you’re rich or not. That is a gift for someone who is not driven by fashion. Not to say fashion is not here. It is everywhere. That same woman sitting in her sweats at the restaurant for breakfast, might be wearing Prada tonight. The difference is she will be dressed up to go somewhere, not just heading down to the local bakery for a croissant.

11) People are pretty here. It’s true. Go to the local mall or out to Runyon Canyon for a hike and be astounded by the number of beautiful people. It is not surprising since many “beauties” move here in hopes of a television or movie career and stay long after that dream fades. Still, it makes people-watching extra pleasant.

12) It doesn’t really matter where you live. I love LA and I love California, but I’m a Texas girl through and through. I bring those hometown values with me here and I take my city experiences back to Texas, where I love to spend lots of time. You take you with you wherever you are so places are not nearly as important as one might think.

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Family Visiting and Flea Sunday at Church

It is 10:30 at night and Sarah, Luna and Nico are asleep in our guest bedroom while Ray, Cordelia and Frankie are asleep in our room. I will soon follow. We have had the treat of a two night visit with Sarah and the kids while Gregorio is off on a business trip. Tomorrow the kids and Sarah will join us at St. Thomas the Apostle, Hollywood for the blessing of the animals. Cordie and Frankie will be among many from the canine family trotting up to the altar rail for a blessing.

I am Master of Ceremonies tomorrow, which means I have to go early and make sure everybody is doing what they are supposed to be doing and are in their proper places. Luckily, I am still in training so I won’t have to take on “Flea Sunday” without help at my side. Otherwise, it might prove too much at this juncture.

Off to bed to rest up for what will no doubt be an eventful morning tomorrow.

Hope you all sleep well, my friends. I’ll be checking back in tomorrow.

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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.

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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: