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piece of cake

I love cake. It’s a little slice of joy. Whether one’s tastes run to the simplicity of a perfect piece of pound cake or the extravagance of a multi-tiered, multi-filled wedding cake, the pleasure is the same. Sweet, satisfying, dare I say soulful.

And while I have baked my share of cakes — everything from brownies (they do so count!) to ganache-topped chocolate sheets, from Boston cream pies (again, they count as cake) to glazed pumpkin bundts, from chocolate chip sour cream loaves to angel food and devil’s food layers — I have a confession to make. I really prefer when someone else — that is, a bakery — does the baking.

There’s just something about bakery cakes. And here’s another confession — I’m not talking about chic bakeries overflowing with croissants and opera cake and fruit tarts, whose menus offer a gourmand’s selection of pastries almost too beautiful too eat — and too complicated to love.

I’m talking about the kind of bakeries I grew up with — Jewish-style bakeries — whose fare included cakes and cookies and danishes and rye breads and challahs. There’s one located about a half-hour from where we live — too far to make the trip just for the sweets (thankfully, or I’d be eating them every single day), but close enough to visit every couple of months when other errands take me in that direction.

Bakeries like this don’t just spring up — they’ve been around for decades. And in their glass cases, which you can peruse as you wait for your “take-a-number-ticket” number to be called, is a treasure of treats. Golden, braided challahs just calling your name; warm from the oven, caraway-seed-scented rye breads just waiting for the request to be sliced. There are the by-the-pound cookies — small gems dipped in chocolate with raspberry filling; or green, pink, and yellow layered bar cookies topped with chocolate; or tiny almond-paste-filled horns — as well as large single cookies covered with multi-colored sprinkles. And the danishes — chocolate or custardy sweet cheese — are enough to make any cup of coffee rejoice. All redolent with that unmistakable aroma of sweetness and deliciousness and love.

Lest you think I exaggerate, visit a bakery like this for yourself. Start by giving in to the epitome of the classic cookie — the black and white. A vanilla cake-like disk that measures probably five inches across, iced half in chocolate and half in vanilla. Each bite (and getting a bite of both flavors is the best) can transport you for just a couple of minutes to a place where goodness reigns, where comfort abounds, and where pampering one’s self is not only permitted but encouraged.

But what about traditional cakes, you ask. Because this particular bakery sells most of its cakes either whole or in slices, I can have my favorite without overdoing it (is it overdoing it if I buy five slices of five different cakes?). There is the marble checkerboard, the cinnamon babka, the birthday cake topped with pink buttercream roses, the light-as-air sponge, the German chocolate, the lemon poppy seed loaf (I’m starting to sound like Tom Cruise in Cocktail, rattling off his list of specialties). And, my all-time favorite, the seven-layer cake.

Seven layers of yellow cake separated by fluffy, light-chocolate frosting, iced in sweet, rich, dark chocolate. I’ve loved it since I was a kid — especially the chance to separate the layers and eat each one individually. All for me.

And so it was, yesterday, when I finally made my way to this bakery after more than a year, that seven-layer cake (one perfect slice) was my choice. I couldn’t wait to bring it home. While I waited for the person helping me to wrap it in its cardboard box with string (from a hanging dispenser, in the spirit of all bakeries like this), an elderly woman approached me.

“Did I hear you ask for seven-layer cake?” she asked. “Where do they have that?”

I showed her and she smiled at me. “It’s my favorite,” she confided.

“Mine too,” I told her.

She nodded. “And it’s my birthday,” she went on. She looked around to be sure no one else was listening and whispered, “I’m 85 today, can you believe it? I think that’s deserving of a piece, don’t you?” She giggled.

“I absolutely do,” I said. “Happy birthday!”

I wished I could hug her but, things being the way they are these days, I couldn’t. So I did the next best thing. While she was still waiting to be helped at the other end of the counter and I was paying for my slice, I paid for her cake too.

“Please tell that sweet lady ‘happy birthday’ when she comes over to pay,” I requested of the person at the register, who responded with a smile and a nod. “It’s her day to be celebrated.”

And that, I decided, is the power of cake. It makes you feel good — and do good things.

Two forks up.

©2021 Claudia Grossman

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animal quackers

Remember that childhood game of duck, duck, goose? For the uninitiated, here’s a quick explanation. A group of kids (the more the better — an entire kindergarten class, for example) sits cross-legged in a circle on the ground. One child walks around the circle, tapping each seated child on the head, saying “duck” each time. Whenever the tapper (aka “It”) chooses, she anoints one child as “Goose” and takes off on a run. Goose gets up and chases It (who now has a good lead on Goose) around the circle, attempting to tag It out before It sits down in Goose’s previous place. Goose takes over the role of It, and the fun continues.

(For some kids, that is. For a neurotic little girl like me, the play was fraught with anxiety. “What if I’m called ‘goose’ and get tangled up trying to stand? What if I trip over my feet running around the circle trying to tag the bigger / faster / not-at-all clumsy person who tapped me? What if the person I tap gets up really fast and manages to tag me out? Why can’t we all just go back inside the classroom and have quiet time?” You get my drift.)

But this spring, “duck, duck, goose” got a whole new meaning. To wit:

One of B. and my favorite places to go each week is Descanso Gardens — a beautiful park here in Los Angeles that is filled right now with the most stunning blooms. Roses, cherry blossoms, tulips, lilacs, camellias, azaleas — it’s really a fantasy land, even by La-La-Land standards.

A trip to the gardens last week brought something new — a mother goose (Mother Goose?) leading five week-old baby geese on a walk (more like a waddle). To say those goslings were adorable is an understatement. Tiny, fuzzy, tripping over their little webbed feet — it was truly one of life’s “aww” moments, and one you just don’t get to see very often living in the city.

Until this week, when those tiny goslings (I just had to name one of them Ryan) were replaced by a family of ducklings. Yup. While hiking through the gardens we came upon a mother and father mallard duck (he brightly colored, she too busy mothering to bother with makeup) taking their six brand-new little ones for one of the ducklings’ first swimming lessons. One baby seemed reluctant to take the plunge (“Just wait until you have to play ‘duck, duck, goose,’ kid,” I thought sympathetically), but with mom’s nudging he got in the water and began to paddle those little feet. Nature at work.

But even those garden sightings were less remarkable than what we encountered a few blocks from home in our city neighborhood. There, waiting at a red light, at a heavily trafficked intersection where freeway entrance ramp meets busy thoroughfare, we saw it.

Me: (shouting suddenly) Duck, duck, goose!

He: That’s cute, honey. I guess I don’t need the hearing in my right ear anymore.

Me: No, really — duck, duck, goose!

He: Yeah, I get it, we just saw baby ducks. What’s with the volume?

Me: Look! (pointing being added to shouting) Duck, duck, goose!

And, there, parading right in front of us in a single row, was a mother duck (or goose) followed by a line of four of her offspring, all marching in single file. In the crosswalk. At the WALK signal. Right across that busy LA street.

And right onto the freeway entrance ramp.

Me: “Nooo!”

He: “Whaaat?”

Me: “They’ll get killed on the freeway! Quick! Make a right turn onto the ramp — we’ve got to be sure they don’t get run over!”

He: “What the –?”

Me: “Just do it — please!”

What I thought we could do to protect the procession, I have no idea. But in my moment of “duck, duck, goose” anxiety from when I was a little kid, I knew I had to try something. Before the sweet little feathered family got tagged out by oncoming traffic. Before duck soup became more than a Marx Brothers movie.

Fortunately for everyone, Mama Duck knew what she was doing. She led her little procession onto the freeway shoulder, where they then managed to squeeze through an opening in a chain-link fence and back off again. As for us, we took the next exit and headed back home.

No harm, all fowl.

©2021 Claudia Grossman

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affogato about it

Raise your hand if you’re friends with caffeine. Me too. Like most people I know, I’ve sipped it for years. Not coffee — I just don’t like the taste. But tea, hot and iced, most certainly; and Diet Coke (more so when I was younger), yes. In fact, the only person I know who doesn’t indulge now and then is B. He doesn’t care for coffee and his beverage of choice is always water. He’s a purist — it’s not even sparkling water. Just plain, no-bubbles, no-flavors-added H2O.

What’s funny is that, unlike most of us who enjoy that cup of coffee or tea or caffeinated soft drink partly because of the bit of buzz involved, B. is high-energy all the time. I mean any time of day. Whether it’s at the start of his 8 a.m. class or at the end of his evening class (9:30 p.m. or so), he’s equally brimming with energy. Annoyingly so. And while you might reach for a latte or I a Diet Pepsi (I’ve got no side in the cola wars), he doesn’t. He’s just naturally caffeinated, I guess.

But being naturally energized all the time doesn’t mean you can handle caffeine. I’d been telling him that for years but I guess he didn’t believe me — until that one fateful night. One that shall forever be known in our lives as The Affogato Incident. To wit:

It happened during what had been a very mellow vacation for us in Portland, Oregon. We’d rented a house in the artsy Hawthorne / Belmont district for a few days and had fallen in love with the area, particularly the natural beauty of the Columbia River Gorge and Mt. Hood, just a short drive away from where we were staying. After spending the day amidst the waterfalls and lavender farms, we returned to the city for a late dinner at a small neighborhood place. Portland is renowned for its Northwest cuisine using farm-to-table ingredients in innovative ways, and this restaurant did not disappoint. And, it being the last day of vacation, we decided to treat ourselves to dessert. (Who am I kidding — we have dessert most days on vacation. Come on, it’s vacation.)

That’s when B. spotted affogato on the menu — homemade Madagascar vanilla ice cream topped with a pouring of hot espresso. I did my best to dissuade him, knowing that the result would not be a pretty one.

Me: What about coffee gelato? You love gelato, and the coffee flavor will be sweet. (Attempting to steer him in an alternate direction — anywhere away from the espresso)

He: No. The affogato has vanilla gelato in it. How strong can the espresso taste be?

Me: Pretty strong. And it’s way caffeinated. And it’s late.

He: Nope, I want to try it. Everyone in the movies always orders espresso. I want to see what the fuss is all about. I can handle it.

Me: You can’t handle the truth.

And a few moments later, when the waiter took our order:

Waiter: (to B.) You want the affogato with decaf espresso, right?

B: (proudly) No. Full-on espresso, please. I want the whole experience.

Waiter: (to me, sympathetically) Good luck with that later on.

Dessert arrived (I had opted for the always decadent, always safe crème brulée). The waiter ceremoniously poured the small cup of espresso over B.’s vanilla gelato and walked away. I may be wrong, but I thought I heard him snicker as he went.

The fact that B. didn’t love the affogato (“Wow, this espresso is bitter!”) didn’t stop him from finishing it, of course. Every last spoonful. And to be fair, it seemed to have no effect on him as we left the restaurant, walked to our car, and drove back to the house rental. It was about 15 minutes later when all caffeinated hell broke loose.

All of a sudden, it was like someone turned on a switch. If you’re old enough to remember the early 1980s, you might recall the classic FedEx commercial with the fast-talking actor speaking at a rate that would rival that of a speeding bullet. That’s what B. sounded like.

Ranging from subject to subject, his monologue covered our vacations (current and past), our friends (high school to present), our families, our cars, our dog, the last concert we’d gone to and all the ones he wanted us to go to in the future, the Lakers (by decade), the state of the union (ours and the country’s), the last five books he’d read, the last ten movies we’d seen, and on and on. Non-stop. No joke. For more than two hours. All I could do was sit back and watch (attempting to respond was useless — he was on to the next topic before I could get a word in).

And then, one second he was planning our next vacation in excruciating detail, and the next he was out. Like a light. Thankfully.

But.

I woke up at about 2 a.m. to find B. missing from our bed. Thinking he was in the bathroom, I called out in that direction. “Honey?” I asked. “Here,” came his voice from the opposite direction. There he was, sitting in the dark in an armchair on the other side of the bedroom, his face bathed in the glow of his phone, eyes wide, wide open, playing solitaire. Over and over and over again. While that first tsunami of caffeinated energy had faded, causing him to pass out in exhaustion, now he was just wide awake, to the tune of a few more hours of solitaire playing.

The next morning, I couldn’t help myself.

Me: Sleep well?

He: (muttering)

Me: Still think that affogato was a good idea?

He: (halfheartedly) It wasn’t that bad.

Me: Compared to what? You made the Energizer Bunny look lazy.

He: (half smile) Yeah?

Me: It was entertaining — for the first five minutes. But maybe next time just go with the gelato.

He: (considering) You mean no pancakes and coffee before we leave town?

Me: (glaring at him)

He: Too soon to joke?

Me: Read the room.

My husband is amazing at a lot of things. Handling caffeine just isn’t one of them.

Coffee breakdown.

©2021 Claudia Grossman

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playing chicken

Foibles in the kitchen are not unknown to me. From a chocolate layer cake fiasco (lucy bakes a cake) to flying salmon (swimming upstream) to ice cream sandwiches that gave new meaning to “beat the clock” (letting chips fall) — all of these previous adventures are familiar territory (along with others that I choose not to share out of the need to preserve even a modicum of self-respect). The experience behind cooking last night’s dinner, however, seems shareworthy enough for me to swallow my pride (you’re welcome).

It started out innocently enough (these things always do). It was a fairly simple task — baked, breaded, boneless chicken breasts. Easy peasy. Except. What should have been a dinner I can make in my sleep turned into a tear-the-kitchen-apart nightmare. To wit:

The trouble started somewhere between the marinade and breading steps. As I removed two of the chicken breasts from the marinade to coat them in breadcrumbs, I noted that each had a small piece just hanging off — pieces that I knew would burn if left on and baked. I expertly cut those off and put them to the side to discard. That done, breading resumed and the pan went into the oven to bake for 20 minutes. Ta-da.

Or, more accurately, ta-dum. Because as I went to clean up my work area (as any cook knows, you’ve got to be super aggressive about cleaning up bowls, cutting boards, knives — in short, anything that may have come into contact with raw chicken), those two pieces that I had set aside to discard were now only one — that is, only one was there. The other had flown the coop.

What ensued was my looking in every possible hiding place. I removed everything from the countertop. No luck. I checked every inch of the kitchen floor. No clue. I opened all the drawers beneath the counter I had been working on and ransacked through them. Nada. All the drawers on the other side of the kitchen. The same. All the drawers in the bedroom even. (Did the chicken attach itself to my shirt? Did I then go into the bedroom, put away something in my dresser drawer, and have the chicken fall in? The fact that I hadn’t left the kitchen throughout this process wasn’t the point. The point was that it was now me versus the chicken and hell if it was going to win.)

When all else proved fruitless, I had no choice but to tackle the unenviable task of going through the trash, hoping to confirm that I had indeed thrown away the demon piece. No culprit chicken found. Ugh.

Why all the urgency you ask? Because, being blessed / not blessed with a writer’s imagination, I had visions of that piece of chicken deliberately hiding from me, not making itself known until hours (days?) later when I’d find it by following the horrid smell. To say nothing of then having to turn the kitchen upside down (again), this time in an effort to clean anything that might have come anywhere near it. And don’t even get me started on my worries that it might attract a picnic’s worth of ants. (Excuse me, I think I just threw up a little in my mouth.)

Observing my whirling around and looking somewhat distraught, B. raised his eyebrows questioningly. I explained the ongoing crisis, and, nonplussed, my practical, pragmatic husband calmly said, “It’s got to be somewhere.” You think?

Finally, I surrendered. I threw my hands up to the kitchen gods, hoping for salvation. Maybe the fiendish fowl fragment had stuck to the other cut-off piece and had, indeed, safely made it into the trash undetected? Or maybe I had only hallucinated the two pieces and had, in reality, only sliced off and discarded one? Or, existentially, if a piece of chicken disappears completely was it ever really there at all?

My thoughts were interrupted by the ringing kitchen timer. Dinner was ready. Out of the oven it came, three crispy, golden brown, full-size pieces. And, then, after transferring them to a platter, I saw it. The fugitive, dangling piece. Hidden on the baking sheet behind the rest, it had been in the oven the whole time. Too well done to eat (which was my whole point behind trying to discard it to begin with) but, nevertheless, not lurking in some corner of the kitchen just waiting to wreak havoc.

I, apparently, had done enough wreaking on my own. Chickmate.

©2021 Claudia Grossman

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helio again

Dear Ms. Sun:

Here we are. Another birthday of mine in the next day or so, meaning another trip around you.

Unlike the rest of us (who all, at one time or another, think the earth revolves around us), you, actually, are entitled to feel that way (you heliocentric being, you). And while this past trip has certainly been unprecedented on so many levels (to call it a long strange one would be an understatement), it seems that you still manage to get up and out of bed everyday, do your job for the full number of hours required by the law (of astronomy), and then retire for a well-earned rest. Your ability to do that, given the political, social, and economic climates, is beyond admirable.

As for me, seeing you each day has been a gift (so please don’t feel you need to buy me anything else for my birthday). Living in LA, where we see you most days of the year, it’s easy to take you for granted. But let one day go by when you don’t show your pretty face — not for lack of trying on your part, I understand — and it’s just not the same. Sure, I can appreciate a good grey palette as much as the next creative, but grey without yellow? It’s like living in Seattle. A great place to visit, but I couldn’t live there.

And then there’s the way you manage to stick to your schedule. Every day, rain or shine (I know you’re there working your heart out behind the clouds), it’s like we can set our clocks by you (see what I did there — I made a sun joke). That kind of dependability inspires confidence. It inspires me to stick my head out from under the covers. To want to tie on my Nikes and go for a walk. To break out my Crayolas (the now-retired Dandelion was a favorite shade but Goldenrod, Canary, and, of course, classic Yellow work just fine).

Having my birthday at the end of March is perfect because it’s just at the start of our days getting longer (I know that there’s a debate over whether Daylight Savings Time should be eliminated, but coming out of a long winter, there’s nothing better than getting to spend more time with you). Going from Ain’t No Sunshine to Here Comes the Sun has never meant more to most of us than right now, so please know that if that measure ever comes up on our ballot, I’m voting for you.

There’s a line in the movie The Lake House, where the late, great Christopher Plummer, playing an architect, teaches his son (Keanu Reeves) that the secret to designing the ideal home in the perfect setting is “the light … always the light.” Indeed. And your light, Ms. Sun, never fails to captivate me, no matter where I see it. The lemon-yellow in LA. The painterly brushstrokes in Santa Fe. The clear, colorful beams in San Francisco. The crisp, cool clarity of autumn in New York. The dazzling blue-white of a wintry late afternoon in New England. While the intensity and shadings vary as we travel around you, the beauty never does. Good job.

In closing, I’d just like to say that I look forward to many, many more trips around you — both for me and for all the people I love. Some trips have certainly been easier than this past one (thanks for sticking with me); some have been more joy-filled than others; but all of them have made me who I am.

Love and light,

Just Another California Girl (after all, the West Coast has the sunshine)

©2021 Claudia Grossman

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i’m here all week, folks

They say lots of things about comedy. That it’s harder to pull off than drama. That many a standup comic is crying behind the punchlines. That life is never quite as funny as you’ll see up on the stage or screen. And that comedy is in the eyes of the beholder. But what I’ll say is that nothing is quite as comic as the predicaments I end up getting myself into right here at home. You just can’t make this stuff up. To wit:

Living in our oft-described quirky apartment in an older building, renovations and repairs come slowly — to paraphrase the Eagles in Sad Café, “if they ever [come] at all.” And so, it often falls on us to make these changes on our own dime, in our own time. In this particular case, because waiting for new carpeting is like waiting for Godot, we’ve decided to replace our large, 15-year-old area rugs instead.

The easy part: finding fabulous rugs online. Brilliant colors, the perfect size (6′ x 9′), the right number — three total, two for the living room, one for the office area.

Fun Fact #1: While the two living-room rugs are identical and were shipped from the same exact place at the same exact time, one has managed to get lost. Yup. One made its way through the proper channels to USPS and landed outside our front door this morning. The other? It managed to find its way, incorrectly, to UPS and is now lost in shipper-to-shipper hell. It should be here tomorrow. Or the next day. Or sometime after that. The advice provided to me? If it’s not here in two more days, opt for “cancel and replace.” And if it arrives after I do that, I can just return it for free. Except that it’s a 6′ x 9′ rug — not exactly drop-it-in-the-mailbox-and-off-you-go returnable. Laugh meter: a knowing chuckle.

Fun Fact #2: Replacing the old rug in the office should have been a piece of cake (if you don’t count moving dozens of B.’s floor plants, two rolling file cabinets, one mega-heavy piece of wood that serves as the desktop, and two desk chairs). Except. In an effort to start the process on my own (because I have the patience of a gnat and didn’t feel like waiting for B. to finish what he was doing), I managed to move almost everything out of the way — while blocking both exits to the office in doing so (thank you very much). Which means I then had no place to move the old rug, no way to access the new rug, and no path to the bathroom when the diet Coke I had ingested for that boost of caffeinated energy hit my bladder. Good times. Laugh meter: enough to make one pee.

Fun Fact #3: In our household, B. is the one with the great sense of space relations. The one who can visualize a floor plan and where things should go. The one who measures twice and cuts once. So, by all means, let’s have me take charge of the living-room rug exchange. (Insert eye roll here.)

Even though the second living-room rug has yet to arrive (I figure it’s circling LAX by now), we decided to put down the first one. Move coffee table out of room, check. Move oversized arm chair out of room, check. Move sofa as far from wall as possible to vacuum behind it, check. Switch out old rug for new one and replace everything where it was. Wait — why? Why not embrace the new season by making a change? (Cue violin-playing cherubs here.) Because that idea makes no sense, that’s why. Apparently.

I was so sure I was right. Never mind that the cable connection requires the TV to remain where it is. That the natural light requires the plants to stay where they are (yes, more plants — B. has the proverbial green thumb). That unless we want the loveseat to block the TV, the bookcase to offer zero book access, the coffee table to be relegated to the kitchen (at least it’s near the coffee), and the side tables to be beside the point, everything needs to stay where it is. Which B. knew from the beginning (gotta love that about him). And I figured out only after being knee deep in the wrong floor plan (gotta love that about me).

And so, a one-hour-max chore turned into a multi-hour event (hey, pouting, stamping my foot, tripping over the ottoman because it was in an unexpected place, and being proven wrong all take time). And we get to do it again when the missing rug shows up in a few days. Laugh meter: Lucy meets slapstick with a sprinkling of choice dialogue (not necessarily fit for all audiences).

As with all comedy, the laughter lesson learned is the same. Leave ’em rolling on the floor.

©2021 Claudia Grossman

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she did not just say that

I was almost 35 years old the first time I ever said the f-word. Aloud, that is. Before that, I’d said it maybe a few times in my head (I was raised to believe that nice girls just did not talk that way, so even the thinking-it number is low), but it never actually came out of my mouth before then. And when it did, it was a surprising relief. I had been in a brainstorming session with a few men I worked with, all really good guys. One of them used the word and then immediately turned to apologize. “Don’t f**king worry about it,” I replied with a shrug before realizing it. Everyone laughed, me loudest of all at the utter joy of no longer feeling constrained. And a door opened.

Hopefully I’m not offending anyone here. I’m not talking about berating or telling someone off using the word. I’m certainly not talking about using it in front of children. And I’m not even talking about using it in front of people whom I know are sensitive. But sometimes even I, who make my living using words carefully, cannot help but succumb to the pleasure that comes from an occasional, well-placed f-word at the right time and in the right place (usually said aloud to myself). To wit:

As a noun “What the f**k!” is the perfect exclamation when finding out that the six hours I had just put into writing part of my book were a waste (after one errant keystroke deleted my work forever because I hadn’t hit “save” and neither had my old computer done it automatically). Also useful for when you cut your finger instead of the apple you’re paring, when your refrigerator dies immediately after you’ve restocked it with perishables, or when you live in an apartment and miss the UPS delivery person (whom you have to let into the building), thereby resigning yourself to six more weeks of wintry package tracking.

As an adjective Nominees for the award for best use of the f-word as an adjective go to Marisa Tomei’s character, Mona Lisa Vito, in My Cousin Vinny and Michelle Pfeiffer’s character, Susie Diamond, in The Fabulous Baker Boys. When her forever-fiancé Vinny Gambini (Joe Pesci) still has trouble admitting that she could be a huge help to him in winning even more cases (after she helped him win this one), Mona Lisa says, “… You have to say thank you. Oh, my God, what a f**king nightmare!” Frankly, the line wouldn’t be the same without the word in it. (Say it both ways and see for yourself. It helps if you have a New York accent, big hair, and a tight dress on at the time.) In Susie’s case, she is having microphone trouble onstage. When told to turn on the switch that will make the mic go live, she says, in frustration, “What f**king switch?” just as, you guessed it, the mic goes live. After Beau Bridges, as one of the fabulous duo, later chides her for using that language, she retorts, “I said it. I didn’t do it!” Come on, that’s good.

As an adverb “Are you f**king kidding me?” (the f-word modifies the verb, as any good adverb does) is really the only way to respond to that guy who cuts you off on the freeway (caution: it must only be said within the confines of your car, without moving your lips — otherwise road rage might ensue). Or try it when you’ve been on hold for three hours waiting for some representative (from the phone company, for example) and then you’re disconnected. By the phone company. The people who are supposed to excel at phone connections. You get my drift.

I love when people who may have the (old) impression of me as being the quiet type are delighted to find out that I’m really quite animated. When people who knew me as a shy teenager are surprised to find out just how outgoing I am now. And when people who have always thought of me as a reserved Ms. Goody Two-Shoes are astounded to know that there’s a little bit of bad girl running around inside my head. She’s fresh, she’s fierce, and she’s that other f-word.

Funny.

© 2021 Claudia Grossman

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just one look

We’ve all seen it. That look. The one that changed the course of your moment — or of your history. That kept you from making the wrong choice — or pushed you into making the right one. That gave you confidence to leap — or propped you up when you fell. (Or, on a lighter note, the one from your mother that stopped you in your tracks from a) running with scissors, b) using those scissors to cut off your little brother’s hair, or c) attempting to trade your little brother for the neighbor’s dog.)

The looks that we receive from others can communicate volumes (if we keep our eyes open); the ones we give can transmit a world of meaning (if the looker remains watchful).

Think about it. There’s the flirtatious wink. The icy death stare. The compassionate, teared-up glance. The loving gaze. The brief shut-eye assent. And the ever-popular bedroom eyes.

B. and I have had our share of shared looks (my death stare being the predictable reaction to his eye roll), as I imagine most couples have. Movie couples, certainly. (I love how I can illustrate almost anything by turning to the movies.) To wit:

The Wink. In The Way We Were, Hubbell Gardiner (Robert Redford) and his rich preppy friends show up at the diner where Katie Morosky (Barbra Streisand) is waiting tables. Katie hates everything about the Hubbell crowd (except, as it turns out later, Hubbell himself); Hubbell thinks she takes life too seriously (if you think that now, Hubbell, just wait until after you’re married to her). While she glares at them all for their spoiled, trust-funded freedom to have fun, she takes their orders for cheeseburgers and Cokes. “Onions?” she asks, annoyed. “Yeah,” he says. “In the Cokes.” And then he winks. Game over.

The Sultry Stare. No one did sultry better than Lauren Bacall. And on no one did she fix that sultriness better than Humphrey Bogart, namely in To Have and Have Not. After giving him one of moviedom’s greatest kisses, she laser-focuses her stare, telling him that if he wants her, “Just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and … blow.” It’s a line delivered coolly enough to match her icy blonde bob, yet it’s hot enough to melt the celluloid it was filmed on. He can’t take his eyes off her.

The Pained Scowl. This time it’s Bogart in Casablanca when the love of his life, Ilsa Lund, who abandoned him in wartime Paris years earlier, finds him again in Morocco, where she needs his help in getting her and her Resistance-hero husband out of the country. To say that Bogart’s eyes are filled with anguish is like saying the nearby Atlantic Ocean is filled with just a little water; to say that they burn with anger is like saying that there might be a small fire in hell. And to say that he is still in love with Ilsa is … well, you get it. Looks like he’s not ready for the start of a beautiful friendship.

The Love Lock. There’s a moment in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (a film filled with exceptional moments) that is particularly extraordinary. San Francisco newspaper publisher Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy) has been asked by his daughter to give his blessing to her upcoming marriage to Dr. John Prentice (a brilliant Sidney Poitier). The complication that makes him hesitate is that Prentice is Black, this is the 1960s, and, while Drayton is liberal in his leanings, he has tremendous fears for the societal problems the couple will face. Until. In an amazing speech, he recalls the passion he and his wife Christina (Katharine Hepburn) shared as a young couple and realizes that to stand in the way of such passion in this couple would be wrong. At one point Drayton looks over at Christina and their eyes lock in remembrance. But it goes deeper than that. Because the look is one also shared by lifetime lovers Tracy and Hepburn — a tender look that spoke to all their years of real-life love and passion at a time when they were late in life. Cue the tears — theirs and mine.

The eyes have it.

© 2021 Claudia Grossman

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give my regards

One of the wonderful things for me about growing up in New York was the chance to see Broadway musicals. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I know (the idea of characters just spontaneously bursting into song is enough to send some running for the aisles). Some musicals struck me as so wonderful that I’d want to see them more than once, their score running through my head for days afterward (in a good way), while others, not so much (I’m talking to you, Cats).

Add to that the fact that I came from a family where Broadway albums were on the stereo almost non-stop (to this day, I can probably sing you the lyrics from your favorite classic Broadway show, even the ones I was too young to have seen in person when they first played, like South Pacific, West Side Story, and Oklahoma).

Of course, with Broadway being dark, now, for a year, the yearning to see a musical in person again on any stage — East Coast or West — is palpable (still not Cats, though). But in looking back, there are three musicals from my youth that made a huge impact at the time I saw them (original casts) and have stayed with me since. While worlds apart from each other, the common thread is the joy of the music, the heart in the storytelling, and the lure of the stage. To wit:

Fiddler on the Roof — The masterpiece musical — based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories about Tevye, a Jewish milkman in an early 20th century Eastern European shtetl (small rural community) — first came to Broadway in the 1960s and lit it up for years afterward. As a young Jewish girl whose grandparents grew up in that very environment, I was captivated by the music, the humor, the romance — and I longed to play one of Tevye’s daughters, long hair streaming as they danced and sang. By turns funny, poignant, romantic, and searing, this show stole my heart a long time ago — even hearing the first few bars of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” today can send me twirling across a room, pretending the towel I’m holding is a bridal veil. One word: tradition.

Hair — If Fiddler was tradition, then Hair was everything but. The 1960s groundbreaking musical centered on a group of hippies in New York and told the story of their beliefs — make love, not war being key — and their sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Both political and poetic, joyful and angry, Hair sent shockwaves through the until-then staid musical-theater scene with its language and its — gasp! — brief nudity, and its story could not have been more timely. Interestingly enough, this edgy musical made its way to the somewhat homogeneous suburbs where both B. and I grew up. Both sets of parents took us to see it as ten-year-old kids; our respective elementary schools then performed some of its songs in stage productions. (B. played the drums for his, I played the piano for mine, and everyone kept their clothes on.) Four words: let the sun shine.

A Chorus Line — Opening on Broadway in the mid 1970s, A Chorus Line took everything we knew about musicals and turned it on its head, because it was told from the performers-as-performers point of view. The story — stories, actually — behind a group of dancers auditioning for their spot in a musical’s chorus line is riveting, both for the personal accounts of each dancer’s life and for the extraordinary talent they each exhibit. Some accounts are heartbreaking, some humorous, but all are filled with their love for dance, their need to be on stage, their unfailing commitment to keep following their passions no matter what. I was absolutely spellbound from the moment the curtain went up until the dazzling finale (oh, how I longed to be a Broadway dancer even though I was far too shy ever to have taken a dance lesson in my life!). The show ran for an astounding 15 years — even after it closed, though, the stories of those dancers and their unwillingness to let go of their dreams plays on. What they did for love is unforgettable. Two words: singular sensation.

Everyone has their favorite Broadway musical — from Phantom to Les Miz, Wicked to Miss Saigon, Rent to Chicago, Aladdin to Jersey Boys. And, of course, Hamilton to, well, Hamilton. To me, as a young girl, those Broadway lights and the players who dared to brave them were heroes. The stories they told were intoxicating; the music was hypnotic; the performances, enthralling. I was a rapt audience, wrapped up in the mystique, the possibility, the magic.

Places, everyone.

©2021 Claudia Grossman

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in the mood

Yes, I’ve written about chocolate before. And no, I haven’t run out of things to say. In a world turned upside down and inside out, chocolate seems to help restore some smidgen of a semblance of balance. Temporarily. I’m not talking about good-for-your-health dark chocolate filled with antioxidants. I’m talking creamy, comforting, good-for-your-soul milk chocolate. Ahh.

And while there are those who may only indulge in offerings from an exclusive chocolatier in Paris or a too-chic boutique in Soho, my tastes run far more ordinary than that. Pleasures easily found, treasures widely available. To wit:

Caramel. Whether you pronounce it “car-a-mel” (like me and every New Yorker I know) or “car-mel” (like everyone else), sign me up. Not for the sticky, chewy kind (that stuff is hell on dental work and therefore a reckless-abandon type of joy I’ve had to abandon as I’ve gotten older) — the soft, melty kind of caramel that shows up in Ghirardelli Milk Chocolate Caramel Squares or Cadbury Caramello (is that a perfect name or what?) bars. Or in a Hershey Rolo stack. Give me any of the above and I can literally check out of reality for a little while. Turn on, tune in, drop out. Repeat.

Chocolate bars. The classic milk chocolate bar is like the classic string of pearls — it goes with everything in your wardrobe from little black dress to little white tee; it’s the perfect choice when you’re not sure what to pick; it always says “rich.” My favorite is one from my childhood that I can’t find anymore, at least not in LA. It’s the original Nestlé milk chocolate bar in the red and white wrapper. If you’ve seen it recently, please send it along — until then, I’ll have to make do with Cadbury Dairy Milk bars. They’re almost as good. Bar none.

Movie candy. Let’s face it, movies are more fun with let’s-go-out-to-the-lobby candy. I used to love Milk Duds, until they made it to the aforementioned gotta-abandon-it list. (Extra points if you throw Milk Duds into your bucket of popcorn.) Coming in a close second are Raisinets (and I can justify them as having the nutritional benefit of fruit). Also, and here I break my no-dark-chocolate rule — SnoCaps. The points they lose for not being milk chocolate are gained back by the sweet, crunchy, white nonpareils on top (like teeny sugary pearls — again with the metaphor). Just remember to do all your candy unwrapping before the movie starts. Sheesh.

See’s Milk Chocolate Buttercreams. If chocolate nirvana exists, then this must be it. I’m not sure how to describe these wonders except as pillows of velvety chocolate buttercream (like cake frosting but richer) cloaked in the smoothest milk chocolate. If life is a box of chocolates, this piece is the pinnacle.

So yes. When it comes to vices, chocolate is mine.

Everything else? Plain vanilla.

©2021 Claudia Grossman

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