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nonsense of direction

You know how the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz isn’t great on giving directions? “That way is a very nice way,” he says, pointing in one direction, but “it’s pleasant down that way too,” he adds, pointing the opposite way. Yup, that’s kind of me. Which is why, on B.’s and my road trips, putting the map in my hands is never a great idea.

Maps? You still use maps? We do. Sure, GPS is state-of-the art. But it has none of the magic, the on-the-road promise of adventure, or the colorful patterns and curious names you’ll find on a map. B. can spend hours plotting out a trip, poring over the details, and finding at least three ways of getting from here to there. He has an almost instinctual knowledge of which way we’re heading at any given time. Me, not so much. But I do love the possibilities a map offers. And I am always in awe of the fact that someone actually created the map – without using a map.

Yet “maps and me” is a relationship fraught with caution warnings and orange traffic cones. To wit:

Full-size, foldout maps are the bane of my existence. I never seem to be able to control them. Just when I think I’ve folded one down to the exact piece of road we’re traveling on, it turns out that we passed that spot about 20 minutes earlier (like the time I was trying to find our location in New Mexico and we were already in Colorado). Unfolding and refolding only leads to a paper cut or two (sometimes resulting in a spot of blood that I mistake for a town), accented by some choice language that eats up another few miles.

Once I do finally manage to find our location (usually pointed out to me by B. when we stop for gas), continuing to read and follow the map is like going the wrong way on a one-way street – I need reading glasses to see the map clearly, but I also need sunglasses because of the glare. So yes, I have actually had to don my sunglasses over my readers (the ultimate in road-trip geek chic). Not only do I look like a deer caught in the headlights, but wearing both pairs of glasses at the same time puts undue pressure on my allergy-ridden sinuses (while generating undue snickers from B.).

And, while I theoretically can follow the map’s details thanks to wearing both pairs of glasses, I can’t focus. Because reading while riding in a car makes me queasy. Between the sinus headache and the motion sickness, I feel so awful that figuring out which way we’re headed is no longer of any interest to me. I’m sure that I am headed straight to hell.

What usually happens next is that a) we stop to buy me some ginger ale, b) B. pores over the map and memorizes what he needs to know, and c) I get “promoted” to exit patrol, i.e., “Let me know when you see signs for exit 29.” (I can do that.)

My last confrontation with the map is trying to fold it back to its original state when the trip is over. All I can say is that it’s not pretty — I end up rumpled; the map, crumpled. Score: map, one; moi, zero.

The alternative? Don’t even get me started on Ms. GPS and her know-it-all tone of voice. I don’t need her to tell me we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Time for a latitude adjustment.

©2021 Claudia Grossman

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so this chicken walks into a bar

Chickens have little to fear from me. I won’t order them (nor will I order them around). I will not eat them in a sub, I will not eat them in a tub. Just no. Basically, I’m a chicken-friendly zone unlike, say, Buffalo. Or so I thought.

To wit:

One of B.’s and my habits during the summer is to play dinner by ear. No real plans, no menu carefully thought out beforehand, no big deal. Sometimes it’s a bowl of Cheerios. Or ice cream. Or Cheerios over ice cream.

The other evening though, we actually decided to act like responsible adults and think ahead to what the future of our dinner life might look like. We opted for takeout with a pizza, a meatball parm hero, and two salads (no three-bean combo, no onions) from our usual place, figuring that that would work for dinner, the next day’s lunch, and dinner again (maybe with a slice or two left over for an impromptu breakfast).

We fell into our usual pattern, my calling in the order and B. dropping me off outside the pizza place (because there’s no parking on the city street) and driving around the block a couple of times while I went inside to pick it up. (Driving around this block frequently entails our circling the movie studios where you never know what – or whom – you’ll see).

The aromas in the restaurant were so enticing that I felt like grabbing a slice out of the box right there and then. That might have made all the difference in what was to come. But no, I carried the pizza box and the bags of food outside and waited impatiently for B. to come get me.

It was hot and the order was getting really heavy – a lot heavier than usual. Curious, given that we’d placed this exact order many times before and I’d never noticed the weight.

At long last my knight in shining armor pulled up, but this damsel was in no mood to be charmed. Distress ensued. With the trunk popped open, I needed to balance my carefully piled food in one hand while pulling the trunk fully open with the other. A precarious balancing act if ever there was one, particularly since I was trying to avoid having my foot run over by the stream of too-avid cyclists riding by at just that moment.

Finally, I got the food settled inside – not without the pizza almost ending up mozzarella side down – and myself settled in the car. Now I was tired and hot on top of being hungry. Not a good look for me.

He: You missed some cool stuff at the studios.

Me: Uh-huh.

He: It looked like they were getting ready for something really big. All these trailers and tons of crew. Maybe they’re shooting that movie we –

Me: (not in the mood to hear it) Right.

He: What?

Me: Are you kidding? (deep breath) You want to talk about how you were enjoying watching studio stuff from the air-conditioned car while I was standing in the heat waiting for you for like half an hour while holding a ton of food?

He: It was only a few minutes.

Me: (after looking at the car clock and realizing I had only been waiting about five minutes) That’s not the point. It weighs a TON.

He: (insisting on being logical) It can’t weigh that much – it’s just a pizza, a sandwich, a couple of –

Me: Really?! You’re going to estimate how much each item weighs?

He: But I –

Me: Shut up or the pizza gets it.

A pause, then:

He: Are you sure you ordered the right things? Because it smells different.

Me: (agitation setting in) Are. You. Sure. You. Want. To. Continue. This. Conversation?

End of conversation.

Once we got home B. grabbed the items out of the trunk and conceded, “You were right – these are heavy.” Imagine that. Having passed beyond-hunger in the rear view mirror awhile ago, we both knew it was time to feed me. Fast.

Or not so fast. Because instead of a large cheese pizza, it turned out that our takeout included an extra-large pizza covered with ham and pineapple with a few olives scattered on top (come on, that’s just such an affront). Instead of two plain garden salads – please hold anything that might resemble a bean or an onion, I’d asked – three salads fully loaded. And – ta da! – instead of one meatball parm sub (half of which I had been fantasizing about for my dinner), two containers (one pound each) of – wait for it – Buffalo chicken wings (ah, the fragrance issue solved). Have I mentioned that I don’t eat chicken?

By this point, I had broken into the Cheerios. The idea of driving back to the restaurant was just too unappealing (almost as unappealing as those wings), but I called anyway, hoping for some kind of credit toward our next order (which I would check completely before leaving there, believe me).

Surprise. Realizing their mistake, the staff couldn’t have been nicer. They delivered our correct order within 15 minutes (you mean they deliver?!).

So to answer the age-old question of why the chicken crossed the road, it wasn’t to get away from me. I’ll venture a guess that in this instance it was to audition for a part as an extra (not crispy) in that new picture.

The plot chickens.

©2021 Claudia Grossman

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going dutch

Note: I love to write about strong women. This essay, published in its original form in Victoria Magazine in June 2018, is about my grandmother, who had the courage to come to this country from Eastern Europe a century ago – and about the love story that accompanied her here.

My grandmother, Mollie, was the perfect image of what grandmothers used to look like – a plump, silver-haired woman, face lined with life, apron tied around her middle, baking up delicious treats from scratch. She styled her wavy hair in a roll at the back, always wore dresses, and often went visiting in her big-collared, blue-grey coat and hats with tiny veils. Her only jewelry was a beautiful gold wedding band, an heirloom sapphire and diamond “cocktail” ring (for “special” occasions), and a heart-shaped, sterling silver pin.

Growing up, I saw that pin almost daily on her dresses or her coat, so much so that I began to equate it with her.

My grandmother’s story was not unlike that of many other women of that time. She left Poland in 1920 to follow her husband to the United States in search of a better life. My grandfather had gone to New York seven years earlier, leaving my grandmother and their baby girl behind until he made enough money to send for them. It had taken a long time, but he finally booked passage for my grandmother and their daughter, who was now eight years old, on the Rijndam I, a ship of Dutch registry sailing out of Rotterdam, Holland.

And so, knowing not a single word of English, my grandmother arrived at Ellis Island, holding her daughter (my aunt) tightly by the hand and scanning the crowds for my grandfather. 

When a stranger approached and tried to take her arm to lead her away with him, she pulled back, aghast. “I don’t know you!” she insisted in Yiddish, her voice raised. “I won’t go with you – you’re not my husband!” The customs officials rushed over to calm everyone down. “This is not my Max,” she said firmly. “When my Max left seven years ago he was young and strong, with a full head of hair. Not like this old man standing here. I don’t know who this person is!”

“Malkala, Malkala,” the stranger said softly, trying to soothe her. “Don’t you know me? I’m Max, your husband.”

At the sound of my grandfather’s affectionate name for her, my grandmother’s eyes got big, her face pale. “Max?” she whispered. “What happened to you?”

My grandfather’s eyes welled up. “It’s been seven long years, Malkala,” he said gently, “and my heart was missing you.”

It had also been seven years of backbreaking work and of saving every penny to bring his family to America, and time had taken its toll. My grandfather was now a bit stooped over, losing his hair, his face creased, his young-man muscles gone soft. But the eyes – those blue eyes that had wooed my grandmother and showed up in my aunt’s little face – those were the same.

And so my grandparents were reunited, my aunt meeting her father again for the first time. But that wasn’t the end of the surprises.

Once they got home to the tiny apartment my grandfather had found for them, he took a little pouch from his pocket. “For you, Malkala,” he said. “My heart.”

From inside the pouch, my grandmother pulled out a little silver heart-shaped pin of a Dutch boy and girl, the boy offering the girl a bunch of tulips as they kissed. A Dutch ship had brought my grandfather back his heart and the loves of his life – and he would never forget it. Nor would she.

I inherited that pin (I also inherited my grandmother’s fondness for a good romantic story and for a beautiful bunch of tulips). And whenever I polish it (old silver needs extra care) I am struck by how, despite the passage of time, it always returns to its original soft glow.

Just like true love. Dutch treat.

©2017 and 2021 Claudia Grossman

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mad for words

There are words that have moved mountains, moved hearts and minds, moved the world forward. Noble, majestic words that have changed our lives for the better.

This post is not about those words. It is, however, about words that are clever, compelling, and impactful in their own right. The words of exceptional advertising.

When it comes to the language of advertising, here are three of the best lines I know, each classic, each iconic, and each a brilliant example of the power of the write words. The proof? We’re still talking about them today.

Because I’m worth it. Never underestimate the power of a new tube of lipstick to potentially make a woman feel better about her day – and never underestimate the power of L’Oréal’s ground-breaking “because I’m worth it” campaign, which first debuted in the 1970s for its hair color line, to have made a woman feel that she deserved the best. That she had earned her place in the spotlight. And that her possibilities were endless – all the way up through that glass ceiling. Kiss, kiss.

Think small. In a world where bigger cars meant better cars (and, in that vein, a better life perhaps), Volkswagen had the temerity in the 1960s to attempt to sell its VW Beetle by encouraging consumers to “think small.” It was a flabbergasting, fantastic, fabulous line that went against everything anyone had ever been taught about being a success. But thinking small was really thinking big – is there anyone on earth who hasn’t heard of the Beetle, even today? Now that’s a big deal.

Just do it. Nike’s mantra for that moment when whatever it is you’re trying to achieve seems just a few steps too far. Its anthem for everyone from extraordinary champions to ordinary folks trying to champion their own cause; from the multi-million-dollar endorsers who have gone beyond their wildest dreams to the multiple millions who dream in much smaller increments; from those who have achieved the impossible to those to whom the possible is a challenge everyday. Just do it is just perfect.

Good advertising sells. But great advertising sells an image, an ideal, an inspiration.

Required reading.

©2021 Claudia Grossman

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sandcastles on the cape

Note: My essay (below) was originally published in Victoria Magazine in June of 2017; Father’s Day seems like a wonderful time to share it again.

As a little girl, nothing seems quite as large as the ocean, and no hero quite as large as Daddy. For me, no joy seemed greater than summers shared with my father on Cape Cod.

The Cape is part of the canvas of memories that I have been subconsciously painting since childhood. In her later years, my mother revealed that I was conceived there one summer, and that has always felt particularly right to me, a validation of my attachment to this long-ago place.

To this day, whenever I hear its name, I can’t help but recall those childhood summers – the feel of the salty air on my sunburned skin, the grey-pink of seashells found on the edge of the ocean, and the warmth of my father’s hand as we walked the shoreline, my taking two running steps to keep up with each of his single ones.

Summers on Cape Cod were where my father taught me about what was important in life, although to me it felt more like play than life lessons. Only later did I realize that what I had thought were hours spent merely learning to build sandcastles (my dad had wanted to be an architect at one point in his youth and his were the best sandcastles on the beach) were actually hours spent learning to build the foundation of a good life. A life of integrity and fairness, generosity and principles. A life of love.

A city boy all his life, my father loved the quiet rurality of the Cape and the time it gave him to relax and dream about the future. There were his children’s big life moments to look forward to. The plans of how he and my mother would have all the time in the world to travel once he retired. The uninterrupted hours he would have to paint. And the dream of making our Cape Cod rental cottage their own.

Every summer that we returned to that cottage, it felt as if we had never left. The scent of cedar, the feel of cozy rugs under my bare feet, the worn but comfortable rocker in front of the fire – it all welcomed us back. It was almost as if we had just gone out for a walk into town for homemade frozen custard instead of having been gone for an entire year.

My favorite times were the hours my family spent on the beach – and it wouldn’t take long for me to lure my dad away from his newspaper so that we could build one of his famous sandcastles, race down the shoreline with a kite, or venture into the ocean.

The funny thing was that although I was terribly afraid of the ocean, my fear disappeared when I was with my dad. For those few minutes when he would lift me high above the waves and then splash me back down, I knew complete trust, faith, and love. Nothing could hurt me as long as he was there – he was the hero of my heart.

But just as those beautifully etched summers on the Cape went by too quickly, my father’s life ended suddenly and much, much too soon – and my life was out of focus. The hero I had thought was invincible clearly was not. There would be no shared college graduation moment; not enough time for him to meet my future husband; no golden years with my mom, his forever bride.

But my father’s lessons, his love, and his legacy live on. I think of him – and his hopes for me – each time I glance at the jar of seashells that has been sitting on my desk all these years.

And although B. and I live on the “other coast,” the lure of Cape Cod is always strong in the summer. One year perhaps we’ll make the journey back. There are sandcastles yet to be built.

©2016 and 2021 Claudia Grossman

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amazing grays

Here’s the thing I’ve learned about getting older — it sort of sneaks up on you. Turning 30, 40, and even 50 really didn’t faze me all that much. Turning 60 was an oh-my-god moment, though (because there’s no way, by any stretch of the imagination, that 60 can literally be considered middle-aged — how many 120-year-olds have you heard of?). Being a few (okay, three) years past that number feels a little (somedays, a lot) sobering.

Of course, I’m grateful for all of those trips around the sun. For the good fortune of B. and I and all of our friends having made it through the pandemic and having gotten vaccinated (and now finally being able to see and hug each other again). For every day that we get to continue those solar orbits. Of course.

It’s weird, though, to comprehend that college graduation was 41 years ago (when it feels as if it should have been maybe half that long). To see our friends as grandparents (when it feels like they were just sending us class photos of their kids in elementary school). To realize that retirement is the official status of many of our buddies, that Social Security and Medicare eligibility are either here or about to be, and that the generation that followed us to the workplace is now old enough to have a younger generation nipping at their heels (and their glory).

I was reminded of it again yesterday, after having my hair cut. To wit:

As I was admiring the results, I casually asked the stylist, “So, would you say my hair is mostly gray and white or still blonde?” Fully expecting her to reply in the blonde affirmative, I was shocked to hear her say, “It’s mostly white and silver. I’d say there’s only a little blonde left in it.” Ooof. Sucker punch to the ego. Looking down at the three inches on the floor, I have to say I agreed with her. Oy.

But here’s the thing. Despite the calendar dates, the gray hair, the evidence of others having gotten older and of my body no longer looking or acting the same as it did 30 years ago, I just don’t feel my age inside. I still feel like there are adventures to be enjoyed (maybe in more sensible shoes), work to be done (having lived life can enhance your writing like nothing else), contributions to be made (one of the gifts of age is a wealth of experience), and love to be savored (it’s adorably annoying how B. still thinks my hair is mostly blonde and I still think his beard is mostly dark brown — adorable, but wrong on both counts).

So here’s to those of us (aka the Boomers) whose sixties aren’t their mothers’ or fathers’ sixties. Who continue to make some noise and take a stand. Who won’t let a little (or a lot) of gray hair come between us and center stage. Who gracefully acknowledge that we’re no longer the rising stars — but who gratefully acknowledge that we’re not through yet. That we still have a lot to do, a lot to contribute, and a lot to say.

Gray matters.

©2021 Claudia Grossman

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red my mind

While the line “blondes have more fun” may have sold countless home hair-color kits to women who longed to get in on the manufactured myth, it also managed to plant a seed of insecurity in those of us born to the blonde mantle — more fun than what? Because if we were having the maximum amount of fun, well, then, uh-oh.

As one of those born blondes who never quite felt that I was living on life’s ultimate fun edge, I’ve always thought that there was certainly a more exciting hair-color existence out there. Not that I’ve ever taken the leap, but I’ve fantasized that life as a redhead would be so very cool. To be one of the few, relatively speaking, with that extraordinary shade — whether copper or carrot, auburn or strawberry — holds a certain kind of allure that being a blonde just can’t match.

Partly, I’m sure, because all the redheads I know of — mostly fictional — exude a kind of indomitable spirit and joie de vivre that is admirable and enviable. While I know that real-life redheads experience all the same ups and downs as the rest of us, these fictional characters are imbued with enough moxie (now there’s a word you don’t hear often), gumption (or that one), and whimsy (and they’re not even blondes) to make me want to join their ranks. To wit:

Lucy Ricardo There’s a reason the Lucy Ricardo character was everyone’s favorite redhead — the absolutely brilliant Lucille Ball. The ability to always get herself in and out of trouble with such hilarity makes for timeless television. It’s why so many of us non-redheads embrace our “Lucy moments,” pratfalls and all. Love her.

Ginger aka “The Movie Star” Her three-hour tour aboard the S.S. Minnow stretched into three seasons on Gilligan’s Island, and Tina Louise’s character never lost an ounce of her screen-siren glamour and sexiness. The professor remained entranced; poor Gilligan was hopelessly captivated; and even the Skipper fell under her spell. Only Mary Ann could share the spotlight.

Gilda You just need to watch Rita Hayworth as the femme fatale Gilda to get it. When she sings “Put the Blame on Mame,” she more than stops the show — she stops the heart of every man in that nightclub. While the fiery, red-headed character may have been Hayworth’s most famous role, the downside, according to her, was that, “Men go to bed with Gilda but wake up with me.” Put the blame on mane.

Pippi Longstocking The unique, unstoppable, and unmatched Pippi is one of my favorite characters of children’s books — probably because the shy little-girl me wished so hard to emulate her fearlessness and sense of adventure. And those unforgettable, untamed, uninhibited red braids — I would have swapped out my blonde locks in a second. I wanted to get into trouble — and I wanted Pippi to show me the way.

No, I haven’t forgotten the boys. There’s the eternally playful, I-won’t-grow-up Peter Pan (totally charming, until you try dating the 35-year-old real-life version). The endlessly adorable Opie (Ron Howard) in The Andy Griffith Show (arguably one of the cutest redheaded kids ever). And, in real life, the utterly irresistible Prince Harry.

Alas, I won’t be flaunting red hair any time soon (it just doesn’t feel like me, sigh) — but I’ll continue to celebrate those who do (with more than a bit of green-eyed envy).

Red carpet, please.

©2021 Claudia Grossman

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first things first

Celebrating a first birthday is a life event — for the celebrant and those who rally around with cake, candles, gifts, and oohs and ahhs. So when I realized that my first novel’s first birthday is in a few days, it occurred to me that a party was in order — at least a party in my own head.

No, the physical act of birthing isn’t the same, obviously, but I carried that baby inside my head for so many more than nine months — decades, really — and the labor process took over a year. It was joyful much of the time, painful some of the time, and fraught with doubt a lot of the time. Deep breathing helped occasionally, encouragement from B. helped frequently, and chocolate helped daily.

The experience has changed me forever. First and foremost, there’s a book with my name — my name! — out there for the world to read. Even after a career of writing headlines and ads and naming products that people see all the time, this is different — this time, it’s something borne of my heart and soul, something that lets me reveal a big part of myself to my readers — my readers! — and lets them inside. Cool.

Second, it’s shown me yet again the lengths to which my dearest friends will go for me and the depths of their love and support. From the friend who read my book in draft form (hundreds of pages in a binder) to the friend who continues to come up with ideas for whom to pitch for book talks; from the friends who literally read the book the minute it came out — ebooks are amazing — and showered me with confidence and compliments, to those who shared it with their friends from the beginning and continue to do so now. And the friends from all the different stages of my life who have made it a point to read the book — it’s been such an amazing experience to reconnect over my art, and to have them see where life has taken me from when they knew me so many years ago.

And then there are the strangers — or former strangers, that is. The people whom I’ve met because of the book. Women in the virtual book talks I’ve given. Women I’ve met through marketing the book. Women who have told me that my book has inspired them to rediscover their passion for their own art. Those who have confided that the book has given them the courage to reach out again to friends from whom they had been emotionally distanced. And those who have shared that the book has brightened their lives and given them joy. For someone who makes her living with words, I am rendered speechless.

And of course, my biggest cheerleader, B. Bigger than all of the hours he spent listening (I’d read him new chapters aloud when he’d come home from teaching a late-night class); reading (countless rounds of going through the manuscript and making sure the plot details all made sense); and urging me not to give up (even when I decided one day that I just couldn’t do it anymore) — the most extraordinary thing he gave me was the power to believe in myself and to follow the story wherever my heart led me. The book’s dedication captures it best (please indulge me here):

“To every little girl who ever dreamed of being a mermaid but was afraid of the water … who ever yearned to be a ballerina but was frightened of being onstage … who ever wished she could sing on Broadway but was too shy to make herself heard … let your art be your presence, your strength, your voice. And to my darling B., who gave me the mirror to see my true self — this is the story I see in my reflection.”

Here’s to first birthdays. To those who have them and those who make them possible.

Party hats for everyone.

My novel, The Mermaid Mahjong Circle — A Fairy Tale for Women, is available here.

©2021 Claudia Grossman

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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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