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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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listen to the music

Right off the bat, extra points if the title says Doobie Brothers to you and you’ve, well, listened to their music. Way to go. That business taken care of, and speaking of music, one thing I have truly missed over this past almost-year (aside from, first and foremost, of course, the human connection), is the music. The pure joy of going to concerts at terrific venues and of hearing music performed live — music that stirs the heart, the soul, and the feet — is unmatched and so very needed right now.

I’m talking about the kind of concerts that stay in your mind forever because of the feelings they stirred when you were there. The kind of artists who manage to reach across the gap between stage and audience to touch your pulse, practically, with their sound, delivering the sense that you have traveled their road with them and emerged feeling — simply put — part of the music. To wit:

Bruce Springsteen. Yup, you knew this one was coming. We’ve seen Bruce in concert several times, including the night that he opened Staples Center, and I truly believe his concerts are the most life-altering (not a word I use lightly) of any I’ve seen. The man’s energy, the E Street Band’s incredible sound, the songbook that is a rocking, rolling, poignant, unforgettable portrait of life through the eyes of a poet with a guitar. Every performance has left me a little breathless and a lot speechless. To see Bruce Springsteen in concert is as close to an alternative kind of religious experience as one might find. The religion of music to stir, to celebrate, to consecrate. Amen.

Billy Joel. To me, going to a Billy Joel concert is like going home to a place that’s familiar and comfortable because of all the years of love behind it. I’ve adored Billy’s music from the very beginning (and the fact that he grew up five minutes away from where I did). From a performance at the Boston Garden (while I was in college) to so many out here in LA — including, most memorably, at the Bowl and at Dodger Stadium — his concerts are so personal to me. Because I know all the words. Because I love his East Coast “don’t-take-any-s**t-from-anybody” attitude. Because of his incredible ability to connect. And because of the fact that he’s that guy from New York who tells such great stories with his music. Say goodbye to Hollywood.

James Taylor. Whenever I’ve seen him in concert — with Carole King (a once-in-lifetime experience at the Hollywood Bowl); Sheryl Crow (love her music and her energy); or Bonnie Raitt (that whiskey voice and silken guitar stop me whenever I hear her music) — the man just gets better with time. And whether the concert was set amidst the legendary acoustics and mountainsides of the Hollywood Bowl or in a grand San Francisco baseball stadium (the former AT&T, now Oracle, Park), there is nothing to compare with James just sitting on a wooden stool, strumming his acoustic guitar, and singing Sweet Baby James. The ultimate lullaby from a voice that hypnotizes. Sweet dreams.

Paul Simon. Art Garfunkel. Simon & Garfunkel. Seen together in concert, whether as one of a half-million spectators in Central Park in 1981 (when the lyric “How terribly strange to be 70” was far off for them) or at a smaller venue in LA (when that age was considerably closer), the duo was an amazing complement to each other — Paul’s poetic and global musical brilliance and Artie’s shivers-up-the-spine vocals. Seeing them separately many years later, Paul’s burnished-gold magic was never more in place and Artie’s silver-aged voice was all the sweeter because of the years behind it. Old friends, indeed.

So there you have it. Can’t wait until the touring starts again, the ticket takers get their scanners out, and the lights go down.

I’m with the band.

© 2021 Claudia Grossman

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puppy love

I grew up scared of dogs. No, there was no traumatic event. No run-ins, no dog bites, no being chased while walking home from school. Just an imagination overactive enough to make me believe that every puppy that crossed my path was really Cujo in disguise.

Not helping things out was our next door neighbor’s dog, a big, slobbery spaniel that made a beeline for our yard every chance he got, running full speed ahead, ready to jump on anyone in sight to greet them, and hell-bent on stealing sneakers, slippers, or anything he could get his teeth on.

The fear abated somewhat as I grew older, as long as friends’ dogs were small and somewhat aloof, but my comfort level was never, well, comfortable. If you’d told me then that I would become a dog person one day, I’d say you were one kibble short of a bowl.

That all changed when I came out from New York to visit B. in Santa Barbara, two decades after we had originally met and dated. Two decades — through college, law school (for him), and careers — of keeping in touch somewhat sporadically. (My favorites were when he sent me a Valentine out of the blue one year telling me he’d always thought I was brilliant, fascinating, and sexy and, by the way, was I married?; and the bouquet of birds-of-paradise he sent while on a trip to Hawaii “just because.” Of course, if you ask my mother-in-law, she’ll tell you that it was me who pursued B. all over the country during those years, the Valentine and flowers notwithstanding. Trust me, I’m right.)

But before I got on that plane, we spoke on the phone every day for two months. And because it didn’t take us very long to realize that when I did finally come out to Santa Barbara it would kind of mean forever (that chemistry we’d always had was still there, bigtime), we talked about everything and planned for the future. (B. even mailed me two postcards of the Santa Barbara Riviera — remember, this was before smartphones — with instructions to tape them together in order to get the full panorama effect. You’ve gotta love that kind of joy. And that very man.)

One of the things we talked about then was his dog, Ilsa. (Gulp — a dog? Really?) B. described her as an Australian Shepherd-spaniel mix. I heard two things — the first being “shepherd.” Living on the East Coast where Aussies weren’t really a popular, known breed back then, I could only think “German Shepherd” — one of those breeds I was clearly terrified of. The second was “spaniel,” which set off alarms in my head about the childhood dog next door. B. made it clear that he and Ilsa came as a package (not that I would expect, or want, him to think of her in any other way), so I knew I needed to be brave.

“She’s really perceptive,” he told me. (“She’ll sense your fear and stalk you if you get up in the middle of the night to pee,” is what I heard). “She’s so smart,” he bragged. (Smart enough to pin me down while he was at work, I imagined.) “She loves to play,” he went on. (Sure, she’ll love to play with my head after biting it off, I catastrophized.) “Don’t worry, I’ll teach you how to behave when you first meet her so that she feels good about you,” he promised. (“You might want to make sure all of your affairs are in order before you get here,” my brain translated.)

When he later mailed me photos of Ilsa, I realized that she was neither a German Shepherd nor bore any resemblance to my childhood spaniel nemesis. That was something. And when he opened the front door after we got home from the airport, his caution to “crouch down so that you’re at her level and she doesn’t feel threatened” fell on deaf ears. Hers. And that was everything.

Because Ilsa came right over to me, tail wagging at about a million miles an hour, and nudged her head into my hand. And that was it. I was welcomed into her home, no questions asked. (My getting out of bed in the middle of the night was met by her lifting her head up off her doggie bed, looking at me for about two seconds, and returning to her bunny-chasing dream.) Like the greatest last line in movie history (from the movie featuring the character for whom Ilsa was named), our meeting was “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

And so I became a dog person. For the next 15 years, Ilsa and I were like E.T. and Elliott. Any animated discussions (you might call them disagreements) between B. and me inevitably ended up with Ilsa sitting on my foot and glaring at B. When I’d take her out for a walk at night if B. was still at work, she’d glue herself to my leg, committed to protecting me from any unknown passerby. When I didn’t feel well, she was right next to me, offering the kind of unconditional love that dogs give us so freely. (Of course, when she was in need, B. was still the alpha dog.)

With all the gifts Ilsa gave me (her love and devotion, her soft belly to rub, her seemingly unending patience for doggie hugs), not the least was the confidence to give up my fear of dogs. Once we lost her, I became one of those annoying people who, when out walking, will always ask anyone with a dog if I may have petting privileges (in pre-social-distancing times and, hopefully, again soon).

She gave me the courage to face down my longtime fear. And unleashed a joy I didn’t know was missing.

Good dog.

©2021 Claudia Grossman

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