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mint condition

Here’s something not a lot of people know about me – I hate mint. Not dislike. Not “do not prefer.” Full-on detest. In fact, I cannot get past the scent of mint fast enough. For some reason, mint evokes a gag reflex in me. No, not a reflexive urge to do stand-up, but an “if you don’t get that away from me right now, I’m going to get sick in a hurry” reaction. Add that abhorrence to the fact that I have a particularly sensitive sense of smell and, well, sometimes all kinds of mayhem ensues. To wit:

Spearmint appears to be the worst offender (whoever named it was right about the “spear” part – it’s like a knife to my sensory system). Wintergreen has the same effect. If you come anywhere near me while ingesting it – let’s say while chewing a piece of gum – I turn green, no matter the season. And if I unwittingly step in gum (it’s always spearmint, it seems) and need to spend time cleaning it off the sole of my shoe? Absolute agony. (Not as bad as dog droppings but not much better.) As for those coffee places that sell tins of mints to help those with coffee breath? Let’s just say that I’d rather know you just consumed an espresso grande instead of inhaling your minty vapors, even from multiple feet away.

Which leads me to toothpaste. Most adult toothpastes are mint-flavored. So are mouthwashes. And then there’s mint-flavored floss. No, no, and just no. (In fact, I need to hold my breath just walking down the oral-healthcare aisle at the drugstore.) As a grown woman, I find myself brushing with Silly Strawberry toothpaste for kids (a great product, actually). And when I go to the dentist’s office (already a stressful situation for me), I need to say, no, please don’t put mint-flavored mouthwash in my cup, and have to ask, sheepishly, for a non-mint, kid’s flavor toothpaste for my cleaning. It feels like childish behavior, although the minty alternative results in the same kind of childish behavior exhibited in The Exorcist.

More obstacles? I’ve run into cleaning products (mostly used in hotels) that carry the, um, distinct aroma of mint – enough for B. to take one look at me and rush to open all the windows in our room until the smell fades. Speaking of hotels, for the longest time one of our favorites stocked guest soaps and shampoos from a luxury brand in, you guessed it, a rosemary-mint fragrance. (Which explains why I always travel with my own soap and shampoo – or else it’s either risk being submerged in mint or skipping a shower, the latter being more likely, believe me).

Even restaurants are not an assumed-safe zone. How many times have I ordered dessert only to find it garnished with a sprig of mint? I can’t remove it and risk getting the scent on my fingers – B. needs to be my knight in shining armor and slay the mint dragon. Or iced tea, my go-to choice. Often it, too, arrives with that pesky mint leaf just curled over the rim, giving off its fragrance with each sip (not that I let it get that far). Again, B. to the rescue.

When it comes to the winter holidays, visions of sugarplums aren’t dancing in my head – visions of candy canes chasing me down are haunting my dreams. Sure, they’re pretty. Sure, they’re festive. But just unwrap them and surely I turn into the Grinch (a little green in the face and not fun to be around).

My aversion to mint is so strong that I’ve even developed a strong dislike for it as a word (all evidence to the contrary in my use of it in this post). Given that I spent so many years naming and describing nail lacquer colors as well as writing fashion forecasts, coming up with a substitute wasn’t always easy. Pistachio, sea foam, celadon, and pastel green were close, but sometimes mint was the only way to go. (Remember when baby clothes basically came in pink and blue and, if you didn’t know the sex of the unborn baby and needed to buy a shower gift, you’d opt for yellow or mint green? I went yellow all the way.)

One final installment to my story. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know that I also detest fish; in fact, mint and fish are the two foods at the top of my list of “dislikes,” which is what makes this particular incident so ironic. When B. and I were the only guests at a bed-and-breakfast one night many years ago, the owner offered to cook us a special breakfast the following morning and asked if there were any foods we didn’t like. I said that the only two foods I didn’t eat were fish and mint (I’m not a big cheese or runny-eggs fan, but I didn’t want to limit her too much and figured I could eat around those). What could go wrong, right?

Turns out, quite a lot. She whipped up an elaborate meal for us that started with (and I kid you not) a cold cucumber-mint soup, redolent with that despised aroma. B. and I just looked at each other, my raised eyebrow threatening to soar straight into the stratosphere. Huh? I managed to get down a couple of tiny spoonfuls (each followed by a full glass of water, the same way I ate fish sticks as a kid). But that wasn’t all. Because the main course was scrambled eggs (what a relief, no runny-yolk eggs, right?) mixed in with – wait for it – smoked trout. Trout. As in fish. As in, are you kidding me?

I pushed the mixture around my plate, and when the owner, who hovered over us as we ate, asked why I wasn’t eating, I pleaded a delicate stomach that morning. Her solution was to bring me a cup of tea – peppermint tea, that is – which she said would help soothe my agita. Not really – because my agita was caused by her not really listening. I had to pinch myself – and kick B. under the table – to be sure I was awake and not having a culinary nightmare. Maybe there was a reason we were the only guests.

Not mint to be.

©2022 Claudia Grossman

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can’t hold a candle to you

In our home we celebrate birthdays (and the day before birthdays because we just can’t wait another minute) with candles and cupcakes. And, sometimes, with some remarkable (read “out of left field”) conversations. Yesterday, the day before my big day, was no different. To wit:

Me: Will you still feed me?

He: (distracted as he preps for class) Hmm … what?

Me: I said, will you still feed me?

He: Didn’t we just eat lunch a couple of hours ago?

Me: (sniff) I guess that’s a “no.”

He: (putting down his notes because clearly I am not letting him get anywhere until I get the answer I’m looking for) Do you not feel like cooking tonight? Let’s order in.

Me: (sniffling about to turn into ugly crying) You don’t get it.

He: Probably because you’re not telling me what “it” is.

Me: You don’t need me anymore.

He: (totally perplexed – and rightfully so) I don’t need you anymore?

Me: I knew it!

He: (thinking he’s got to proceed very delicately through this minefield) Because I suggested we order in? My position has never been that I need you to cook for us. If neither of us wants to cook, we can either graze or order in. Pizza or Chinese?

Me: I’m too old for you.

He: Too old for me – what? We’re the same age!

Me: I’m nine months older.

He: Who cares?

Me: Aha! You don’t care about all of this.

He: (thinking he’s entered the Twilight Zone and starting to look around to see if there’s a wormhole he can escape through) No, really, what?

Me: I’m turning 64 tomorrow.

He: Right, but I always count myself the same age as you once your birthday comes around.

Me: (sighing) Nice try.

He: Honey, I’ve known you since we were 17 – I’ve probably been in love with you since then too. What, exactly, do you want me to say here?

Me: (brightening) Really? You’ve loved me since then?

He: (seeing a possible way out, although still not knowing what I’m talking about) I guess, as much as my 17-year-old self knew it.

Me: (gloomy again) But it’s not the same.

He: What. Is. Not. The. Same.

Me: I’ll be 64 tomorrow.

He: (head in his hands) Yup. You said that already. What’s your point exactly?

Me: I guess I need to spell it out for you.

He: Oh, could you?

Me: Don’t be a smartass in my moment of crisis.

He: (looking for that wormhole, a little more desperately this time) O-k-a-a-a-a-y.

Me: It’s the song.

He: Song?

Me: The Beatles. Will you still need me, will you still feed me –

He: (realization dawning in his eyes) – when I’m 64.

Me: (crumpling into my chair) Exactly.

He: (cracking up)

Me: You think this is funny?

He: No, I think you’re funny. In fact, I think you’re being ridiculous. Where do you come up with this stuff?

Me: We used to laugh at this song when we were 24 and 34 and 44 and even 54 – and now I’m there!

He: Mmmm. You’re right. You are.

Me: You said we were the same age!

He: (enjoying the moment) Yeah, well …

Me: “Yeah, well..?” Seriously?

He: Sweetie, I loved you then, I love you now, I’ll always love you.

Me: (somewhat mollified) Me too.

He: Sure, we laughed at that song then. But we get to live it now. And there’s no one I’d rather live it with than you.

Me: (looking at him adoringly) Really?

He: Really.

Me: (snuggling in for a hug)

He: Okay, now?

Me: Chinese.

He: Huh?

Me: Let’s order in Chinese.

He: Done.

Me: (doubt creeping onto my face) But right after you turn 64, I’ll be looking at 65 and –

He: Dumplings or won ton soup?

Me: But 65 –

He: Give it a rest, okay? Just let it be. Get it?

I do. Four ever.

©2022 Claudia Grossman

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spilling the beans

My mother had a great expression for when I would ask her to keep something in confidence. “Please don’t repeat this to anyone,” I would say (unnecessarily) after telling her my secret. Her response – “Repeat what?” – was classic. This woman was not spilling the beans. No matter what.

And neither do I. Not a single bean will be spilled on my watch. Other things, alas, not so much. To wit, three scenes of spill-I-or-won’t-I:

Scene I

There I was in our building’s laundry room the other morning – full laundry baskets, check; detergent and dryer sheets, check; container of quarters, check. And, because I was doing three loads, we’re talking a lot of quarters (42 to be exact, plus some extras ). I remembered every detail except for one – to set my coin container out of harm’s way (at least two feet from wherever I’m standing at any time). As a result, in moving one of my overfilled baskets, I didn’t see the container sitting there and knocked it over. Quarters sprayed across the laundry room. Showered down on the floor and bounced against the walls. Rolled between machines and out the doorway into the garage. Fortunately, my swearing was drowned out by the sounds of the recycling truck idling in the garage and the laughter of the recycling guy as he watched me attempting to scoop up my laundry coinage. I got back all of the quarters – running a broom between the machines uprooted those deserters – and made a note to put at least five feet between me and the container next time. Common cents.

Scene II

I love a particular brand of mini rice crackers. They’re about the size of a quarter (uh-oh, see where this is going?) and there are about 300 of them in the package. For lunch one day this week, I thought I’d nibble some with hummus. I snipped off only the corner of the bag to prevent too many crackers from spilling out at once. Good thinking, right? But you know what wasn’t good thinking? The fact that I left the bag – the non-flat-bottomed, not well-balanced bag – standing on the edge of the counter when I turned away to grab the hummus from the refrigerator. No sooner was my head in the fridge than the bag fell over and tipped out 300-minus-5-previously-nibbled crackers. Some landed in a pile. Others rolled as fast as they could everywhere they could, including under the stove, behind the fridge, and in the slivers of space next to the dishwasher. A few barreled right into the adjacent entry hall. To quote Yogi Berra, it was like déja vu all over again. Five-second rule aside, they were mostly a lost cause. Nothing but a memory now. That, and the occasional errant crunch under our feet in unexpected places.

Scene III

Breaded, baked, boneless chicken breasts is about as easy-to-make as dinner gets. Except for when it’s not. Like when you’re pretending to be Madonna pretending to be Marilyn Monroe, singing Material Girl at the top of your lungs (the Immaculate Collection CD blasting in the background) as you bread – as I did last night. You’re dancing around the kitchen, dishtowel playing the role of the diva’s fur stole, when, instead of draping seductively around you, said dishtowel drapes around the container of breadcrumbs and launches it into mid-air. Next, in a superb piece of showmanship, the container does a perfect triple flip followed by a flawless double axel followed by a spectacular single spill. (In this case a dustpan, not diamonds, was a girl’s best friend.)

Splat’s all, folks.

©2022 Claudia Grossman

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it’s kind of like …

It’s well known that Blanche DuBois famously depended upon the kindness of strangers – and that has never been more true, it seems, than now, with strangers helping those on the other side of the world to survive. It is, however, the kindness of friends that I write about today, those who get us through our lives on a daily basis, sometimes through actual crises, many times through a crisis of confidence, and oftentimes through the it’s-only-a-crisis-in-my-own-mind bad haircut.

Here then are my shout-outs to my circle of friends, past and present, who have been my comforts and confidants, my lifejackets, my runway lights. To wit:

To those lifelong friends whom I’ve known since high school and college (is that really more than four decades ago?), I couldn’t imagine life without your ongoing narration and without your shoulders to cry on, to lean on, and to pat. We’ve been mirrors for each other for so long, and your acts of giving – in being there through the tough times (the loss of parents, a lymphoma diagnosis, a job not gotten), the joyful times (yay! I’m getting married), and the ordinary times (like assuring me that yes, I really can write, and no, forgetting where I’ve put my glasses for the thousandth time and finding them on top of my head – again – is no cause for alarm) – are priceless. Your kindnesses lie in seeing beyond yourselves to empathize and, remarkably, to know the right thing to say. Always.

To those friends I’ve made in what I call the West Coast portion of my life, the last 25 years or so, since I’ve moved to California. You are the ones who have known me only as a full-grown adult (or as full-grown as any of us may get). The ones who have met me at a time when one might surmise from my exterior that I’ve matured (some days more so than others) into a mostly confident, mostly collected, and mostly cool person. Your kindnesses include embracing me and welcoming me into your lives while seeing through those 3 c’s to the vulnerable person beneath and loving her anyway. You understand my anxiety and champion me nonetheless. You have taught me to celebrate myself because you celebrate me.

Most recently, I am in awe of all of you who have supported my heart and my art by reading and sharing my first novel with your world. If it is, indeed, a fairy tale for women (shameless plug here), you all are my Princes and Princesses Charming (although the novel is about women becoming their own heroines, the analogy is still a good one). So, a million times I say thank you for your love, your kindness, and your commitment to my endeavors – my appreciation knows no bounds at your generosity of spirit.

And of course, there’s B. “Kind” is the first word I’d use to describe him (followed, of course, by “irresistible,” but I digress). Because we didn’t marry until we were in our late 30’s, we both had the chance to learn about ourselves and what truly mattered to us in a partner. Sense of humor? Absolutely. Intelligence? Without a doubt. Passion? Hell, yes. But mostly – kindness. For better, for worse. For richer, for poorer. In kindness always.

I wear a heart-shaped pin on my denim jacket that says “Kind.” It reminds me to keep kindness at the heart of my interactions and, hopefully, lets others know the sort of person I want to be.

The kind who makes a difference.

©2022 Claudia Grossman

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what the world needs now

With Valentine’s Day just around the weekend corner (the day after Super Bowl Sunday, which, in my mind, is one of the least romantic days of the year), it’s only natural that romance comes to mind. And beyond the age-old argument about Valentine’s Day really being a greeting-card-company-created holiday, I have a bigger issue to put out there. Even if it’s not about the corporate cloning, corporate owning of Valentine’s Day – in fact, even if it’s not about Valentine’s Day at all – where has all the romance gone?

I’m talking about the idea of romance in our society, the feeling that life is full of romantic possibilities. Combine two years of a global pandemic with enough unrest, anger, and fear to make optimism seem a thing of the past, and it’s no wonder that Cupid would soar far away, as fast as his little wings might take him (bow and arrow notwithstanding). Huge factors, of course. But maybe if romance made a big comeback in general, we’d all feel a lot better. To wit:

More movies with guys dancing – and singing – in the rain, not caring if they get drenched or whether their umbrella is open, simply being in love and loving the feeling. It just makes you feel good.

More butter-full, sugar-full, fun-full recipes for candlelit dinners, where all the rules of moderation are conveniently ignored. There’s something to be said for the art of indulging.

More small bookshops meant for browsing on a weekend afternoon – either with your person or by yourself. After all, immersing one’s self in books is a passion unto itself.

More romantic comedies – forget the action, forget the hi-tech, forget the drama, the tragedy, the pain. Laughing together is good for the heart, and what’s good for the heart is at the heart of romance. (To that end, more of Mr. Big showing up to rescue Carrie in Paris and less of him dying on the Peloton – I’m still recovering from that one.)

More soda fountains serving sundaes, shakes, and ice-cream sodas, along with a jukebox playing songs about first love, forever love, and staying-together love. And with great melodies you just want to dance to.

More flower stands – one on every street corner, in fact – so that picking a blossom or two or a dozen to give to someone, or keep for yourself, is easy. So easy, that everyone will want to do it. Every day.

Less 24 /7 news. Yes, we need to know what’s going on. But every minute of every day? Turn it off and go outside for a walk. And while you’re at it, visit the nearby flower stand and the local bookstore. Now you’re getting the hang of it.

More calling and less texting. Indeed, a text is quicker and there’s an emoji for nearly every feeling out there. But nothing replaces the human voice saying “Hey! I’m thinking of you and would love to cook you a butter-full, sugar-full, fun-full candlelit dinner.” And nothing feels better than hearing, “I’d love to!” from a live voice, versus that tired, smiling, kiss-blowing emoji. Take the time – it’s worth it. (Sort of like the difference between reading the book and settling for the Cliff Notes.)

Which leads me to my last suggestion – take the time. Romance means taking the time to think about someone and then spending that time making them happy. So yeah, it can mean buying a bunch of roses on a non-Valentine’s-Day day. It can mean showing up with Chinese takeout at the end of a crazy day when the last thing your partner has the energy to do is even think about dinner. And it can mean really listening when she tells you about that book she’s dying to read but hasn’t had the chance to look for – and then showing up with the gift-wrapped version from said local bookshop (sure, it might be easier to find online but we’re going for full-on romance here).

It’s time to put a little more romance back in the world. One jukebox-dance, pasta-filled, laugh-your-ass-off, in-full-bloom step at a time.

Game changer.

©2022 Claudia Grossman

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playing by heart

The red piano. No, not Elton’s, mine. And not really a piano but an electronic keyboard. But yes, it’s red – bold, bright, and undeniably present – sort of like me on my good days. And it’s found a place in our home and into my heart. (Also into B.’s ear, but he’s been really good about that.)

“Can she play?” you ask. I certainly could, once, and have the stats to prove it. Ten years of weekly piano lessons on our living room upright starting at age seven. Daily practices ranging from 30 minutes to an hour. Two teachers.

The first, a portly old man who had played classical piano professionally at one time and had conducted at another. Evidence of the latter was his showing up at our home each week with a conductor’s baton, the better to help his students stay on rhythm. Until one day, after my little fingers had slipped off the correct keys into dissonant territory yet again. The frustrated maestro had had enough and the baton came crashing down on my knuckles. My scream – more of fright than of pain – brought my mother running in from the kitchen. And quicker than a mama bear can save her cub from danger – and almost as ferociously – she ejected the monstrous maestro from our home in a flash. Brava, mom.

My second teacher was a really nice man who played in his own combo most nights and taught during the day. He’d arrive each week with a battered leather case holding tons of sheet music, and he was patient and kind and instilled in me a love of playing. (Not practicing, necessarily, but playing.) For the $10 weekly lesson cost, he’d also provide me with one piece of classical music (his choice) and one piece of “fun” music (mine). And that is how, to this day, I know the lyrics to so many old pop songs, American standards, and showtunes – it’s all from that sheet music and my attempt to sing as I played. (Sort of like singing into a hairbrush in front of a mirror and pretending to be on stage – all I needed was a tip jar atop the piano and I was famous.)

He also went a step beyond ordinary piano lessons and taught me about music theory – how to play scales in a variety of keys and in a variety of methods (parallel and contrary); how chords are constructed; how to notate music and how to transpose it from one key to the next. Not only did I work on the two piano pieces he left with me each week, I also had a big blue music notebook with theory homework.

It was the music theory part that is responsible for my new red keyboard. While I have rarely touched a piano since ending lessons at 17, I guess the love of playing has never left. Last week, I was explaining to B. exactly how two hands play at the same time; how the right hand is usually the melody, the left hand the accompaniment; how you can create chords for the left hand by knowing the key the music is written in. From there I launched into a talk about scales, about harmonics, and about how to read music. When I stopped to catch a breath, he had just one thing to say:

He: “We need to get you playing again.”

Me: “What are you talking about? We don’t have room for a piano.”

He: “Then we’ll get you an electronic keyboard.”

Me: “But what if it bothers the downstairs neighbors?”

He: “We’ll get one with headphones.”

Me: “But what if I can’t play anymore?”

He: “You’ll relearn it.”

Me: “But what if I sound terrible?”

He: “I’ll wear earplugs.”

Me: “But what if I never play it?”

He: “But what if you do?”

Ah, the man makes a good argument (always has) – and he knew what he was hearing in my voice when I explained some of that music theory to him last week. It was passion.

And so we found the perfect keyboard for me. It has only 61 keys instead of 88 for space reasons, but I don’t think that in all my years of playing I ever needed the top or bottom octaves much at all. It offers all kinds of options for different sounds and effects, but I very happily keep it at the basic piano setting because that’s what I want. It came with a stand and the promised headphones, as well as a cushioned bench, and fits perfectly into our den, where B.’s pool table (a scaled-down version) has had pride of place for a few years. And did I mention it’s red?

After one day of ownership, I’m proud to say that I’ve mastered Bach’s “Minuet in G” (who knew that you can now buy sheet music online and print it out?). Plus, a book of 50 great songs is arriving today (all very sing-along-to, with “Hallelujah” and “Moon River” being at the top of my list). Most wonderfully, the ability to read music has never left me – I find that incredible and awesome and very good news.

And so on I play. Lots of sharps, loads of flats, more than the occasional missed note, many more than hoped-for-at-this-point perfect notes. It’s like finding an old friend after years of not even realizing how much I missed her.

Me and my little red piano. Heart and soul.

©2022 Claudia Grossman

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yes, virginia, there is a laughter clause

Happy holidays, dear readers! This post made its debut a few years ago (under a different title) and I still find it chuckle-inducing enough to warrant another run, particularly this holiday season when we can all use some laughter. Here’s hoping for a time when our celebrations will indeed be limitless and our world a more peaceful – and peace-of-mind-full – place. Until then, I wish you all a safe holiday season and a better, brighter 2022. Cheers!

‘Twas the plight before Christmas …

…. and all through the house there was panic because someone had sent out online invitations with the wrong info. “Join us for cocktails and dinner on New Year’s Eve,” the invites should have read. But no. Whoever sent them out (you know who you are) made one teeny-tiny, itsy-bitsy error. Instead of New Year’s Eve (for which we would have been totally prepared), the invitations mistakenly read, “Christmas Eve.” Worse, the mistake wasn’t realized until one of our friends asked, a couple of days before the party, if he could dress up as Santa (don’t ask, it’s a thing with him).

Pulling all the details together for a party for 40 adults 48 hours before Christmas Eve would be a miracle — nothing short of an immaculate reception, if you will. Here’s how it all went down.

The tastefully sophisticated jazz trio I had originally booked to play softly in the background was, of course, not available. The good news? The musicians I did find came at a pretty good rate. The bad news? Having 12 drummers drumming along with 11 pipers piping their hearts out does not a jazz trio make. What it does make is too much noise to hear Santa’s reindeer hoofing it up on the roof.

The professional ballroom dancers I had hired were, of course, now scheduled elsewhere. But for the rate I would have paid them, I got the deal of the century – or so I thought. Ten lords a-leaping and nine ladies dancing fill up a dance floor quite well. But when there’s no partner for one of the lords, he might choose to ask one of the guests to dance. Which is fine. Except when it’s 90-year old Great-aunt Shirley whose leaping days are far behind her (if she ever leapt at all) and whose jeté over the buffet landed her in the ER.

Speaking of food, the caterers I had reserved for New Year’s only laughed at me when I asked about their availability for Christmas Eve. What to do? Even though my fabulous gourmet menu was no longer possible, the evening was saved by a somewhat unique, last-minute catering company. They brought eight maids a-milking their cows (yay! ice cream for everyone except the lactose-intolerant). The caterer’s seven swans a-swimming distracted everyone long enough for the six geese a-laying to do their thing (perfect for the omelette station). And, because I paid fully in cash, I got five golden rings of coffee cake for free (something to put the ice cream on).

Instead of New Year’s Eve noisemakers, I went with the vocal stylings of four calling birds. The only snag was that no one could hear over the bird calls to make calls on their cell phones, resulting in lots of shouting and some cursing, leading to the calling birds getting upset and, well, leaving their “calling cards” all over the dance floor.

The problem of replacing the top-notch servers I had signed for our elegant New Year’s Eve gala was solved, I thought, by a suspiciously not-busy party planner. Unfortunately, while I had requested three French-style-trained servers in black tie and white gloves, what showed up instead were three French hens and a pair of white turtle doves. I’ve got to tell you, getting the little white gloves on those hens was no walk in the park. And, FYI, French hens and white turtle doves do not like sharing the spotlight.

Lastly, the gift bags. The gorgeous, gift-filled, New-Year’s-Eve-themed bags I had ordered wouldn’t be ready for several days, so I had to punt. Scouring our home, I found one pear left from a gift basket someone had sent to us (regifting, anyone?), plus a brand-new, unopened, four-color printer cartridge. Am I resourceful or what? Everyone got a raffle ticket, and we held a prize drawing at the end of the evening. One lucky guest won the Grand (and only) prize.

“Wow!” she said, “A cartridge and a pear. Gee.”

Fa-la-la-la. Ha. Rimshot.

©2018 and 2021 Claudia Grossman

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piece of mind

In my ever-puzzling experiences observing the differences between how creative types and linear types go through life together, another example showed its face the other day – that is, how B. and I approach doing jigsaw puzzles. In short, he loves it and I, it seems, usually end up curled up in a corner with some chocolate. Muttering about never attempting this piece-full, non-peaceful pastime ever again. To wit:

We have a closetful of puzzles, purchased at various times over our 25 years together, always with the intention of doing them in front of a cozy fire on a winter evening while sipping hot chocolate spiked with amaretto, some great jazz spinning in the background The reality? We’ve barely looked at them in years; our apartment doesn’t have a fireplace; and these days our hot chocolate is spiked with nothing more exciting than whipped cream. The jazz, though, is accurate.

So there we were a couple of evenings ago, thinking we’d segue back into puzzle-doing slowly by delving into a set of puzzles I’d bought years ago. The assortment holds a couple of 500-piece puzzles (uh-oh), a couple with 300 (doubtful), and four with 100 (my best shot). The small ones were where we began.

Here’s where the different mindsets first showed. B. chose a beautiful nature scene. Soothing colors, easily defined images, challenging but in a good way. And here’s where I decided to go (aside from straight to puzzle hell) – a snapshot of Times Square, filled with tons of lighted billboards and neon signs.

The colors – seemingly hundreds of them – looked so pretty that I got distracted, both to the fact that the pieces were so small that that amount of detail would be hard to decipher, and to the fact that, if I’m honest, I just don’t like jigsaw puzzles. (Crossword puzzles, yes. Jigsaw, no. I mean, just the name “jigsaw” brings up images of slasher movies.)

As any puzzle-doer knows, the first thing to do when puzzling is to build your outside frame. Look for all the straight-edged pieces and fit them together. Which is exactly what B. was doing. While also sorting his pieces into groups – all the pieces of the boat in one spot, all the pieces that looked like they were part of the mountainside in another, all the pieces of clouds in a third. All the while annoying me to no end.

First, because I was sure that some of my straight edges were missing. After sorting through my cache at least 20 times, my frustration growing, two were still nowhere to be found.

Me: I’m done. They left two pieces out. There’s no way I can do this puzzle without the frame.

He: (frame finished, starting to fill in the center of his puzzle) I’m sure they’re there, you probably just need to look again.

Me: Nope. Not here. Can’t do it.

He: (stretching, totally relaxed) Are you sure? Do you want me to help look?

Me: (shoulders starting to creep up to my ears, lower back knotting up, teeth beginning to grind) Yes, I’m sure. And no, I don’t need you to look.

He: (eyebrows going up a fraction) Okay.

Me: Yes, I need you to look.

He: (scanning my pieces for a few seconds) Here they are.

Me: That’s not possible – how did you do that? You planted them!

He: Really?!

Back to our separate puzzles, my frame completed at last, it was time to work on the rest. And here’s where my creative mind started looking creatively for something else to do. Because sorting patiently the way B. does just isn’t the sort of thing my brain does successfully. He can methodically go piece by piece and put each one with its brothers and sisters; me, not so much. I’ll collect two pieces that go together and then get distracted by something else. I call it the “related piece, related piece, look there’s a flower!” method of doing a puzzle. Here’s a hint – it doesn’t really work.

And when B. says he’s looking for “a piece with two openings, one notch, and a tiny stripe of red on it,” I’m looking for a way out. That uber-rational, utterly sensible, completely scientific method of thinking may build puzzles successfully but it makes me plain nuts. I just want to cast my eye over the pieces and immediately sense what fits where. All I want is to see the beautiful visual at the end. And then maybe make up a story about it.

The end result? B. finished his puzzle while I was still lost in Times Square. When he graciously offered to help me, I grudgingly agreed. And he didn’t even mind my interruptions of, “Ooh, look at this pretty color pink!” or “This shape looks like a witch’s face with two warts!” Because he’d say, “Pink? That must be part of this building sign,” or “A shape with a couple of tabs sticking out? I’ve been looking for that. It fits right here.” I was happy creating and he was happy analyzing and figuring out.

Maybe that’s the answer to how a linear mind and a creative mind can live together happily – one builds the foundation and the other has her head in the clouds.

Puzzle solved.

©2021 Claudia Grossman

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outside the lines

In my ongoing effort to explore new areas of creativity, I recently discovered what I thought would be my next artistic endeavor – a paint-by-numbers kit. “Simple!” the package cried out. “Create a masterpiece as easy as 1-2-3!” it extolled. “You’ll be painting in minutes!” it promised. And I, who have spent my entire career writing engaging ad copy to convince people to buy products ranging from Champagne to baseball cards to nail polish, fell for the engaging part. The kit proposed, I accepted.

Too soon, it seemed. Let me the count the ways:

First, after getting the kit home and unpacking it, I realized why one shouldn’t judge a book – or anything else, I guess – by its cover. While the outside of the carton showed a beautiful representation of the artwork within – a legendary masterpiece by one of the world’s best-loved painters – what was missing were the three magic words: Enlarged for detail. That is, the numbered spaces on the canvas were much, much smaller than they appeared on the box. Combined with the fact that the “canvas” – a thin, plastic-coated sheet – was printed so lightly with the pattern and numbers that I had to bend my desk lamp way, way over it in order to see what to paint where. Way over, as in leaving about two inches of space between lamp and canvas. Which might work if I were gifted in brush handling, but which resulted in my painting the lamp numerous shades of blue, green, and purple instead because I am not.

Second, “Brushes included!” the package claimed. That part was accurate. Except that the two sizes of brushes were either too big to allow for filling in the spaces on the canvas without going way over the lines or too small actually to be effective. The result – uneven patches of paint in some spots, streaks in others, and something only a five-year-old would be proud of overall.

And third, the paint. You know the frustration of completing a jigsaw puzzle only to find that the last piece – the very last one in the box, the only one needed after 999 pieces of a 1000-piece puzzle have been locked together – is missing? Yup. Of the myriad of individual containers of paint needed to create my work of art, one color went awry. No, not missing. The indigo blue was dried out completely. As in useless. As in there was no other shade I could use to replace it without dramatically altering the image. As in I would have cared more if the rest of my project were anywhere near resembling the painting it was meant to replicate.

In short, I was having no fun. Zero. And the more I looked at the included color printout of what my finished project should look like, the more of a failure I felt. There was no joy but a whole lot of self-judgment. (“Feel really bad about your painting abilities!” should have been featured prominently on the box.)

But. While I was cleaning up the mess it occurred to me that maybe the joy, for me, wasn’t meant to come from staying inside the pre-printed (although barely visible) lines. Maybe it lies in painting without constrictions or limitations. (And with a brush and paint that work, of course.) Maybe the freedom to brush colors onto paper in whatever random design I choose would be a better experience. (That’s probably why I liked finger-painting so much as a kid.) Maybe the only one who needs to feel good about whatever I paint is me (even if that means getting almost as much paint on myself as on my canvas).

Maybe that five-year-old, who would have been proud of my paint-by-numbers mess, was onto something – pursue your art with your heart, not your head. Paint yourself out of a corner.

Easel does it.

©2021 Claudia Grossman

3 Comments

love notes

When asked which city I prefer, New York, where I was born and bred, or LA, where I’ve lived for the past 26 years, my answer is San Francisco.

I’ve been in love with San Francisco from the first time I visited it at age six (I even grew up to write a novel that is a love letter to the city, much as this blog post is). It started with my dad, who was equally smitten by the city by the bay, with its mix of morning fog and golden sun. The affair of the heart continued into my adult years because that’s where B. was living when we reconnected for one unforgettable week in our late 20’s after a teenage romance a decade earlier (and before we Harry-and-Sally-ed our way into another decade until we realized that we were each other’s “one”). And the city has kept a hold of my heart ever since, as we return every year to experience the look, the light, and the absolute lure of this place that is like no other.

All of these thoughts converged the other evening while we were watching a tour de force – Tony Bennett’s “One Last Time” concert at Radio City Music Hall. While suffering from Alzheimer’s, Bennett miraculously gave what could certainly be called the performance of his life, summoning the energy, the memory, and the unbelievable-at-95 voice to sing his way through his songbook of American standards with his signature style and oft-times jazzy edge.

Right by his side was Lady Gaga, his partner in song for the last several years, who provided much more than an arm to lean on. She gave Bennett a reassuring presence, an amazing voice to duet with for part of the performance, and the sensitivity, respect, and love to get through the evening – an evening that Bennett could not recall at all just days later.

While one could certainly talk about the heartbreak of that particular note – that a man whose mind unbelievably retains the lyrics and melodies of his music throughout the ravages of this memory-stealing disease but cannot remember more basic things – one can also marvel at the miracle that took place on that stage. That for a brief time Tony Bennett managed to capture all the vocal artistry and grace that has endured him to so many for so long. That, for a few moments on that enormous stage in front of a sell-out, 6000-fan audience who gave him standing ovation after standing ovation, he sang his heart out, maybe not with the same range as his younger self, but hitting notes of pure beauty along the way, leading up to his solo finale – I Left My Heart in San Francisco, the song that will forever be associated with him.

When the curtain rose for that last song, there was Bennett, standing alone at the piano. As the familiar notes filled the auditorium you could feel (even through the television screen) his love of music, his passion for living, and his courage. While he sang of leaving his heart in San Francisco, I (and I imagine everyone experiencing that moment) felt a piece of my heart break. But, even more important, I felt a piece of my heart soar at the absolute magnificence of such a feat. Bravo, Mr. Bennett, bravo.

I left my heart in San Francisco a long time ago – when I had to return home after visiting B. there in 1985 and realized even then (actually I knew it when we were 17) that he was my heart. And I leave it there each time we leave the city behind for another year. Despite the challenges San Francisco faces in these difficult days, its sun will always shine for me.

Brilliantly.

©2021 Claudia Grossman

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