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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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swimming upstream

I hate seafood. Even though I’m told, “It’s good for you, it’s low fat, it’s brain food,” I just can’t stand it. The taste, the smell (don’t even try to convince me that if it’s fresh it has no smell), the look — the whole thing. When it comes to seafood, I’ll skip straight to dessert.

Full disclosure. Up until my appetite changed about a year ago (long story), I used to enjoy one — very limited — kind of seafood. I used to love tuna (with celery, mayo, and relish) on rye with a Diet Coke. Almost every day for decades, from working at New York ad agencies through the years writing for an LA beauty company (and even after that), it was my lunch of choice. It didn’t surprise me when a former colleague told me that, in his experience, it was what all writers had for lunch. Go figure.

Anyway, we can now call me a seafood-free zone. (Sharp-eyed readers of my novel, The Mermaid Mahjong Circle — A Fairy Tale for Women, will note that one of the main characters also hates seafood. Art imitating life. And a shameless plug.)

But. I fully recognize how healthy the right kind of fish can be, particularly salmon. And I fully recognize how much B. loves salmon, particularly in sushi; however, with the limited number of places we go these days in order to remain safe (the supermarket once a week), B.’s options for excellent sushi are not great. So, salmon it is. And I, Ms. Don’t-Get-That-Fish-Anywhere-Near-Me, am now the preparer of said salmon.

But wait, you ask, if you hate it, why can’t B. prepare it himself? He can and has offered to do so many times. The problem is that Ms. Don’t-Get-That Fish-Anywhere-Near-Me coexists in the same body as Ms. It’s-My-Kitchen-and-I-Need-to-Be-in-Control. So there you go — a classic battle of the wits. On one side, me. On the other side, also me.

I’ve figured out the almost ballet-like moves it takes for me to remove the salmon filets from their plastic-bag-and-butcher-paper wrapping without touching either (not easy). Then, tongs to get them onto the pan, and into the oven they go to broil for 20 minutes. Simple as that. Except for the, shall we say, aroma. I’ve got the oven door shut (even on broil), the oven fan on (the highest setting), and the door leading to the other half of the apartment closed, but still the aroma remains for a while. Good times.

Yesterday’s salmon fiasco brought me to new heights (literally) of discomfort. Stay with me here. Take pan out of oven, check. Slide spatula under first filet to loosen it from the skin on the bottom (even writing those words makes me feel just a wee bit ill), check. Place onto platter to cool, check. Repeat with filet number two. Uh, not so much.

Because somehow in my zest to loosen the second piece from the skin below it (OMG, again?), the salmon decided to go back to its roots and leapt (not out of the water, but off of the spatula). Yup. So now, the only thing worse than dealing with salmon from pan to platter was dealing with it as it flew through the air and hovered dangerously close to my face (are you kidding me here?) before landing, thankfully, on the far counter. Not so thankfully, though, it landed bottom side up, requiring flipping as well as spearing.

Now it was personal. Just me and the fish (very Captain Ahab, although that one didn’t work out so well). In the words of Lady Macbeth, I reminded myself to screw my courage to the sticking place — and skewered that piece of salmon through the middle with a fork, settling it with a flick of the wrist, right side up, onto its platter to cool. Final score: Salmon 0, Moi 2.

All this to say that next time you’re at our place for dinner (and one day, before too long, hopefully we will be eating dinner together again), expect brisket (maybe), roast chicken (possibly), or pasta (most likely). Seafood will most definitely be off the table. Happy faces (especially mine) will be around it. And we’ll toast to good friends (in person) once again.

Talk about a lure.

©2021 Claudia Grossman

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have a heart

Some people see faces in the clouds. Others see castles (ice-cream castles, if you’re the wonderful Joni Mitchell). Still others see patterns (and fortunes) in tea leaves. Me, I see hearts everywhere.

Heart-shaped leaves. A heart in the shape of a spontaneously sliced red bell pepper. Heart-shaped potato chips. (Although the champion of finding potato-chip shapes has to be this charming lady who visited the Johnny Carson show years ago. Her collection was amazing — her reaction when she thought Johnny was biting into one of them is classic Carson. Take a look: https://bit.ly/39oLDjz).

But back to me and my hearts. I’m not sure when it started, but seeing a heart shape — in a puddle, a stray thread, an imperfectly rolled meatball, a seashell, a casually thrown sock, in all kinds of things encountered in an ordinary day — has become part of who I am.

I’m not talking about things deliberately designed as hearts — cookies and candles, Valentines and chocolates, earrings and lollipops, and on and on (although I will admit to owning two pairs of earrings with tiny dangling hearts). I mean the kind of random impressions that pop up like surprises each time I see them.

Annoyingly adorable? To some, probably. The sign of an eternal optimist? I wish, although it’s really hard, especially these days, for me to claim that title. A sign of a creative temperament? Given that I have doodled hearts on notebook covers and page margins for years, why not.

Or perhaps it’s the sign of someone who has spent a lifetime believing in happily ever after.

Yeah, I know. Happily ever after is the stuff of fairy tales and children’s stories, right? Well, yes and no. That perfectly idyllic, nothing-bad-ever-happens, everything’s-rosy, effortlessly worry-free existence — that’s not real. And that’s not life. But finding pieces of personal happiness and fulfillment, and having days that are absolute jewels, friends to treasure, and a life partner who is truly a piece of my heart — maybe this is what happily ever after means. It’s not perfect. It’s not easy. And it’s not all hearts and flowers.

Maybe seeing hearts in everything is a sign that looking for joy — whatever that may mean at any given moment — is a sign of hope. Of an eternal optimist in training. I like that.

Or maybe it’s a sign that I really need to cut back on those heart-shaped chocolates.

Heart to tell.

©2021 Claudia Grossman

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drop in the bucket

If you remember the 1970s, you might remember a song that lived on the pop charts for a brief, ear-worming period, bemoaning the fact that while “it never rains in southern California … man, it pours.” Indeed.

While rain is too infrequent here (although living in sunshine nearly 365 days a year is intoxicating), when it chooses to come down with a vengeance (not often) it’s memorable. Such was the case about three weeks ago, when the heavens poured, the thunder roared, and the lightning scored every few seconds for most of the night. The gods were clearly unleashing their wrath (can you blame them?).

Aside: Our apartment is on the top floor of a building that was constructed before the song was written and was retrofitted after the huge earthquake in 1994 (a fancy word for “reinforced to withstand another quake of that magnitude, hopefully”). We’ve been living here for nearly 23 years. It’s a great unit with, among other nice features, a sunny, southern-exposure view of the Hollywood Hills from every room, a huge kitchen and über-spacious master bedroom, and rent control. Plus lots of character (okay, quirks) because it is, after all, an old building.

Back to our story. The storm passed and the next day dawned clear (there’s nothing like LA after the rain). Sure some water had gathered in the window tracks (quirk) but otherwise, no problems. Until.

That night, as I sat at my standing-desk (does anyone really stand at one of these?) in my office portion of the bedroom (I told you, the room is big), I heard a funny noise. Sort of like a soft pah sound. Pah (pause for several seconds), pah (pause), pah. I barely paid attention, assuming it was just the building settling (not that a building settling in earthquake country is terribly comforting). After it happened a couple of more times I thought absently, “Oh, it’s the dog brushing past the bed.” Except that we haven’t had a dog in fifteen years. And that’s when I turned around, looked up … and saw a strange shadow on the ceiling.

“Oh, wow,” my Queen of Denial inner voice said, “I never realized how the desk lamp makes that weird shadow.” Probably because it doesn’t. The not-shadow was due to a roof leak, the pah sound was the noise the leak made dripping onto the bed (the one covered with a now no-longer-white down-alternative comforter), and the words coming out of my mouth were, well, unprintable.

Rushing into the living room where B. was happily ensconced watching a Laker game, I calmly broke the news. To wit:

Me: “Honey …”

He: “Just a sec …”

Me: “HONEY…”

He: “Hold on, LeBron’s setting up a 3-point shot …”

Me: “HONEY!!! The roof is leaking onto the bed!!!”

He: “Why didn’t you tell me sooner???”

And from there the hits — and the hilarity — kept coming. After setting up a bucket, we spent the next couple of hours moving furniture around to get the bed (did I tell you it’s a California king?) out from under the leak, which required moving all the other pieces of furniture to new spots. The result being that now most of it is on one side of the room, leaving a nice, big, empty space on the other side (behind my desk) but throwing off my neurotic sense of symmetry completely. And then there are the little oddities — like one of the nightstands being not-so-conveniently located across the room where it serves absolutely no purpose at all.

Good news — it hasn’t rained since then (yet). More good news — I hear the roofers up there now (unless it’s Santa, 11 months early, although the two are interchangeable in this regard).

But what really makes me smile is B.’s enthusiasm about maybe keeping the bed where it is, while rearranging the rest of the furniture so that he can preserve that newfound, extra space behind my desk for me to use however I choose. You’ve got to hand it to him — it’s a downright “A for admirable” effort. (Really wanting the room back to the way it’s always been, I merit a scarlet “D” for my “don’t even go there” attitude.)

“Maybe you’ll use the space for yoga,” he has suggested hopefully, resulting in a very un-namaste glare from me (hint: I don’t do yoga). “And maybe we can move the bookcase over there so that it will show up behind you when you do Zoom meetings … just like everyone we see on TV.” (Sure. And maybe we can all burst into a chorus of “Singin’ in the Rain.”)

Or maybe we send the rain to a plain in Spain.

Aboard a westbound 747.

© 2021 Claudia Grossman

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all buttoned up

One of my most enduring, and endearing, memories as a little girl is that of the box of buttons belonging to my grandmother. Made of blue and gold tin, round and gleaming, with flower petals painted on the lid, the box was a treasure of buttons from years and years of clothing – sweaters and dresses, baby outfits and men’s vests, coats and blouses and more.

My grandmother lived with us as I was growing up, and one of her prized possessions was a Singer foot-pedal sewing machine, black and gold in its wood table. And right next to the sewing machine, among spools of threads in a myriad of colors, pincushions, dimpled thimbles, and an old silvery scissors, sat the button box.

As a child, I loved to play with the buttons, running my hands through the seemingly endless collection, making piles of them on the floor, sorting them by shade to match my crayons, and loving the feel and the sound of them. Each one had a story, and my grandmother would tell them all to me.

That eye-catching, bottle-green button that seemed to glow with a marbleized finish? “That was from a sweater you wore when you were just two or three,” she told me. My mother had knitted that sweater and a matching hat, I remember, in the perfect shade to match my eyes, and the buttons went all the way up to my chubby little chin. Those buttons were sold on cards of two, and the extra went into the button box “just in case.”

The amethyst colored sparkler? That one, she told me, with a bit of a faraway look in her eye, was from the dress my grandfather liked the best on her. It was a luxury for her to have purchased the lengths of secondhand velvet at the time, and her attention to detail had turned the worn fabric into a beautiful garment.

“This one, tell this one!” I must have said a thousand times, begging for another tale. I remember once holding up two buttons from the box; the first, a flat mother-of-pearl disk, rimmed in gold; the other, its tinier matching counterpart. She smiled at me. “Those were from a special blouse,” she said, “I think it was for your mother’s high-school graduation, or maybe it was your aunt’s.” In those days, when there was little money to buy fine clothing, buying new buttons could dress up a garment like nothing else.

The stories that button box could tell! Buttons from my father’s cardigan – brown-leather-wrapped domes – the one he wore when fall set in. From my brother’s first little sailor suit – navy blue with tiny anchors embossed on them. Pieces that held the scents of the past – a curious mix of plastic and shell and metal and leather and time – the history of a family as told through the clothes that warmed us.

Every family has traditions and keepsakes that pass down from one generation to the next. In my family, the button box that my grandmother started became my mom’s, to which she added years more of buttons and ribbons and even pieces of yarn (“just in case” a handmade sweater needed mending).

When I moved across the country from the house I grew up in to our home, I started my own button box, almost without thinking. And while I don’t have my grandmother’s talent for sewing (the woman could sew a hem by hand with practically invisible stitches) or my mother’s talent for knitting (no pattern was too complex), I can sew on a button perfectly. Buttons that adorn and attach, that secure and hold together. Like the memories that carry from one pair of hands to the next.

Common threads.

© 2021 Claudia Grossman

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uke can’t always get what you want

So here’s the thing. Music has always been a big part of my life, whether listening to it, singing to it (not always in tune), or playing it. And while the listening and the singing (no matter how off-tune it may be) have increased over the years, the playing, alas, has not. And so a remedy needed to be found. Or so I thought.

A bit of background: I took piano lessons from the time I was six and cello lessons from age ten or so, both until I turned 16. I was quite good at the former, not as much at the latter. But I had a lot of heart. And while piano was something I played at home, I played the cello in school orchestra. Playing for high-school musical productions was one of my favorite things (and one of the reasons I know all the lyrics to so many Broadway classics like How to Succeed in Business, Pajama Game, South Pacific — talk about a party starter.)

At any rate, I haven’t really played either instrument in decades; sure there was a flirtation with an electronic keyboard a number of years ago but it it wasn’t the same. And there was an even shorter meet-cute with renting a cello after that, but the magic was gone.

But recently, the urge to make music again struck as did (or so I thought) a stroke of genius. Why not try the ukulele? One of my biggest challenges with the cello had been trying to tune it (because turning the large pegs and getting them to stay in place just never seemed to work — they always slipped). And a ukulele is small, an electronic tuner device would keep me sounding good, and how cute would I be strumming my little heart out and singing to everything from Joni Mitchell to Bob Dylan to Jason Mraz to You Are My Sunshine to Over the Rainbow to … well, you get it.

So, after poring over ukulele choices online, I finally made what I thought was a great choice (and at such at a great price!). I even ordered a song book and a how-to-play book. And while I waited for the uke to arrive, I read a lot online about the basics behind playing it. I was ready.

And then it got here. And that, dear reader, was where over the rainbow turned into ain’t no sunshine.

The first issue was the quality of the uke itself right out of the box — its paper-thin construction belied the “fine wood” description and the strings were cheap plastic. Then, after many failed tuning attempts and upon closer visual inspection, it appeared that the uke had arrived strung incorrectly — with two A strings, no C string, and the G and E strings in the wrong positions (don’t even ask how long it took to figure that out). Ever the warrior, I followed another how-to video and restrung it with the second set of strings provided, handily mastering the art of knotting, pulling, and winding-around-the-peg for all four strings (twice, actually, since the first time I tried, I strung the strings in the opposite order). Time to (finally!) play.

One strum, two strums, a couple of chords and then — what was that sound? Clamping on the tuner to check, I found that the strings had become un-tuned after only a couple of minutes. Okay, let’s fix that and try again. All four strings tuned to the green zone on the tuner. Perfect. One more time … and out of tune again, almost instantly. After another hour of attempting to play and retune, I realized that I’d been had. That the reason the uke sounded too good (on paper, not in person) to be true is that it was. That the only sounds coming out of it that were in tune were the sounds of silence. And that ear plugs were about to become my accessory of choice.

So back it went for a full refund. And while that particular ukulele was a lemon, it hasn’t dampened my hopes to make music. Maybe it’s not on a grand piano (hey, I’d even settle for a baby grand); maybe it’s not saying hello to the cello; maybe cool hand Luke the Uke isn’t in my future. But you know what? Air guitar is easy to play, never out of tune, and available at the drop of a hat.

No strings attached.

©2021 Claudia Grossman

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just shy of a win

Anyone who has met me in the past few years would probably never guess that, while chatty, confident, and vivacious now (why, thank you!), I was an incredibly shy little girl. As in hide-behind-my-mother’s-skirt shy. First-day-of-school-terrified shy. Quiet-as-a-mouse shy. I was always really smart (although being voted Most Intellectual in my senior class was a double-edged sword — in those days, that title wasn’t very sexy and I’m not sure it is even today). I’m not too shy to share that with you, and that’s the difference between then and now. I got past my shyness and lack of confidence to be proud of how intelligent I am. But it wasn’t always that way. To wit:

In one of the later grades of elementary school, my teacher entered me into the school spelling bee. I won. (“What?” I remember thinking at the time. “Was that supposed to be hard?”). The difficult part for me wasn’t the spelling, it was being the center of attention. From there it was on to the regionals. Lots of entrants from several schools. One winner. Yup, me again. And again, it wasn’t difficult (probably because I was such a voracious reader, the words came easy to me). I won on the word “conscientious” — the little boy ahead of me misspelled it as “conscience” — while the whole time my subconscious was screaming for me to get the hell out of there. Afterward, I felt huge relief at finally being able to get off the stage — and huge agita at the thought of having to take the next step to the state finals. So I took home my little trophy and engraved pen-and-pencil set and made up my mind. I was through. No state finals for me. No national spelling bee for me. No more spotlight for me. And that was that.

Of course, in looking back, I wish I had been brave enough to stay with it. It wasn’t the fear of losing that stopped me. It was the fear of losing it, of spontaneously combusting in front of all those people, of having all those eyes on me. I knew that I was smart enough; what I didn’t know at the time was that “smart” was enough.

Since then I’ve learned that being smart and showing it is never a mistake and never something to hide (being a smartass, on the other hand — something else I excel at — does have its time and place). Have there been times through my professional and personal life when my intelligence has been a threat to others? Unfortunately, yes. But I’ve never ever forgotten how hiding that light of mine kept me from the chance to experience something potentially wonderful. And I’ve never hidden it again.

Which is why I make it a point when meeting young women and girls to reinforce and compliment their sense of themselves in terms of their intelligence versus their looks. Sure, “adorable” and “cute” have their place, but letting a girl or young woman know that she’s bright, that’s she’s gifted, that she’s accomplished — all that, I believe, is worth far more.

It’s way past time to break the spell of women’s intelligence being a threat. To break the glass ceiling of women achieving at the highest levels and being recognized for it (brava, Kamala). To break through the myth that a woman’s accomplishments should be talked about in soft voices rather than shouted from the rooftops.

To no longer shy away from naming women’s achievements as they deserve to be named.

Namely, Dr. Biden.

©2020 Claudia Grossman

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backwards and in heels

An old Hollywood story has it that when the legendary Fred Astaire was asked whom his favorite dance partner was — his choices included Ginger Rogers, of course, as well as names like Leslie Caron, Cyd Charisse, Judy Garland, Rita Hayworth, Eleanor Powell — the ever-gentlemanly Astaire responded, “Gene Kelly.” In considering the challenge of, as Ms. Rogers so astutely put it, having to do everything that Astaire did but “backwards and in heels” (think about what that means for a moment), it occurs to me that there are quite a few contemporary standout performances by women dance partners in film, all worthy of a solo spotlight. To wit:

Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing. While it’s true that a remarkable dancer like the late Patrick Swayze could make almost any partner look good, Jennifer Grey’s “Baby” character matched his expertise — hip swivel for hip swivel — in this 1960s-era coming-of-age movie set in the Catskills. Sure, Swayze’s Johnny Castle taught Baby how to dance (among other things) and she taught him how to be a mensch. But mostly, when Baby took a chance and did the lift, women everywhere soared. And sighed.

Rene Russo in The Thomas Crown Affair. When insurance investigator Catherine Bannon (Russo) lures art thief Crown (played by the devastatingly debonair Pierce Brosnan) into her net, things heat up with a dance scene at a Black and White Ball (to which Catherine notoriously shows up in black and red). Their dance can only be described as spontaneous combustion, from her dress, which leaves little to the imagination, to her moves, which leave the saxophones wailing for mercy. And leave Crown growling, “Do you wanna dance? Or do you wanna dance?” The only answer is, “yes.” Oh yes.

Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. John Travolta’s dancing prowess was well known by the time Pulp Fiction came out, so it was no surprise that his not-so-smart, gun-fumbling Vincent Vega was so smooth on the dance floor. But it was Uma Thurman’s Mrs. Mia Wallace who stole the show. Dancing to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell,” Thurman brought a level of cool to the twist that the dance had never seen before — backwards, sideways, and straight ahead. No heels required.

Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago. The movie’s show-stopping finale, featuring bad girls Roxie Hart (Zellweger) and Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones) on stage, is a tour de force of song and dance for both. It razzles, it dazzles, and it’s brilliant, ending with their shooting the lights out, both literally and figuratively. It’s all that jazz.

Dancing chic to chic indeed.

©2020 Claudia Grossman

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