Mandelbread and Old Boyfriends

This post was drafted mostly during the 2015 Thanksgiving-Christmas season and is being posted in time for Easter, which somehow seems fitting. For the record, life is pretty good right now. 

CherryMandelBrot2015_0991WbLife has been challenging here in Hollywood of late. There’s been sadness and a lot of anxious waiting, with too much time for Facebook and other sedentary pursuits, like window shopping at and looking up auld acquaintance.

Politics is a constant, and not just because my FB friends are a bunch of liberal, pinko Commies preaching to the converted. It’s kind of a hobby I’ve taken up more in recent years, and I’ve been glued to MSNBC since 2008. As I work at home, that’s a lot of glue. Nowadays, it’s more like a train wreck I can’t look away from, and when you add to that the events that make our politics spin, there’s a lot to be concerned about, especially if you’re already anxious.

Which brings me to my other Facebook page, the one with my work-industry friends, colleagues and fans. It is a much less liberal crowd, shall we say, and includes such standouts as a former Marine and cop whose manifesto of how he’d obliterate ISIS is nothing short of hair-raising and a gym owner I’ve known for almost 30 years who I never imagined is a right-wing, Obama-hating racist.

Those are not just acquaintances, by the way, but people I would call friends. Of necessity I do a lot of finger biting when I’m over there. It’s pointless to argue with people who have all the answers.

The Syrian refugee crisis really brought out the ugly, including my friend the accountant, a politically conservative Jew who clearly doesn’t see the irony in his attitude toward bringing refugees here. The idea of a blog post took hold. If I could just answer my friends, in a gentle, nonthreatening but factual way, it could change the world–or at the very least convince one person that Obama doesn’t hate America.

While the notion was marinating, I started doing some research for my grand baking experiment, grand only in that I don’t bake very often, don’t really enjoy it, and was going to have to adapt a recipe. Also I would have to shop, all of which by me is a lot of work.

Mandelbread, or “mandelbrot” (literally “almond bread”—my grandma called them, “ammand slices”), are almost the only thing I bake. Also known as “Jewish biscotti,” they’re toasty slices of almond cookie, baked in a loaf, sliced down and double baked. It is Grandma’s recipe, and I’ve been making them since long before biscotti became trendy. They take a bit of potskying because of the time involved in shaping the loaves plus cooling, slicing and rebaking.

If I do say so myself, the results are worth it. Dense, delicious and not too sweet—a piece of mandelbread is the perfect cookie for grownups. For decades my Jewish friends have sampled my grandma’s ammand slices and exclaimed, “I never liked mandelbread before, but this is amazing!”

Typically, I bake them once a year, at the holidays, for a particular friend, and I’ve never felt the need to get creative with what is as much a family tradition as it is a cookie. As I said, though, I was in a mood, with time on my hands, and some biscotti I saw online at a boutique bakery for 18 bucks a dozen had gotten me thinking. After some initial research, I decided to start simple by adding dried cherries to the basic recipe. If it worked, I would take some to Thanksgiving dinner—and go on to pistachio apricot. If it didn’t, I could pick up some cookies.

So there I was, the night before the grand experiment, my shopping done, searching for similar recipes and pondering what to blog about. The War on Isis was raging on the flat screen, but I had stopped looking.


With Steve—beaming like idiots at a DZ luau.

Should I write about my conservative friends or about the shallots I scored at the 99 Cent Only store? Decisions, decisions. A light bulb went off. I realized that a half cup or so of chopped cherries would be enough, and the next thing I knew, I was I looking up my old college boyfriend, the one who went off on a holiday ski trip and came back dating Betty Halperin.

We’ll call him “Steve.”

Now, it was not the first time I’d Googled Steve. I’d long had the satisfaction of knowing that he and Betty had ended up in divorce court, and my previous search confirmed that he’d indeed become a doctor, as planned. Also that he’d settled in the Southwest. In fact, Steve is in Texas, a cardiologist, with listings in Austin and Dallas, so he may have moved at some point. Mildly curious, I clicked for “Images.” A gazillion came up—Steve has a fairly common last name—but none of them likely matches. One photo, a foot or so from the top of the page, though, just had to be him: a head shot of an older gentleman in a suit. The long face and nose were unmistakable. Steve had aged perfectly, as if imagined by a makeup artist. I thought about a picture in my old scrapbook from the Northwestern years and chuckled—me and Steve beaming like idiots at a Delta Zeta luau.

Now, this was a major relationship, the taker of my virginity, and we were together for well over a year, talking marriage after the first month or so. I was very much under his influence. We would have two sons, Soren and Friedrich, named for his favorite philosophers. That alone would suggest to anyone who knows me that the relationship was doomed, but I was young and unformed, and mandelbread was still something my mom made back in Pittsburgh. When it ended as it did, I was devastated. I couldn’t eat—my weight dropped to 120 pounds—and because she was a sorority sister, I got to watch Betty’s blossoming romance with the rest of the DZs from the comfort of our living room.


Halloween hijinks with Snoopy and Charlie Brown.

Fortunately, the future brought men who were better for me and many good times. Forty-five years later (did I actually say that?) I looked at the head shot again and felt no connection.

Even so, my success in finding the photo encouraged me to look for another old friend. Let’s call him “Cordell.”

Did you ever have someone in your life who was nuts but was so intelligent, sarcastic and simpatico that you overlooked and put up with it—until you couldn’t? Cord was a colleague at my first publishing job in California and a member of what we called the Birthday Club, a small group of smart, funny friends who convened on each other’s birthdays to dine at big-pop restaurants, usually preceded by bubbly, crudités and crudities at someone’s apartment. Spago, Michael’s, Ivy at the Shore and other classics were early outings, and we loved Valentino, all of which are still around, for the record.

Cord was not strictly a boyfriend—although we did tango a bit at one point—but he was a close companion for more than a dozen years in the ’80s and beyond. We spent many an evening, talking and walking around West Hollywood—gossiping, wrangling and entertaining each other till the wee hours. Cordie was a “compassionate conservative,” for the record, but I was more concerned by the fact that he didn’t like Sondheim.

There’s a lot to say about Cord. Maybe if I ever write that screenplay about the Birthday Club, I’ll find the words. Our friendship petered out because, as mentioned, he was batshit crazy—paranoid and wildly insecure—and it got worse. Cord once stood outside my back door, eavesdropping, and overheard a conversation about himself that never took place—and that was early in the relationship. His signature phrase was, “What did he/she say about me?” It was never a good conversation to pursue.

I don’t remember how we fell out. The last time I saw him, I asked him to some event, out of the blue, and it did not go well. He was drinking quite a bit at that point, and I had to let it go.


Cord and Rudie at a Birthday Club meeting, circa mid-’80s.

At that time Cord owned a house in Van Nuys and was living with a roommate, which I perhaps mistakenly assumed was a financial arrangement. Years later, when the power of the Internet first compelled me to check up on him, I found him in Florida, writing for some business journal. There was a one-page Website advertising his services as a freelance writer but no photo or phone number. Paranoid to the end, I thought. It turned out to be prophetic.

Not surprisingly, Cord didn’t appear to be on Facebook, but when I plunked his name into the Google machine this time, nothing came up—no article, no Websites—mostly just listings of other men with his name. There were more than you might think, as, like Steve, he had a fairly common surname. Buried among the listings, I found a couple of 2011 news stories about a 59-year-old who’d been slain in a carjacking gone bad in Miami. No pictures of the victim, just mug shots of the two sulking teens who’d been charged with murder along with a 14-year-old. They had beaten, stabbed and strangled him before setting the car and the body on fire, a horrible thing. Was it our Cord? The age was right; the location close enough. I discussed it with C.B., and she asked the questions I was thinking. Had he argued with the carjackers? Had he been drinking?

The mandelbread came together perfectly, but it took a couple of hours, which left plenty of time between steps for idle speculation.

Maybe it’s significant that Steve never had the mandelbread. Maybe not. Maybe he’d never have dated the woman who makes it. No matter, as he seems to have faded to a footnote in my romantic oeuvre, which is either a very healthy thing or a sign of how long ago 45 years is.

Cord on the other hand, is still the occasional pause, usually when C.B. and I are waxing nostalgic about the Birthday Club days, mandelbread in hand, if not a stiff drink. With Cord there was always the tiny lingering hope that someday, somehow we would get to enjoy the best of him one more time, the neuroses mysteriously gone. That would have been too big a fairy tale even for the Brothers Grimm. Or Sondheim.

Confirmation that the Miami victim was my old friend came a couple of weeks later, when I found the police report, which described him as “a published freelance writer” and also “a gay man” (in case there was any lingering doubt about that).

So Cord died a death too awful to think about, although, sadly, I seem to be becoming immune to horrible news. In one week alone during the holiday season there were multiple mass murders, including the whacko who shot up the Colorado Planned Parenthood office and the whackos who shot up an employee gathering in San Bernardino, California, not very far from here. It’s getting very difficult to tell the whackos apart, even those who aren’t skinny white males.

By the time I got around to baking again, I’d eaten all the apricots; so the next lot of brot turned out to be cherry-pistachio. They were scrumptious, richer than the original recipe, thanks to the pistachios, and they were a hit at Christmas dinner, which is a tough crowd when it comes to baked goods. They were so tasty, in fact, that I hoarded the rest of them and barely managed to save a couple of pieces for my very best friend, who arrived on New Year’s Eve to help 2015 leave the building on an upward trajectory.

On a supernatural note, I can’t quash the thought that months after I finally click “Publish” on this, when I’ve completely forgotten, there will be an email, voicemail, Instagram or other message from beyond the grave: “So you thought you’d gotten rid of me, eh?” Cord will accuse. Then he’ll demand to know what everyone had said about him.

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The Importance of Being Ruthless…or Not

In my mind, Christina was the sweet young thing from the AT&T Wireless commercials. I pictured her averting her eyes in horror.

In my mind, Christina was the sweet young thing from the AT&T Wireless commercials. I pictured her averting her eyes in horror.

I’d better write something fast. Herb, the sweet guy at Cedars who books my outpatient appointments, is worried that I’m going to lose my skills if I don’t get a job soon. Not going to happen, Herb. Besides, I’m practicing writing every day, crafting pithy, intelligent responses to friends and foes alike on Facebook.

Herb is right, though. Burnout and P.T. time are very sweet, but at some point a girl’s got to go back to work. In fact, I’ve been laying plans for my return to the freelance nation—Ruthless With Words; cute, eh?—and getting started on the necessary Website. That’s what I was working on the other day when I found myself on the phone with the very helpful Christina at Go Daddy.

Christina and I had bonded after I wondered why the male customer-service reps I’d gotten on two previous calls had failed to suggest that I simply check my spam folder for the password-reset email. She also offered me a bigger discount than the one the guys had insisted they couldn’t give me over the phone, sealing my admiration. We were discussing whether I should activate or buy a second domain—free with the Web hosting—when I got an idea.

“Look up Ruthless Ruth,” I suggested, citing my nickname in the bodybuilding and fitness industry, where I am a longtime editor and correspondent.

In a flash, she said, “Oh, it’s taken. But is available.”

“Really?” I replied, my fingers flying on my own keyboard to see who or what could have usurped my moniker. In a flash, the pictures loaded: Penises and naked women! Oh, my God! Ruthless Ruth was a very randy girl.

“Ouch, no!!!” I exclaimed, closing the browser window. “Don’t go there!” I warned Christina, but it was too late.

“Ouch!” she echoed as the dirt downloaded. “Oh, no-o-o-o….”

The real Ruthless Ruth (on the right). Accept no substitutes.

The real Ruthless Ruth (on the right, seen posing down the bikini champion at a recent contest). Accept no substitutes. Photo by Dave Liberman.

In my mind, she was the sweet young thing in the AT&T commercials, the perky brunette, “Lilly,” who gets embarrassed when she’s caught with a hand-bedazzled logo on her back. I could only imagine her reaction—averting her eyes in horror from that which no sweet young thing should ever see.

I felt terrible. The kid was a civilian, after all. As a former editor at Hustler magazine, I was no civilian, however. I’d seen my share of penis-plus-naked girl photos. So the OMG above came more from surprise than anything else. Plus, the shots were so cheesy they hurt my eyes. Clearly, the other Ruth’s definition of “ruthless” and mine were very different.

“Did you want to think about” Christina’s voice was a little shaky, but she was a trouper. She had my business for sure, but I think we both knew I was not going to take her up on that particular offer.

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WordPress play

I took a fabulous photo of the pool with my new toy, er, iPad. That was the easy part. I was just sitting there at the marble table in the corner, and it occurred to me that I had the perfect view to see how the camera works. It definitely works.

Now, if I can just figure out how to get it into the blog and publish it, the day will be made. If the image Is here, I have succeeded. Hoorah!


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Still Finding My Inner Babe After All These Years

The past two weeks have been about as intense at it gets here in my little corner of Hollywood. My very full plate included “shipping” a magazine (a quaint term harking back to the days when we physically shipped the layouts to the printer), giving my annual Oscar party, prepping for the biggest work weekend of the year and fighting whatever crud has been going around L.A. It all culminated in that very big work weekend in Columbus, Ohio, which went pretty darned well if I do say so myself. Now I’m enjoying the big whew and the lingering adrenaline rush. According to NBC news, there were  60 car wrecks in a three-hour period on the roads outside Columbus on Sunday, and we must have seen six on the way to the airport at 7:30 a.m. It was good to get home, where the weather was  65 degrees and threatening to be sunny.

A wild pace, but I confess: I love it when my life goes a little crazy this way. Granted, I could have done without the spasmodic coughing fit at my Bev Hills hair salon last Tuesday, but all the rest was real living.

Many tales to tell from all of the above, but this one is about my trip to Columbus. Covering events as a reporter and grab-shot photographer is the fun part of my job, and having missed out on this particular trip last year for the first time since the early ’90s, I was determined to make the most of it.

My beat is the world of physique competition, principally women’s physique competition—everything from bodybuilders to bikini babes. If they get onstage in bathing suits and have a passing familiarity with a dumbbell, they’ve been featured in my column “Pump & Circumstance” in Iron Man magazine. How I tumbled down that particular rabbit hole is yet another story for another day. How my job description has exploded with the technology is what keeps me chuckling now. Who knew when I chose writing and editing because I had no confidence to be an actor that it would end up being the same thing? Or that I’d be too old to worry about it?

Until a few years ago we wrote contest reports, for the magazine and then for the Web site, the latter requiring one to write faster, which is not my strong suit, but I managed grind it out. Now it’s all video, shot immediately after the show—just me and the microphone standing there, light reflecting off my glasses as I try to read from my notes and talk while looking good. Sometimes I’m alone; more recently, I’ve brought in one or another of my girlfriends in the industry to assist with the commentating. This time I had them both—a bold experiment that could have been a disaster. The point of mentioning it is that, as I  was barreling through all that deadline-laden activity, calling the doctor at the last possible minute and rushing to make an 8:15 a.m. plane on Thursday, there was an added pressure: I would be appearing with two gorgeous, fabulously weight-trained younger women who excel in the hair-and-makeup department. Basically, I would have to look even gooder than usual.

As you might imagine, I had no time to shop, which meant two things: 1) I had to hope that the blue print top would look as slimming on camera as it does in real life (it didn’t), and 2) I would have to wear the bejeweled black sweater. The last time I wore that costume in Columbus, I learned the hard way that “arranging” the sweater does not disguise my lack of a smooth V-taper. Clearly, I would have to break down and wear the Flexee waist cincher I had purchased a couple of years before and never had the guts to wear. Literally, as my stomach was just not at its best the night I planned to put it on. So for a couple of years the Flexee has languished in tissue, tags still attached, in its Macy’s bag.

Oh, well, I thought, as I tossed it into the suitcase. At least it’s clean.

My friends, Carolyn and Nancy, did hit it off, and it was a lively weekend. When the time came for me to get into my merry widow, however, I was all alone. Attaching a couple dozen tiny black hooks was a challenge, even with the reading glasses on, but I prevailed. Inch by inch I managed to nail the tiny eyes, and the Flexee slowly did its magic, making me skinnier and skinnier—I felt like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, ordering Mammy to go “Tighter! Tighter!” The result was a revelation—the waist and bosom I never had, not even at 20. What’s more, I now know that if I ever get to walk a really important red carpet (where I will undoubtedly be wearing something sleek by Vera Wang or Armani), I will survive.

Of course I fluffed the line. I was going to start by announcing, “Well, I brought the girls,” very Bette Midler, before I introduced Carolyn and Nancy. Instead I almost forget the introduction and barely slipped it in. Thommy (my late dear friend) would have loved it.

So the big weekend in Columbus is over. We’ll all live with the results. We’ll have to because it’s out there in Internetland forever and ever. I think I held my own in the looking-good department, especially considering the 25-year-age range that I was at the top of. Not that I’m fighting the aging thing (what’s the point?), but being able to look hot at my stage is a huge rush if you were as late a bloomer as I was. I’d also like to point out that I was sporting the least amount of makeup of the three of us, so thank goodness the camera lights blew everything out.

Photo: I brought the girls: Nancy Di Nino (left) and Carolyn Bryant with “Ruthless Ruth.” You can almost see the outline of the waist I didn’t have at 20.

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In Case You Thought the Rainbow Was West on Sunset

To all who have inquired as to whether I’m wet enough, the answer is, not yet. The torrential rains unleashed on California have stopped, at least for a few days. Driving east into Hollywood between storms yesterday, I felt like Judy Garland when I glimpsed this Technicolor illusion hanging over Sunset and Vine.

I told a friend who lives in that neighborhood, and he went out looking for the pot of gold. I wonder if he found it.

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Lunch at Sammy’s

Just to say I’ve done it, I’m tapping this out on my new iPhone. The accompanying photo shows my favorite lunch at McCarran Airport. Leaving Las Vegas has never been so fun My colleagues and I tromp through Terminal C at McCarran a couple of times a year. We discovered Sammy’s Beach Bar & Grill in summer ’09, not long after it opened. Just being waited on made a welcome change from our usual Sbarro and Burger King options, but the food at Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Sammy Hagar’s new place was pretty good–kind of a Caribbean-Mexican-American conglomeration. Plus, you could drink–lots of juice and tequila along with the usual sports bar assortment–and they card everyone, which is charming if you’re my age and are in the right mood.

I ordered the hot dog, something I never do unless I’m in Chicago, at Pink’s or at Tail of the Pup, but I wasn’t that hungry. A work weekend like the one we were winding up leaves you keyed up and welcoming of something made with tequila and fruit juice. So I was almost overwhelmed when the hot dog that emerged from Sammy’s kitchen was a footlong.

Jokes were made. Somebody (possibly me) dubbed it the “Milton Berle of Hot Dogs,” a reference to something not comedic the legendary comic was also legendary for. Similar names were bestowed in honor someone in our industry who is reputed to be talented in that particular way. (People in our industry often wear skimpy bathing suits, so that’s not as voyeuristic as it sounds.)
Since that episode we’ve stopped at Sammy’s every time we’ve passed through the Vegas airport. A few weeks ago in one such weekend we were leaving at different times and on different days, and I found myself and my brand-new phone alone at the counter at Sammy’s with Uncle Miltie. The glass contains orange juice and blood-orange juice, along with the tequila, and it was very refreshing.

Yeah, I know the pic isn’t as sharp as it could be-but the composition is delicious.

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Moon Shots

Thursday I got to do the most fun part of my job—I went to the studio to do videos. Who knew when I was graduating from Northwestern with that degree in speech that I would never use because I was going to be a writer that it would end up being the same thing? Not saying I’m great at it, just that I was really pumped.

Later back at the ranch I got a phone call that made me smile, and I was downstairs in the courtyard, chilling for once—enjoying the night and basking in all of it, thinking that it just doesn’t get any better. And then the moon did this.

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Weekend in Hollywood

It’s an awesome day in paradise. Perfect pool weather but not so hot that I’m melting in front of the computer. While the rest of the country has been sweltering, we’ve had a relatively mild summer in Southern California: mostly too cool to ’que, until recently. And now, today, awesome, a word that is largely overused but that sometimes hits the nail on the head. Just ask my neighbors, who are downstairs frolicking—or playing Dungeons & Dragons, which I perceive is a specialized form of frolicking. These days there are often multiple computing devices being deployed in the courtyard. I would join them, but I am currently without a wireless device—basically laptopless for the first time almost since laptops were invented. Feels like being naked, technologically speaking. A new one is coming but maybe not before I give in to temptation. Those iPads look mighty appealing.

This week as I watched, live, the last brigade of combat troops rolling out of Iraq, I was not prepared for the intensity of my reaction. Tears of disbelieve as much as joy poured  down my cheeks—I cried like it was the last scene of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”  Something that had gone on so long, cost so many lives and so much money and that we so didn’t want was over, if only symbolically, and it sent chills. It felt a lot like the end of the War in Vietnam but anticlimactic. I connected with a couple of friends from the old days and was reassured that people cared, but otherwise, no one seemed to be paying much attention (besides MSNBC and the Los Angeles Times; thanks for that).

Considering that Operation Iraqi Freedom had touched my everyday life very little, my response was puzzling. Perhaps I’d suppressed it so deeply, I didn’t actually know how angry I was regarding the war and how we came to be fighting it. Self-preservation. Otherwise you can choose to walk around pissed all the time and court high blood pressure. Times have certainly changed in that respect. We are busy and practical, and we are ever hopeful that we can make a change at the ballot box. This time it appears we did. Chalk one up for President Obama.

Sure, I know we’re not really out—50,000 personnel remaining for the new (noncombat) mission plus gosh knows how many contractors—but only the most peevish of pessimists could fail to see this week’s troop withdrawal as a Stryker ride in the right direction.

Yesterday I spoke with a friend who’s a photographer working for the Air Force in Delaware. He was headed out to shoot a dignified transfer at Dover AFB, the ceremony that takes place when a serviceperson’s remains come home. My friend, who is retired from the Air Force, has been on many such assignments since President Obama lifted the ban on photography and videos of “D.T.s” at Dover last year. It’s a tough assignment—the ability to focus on the work and not what it all means is key.

Suddenly, I remembered that the war was at least one degree of separation closer than I thought. “Soon you’ll be going to photograph the troops coming home, like they’re doing at Fort Lewis in Washington,” I said.

“I hope so,” he replied.

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