chocolate is a verb

colors, flavors, whims and other growing things

Monthly Archives: August 2011

the random mind…

screen shot 8-31-11memory, expectation, overview, cantilever… the splash of words on the screen… enigma, parallax, recalcitrant, omnivore… trowel into the morning, lift each word from the soil, set it aside to embrace, to ponder, these erratics of thought, this moraine of dreams, scree of imagining, talus of memory…

blue streak…

Steller's Jay photo by Alan D. WilsonThe Steller’s Jay has a lot to say about the morning. He’s critical of the sprinkler dripping into the vegetable garden. He’s anxious because repeated trips to the spruce have failed to turn up the peanuts he cached there on the shelves of its flat, spiky fronds. He gives a stern warning to the man who delivers the newspaper after the blue-bagged roll sails end-over-end through the parentheses of his attention. He announces his claim on the wasps who still buzz around the plum tree although the fruit is long gone. To emphasize his strident messages, he hops heavily along the edge of the flat roof, a bouncing blue exclamation point.
Steller’s Jay photo Copyright © 2006, Alan D. Wilson, Nature’s Pics

the wind…

I step outside to smell the dawn, a blush of peach at the hilltops, and hear the loud shhhhhhh of wind in the huge round maple on the next block.

I’m tumbled back to another time, another wind: high school, a chilly autumn night, wind blowing. I’m at a high school football game on a date with Neil, a tall, dark-haired boy from another school. Our only date.

In the bleachers, everyone’s standing to watch the play at the far end of the field. We’re side by side, but turned, so Neil is slightly behind me. He leans gently against my back and wraps his arms around me. The feeling is so sweet and so safe I nearly faint.

The memory of it is all one thing, one moment: the field under lights… the distant players… the bleachers… standing… his arms around me… and the cool wind against my face.

gratitude, overdue…

library bookshelvesI wish I could thank her, but I never knew her name.

It had all seemed so straightforward: college. The bliss of leaving home, the restraints sprung, the possibility of learning, of having new friends.

I declared a major: sociology. I would do something worthwhile…make a difference. I strolled the campus whistling, the sound echoing.

But after the first year, I slid into a morass. A tearless sophomore-year depression. Long self-pitying walks on the abandoned beach. Fantasies of being rescued. The urge to make art whispered at my edges — the urge I had suppressed so successfully for so long. Anything, I reasoned, to avoid becoming my mother.

Miserable, I went to the library, the other safe place, and asked the librarian for something: a key, a miracle, an answer. I don’t remember the question. But she said, Why don’t you look at some college catalogs? and pointed me to a long shelf of books. Hundreds of them, from universities all over the world.

I went to the shelf and began pulling them down. First one, then dozens. Looking through them for the answer, as if I would somehow recognize it in front of me. It grew dark outside. And then, suddenly, there it was: the Design department at UC Berkeley: weaving. A bell resonated inside me, perfect pitch. I knew: this was the place, the key, the miracle.

I took the catalog and walked out of the library across the flat campus toward the dorm. Along the way, in the middle of a broad lawn, there stood a huge tree I had passed innumerable times. In the soft evening light, I stepped close to the tree, hugged it fiercely and, at long last, wept.
library bookshelves

Battling the Blues

The Social Gardener, Spring 2007Battling the Blues
Copyright 2007 by J.I. Kleinberg
Previously published in The Social Gardener, The Journal of the Whatcom Horticultural Society, Vol. 19, No. 1, Spring 2007

Except for the furious shoveling-up of the front lawn, the heavy lifting in my garden was done by the previous homeowner. Betty went to war with the blackberries and clay and nurtured a lovely sanctuary of apples and plums, rhodies and junipers, hydrangeas and hostas. Although she claimed to have abandoned her passion for bulbs and other seasonal plantings, cheerful clusters of crocus, daffodils, grape hyacinths, tulips, asters and lilies still emerge each year.

The grape hyacinths, muscari armeniacum, push up their grassy fronds in mid-winter and by early February are showing their distinctive flower stalks topped with grape-like clusters of tiny blue florets. They form a dense blue understory and offer up a delicate, fruity fragrance.

As the season progresses, the flowers dry, lose their color and turn into flat, tissue-thin seedpods that open to release their payload of tiny black seeds. The greenery looks like overgrown grass until it, too, eventually dies back.

I hate them.

I didn’t start out hating them. I liked their color and fragrance, their early promise of the spring to come. But I wasn’t happy with the grassy mess of their leaves, which gave my entryway a bedraggled, untended look, so I decided to take out some of the grape hyacinths to make way for other plantings. Ha!

Kneeling on my green foam pad, I troweled into the much-amended soil, scooped out the small, white bulbs, dusted off the extra dirt, and tossed them into a bucket. Within ten minutes the bucket was full and I was still kneeling in the same spot. I got a kitchen-size plastic trash bag. Within a half-hour, I had four bags I could barely lift and had advanced only a few feet along the bed.

No stranger to the seduction of nursery catalogs, I knew that for some eager gardener, my noxious bulbs would be blue gold, so I made a sign and set the bags at the curb. They were gone before I was back on my knees.

Once I started, I realized that there were grape hyacinths everywhere. Their little grassy fronds gave them away. Summer seeds were already sending up green sprouts. Mature bulbs were starting the year over again. They had worked their way into the roots of the azaleas and cotoneaster, had crossed the walkway and nestled into the heather, had populated the margins of the vegetable garden, and had even found their way up the long driveway and into the back yard.

Every time I thought I had cleared a part of the bed, I discovered another clump of bulbs beside or beneath the one I had just unearthed. The largest bulbs were the size of Ping-Pong balls, the smallest the size of a poppy seed. Some sprouted right at the surface, but most were burrowed 4 to 8 inches into the soil. There were rogue bulbs off on their own, mother bulbs surrounded by litters of pups, and places where my trowel would unearth dense, nearly soil-less masses of pea-size bulbs that I could barely hold in two hands.

I felt like I was living a science fiction movie. My adversary — a much-beloved garden treasure with a dark side — had taken possession of my garden, multiplying rampantly by bulb and casting seed by the gazillion.

By the time the rains started in earnest, I had given up for adoption nearly 30 large kitchen bags of grape hyacinth bulbs and a good portion of my sanity. But don’t get me wrong. I’m not done. I don’t know how long it took for my garden to become a muscari hot-bed, and I know I’ll never be rid of them, but I’m determined to keep trying. The soggy winter months have allowed me to see and pry out bulbs from beneath deciduous plants and to crawl through the dripping overhang of juniper and spruce, digging as I go, muttering apologies to the plants whose roots I’ve unsettled, whose leaves and berries I pull from my hair at the end of the day.

Recently, as a friend and I were leafing through a gardening catalog, she said, “I can’t believe that people pay money for mint!” Yeah…I know exactly what she means.

old photos…

old family photoEvery few months I pull the photo albums off the shelf, dust the covers and peer inside with a magnifying glass as if the secret formula of my life might be deciphered from their contents. Bound in leather-textured black paper with black, crumbling pages, they are filled with carefully-glued, fading, unidentified photos.

This is my mother’s family, a sprawling gaggle of aunts, uncles and cousins who enjoyed enough leisure to travel by car to distant lakes and national parks populated with bears and waterfalls, to get together and ham it up in front of a camera and to attend large costume parties that featured a lot of cross-dressing.

I recognize my mother and grandparents in some of the pictures, the occasional uncle or aunt. But mostly these are strangers, their images receding in the aging photographs, with no one left to tell me who the people are, what became of them or what they saw or did that left my mother so profoundly wounded.

found poetry…


jik by DAK ~ detailFor the first time in more than two decades, I am doing some sketching. Invited to join a weekly drawing and painting group, I’ve discovered a cache of colored pencils, partially unused pads of paper and within me the desire to explore a skill never developed but always admired.

My hand feels like a club, my eye dizzied by the complexity of texture, layer, line, everywhere I look. I pretend to be patient with the struggle. This is not about technique. It is about attention, focus, seeing.

Of all the artwork my mother did, her drawing was most her own. She had an acuteness of eye and a delicacy of hand that was unique and consistent, whether she was scrawling in charcoal or doing a quick pencil sketch on the blank page of an annual report.

As I draw, feeling clumsy and half-blind, I look down to see her hand holding the pencil and, here and there, her lines settling light upon the paper.
jik by DAK © 1968 (detail)


Cup of Gold - Solandra maximaIn a small triangle of soil at the corner of the garage, my mother planted a Cup of Gold vine — Copa de Oro, she called it. Its woody stems crawled across the wall above the garage door and along the side of the house below her studio window. Bare and gnarled in the winter, it wakened in spring with a dense screen of glossy leaves and enormous flowers that were true to their name. Apparently unperturbed by the noisy up-and-down of the garage door, a mourning dove built her nest in the vine each spring and laid a pair of fine white eggs.

My mother’s studio was open to me by invitation only. When she wanted me to pose for her, or to admire a painting, she would invite me in, each time cautioning me not to touch anything. Although she would report the return of the dove and issue occasional updates on the bird’s progress, I was allowed only as far as the doorway, across the room from the window.

But when my mother was out of the house, I would tiptoe across the creaky, paint-splattered wood floor and watch the dove through the slant of the blinds, her round eye alert and full of knowing, her mothering an occasional triumph punctuated by tragedies of theft, tumbles and desperate abandonment.

It was a minor defiance and, sadly, one of my few.
photo by Caleb Garvin

trying to write…

Behind the low train rumble and the knocking of the refrigerator and the charcoal-platinum-streaky sky, there’s the dawn’s almost-rain-moist heat, and these words: calendula, pomegranate, everlasting, Pomeranian, cravat. It’s a kind of soup in there, the ingredients floating in the broth of morning, rising to the top as I stir. Some days it’s a thick stew; other days, barely flavored water.

remembering Lee…

Shelly's Manne HoleWe were in high school, not old enough to go to a jazz club, but his was an ageless mind, unbent by the rules, until even he was forced to obey death’s harsh demands.

In this, as in so many things, he has proved to be precocious, pedaling at top speed to the front of the parade line, our Pied Piper. In the years to come, we will fall in behind him in disconsolate ones and twos, listening to the percussion, the echo of the ringing vibes, the rumble of the long, articulated bus heading to the transfer station.

He was always at the forefront, and I suppose we have to trust him now, as we look far ahead for the back of his helmet, the backpack slung across his shoulders. We expect his replies to blaze back to us instantly from wherever he is, his voice, urging and questioning, recalling the things we cannot remember.

That night, all those decades past, he shouldered us into Shelly’s, into the dark, low room that throbbed with sound and smoke, still a boy but already known to the men behind the trumpets, the women with the lustrous voices. He understood the improvised notes down to their molecular structure, could parse the genealogy of each song.

He always had something to show us, his head bobbing to the beat, that little hum in the back of his throat. He’s off now, comet-like, showing us the next thing, and we follow the bright track of his dust, dazzled, grateful, sad.

Go, Lee. And thanks.
Shelly’s Manne-Hole photo
more about Lee Schipper

morning light…

Dawn pushes the clouds around to make room for morning. Silhouetted motionless and stark against the pastel sky — is there a name for the indigo of green? — tree shapes wait for the disturbance of wind, of birds, of sun driving the currents of photosynthesis, respiration. Traces of cloud-fleece bleached by the yellowing sky float above their charcoal bellies. A single crow, raggedy-winged, ascends to a light-pole perch.

blue moth…

Hemithea aestivaria ~ 17 Aug 2011 ~ Bellingham, Washington, USAWhere the white moth was, now a blue… Hemithea aestivaria… more aqua, really, color of afternoon sea.

The morning sun is bright and the day will warm, but there’s an autumn chill in the air, and with it both sadness and urgency — one for the shrinking days, the other an animal need to prepare for the seasons ahead.

summer vacation…

Big Basin drawing by j.i. kleinbergEach summer, the three of us went on a driving trip, my father behind the wheel, my mother at his side, me in the back seat. Mostly we went to national parks, or similarly park-like places, where we stayed in cabins and walked among large trees. We didn’t camp, my father declaring that the Army had used up his patience for hard ground and sleeping bags.

My memory of these trips is a badly edited slide show: driving through the desert in a sandstorm; counting squirrels outside our cabin in Yosemite; stopping in Las Vegas, where it was 117 degrees and raining, the hotel swimming pool crowded; a doe and fawn, accustomed to people, coming within touching distance; watching an electrical storm cross the Grand Canyon from our table in the lodge dining hall; scooping summer snowballs from a shaded roadside slope; laughing about the thick, cardboard-like pie crust in Bryce; a family friend holding me up as we tandem water skied on Lake Tahoe; dancing to Roy Orbison under the stars at Arrowhead.

There are few photographs from these trips. My mother sketched or painted; my father read and napped. I watched for animals, which, in spite of the nearness of my parents, I felt to be my closest kin.


marshmallow drawing by j.i. kleinberg…drinking coffee, I think about the sweet, white mouth feel of marshmallow. Pure confection, powdery surface, melting on the tongue. The sound of tiny bubbles squeaking between your teeth as you bite into it. The gooey stickiness of the inside. The taffy-pull threadiness of it stretched between your fingers. Neat golden mounds melded into a casserole-topping continent. Little white island surrounded by sugary foam in a cup of hot chocolate. Perfect bubbling melty-smoky treat on a stick yanked from the campfire just in time. Toasted and chocolaty ooze smushed between graham crackers… mmmmmarshmallow…

the color red…

Oplopanax horridus - devils clubIn the primordial moss-laden forest that rambles among tumbled stumps and glacial erratics alongside the surging river, the late afternoon sun angles through a green filter to pick out the color red: tart huckleberries, round and glossy; the neat caps of thimbleberries — those that remain just beyond the hiker’s reach; cone-shaped mounds of devil’s club berries, tempting only to healers and bears; and a solitary red gummy bear, dropped and abandoned on the trail.
devil’s club photo


plums of AugustIn the confusion of the seasons, the bees slept as the plum tree bloomed.
The tulips and daphne and irises and allium flowered beneath her wide green skirt, fruit hidden green and hard among her leaves.
Then, it seemed, one August day, plums: gold flesh, sweet and drooling down the chin, purple flesh a single bite of summer.


parakeet drawingMy parents allowed one house-pet at a time. Mostly we had dogs with food names (Taffy, Coco, Taco), and in between, an assortment of smaller creatures — a tiny turtle, a hamster, a rabbit, a bird. Never a cat. Conversations about cats went unfailingly to my mother’s story about the cat and the refrigerator and then ended abruptly.

A pale blue parakeet with dark cheek spots, Blueboy lived in a cage in my bedroom. His wings were clipped, and since they looked normal I didn’t quite understand what was involved with this, but his flights were short and low. He rode around on my shoulder or on the top of my head and made little snuffles and snicks from under the towel when I covered his cage at night.

Sitting in the cage on his perch, he ignored a tiny mirror but pecked at the white cuttlebone, which only decades later I learned was not some kind of rock, but an internal part of a cuttlefish. He ate gravel along with prodigious quantities of messy seed and I remember blowing the seed husks off the top of the little dish before I cleaned the cage and refilled the dish.

Together, over and over, we listened to a 45-rpm record called “How to Teach Your Parakeet to Talk” and I would repeat the careful syllables: “Pret-ty bird. Pret-ty bird.” He would sit on my finger and cock his head back and forth and say nothing. But eventually he learned to imitate the bluejays that populated our back yard and I learned to imitate his parakeet squawks.

deciphering Dorothy…

winter 1940sWith my magnifying glass, I gaze into the past, trying to turn the small photograph into a crystal ball.

It’s a sunny winter day, perhaps in Milwaukee. She’s seated carefully, right on the edge of a large suitcase. Her lover is standing behind her at her right, a heavy, fleece-lined coat draped over his arm, bow-tie, v-necked cashmere sweater, hat, glasses, smile. His father stands at her left, suede jacket, gloves, light-colored hat with a wide, dark band. They’re both pressing in toward her.

A scooped, netted hat is angled dramatically over her forehead, shading one eye, her hair full and dark behind her ears. Earrings are bright spots, exclamation points, to the left and right of her radiant, lipsticked smile. She’s wearing a luscious fox fur jacket, shoulders padded and square. Her light, narrow skirt is drawn up a bit to show her knees and on her lap one black suede glove clutches her black purse. Her left hand is raised a few inches off her lap, her arm tucked between her body and the older man’s; maybe he was holding her elbow to steady her on the precarious seat.

Her stockinged legs are angled, glamorous, one foot slightly behind the other, high black heels on her feet. A dark hatbox sits on the ground nearby. The photographer’s shadow falls on the man’s legs, which only seems to highlight the bright sleekness of her own. Is she arriving? Are they departing? She has known these men all her life; what is being celebrated in the photograph?

Sometime later, their two families separated the lovers. But I can see that in this pinnacle moment she feels beautiful and loved, elegant and desirable. And for all the rest of her life she would try to find that smiling woman, lean toward the memory, glinting in her past, a lost jewel.

blind curve…

Our street was one block long. It had been carved into a small hill above a large cemetery and in the span of just ten houses rose steeply from its flat, lower section with a blind curve in the middle. Our house was on the curve and our days and nights were punctuated with the beeps and blasts of car horns as drivers warned any oncoming traffic — and kids playing in the street — that they were coming through.

On two occasions, visitors to houses uphill from ours failed to crank their wheels toward the curb when they were parking. Unobserved, their cars rolled down the hill and smashed into the corner of our house, twice giving my mother an excuse to reconfigure the room off the kitchen we called the service porch.

The neighbors exclaimed how lucky it was that none of the kids were in the path of the runaway car, but my mother never replied to these comments. While I knew she wasn’t homicidal, her message was clear: she would have immeasurably preferred the uninterrupted convenience of a child-free life.