chocolate is a verb

colors, flavors, whims and other growing things

Monthly Archives: September 2011

chicken bone

chicken boneOutside the post office, on the sidewalk near my car, a chicken bone: mostly meatless but still a dog-fragrant temptation. I picture someone pulling mail out of a post office box, the bone tucked among magazines and glossy campaign mailers. Then I imagine someone walking, ear buds in place, a greasy bag in hand, gnawing, chewing, flinging — the Johnny Appleseed of chicken bones.

I scrawl a note about the bone on the back of a yellow National Geographic gift membership renewal addressed to my mother, long gone. When I look for a photo to accompany this post, I discover a whole subculture of lost-chicken-bone watchers. Who knew?
chicken bone photo by Amy Guth on flickr

the birds…

House Sparrow, The Pond At Elephant Head, Amado, ArizonaBats in the belfry, she thought. But they weren’t bats and this wasn’t a metaphor. They were sparrows. And they were scrabbling around in the ceiling above her stove, cheeping like mad, their little claws scratching on whatever was up there. Sounded like they were right in the kitchen and she half-expected a bird to come rocketing out of the stove hood.

The birds had found a sparrow-sized opening in the vent on the outside of the building and moved right in. She had stood in the driveway watching them dart in and out. Who knew how many generations of birds had occupied the place, but, from the sound of it, this was the second clutch of chicks since she had moved in.

Bird karma, she thought. This wasn’t her first bird-in-the-ceiling incident. Years before, she had lived on the second floor of a three-story building. The heating equipment on the roof had a metal door about the size of a small book that gave access to the gas valves. Left open, the warm darkness proved irresistible to pigeons. They’d get in there and then, one after the other, they’d tumble into an open duct to land in the ceiling above the hallway. There followed much scratching and flapping and cooing as the pigeons discovered they could not escape. The only way to get rid of them was to open the return-air grill, open the windows and wait for them to fly out. It had happened twice; once there had been nine pigeons in her ceiling.

Sparrows are really no big deal, she thought, remembering.
house sparrow photo Copyright © 2007, Alan D. Wilson, Nature’s Pics

Concordance of the unknown…I ~ 5

I cardLater, when she tried to recall the journey, she remembered nothing of the miles covered that first day. She could still see the neighbors waving, her sight blurred by tears, and the baby bundled in her lap. But the long hours of riding, the meals unwrapped from the basket and eaten at the roadside, the children running and napping and crying — all that was lost.

How hard it had been that first night, asking shelter from strangers. The cart had drawn up in front of the small, rough-hewn stone house sheltered below the branches of an ancient cedar. The rabbi’s house. Berti had told her the name, described the house and the tree.

How often she had opened her own door to the timid knock of a passing traveler, made welcome the men and the families who knew there would be warm food, a clean bed. But now, to stand at this solid wood door with its iron hinges, the baby in her arms, the two children clinging to her skirt, she felt she had suddenly inhabited someone else’s life, become someone unknown, a stranger to herself…

fragments…Howard ~ 8

bougainvilleaThe bougainvillea had again spilled over the railing onto the deck, a magenta skirt. Howard gazed at it as he dressed. His mother had loved the plant, which seemed the antithesis of all the snowy places she had lived. Here, under the warm sun, it grew everywhere in gnarled, woody abandon, draping its brilliant pinks and oranges across walls and fences.

Moira had loved it too. Reminded her of home, she said, and right away, as soon as they moved into the house, Howard had dug a hole in the patio planter and carefully spooned soil around the exposed roots of the young plant. For a while, it had been a modest houseguest, its heart-shaped leaves and papery flowers the perfect backdrop for snapshots. But at some point, when Howard was turned away, it had bloated and surged, taking over everything in its path.

Then — now, soon, he could see — Howard would battle the bougainvillea with clippers and leather gloves. The delicate flowers and tender leaves gave no hint of the inch-long thorns secreted within the fluffy greenery. As he attempted to subdue the plant, pruning it back to a more reasonable size, he swore and bled, Moira standing in the patio wringing her hands.

Now Moira was gone and so was his mother, but the bougainvillea clung to the wall, insistent as a memory…
bougainvillea photo


She opens her eyes before dawn. In her second-floor room, the window is open and filled with stars, Orion floating on his side above the horizon, the faintest promise of light defining the morning yet to come. She drifts back into sleep and wakens to daylight.

In the window frame, a single tendril of vine has broken free of the wall to reach for the light. It looks like a very slender asparagus — furled and green, with a few undeveloped leaves pegged along its length in no apparent pattern. It bears no flowers and yet it is almost continually visited by bees. A piece of pure white down is snagged on the slightly serrated sword tip of a tiny leaf.


PotatoHearing a noise at the back gate, I walk over to the window that faces into the yard. There, just a few feet away, the woman who lives upstairs is leaning over the gate, patting Potato on the head, pat-pat-pat. She says to Potato, “Do you have a lot of nice clothes?” Potato, who is then and always naked, except for her feathery brown coat, gazes up at the woman and says nothing.

This happened a long time ago.


Italian prune plumsFall blows in. Morning cloud-tops smoothed and combed, a surprise of pink far to the south, the belly of dawn. One near-black wombat of cloud scurries past, bright crust of moon suspended high overhead.

The yard is freckled with leaves — maple, plum, elm, cottonwood — wakened from their summer indolence, surprised into letting go.

The wind is warm and moist, without autumn’s northern chill. I step out in the tropical half-light to gather the last of the summer’s plums.

trying to write…

sand crab AKA mole crabAs kids, at the wide, soft-sanded beaches of Santa Monica, we’d run after the last swish of each receding wave to collect sand crabs.

They were fast, disappearing into the near-liquid sand, leaving a dimple that turned into a tiny aperture. Plunging a hand straight down, we’d feel for the scuttling creature, then yank it up into the sunshine. On our palms, its busy legs tickled. We’d toss it into a little bucket with some sandy water and carry it around for a while, examining our captives with a child’s fascination. Then we’d up-end the bucket and watch the crabs dash, dig and disappear.

As I sit down to write, the sand-crab words scuttle across my mind and sink into the wet sand, leaving only a tiny, dark hole.
sand crab photo

fragments…Roland ~ 2

old newspaperUntil we invoked a closed-door policy on his office, Roland’s desk and shelves and hunched figure were on full view, a collision of neatness and chaos. Every surface was covered with piles of paper, the piles squared and tidy, like with like.

Newspapers towered in stacks along the credenza (those on the floor having been removed when the nighttime cleaning service threatened to quit). Dozens of yellow pads sat in two piles, used and unused, and lined sheets that had escaped their pads made up yet another. Manila folders, filled with papers and borrowed from the department’s master files, claimed one corner of his desk, where the pile rose ever higher, nearly obscuring Rolly from view.

While-You-Were-Out phone message slips, Post-it notes (new and used) and business cards had their own stacks, and then there was the sad but neatly stacked collections of folded paper bags and slightly-used paper napkins Rolly saved from the meals he ate at his desk, in spite of the company’s no-food-at-your-desk policy.

In between the stacks, aligned neatly as timber, were pencils, toothpicks and, for some reason, unused drinking straws still in their paper wrappers.

When the situation became intolerable, Rolly was ordered by his friend the boss to clear out the mess. But he was incapable of parting with his paper, so we sent him away and descended on the office with trash bags and recycling bins. Hoping to find room to put away the few things worth saving, but expecting more crammed paper, we opened the credenza, file cabinets and desk drawers. They were utterly empty.
newspaper image by ShironekoEuro


yellow padRoland was a good man. Heart of gold, we’d say, making excuses for him. He was personable, kind, handsome in his own way. He’d show up at the office scrubbed and slicked, tie knotted tight, two hours late, ready to go. He greeted the day with fresh enthusiasm, as if this would be the lap through the maze that would get him to the prize.

In the accident of employment, with the well-meaning help of people he’d known since high school, Rolly had followed a greased path to the wrong work. He should have been a football coach, a mail carrier, a cop. Instead, he sat at a desk and wrote press releases, each word a labor.

He wrote on yellow legal pads, in pencil, the paper furrowed and ridged with the pressure of the lead. Within an hour, he’d be sagging, his tie loosened, his shirt no longer neat, his face already looking like he had forgotten to shave.

His were the simplest stories: a promotion, a new employee, a remodeled office. The text was rote, first sentence and last nearly identical in every release. He only had to write two or three lines for the middle, no fancy words, no research. But it would take him all day, writing the lines over and over on his yellow pad until they were perfect.

Once a week, he’d fire up the computer and type the story. Leaning in, he’d peer at the monitor over his half-glasses, then look down at the keyboard, to find the next letter, inventing the alphabet.

We put up with him, but the boss loved him. Kept him around like a mascot, a wounded older brother. Used him as a chauffeur, a part-time friend, a human shield for a shy man in a too-public position…


stepsLance coughed. His ribs ached. His chest held the certainty that one good cough would dislodge the congestion and all would be well. But it clung to his lungs as he barked and hacked, his face red. He had no patience, no time, for illness.

Even now, in his 70s, he saw himself as the young tennis champion, the star quarterback. How he had run! Down the canyon, along the curving highway to the beach, crossing the wide expanse of raked sand to the wet-packed shore, then the mindless miles, the nimble sprints.

He could still feel the heat in his quads as he had stormed the steps each morning, lapping other runners on the way up and again, later, on the way down.

How many hundreds, thousands, of miles had he clocked, swimming just outside the break between the jetty and the pier? His arms still held the ocean’s sluicing coolness, his eyes still watched the way the sun colored the sand and palms each time he turned his head to take a breath.

That young man was alive inside him, fast, invincible. But now it was all about the breath. The steps, the ocean, the running, now something remembered, something burned away by the vodka, the cigarettes. Something he had taken for granted as he became the champion of boardrooms, traded the tennis courts for law courts, kept score with dollars, houses, wives.

Lance coughed again…
Santa Monica Pier steps by Angel Aguilar


headlines 20 Oct 1959My father was a civil engineer. In the 1950s he owned a heating and air conditioning company housed at a Culver City address now consumed by Sony Studios. He liked his work and his crew, and sometimes, at the dinner table, would tell stories about things that happened on the job.

He probably talked about the steel strike during the four long months it dragged on, but the only thing I remember is this: looking out the kitchen window and seeing Daddy walking slowly up the street, his suit jacket slung over his shoulder, the collar of his white shirt unbuttoned, his bow-tie removed.

It was all gone then — the car, the company, the guys whose names made them as familiar as cousins. My mother explained that we would be tightening our belts, that things would be different now. But I was already well-practiced in avoiding her attentions by wanting nothing.

What was different was my father’s sober seriousness, his silent and percolating anger, the violence of confronting within himself this foreign feeling of incompetence and irresponsibility — his failure to rescue and preserve the work and the people that mattered so much.


‘What do you want from me?’ he asked, curious.

A juicy little movie of possibilities projected onto the screen of her mind. ‘Mostly, I guess, now and then, I’d like you to just stand here and hug me like mad. Wrap me round and pull me close and make the years and the distance disappear. I want us to keep telling stories. I’d like you not to vanish for months at a time. I’d like you to stay alive forever. These aren’t unreasonable requests, are they?’ she asked.

‘My dear,’ he said, ‘you are the quintessence of reason,’ promising nothing.

the bench…

The pair of cypresses stood watch from the brow of the hill. Behind them, the stone cottage; before them, the long sweep of the fields, silvery olive trees, billowing oaks; between them, this bench: a large half-round of scarred and time-polished oak set on rough-hewn granite uprights.

The bench held so much of the history of the place, the foot track passing nearby, the ancient roadway just beyond. One could almost watch it like a film: travelers resting as they chewed their bread and cheese; couples leaning shoulder to shoulder; a girl, crying, her hand cupping the weightless body of a nearly-fledged sparrow; a man, writing, a sheaf of papers tucked beneath his thigh; soldiers, surprised to discover this silent vista in the midst of war.

The bench held all their secrets, the memory of their visits, the stories and feelings they spilled into the wide valley. It held the sunsets, the wine, the gouged initials. It held the storms and lies and sorrows.

That morning, as he walked toward it with the first warmth of the rising summer sun on his shoulders, the bench seemed to sit at the very cusp of his life’s possibility…

catalog season…

Browsing the L.L. Bean catalog, the anti-Vogue. Fresh-faced freckled girls in pastel zip fleece, turtlenecks and corduroy, unremarkable rip-free jeans or neat khakis, and sensible, ultra-flat blunt-toed slippers. Tidy oxford button-down shirts. Flannel nightgowns that button to the chin. A backdrop of footballs and campfires, backpacks and the endless supply of golden retrievers.

Not here the sultry pout, kohl-rimmed eyes, impossible heels. Gone the handbag-dogs, the eternally luscious romance of Kate Moss. Gone the adolescent bone-thin girls I’ve-never-been/I’ll-never-be, the starved cheekbones, the air-brushed perfection. Gone the tan, glossy-skinned men pressed in unconvincing lust against indifferent manikin models.

Surely not the extreme poles of fashion…merely two stops along the way whose images pour into each other to be reinterpreted, re-imagined, rediscovered on another page, in another season.

other Septembers…


DAK note - I'm wondering...As my mother’s vision and other faculties diminished, she continued to draw and, occasionally, to write. Yesterday I opened an art book and found, tucked inside, this note scrawled on a bit of scratch paper. It says, “I’m wondering if memory is something you remember or something you forget.”

Holding the note in my hand, I felt — I feel — a clutch of grief and compassion. She struggled so. Failed and succeeded, like all of us, in so many ways. And even near the end, when complete sentences were beyond her capability, she maintained a spark of humor, curiosity and wonder.

Apple Confessions*

black squirrelA rank novice, I can’t take much credit for the successes of my garden. What I’ve managed in my ignorance not to kill off thrives mostly because of the years of care lavished upon it by the previous homeowner.

I read gardening books, attend horticulture lectures and consider the wisdom of my well-seasoned friends. Each year I make a few mistakes and test a few theories — what to prune, how to fertilize, when to dead-head — and watch for the results of last year’s decisions.

When buds opened on three of the apple trees in my backyard last spring, I was encouraged. When the orchard mason bees emerged from their slumber to buzz among the blooms, I was delighted. When clusters of tiny apples replaced the flowers, I was thrilled. I thinned the fruit and watched amazed as the apples fattened and blushed, glossy and unblemished.

The Galas were the first to ripen, small and green with streaks of red. I never tasted a single one. The resident black squirrels ate them all, clipping each apple neatly at the stem, gripping it in sharp teeth, carrying this booty to the sunny comfort of the nearby fence, and then, in hasty efficiency, peeling off the skin in dainty rodent bites before consuming the more succulent flesh. The squirrel is unfazed by my hollering, my arm-waving dash from across the yard. It sits on the fence, holding the apple in its little hands, turning it round and round, glancing at me with black beady eyes. “My apple,” it seems to say. “My apple tree.” The ground is littered with rotting bits of apple skin. The Galas are gone.

The five-graft tree is gnarled and comical with its colorful clusters of unmatched fruit. The tags say Spartan, Akane, Gravenstein, Summered and Jonagold. Wary now, I test the apples. They’re tart, unripe, skins still tough. A few go into pies; the rest wait. The Spartans are small, intensely red and look like miniature versions of the perfectly formed but tasteless grocery-store Delicious apples of my childhood. At last I pick one and it is perhaps the finest apple I have ever eaten: sweet, crisp, juicy, four or five bites of pure joy. I pick and munch and share with friends, but the tree is still loaded, bushels of apples still unripe.

Going to Italy was probably a mistake. Although I encouraged my next-door neighbors to help themselves to apples, I don’t blame them for failing to comprehend the urgency of my offer. As I reveled in the tantalizing flavors and colors of Tuscany, the five-graft was stripped bare. Returning home, I find nothing but scattered brown chews of apple skin littering the ground.

The Jonagold tree is the season’s final hope. These are the last to ripen, the ones that sweeten with the first frost. The fruit is huge and weighty on slender twigs, some of the apples streaked with color, some almost entirely red. I test them, waiting for the sweetness I know will come. Then one day I look out the kitchen window and see a black squirrel galloping along the fence-top with a Jonagold gripped in its teeth. The apple is three times the size of his head and must outweigh him severalfold, but, as the well-fed apple tester, he is unconcerned by such measurements.

I grab my basket, pick every single remaining apple and count my blessings: I could have bears.
*Apple Confessions © J.I. Kleinberg originally published in The Social Gardener, The Journal of the Whatcom Horticultural Society, Vol. 19, No. 3, Autumn 2007

trying to write…

…In writing, the problem is sometimes that all the words want to be said at once. Like a crowd of panicked theater-goers in a fire, stampeding to the nearest exit, the words all rush down my arm toward the keyboard, tripping and tumbling over each other, ideas tangled and lost in the chaos.

At other times, the theater is empty…

thorn of plenty…

Blackberry bushes need no encouragement. They take whatever soil and moisture they can steal, snake up and down hills and laugh at the flimsy obstacle of fences. They claim abandoned yards and buildings and hump up in great brambly mounds along the roadside. Disguising themselves among more civilized berry bushes, they snag their thorny green canes into flesh and clothing.

But bless their evil little hearts: they also make blackberries.

Arms bloodied, shirtfronts dribbled with telltale purple stains, pickers brave ditches and stickers to harvest the fat, round, sweet, juicy morsels. One for the bucket, one for me…
blackberries photo