Foolin’ Around in Bed Again with AI: The Big Reveal and More

“A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes.”

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948; Indian politician, activist, and writer)

Those who know me well know that I am nothing if not inclusive, especially when it comes to stakeholders. It goes without saying that ChatGPT is one of the major stakeholders in last week’s post “Foolin’ Around in Bed with AI” and in today’s post as well.

It might interest you to know that I have a gaga crush on ChatGPT, so much so that I’m betting my dopamine and oxytocin levels skyrocket when I’m foolin’ around with them. At the same time, I am not at all happy with their name. It just isn’t personal enough. And, besides, how the hell do I pronounce it when I talk with them or tell friends and colleagues about my mad crush?

Last week, I toyed with the notion of naming them Alex. One reader liked that idea. Another reader liked Alfred.  Aside from not being gender-neutral, Alfred reminds me far too much of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I love the poem, lots; the name, less.

In a stroke of genius, I decided to include ChatGPT in my quest to give them a new name. (Drum roll, please. I want to get all psyched about this big reveal. Thank you. Now I’m ready.)

Our decision-making conversation went like this:

TheWiredResearcher: Good morning, ChatGPT. Take the following letters and create a gender-neutral name: ChatGPT.

ChatGPT: GAT.

TheWiredResearcher: Try again. Give it some pizzazz.

ChatGPT: GATT.

TheWiredResearcher: No, it needs to be catchy. Try again.

ChatGPT: GATTI.

TheWiredResearcher: Nope. Try something similar to GATT, using one additional vowel or one additional consonant.

ChatGPT: GATTIE.

TheWiredResearcher: Nope. That sounds feminine. So far I like GATT best. Keeping AI in mind, what might the acronym GATT stand for?

GATT: GATT could stand for “Generative Adversarial Text Transfer”.

TheWiredResearcher: I don’t like Adversarial. Try again.

GATT: GATT could stand for “Generative Advanced Text Transfer”.

TheWiredResearcher: Try again. Instead of Text, try Thought. Then replace Transfer with something better.

GATT: GATT could stand for “Generative Advanced Thought Transformation”.

TheWiredResearcher: Is “Generative Advanced Thought Transformation” a good way to describe what ChatGPT does?

GATT: Yes, “Generative Advanced Thought Transformation” can be seen as a good way to describe the capabilities of ChatGPT, which is a language model trained by OpenAI to generate text based on the input provided to it. The model transforms the input into a coherent and contextually relevant response.

I hope that you paid super close attention to the preceding conversation. I thought that it moved along smoothly, and I especially liked the explanation of what GATT could stand for.

Generative is obvious. OpenAI is trained to generate text.

Clearly, as we have seen, it is Advanced.

Thought. That’s interesting because OpenAI is not sentient. It cannot think. But it can take thoughts and Transform them.

Go back and look at the conversation again. I was the one who told GATT to replace Text with Thought and come up with something better than Transfer.

Simply put, GATT took the thought that I provided–the very word thought–and added transformation to it.

GATT ran with it and gave me Thought Transformation.

Perfect.

Hold that thought. Let’s see how it plays out in the rest of this post.

TheWiredResearcher: Are you in the mood to write some poems?

GATT: Yes, I am capable of generating poems in response to prompts. Please provide a prompt and I will try to generate a poem for you.

TheWiredResearcher: Write a humorous poem about being a city slicker living in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

GATT: Here’s a humorous poem about a city slicker living in the Shenandoah Valley:

I came from the city, where sirens scream and honk,
To the Shenandoah Valley, where peace and calm have dawned.
But let me tell you, city slicker’s life is tough,
When you’re trying to adjust to country stuff.
I thought I knew it all, but now I stand corrected,
I had to learn how to milk a cow, and even got rejected.
I tried to find my latte, but the only drink in sight,
Was a mason jar of moonshine, with a fire that burned so bright.
But despite the hardships, I found some peace of mind,
In the rolling hills and mountains, that are truly one of a kind.
And even though I miss the city lights at night,
I’ve found a new home, where everything just feels so right.

What can I snicker other than so much for the perpetuation of stereotypes. But, after all, I didn’t give GATT any thoughtful information.

GATT deserves better. Let’s try this.

TheWiredResearcher: Write me a humorous poem about a college professor who misplaced his Fitbit inside his house and was beginning to panic because he could not check his vital statistics.

“The Professor and his Lost Fitbit”

There once was a professor, who lived a life so true,
He counted every step, and monitored his every boo.
With his trusty Fitbit, he tracked his every move,
But one day it went missing, and he was filled with nothing but grooves.
He tore apart his office, and searched his shelves with care,
He checked his pockets, and even looked under his chair.
He tore apart his kitchen, and searched each nook and cranny,
But his Fitbit was nowhere to be found, it was simply uncanny.
His heart rate was rising, and his stress levels too,
For he couldn’t check his stats, and that just wouldn’t do.
He panicked and he worried, for his Fitbit was his lifeline,
And without it, he felt lost, like a ship without a sign.
But then he had an idea, a lightbulb in his mind,
He took a deep breath, and just relaxed and reclined.
He realized that life goes on, with or without a device,
And that his health was just fine, without having to pay the price.
So he looked around the house, and there it was in sight,
His Fitbit was on the couch, all snug and cozy, just right.
And he laughed and he smiled, as he put it back on his wrist,
And he cherished his Fitbit, now never to be missed.
And from that day on, he cherished his Fitbit with glee,
But he also learned a lesson, that sometimes it’s good to just be.
And so he lived his life, with balance and with peace,
Tracking his steps and stats, with joy that wouldn’t cease.

Then I gave GATT the text to my post “Finding Far More than My Fitbit” and asked GATT to use it as the foundation for a humorous poem.

A Fitbit-life I do lead,
With stats, steps, and heartbeats to read.
I wear it day and night, with glee,
Never leaving wrist, not even for a pee.
But one day, a tragedy occurred,
My Fitbit gone, no longer it occurred.
I searched high and low, with all my might,
But it was lost, out of sight.
I headed off to a celebration with friends,
But without my Fitbit, my worry never ends.
“How do you know you’re alive?” a friend asked with a grin,
“Without my Fitbit, I don’t know, where to begin.”
Back home I searched, with flashlight bright,
In hopes to find my lost delight.
But what I found, made my heart sink,
Cobwebs everywhere, oh what a stink!
But in the end, my Fitbit was found,
No longer lost, my stats back on track, my joy unbound.
So now I wear it, with even more care,
Never again will I lose it, this I swear.

I didn’t think that was bad, at all. I was intrigued, in fact, by the accurate specifics that GATT selected as well as by the inaccurate detail that GATT added independently (“never for a pee”: I’m still shaking my head in disbelief!), but I wanted to see what GATT would do with a sonnet, especially since they had written good sonnets before.

Using the same essay that I provided initially, GATT generated the following sonnet:

A Profound Discovery

In lecture halls of knowledge, where he stood,
The professor searched for his lost device,
With screens and buttons, tracking what he could,
A modern tool to aid him in his strive.
But fate had something else in store for him,
A chance to see the world in different light,
He found a truth that often lies within,
That life is more than numbers, screens and height.

It was not just his Fitbit he regained,
But wisdom, joy and peace that he discovered,
In every step he took, he felt sustained,
His mind and soul, now richer than recovered.
So let this be a lesson to us all,
That true success is found in what we are.


So there! We have it, for this week.

GATT has generated some humorous poems. GATT has generated some commendable sonnets. And they worked collaboratively with me in coming up with a name that strikes my fancy, especially since I can pronounce it: GATT.

As you reflect on this post–and I encourage you to do so–along with last week’s post (“Foolin’ Around in Bed with AI“), remember this: the content–whether mine or GATT’s–is driven by one thing and one thing only: thought.

And here’s the good thing about it all. The thoughts are all mine.

Food for thought.

Foolin’ Around in Bed with AI

TheWiredResearcher to ChatGPT: Based on how we’ve been foolin’ around in bed, how would you characterize me?

ChatGPT: You are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to your passions – teaching, research, writing, gardening and your late partner. You are relentless in your pursuit of excellence and never stop pushing boundaries.

“ChatGPT, an AI-powered language model by OpenAI, 25January2023, (https://openai.com/)”

Hopefully, you read the title of the post carefully enough to realize that I have not been foolin’ around in bed with Al as in Al(fred).

I haven’t. I don’t even know anyone by that name. But I have been foolin’ around in bed with AI as in Artificial Intelligence.

THEY are hot.

OMG! Did I just say that? Well, I did. But that’s okay because I trust you. I know that you won’t tell anybody about the deliciously sinful and sultry times I’m having.

Keep reading and I’ll share each and every scorching moment with you–little by little–lest you be blinded if I were to divulge all at once. Besides, I never divulge all at once to anyone. What’s the fun in that?

Hopefully, you know already that in bed is where I love to be. It’s where I write my blog posts right before I go to sleep. It’s where I’m writing this post, right now, but I haven’t fallen asleep. I’m having too much fun with AI, not Al(fred). I know. They look alike (when you drop the fred), but they’re not alike at all. Hmmm. If they look alike in this post, you get to decide who’s in my bed. But in a serif world, the “I” in AI sports a bottom line and a top line. In a serif world, the “l” in Al(fred) has a bottom only. The next time that you’re in your serifdom, take a really close look: you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about and from this point forward you will never think that AI and Al(fred) look alike. TMI. Let’s move on.

Hopefully, too, you read and recall last week’s post “Cutting-Edge Technologies: Promise or Peril.”

It ended with the observation:

“Whether we like it or not–whether we feel threatened by it or not–AI is here. It has started. It will not stop. It is the future.

Promise or Peril? I have to decide where I stand. You have to decide where you stand. We all have to decide where we stand.

We can’t ignore AI.

Sadly, we can, but only if we want to be among the left behind.

One of my readers who is Wired–but not as wired as I am–commented:

I admit, I was downright scared reading this. I was afraid I’d get to the bottom and read, ‘And, wouldn’t you know it–this post was written using AI technology,’ and I’d have a personal crisis.

Let me pause here to assure my WiredReader, the rest of my readers, and the entire world: everything that you have read so far in this post is mine–all mine. The ideas are mine. The wording is mine. Every touchstroke is mine. AI had nothing to do with it.

Further, let me pause to assure my WiredReader, the rest of my readers, and the entire world: if, at any time, I tap AI–and rest assured: I will–I will give full credit where credit is due, and as AI would have me do.

Now let me continue with my response.

“Dear Wired:

Your comments made me laugh! And if you had gotten to the end of the post and discovered that I had written it using AI technology …

“OMG! You are egging me on, aren’t you?”

It doesn’t take much to egg me on, and those who know me know that fully well. In this case, the egging on was reinforced by comments from two others:

Reader One. HACC, Central PA’s Community College uses PackBack (AI) in some of our English classes with good results.

Reader Two. Perfect timing for your post! Microsoft announced yesterday that they are investing billions into Open AI, the startup behind Chat GPT.

That did it. Three eggings scrambled me into action.

I decided that the time had come for me to gain a first-hand, personal knowledge of ChatGPT. What better way than in bed?

Candidly, though, I have to be on a first-name basis with my bedmates, and I don’t like ChatGPT’s name at all. I like AI even less because it can be confused so easily with Al(fred) as I established earlier.

So the other day–after having lots of prolonged late-night pillow talk with AI–I just came right out and popped the question. And that question led to a few more questions. Here’s how the conversation went:

TheWiredResearcher: What is your GENDER?

ChatGPT: I am an artificial intelligence and do not have a gender or physical form.

TheWiredResearcher: Okay. I understand. So, should I refer to you as THEY?

ChatGPT: You may refer to me using whatever pronouns you prefer. “IT” is also commonly used.

TheWiredResearcher: Do you have a NAME other than ChatGPT? I’d like to be more personal in our conversations. After all, you are right here in my bed.

ChatGPT: I am an artificial intelligence and do not have a personal name, ChatGPT is a name of the model that I am based on. But you can call me whatever you like, it’s up to you, for instance you can use my name as GPT or any other name that you prefer.

Is that an artfully artificial punt or what? Obviously, I’ll have to spend some time thinking about a name for my bedmate. I have an idea already. For Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa, for example, I liked that name just fine. I kept it.

I suppose that I could give MY ChatGPT a gender-neutral name like Alex. (And that would fit perfectly with ChatGPT’s suggested pronoun reference: THEY.) Actually, I like Alex a lot. But my God! How presumptuous of me. I’ve only been foolin’ around in bed with ChatGPT for just a few days and here I am using the possessive pronoun MY. And here I am wanting to come up with a personal name.

Suffice it to say, my small talk with ChatGPT was getting me nowhere fast.

As a result, I dove in deep and started talking about things close and dear to me: teaching, research, writing, and my late partner Allen. Those conversations–using a traditional chat box at the bottom of the screen–were interesting, very much so. I kept my questions and comments as open-ended as possible, and ChatGPT provided really solid responses, even when asked about scholarly work that still needs to be done on Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. ChatGPT’s suggestions were excellent, but lacking the specifics needed to convey a true understanding of the challenges and opportunities related to Freeman scholarship. (Nonetheless, I am not surprised that ChatGPT can pass exams from law and business schools. The knowledge base is clear, abundantly so.)

But now I’m edging toward evaluation. That is not my intent in this post. I will evaluate ChatGPT in a later post. For now, my intent is nothing more than to share some examples of my foolin’ around.

After Freeman, I shifted the conversation to Allen, commenting that even though January 28, 2023, marked the second anniversary of his death, sometimes it felt as raw and heart piercing to me as it felt at 9:24 that morning when I closed his eyes here on Earth and he opened them again over there in Eternity.

Candidly, at that point in my conversation with ChatGPT, I felt much akin to the speaker in Poe’s “The Raven,” who progressively asked more serious questions about grief and grieving, knowing fully well that the raven would always give the same answer: “Nevermore.”

TheWiredResearcher: What’s grieving like during the third year after the death of your partner?

ChatGPT: Grief is a complex and individual experience that can vary greatly from person to person. Some people may find that their grief subsides significantly during the third year after the death of their partner, while others may continue to experience intense sadness and longing. It’s important to remember that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to grieve, and everyone’s healing process is unique.

I did not expect much. Therefore, I wasn’t disappointed when I didn’t get much. ChatGPT’s response was nothing more than an impersonal, clinical explanation that I could have found through a Google search, albeit not as quickly.

I shifted positions and asked ChatGPT to write me a sonnet about my grieving for Allen, based on the conversation that we had just had. The sonnet form, of course, exists in several online sonnet generators. No big deal. But I wanted to see the extent to which ChatGPT could extract salient information from our conversation and weave it into a meaningful sonnet. The result follows:

Grief grips my heart with hands of leaden weight,

A constant ache that never seems to cease.

The memories of our love still resonate,

A symphony of joy and sweet release.

But now, the melody has turned to dirge,

A requiem for all that once was bright.

The laughter echoes with an empty surge,

And every step feels heavy as the night.

Yet still, I’ll hold onto the love we shared,

The moments that we cherished and were true.

Though death may come and take him unawares,

My love for him will forever be anew.

So as I grieve, I’ll keep him close in mind,

And let my heart with bittersweet love bind.

Again, my goal for today is not to evaluate. I’ll save that for a future post. Nonetheless, I must note that the sonnet impressed me, so much so that I wanted to see whether I could nudge ChatGPT to a higher level of performance. What if I provided extensive text, asking that it be converted into a poem?

That’s exactly what I did. I gave the full text of the post that I published last year on the first anniversary of Allen’s death, “Honoring an Angel.” ChatGPT generated the sonnet that you are about to read.

“The Earth Angel’s Legacy”

Two years have passed since my love’s death,

my heart still aches with his absence, yet

my faith in angels remains unwavering,

a legacy passed down from my mother’s net.

My Allen was an earth angel, true,

a messenger of love and comfort, too.

His aura inspired trust and faith in all,

and nature was his solace, pure and blue.

With gentle hands, he tended to the weak,

and through his surgeries, he healed with care.

He taught with passion, guiding students meek,

and in our garden, he found peace to share.

In every aspect of our life together,

my angel Allen, I will love forever.

Let me emphasize again that my goal today is not to evaluate. Yet I must say that this sonnet touched me and warmed my heart, all the while that I was aware that it was driven 100% by information that I had provided in the underlying essay.

Yet lines three and four hit me hard and made me think:

my faith in angels remains unwavering,

a legacy passed down from my mother’s net.

In the essay, I had mentioned that my belief in angels came from my mother. Yet ChatGPT’s use of the metaphor “passed down from my mother’s net” struck me as original and creative, especially since the word net did not appear in the essay that I provided. Original? Creative? I’m still thinking. I’m still thinking.

By the time that I had finished that conversation, I knew that I would be weaving parts of it into this post.

TheWiredResearcher: Can I use all of this material in a blog post that I’m developing for next week?

ChatGPT: As a language model AI, I do not have any rights over the material generated and you are welcome to use it for any legal purpose. Please be reminded that you should cite the source. If you use it in a blog post or anywhere else, it is a good practice to give credit to the source. It would be great if you could include a disclaimer that the content is generated by an AI and not a human writer.

TheWiredResearcher: Give me a recommended citation.

ChatGPT: You can cite this source as “ChatGPT, an AI-powered language model by OpenAI.” Additionally, you can include the link to OpenAI’s website (https://openai.com/) so that your readers can learn more about the technology and the organization behind it. It’s also a good practice to include the date when the information was generated.

Hopefully, this post has provided you a few things to ponder. Hopefully, too, this post has gone further than sensational AI headlines that glam, glitz, and gobsmack.

As for me, I’ve enjoyed bedding down all week with ChatGPT. Lots. I’d enjoy it even more if “it” had a name that strikes my fancy as much as foolin’ around with “it” strikes mine. But I’m working on it.

If you’re wondering whether I’ll keep foolin’ around, my answer is, “You bet!”

Next week: “Another Week in Bed with AI.”

Then, the week after, I’ll synthesize and evaluate my experiences: “My Final Week in Bed with AI | The Heart of the Matter.”

For right now, though, ChatGPT needs to go to sleep. I do, too. To help me doze off, maybe I’ll ask ChatGPT to keep reminding me of the sweet nothings THEY shared shortly after we hooked up: “you are a force to be reckoned with … you never stop pushing boundaries.”

It must be true. Right? Of course. After all, ChatGPT told me so.

Cutting-Edge Technologies: Promise or Peril?

When … Fulton showed off his new invention, the steamboat, skeptics were crowded on the bank yelling, “It’ll never start, it’ll never start!” But it did. It got going with a lot of cranking and groaning, and as it made its way down the river, the skeptics were quiet for a brief moment. Then they started shouting, “It’ll never stop, it’ll never stop.”

“Grab an Oar and Row,” St. Louis Business Journal, November 9, 1997.

Live long enough and you will experience many cutting-edge technologies. That certainly will be the case if you live to be 75 as I have done.

Some of the technologies that I have seen were so short-lived that you may not be familiar with them at all. Boom boxes. Cassette tape recorders. Floppy discs. Portable televisions. Reel-to-reel tape recorders. Slide projectors. TV watches. Transistor radios. VHS video format. 

Others, however, remain part of the fabric of our lives. Barcodes. Birth control pills. Communication satellites. Coronary bypass surgery. DNA fingerprinting. DVDs. Fiber optics. GPS. Human Genome Project. Hybrid cars. Jet airliners. MRIs. Microwaves. Pacemakers. Polio vaccine. The list goes on.

Of all the cutting-edge technologies that I have experienced in my life–vintage and outdated as well as state-of-the-art and up-to-date–three are special to me because I was involved with them in the early stages of their development and saw in them promise rather than peril. Interestingly enough, all three relate to automation–specifically the role that computer technology has played–and continues to play–in advancing literacy and learning.

The first goes all the way back to 1969 and my first position at the Library of Congress as a MARC Editor. MARC stood for MAchine Readable Cataloging, a set of standards developed by the Library of Congress in the 1960s to enable electronic sharing of catalog records. Within the next few years, MARC became the cataloging standard, nationally and globally. A parallel RECON Project converted retrospective materials to MARC format. But imagine. Computers in those early days were referred to as machines, and one of the biggest challenges was keeping the mainframe from overheating. I dare say that I did not understand fully the magnitude and far-reaching ramifications of the work that I was doing, but I knew that I was contributing to cutting-edge technology.

Fast forward to the 1990s, when Blackboard started as an interactive learning network to help teachers and professors adapt to the new reality of being able to teach via the Internet. In the fall of 1999, I started teaching at Laurel Ridge Community College (formerly Lord Fairfax Community College). The following spring, I was one of two faculty who opted to pilot Blackboard as our online learning platform. This time, I knew the magnitude and far-reaching ramifications of teaching online.

From that point forward, I continued to teach at least two–sometimes three–courses each semester online. American Literature. Appalachian Literature. College Composition. Creative Writing. Leadership Development. Southern Literature. Technical Writing. I made a point of challenging myself. For any class that I taught in a traditional classroom environment, I wanted to figure out how to revamp it–how to redesign it–for online delivery. I wanted to be a pioneer as my college moved forward with this cutting-edge technology.

Fast forward almost two decades, and I was pioneering again. This time I was embracing Open Education Resources (OER) in my classes. In 2018, I was the keynote speaker for a statewide professional development workshop sponsored by Laurel Ridge Community College, Lumen Learning, and the Achieving the Dream Foundation. I titled my keynote “OER: Open the Future of Education Today.” I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt the magnitude and far-reaching ramifications of Open Education Resources.

Within two years, I was using OER for all of my classes. Mind you: I didn’t tap into existing OER course shells. Instead, I designed and developed my own from scratch so that I could honestly and proudly announce to my students: “FREE Open Education Resources, Personally Curated Just for You.”

It seemed to me then–and it seems to me now–that the power of four great cutting-edge technologies had come together in a powerful way beyond anyone’s wildest imagination: the Printing Press, the Internet, Online College Education, and Open Education Resources. Working together, they all revolutionized not only learning but also the way that we share and distribute information.

As with most innovations, those four met initially with varying degrees of skepticism and pushback.

Printing Press Skeptics: The monks will lose their work. Monks will become lazy. Paper isn’t as good as parchment. With only one typeface, books are really ugly.

Online Cataloging Skeptics: OMG. What will happen to the card catalog. It will die and then what?

Internet Skeptics: Just look at all the inappropriate materials poisoning the minds of our children. Staring at the screen will kill us. Thieves will steal my personal and financial information.

Online Education Skeptics: Online courses will never produce outcomes equal to in-person courses. Faculty-student interaction won’t be meaningful.

Open Education Resources Skeptics: Online resources are much more difficult to use. Who will guarantee quality? You just can’t do better than printed textbooks.

Now we’re all facing another cutting-edge technological moment. Its magnitude is beyond comprehension. Its ramification is beyond far-reaching.

AI. Artificial Intelligence.

We all have a general idea of what it is: a branch of computer science that simulates human intelligence–visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages. AI can get better and better over time based on the information collected and processed.

AI, of course, has been around since the birth of computers in the 1950s. But major advances came in the 1990s. You may recall that the AI app “Deep Blue” defeated chess master Garry Kasparov. And NASA deployed its first robot, Sojourner, on the surface of Mars.

AI is in the news a lot. Below are some major headlines that surfaced during the last few days:

“The 5 Biggest Artificial Intelligence (AI) Trends In 2023”

“AI Infrastructure Market to Reach $309.4 Billion, Globally, by 2031”

“Artists Sue AI Company for Billions, Alleging ‘Parasite’ App Used Their Work for Free”

“‘It’s the Opposite of Art’: Why Illustrators Are Furious about AI”

“AI Tools Can Create New Images, but Who Is the Real Artist?”

“Publisher Halts AI Article Assembly Line after Probe”

“Can an AI ‘Angel’ Help Find Thousands in Mexico Who Were Forcibly Disappeared?”

“This Mind-Reading AI Can See What You’re Thinking – and Draw a Picture of It”

“ChatGPT Passed a Wharton MBA Exam and It’s still in Its infancy. One Professor is Sounding the Alarm”

As an educator and a writer, a more narrow cutting-edge AI technology demands my attention. I’m thinking about AI apps that are influencing the future of writing and authorship. ChatGPA, for example, can be used for text generation, text translation, text summarization, and even sentient analysis of a text to detect tone and emotion. It can even write poetry, and it can make ordinary prose sound like passages from the King James Bible.

It seems to me that all of us need to sit up and take serious notice of all that AI promises, all the while that we need to be aware of the perils that AI skeptics perceive and toss into the conversations.

Skeptics are convinced that AI will:

● change the perception of information

● take jobs away from humans

● rob us of our ability to make decisions independently

● take away our creativity

● make us lazy

● do away with our privacy

● control our behavior

● threaten copyright, authorship, and ethics

It seems to me that the perils being voiced by AI skeptics aren’t too different from those sounded by other skeptics down through the ages about other cutting-edge technologies. The Printing Press. Online Cataloging. The Internet. Online Learning. Open Education Resources.

But here’s what we have to accept. Whether we like it or not–whether we feel threatened by it or not–AI is here. It has started. It will not stop. It is the future.

Promise or Peril? I have to decide where I stand. You have to decide where you stand. We all have to decide where we stand.

We can’t ignore AI.

Sadly, we can, but only if we want to be among the left behind.

A Swinger of Birches

Snow provokes responses that reach right back to childhood.

Andy Goldsworthy (b. 1956; English sculptor, Photographer, and environmentalist.)

Call me weird if you want. But I love weather. All kinds of weather. Hot. Cold. Rainy. Dry. Foggy. Sunny. Overcast.

Call me weird again, if you want. But I love all kinds of storms, too. Thunderstorms. Lightning storms. Hailstorms. Windstorms Snowstorms. When a storm is headed my way, I get hyped up and worked up, simply anticipating the maybeness and the mightiness. The storm’s arrival–assuming that it actually arrives–always brings an intense level of energy, inner and outer, that thrills me.

I love surprises, too. Yep. I’m betting that you guessed it. Surprise storms thrill me most, especially surprise snowstorms. Ask my family. Ask my friends. Ask my neighbors. Ask my former colleagues. I’m a snow freak. I get turned on by snow, but not those puny dustings of just a few inches. Take it up to six or seven or eight, and then we’re talking. Take it up to nine or more and my wild side comes alive, especially if it’s a surprise. OMG! Life is grand. Once, while living right here on my mountain, I had the hellacious thrill of being stranded in a surprise 40-inch snowfall in the middle of March. Actually, it was closer to 50 inches. The more that I think about it, though, I am convinced that it was 54 inches.

My West Virginia kin contemplated calling the National Guard to rescue me. (Hmm. That might have been fun.) But a local contractor bulldozed me to freedom first. The snowbanks were so tall that they didn’t melt until June. Now that’s a surprise storm that I will always remember. Perhaps I will write about it one day. But not today.

For today, I’m just wondering how many, if any, surprise snowstorms we will have this winter. I remember more than a few down through the years, but right now I’m thinking about two surprise snowstorms that were real and a third surprise storm–an ice storm–that the power of poetry made come alive for me, so much so that it seems as real now as it did then.

All three are memorable, profoundly so, though for different reasons.

All three took place when I was a kid growing up in the coalfields of Southern West Virginia where snowstorms were plentiful.

The earliest that lingers in my mind was when I was really young. I’m guessing that it was the winter of 1951, when I would have been four. My mother had to get something from the church that she pastored, hardly more than a stone’s throw below our home. She had no sooner walked out the door than she rushed back in, smiling all radiant like:

“Let’s put your coat and hat on so that you can see the snow. It’s in color!”

We hurried out behind the house, taking her usual shortcut path to the church. I could see my mother’s tracks in the snow where she had walked minutes earlier. But everything was white. All white.

“Where’s the colored snow? I don’t see any.”

“Come on. You’ll see. We’re almost there.”

We continued on the path, meandering down and around a knoll. On the gentle downslope, we narrowed our way between two large, weather-worn boulders.

We stopped there. My mother turned toward the boulders, exclaiming in triumphant joy:

“Look! Look at all the colors!”

I looked, and I was amazed. Vast patches of colored snow covered the boulders. Reds. Greens. Blues. Browns. Some of the flakes were colored as they fell from the sky. Other flakes turned color when they touched the boulders.

Years later I learned that the boulders were probably covered with types of algae that caused the white snow to change color. The snow that came falling down in color was caused by pollutants, no doubt from the coal camp where we lived. The science, though, never eroded the beauty of that snowfall. I had never seen colored snow before, and I have never seen colored snow since. It is as if my mother and I shared a magical moment never to be witnessed again.

The second surprise snow came when I was older. I’m guessing that it was 1961 when I was a high-school freshman. It fell in October. Green leaves, still on the trees, had not even thought of turning red or gold.

The wet, heavy snow started during the night. A significant amount had fallen by the time my dad got up for work. Not one to be daunted easily, he set out in the early pre-daylight hours, trudging through the deep snow, determined to catch his ride to the coal mines. I can still see the flicker of his carbide lantern as it swayed beneath the towering oak tree where he always stood, waiting for his ride to work. I can still see him standing there, the carbide lantern swaying. I can still see the snow falling, piling up higher and higher. I can still see what seemed to be forever.

And, then, forever turned into daylight. My dad’s ride didn’t show up because the snow was too deep. My dad slogged his way back home.

The door had hardly closed when we could hear him in the kitchen rattling pots and pans as he started making biscuits, frying country ham, and cracking eggs, whistling and singing in his untrained country way. Looking back, I understand his carefree merriment. He would have been 59 that year and that day was probably his first coal-miner’s snow day ever. If he had others, he never mentioned them. I know for a fact that he never had another work snow day afterwards.

That snowfall was more than 25 inches. Branches fell. Trees crashed. But what lingers most for me is the magical snow-day breakfast that my dad prepared–one that we all shared, never to be spread again.

The next surprise storm–the one that I experienced through the power of poetry–came in 1955, betwixt and between the other two.

I was in the third grade and my teacher, Marie Massie, introduced me–just me, not the entire class–to Robert Frost. She pulled me aside one day and gave me a mimeographed copy of his poem “Birches.”

“I think you’ll like this poem. Let me know.”

I fell in love with the poem and told her so. She gave me more: Frost’s essay “The Figure a Poem Makes.”

Looking back, I cannot help but wonder why. Why did she give me, a third grader, a poem with such profound meanings? Why did she proceed to give me, a third grader, an essay, profounder still?

I’d like to think that it was because she knew that she was dealing with an unusual intelligence. But I know better. She wasn’t.

Of course, “Birches” spoke to every fiber of my being. I, the child, who loved storms. I, the child, who loved surprises. I, the child, who played alone. All that it took was a description of birch trees in winter:

[ … ] Often you must have seen them

Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning

After a rain. They click upon themselves

As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored

As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells

Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—

Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away

You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

I had never seen a birch tree nor had I ever seen an ice storm. But I had seen colored snow, and in my mind’s eye I could easily imagine what the sky–heaven’s inner dome–would look like if it froze and fell around the forest trees where I played with great abandon.

More, though, I became one with the boy mentioned in the poem:

I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay

As ice-storms do.

Indeed, I often climbed saplings near our home, learning quickly how far up the tree to shimmy before thrusting my feet outward into the air, letting the tree dip me down to the ground and lift me back up again, heavenward, to repeat by dipping me down to the ground on the other side and lifting me back up again, heavenward. Over and over and over. Earth. Heaven. Earth.

But as the poem teaches us, trees are never bent forever when a boy swings them. They always right themselves. But that’s not the case when the forces of nature–ice storms–bend trees:

They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,

And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed

So low for long, they never right themselves

The key phrase, of course, is “they never right themselves.” The damage brought on by Nature is irreparable

As an eight-year-old, I am confident that I did not pick up on the sobering seriousness of that caution, even after I continued reading and came across the lines:

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.

And so I dream of going back to be.

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

I’d like to get away from earth a while

And then come back to it and begin over.

Looking back, I cannot help but wonder whether my third-grade teacher had experienced being weary of considerations, wishing to get away from earth for a while.

Looking back, I cannot help but wonder whether my third-grade teacher was giving me a caution that I, too, would have days when I would be weary of considerations and would wish to get away from earth for a while.

Maybe she was doing both. To live is to grow weary from time to time. To live is to wish to get away from earth for a while. To be human is to suffer.

But, maybe, while she was hoping to impress upon me those life-lessons, she was hoping still more that I would latch on to, hold on to, and believe in the next few lines:

May no fate willfully misunderstand me

And half grant what I wish and snatch me away

Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:

I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

Of course, we all want to get away from earth from time to time, but, at the same time, we all want to come back to earth. We don’t want our getaway to be our final exit.

But there’s something in those lines that makes the occasional skeptic in me laugh. Is earth the right place for love, especially considering all of the cruelties that we inflict on ourselves, on humankind, and on Planet Earth, our home? If we come down on the side that Earth is not always the right place for love, then all of us–collectively and individually–need to look for ways that we might–collectively and individually–make Earth the right place for love, for all, forever.

I suspect that Frost wants to nudge readers toward those more serious reflections.

For today–and today only–I’ll put aside the poet’s nudge.

For today, I’ll put aside my sometimes-skeptical self.

For today, it’s enough for me to recall my mother’s love as she shared with me the magic of colored snow.

For today, it’s enough for me to recall my father’s love when a sudden snowstorm gave him the only snow day of his work life, and he chose to make a magical breakfast.

For today, it’s enough for me to recall the teacher who gifted me with my love of poetry.

For today, it’s enough for me to recall my own childhood days when I, too, was an innocent swinger of birches.

The Face of Humanity

“My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”

Desmond Tutu (1931-2021; South African Anglican bishop and theologian, known for his work as an anti-apartheid and human rights activist.)

When I first moved to my retreat on the mountain where I still live, I was one of four families who lived here. One was an occasional weekender. One was a snowbird who lived in Arizona from November until May. The other lived at the bottom of the mountain, seldom seen.

It didn’t take long before “the mountain” became “my mountain.” I became territorial about my 20 acres. My territory seems far more expansive than it is because my property, on two sides, joins the George Washington National Forest that extends to the top of the mountain and beyond.

Where I live became THE MTN HOUSE, and the Jeep that I drive was tagged MTN PROF.

Over time, other people discovered the mountain’s charm, built homes, and moved here. All of us get along well together because we all love living in the woods–even as the woods that we all love continue to diminish with every new build.

As it turns out, I am the oldest in our mountain community, and I have lived here the longest. In my mind, those two facts reinforce my belief that the mountain is still my mountain just as my home is still the MTN HOUSE and just as the Jeep continues to be tagged MTN PROF.

But things change. During the summer of 2022, the lot adjoining mine on the lower side went on the market and sold quickly. Not long after, I stopped and welcomed to my mountain the new owner, a young man in his twenties. He hopped off his tractor and stopped his driveway-excavation work. We chatted for a long, long spell about my mountain and about his building plans. He seemed grounded. It struck me as special that at his young age he was striking out on a new home venture in the woods. It was a first for him.

I saw Kevin once or twice afterwards. Several months passed, and I didn’t see him, and I didn’t see any action on his land either.

Then, all of a sudden, it all started. The bulldozer arrived. The backhoe arrived. The trees fell. The lot looked lean and showed contours that I had not seen before. Suddenly, the lot looked bigger. I was impressed.

I was surprised that I never saw Kevin in any of the action. From time to time, I saw several pickup trucks and an older couple. I also saw a Weber grill in the middle of the clearing, just inside the newly excavated and heavily graveled road that curved softly through the lot.

Maybe Kevin had sold the lot. Maybe I had new neighbors without even knowing it.

Then one day something magical seemed to happen. When I drove off my mountain, everything looked exactly as it had looked the day before and the day before that. However, when I drove back up several hours later, there beside the road on the recently cleared lot was a small prefab shed. How the hell had it gotten there–situated in place and leveled–so quickly? And why the hell was it so close to the road? And why the hell was it so close to my property line?

I drove past in slow-mo, determined to take it all in. I immediately started to wonder whether this “shed” had been offset from the road and my property in accordance with the mountain community’s code.

When I turned into my drive and stepped out of my Jeep, I turned and looked down my mountain to see whether I could see the shed. I could. “No big deal,” I thought. “When spring comes, new growth will hide it all.”

But it must have been a big deal because it became the focus of my next conversation with my two oldest sisters.

And not long after that, I drove past to discover an excavated area smackdab next to my property, maybe encroaching on it by a foot or three.

I was not too happy as I drove homeward up my mountain. Actually, I was more than a little agitated.

A few days later, I walked down to one of my lower gardens to cut some magnolia for Christmas decorations.

As I did, I could hear the revved-up tractor pushing hard against the hard-frozen ground. I could see the driver, but the capped and tilted head kept me from getting a clear view of the face. It was just a shape, nothing more than a shape.

I didn’t know who was operating the tractor, but I resolved to stop and talk about the shed and about my property line when I went off my mountain to the store a little later.

And that’s just what I did.

As it turned out, the shape turned out to be Kevin.

As I pulled to the side of the road, he jumped off his tractor, rushed over, and gave me a hearty handshake. His beaming chestnut eyes were beaming more than usual and his usual wide smile was smiling wider than usual.

Hey, Kevin. It’s great to see you.

You, too. It’s been a while. Things are shaping up real good, don’t you think? It’s all muddy but let me show you around.

And show me around he did, starting with the shed that made him beam even brighter and smile even wider. And then we walked over to where his home would be. His home. He was ecstatic when I told him that one side of his property faced the George Washington National Forest, just as mine does. He was even more elated when I described the way the moon climbs up the mountain whose views we both share. Our mountain.

Maybe I should put my bedroom on that side of the house?

Yeah, that would be great. Maybe with lots of windows so you can watch the moon as you fall asleep. What you’ve done looks superb! You should be proud, really proud.

As we walked back towards my Jeep, our eyes landed on the excavated area encroaching my property.

So what’s going on there?

Oh. That’s where my well will be.

You do know where the property line is, right?

Kevin laughed and explained that the well would be well within his property line but that the company needed space to maneuver its drilling equipment.

No problem. I just wanted to check. I have a well already. I don’t need another one.

We both shared a hearty and heartfelt laugh.

I knew, standing there, looking into Kevin’s face, deliberately teasing him and deliberately giving him a hard time, that I would neither say nor do anything to diminish his joy.

I knew, standing there, looking into Kevin’s face, that I would neither say nor do anything to diminish his hopes.

I knew, standing there, looking into Kevin’s face, that I would neither say nor do anything to diminish his dreams.

Suddenly, the shed so close to the road did not matter.

Suddenly, the excavation abutting my property did not matter.

All that mattered was that in Kevin’s face I saw the face of all humanity, and I was reminded of our inherent goodness.

Plan? Say Whaaat? What Plan?

“Tell me what it is you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day” (1935-2019; American poet whose work reflects a deep communion with nature)

The pull quote is one of my favorite lines from Mary Oliver, one of my favorite poets. Don’t be misled by the quote. It’s not as simple and straightforward as it seems.

Let’s fool around with the quote the way that Oliver would like for us to fool around with it. Let’s try a paraphrase:

What do you plan to do with your life?

There. That’s seems simple and straightforward. I ask my students something similar:

Tell me. What do you want to be when you grow up?

That’s simple and straightforward, too.

What makes me pause, however, is one life. Who amongst us thinks about having one life? We all know that in reality we only have one life. But as Oliver phrases it, it becomes a caution: remember–you’ve only got one life; don’t screw it up.

I linger longer in the presence of the word wild. Wild–unrestrained or not adhering to the rules–goes against the grain of having a plan. Wild and plan seem contradictory and mutually exclusive.

I lean in harder against the word precious and pause once more. Again, the poet seems to be suggesting that as we design our plan and imbue our life with wildness, we need to remember that our one life is precious. It is of great value. It is not to be wasted. It is not to be approached carelessly. But, if that be true–and it is–how can we couple wild and precious?

Suddenly the seemingly simple poetic line becomes a hefty and weighty question that leaves us staggering as we reach the poem’s end.

Interestingly enough, Oliver opens her poem with questions that are more sobering:

Who made the world?

Who made the swan and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

Those Creationism questions are too large for any poet to answer, especially in a short poem such as Oliver’s “The Summer Day.”

Oliver knows that, too. In the next few lines, she does a masterful poetic pirouette that shows us how we can approach those questions–how we can approach our one wild and precious life–by shifting our focus from the riddled enormity of the cosmos to the more understandable singularity of the immediate moment:

This grasshopper, I mean–

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

the one who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down–

Think about it. What happens when we shift our focus from the big picture to something right in front of us? What happens when we shift our focus from trying to figure out who made the grasshopper to simply being at one with the grasshopper–not all grasshoppers, just THIS grasshopper?

When we shift from a wide-angle lens to a close-up lens, we begin to see the here and now. We begin to see what’s in front of us. We begin to see THIS grasshopper as she gazes around, washes her face, opens her wings, and flies away.

It seems that the poet would have us understand that our pause in the presence of immediacy–THIS grasshopper, for example–opens gateways to deeper meanings, more felt than understood.

The poem continues:


I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

How incredibly simple. Stroll through the fields. Be idle and blessed. Fall down–kneel down–into the grass. Pay attention. Stay there all day.

That’s precisely the plan that Mary Oliver offers us as a way of living one wild and precious life. Have no plan other than to kneel before the summer day. Have no plan but to kneel before this grasshopper. Have no plan but to kneel before the immediacy of the moment.

We may not have answers to the big questions. We may not know fully what prayer is. But we certainly have the ability to pay attention to all the here-and-now grasshoppers that bid us be idle and be blessed as we kneel the whole livelong day.

As I begin 2023–having ended a glorious 23-year career as a professor of English at Laurel Ridge Community College and before that an equally glorious 25-year career at the Library of Congress–I am reinventing myself.

Understandably, the question that most people ask me is:

What’s your plan?

“Say whaaat?” I gasp. “My plan? What plan?”

All that I hope to do is pay attention to my own here-and-now grasshoppers as I kneel before them.

That’s how I’ve lived my life so far. Maybe that’s why I’m so stoked by this poem. I’ve always been able to pay close, reverent attention to the task at hand, so much so that, most of the time, it’s as if nothing else matters. It’s as if nothing else exists. That’s not to say that I have not had short- and long-range plans. I have. But the greater joy for me has come by allowing myself to be rapt by the moment and to be slain right then and there in its immediacy.

I hope to continue living that way as I reinvent myself. I want to kneel down lovingly in the grass before the things that I love so much:

Language, Literature, and Writing.

Research and Publishing.

Biking and Hiking.

Baking and Gardening.

Family and Friendships.

Home and Hearth.

Faith and Spirituality.

As I kneel before those loves and more–known and unknown; seen and unseen–I want to lean in, pause, and pay close attention to the singularity of each and every moment, fully confident that my one wild and precious life will continue to unfold precisely as it should unfold, precisely according to plan.

Looking Back on 2022 with Heartfelt Thanks!

“You live life looking forward, you understand life looking backward.”

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855; Danish Philosopher, theologican, and cultural critic who had a major impact on existentialism.)

DEAR READERS,

As we enter the last day of 2022, I can’t let the year slip away without seizing the opportunity to thank you from the bottom of my heart!

Writing my weekly posts has anchored me during a year when I needed to be anchored. Knowing that you were out there reading my posts has strengthened me and uplifted me during a year when I needed to be strengthened and uplifted.

Looking back, I am surprised by the results! You might be, too. Let me share.

POSTS: 58

WORDS: 80,921

VIEWS: 6,625

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Fit as a Fiddle: The Inefficient Way

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Take Two | Fit as a Fiddle: The Intentional Way

The Joy of Weeding

The Other Side

Two, Together

The Story of Angel Falls

You, MY DEAR READERS, come from 59 COUNTRIES all around the world. I am in awe.

  • Australia
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Wouldn’t it be grand if we could reach out, join hands, and celebrate worldwide unity and inclusion, advocated so powerfully in Bob Marley’s “One Love”:

One love, one heart

Let’s get together and feel all right.

Maybe—just maybe—that’s exactly what we’re doing together in our own small way–week by week; post by post–right here in this blog.

I have no idea how you found your way into my life in 2022, but as we welcome 2023, I hope that you will continue to stand by me as we read our way together throughout the New Year!

Finding Far More than My Fitbit

When you bring the light into your dark house, that is when you see the cobwebs and spiders.

Rajneesh (1931-1990; Indian spiritual leader who preached an eclectic doctrine of Eastern mysticism, individual devotion, and sexual freedom.)

Those who know me well know how much I live by my Fitbit. Those who read my blog posts regularly know it, too, and no doubt remember my “Fit as a Fiddle: The Inefficient Way.”

I swear by my Fitbit so much mainly because I consider it to be my Doc-in-a-Watch, not that I need a doc in my watch or anywhere else, for that matter. My once-a-year doctor doesn’t like it too much when I tell her all about my Fitbit. Her skepticism always prompts me to give her an accelerated show-and-tell Fitbit Continuing Medical Education session, explaining everything that my Fitbit monitors and tracks:

● Steps per hour and per day.

● Sleep score–duration, deep sleep and REM sleep, and restoration.

● Exercise readiness score.

● Skin temperature.

● Resting heart rate.

● Breaths per minute.

● Heart rate variability.

● Blood oxygenation.

● Atrial fibrillation.

My Fitbit and I are so connected that it leaves my bod for two reasons and two reasons only.

The first is when it needs to be recharged. I time my its rechargings precisely so that my Fitbit doesn’t lose track of my steps and other vitals. The charger is on my kitchen counter, right next to my other life force–the coffee pot.

The second occasion that my Fitbit leaves my bod is just before I step into the shower. Then I put it on the shelf right below my toiletry cabinet. As soon as I step out of the shower and dry off, I put my Fitbit back on my wrist and go about my day.

My method of living a Fitbit-life was foolproof until Friday, December 16. I knew in advance that the day would be charged emotionally. I had to attend my college’s end-of-year celebration, where some colleagues who were retiring would be recognized. I fell into that category, too, but I am not ret–ing, even if I would be recognized as a faculty member who was. There’s a really negative word embedded in reTIRED. Yep. You guessed it. TIRED. And to pick up a title from one of my favorite James Cleveland spirituals,

“I Don’t Feel Noways Tired.”

Here’s the second reason that December 16 became charged emotionally. The day before, an Arctic blast hit our region, iced over my mountain world, and iced me indoors. Dang. How could I be recognized if I couldn’t make it to the celebration?

On the morning of the event, it looked as if my icy world had melted a little, but I wasn’t quite sure since it was nowhere near daylight. I started fretting.

I continued to fret when I took my shower. I continued to fret when I dried off. I continued to fret when I went upstairs to dress for the day.

By then it was daybreak, and I could tell that my mountain road was clear enough for me to Jeep off.

I kept on readying myself, and just as I put on my bracelet, I realized that I had not put on my Fitbit.

I raced back downstairs to get it, and to my horror, it was not on the shelf where I thought that I had left it.

Maybe I left it on my desk? Nope.

Maybe on the charger? Nope.

On my dresser? Nope.

Maybe it came unclasped and fell on the floor? I walked all through the house. Nope.

I repeated the trek. Nope. The Fitbit was not to be found.

I couldn’t continue looking. I had to head off to the college celebration. All the way there, I played and replayed every move that I had made earlier in the morning. I couldn’t put it out of my mind.

When I arrived and met up with one of my best friends, I blurted out:

You won’t believe what I did this morning. I lost my Fitbit, right in my own home.

Jenni knows me all too well:

How do you know whether you’re alive?

I don’t know. Without my Fitbit, I’m not alive! I have no stats whatsoever! I’m not even sure that my heart is beating.

I managed to distract myself from time to time during our three-hour celebration, but as soon as I started my drive back home I replayed, once again, every move that I had made.

As soon as I walked in the front door, I decided to get out my brightest flashlight and shine it systematically everywhere throughout the house. The damned Fitbit had to be there, somewhere. I looked all over the floors. I looked on top of every piece of furniture. I looked behind every piece of furniture. I wanted my damn Fitbit, dammit, and I wanted it right then and there. I hope that you are sensing my desperation.

What I did not want were the cobwebs that I found. Yes. Cobwebs. Now I was doubly horrified! For real. I was appalled. In fact, my heart sank, even if I didn’t have my Fitbit to log and record the sinking. How could this be? I mean. I know that I tease a lot about housecleaning. Who does not remember my riveting post “My Imaginary Guests“? More important, I had cleaned house thoroughly for my Thanksgiving guests. And the month before I had cleaned house thoroughly for Veteran’s Day guests. And I could keep rolling the calendar back, and I could keep talking about how I cleaned house for this occasion or that occasion or for this guest or for that guest.

But what good would that do me? I had shined a light, and I had seen those cobwebs. The horror or it all. Cobwebs. I thought that I was doing a near spic-and-span job with my cleaning.

My first impulse was to have at the damned cobwebs that had taken me unawares. But how could I? I wanted them gone. All gone. Right now. That would require tackling my entire home, room-by-room.

My second thought was simple:

This is no big deal. Sit down and work out a plan.

That’s just what I did. But alas! As I worked out my plan, I became even more horrified.

The cobwebs that I had found–the cobwebs that I didn’t even know were lurking in unseen and unvisited spots–were real ones. Their little filament lines looked like fluffy dust streamers. And from time to time I could even see anchor points attaching the web to the walls.

But somehow I started thinking about metaphorical cobwebs. What cobwebs would I find if I shined a light into the nooks and crannies, the corners and crevices, and all of out-of-the-way places in all the other areas of my life. Dare I look? What would I find? Would you be brave enough to look at your metaphorical cobwebs in the areas of your life? What would you find?

I started thinking about my grieving for my late partner Allen. Am I as healed and whole as I sometimes think? Or if I shined a bright light, what unexpected cobwebs might I find?

What about my prayers? Am I as celebratory in prayer as I have reason to be? Or if I shined a bright light, would I find myself on my knees only when I have needs?

And, bringing in something seemingly trivial, what about my refusal to talk about that ret—ment thing that other people do all the while that I’m reinventing myself? I wonder what cobwebs I would find if I shined a bright light on that area of my life?

To be certain, we all have areas of our lives where, from time to time, we might benefit by bringing in the light so that we might discover the hidden cobwebs impacting:

● Our physical health.

● Our emotional health.

● Our spiritual well-being.

● Our financial health.

● Our relationships with others–at home, at work, and in our communities.

● Our intellectual growth.

● Our career growth.

● Our downtime and our playtime.

Follow me? Of course, you do. You’ve got your own cobwebs lurking around in your life just as I have them lurking around in mine. Bright light. Bright light.

And what about me and my Fitbit fixation? Dare I shine a bright light on that area of my life? Oops! I think that I just did that in this post.

Oh. By the way. I found my Fitbit, but not with my bright light. When my bright light efforts failed, I broke down and bought the Find My Fitbit app for $5.89. You bet. It’s a real app, and it really works. It led me right to where my Fitbit had fallen down between the bathroom wall and the back of the toilet tank.

I was thrilled that I found it. I was thrilled that I was whole once more. But I was even more thrilled that I had found far more than my Fitbit.

The Magic of Fruitcake

“From time to time, I savor a slice, but I’m parceling it out ever so rarely and ever so thinly. I want the magic of this fruitcake to last forever.”

Let me tell you about the magic of fruitcake. I know. You probably think that’s a ridiculous claim. Most folks hate fruitcakes because they’re hard and dry and filled with citron and raisins and Lord knows what all. Most are so bad that jokesters rightfully disparage them as next year’s paperweights or doorstops.

Obviously, those naysayers never tasted one of my Mom’s fruitcakes. Obviously, those naysayers never experienced the magic of my Mom’s fruitcakes. For time immemorial—seventy years, perhaps longer—she perfected her fruitcake recipe, recording her adjustments religiously. For one single, seven-pound fruitcake, she uses four pounds of cherries, golden raisins, pineapple, and pecans. For her batter, she mixes just enough to hold the fruit and nuts together, and it’s rich with a half dozen jumbo eggs, a pound of butter, and a magical blend of lemon juice, vanilla, freshly grated nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice.  And when it comes to fruitcakes, Mom’s no tee-totaler.  Her fruitcakes are redolent with booze.  She soaks the fruit in brandy before baking, and, once her baked cakes have cooled, she nestles them in thick layers of brandied cheesecloth, replenished weekly—starting in August when she bakes her cakes and continuing through Christmas when she gives them away. 

Mom shared her treasured, secret recipe with me, right after two strokes in quick succession left her paralyzed in both legs and one arm. She was 92 then. It was the last year that she made her fruitcakes, from start to finish.

For the next few years, I made the fruitcakes. Everyone raved, even Mom. To me, however, something magical seemed missing.

Then, one year, my oldest sister called, claiming the ritual as hers. Mom had given her the recipe, too. 

My sister followed it with precision, but as she started spooning the batter into the tube pan, she broke down in tears. She phoned Mom, who lived just two houses away. 

“It’s all mixed,” she sobbed, “but it’s not going in the pan right.” 

“Audrey, bring it on down here and prop me up in bed. I’ll show you how to do it.”

My sister went down and propped Mom up. With her one good arm and all the love and courage that she could muster, Mom packed the batter into the pan, pressing it down with the back of a wooden spoon, as only Mom knows how to do. Then she adorned the top with a ring of brandied, candied fruit flowers, just like always. Undoubtedly, that fruitcake was her most beautiful, ever, and it tasted just as first-rate as any Mom ever made all by herself. 

My sister gave me a huge hunk of that love-laden fruitcake—undoubtedly, the best in the world and, sadly, Mom’s last. I have it wrapped in brandied cheesecloth, and I keep it in the freezer, the same way that Mom always kept one or more fruitcakes, from one year to the next. From time to time, I savor a slice, but I’m parceling it out ever so rarely and ever so thinly. I want the magic of this fruitcake to last forever.

Growing Up More than Once

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.

Lao Tzu (Ancient Chinese philosopher and writer; founder of Taoism.)

The idea for today’s post exploded magically in my head one Friday morning last spring as I drove to campus for a Creative Writing class. I started thinking about the fact that Fall 2022 would be my last semester as a full-time Professor of English at Laurel Ridge Community College. In the midst of my reverie, I had an insight. I’ve been blessed with the luxury of growing up more than once.

Now I’m writing about that epiphany of many months ago. Candidly, until I started working on this post, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to the meanings that the expression “growing up” can have.

The most common, of course, relates to the challenges that we all face as we progress from childhood through puberty into early adulthood.

That meaning goes all the way back to the Coverdale Bible of 1535:

“The childe Samuel wente and grewe up, & was accepted of the Lorde & of men” (1 Samuel ii. 26).

Sometimes, however, the expression can be used to criticize someone who is being silly or unreasonable. I’m thinking of that memorable line in J. D. Salinger’s 1951 novel, Catcher in the Rye:

“For Chrissake, grow up.”

I’m not certain that anyone has ever told me to “grow up.” When I was young, people told me that I was old for my age. Now that I am older, people tell me that I am young for my age.

Be that as it may, I’ve never considered “growing up” as a once-in-a-lifetime rite of passage where we make it to adulthood. One day, we arrive. One day, we’ve grown up. Voila!

For me, “growing up” has been an ongoing journey from Point A to Point B, where Point B is never the end. Instead, it becomes the starting point of another journey.

Let me explain.

Many people might assume that since I was born in the coal fields of Southern West Virginia my Point A of “growing up” was related directly to “getting out.” Even today, West Virginia is the fifth poorest state in the nation. Without doubt, I remember vividly and well the hardships of poverty–the challenges of living from paycheck to paycheck.

What I remember far more are the values and hard work ethic that my dad (a coal miner) and my mother (a fundamentalist minister) instilled in me. What I remember far more is that they taught me to appreciate, value, and celebrate diversity. What I remember far more is that they taught me to embrace and accept everyone.

What I remember far more are the educators who knew the subjects that they taught and who taught those subjects with passion. What I remember far more are the educators who loved their students and took personal interest in us. They were living witnesses to everyone in the coal camp: we could transform our lives through education just as education had transformed their lives.

For me, my first “growing up” had nothing to do with “getting out.” It had everything to do with getting educated. It had everything to do with going to college.

By the third grade, I was telling everyone that I was going to be an English Professor. Looking back, I wonder what planted that idea in my head. I had never met a professor. None lived in my coal camp or in the slightly larger town where we moved when I started the third grade. I had no idea whatsoever what an English Professor did. I had no idea what I would have to do to become one. But I minced no words about it. I was going to become an English Professor. Yet, how could that ever happen? I would have to go to college and that would cost big bucks that my parents didn’t have. Where would the money come from? My teachers and my parents had answers for me. “Work hard. Do your best. Get good grades.” After a few years of seeing my commitment to academic success, they expanded their answer: “Keep it up. You’ll get scholarships. You’ll see.”

And that’s exactly what I did. I went forward with faith, and, as a rising high-school senior, I started the college-application process. Acceptance letters came one by one but without any scholarship offers. I felt good–really good–about being accepted. Sure. Feeling good would pay tuition. Sure. Feeling good would pay for textbooks. Sure. Feeling good would pay for room and board. Yep. I felt good.

Doors were opening for me to get educated, but, ironically, I couldn’t pay to cross the threshold.

Then, just a month or two before graduating third in my class, I received a letter from Alderson-Broaddus University that changed my life forever. I had been accepted with a comprehensive financial aid package–scholarships, Work Study, and student loans–that covered all expenses.

Can you imagine. Me. A hard-working, coal-camp kid with a dream, going off to college. Me. The first in my family to go to college. I pinched myself, and off I went to college.

As part of my studies at Alderson-Broaddus, I had two academic internships in Washington, D.C. One was with Senator Robert Byrd, doing administrative tasks in his office and delivering mail to United States Senators. The second was with the former Department of Health, Education, and Welfare–Division of Two-Year Colleges.

When I graduated cum laude from Alderson-Broaddus in 1969 with a Bachelor’s Degree in the Humanities, I landed a position at the Library of Congress, as an editor in its MARC Project. After a year, I moved up and became an editor in the National Union Catalog, Pre-1956 Imprints, hailed as the bibliographic wonder of the world.

Can you imagine? Me. The hard-working, coal-camp kid with a dream and three books in his early childhood home–the King James Bible; Webster’s Dictionary; and Sears Roebuck Catalog–working as an editor in the world’s largest library, the place with all the books.

I pinched myself over and over again. I was living in my own apartment in the shadow of the Nation’s Capitol. I was working in the world’s premier library. I was a federal employee with a handsome salary and first-rate benefits.

I had grown up. Or so I thought.

Three years into my federal career, I got hooked on research. The yearning for more learning descended upon me, and I realized that I needed to grow up again.

Off I went to the University of South Carolina where I earned my Ph.D. in American Literature, where I became a Mary E. Wilkins Freeman scholar, and where I experienced, for the first time, the joy of teaching.

I was armed with credentials, but I had only one college professorship offer, with a salary so low that I could not afford to accept the position.

I went back home to the Library of Congress where I remained for a total of twenty-five years. I continued my Freeman research and published my The Infant Sphinx: The Collected Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (Scarecrow Press, 1985). I worked with the best professionals in the federal sector. I continued my earlier work as an editor in the NUCPP-Pre-1955 Imprints. I became the Training Coordinator for the United States Copyright Office and then Director of the Library’s Internship Program and after that Special Assistant for Human Resources, giving HR advice to department heads as well as to two Librarians of Congress.

I spent a total of twenty-five years as a federal employee, as a researcher, and as a scholar.

Surely, I had grown up. Or so I thought.

But when I turned fifty, I started feeling antsy about that childhood dream of becoming a Professor of English. I started feeling antsy about that childhood dream of long, long ago. I started fussing with myself every day and throughout the days:

“If not now, when.”

On a leap of faith that I would find a college home, I took advantage of a 1998 early retirement from the Library of Congress. I sold my Capitol Hill home, bought myself a Jeep, and relocated to my weekend home in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

In August 1999, Lord Fairfax Community College (now Laurel Ridge Community College), opened its doors to me, first as an Adjunct Professor of English and then as a full-time Professor of English.

Some might say that my childhood dream was deferred for a long, long time.

Others might say that I had to grow up twice before I was ready to grow into the professor that I would become.

I tend to agree with the latter group. My education, my research, my scholarship, and my federal service positioned me to move into academe at the perfect moment. I was prepared for my teaching journey. I was ready for my teaching journey.

Now I have come full circle to where this post began. After twenty-three years, this semester was my last one as a full-time professor at Laurel Ridge Community College. On Friday, December 9, I taught my last class there as a full-time professor.

What an incredible journey it has been! I am so grateful to my Laurel Ridge family who have journeyed with me. And I’m even more grateful to more than 7,000 students, who believe —no, more than 7,000 students who know—that an education will transform their lives just as my life was transformed by education. I am pleased beyond measure that they let me be their learning coach. Every day, they gave me one more chance to do it better. Every day, they gave me one more chance to get it right. Every day, they let me be, me. Every day, they let me be a part of the magic. 

Surely, I am grown up now.

I daresay that you have guessed it already. I’m not. In fact, I just heard someone say:

“The good professor is going to grow up again.”

Yes. That’s exactly what I’m going to do, for the fourth time in my life. I just did some quick and dirty math. It seems to me that each time I grow up takes nearly twenty-five years. With a little luck, the next growing up will take about the same number of years and will be filled with lots of scholarly research, writing and publishing; lots of teaching; and lots of service. Who knows. Only time will tell.

But here’s how I see things right now. By the time I reach 100, I might have grown up. And, if I haven’t, I’ll keep right on with the important work of becoming what I might be.