The Frog at My Door

The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest of intentions.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900; Irish poet and playwright)

My mountain home borders the George Washington National Forest, and, as you might expect, my world is filled with frogs.

Tree frogs, especially, are everywhere. I am convinced that millions and millions surround me. Oddly, though, I don’t see them often at all. They are quite small and awesomely masterful at blending into the trees and forest floor where they live. But I hear them everywhere. Once they start singing–usually in late Spring or early Summer and continuing through mid-Fall–I am in the midst of a nightly surround-sound symphony, commencing with a twilight overture, continuing with a high-pitched repertoire throughout the night, and reaching a calming finale around daybreak the following morn.

The principal musician among the tree frogs is the Spring Peeper, camouflaged to look like tree bark–light or dark as needed. Their song is a pure-tone whistle or peep that rises slightly in pitch from beginning to end. Loud. Piercing. Distant choruses sound like the jingling of small sleigh bells.

Joining them, somewhere in the trees or on the forest floor, are wood frogs–brown, tan, or rust-colored–dark-eye mascara. Their rolling call is a soft, ducklike cackling–ca-ha-ha-ac, ca-ha-ha-ac, ca-ha-ha-acnot too unlike a flock of quacking ducks.

And let me not forget the mottled-skinned Gray Tree Frog. It can be black or almost white, and it can change to light green, yellow, or gray. Its call is a melodious trill, lasting about half a second and repeated over and over again.

Aside from tree frogs, I have several Bull Frogs that live in my Koi Pond. Green tops. Cream or yellow bellies. Large eyes with almond-shaped pupils. I’m most fascinated by their tympana (eardrums) right behind their eyes. My bull frogs belt out loud, resonant bass notes: rumm . . . rumm . . . rumm, or, as some folks claim, “br-rum” and “jug-o-rum.” Wishful thinking.

And, of course, I have Toad Frogs. Stocky body.  Clumsy gait. Dry brown skin. Warts. (No. You did not get your warts from a toad frog.) I love to watch them puff up their bodies when threatened–never by me–in an attempt to look bigger. They, too, have a call. It’s a long trill, and each male in the chorus calls at a slightly different pitch, alternating and overlapping their songs.

And, from time to time, I have seen it rain frogs. Yes. Right here in my yard.

Say whaaaat?” someone just croaked.

Yep. It is possible to “rain frogs.” In severe weather, strong wind gusts scoop them up, blow them hither and yon in the sky, and let them fall to earth again.

Obviously, I spend a lot of time listening to frogs and watching them whenever I am blessed enough to catch sight of them. However, of all the frogs in my world, one has super special meaning.

It’s the frog at my door. My kitchen door. It’s the door that I use when I go out. It’s the door that I use when I come back in.

The frog at my door is a big frog. It’s huge. Actually, it’s the biggest frog that I’ve ever seen. Its belly is all white, a dramatic contrast to the rest of its dark green body, all splotchy with light green spots. And it has several remarkably large warts on its back. As it sits there–all puffed up–its thick lips have a wide, welcoming, fly-trap grin, and its eyes seem forever fixed on mine every time that I walk past. Sometimes, I even think that it looks up and winks at me. Whenever that happens, I always return the flirt.

Is it real?” someone just bellowed.

Well, of course, it’s real. But it’s not alive. I put it there when I started reinventing myself and had to relocate treasures from my college office to my treasured mountain home.

Now the frog sits at my kitchen door, forever looking, forever looking.

My placement of the frog at my door was as deliberate as my purchase. The moment that I laid eyes on it–the moment that our eyes locked–it looked as if it wanted–no, needed–a kiss.

In an instant, I was reminded of the Grimm Brothers’ “The Frog Prince.”

No doubt you remember the story. It’s about a young princess who tossed her golden ball–her favorite plaything–into the air and, failing to catch it, it rolled along the ground and fell into the spring.

“Alas! if I could only get my ball again, I would give all my fine clothes and jewels, and everything that I have in the world.”

About that time, a frog popped its head out of the water and started talking. The princess dismissed him as nothing more than a frog, incapable of helping her.

Ironically, he was not interested in her possessions. All that he wanted, in exchange for retrieving her golden ball, was to have her love, to live with her, to eat from her plate, and to sleep upon her bed.

Thinking that the frog could not get out of the spring even if he could manage to retrieve her golden ball, the princess agreed.

The frog retrieved the golden ball. Overjoyed, the princess took the ball and ran home, oblivious of her promise.

The frog followed. When the King discovered what had transpired, he made his daughter honor her promise.

We all remember the rest of the story. The cruel spell was broken, and the frog turned back into a handsome prince. The prince and princess got married, and, of course, they lived happily ever after.

The fairy tale teaches children and all of us several important lessons:

● The importance of not judging people based on their appearances.

● The importance of treating everyone with love regardless of how they look.

● The importance of keeping the promises that we make.

It seems to me, though, that the fairy tale teaches us one more important lesson:

● Magic can happen when we help others meet their needs.

Think about it. The princess needed to get her ball from the bottom of the spring. The prince needed to be freed from the evil spell that had turned him into a frog.

By the end of the fairy tale, each had met the other’s needs. Magic happened.

So there you have it. That’s why I put the frog at my door. As I go out, I want to be reminded of the multitude of needs that I might encounter and the opportunities that I might have to help meet those needs.

Mind you: when I leave, I’m not headed out on a mission to find needs. I’m simply going out to take care of my own affairs, but as I do so, I hope to have a greater awareness of other people’s needs.

Their needs need not be big or earth-shattering. More often than not, they’re small. More often than not, I can’t meet them all every time that I head out. But when I can, I want to be reminded to do what I can.

● I want to be reminded to smile and be friendly to everyone, including strangers.

● I want to be reminded to buy local and to support small businesses.

● I want to be reminded to be on a first-name basis with all the grocery store clerks.

● I want to be reminded to thank the attendant at the sanitation landfill who rarely gets thanked and to remind her of the importance of the work that she does.

● I want to be reminded to see whether I can help the driver who has pulled his car off to the side of the road.

● I want to be reminded to show love to the seemingly unlovable; to make eye contact with the homeless person on the corner; to give generously; to offer to buy a meal.

● I want to be reminded that less can be more and that I can donate to others what I no longer need.

● I want to be reminded to pay it forward: to help someone starting their career; to give someone a word of encouragement; to be the shoulder that a friend can lean on.

● I want to be reminded that I might be the fire that inspires my local postmistress to go back to college.

● I want to be reminded that without even knowing it, my positivity might be the light at the end of someone’s tunnel.

I want to be reminded of all those things and so many, many more.

This much I know. When I get back home, the frog at my door will be there, waiting for me. Our eyes will lock once again, and at that moment, the frog at my door will hold me accountable: Did I do all that I could do? Did I turn my grand intentions into meaningful actions?

Maybe it’s just the frog at my door, but in my mountain world, it’s as magical as any fairy tale.

The Final Cake

Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes
the outmost—and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of
the Last Judgment.


Dayum! I just realized that the title of today’s post might lead you to believe that I’ve baked my last cake. Not to worry. I haven’t. I mean, after all, I’ve been stacking cakes for layers on end, and I have cakes to bake before I sleep and cakes to bake before I sleep. (Frost and I have our own thing going.)

Let me count the cakes. (Barrett–Elizabeth, not Robert–and I have our own thing going, too.) I’m thinking something like around the world in 80 cakes. (Well, dayum again. It looks as if movies and I have our own thing going. Maybe I have my own thing going with everything. No doubt. I do.)

But imagine that. Baking 80 cakes from around the world. Well. I have never, not yet at any rate. But I wonder: will I be the first? BRB.

Well, triple dayum. Every time that I have a brilliant idea, someone goes and steals it from me–right here in plain sight for everyone to see–and manages to get away with it years before I even manage to speak up and declare it in my post.

Yep. You read it right. Famed pastry chef Claire Clark has already done it: 80 Cakes from Around the World. 6 continents, 52 countries. What adventures. What delights.

OMG! I just had another brilliant idea! Forget my idea of around the world in 80 cakes. Well, actually, we can’t forget it, can we? It’s published as a book already, enjoying life everlasting to its fullest.

Fine. Since Clark’s book focuses on countries, here’s another idea. I will remove that which defines countries as countries. I’ll take away all the borders. Is that a stroke of genius or what? Then I can bake what I want to bake and not be boxed in. BRB. I have to go Google.

Well. Dayum nearly flew out of my mouth again, but I’m getting tired of saying dayum because I’ve said dayum three times already. So, dammit. I Googled, and, once again, someone stole my idea even before I had a chance to speak up and declare it here in my post.

Yep. You read it right. Jennifer Rao has poured the batter already and is baking it up as eBooks. Cakes without Borders. Volume 1: The Maiden Voyage. And she’s added another layer. Cakes without Borders Volume 2: The Journey Continues.

Fine. No problem. Since the baking borders are gone, let’s call it like it is. One World. How’s that for a simple-syrup solution? I’ll bake up One World Cakes. Forget cakes without borders. BRB. I have to go Google again.

Well, as I live and breathe. I have been duped again. What I found was not a perfect match, but it was close enough in spirit and intent that my conscience would never ever let me move ahead with what I know would become my One World Cakes empire. I can’t because Oksana Greer started her One World Cafe in 2007.

Well, I’ve gotten over the repeated theft of my ideas before I even had the chance to speak up and declare them, but now “one world” is floating around in my head. We are, you know, One World. More and more every day. One world.

But if you had asked me when peopled started talking about one world and the heightened responsibilities that we face as one world, I would have credited Pearl S. Buck, who alluded to one world in her 1950s essay “Roll Away the Stone,” contributed to NPR as part of its “This I Believe” program:

I take heart in a promising fact that the world contains food supplies sufficient for the entire earth population. Our knowledge of medical science is already sufficient to improve the health of the whole human race. Our resources and education, if administered on a world scale, can lift the intelligence of the race. All that remains is to discover how to administer upon a world scale, the benefits which some of us already have. In other words, to return to my simile, the stone must be rolled away.

But I’m glad that you didn’t ask, because I would have been wrong. Buck was not the first. Credit for the first use of one world goes all the way back to 1919:

The English idealists have followed Hegel rather than Fichte … in striving for a one-world theory, for seeing ideal values realized in the actual (Political Science Quarterly, 34: 610).

Gracious me. Have I gotten side stacked or what? If I keep this up, my post might well compete with a Smith Island Cake. Please tell me that you know about this famous cake from Smith Island, Maryland. Say whaaaat? You don’t. Well, let me take just another crumb or two to bring you into the cake know. The Smith Island Cake has been honored a mighty stack of times for the defining role that it has played in American culture. It is a super-sweet confection, consisting of at least seven thin layers with cooked fudge icing between the layers and on top. The side of the cake is often left unfrosted. (I made one once with 15 layers. Talk about a show-stopper.) Give yourself the baking challenge. Here’s Mrs. Kitching’s Original Smith Island Cake. Or, if you prefer, buy one online: Smith Island Baking Company.

Enough of Smith Island Cakes. Enough of one world and one world cakes. Enough of cakes without borders. Enough of around the world in 80 cakes. Enough of my nonsense.

It suits me just fine to let it all go. Enough is enough is enough. Besides, those who know me well know that I have baked the good bake and that I will continue to do so (The Bible and I have our own thing going, too.)

I suppose, then, that the best thing for me to do is stop salivating over the gazillion cakes that I have yet to bake and start putting the frosting on the final cake that I baked, the one that got me going with this post.

Let me tell you all about it. I promise: I’ll make it no more than a three-layer cake.

During my twenty-three years at Laurel Ridge Community College (formerly Lord Fairfax Community College), I always baked cakes for my classes, especially my Creative Writing classes. They were smaller than my other classes. Plus, I usually met with Creative Writing classes on Fridays. Bringing cake seemed perfect for a three-hour class like that.

Baking for my classes became a standard. If it was a Kendrick class, there would be Kendrick cakes. Word traveled fast. Once I walked into class on the first day and discovered that one of my students had written on the board:

We heard there would be cake.

Is that sweet or what?

I continued baking for my students throughout my teaching career, all the way through Fall 2022, my final semester as a full-time professor at Laurel Ridge. However, that semester I treated my students, week by week, to various types of sourdough muffins.

As I prepared for our final class–which turned out to be my final class, too–I had in mind my usual: celebrate my students and their writing successes.

Muffins didn’t do it for me. It just had to be a cake. I had many of my favorites lined up as possibilities, but it seemed to me that my students should get to choose.

So, for our final class, I’m baking a cake to celebrate. And here’s the deal. You get to decide what kind of cake. What would you like? Just name it. You’ll get it.

Silence fell over the very same room that I sometimes thought could never be silent.

But I learned decades ago that the best way of breaking classroom silence is to remain silent.

It always works. After a minute of silence that felt as long as a semester, one student spoke up:

German Chocolate.

Robbie, thank you very much. German Chocolate it shall be.

I was silent for a moment, pondering why Robbie was the only one bold enough to speak up and declare a preference. The others sat there as if they could not speak. The others sat there, as if they had no preferences whatsoever. I knew otherwise and started laughing a little, as I started asking why no one else spoke up. Typical responses followed:

Social anxiety

Didn’t know what others might think.

Fear of being wrong.

(Hello. How can you go wrong with cake?)

Wanted to hear what others had to say.

But here’s the thing, and it’s rather ironic. When I walked into class and asked my students what kind of celebratory cake they would like, I stood there before them ready to honor whatever they wanted.

It could have been my 15-layer Smith Island Cake. It could have been a Lady Fingers Cake–Торт “Дамские Пальчики”–from One World Cake. It could have been a Bolo de Fuba from Cake without Borders. It could have been the scandelicious Carrot Cake from 80 Cakes from Around the World. It could have been whatever their taste buds desired to taste, whatever their minds dreamt to dream.

With greater irony, they could have had more than one cake. I stood there before them ready to honor whatever they wanted.

But only one student spoke up. One lone voice prevailed. German Chocolate.

I didn’t want to turn the situation into a lecture, yet I felt that I had a responsibility to seize this moment and make it a sweet learning one.

In a flash, I thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” With greater speed, I found the essay on the Internet, projected it on the screen for my students to see, and read the following passage:

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost—and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men, but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this.

When we met the next week, my students were majorly impressed by my show-stopper German Chocolate Cake. Three 9-inch layers of light chocolate cake. Coconut-pecan frosting slathered between the layers, all around the sides, and on the top. Delightfully sticky. Delightfully sweet. Delightfully decadent

When the final class ended, Robbie left–cake carrier in hand, delighted to be taking home what remained of the final cake, his own sweet indulgence to share as he saw fit.

I like to believe, however, that everyone left class that day with an even sweeter realization that might serve them for a lifetime if they will only listen: the influential power of a lone voice surrounded by silence.

In Praise of Transverse Rumble Strips

“The great benefit of slowing down is reclaiming the time and tranquility to make meaningful connections–with people, with culture, with work, with nature, with our own bodies and minds” 

Carl Honoré (b. 1967; In Praise of Slow: Challenging the Cult of Speed)

Come on. Fess up. Did the title of today’s post give you whiplash? Or did you find yourself asking, “What the hell?” before you virtually ran to your virtual dictionary?

Well, if you won’t fess up, I will. I had to run to my virtual dictionary. Not once. Not twice. But  three times. After all, I grew up in the coal mining region of Southern West Virginia. What the hell could I be expected to know about rumble strips, transverse or otherwise? Thank you for cutting me some (coal) slack.

Back in the late 1940s when I was born, West Virginia coal camps generally had one road going in and the same road going back out. The winding, single lanes were memorably narrow.

Once, when I was about four or five, I was walking up the narrow Cherokee Road to a playmate’s home. I had almost reached my destination when I saw a humongous black snake sunning right smack-dab in front of me, just a few feet away, extending himself all the way across the road. For a moment, my bare feet froze on the tarred surface, softened by the sun. But then the curious little boy in me lifted my feet and set me free. I tip-toed to one side and looked up the bank into the weeds. Then I quieted myself to the other side, leaned in, and stretched my eyes down the rocky drop off to Windmill Gap Branch below. When I realized that I could see neither the snake’s head nor its tail, I knew that it was time for me to hightail it back home and get my mother. And that’s just what I did. By the time the two of us returned to where I had seen the snake, it had crawled off to wherever it was going before I came along. It was nowhere to be seen. Luckily, my mother knew that I would not make up a tall tale like that. As we walked back home, she shared some of her own childhood black snake tales, but that’s copy better left to another day and, perhaps, another post.

The narrow road’s tarred surface was always lots of fun even when black snakes did not impede my childhood journeys. Solitary summer hours found me walking the road, searching for small tar bubbles. I knew just how hard to press my toes so that the surface would slip and slide back and forth above its liquid soul without it spewing forth like a minor Mount Vesuvius, burning my toes.

And then, of course, with any luck it might be a summer when Ashland Coal Company resurfaced the road with a new layer of tar. Word traveled fast through the coal camp when resurfacing was going to happen, and I knew exactly where I could go to get a bird’s eye view.

All that I had to do was walk a short way up the road–past the Caprinis, the Knights, and the Wilcoxes–go up the steps with stone walls on both sides winding along the road, and climb up my favorite bean tree in the Monarchy’s front yard. Bean trees were all over the coal camp, in all the  yards, planted years earlier by the coal company as a tip-of-the-coal-miners’ hard hats to ornamental landscaping. The trees are spectacular with large, heart-shaped leaves–big enough to umbrella a child in a heavy rain–and with showy, trumpet-like white flowers with purple and yellow throats–fragrant enough to take a child’s breath away on a misty morn. After blooming, the trees are covered with inedible beans, growing as long as 18 inches and anywhere from a half inch to an inch in diameter. Some people call them cigars. Either way, the tree–Catalpa bignonioides–is a member of the Catalpa family, and the beans/cigars are part of its prominent appeal.

The Monarchy’s bean tree was especially appealing to me not only because it was an easy climb but also because one of its branches extended halfway or more across the narrow, soon-to-be-resurfaced road. Sitting on that branch centered me right above the soon-to-unfold drama.

I can still see as vividly now as I saw then the truck edging closer and closer. It had a huge tank that stored and heated the tar and a distributor that spray-nozzled the tar onto the road.

Creeping along behind was the paver machine with several rollers that spread the tar across the road. Then came the machine with steel drums that compacted the surface.

But the equipment did not impress me nearly as much as the hissing steam that rose steadily from the surface and the smoky, oily smell that subdued even the fragrance of the bean tree flowers. Everything that I could see, seated there on the branch–skinny legs dangling–seemed coated in wet blackness. The road. The equipment. Even the clothes that the workers wore and even their hands that waved to me were all in stark contrast to their tanned faces, flexing wide smiles at me, the coal camp kid in khaki shorts and starched, spread-collar, white shirt, watching and smiling back from a bean tree branch just above all the men and all the action.

And even in times when the narrow road was not being resurfaced, it was always the perfect time and the perfect place for playing the perfect childhood game: hopscotch. Some chalk. A road. A kid. Some other kids. Some others, kids at heart. That’s all that it took. For joy. For exercise. For math. For putting to good use that one road in, that same road out. And here’s the good thing. Even a child like me could count with ease, using both hands, the cars coming in and going back out. Little wonder that our hopscotch patterns were nearly as permanent as if they had been stamped indelibly onto the road’s surface.

Unlike me, though, you probably weren’t born in a coal camp in the late 1940s. So you probably know all about the transverse rumble strips that I didn’t know about as a child.

But don’t be too hasty to agree, lest your eagerness embarrass you.

I’ll spare you by willingly embarrassing myself. Growing up, I missed out on rumble strips, but as an adult, I’ve heard their songs and felt their vibes.

Yet, until I started writing this post, I was not certain what the dang things were called. I had to virtually run to my virtual dictionary to find out.

Now I know. And, in case you don’t know, let me bring you into the know, too.

Rumble strips. Alert strips. Sleeper lines. They were first used in 1952 on New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway as safety features, alerting drivers who veered outside the lanes. Shoulder rumble strips as well as center line rumble strips cause sounds and vibrations, with intensities in direct proportion to the vehicle’s speed. Reminder: slow down. Reminder: be attentive.

But don’t forget about  transverse rumble strips–the ones that perhaps gave you whiplash at the beginning of this post.

Sometimes, they’re temporary rumble strips, put down across the road to alert drivers to something ahead that may require a full stop, usually road maintenance.

Sometimes, they’re permanent, alerting drivers to an unexpected stop sign or intersection ahead or to a significantly lower driving speed.

Down through the years, I’ve had lots of experiences with shoulder rumbles, center line rumbles, and temporary transverse rumbles.

Truth be told, though, I can only think of one village that uses permanent transverse rumble strips, coming and going.

It’s one of my favorite places to visit. Actually, it might be my most favorite place. Mind you, though, it’s not my favorite because it’s known as the “Nation’s Horse and Hunt Capital” with fox hunting, steeple chases, and multi-million dollar estates. It’s not my favorite because of all the rich and famous people who have ties there, including Jack Kent Cooke, Robert Duvall, John F. Kennedy, Paul Mellon, and Elizabeth Taylor.

It’s my favorite for one reason and one reason only. Getting there requires me to slow down. Getting there requires me to be attentive.

It’s about 62 miles east of my home in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. You’re probably thinking that I can get there in an hour. I can’t.  And that’s what I like about going there. Getting there requires me to slow down. Getting there requires me to be attentive.

Oh, I suppose that I could whiz along at 70mph on the interstate and get there faster than I do. But I don’t. I take the state roads: 55mph, slowing down from time to time to 35mph or 25mph, as I drive through some of the Valley’s  blink-and-they’re-gone small towns.

But what I like is when the 55mph slows to 50mph for a long spell. It’s then that the magic begins. It’s then that I start seeing the dry stack stone walls flanking the road, frozen in time, as perfect now as when farmers first stacked stone on top of stone for miles and miles. It’s then that I start seeing gaps in the walls here and there, perhaps the work of animals, though more likely the work of Nature. It’s then that I’m reminded of Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

And then 50mph eases into 35mph as I approach Aldie, dropping to 25mph as I  continue through the village. Then, the calming speed pattern repeats itself as I come into Upperville.

It’s then that every fiber of my being becomes more relaxed, more alert, more attentive, quivering in my heart and my soul. It’s then that I say out loud–for me and me alone to hear: “How civilized. How incredibly civilized.”

It’s then, continuing a few miles further to my destination, that I drive across successive groupings of transverse rumble strips.

It’s then that I can actually see people and cars and dogs with heads sticking out car windows, unlike the fast-moving blurriness of Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals on a wet, black bough.

It’s then that I know. I have arrived. I’m in Middleburg, Virginia.

Soon I’ll meet my good friend Frank–from long, long ago, but not from so far, far away–and sometimes his wife Barb. We’ll meet where we always meet for lunch: King Street Oyster Bar.

And if we’re aware that we’re seated in the village’s historic past and present, midst horse country, steeple chases,  fox hunts, and the rich and the famous, we never talk about it. I doubt that we’re even aware. I dare say that we’re not. Some things–like old money–never show, certainly not in Middleburg.

We’ll talk of this and that–of everything and of nothing, but always of the brininess of the oysters on the half-shell, so fresh that the ocean’s saltiness washes over our conversation.

Soon, always too soon even when it lasts for hours as ours always do, it is done. Lunch is over. We hug, then walk our separate ways, always turning around to wave, at least once, sometimes twice.

Then I start my journey home, driving back out the same road that I drove in, crossing over the rumble strips, noting the increasing speed limits. 25mph to 35mph to 50mph. And I say out loud once more–for me and me alone to hear: “How civilized. How incredibly civilized.”

When my journey morphs mysteriously to 55mph, I start to see the misty Blue Ridge Mountains rising up in the western sky. My heart quickens as I push down on the gas pedal, eager to get back to Edinburg and make the slow, bumpy drive up the one-lane-in, same-lane-out graveled road that always brings me back home.

Once again, the transverse rumble strips have worked their calming magic. Once again, I am at peace with myself and the world, as much as I was when I was a coal-camp child.

Just Released: New Scholarly Book on Acclaimed Writer Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

“Dedicated to the Memory of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
and the Women Writers of America”

Bronze Doors Inscription, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York.

If the wheels of progress turn exceedingly slow–and they do–then the wheels of scholarly publishing turn even more slowly. Many steps are involved in publishing a book, especially an academic one with multiple contributors: finding a publisher; issuing the call for proposals (CFP); accepting proposals; writing; peer reviewing; revising; copy editing; and, finally, publishing. On average, it takes about two years for a scholarly book to find its way into print.

But the quality of the scholarship and the advances made by the research make the wait worthwhile.

New Perspectives on Mary E. Wilkins Freeman: Reading with and against the Grain is a perfect example. The editors–professors Stephanie Palmer (Nottingham Trent University, United Kingdom); Myrto Drizou (Boğaziçi University, Turkey); and Cécile Roudeau (Université Paris Cité, France) issued the book’s CFP all the way back in April 2019.

As a well-known Freeman scholar, I responded and proposed a chapter. I am sharing my chapter’s abstract below, not to promote myself but rather to provide general background information for my blog readers who may not be familiar with Freeman.

The distinguished accolades enjoyed by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman are numerous and well known. At the start of the Twentieth Century—when her career was at its height—she and Mark Twain were considered America’s most beloved writers. She was the first recipient of the William Dean Howells Gold Medal for Distinguished Work in Fiction (1925). She was among the first women elected to membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1926). And the bronze doors at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York (installed at its West 155 Street Administration Building in 1938) bear the inscription, “Dedicated to the Memory of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and the Women Writers of America.”

What is not well known, however, is Freeman’s financial success as a businesswoman. Freeman started her career in 1883 with $962.09 in cash and with one-half interest in a piece of Brattleboro, Vermont, property. Yet after her death in 1930, the value of her estate at the height of the Great Depression—even after her personal property had been auctioned off at embarrassingly low prices—came to a grand and spectacular finale of $117,285.41. Adjusted for inflation, that would be equivalent to starting out with $24,214.38 in 1883 and ending up with $1,804,925 in 1930 when the market was at its worst.

By any standard, that’s quite a financial success story, especially for a writer who at the start of her career maintained, “I know so little about business and business customs.”

Careful research into the business side of Freeman’s life demonstrates that necessity taught her a lot about business and business customs.

This chapter zooms in on Freeman’s career not only as a successful writer but also as an independent woman. Single for most of her life and without financial backing (unlike her contemporaries Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Kate Chopin), she knew that she had to fend for herself.  Or, as she herself commented in a 1919 letter to American literary scholar Fred Lewis Pattee, “I wrote no more vers de societe. No more Cherries in Blossom. My dear Sir, do you remember I wrote you that I had to earn my living? I did not write this, but I had an Aunt to support. How could I have accomplished these feats on poetry?”

She couldn’t accomplish it by poetry alone, but she could by exploiting multiple genres: 3 plays, 14 novels, 3 volumes of poetry, 22 volumes of short stories, over 50 uncollected short stories and prose essays, and 1 motion picture play.

Over the course of a career that spanned nearly 50 years and through nothing more than the power of her pen and her astute business acumen, she amassed a fortune. Hers is a story of phenomenal magnitude, unparalleled in all of nineteenth century American literature, especially among women writers, and this paper will chronicle her financial success story.

Now, nearly four years later (delayed, no doubt, by the COVID-19 Pandemic), the book was published this month by Edinburgh University Press.

Edinburgh University Press; 1st edition
(February 28, 2023)
Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 328 pages
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1399504479
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1399504478

My contribution–“Literary Businesswoman Extraordinaire”–appears as Chapter 9 in the section Women’s Work: Capital, Business, Labor.

Kinship Outside of Normative Structures
1. Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s Neighborly Encounters and the Project of Neighborliness – Jana Tigchelaar
2. “Her Own Creed of Bloom”: The Transcendental Ecofeminism of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman – Susan M. Stone
3. “Preposterous Fancies” or a “Plain, Common World?” Queer World-Making in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “The Prism” (1901) – H.J.E. Champion

Violent, Criminal, and Infanticidal: Freeman’s Odd Women
4. The Reign of the Dolls: Violence and the Nonhuman in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman – Donna M. Campbell
5. Transatlantic Lloronas: Infanticide and Gender in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and Alexandros Papadiamantis – Myrto Drizou
6. Redefining the New England Nun: A Revisionist Reading in the Context of Pembroke and Irish American Fiction – Aušra Paulauskienė

Women’s Work: Capital, Business, Labor
7. Hunger Strikes:Queer Naturalism and the Gendering of Solidarity in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s The Portion of Labor – Justin Rogers-Cooper
8. “It Won’t Be Long Before the Grind-Mill in There Will Get Hold of Him”: The Theft of Childhood in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s The Portion of Labor – Laura Dawkins
9. Literary Businesswoman Extraordinaire – Brent L. Kendrick
10. “Deconstructing Upper-Middle-Class Rites and Rituals: Reading Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s Stories Alongside Mary Louise Booth’s Harper’s Bazar“– Audrey Fogels

Periodization Reconsidered
11. Mobilizing the Great War in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s Edgewater People – Daniel Mrozowski
12. A Cacophony of Voices: Freeman’s Modernism – Monika Elbert
13. Underground Influence: Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Pastiche of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman – Stephanie Palmer
14. Untimely Freeman – Cécile Roudeau

Afterword: Why Mary E. Wilkins Freeman? Why Now? Where Next? – Sandra A. Zagarell

New Perspectives on Mary E. Wilkins Freeman is rich and robust, adding new dimensions to earlier book-length studies:

Edward Foster, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (Hendricks House, 1956). Foster started his Freeman biography right after her death in 1930. At the time, he was a doctoral student at Harvard. One of the book’s many strengths is its inclusion of information gained from interviewing Freeman’s friends and relatives.

Perry Westbrook, Mary Wilkins Freeman (Twayne, 1967; rev. 1988). Westbrook explores some of Freeman’s richest and most significant works, anchoring them to the New England local color tradition as well as to women writers.

Brent L. Kendrick, ed., The Infant Sphinx: Collected Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (Scarecrow, 1985). Praised by The Journal of Modern Literature as “the most complete record to date of Freeman’s life as writer and woman.” I have a new two-volume update in progress: Dolly: Life and Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. Vol I: The New England Years (1852-1901). Vol II: The New Jersey Years (1902-1930).

Leah Blatt Glasser, In a Closet Hidden (University of Massachusetts Press, 1996). Glasser’s work is a literary biography that “traces Freeman’s evolution as a writer, showing how her own inner conflicts repeatedly found expression in her art.”

Aside from book publications, Freeman has merited state-wide celebrations, too.

In 1991, Newark Public Library, the New Jersey College English Association, and the English Department of Kean College celebrated Freeman’s life and works in a series of free public programs. Jim Florio, New Jersey’s governor at the time, issued a formal proclamation, declaring “November, 1991 as Mary E. Wilkins Freeman Month.”

Additionally, in October 2019, Freeman was featured as part of the Brattleboro (VT) Literary Festival. Recognizing her connections to Brattleboro and to the Green Mountain State, Vermont Governor Phillip B. Scott proclaimed October 17, 2019, as “MARY E. WILKINS FREEMAN DAY
in Vermont.”

On January 17 the next year, Freeman’s home at 207 Lake Avenue in the Borough of Metuchen in Middlesex County, New Jersey, where she lived and wrote from 1902 to 1907, was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

New Perspectives on Mary E. Wilkins Freeman is a welcome addition to Freeman scholarship. Taken as a whole, the book provides a greater understanding of Freeman’s unequivocal–and sometimes unrivaled–impact on American letters.

My Final Week in Bed with GATT | The Heart of the Matter. Why I’m Not Afraid.

“A rose is a rose is a rose.”

Gertrude Stein (1874-1946; American Novelist, poet, and playwright. “Sacred Emily,” Geography and Plays, 1922)

Trust me. Just because I didn’t write about GATT last week doesn’t mean that I wasn’t foolin’ around. I was. I always am. But it seemed to me that GATT, you, and I needed a break. After all, how much intelligence can we stand all at once, artificial or otherwise. And besides, last week was Valentine’s Day, and I thought that you might appreciate an extra serving of love “Just Like Mama Made.”

But I’m back at it once again with my GATT shenanigans.

This week, I’m going to share with you my own thoughts about GATT. Don’t worry. I ran my thoughts by GATT already, and they agree with my evaluative comments. Talk about WIN/WIN. Shazam!

Let’s see where we are. Since I’ve shared/shown enough of GATT’s poetic prowess already, so let me highlight briefly a few more ways that GATT and I have been foolin’ around.

It’s obvious to me that GATT can generate some interesting writing samples–and writing is, after all, my area of interest–but how good can GATT get when literary nuances are required?

To put GATT to the test, I thought that I would frame a task around a fun, outlandish, and not-so-well-known nineteenth century literary work by George Washington Harris. You might not get the thrust of the book by its main title: Sut Luvingood. But you will certainly get it when I share the subtitle: Yarns Spun by a Nat’ral Born Durn’d Fool.

Now that I’ve shared the subtitle, the main title, and the author, you’re undoubtedly saying to yourself:

“Oh, yes. One of my favorite literary works, ever. I think I might just re-read some of those riveting yarns today.”

Sure. When cows fly!

Few people, I dare say, know good ole Sut. It’s a pity. They should.

I felt confident that GATT would know Sut. But would they know all the nuances? Would they know, for example, about Harris’ use of the vernacular? About the Old Southwest exaggerated humor that Harris worked into its own genre? And even if they knew those things, to what extent could they weave them into a topic that I would provide.

I decided to keep it simple by asking GATT to write a short essay, in the style of Harris’ Sut Luvingood, about making sourdough bread.

Below is the essay that GATT generated:

“Sourdoughin’ in the Wild West: A Hilarious and Exaggerated Guide to Making Your Own Sourdough Bread”

Well folks, let me tell ya, makin’ yer own sourdough bread is like tamin’ a wild stallion, wranglin’ a tornado, and catchin’ a greased pig all rolled into one. It’s a journey full of ups and downs, twists and turns, but when ya finally git it right, it’s a thing of beauty.

Now, I know some of ya might be thinkin’, “But Sut, ain’t sourdough bread that fancy-schmancy stuff them city folks eat?” And I say to ya, “Nay, my friend! Sourdough bread is as down-home and rustic as a cowboy’s boots, as wholesome as a prairie sunrise, and as hearty as a buffalo stew.”

First things first, ya gotta git yerself a sourdough starter. Now, some folks might tell ya to go buy one from the store, but where’s the fun in that? The best way to git yerself a starter is to mix equal parts flour and water in a jar and leave it out on yer porch for a few days. It’s like waitin’ for a baby to be born, ya gotta be patient and tend to it daily, feedin’ it flour and water. Now, some folks might tell you to use filtered water, but where’s the fun in that? I recommend using water straight from the river, or better yet, the rainwater collected from a thunderstorm, that’ll give your starter a real wild west kick.

Once yer starter is good and lively, it’s time to make yer dough. Now, I ain’t no fancy baker, but I can tell ya, mixin’ flour, water, and yer starter together and kneadin’ it like ya mean it, is a surefire way to git a good dough. Allow it to rise for a spell, shape it into a loaf and toss it in the oven. Now, some folks might tell you to use a regular oven, but where’s the fun in that? I recommend using the hot ashes of the campfire, that’ll give your bread a real wild west smoky flavor.

Now, I know some of ya might be thinkin’, “But Sut, ain’t that all there is to it?” And I say to ya, “Nay, my friend! The beauty of sourdough bread is that it’s a livin’ thing, always changin’ and adaptin’ to its surroundings, just like us cowboys.” The flavor of yer bread will change dependin’ on the weather, the humidity and even the type of flour ya use. And the sourness of the bread will depend on how long ya ferment the dough. Now, some folks might tell you to ferment the dough for a few hours, but where’s the fun in that? I recommend fermenting it for a few days, that’ll give your bread a real wild west tangy flavor.

But the best part of makin’ sourdough bread, is sharin’ it with others. Just like roundin’ up cattle, makin’ sourdough bread is a labor of love and patience, and it’s downright gratifyin’ to share the fruits of yer labor with friends and family. Now, some folks might tell you to share it with just friends and family, but where’s the fun in that? I recommend sharing it with everyone you meet on the trail, that’ll give your bread a real wild west reputation.

All right, already. I insist that we stop. Right here. Right now. Give it up for GATT!

Come on. Give. It. Up. For. GATT!

Their essay was funny. It was sourdough-content solid. And their kinship to Sut was fair, albeit far too canned, far too artificial, and far too predictable. As might be expected, GATT lacks a genuine understanding of what Sut’s all about. Sut’s depth is not to be found in dialect and exaggeration alone. Simply put, GATT didn’t get it. But I’ll get back to this point further on in this post.

Aside from some good writing skills, GATT has a really good grasp of grammar. They can suggest corrections for fragments, comma splices, and run-on sentences with nearly 100% accuracy. They can do the same with subject/verb agreement, who/whom, and even the Oxford comma.

That being established, I wanted to get a little more into the grammar weeds with GATT. I told them that when I was a kid, one of my English teachers told me how to recognize a preposition:

“Anywhere a squirrel can go.”

Get it? Up. Down. Around. Behind. Above. Yep. Anywhere a squirrel can go is a preposition.

GATT got it. I asked them how that statement could be used to help understand prepositions. They proceeded to explain that a preposition shows relationship to place. Then they provided a list of prepositions with each example used in a sentence.


Nonetheless, I had something up my sleeve that I felt confident GATT could not do.

But before I gave GATT the problem to solve–and I challenge you to solve it as well–I wanted to make sure that they understood the distinguishing characteristics of a sentence.

GATT understood fully:

“1. A sentence must express a complete thought.

“2. A sentence must have a subject and a predicate.

“3. A sentence must start with a capital letter and end with appropriate punctuation (period, exclamation point, question mark).

“4. A sentence must contain at least one independent clause and may contain one or more dependent clauses.”

Great. I was ready to put GATT to the test.

TheWiredResearcher. Apply the principles of capitalization and punctuation so that the following words make sense. You must use all of the words in the order given:

that that is is that that is not is not is not that it it is

GATT. “That, that is, is not that it is.”

TheWiredResearcher. Again, you must use all of the words that I provided.

GATT. “That that is, is not. That is not, is not that it is.”

TheWiredResearcher. That makes no sense, and you still didn’t use all the words. Try again.

GATT. “That, that is, is. That is not, is not. That it is.”

It was obvious that GATT and I were going nowhere fast. We kept working it for a good while longer, but GATT couldn’t do it.

I wonder. Did you succeed with the challenge?

Below is the correct response.

That that is, is. That that is not, is not. Is not that it? It is.

Obviously, I could keep on going and going and going. I have been called the Energizer Bunny on more than one occasion. Being called the Energizer Blogger wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

But when it comes to GATT, I am thrilled that I’ve been foolin’ around with AI for the past few weeks. I have a far greater understanding of where we’re going, even if it is too soon to understand the magnitude of the journey.

Undoubtedly, some people feel threatened by AI’s capabilities.

I would urge them to see AI not as a threat but as a tool.

AI language models like my GATT have a vast amount of data which allows them to generate text on a wide range of topics quickly and efficiently.

At the same time, AI language models can never–absolutely never–replace the creativity, the critical thinking, and the emotional intelligence that we as human beings bring to our work. We bring our own perspectives. We bring our own experiences. We bring our emotions. We bring our own hearts. We bring our own souls.

I see great potential for human beings and AI to work together to create a world that neither could create alone.

This exciting new future is here already. It is now. I am not afraid.

Just Like Mama Made

“A mother is the only person on earth who can divide her love among all her children and each child still have all her love.”

– Unknown

When I walked into my kitchen one morning a few Sundays ago, my eyes landed immediately on two yellow-skinned apples with vibrant blushes, lying right there in the fruit bowl in front of me. I spotted them so quickly because they were on my mind when I awakened just a few minutes earlier. Those two apples fell all comfy like into my thoughts, so much so that I could nearly smell them frying before my feet touched the floor, walking me their way. The day before, I had made sourdough biscuits, and it seemed to me that fried apples would pair beautifully with them.

Right after tapping the start button on my coffee maker, I bent over to fetch a frying pan from the cabinet. My eyes saw nothing but All-Clad. I knew that All-Clad would never do for these fried apples. I leaned in deep, looked toward the back, and there I saw the perfectly seasoned skillet that I knew I had to use. It was the one passed down to me from my mother. It was so shiny and smooth and oiled that it reflected not only the kitchen lights but also me, myself, watching my smile stretch across the cast-iron mirror.

I put the skillet on the stove, turned the burner knob to just a hair past medium, and by the time I had sliced off some butter, the skillet was hot enough to send the yellow chunks sliding all around in hot pursuit of their own melting. Soon, sizzle sounded. I added the sliced but unpeeled apples, stirring and stirring and stirring with my wooden spoon until they were all bathed in butter. Then I added water–not much, just a sprinkling–topped the pan with a lid and left the apples simmering while I went into the living room to sip my first cup of steaming coffee.

After a short spell, the essence of apples seduced me back to the kitchen. Lifting the lid, I could see by their near translucency that the apple slices–including their skins–were perfectly tender and ready to be sugared and spiced. A generous sprinkling of light brown sugar, a shake of cinnamon, a pinch of salt, and a smidgen of black pepper went into the mix. I stirred it all up really good and left the unlidded apples to simmer a little longer, while I continued sipping on my second coffee in the living room.

A short while later I returned to the kitchen, not because I had finished my coffee but because the apples scented me that their final moments had come.

I scrambled three freckled-brown eggs, fried some streaky bacon, warmed the sourdough biscuits, and plated it all up, watching the apples slide their butteriness closer and closer to the biscuits, just where I had hoped they would slide, just where I knew they would.

I split one biscuit wide open, piling apples on both halves, admiring them patiently while I savored the eggs and bacon. Somehow there’s something sensationally remarkable about waiting for biscuit halves to soak up the buttery unctuousness of fried apples.

These apples and biscuits were no exception. As I savored the last bite, I sat there smiling from ear to ear, saying softly to myself for no one else to hear, for no one else was around:

“Just like mama made.”

As I said it, I chuckled. I never called my mother mama. Even the imagined spelling looked strange to me. One middle m? Two middle m’s? One looked less strange, so I wrapped my arms around it and held it real close.

In that second, my thoughts drifted off to all the times–and they were many, those countless lazy days stacked on top of one another, turning into years stacked on top of years–that I spent with my mother in the kitchen, usually just the two of us, as I watched her every move.

From that vast expanse of dimmed memory, Fruitcakes, Pecan Pies, Coconut Layer Cakes, 12-Layer Strawberry Stack Cakes, Greek Green Beans, Sage Dressing, Potato Salad, and all the other dishes that I make marched out of the darkness and stood tall and proud beneath the bright lights of honor, right there beside the fried apples, all culinary memorials, all made just like mama made.

And then my mother’s voice floated in–so soft and low my ears had to strain to hear–sharing with me once more something that she had shared with me over and over as she grew older and older.

“You weren’t even born when my mother died. I was pregnant with Arlene. But isn’t it amazing: after all these years, sometimes I’ll do something or sometimes I’ll see something, and I’ll find myself saying to myself, ‘I can’t wait to run home and tell mama.'”

So it was, so often with my mother in her conversations with me. “I can’t wait to run home and tell mama.”

My mother has been dead nearly thirteen years. Now, after all that time isn’t it amazing that the simple serving up of fried apples on a Sunday morn brings to my lips once more the whisper that has crossed them so many times before:

“Just like mama made.”

Made from scratch, with the freshest ingredients.

Made simply. No fuss, no muss.

Made to taste just right, by tasting all along.

Made with genuine joy and sheer satisfaction.

Made just like mama made.

With love.

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.


TheWiredResearcher: Try again. Give it some pizzazz.


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


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


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.


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, (”

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 ( 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.