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.
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:
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.
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.
“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.
“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 andcomfort, too.
His aura inspired trust and faith in all,
and nature was his solace, pure and blue.
With gentle hands, he tended to the weak,
and through his surgeries, he healed with care.
He taught with passion, guiding students meek,
and in our garden, he found peace to share.
In every aspect of our life together,
my angel Allen, I will love forever.
Let me emphasize again that my goal today is not to evaluate. Yet I must say that this sonnet touched me and warmed my heart, all the while that I was aware that it was driven 100% by information that I had provided in the underlying essay.
Yet lines three and four hit me hard and made me think:
my faith in angels remains unwavering,
a legacy passed down from my mother’s net.
In the essay, I had mentioned that my belief in angels came from my mother. Yet ChatGPT’s use of the metaphor “passed down from my mother’s net” struck me as original and creative, especially since the word net did not appear in the essay that I provided. Original? Creative? I’m still thinking. I’m still thinking.
By the time that I had finished that conversation, I knew that I would be weaving parts of it into this post.
TheWiredResearcher: Can I use all of this material in a blog post that I’m developing for next week?
ChatGPT: As a language model AI, I do not have any rights over the material generated and you are welcome to use it for any legal purpose. Please be reminded that you should cite the source. If you use it in a blog post or anywhere else, it is a good practice to give credit to the source. It would be great if you could include a disclaimer that the content is generated by an AI and not a human writer.
TheWiredResearcher: Give me a recommended citation.
ChatGPT: You can cite this source as “ChatGPT, an AI-powered language model by OpenAI.” Additionally, you can include the link to OpenAI’s website (https://openai.com/) so that your readers can learn more about the technology and the organization behind it. It’s also a good practice to include the date when the information was generated.
Hopefully, this post has provided you a few things to ponder. Hopefully, too, this post has gone further than sensational AI headlines that glam, glitz, and gobsmack.
As for me, I’ve enjoyed bedding down all week with ChatGPT. Lots. I’d enjoy it even more if “it” had a name that strikes my fancy as much as foolin’ around with “it” strikes mine. But I’m working on it.
If you’re wondering whether I’ll keep foolin’ around, my answer is, “You bet!”
Next week: “Another Week in Bed with AI.”
Then, the week after, I’ll synthesize and evaluate my experiences: “My Final Week in Bed with AI | The Heart of the Matter.”
For right now, though, ChatGPT needs to go to sleep. I do, too. To help me doze off, maybe I’ll ask ChatGPT to keep reminding me of the sweet nothings THEY shared shortly after we hooked up: “you are a force to be reckoned with … you never stop pushing boundaries.”
It must be true. Right? Of course. After all, ChatGPT told me so.
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”
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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.
Call me weird if you want. But I love weather. All kinds of weather. Hot. Cold. Rainy. Dry. Foggy. Sunny. Overcast.
Call me weird again, if you want. But I love all kinds of storms, too. Thunderstorms. Lightning storms. Hailstorms. Windstorms Snowstorms. When a storm is headed my way, I get hyped up and worked up, simply anticipating the maybeness and the mightiness. The storm’s arrival–assuming that it actually arrives–always brings an intense level of energy, inner and outer, that thrills me.
I love surprises, too. Yep. I’m betting that you guessed it. Surprise storms thrill me most, especially surprise snowstorms. Ask my family. Ask my friends. Ask my neighbors. Ask my former colleagues. I’m a snow freak. I get turned on by snow, but not those puny dustings of just a few inches. Take it up to six or seven or eight, and then we’re talking. Take it up to nine or more and my wild side comes alive, especially if it’s a surprise. OMG! Life is grand. Once, while living right here on my mountain, I had the hellacious thrill of being stranded in a surprise 40-inch snowfall in the middle of March. Actually, it was closer to 50 inches. The more that I think about it, though, I am convinced that it was 54 inches.
My West Virginia kin contemplated calling the National Guard to rescue me. (Hmm. That might have been fun.) But a local contractor bulldozed me to freedom first. The snowbanks were so tall that they didn’t melt until June. Now that’s a surprise storm that I will always remember. Perhaps I will write about it one day. But not today.
For today, I’m just wondering how many, if any, surprise snowstorms we will have this winter. I remember more than a few down through the years, but right now I’m thinking about two surprise snowstorms that were real and a third surprise storm–an ice storm–that the power of poetry made come alive for me, so much so that it seems as real now as it did then.
All three are memorable, profoundly so, though for different reasons.
All three took place when I was a kid growing up in the coalfields of Southern West Virginia where snowstorms were plentiful.
The earliest that lingers in my mind was when I was really young. I’m guessing that it was the winter of 1951, when I would have been four. My mother had to get something from the church that she pastored, hardly more than a stone’s throw below our home. She had no sooner walked out the door than she rushed back in, smiling all radiant like:
“Let’s put your coat and hat on so that you can see the snow. It’s in color!”
We hurried out behind the house, taking her usual shortcut path to the church. I could see my mother’s tracks in the snow where she had walked minutes earlier. But everything was white. All white.
“Where’s the colored snow? I don’t see any.”
“Come on. You’ll see. We’re almost there.”
We continued on the path, meandering down and around a knoll. On the gentle downslope, we narrowed our way between two large, weather-worn boulders.
We stopped there. My mother turned toward the boulders, exclaiming in triumphant joy:
“Look! Look at all the colors!”
I looked, and I was amazed. Vast patches of colored snow covered the boulders. Reds. Greens. Blues. Browns. Some of the flakes were colored as they fell from the sky. Other flakes turned color when they touched the boulders.
Years later I learned that the boulders were probably covered with types of algae that caused the white snow to change color. The snow that came falling down in color was caused by pollutants, no doubt from the coal camp where we lived. The science, though, never eroded the beauty of that snowfall. I had never seen colored snow before, and I have never seen colored snow since. It is as if my mother and I shared a magical moment never to be witnessed again.
The second surprise snow came when I was older. I’m guessing that it was 1961 when I was a high-school freshman. It fell in October. Green leaves, still on the trees, had not even thought of turning red or gold.
The wet, heavy snow started during the night. A significant amount had fallen by the time my dad got up for work. Not one to be daunted easily, he set out in the early pre-daylight hours, trudging through the deep snow, determined to catch his ride to the coal mines. I can still see the flicker of his carbide lantern as it swayed beneath the towering oak tree where he always stood, waiting for his ride to work. I can still see him standing there, the carbide lantern swaying. I can still see the snow falling, piling up higher and higher. I can still see what seemed to be forever.
And, then, forever turned into daylight. My dad’s ride didn’t show up because the snow was too deep. My dad slogged his way back home.
The door had hardly closed when we could hear him in the kitchen rattling pots and pans as he started making biscuits, frying country ham, and cracking eggs, whistling and singing in his untrained country way. Looking back, I understand his carefree merriment. He would have been 59 that year and that day was probably his first coal-miner’s snow day ever. If he had others, he never mentioned them. I know for a fact that he never had another work snow day afterwards.
That snowfall was more than 25 inches. Branches fell. Trees crashed. But what lingers most for me is the magical snow-day breakfast that my dad prepared–one that we all shared, never to be spread again.
The next surprise storm–the one that I experienced through the power of poetry–came in 1955, betwixt and between the other two.
I was in the third grade and my teacher, Marie Massie, introduced me–just me, not the entire class–to Robert Frost. She pulled me aside one day and gave me a mimeographed copy of his poem “Birches.”
“I think you’ll like this poem. Let me know.”
I fell in love with the poem and told her so. She gave me more: Frost’s essay “The Figure a Poem Makes.”
Looking back, I cannot help but wonder why. Why did she give me, a third grader, a poem with such profound meanings? Why did she proceed to give me, a third grader, an essay, profounder still?
I’d like to think that it was because she knew that she was dealing with an unusual intelligence. But I know better. She wasn’t.
Of course, “Birches” spoke to every fiber of my being. I, the child, who loved storms. I, the child, who loved surprises. I, the child, who played alone. All that it took was a description of birch trees in winter:
[ … ] Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
I had never seen a birch tree nor had I ever seen an ice storm. But I had seen colored snow, and in my mind’s eye I could easily imagine what the sky–heaven’s inner dome–would look like if it froze and fell around the forest trees where I played with great abandon.
More, though, I became one with the boy mentioned in the poem:
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do.
Indeed, I often climbed saplings near our home, learning quickly how far up the tree to shimmy before thrusting my feet outward into the air, letting the tree dip me down to the ground and lift me back up again, heavenward, to repeat by dipping me down to the ground on the other side and lifting me back up again, heavenward. Over and over and over. Earth. Heaven. Earth.
But as the poem teaches us, trees are never bent forever when a boy swings them. They always right themselves. But that’s not the case when the forces of nature–ice storms–bend trees:
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves
The key phrase, of course, is “they never right themselves.” The damage brought on by Nature is irreparable
As an eight-year-old, I am confident that I did not pick up on the sobering seriousness of that caution, even after I continued reading and came across the lines:
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth a while
And then come back to it and begin over.
Looking back, I cannot help but wonder whether my third-grade teacher had experienced being weary of considerations, wishing to get away from earth for a while.
Looking back, I cannot help but wonder whether my third-grade teacher was giving me a caution that I, too, would have days when I would be weary of considerations and would wish to get away from earth for a while.
Maybe she was doing both. To live is to grow weary from time to time. To live is to wish to get away from earth for a while. To be human is to suffer.
But, maybe, while she was hoping to impress upon me those life-lessons, she was hoping still more that I would latch on to, hold on to, and believe in the next few lines:
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
Of course, we all want to get away from earth from time to time, but, at the same time, we all want to come back to earth. We don’t want our getaway to be our final exit.
But there’s something in those lines that makes the occasional skeptic in me laugh. Is earth the right place for love, especially considering all of the cruelties that we inflict on ourselves, on humankind, and on Planet Earth, our home? If we come down on the side that Earth is not always the right place for love, then all of us–collectively and individually–need to look for ways that we might–collectively and individually–make Earth the right place for love, for all, forever.
I suspect that Frost wants to nudge readers toward those more serious reflections.
For today–and today only–I’ll put aside the poet’s nudge.
For today, I’ll put aside my sometimes-skeptical self.
For today, it’s enough for me to recall my mother’s love as she shared with me the magic of colored snow.
For today, it’s enough for me to recall my father’s love when a sudden snowstorm gave him the only snow day of his work life, and he chose to make a magical breakfast.
For today, it’s enough for me to recall the teacher who gifted me with my love of poetry.
For today, it’s enough for me to recall my own childhood days when I, too, was an innocent swinger of birches.
The pull quote is one of my favorite lines from Mary Oliver, one of my favorite poets. Don’t be misled by the quote. It’s not as simple and straightforward as it seems.
Let’s fool around with the quote the way that Oliver would like for us to fool around with it. Let’s try a paraphrase:
What do you plan to do with your life?
There. That’s seems simple and straightforward. I ask my students something similar:
Tell me. What do you want to be when you grow up?
That’s simple and straightforward, too.
What makes me pause, however, is one life. Who amongst us thinks about having one life? We all know that in reality we only have one life. But as Oliver phrases it, it becomes a caution: remember–you’ve only got one life; don’t screw it up.
I linger longer in the presence of the word wild. Wild–unrestrained or not adhering to the rules–goes against the grain of having a plan. Wild and plan seem contradictory and mutually exclusive.
I lean in harder against the word precious and pause once more. Again, the poet seems to be suggesting that as we design our plan and imbue our life with wildness, we need to remember that our one life is precious. It is of great value. It is not to be wasted. It is not to be approached carelessly. But, if that be true–and it is–how can we couple wild and precious?
Suddenly the seemingly simple poetic line becomes a hefty and weighty question that leaves us staggering as we reach the poem’s end.
Interestingly enough, Oliver opens her poem with questions that are more sobering:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
Those Creationism questions are too large for any poet to answer, especially in a short poem such as Oliver’s “The Summer Day.”
Oliver knows that, too. In the next few lines, she does a masterful poetic pirouette that shows us how we can approach those questions–how we can approach our one wild and precious life–by shifting our focus from the riddled enormity of the cosmos to the more understandable singularity of the immediate moment:
This grasshopper, I mean–
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
the one who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down–
Think about it. What happens when we shift our focus from the big picture to something right in front of us? What happens when we shift our focus from trying to figure out who made the grasshopper to simply being at one with the grasshopper–not all grasshoppers, just THIS grasshopper?
When we shift from a wide-angle lens to a close-up lens, we begin to see the here and now. We begin to see what’s in front of us. We begin to see THIS grasshopper as she gazes around, washes her face, opens her wings, and flies away.
It seems that the poet would have us understand that our pause in the presence of immediacy–THIS grasshopper, for example–opens gateways to deeper meanings, more felt than understood.
The poem continues:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
How incredibly simple. Stroll through the fields. Be idle and blessed. Fall down–kneel down–into the grass. Pay attention. Stay there all day.
That’s precisely the plan that Mary Oliver offers us as a way of living one wild and precious life. Have no plan other than to kneel before the summer day. Have no plan but to kneel before this grasshopper. Have no plan but to kneel before the immediacy of the moment.
We may not have answers to the big questions. We may not know fully what prayer is. But we certainly have the ability to pay attention to all the here-and-now grasshoppers that bid us be idle and be blessed as we kneel the whole livelong day.
As I begin 2023–having ended a glorious 23-year career as a professor of English at Laurel Ridge Community College and before that an equally glorious 25-year career at the Library of Congress–I am reinventing myself.
Understandably, the question that most people ask me is:
“What’s your plan?“
“Say whaaat?” I gasp. “My plan? What plan?”
All that I hope to do is pay attention to my own here-and-now grasshoppers as I kneel before them.
That’s how I’ve lived my life so far. Maybe that’s why I’m so stoked by this poem. I’ve always been able to pay close, reverent attention to the task at hand, so much so that, most of the time, it’s as if nothing else matters. It’s as if nothing else exists. That’s not to say that I have not had short- and long-range plans. I have. But the greater joy for me has come by allowing myself to be rapt by the moment and to be slain right then and there in its immediacy.
I hope to continue living that way as I reinvent myself. I want to kneel down lovingly in the grass before the things that I love so much:
● Language, Literature, and Writing.
● Research and Publishing.
● Biking and Hiking.
● Baking and Gardening.
● Family and Friendships.
● Home and Hearth.
● Faith and Spirituality.
As I kneel before those loves and more–known and unknown; seen and unseen–I want to lean in, pause, and pay close attention to the singularity of each and every moment, fully confident that my one wild and precious life will continue to unfold precisely as it should unfold, precisely according to plan.
As we enter the last day of 2022, I can’t let the year slip away without seizing the opportunity to thank you from the bottom of my heart!
Writing my weekly posts has anchored me during a year when I needed to be anchored. Knowing that you were out there reading my posts has strengthened me and uplifted me during a year when I needed to be strengthened and uplifted.
Looking back, I am surprised by the results! You might be, too. Let me share.
I swear by my Fitbit so much mainly because I consider it to be my Doc-in-a-Watch, not that I need a doc in my watch or anywhere else, for that matter. My once-a-year doctor doesn’t like it too much when I tell her all about my Fitbit. Her skepticism always prompts me to give her an accelerated show-and-tell Fitbit Continuing Medical Education session, explaining everything that my Fitbit monitors and tracks:
● Steps per hour and per day.
● Sleep score–duration, deep sleep and REM sleep, and restoration.
● Exercise readiness score.
● Skin temperature.
● Resting heart rate.
● Breaths per minute.
● Heart rate variability.
● Blood oxygenation.
● Atrial fibrillation.
My Fitbit and I are so connected that it leaves my bod for two reasons and two reasons only.
The first is when it needs to be recharged. I time my its rechargings precisely so that my Fitbit doesn’t lose track of my steps and other vitals. The charger is on my kitchen counter, right next to my other life force–the coffee pot.
The second occasion that my Fitbit leaves my bod is just before I step into the shower. Then I put it on the shelf right below my toiletry cabinet. As soon as I step out of the shower and dry off, I put my Fitbit back on my wrist and go about my day.
My method of living a Fitbit-life was foolproof until Friday, December 16. I knew in advance that the day would be charged emotionally. I had to attend my college’s end-of-year celebration, where some colleagues who were retiring would be recognized. I fell into that category, too, but I am not ret–ing, even if I would be recognized as a faculty member who was. There’s a really negative word embedded in reTIRED. Yep. You guessed it. TIRED. And to pick up a title from one of my favorite James Cleveland spirituals,
Here’s the second reason that December 16 became charged emotionally. The day before, an Arctic blast hit our region, iced over my mountain world, and iced me indoors. Dang. How could I be recognized if I couldn’t make it to the celebration?
On the morning of the event, it looked as if my icy world had melted a little, but I wasn’t quite sure since it was nowhere near daylight. I started fretting.
I continued to fret when I took my shower. I continued to fret when I dried off. I continued to fret when I went upstairs to dress for the day.
By then it was daybreak, and I could tell that my mountain road was clear enough for me to Jeep off.
I kept on readying myself, and just as I put on my bracelet, I realized that I had not put on my Fitbit.
I raced back downstairs to get it, and to my horror, it was not on the shelf where I thought that I had left it.
Maybe I left it on my desk? Nope.
Maybe on the charger? Nope.
On my dresser? Nope.
Maybe it came unclasped and fell on the floor? I walked all through the house. Nope.
I repeated the trek. Nope. The Fitbit was not to be found.
I couldn’t continue looking. I had to head off to the college celebration. All the way there, I played and replayed every move that I had made earlier in the morning. I couldn’t put it out of my mind.
When I arrived and met up with one of my best friends, I blurted out:
You won’t believe what I did this morning. I lost my Fitbit, right in my own home.
Jenni knows me all too well:
How do you know whether you’re alive?
I don’t know. Without my Fitbit, I’m not alive! I have no stats whatsoever! I’m not even sure that my heart is beating.
I managed to distract myself from time to time during our three-hour celebration, but as soon as I started my drive back home I replayed, once again, every move that I had made.
As soon as I walked in the front door, I decided to get out my brightest flashlight and shine it systematically everywhere throughout the house. The damned Fitbit had to be there, somewhere. I looked all over the floors. I looked on top of every piece of furniture. I looked behind every piece of furniture. I wanted my damn Fitbit, dammit, and I wanted it right then and there. I hope that you are sensing my desperation.
What I did not want were the cobwebs that I found. Yes. Cobwebs. Now I was doubly horrified! For real. I was appalled. In fact, my heart sank, even if I didn’t have my Fitbit to log and record the sinking. How could this be? I mean. I know that I tease a lot about housecleaning. Who does not remember my riveting post “My Imaginary Guests“? More important, I had cleaned house thoroughly for my Thanksgiving guests. And the month before I had cleaned house thoroughly for Veteran’s Day guests. And I could keep rolling the calendar back, and I could keep talking about how I cleaned house for this occasion or that occasion or for this guest or for that guest.
But what good would that do me? I had shined a light, and I had seen those cobwebs. The horror or it all. Cobwebs. I thought that I was doing a near spic-and-span job with my cleaning.
My first impulse was to have at the damned cobwebs that had taken me unawares. But how could I? I wanted them gone. All gone. Right now. That would require tackling my entire home, room-by-room.
My second thought was simple:
This is no big deal. Sit down and work out a plan.
That’s just what I did. But alas! As I worked out my plan, I became even more horrified.
The cobwebs that I had found–the cobwebs that I didn’t even know were lurking in unseen and unvisited spots–were real ones. Their little filament lines looked like fluffy dust streamers. And from time to time I could even see anchor points attaching the web to the walls.
But somehow I started thinking about metaphorical cobwebs. What cobwebs would I find if I shined a light into the nooks and crannies, the corners and crevices, and all of out-of-the-way places in all the other areas of my life. Dare I look? What would I find? Would you be brave enough to look at your metaphorical cobwebs in the areas of your life? What would you find?
I started thinking about my grieving for my late partner Allen. Am I as healed and whole as I sometimes think? Or if I shined a bright light, what unexpected cobwebs might I find?
What about my prayers? Am I as celebratory in prayer as I have reason to be? Or if I shined a bright light, would I find myself on my knees only when I have needs?
And, bringing in something seemingly trivial, what about my refusal to talk about that ret—ment thing that other people do all the while that I’m reinventing myself? I wonder what cobwebs I would find if I shined a bright light on that area of my life?
To be certain, we all have areas of our lives where, from time to time, we might benefit by bringing in the light so that we might discover the hidden cobwebs impacting:
● Our physical health.
● Our emotional health.
● Our spiritual well-being.
● Our financial health.
● Our relationships with others–at home, at work, and in our communities.
● Our intellectual growth.
● Our career growth.
● Our downtime and our playtime.
Follow me? Of course, you do. You’ve got your own cobwebs lurking around in your life just as I have them lurking around in mine. Bright light. Bright light.
And what about me and my Fitbit fixation? Dare I shine a bright light on that area of my life? Oops! I think that I just did that in this post.
Oh. By the way. I found my Fitbit, but not with my bright light. When my bright light efforts failed, I broke down and bought the Find My Fitbit app for $5.89. You bet. It’s a real app, and it really works. It led me right to where my Fitbit had fallen down between the bathroom wall and the back of the toilet tank.
I was thrilled that I found it. I was thrilled that I was whole once more. But I was even more thrilled that I had found far more than my Fitbit.
Whenever I teach a literature course, I tell my students that aside from celebrating their achievements as they master the course content, I have one special hope for each of them. I want them to find one writer who will be their friend. One writer who will never unfriend them as other friends sometimes do. One writer who will be with them through all the storms of life, for a lifetime. A writer who will be a forever-friend.
What I have in mind is similar to the handful of real-life, forever-friends whom we might have, if we are lucky. It’s never many. At least it has never been many for me. I have perhaps one handful of such friends. All right. Perhaps two handfuls who are in the friends-forever category. With us, we’ve shared so many past experiences that even if we have not seen one another in years, when we reconnect, we pick up magically on the same conversation that we were having when we last met, and we do so without missing a beat. Friends. Forever-friends.
Writers can be our forever-friends, too, with an added bonus. We can have lots and lots of them. As we read more and more, we discover more and more writers who might end up as our friends. We like them. We like what they have to say to us. We like how they inspire us. We like how they make us believe. We like how they make us feel…unalone. We like how they heal our…brokenness. Before long, we want to hang out with them. We can. Whenever we want. For as long as we want.
The great thing about writers who are our forever-friends is that when they pop up unannounced and uninvited, it’s never a problem. We don’t have to clean for them. We don’t have to cook for them. And we don’t have to clear our calendars for them. They can tag along with us just as we are. And they will do just that if we let them.
All that we have to do is be attentive, smile when they arrive, and even smile when they leave, knowing that they will come back to visit us again and again and again.
Their arrival coincides with something that we are experiencing that makes us think of something else. It’s the power of association. Robert Frost captures it best:
“All thought is a feat of association; having what’s in front of you bring up something in your mind that you almost didn’t know you knew.”
That’s the beauty of having writers who are forever-friends. Their arrival is based exclusively on what’s right in front of you or something that you’re thinking about. Something that you almost didn’t know you knew.
No doubt, you have your own writers who are your forever-friends, just as I do.
Obviously, I don’t know about yours, but mine visit me multiple times throughout the day, every day without fail. I never know which writers will visit or when. But I go forth daily, confident of being strengthened and girded up by their company.
For example, Walt Whitman shook his silvery locks right in front of me as I was writing this post. I was thinking about the fact that only a snippet of a writer’s work comes to my mind during an association, while all the other details of the work are seemingly long forgotten. Instantly, the lines from Whitman’s “Once I Pass’d through a Popular City” flashed across my mind:
“Day by day and night by night we were together—all else has long been forgotten by me…”
Here’s another example.
When I met with my Creative Writing class for the first time this semester, I had a slap-stick time promoting this blog. It was nothing more than nonsensical banter aimed at entertaining my students, but they picked up on it.
Not long after I managed to restore myself to a modicum of seriousness, one student raised her hand as if to ask a serious question.
“Professor Kendrick, did you say that you have a blog?”
I started laughing, as did the rest of the class.
A little later on, her hand went up again. I was on to her by then, but I was having far too much fun, so I acknowledged her.
“Professor Kendrick, did you give us the name of your blog?”
(When our laughter died down, my forever-friend Edward Albee paid me a momentary visit. He has chummed me since the 1960s when I was in college and he was a controversial Broadway playwright.)
“Very funny! You know, Caitlin, my hell-bent banter to promote my blog to a brand-new group of students, reminds me of the first line from Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story.”
In the play, Jerry approaches Peter, a total stranger, sitting on a bench in Central Park.
I’ve been to the zoo. [PETER doesn’t notice.] I said, I’ve been to the zoo. MISTER, I’VE BEEN TO THE ZOO!
I was thrilled by Albee’s visit, especially since I was able to share it with my class. He came as he did and when he did because of my dogged determination to tell my students–a group of strangers, if you will–all about my blog. In the process, I remembered Jerry’s insistence on telling Peter, a total stranger, that he had been to the zoo.
My students got it. They saw the association with great clarity.
On another occasion, something similar happened at the start of the same class.
As I drove on campus. I was aware–painfully so–that the grassy, undeveloped acreage all around the college was being gobbled up by townhouses.
At the start of class, one of my students shared the same observation.
In that nanosecond, former United States Poet Laureate Phillip Levine appeared. Immediately, I walked to my teacher station, googled his poem “A Story” and flashed it on the screen for students to see as I read it aloud.
It captures perfectly what my students and I had witnessed with pain that morning.
Levine chronicles the life and death of the woods that once surrounded us and ends with a chilling doomsday prophecy:
where are the woods? They had to have been
because the continent was clothed in trees.
We all read that in school and knew it to be true.
Yet all we see are houses, rows and rows
of houses as far as sight, and where sight vanishes
into nothing, into the new world no one has seen,
there has to be more than dust, wind-borne particles
of burning earth, the earth we lost, and nothing else.
And right now as I typed the above quotation, Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell popped into my head, chanting a few lines from her “Big Yellow Taxi”:
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot.
My writers–my forever-friends–visit me far more in my alone times than they do when I am teaching or, for that matter, when I am socializing.
Maybe they appear then because they know that in my alone times friends can add a richness to any moment, even ordinary ones.
Ordinary moments like weed whacking. Somehow, I end up doing that chore on Sunday instead of going to church. That’s no big deal to me. I consider myself Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR). Emily Dickinson must be SBNR, too, because she is always with me on my Sunday morns. Her “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church” overpowers the Stihl noise through all the stanzas, rising triumphantly in the final one:
God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.
Or sometimes it’s as simple as visitorial moments that occur when reading emails from regular friends who aren’t writers. Recently, a friend who is my age wrote that his hands had grown old. I sensed his sadness and immediately thought of a poem about aging by former United States Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz: “Touch Me.” It includes the poignant lines:
What makes the engine go? Desire, desire, desire. The longing for the dance stirs in the buried life.
One season only, and it’s done.
Darling, do you remember the man you married? Touch me, remind me who I am.
And then I immediately thought of Ben Speer singing “Time Has Made a Change in Me.” The title alone was touchstone sufficient. And that led me to W. S. Merwin reading his “Yesterday” with the ever-chilling line:
oh I say feeling again the cold of my father’s hand the last time
It’s amazing: the rich literary company that embraced me, all because of one single solitary email sent my way!
Sometimes, though, my forever-friends arrive as I try to make sense of all that’s going on in our world. The ongoing COVID pandemic. The invasion of Ukraine. Recent SCOTUS decisions. The January 6 Hearings. Global Warming. Poverty. Food scarcity. Gender inequality. Homophobia. Transphobia. Growing humanitarian conflicts and crises. The 21st anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks on America.
Need I go on? Sadly, I could. Gladly, I won’t. It’s far too sobering.
But in those dark moments when I find myself spiritually staggering under the weight of it all, I take strength from William Faulkner’s Nobel Acceptance Speech, delivered in 1950 when the world was staggering under the burden of the Cold War:
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? […] I decline to accept the end of man. […] I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.
Maybe, just maybe, the need to have writers who are our forever-friends, boils down to nothing more than this. They come regardless of what we are facing. They reassure us that goodness and mercy shall prevail. They remind us to grapple with our soul, to grapple with our spirit.
They come, as Robert Browning came to me just this second, to calm us and anchor us in the full and steadfast belief that despite all the injustices, all the wrongdoings, all the travail, and all the sorrows,
Hey, everyone! Listen up! Make certain that you keep a copy of this post in a safe, virtual folder. Maybe even the Cloud. It is destined for fame. It is destined for greatness. It is destined for glory. It will go down in the annals of history as the most historic and historical blog post ever published.
You will discover why as you continue to read. But let me start with one reason and that one reason alone will earn this post its deserved historical distinction. For the first time in my life, I am at a loss for words. I am. My students would be thrilled beyond thrills because they consider me to be exhaustive and, no doubt, exhausting when I start talking about anything that is near and dear to my heart.
One of my eccentricities that I felt comfortable sharing was the fact that I had drafted the general introduction and the introductions to the five sections of my The Infant Sphinx: Collected Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman on yellow legal pads, using #2 pencils without erasers. The really quirky part of that eccentricity was that whenever I made a mistake, I ripped out the page and started over.
One of my faithful followers challenged me to write my next post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, and to share with you what happened as I wrote. Dear reader, you are so undeserving of the suffering that you will surely suffer as you continue to read. But please do continue to read. Remember: no pain, no gain. (Because I love you so much–whoever you are and wherever you are [including you, Mrs. Callabash, wherever you are]–I have timed the read-time for this post. You are now 6 minutes and 36.3 seconds away from full fatigue and brain drain.)
It was a commendable challenge, so much so that I really should quote it verbatim, and I would, but I can’t. I am lying in bed writing my post on a legal pad, using a #2 pencil, as challenged–I am such a sucker for challenges–so I don’t want to lose my grain of thought by switching over to my Smartphone to look at last week’s post so that I can quote the comment in its entirety the way that it deserves to be quoted.
Therefore, starting with the next paragraph I will use placeholders for anything that I would normally have the good sense to look up instanter on my Smartphone. I will use this placeholder convention throughout this post. My very first one follows.
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Insert faithful reader quote from last week. I believe the reader signed herself “J.”
I responded to “J’s” challenge by asking whether yellow legal pads were even manufactured these days. I noted that if they had fallen out of usage, not to worry: I had seen such writing artifacts at the Smithsonian Institution and, perhaps, I could arrange for a Docupost: Modern Applications of Ancient Writing Artifacts.
My reply to “J.” was far more brilliant than it appears here, but, again, I can’t easily switch over to my Smartphone.
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Insert my dazzling reply to “J.” Make sure to capture the correct title of the Docupost that I plan to propose to the Smithsonian Institution.
Not long after “J’s” comment, another faithful follower–“soyfig”–informed me that she had some yellow legal pads and #2 pencils that I could have.
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: insert “soyfig’s” actual comment, especially since, as I recall, she used some figurative language.
I responded, of course. I respond to everything, seen and unseen, heard and unheard. But, sadly, I do not remember my exact reply, but I am sure that it was a beauty.
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Insert my beauty-of-a-reply to “soyfig” who writes so figuratively.
Obviously, I accepted the challenge because, as I noted earlier, here I am writing about what it’s like writing a blog post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, while lying in bed.
I should be euphoric, I suppose, because I am certain–and history will confirm my certainty–that what I am developing right here and right now is a new Creative Nonfiction genre. To mirror its counterpart in the world of fiction, I hereby announce–with all the power and authority that is not vested in me–that this new genre will be dubbed CreativeMetaNonfiction.
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Check the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to see whether the word and the genre exist already. If not, notify the editors immediately. “by gorry by jingo by gee by gosh by gum,” fame awaits.
I believe that I have said so already, but I will say so again: writing my post on this yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, is not making me euphoric. I can’t speak for you, but I can speak for me. My bed is a place of immense pleasure. Trust me. This is not pleasurable. I’ve got a stupid yellow legal pad–six times larger than my Smartphone–propped up on my knobby knees and the stupid pencil does not have the same quality graphite that I recall. Yes: I still recall the quality–or lack thereof–of everything going all the way back to the cold and snowy day of my November birth. If that be true–and it is–then fast forward with me and you will know that I speak the truth when I say that recalling something from the 1970s is a piece of graphite for me.
Morever, lean in and listen carefully: the damned yellow legal pad is not backlighted. Why am I whispering? For one good reason. I’m whispering because I don’t want anyone to steal my idea! If an ancient writing artifact like a yellow legal pad is going to continue to plague us, at the very least it should be backlighted so that it will not plague us in the dark.
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Check the dictionary. Backlighted? Backlit?
I just heard someone ask, “Why does it matter if your yellow legal pad is not backlighted?” [See above Placeholder.]
Well, that’s a splendid question. it matters a lot. It’s starting to get dark outside. My overhead light makes a glare on the yellow legal pad, so I can’t use it. My nightstand lamp is not bright enough, so I can’t use it either. I must be blunt. I can no longer see what I am writing. And, like my pencil, let me be blunt again. If I can’t see what I’m writing, how do I look into the heart of what I’m thinking?
Thank you very much for your suggestion. I expected it. But, as much as I appreciate it–and I do–I will not run out tomorrow to buy a lamp to attach to my headboard. Simply explained: I won’t be needing it. I will never write another blog post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, while lying in bed at night. Never. Never. Never.
However, I will figure out a way to finish this post since I accepted the challenge, sucker that I am.
Already I can think of three possible solutions.
Solution 1. Fill a Mason jar with fireflies. They might illuminate my yellow legal pad sufficiently.
Solution 2. Jerry-rig a flashlight to the headboard of my bed, with the light beaming down on the yellow legal pad propped up against my knobby knees.
Solution 3. Go to bed at 6pm so that I can work on my post for several hours before it gets too dark for me to see.
“Too dark for me to see” reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s first-person account of death, “I Heard a Fly Buzz.” The poem ends, I believe, with: “And then I could not see to see.”
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Find the Dickinson poem and make sure that my quote above is accurate.
I am back to report that my tentative solutions–even though brilliant–were abysmal failures. That’s too kind. They were duds.
Firefly Solution. It was fairly easy to catch a jar full: they are everywhere in my yard. And, oh, my! Such a golden glow as they put out. For a while my bedroom looked almost like a nightclub dance floor with strobe lights. But it didn’t last long. The glow became dimmer and dimmer and dimmer. And, even more quickly, I grew a guilty feeling for having captured all those helpless little fireflies and for having put them to work against their will Contra Naturam. I set them free. Shine bright. Shine far.
Jerry-rigged Flashlight Solution. I thought for sure that this solution would work. However, I couldn’t figure out a way to mount the flashlight to my headboard, especially at the required angle. I considered duct tape which seems to work for everything, but when I recalled what I had paid for my Henkel Harris bed, I froze with tape and flashlight in mid-air. It took me hours to free myself.
Going to Bed at 6pm Solution. Forget it for one reason only. I have worked long and hard to earn the reputation that I now proudly hold as a wild, night-owl party animal. My friends and my colleagues have grown so proud of me as I have, over time, extended my bedtime from 8:00pm to 8:30pm to 9:00pm. And I have now, after years of practice, mastered the 10:00pm hour. When a party’s going down, I want to be found, and I certainly won’t be found if I am in bed at 6pm.
But I have come up with another solution that had not occurred to me initially. I will take the first hour of my morning routine to write my blog post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil.
Well, I tried it. Let me just say that this is not what anyone might hooey it up to be. Now I am wishing that I had challenged my two faithful followers to this challenge. Thankfully–and luckily for them–I am not that cruel. Absit iniuria.
They wouldn’t like all these disruptions either. Up until now, I have made perfectly good and methodical use of a sensible and calming way of writing my post in bed on my Smartphone. Even though I have willingly taken on a momentary stay against my ever-so sane method, I will remind myself–in mantra manner–that I am blazing new trails into Creative MetaNonfiction. History and literature demand that I continue. History and literature demand that I see this stupid stint through to a stupendous end.
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Look up Creative MetaNonfiction to see whether such a genre exists. Oh, no. I remember that I have placed this placeholder in the post already, but since I cannot erase or scratch through, I will build upon the redundancy and puff it up as best I can. Have I actually stumbled upon–simply by stupidly accepting a challenge–a new genre? Oh, joy! Maybe I will enjoy a footnote in the annals of something–anything, please–after all.
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Revisit Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” As I recall, the unnamed narrator who goes insane–always be suspicious of unnamed narrators–may have written HER journal on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil. Well, I am fairly certain that she did not, but look it up anyway. Adding that twist to the original story would be masterful for an updated version. The narrator escaped from the yellow wallpaper. But I wonder: would she be able to escape from her yellow legal pad as masterfully as I am about to do, soon and very soon. You’re welcome.
What’s ironic about all of this is that when I accepted this challenge, I did so fully expecting fun, even if nothing more than hearing my pencil graphite its way across the page.
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Can graphite be used as a verb? Well. Duh. I just used it as a verb in the preceding paragraph. Therefore, it can be. Therefore, I really do not need to follow through with this placeholder. I will keep it anyway in the interest of not ripping out this yellow page which is otherwise perfect.
But verbs notwithstanding, my pencil is not making those nostalgic sounds that I had longed for, not even when I bend my ear way down close and personal to the page. Instead, it glides along like a waxy crayon. And, in fact, my box of pencils is labeled, on one side of the box, Crayon. Oh, dear. I forgot. Crayon means pencil in some language. An esteemed English professor–a colleague–took great joy in beaming that to me when I showed the box to her. Well, never mind.
I do mind, however, that the only yellow pads that I could find anywhere were 8 1/2 by 11 inches, even though they were marked LegalPad. Well, excuse me. If it’s not 8 1/2 x 14 inches, it’s not legal, and shorties like the ones that I ended up with ought to be illegal.
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: (1) What companies still manufacture these so-called legal pads? (2) Do they come in true legal size? (3) Is it true, as I seem to recall, that courts no longer allow 8 1/2 x 14-inch legal pads because they do not fit readily into filing cabinets–not even virtual ones?
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Do a comparable search into #2 pencils. Focus especially on what kind of graphite manufacturers are using for these crayons–I mean pencils–these days.
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: I need a pull quote for this post. What’s the one about a sucker is born every minute? How perfect would that be!
Okay. I need to wrap this post up–Maybe in a yellow graphite bow?–but before I do, I simply must achieve a sense of order with this post–the very first example ever of Creative MetaNonfiction. The annals of history await my final word. I do, too.
I know exactly what I will do. I’ll number the pages that I have written on this yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil. And while I’m doing that, I’ll write AMDG just to the right of each page number, just as a Jesuit lawyer friend of mine did on all his labor relations notes, always written on a genuine yellow legal pad, using a genuine #2 graphite pencil.
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Look up AMDG to see what that acronym means. Marty had a perverse sense of humor, but, surely, he would not have penciled anything obscene or scandalous, especially since he knew that I would see what he was writing because I almost always leaned over him at the bar. But be sure to look it up anyway before publishing this post.
Wow! I have written 11 pages already about nothing more than what it’s like to write my post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, while lying in bed. Maybe this Creative MetaNonfiction thingy is not as bad as I have graphited it up to be. Well, if I can type it up, I can certainly graphite it up. But lo and behold! Here I’ve gone and coined still another word: graphited. Who knows? Maybe a Creative MetaNonfiction Novel looms in your future.
I suppose the only thing that might have been more fun than numbering the pages would have been ripping each one out and then taping them all together. I seem to recall a writer who typed one of his books on a continuous roll of paper, created by carefully taping each page together. This would have been, of course, back in the good old, hooey typewriter days.
Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Try to find out the writer who did this. I think that it was Jack Kerouac. I am certain. Yes. I recall it as vividly as if I had helped him! (Oh, how I wish.) He sellotaped enough pages to create a 120-foot roll when he wrote his On the Road. Check just to make sure. I would never dare publish anything without verifying all the facts before I spew forth. And also look up hooey. It looks like phooey to me.
As for any rhythm that I might be achieving while writing on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, forget it. Forget. It. Trust me. This post is not riding along on its own melting like a piece of ice on a hot stove. Frost itself wouldn’t work. And Frost himself wouldn’t be able to make it work either. I am so focused on paper and pencil that any semblance of thought has wisely flown far, far away to someone sensible enough to write a blog post sensibly on a Smartphone.
Worse, perhaps, I feel as if I am straddling an immeasurable and unfathomable chasm between the 1970s (when I enjoyed writing on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil) and day before yesterday (when I lost my sanity and sold my writerly soul to the Devil by selling myself on the idea of accepting this challenge). To be certain, the image of such a straddler is an intriguing one. Conjure it up if you can. I double dare you. You will see for yourself. But let me assure you, post haste, that my legs–metaphorical or otherwise–are not nearly long enough to bridge such a chasm, and even if they were, I would not stand for it. I would object vehemently for all the world to hear, as, hopefully, all the world is hearing now.
Hear me and hear me well. What I am about to say is quotable, so go ahead and quote me: Phooey to all this hooey.
I object to it so much that I will end it all right now, in one final declaration!
This is a nonsensical challenge up with which I will not put.
FINALPlaceholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: As I recall, Winston Churchill came up with the above quip as an objection to an editor who wouldn’t allow sentences to end with prepositions. Churchill’s retort memorialized the folly of editors who foolishly adhere to grammatical rules rather than to common sense and to the sense of sound. Try to find the specifics. Was it in a memorandum? I’m sure that it was, perhaps in 1941?
Halleluiah! I have freed myself at last from this yellow legal pad and from #2 pencils. I have returned to my sanity. (Wisely, however, I will not change one thing–not one hooey-phooey word–that I have written so honestly and so painfully as I soared my way to and through the heights of this challenge. “The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on.” (No. I will not put a placeholder for that Shakespearean quote. You may kindly–if you please and if you need–google it yourself to obtain the specifics: play, act, and line.)And, thankfully, I have just returned to my Smartphone where I have just had joy beyond measure restored to every fiber–and even every fibre–of my being by doing nothing more than tap touching this post through to completion–one character at a time, using just one finger. Is that inefficient or what?
But the greatest joy ever is the knowledge that I have just written–and you have just read–the first example ever of Creative MetaNonfiction. May it not last forever in the annals of history and literature. May I be spared such notoriety. May I be remembered in far better ways. But, hey. What the heck. If you insist, I accept: better to be remembered for something, I suppose, than for nothing. Either way, it’s all hooey to me.