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 Joy of Baking

Sharing baked goods with your friends and neighbors is a great way to feel connected or make new connections.

(Pamela Honsberger, a family doctor and director of physician engagement and leadership development at Kaiser Permanente in Orange County, California)

Thankfully, Thanksgiving is past. Don’t get me wrong. Dinner was awesome. Turkey. Gravy. Buttered Green Beans. Creamed Spinach. Candied Sweet Potatoes. Jellied Cranberry Sauce. Cranberry Sauce in Grand Marnier with Ground Ginger and Candied Ginger. Homemade Dinner Rolls. Pecan Pie. Pumpkin Pie. Cherry Pie.

Far more important than the dinner, though, were my guests. Friends chose to give up Thanksgiving in their own home to spend the day with me in my mountain home. And they brought a new friend who also chose to spend the day with us rather than in his own home. I was truly honored by their company. (Thank you, Frank, Barb, and James!) And isn’t that what Thanksgiving is all about? Being with friends and loved ones in a communal celebration not only of good food but also of life’s beyond-measure blessings. How incredibly important it is to slow down on at least one day of the year to give heartfelt thanks.

But now that it’s past, I’ll return to my regular baking once again. The Jamaican Black Cake that I’ve been working on for weeks will take center-stage. The dried fruits–prunes, dark raisins, golden raisins and cherries–have been soaking in 140 proof rum and port (equal amounts of each) for several weeks now. I may very well undertake the bake this weekend. I have never baked a Jamaican Black Cake before, but last year my Strasburg (Virginia, not Austria) correspondent shared a New York Times article with me about Jamaican Black Cakes. This year, I am filled with joyful anticipation of the soon-to-happen bake.

I have been an incredibly busy baker this entire year. Muffins. Scones. Bread. Fruitcakes.

What prompted my baking frenzy was simple. I resurrected my love of sourdough, and I created a culture of my own using nothing more than flour, well water, mountain spores, time, and patience. No doubt you remember my “Oh, No! Sourdough!” (If not, this would be the perfect time to read it, right after you finish reading this post.)

I’ve had lots of fun with the sourdough muffins. I like big ones, and mine are bakery-style jumbo muffins. The Morning Glory Muffins proved, perhaps, the most popular, followed by the Triple Chocolate Muffins. But the White Chocolate Macadamia Nut Muffins were favored by many people. So were the Lemon Blueberry Muffins and the Banana Blueberry Muffins. Several muffin aficionados even claimed that my Banana Blueberry Muffins were the best they had ever had during their extensive world travels. (Being a suck-up will get you more muffins every time!) Most recently the Pumpkin Muffins have been winners, only to be outdistanced by the Triple Ginger Gingerbread Muffins.

I’ve baked about 43 dozen or so of those jumbo jewels, and I’ve shared them with students, colleagues, and neighbors.

The Sourdough Scones were a huge success, too: Banana. Banana Blueberry. Apple.

I baked about 7 dozen or so in small batches, shared exclusively with friends and neighbors.

Sourdough Bread is up next! You just can’t go wrong with regular Sourdough Bread, that is until you try Multi-Grain Sourdough. But, then, Parmesan Black Pepper Sourdough is a fierce flavor contender.

I baked about 34 loaves of Sourdough Bread, and I shared them with colleagues, friends, neighbors, and even strangers who became fast friends.

As for sourdough cakes, I baked one: a Chocolate Orange Bundt Cake.

It was so delicious that I ate the whole cake all by myself without sharing. I suppose, however, that I am sharing simply by mentioning it here and by declaring its deliciousness.

But I baked lots and lots of fruitcakes. No, not Sourdough Fruitcakes. I’ll be foolin’ around with those next year. I’ve found a few recipes.

This year I stuck with my mom’s fruitcake recipe that she perfected during 70 years or so of baking. Her fruitcakes were legendary and the best, ever. You may remember my “In Praise of Fruitcake.” (If not, this might be the perfect time to read it, but not until you finish reading this post.)

One year my mother baked 34 fruitcakes and shipped them to her friends all across America.

I didn’t bake that many, but I am super proud of the 16 fruitcakes that I baked this year.

Let me tell you a little bit about them. I know–and you do, too–that I teach English. But when it comes to math, I know all the numbers (plus the secret ingredient) for the 16 fruitcakes that I baked this year.

This is when I need a drum roll. (Great! Someone heard my plea and reached out. That might very well have been the most melodious drum roll that I have never heard. Thank you!)

So, with no further ado, here’s the moment you’ve been salivating for. Here’s what went into those 16 fruitcakes: 24 pounds of candied cherries; 16 pounds of candied pineapple; 16 pounds of golden raisins; 16 pounds of pecans; 16 pounds of butter; 16 pounds of flour; 9 pounds of sugar; 98 eggs; and 1 gallon of peach brandy.

All right. That’s as much as I am willing to divulge. The special proprietary blend of spices is staying right here with me in my kitchen.

I will tell you, though, that most of the 16 cakes are bespoke. Most of them are gifts. However, I have set aside a few to share with people who don’t even know they need a fruitcake yet. Won’t they be surprised!

I imagine that you’re thinking that I must be exhausted from all this baking. I’m not. The various joys of my bakes far outweigh the weight of their ingredients.

Here’s why. So many other things go into baking. Planning. (I sometimes plan my bakes weeks and months in advance.) Research. (I love the research angle and find myself running culinary reference just as my mother ran Biblical reference. Right now, I am researching Sourdough Stollen and running reference on all the various recipes.) Anticipation. (As I pitted cherries last week for a pie that one of my Thanksgiving guests requested–halfing one half of the cherries; quartering the other half; that was not his request; that was simply part of my perfect-cherry-pie recipe–I stood at the kitchen counter joyed beyond the tedium, simply anticipating Frank’s first-sight and first-bite reactions.) Performance against Plan. (Do the bakes measure up? Most times, thumbs up. Sometimes, thumbs down. Sometimes, a trash can is a baker’s best friend: it accepts and never tells. Trust me. I know.)

But at the end of the day and at the end of the bake, the greatest joy of all the many joys of baking–the joy that always rises to the top, for me–is simple. I can share it with you in four words:

The joy of sharing.

Actually, I can share it with you in one word: