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This is the family and some friends, gathered for an afternoon of croquet. I can imagine them going enmass, dressed like this, to the medicine show. My mom and Uncle Billy look like they walked straight out of The Little Rascals, which is extremely cool.

Like the last one about Honest John the traveling salesman, my mom’s memories of a traveling medicine show move past quaint right on into historical. Such experiences were certainly long gone by the time I was a child. My mom was born in 1919 and since the area where she grew up was extremely rural, it makes sense that there were still medicine shows in her early lifetime. I imagine they began to fade as more and more people bought Model Ts and did more of their own shopping, with newfound ease. 

She didn’t have a specific story about the medicine show, like the experience with Honest John. She just told me as much as she remembered. I can imagine a little girl, wide eyed with excitement and wonder, going with her entire family to see the show. There wasn’t a lot of entertainment in those days, so it would be thrilling for them all to have an opportunity to gather with their family and friends to find out what the medicine show brought to town.

It was set up in the grassy area beside the railroad tracks at the edge of town. There was the medicine wagon, where the showman would set up his displays. An acompanying Native American performer came out first, to dance to the beat of a drum. This would have been a unique and exciting way to warm up the crowd.

Then the medicine seller extraordanaire would begin his oration that probably somewhat resembled an old time fire and brimstone preacher trying to win reluctant souls, only this fist popper was intent on winning money from reluctant pockets. 

I don’t know everything he said. My mom couldn’t remember after many decades. She did retain one line that I too have never forgotten. The man with what he promised was intense healing elixer, proclaimed at the top of his lungs: 

“It’s good for your blood, liver, and bladder. If you don’t buy some now, you’re gonna wish you hadder!”

I can’t help but wonder how many of the area’s little old ladies didn’t want to wish they hadder and ended up gathered around a piano singing China Town at the top of their tipsy lungs, like Aunt Bea and the teatotaling Mayberry church auxillary ladies, when the Colonel and his elixer paid the quiet little town a visit. My mom didn’t know how much the medicine show man sold, but it seemed he didn’t linger in any one place for long. Of course, one might be able to consult any remaining records of suddenly cured blood, liver and bladder ailments….

Stories like this are priceless to me. They’re part of the history of the time, the community, and connect a thread through both to my family. I suspect that my mom was the last person I’ll ever know with such an experience in their past. So many people nearing a hundred years of age either don’t think anyone would be interested in such memories or they have succumbed to Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia, and these kinds of stories are lost forever.

I always loved hearing my mom talk about anything she could think of. Sometimes, when we were under tornado watches, veering toward warnings, we would sit together with the radio volume low so we could know when to dash for her big walkin closet. I would shove back my dread and fear with the words that I knew would begin the process of shunting aside my interior little girl who had always been afraid of tornadoes. “Tell me about a long time ago.”

She would smile away the worst of our fears and tell me her wonderful memories, until a night of danger was turned into a vehicle into her past. A place and time where there was no electricity, the phone on the wall had to be cranked, and a man with a mission to sell a miracle elixer enthralled the entire countryside with a little hope, a little dream, and a bottle full of promises.

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Reality and science fiction are in danger of merging…emphasis on danger. When I read this Endgadget article , my “Danger, Will Robinson!” mental alarm went off. When I saw the image of the new kind of robot, my mental hand-wringing Doctor Smith snickered diabolically…knowingly…I feel ill.

But, seriously, folks…we live in amazing, and potentially terrifying, times. I love geekery of all sorts, but there really is a little voice in the back of my head that gasps sometimes at the speed with which we slouch toward Babylon 5. On the one hand it’s all so exciting and presently futuristic. Every day there’s new news about ways we’re beginning to move beyond our dreams, beyond the things we even knew to dream of such a short while ago. 

I read recently that people on Mars will need to be able to 3D print their food. That an EM engine that shouldn’t exist actually does…or may soon. Images of the rings of Saturn have become an everyday Twitter occurance. Voyager, like Elvis, has left the building, only Voyager’s building is the Solar System. And now people, brilliant people, are creating robots that are very much like us. Even to the extent of inperfections in their robotty way. How better to emulate humanity than by being inevitably flawed?

Cool, right? 

So, where does the danger part come in? On the surface, perhaps not at all. But that’s the other hand. If I think too much, just a little, allow my mind to look around its own corners, consider the ubiquitous what ifs that come with scientific advancement…the what ifs become as dominant as the cool factor.

Yes, we all want 3D printed pizza, to have Saturn’s glorious rings photobomb our selfies, and to go out in Voyager’s wake, able to turn around at every planet passed and watch where we came from roll out like a carpet of orbs and stars behind us as we venture forth. But even those desires would be fraught with fear of dangers known and unknown, as Earth faded into our past.

And, back here on Earth, in the almost here and nearly now, we may soon walk a crowded street and not know if the person hurrying along on our periphery is a person at all. Soon, we’ll be worrying about whether even the artificial people among us are actually people too. Does the word artificial make intelligence any less real? Will they be we too, or will life be divided between us and them? How will we know? Who will decide? Will the decision makers be divided equally between our kind and theirs? Mustn’t it? It would be very easy for artificial intelligence to call superiority and subjucate those only intelligent enough to unleash the unthinkable, when all their creators really wanted may have been to outcool all the other kids on the scientific marvel playground. With the great thinkers and inventors of our time groping blindly toward caution, we all need to be a little more cautious in our enthusiasm for innovation at breakneck pace.

Who am I kidding? Those of us who hunger for the stars and all that implies are dreamers. That even scientists can be both pragmatist and dreamer is in itself a miracle. The greatest miracle I know is the way we are held on our planet by gravity as we are hurled through space, yet have no sensation of such a feat. We are all human space ships, with only the exoskeleton of our atmosphere standing between us and ruin every single second of our lives. In that, we are all super heroes. We all fly. All the time. We fly on a grander scale than Superman, past a speeding asteroid here, a powerful comet there. Alas, if we were to become aware of our adventures on a meta scale, pulling back the curtain as it were would most likely lead to mass hysteria, insanity, or perhaps simply a state of permanent abject fear. 

In the face of what life on Earth truly is, maybe the potential danger of all invention is immaterial. For all we know the not us with our face may evolve emotion apace with intelligence. Empathy. Compassion. Love. These things can change the world. The danger of the unknown is very real, but so is the potential of what we just don’t know. Yet.

One of the best things about modern mobile phones is that since the phone is always with us, so is its camera. No more groping in the glove compartment for the digital camera we vowed to always carry, but didn’t. Easy access to a decent camera, means easy access to the constant show put on for us by whatever piece of sky we happen to pass beneath. 

Here are a few moments I’ve captured while out​ in the car:

At first glance I thought this was a single beautiful rainbow’s end. By the time I stopped, grabbed my phone, and got out it became clear that it was double, and possibly becoming triple.The lowering sun made the colors and the winter wheat as well look almost neon. It doesn’t always take absolute sunset to bring vivid color to a late evening sky.

This firey sunset looks more like the skyview of another planet than a mere earthly skyshow. Arresting and irresistible​, it’s one of my favorite inland sunset images I’ve ever encountered.

Here we have one of those cloud formations that looks like an animal. A shark, no less. Beautiful. And a bit scary, once it registers that it looks like it’s on fire…and has wings! The stuff of nightmares, or dreamy dreams, depending on the disposition of the person who looks up to see it.

The almost sunset sky angled light on this contrail for a hint of color. A pale pink javelin, to the imaginationally gifted, instead of an everyday occurance above our heads. 

Sometimes a phone’s camera isn’t quite up to capturing what the discerning eye catches sight of. At first glance this wide view appears to be simply the moon against a cloud scattered blue sky. However, if you enlarge it a bit, you’re rewarded with a vision of Pac Man riding an almost dolphin shaped cloud.

Our sky is filled with wonders. If we’re lucky we can catch random moments to revisit at the tap of an app.

Here’s a lovely article about Virginia Woolf as a photographer. I find it so captivating that she enjoyed capturing moments of her life through photography, as she captured mental snapshots of her characters’ lives. Her writing is so vivid that the imagery it conjurs can be like stills taken from a movie that plays out in the reader’s head. The photographs in the article seem like a continuation of this, only in this venue it is we who must make up our own mental stories to accompany images that only Virginia Woolf knew the true meaning of. What she was thinking as she pressed the shutter, then as she later looked at the developed images…that is a mystery only she knew. For her admirers, however, it’s a book lover’s thrill to be given the privilege of seeing her world through her own discerning gaze..

Last week I heard on the news that a lake not too far away had frozen over. I remembered going to see it during another frigid blast and decided to go again. Not only did I want to refresh my memory about how beautiful it was, I also thought it would be a great opportunity to gain some experience with my new DSLR.

I hadn’t been there often since I was a child. Back then we went every year for a family reunion picnic, and sometimes just to walk around and enjoy the water views. So, of course I took a wrong turn and wound my way around the entire lake, before eventually arriving at the familiar picnic site. I stopped to take pictures of many beautiful spots and intriguing details as they appeared.

Farther out the ice was smooth as glass, as seen in the image above.

Close in it was made up of a giant sheet of circles. The surface of individual circles was concave, which gave large areas a rough textured look.

Along the shore thick ice settled on various types of vegetation. As time passed, it grew brittle and shattered. Shards resettled to make new formations that could look like milk white broken glass.

Trees near the water wore ice dresses that seemed to flow and freeze, according to the direction of the wind, until the rippling mass was captured in place like vertical waves.

Reelfoot Lake was formed during a series of massive earthquakes, in 1811 and 1812, when this huge area of land collapsed. The Mississippi River flowed backwards to fill in the depression and the lake is the result. Cypress trees like the one above are the tops of the original trees jutting out of the water. The cypress knees capture the ice and make a platform for it to build into oddly shaped clumps.

The bases of the cypress trees near the shore look like the feet of some animal not of this world, dipped in ice and frozen in place to await the coming thaw.

I’m very pleased with how my camera performed. It’s a real pleasure to use, though I’m sure I’ll be discovering new aspects for a long time. It was nice of Mother Nature to provide me with such a gorgeous subject to start my DSLR journey.

​Forget writer’s block. I’ve got writer’s freeze!

I don’t remember another stretch of frigid weather that was so long, annoying, and time consuming. There probably was one, but it’s easy for a difficult winter to slip right out of a person’s mind, after the spring warmup brings an early round of short sleeves, lemonade, and selective amnesia involving anything to do with the winter endured.

My area is prone to frozen water pipes. The worry starts when temperatures creep below (or as in recent weeks, drop like a rock) 20 degrees Fahrenheit. The best preventative is to run the water in all faucets in a steady stream the size of a pencil lead. The moving water helps prevent freezing of said water. My pipes get air in them periodically, so I have patrol the whole house day and night for the duration to make sure the streams haven’t become  sputters or stopped altogether. Leaving cabinet doors under sinks open helps keep the pipes warm. That is such fun. Who doesn’t enjoy whacking their knees on forgotten jutting cabinet door corners? I think…everyone, community wide, but it’s a necessary evil. 

I have a heat pump. I’ve never understood how the things work, how they pump heat, and why they also provide air conditioning, but are not called cold pumps in summer. Their most fun feature is that, inexplicably, the air conditioning comes on as part of the defrosting process, so that for every two degrees the heat may gain, it loses one during defrosting. Otherwise, they want to run all the time, any time there is even a hint of extreme temperature. I want to make them stop occasionally, since one I had before overworked itself and started spewing mystery fumes nobody else could smell that tried to kill me. Weather like the current Arctic Blast leaves me no choice but to turn it way down, let it do its thing, and worry. 

Thankfully, we’ve avoided freezing rain, since that is a particular bane to my existence. If I don’t time it perfectly and it’s not running when the rain starts to freeze, strands of horizontal icicle grow alarmingly fast, and the big motor fan blades just inside the top under a metal grill get locked in place by deceptively fragile looking lines of ice. Then it must be turned to the mysterious setting called Emergency Heat, until the thaw arrives to release normal functioning from the icy grip of whatever winter storm descends from Elsa’s summer home to the north. 

A few years ago I heard a weatherman say heat pumps weren’t made for weather like we have. Um, then why, pray tell, are there so many of them attempting to do a job with a built in uphill battle under conditions they aren’t meant to handle? Sometimes I feel like baking bread, brownies, and cookies in my own personal Great Ice Station Zebra Baking Show to supplement the heat, but don’t dare shut myself inside with that many treats. I wouldn’t want to emerge in the spring with powdered sugar in my hair, and bounce down the street from sugar overload.

Ah, yes. The writing angle. Well, I was on a roll there for a while. I had a slugghish story that was fun to write, but trying very hard to drag its heels…and mine along with it. I  couldn’t quite get it to go where I thought it needed to be. It still hasn’t. What it eventually, suddenly did was go where it knew it needed to be. New imagery triggered by a single phrase. New direction. Partial new title. Then complete new title. It was cooking hot and fast in my head, some back corner of my brain finally finishing what it was doing to burst the results forth with renewed energy and excitement.

Before I could sit down and get all of the new growth organized and into story form, the four icebergs of the coldpocalypse paraded into my sky and my attention was siphoned off into the tasks of keeping a functioning safe and comfortable-ish environment…safe and comfortable. Still, though in the midst of feeling like a walking slushie, trying to stock up on groceries between frigid blasts, not being amused to find that Walmart’s cold food section had been stripped literally bare by ravening hordes who beat me to it, and listening to water hissing and gurgling as it streamed down the drain like so much literally liquid money, that back corner of my brain keeps opening its door to let the words and images and bits of dialogue out. 

Anybody who tries to tell you that plotting isn’t writing has no grasp of the persistence of the will to write. It may not be physically tapping keys or plying a pen, but thinking is the basis on which the big, beautiful world of writing is built. It’s part of the process. In fact, a case could be made that the thinking part is the actual heart of writing, while the physical part is the product of that process. It’s where the ink meets the page and makes visible the thoughts and images and words that become creative art.

That mental endeavor is so important a part of a writer’s existence that it does its thing in the back corner of the brain called the subconscious​, even when real life actively tries to freeze it out with mind numbing cold and stress and sometimes fear. It’s a gift really, that we can write with our minds, when conditions try to tell us otherwise. Pen and keyboard and paper can, and sometimes must, wait. The urgent need to create another world through the sheer power of firing synapses, thankfully, doesn’t have to.

Before we stray too far from the holidays, here’s an article about Dickens and food. Not just the Cratchit Christmas table, Oliver asking for more, or how Magwich’s hunger may have influenced his temperament, but also bits about the life of the author after his father was sent to debtor’s prison when Charles Dickens was only twelve years old. No wonder his writings about poverty were so authentic feeling. He was an ultimate example of the words that have long urged writers to write what we know. Though that idea is debated as much as it’s​ adhered to, Dickens is an alarming example of where such practice may lead. 

His type of experiences were common in harder times even in our own century, and even still in the small dark corners of modern day poverty. When my grandfather was killed in a car crash in a time when cars themselves were in their adolescence, my father had to leave school at twelve years old and shoulder responsibility for his mother, sister, and young niece. His sacrifice made it possible for his family to carry on much as they had before. Without a father to run the farm, but left with a man grown up out of time to provide for them. Hardship​ was and is common in the rural south, though lacking in one thing that made Victorian England stand out as a stark example of poverty​ and injustice…the class system.

While there will always be harsh instances of have and have not, the Victorians across the pond made a life’s work of it. Many of the very wealthy would have stepped over a starving child lying in the gutter…if they ever stepped close to a gutter in their entire life. Even in their own insulated world of high society, they lived lives of pampered excess. To the starving guttersnipe the clean, beautifully dressed people who lived physically nearby would have been as alien to them as if they’d landed from Mars. 

Food was a vivid demarcation line between classes. This wonderful Guardian article gives intriguing examples, the very reading of which leaves a bad taste in the mouths of those fortunate to be only reading about such a harsh way of life.