Along Pennsylvania's Wissahickon Creek

BOOK "Wissahickon Souls: A Wissahickon Creek Story"
Possibilities Publishing 2014 
346 pp. Fiction

The subtitle "A Wissahickon Creek Story" sets the scene for the story of the life of Claire Penniman, a black woman born free in 1806. The story is fiction, but it is based on historical research, and the Wissahickon still flows today in the Germantown and Philadelphia areas of Pennsylvania ( see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wissahickon_Creek). An excursion seems in order after reading this book.
The author, PJ Devlin, researched the lives of black and white Philadelphians in the early 19th century before writing. She recalled fondly her childhood recollections of a local farm and playing along the creek. This comes through vividly in her story about Claire, who enjoyed playing in and walking along the creek. I wanted to explore the creek, to feel the wet stones under my feet and the cool water rushing over them.
Claire Penniman was indentured to a white farm family from a very young age through age 16. Her parents had decided that her life would be better--she would get decent food and shelter--if she lived as a servant on the farm. Her parents were hard-working people whose ancestors had been acquainted with William Penn. Yet as blacks, their options to succeed were limited.
Precocious Claire did far more than her share of chores for her masters, but she was known as one with a wild streak, an independent young person who spoke their mind.  Children were not children in these times; they were people expected to earn their own way. She did so, without complaint.
She fell in love with the son of the owner of the farm, and his family did not condone their eventual interracial marriage. After deep thought on the subject, Claire and her husband moved to Haiti, which welcomed American blacks. Their life was difficult, but they persevered. They raised two children, one white and fair-haired like his father, the other dark. Claire's anguish during her daily travails wrenches the heart of any mother.
PJ Devlin is a skillful writer. Halfway through, I could not put the book down--I cared so much about Claire and was cheering for her to prevail over her hardships.
The story ends with the reader wondering what the rest of young Claire's life will be like. Is a sequel in the making? One can hope so.
(Sue Kovach Shuman)


"Last Flight Home": Perfect for Travel

"Last Flight Home" 
by J.B. Lawrence

(Possibilities Publishing Company, 180 pages, $10.99)

Imagine an upside-down world where people have adapted by learning how to climb steep cliffs like billy goats, using no ropes or other gear, with lungs that thrive on the thin air. Like the falcons they revere, they soar along cables and gondolas across mountain ranges, entire armies transported and waging warfare from above. Their enemies fashion catapults and toss boulders.But--surprise!--some boulders are alive.

This is the kind of book that sucks you in--perfect for airports and plane rides. The content is meaty enough to keep you turning pages, but not so cerebral that you close the book.

In a world with five moons and one hot sun, the extremes of high and low temperatures have forced peoples to invade other regions to survive and preserve their own species. The time fame is unclear, but one supposes it's before or after a long-ago Ice Age. Alongside humans live giants composed of granite, some of them fond of  decapitating men, winged insects that feast on humans, and indeterminate blood-sucking creatures. 

It's a classic tale of good versus evil, but with twists. The narrator and main character, Prince Tyrcel Buteo, has been sent on a falcon hunt. He's under the spell of a sorcerer for much of the novel, sick and getting sicker. Since he's human, there's lots of gore and blood and vomit as his insides rot from infection. But he bands with nerdy boy geniuses who discover clever ways to foil their enemies as he heads back home. 

The helpful hand-drawn map at the beginning of Chapter 1  sketches the regions, and I kept returning to it to follow Tyrcel's travels. The author likely conceived his fantasy world long before he set words to it. Oddly, this world seems flat, and since ships topple from skies, it's a bit confusing. Still, it's a fun read, and impossible not to cheer for Good Prince Tyrcel.

His father dead, the new young king vows to protect his people, realizing that other beings, human or beast or whatever, are in the same boat. He'll do whatever it takes. The novel ends on the battlefield--a cliffhanger where the reader isn't sure who'll win. Perhaps this is the beginning of a series of fantasy books exploring universal themes in a world where beings adapt in outrageous ways to survive.


Be among the first to read "Last Flight Home," published May 15, 2015 by Possibilities Publishing Company.

Send your idea for a fantasy story set in the future with a female protagonist. Entries are due no later than June 20, 2015. Winner will be contacted via email and winner's name announced on this blog (with permission). 


Cheap Is Good

I save the oldest hole-y underwear for trips, wear them twice (inside out and seams in), and toss...

save hotel-size plastics with toiletries and reuse (with Dollar Tree shampoo and soaps) and recycle the containers when they break...

pack my own homemade coffee cake and cut veggies and cheese and crackers for the plane ride...

check free and reduced-price admission days for museums and sites around the nation and world before booking a trip....

check hotel consolidators and Trip Advisor and Hotels.coms and at least 10 independent and chain hotel websites before booking....

and that's just for starters.

Yes, my children and husband are probably shaking their heads (or hiding them in shame). But we have been able to travel to many places (Paris, Greece, the American Southwest, national parks) and see many things because I'm cheap. My parents were children of the Great Depression. I'm a child of the (2000s) Recession. Put that together and you get the Reduce, Reuse, Recyle, or Do Without School of life--proud of not using more than one person needs to, and maybe not polluting the planet much.

But I KNOW I'm not the smartest person on this planet. Get reminded of that every single day in the Washington, D.C., area, where lots of smart people come to make their mark. I love Hints From Heloise, the American advice column where people share their tips for economical or practical living--things like reusing toiler paper rolls to store scarves, or plastic bags for things that I am sure God did not intend them for, and She would be appalled.

Lots of travel websites give advice on cheap tips. I want yours, and will publish them with with your email, spreading the gospel of Dirt Cheap Travels far and wide. You know you've got great ideas. Share them. Cheap is good! More travel is good.

THE CHEAP TRAVEL LIST begins here. It's April 15 (tax deadline day in the U.S., when people are either deciding where to travel to spend their refunds or starting to think about a Cheap Trip because they have to pay $ in and have no $).

Send them to me in Comments (below). Here's a photo to inspire you (from a plane at the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Va., always free):


Truth in Travel, Plus Free National Parks

No crap. No lies. No fudging the facts. That's what travel writing should be about.
The first time an editor for a travel section said I should write about a place I'd never visited, I thought he was kidding. I should make a few calls and check websites and come up with something creative, he said.
I was surprised and dismayed. But the truth, I've learned, is that some travel writers never actually go to a destination. Travel costs money, and writers aren't paid as much as, say, software experts (or even ministers, as I learned on one Illinois trip).
It's dishonest to write about a place and a culture unless you have firsthand knowledge. Of course, there is a difference between writing generically about a place--the name, attractions, hours, costs, etc.--without having an opinion, as publications online and in print often do. But why bother writing about a place unless you can impart a tiny bit of feeling?
As a writer, I've been offered free trips to places near and far--Philadelphia, Colorado skiing, Greece, to name a few. But I don't accept them. Paying my own way allows me to be honest about something if it isn't good, to say an overpriced meal isn't especially tasty, that the hotel room blanket had two fleas (that was in 2013 in Thermopolis, Wyoming).
Writers are careful about their words to avoid lawsuits. Freelancers aren't protected by the legal staffers of large news organizations. It's a bigger challenge to find words that describe lousy or inadequate experiences that those that are pleasant. The glossy Travel magazines rarely have bad reviews; they'd lose advertisers and be sued.
Even large news operations have limited budgets. Many rely on freelance writers, who must pay for the costs of their airfare, gas, hotel, meals, and admissions, and still try to make a tiny profit that pays the rent or mortgage. Often, there's none.
I'm cheap. Frugal. Thrifty. My daughter remembers being told to slump down in the minivan's backseat while on a cross-country trip so that she looked younger than 12 (thus avoiding paying the adult fee at a hotel). While other families paid for fast-food fountain-drink sodas and burgers, my family shared 2-liter iced tea in reusable plastic cups (free from the hotel), sandwiches made with grocery-store cheese, and fresh fruit. Sitting inside a burger joint cannot compare with a picnic lunch at a roadside rest stop or small-town city park where you might meet the mayor on a stroll or a friendly dog.
From the Grand Canyon to Beijing, it's possible to enjoy the best of a place while economizing. Almost everywhere in the world, an independent traveler can thrive while being cheap. Sweat the big stuff, not the small.
See as much of the world as you can now. Don't wait for retirement to take one guided trip. Take a bus, a train, a one-hour getaway today to a place you've been meaning to, but just cannot find the time or money.
I'll share cheap tips (see my old 4/27/10 Anti-Packrat Travel post for some ideas). 
Send your favorite along and we'll make a list so you can stretch those dollars.

Here's one priceless experience: In Yellowstone National Park, a buffalo rested near the men's room. (That's my husband on the right.) Nobody bothered the buffalo.

AND NOTHING IS BETTER THAN FREE! The National Park Service was late this year in announcing its fee-free park week. Not until March 27 did it announce that not only would April 19 and 20 be free days, but that the following week (April 19 through 27) would be included. (Since Easter is April 20, is this good or bad?) Yellowstone, anyone?

Escape From It All: Recharge the Soul

I'm no longer exactly into roughing it with a backpack through backcountry, but there are beautiful, remote places where it's still possible to get off the electric and other grids and return to simpler times.

Even cellphone reception is iffy in many places, some on federal land.

Sometimes a soul needs to recharge close to the ground, under the skies, with few distractions. Every day, many of us turn to email, social media, websites, television, Skype, etc. to learn about what's going on in the world and to stay connected with people. It is even possible for many of us to have Facebook friends who we've never met and may never meet, to be on groups with people we have little in common with.

On my search for such spots to recharge, here's a favorite.

Most days, Thunder Basin National Grassland in Wyoming has more cattle and rattlesnakes than people. Mornings, I woke before dawn to cows mooing. Nights, the sky turned more colors than I knew existed. Stars are so close that I felt I could catch one in my hand.

Summer days can be brutally hot, winters harsh. There isn't much in the way of entertainment. You can walk, sing aloud even if you don't have the voice for it, read a book inside the tent, open a can of beans for dinner (no campfires in this dry-grass country). Make sure you stay on federal land. Property owners here don't take kindly to trespassers. They carry big guns and display them prominently in their pickup trucks.

What a gorgeous place they've got.


The Sixth Decade

Like many things in life, the thought often is better than the reality. I was pondering an appropriate way to commemorate reaching age 60--a bungee jump, a Death Valley trip, a visit to a remote national park overseas, walking through a string of antique shops, maybe just walking a beach shoreline.
I did none of that. That's for 61. Or later.
Also, it was friggin freezing outside. My son and daughter-in-law treated me to dinner at a French restaurant in Alexandria, Va. -- profiteroles instead of birthday cake. Yum. (On my 50th birthday, I flitted from tapas bar to tapas bar in Madrid, where I learned that even tiny glasses of beer and wine with garlicky shrimp and patatas can get you tipsy.)
The problem with being 60 is that I suppose I should start a bucket list, but when I learned that it is trendy or trending or whatinhell you call it, I decided to be no part of it.
Being 60 means listening to the beat of my own drum, dissonant as it may be. Here goes.

This is me getting lost somewhere. Call me the Anti-Fashionista. It is truly hard to believe that I lived in Paris for four years and once wore tiny black skirts and velvet red high heels.

Cheap Staycation: Walk My 'Hood

I love getting away, but sometimes it just isn't possible for health, money or other reasons (and sometimes I just like the comforts of home). So I've been exploring my suburban Washington, D.C., neighborhood. It's called Mantua and is in Fairfax County, in northern Virginia.

I know that the term staycation has fallen out of favor, but I can term my explorations as such because that word fits. Truly, I am lucky to live in wooded hills packed with wildlife. Last weekend while on a walk, a raccoon peeked out of a storm drain pipe. Red foxes walk through my yard every day, searching for squirrels too stupid to stay on trees. There are baby foxes, I suspect, in the yard in back of mine.

There's a Lotte Korean grocery store on one edge of the 'hood. I walk there to buy fresh inexpensive vegetables and fish. A Trader Joe's is at another end of the 'hood; that's where I go for cheap wine and wonderful cheeses. A post office is on the same road. My neighborhood has 1,550 houses (more households, if you count apartments within some and multi-family living situations), yet there is no blue mailbox to deposit mail. Even with online bill-paying and email correspondence, it would be nice to have a place to deposit a birthday card or sympathy card. (I hope that even the most social-media conscious among us dares not send email when someone loses a family member of friend. Then again, I fear I'm just a dinosaur for thinking that people like to actually talk to people.)

Mantua's boundaries roughly are between Route 236 (Little River Turnpike), Route 50 (Arlington Boulevard), Prosperity Avenue and Pickett Road. Each of these carries lots of cars. Usually I am the only one walking on them. My explorations will go as far as I can, now that this long winter with snow still on the ground on March 26 has turned to Spring.