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Heads up! If you want to be a literary star, keep your eyes peeled for dime a dozen metaphors. Your writing will be dull as dishwater if you get stuck in a rut with commonplace similes.

I don’t want to mudsling, but I’ve seen a lot of top-notch writers, writers who are rolling in dough, pouring on tired symbolism. Worn-out metaphors can make writing that otherwise sparkles flat as a pancake.

I don’t have a silver bullet to help you ferret out overused phrases but here’s some advice you can take to the bank:

  1. Cultivate fresh imagery.
  2. Cherry pick your metaphors.
  3. Think you don’t use idioms mindlessly? If the shoe fits, wear it.

After reading this, you might be scared to death that your writing is chock full of lame clichés. Don’t throw in the towel! Just remember, laughter is the best medicine, and though editing can be a pain in the butt, every cloud has a silver lining. Pour your heart into your writing and, when all’s said and done, you’ll get over this hurdle.

Head over heels for common idioms? Cutting metaphors left and right? Share your experiences in the comments section, preferably via clichés!


My book has been pirated repeatedly in the last few weeks. Apparently, it is quite popular when completely free. In honor of that, um, honor, I’m writing about pirates today.

Skull & CrossbonesIf you are not the parent (grandparent, babysitter, friend, teacher) of a young child, you may be surprised to learn that piracy is all the rage with the under-eight set. Think Captain Hook, not copyright violation. High fashion for kiddies is adorned with skulls and crossbones. Pirate toys are more popular than candy. Few people seem to believe this is cause for worry. In fact, most parents get really excited about pirate play. It seems cool and transgressive, a type of pretend play that inspires daring and bravery.

In fact, the pirate craze is completely mainstream and commercial and, though, yes, pirates have to be brave, they are also by definition, focused on wealth accumulation, even more than those Disney princesses in their finery.

I hear a lot of anti-princess talk but no complaints about the widespread celebration of piracy. Articles and books have been written on the topic of the kiddie princess industry. I’ve been in those conversations bemoaning our daughters’ obsessions with all things pink, sparkly, and princess-y.

The princess thing is annoying, and there is plenty to dislike about a “hobby” that promotes appearance & wealth based valuation of women/girls/ people. I have to say, though, I’d rather my children model their behavior on royalty than pirates, either those of the internet or the high seas.

Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White. They all had their strengths and weaknesses, and though the princess industry tends to focus on gowns, jewels, beauty, and husband snagging, girls imitating princesses aspire to be polite, kind, helpful, and optimistic. Those are good things.

Harpers PirateWhat exactly are we promoting when we buy into the pirate craze (and, yes, this one, too, is fueled by Disney)? Pirates are a very real threat to many people. They are violent criminals. They are also, I suspect, like most criminals, people who lack other options. Piracy (on the seas) is an ugly, desperate way to make a living. Basically, pirates are high stakes muggers. They kill a lot of innocent people.

Book piracy (and other theft of arts/music/movies) is not nearly as abhorrent, but, still, not a career path I’d like my children to seek.

I am not one to dictate my childrens’ or others’ pretend play. There is definitely some yo-ho-ho-ing in my living room, and the occasional “Ahoy, Matey.” Imaginative play is a good thing, even when it veers into the dark and criminal. I’d be worried if my kids never pretended to be “bad guys.”

I’m actually pretty uncomfortable judging any kind of child pretend play or even adult fantasy, and I can already hear your objections to this blog. I sound puritanical and joyless, right? Pirates are exciting. Maybe we should all embrace whatever fantasy Disney pitches our way. I mean, it’s not like American kids are growing up convinced that they and their country should take anything they desire, even if violent means are necessary.

Oh, wait.

I know I’ve got that train engineer cap I wore as a kid somewhere. Maybe, just maybe, I can convince my kids to aspire to union membership instead of violent robbery.


According to their website, 4-H exists in rural communities, cities and suburbs across America.Image

Maybe that’s true now, but when I was a kid in suburbia, 4-H was nowhere to be found. We had the 4Ts: Tennis, Trumpet, Tetris and Test prep for college admissions.

How I longed to raise a pig! Milk a cow! I had to content myself with the hamsters on display in the mall pet store.

The 4 Hs are Head, Heart, Hand, and Health. As a kid, I would have guessed Horses, Hares, Hay Rides, and Happy Kids. I didn’t quite understand the full breadth of the organization, but I had the gist of it.

Every year at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, I get a little peak into the magic that is the 4-H club.  The farm show does, in fact, have plenty of horses, hares, hay and happy kids. Not only that. They’ve got fainting goats, adorable chicks and even ducklings that they send down slides into a giant bathtub.

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A girl and her cow. Photo from 2013, courtesy of the Pennsylvania Farm Show.

Those 4-H kids are bee-keeping , mushroom gathering, and making dioramas about pesticide health impacts.  They knit. They bake pies like nobody’s business. Well, okay, maybe that’s their parents, but you just know they eat home-cooked pies on a regular basis. Basically, they are living the dream of the Brooklyn rooftop farmer and urban anti-chicken ordinance fighter. I wouldn’t be surprised if those kids  butcher esoteric meats and home brew in their free time.

Plus, now the 4-H kids are making robots. Really! They’ll probably build and operate a spaceship next.  Of course, they’ll get to bring a horse and rabbit with them on their mission to mars. Me, I still don’t even have a goldfish at home.

Alas, I am not in Pennsylvania at the moment and so I won’t be visiting the farm show this year.  No vicarious 4-H fun for me.  But, if you’re in a two hour vicinity of Harrisburg, it’s well worth the trip. Check out all those smiling 4-H kids.  Plus, you can experience the butter sculpture, the sheep to shawl contest and the maple cotton candy.

Feed a horse and stroke the softest rabbit you can imagine.  Live the 4-H experience.  I’ll be jealous.


Before they set sail for the New World, the pilgrims spent about a dozen years in the city of Leiden. In fact, by some accounts, the American Thanksgiving holiday, our recreation of a (perhaps mythical) harmonious harvest celebration shared by the pilgrims and Wampanoags, is actually an imitation of a Dutch feast day. Coincidentally, I’ll be in Leiden this coming Thanksgiving.

The pilgrims brought a number of Dutch ideas and practices to the Americas. From what I hear, we could still learn a few things from our friends in the low countries, especially about bicycle safety. Thanksgiving… cycling — you still with me?

The New York Times recently ran an opinion piece pointing out the enormous risks cyclists face on U.S. roadways, and the failure of our legal system to respond to bicycle fatalities. (Is it O.K. To Kill Cyclists?) As an individual in America, one might be wisest to forego cycling. Exercise on a stationary bike at the gym, not on the streets. Drive your kids to school instead of letting them make their own two-wheeled way. As a society, though, we’d be wise to make our roads, and laws, bike friendly.

45% of all trips in the Netherlands are taken by bike. 59% in cities. (so says Wikipedia) If we could replicate that in the U.S., we’d dramatically reduce traffic, air pollution, and, probably, obesity.

I’m all for feasting and thanks giving, but this year I aspire to pick up some new ideas in Leiden.  I’ll be checking out bike lanes and signals, thinking about the route from my house to my kids’ school back in the States, a distance of only a mile, along which there isn’t even a sidewalk, much less a bike lane.

Imagine if Americans put some Puritan style zeal to bicycle safety. We’d have one more reason to give thanks.

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What your barista won't admit: It's oh-so-easy to make an entirely respectable cup.

What your barista won’t admit: It’s oh-so-easy to make an entirely respectable cup.

A $5 cup of filter coffee.  Shocking? Yes. But so many people told me the new filter coffee experience could be transcendent, so I tried it.  Twice.

Both times, the brew was carefully timed, the water temperature perfect (checked with a thermometer), the surroundings tastefully shabby. My handsome barista assured me I’d be impressed.

“Don’t use sugar,” he warned.  “You’ll want the pure experience.”

Um… tasted like filter coffee usually does, no better than the stuff at the local diner.  I tried it again at a different café in a different city (different country even).  More disappointment.

In fact, my high end filter coffee experiment pushed me over the edge, away from gourmet coffee altogether. I’ve gone instant.

For the past few years, mine was a French press kitchen, and before that we rocked a vintage Chemex. Now I learn all that equipment and effort was unnecessary.  I’m surprisingly satisfied with instant coffee.

OK, admittedly, I’m currently living in the U.K. where instant coffee is better than that on offer in the U.S.  But, still, I’m buying pedestrian stuff: Tesco brand coffee granules.  About as un-snobbish and un-foodie as you can get. I’m both a snob and a foodie, so I’ve truly shocked myself with this new allegiance.

Here’s what I love about instant coffee:

  1. It truly is instant.  Boil water.  Spoon in granules.  Coffee’s ready.  None of this grinding and measuring and waiting for miniscule drips to accumulate. Easier than tea, even.
  2. No clean up, no waste. No longer do I have to buy and trash filters, dispose of grounds, wash a coffee pot, take care not to shatter the French press while I wash it…
  3. It doesn’t taste bad.  In fact, with sugar and milk, it’s pretty delicious.
  4. Still caffeinated.
  5. Instant has retro charm. Forget filter. Instant coffee is 1950s stylish like deviled eggs and molded gelatin. (What? You’re not into deviled eggs and molded gelatin?)

My grandparents drank their liquor neat and liked their coffee instant. They worried more about the cake that accompanied their caffeine, the dinner that preceded it, and the card game that followed, than the act of coffee preparation.  I’m thinking they might have been on to something.

Thanks, Vincent Van Gogh, for the public domain artwork!  "The Night Cafe" 1888

Thanks, Vincent Van Gogh, for the public domain artwork! “The Night Cafe” 1888


Some say, “hunger is the best sauce.” Not true. Nothing piques the appetite better than sea wind, laborious recipes, and, of course, sugar.

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The hip of a sea rose plant.

Thus, today, I bring you a recipe for wild rose hip jelly. The perfect autumn treat for foodies, edible wild plant enthusiasts, survivalists, and those who simply crave tedious manual labor for its own sake.

Rose hip jelly making is tiresome and the rewards are meager in quantity.  If you’re thinking in terms of hourly wage, you’d do much better making apple butter from windfall apples this time of year, or just buying your fruit spread at the market on the cheap. But, if you’re like me, and can’t resist a wild plant, you might want to try it. Here’s everything you need to know.

Why should I make wild rose hip jelly?

  • Wild foods are good for you.  In general, farmed plants are nutritionally inferior to their wild counterparts. So says the New York Times.
  • Rose hips are loaded with Vitamin C. I’ve seen all kinds of claims. Here’s one: According to The Organic Prepper, rose hips have 60 times as much Vitamin C as an equal quantity of citrus fruit.
  • Gathering rose hips for jelly is a delight and your final product will be delicious.
  • Sure, you could make blackberry jelly. That would be WAY easier. But you can buy blackberry jelly at the market. Rosehip jelly is a rare treat with the allure of the exotic and old-fashioned.
  • Your domestic skills will impress all of your friends.

How do I gather rose hips?

Roses are ubiquitous, and most rose bush owners will happily part with their rose hips. Just be sure the rose bushes haven’t been sprayed with pesticides.

I used the hips of sea roses. Sea rose hips are larger than typical garden rose hips and they have an added benefit: they are located at the sea. So, go to the beach, find a rose bush, and start picking.

The Sea Rose. Rosa Rugosa.

The Sea Rose. Rosa Rugosa.

The rose hips are the fruit that appears behind the wilted rose blossom.  They are easily plucked from a rose bush when ripe.  Apparently, they are sweetest after a frost. Around here (Scotland), they are available in the early fall. I’ve seen them ripe on Cape Cod around the same time. Look for reddish-orange hips that have just begun to turn soft and a bit translucent.  If you’ve successfully found a pesticide free plant, you will see some worms, spiders and other bugs on your hips. Bugs are not a problem. In fact, if you don’t see these, think again about whether your rose bush may have been sprayed with chemicals and look elsewhere.

Simply pluck the rose hip from the end of the stem.  You’ll be chopping and mashing, so no need to be too fussy about the process. Torn hips, stems, etc., are all acceptable.

What if I don’t want to make jelly? Can I do anything else with rose hips?

Yes! You can dry them for tea. I saved the seeded, mashed fruit from the jelly recipe and ate it with yogurt. You could also use the fruit in a scone or muffin.  Meat eaters might serve a rose hip jam as an accompaniment to roast meat, in the same way you might serve cranberry sauce.  Really, I think you could use these anyway you might use cranberries.

Is there anything not to love about rose hips?

Seeding.  It’s incredibly time consuming and annoying to remove the seeds from rose hips.  But you’ll feel so productive and accomplished once you finish. Anyway, you’re reading this blog. You’ve got plenty of time to waste.

Can I get the recipe already?

ROSE HIP JELLY

Most of the recipes I found online assume you know something about making jelly.  I’ll go ahead and assume you are a domestic incompetent like me.  Also, people like to get all science-y with their jam recipes, but I figure, people were making jam long before the invention of the metric system, so we can be relaxed and guesstimate.

  1. Go to the beach.  Find a rose bush. Pick rose hips until you get at least a few generous handfuls. More is better.

    Making it happen.
    Don’t I look serious?

  2. Stick a spoon and plate in the freezer.
  3. Wash the rose hips.
  4. Chop off the stem and blossom.
  5. Cut the hips in half and scrape out the seeds.  This is your limiting factor. Depending on how much patience you have for this, you may make a good big batch of rose hip jelly, or just lightly flavor a smaller portion. Both are OK. You’re already being super-virtuous by even attempting to make your own wild-harvested fruit jelly. In all likelihood, you’ll have picked way more rose hips than you’ll want to de-seed. Add the adjective “small batch” to your post on Rose Hip Jelly and feel satisfied.*
  6. Yes, you can sample the raw rose hip just don’t eat the seed.  Tangy!
  7. Add the rose hips to a pot.  I also added a couple of peeled, cored & cubed windfall apples and a peeled chopped orange along with the juice of two lemons. The apple and lemon are supposed to provide adequate natural pectin but that didn’t work for me.
  8. Add water to cover and bring to boil.
  9. Simmer for 25 minutes.
  10. Mash the fruit and pour through a strainer. Save the fruit mash.  It’s yummy.
  11. Add a couple cups of sugar to the strained liquid, to taste.  Obviously, this will depend on how much liquid you managed to make.
  12. Now add about a teaspoon of store-bought pectin per cup of liquid and boil for a few minutes.

    See that smile?  I just snuck a sample.

    So happy.

  13. Grab that plate and spoon from the freezer.  With the cold spoon, scoop out some of your concoction. Drop it onto the plate and see how gelatinous it is.  You can cook it longer and add more pectin as necessary.
  14. When your rose hip jelly is perfect, pour it into a jar. No need to get involved with boiling jars and all of that.  You’ll eat this in the next few days.

The ebook version of my novel, Drowning Cactus, is on sale until Sunday (through my publisher’s website only) and it’s ridiculously cheap.  If you’re thrifty enough to consider making sea rose jelly, you might want to check it out.

*I have seen recipes that don’t require de-seeding. In these, you simply chop up the roses, and then, at step 10, strain the liquid through muslin or other fine cloth so that none of the seeds go through. Having been warned that the fine hairs on the rose hip seeds cause anal itching, and equipped with only a coarse sieve for straining, I decided against this method. If you have some muslin and/or aren’t worried about anal itching, by all means, skip the de-seeding! Let me know how that works out for you.


There Is No Substitute For America’s National Parks–

Except Maybe These Places.

Ack!  You’ve been planning a trip to a National Park and now it’s closed due to the shutdown.  Fear not. You have options.

Our National Parks are treasures and truly irreplaceable. Nevertheless, thanks to comparatively functional state, tribal and local governments, you can still get your scenic awe fix even though National Parks across the country are closed to visitors.

If you wanted to visit: Arcadia

Try: Camden Hills State Park or, further north, Quoddy Head State Park. Charming coastal walks, lighthouses, and conifers, all within spitting distance of lobster shacks. Take a detour to Moody’s Diner for THE BEST blueberry pie in Maine on the way there.

Coastal Maine charm at Quoddy Head State Park.

Coastal Maine charm at Quoddy Head State Park.

If you wanted to visit: Arches, Bryce, Zion

Try: The aptly named Kodachrome Basin State Park for vibrant colored desert rock, or, a bit further afield, Colorado Spring’s city park, Garden of the Gods. It’s free and phenomenally beautiful. For mountain biking among mesas, roll right out of Moab.

Incredible colors at Kodachrome Basin.

Incredible colors at Kodachrome Basin.

If you wanted to visit: Mesa Verde

Try: The Hopi Reservation. Mesa Verde is an incredible archeological site, but the mesas on the Hopi Reservation are living pueblo communities with a rich history, offering a unique insight into historic and contemporary Native American life. Or, if you’d like to visit an incredibly scenic location of particular spiritual importance, try Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.

In most cases, the U.S. pushed Native American communities off of the most valuable land. Monument Valley is a notable exception. This land, owned by the Navajo Nation, is a treasure, especially beloved in Hollywood.

In most cases, the U.S. government pushed Native American communities off of especially valuable land. Monument Valley is a notable exception. This land, owned by the Navajo Nation, has proven surprisingly valuable in the modern age, especially given Hollywood’s fascination with it’s stunning light and rock formations.

If you wanted to visit: Redwood National Park

Try: Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Big trees can be found up and down California’s coast. Here’s one of many options to walk among them.

Ethereal old growth redwoods outside the National Park System.

Ethereal old growth redwoods outside the National Park system.

If you wanted to visit: The Badlands

Try: Custer State Park for hiking, biking, horseback riding, and bison encounters in the Badlands.  And while you’re out there, feeling sorry for yourself because you may have missed your once-in-a-lifetime chance to view Mount Rushmore, check out the massive carving at Crazy Horse Memorial instead.

Is that Badlands National Park?  Nope.  It's Custer State Park and It's Open.

Is that Badlands National Park? Nope. It’s Custer State Park and It’s open for business.

If you wanted to visit: Rocky Mountain National Park

Try: Hike right out of Telluride or Aspen for gorgeous Colorado mountain scenery.  Maybe you can’t afford a lift ticket in winter, but you can walk out to vistas and waterfalls for free. While you’re there, check out one of the nearby hot springs, like Orvis.  Just a word of warning: Orvis is clothing optional.

Majestic Bridal Veil Falls in Telluride.

Majestic Bridal Veil Falls in Telluride.

If you wanted to visit: The Grand Canyon

Try: The Hulupai Nation’s Grand Canyon West for an incredible overlook, or, if you can somehow get reservations, head down to the Havasupai reservations to see and swim in amazing waterfalls among steep cliffs. If you can, plan your trip to allow for a stop at Macy’s Coffeehouse in Flagstaff for the best coffee in America.

The photogenic grand canyon, from a different angle.

The photogenic grand canyon, seen from a different angle. One not managed by the U.S. government.

Got a favorite non-federal park or wilderness area? Share your tips in the comment section!



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