off the grid connections

We bought the piece of land nine years ago as refuge from our urban lives. A green and wild world in the Catskill Mountains of New York. We got it for a good price because we are off the grid. No electrical poles for a half-mile in either direction. We have a mobile home the size of an average New York City apartment so we feel comfortable within its confines.

no poles, no wires

no poles, no wires

We installed a solar system last summer and then we yearned for more connections. Namely, phone and internet. We don’t get a strong enough signal to use our cellphones. Year by year, the signal inched tantalizingly closer to us. The first year, we could sometimes make a call if we stood next to a chicken coop about a half mile up the road. It depended on the weather. Now the signal is just a quarter of a mile away. Our next door neighbor has two bars on an elevated spot on her land so we tried climbing ladders in different spots in our meadow and even went into the forest and climbed to the top an abandoned deer stand. Nada.

We are friends with a couple who live nearby and are also off the grid. They are fully connected with a landline and DSL. They became our advisors. They’d asked the phone company to put a box on the nearest pole and ran cable for a half mile to their solar powered cabin. And it worked.

In our town the phone company is independent and has been in existence since the late 1800’s. They understand rural folk, unorthodox situations and the desire for connectivity. The planner came and walked with me to the closest pole. That pole is on the land of our neighbor to the north about a quarter of a mile away from our mobile home. “Yes, we can put the box here”, he said, “but the cable is your responsibility in every way”. Our neighbor said “Yes, we will help you and you can connect using our pole, but we don’t want to see the cable, make sure you tap it down through the forest”. It is important to be neighborly in the backwoods. One hand washes the other. And people like to help.

Our neighbors Martha and Richard, the architects of this thing gave us their left over cable along with instructions about how to connect the pieces. The cable was like a ball of yarn to be unraveled along the road and then we had to splice the pieces together and house the connections in a waterproof casing. We were instructed to go to the electrical store in the next biggest town to find the waterproof housing. It was just me and Oona since our resident male (Frank) was out of town. Electrical store + do it yourselfers + females = Offensive Macho Bullshit. I started by being polite and humble – more flies with honey and all that. Oona, from her experience with male shopkeepers in feed stores, said “Ma, they don’t respect humble, you have to be assertive”. So I countered with “I’m the customer and I’m explaining to you what I need”. It worked. The grumpy guy went to the back and emerged with the pieces of plastic that would serve as the waterproof enclosures for our spliced cables.

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On a brilliantly sunny afternoon we began the work of unspooling the roll of cable along the roadside so that we could connect the pieces and run it through the woods from our mobile home to our neighbor’s telephone pole. David and Lily, our upstairs neighbors in the Loisaida homestead and our 15 minutes away neighbor in upstate New York, stopped by and volunteered to help. Thankfully David took some photos because I was yelled at twice for stopping work to take photos for the blog.

cable photos - david schmidlapp

cable photos – david schmidlapp

I was nervous. I’d been working from home at the town library for the wireless. I had the schedule of hours of the libraries in three neighboring towns and had a folding lawn chair in the trunk after sitting for half a morning working on the stone steps of a closed library with my laptop using the wireless leaking from the building’s interior. It was stressful to duplicate the connectivity that one has in an office in New York City while being off the gird in the backwoods of New York State.

oona was in charge of the splicing

oona was in charge of the splicing

this houses the connected splice

this houses the connected splice

insulating foam for waterproofing

insulating foam for waterproofing

The nice guy from the independent phone company that is over one hundred years old arrived promptly to hook us up. I kept waiting for him to tell me what we were doing was not possible. But he waded calmly with me through waist high blackberry brambles to reach my neighbor’s telephone pole on a bright morning after a night of violent thunderstorms. When we reached our mobile home and he asked me where I would like the phone jack, my heart soared. I watched as he expertly drilled and connected and pulled a modem out of a box. I handed him the plain black phone I’d bought that requires no electricity. And then it rang.

internet tv via roku

internet tv via roku

 

work from home – home from work

Let’s reinvent the office. I don’t like going there. I’ve always preferred to work from home and have seized every opportunity to do so such as uncomfortable late pregnancies and when my children were babies. I don’t like the office with its distracting chatter and politics, fattening snacks and energy draining structure. When I’m at the office tethered to my desk from nine to six (because it is no longer nine to five), I procrastinate whenever time permits. I surf the net. I read Gawker and the Huffington Post. I play around on Pinterest during conference calls. I ache to be gone from there. My focus flits from one thing to the next with each comment or question from an office mate shouted from across the bullpen that is the open plan room.

Sitting at a desk is as bad for you as smoking

Sitting at a desk is as bad for you as smoking

When I work from home I am at peace with my work and I enjoy it. I wake at seven and instead of spending an hour and a half getting ready and getting to work, I am at work by 7:30 propped up in my comfortable bed with my laptop and a nice cup of coffee on the nightstand. I have a full hour and a half to concentrate without having to respond to incoming emails, IM’s or the phone. When I work from home, my breaks brighten my home life, my real life. I might get up from the desk, stretch and go to the kitchen to stir a pot of beans. I take a break by putting in a load of laundry or taking the dogs down to pee. On lunch break at the office I stand on line with strangers to pick up food and wait for the elevator with other strangers so that I can return to my desk and eat. At home, I can ride my bike to the market or walk over to the bank and run into a friend on the way and enjoy a nice chat or hear some neighborhood gossip.

This is my friend's swimming pond and I can work from there.

This is my friend’s swimming pond and I can work from there.

I’ve been given the opportunity to work from home this summer. Which means a hiatus from Loisaida NYC and a retreat to an off the grid mobile home in the Catskill Mountains, my rural homestead. We come here on weekends and for vacation in August. The locals call us “seasonal folk”. Frank installed a solar system last summer for our electricity, but there is no running water and our refrigerator is a cooler. I will be here for a solid two months working from home. Yes, I am home from work.

happy birthday millie

I love Millie more than any other dog I’ve ever had. I feel a little guilty saying that because I have another beloved dog, Lolo, a gentle geezer who has eyes only for me. I love Millie more because of her disability. She lost her sight and developed glaucoma two years ago, and we made the decision to have her eyes removed to relieve the pain.

Millie photographed with the Hipstamatic app using the Tinto 1884 lens and the D-Type Plate "film"

Millie photographed with the Hipstamatic app using the Tinto 1884 lens and the D-Type Plate “film”

Millie drawn by artist James Cooper. studio cooper.com

Millie drawn by artist James Cooper. studio cooper.com

Love grew because she needs a little extra help. She won’t go down stairs, so I have to carry her down when I take them for a walk. She settles in the crook of my arm as relaxed as if she were lying on the couch. It feels like she is a queen being transported in her litter. Love also grew because she doesn’t let her blindness get in the way. She doesn’t feel blind. Millie lives to play fetch and is as good a catcher as when she had sight. She likes to hunt although she was never any good at it – being too spastic and wild. Stealth was never part of her strategy. She hunts pigeons on the sidewalks of New York by smell and the sound of their feathers. I let her lunge at them on her leash and when they scatter she looks up at me, delighted with herself for a job well done. She helps Lolo hunt squirrels and dig for moles when we are at our rural homestead, which is her favorite place in the world. We made this short video of Millie on a recent walk in the woods.

Frank says we love her so much because she still looks and acts like a puppy. That is true. Happy 5th Birthday Millie.

Millie at 3 months old

Millie at 3 months old

how to ride a bike in new york city: tips from a cowardly cyclist

I’m afraid of traffic. Because of fear, I didn’t learn to drive a car until I was forty. Whenever I have to drive to go upstate, I leave at five in the morning so I can avoid the traffic leaving the city. I white-knuckle it all the way up the FDR drive while listening to happy Motown music to soothe my nerves. So I decided that maybe riding a bike in the streets to work and back would dull some of that fear. A friend thought I was nuts, “Okay now, so because you’re afraid to drive, you are going to ride a bike in the streets of New York?”

The first time I rode a bike in NYC was during the blackout of August 2004 in search of food and adventure. The lights had gone out the afternoon before and that night the mood was festive in Loisaida. In Tompkins Square Park, people were dancing around bonfires. It was a balmy night, not too hot. In front of my building, a cluster of neighbors sat on beach chairs around a camping lantern and drank wine from Dixie cups. We swayed to the sound of the African drums coming from park.

By noon the next day, we were bored and hungry. I let Frank talk me into riding a bike over to the west side. I agreed because since the traffic lights weren’t working, the streets were devoid of cars. I hopped on one of my daughter’s bikes. It had a banana seat and high handlebars, just like the bike I had when I was a teenager. We rode all the way crosstown, from the East River to the Hudson. It was exhilarating to ride on the empty streets with my hair blowing in the breeze.

The bike lanes that started cropping up in the neighborhood got me to thinking I could do it again and now I ride my bike everywhere I can. I like knowing how long it will take me to get somewhere without being dependent on the arrival of trains or buses or fighting the crowds for a cab. I like the freedom of going here and there on my own. Bike commuting has saved me thousands of dollars. And it has helped lessen my fear of driving a car. Here are some things this cowardly cyclist has learned on these mean streets.

The #1 safety advice is: Be predictable and be visible.

Frank gave me the most logical and reassuring advice: “If you are in a spot where the traffic is aggressive, just get off the bike and walk it on the sidewalk till you get past the scary spot. Don’t soldier on.”

I wear a helmet – always. I do not want to end up a vegetable and burden my family with feeling like they have to visit me every weekend in a nursing home.

I use the bike lanes whenever possible. The more people use the bike lanes, the more bike lanes the city will create. Then more people will feel confident about cycling (like me). The more cyclists there are, the more drivers are forced to slow down, thus making the streets safer for everyone.

Don’t underestimate the determination and skill of bike thieves in New York City. It’s not for nothing that there is a bike lock named “fuggedaboutit”. Much as I might like that twee brass bike bell, it will call attention to my bike. I always lock it tight – both wheels and the frame. The seat is chained down and screwed into the frame. A thief will not risk spending time cutting your bike loose if it is not expensive and you’ve made it time consuming for them to try. They will bypass it in search of easier or more lucrative pickings.

As for drivers, I find cabbies to be the most careful – they know what to do. Be careful of drivers with Jersey plates out on a good weather Saturday, they don’t know how to drive with cyclists on the streets. Be wary around box trucks. Scariest of all are the death machines that are private garbage trucks – do not underestimate them.

When a pedestrian bumbles into the bike lane without looking (which happens a lot), the bike bell only works about 50% of the time in getting their attention. I find that shouting “Yo, heads up!” gets the best response. It’s a polite way of saying “Get the fuck out of the road”, but they think you are being helpful and usually move out of the way with a smile.

Don’t be an asshole and ride the wrong way on a one-way street and then make it worse by pushing the cyclist who is going the right way into car traffic.

Sometimes when you are bearing down on a pedestrian who is where they should not be, they get nervous and do a little backwards and forwards dance like a squirrel in the road so that you don’t know which way to aim your bike to avoid hitting them. I treat them like I would a dumb pigeon – I slow down and let them make their move.

my purple schwinn, purchased at Recycle-a-Bicycle on Loisaida Ave.

my purple Schwinn, purchased at Recycle-a-Bicycle on Loisaida Ave.

the equestrian chronicles part II

I recently returned from visiting my oldest daughter in Wellington Florida where she is working and training during the Winter Equestrian Festival. I pretty much just marvel at what she does the whole time I’m there.

Camelia has a good eye with horses. Once when she was just sixteen and a junior in high school, she was asking horse questions of two mounted policemen in Greenwich Village and she asked one of officers if he knew that his horse’s foreleg was swollen. The officers just looked at each other, kind of shocked that this city kid would notice that. “We just iced the leg”, they said and asked if she was studying veterinary medicine at the nearby NYU.

I took this series of photographs in the fall when Camelia competed for the first time as an adult professional at a horse show in Connecticut. The horse is Essex. Camelia and Essex are exactly the same age. Camelia is young in life, but Essex is old in horse years and so she stretches him and does bodywork to keep him supple. It was a lyrical dance on the ground between horse and rider that I felt privileged to witness and record on my humble camera phone.

Camelia and Essex are competing together in Wellington this winter. Please wish them luck!

camelia_essex_dressage1

camelia_essex_dressage2

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Camelia Montalvo is an assistant instructor and trainer at Frog Hollow Farm Stables in New York. She is currently a working student for Jennifer Baumert of Cloverlea Dressage in Wellington, FL for the winter season. The Equestrian Chronicles Part I is here

for the birds

Deep winter. I walk the dogs at the start of the latest snowstorm. Soft wet snowflakes brush my face like the whisper of a child. The sparkly holidays lights are down and everything is just dark and grey and cold. Icy winds rake the skin on my forehead and frozen sidewalks chill my toes even through thick wool socks. The dogs want to hurry back inside. Seems like its been forever that we’ve been traversing slush puddles and blocks of grey ice while eternally wearing our snow boots.

After the first polar vortex I decided to set out a window feeder for the birds that inhabit the community garden outside my building. “They must be starving”, I thought. Over the years, the garden has become home to wilder species of birds outside of the rock pigeon, starlings and house sparrows of the urban landscape. We now see robins, thrushes, cardinals and blue jays. Occasionally, a red-tailed hawk will visit and swoop from tree to tree, teasing the squirrels and then perching on the fallen trunk of a willow tree to majestically survey the territory.

Backyard Boys Woodworking tray feeder.

Backyard Boys Woodworking tray feeder.

suetcageforbirds

I bought a window tray feeder because part of the fun was to see the birds up close. I did a little research because I did not want my window inundated with pigeons. I learned that pigeons don’t like black oil sunflower seeds and that it is a good high-fat, high-energy food for a wide variety of birds. I bought those and a block of suet. The songbirds need fat for energy in the winter because they don’t have insects to eat.

Mourning doves

Mourning doves

mourningdoves2

The tray with the sunflower seeds is dominated by Mourning doves. I’m a fan of doves and even have a pet one, so I enjoy seeing these guys even though they bully the smaller birds. Mourning doves are so named because they make a cooing sound like a lament and when they take off in flight they emit a whistling sound that makes you think, “this is what a helicopter would sound like if it were small and had feathers”. They have soulful black eyes and dots on their velvet brown cheeks. The suet block is visited by “cling feeders”, birds that like to hang from it to get at the seeds and suet. I have seen cardinals, blue jays, a woodpecker and something wild and brown that I couldn’t identify.

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

Female Downy Woodpecker

Female Downy Woodpecker

The sameness of my grey winter mornings is ruffled and brightened by the feeding frenzy outside my window. I’m happy for that, because spring seems so far away.

hello 2014

I felt like a college student on a long mid-winter break. Having Christmas and New Years in the middle of the week created a luxurious lull in my “work for money” life. I used the time to plow a path and unclog things in my home and family life.

2014_photo

The most stopped up place was my computer, so I started with that.  It was clogged with photographs and old information. The hard drive was bursting and slowing my computer down. It was so full that it would not allow me to transfer any more photos from my phone. As a result, my phone was so stuffed with photograhs that if I wanted to show off one, I had to scroll through a thousand. I was unable to upgrade apps or software on either device and felt guilty and unorganized everytime I clicked the “remind me later”prompt. It was paralyzing me. Whenever I looked at the photo library I felt overwhelmed and frozen. If I needed a photo for a blog post, I would email it to myself from my phone and put it in a folder on my desktop since the hard drive kept yelling at me “no way Jose!”. I knew that I had to deal with this in the way that one shovels snow. You have to just grit your teeth and put your back into it. You may stop and catch your breath at points and assess the progress, but you have to keep going till the path is clear. And it is oh so satisfying when you look at that path you’ve opened up.

When I used a film camera, I organized photographs by season and year into photo albums. This works well because it is an easy way for you to remember where to find a specific photo and for general reminiscing about a particular time. So that is the methodology I used to begin the task of archiving the thousands of photos in my library. I also wanted to print them and have them in photo albums on a shelf. When photographs are in digital form they are often forgotten. I wanted them to have a body as well, a physical form that lives in a book.

photo_archive_albumsR

I mapped out an archival strategy that I figured once organized, would be the standard going forward.

1. Trash all the bad photos and transfer all the good photos to an external hard drive into seasonal folders by year. That’s just four folder per year which is managable when you want to look for something.
2. Upload the photographs by seasonal folder to an online printing service.
3. Because I trust neither of the two above, transfer the folders to archival CDs and store in an archival quality box.
4. Print the photos I wanted to have a physical body to place in albums on a shelf labled by season and year or for framing.

And so, I grit my teeth, brewed a big pot of coffee and connected a 500 gigabyte hard drive to my computer. I began with Spring 2007. Thats how far back those digital photographs had been just sitting there. I ruthlessly dumped what was out of focus, where people had their eyes closed and those second shots you take for “just in case”. I had a ridiculous amount of photographs of adorable sleeping dogs.

It took me  three solid long days and whosh – the clog is gone. The computer is speedy again and my phone apps are updated. I organized photos into albums on my phone so that I can illustrate the bragging about my kids without having to scroll through a thousand images.

In the press they write about how futile it is to make New Year’s resolutions and how people abandon those resolutions fairly quickly. I like thinking about the new year and starting off fresh and energized with strong ideas about what I want to accomplish. It’s important because you can’t do something unless you set your mind to do it in the first place.

This year I want to improve my photography and master the DSLR that I’m afraid of. I want to finally learn Photoshop. My shoveling has opened up the path. Now I just have to walk down it.

What do you want to do this New Year, dear readers?

xmas is here

It was almost hot as Oona and I walked to get our Xmas tree. It was as muggy as New York gets in late July. My new glasses fogged up as we headed over to one of the many Xmas tree sale stands in lower Manhattan. They magically sprout up everywhere on the morning after Thanksgiving and their wild piney smell wafts over the city’s sidewalks delighting the passersby.

East Houston Street Xmas 2013

East Houston Street Xmas 2013

We always buy our tree late, right before Xmas because we like the tree to be fresh on that day. We examined the selection of pines propped up against a school fence, judging height of the tree and the lushness of its branches under their net cocoon. We bent the needles and smelled. Yes, it was fresh and sticky with resin. The seller was a lumberjack looking guy with a full beard and kind eyes. He made a fresh cut to the trunk and wrapped the tree in more netting and then delivered it to our apartment.

Friends and family joined us on the winter solstice to bedeck and bedazzle our tree as they do every year and I am grateful for their warmth, light and love.

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Wishing you, dear readers, a holiday season full of peace and joy and a Happy New Year.

Loisaida fire escape lights

Loisaida fire escape lights

loisaida lights

I just returned from a weekend in the Catskills and the holiday spirit was in full swing with the houses dripping in xmas lights. Front lawns were dressed with freshly fallen snow and Santa and candy cane sculptures. People drape their bushes in bush net lights, which I think is the coolest thing.  Urban holiday lighting is so small scale compared to what you see in the countryside and the suburbs. We have mini pockets of holiday decoration. A solitary window draped with twinkling lights , a fire escape bedecked with icicle lights, the kind that people with houses string along their gables. Snowflakes cut out of white paper with blunt scissors by little hands are taped to a window. I love the holiday lights in Loisaida. It’s the cheeriest thing when it gets dark so early.

I took these photos two years ago. Walking home from the dog park, I walked with the pups past the tall and skinny lighted tree in Tompkins Square Park and out the east exit at 7th St. Then I saw the windows of the bar 7B. They were so very christmasy on that icy cold night that I had to stop and take out my phone for pictures. It was a struggle because the dogs would not be still and it was hard to hold the phone steady with their leashes around my wrist. I said “damn you dogs!” threw their leashes on the sidewalk, held them under my boot and aimed the phone. A passerby paused and smiled at the dogs, smiled at the windows and then at me and said “Merry Xmas”.

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The bar 7B has been in lots of movies. I came across this video compilation: 7B: A History in Motion Pictures. Check it out.

foliophoto

I’ve been participating in a photography group called foliophoto dreamed up by Sandra Harris of Raincoast Creative Salon and Christie Jones of Bedsidesign. Its a Flickr group and we’d been doing weekly photo sharing. Every Tuesday we got a word prompt as the idea for the photograph. For the month of October, they decided to step it up, so every day we had a daily word prompt and we took a photo to share on Instagram. Some prompts were elusive till the last minute. All day I would turn ideas over in my head and suddenly turn a corner, see something and say “Aha, there it is”.  At times I felt like I was doing the Bikram yoga 30 day challenge again.

I enjoyed “meeting” interesting and talented folks through this group and getting a glimpse of their landscapes. The prompts have been interpreted in varied and sometimes surprising ways. Most of all, I’ve been inspired.

These are some of the photos I posted. Go to Instagram and search #foliophoto to see the work of the group.

For the prompts New and Look up

For the prompts New and Look up

For the prompts Ground and Favorite

For the prompts Ground and Favorite

For the prompts Yes and Antique

For the prompts Yes and Antique

For the prompts Feet and Red

For the prompts Feet and Red