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.

cable1rev

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

 

the back bedroom

The back bedroom has always been the children’s room. When our building got its certificate of occupancy and we were cleared to move in, Camelia was a toddler. I’d just learned how to do stucco veneziano (venetian plaster) and the room was one of my first projects in the apartment. The first color for Camelia’s brand new bedroom was a beautiful peachy pink, very soft and not all at sugary. A perfect color for a little girl. The walls gave off a rosy light at night. In the morning, the room glowed golden from the sunlight coming in from the eastern facing window.

When we were homesteading our building in the 1980’s, there was a lot of drug dealing in the neighborhood (see my Pigeon Wars post for the backstory). Junkies broke into the squatter’s buildings and stole tools and pipes and anything that they could rip out to sell. It was near impossible to completely fortify the entire building against theft, there were too many spots where crumbling brick or boards could be pried loose. All you could do was to make it harder for them. During that time, the back bedroom became our tool room. We framed it out and created temporary walls of double thick plywood. The door was locked with a fat metal chain. That was the secure room, the place where we kept anything the junkies might want to walk off with.

Homesteader Jay Goodson at the tool room which became our back bedroom

Homesteader Jay Goodson at the tool room which became our back bedroom

The room grew up with the girls. After the babyish pink came a sophisticated light royal blue when the girls were in  elementary school. Then came a rich green right before Camelia left for college. Now, at the time of Oona’s going to college, I decided to re-do the stucco in a pale greyish lavender. Oona said “Mom, you always want to re-do the room when we are leaving for college”. Maybe it is my way of trying to entice them to stay home.

Oona applying stucco veneziano

Oona applying stucco veneziano

The old green being covered

The old green being covered

StuccoVeneziano3

This is a work-in-progress, stay tuned for updates.

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?

entryway progress

It’s slow going to fix up your house unless you’ve got a fat purse and a lot of time. Sometimes I feel like I’m buried in the bureaucracy of life admin. Sign an online petition and your email inbox mushrooms with doomsday scenarios. Buy something online and you are attacked daily by 20% off coupons. We now have digital clutter to clear and speak with robots on the phone.

We recently put another dent in the slow moving entryway project. What happens to me is that when we make an improvement, I exhale and exclaim “it looks great”. And so we live with the partially finished project while absorbed in work to put food on the table and tend to our family and friendships.  After the blue venetian plaster work and the teardrop chandeliers went up, I was happy opening the front door and walking into my house for awhile.

Then the novelty of the last phase wore off and so it was time for the next. The doors leading to the girl’s room and the bathroom were filmsy hollow doors. I never liked them. I like the feeling of opening and closing a solid wood door. I shopped around for wooden doors and they were too extravagant for my purse. In New York City, we have a great resource. Build it Green! NYC is a recycling project, a place where contractors can donate excess stuff from construction/renovation projects and others can buy it. I snapped up the two paneled wooden doors for 60 bucks! Then we got molding to frame the new doors with. That was always the vision, a posh entryway with elegant molding. As my friend Linda says “molding brings the eye up and up and up”. It gives the illusion of higher ceilings, a welcome thing in a narrow hallway.

carpenters installing doors and molding

carpenters installing doors and molding

heavy paneled wooden recycled door and molding on my blue venetian plaster walls

heavy paneled wooden recycled door and molding on my blue venetian plaster walls

What’s next? Molding along the juncture of the plaster wall and the ceiling and a good looking and useful spot for hanging up coats and setting down boots now that winter is almost upon us.

power from the sun

When we got our land as a getaway from the urban jungle we made a trade-off. The land was beautiful, with a deep forest and a sunny meadow. It came with a trailer the size of our apartment, so that we did not have to build anything to be able to enjoy it right away. But, we had no electricity. We are totally off the grid.

We learned a lot from living without electricity for long stretches at a time in the summer. We learned about how to manage without refrigeration (the hardest part). We learned that two buckets of cold water straight from the well + 1 bucket of boiling water made the perfect amount of warm water for a long haired individual to bathe and wash their hair luxuriously. We read a lot because we could have no computer or TV. I attribute Oona’s extraordinary vocabulary to the fact that she read so much as a way to get out of working in the garden.

In the beginning, we used candles and oil lamps. The light from these was very romantic but dim. It was hard to read unless you were right under the flame and we all had headlamps so that we could read while sitting back on the couch. I do miss the ritual of snuffing out the candles at the end of the night with an old silver candlesnuffer that was found at a yard sale.

After the candles and oil lamps came the Nokero solar bulbs and the Ikea solar lamps. Those were a tremendous breakthrough and allowed us to get rid of the dangerous open flame lighting system. We set the solar lamps outside to charge up in the sun in the morning and hung them in the trailer at night. The Ikea solar floor lamp allowed us to lie back on the couch and read. The table lamps were super bright and we could comfortably read in bed at night. The Nokero bulbs spotlighted the kitchen sink and counters for cooking and clean up.

Charging up the Ikea solar lamps

Charging up the Ikea solar lamps

But we wanted more. Especially refrigeration. We once called the electric company to ask for an estimate for bringing poles to our property to hook us up to the grid. The nearest pole to us is only a half-mile away. They quoted us over $35,000. When we asked if they had a payment plan. The guy says, “Yes, ma’am, we sure do, but there is a 7 percent interest charge for the payment plan”. That’s when I got pissed. First, I researched, but the last rural electrification program was during the time of President Roosevelt. We were on our own and so we “did it ourselves”. Or I should say, Frank did it. He installed our very own off-the-grid solar power system. For very little money.

The panels arrive

The panels arrive

Frank spent months doing research and studying. He mapped out the system and the equipment needed. He did a lot of math and internet shopping. He became friends with solar energy vendors and electrical shop clerks. He spent almost a month this summer, walking around the property wearing a little apron full of screws, tinkering, building, pondering and tweaking. And now we have power. Clean and free energy from the sun. And when the power goes out for our neighbors during a storm, it will not go out for us. Our lights will still be on. We will be able to offer to charge their phones for a change.

Frank

Frank

Solar power base of operations

Solar energy headquarters, work-in-progress

Solar panels installed

Solar panels installed

The trimetric monitor, our batteries are fully charged

The Trimetric monitor, our batteries are fully charged

The first time we turned on the electric light, everything seemed too bright and garish. We were startled and blinked our eyes like people must have done when they first got electric lights in the home. It’s a good thing Frank attached dimmers to all of the lights.

Our first night with electricity from the sun

Our first night with electricity from the sun

Solar powered electric guitar

Solar powered electric guitar

how to repair a plaster frame

When I set out to do this blog, I wanted it to nudge me to do projects to beautify and organize my family’s living space. You have to lay your hands on your home.

This beautiful old plaster framed mirror has been hanging in my bedroom for a few months now. The gilded frame is faded and dull and like many of these delicate plaster frames, it was chipped in several spots. I’d purchased it at a yard sale upstate for five bucks. I love yard sales and I always think that when I drive around upstate, I should have a bumper sticker that reads, “I brake for small animals, sticks/big leaves and yard sales”.

chip damage

chip damage

I repaired the chips by using Sculpey clay as a mold. This modeling clay bakes in the oven and does not make a mess. When my girls were little, we made all the dinnerware and fake food for their dollhouse from colored Sculpey clay.

The repair was easy. I placed the Sculpey clay over the same pattern in the frame of the little chunk that was missing to create a mold.

find the piece in the pattern that is missing and make a mold

find the piece in the pattern that is missing and make a mold

I baked the molds in the oven on a piece of foil according to the instructions. Then I took soft clay and pushed it into the mold. I carefully took the soft piece out of the mold so that it kept its shape and baked it.

the mold and the piece made from the mold

the mold and the piece made from the mold

The final step is to glue the new piece to the frame with household cement. Now all that is left is to paint the repaired frame.

a dresser of elfa

In one of my early posts, I explained that all of our home design decisions had always been made on the premise of where to stash things. Well, this was one of them, but not one that I’m unhappy with. The problem: we needed a bigger dresser in the bedroom to stash our stuff. The solutions I looked at were expensive. I looked at many dressers. We needed two, and that made it very expensive. I searched on Craigslist and then discarded the notion early on when I realized how a prolonged furniture hunt would elevate stress levels and damage good feelings in the house.

I wanted something to span the entire width of the bedroom wall. I went to a fancy furniture store that has modular pieces that you can put together for your own needs. It was still too much money and I didn’t like the look of the super-modern shiny white plastic finish. This led me to the idea of closet storage. Something with drawers that you could piece together for the size of your space. The Elfa system solved our problem at the right price. At first I thought, well, it looks like we are sleeping in a closet. But the clean and neat look of the Elfa dresser is growing on me and our stuff is tidily tucked away.

our elfa dresser set up

our elfa dresser set up

During the set up our little blind dog Millie was stashed away in an Elfa box to keep her safe.

the sleeping beauty

the sleeping beauty

Spring is coming. I saw the first signs of it outside in our community garden. The purple crocus bursting out from under the dead fall leaves. I think a pot of spring bulbs would look great on the new dresser.

el jardin del paraiso - the first crocus of 2013

el jardin del paraiso – the first crocus of 2013