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.



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

the first grown-up apartment

This past weekend was a momentous occasion. We were asked to help with the fixing up of the oldest daughter’s first grown-up apartment. The request was simple, “Help me make it look not like a dorm room”.  She asked for advice with picking out paint colors, and then we went one better and went to help her paint. I started by taking some photos of the small apartment and used my Color Capture app to illustrate my ideas.

The entryway was the jumping off point to the color scheme because the most striking feature of the apartment is there – beautiful tall windows that are edged with yellow and green stained glass squares. I thought she should put most saturated color there because the apartment has very low ceilings, and though it is sunny in the living room, the windows are rather small. A saturated color in the entryway would be an interesting highlight and would not be oppressive in the small space. A green for the entryway would bring in the outdoor foliage and the colors of the stained glass in the windows.

A stepfather with an eye for detail is a good thing


I suggested a un-babyish blue for the living room so that the room would feel expansive and sophisticated. The kitchen counter is yellow and the backsplash is grey tile. The existing color for the cabinets was a yellow that made them the focal point of the room when they shouldn’t have been. I thought a light color would make the cabinets recede and make the kitchen look clean and neat. I sent Camelia some samples I made with the Color Capture app and some paint chips look at in the light of the apartment.

the kitchen before. the yellow cabinets dominate and the beige walls were dull

Using my general direction but making her own choices, Camelia picked beautiful colors. She picked Benjamin Moore’s Silver Cloud for the living room/kitchen. It is a luminescent greyish blue color that changes with the light and made the room look soothing and fresh. In the late afternoon sun, a wall might look white one place, a soft grey or blue in another – an interesting chameleon-like color. The white trim of the windows looked crisp against it even though they had not been repainted.

painting the living room in Silver Cloud

the grown-up with very good taste in paint color choices

work-in-progress, benjamin moore’s bavarian cream on the cabinets

For the entryway, she chose a mossy green, Benjamin Moore’s Dark Celery. The kitchen cabinets were painted in a luscious creamy color. It was beautiful to see the paint brushstrokes of the color that is so aptly named Bavarian Cream.

We painted together and laughed and went out to dinner and watched a late movie and then slept over in our daughter’s first grown-up apartment.

paper lantern pizzazz

Oona made this pendant lamp for my bedroom. It is all the right good things – cheap, beautiful, and easy to do.

Oona created the lamp in a marathon of TV watching of Law & Order or Hell’s Kitchen late into the night. It is a dramatic light fixture for very little money. I saw a tutorial on Design Sponge – click here for her post with more how-to photos.

So simple to make, it requires only a few materials:

– a round paper lamp shade purchased at Ikea
– paper
– wood glue
– a cool to the touch LED lightbulb. I bought a dimmable one.

This light fixture cost under $20 to make.

the twin teardrop chandeliers

The work on the entryway is slow going, but it’s going. Back in the winter, I purchased two teardrop chandeliers from PB Teen that were on sale. When I finally got around to putting the first one up in the spring, we discovered that it was defective. I was so disappointed when I checked the website and saw they were no more. The lamp was tinkered with and deemed okay as long as the bulb wasn’t changed. So I stuck a bulb in there that would last for 30 years and hoped for the best. A week went by and then it died for real. Since so much time had passed, I never thought the store would give me a refund so I settled into the idea that the hallway would only have one light. But I didn’t like it. The lighting placement looked lopsided and there was a very ugly glob of plaster in the ceiling at the other end that I’d made worse by gouging at it with a knife thinking there was a box for a light fixture there.

One day I decided to do a web search for “teardrop chandelier” to see if I could find something similar that would look good with the existing light. And the first thing that popped up was the same chandelier from PB Teen! It was back! I called them and told them the story. To my surprise and delight, they said they would send me a replacement chandelier right away even though it was months since I’d bought it. Old school customer service.

PB Teen Teardrop Chandeliers

The electrician that has installed and fixed all of the light fixtures in the apartment is a woman named Deb Lee. I really like the fact that she is a woman electrician. In my mind there are two jobs that clearly fall under the responsibility of the man of the house:

1. Dealing with all potential electrocution scenarios.
2. The removal of dead vermin.

So I’m in awe of Deb.

Deb Lee at work

When the new chandelier arrived, Deb came to install it along with her colleague Eric. She told me that it would look so much better to run the cabling inside the ceiling instead of just hiding the wires with a wiremold. Eric was there to plaster away the holes. He even covered the glob that was such an eyesore. Good craftspeople who are skilled and care about what they do are hard to find – I am lucky. More to come…

Eric hard at work

woolly pockets for the bathroom wall

I’m putting the finishing touches on the bathroom and I wanted to hang Woolly Pockets for an indoor garden to add drama to the stark white walls. The only visual pop in my bathroom are the Cuban tiles on the floor, the rest is clean white subway tile (see more here). My neighbor Brad gave me the idea. Our bathroom window faces the community garden adjacent to the homestead and the weeping willows can be seen as you are taking a shower. Brad said he wanted plants in his bathroom in order to extend the green into the room. I liked that thought, but our bathroom is tiny so the walls had to come into play. An extension of the outside garden in the form of a hanging garden was the vision and Woolly Pockets Wallys are perfect. I like that they are made of recycled plastic bottles. Being a lover of yarn, I like that they are felt. Felted plastic bottles that are soft and feel like wool. Beautiful.

Plants were procured from the farmer’s market. I got a Bird’s Nest fern, a Rabbit’s Foot fern, Jasmine, various Coleus plants and others. I used cuttings from old Philodendron plants that had been my mothers and grandmothers.

plants at the ready

I was very surprised at how easy it was to hang the Woolly Pockets. They give you all of the hardware, all you need is to drill a hole in the wall. You don’t even have to find a stud, the anchors that are included sit right in the sheetrock wherever you want to place the pocket.

Now, to care for them so that they flourish.