I’ve paused Daily Catskills because I no longer get any feedback, and this website takes hundreds of hours to shoot and write. Do you enjoy the posts? Let me know and if enough people comment, I’ll pick it up this winter. I decided to enjoy this glorious fall in the Catskills instead of feeling pressure to get the best shot.
Additionally, I have a very long story to tell and I have started my memoir on Substack, the place where writers can get paid for their work. For a monthly subscription of $5, you can be entertained by all the stories behind the best pictures that have been offered free for the last decade. Do you want to read the – sometimes hilarious – stories behind these images? Hiking mishaps, radio daze, farming, food, booze, conversations and the dog’s life, in eight long-form posts a month: that’s 62 cents for an essay of 1000-2000 words.
If you’ve been enjoying Upstate Dispatch free for eight years, please consider subscribing so I can turn my story into a book. If you love what you see, please consider sharing on social media, so I can raise my subscriber level to make it worthwhile.
Yes, I’m still here! I know some of you can’t believe it. It is, however, the 9th birthday of Upstate Dispatch and this is the 2,355th post. Yes, I persist. The Daily Catskills section began again this year on September 1st for the fall season, but it’s just too much work to maintain it year-round. (BTW, there are a few splotches of red in the foliage here and there, and in small pockets, mostly shady areas, we have piles of fallen leaves, but because of the heat, it still feels like summer. Try telling that to the tomatoes, though.)
If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I have mostly been focusing on art, and writing. I’m working on a memoir, not because I’m special, but because there’s a story here that I need to tell. Part of this story was published in Farmerish and it was well-received. You can read it here.
I will be publishing an introduction, some excerpts, and companion pieces to this memoir on Substack: a “new economic engine for culture”, which is a paid newsletter that gives writers a chance to earn a living. For those of you who are interested in paying a very small subscription for my content. Here’s a chance to find out more about who I am. I hope to see you there!
Finally, I often go out for lunch, breakfast or dinner in the Catskills and hear about how Upstate Dispatch has helped local businesses. I really appreciate the feedback and thank everyone for their support.
A very rainy summer is coming to a dry, sunny end – well, fingers crossed, as summer’s not officially over until September 22nd this year. I have mostly been focused on my fine art studies at Andes Academy of Art. Every Wednesday, there is a figure drawing session with a live nude model, from 4pm-7pm at Streamside Yoga, 509 Main Street Andes that only stops during the darkest depths of a Catskills winter (and word is that we’re in for a bad winter). Local artists Lisbeth Firmin, Steven Burnett, Gary Mayer, Peter Mayer, William Duke, Sandy Finkenberg attend this class, and it’s been a thrill to be influenced by the best artists in the Catskills, and although my sketching is getting so much better, my watercolor is what sells.
This year I launched a print version of Upstate Dispatch – a magazine – that was well-received, but did not sell well. I’ve caught up with the retailers of the magazine who said that customers did not want to pay $20 for the magazine. I’ve mulled this over with booksellers and local artists, and we’ve come up with the theory that people see magazines as disposable and don’t want to pay for them. I collect some magazines, and all my artist colleagues – about 30 friends – all bought a copy of Upstate Dispatch because they see it as art.
This theory is proven by the fact that our sketch sale to benefit The Heart of the Catskills animal shelter at the Andes Academy of Art this week was mobbed by customers who were happy to pay $20 for a rough sketch or watercolor that took less than 20 minutes to draw in our figure drawing classes. The whole show of about a hundred works that were tacked up on the wall unframed, was almost sold out.
It really opened my eyes to what sells and what is valued. Art is, after all, a commodity. Periodicals, not so much.
This brings me to books. A local bookseller told me last night that nobody wants to buy books either! Journalists’ salaries have been in significant decline for decades, but do people really want all words to be free? How’s a writer supposed to live? Despite this, Upstate Dispatch celebrates its 9th birthday this year. Thank you to all who read regularly and, an extra thank you to a handful of you who contribute (through the donation page). Plans are in the works for an art studio and gallery. I hope you’ll come and visit.
The year 1992 was dubbed by The Queen of England to be her Annus Horribilis – a common Latin term for horrible year – after parts of Windsor castle burned down along with some of its priceless historical artifacts.
This year is farmer Jake Fairbairn’s Annus Hay-ribilis, an extraordinarily bad hay season, the worst in his entire decades-long career on the farm, due to this summer’s incessant rain. Nobody’s going to get that reference, Jake told me, but I just couldn’t think of another hay pun.
I didn’t think the reference was that well-known until along came The Crown on Netflix, which I stopped watching after Season 2. Being a Londoner, I had watched the real thing play out in British newspapers growing up and that was enough for me. No Brit who was old enough in 1992 can forget the images of the sour-faced Queen picking through the castle wreckage in her Welly boots and headscarf, tutting over charred objects that had been once admired by the likes of Henry VIII.
It’s been a while since I wrote with any regularity here, and I need to get back to my roots as a writer, so I started a new project: documenting the history and workings of this 93-year-old working farm to which I moved exactly two years ago: Lazy Crazy Acres Farm and its resident farmer Jake Fairbairn who makes hay and maple syrup on 100 acres. It’s a collaboration between Lazy Crazy Acres Farm and Upstate Dispatch. The farm is in need of some serious TLC. The house needs renovating and the farm equipment needs constant repair. Will we be able to fix up the house in time for the farm’s centenary? Who knows? But we have started by fixing the back porch, which was falling down.
Farming is a hugely risky endeavor. The weather is boss and this has been an extraordinary year in that this is the first year that Jake has not been able to make hay in June. In May 2023 we had a month of drought conditions: browned grass and hay growth that was only about 60% of last year’s mass. In June we have had near-constant rain. At time of writing, July 4th, Jake is fixing the steering wheel on one of the farm’s 50-year-old tractors, because it is still raining.
Furthermore, it’s not only good practice for me as a writer, but I also feel the need to publish my own authentic story. To this end, my next post will be a piece of my memoir that was published two years ago in Farmerish.net, which I am publishing for the first time here on Upstate Dispatch.
No sooner did I stop posting Daily Catskills on 5/31/23, than along came a swirling dark cloud of wildfire smoke that choked the Catskills, and much of the North East of the US, in a thick, dirty shroud unlike we’ve seen before in this area in living memory.
Historically, June has always been a bit boring for pictures, but not this year. Ordinarily, by the month of June, the Catskills has filled in with its multifarious greens, and daily shots during the summer all seem the same, so I suspend the Daily Catskills genre until autumn when the real colors start to pop. But this year in June, one hundred burning wildfires in Canada traveled on prevailing winds – looking much like a tornado from satellite images – blowing a layer of orange, sooty, ashy smoke for two days from Monday night (June 5th) until Thursday morning (June 8th). The sky became shades of orange, blue and grey – and blazing red around our bloodshot eyes. Everybody looked like they’d been up all night partying, coughing like they’d just smoked 20 cigarettes.
Moreover, it all got a little unnervingly chilly under that massive cloud of wildfire like we were in a Cormac McCarthy novel, I wondered, should we get the cart and starting walking??
But it all blew over.
The moral of the story is that we are all connected. It’s never been more obvious that the struggles of our neighbors are also our concern. Huge fires that burn thousands of miles away send smoke signals around the world, heralding the alert of climate change.
To compound the issue, we have had an unseasonably dry spring here in the Catskills and still have the big beige patches of crunchy brown grass to prove it. Hay season will bring roughly 60% of the yields of previous years in the Dry Brook Valley. The Catskills used to be a veritable rain forest, but not this spring. Our rivers are running low and the infamous Kaatskills waters are evaporating. Locally, we’ve received reports that springs are drying up, and that the water levels are at 50%.
We’ve had some rain in June thus far, but it’s been a mediocre mist at best. The first half of June has thus far been a drought.
We’re very proud to announce that the Winter 2022 Issue of Upstate Dispatch was published last year and is available for sale. It’s been a serious challenge to be a novice publisher, but the outpouring of enthusiasm has been hugely encouraging. As a writer, I was convinced that readers still wanted some print materials and I was right to take the leap.
There’s so much distraction on the internet that avid readers are moving away from it. The last month has shown me that readers consider a book or magazine to be a rare treat and a small luxury in trying times. I worked hard for eight years on the website, bringing a wealth of information on the area to thousands of readers, and I was dedicated to making the magazine beautiful. I hope you’ll invest in a copy.
You will soon find the magazine in select independent book stores in New York City, but for now, those outside the Catskills area can order their copy by emailing [email protected]. The price for mailing within New York State is $20, plus $5 postage and packaging.
Please watch this post for changes as we expand our availability.
In the magazine, you’ll find winter recipes, interviews, essays, recommended reading and some of the best images of Catskills winter hiking in one beautiful issue.
Bills Birns needs no introduction having been a teacher in the Central Catskills area for over 40 years. Read my first interview with him here, the most popular post on the website with 13,000 views and counting on social media. He has very much made an impact.
As a writer and poet, Bill has published several works, his latest being Fleischmanns In Verse, A History and next Tuesday he will read from this works at The Village East Cafe in Fleischmanns, 1109 Main Street, Fleischmanns, NY 12430 on Tuesday April 12th, 2022 at 5.30pm.
I took some time off to finish my memoir last month and part of it was published in Farmer-ish. Please find the link to my essay here.
If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I’m a former city girl: a Londoner, then a New Yorker, who is now living on a 100-acre farm in the middle of the Catskill Mountains of Upstate New York, tapping maple trees, planting vegetables and driving tractors. I write about my hilarious first tractor lesson, which was the culmination of a turbulent two years: a painful divorce, a long stint alone in quarantine on a mountain top, and then falling in love with a local farmer who lived six miles away over the mountain, but I had to pay 100 bucks to meet him online. I now live with him and (part-time) with his young children and, thus far life has been as wild as that first day on a tractor.
Farmer-ish is a beautiful, literary farming journal and I’m proud to have my 1500-word essay included in their Winter Solstice edition. I hope you enjoy it.
Daily Catskills is closing on October 31, 2021, possibly for the rest of the year as these hills go into hibernation. Go back years on Daily Catskills here.
If you would like to see daily content continue, please consider donating. Find our Donation Page here.
There will still be some weekly content leading into winter – with local news, links and interviews – and Instagram, where content will focus on food, drink and cozy places to visit during winter here in the Catskills. Meanwhile, here are some retro-links to past articles here on the website.
There is a wealth of content here on Upstate Dispatch. Please peruse the blog while we regroup and, of course, we welcome your feedback.
From the Upstate Dispatch archive:
Some past Catskills Conversations: The Burnetts, Jeannette Bronée, and Joyce St George. We have some badass women living up here in the Catskills. Joyce St George is a powerhouse with an intimidating resume. She began her career in the 1970s, when she became the first female investigator to serve in the New York State Attorney General’s Special Prosecutor’s Office on Anti-Corruption. Following the dramatic testimony of Frank Serpico, Joyce and her colleagues rooted out corruption within the criminal justice system in NYC, investigating police officers, judges and district attorneys. Find other Catskills Conversations here.
My dog, Alfie, a Black Labrador retriever mix, can’t tell me how much pain he is in, but I’ve known him since he was nine months old and he’s tough: a good dog, a trooper. About a month ago, he snapped his CCL, the cranial cruciate ligament in his leg (named ACL in humans) and after some research I feel like this is actually the end of months of pain. Vets now think that CCL injuries are progressive: picture the ligament being like a rope that frays with wear over years of heavy activity – like sprinting and jumping – and, then, finally snaps. Alfie is what some vets call an “athlete” and he’s now nearing retirement. From time to time over the past few years, he has taken to periods of limping, has been slow to get up after strenuous exercise and needed to rest, so this school of thought makes sense to me.
It’s been quite a summer already, which I hope marks the end of a tumultuous two years. Upstate Dispatch has moved to a new HQ in the gorgeous Dry Brook Valley. I’ve spent the rainy July selling up and moving, which included the transportation of a beehive containing the badass overwintered bees who have survived the move, and Alfie, the black lab, has ruptured his MCL and needs surgery. He’s been hopping around on three legs.
I’ve just finished unpacking and exploring this lush, new area over the mountain which is so different from the Red Kill Valley and planting a garden, finding out what grows best on this land. The almost-daily July rain brought a bounty of mushrooms that need to be identified, but one key benefit from all this rain is that I will have a huge crop of melon for the first time.
The most noticeable part of these pastures new though are wild plants in huge numbers: ramps, reishi, burdock, bergamot, mullein, dandelions and welcoming, calming wild camomile growing in abundance that is just flowering now. I find that symbolic after such a challenging two years. The camomile plant is known for its almost extreme hardiness and a wide variety of properties beneficial to health. Steeped in hot water, camomile flowers are calming and good for the stomach. You can also make a facial moisturizer by mixing the concentrated tea in an inert oil like sunflower, or coconut oil. I grew it in the garden before I realized it was all over the place and it doesn’t seem to be taking well to being treated kindly!
Speaking of facial moisturizer, I’ve been testing Heaven on Main Street products, in my search for natural, local make-up and face cream. A trip to Catskills Harvest in Andes made me realize just how many local artisans we have making soaps, potions and lotions here: more than ever before, it seems.
My next stop will be Island Girl Henna in Delhi to treat myself to a full-sleeve temporary henna tattoo, but I just have to come up with design ideas. Updates on all this will be forthcoming.
But lastly, here I have landed, in the Dry Brook valley, home of possibly the most gorgeous hike I’ve ever experienced, my first Catskills 35 hike, which begins at the end of Rider Hollow Road, a truly magical place: the hike to Balsam Mountain and it’s glorious view. I leave you with my account of that hike to read here. Daily Catskills will resume in August.
As the saying goes: the only constant in life is change, and I am moving on to pastures new. Upstate Dispatch is hopping over the mountain to a new HQ. We are selling the homestead in which I quarantined alone during the pandemic with my dog Alfie, the homestead that we spent over 10 years developing – for these recent events, no less – which is featured on this blog. Scroll through Upstate Dispatch and see how the property has grown over the past decade.
It’s not perfect, and we spent our time paying much more attention to the outside than the inside because we were establishing a homestead first and foremost. The focus was mostly on the land, and it’s truly a sweet spot, zoned agricultural, between Fleischmanns and Red Kill Mountain, situated on a secluded dead-end road, on top of a mountain at 2,200 feet on 6 acres with magnificent views especially in the winter.
Half of the property – the three-acre field – is old pasture land lined with stone walls in which we have built a full, fenced garden with raised beds, bee hives with electrified enclosure and a fruit orchard, set amidst a mix of rolling lawn and wildflower meadow, with mullein, mint, lilac, forsythia, masses of wild thyme, trout lilies, wild strawberries, wild blackberries, a line of young hemlocks, an ancient apple tree and a small-but-expanding ramp patch. In the orchard, we have ten apple trees, peaches, plums, eight hazelnut trees, Concord grapes, rhubarb, lilac, over-wintering sage and pears. The other half of the property is forest with its own trail and a small clearing within it, in which stands the house. In our woods, over the years I have foraged mushrooms: chanterelles, turkey tail, boletes, morels, ghost pipe and medicinal reishi.
The southerly views were a source of strength throughout the pandemic. From the deck you can see Belleayre Ski-Mountain and Slide Mountain to the south, and Brush Ridge and Halcott Mountain to the east. The views are mostly filled in with a line of towering oaks during the summer, but you don’t need them then, because the sheer beauty of the property is more than enough. The three-acre field used to be all hay. When the realtor showed us the property, we got out of the car – remember getting rides in cars? – and my husband walked towards the hay and then slowly took off at a cantor until he disappeared and all we could see were the soles of his feet rising up and down in the tall brush, arms outstretched as if he were conducting a grassy orchestra. I turned to the realtor and said: “I think this is the one”. The oaks also serve as privacy from your lovely neighbors on the ridge which is a subdivision of nine houses.
In the depths of winter, with the panoramic views, you can see the weather approaching from hundreds of miles away. For years we would work at our dining table that was situated in front of large-paned sliding doors and watch nature in all her glory. Sometimes a dense chalky cloud would loom into view, hover briefly over a neighboring mountain as if it were merely stopping to drop someone off, and engulf its peak, silently laying a white cap of snow like it was a huge machine icing a cake before moving slowly on. Storm clouds would glide past in the middle distance like floating balled up socks, flashing erratically, dropping blurry sheets of rain like shower curtains, exploding with flashing lights and emitting furious, powerful thunder that made the house shudder.
A wild year at Upstate Dispatch is hurtling to a close and due to the uptick in COVID-19 cases we are being advised by epidemiologists, doctors and the media not to have Thanksgiving with people outside our immediate household. The Atlantic declares that there’s only one pandemic rule.
This year’s hunting season seems to be more popular than previous years as these mountains ring out with gun fire daily, one incident shaking the rafters of my house like a thunder clap. Food is expensive and this year has been financially difficult for everyone, but most of the Catskills is open for hunting, and so extra precautions – over and above the COVD-19 precautions for outdoor recreation – must be taken during this hiking season. See links below. Watch this space for winter hiking tips coming shortly.
November has been taken up with research and development for 2021’s TV station, Catskills Air. I’m now taking names of people to interview for my new Women of the Catskills segment for Catskills Air, and my Upstate Dispatch You Tube channel. If you would like to participate, or know a woman of the Catskills you would like to nominate, please email me on [email protected]. Candidates will be coached on Zoom lighting and back-drop set-up.
The Catskill Mountain Club has reported that we have already had four hunting fatalities in the region. Most of the Catskills is open for hunting, so all hikers and their dogs must wear blaze orange when hiking the Catskill State Park. The CMC has published a list of other places to hike during hunting season.
Is it Spring or not? I’m afraid not. Up here in the Catskill mountains in the last weekend in April, winter has still not left us. Listen to our first podcast, a spring walk recorded over the weekend of April 25th and 26th, 2020. Saturday was filled with birdsong. However, Sunday we had snow, hail, and freezing rain, but your editor, narrator J.N. Urbanski still walked through the forest and waded through a stream to a waterfall to capture some ambient sounds of the countryside for those listeners stuck in quarantine in the city.
Click on the Sound Cloud link here to listen to the 21-minute podcast. Kick back and pretend your walking with Jenny and Alfie, the black lab mix.
Here in the Catskills a high percentage of the population are seniors and retirees, so the community is taking social distancing and self-quarantine very seriously. Gatherings, even of small groups like book clubs and language classes, have been cancelled, but we still need to support local businesses to keep them up and running. There has been much laughing over why there is no toilet paper. Why is toilet paper a rarity but fine Belgian beer and fabulous chocolate freely available in bulk? Strange. Perhaps because there are no leaves on the trees yet?
Back in the day, something described as “going to seed”, was something – usually a woman – that was old, neglected or useless, on the turn, dried out or past its sell-by date, but we can take that idiom back and revise it. We can transform it into a farming analogy to assist people preparing for another round of winter blues, cabin fever or those suffering the bleakness of depression or raw pain of heartache .
From Kristi Burnett of Burnett Farms, a local farmer, comes a tip that she received from a past mentor. If you’re in the depths of depression, imagine yourself as a seed frozen and buried in the earth. It’s dark and cold down there, but come spring, you’ll transform, emerging from the soil with enormous potential, growing into a towering oak or majestic hemlock, a being much larger than you were before. Now is the time to hunker down, meditate, study, and prepare to break ground and blossom in the spring. You may never be the same again, but you will be robust enough to scatter your knowledge like more, hardier wild seeds in a strong wind.
Winter is here. We’re uncertain as to how long she is staying this month, but it you’re stuck in your garret mourning lost love like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, living on a frame of home-produced honey and foraged mushrooms, its arrival comes way too early. If you have nobody to snuggle in your hibernation, now is the time to find someone.
Fortunately, up here we have some fine influencers keeping hope alive: gentlewomen of modern lore. Laura Silverman of The Outside Institute kindly reminds us that there still sparks of life in an apparently barren landscape. Laura will be leading a winter foraging walk on December 7th. Leigh Melander of Spillian shares an article in Fast Company on how Norwegians enjoy winter. Norwegians celebrate the things one can only do in winter and make sure they get outside every day: “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. Norwegians also have a word, koselig, that means a sense of coziness. It’s like the best parts of Christmas, without all the stress.”
Winter in the Catskills is undoubtedly a spectacularly beautiful season, with the former vibrant landscape frozen in time, with seeds hovering atop dry stalks, ready to fly into the wind. If you have south facing windows, remove your curtains or blinds and let the low light flood in first thing in the morning and remain there all day. To watch the deer stalking methodically in single-file through a snow storm in single-digit temperatures is to be reminded exactly how weak a species we are without our creature comforts.
Tomorrow will mark the five year anniversary of Upstate Dispatch. I’m not sure how that happened, but it’s been a wild ride. I can honestly say that this city girl has learned so much more about life, work and herself these past few years than could have been imagined.
You may have noticed that there hasn’t been much on the website these past few months and there’s a reason for that. I’m taking my life in an entirely new direction. I’ve no idea where it will lead, but there will be a new website devoted to more of my writing life than just this neck of the woods, and new media-based work in the arts and further afield. But there’s so much content here, you could peruse this site for the next year on the old posts alone. Below find links to the most popular posts of the past five years. Coming up for UD in the future, we’ll be more food-focused with new contributors to write on recipes, farming and the local economy. We’re looking for sponsors to underwrite our fall content and invite pitches to [email protected].
Meanwhile, over the summer, it has been nice to relax into the scenery, just exist in the woods, forage, harvest and meditate, without having to document every leaf, stream and view of it.
Upstate Dispatch Links
We never finished the Catskills 35! I have just six bushwhacks left and will do those over the winter because the summit is easier to find without the leaves on the trees. However, our hiking section is the most popular.
Last night, Alfie and I were up until 2am at a Wednesday night party on our 80-acre mountain top that has seen a motley assortment of fabulous neighbors move in over the past few years. It used to be quiet around here with only one other full-time neighbor, but no more. Finally, some more people to drink Scotch with and howl at the moon. There’s the artist and his partner/manager; a bunch of young, hip photographers from Philly; two hilarious European adventurers; a South American and her daughter who, last night, shook a fierce cocktail at 1am like it was our last party on earth: “blood and sand” with Scotch, vermouth, orange juice and cherry liqueur. Up here, we know what’s important.
The host’s female dog, Victoria, took a shine to Alfie, because he’s a ladies man. Ladies love them some Alfie. The only problem was that her big brother didn’t approve the match and he’s much bigger, with a head as big a bowling ball looking like he could ram his way through a stone wall without much trouble. There was much tentative nibbling and furtive kissing between the two lovebirds, followed by Alfie diving under the dinner table with big brother on his tail, using a wall of guests’ legs for protection. Alfie’s a lover, not a fighter.
Alfie and I jogged home in the crisp night air, under a star-crusted, inky black dome, but before that, there was much fun debate over whether I should walk – about 1000 feet – home alone. Most people on the ridge have had an encounter with the visiting bear, but the bear avoids me since I screamed like a banshee at it last time it came near the house. It’s possible that he’s been around before, but didn’t like the look of my machete. Regardless, the episode in which Alfie went after the bear and started barking at him, and then me running out of the house screaming at Alfie to stay away from the bear, now makes him literally take the high road instead when he passes by. The bear is not scared of us, but he must be keenly aware that we’re just bonkers enough to get him into a spot of bother and there are no sutures in the forest – only bleeding out.
Tonight was a gorgeous spring evening in the Catskill Mountains: clear sky, full moon, 60F with frequent, strong gusts of a humid breeze washing over our ridge like a warm tide coming thick and fast as if a storm was on its tail. Alfie nodded his nose up delicately into each wave and followed it through to find out who was where and what they were doing. Coyotes yipped faintly in the distance and I whispered: “do you hear that”?
“Yes!” he barked. “I wasn’t going to say anything, but now you’ve heard it!” He barked. Then he barked some more of his deep, throaty commands, holding his body rigid against the wind as if it might blow the coyotes straight up to our feet. As the yipping and howling died down, we marched across the brush, dried and flattened by another strident winter, listening to the bare trees creak and squeak – like (very tall) old ladies getting their hair messed up and complaining about it. Alfie was slightly hesitant and wanted to turn in – coyotes! What’s next? – but we stuck together, fur and hair ruffled by the strong, balmy air that pushed grassy, spring smells in our faces and I led the way under a dome of midnight stars. Bare trees allowed us a panoramic view of the mountains in the bright moonlight. Alfie’s attuned to my every mood by now, at my side like my Pullman daemon, able to explain everything with one look, sensitive to every gasp or concerned expression after five years together, but it wasn’t always like this, especially when he was a puppy and insisting on leaving the house at 4am.
In a recent article in Atlantic Monthly Magazine entitled Death Cap Mushrooms Are Spreading Across America, the author details how deadly amanitas are popping up all over cities and being eaten by city people because they are tasty, and I find it highly intriguing, being a former city girl, gone country.
Some naturalists theorize that man was “created” by the natural world, or Mother Nature, as a smarter, better way to spread seeds across the world in order to more successfully propagate forests – a sort of supreme effort by trees at world domination, if you like. If this is so, we turned the tables on this activity a few hundred years ago and in terms of the history of the planet that’s pretty recent.
To risk stating the obvious, we have stopped being useful to the trees. We have been chopping them down at an alarming rate for hundreds of years. A good way to get rid of us as a species, should they have the capacity to decide, would be to grow very tasty, highly poisonous mushrooms in abundance on the ground, ones that don’t affect local animals – only us as a species. Might the trees be trying to kill city dwellers?
Upstate Dispatch recently celebrated its fourth birthday and I took a bit of a break to ponder on why and how it started in the first place. As a writer, I’ve always lived in deserted areas of cities with cheap rents: Shoreditch when it was a post-industrial wasteland on the other side of Liverpool Street train station – a two-pub pocket of London that was deserted at weekends where I learnt to play pool; Williamsburg when there were still cars burning on the streets of Kent Avenue: Bed-Stuy, when there was an actual car burning outside our studio one time and where a musician came every Sunday with a set of speakers and an electric guitar to play where nobody heard him; leafy Fort Greene when the rents were laughably low and one local dive bar in a basement that teemed with characters fit for novels, bursting with life. As I moved on from one city to another, and one area to the next, in the above order, the expanding population followed hard on my heels. Shoreditch is now a tourist mecca akin to Piccadilly Circus or Times Square.
The Catskills, where I now live, is also a sparsely populated area where there are so many characters fit for novels and brimming with life in a completely different way: rural, and wild-forested natural history. Farmers, artists, historians, writers, homesteaders, cooks, teachers and more, nestle in the valleys of the Catskills and perch on mountaintops. Our forested ridge is fast filling up with young people seeking a more calming environment, good food and company. In the time since we bought our house, an astonishing eleven years ago, our dog has had the run of a 40-acre ridge-top and we only had two friendly full-time neighbors, a retired couple. All that is changing – our dead-end road is filling up with young, curious people and for the first time last night, as I read by an open window, I heard music coming from another distant house that mingled with owls, evening chirping and the waning laughter of crows.
New York City is charging out of its concrete jungle, sending out its long, withered, under-nourished tendrils towards us – the only vegetation that it can muster – gasping for life and some nurturing soil. This slow march from the city to the country is viewed with consternation by some, but if you’ve had children, you can’t really complain about the fast-swelling population.
Upstate Dispatch was started as a Catskills diary, a daily documentation of life in the Catskills and latterly my experiences as a writer in the past four years in local print and on my radio show on the eclectic WIOX Radio.
There is a so much to read on this site. Here are some more links to the best of Upstate Dispatch:
Our hiking page has been the most popular. Find our efforts to climb the Catskills 35 and document some of the best views in the Catskills over the years.
Every day, for the first 18 months of the website, I published one picture a day from around the area in the Daily Catskills section. Click here to scroll back through the years in this category.
Finally, a chance to meet Laura Silverman when she conducted a nature walk at the Foxfire Mountain House on Sunday. Laura has recently opened The Outside Institute and has been a guest on the radio show on WIOX and featured on this website, but we had never met in person – a common dilemma in today’s working practices. The Foxfire property – an inn and wedding venue – abuts the Catskills Forest Preserve and we had a tour of local flora and fauna that included a brace of skittish turkeys, bullrushes, ancient grape vines, mugwort, wild thyme, sumac, a lonesome tinder polypore, milkweed and some poison ivy. Poison ivy is difficult to identify, but essential if you don’t want to be itching or burning your way through summer. Did you know you can eat bullrushes? The walk was followed by cocktails using local ingredients in Foxfire’s gorgeously appointed bar. The Outside Institute has published a field guide to the Hudson and upper Delaware valleys and we’re currently working our way through it.
There’s been a lot of very precious writing emerging in the last few years here in the Catskills where we are riding a tsunami of elite influencers, food writers and stylists. One such darling is Tamara Adler, Hudson Valley writer, who detailed every minute of a few days in her splendid life for Grub Street back in February. Click on the link and read about how she takes her tea in a mason jar and “cooks her eggs over smoldering coals” in a “hand-forged egg spoon” by popping them into her wood stove, poaching them, just so. She calls gouda, a Dutch cheese, “culturally transgressive”. Oh my. Does she mean “culturally”, as in fermented (in rennet) or culturally as in hip? And by “transgressive”, does she mean that gouda is an asshole?
Contrived observations aside, country life seems startlingly easy in the Adler household. She issues statement like, “I fire up the wood stove”. If you have a wood stove, you’ll know why this is understatement of the year. If she has ever dropped a 15 lb log on her foot, she doesn’t let on, but more important – who can afford to let their wood stove burn down to a smolder in the darkest depths of winter? If I had put an egg into my raging wood stove in February, it would have exploded. The spoon would have melted.
Now the New York Times has weighed in because there has rightly been a backlash against the egg spoon now that Alice Waters sells them – also hand forged – for a whopping $250 per spoon. I’m an enormous fan of Alice Waters and her work, but a $250 egg spoon is a luxury and after all her hard work promoting a sustainable food system, she probably deserves it. But I also certainly don’t agree that the backlash is sexist. It’s economical. I think it’s pretty extraordinary that the writer is linking the backlash to the MeToo movement.
I need to weigh in myself because I really don’t want readers to think that country life in the Catskills is easy. It’s not. Ask my husband who’s had a learning curve so steep, he could probably build us a new house from scratch. Here he is, replacing our siding last year, nonchalantly getting on with it without complaining:
Further, we are still in the tail end – I hope! – of a six month winter and are running low on wood. We have run out of kindling, which is crucial to starting a fire quickly. There was plenty of it loose on the ground by the woodshed a few days ago, wet from the recent rain, but I forgot to sweep it up and dry it last night and now it’s covered in snow and completely useless. Today it took me exactly an hour to get the fire going. Now I have to go outside with the axe and make my own kindling for tomorrow because I feel like spring will never get here. It’s April 18th.
Yes, these mountains make you gasp in awe at their beauty every day of the year, but we do have our bad days. Cabin fever is a serious business if you work from home in winter. Maybe the fact that people are trying to cheer themselves up with old spoons is revealing in itself. Anyhow, in case it looks easy, here’s a more realistic rendering of a winter day in the life of a country lass and you can insert your own f-words before every noun. Continue reading →
I recently got back in touch with an old guest on my radio show, writer Linda Leaming, an American who moved to Bhutan twenty years ago. Linda and I are beginning a podcast series of interviews that we will conduct between here in the Catskills and her home, Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, because we have found that there are many similarities between our lives. We are both living in stunningly gorgeous, mountainous, rural regions in countries in which we were not born, with different cultures, and in doing so, we’ve learned so much about ourselves, the world and have much to share about this experience. Continue reading →
Here’s a picture of me working hard at the radio station while I take a break from Upstate Dispatch this week. My guest on the radio next week, March 19th at 9am, will be Linda Leaming, author of Married To Bhutan and A Field Guide to Happiness. You can stream the show online here: WIOX Radio. In both books, Linda writes about her life in Bhutan, a tiny buddhist country in the Himalayas between India and Tibet, and what we can learn from Bhutan’s trail blazing accomplishments in areas like the importance of the arts, conservation and the well-being of its citizens. The government has a metric called Gross National Happiness that it measures often, instead of Gross National Product. Bhutan has decreed that a very large portion of their country will remain forested. There is no styrofoam and very few plastic bags in Bhutan. In Married to Bhutan, Linda writes that the Bhutanese “have foregone opportunities to make money off their considerable natural resources – lumber, water, minerals, plants and animals in favour of their quality of life. That alone makes it a world apart”. A Field Guide to Happiness is her second book on Bhutan and gives us tips on how to be happy.
These subjects were on my mind while was in New York City last week and between appointments decided to pick up Linda’s book on happiness instead of just ordering it online. I went to Rizzoli Bookshop, Strand Bookstore, Bookoff and Barnes and Noble. I was told that Linda’s books are not stocked in any Barnes & Noble in NYC, (but they should be – and he will put in a request to order them). Then, because I just decided to be on a mission – I was in NYC after all – I called Greenlight Books, Bluestocking books, Community Books, BookBook and Unnameable Books in Brooklyn but not one stocked A Field Guide to Happiness. It occurred to me that the book did not exist in New York City because if happiness was actually attained there, the earth would violently tip off its axis due to the sudden unloading of the weighty burden of abject disgruntlement in that part of the world. If everybody in NYC became satisfied with their life or just simply decided not to be in a huge hurry, or if everyone smiled at the same time, the city would crumble into dust and wash out into the ocean out of purposelessness. On occasion I smile at people in NYC and they look at me with a confused “do I know you?!” expression. So I caved and ordered the book online. It came from a happy place far away. Continue reading →
After about 28 hours, power was restored to our home yesterday, which is nothing compared to what’s happening in other parts of the world. The entire episode was a necessary education in conservation and a return to a much simpler life if only for a day. We lost water (both hot and cold) and electricity, so no lights or gadgets except what we could power with our tiny generator. We had a wood stove for heat, but no shower, or toilet or even hand washing and the dishes piled up in the kitchen, which was so annoying that I spent hours melting snow to clean up. It takes approximately three to four cubic feet of snow to fill a 1.6 gallon toilet cistern that gives you one good flush. It takes another cubic foot of snow or so to do the dishes. This takes hours of slow melting of the snow over the stove in several saucepans. Continue reading →
It’s not until you run out of water that you realize how much of it you squander. I thought about this after our power went out this morning, but I really needed to wash my dirty hair. It’s been snowing since the early hours of this morning. Now that we’ve had over two or three feet of wet snow, trees are collapsing under the weight and pulling down power lines all over the Catskills.
We need electricity to run our water pump and hot water tank. So now we have to save the water to flush the toilet or drink, although I did have a liter bottle of fizzy water and just managed to wash my hair with it. I only needed a few ounces to get my hair wet and managed to wash most of the soap out with the rest. This got me thinking about why we need to flush our toilet with clean water and so much of it.
We’ve had whiteouts before but not like this. We once got five feet of snow and couldn’t open our front door, but we’ve never been without power for this length of time. Judging by neighbors on social media, most of the area lost power at about 10.30am on Friday 2nd March. Like most people in the Catskills, we have a small generator that runs on gas (petrol) that will supply our freezer, or charge our electronics for about eight hours. We also have a wood stove for heat, but we’re without water or lights. A friend is melting snow for water in the next village and we’ll be doing that tomorrow morning once our generator has run out of gas. Or we’ll walk down to the gas station and fill up a container if our country store is open. As darkness falls, it’s been quite calming to wind down with the dusk. We’re now in a blackout. We don’t see any lights across the mountains. It’s books by candlelight for some people and scrabble by flashlight for us once I’ve stopped writing. The only other problem we have now is that our pipes might freeze and burst in the basement without the electric heat down there. We’re also worried about our heritage apple tree (pictured above, top left). Without snow weighing it down, it’s a good ten feet taller. It’s also hard to get evergreens like fir and pine to grow well or in clumps because they need so much light. Now they are buckling under the weight, looking like closing umbrellas. We don’t want to lose them.
The snow continues to fall and is not predicted to cease until 1am tomorrow morning. Saturday will be a day of shoveling for everyone and at dawn we’ll go out and try and shake the snow out of the trees.
For me, February 22nd, will mark six years of my public radio career on WIOX in Roxbury, Upstate New York. Our “wildly diverse, live and local”, progressive little radio station in the heart of picturesque Catskills is a hive of activity, broadcasting locally on 91.3FM and streaming online on www.wioxradio.org. WIOX is now an NPR affiliate, having partnered with WSKG in Binghamton.
The whole endeavor has been an education and the setting couldn’t be more gorgeous: a converted barn in one of the most picturesque villages in the area. I believe my commute is one of the most documented in the region. A brief history: In late 2011, after spending more than ten years traveling back and forth between the US, Europe, and sometimes the rest of the world, I returned to my house in the Catskills and decided to make a life here. I felt lucky.* Continue reading →
After this week’s election victories, Monday’s radio show will feature two prominent guests: Jeff Senterman and Julia Reischel. From 9am to 9.30am, we will hear from Jeff who is Executive Director of the Catskill Center. Many people ask me what the Catskill Center does and now here is your chance to find out if you didn’t know. From 9.30am to 10am, we’ll hear from Julia Reischel, a former local journalist and co-founder of the now-retired Watershed Post, who is now going into politics.
You can stream the show online on WIOX on Monday November 13that 9am. Let’s hope it’s warmer than today’s 22F.
“There’s this thing happening… the women’s movement, and I want to cover it.”
Writer Nora Ephron uttered that sentence over 40 years ago and, as of last year, during the last election cycle, it seemed like our quest for equality hadn’t really advanced that far. Women still earned less than men for doing the same jobs, women’s rights were being eroded and sexual harassment in the workplace continued unabated. According to one New York City chef, writing in GQ Magazine, whole industries have been marginalizing the achievements of women in the restaurant business for decades. This year, though, we are experiencing a wholesale transformation in our zeitgeist. It’s a paradigm shift of epic proportions. Women are beginning to speak up, becoming more politically active and attempting to effect change by running for public office. “Women hold up half the sky,” the saying goes, and we should have half the representation.
Here in the Catskills, we have a remarkable abundance of female entrepreneurs: women blazing their own trail in this wilderness. The area is filled with strong, female icons, role models, influencers, artists, farmers, scientists and teachers. Last night, election night, saw a female entrepreneur, Julia Reischel, former journalist, take a seat on our local town council and all over the country democratic women won hard-earned seats in local office. Continue reading →
I’ve been in England for a family wedding for the last two weeks and although the British countryside is in my blood, and I’m shaped like a missing piece of its jigsaw, it was moving to return to the mountains, to our densely overgrown, untended property. It had a party in our absence.
We arrived yesterday, early evening, to find that the short path from the car to the house was a thick carpet of clover sprinkled with aging chanterelle. Half of the field that was mowed around our small farm is now festooned with yarrow, bee balm, milkweed, thistle, mushrooms, mullein and wild strawberries.
Last night’s weather was its own production deserving of an Oscar, with thick, white mist stubbornly hugging these vast mountains. Rings of fog capped the peaks like fluffy crowns that dissolved into the sunset to reveal a surly, grey armada of larger clouds above.
My new sister-in-law, who I call my bonus sister, said, before I left for England: “you’ll notice how remarkably flat Norfolk is”. Continue reading →
On my jaunts around the neighborhood, I regularly bump into people who love Upstate Dispatch. Last week, a reader told me: “I love the site! I just wish there was more of it”. Me too!
Upstate Dispatch takes hundreds of hours per month to research and write. All of the food and drink you see reviewed here has been paid for, with one exception, and where tickets are sold to local cooking, foraging, writing and art classes, they have been purchased. In the past, when we’ve had contributors, we have paid them. As I a writer, I believe artists and writers should not have to work for free. We are also an advertisement-free site, so we rely on donations.
If you love reading Upstate Dispatch, please consider donating. Future donations will fund a small summer arts and literary studio in the local village for Upstate Dispatch. We want to expand our coverage over the summer, move into the community, and revive the Catskills Conversations series, shedding more light on our local luminaries and their stories.
Lastly, I want to thank our past donors who have expressed their appreciation of Upstate Dispatch in a meaningful way. I’m sincerely and immensely grateful for the love!
After informal discussions amongst neighbors, I’ve gleaned that the cabin fever or winter blues hit a high this past winter. During a chance encounter with an acquaintance, I was asked: “how did you survive winter?”, to which I replied, “barely”. Although, most agreed that the weather wasn’t as bad as the year before. To be honest though, cabin fever aside, happiness seems to be quite rare these days. Last year, I was surprised when at a social group in NYC, as 20-plus ladies sat around in a circle, I asked how many of them were on anti-depressants and they all raised their hands. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a journalist or if people are being more honest lately, but in my experience, we’re opening up about anxiety. There’s a lot of be anxious about; the proposed revival of the coal industry is one of them. (Coal, really? Are we in Victorian England?) In my experience, the winter blues and bouts of cabin fever have been held at arm’s length by writing, reading, diet and lots of booze exercise (and the latest research, below, seems to indicate that what you eat affects your mental health). Even if you’re not a writer, a ToDO list or a journal can help enormously. As a writer, one has to get used to solitude, but spring is on the way, the buds are on the trees and after last night’s rain there might be mushrooms. There are definitely ramps in the valleys.
Here are some links on the latest news on health and exercise from some respected media outlets and some tips on writing:
A decent portion of my formative years was spent in the local library where, due to being English born in the seventies, my innocence was cruelly shattered by George Orwell. I don’t think Orwell or Golding is on the syllabus for eleven year olds these days, but for a sensitive soul like myself, the novels 1984 and Animal Farm ruined my taste for literature thereafter, but just being in a library now feels like home. My mother was an avid reader and our weekly trips to the library I will never forget, but sadly I don’t remember reading anything after being assaulted by Lord of the Flies, except for a feeble attempt at some Jane Austen and a lot of Oscar Wilde. Thanks to George, I switched to non-fiction.
I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone for reading Upstate Dispatch. This week, we were thrilled to receive some high praise, kind attention and a surprise donation: it’s enlivening to know that all the hard work is appreciated. All the analytics and visitor metrics in the world won’t tell us if you actually enjoyed reading it or not! UD has thousands of readers every month, from near and far, but hardly any comments. I also received some other feedback: you want to read more about me in particular, my life. My writing and consulting work takes me far and wide, introduces me to some incredibly interesting people and places. While I’m formulating a plan on how to deliver more of these stories on this website, here are some back links to some popular posts (at the bottom of the page). UD was started in September 2014, so there’s a lot of history here. Feel free to dig around and comment. I’ll be publishing back links from this site every couple of weeks.
This year, as a writer, I decided to get back into fiction and vowed to read more. I also vowed to attend at least one writer’s group, or start one, because my romance with the blank page can’t beat a night out with actual people. I will also be going down to the local library more: Skene Memorial Library in Fleischmanns to write my fiction. Country life can be isolating, especially if you work from home like so many local writers, farmers and producers. If you buy books, like I do, donate them to the local library when you’ve finished. It’s a great way to share some of your collection, while still having access to it.
Finally, I have been neglecting the high peaks, having ten more hikes to complete the Catskill 35. Tomorrow: North Dome and Sherrill – that’s if I haven’t signed up too late.
Popular Links from Upstate Dispatch:
Alfie, my black lab/shepherd rescued from the Kingston ASPCA, has his own fans and this post, entitled For The Love of Dog, about him was picked up by Mrs Sizzle in New York City. He was photographed by Shannon Greer at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
My thoughts on work, now that I’m closer to the real work of country life and also my thoughts on food and the food system.
Today, December 21st, is Winter Solstice, officially the first day of winter. The northern hemisphere of the earth is pointed the farthest away from the sun and, tonight begins its slow return towards it until the June Solstice of 2017. The ancient tradition of Yuletide, one of the oldest winter celebrations in Europe began this morning and will end on January 1st, 2017. Yuletide was a fire festival celebrated by the Northern Europeans. Pre-Zoroastrian Persians and ancient Romans celebrated something similar before the common era. Hannukah, the ancient Jewish festival of lights takes place almost concurrently with Yule this year, starting December 24th. The most enduring British tradition from Yuletide is the Yule Log, a small firestarter from a larger bonfire that was shared with many households by landowners in England. Evergreen trees were fashioned into wreaths and other decorations for the interior of the house for their refreshing smell. The Brits still make cakes fashioned into Yule logs and, of course, we still bring in pine trees, decorate them with lights, but now we call it Christmas. Happy Solstice!
My piece in Edible Hudson Valley’s Winter Issue on Wayside Cider was published this week. I wrote a long profile of owners Irene Hussey and Alex Wilson, a short version of which appears in the Whisk section in the front of the magazine. What I had not submitted for publication, was the results of the photoshoot I did with Alex Wilson of Wayside Cider, that took place in Andes. I followed him around with the camera, over hills and dales, while he foraged for apples. Edited out of the published piece was a brief paragraph or two on the humble Catskills apple.
New York State has been an apple state since before the first settlers decreed that each household should have its own orchard back in the sixteenth century. A wave of planting crept up and down the Eastern seaboard shortly after the settlers arrival, but Native Americans were cultivating apples long before then. Andes is, in fact, adjacent to the homesteads that were once historic Shavertown, one of the first settlements in the area and home to an ancient apple orchard that was planted hundreds of years ago by Native Americans. Sadly, both ancient orchard and town are now submerged under hundreds of feet of water that is the Pepacton Reservoir.
It’s about this time of year that a city makes a special guest appearance on Upstate Dispatch to honour my urban roots. There’s a lot that I miss about the city, but the most prominent difference between country and city life is that, in the country, you have to drive everywhere. In the city, you can walk or take readily available public transportation. Small towns and villages in places like my home country England are mostly very, very old and designed for walking or riding (animal or bicycle). British Towns radiate outwards like a rash instead of sprawling along lengthy American roads. You would never have an English address with more than three numbers in the street address, but yesterday I visited someone whose street number was 53939, which is unheard of in England and quite astonishing to foreigners. Even our longest residential roads, straight thousand-year-old roads that were built by the Romans, were split into sections called “high streets” like the A10, which is 90 miles long. It runs from central London to Norfolk at about a sixth of the entire country’s length.
Today is the first day of hunting season for shotgun users and I’ve been hearing gunfire echo over the mountains for the last month in preparation. The past few weeks of hunting season have been strictly for bow users only. Over the next month or so, there’ll be a plethora of camouflaged, gun-toting neighbors creeping around in the woods that abut my property, and sitting in makeshift deer stands. My husband saw a crossbow wielding neighbor stealthily striding out of the woods last week and felt like I had dodged an arrow.
As a new country lass, the first experience I had with a hunter was when I was hiking. Rounding a corner, our group chanced upon a man; perfectly still, holding what looked like an AK-47, looking like a stocky, camo-version of Bruce Willis in Die Hard. The gun made him look at least eight feet tall. He stared. We stopped. He silently crept towards us and then passed us without so much as an excuse me. We kept calm and carried on.
My Daily Catskills Canon camera has been with me through thick and thin: sun, rain, snow, blizzards, storms and horizontal hail that sprays you in the eyeballs like a Santa’s Visine. Co-incidentally, a few days before I was due to come down to New York City this week, the camera stopping working. So I took it to the storied Nippon Photo Clinic in Manhattan and just by virtue of it crossing Nippon’s venerated threshold, it miraculously became fixed. I was hoping to show the technician how it didn’t work, but it snapped away perfectly. I asked him if this was typical, but he shrugged his shoulders with a chuckle. Sod’s law, I thought as I checked the camera in for a clean and wondered how many famous photographers had paid the infamous Nippon Clinic a visit to have their equipment restored.
It’s been another beautiful Catskills summer. In the last few weeks, red leaves have been scattered sparingly on the forest floor like clues to a treasure hunt, leading me to my autumnal prize. A spectacular show, like the forest’s own Mexican wave, a static riot of color will commence later this month. A benevolent Mother Nature now has a cool wind in the works while Old Man Winter waits behind her gleefully rubbing his hands. I hope she flicks an acorn in his eye.
It’s at the waning end of this glorious summer that Upstate Dispatch celebrates its birthday. It turns a year old tomorrow, September 9th. I would, firstly, like to thank you for reading and all your wonderful comments, feedback and admiration. Readership support means such a great deal.
For the last three years, I’ve produced and hosted a radio show on WIOX that airs live on alternate Mondays at 9am out of Roxbury, New York. Two years ago, I did a series on feminism called Women in Film and set about doing research for the series. At the time I did my research two years ago, in about July 2013, the UK’s Guardian newspaper had reported the previous week that a recent study of 2012’s 100 highest grossing films found that only 28% of the speaking roles went to women. To say I was shocked and saddened is not exactly true because I was already certain that we have a long way to go before there’s some equality in Hollywood, so I just hunched over my desk with a long sigh and put my face in my hands.
A more recent statistic from the same publication is not much better: “women accounted for only 12% of on-screen protagonists in 2014, and just 30% of characters with speaking parts”.
Scrolling through back issues of Brain Pickings this week, I stumbled upon the post entitled “How To Avoid Work” and read it with interest. My eye lingered on one quotation in the article: “Your life is too short and too valuable to fritter away in work”. The artist in me agrees with this sentiment but my other half is too pragmatic not to find it irksome. Frequently paired with this idea is the notion of only “doing what you love” and the pursuit of this idyll. Because Upstate Dispatch is devoted to the city folk who are making the country their home and their business, I decided to ask the question: what is work?
When cabin fever sets in, sometimes there’s nothing to do but jump in the car and drive to New York City. Book an evening or two with friends, feed sushi to your dog, drink with a million old friends in your favourite bar and exaggerate like a true New Yorker. Driving in the city sharpens the mind as much as a good 25-mile assault course and, once you’ve survived the hair-raising journey, you’ll only be in the city for a few hours when the opportunity for a robust debate will present itself. Quirky customs and foibles are brought vividly into focus when you don’t live here. Strangers receive smiles with downright fascination and will swerve graciously out of the way for your gorgeous dog, but not for you. In fact, NYC dog lovers will converse with your dog like an old, dear friend and completely ignore the human on the end of the leash. Stern police officers on the RFK Bridge will take your toll without returning your gaze and then, out of the blue, light up like a five-year-old and yell: “HEY PUPPY!” after spotting your dog in the back seat.
There’s such a lot to miss about city life: furniture on the street (covered in snow); street vendors selling old, pristine issues of Life Magazine for five dollars; Wholefoods; opening up a coffee shop 7am, for a large tea, croissant and dog biscuit; Strand Bookstore; exciting visits to Manhattan offices bringing back old memories; sushi; La Duree macarons; the sprawling Brooklyn Navy Yards; cyclists; roof farms; the dulcet, reassuring tones of NPR on the radio.
Years ago, a new country neighbor confided that whenever her husband went away on business she slept with a loaded shotgun by the bed, but I believe in accidents, sleepwalking and all the other disasters that Hollywood screenwriters can mustre. A shotgun only wakes you up after it has blown off your leg when you knocked it over reaching for a glass of water. A dog, however, wakes you up before something happens (or will ever happen).
Enter Alfie, my first dog, who barks when someone crosses the street a mile down the road, has a sense of smell so strong he can tell that the UPS guy will be here in an hour and follows me from room to room like a family member who’s afraid I’ll commit suicide. I only have to look out the window with a slight frown and he goes to the window and starts barking ferociously. Last night I gasped at a movie and he awoke with a start and issued a dead stare right in my eyes with one ear cocked until he was confident that all was well. He takes his position in the household as Head of Security as seriously as a Black Lab/Shepherd mix can. In Alfie is combined both the sheer comedy of a Black Labrador with the bossiness of a Shepherd. More important, as a first-time dog owner I don’t even see myself as the master of this dog; he’s not my dog, rather I’m his human. I can’t be alone in believing that the master should not be picking up faeces off the road and carrying it in a little bag. No, I am the servant for the next… ever.
No words can possibly describe the Wild Hive Skillet Polenta with Eggs and sauteed greens. The menu offered “sunny side up”, but the server offered them whichever way I fancied, so I took them scrambled and they were cooked to perfection: lightly buttery and moist. Was there cheese in the Polenta? Who knows? There was something magical in there, whatever it was, that made me feel like going straight to the Blue Barn and spending $36 on an antique red silk dress from Shanghai. Last time I did that it was the biscuits and gravy from Diner in Williamsburg, and two dresses from Pima Boutique in the Girdle Factory on Bedford Avenue… circa 2001. Remarkable dining experiences that make me go shopping are as rare as rent-stabilized apartments.