Dear Family and Friends –
Everybody’s life seems to be curated these days. Carefully edited versions of your activities appear on Facebook, Instagram or whatever the new version of “welcome to my fabulousity” is these days. It’s a great way to both keep up with, and be envious of, all of your friends and acquaintances. But of course these updates never show the whole story. The bad times and failures are conspicuously absent. Christmas letters are no exception, either. They’re a recounting of last year’s achievements that are sugar coated to perfection. No one wants to hear about your troubles. They’d rather be envious of your picture perfect life than feel superior to your defeats.
Well, I’m about to change all that. This has been my annus horribilis – an unremitting tale of woe, disappointment, and bad luck. I am a living example of Murphy’s Law. I’ll probably sound a bit bitter throughout this letter, so I’ll apologize in advance. It’s as long-winded as usual, but with extra bonus whiny-ness.
The year started out on a deceptively benign note. Just your normal cold dreary January. At the very beginning of the month we headed up to Boston for John and Sarah’s beautiful wedding. John Sirgany was my neighbor, trivia team-mate, and all-around good guy until Sarah used her feminine wiles to lure him up to Boston. He’s still an all-around good guy and Sarah is a peach among women, so we were delighted to help celebrate their big day. We had a good time in Beantown where I dropped my phone getting out of cab, and a few hours later some kind soul found it and turned it in to the police. A bit unnerving for Keith to call my number and have the Boston police answer, but luckily we were able to make a short detour to the police station before boarding a train back home. Looking back, that may have been the last bit of good luck I had all year. Later in the month friends Kevin and Sherri convinced me that Keith was plying me with too much wine, so I needed to balance it out with a subscription to their new ‘nanobrewery.’ It was a very good idea.
February was very cold and and very snowy. My response to this sort of weather is to rush out and feed livestock as quickly as possible and then rush back to burrow inside in front of the fire with a good book, good music, and good bourbon. This is not the best recipe for losing weight and feeling younger, but… it was my modus operandi for much of the month. To aid in getting older and fatter by the fire, I refinished a few small tables just big enough to hold a book and a cocktail and recovered two cheap chairs in bourbon colored fabric. I even made an ottoman for one chair, so now I’m in old fart heaven. Also, in order to provide assistance in expanding my waistline, Keith decided to cook his famous cassoulet for a Valentines day dinner we hosted. It’s famous because you never know just what you’ll find inside his bean stew (I think this year’s version had at least 4 deer, 2 ducks, and 3 pigs). Since finances were getting alarmingly tight, we cancelled any idea of winter travel and instead had a quick visit to Richmond to catch up with Keith’s music star nephew visiting from Nashville at a great family jam session. And then a quick overnight to NYC with free transport (compliments of Keith’s employer), free accommodations (compliments of Ned McNeal) and free dinner (long unused wedding present compliments of Mike Roselli). We had great time because it was first class all the way, and, in case I forgot to mention it, it was free! Nothing happened on the farm until sheep shearing at the end of the month. Jeremy & Keith took the physical brunt of things by flipping sheep for the shearer. I just picked up fleeces and sorted and skirted. Even so, my back ached and knees were bruised and bleeding, and I was so tired of sheep and dreaded the 24/7 on-call nature of the upcoming lambing season. I’d much rather stay by the fire than deal with sheep obstetrics, but I hope that attitude didn’t come through on this podcast interview I gave after this year’s shearing.
March was when things really started to go downhill for me. Usually March does this little teasing game, “Hey, I’m a lion! Look, now I’m a lamb!” This year March did not mess around. March said “I’m your worst lambing nightmare ever. Prepare to suffer!” Very cold. Blustery. Unforgiving. Lambing started a bit early – in fact, we were slightly unprepared when, during a night of heavy snow, a ewe prolapsed and I found her with a nearly frozen uterus and a live lamb. Called the vet. Ewe died. Lamb lived. Then a second one couldn’t lamb. I could not get the lamb out. I called the vet for the second time in 24 hours. The lamb turned out to be a monsterous blob and not alive and we had to give her a c-section. It was easy enough to switch the live orphan lamb with the dead blob and the mother none the wiser. But then I had to call the vet AGAIN. A ewe was in labor but couldn’t lamb as she was not dilated. We induced labor. She passed a dead lamb and promptly spilled her guts out too. All told 4 vet visits in the first week of lambing and 3 dead ewes! Not a very good start – and frankly not a very good finish.
What happened? I dunno, but I was stuck with a whopping vet bill and only 60 live lambs.
This was the year of large single lambs. While everyone did lamb – they didn’t have their expected normal sized twins. They mostly had super large single lambs! If everyone had twinned we would have had 130 lambs. So, realistically were expecting 100, but we only wound up with 78. What happened? I dunno, but I was stuck with a whopping vet bill and only 60 live lambs. The rest of the month was mostly winter right up to the bitter end. Chris Hall’s 60th Birthday was a lot of fun, and we did enjoy a few other things, but mostly it was the month of lambing disasters and miserable weather.
So April is when I should feel better about life – lambing is over, the weather is better, and city folks usually come out to the country and fall in love with a cute little cottage or a large estate, and pay me big bucks to buy it. At least this April was delivered on the weather: the sheep and lambs were on lush pasture; the kitchen garden was planted out; and the orchard looked good with new medlar and quince trees. Yet underneath the surface calm I felt I was teetering toward disaster. There were no buyers for larger country properties. They’d been thin on the ground for quite a while (hence my precarious finances), but now, right when they were supposed to make their annual reappearance – they vanished. While my destitution was the main cause of this unease, another trial presented itself. Jeremy, our trusty farm help was leaving to take a new job. Those who know him know that Jeremy is unflappable, calm, competent, hardworking and talented with farm equipment. In short, everything that I’m not. I’ve always known he was over-qualified for the few days a week of manual labor that he gave us, and I was very happy for him when announced he’d been selected as farm manager for a large 7,000 acre estate. Also, part of me was relieved that he found a new job before I would have to face the looming and sobering fact that I could no longer afford him even for the part time hours he gave us. But….the idea of running this place on my own, without any help was daunting to say the least. And while I could do it myself on a full-time basis, it wouldn’t leave much time for income-earning work – the type of work I desperately needed if I was going to keep this place afloat. And also, there are just some things with livestock that are simply two man jobs where you need two sets of hands. And, umm, frankly there are some jobs that I felt too old, tired, and uninterested in doing. What would happen?
I pondered that question as the growing season loomed in front of me. The litany of non-stop work grew in my mind. Grass needs to be mowed, fencelines need to be trimmed, sheep need to be moved, lambs need to be wormed, gardens need to be tended, hay needs to be made, brush needs to be cleared, and then it all needs to be done again and again, over and over each month until November.
The more I pondered this, the more I realized this was NOT how my life was supposed to turn out
The more I pondered this, the more I realized this was NOT how my life was supposed to turn out. By this stage in my life, my house was to be finished (and mostly paid off!), and I was supposed to have some well-trained farm help doing all the heavy lifting so I could just wander around, gaze at my flock and take notes on What Needed To Be Done. This scenario was dreamt up at age 35 when I imagined my 55 year old self wandering the farm saying things like, “Oh George, I noticed that the meadow paddock was looking a little overgrown, and get one of the men to weed-whack along the fencelines this week too. I want it looking sharp for the weekend!” And George, or Jorge, or whatever his name was to be, would say, “Sure thing boss! We’ll get right on it!” Instead here I was at age 55 feeling that my pride and joy was becoming more and more of an expensive lodestode I could not afford. The bright spots were a visit from our nieces Ava and then Meg, and a long delayed visit from Fred & Joost. They did their best to cheer me up – and succeeded to some extent.
My April funk deepened into May depression. Not even the nice weather, garden parties, new goslings, or hatching over 100 baby chicks could shake my despondency. The one bright spot was nephew Will Zuschlag’s extended stay in the area to train with some of the top equestrians in the country. He’s got a great (Olympic?) future ahead of him if he wants to pursue riding.
But after 5 straight months without any income whatsoever I was becoming increasingly desperate and those 3 am panic attacks that grip the dark recesses of the soul were becoming more and more frequent. What to do? What to do?
Very aware that I had no farm help to maintain this place, and all too aware that I had no business coming in, I threw myself at farm work instead. I was determined to stay ahead of things if I was going to do this all on my own. So the farm glistened at the beginning of the growing season. Every fenceline was clear, hedges trimmed, gardens manicured, and pastures assumed golf course perfection. But honestly, this really didn’t get me anywhere except further in the hole once I paid for all the gas to fuel mowers, trimmers, and tractors. And it didn’t make me tired enough to sleep the night through without late night soul searching….
The really frustrating thing about my predicament was that real estate seems to have recovered in every area of the country but where I live. And even here it seems to have recovered in every segment of the market except in the very segment of the market I specialize in. It would appear that the days of the grand Virginia country estate are at an end. So where does that leave me?
The realization that I could not sell the farm even if I wanted to (no ready buyers) put me in a huge bind. Keith had been very patient in paying all our expenses so far, but it was clear that even with constant overtime on his part, there was no way to us to pay for things on his income alone.
I needed a plan of action. Short of turning around the real estate market for luxury hunt country properties single-handedly (which I HAD been trying to do for the past several years), there was nothing for me to do but consider alternate employment. But what? What would give me the income necessary to keep the farm until I could sell it? What job would give me the time to run the farm while working full-time elsewhere?
Most importantly, what could someone my age hope to do after 12 years of basically working for myself?
Most importantly, what could someone my age hope to do after 12 years of basically working for myself? The answer = nothing. Since playing the lottery didn’t seem a winning strategy, and applying as a greeter at Walmart wasn’t going to pay my mortgage, I was stumped. Back to square one. Foreclosure seemed less and less like a nightmare scenario and more and more like potential salvation. Indeed, I was trying to market several larger bank-owned estates whose owners had been through exactly that. And they now were free of their properties and the responsibilities and expenses of larger country properties. At times it seemed almost tempting, but I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet. There had to be a solution.
I knew I was good at my job. I pretty much owned the local market for higher end properties. But that market was gone, at least for the foreseeable future. So, if I’m good at selling luxury properties, where are luxury properties selling? Well, it just so happened that my firm was about to open a new office in downtown, DC, in the very neighborhood I left 19 years ago to move to the country. And guess what? What was a fairly sketchy neighborhood 19 years ago, is now ground zero for stylish urban living. I jumped at the chance to be part of it all.
It’s been a steep learning curve in a market I thought I already knew. Neighborhoods have changed dramatically and prices even more so. The latest and chic-est restaurant changes every nano-second. And the price of desirable properties ratchets upwards every minute. After decades of population decline, DC is adding new residents at an astounding clip. Most of these are bright and shiny new millennials not yet beaten down by years of experience, but sprinkled among them are empty-nester folks my age leaving their suburban homes and eager to recapture their youthful romance with city life. To the younger buyers I come across as an old fogey, so I decided to capitalize on that and be the wise avuncular fellow who guides them through the first time buying process.
So now I have a schizophrenic life of baling hay in the morning and pretending to be a downtown sophisticate in the afternoon. Not sure that I’m adept at either pursuit, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
In late June Phoebe the donkey finally came home from her ‘spa vacation.’ She had been gone for over 2 months on what was supposed to be a 2 week visit with “Reno.” As anyone who’s ever met her can attest, Phoebe is pretty much the heart and soul of our farm. She charms everyone and is the love of Keith’s life. We’d long talked about her having a baby and went so far as to interview prospective fathers a few years back. So in April we had a ‘now or never’ moment and shipped her off to be bred. But like many females that wait a bit too long to reproduce it turned out she needed some assistance to make it happen. So, what was to be a short couple of weeks turned out to be a couple of months complete with hormone treatment as well. She came home slim and subdued and we were more than a bit worried about her. While she seemed pleased to be home, she also seemed very depressed and ey-ore like. Despite a new pedicure she looked a bit rough around the edges and way too thin. We soon fattened her up and she slowly regained her bossy and nosey old personality, and by the end of the month she was back to thinking she was running the farm again. Hope that this time next year we’ll have a bossy baby donkey too!
At the end of the month the Supreme Court finally got around to doing what they should have done two years ago, so at least now I can live out my days in peace.
July brought new resolve to Make Things Happen. But that meant cutting back on farm maintenance and spending more time downtown. So my surroundings got a little shabby for the first time ever. The garden was a riot of blooms and fecundity, but this year that meant weeds competing with vegetables and tomatoes rotting on the vine. I wasn’t happy having such a messy farm. And while I acknowledged the need to let it all go (no time, no money), giving up on the one area in my life where I still could exercise some control and impose order, was frankly more troubling to me than my lack of real estate activity. Certainly it was the most visible manifestation of my plight. The only consolation was that we were too poor and too busy to even consider entertaining, so no one really saw what a mess this place was.
Much of my July was spent searching for parking spaces in DC and showing broom closets masquerading as million dollar condos to unbelieving millennials. The DC market is exactly the inverse of the country market. Too many buyers chasing too few properties. As a result most buyers are not only dumbfounded at the prices, but they’re stunned when they’re expected to go a hundred thousand over asking price in a bidding war. My comments that they could buy a whole farm in the country for the price of a 1 bedroom condo downtown were not considered helpful.
Sitting in my downtown office waiting to lure unsuspecting buyers into my web, I spent much of my time retooling my real estate website to drive more traffic to it and make it as 21st century as possible. It took some effort, but the site does attract a lot more traffic (now, if they’d only actually buy a property…). Part of the internet overhaul was changing the structure of all my website hosting to make it more affordable as well. Of course that meant changing the farm website and this one too. All are now pretty spiffy and I consider it a pretty good trade off for letting the farm literally “go to seed.” You can see the results here:
farms-estates.com – real estate
touchstonefarm.org – farm
www.zuschlag.us – other stuff
The launch party for the new downtown office was a great success, so was the brief visit of sister-in-law Sandy and niece Mindy to check up on young Will Zuschlag and his training regime. A sad note was the loss of our male Blue Eared Pheasant. We’ve been letting the pheasants free range during the day, but the male was too tame for his own good. He’d follow me around like a puppy and I had to sometimes pick him up and move him out of the way if I needed to get a vehicle or mower past him. Being “in your face” can be fatal to a bird who isn’t wary of foxes.
August was when I began to truly question my ability to keep it all together as my world got grimmer and grimmer. I’m a pretty resilient person, but even the most stable of us has his mental breaking point. I continued to expend more frenetic energy chasing non-existent buyers, and buyers who didn’t want to deal with high-handed sellers. A prime example of this was a noted estate for which I had, wonder of wonders, a viable buyer – and not only a buyer who would purchase the estate, but also hundreds of additional acres to make it the largest real estate deal in Virginia this year. Visions of being rescued from financial ruin hovered into view…. But, alas, it was not to be. Of all the incredible scenarios – another buyer appeared out of nowhere – and this in a market without buyers! It was just my rotten luck. The sellers turned down our offer (at nearly 3 times the dollar amount) for another offer because the other buyers would take the estate without any inspections or study period. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face! My buyer was livid. I was livid. I still am after all these months. And to add salt in the wounds, a few months later, the other buyers gushed to the Washington Post how they had “rescued” the place. Ugh!
Towards the end of the month I was despondent and not much fun to be around. Keith had been working extra shifts and in what limited free time he had, he was studying furiously for his next level of wine exams. Of course he passed his exam with an “A” and is now a Certified Specialist of Wine. He made this just in time for the annual Society of Wine Educators conference in New Orleans. Why anyone would have a conference in New Orleans in August is beyond me, but he had booked the trip a long time ago, so we went. While Keith hobnobbed with the winos in endless seminars on ‘soil types of the Haute Medoc’ or whatever, I swam through the humid streets of New Orleans and had a pretty good time too. I guess I needed the break more than I realized. At the end of the month, old friends Greg & Wes invited us for a long weekend at their beach house and that helped my mood too.
My September was marginally better. At least my mood improved, if not my bottom line. Working with some new buyers downtown was actually fun. The farm was getting back in shape as the growing season started winding down. Most important is that I finally began to feel better physically – new thyroid drugs finally seemed to have sorted out my physical malaise and began giving me the energy that I’ve been so sorely lack the past couple of years. Just starting to feel like my old self again was a terrific mood enhancer. Now to get back in shape! Instead of heading off to my annual sheep gathering, we had a great meeting of Virginia Clun Forest sheep breeders here at the farm and wound up with more participation than the national meeting! I also sold a few sheep and was able to scrape enough money together to stay afloat through October. We escaped to NYC for six hours to attend Peter and Abdulrahman’s wedding. So poor and so stretched for time that we took the train up on Saturday afternoon, black tie in garment bags, changed clothes in a wine bar on the upper east side, went to the wedding and left to catch the 11 pm train home just as the dancing started. Got back to DC at 1:30 am, and then up early the next day to show large Virginia estates to millionaires who decided they didn’t want to buy after all. Typical! The best part of the month was 4 days of babysitting duty for the von Lipsey boys while their parents took a much needed break. Hanging out with energetic kids is both invigorating and draining in equal measure. It was great fun, but also made me appreciate my uncle status. I’ll leave the parenting to professionals.
October was a beautiful month marred by non-stop disappointments, but it did contain one bright spot. Keith’s spectacular success in his ongoing wine education reached new heights this month when the French Wine Society held its annual meeting at the French Embassy in Washington, DC. As one of the society’s newest members, Keith was eager to attend. The first night of the 3 day event included a blind tasting of 7 wines for all 150 attendees. Members were asked to identify the wines based on varietals, region, vintage, right on down to specifics such as what type of soils the vines were grown on and how the wine was aged. The next morning they announced the 12 semi-finalists. Guess who was among them? The next day they announced the top 4 tasters. Keith was still in the running. The third day they announced the winner of the blind tasting at the ambassador’s residence. Keith came in second and missed 1st place by only 1 point! Next year he promised me he would “take the competition seriously.”
Otherwise, as has become all too routine in my life, everything that could go wrong did. Every carefully constructed real estate deal collapsed. The cupboard was finally completely bare. After teetering on the brink of financial ruin, it was oddly anticlimactic to have the day of reckoning occur. What worse thing could happen to me? An empty bank account and massive debts was pretty much rock bottom, wasn’t it? Well, you might think so, but in my life there’s always something else. So one day I came home to find the farm truck nose end firmly embedded in a bed of swiss chard and the tail end hanging in the air. How it got there is a mystery to this day. I was so demoralized that I was tempted to just leave it there as a monument to my bad luck. But as we needed a truck to take lambs to slaughter in few weeks time, there was nothing for it but to have it removed and repaired. Of course, a week later first Keith’s phone and then mine cracked and shattered with six months left to go on our contract. So we were truckless, phoneless, and moneyless all at once. Yet it’s amazing how your spirits can be lifted by something as simple as passing out candy to roving bands of princesses and spidermans. Halloween in Little Washington is always a treat and a great reminder of how lucky I am to live where I do.
There’s something to be said for poverty. It does make you treasure the little things all the more. November was a quiet month, but full of small little pleasant moments that somehow cushioned the rougher edges of my plight. Mild weather made putting the farm to bed for winter an even pleasanter task than it normally is. And cool nights helped make a bourbon in front the fireplace after a day’s work outside, all the tastier. An even nicer side note was an unexpected and unprecedented uptick in real estate activity. Something that never happens in November. Perhaps a sign of better times ahead? At any rate, a few deals that will settle in December, January, and February perhaps may keep me going after all. Not out of woods by any means, but enough to give me hope. Eric & Octavio‘s joyous wedding was another mood enhancer. Keith passed his first official sommelier exam with flying colors (of course) and I had a nice Thanksgiving with old friends while Keith worked. The real highlight of the month however, was something so simple, yet life changing. Over a year ago in an economizing move we had gotten rid of our satellite TV (400 channels of mindless drivel) and our expensive and pokey satellite internet service at the farm and expensive internet at the condo. We upped the data package on our phones to provide us with okay internet service, and that, with a Netflix subscription, was what we used to keep connected to the world (though we’d almost always run out of data before the end of the month). Then in mid-November we were contacted by AT&T to trial a new rural internet service they were testing in four remote areas in Kansas, Georgia, and Virginia. The deal was simple. They’d install a small little box by our front door and a wireless router in the house and we’d have free unlimited internet for 3 months AND they’d pay us $50 a month for the privilege! Of course we said yes. It works like a charm. Blinding fast (24 mbps uploads and downloads). With the addition of a $35 chromecast dongle we now have the entire world of TV and movies streaming in high definition in the flash of an eye. We have seen the future and it’s pretty cool! With a swipe of my phone I can call up any programming from almost any TV provider in the world and have it on my TV screen in high def instantaneously. Needless to say, my French, Italian, and German language skills have vastly improved as a result of watching hours of Euro TV, but my productivity in other areas has plummeted with my new couch potato status. I figured I needed to max out on my usage if the trial is only for 3 months, but now we’re informed it will last until May 2016. Pretty sweet!
I was guardedly, cautiously, optimistic as December dawned. Could it be that my long decline into debt and destitution was over? True, I couldn’t pay this month’s mortgage on time, and I’ll probably have an iffy credit rating for a good long while, but at least there were now some real estate deals in the pipeline. Still, I’ve had these little reprieves before and it will take at least a year, if not two, of steady solid income to pay off debts and replenish reserves.
But that small reprieve gave me some permission to start enjoying the Christmas season until I got the devastating news (right as I was watching the local Christmas parade) that my good friend and neighbor Will Hopkins had died. I have known Will and his husband Joe for decades. Indeed, they bought their country property the same year I did nearly 20 years ago, and through those years we’ve grown even closer, sharing gardening tips, dinners, vacations, and just plain enjoying life together. Will and Joe are some of our closest friends and a huge part of our lives. Will’s picture is scattered throughout this letter’s photo galleries as it has been every year for decades. And now suddenly Will is gone.
Nothing else can jolt you out of a year long pity-party like the realization that someone you love dearly no longer gets to be a part of this world
Nothing else can jolt you out of a year long pity-party like the realization that someone you love dearly no longer gets to be a part of this incredible world. Despite the bad hand that I’ve been dealt this year, I’m still in the game. Will, with all his amazing talents and good fortune, is not. It was a very unwelcome reminder of the fragility of our lives.
Christmas was spent at Keith sister’s always festive house in Richmond, VA. This year was extra special because we got to meet the latest addition to the family. Both Keith and I got maybe just a bit emotional holding new grandniece (or great niece?) Aubrey. It’s amazing to see new life enter this world as others depart. Surrounded by mother, grandmother, aunties and great aunts, she was the center of attention. But, as her grandfather Brian said, handing me a beer when we headed to the garage to escape the female crush, “If I have to hear the words precious or darling one more time…..”
The year ended on a very glamorous note – an invitation to Palm Beach to attend a wedding and a new year’s eve party. As far as Palm Beach society weddings go, this one was pretty low-key (the choir almost outnumbered the wedding guests) but the service was incredibly beautiful and moving, and the reception simply stunning. And it was great to see old friends from around the country and re-connect to celebrate one of life’s milestones together.
New Year’s Eve was riotous fun. A seated dinner for a hundred or so and the pool covered with a see-through dance floor and the entire thing awash in a sea of champagne. There was a brief Gatsby moment at midnight as Keith and I left the dance floor and crossed the lawn to look out over Lake Worth towards the mainland and see all the fireworks up and down the coast reflected in the water. The year was just seconds old, and as waiters ferried drinks behind us, and partygoers danced and drank in the background amidst all the opulence America can offer, I couldn’t help repeat to myself, “and so we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.”
So that’s been my year. It’s been a rough one. But in otherwise blessed life, I guess a downturn or two are sometimes needed to bring you up short a bit, make you question your priorities, and truly appreciate your spouse and friends and family who support you. For that I am deeply grateful.
Life is never fair and who knows what the new year will bring? Perhaps I will lose the farm after all. Or perhaps I will get to complete my vision for the place. Either way, life bangs you up a bit and tosses you around, but like the little fellow in the video below, I can only just scratch my head and move on…
Here’s wishing you and yours the happiest of new years. I’m glad you’re in my life.