Dear Friends and Family –
Here it is, as long winded as ever. You may not believe it, but the hardest things about drafting this letter is always editing it down to size. There’s a lot that gets tossed out, and it’s still always a bloated mess. Keith, who’s now a published writer, kindly suggested that I offer an abridged version for those of you (actually all of you, according to Keith) who haven’t the time or inclination to wade through my annual orgy of self-absorption. And he’s got a point. No one wants to hear your interior monologue, much less your endless pensées about things-aren’t-what-they-used-to-be (though I’ve got lots of ’em and I’d be glad to send them to you!). Still, it is my one chance each year to make a connection with those of you who I haven’t seen in a while and those of you I have seen, to let you know how much I appreciate you being part of my life this past year (and it’s also a chance to pretend at least for a moment that I’m as social media saavy as the rest of you).
So take your pick – unabridged below, or the Instagram abridged version here.
Much of January was spent using the excuse of my hernia operation (see Dec 2016) to just sit around and not do much, which suited me just fine. It was a fairly mild winter month – no snow, and no real cold, but even so, sitting by the fire on a winter’s day and playing working on the computer seemed to occupy my time very nicely. I did actually do a few farm things – like cleaning out the chicken barn, so I wasn’t a total slug, but still…..
Speaking of chickens, as you all know, one of life’s greatest pleasures is not counting your chickens until they’ve hatched, feathered out, and grown up. If you wait until then however, you can have the immense pleasure of sorting through them all to pick the absolute cream of the crop for this year’s breeding season. I can’t think of a better way to spend a mild January afternoon, can you?
While I drifted through the month, Keith was, as usual, hard at work studying for yet another wine exam. And as always, he fretted over the results, but as you can see here, he needn’t have worried – he was once again a top scorer.
Later in the month, some of the more politically engaged females on the Zuschlag side of the family marched in Boise, ID, and Washington, DC. Our sister-in-law Audrey drove all the way from Chicago with niece Ava to participate in the Women’s March the day after the inauguration. They met up with niece Riley in DC, marched and had a good time and we had a nice visit with them the night before and the night after and then they got in the car and trekked back to Chicago so that Ava could be in school on Monday. Very impressive commitment.
In between we caught up with friends we hadn’t seen in a while and went to some pretty fancy dinner parties, and Keith started yet a third job!- this time as wine columnist for the Piedmont Virginian.
I could spend the whole month’s entry just describing my attempt to bush-hog the hidden paddock. And you know what? I will! Well, no, perhaps not. This letter is too long as it is. But allow me to rant just a moment. Why is it that Murphy’s law affects only me and not the rest of you? I know this to be the case, as I see your perfect carefree lives every day on your Facebook feeds. But in my world….
The hidden paddock is a field far from view on the farm. It’s overgrown and eventually needs to be fenced and grazed by the sheep. But in the meantime we keep it in check by semi-annually (well, annually) ‘bush-hogging‘ the weeds, saplings and brush that grow rampant there. This February there was a mild stretch of weather that was perfect for doing this, so I got out the tractor anticipating a couple of days of productive brush clearing. I was quite pleased with myself that it only took two hours and a minimum of cursing to get the tractor in the right place and pound all the pieces together. The only thing left to do was to hook up the PTO shaft, and that is a cinch in comparison. Except in this case it wasn’t. Now my bush hog is a 1970s King Cutter that was an antique when I bought my first tractor in 1996. It still worked fine, so there was no need to consider a new one, but the PTO shaft was old and rusty and had long ago lost its plastic protective covering. It is two steel bars that slide one inside the other to extend from the tractor’s PTO take-off to the Bushhog’s spindle that rotates the blades. Pretty simple technology. But old things tend to rust. And this was rusted tightly together. Just a minor setback, I thought. I’ll just spray some WD40 and other stuff on it and let it soak in over night. I can always start work tomorrow. The next day, it still wouldn’t come apart. Even with one side chained to the tractor and the other to the gator going full speed in the opposite direction. So, I then figured I’ll take it my local tractor store and let someone younger and stronger pull it apart. My pathetic old man routine worked a charm when I walked into Cecil’s Tractors. Even though the tractor repair team was hard at work on other projects, within 30 minutes they got the two pieces apart and greased them up well. Only charged me $30 bucks. I was very grateful and I could tell the young guy was pleased with himself for doing it – he even boasted that it was so stuck together it almost stopped the Tractor lift. At any rate, I hurried home to hook it up – only to discover, that PTO connector was stuck as well – and not only stuck, but pretty much unusable. How did this happen and why didn’t I notice this before? So there went day two as I went inside to research the right sized new shaft for the job. Three days later and $400 poorer, I got a new shaft. Took it home, and hooked it up. Everything clicked right into place. I was very pleased and justified the expense as a “once every 20 years kind of thing.” The old shaft had lasted probably 40 years, so I was actually ahead of the game. All was set, and I went to turn on the tractor. Except I didn’t. Because it wouldn’t start. Just a “click, click, click.” Great, I thought. I must not have turned the key all the way off when positioning the shaft in place. Now I have a dead battery. There goes another day! So I got out my battery charger and hooked it up and left it overnight. It wasn’t until 2 pm the next day that I had a enough time get back to bush-hogging. I tried the tractor again – “click, click, click.” I called the tractor dealer. Yes indeed, the battery was ‘bad.’ I could bring it in and they would give me a new one for $180. So, back to the barn and the rest of the afternoon was spent trying to pry the battery out from what looked like a soldered together mass of metal. When I finally got it out it was too late in the day to take it to the dealer. So another day shot. The next day I got a new expensive battery (my last one was only 3 years old!) It took only 30 minutes or so to hook it up. I was ecstatic when the tractor turned over perfectly. I filled her up with fresh diesel and headed to the fields. Finally! More than a week had gone by since I started this project. Once in the field I lowered the bushhog and engaged the PTO and …… nothing. The shear pin went flying off. Now that is to be expected every so often, and given my run of bad luck, I had wisely (when I picked up my new shaft) gotten a package of new shear pins too. However, I had unwisely left them in the barn, 3/4 of a mile away. An hour later a new shear pin was in place. I very tentatively started the tractor and then the PTO. Success!! Everything was working. Nothing fell apart and the tractor could actually move with the PTO engaged. When I hit the first clump of brush to be cut, it melted away like butter. I was so happy to see brush, brambles, Autumn olives, and other nasty stuff be torn to shreds as I drove over it. Or at least I was for 20 minutes. After 4 circuits around the field a loud clanging noise caused me to look behind me. Sparks were flying from the bush-hog and it was bouncing as though there was something inside banging to get out. I quickly shut everything down to take a look. The back sheet metal guard was torn to ribbons and wrapped around the flail underneath. How the hell?? A day later, with the help of heavy chains and straining on the gator and then eventually the pick-up truck I was able to bend and pull the damaged metal bits out and away from the flail inside the bush-hog. So it now worked, sorta. Except now it was the end of February and I only had 1/8th of the field done. Wot a pain!
The pleasant bit of February was the visit of some of the California Millers. I had never met them in the past 10+ years Keith and I have been together. It was great to finally meet Keith’s nephew Alex and his wife Kris, son Gregory, and his Mother Debbie. We had a nice visit and tour of the farm. While Keith had them down by the pond to feed his geese and swans, the current bane of my existence came swimming by. This bold as brass muskrat has eaten hundreds of dollars worth of plant bulbs that dotted the pond. All the daylilies, irises, and too many other types of plants have disappeared entirely over the past summer due to this nasty creature, and he’s resisted all attempts at capture. He’s turned his nose up at trap full of muskrat goodies (cabbage, carrots, etc). Alex stood listening to this story as the damned beast swam back and forth in front of us, eyeing a chance at the leftovers once the geese and swans were finished with their dinner. “Gotta gun?” he asked. I brought out my dusty .22 and cautioned him not to shoot a goose or a swan. Alex casually took aim and with one shot nailed the muskrat in the head as he swam by. Just like that – problem solved. Needless to say I was thrilled. Alex Miller can come back for a visit any time.
March brought another birthday and with it more angst about the future. There is this tendency as I get older to be more elegiac and absorbed with reflecting back on my life rather than anticipating my glorious future. I assume this is a basic human tendency that all people who follow Socratic dictums engage in, but maybe it’s just me. At any rate, turning 57 is no milestone by which others have taken stock of their lives, but for me, it triggered a whole reassessment of things. Well, perhaps that’s a bit unfair…. I’ve been pondering these things for quite a while now, but the birthday was an excuse to delve a bit deeper. When I bought this farm some 21 years ago, I was full of ambitions and excitement and sense of real purpose in a way that I had never experienced before. I definitely hadn’t felt that certain about any previous life goal. I was totally absorbed in this farm and the fact that its future form was entirely based on my abilities, my drive, my determination and willingness to pursue these goals. The farm’s very name reflects that. And yet as I’ve grown older, and suffered the vicissitudes of life, some of that ambition and drive has shifted. I’m not the young man I once was. And my dreams and ambitions have been buffeted by the larger world that I cannot control. So, now as I sink deeper in to middle age, I start to doubt whether I can complete my earlier ambitions, and whether I have the abilities/resources/drive necessary to see them to fruition.
I guess part of ageing properly is accepting one’s limits. It doesn’t do (though I indulge in it all too frequently) to obsess about other’s financial successes and my failures, but I do think it healthy to take stock of one’s life goals and reassess things based on current circumstances.
This was all brought home to me in one brief moment on a warm early spring Saturday on March 25th, when I attended the estate sale of Esther and Franklin Schmidt. I had known the Schmidts almost from the moment I arrived in Rappahannock County in 1996. They were a lively couple very much engaged in the world when most of their contemporaries were slowly disengaging. Despite a 30 or so year age difference, I got along with them well and always enjoyed their company at local events and the occasional dinner party at their home. They had had an active career photographing houses and interiors for glossy magazines and had even published several of their own books on home interiors. I liked their enthusiasm for life, and they seemed to like mine. Yet now 20 years on, Franklin was gone, and Esther a frail shell of her former self. Destitute and in failing health, she had decided to sell her home and move into a small apartment. The estate sale of their belongings was organized by friends who hoped it would generate a few dollars to help her be comfortable in her remaining time. So, of course I wanted to attend to help support her, but I’d be lying if I didn’t also admit that I wanted to maybe grab an item or two that had always caught my eye (in the end I got three small paintings that I treasure). But what was so poignant about the whole event was not the fact that I was confronted with all the flotsam and jetsam of a life fully lived, and now being picked over by bargain hunters and memento seekers, but rather the hope and ambitions of the new owners of the house that were there as well.
It was odd to be poking through the accumulations of someone else’s life and ambitions and then to be introduced to a young man who’s now got his own plans on how this property could be improved, the house updated, and how the future would unfold. When I asked him about those plans, he repeated to me the very same words, spoken with the same earnest conviction that I had expressed some 20 years earlier; “This is my forever place, when I leave, it will be feet first.” Those words struck me deeply. Ah, the certainty of youth. Can I still claim the same? I wonder.
Lambing season seemed to drag on forever this year. Why were these plump ewes holding out on me? Turns out, they weren’t holding out on me – they weren’t even bred! One of our rams was clearly not doing his job last fall and none of his 20 ewes were pregnant. This lamb deficit was really going to hurt us this September, as we had a record number of breeding stock orders to fill. Yikes!
But fecundity was off the charts for the pigeons and chickens, which were hatching left and right. Even the swans built and defended a proper nest this year and it seemed like they might even hatch. Towards the end of the month our one Blue Eared Pheasant hen laid for the first time and we eagerly collected her eggs to hatch in the incubator.
As a child, the spring renewal of April was something I eagerly anticipated. It signaled long summer vacations and outdoor fun. Now as the first flush of Spring blossoms appear, a growing sense of dread spreads through me….. here it comes….. a long growing season of mowing, weeding, haying clearing, worming, and general hot sweaty farm work! Remind me again why I do this? And just to drive up my anxiety levels, right on schedule all the equipment I had meticulously stored away last October broke down the moment I tried to use it in the spring. Endless replacements of belts, mower blades, and batteries finally resulted in a working push mower and zero turn mower and I got cracking on keeping this place from becoming overgrown.
But even the threat of impending growing season work couldn’t mute the Spring beauty around me. This year the dogwoods put on a dazzling display. I think one of nature’s best shows is the glow of brilliant white dogwoods under a full moon (but it’s a bit hard to photograph). By mid April I’m always itching to unwrap the fountain in the kitchen garden and start planting. Netting the goldfish in their winter aquariums to transfer them to their fountain pool summer quarters, I had what I thought was a great idea – why not turn two of our raised garden beds in to goldfish ponds with water lilies? Because, it’s not like I had anything else to do, right?
The plan for May was pretty straightforward. I became obsessed with my goldfish pond idea. Easily done, I thought. Just pick a raised bed in the garden and start digging out all the dirt I had so carefully filled them with years before. I knew digging down 3 feet in an enclosed area and carrying out dirt in small bucketfuls would be tedious, but good exercise. So… why not? But, this being my life, there was always something screwing up my plans. Of course whenever I had the time to dig it rained. When it didn’t rain, I had non-stop real estate appointments (can’t complain about that I guess..). So in that small sliver of time when it wasn’t raining and no one was fantasizing about country properties, I had no time to dig, but instead rushed around playing catch up in the most intense season of grass growth. And yes, of course, you guessed it – every mower broke every time I tried to use one! It was total bonkers and I didn’t get much done all month except pay repair bills.
Still, despite it all, life was good and against expectations Keith’s Swans hatched out all five of their eggs and the cygnets survived. (This was quite a coup as they had put their nest right at the bottom of a ditch that feeds into the pond – so we were surprised that their nest didn’t wash away in all the rain). Too busy and too wet this month to do any entertaining, but at least I got to see nephew Will Zuschlag at the Virginia Horse Trials. And we attended a masked good-bye party for French Ambassador Gerard Araud at the embassy residence where he announced that – guess what? – he actually had been just asked to stay on by the new Macron government, so it wasn’t really good-bye after all.
I realize this letter sometime tends towards whiny-ness, when truth be told, my life is generally pretty darned spectacular. And I know that this year alone there people who have lost everything due to fire, flood, or aerial bombing. But there are times when this farm truly tests my patience and makes me think that Sisyphus had it easy. This month the general theme of my whinging was “this is why we can’t have nice things.” Now normally this complaint is loudly directed at Keith for one or another of his antics (or as he constantly corrects me, “they are not antics! They are shenanigans, or hi-jinks, if you must.”). But this month he got a reprieve as I directed my ire at livestock, wildlife, and farm machinery for creating messes and ruining my life.
My first mistake was to think that I could go a little retro (and a little cheap) and plant out marigolds in the flower beds in front of the house this summer. I imagined something like this or this. Kinda hokey, but what the hell. They’re cheap, right? So I scattered seeds and remembered doing the same thing as little kid and waiting until the seeds sprouted. They sprouted all right, but something ate them all. No worries, I figured. I’ll just pop down to local big box Lowes/Home Depot/Garden Outlet and get a few flats. Done (after a bit of sticker shock!). Planted and ready to watch them grow. Except each morning I came out the front door, the little plants were carefully dug out of the ground and laid to the side. Sometimes the flowerheads had been removed, but mostly they were intact. Annoyed, I’d replant them. Sure enough the next morning, they’d be dug up again. The poor little marigolds could only take so many days of this before giving up the will to live, so I went and bought some more. Stupid mistake, as the same thing kept happening.
About this time, I noticed that not only were the geese spending more time up by the house, but that the driveway was beginning to take on the aspect of a goose toilet. Come to think of it, the geese weren’t looking their best either. Kinda disheveled and soiled. I’d shoo them away from the house at every chance I had. Turns out, the swans (mostly Hans, but Greta too) were being overly protective of their brood and would not let the geese anywhere near the pond. The geese were frustrated and apparently decided to take their frustration out on me. I found this out one morning after replanting marigolds yet again, and heading to the kitchen garden to finish digging my goldfish pond. I happened to look up towards the house and saw one gander standing guard, while the rest of them very silently stole up to the house and started pulling up the replanted flowers. “You vile bastards!” I shouted, as I sprang to chase them away. But really what could I do? Put an electrified fence around the flowers? (actually the thought did cross my mind). So instead of a flowerbed I had to deal with a goose toilet the rest of the summer.
Meanwhile, despite the swans’ fierce parental devotion, we were losing a cygnet every few days or so. It appeared the snapping turtles were picking them off as they swam in a row between their parents. We lost three of them before I was able (I hope) to shoot most of the big turtles on the pond. I’m a bad shot to begin with and it’s hard to tell a near miss from a direct hit when they all dive underwater. But I know I got at least 7 of the really big ones. At any rate, the predation stopped and we were left with just two swan babies.
Another source of frustration was my farm machinery. Both my bush-hog and zero-turn mower were out for the count (again). After scratching my head for a while on what was wrong, I had to call in a mechanic or two to sort them out. Of course, diagnostics and then ordering parts took a while, so I busied myself with finishing my goldfish pond. I was pretty happy with the results as you can see from the photos below.
Once my machinery was fixed, I was anxious to tackle my overgrown fields. I think the zero-turn mower lasted maybe only a day or two before it threw a rod! I hadn’t even had time to pay the repair bill yet! Arggh. So the bush-hog had to mow all the fields. A little rougher cut than usual perhaps, but it got the job done. Carefully counting all the hay in the barn left over from the past winter, I decided I had just enough to see us through the coming winter. So I decided give the hayfield (and myself) a rest, and just bush-hog it as well this summer. Not only would I save money and time, but it would be a good thing for the field itself. So no hay-making this year. Instead I had to spend a gazillion dollars on a new zero-turn mower while the old one had its engine rebuilt. So I now have two mowers to keep up with fields and I hope this will prevent things like this (unmowed thick fields of weeds) from happening in the future. Of course, I’m now massively in debt again.
Other than misbehaving waterfowl, predatory turtles, and constant machinery failures, the rest of the month was actually kinda fun and busy. Keith’s sister Barbara and husband Brian took us out to a memorable dinner and gave us a very generous gift to boot – so of course I thanked them by providing some colorfully unedited comments about our President at the dinner table. I’m quite sure they (and the rest of the restaurant) appreciated my candor and insightful commentary on what the President had accomplished in 6 short months (well, maybe not, but you still love me, don’t you Barbara??). A fun dinner with the fabulous von Lipsey family just down the road turned into an impromptu birthday party for Keith. Keith also insisted he needed to go to Dallas for
a glamorous vacation an advanced wine study course while I caught up on my mowing (another source of my whiney-ness). But he assured me it was all work and no play. We had a great visit from Uncle Roy and Nancy, and attended Lamar and Dale’s spectacular wedding. A pretty eventful month.
July was as hot and summery as July should be. The unusual thing was that I was super busy with real estate stuff and had some great new farms to market. Of course that put me behind in farm work, which, on the other hand, is not unusual at all. Given how pleased I was with my first goldfish pond, I was eager to start the second one. But in doing so, I pulled a major abdominal muscle that stopped that project in its tracks. After my hernia operation last December, I was a bit reluctant to see the doctor, knowing I’d get a stern talking to about overdoing it. But instead he just sighed, and said, “You know, Alan, you’re not as young as you used to be. Maybe you shouldn’t push yourself so much.” ….. and maybe he’s right.
At the beginning of the month we had a surprise visit from niece Meg and nephew Will and we took them to a wonderful 4th of July celebration at Bill & Drew’s Avon Hall. Back in the Pleistocene era when I first moved to Rappahannock County, Avon Hall was where we had our annual speechifying by local dignitaries and then our fireworks display. Bill and Drew graciously revived Avon’s Independence Day tradition by opening their house and lawn for concert by everyone’s favorite bandleader, Col. John Bourgeois. If you’ve never experienced a Sousa march played by expert musicians on a perfectly drowsy summer afternoon lounging on a lawn surrounded by friends and neighbors (and accompanied by a charming niece and nephew), you clearly have not yet lived. If you haven’t done so while munching on cold fried chicken and a rosé hand-selected by your own private sommelier, well then, you will never understand perfection. I hope that experience becomes a July tradition.
Otherwise, we puttered along. It was an exceptional year for our poultry – we hatched a record number of chicks and I raised probably the best crop of pigeons this year in over 30 years. Our kitchen garden performed well too and we took the time to enjoy fresh veg from the garden almost every evening. Keith studied assiduously for yet another wine exam, but he took a break in the middle of the month to make his famous cold pea soup (fresh from the garden) for a dinner in the orchard for visiting Fred & Joost. Not a bad summer month at all.
So big thing to know about August 2017 is that Keith took 3 weeks off of work to study for his wine educators exam. Let that sink in for a moment. Three whole weeks of non-stop 24/7 Keith underfoot. Not only that. It was Keith in complete ‘Oh-My-God-I’m-going-to-fail-this exam-ALAN!!-where-are-my-comfy-sweatpants?- ALAN!! QUIET!!-I’m-trying-to-study!-ALAN!-what’s-wrong-with-the-&!*$%-internet?! mode. I’m not entirely sure how I survived the whole time with my sanity intact, much less my life. Now, to be fair, he did have an awful lot to study, and the pass rate for this one is notoriously low. But, as long time readers of these letters already know, this is isn’t our first time at this type of rodeo. He’s done it before and consistently comes out as one the highest (if not THE highest) scores on these wine things. So I think I can be forgiven if I wasn’t catering to every meltdown of that 6’3″ bundle of quivering insecure touchy nerves that is my husband when facing a daunting exam. As I was still healing from pulled abdominal muscles I couldn’t escape to my pond project, but I did find plenty of other smaller farm projects that kept me outside as much as possible, and luckily, I was super busy with real estate, so Keith had plenty of quiet time without me “getting in the way.” (Note: “getting in the way” can sometimes be as innocuous as “I can hear you breathing in the other room!“)
The focus of all this nervous anticipation was the Wine Educators Certification which is (as you can see if you click on the link) quite daunting for even an expert like Keith. The exam was to be given the day prior to the Society of Wine Educator’s annual conference in Portland, Oregon in mid August. Keith had convinced me to go with him to the conference and a tour of Oregon wine country. “C’mon,” he said, “you haven’t had a vacation in three years!” This is quite true, but I thought it rather churlish to remind him that in those three years he’s been wine study trips to France and events around the country while I’ve kept the home fires burning and dipped in our accumulated mileage to fund those plane tickets. And also, that if I was going on vacation, it might be nice to go somewhere that I wanted to go rather than spend the week as someone’s designated driver while he hobnobbed up and down the Willamette Valley tasting wines. But, as I said, it would be churlish to mention this, right? So I said, “Of course Keith, anything your heart desires!”
The whole time leading up to this event, I would remind myself that if I could get through this, I would be a shoe-in for the “Spouse of the Year Award” which I imagined must exist somewhere and is probably given to that individual who showed Mother Theresa-like selflessness, combined with Nancy Reagan-like constant adoration, and the patience of Job. But the nagging thought was, okay, I can be supportive, but what if he fails the exam? Can I survived a vacation with a depressed mopey Keith?
So off to Portland we went. The first night was spent meeting the other 11 exam candidates and studying for the exam the following a.m. That morning I sat in the hotel room and waited and waited some more. Around 1 pm a rather subdued Keith came back to the room. “I think all 12 of us failed” he said quietly. “We compared answers after the test, and none of us had the same ones. But it’s hard to tell how they’ll judge the essays.” Oh great!, I thought. what to do now? But, oddly enough, after some lunch and then dinner at a great restaurant where the wine-geek owner and Keith bonded over several bottles that hadn’t been on the menu, my Keith was back to his usual ebullient self. That’s the difference between us I think. I’d still be broody and bitter, but Keith can dust himself off a bit quicker and is eager to pursue the next adventure. (side note: he got the exam results in September, and of course he passed. I’m pretty sure he was the only one to do so).
The next day while he pursued Bacchus in day long wine tasting seminars I discovered Portland. I have to say, there wasn’t much about the city that I found worth a return visit. It was….pleasant…. is about the most I can say about it. Even the famed Powell’s was a let down. What was odd was that neighborhoods which in other cities would have been rather ratty and down at the heels were all pretty well kept in Portland, but commercial and downtown areas were rather… meh. Nice rose garden though. The highlight of the trip catching up with my brother Eric and his wife Beth, who drove the 9 hours or so from Boise, ID to see us. We had a great time eating, drinking, and walking our way through the city. I think they were a bit overwhelmed by how Keith does dinner (order lots of courses with a separate bottle of wine for each course), but they at least they were good sports about it.
Once the conference was over and Keith shook hands with all of his new and old wine buddies we packed up the car and headed south to the Willamette Valley. For those of you who don’t know it – it is an exceedingly beautiful river valley that stretches 150 miles down through Oregon separated by mountains to the east and west. It is also one of the most delightfully unpretentious yet world-class wine regions I’d ever been to. So I wasn’t completely bored. In fact, I actually got an even greater appreciation for Keith’s passion, as we were entirely surrounded by people even more obsessed than he is (I did not think this possible, but it is).
Over the years we’ve toured other wine regions together (Napa, Sonoma, Santa Barbara, Finger Lakes, Virginny, etc), and I’m always pleasantly surprised when just a few off-hand comments from Keith suddenly cause the staff to drop everything and run off to find the wine-maker to meet this guy who turned up in their tasting room. There’s a dog-whistle pitch in his assessments of a glass of wine that only fellow wine geeks can hear, and they immediately feel compelled to bring out their “good stuff” to see what he thinks of that. So I hadn’t expected otherwise this trip. What made this time different is that he had letters of introduction from his Wine Director at the Inn at Little Washington. This meant Keith had actual appointments with the winemakers themselves. No mucking around in the tasting room amidst hoi polloi waiting to be ‘discovered’ – we were issued in to the sanctum sanctorum upon arrival. Yet even with these expectations in place, it was great to see these titans of their industry warm up to Keith and his general Keith-y-ness, and suddenly it was: “Oh, do you have any extra time? Let’s hop in the truck and head out to the vines right now.” Or: “Can you come back again tomorrow? I’d really like you to meet so-and-so who’s just starting his vineyard and has a great future.” It’s like being accepted in to a very privileged society. One not necessarily based on wealth, but on a common understanding that the ‘best’ things in life are not material but rather an appreciation of the ‘best’ that life has to offer. It’s just understood that they’re all striving to produce the ‘best’ expression of the grapes that they grow. They appreciate each other’s talent, and appreciate those who appreciate their’s as well. It’s all very clubby and to some degree exclusionary. I was tolerated as a spouse, but it was clear that I was a mere mortal in this pantheon of those who ‘taste’ (i.e. experience) things on a much higher plane. The best food and the best wine are at the heart of l’art de vivre for these people, and they’d rather focus their talents on that than anything else. At any rate, I think I understood Keith’s life motivations a bit better after seeing him in communion with some of the top winemakers in the world.
At the same time, I have to say, it also made me appreciate that perhaps we don’t do so badly on that count in our own small corner of the world. It may not have the same recognition (yet) in the wider world, and it may just be provincial chauvinism on my part, but I think we’re incredibly fortunate to have good friends with that very same dedication to living the ‘good life’ right here in our own back yard. Some of them have translated their passions (obsession?) for good food and drink to great professional success (Red Truck Bakery, RdV and Linden Vineyards, Pen Druid Brewery, Three Blacksmiths, Hopkins Aleworks, Laughing Duck Gardens, RPK, and maybe even The Inn) but there are just as many other amateurs (including Keith) that share their talents with us on a regular basis too that make life pretty awesome when it comes to the question, “what are we having for/with dinner?”
So after being wined and dined and dazzled, Keith condescended to letting me set the itinerary for the last day before we headed home. (see how that works? 9 days for Keith, 1 day for Alan). At any rate, I steered the car for the coast and wow! I’ve spent all my adult life on the East Coast and I have a rather condescending view of life on the western one. But I will say this for the West Coast, the scenery is incredible! The fine citizens of Oregon are to be commended for letting us make use of their state parks for free – stunningly spectacular and free from all the tourist tat that’s found in some of the beach towns (Cannon Beach). It was just a gorgeous day all around. I’d have rather spent the whole time on the coast (but don’t tell Keith).
Then back to farm and cold hard reality. As always Jeremy did a stellar job of taking care of things while we were gone. But just as I was appreciating how lucky we are to have him still around when we need him, I found the note he left saying that he unfortunately could no longer be able to tend the farm when we went away. What?? My first vacation in 3 years and now this? Do I have to stay home forever now?
Modern communications are such a two sided sword. The non-stop phone calls and emails I received while I was away meant that I was never on a complete ‘break’ from business, but it also allowed for me to book appointments non-stop for my return. Busiest real estate August I’ve ever experienced. It was hard getting the farm back in shape after travel and the real estate rush, but the weather cooperated. Those damned geese, again, did not. One day I stupidly left the kitchen garden gate open. I came out to discover a riotous goose hot tub party happening in my goldfish pond. I was furious! It took a long while to clean up their mess, even longer for the water lilies to regenerate, and weeks before the goldfish dared come to the surface when I approached. Oh, and the zero turn mower died – again. But I did see a bit of the eclipse.
September didn’t really exist in 2017. Instead August decided to extend itself an extra thirty days. Hot summer weather and no rain made it rather oppressive, but I rushed around like a crazy man with real estate stuff without any time to spare. In fact, I missed or left in the middle of every single social event we had on our schedule. The only thing that I actually made time for was one day off at the end of the month to climb Old Rag Mountain. I’ve been climbing this peak on and off for the past 38 years (hard to believe the first time I climbed it was 1979!). So it was good to see I still had it in me, and some of those from the olden days were still game to do it again. It was a terrific day with a great crowd of friends and a spectacular dinner at Chuck MacDonald’s retreat afterwards.
Otherwise, the most notable thing was that I found time in between real estate appointments to very carefully (abdominal muscles still tender) dig out the second goldfish pond in the garden and get it up and running.
The more I reach the “october” portion of my life, the more October becomes my favorite month. The mellow days grow shorter and the farm work tapers off and as a result I mellow too. This year however, summer decided to linger a bit longer than usual and the warm and dry conditions meant that our fall color was not as it has been in years past. But it was pleasant as always when early in the month niece Riley and some of her college friends came out for the day and helped me separate the sheep into their various breeding groups and I think they had a good time hanging out with a crusty old farmer. The warm days also meant that the kitchen garden kept producing well past the normal mid-October shut down. For some reason October seems like a beer month, and this year underscored that feeling with copious amounts flowing at Badenfest, Bronsonfest, and Pen Druid’s End of Oktoberfest, (and maybe a few other fests too). All those fests made it a bit harder to squeeze into the old lederhosen (I seem to keep popping a button or two after a few pints).
While I wasn’t thrilled with this year’s lamb crop (no real stand outs to add to the flock), I was really pleased to wrap up my pigeon breeding season – I raised a record 68 squabs this year, and nearly everyone seemed to be a keeper. It will be hard cutting those numbers down to the final few. Since my new goldfish ponds will allow me to overwinter the fish in the ponds instead of netting them up each October to bring inside I was happy to forgo that annual chore. But there were a few fish that I didn’t want to keep and yet felt they were too good (or too unusual) to just toss out. Luckily the goldfish people at the Virginia goldfish Show thought so too when I showed up in Richmond mid-month with my cast-offs. They actually sold at auction! I don’t know much about goldfish and their breeding, and it’s certainly another animal breeding project I could easily get sucked into if I didn’t already have more projects than I have time for. But it still was great to learn more about them at the show, and visit with my old friend Rob Crosby, who, it turns out is one of the top goldfish judges in the country!
Of course Halloween is always the highlight of the month for me. I suppose everyone has fond childhood memories of tick-or-treating, but in the reverse of most such memories, I find Halloween where I live now to be far more nostalgia laced Norman-Rockwellian Ur-Halloweenish than the holidays of my childhood. There’s something about the twilight of a mellow October evening in a small little town in Virginia with all the merchants and residents eagerly waiting to hand out treats that just makes it ready-made for sepia toned memories. Add to that roving bands of children excited to be on the prowl for goodies, their older siblings trying to signal that they’re just a bit too cool for the costume thing (but still secretly want a hoard of sweets as well) and their parents all socializing with one another on the street and you have a pretty good set up for Halloween perfection. It would seem a little too treacly Hollywood twee, if weren’t so damned authentic. Now it could be that some of the ‘warm fuzzies’ I feel on Halloween night are also fueled by the good wine (and pizza) that Keith brings to my office each year after I tire of handing out candy to the kiddies. It’s hard to tell.
November was one of those months that zipped by too quickly while I tried to play catch up with all the farm work I let slide in October. Weather and non-stop real estate activity made those fall chores difficult to finish, much less allow me time to prep the farm for winter. Add to that three big weekends with friends and family in NYC, DC, and Richmond and it was a complete loss.
But those weekends were so worth it! The first was Gray Coleman’s 60th birthday extravaganza. I can’t think of a more New York-y weekend in my life. The island of Manhattan continues to erase its rougher edges, but in doing so, it’s lost a fair bit of its charm as well. Yet on a wonderful warm weekend under a full moon, the city showed that it still has the ability to dazzle. Of course it helped that Gray, ever the planner extraordinaire, had laid out two evenings to allow both uptown and downtown to seduce us out-of-towners. Friday night was a grand dinner at Jeff Pfeifle’s Upper East Side penthouse. Jeff and David pulled out all the stops and it was a great time to catch up with old friends from around the country. After lunch with Ned McNeal and a quick tour of flea markets the next day we were ready for the main event – a treasure hunt through Greenwich Village. Never has the Village looked more inviting that it did that night as we raced from jazz club to piano bar to bakery and beyond collecting clues among the crowds enjoying the warm fall night. Our team came in last unfortunately, but the fun party afterwards made up for it. And since we were already in the Village, Keith and I capped it off with a very memorable late night dinner at Babbo.
The very next weekend saw many of the same faces in DC to celebrate another milestone – Drew & Michael’s 30th anniversary. It’s really incredible to think that this group of friends has not only stayed in touch with one another over the past 30-40 years, but that despite being scattered around the country, we still find ways to be part of one another’s lives. This time around it was a glamorous Georgetown cocktail party, elegant downtown dinner, and a relaxed Sunday brunch.
We didn’t get a chance to celebrate Thanksgiving as Keith had to work (and frankly I rather enjoyed a solid 24 hours of not having to answer the phone or respond to e-mails), but the next day we drove down to Richmond for a post-Thanksgiving feast at Barbara & Brian’s that I think rivaled (and maybe even surpassed) many Thanskgiving dinners. I don’t know how they pull it off with such aplomb. We had a great time catching up with Keith’s family that weekend and then dashed home on Sunday afternoon to meet my brother Wayne who showed up to finish his work on our garden pavilions. Wayne designed these over a year ago and worked hard on them with his son Luka, and then came back on his own to do some more work, and then again this November to finish things up. Good things take time, and busy professionals don’t have a lot of it – but he made some great headway before his wife told him to hightail it back to Chicago (or else!). So he reluctantly left, but with enough done that I think I can hire some carpenters to finish the rest.
Some years you just can’t get into that Christmas spirit. Your inner Scrooge just won’t warm up to the season. But this December seemed totally calculated to warm the heart of the scroogiest Scrooge. It started out with a much anticipated visit to the National Gallery to see a Vermeer exhibit followed by an impressive cocktail tour of Blagden Alley bars. Both left me feeling happy to be alive.
The very next day a perfectly choreographed early snowfall the set the stage for the best annual Christmas parade and market the town of Little Washington has ever seen. At that was just the beginning. Day by day the avalanche of Christmas-related events ratcheted up the holiday spirit.
I have to confess I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all when, running late after taking a load of lambs to the slaughterhouse, I decided against rushing home to shower and change and drive an hour and half into the city to go to my company’s Christmas party. This year it was to be held at a new location at the National Cathedral and while I was intrigued to see just where on the Cathedral grounds there was room for a big party, I decided it just wasn’t worth the effort to find out. So while I was smelling a bit ripe and manure-y in my farmer grubbies I decided my evening would start at the drive-in lane of a fast food restaurant, and I ate my dinner in the truck on the way back to the farm. Once home and showered off, I decided a quiet evening at home in front of the fire suited me just fine. That is until, I opened up the computer to see colleagues ‘live posting’ from the Christmas party the most amazing images of the nave of the Cathedral. It was totally transformed into the coolest nightclub ever. I was stunned by the photos. I also found it somehow sacrilegious too. But my main thought was, why wasn’t I there??
Chastened by my social laziness, I made a point of attending all the rest of the Christmas functions on the calendar, and they certainly did not disappoint. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much real Christmas cheer. Truth be told, however, after all the lead up, Christmas day itself was somewhat anticlimactic. I sat at home alone by the fire, a glass of eggnog in hand, and started drafting this letter. Keith was riding the rails to Boston and back. We had our Christmas a day late.
So that’s been my year. Not bad, on the whole. A few ups, a few downs (those damned geese), and not without its tragedies (we’re rooting for you Bill!). But in a year when the outside world seems more than a bit dire, there’s something to be gained by reflecting on the simple pleasures of good food and good wine, and good friends and family to share them with. Too often I stress about the larger future and and forget the quotidian joys right in front of me. A few lines from Goethe somehow seem appropriate in that regard.
Willst du immer weiterschweifen?
Sieh, das Gute liegt so nah.
Lerne nur das Glück ergreifen,
denn das Glück ist immer da.
Which, if you will permit me my own feeble translation, in English goes a bit like this:
Will you always roam farther and farther?
See, the good that lies so near.
Just learn how to capture your happiness,
for happiness is always there.
And that’s what I wish you all for 2018. Capturing your happiness; which is, after all, right there.