December 31, 2008
Yet another Installment of My Fabulous Life! Starring ME! All about ME! ME! ME!
Dear Friends & Family –
Well 2008 has certainly been anything but dull. For myself personally it wasn’t quite the Elizabethan “annus horribilus” it was for others, but it definitely did have its moments – $4 a gallon gas, the loss of some dear friends, appalling/energizing political campaigns, stalled real estate markets, and financial and economic meltdowns – when I thought I might not have much fun stuff to write about.
And yet, there were a few memorable occasions perhaps worth wasting a bit of your time:
(Editor’s Note: Before you begin this annual long-winded tale of my life’s minutiae, there’s a bit of explanatory background in order. For some reason a new player in the cast of characters takes up an extraordinary amount of space in this missive, and you might be thinking to yourself, “Huh? Where did this joker come from?” The truth of the matter is, he’s actually a hold-over from Autumn 2007 but wasn’t introduced at the time of last year’s letter because the editorial review board hadn’t yet officially assigned him a permanent role in this annual saga. A year and a half later, we’re pretty sure he’s here to stay.)
January started off quietly as most January’s do – with a fantastically elegant New Year’s day brunch at Russ & Dudley’s house. While the year was at least started in proper fashion, I’m not entirely sure the black-eyed peas did the trick, though the bloody marys and eggnog sure helped ease the transition. After that, Jerome & Lucille’s annual Christmas tree bonfire was its usual roaring success, and Jon Rauch and Michael Lai stopped by the farm for a fun lunch one afternoon.
Towards the end of the month Keith decided that I needed to be shaken out of my semi-reclusive farm existence and dipped back into the urban hustle and bustle a bit more often. To accomplish this, he performed a bit of shock therapy – before I knew what was happening we were checking into a great suite on the 44th floor of the Times Square Marriott Marquis with an awesome view of Broadway (note: the great white way does not disappoint from 44 floors up). Unfortunately it took me a little too long to switch my attitude over from trusting country rube to wary city slicker and my camera ‘disappeared’ in the hotel lobby when we arrived, so only a few cell phone photos of this trip exist. The visit was a quick one, but action packed. After a great lunch of oysters, fish, and white wine at Metrazur we played tourist for a couple hours along 5th Avenue. Then a quick stop at Petrossian for a small gift for Gray and Brian, who had very graciously decided that my return to NYC after a more than 5 year hiatus deserved to be honored by a cocktail party. A stellar crowd of New York’s elite to turned out to greet us and it was great catching up with old friends (note: there’s something about the Manhattan air that keeps people remarkably well preserved – either that, or farm life ages one more than I had realized). After taking leave of our hosts, a late seating at Craftsteak saw us in front of a terrific steak dinner – with all the big boy trimmings – red wine, mushrooms, onion rings – but at an astounding price tag that still makes me shudder (at least I wasn’t paying – thanks Keith!) The next morning was spent cruising around the shops of SoHo in a cold and drizzly rain. By the time we were wandering through Dean & DeLuca we started to get pretty hungry – so we headed over to what immediately became our new favorite restaurant in the world – Momofuko noodle bar – an absolutely perfect place to hang out on a cold rainy day for a late lunch. We ate at the counter and watched the cooks on the line make these great noodle bowls while stuffing ourselves on steamy pork buns. Fully sated, we waddled on to the train back to DC. I decided city life still retains some charms, but only in small doses…
January Photos (click photos to start slideshow)
February was pretty quiet. Since I had helped him tear out and redo his condo bathroom at the start of the month, Keith thought it only fair to take a week off toward the end of the month help with this year’s lambing season. He could have saved his vacation time, as we waited, and waited, and waited, but no lambs came. My trivia team at the Griffin Tavern continued its winning streak into 2008 however.
February Photos (click photo to start show)
March is normally an exhausting finish to a busy lambing season – but this year proved to be a colossal disappointment in that regard. I had 21 ewes that I thought were going to give me a bumper crop of AI lambs (see last year’s letter), but only 6 of them lambed. What’s worse, the rest of the girls were no better. At first I just thought everyone was just late, but as the season drew to a close only 38 out of 66 ewes lambed. While other shepherds in the area also reported lower lambing numbers, mine seems to be the worst results. The culprit in this lowered fertility may have been the unusually hot weather we experienced last October, but that doesn’t explain all the discrepancy. Clearly something else was at play. Other than waiting around for lambs to be born, I did manage to sell a few farm properties and Keith made me a wonderful birthday dinner.
March Photos (click photo to start show)
April, in contrast, was non-stop busy. Real estate sales picked up, we had fun at the Old Dominion Hounds annual point-to-point races, Mark and Joe had a swell dinner for Tim Watkin’s 50th birthday, and we had a great time visiting Keith’s sister Yvonne in Charlottesville for her birthday (some pretty hip places to hang out in C’ville these days). Then back to Rappahannock for the RAWL hoe down before finally heading down south to see my mother in Tryon, NC and stay for the local version of a steeplechase race (which in NC feels like NASCAR with horses, but don’t tell them I said so.)
April Photos (click photo to start show)
May brought great weather and fun events and unfortunately some sorrow. The Maryland Sheep & Wool festival early in the month was a great chance to catch up with other Clun Forest sheep breeders on the east coast. Keith’s niece Rebecca and family came for a farm visit. The sad news was the unexpected loss of friends Dave Jenks and Buddy Darden.
May Photos (click photo to start show)
June kicked life back into high gear, with farm visits, major farm projects, and new responsibilities. One huge change was the creation of a farming co-op “Rappahannock Farms, LLC” with neighbor and fellow shepherd Jerome Niessen. By pooling resources and marketing our lamb together, we’re now poised to dominate the direct marketing of lamb in the mid-Atlantic region (more on this next year). What’s even more exciting is that we’ve created a template for other farms to join us as well, and so far two others have decided to come on board. The best part however, was the decision we made to hire Jeremy Christopher as a farm manager for both our farms. Jeremy immediately proved himself invaluable by organizing and streamlining everything that needs to be done on the farm. Now I only need say ‘make it so’ and it not only gets done, but done very well (better than I could do myself, but don’t tell Jeremy this). Jeremy’s first task was to bring in the first cutting of hay for the year. When he told me my faithful old tractor (a 1974 Ford 3000 affectionately known as “Old Blue”) was no longer up to the task, I reluctantly agreed. While she had served me well for the past 12 years, the poor thing was blowing gaskets with even the most minor tasks, so off she went to someone who will ‘restore’ her as an antique. I then had to dig deep in the sofa cushions for some loose change to buy this new baby (John Deere 5403) – but she’s an awesome tractor that’s up for anything I throw at her and a total creampuff to drive. Meanwhile the lambs were growing nicely and putting on pounds by the hour, which was fortunate because just then a Washington Post article featuring Touchstone Farm hit the press and caused us to sell out all of our lamb months ahead of time. Despite all this activity, we still had time for a birthday party for Keith and a slew of visits including Rick Avery and John Ottersberg from San Francisco, Marc Schappell (who bought a ram for his farm in upstate NY), Uncle Ian from Illinois (who gave us great rifle and target practice lessons), Cousin Bob from Iowa (who was dragooned in to farm work), and Nephew Drake from Illinois.
June Photos (click photo to start show)
July was just crazy busy. Of course, just when the farm seemed to be getting into shape and looking good, I decided it mess it all up with this year’s big project – EARTHMOVING! (click here for exciting photos of heavy machinery making a mess). Needless to say it left little time for anything else, but we did manage to squeeze in a Fourth of July road trip to DeBordieu to re-unite Drake with the rest of his family and for Keith to finally get acquainted with the entire Zuschlag clan. He seemed to pass inspection, despite it being a pretty tough crowd. While we were there Keith took the whole group up to Myrtle Beach to see his nephew Jeff Zona perform in a great stage show which we all enjoyed. Brother-in-law Gunter drove back north with us to see the farm and visit our family friend Heike in DC, while Sister Jen and the kids stopped by later in the month. They wanted to take Phoebe the donkey back with them to Germany.
July Photos (click photo to start show)
August went by in a cloud of dust. Literally! Dust from the bobcat and dirt flying everywhere. We spent every waking moment moving dirt piles and filling in holes. Real estate kept me hopping too. There was so much to do that there was no way we could possibly get everything done by the middle of the month when we were scheduled to decamp for Nova Scotia – and we didn’t – but we went anyway ( Click here to read tedious trip commentary and boring vacation photos).
August Photos (click photo to start show)
September still feels like “back to school” month – and it truly is in terms of real estate, farm work, and social life. The usual events were fun – The Taste of Rappahannock, The Thornton Hill Hounds Point-to-Point and other rentreé staples. The highlight for me still remains the annual meeting of the shepherds in the North American Clun Forest Association. This year was no different and I convinced Keith to come along and make it a proper getaway (click here for an excruciatingly detailed account of the trip). Dirt moving on the farm continued at a feverish pace, and the resulting disruption in their normal pond habitat caused the swan brothers Castor and Pollux to take a wrong turn on their daily walk up to my house to crap on my driveway visit me. They were nowhere to be found. I placed ‘missing swans’ notices in mailboxes up and down South Poes Road and within a day got a call from a neighbor 4 miles down the road to say that my swans were hanging out in her pond. Apparently they were quite a sensation when they appeared suddenly out of woods. How they got across the road and through four miles of dense forest and hills, I’ll never know – as they can’t fly – and their walk is a rather stately pace. Unfortunately the month ended on a sad note when I heard of the loss of my friend Brian Brady.
September Photos (click photo to start show)
October gave us beautiful fall weather this year which allowed us to finish several outdoor projects and enjoy the season, including a quick escape to see James Madison’s newly restored Montpelier (not to be confused with Rappahannock’s Montpelier) and a fun 86th birthday party for Keith’s mother. Since almost all of the dirt moving was completed, I decided it was time replant the center alleé of trees leading up to the house from the pond. I had planted this in sugar maple seedlings several years ago, but they stayed pretty puny and all had to be removed to dredge the pond and regrade the slope. I was able to get a terrific deal on some Legacy and Green Mountain sugar maples to replace them. And while they had appeared a manageable size when I had picked them out at the nursery, they arrived with root balls that were 3 ft wide and 3 ft deep. How to dig 32 holes that size? Easy – break the piggy bank and rent a bobcat again. This time it was only for one day. Keith and I had already measured the placement of the trees to the exact centimeter, so Jeremy and I worked 13 hours straight digging holes with a huge auger and moving trees with the tractor. It was a bit of a pain trying to land them in the holes with precision, but I have to say I’m totally impressed with the results and I hope you will be too when you see them in all their glory in next year’s letter.
October Photos (click photo to start show)
November had a great start with a fantastic helicopter ride over the farm and surrounding countryside on a gorgeous fall day. It was gratifying to see all the earth-moving efforts from a bird’s eye and find that they don’t look too bad at all. After we got off the helicopter we headed over to Steph Ridder and John Beardsley’s farm for an afternoon of beagling with Beth Optiz’s Ben Venue Beagle Pack. My brother Ray and mother drove up to the farm to spend Thanksgiving with me. I tried cooking, honest I did, but Ray had to rescue several of the dishes. Still we had a good time. Even more fun was had when Farm Manager Jeremy Christopher and his lovely wife Amy decided to dress up their civil wedding with great church service and fun reception afterwards. Unfortunately November ended with sadness too, when old friend Nan Sweetser passed away.
November Photos (click photo to start show)
December is the month I traditionally gain at least 5 lbs and this year was no exception. I’m not telling how much I put on with all the holiday eating and drinking (but it was north of 5 lbs!). The month started with a quick trip to New York for Nan Sweetser’s beautifully haunting memorial service. Nan was always a stylish presence and her leave-taking was no different than her vibrant life in this regard. While in NYC Keith and I decided to take a quick side trip to Ellis Island. Just getting there was a complete re-creation of the immigrant experience itself – a mad crush of European tourists and long, long lines. Not necessarily worth the travail, but the pig-out lunch at Momofuko afterwards eased the steerage experience. Christmas was spent with Keith’s family in Virginia followed by a quick trip to Chicago for an informal 30th year reunion with high school friends. We had all avoided the official reunion in October but agreed to get-together over the holidays. I’m really glad we did. It was great to see everyone after all the years and three decades melted away in minutes as we talked the whole night through. It’s amazing how good friendships can endure such long separations.
December Photos (click photo to start show)
So that’s the year. A few faltering steps forward, a few fun times, some losses and some concerns, but on the whole I remain grateful to be alive, open to new adventures, and glad to have you as part of my life.
Best wishes for a happy and rewarding 2009,