The memory of everything is very soon overwhelmed in time – VII, 10
The quiet start to the year didn’t last very long. Maybe a couple of hours. I found myself having to leave in the middle of Jeff & Scott’s traditional New Year’s Day brunch to go show properties. And it didn’t let up from there. I was hoppin’ the whole month. Part of the reason was that I was acting as my own general contractor in completing the walled gardens and outbuildings, overseeing the transition from sheep to cattle on the farm, and dealing with a surprisingly robust real estate market all at the same time.
Well, since the fates (and Keith) have decreed that we’re staying, it was time to see those projects through.
The three of you who actually follow the sturm and drang of my life will have remembered the incessant dithering last year as to whether to sell the farm or stay and complete some large projects. Well, since the fates (and Keith) have decreed that we’re staying, it was time to see those projects through. The biggest of these was the gardens and their outbuildings. We actually started on these mid-December, but it was in January when things really took off and Decisions Had To Be Made. This is how I found myself careening around the countryside from quarry to stone yard trying to find just the right shade of bluestone cap our garden walls. You have no idea how long this took. Well, knowing me, perhaps you do. The thing is, I wanted my bluestone to be green. I wanted green bluestone. Everyone told me it didn’t exist. But I eventually found it in Pennsylvania, and fully vindicated, I could move on to the next obsession.
The first of these was making sure that my hayfield was ‘cattle proof.’ I bought this part of the farm in 2001 and had spent the past 18 years turning what once was a motorcross track into a nice smooth and lush hayfield. Now since I was letting it revert back into the cattle equivalent of a motorcross track, the first order of business was to fence it entirely. Of course, the fencing had to go in the ‘right’ place. So there were several heated exchanges between the cattle owners and yours truly along the lines of “the fence can’t go there!” “The fence WILL go there!” etc, etc. But we got it done the right (my) way.
The next was getting the garden pavilions built to my architect brother’s exact specifications. You think I’m obsessive? You haven’t met my brother Wayne. He spent hours building and ripping out framing and sheeting on these buildings to get them “just so.” So now I was having mere carpenters complete his work, and it was tough going. The big issue involved something called a ‘raking cornice’ and making sure there was a ‘split fillet.’ Now my brother is pretty much a Chicago modernist when it comes to architecture, but he’s also a professor of architecture who would rather see my classical Greek temple pavilions burnt to the ground than to have them have the improper molding, or God forbid, as he sniffily told me “a suburban shopping mall pediment.” God forbid indeed! So, we had to rip out all the pediment molding (which to my untrained eye looked pretty good) and start over again. It took a lot of phone calls and video messaging, including Wayne shouting at us on video conferencing before the poor carpenter and I understood a split fillet properly. It seems like such a mountain out of a molehill, but you know what? Now that I know what one is, I too cringe when I see it done in the ‘surburban’ way.
So January was a blur of picking just the right stone cap, making sure fencing was going in not an inch out of place, ensuring that the split fillets lined up properly and dozens of other time consuming decisions being made. It is simultaneously both a wonderful and anxiety provoking experience to be the cause of so much activity. I exulted in the ‘progress’ of it all, but at the same time that under-current of anxiety was there – how am I going to afford this? Did we pick the right doors? Should we have gone with the lower gauge fencing? Is that the right stone color? It was exhausting.
Oddly enough, my one decompression and mind-clearing activity was messing around with two aquaria I had set up late last year. Since I can’t putter in the garden in the winter, it’s nice way of gardening underwater. I even went to a meeting of the GWAPA, just how nerdy is that? After running around all day, it was nice to sit and stare at the two tanks and watch the fish swim by and wonder, “should that plant be moved just a bit to the right?“
Each day provides its own gifts – IV, 47
February was actually kinda quiet. And truth be told, it was nice to have a little winter break. Work progressed (slowly) on the walled gardens and garden pavilions, but everything went smoothly without any ‘split fillet’ crises, and the month afforded plenty of comfy afternoons in front of the fireplace where I could luxuriate in middle-aged laziness. Sophie Harding came to town with “Disney on Ice” and as prima ice-skater, she was every Disney princess (and Barbie) in the show. In an arena filled with parents and their shrieking little
monsters darlings, we got more than few looks along the lines of “who are these pervy old guys cheering for Barbie?” But hey, we didn’t care as she is an excellent skater and all around super terrific young person and we had a fun time taking her to dinner afterwards to catch up on her life on the road and Harding family adventures. One night on a whim, Keith and I decided we’d go super old school and head out to the Auberge Chez Francoise in Great Falls. Neither of us had ever been, but this was ‘the’ fine dining restaurant waay back when ‘fine dining’ meant steak and a wedge salad. Some 50 years ago in its’ heyday, it was a drive out into the country from DC. Now it’s been swallowed up by garish McMansions and other suburban oddities. The restaurant itself was a bit of a time capsule and unfortunately so was the food. It was so old school that it was no school, but at least two old geezers didn’t look out of place among the suburban diners celebrating Valentine’s day.
Since it had been such a dull and quiet first half of the month, Keith decide to liven it up a bit by getting his shoulder operated on. Then to spice it up even more, he sliced his finger open to the bone while cutting a bagel. He took full advantage of his incapacitation to order me around for the rest of the month. He gave the distinct impression that by allowing me to cater to his every need was more for my benefit than his, and that I should be grateful as it gave me something to do. Meanwhile, despite his bandages and splints, the patient did find time to do a video of one of his wine presentation classes and get his final Wine Educator certificate, which was a good thing.
I consist of a little body and a soul – VI, 32
March saw only minimal progress on the garden outbuildings, and while Spring was slow in coming in, Winter did not pull any of its usual March tricks and so weather stayed fairly mild the entire month. I played George Washington and chopped down the cherry trees in the orchard. It looked a little naked once they were gone, but they never really amounted to anything in the 20 or so years they were there. The birds got whatever cherries that ever set, and they were now in the way of the new garden pavilion. Nine months later, I’m still not 100% sure of what will replace them. Persimmons? But other than a schnitzel à la Keith and a visit to the Inn for my birthday, it wasn’t really a super memorable month.
Except for one particular evening. March 10th was the first mild night of late winter/early spring. Mellow afternoon faded into evening a bit later on this first day of daylight savings time. I spent the afternoon destroying the last of the cherry trees in the garden while Keith studied for his Advanced Sommelier exam. Later he cooked a nice steak dinner on the grill and we ate and talked about our plans for the future. He had to turn in to bed early – as he had to wake up at 3 am to make it back to DC in time for his 6 am report time at Amtrak. So while he went to bed, I went out to the barn to check on the sheep. The sky was clear and calm and the Milky Way clearly visible. Spring peeper were peeping off in the distance and the air smelt of the coming spring.
And for a brief moment I was in my element completely, and happy to be alive and part of the universe
Up at the barn all was still. Sheep chewing their cud, lambs calling for their mothers, and gentle breathing. But no crises, no imminent lambing disasters. And I had a moment. All was right with the world. There was a stillness, a mildness to the air. My husband was tucked away in bed, the sheep were safe and happy, the barn cat entwining herself around my legs, the spring peepers were peeping, and the stars were twinkling above me. And for a brief moment I was in my element and happy to be alive and part of this universe.
That which comes after ever conforms to that which has gone before – Book IV, 45
Pasture management was suddenly no longer an urgent concern. Grass is growing out of control? Hey, guess what? Suddenly not my problem anymore!
Normally April is when everything kicks into high gear. The real estate business revs up, sheep need to be moved constantly to keep ahead of the bolting grass, chicks are hatching, the garden needs planting, and I’m generally scrambling to try and stay ahead of things. That frenetic energy was somehow muted this year, or perhaps for the first time ever, I actually was ahead of things! The month started with the ODH point-to-point like it does every year, and pretty soon the chicks were indeed hatching, and then in short order the pigeons were all mated up and gardens were planted out…. but…. I dunno….it felt like I was in a holding pattern somehow. I guess part of it was because I still not used to the new reality of a downsized flock and the impending cattle take over. Pasture management was suddenly no longer an urgent concern. Grass is growing out of control? Hey, guess what? Suddenly not my problem anymore! I felt horribly guilty, as though I was shirking my responsibilities. I guess it will take a while before I feel comfortable living a life with actual free time…. How do you all cope with only one full-time job?
At least the slower Springtime pace allowed us to enjoy some brief family visits. Niece Riley spent part of her Spring break with us, and my sister Jen visited with nephews Stuart and Henry. Later in the month we also got to spend time with nephew Jeff and niece Rebecca and their families at Keith’s sister’s house in Richmond.
Very little is needed to make a happy life. – VII, 67
Believe it or not, May came and went and garden pavilions were still not done! The stucco exteriors were finally finished and the long process of cleaning up began, but columns still needed to be put up and everything still needed to be caulked and painted. However they were recognizably what they should be, and that was a good thing.
May was nice little uneventful and well-behaved month. Not too hot, not too cold, and never out of temper, just about right the entire time. Chicks grew, lambs grew, and the garden grew, but the farm was still in a state of flux. The cattle were not in residence on the whole farm, just the hayfield. And with not enough sheep to graze our grass, the Adams brothers decided to make hay instead. That WAS a definite turning point for me – I was wistful for perhaps half a second, and then guiltily giddy about puttering in the garden while other people were doing real farm work. This was a change I could get used to. Otherwise the real news was that Keith studied and studied. Actually, he had been studying from the beginning of the year, but May is when it kicked into high gear. He even quit his weekend gig as a sommelier at the Inn so that he could study all weekend without interruption. The reason for all this frenetic academic activity is that he had decided to tackle the Advanced Sommelier degree. Or rather, the Court of Master Sommeliers had decided he was ‘allowed’ to sit for the advanced examination. To the cynical eye (i.e., me) the “Court” is simply a shake-down operation imposing itself on the wine hospitality industry at the same time creating artificial barriers to entry in a career of opening wine bottles. I mean, do you really need to spend thousands and thousands and months and months preparing for an exam that tests your ability to open and pour a bottle of wine? Apparently, according to my husband, you do.
So to give you the full story I need to back up almost a year. Keith is a Certified Sommelier, a Certified Wine Educator, a French Wine Scholar, and about two or three other designations that make him extra fancy in the wine world (each designation has its own lapel pin, but beyond that I’m not quite sure what they each mean). You’d think for a man whose main mission in life should be to make my life more comfortable, that would be enough. Not for Keith. Even though he has the admiration of his peers, and knows pretty much every sommelier and wine-maker on two continents, that isn’t enough either. He has….….ambitions. Thus, he laid out a plan last year and informed me that we would be spending the entire year of 2019 preparing for the big exam. That meant no vacation (oh, but excepting his two week wine trip to France, of course), no entertaining of friends, and any time we had together would be spent studying. In return for basically giving up a year of my life, I would get… an Advanced Sommelier (maybe) that I could then show off to all my friends and acquaintances. But, as a concession to my wanting to have ‘a life,’ he would agree that this was a one-time thing. Just to see if he could do it. He realized that he was doing this for his own gratification, and not necessarily for the career goals that were motivating all the other people half his age he was competing against. He didn’t necessarily have the time or career pressure to take the exam again and again for four years in a row (the average number of attempts most people make before they pass). Despite the 17% pass rate, if he did make it, or didn’t make it, it didn’t matter. It would be a one time deal. He would be done with studying and he’d be content to live out his years as a regular ol’ sommelier, and we could enjoy life like normal people (just with a bit more wine than normal people).
Because I’m such a wonderful spouse, I agreed to these terms. Okay, you can go to France while I stay at home and work. We will open 10 bottles of wine a day so you can “taste” them. I will spend every waking moment with you reading flash cards to quiz you, or pretending to be a cranky restaurant patron that you will tame with your special wine powers. I will tell all our friends and family that we are unavailable for any party, dinner or get-together, and agree to be a social pariah, except in the company of your wine buddies.
So this is why, if you go back and re-read this letter from January forward, and as you continue to read beyond this, you will realize there’s a distinct lack of anything like, oh, I dunno, FUN, in this year’s missive. Instead for Keith it was all wine, wine, wine, and for me it was all whine, whine, whine.
Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present. – VII, 8
Much like May, June decided to opt for tradition and not pull any weather stunts. Warm but not oppressive, and pretty pleasant all around. Which was a good thing, because after more than 6 months of construction, it allowed us to complete the garden pavilions and garden walls. The last columns were secured, the sink and counter in the potting room installed and the garden gates were hung. I was quite pleased with the results, but now the rest is up to me. I still need to revamp the orchard plantings and finish the kitchen garden beds and maybe then life will be complete. Theoretically now that I’m an ex-farmer, I should actually have the time to make this happen. We’ll see.
In the middle of the month I dropped Keith off at the airport and sighed. Two whole weeks without wine, or flash cards, or quizzes! To celebrate I had a beer. But while he had a nice 2 week vacation hob-nobbing with the wine elite in the Loire and Bordeaux, I dealt with insane clients that cost me time and money and in the end ruined three contracts. So real estate kinda sucked in June and kept me busier than I’d have liked. Between collapsing contracts I spent what little free time I had painting garden pavilion doors. And, believe it or not, I kinda missed Keith. I was so happy to see him when I picked him up at the airport – that is, until he got out his flash cards…
All that happens is as usual and familiar as the rose in spring and the crop in summer – Book IV, 44
It was a very quiet mid-summer. Hot, humid, and thunderstormy – just like Julys were meant to be. And I actually kept up with farm work. So much so, that I actually completed a few long abandoned farm projects by the end of the month, so maybe this turning over the farm to cattle is not such a bad idea (though I totally cheated and mowed the long paddock just because). Real estate was pretty much dead in the water. Made me a little nervous, but I’ve been there before, so I just kinda let the summer doldrums roll off my shoulders. Besides, I had a sommelier student to keep me busy. Keith and I both had colonoscopys and both seem to have the same colons (old and tired, but still functional). At least that’s done for another 5 years.
Bill & Drew’s 6th of July concert at Avon Hall was the main event this month. I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more “American” moment than this concert. And yet the “America” it summoned up unfortunately no longer exists, except maybe in the collective subconsciousness of older folks. Thinking back on this months later does not dull the intense nostalgia the moment conjured up. Sitting there on a hot July, as late afternoon merged with early evening, there was something transcendent in the simple act of a small rural community coming together to hear a band play old Sousa marches and other patriotic songs. The local high school band joined the professional players and the audience sang along for the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Aside from the dress (and the ubiquitous smartphones recording the event) it could have been any 4th of July concert from 1870 to 1990. It was the America I was raised in and still feel deeply in my bones. But what made the event so bittersweet and elegiac was the sharp realization that that America no longer exists in the 21st century except in small little pockets like this. It made me weep with longing. The past truly is another country. I sometimes feel like an immigrant in this “woke” world of moronic Presidential tweets and prickly Social Justice Warriors. It’s nice then, in this new foreign land, to get together now and then with other people “from the old country” to celebrate our rites and rituals and folkloric events. But it’s also sad to know that those rites and customs and traditional songs are viewed by the youth of today as something anachronistic and to be mildly ashamed of. I’m sure it’s no doubt “problematic” to have these views. But there it is nevertheless. I have become an old man.
There is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and never return. – II, 4
August didn’t really happen in 2019. July just lasted a few days longer and then I swear it was September. The garden grew and that was about it. While Keith studied relentlessly, I had no pressing farm or real estate work. All the free time made me quite nervous. Rather than embrace the slow, I decided to completely revamp my real estate website and upgrade its capabilities. In the end, I was quite pleased with the results. Otherwise the highlight of the month was a tour of Salubria organized by George Eatman followed by Ruthie Windsor Mann’s gallery opening and her annual croquet party.
Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away. – Book IV, 43
Normally September is a watershed point in the year. Back-to-school and all that. But it didn’t really feel that way this year. Since August went by in a flash, Summer decided it still had some time to luxuriate in September and stayed the whole month through. Temperatures stayed in 80s and 90s the entire month. It was beastly hot. Also this year the annual social rentrée was missing. We weren’t social at all – as Keith studied for his Somm exam and I spun my wheels. No real estate activity at all – shades of 2015! Yikes. The farm was fairly quiet too. We sold some more sheep and by the end of the month were down to the final 11 ewes and 3 rams. A far cry from our peak at 100 ewes and 7 rams. But even that seemed anti-climactic too. So there really wasn’t much to say about September. The one thing that still brings me great joy at this time of year is the end of the growing season and starting to see what this year’s crop of lambs, pigeons, chickens, (and now goldfish) brings. It’s totally geek-y animal breeding stuff, but it is one of my life’s greatest satisfactions in seeing various breeding project slowly come to fruition. I’m particularly
pleased with my progress in introducing the Modena bronze factor in the Lahore breed. It’s still a few years off before it all comes together, but I’m already excited to see what next breeding season brings.
At the end of the month Keith came home from one of his wine events a little teary eyed. Usually, he’s totally chatty and energized after these things and this time I expected him to be doubly so. He was at wine tasting and lunch for the DC sommelier community at THE top winery in Virginia so I was sure he’d come back with all kinds of tales. This time he was alarmingly somber. It seems the winery estate manager asked him to stay after the group left and point blank asked “what will it take to make you a member of our wine team?” I blanched as he told me this. “You’re not quitting Amtrak, are you?” I asked, alarmedly, with visions of his pension vanishing before my eyes. “No, of course not, but it was so nice to be asked” he said, as he got choked up once again. He was thrilled to be recognized for the wine expert that he is. And rightly so.
In a sense, people are our proper occupation. Our job is to do them good and put up with them. – V, 20
There’s not much to say about this October. It came in as summer with 90 degree heat and left almost as warm. While it lacked fall briskness, we had better fall foliage than in the past few years and the farm looked great and the gardens kept going and going. It was a bit odd though, to not be sorting sheep into breeding groups, as this the first year in over 20 that we’re not going to be lambing in the spring (more on that in next year’s letter).
The main focus of the month was Keith’s advanced sommelier exam. The amount of blood, sweat, and tears Keith put into studying was awe inspiring. But, as you know, he had promised me that this was “it.” Pass or fail – he’d be done and we could have a ‘normal’ life. Now anyone who knows Keith and his wine obsession, knows that we will never have a ‘normal’ life. But, in his scenario, after the exam we could actually have a dinner party or two, or go out to local events as a couple, and in short, live a bit like ‘normal’ people do. Basically do the things we’d been denied all year. Keith took off two weeks of work in October to study, study, study. I had to quiz Keith incessantly. Night and day. Thousands of flash cards, “blind” tasting who knows how many bottles of wine. Improvised restaurant scenes where I was the obnoxious restaurant patron being difficult about my wine order (you know I enjoyed this part). When the big day came, I dropped him off at the airport. Driving home was a relief. Just think, no more flashcards, wine, stress, etc. I came home and cleaned out the house, sorted out all of Keith’s study materials, put them away, and then poured myself a beer. Heaven!
Of course, I was worried about how he’d do. This past year had been incredibly stressful for him; he’d spent a king’s ransom on study trips to France, and wine events up and down the East Coast, and sequestered himself studying the entire year. Endlessly reading study guides, highlighting passages and writing notes, creating flash cards, quizzing himself online and at sommelier wine tastings. He had great support among the sommelier community in DC where a number of other somms were studying for the same exam. But it was all consuming.
So finally here were the three days of reckoning. Now, we’d known that the pass rate for this exam is woefully low (between 17% and 22%). We also knew that every sommelier he knew beyond his level had taken this exam 2 to 4 times. We also knew that several people who Keith was absolutely convinced would pass, had failed at the July exam earlier in the year. So, as a first-time exam taker, Keith’s chances were pretty slim. But….we also knew that he was incredibly talented, and he had shocked others and himself in previous exams and blind tasting contests where he was convinced he’d done poorly and wound up being one of the top scorers. So, who knew? All I knew was that my long Keith-imposed social curfew was being lifted one way or another. That’s not to say I was a callous spouse (really!), but I was eager to have my life back. Besides, I was fairly confident he could do it – he’s pretty incredible. The stumbling block for everyone in these exams was the “Theory” part. One day of questions regarding soil types, classifications, ownership, wine styles, alcohol levels, ageing requirements, of EVERY wine produced anywhere in the world. It was mind-boggling to say the least. The amount of minutiae that they are required to know is absolutely, positively, I-mean-really, ridiculous. It makes me angry just typing this out. Who in the world can name every single producer in the Nuits Saint Georges and their wines classifications? Who can describe every single type of madeira produced and describe in excruciating detail the slight variations in barrel sizes and shapes and storage and which ones are made with the canteiro method of estufagem? Well, my husband can. Ask him at your own peril.
But it turns out knowing the exact specifications of every bottle of wine produced in this world is sometimes not enough. When Keith called me after his first day of the exam, he was a bit shell shocked. He had had a terrible morning of Uber driver mix-ups and arrived at the exam site a bit flustered and it went downhill from there. Eight Master sommeliers were seated at two restaurant tables. He was handed a menu with a wine list and some cocktail ingredients and a bottle of champagne and turned loose on these ‘guests.” They try to make the experience as humiliating as possible by bombarding with you with conflicting demands, outrageous claims which you have to deftly set right, etc. Needless to say, these people were pros at doing so. My normally unflappable Keith was clearly flapped. He said “deer caught in the headlights” did not begin to describe his frantic attempt gain his footing once thrown off. He was sick to his stomach at what had happened, and so was I. But I think it would have made great reality television. With 1/3 of his grade based on this experience it didn’t matter than he totally ‘aced’ the theory day, or did well on his blind tasting day. He had failed.
It took a while for that to sink in. Since he started his journey in the world of wine, he’s dazzled everyone with his intuitive ability to ‘get’ what wine is about. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the process and incredible memory for all the tastes, smells and varieties he’s ever encountered. With just a whiff a wine, he can generally tell you who’s feet stomped the grapes and in what year. While he’s been nervous and doubtful of his abilities in every exam or competition he’s been in, he always has come out on top of the class. This was the first time the Boy Wonder of wine ever had a set-back. While he was very happy for his friends who had passed the exam (who all, by the way, had stood for the exam at least 2-3 times before), he was depressed as never before. This was to be his only shot, and he had come so close. Now what? He moped for days and literally did not know what to do with himself. I knew what he wanted to do, but he had already made his promise to me that this was a one-time thing, so he didn’t dare ask.
Finally though, I had enough. “Okay,” I relented, “you can take the exam again, but with two conditions: 1) you take a break from any studying until at least March; and 2) between now and March we get to go to parties and events together, and we maybe even have people over at the farm.” He readily agreed and his mood lifted considerably.
As for life, it is a battle and a sojourning in a strange land; but the fame that comes after is oblivion. – II, 17
November was filled with the usual ‘putting the farm to bed’ for the season. But it was bit more bittersweet this year than usual. The long-anticipated cattle crossing was finally fenced. Cattle could now cross from our hayfield into the south end of the farm without polluting our streams or our farm drive. It is the most over-engineered stream crossing I’ve ever encountered, but since the USDA was paying for most of it, I’m not in a position to complain. The results, however, were dramatic. We didn’t smash the gates with a bottle of champagne or anything, but once the gates were opened there were cattle everywhere! EVERYWHERE! It was a bit of a rude awakening. It was even a ruder awakening when I took the gator out for a drive to see how things were going. Both the gator and I got completely splattered by cow poop. A new unpleasant farm reality.
This change hit Keith harder than it did me. He railed against the smelly beasts. But of course, he’d always been Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess in her Hameau, while the peasants (me) did the actual ‘real’ work. So my sadness at the end of an era was tempered by relief at not having the endless responsibility of maintaining a larger commercial flock. But, the truth is, I no longer have the privilege of claiming the noble title of “Farmer.”
It was mid-month when we received the news that our dear friend Bill Fischer had died. This was not unexpected news as Bill had been struggling with Stage IV cancer for nearly three years, but I don’t think either of us has fully absorbed his loss yet. This came on the heels of news of the loss of my first sheep mentor, and former colleague and friend. Linda and Nevill lived long and happy lives, but the loss of Bill, cut down when he had such a life full of promise ahead of him, hit very hard. All three had a deep and wonderful sense of community and were so selfless in giving back to our little corner of the world that their absence will be felt for a long time.
November also saw an overnight trip to Staunton (pronounced STAN-ton for some ridiculous reason) with Keith’s sister Barbara and her husband Brian. Great food at The Shack and interesting theater and a stroll around a nice little downtown.
The highlight of the month however was the great American road trip to Michigan and back. Our sister-in-law Audrey has been after us for years to see their little house and big woods in Michigan. While they live in Chicago, they have a Thanksgiving tradition of spending the holiday at “The Woods.” Since there’s no house at The Woods (yet), they have a little one in the nearby town of Fennville. Keith and I have had a longstanding command invitation to attend Thanksgiving there and this year we were determined to fulfil our family obligation. Keith, of course, was not able to get the holiday off work, so I decided to do it myself. Audrey was not thrilled with this arrangement (they all seem to want Keith more than they want me), but comforted herself with the fact that I’d be driving there instead of taking the train, so now I could pick up nephew Luka in Athens, OH, and niece Ava at Oberlin, OH and drive them up to Michigan. I was not as happy with this arrangement as she was, as it meant about 14 hours driving time, but truth be told I was kinda excited to have a captive audience in my car for several hours. I even made a list of questions for old uncles to ask the younger college generation. The poor kids didn’t know what hit them. You always read about what precious little snowflakes the kids are these days and how they have to be handled with ‘trigger warnings’ and the like. But I found them to be clear-eyed and well-rounded, and even in hyper-liberal Oberlin I found students are not always taken in by the lunacies of tenured idiots claiming to be professors.
I even made a list of questions for old uncles to ask the younger college generation. The poor kids didn’t know what hit them.
Thanksgiving itself was a lot of fun! Sister Jen who’s in the States for a year, drove up from Fort Knox with nephews Stuart and Henry, so we had a real family reunion in the tiny Fennville house and spent the weekend feasting on Audrey’s Lithuanian delicacies and wandering Wayne’s fantasy land of construction in The Woods. It was great cousin bonding time for the kids and I got to appreciate how my brother Wayne is even more obsessive then I am when it comes to carving out a little slice of this planet to call his own. The kids rolled their eyes as the uncles geeked out on his spreadsheet of which trees he’ll tap this coming year to make his famous maple syrup. My family is nuts but I love ‘em.
Remember this— that there is a proper dignity and proportion to be observed in the performance of every act of life. – IV, 32
December was the pre-ordained slog of holiday parties, Christmas parades, and family visits with too much food and drink. I gained my usual five extra pounds and delighted in every moment I spent with family and friends. Perversely enough the real estate buyers who were AWOL in October showed up in full force in the middle of the Christmas season and kept me hopping right until the end of the year. Christmas itself was the usual festive nonsense of excess and it was as joyous as ever to spend it with Keith’s sisters and the extended family in Richmond. Keith’s sister Barbara huffed“what are you two talking about?” to her husband Brian and me when she caught us trying to one-up each other on the trials and tribulations we suffer as the result of being married to a Miller. But other than that, everyone was very well behaved. Since we only watched “Christmas Story” twice, and “It’s a Wonderful Life” once, we had plenty of time to catch up with everyone.
New Year’s eve approached faster than we could make plans and we decided maybe the best way to celebrate was to have a night in by ourselves. So we did. Chef Keith made a spectacular steak dinner, and Sommelier Keith selected the perfect wine to go with it. It a nice quiet ending to a year which was, when you come right down to it, kinda “meh” all around. Keith fell asleep by the fire and I woke him up at midnight to wish him happy New Year, but he just grunted. So that’s how we ended our year.
I’m always in a reflective mood when I put these letters together at the end of the year. The sweep of the last twelve months is put into perspective and I try to edit out the extraneous bits and to concentrate on what is important. That’s the hard part, because none of it is important, really. It’s just the ephemera of one person’s small life.
But as we approach the end of the decade, and as I come close to hitting one of life’s milestones, I think a little more reflection on les temps perdu might be called for. 2019 wasn’t the best of years, I lost a dear friend, and we continue to live through a socio-political transition that I don’t think anyone quite understands, and thus I mourn for a world that once was. It’s a consequence of getting older too, I suppose.
And getting older is sometimes easier when you can lean on someone who’s been there before and has a clear-eyed view of the human condition. Which is why, scattered throughout this missive, you’ve seen little quotes from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Keith finds this horribly pretentious, but I’m sure you’ll all agree that after Epictitus, he’s probably the best Stoic to consult when you need to gain perspective.
So here’s to the new year, a new decade, and new beginnings. May the new year grant you all the peace and joy you deserve. I’ll leave you with my favorite Swedish philosophers’ take on a new year and new decade:
It’s the end of a decade
In another ten years time
Who can say what we’ll find
What lies waiting down the line
In the end of
Happy New Year
Happy New Year
May we all have a vision now and then
Of a world where every neighbor is a friend
– Benny Andersson & Björn Ulvaeus