With the pop of champagne corks fading in my ears, but the bubbles still careening around in my brain, I hazarded an open eye on January 1, 2014. Once I adjusted to the harsh light of the winter sun, I debated getting out of bed. Big mistake. Little did I know, but that a new phrase “Polar Vortex” was about to enter my vocabulary and one which would make me yearn to hibernate for the next three months.
But New Year’s Eve had been as swell as a party could be this side of the 1920s.
But New Year’s Eve had been as swell as a party could be this side of the 1920s. Our country neighbors decided to host a grand New Year’s Eve ball to inaugurate their new ballroom. Being part of the 99.99% of the population without their own ballrooms, we were, of course, quite eager to attend. Just one slight hitch. The dress code stated: White Tie (also tiaras, honorary medals, and diplomatic sashes as appropriate). Now, even though we are most definitely not in the ballroom owning class, we can, between the two of us, muster three decent tuxedos. But sadly no tails, and not a tiara to save our souls. What to do? Well, we’ll rent them, I thought, and immediately googled ‘plutocrat attire for hire.’ Sadly, in the 21st century this is not easily accomplished, even in the rarified social climate of Washington, DC, the local home of diplomatic sash wearing types. Every place that I remembered from my previous life had closed shop. But after clicking through site after site of lurid wedding rental duds, I finally found the real deal and set up an appointment to get us kitted out. Fitting me was no problem. I may have gained a few pounds, but I’m still pretty standard issue. Keith, being size Eleventy Thousand, was another matter. There was apparently only one appropriately sized set of evening wear in the entire country which had shoulders broad enough, pants long enough, and waist small enough and it was not available to ship to DC. It would seem that most gentlemen of his stature that wear full evening dress are not known for modesty of girth. Luckily with sufficient incentivizing a local tailor agreed to make some alterations so that Keith could arrive in style. Of course after all that trouble we arrived to find half the male guests unashamedly cavorting in standard issue tuxedos….
At any rate, the moment I got out of bed, the Polar Vortex began. It was the longest January on record and reminded me of every reason I hated the winters of my Chicago childhood. I spent most of it inside escaping the snow and cold and getting fatter. But we did have some fun – we had a great dinner at the Foster-Harris House, an end of the month visit from my old World Bank colleague Holger Kray and his family, and attended a star-studded book party for Allan Gurganus.
It’s odd how Noo Yawkers think their experiences are so much more authentic than anyone else’s
We were constantly hit by more snow and cold in February. The non-stop winter felt more like Minnesota than Virginia. For Valentines Day we escaped frozen Virginia for the tundra of New York for Gray & Brian’s wedding. A great weekend amidst the snow drifts. We stayed in a new hotel in Battery Park City which had great views of the new world trade center and the snow falling on the Hudson and New Jersey (which, frankly always looks better with a coating of snow). Since we were dressed like lumberjacks in the snow anyway, we decided that we really should make a trek to Brooklyn to see what actual hipsters looked like in their native environment. I have to say, they’re pretty much the way they’re caricatured. It’s odd how Noo Yawkers think their experiences are so much more authentic than anyone else’s. The Brooklyn hipsters are just aping the ways of Portland youth from a decade or two ago, when no one cared that Portlandia was crawling with grungy bearded plaid-wearers making their own beef jerky. Now it’s a ‘thing’ because it’s in Brooklyn. At any rate, the kids make some good food, and we enjoyed it. The next day was all Manhattan glamour as we met up with old friends from the East and West coasts to celebrate at Gray & Brian’s wedding brunch. It was not only a great reunion and great send off to a great couple, but it was also a great escape from the cold and snow outside. It was great. The festivities continued with a reception in the evening with even more old friends.
Back home we set up for lambing, but, as usual, nothing happened. Which was a good thing, given the cold and the fact that we had agreed to shear the sheep on February 27th. What were we thinking? Shearing heavily pregnant ewes is actually easier than dealing with their more svelte sisters, but we hadn’t counted on sub-zero temperatures! The sheep huddled together in the barn and refused to venture outside. Also at risk were Keith’s diminishing flock of ducks. A frozen pond and 2 feet of snow made it very difficult for the ducks to seek shelter. They were easy picking for some migratory eagles. Of the 10 ducks we had started with, only 2 remained. I decided they needed to be penned up ASAP. But how to do it? It isn’t easy tramping through snow drifts and brambles for ducks or humans. But they had the advantage of diving into thickets. It took a while and some scratches and bruises, but I got ’em in the end. Though not without a very impressive black eye. I got horrified looks from everyone who saw me. “What happened to you?!!!” they’d ask. I’d just sigh heavily and say “marriage isn’t easy.” Keith did not find this amusing at all.
As lambing season always gets off to slow start, we thought we could sneak away for a quick overnight trip to NYC on the first of March to celebrate Michael Golder’s big 5-0. Poor Jeremy! Our trusty farm manager was up to his eyeballs in lambs from the moment we left. Michael’s party was over-the-top Manhattan-sized fun at a restaurant high above Columbus Circle. As is the tradition in our group of long time friends, we practiced hard with some other DC folk to contribute a song to ‘roast’ Michael’s big event. Needless to say we were a total bomb! Flubbed lines, singing out of key, and all the usual stuff which wouldn’t have mattered in the least if the rest of the contributors hadn’t brought in Broadway professional ringers and a surprise appearance by Michael’s old college singing group. The next day we got to have brunch with my old high school friend Nely Keinanen visiting from Finland before we headed back to VA. Of course, the instant we got home we had 8 inches of snow over night and subzero temperatures and more lambs! The next day things went downhill fast, -17° and lambs freezing as they were born. We lost two and several more were hypothermic. It was a total nightmare and I never want to hear about a ‘polar vortex’ again. Due to the extreme cold and snow cover, Spring was delayed by weeks, but we managed to make in to DC for a brunch with friends and a nice farm dinner with Keith’s sister and brother.
April was mild and rainy, but in between the showers I managed to get the kitchen garden planted and the hornbeam tunnel trimmed to its final form. From now on it should be a matter of just a light trimming twice a year to have it rival any garden topiary in Europe. The farm was all neat and tidy and ready for a long growing season. Dave and Brad flew in from Long Beach to bring some West Coast flair to our staid East Coast steeplechasing traditions at the annual ODH races. Everything seemed all right with the world except my finances. My real estate career had been built on the premise that helping extremely rich people spend a few millions of their gazillions on a country farm or estate or two would let me sweep up a few crumbs in the process. But the crumbs had been few and far between these last few years. Where were these 1% people hiding? Where were my crumbs? Unfortunately my mortgage and credit card companies were not hiding at all. The wolf was at the door once again, and frankly I was starting to get tired of living hand to mouth.
The gardens, pastures, sheep and everything else worked together to create some excellent late Spring magic in MAY. Really, this month doesn’t get enough good press, or at least it hasn’t gotten much since 1931. But it’s a great time of the year on the farm. Not much to mow, lambs are gorging on fresh green grass and the gardens are all planted and not yet full of weeds. It’s a pretty mellow period before all the heavy summer work sets in. Yet this year found us unable to enjoy much of it. Keith’s work schedule had him so frazzled that he even contemplated quitting. My work schedule had me so un-busy that I worried if we’d be able to pay the mortgage. Still, by the end of the month, Keith’s schedule had calmed down and mine had perked up enough so that we were able to have a few seasonal dinners in the orchard and say good-bye to friends Patty & Bruce as sold their farm and packed up their kids and moved to Australia.
June was relatively uneventful. It was too wet to make hay (well, we missed our one window of opportunity). And even though we were now officially poor as church mice, we had already booked and paid for Keith’s birthday extravaganza. So, while Rome was burning, we got out our fiddles……
Keith’s Bicoastal Birthday. It’s not everyday that you turn 50 years old. In fact for most of humanity’s existence it was only the rare few who made it that far, so it should be an occasion marked with some ceremony. Thus in keeping with Keith’s dignified buttoned down and bow-tied East Coast persona, we gathered a few close friends in DC for a small dinner at the Tabard Inn. The Tabard is the opposite of trendy in a very rapidly trendifying city and it struck just the right ‘old school’ note for an old school evening (see photos above).
The next day Keith boarded a plane to LA to meet up with his old Orange County ‘peeps.’ I followed a few days later and we rendezvoused at Jerry Bloom’s spectacularly sprawling Richard Neutra mansion in the Hollywood Hills. Sited at the peak of desert scrub hill with movie star homes scattered all around beneath him, Jerry literally has the city at his feet. Keith, being an Angelino at heart, felt right at home and immediately started making calls by the poolside in true movie mogul fashion. I was too captivated by the ‘real estate-ness’ of it all. Talk about location, location, location…… Jerry apologized for the ‘little renovation project’ he was undertaking (doubling the size of the house). He’s a true architectural historian and the finished addition will stay true to Neutra’s mid-century modern vision with stunning results. Can’t wait to go back and stay there again now that it’s all completed (hint, hint). That night was ‘my’ night on the Keith birthday tour and we caught up with some of my ex-pat East Coast friends (some of whom I hadn’t seen in 20 years). They form their own little foreign community among the natives, but have all done incredibly well in adapting to the “industry” (LA parlance for movies & TV). It was great to catch up, compare notes, and reflect on life’s twists and turns.
After a night at Jerry’s it was time to try out Amtrak West Coast style. Keith started his train career moving trains up and down the Pacific coast and he was eager to show me a slice of it. It was like old home week for him, and he even still knew some of the personnel from the old days. California and trains are two terms that may seem mutually exclusive, but LA’s Union Station is busy and beautiful. Keith delivered on the scenery too. The train hugs the coast (even going right up to the beach at points). Ninety minutes later we were in Santa Barbara where we sampled the local grape juice and ate and ate… I decided that if I had to live in California, Montecito would be tolerable.
Back in LA we checked in at the new Ace hotel in Keith’s old neighborhood downtown. Keith was excited to stay here for a couple of reasons. It was smack in the middle of his old stomping grounds when the area was still pretty dicey. It was right above the old United Artists theater that he’s always loved since his days as a docent with the LA Conservancy, and, well, it was hip and new. So new, in fact, that we were the first guests in our room. The Ace chain is is hipster high style – which means inventive use of cheap materials, but some ‘retro’ touches that the youn’uns think are really cool – like an actual phonograph with vinyl records in each room (Keith thought this was cool too). What doesn’t work so much is a very young staff of Hollywood wannabies “acting” as your doorman or check-in attendant. At any rate, there is no better way to actually truly feel 50 years old and out of it than staying in the coolest, hippest, newest hotel in LA. We were much more at home at dinner that night with the Harding family and Danielle Chat. These are Keith’s dearest and closest friends in Huntington Beach and truly wonderful folks. I had met them several years ago on our first trip together to LA. They also saved our bacon at our wedding last year by forming an emergency Martha Stewart brigade to produce wedding programs, favors and other things in record time and military precision.
Another way to feel old (but not really) is to have Kaycee Harding organize a reunion party for Keith on Punky Reggae night at notorious LA dive La Cita. What a lot of fun. Keith got to see all his old gang, I got to dance to 80s punk and reggae in a club dark enough that no one could critique my 54 year old ‘dad dancing.’ We were more in our age bracket the next night when we went bowling for Keith’s West Coast birthday party. Bowling is completely under-rated. Especially when it comes with dinner and cocktails.
The highlight of the trip for Keith was not his own birthday party, but a LA punk rock reunion at Cafe Nela the next afternoon. He was real excited about seeing all the old bands and the legendary characters of his music career. I was curious to see this whole group of people that had loomed so large in his life. I’d heard all the stories about the wild behavior and rock antics his youth. So imagine my surprise when we got to the club and saw all these suburban joes and janes, mostly on the heavy side, comparing pictures of their kids and grand-kids while the most gawdawful skreeching noise obliterated any chance of conversation. Suddenly the Sunday afternoon time slot made sense. These were not the stay-out-late-party-til-you-puke types they were in their youth. They all wanted to leave this sketchy neighborhood before dark so they could get back to their homes in the Valley and be in bed by 9 for work the next day. One was even there campaigning as a Republican candidate for Congress!!! To say I was let down was an understatement! Where was the dissipation? Where was that frisson of danger and decadence that I expected? And yet, even through the earplugs Keith had thoughtfully provided me, the chainsawing guitars and screamed vocals of the bands (who knew the old ‘uns still had such lung power?) were getting these grannies and gramps moving like the mosh pits of their younger days. When the crowd saw Keith, it was like the return of the conquering hero. He was embraced by everyone and quickly pulled hither and yon to be reacquainted with old compadres. I watched the scene from the daylight (and cooler air) from the front of the bar as far from the music as possible. Never had I felt more out of place, and never had Keith seemed so much in his element. It was fascinating to watch. When Keith started pogo-ing, (view it here folks!) some in the crowd tried gamely to follow suit, but whether concerns about hip replacements or just too much avoirdupois, few were able to maintain that manic pace that Keith set. And that was the best part of watching Keith turn 50. Seeing his peers and former band-mates acknowledge, while he may have a little less hair than he used to, Keith Miller, after all these years, still had “it.” And he does…. still have it.
July 2014 may possibly have been the mildest and most comfortable Virginia July on record. At least it surely was in my living memory. Mild temps that only reached 90° F a few times, but plenty of rainfall and low humidity – and no bugs!! The farm and garden never looked better or lusher. The only complaint was the constant mowing of pastures and trying to find time to cut hay, but those were minor quibbles for such “summer-as-it-should-be-but-never-is” weather. But it was a pleasant month for other reasons too: we had a great time with Keith’s siblings on the 4th of July; a delightful visit from Rick & John from Sonoma; a great group vacation on Fire Island for Russell Bridges’ 60th birthday; Keith did well in his annual local bridge tournament; and I got a nice fat juicy real estate contract to tide us over for several months.
The one small bit of excitement was very localized squall that I encountered on the way home to the farm late one afternoon. I was stuck behind some pokey drivers in heavy rain on a windy country road. Anyone that’s ever been a passenger of mine can attest that I am not a very patient driver. When the car in front of me decided to just stop and put its hazard lights on, I was annoyed enough with the wimpy driver that I pulled into the left lane and tried to pass the car. A little rain can’t stop me! Of course, the moment I pulled ahead of the car I could see why it had stopped. A huge tree had just fallen across the road. I turned around and decided to head back the other way. But no sooner had I done so, another tree fell in front of me! There was nothing for it but to wait in the car while the rain whipped around us and hope that no more trees decided to fall (especially on the cars!). After a few minutes the rain and wind stopped, and a truck pulled up on the other side of the fallen tree behind us. I got out and told the driver there was no way out, and that in fact there was another tree down ahead of this one, and that he’d better turn around. He said he couldn’t as there was another tree down behind him! So there we were 4 cars stuck on a country road in the middle of a forest between 3-4 downed trees across the road. Finally another truck pulled up on the other side of the tree in front of us and an older gent got out and informed us that he lived in between the stretch of road blocked off by the downed trees. If I would ferry him up to his house, he would fetch his chainsaw and we could cut our way out. Of course when we got to his house he had to search for his chain saw – a puny little ‘Home Depot special’ that was barely big enough to cut through a twig. He then admitted that ‘the blade might be a little dull.’ Needless to say I sawed and sawed and sawed while the older guys dragged branches away. The police and fire brigade finally showed up and watched me saw too. Only after I was able to clear a small path for cars to escape did the official VDOT crew finally arrive with “big boy” chainsaws to start clearing the wreckage.
July languorously gave way to an even more gorgeously dew-dropped August. Because we may never see the likes of it again, we reveled in being outdoors at all hours – seriously – you could actually have lunch outdoors – in August! Normally August’s heatbath steams the life out of the pastures and the garden takes a hiatus until September. In this platonic ideal of August however, peaches fell ripe from the trees into our laps, the lambs grew plump on fields of clover, and the garden disgorged bushels of tomatoes, basil, and flowers on a daily basis. Invitations to neighbors’ pool parties and evening dinners under the stars showered down on us the whole month and everyone at the gatherings would marvel, “have you ever seen a month like this?” Keith lobbied to let our pheasants escape their confinement with the chickens and enjoy the weather too. After a few nervously supervised outings, they soon were allowed to roam the farm at will and followed us like puppies.
Unfortunately at the end of the month tragedy intruded on this summer idyll. Our good friend Trip Hoffman, who had been so wonderful to us over the years, died very unexpectedly. His brand of high-style fun can never be replicated, nor his generosity of spirit to everyone he ever met. His funeral in Tryon, NC was a testament to the fact that he touched the lives of so many in so many different places.
One bright note of that sad trip was that we got to spend some time with the Greenville, SC Zuschlags. Geoff and Sandy showed us the construction of their new house (with plenty of guest rooms for uncles – we made sure), while Will showed how he schools his horses, Sam showed his winning quarterback style, and Mindy showed off her skills as a dog trainer. Meg got us tickets to her improv theater show and took us to all the hot spots way before they were ‘discovered’ by the New York Times.
Keith, and by extension his ducks, taught me a lesson this September. For the first time in the 18 years since I’ve owned this farm I have finally taken to heart the admonition to “slow down” and just live in the now. One beautiful afternoon after I finished mowing a field and doing other farm work, I fed Keith’s ducks and swans. He communes with his birds on a level I’ve never been able to achieve. But this afternoon I was so tired, and the ducks were being so ‘ducky’ that I sat transfixed and watched them dabble at the food, swim around, and dabble some more. For the first time in ages I was able to just let go all of the problems, concerns, and constant mental triage that makes up my day. I just sat there enjoying the ducks on our beautiful pond a on still early autumn day and felt the sun slowly set. Since then I’ve consciously spent more time staring at ducks, watching the goldfish dart around the fountain, enjoying lamb antics instead of cursing their penchant for getting tangled in fencing and causing trouble. It’s a great feeling to just let go and not worry about my endless list of things I need to do to “catch up.” Giving myself permission to waste time has been great. Even better is reading about one of my favorite authors admonishing himself to do the same via a poem he keeps tacked above his desk.
September was gorgeous month with very little downside. The gardens and the farm started mellowing into autumn. A second cutting of hay yielded 42 bales of hay. My old friend Gerard Araud took up his post as France’s Ambassador to the US and we had a quiet dinner with him before the onslaught of his official duties. He’s promised Keith a look at the Embassy’s wine cellar once the residence renovation is complete. A garden dinner for visiting Gerry Buchanan and Keith’s sister and brother-in-law was followed by a visit from my Aunt Helen and Uncle Jim. We had a great time with them, but didn’t remember to show them half the things we wanted to so, they need to come back soon. At the end of the month Trevor & Dana’s Indian Wedding extravaganza was the hit of the social season.
Another nice bit of news was that those gazillionaires that I referenced back in April suddenly began to come back and look at some Virginia farms. There must be some special billionaire magazine that tells them all when to start looking at properties again. One foreign client that I share with a colleague always arrives in his own jet. Not that it’s a hassle picking him up at the airport, but this time he came to see one of our newest listings and was able to land right at the farm. Not a bad way to travel! Now if he would only just buy the place already…..
October was mellow and wonderful, but after a mild and relatively rainy summer, I was expecting some vibrant fall color. The trees didn’t put forth much effort this year. I didn’t hold it against them, as we had plenty of other things to deal with. This year’s sheep breeding season went well (I hope – we’ll find out in March), and we also did another round of artificial insemination on 20 of our ewes. The last imports we had from the UK were in 2009, after which the US and EU no longer allowed shipments of ‘genetic material.’ So we’re now pretty much tapped out of the stuff until they lift the ban. The highlight of the month was a visit from Volkhard and Marlies Selig from Germany. I hadn’t seen them in 30 years! Volkhard was my host ‘brother’ when I went to Germany as an exchange student in 1978. The Seligs are a warm and wonderful family and they were my ‘home away from home’ when I studied in Germany in 1980-81. But aside from Christmas greetings and the occasional e-mail, we hadn’t seen each other since the mid-1980s. Three years ago we had a ‘reverse exchange’ when their daughter Stephanie decided she needed to spend some time in America before she started her studies. She even came back for our wedding last year, so I guess she convinced her parents it was safe to visit. We had a great time with them and I hope they didn’t think American Halloween customs were too awfully strange….
November was a quiet month. Well, sorta. Keith’s fall wine classes ended and he was studying furiously for his French Wine Scholar exam. I couldn’t see what all the anxiety was about until I actually helped him study. Good grief! The minutia! And the important minutia – soil types, names of small obscure vineyards, byzantine classification systems that change from one village to the next, grape varietals that are grown by maybe 3 people in all of France. I kid you not! Keith was in a total panic and I could see why. How could anyone keep all these obscure facts in his head? And who needs to know that much about French wine? Only 50% of those who take the test pass, and needless to say we were both on edge awaiting the results. But of course Keith not only passed it – he ‘aced’ the test. With HONORS! Now he’s a certified wine snob and more obsessed than ever (but I’m very proud of him). On the farm everything was easily tidied up for the coming winter. The kitchen garden yielded a few last turnips and carrots (the beets were declared inedible by both Keith and the livestock). And a very good thing that all fields were trimmed and livestock in their winter quarters early, because the dreaded “polar vortex” (where do they come up with these things?) arrived early and froze everything. So when everything is unseasonably January-like, can there be a better time to visit Chicago?? Of course not. Keith had sold me on the trip as a chance to visit family, but his real goal was to see the one US stop of a Victoria & Albert museum exhibition on David Bowie. So off we went on an Amtrak sleeper car to Chicago. The dining car was nice, as were the French wines Keith stowed on board, but being strapped into the coffin-like top bunk in a sleeping compartment is not my idea of luxury travel. We arrived in snowy Chicago to find even the Chicagoans stunned by the cold. Keith really enjoyed the Bowie exhibit, but I have to say, I think he was as equally impressed with the collection of French impressionists at the Art Institute. Of course the centerpiece of any trip to Chicago is to spend time with friends and family and this trip didn’t disappoint either. We got to see nephew Luka score some points in a basketball game, dine out with the family at a trendy new restaurant at the end of their block, and experience traditional Lithuanian comfort food cooked by our echt Lithuanian sister-in-law. Just for extra fun funness, we also got to spend an evening with Will Forrest and Mark Smithe and their nieces from the UK (who happened to land in Chicago a few hours before on one of their last legs of a year long trip around the world). It was great to see their beyond James Bond cool pad once again before it is sold. On the way back home Keith actually volunteered to sleep on the cramped top bunk in the sleeper car (all 6’4″ of him!). We had a very, very quiet Thanksgiving as Keith had to work until 9 pm that night. Somehow feasting a deux at 10 pm just doesn’t really feel like Thanksgiving no matter how much stuffing you eat.
For some reason December this year seemed rather anti-climactic. How could this be? It contained the usual round of Christmas parties, Christmas parade, and Christmas dinner. As always it was nice and cozy and good to be with family and friends. Maybe it was the ‘as always’ part of this that was both reassuring, and perhaps a little too predictable. At any rate we put the month through its usual paces, and it performed as expected. Maybe we need to shake it up a bit next year?
So that’s it, another year draws to a close.
It’s borne in upon me lately that there’s a tipping point in life that you reach where suddenly all the prospects of a bright and shiny future of great achievement are no longer ‘future’ but right now or never. Certain life achievements have been made, or should have been made, and if they haven’t, well, it’s pretty apparent that they never will be. Friends I’ve known for ages are now reaching those goals in glittering fashion. Just this year alone three of them now must be addressed as “Mister Ambassador.” Others have sold their companies and are happily retired, or starting new ones. Still others are now “the” noted authorities in their fields. And I? Well, I guess when I removed myself from the rat race a dozen years or so ago it was with the full knowledge that that would never be my lot. I occasionally get those ‘what if’ moments that revisit youthful ambitions, but just as often I look around me and reach for the phrase that is inscribed on the sign at the entrance to our farm – bene qui latuit, bene vixit and I am very happy.
I think Immanuel Kant got it just right in his three rules for a happy life: Tu etwas, liebe jemanden, hoffe auf etwas (something to do, someone to love, something to hope for). I wish you all three in 2015!