A new year, a new decade….. what will it bring? Well, we know the answer now, but in January 2020 there was such promise in the air when I woke up to the scene above.
Farm-wise, things were blissfully quiet. Oddly, but nicely, quiet. That was the first change the year brought. After 23 years of Januaries spent prepping for lambing season, this year there was nothing to do. With only 10 ewes and none of them pregnant, I really had no farm chores to do except to toss the sheep a bale of hay once every few days. I can’t say I had time to contemplate this sea-change in my life, as my off-farm job was soon in hyper-drive. Never had I seen real estate so “hot” in the middle of January. Was this a sign of times to come, or an aberration? Either way, I was all for it. I was so busy that I didn’t really have any spare time to tackle the usual winter farm chores. I just got fatter and fatter sitting at desk answering emails and sitting in the car driving clients around.
In fact, it was such blur of that I can’t recall much more of the month than that. Any spare moment was spent prepping for the big adventure of February.
This entire letter should be about February. The rest of the year, with its crazy mix of COVID-19, protests, election nonsense, and just utter madness around the globe, really isn’t worth contemplating. Instead, the memory of February is one that I want to be the defining one when I look back on the year that passed.
February, you see, was spent in New Zealand.
Such trip had been a long-cherished dream of mine. In fact, as a younger man, I often entertained thoughts of just leaving it all and heading out there to start a new life. The romance of a remote, windswept spot of land without many people had great appeal and New Zealand seemed to have that on offer. But….as so often happens in life, dreams get trampled by the crush of everyday living and then you find yourself turning 60, and wondering will I ever see the land of my dreams?
The truth of it is, I fought a valiant effort to keep life from swallowing this particular dream and shitting it out in some overfilled litter box. I had saved airline miles for decades in the hopes of first class airfare halfway around the world. But Keith’s annual study trips to France put a dent into that mother lode. Each year when this trip had seemed further out of reach, I would console myself with the idea that when it did finally happen, it wouldn’t be a younger man’s camping and tramping adventure, but an older man’s comfy luxury accommodation trip. But there as well, my budget suggested it would have to be camping and tramping while my old bones protested against the thought.
In the end, like much of my life, it was sheer force of will meeting immovable objects and seeing if the impact yielded any results I could live with. Airfare would have to be economy, despite Keith’s 6’4” frame (well, economy plus in compensation). Accommodations would have to be pretty modest with occasional splurges of luxury to compensate. But in the end, we could do it. And, by God, do it before I turned 60 (with two weeks to spare) and completely fell apart.
So January 31st saw us in San Francisco airport being exposed to hordes of people escaping COVID-19 ridden China, and boarding a cramped tube of metal for a 13 hour flight to Auckland.
My plan was simple. Spend as much time outdoors hiking and wandering and enjoying the mountains, seas, farms, and gardens that this country seemed to have in such incredible scenic excess. Keith’s plan was equally straightforward. Meet with the best wine makers in the country, drink their wines, and eat in the best restaurants everywhere we went. In the end, I think we achieved both goals quite nicely and sometimes synergistically. We saw great things, made some new good friends, and had wonderful adventures. I won’t bore you with a daily travelogue. Was it the trip of a lifetime? Yes. Would I return if I could? In a heartbeat. Can I die happy knowing I’ve completed one of my life goals? Clearly.
$285 for Côte Brune Côte-Rôtie! Do you know what a steal that is?” Uttered by Keith at Noble Rot in Wellington. “Um. No. I don’t. Not really. But I guess I’m paying for it anyway.”
Some random thoughts before I let the pictures do the talking:
- To be 21 years old and spending a gap year in Queenstown working in a restaurant or some tourist concession in the company of hordes of other 21 year olds from across the globe is to know perfect human happiness.
- Elton John should have retired 15 years ago. Do not continue past your ‘sell by’ date. Exit gracefully.
- The Southern Alps truly are magnificent.
- There is such a thing as too much ‘fine dining.’
- All the luxury ‘lodges’ in New Zealand are owned by American Billionaires.
- To garden in Canterbury or Marlborough is the goal of my next life.
WARNING! You’re about to scroll through someone else’s vacation photos. I’ve tried to edit down to the bare minimum, but still…. you’ve been forewarned!
Dunedin and Queenstown
Central Otago and Mt. Cook
Christchurch and Marlborough
Wellington and Wairapara
Auckland and Waiheke Island
“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.” – Albert Camus, “The Plague”
This year everyone has their tale of how March unfolded. Ours isn’t really that exciting. As the world slowly locked down country by country, I think everyone experienced some dread, nervous excitement, and odd fascination with what was happening around them.
But for us, we were just grateful to have made it back to the States without delay on March 1st and get the farm ready for Spring. We hit the ground running. Keith basically got off the plane and headed to Charlottesville to judge Virginia Wines (note: in the video he’s the one wearing the hat at table – indoors!!)
At first, my real estate business exceeded the January boom, and all the appointments, settlements, and showings that were piling up in February while I was away overwhelmed me in a hurry. Likewise there were several winter tidy-up farm projects that were delayed by our February absence and needed to be done right away. So there wasn’t really that much time to dwell on the outside world.
But then both suddenly and not so suddenly the COVID-19 warnings and restrictions began. As they tightened, my real estate activity dried up entirely. I got a lot of farm work done, but I was concerned about people breathing on Keith up and down the east coast on Amtrak. To my relief Amtrak soon cancelled all rail travel as well and Keith was able to stay at home on the farm.
At first it was a welcome break; we had plenty of toilet paper and Tiger King was playing on Netflix, so what more did we need? The break gave Keith a chance to sharpen his cooking skills so we had some memorably fattening dinners, and I had a nice stockpile of boral boards for re-doing the raised beds in the kitchen garden. It was scary, frustrating, and unnerving, watching the virus advance and the economy retreat. I didn’t dare look at my 401K as the stock market cratered. But we had plenty to keep us busy and we ate and drank like kings, so surely we could withstand a couple of weeks in lockdown?
“We baked all our own bread.” ― Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year
As it turned out, we could indeed survive a few weeks of lockdown and do so quite well with nary a dent in our lives. This may come off as a bit smug, and it most probably is, but the best place in the world to wait out a plague is on a farm where your nearest neighbor is a mile away. Even in pre-pandemic times, I could indulge my inner introvert by not seeing another soul for a day or two without even realizing it. As the rest of the world figured out how to operate as I did on a daily basis (non-stop emails and conference calls are my quotidian routine), business began to pick up dramatically.
Springtime is always a busy time on the farm. With plenty of food and supplies we were more than set to ride things out and soon settled into a routine. In the mornings I would deal with an increasingly frenetic real estate market. After a couple weeks of shut-down everyone seemed desperate to ‘get the hell out of Dodge’ and do so before their neighbors did. It was really quite something to see the frantic jockeying to secure any property that boasted more than an acre or two. Properties I couldn’t give away in 2019 were receiving multiple offers (above asking price) in the pandemic panic buying of 2020. I felt a bit guilty making money hand over fist while others were staring at unemployment and financial ruin, but only just a little bit.
Keith spent his mornings studying wine and participating in online seminars. He’d make us lunch and then I’d head out to plant the kitchen garden, and putter around and do important things like scratch the barn cat’s ears, hatch out chicks, and contemplate which pigeons to pair up in the pigeon loft. As it grew dark, I’d head inside to deal with more hysterical buyers frantically determined to secure a small patch of country paradise .. “but it has to have a really good internet connection!” Eventually Keith would silently hand me a cocktail as I fended off phone calls and tried to respond to emails….. “I can come out tomorrow and I can pay all cash…” and then he’d start his latest culinary masterwork for dinner. We feasted each night on some amazing Keith creation paired with even more amazing wines. I had to listen to lectures on the provenance of each wine and how it paired so well with the particular dish, but I didn’t mind. I was fat, happy, and completely spoiled. It was pretty much how I imagined our retirement to be (minus the frantic buyers), and if it is a foretaste of what is to come, life will be very pleasant indeed.
We had plenty of friends (that might even be you, dear reader) who were constantly at us to have “zoom cocktails” or whatever. As much as I like our friends, I couldn’t help feeling a bit of condescending impatience with their boredom during lockdown. I was incredibly busy and felt gypped that I didn’t have the luxury of sitting around doing crossword puzzles, baking bread all day, dressing up as famous paintings, or zoom dinners, or whatever. I so wished I could invite them over to hand them as shovel and say, “Looking for something to do? Here, I’ll give you something to do!” But instead the month passed quietly enough. Despite the global crisis in the outside world, Spring on the farm was the usual gentle wonderful Virginian festival of dogwoods, azaelas, and green, green, green pastures. Robert Browning can have his England. I challenge any other place to do April as beautifully as the Old Dominion.
“How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views? They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.” – Albert Camus, The Plague
The world slowly open up in May, but we really didn’t feel the difference. Real estate was in hyper-drive. I’d never seen anything like it. But I was so afraid of missing out that I pushed myself to the limit, and didn’t take a break, and basically neglected the usual spring garden planting. It’s a damn good thing I didn’t have any lambs to contend with this year. If I had had the time, however, the weather was perfect for gardens and gardening. The azaelas, rhododendrons, mountain laurel, and the rest of the spring blossoms had long extended bloom periods. Springtime in Virginia is magnificent, but often too short. This year it lingered nicely. Livestock thrived as well. We kept hatching chicks well into May (94 this year) and the pigeons started producing squabs right on schedule so I had no complaints about my breeding season. It looked like I’d raise some birds with lots of potential! While the transition from sheep to cattle was complete, as the growing season started farm maintenance only proceeded in fits and starts. I alternated between being thrilled and feeling somewhat guilty when the Adams brothers came by to mow and weedwhack fencelines. Fence clearing is a chore I used to loathe. But then I found myself annoyed that they weren’t doing it as frequently as I would like, and I’d find myself doing it for them. Keith kept cooking lovely dinners and we kept getting fatter and rather enjoying our isolation. But we knew it had to end eventually. So we started with a few ‘socially distant’ dinners with friends and neighbors and a few careful visits to theirs as well. It was all very pleasant and lovely. And while it didn’t feel that transgressive, it still felt a bit otherworldly. All perfectly civilized, but something was not quite right. What did hit home very strongly however was how very grateful I am that I live where I do and can live how I do. I’ve always found the world to be a beautiful and tranquil place if you don’t have to deal with people.
So in some ways, life was how it always is, but I had an ‘excuse’ to be the introvert I truly am. Except for the crush of work, having a valid excuse to shut myself away was actually a bit liberating.
Still, when we did connect with friends in person, there was an extra comfort in experiencing that too – treasuring the time we could actually be together. One beautiful evening in late May we had our friends Lyn and Malcolm come for dinner in the orchard. The New Dawn roses on the pergola were at peak, though the orchard itself looked a little bare. But it was a magical evening from the cocktail farm tour to the late night goodbyes. It was what I always thought civilized country life should be – quiet, muted, and apart from the world. Viruses, protests, riots, looting and the other horrors visited on us in May seemed so very far away. Clearing up the remains of Keith’s perfect dinner as rose petals fell in the luminous moonlight of a very still late Spring night I felt very much at peace. Is that ignoring our civic responsibilities? I wonder.
“At first the fact of being cut of from the outside world was accepted with a more or less good grace, much as people would have put up with any other temporary inconvenience that interfered with only a few of their habits. But, now they had abruptly become aware that they were undergoing a sort of incarceration under that blue dome of sky already beginning to sizzle in the first of summer, they had a vision that their whole lives were threatened by the present turn of events.” – Albert Camus, The Plague
June went by all too quickly. It was fairly June-ish as these things go. Not too hot, but still summery, and the gardens grew and I finished up hatching chickens for the season. We hatched out a record 94 chicks, and I’m hopeful that 3 or 4 of them will make the grade for next year’s breeding stock. I may have downsized the sheep flock, but I’m in danger of increasing letting my chicken flock increase to fill the void. Well, that and my growing obsession with aquaria. I actually bred some Apistogramma Nijsseni in June and raised eight fry to maturity! I’m sure not many of you can make that claim.
I know it sounds impossible, but the real estate market went even more bonkers this month than it had the month before. Apparently no one wants to live in a city any more, they all want to live next to me! So I didn’t have much time for contemplative navel-gazing this June. Having Keith around full-time was both wonderful and taxing in equal measure. Incredible meals every day meant my waistline kept expanding. It’s truly a wonder that I hadn’t already succumbed to gout by June. But I also really did not have the time to play scullery maid in the aftermath of these nightly culinary explosions. On top of that, living together 24/7 in a small, cramped one bedroom garage apartment was rapidly losing its appeal. I don’t think either of us spent more than one night in the Alexandria condo since January. By this point we’d been together every. single. day. since we left for New Zealand. Normally we have a 2-3 day break from one another while Keith is riding the rails for Amtrak. Actually, living in such close quarters went surprisingly well, but even the most dedicated of couples need a little space to get away from each other. So when we could, I’d muck around in the gardens or barns for my ‘alone time’ and Keith would hop on his bike for a long ride to take a break from me. But there were plenty of times when our lack of work and living space led to ‘discussions’ like; “Will you PLEASE shut the bathroom door the next time I’m on a Zoom Call!!” By the way, while we’re on the topic of Zoom – what is it with need for video chats when a simple phone call would do? I can’t tell you how many times I actually had to take a shower, get dressed, and comb my hair just to chat with clients when a simple phone call would have sufficed. This bothered me no end. Not to delve too deeply in matters of personal hygiene, but I much prefer working during the morning in my jammies and bed hair and then getting all dirty in the garden or fields in the afternoon and taking a shower only after the day is done and cocktail hour is calling. The nerve of these people making me take two showers on the same day!
But our cramped living space once again triggered the perennial discussion of how we are going to live the rest of our lives. Last year we came to a definitive conclusion that we did not want to give up the farm, so staying put will only work if we have a workable living space. Yet a year later, nothing had changed and the question remained, how to afford this large farm and still be able to live in a ‘real’ house? We still haven’t figured out the answer to that one, despite long, long discussions (well, actually we have, but our lottery tickets never seem to be the winning ones). But by the end of the month, I think we actually crafted ‘a path forward’ that might work. You’ll just have to wait until next year’s letter to see if it happens.
Otherwise, I got Lyme disease (again) and Keith got another year older and we chanced a semi socially distant birthday dinner with the guys at our local take out joint. A few socially distant dinners with friends nearby as well and that was our month.
It was a 4th of July unlike any others. Very quiet, subdued, and socially distant, but still memorable. We were happy to wave at friends and neighbors at a distance at Drew Mitchell’s scaled down celebration – without the usual band, fireworks, and gossipy sharing of drinks and food with neighbors, and most poignantly, without Bill Fischer, who for years made this event such fun.
At this point I need to impress upon you just how crazy the real estate market got in July. I know I’ve already said it every month this year, so I’m running out of hyperboles, but it really, really, really was absurd this July. In our little corner of the world we normally have a nice break in market activity after the 4th. Traditionally no one looks at country properties in July and August. They’re usually at the beach or up north in Maine or someplace on vacation. No one goes to buggy, hot, and humid Virginia in July or August. But not this year. Kids summer camps were closed, owners of cottages up north were not renting them out, and vacation plans were cancelled everywhere. A whole lot of people were just plain fed up with staying at home and dealing with protests and counter protests in their own backyards. So they were primed to escape. Adding fuel to this already super dry kindling was interest rates dropping to historic lows. This combustible mix landed on my doorstep and exploded in my face. The sudden increase in demand however was met with a sudden decrease in inventory. At the best of times there are usually only about 130-150 properties on the market at any one time in our little paradise. These can range from quite modest little cabins or cottages to fairly substantial estates of several hundred acres. But by July this year, our inventory had shrunk to only about 35 properties. Potential sellers had second thoughts about letting strangers traipse through their house in the middle of a pandemic. Others decided (probably correctly), that if everybody else in the world wanted to be here, what’s the point of moving now? Well, you don’t need a PhD in economics to guess what happened next. Multiple offers and bidding wars climbing well above asking price. Market prices changed daily and appraisers basically threw up their hands and said, “just tell us what the sales price is and we’ll appraise it at that price.”
Yet in the middle of all this insanity, I had to leave. In late June my mother was diagnosed with Stage IV uterine cancer. It came, as these things always do, as a shock to the family. She was scheduled to undergo chemotherapy and would need some assistance between treatments. As it happened, for the first time in decades, all of her children were in the States and available to help out. My brother Wayne therefore appointed himself Master Scheduler and parceled out duty rosters for all six of us to take turns caring for Mom a week or so at a time. Now some of you may be aware that my mother and I haven’t really communicated much in the past decade. I won’t go into the reasons why, but I think for both of us it was a bit awkward to be reunited this way. Nevertheless we did pretty well together, I think, and maybe reached somewhat of a new understanding. Keith held down the fort while I was gone. It was great that his work schedule was so reduced, as he could tend to the sheep, cat, chickens, pigeons, geese, donkeys, peafowl, swans, and fish without it being overwhelming. Still, it was a lot to keep track of and we agreed that the gardens would just have to tend to themselves. Of course it was while I was gone that a heat wave combined with two weeks of no rain dried up everything to a crisp, so that when I came home, things were looking pretty miserable. I lost several young seedlings that had been planted this spring and I basically wrote off the tomato crop and other veggies in the kitchen garden (note to self: make sure the irrigation system is finally hooked up next summer!).
July was my least favorite month. But, while the outside world was going crazy, it was so nice to come home to Keith and the critters and be away from it all.
The drought from July lasted well into August. It was so dry that I lost part of my new holly hedge and other plantings. But then suddenly, rain, rain, rain. This caused a bloom of crabgrass like I’d never seen before. Of course when it stopped raining the super juicy crab grass clogged the mowers and spewed out a nasty green slime that coated all hedges, garden walls and everything. I hate crab grass. The whole farm looked a little shabby this August, and not just because of crab grass. The kitchen garden and fields were a woefully neglected mess because of non-stop – I mean non-stop – work! I thought July was insane, but August ramped things up ten-fold. Here’s just one example. I had a listing that hadn’t sold in over 5 years. The sellers were patient and loyal to me throughout, but they finally decided about a year ago to take their house off the market and stay put. I called them in August because I had no inventory to sell. “Put your house back on the market,” says I. “No,” says they, “We don’t want to go through that all again.” “Trust me” I said. So we put it back on the market at the same price as before – $995,000. Within a week we had three competing offers that bid the price up to $1,180,000. The sellers were astounded. I just wished I had two more similar houses to sell.
In the midst of this craziness I had to take another week off to tend to Mom in Tryon, NC, and got to spend an evening with my brother Geoff in Greenville, SC. When I returned the farm was so overgrown I really didn’t know where to begin in putting things back in order. Not that I had any time to do so, as I spent my days fending off angry would-be buyers demanding that I stop hiding their dream properties. “What do you mean, there’s nothing for sale??! Don’t be ridiculous! I’m willing to pay top dollar!
I was so glad that I wasn’t actively farming any more. There just wasn’t any time. And of course in the midst of all this craziness is exactly when disaster strikes. The first disaster was that I was missing a ram. How could a ram just disappear without a trace? For a couple of days I’d just assumed he was off hiding behind a tree or something whenever I’d do a quick head count. But finally I decided I needed to systematically search the pasture. Nothing. Not even a fluff of wool out of place. How does a 250 lb. sheep just vanish? Was he sheepnapped? It was a great mystery. A few days later I noticed a white blob in the middle of the pond. As it floated closer to shore it became clear that it was a sheep’s fleece. How did the ram manage to drown himself – and in the middle of the pond at that? That’s an even greater mystery that remains unsolved to this day. The more immediate concern was, how would I get a waterlogged, bloated, ram carcass out of my pond? The answer to that was – I wouldn’t. I’m a bit ashamed to confess this, but as the carcass floated closer to shore, I would poke it with a long pole till it floated back out to the middle of the pond. Finally, after a few days it sank never more to be seen.
The next disaster was Phoebe the donkey. At first we noticed her resting a bit more than usual. Then one day she just wouldn’t get up and it went downhill from there. Keith was worried sick about her. Aside from wine, there are two great loves in Keith’s life – Phoebe the donkey, and Ceres the barn cat. I come a distant third. Both Phoebe and Ceres are grand old ladies that are up there in years (Ceres is 19 and Phoebe is 22). The Vet was called and diagnosed laminitis due to super lush (crab) grass growth after dry spell. That made sense, but she didn’t respond well to treatment. It took a whole lot of nursing and whole lot of Vet bills, but she finally turned the corner and after a long convalescence was back on her feet (literally).
In some ways I felt the whole month was a loss. I constantly measure my life in terms of completing projects and moving forward. August seemed to push things backwards – I would now have to replant dead hedges, reseed crabgrass ravaged lawns, and put pastures back into shape, and write off the year’s veggie harvest. But when I’d unburden myself to Keith at the end of day, whining about the amount of work I had, and how far behind I was, etc, etc, he’d quietly point out that a lot of his friends in the hospitality industry were unemployed and most of his co-workers had been laid off. It did put things in perspective.
By the time September rolled around the farm was an overgrown mess. Weather-wise things were just fine – a mellow late summer fading into fall. But I had no time to notice, much less tidy up. It was non-stop showing, listing, and selling on the real estate front. Incredible. Bidding wars on all listings. Everyone and his sisters, cousins, and aunts wanted a little piece of Rappahannock and they wanted it now! People that had bought houses earlier in the year were flipping them at a huge profit. We finally had one last socially distant dinner outside, and luckily it was dark enough that our guests couldn’t see the weeds they were tromping through.
Since I was worried that the gravy train would stop eventually, I felt I really couldn’t take a moment off to focus on the farm, much less stop and smell the roses. But eventually by the end of the month things got so out of control that I was forced to set aside a couple of days to sit my butt on the tractor and then finish mower and just mow and mow like a mad man. But, I got it done.
“The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits.” ― Albert Camus, The Plague
October never fails to deliver. It is the ‘best’ month of the year. The gardens, lawns, and pastures are all brightened and invigorated by the cooler evenings and sunny mild days. I finally got the few remaining pastures cleaned up and the farm was looking quite respectable again. The fall colors were pretty good this year, though it was a rather slow parade of change, so there was no ‘one’ moment where everything was at peak.
Because the scenery in the Blue Ridge Mountains always looks so incredible in October, it is traditionally the busiest month in my real estate calendar. And it was indeed just as crazily busy as the months before in a frenzied when-will-this-stop?-I-don’t-know-but-let’s-make-money-while-we-can sort of way. But somehow people seemed a little less tightly wound or desperate, and that made all the difference.
We put one of our remaining rams in with our ten remaining ewes towards the end of the month. The girls were enormously fat, and so is the ram, so I’m not really sure how many lambs we’ll have this springtime, but at least we’re still in the sheep business in a small way (sorta).
While I fretted constantly that Keith was going to kill us both by travelling on the rails each week, and then meeting up with his wine buddies to drink and breathe on each other, the pandemic still hadn’t affected us directly. So life was good.
It’s nice to hunker down on our farm and forget the entire world some days. It’s not that I’m anti-social, it’s just that I can be quite happily self-contained in my own little world and the rest of you crazy people and your crazy politics and general nonsense be damned! Sometimes humanity is just too bonkers to contemplate. But, the truth is, it’s nice to see friends now and then. So we did open up the fortress walls one day when the weather was so perfect and promised such a mild evening. We decided we could have one more, very impromptu, orchard dinner party. We called around the neighborhood and quite suddenly had 8 for dinner. I guess one of the upsides of the pandemic has been that nobody really has ‘plans’ for the evening. Another upside is that you really don’t have to clean your house company either, you can just forbid entry and insist everyone stay outside and no one complains. I decided that making couples sit together at a dinner party instead of splitting them up is the new pandemic etiquette. They didn’t seem to mind this new rule, and it was a great hearing how everyone was coping job-wise and family-wise.
It’d be nice someday to have an indoor dinner party too, but there’s something more intimate about dinner outside as the darkness descends and the candles flicker and the bottles of wine magically refill themselves. It’s odd how even though the night gets chillier and they have to reach for a sweater, people are more inclined to linger when we’re outside. My unscientific research suggests people stay an hour longer, on average, when we dine outdoors.
Halloween wasn’t this year. Even though it takes place outdoors, the town decided better safe than sorry. That was prudent. So what did we do instead? We tempted fate with dinner at Three Blacksmiths among a tight group of local friends who all swore they were virus free and had quarantined in isolation for 3 years and we pretended to believe them. That was imprudent. But fun. And we all survived.
“That this necessity of going out of our houses to buy provisions was in a great measure the ruin of the whole city, for the people catched the distemper on these occasions one of another, and even the provisions themselves were often tainted.” ― Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year
November is always a bit anti-climactic after October’s display. Still, it’s also always a very satisfying feeling putting the kitchen garden to bed and doing a final pasture clip, knowing that you don’t have to get out the mower for another five months. And there’s something about a gray November day that makes me more productive when sitting at my desk (no temptations to wander outside I guess).
Real estate continued along its crazy path with no end in sight, although three rather big juicy deals all collapsed at once, which depressed me no end. The real estate version of not counting chickens until they hatch is, “it ain’t over till the fat lady cashes the check.” I’m sure I’ll find new properties for all three buyers some day, but the collapse meant despite all the activity, 2020 wasn’t a record-breaking year for me.
A mini-road trip mid month was to Altoona, PA to pick up a swan. I didn’t see much of Altoona other than the Walmart parking lot (very charming). But I did pick up a swan. Our swan Hans has been rather lonely for the past year and a half since his mate Greta died. We’ve been looking for a female to keep him company ever since. I finally tracked on down a young bird in Ohio and the breeder very kindly offered to meet me in PA, which shaved 5 hours off the trip. The young swan (which Keith christened “Cassiopeia” or “Cassie” for short) was a nice looking bird and I had high hopes for her. Unfortunately it was a complete disaster. Hans viewed her as an intruder and was immediately hell-bent on doing her in. We had to recapture her and build a pen on the pond where he could slowly get used to seeing her and hopefully learn to accept her as a new mate. It seemed to work for about 24 hours, but the next day I found her outside the pen lying in the grass. She appeared fine, but the skin was torn from her right leg and her middle toe was broken and her foot webbing torn. Hans was patrolling the pond in a threatening manner but at least was staying away from her. What had happened remains a mystery to this day. At first we thought perhaps a large snapping turtle had dragged her underwater by her leg, but the wire mesh was intact with no signs of struggle. Ditto for her trying to climb over the wire and getting snagged. A working theory (but not a satisfactory one) is that one of the eagles that visit our pond tried to hoist her by her leg. But whatever the reason the poor swan was completely traumatized. She spent a good month in recovery before being put back in her pond pen. She still doesn’t use her leg properly and we’ve been reluctant to let her out in the open until she does. Time will tell.
Otherwise the farm chugged along and I spent a few happy hours sorting this year’s crop of pigeons and chickens. I’m making fine progress in both breeding programs. Keith just shakes his head in bemused wonderment that I can spend so much time debating the finer points of one pigeon over another. But when I point out that he does the same thing with wine, he protests “it’s not the same thing! I’m cataloging my collection!” Well, that’s what he says he’s doing, but it looks like he’s just staring at the bottles. Still, he does have a point, I guess. His wine collection is far more valuable than my pigeon collection.
Thanksgiving was a quiet meal for two with takeout from The Blue Door. A great dinner, but somehow not quite the real deal.
“Be safe, be smart, be kind” – Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General
My liver and waistline were somewhat spared this December. The mad crush of parties and get-togethers that normally dominate this month were replaced by socially distant real estate appointments (nearly every day) and a week away spent tending to my mother in NC.
The one cirrhosis inducing event was Christmas Eve. This was the first Christmas in 13 years that Keith and I were actually alone, just the two of us. To mark the occasion, he declared he was going to be making a “Feast of the Seven Fishes” just for us. Now, neither of us is Italian-American, so I guess he can be forgiven for departing from the script a bit, and I can be forgiven for calling it “the feast of seven figures.” I know enough by now not to ask how much the wines cost, but I did sneak a look at the grocery receipts…. At any rate, he’d been honing his culinary chops all year and this truly was the crowning glory. We’ve eaten our way through some of the best restaurants in the world, and I can safely say this was a feast among feasts – and he did it all himself.
New Year’s Eve saw me with my usual dilemma of deciding what to wear. It was a tough choice between the fleecey jammies or the sweats for the big event, and judging by the empty streets at NYE celebrations around the world, everyone else had the same sartorial crisis. Keith served a special bottle of bubbly to mark the hour and rolled his eyes at me when I whined, “What?? Champagne? Again???” But I drank it anyway, and so ended the year.
C O D A
Most of these letters have ended in an attempt at poignant elegiac reflection on what I/we’ve lost with the passage of time. I guess it comes with the territory in completing a yearly review. Certainly, it becomes harder to avoid as I grow older and realize more and more what is lost by the stupidity of our disposable culture, especially when it is driven by the lowest common denominator (which continues to sink lower and lower now that the rabble appear to be in charge – but that’s another letter entirely).
I’d already drafted something in that vein about a world gone mad, but rereading it just now before hitting the ‘send’ button, it didn’t ring true. So I deleted it all and leave you with the following instead.
I lost my naively monotonic view of progress one September day back in 2001. But for the first time in a long while, I feel rather optimistic and excited about the future. After this dumpster fire of a year, 2021 holds out all kinds of promise. I’ve met so many young people recently that have belied the stereotype of the ‘snowflake’ millennial. I’ve found them decent, intelligent, thoughtful, and even respectful to old coots like me. Vaccines are showing that science can trump the populace’s collective inability to pass the marshmallow test. Stunning new advances in energy storage are promising much cleaner and cheaper everything, and quite soon. If we can navigate the idiocies of the next three weeks, the economy looks poised to make a strong “V” shaped recovery later this Spring. Next month Keith and I are embarking on some major new plans that I hope we can share with you in next year’s letter. So life is good; with the potential to be much better soon. It is a great time to be alive. I hope we can see each other soon.