Trigger Warning! The following missive is some of the most intensive navel-gazing you’ll ever encounter in your life. The sheer amount of self-absorbed whining may be too much for sensitive readers. Please read at your own risk.
Like all new years, this one arrived full of hope and expectation. And, like all new years, those expectations soon had a confrontation with reality. And reality always wins. But in the early days there was snow on the ground and it was beautiful.
The cold and snow of January is expected but nevertheless unwelcome when you’re trying to build a house. Half the work crew was out with COVID at any one time, and frozen ground made it difficult to do other things too. So for most of the month, construction on our new house was at a standstill. Still, the snow helped identify where the roof leaked.
While construction delays are inevitable, the lack of progress was really freaking me out. We were ‘supposed’ to finish construction in April and had been working nicely toward that goal up til now. But what if we didn’t finish in time? (spoiler alert: we are still not finished as of this writing at the end of the year). Reading the tea leaves in Washington it was becoming more and more apparent that the Fed was going to reneg on its pledge not to raise interest rates until 2023. And that was making me very, very, nervous. Forget the spiraling out-of-control costs of construction – how would we afford the monthly mortgage payment if interest rates rose? Short answer – we couldn’t. This whole project had been predicated on stable prices and rates during construction. Well, pricing of materials was already triple what we had anticipated, and there was no way we could afford our house if rates even blipped up a few pennies.
Luckily after frantic poking around and untold ridiculous questions and concerns about my source of income (grist for an epic rant that I will spare you now), I was able to lock into a great rate and felt quite proud of myself. I could sleep well at night as long as we finished construction by May (when the rate lock expired). The builder assured me that that would be more than enough time to finish.
Thus relieved, I spent most of my free time working on the interior of the new barn and getting my new pigeon and chicken pens all set up for the breeding season. I won’t bore you with the details, but my goal was to have a modern easy-to-clean and labor saving set-up, and I think I succeeded. At least I did in the design. On paper it will be fantastic (once it’s done!). But the press of real estate business meant that my ‘spare time’ was pretty miniscule.
The good news was that we finally sold the condo in Alexandria and, after being ‘underwater’ for so long, Keith was delighted to be able to get his money out. The other good news is that the real estate market showed absolutely no signs of slowing down, in fact it was the busiest January of my career.
After a frozen January, February was pretty active. Things really started happening on the house and decisions! needed to be made nearly every day. It’s amazing how much time I can spend determining just the right shade of mortar to use on stone columns. I’d have taken the whole month to make that choice if I were allowed to. I drove construction workers crazy with my micro-management, but left to their own devises they’d inevitably do things exactly the opposite way that I’d want them to be done. So the smartest ones among them soon realized it’s better to ask me first, before they proceeded. That saved a few client meltdowns (but only a few). Major milestones included the roof, insulation, the back porch, and stone work on the basement terrace. I still felt that we’d never get done in time for our May deadline. Luckily for the house workers, I had another contractor upon whom I could vent my substantial ire. I had finished the pigeon pens and chicken pens in the new barn as our new neighbor was chomping at the bit to destroy my old bird barn (see photos below) and repurpose the old barn boards for his new house (also under construction). Early in the month I got all the birds settled in the new barn and was very, very pleased with my set-up. Finally I had my birds in proper spaces and real protection from the elements and predators. Perfect – except for one small detail – no water or electricity. So I hired a retired electrician to put in the necessary lighting and electric outlets. It took forever – with constant excuses and ridiculous costs, and major screw ups! After a month of spending a fortune to run a few electric lines I fired him and vowed to complete the work myself. But at least I had a start (albeit an expensive one).
But the chickens liked the barn, and by mid-month I was collecting eggs for hatching. While I was pleased as punch with the chicken pens, the pigeon breeding pens proved a far tougher nut to crack. I had ordered some steel industrial shelving to use as easy-to-clean breeding pens. All I needed to do was assemble them and then build a door front for each pen. Easier said than done, given the time required to yell and scream at construction workers while trying to keep my real estate career on track. It was a busy month of being grumpy with almost everyone.
Like February, March seemed to go on forever. Mostly because I spent much of the month in the car driving to every stone, tile, and marble yard in several states and then finding the right fabricators to turn it all into walls, counters, and flooring. Of course, my endless dithering proved costly as prices seemed to rise before my very eyes. But by the end of the month choices were made and slabs were cut. It was a huge load off my mind just to finally make decisions (though it didn’t stop me from second guessing myself in the months ahead). (note: the slab above is now our kitchen island, do you like it?).
Work on the house sped up, and I (almost) felt that we might make our May deadline. Of course I was a colossal grump most the time because of slap-dash work that had to be redone, or setbacks like the cement form for garden steps bulging out under the weight of the concrete (“don’t worry, we’ll jackhammer it straight once it dries.”). That actually was one of the many placating attempts by contractors to calm me down during the month. I was a wreck the whole time. As architect, chief designer, and homeowner-from-hell I was constantly forced to make decisions – often with an immediate deadline. I struck terror in the hearts of all the subcontractors because I alternately said “I don’t know” when asked how they should do something, or shouted “you’re doing it wrong!” when they didn’t ask how they should do something. I’m much more knowledgeable about the process now, but God willing, I won’t ever have to use that knowledge again.
Still, things got done, and by the end of the month the drywall was up, mudded, sanded, and primed and the interiors started taking shape. While all this was going on our last ever lambing season was happening. Fairly quiet, with no catastrophes, and if all lambings were this easy, I’d rethink my plan on retiring from farming. Chicks were hatching out constantly too. We raised a huge crop of chicks this year and it was so easy to set up brooding pens in the barn once the electricity was hooked up. I just can’t imagine how peaceful next Spring will be when I don’t have lambing or construction concerns, and can concentrate on gardens and chickens. It will be heavenly.
The other nice thing about March was that Keith finally went back to work at the end of the month. He’d been basically off work since last November when he had surgery on his hand to fix a thumb tendon issue. Recovery had been slow and what was to have been a month off, turned into four. We were both relieved when the physical therapists gave him the green light to get back to work (well, I was relieved, I think he rather enjoyed his early retirement). Still, it was nice to have some alone time in our tiny cramped 1 bedroom space.
What’s odd about April is that the busier I got with various things, time seemed to become more, not less, elastic. Which was a good thing, because it sure was a crazy busy month. The farm suffered the most from my busy-ness. Normally April is when the lambs are bouncing all around, I’ve got tons of chicks scurrying around, I’m planting out the kitchen garden for the season, and dusting off the mowers and tractors for pasture maintenance. This year….well,…at least the lambs were bouncy as ever. The rest kinda got neglected.
Real estate was an enormous time suck. The frenetic pace was a bit frightening, but the frenzied activity was a warning to me that we were definitely entering bubble territory, and that meant I needed to ride this thing as hard as possible before it all came crashing down. So night and day was spent being as frenzied as anyone, knowing that the grinding halt could be just around the corner. Thus the pastures got weedy, the veggie beds got weedy, and the poultry pens got… um…smelly. But what could I do?
House construction was another full-time nightmare job in April. I know you’re already bored with the house construction saga, so I’ve deleted the reams and reams of text outlining my frustrations with the workers, the supply chain, the price increases, and the general state of things this month. But allow me just a little whine or two this month.
Why is it that everything I want doesn’t exist, but yet there any multitude of choices available that miss the mark by just enough to be annoyingly unacceptable? I mean, do I have to redesign every light fixture, door knob, and drawer pull in existence? Surely there are others out there that aren’t satisfied with the absolute tat that’s put on the market for us??
Well, as it turns out there are. In fact, they are legion. But only those who are billionaires can afford to have things custom-made. The rest of us have to suffer with the mass-market craptastictude. Why, though? Surely some manufacturer has got to care what consumers really want? Right? Right?
It is completely demoralizing to sort through thousands upon thousands of light fixtures and find nothing worth having. Worse is finding that pretty much the same design offered at $59.99 is “out of stock” but the similar item is being offered at $1,369.99. How is that possible? You think you’re spoiled for choice, but not really. 1,000’s of crappy shlock items is not a ‘choice’ when there’s not a single one that’s well designed and solidly made. Buy me a drink some night and I’ll give you a three hour rant on how I really feel about the state of X industry’s consumer products.
But in the interest of saving time, I’ll just give you a paragraph’s worth here. Lighting is one of those areas where manufacturers are just out to antagonize the buying public rather than give them what they want.
LED lights are amazing things and vastly more efficient and flexible than the incandescent bulbs they replace. But manufacturers put out expensive new recessed lights and various technological marvels without ever once considering that real people might not want their houses lit up like a crime scene or movie set, and certainly not at the blinding 6500 Kelvin white color temperature that they offer. When you finally find something that looks good and in a color temperature that normal people want (manufacturers please note: 2700 K or below), you’ll find that it isn’t dimmable. So you go down another rabbit hole to find something not as nice, but that is at least marketed as ‘dimmable.’ But then you’ll find out it doesn’t really work with the advertised expensive dimmer switches that you just bought (all 32 of them). It only dims 50%. Oh, and then it flickers annoyingly when dimmed to that 50%. So then you go down another rabbit hole researching every dimmer switch known to man, only to find that they don’t make switches that will stop it from flickering or dimming below 50%. But wait! Several wasted days later, you do find one solitary manufacturer that offers a switch that purportedly can get you down to 20% dim-ability (not the 10% that old fashioned incandescents achieved), AND it supposedly will stop any flickering in the process. Woo Hoo! Eureka! But then, they cost $150 a switch, do not match any of your other light switches, and don’t come in the color that you need. Sigh.
So here I am with clients breathing down my neck as we try to outbid 20 other desperate buyers for the same property, and the construction crew is breathing down my neck asking me how they’re supposed to finish my house on time if I can’t make the choice as to which light switch to use, and the mortgage company is breathing down my neck asking if we’re finally ready to close on the loan, and I’m drowning in a sea of 10 million open browser windows trying to find just one half-way decent light fixture that will work with an xx light bulb and can be operated by a yy dimmer switch.
This happened every day. 24/7. All month long.
May was a turbo-charged blur driven by two fears with a common root – rising interest rates. The one fear was that if we didn’t finish the new house on time, we’d miss out on our locked-in mortgage rate. The other fear was that if I didn’t work night and day to make as many $$$ as humanly possible before the real estate market collapsed, we’d never be able to afford the insane cost of building the place, much less have anything to live on. So….night and day blurred into one month-long slog of decision-making to keep the construction ball going, and cajoling buyers it was worth it to bid up properties way above asking price.
In the end, of course, we didn’t make our loan rate deadline. The house remained unfinished. But, lucky for us, our mortgage broker told us he could extend our rate lock (for a “small” fee) through July. And the real estate market was as bonkers as ever, so the money continued to flow in. Thus we charged on.
Now that the drywall was up, and mudded and primed, came the true test of my design choices. Over the course of the month cabinetry, counters, tiles, sinks and faucets were all fitted in. Did I make the right choices? For the most part, I think so. In fact, the guest bathrooms are even better than I envisioned. But I suppose I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the overall effect was fairly pedestrian. Where was our “wow” factor?
While I was breathing down the necks of tile workers and telling them to straighten crooked tiles, I was entirely neglecting the farm. It was completely overgrown and shabby. I knew I could play catch up eventually, but it was crushing to look out from our new back porch and see the kitchen garden a sea of weeds. But, there’s always next year, right?
So June is where pretty much everything came to a head. House construction only inched forward with screw ups right and left. With so little left to do, it was surprising how long it took to do them. And the worst part was that it was all minor stuff, and so the contractors and their subs sent youngest, most inexperienced, workers to complete the tasks. And, of course, those workers had the least motivation, much less the skill set, to do things “right,” (i.e., my way). I’m sure I caused several of them to contemplate a career change. But while they don’t care if a stone slab is crooked, or an electrical outlet is crooked, or the AC compressor is crooked, surprisingly, I do! The worst was the epic screw-ups of the solar array installation.
The real estate market had pretty much reached peak frenzy by mid-month as well, but then it all collapsed in spectacularly short order. Massive increases in gas prices, rapidly ratcheting up interest rates, and a negative stock market reaction to growing inflation, all combined to tank the real estate market overnight. One day the phone was ringing off the hook, and then next day – crickets.
In this regard, I’m grateful that my determination to work non-stop and forget about gardening, vacations, free time, for the past 15 months paid off. Making as much hay as I could while the sun was shining, while simultaneously building a house, may have made for an extremely frazzled and borderline basket case, but financially it was a winning strategy, as in June the real estate Oscars for 2021 were announced and I was ranked in the top 1% of real estate agents nation-wide in terms of overall sales volume. So if the market was now turning south, so be it. I’d had a good run, and I could now finish the house and then get re-acquainted with my neglected gardens and farm.
But I couldn’t calm down right away, there were other epic construction disasters and screw ups happening (deliveries arriving damaged, shower door glass cut too small, stone work done backwards, etc, etc). But there were bright spots too. Our kitchen countertops were perfection! The guttering fit in exactly as planned. Who knew I could get excited about gutters?
Contrary to what my husband may tell you, I do not enjoy being an asshole. But there are sometimes when being the nice guy, the buddy-buddy, with the workers just doesn’t work. That generally happens when I’m confronted with a piece of shoddy workmanship that is being passed off as “completed” and, while technically true, is something I could never live with for the next twenty five years, let alone the next two months. It’s then that I have to draw on my reserves of testicular fortitude to say, “I’m sorry, that’s not good enough.” Or, “That’s crap! Do it over.” I’ve learned the hard way not to be the clueless push-over homeowner. Truth be told, all I have to do is think of you, gentle reader, and what you would say behind my back when you saw (insert botched construction example here), and that would stiffen my resolve and I’d repeat to the worker, “I’m sorry, that just won’t do! Don’t you know who our friends are??”
Now there are some tradesmen that take pride in their work, and beyond that, can actually think and provide you with useful suggestions on how things should or could be done. These are golden. But they’re generally few and far between, and, they’re usually the boss. Trouble is, the Boss isn’t there half the time – it’s the young callow underlings that are doing the grunt work, and I totally get it when their heart isn’t in the work. I mean, you’re grinding away on some fairly dull job and thinking about hanging out with your buddies after you get off of work and having a beer and some laughs, and really, who cares if that one tile is slightly out of line? Sigh. Such has been my entire month! Stucco, tile work, stone work, drywall touch-up, you name it. The heavy lifting was done weeks ago. It’s now time to fine tune everything, but every Juan and John doing the work their bosses sent them out to do just wants to slap it together and leave.
Still, at the end of the month the house was done enough that we could do the following: a) apply for a Certificate of Occupancy; b) get County inspection for a C of O; c) close out the construction loan with the C of O; d) get homeowner’s insurance; and d) finance a mortgage.
Each of these steps was fraught with enough melodrama to warrant separate novel-length ‘woe is me’ tales, but I’ll spare you the details and just mention that a Certificate of Occupancy requires working appliances, and we (still!) had none. So as a ‘hail Mary pass’ we removed the 26 year old stove from the guest house and hooked it up in the main house and pretended we were ready to live there. It’s a miracle it didn’t fall apart into a heap of rust during the move, but it somehow made it and the ruse worked.
On the whole we were both quite pleased with the house. It finally began to look like it was meant to. The level of stress went down dramatically with each step closer to signing the mortgage (at a rate that was now less than half the current market one).
But then depression set in. Here we were, ‘finished’ as far as the powers that be were concerned, but we were also completely tapped out financially, with no income coming in, and we had a house that wasn’t finished by any means. It was just a shell. We still needed to finish the exterior stone work, stucco, and painting. And the interior was bare walls with no baseboards or wall or window trim, let alone mouldings. Holes in drywall everywhere. The floors needed finishing. No kitchen appliances, and not a hope of moving in for several months. How would we ever get it done? So relief soon morphed into anxiety as we contemplated the list of things yet to do without any income to do them – let alone buy a bed or a chair for you to come visit.
It was August-y in August. Hot and humid and typical Virginia – and luckily not the ‘atypical’ weather that the rest of the world was experiencing. It was hot, but not too hot. It was humid, but bearable. While the rest of the Northern Hemisphere alternately experienced drought and heatwaves or torrential downpours and floods, Virginia remained gentle, lush, and green, and reminiscent of summers of yore. Of course, that didn’t mean I could actually enjoy it. Instead I was rushing around trying to get my mortgage finalized. Delays in underwriting almost cost me my interest rate. It was huge fiasco that meant lots of yelling and screaming because the morons they hire to underwrite loans apparently cannot imagine a world in which someone earns a commission instead of a W-2 pay stub. Still, after a lot of stress I now owe PNC Bank an unbelievably vast sum. But, believe it or not, even with taxes and insurance included, the house costs less to service on a monthly basis than the old mortgages. Granted we’ve sold a condo and sold half the farm, but now we should be able to afford things for the rest of our days. I sure hope so, as the mortgage won’t be fully paid off until I’m 92!
So once the stress of financing this place was removed, my mood altered considerably. All the heavy lifting in terms of decisions and the worrying over deadlines – gone. All the sleepless nights and stress evaporated overnight. A delicious calm descended over me. I felt as though I wanted to savor the moment a bit longer, but of course, the reality was that I still needed to finish the house, and the last-minute costs of the loan and getting the certificate of occupancy meant that I was now flat out broke.
Because I was destitute, I was afraid to send our 20 year old broken down farm truck to the garage. But if it wasn’t usable, I needed to at least get it out of the way. For the past several years it had been for “farm use only” which meant I was allowed to drive it no more than 20 miles or so from the farm. This was fine by me, because it had been mainly used to haul feed, go to the dump, or pick up stuff from Home Depot. I had our local garage come pick it up and see if they could get it running again. Preparing for the worst I got a phone call a week later telling me that it was, in fact, fixable. “But you have two options. We got everything working but the power steering. There’s a slow leak that’s hard to get to. So, you can either occasionally put in new power steering fluid and just keep going, or we can go ahead and open her up to fix the leak in the line. But I’m warning you, it will cost you!” Cautiously I asked, “Just how much will it cost me?” “About $350,” came the reply. Now, I was broke, but I wasn’t that broke. A week later I got the truck back and it still runs.
It was mid-month when I got the news that my Aunt Liz was dying. After several years in remission, cancer had returned with a vengeance and it didn’t take long to claim her. As my mother’s youngest sibling, Elizabeth was only 10 years older than I was, and we always had a special bond when I was a little kid. As a teenager in the 1960s she represented all the cool things that would await me once I grew up. She also bought me my first transistor radio on the sly when I was 6 years old (which I’d listen to secretly after bedtime). She was always there for a hug as well. Even now decades later, I’d still get the occasional care package from her because she knew I appreciated her tablet and other Scottish goodies. She was a good one with a kind heart, and will be missed.
Towards the end of the month our good friend Drew Murphy came out from California to pick up his new puppy in Virginia. I was so excited to be able to pick him up at airport and have him as our first real house guest (well really just a mattress on the floor in an unfinished house). He didn’t seem to mind and I got to go with him to pick up the pup.
September sometime fakes you out with beautiful clear days that make you think Fall is imminent and then turns around and blasts you a bit more with Summer heat. This year, however, the month was on its best behavior and made a very gentle and gradual transition. Each day was slightly shorter, slightly cooler, and slightly less humid. Pretty perfect, actually.
In keeping with the declining real estate market and the grindingly slow completion of our house, I gradually increased my farm work hours to help clear out the backlog of neglected chores. While I welcomed the chance to finally check some things off my chore list, my ageing body protested against some of the physical labor. And sometimes I got bested by things – I stupidly cut my arm with hedge clippers (thank God for super glue – it saves an expensive trip to emergency room).
As the rest of the world slowly drifted back to the pre-pandemic September ré-entrée to work and school, the old rhythms of the season came back into focus. September social events that were in abeyance for the past two years were resurrected and well attended. There was still plenty of continuing work on the house, and farm clean up was complicated by construction mess everywhere. But there were chances to venture out a bit into the real world for a moment and catch up with those back from their summer vacations.
Towards the end of the month we had a really nice visit from my cousin Jim Powers and his wife Beth. I hadn’t seen them in over a decade, so it was great to catch up in person. Their visit actually provided a little thrill. We were having houseguests! We finally had a place for people to stay – with real bathrooms and everything!! You probably don’t know what that means to me. But you haven’t lived for the past 26 years in a cramped tiny garage apartment. And you certainly haven’t lived in such a small space with Keith Miller. The whole idea of any of you, readers, coming to visit, and me actually being able to say “why don’t you take the green room?,” gives me such a charge. It will still take several months before we can actually afford beds and linens, but if you’ve come to stay any time in the past 26 years and had your choice of sofa or floor, you’re in for a major upgrade. So please come back!
With that thought in mind, each small step forward (knobs on cabinets, working lights in the butler’s pantry, or mortared garden steps, etc.), felt far more like a milestone than it should have, but each one signaled another step towards a new and settled life. That’s all I want.
I can’t recall another October that ever achieved such a level of autumnal perfection. And that’s saying a lot, because I’ve seen a lot of Octobers. But I’d never seen such a mellow month with such brilliant colors. It was hard to say when the ‘peak’ actually was, the trees kept getting more and more intense and fading at the same time. I was a happy mellow camper all month.
Besides the fall foliage, two other things contributed to the warm autumnal feeling. First, the real estate market had completely collapsed. I mean, completely. Normally this is my busiest month and the money-maker for the whole year. But this year was…..crickets. I really had time to admire nature’s great show. Second, the new house was more or less completed. There were a few things left to do – floors were still unfinished and lots of touch-ups and needed here and there. And appliances were still nowhere in sight. But, once the construction site was cleaned up and graded, and the lawns all seeded, all the drama of decision-making and cajoling or hectoring workers was behind me. In front of me was…..nothing. For the first time in years I had no pressing agenda and nothing urgent to do.
A calm like I haven’t felt in years settled over me. Sure, I was worried about the lack of business, and of course, I’d love to move in our new house, but for the moment everything was on track. I had nothing to do but enjoy the moment and clean up my poor neglected farm. It was heaven.
This open schedule gave me time to zip down to Tryon, NC to tend to long delayed family business and have a great dinner in Greenville, SC with nephew Will. Later in the month Keith and I hopped in the car for a trek across West VA to Ohio to visit nephew Luka at Ohio University for his last home game performance in the marching band. He put on a great show (it would appear that he’s quite famous in marching band circles for his “Tuba Dance”) and then was kind enough to take his old uncles bar-hopping with his friends. The kids are alright, it seems.
On top of that, West VA is awfully pretty in the fall, and stunningly beautiful along this route, and we were both surprised at how clean and tidy everything was. An overnight in Clarksburg, WV also provided us with the best old school dinner in a long, long time.
November was a very quiet month. No workers waking us up at 6:30 a.m. and my real estate business had shriveled up completely. I was down to my last contract to reach the settlement table, and no one else was in the mood to buy. It got so slow that November 21st became an historic day. For the first time in decades, I was able to clear both my email and voicemail inboxes simultaneously. I just stared alternately at my computer and then my phone for several minutes in complete awe. Both screens were beautifully blank. I was able to keep it that way the whole day! It was a very odd sensation having no nagging work related items needing my attention. As much as I enjoyed the empty inboxes, it was also very chilling – wait, there’s NOTHING in the pipeline! How am I going to pay my bills??? Will I go bankrupt in 2023? Scary thoughts that are well within the realm of possibility given the complete collapse of the residential real estate market.
Worries aside, the free time gave me the opportunity to start some long, long, overdue clean up on the farm. First order of business was the barn. Newly built last year, it still hasn’t got the complete set up of breeding pens, and my planned labor-saving watering system is still a distant dream. I don’t even have the electricity properly wired in the upstairs pigeon loft yet. But before I could even start on any of those things, I needed to start cleaning all the pens that had been left untouched for months. So a good portion of my free time was spent shoveling shit. Now, I have to say, as far as unenjoyable tasks like this go, I was pleasantly surprised at how well my system of pens, trap door chutes, and concrete backer floors made it pretty easy. Just scrape, shovel, and throw down the chute into the gator below. I’d then drive to the compost pile a short distance from the barn and return. Piece o’ cake, really.
The other long-neglected item was the kitchen garden. For the past two summers I basically gave up on gardening. As a result weeds and saplings were growing rampant in my super organically fertilized raised beds. The deer were also using the garden as their private sanctuary since the garden gates were always left open by the stucco and stone crews. The whole thing was such an eyesore, especially when viewed from our new back porch. Slowly but surely I started on the clean up. Didn’t get very far, which is why you see no photos of the progress in this letter. But at least I’m on the right trajectory.
In between clean-up efforts, we had a nice visit from niece Riley and her fiancée Katie. They stopped in for an hour’s visit during their marathon drive from Philadelphia to Deland, FL. Over Thanksgiving we made the trek to Richmond for an epic feast with the extended Miller/Nenno/Schmidt/Zona clan. Everyone was there, from Florida and Tennessee, including nephew Eric Miller, newly moved from California. It was a fantastic celebration of food, family, and friends. There was even singing.
On the home front, our appliances were still nowhere to be found. No one could tell us if they were still on a slow boat from China, or stuck in a dingy warehouse somewhere. But it really didn’t matter as our floors were still unfinished! Finally, at the end of the month, the floor crew appeared and started work filling and sanding.
It seems the world has been rather frenetic in throwing itself back into a post-pandemic routine, as if for making up for lost time. Since we live a pretty isolated life to begin with, it really only hit us once December came around and we ourselves decided to re-connect a bit with people we hadn’t seen in a while. Then it was non-stop festivitating all month long. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a busier holiday season, nor one filled with more holiday spirit. It was like living in Hallmark Christmas movie the entire month – I’m not kidding. Picture-perfect moments of people enjoying themselves everywhere and everyone filled with good cheer. Was it just us or did everyone feel it this year?
The whole season started with an overnight visit to Keith’s sister Yvonne in Charlottesville. We had a great time catching up with her and eating and drinking ourselves silly at the Alley Light and the Wool Factory. Both highly recommended. This was immediately followed by Joe and Van’s parade day open house, and then the annual Christmas parade through town. If you ever want to experience small town Christmas magic, this is the real deal, and this year enhanced even further by a Christmas market and beer garden on the grounds of Drew Mitchell’s Avon Hall.
After that it seemed as if there was an event or dinner to attend each day, and each one a joyous re-connection with friends we hadn’t seen our pandemic/house building isolation. It was kinda wonderful to rejoin the wider world again. I wish I had taken more pictures.
A week before Christmas we decided to really gild the holiday lily – and escaped to New York City for a few days. If you want to experience me both maudlin and cranky in the same day you can read all about that excursion here:
By the time Christmas day rolled around we were, frankly, a bit partied out. Keith had been scheduled to work that day and I was looking forward to a quiet 24 hours to recuperate and draft this letter. Instead, Keith got a last minute reprieve when Amtrak decided not to be a Scrooge, so we delightedly accepted an offer to join Chip & John for an elegant and perfect Christmas dinner at The Perch. In addition to cooking the absolutely best Beef Wellington ever made, they provided us with a calm and special endpoint to the frenetic season.
The next day was one of quiet reflection (well, and writing this screed). What is next? The floors of our new house had finally received their last coat of varnish a week before Christmas, and were drying nicely. Construction was done. We could move in the first of the year. And with that there was an end to the stress, tantrums, and constant shock over outrageous construction bills. The sense of calm was only momentary, however. But it was a foretaste of what I hope to experience once we truly ‘finish’ the house. I’m afraid next year’s letter will be equally obsessive in dealing with all the molding, trim, and paneling minutia as we now finalize all those important details that time and budget so far haven’t allowed. I’m hoping (despite evidence to the contrary) that it will be a smoother process as we go from room to room and trim it all out, and I can bore you all to tears with wallpaper and paint choice dilemmas. So be forewarned.
But in the meantime, once we can find a bed or two for guests, I think we’ll take a break on finishing the whole thing and try and reconnect with the world. That means you, most importantly.
E N D N O T E
Re-reading this letter before I hit the ‘send’ key, I realize it’s even whinier than most of my output. Sorry about that, but I suppose that can’t be helped when you’re cataloging construction woes. It goes with the territory.
But, here’s the thing. It’s totally legitimate to want to have things the way they ‘should’ be. Everyone does, and I’m willing to spend what mental and fiscal resources I have to get things ‘right’ so that I can be happy in my home. Yet across the planet this year others trying to do the same thing saw their efforts being destroyed in mere minutes due to tornados, hurricanes, floods, or blizzards. How dare I whine about my garden steps being slightly crooked? But I still do.
What’s worse is that so many this year have had to deal with man-made barriers to happiness as well. People in Ukraine, Iran, or China have just as much right to live unmolested by madmen as I do. I’ll never be able to understand those who devote their own lives to destroying others’ attempts at building a happy life.
My favorite Virginian once wrote that everyone has the unalienable right to pursue happiness. I’d like to think that that’s somehow built into our very being – that we all strive for a happy life and the chance to enjoy what little time we’re allowed in this beautiful world. To be with our family and friends and hear about the small irritations and triumphs in their lives through banal Christmas letters is what we should all get to have with if we’re very lucky.
And if we’re that lucky, life gives us pretty much equal doses of things to be grateful for and things to resent being thrust upon us. It’s difficult to do (for me at least), but we should always try and elevate the gratitude above the resentment. It does make all the difference.
So, at the end of a whiny letter, here’s the gratitude. I’m so grateful for you, dear reader. That you’re part of my life in some way and enriching it so much just by being there while you pursue your own happiness. I hope we’ll get to experience that happiness together for many years yet to come.
Happy New Year!