Saturday, February 11, 2017

A visit to Peaceful Pastures

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Peaceful Pastures in Hickman (Smith County), Tennessee. Owned and operated by Darrin and Jenny Drake, Peaceful Pastures raises all natural, pastured, grass-fed beef, pork, lamb, chicken, and turkey. As a resident of the Tampa Bay area in Florida, I am lucky that a number of times a year, Peaceful Pastures makes a delivery trip through select locations in Georgia and Florida, and I have the opportunity to have my freezer stocked with some of the best meat I have ever tasted.

As a photographer, I have been struck with the beauty of the farm in the photos that I have seen over the years. Last week I had a chance to visit the farm with my ever-present camera. As the day that Jenny (a friend whom I have known for a while) and I scheduled approached, the weather forecast looked like it might not be cooperating at all. Severe thunderstorms were predicted, which could seriously impact my ability to get around and see the farm. 

However, when the morning came, and I left my hotel, not only was it not raining, but there was sun to be seen. The storms were still in the forecast, but I was beginning to have some hope. As I drove west towards the farm, I was able to see a beautiful sunrise in my rear view mirror. How long this would last, I didn’t know. 

What I did know however, was that once I left the interstate highway and started traveling along local roads, I realized that I could very easily spend a whole day photographing the scenery along the road itself. Between the natural beauty of the area and the local scenery, it is a photographer’s dream. As I drove over the dam and continued to the farm, I did get my camera out, but not wanting to waste the nice weather and not knowing when the rain might actually come, I continued to my destination, taking only a shot or two along the way.

My car’s navigation system, which had been acting a bit flakey since the night before, did not fail me this morning, and soon I came upon a signpost with a Peaceful Pastures sign - letting me know I had reached the turn which would lead me to Darrin and Jenny’s house - which also serves as the office and focal point for the farm. As I come on to the farm, I am greeted by the sight of sheep grazing on a hill, and two guard dogs come down to the road to see who is stopping and taking pictures. 

I continue along the road until I get to the house. As I get out of my car, I hear Jenny call my name.

Jenny is accompanied - as she often is - by a trio of dogs, including Wendy, who often even travels with her on the road. We enter the house and Darrin greets me before Jenny and I quickly head out to see the farm while it is still a bit sunny and not raining.

First we are off to get some feed to bring to the sheep that I passed on the hill on my way in. Not only are we accompanied by the dogs (who would not allow themselves to be left behind), but by Wilma and Goslin (geese). It seems that Goslin and Wendy have become buddies recently. Naturally the geese want a bit to eat as well, and Jenny sees that they are taken care of before we head out to the sheep.

Jenny is hoping that when she arrives with a bucket, that the sheep will come on down the hill and gather around her. We are joined by Lucy, Luke and Ren, the guard dogs, as we get to the hill where the sheep and lambs are at the moment. As we approach the sheep, they do start coming over to get a share of what’s in the bucket. Soon we are surrounded and what was a filled bucket on the way goes back empty. It was fun to watch - and to see the young lambs among the flock.

Jenny continues giving me the tour of the farm as we pass behind the area currently occupied by her herd of eleven horses - some of whom I was already a bit familiar with parts of their history and was even able to recognize a few. I know the special relationship that Jenny has with her horses. We will be returning to them shortly. I stop for some photos (and to surreptitiously catch my breath from the uphill walk) and then we continue on. 

We head through an old barn on the way now to visit with the pigs. Baby pigs have been arriving, and since at Peaceful Pastures, the animals live in a totally natural way, the mothers and their newborn babies are there in the pasture as nature intended. They don’t seem to mind us being there, and baby pigs make such cute photo subjects. As with the sheep, the pigs are out and about, as animals should be - as opposed to being housed in a confined space.

In fact, the only animals that have been somewhat confined are the chickens - and this is more for their protection than anything else. There are predatory critters out and about here and the chickens’ confinement has been a rather recent occurrence. Jenny mentioned that as much as she hates the necessity, there is no choice at this time.

Continuing along, we encounter cows … or is it the cows who encounter the humans? As with the sheep, the cows are in a pasture where they have plenty of room, and groups and individuals can be seen in all areas - some close and some off on the hill. There used to be an ad slogan for a condensed milk product that claimed it came from contented cows. I think these would have qualified. However, it seems as if we are the objects of interest for the cows near us … I think they wanted to know if we brought them anything. While here I got to meet MaryBelle - a rescue cow for lack of a better term. A senior cow among the herd, who is a permanent part of the farm family. 

By this point it was clear that although these animals are being raised for meat, they are all more than just numbers to Jenny, Darrin and the rest of the farm employees. At the top of the homepage of the Peaceful Pastures website you will see the words, “All Natural, Humanely Raised Meats”. While they are on the farm, they are truly cared for (and about) and given the opportunity to live their lives in a very natural manner. A number of times I have heard Jenny and the others talk about individual animals and their personalities and behaviors. Not what one might expect on the average farm commercially raising animals for meat. And in the end - having tasted the meat that comes from Peaceful Pastures at home - the results are definitely a top quality product. 

Next up on the agenda is moving horses to another location. This is also my chance to meet Jenny’s horses up close and personal, something she knows I had been waiting for. At first they didn’t show any inclination to follow the plan, but after leading Tess in the proper direction, the others eventually took the hint and followed her lead. And for the record … the two donkeys came along as well.

Amazingly, despite initial reports of all day storms, the morning weather has cooperated and we return to the house (mostly) dry. Lunch time is fast approaching and the farm staff will want lunch soon, so Jenny goes into full on meal preparation mode. Now this was no surprise to me how well she can cook, but knowing it and seeing it happen are two different things. I’ve always considered myself a pretty good cook, but I am certainly not in the same league. Needless to say, when those of us who were around sat down at the table - nobody got up hungry!!

After lunch Jenny was going to take me to the Ice House but she received word that one of the ewes had been attacked - predator unknown at that point - so she left me in the capable hands of Miss Tina … administrative assistant extraordinaire! She is involved in just about every aspect of the farm, and at the moment was preparing/packaging Country Girl soap. In addition to everything else she does, Jenny makes homemade soap. While the two of us talked a bit, Jenny took care of the animal, making sure she was okay and safe for the time being. Once again it was obvious the love for animals that everyone on the farm shares. (This is not a surprise as I have seen Jenny get upset and reprimand a group of children for chasing a mother duck with her ducklings, yet turn the situation around and talk to the children about ducks and ducklings. I was able to see the look of wonder on the children’s faces as they listened and asked questions.)

The day wore down with another move for the horses, and a relocation for MaryBelle before everyone had a chance to relax. Way too soon it was time to say good-bye (at least for now) and start my trip home. 

So what did I take away from this visit? I saw the absolute beauty of the land upon which the farm sits. Although I saw but a small portion in winter - it was easy to see how one can come to love this small corner of the world. I cannot wait to visit the farm again when there can be green grass and blue skies added to the undeniable beauty that is this piece of land all year round. 

And while it came as no surprise to me, it was obvious how much everyone on the farm cares for the animals while they are here. Of course, there are the animals themselves … being able to be out on pastures enjoying the openness and natural food sources. 

Yes, I have long known about Peaceful Pastures and how it operates, but seeing it in person brings it all into focus. Thank you Darrin and Jenny Drake for being my hosts for the day.

Jenny with Chewbacca

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The End of a Circus

After 146 years, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows is ending its run. Ironically, on a day I was in Ellenton, Florida, home of Feld Entertainment, Kenneth Feld announced that the circus his family had bought from the Ringling family in 1967 would be closing in just 4 months, ending its 146 year run.

Founded by the seven Ringling Brothers in 1884, they slowly grew by acquiring other small circuses until they were second only to the Barnum & Bailey circus here in America. (The Barnum & Bailey circus was formed when P.T. Barnum's circus combined with the Cooper and Bailey circus in 1881.)  In 1907 the Ringling Brothers bought the Barnum & Bailey circus and operated them as separate circuses until 1919 when they combined both shows to form the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows.

My love of circus began in the mid-1950's at the old Madison Square Garden (on 8th Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets in NYC). The circus was still owned by the Ringling family at the time and was produced by John Ringling North ... a nephew of the original seven brothers - his mother was their sister. In those days before the circus show itself, you could go down into the basement and see the menagerie ... the animals that would be used in the show ... and the sideshow! Once you got past the distinctive smell of the animals, you could see the giant (and buy huge rings that he wore which could fit around your wrist), the midgets, the magician, the sword swallower, the bearded lady and all of the others. (When the Feld family bought the circus, the sideshow was eliminated.)

Next it was up into the arena for the show itself. For me, two necessary items were always a circus light (they were small "pez dispenser" type lights on a vinyl lanyard which you would swing during blackouts between acts) and cotton candy ... the only time during the year that I would be able to have it.

Every aspect of the circus fascinated me. I have to admit though, the sound of the cannon shooting someone across the arena - which was how the show always ended back then - caused me to cower a bit.

Nothing beats the sound of circus music followed by the strong voice of the Ringmaster (in reality, he is the MC ... the ringmaster technically is a person who stands by the ring itself during animal acts, though the MC seems to have been given that designation over the years by popular usage), in his sequined jacket announcing, "Ladies and gentlemen! Children of all ages! Welcome to the Greatest Show on Earth!"

Back then it was a 3 ring circus and you would see three similar acts all going on at the same time. The best was always in the center ring though. And then there were the animals! Elephants, horses, camels, and of course, the big cats! In the end, it was the elimination of the elephants - for humanitarian reasons - that was the piece that finally put the circus into a position that made it impossible to continue, but they were magnificent to watch!

For me, the circus was always a highlight of the spring, when it rolled into Madison Square Garden around Passover/Easter week. While school was out for the week, we got to see the circus.

My love of circus continued into my adult years - as well as my annual visits. I also became fascinated in the history and art of the American circus. And, oh ... how I would have loved to be a circus clown ... or a circus band member - but being a violist that was not really an option.

When my kids were born, naturally we started taking them to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus at Madison Square Garden, now at its current location.

My daughter meets 2ba after her first visit to the
Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus

There were other circuses of course, and when we could we would go see them as well - tented or in an arena - it didn't matter. My kids developed a love of circus as well. It was always fun no matter the size of the circus we were seeing. (Of course there was the time I didn't tell them that a small circus had opened very close to our house, and while we were waiting until it was time to go see it, they watched Killer Klowns from Outer Space on TV ... )

Eventually my children had children of their own, and they too were introduced to the circus by way of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey show.

The twins visit with circus performers on the floor of the arena and are about to head up to their seats

Then it happened. On January 14, 2017 it was announced that due to declining attendance the Ringling Brother's and Barnum & Bailey Circus would end its 146 year run. (It was ironic that I was in Ellenton, Florida on the day the announcement was made there.)

Just a few days earlier, my daughter and I had been discussing bringing my one and a half year old granddaughter to see the circus which was about to come to Tampa. I bought the tickets within hours of the announcement, and was able to get amazing seats ... first row ... right in front of the single ring that this show had been using for the past few years (as opposed to three rings).

Unfortunately, Amalie Arena would not let me take my DSLR camera into the building (as I had for every circus show I had been to for decades) so I was only able to use the camera in my phone to capture my granddaughter's first Ringling circus, and my last.

Circus lights have changed quite a bit since I was a kid

For the first time in their history there is a female Ringmaster

As close as you can get to the action without being in the circus

The elephants have been retired but the big cats are helping to bring it all to an end

And so, at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island in NY on May 21, 2017, the Ringmaster will say for the last time, "May all your days be circus days!" and the lights will go down on 146 years of circus history and we will lose an important piece of Americana. I for one hope a last minute savior will show up to save the show, but that is highly unlikely as it had been losing money for years. TV, movies, streaming entertainment all make the circus irrelevant to today's generation. A show that was well over 3 hours when I was a child is now just 2 hours long. Long circus acts are just too long for today's fast moving world.


A message from Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, the producer of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey®

After much evaluation and deliberation, my family and I have made the difficult business decision that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® will hold its final performances in May of this year. Ringling Bros. ticket sales have been declining, but following the transition of the elephants off the road, we saw an even more dramatic drop. This, coupled with high operating costs, made the circus an unsustainable business for the company.
Nearly 50 years ago, my father founded our company with the acquisition of Ringling Bros. The circus and its people have continually been a source of inspiration and joy to my family and me, which is why this was such a tough business decision to make. The decision was even more difficult because of the amazing fans that have become part of our extended circus family over the years, and we are extremely grateful to the millions of families who have made Ringling Bros. part of their lives for generations. We know Ringling Bros. isn’t only our family business, but also your family tradition.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® Presents Circus XTREME will conclude its tour at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, R.I., on May 7, 2017, and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® Presents Out Of This World will conclude its tour at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., on May 21, 2017. We hope you will come to celebrate this American icon for one last time before our tours conclude.
Our company provides quality, live family entertainment, and we invite you to bring your family to one of our other events, including Marvel Universe LIVE!, Monster Jam, Monster Energy Supercross, AMSOIL Arenacross, Disney On Ice and Disney Live!, as well as future productions.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has served as inspiration for all of the live entertainment produced at Feld Entertainment. We learned from the circus, and applied those learnings to our other productions. Without Ringling Bros., we wouldn’t have the vibrant live entertainment company that we have today. Ringling Bros. will always be part of Feld Entertainment, and its spirit will live on in every production and project we do.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Fifteen Years - another look at the 10 year post

Me (with camera) at the WTC in 1977

10 15 years ...

Whenever I returned to college from a visit home I would pass by the construction site where the World Trade Center was being built. As a child I thought that the Empire State Building would always be the tallest building in the world, but here they were building two (!) which would be taller. When complete, the twin towers of the World Trade Center would replace King Kong's favorite New York City skyscraper as the tallest in the world - at least for a while.

10 15 years ...

In 1973 the World Trade Center opened. It didn't have the charm of the building it replaced as tallest, but there it was, right at the tip of Manhattan island. You could see it from the Staten Island ferry as you approached ... you could see it as you crossed over the Verrazano Bridge. It was built on land that had not existed when New Amsterdam was settled, though it towered over the space where the original Dutch settlement existed. It transformed the famous New York City skyline.

10 15 years ...

As a Scoutmaster and as a Cubmaster, I brought the boys in my unit to the 110th floor observation deck. As a New Yorker, I had not been to the top of the Empire State Building (yet), but hardly anyone went there anymore, as these new buildings were the highest you could now get in New York City. On a number of occasions, my wife and I brought our son and daughter up to the observation deck. In 1976 I took a picture of the Statue of Liberty from here which I entered into a US Bicentennial photo contest, and won a prize.

10 15 years ...

For many years I worked in Secaucus, New Jersey and lived in Brooklyn. My drive to work took me through the Battery Tunnel and past the World Trade Center. Each morning I passed by, seeing the busy area and watching folks going to work in the towers.

10 15 years ...

Ten Fifteen years ago today, I was home asleep, not feeling well enough to go to work. My phone rang. It was my daughter wanting to know if the world was coming to an end. I retell the story every year on September 11 - you can read about it for yourself as well - The Day That Changed Everything. Life in NYC changed, life in the US changed, and life all around the world changed. We had always thought that we were safe here in the US, no one would dare attempt this sort of thing here. How quickly, and tragically, we found that we were wrong. We lost so much more than buildings that day. We lost lives, we lost security and we lost our innocence. No longer could we go about our daily lives without a reminder of what had changed. Everyone here in NYC lost someone they knew, or knew someone who had. A high school classmate and friend that I had just recently sat with to plan our class's 30 year reunion, Alan Feinberg, was a fireman and first responder who entered a dying building to help others ... and never came out. You may not have known the people in the World Trade Center, The Pentagon or on the hijacked aircraft, but you grieved for them ... and for the life of the pre-9/11 days.

One of the 4 hijacked aircraft left Newark International Airport - just 15 minutes from my house. It crashed landed in Shanksville, PA after passengers stormed the flight deck in an attempt to take back the airplane from the terrorists.

10 15 years ...

The day after the attack I found myself in the emergency room at Staten Island University Hospital. In the bed next to me was the wife of a fireman who was working at ground zero. He had come home for a break, and she had a reaction to the dust and debris he came home covered with.

10 15 years ...

As with the bombing of Pearl Harbor a generation before, we were stirred out of our complacency and into war. Security was increased everywhere, not just at the airports. We had learned to constantly look back over our shoulders.

10 15 years ...

In April, 2010 a friend was visiting from Australia and I was taking her around my city. She wanted to visit ground zero. I hadn't been able to bring myself to be in the area since the day of the attack. This was my first time back through that area. We looked down onto the footprint of the World Trade Center as the area was being prepared for construction of The Freedom Tower and the 911 Memorial.

10 15 years ...

Today, the empty space on our skyline where the World Trade Center stood, is no longer empty. The Freedom Tower is at half of its final height completed and at 70% occupancy. When completed, The Empire State Building will once again relinquish has relinquished its title of tallest in NYC. We are New Yorkers ... we are Americans ... you may deal us a blow, but we come back and we come back stronger than ever.


Weeks after the attack we visited our daughter in Florida, and saw The Voices of Liberty perform at the American Adventure in EPCOT in Walt Disney World. This clip was a part of that performance that I share each 9/11. (I hope and look forward to you sharing your thoughts on 9/11 below.)

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Art of the Deal ... WHY?

As many of you already know, I have just purchased a new car - a procedure that strikes fear in the heart of mortal men and women. When you buy almost anything else, you know what the price will be before you go to buy it, and that is the price you pay. With a car ... not happening! Two identical cars sold in the same showroom on the same day can vary by as much as $10,000 depending on the negotiating skills of the buyer, and most buyers, no matter how good their negotiating skills are, can't compete against a car dealer who does this many times every day.

Most people buy a car every 5-8 years. The last car I bought was for my wife and was now 8 years ago. The car I was replacing was my Saturn which I bought 12 years ago. In fact, it was one of Saturn's selling point that they didn't negotiate prices, they priced each car with a set price, so you knew exactly what you would pay up front.

I had done all my homework before I stepped into the dealership, so I knew what car I wanted and exactly what I wanted to pay for it. I had an advantage I hadn't had in the past, I didn't need a new car (my old one was still running well and in good shape), but I wanted a new car. In the past when I shopped for a new car, it was because the one I was driving (or my wife was driving) was about ready to stop performing that basic function. Not so this time. I could be picky as to what i got and how much I paid. I could easily walk away from a deal which wasn't exactly what I wanted ... or better!

My negotiating skills are good, but I am not kidding myself, I am sure someone with better skills could have done even better, but after doing all the online research (something that was not available for most of the 8 cars I have purchased in my life) I knew exactly what I wanted and what price I was willing to pay for it - and that included how much I would be willing to pay for financing. Having done this dance a number of times in my life, I knew the tricks that dealers pull to bring the price up, and as expected, the first offer came with a list of features that I didn't want - or more correctly, didn't want to pay for. I had test driven 2 different models and selected the one I wanted. The one I test drove had all of the extras that it could have - and in fact, was a Limited Edition of only 5000 cars. It was amazing, but had much that I did not want to add on to the final price. I negotiated for a model with only the features I wanted and rejected the list of add-ons originally presented to me. In the end, In the end - after an hour of back and forth negotiating - I got exactly the price I wanted to pay, at the finance rate I wanted (0%) and the price for my trade-in that I expected ... dealer incentives and rebates included. When I asked about the car I was finally getting, I was informed that I could have the car that I test drove ... with all the bells and whistles that I refused to pay for. I had gotten a good deal and a better car than I had originally planned on. (I later found out that during that holiday weekend, the dealership had a quota that the manufacturer had placed on it. That also played a part, and I knew that when I picked that day to make my purchase.)

But the question still remains - why does this have to happen? How many people pay more than they really have to because they don't know or understand the tricks that a dealer uses, or aren't very strong negotiators? I certainly have nothing against the dealer making a profit, but he always has the upper hand. Who decided that cars wouldn't get a set price and why has the public accepted it? Saturn (a GM division started in 1985) attempted to do things a different way. The brand was discontinued in 2009 and with it went the only car that had a set price. (There is a local dealership that advertises a no-negotiating price policy but I don't know how they price their cars so I don't know if this is in the buyers best interest or not.)

How about you? Do you enjoy the game of negotiating for a car, or would you prefer a set price when you walk into a dealership? What do you think of this policy?