The Farm House Journal

Volume 4: It's The Old Army Game

Chapter 2: Paying The Piper

At last, our little family was reunited under one roof. Of course, the roof was just about the only part of the house that was done. The first floor interior of the addition was almost done, but the doors to the bathroom and basement were still unfinished and standing in the parlor. The walls of the two occupied bedrooms and the upstairs bath were primed, with the finish coat of paint in that bath partly done. I had done virtually no other work on the interior restoration.

I set out to remedy this situation immediately. My plan was to work on the interior throughout the rest of the fall and winter, and save the painting of the exterior for the spring, when the days would grow warmer, drier and longer. But my plans had been running afoul of reality for some time, and this plan proved to have the same dark fate.

The first project I undertook as a resident of the Farm House was the finishing of the bathroom door, which was a bit tricky because the outside and the latch edge were to be stained and varnished, while the remainder was to be painted to match the bathroom. It took a nice steady hand to strike crisp edges between the two finishes, but I began to find my hand increasingly shaky.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was running on fumes. I had been driving myself to the limits of my endurance for a year and a half, and the bill had come due. When I felt myself slowing down, I should simply have finished the door I was working on at a leisurely pace, then put down my tools, relaxed, and enjoyed the holidays.

But that course was the furthest one from my mind at the time. The past eighteen months had been the most focused and productive time in my life, and I was deeply proud of what I had been able to accomplish. For once, I had something tangible to show for my efforts. This was a heady feeling for one who had spent most of his professional life in banking operations. I’d bring my best effort to the job every day, but despite this I’d come in the next day to find the ball back at the bottom of the hill again. Sysyphus had nothing on me.

With the Farm House work, on the other hand, every day I moved the ball forward a little, and the next day I’d come back to find that ball right where I’d left it the night before. I found this more than deeply satisfying; I found it addictively exhilarating. For the first time in my life, I’d found my calling, that One Thing that made work a delight and motivation as natural an impulse as breathing. To finish well and decisively something that I had started had been a fundamental concern for my entire life, and I wasn’t about to take a break just when I felt my goal was within easy reach. I was determined not to revert to my former unproductive, unmotivated self.

The only fly in the ointment was that I was deluding myself regarding the proximity of my goal. In point of fact, I was at best only about twenty per cent done with the restoration work. A few months’ rest at that point would have been but a blip on the overall project timeline, and there was no way I was going to lose the motivation attained over eighteen months in a mere two. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was for better or worse a changed man, and would no longer look back on a day spent unproductively without self-loathing. After all, the month I was forced to take off while my ankle healed made me more motivated to get back to work. I had the prudence then to know when to take a break, and the discipline to see it through. It’s too bad these faculties failed me the second time around.

His Master;s VarnishI kept plugging away at that door with increasing grimness, and in time was able to complete the job with the requisite crisp lines. In fact, the stained side looked very nice, matching the tone of the originals quite well. Nellie and Travis were quite impressed. The painted side looked well enough, but with the aforementioned problems with the paint I couldn't quite get it to level as well as I would have liked. In any event, this proved to be the last restoration work I would complete for nearly a year. A particularly virulent strain of flu was going around at the time, and in early December we all came down with it.

A memorable time was had by allThe illness ran its course, and we recovered in time to have a memorable first Farm House Christmas with family and friends, although I was still a bit wobbly. Our new kitchen performed admirably, which was a good thing considering it was nearly the only room in the house that was done.

A few days after New Year’s Day, however, my flu came back with a vengeance, and I was miserable. My head was so full of fluid that I felt, and at times even sounded, like a water cooler. For a week, I had to sleep sitting up. Then, my sinuses began to drain, and I came down with a cough, as often happens to me in such situations. I expected the cough to go away after a day or two, but the condition persisted for over a week, and then started to worsen until my coughing spells became uncontrollable and so violent that the cats began to avoid me. I had been refusing Lydia’s entreaties that I see the doctor for a few weeks, but by this time even I had to admit something was terribly wrong.

Our doctor is a highly competent and principled healer; he is the polar opposite of a Dr. Feelgood. He is extremely reluctant to prescribe medicine unless he is sure it is indicated. This is a commendable quality in a doctor, even though when one is suffering it can be frustrating. This time, however, he prescribed an antibiotic immediately, because after listening to my lungs he was quite sure I had pneumonia. He still prescribed his usual rigorous battery of tests, however, and I did have to plead with him to prescribe a real cough medicine, i. e., one with codeine. He expressed confidence that I would show rapid improvement with the antibiotic alone, but I told him between coughing fits that “rapid” was not nearly fast enough.

Over the next few days, my condition actually worsened. The codeine-enhanced cough medicine had no effect. Lydia smelled a rat, and a close inspection of the antibiotic revealed that the pharmacist had erroneously dispensed half the prescribed dose. This had the perverse effect of invigorating the infection, which is why my condition had worsened. The doctor had me start the course of antibiotic over again, this time at the proper dose, and he also referred me to an ear, nose and throat specialist, because the results of his tests had shown that I indeed had a mild case of pneumonia, but also a severe sinus infection, which was what was causing the intractable cough.

The specialist had the situation quickly in hand, prescribing an inhaled corticosteroid and the strongest cough syrup known to Western medicine, and I was soon on the road to recovery. It turned out to be a long road, however; it took thirty days on antibiotics to flush the infections out of my system, and another thirty days for my system to recover from the effects of all the strong medicines. It was April before I was allowed to go outside again.

While I was under the doctor’s care, Lydia bravely insisted that I do nothing but rest. I was in no condition to argue; between the illness and the medication, I was a cipher for two months. I never left the house unless it was to go to the doctor. Lydia took care of me, Mom and the pets and did all the necessary chores in addition to her job, all with no help.

By the time I got my clean bill of health at the start of April, I found myself in a deep hole. A lot of household chores that Lydia could not do had piled up, and the entire yard was blanketed with tree debris three inches deep. I would have to work for several months at full speed before I could even think of resuming the restoration work.

The UnicougherMoreover, I was far from being at full speed. I may have been over my illness, but I was still quite weak, with frighteningly little stamina. Every joint ached, with the ironic exception of my recently-sprained ankle. I became acutely aware of the immense size of the Farm House and its grounds compared with our little cottage back in Culver City; rolling out the garbage cans down that 150-foot driveway on trash night felt like the Bataan Death March, and the long, steep flight of stairs between the first and second floors was such a chore to navigate that it might as well have been the Montmartre Steps.

On top of all this, the impenetrable fog of my illness had only partly lifted. I found it quite hard to form cogent thoughts, and even when I did I often could not pluck from my disheveled brain the proper words to express them. In short, I was a mess, a handful of brain cells north of a yam.

This was all terribly humiliating. I was at a loss regarding how to justify such a spectacular physical and mental collapse to Lydia, my family and friends over something as mundane as a sinus infection. I couldn’t help but see it as a failure of will on my part, but I figured everyone else saw it as just plain failure.

By a happy irony, my greatly diminished capacity at that point prevented a full comprehension of the situation I was in; otherwise, my will might well have failed. As it was, fortunately, the only thing I had in mind was to make good my commitments: to finish the job I had begun so well, in order that I might salvage something of my self-respect and honor. As my Dad (who was an actual AAU track and field referee, so he tended to talk in such terms) always told me: there’s no shame in finishing the race last, as long as you stick it out to the finish line.

This goal loomed like a dim light way above me, and with a clean bill of health in my hand and a great deal of rest under my belt, I could comprehend no justification for my not climbing up towards that light as quickly as I could manage.

Chapter 3, “Fields Had It Wrong”