A Game-Changer

Spring has finally arrived today and despite today’s annoying snowfall, the crocuses are blooming. It’s now time to plan out my summer renovation activities. And the key word in my planning is “prioritization”. There’s lots to do. My current list includes: 1) finish scraping, repairing and painting the wood clapboards on the Mason Lodge, 2) install new gutters on both the Mason Lodge and the Servant House, 3) install a bulkhead door on the exterior entrance to the Mason Lodge basement so that I can move storage from the Lodge itself into the Lodge basement, 4) repair the roof and siding of the old shed located at the rear of the property, 5) shore up the workshop to keep it from collapsing, thereby buying time for my Summer 2016 project of renovating the workshop, 6) prune and remove trees that have overgrown the yard behind the Servant House, 7) continue removing poison ivy, and lastly 8) plant a vegetable garden.

Whew! That is a long list and it is going to make for a busy summer.

I’m sure that friends and family are wondering by now whether I’ve completely lost my marbles. Why would I, at age 55, be putting myself through such hardship and expense? Shouldn’t I be spending my spare time instead planning a cruise vacation or perhaps even a trip to Europe? Shouldn’t I be investing my excess cash in stocks for my future retirement rather than wasting it on an old house. These are good questions, to be sure, and I’m going to do my best to address them.

Let me begin by describing myself.  My immediate family members and professional colleagues will acknowledge that I am an hard worker and, until a few years ago, a workaholic. It was not uncommon for me to put anywhere between ten to twelve hours per day in the office, only to then undergo a long 1-1/2 hour commute home. Because I would arrive home so late, I rarely ate dinner with my family. And when I got home my dinner was always cold. After I would arrive home in the evening, I could still be found with Blackberry in hand answering work-related emails. The weekends were not any different. Never an email went unanswered. On vacations, instead of paying undivided attention to my family, I would often be distracted by phone calls with colleagues and clients. I recall standing on line at Disney World with my children and passing the time with the telephone pressed to my ear coordinating project work and solving staffing problems. I would justify all this by telling my very dear and patient wife that such behavior was necessary if a professional consultant like myself was to survive in the highly competitive field of environmental consulting.

It’s not that I was a bad father or husband. I did all the things that good father’s did. I attended most (but not all) of my children’s school and sporting events. I went on Boy Scout camping trips with by sons. I was a soccer coach for my daughter’s soccer team. And I can proudly say that all of my children grew up to be good, honest and caring adults. All excelled in school. My sons both have very good professional careers. One is a lawyer who received his law degree from Harvard Law School. Another is Penn State graduate who has a very good career in cybersecurity consulting. My daughter, who is still in college, has started on a path toward a PhD in bioarcheology and has traveled abroad to excavate 7,000 year old tombs. None of my children ever got into trouble or toyed with drugs. My wife and I did well in raising our brood. Nonetheless, my attentiveness to my family was often only part time. Much of my time was reserved for work. I could have done better.

Then Christmas Day, in the year 2011, came along. It was an enjoyable Christmas and all my children were in town to celebrate it with us. My sons had also brought along their wonderful girlfriends. We opened gifts. We ate. We played cards. We joked around. We ate some more. Then, toward evening an upper back pain that I had through the holiday had worsened. Later that night the pain increased to the point where I could not sleep. I began to suspect that something was wrong. I woke my wife up around 3 AM, and she in turn woke my younger son. As we discussed (actually, it was more like negotiating) whether I was going to go to the hospital, a shooting pain shot down my arms while simultaneously my chest felt as if it had a vice pressing down on it. With that, the decision was made to go to the hospital.

Before I even walked through the emergency room door, however, the pain had stopped. Now I was embarrassed. Here I was entering the hospital with no symptoms that I could complain about. Yet, the hospital staff moved me immediately into the treatment area ahead of the other patients sitting in the waiting room based on my description of the pain from the night before. There they injected me with medication and began taking blood samples and running tests. By daylight, tests were still being conducted and blood was still being drawn but there were also long periods of just sitting around and waiting for test results. Rather than waste this time, I turned to work. After all, I was no longer feeling any pain and it was December 26th, which was a work day. I also had my Blackberry. So, while sitting in my hospital gown with wires hanging off me, and believing that I had experienced a false alarm, I checked my emails and made phone calls. That morning, while sitting in the hospital emergency room, I hired a new entry level geologist. I called him and we went through the usual greetings. When it was my turn to answer how I was doing, I responded with a “doing fine, thanks”, not revealing that I was sitting in a hospital emergency room. After the greeting, I offered him the job and we discussed the hiring terms and his starting date.  I also reached one of my clients at his home. Aware that my hospital stay would potentially cause me to miss a mediation hearing that I was to participate in the following day, I called to see if we could reschedule it. When it became apparent that we couldn’t reschedule it, I got back on the phone and texted and called several colleagues in order to find a replacement.

It didn’t fully understand the seriousness of my condition was until the hospital’s cardiologist came into the room later that morning and told me that a helicopter was on the helipad on standby in case I needed to be airlifted to a sister hospital that was equipped with a more advanced cardiac unit for heart surgery. He then informed me that the test results had confirmed that I had had a heart attack. This news hit me like a ton of bricks. I was only 51 and still believed that I was invincible.  And I could recall no member of my family ever having a heart attack at such a young age. Rather, it was more typical to find family members living into their 90s. Was I going to be the anomaly in my family and die young after spending years working like a dog?  Still shock from the news, I resolved that I was not going to be that person. The heart attack would be a game-changer.

Fortunately, I didn’t need that helicopter ride. One day after being diagnosed as having had a heart attack, however, I was transported to the sister hospital by ambulance for surgery. I ended up having a stent inserted to open an artery that was 99 percent blocked. I was lucky in that the blockage only affected the circumflex artery and did not occur in the artery commonly referred to as the widowmaker.  If it had, there is a very good chance that I could have died.

In the ensuing months, as I worked through my cardiac rehab, I accepted the fact that, for the sake of my wife, my children and myself, I needed live a healthier and less stressful life. Thus, two years later, when my wife suggested that we leave the wilderness of Sussex County, New Jersey and move to the Philadelphia area to be closer to my sons, I readily agreed. By then I had already lost 20 pounds and was exercising regularly. In addition, I was limiting my time at work to 8 hours every day and, when I was home, setting my Blackberry aside and ignoring all emails from work until I was back in the office the following morning. The next obvious step then was to move so that I could spend more quality time with my family. In the interim, I had grown closer to my daughter, who still lived at home. She had become my hiking partner. To remain in shape, we went on a number of hikes together. These were special times, walking in quiet and peaceful settings talking about everything from my health to her future aspirations. Last summer my daughter and I traveled to the Rocky Mountain states where we spent two weeks hiking through 15 National and Tribal Parks and Monuments. It was a wonderful time and not once did I allow my work intrude into our trip. Next summer I will be flying with my daughter to London where she is presenting a paper on the scientific research that she conducted in Oman. While there, we plan on traveling to various parts of England by train. High on my daughter’s list of places to visit is the home of Charles Darwin. Its turns out that my daughter is as much of a scientific nerd as I am.

Christmas at the Neebor Lee house in December 2013, two years after my heart attack. The Neeber Lee brought me physically closer to my children while providing me with a long-term hobby.

And then there is the Neebor Lee house. How, you may ask, does working on an old 230-year old house fit into all of this. Here’s how: whereas most people would find working on an old house to be very stressful, I don’t. To be clear, my wife and I once owned a 100-year old house that required quite a bit of renovation that I did find very stressful. We ended up gutting almost every room, one at a time, and found that living in dust with three young children over a period of several years is just not enjoyable. However, unlike that former home, I went into the purchase of the Neebor Lee not viewing it as a fixer-upper. Rather, I went into the purchase looking at the needed renovations as a long-term hobby that would, now that my children are out of the house pursuing their own lives, occupy my down time and keep me active. Because the renovations of the Neebor Lee involve primarily the outbuildings, I’m not beholden to a schedule. If it takes me 20 years to complete the renovations, or if I never complete the renovations, I’m okay with that. In addition, I find the planning and implementation of the renovations as a way to challenge to my mind and creativity, and a means of funneling my workaholic tendencies in a more personally useful way. Finally, I truly enjoy the history of the house. I enjoy researching that history, learning about the interesting people who used to live here, and preserving that history through both the writing of this blog and the implementation of the renovations.

I take comfort in knowing that after I’m gone, which I hope will be a very long time from now, the Neebor Lee will still be standing, with its history and structures better preserved for future owners. Perhaps a future blogger will write about me in a historical context, identifying me as the former owner who rescued the Servant House and Mason Lodge from deterioration. Wouldn’t that be cool.



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