From the Breakers to the Breaking Point

It's a long and relatively unimportant explanation of why Chase and I drove 12 hours, overnight, from Dayton to Boston late last October.  So I suppose I'll just start there, in Boston.  Yes, in Boston we were, and while Chase was attending a weekend conference, our Bostonian friends, John and Sabrina, and I set out on a day trip to explore Newport, Rhode Island.

Newport is known for the extraordinary summer "villas" built by the Gilded Age's titans of industry.  We chose to tour the Breakers, the most famous of the 11 mansions-turned-museums that sit perched overlooking the Atlantic.  

As I wandered from the great hall to the library, audio guide pressed to my ear, I was astounded by the level of detail worked into every nook and cranny of the ~125,000 sq. foot estate.  As one might expect of a mansion built in the Gilded Age, gold leaf is pressed into the wood paneling of the library, giving it the appearance of leather bound books.  The adornment doesn't stop at gold.  The wood in the "Morning" room is inlaid with platinum panels, the Vanderbilt family symbol (an acorn) can be found hidden in nearly every mosaic, and French crystal drips from massive chandeliers.

On top of that are the details that you can't see, but once known, change how you look at how life must have been within these walls.  Take for instance the lights in those chandeliers; they're electric, but retrofitted for gas, in case of power failures.  Given that this was 1895 and household electricity was (relatively) new, this give you an idea of the ca-ching behind the construction.  Or how about the  bathtub?  It was carved out of a single slab of marble that needed to be filled & emptied four times in order to warm the marble to the point where it wouldn't chill your bath water.  Life here was certainly one of "conspicuous consumption".

In the Breakers mansion, my imagination went wild. Would I have liked to spend my summers here, to view the rising sun light up the Atlantic while my servants prepared my first outfit (of seven) for the day?   Probably.  But then I wondered...If had a fortune rivaling that of a turn-of-the-century Vanderbilt, what would I build?  What legacy would I leave behind?

I'll admit that I would be really tempted to build something like the Breakers, completed with the same Gilded Age gusto.  In fact, that's been my M.O., especially for work projects.   I spend my time and energy as freely as the nouveau riche spent their fortunes at the turn of the century.  I go "all out".  No expenditure of time is too much, if it means that the result is perfection.  This cycle is exhausting, but I had become accustomed to this exhaustion because it was short-term and followed by a reward that made it all worth it:  knowing that I had created something exceptional.  

This pattern has been the reason for my success until recently, it became the reason for my burn out.  I was given the grand-daddy of all projects at work...it was big, "Breakers" big.  It required a significantly larger investment in my time and energy.  I sacrificed sleep, weekends, canceled plans with friends and family.  When the project was finally (and successfully) completed, I looked at the end result, my "Breakers mansion", and waited for the familiar sense of accomplishment to wash over me.  It never came.

I felt a certain apathy.  Sure, what I had done was beautiful and innovative, just like the Breakers.  However, when I tallied up the expense, on my time, my relationships, my health, I realized that it was too much, that I didn't much care if I ever created a "Breakers" again.   

For this reason, I would spend spend my fortune like I think I want to spend my time from now on.  I'm only investing a fraction to build a cottage with small, simple, sturdy construction that lasts.  As for all of that saved expense--symbolic of all of that extra time, energy, and sanity--I would spend it on experiences that strengthened the relationships in my life.  This, I've decided, this will be MY nouveau riche.  I'm not spending my life filling a bathtub 4 times, who gives a rat's ass if it's marble?