Well Mom, remember my dream of owning a big house on a hill and how I used to wish for a living room with a plaster lion in it from Mexico and how I always wanted a large twenty four seat dining table in a dining room with original oil paintings by Michelangelo and Rembrandt and remember how I always wanted a rotating bed with pink chiffon and zebra stripes and remember how I used to chit chat with Dad about always wanting a bathtub shaped like a clam and an office with orange and white stripes and remember how much I wanted an all-red billiard room with a giant stuffed camel and how I wanted a disco room with my own disco dancers and a party room with fancy friends and remember how much I wanted a big backyard with Grecian statues, s-shaped hedges and three swimming pools?

Well, I got that too.

Navin R. Johnson (Played by Steve Martin)
The Jerk

Note: I'm just finishing this post from our Leeds house-sit, so it's a bit out of sequence. 

One of the delightful things about visiting England is discovering how much of the English language you've never heard before, if you speak American. 

Yorkshire has its own distinct dialect with some unique words. It's kind of like how there are some remote parts in America where people say "very good" instead of the more formal "wicked pissah."

My two favorite new Yorkshire words are "snickets" and "ginnels" (with a hard "g.") These describe the network of public footpaths interlaced across the United Kingdom. You could walk across the country in any direction along these footpaths.  

In rough terms, a snicket is a pathway across open land, and a ginnel is a walkway between buildings or walled properties, although it takes a Yorkshireman to properly distinguish one from the other. 


Our daily walks with the dog we're watching take us up snickets and down ginnels through a dark wooded neighborhood of walled estates. At points, the trees open onto panoramic vistas of pasturelands and towns in the river valley below, with the purple heather hillsides of a distant moor on the horizon.

The neighborhood was built in the Victorian era as a suburban development of the nearby city of Bradford. The estates were purchased by business owners from the city made wealthy as the beneficiaries of the Industrial Revolution. As manufacturing cities became more crowded and polluted, and expanded transit systems made commuting more feasible, the ideal of a picturesque country estate away from the city became increasingly desirable and attainable to those who could afford it. 

Masonry walls of buff sandstone and millstone grit, now darkened with moss and age, were built to enclose these generous estates and secure and conceal them from the private roads leading to them. 

But the snickets and ginnels, many of which legally predated the residential developments, cut through them all. 

As we pass in our walks from snicket to ginnel, we get voyeuristic glimpses over stone walls and wrought iron gates to stone towers capped with sculptural chimneys, slate roofed gables, carved plinths of stone framing window openings, or sometimes just a manicured drive up to some unseen house on the hill above. 

There's an air of mystery and exclusivity to these sylvan retreats. This is not conspicuous consumption, these are private places for the refuge and enjoyment of those inside. 

It's hard not to try to imagine what lies just beyond our limited vision. S-shaped hedges... Grecian statues... a bathtub shaped like a clam... an all-red billiard room with a giant stuffed camel...

And then to imagine, who are the people who have lived in these estates, and what have they done to afford this life of luxury? 

Of course, I know nothing about what these places actually look like or who these people are. All I've seen are glimpses from the ginnels. I'm projecting my own preconceptions of what a luxurious life might be.

Which provokes the question: What does a life of luxury mean to me? What would I have to do to afford such luxury? Is this what I'm supposed to want, and to work for?

Seeing how much there is to be had makes me wonder how much of it I want, and at what cost. 

I've heard it said that people don't want money, they want what money buys. Our work is a means to an end. We have things that we want, and that motivates us to work to earn the money to buy them. 

But maybe it's the other way around. A life of luxury is not the motivation for a life of work. Maybe we're all working just to work, not to get what we want, because we don't know what we want and we don't know what else to do with ourselves other than work. The less we know what we want, the more we fill our lives with work. 

All of this work has to be for something. It has to be. So we create a "something" to work for. Perhaps the things we buy are the post-rationalization for all of the work we've done, rather than the realization of any preconceived desires. 

We don't work to get what we want, we want what we get because we've worked so much and need something to show for it. 

Did I say two swimming pools? Better make it three. 

The reward for a life of hard work. Or more precisely, the reward for 2,947 lives of hard work by slaves on your West Indies sugar plantations.

Even when we've arrived at the life of luxury we think we want, there's always a bigger house on a higher hill. 

Another delightful thing about visiting England is that wherever you go, there's some grand estate nearby open to the public as a museum (yes, like Downton Abbey).

Not far from the neighborhood where we're staying is Harewood House, the home of Princess Mary in the 1930's (great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, aunt of the current Queen Elizabeth, and sister of the King's Speech guy, I think). 

The scale of the building is impressive, the detail exquisite, the views breathtaking. There are S-shaped hedges. There are Grecian statues. There are original Italian Renaissance oil paintings in the dining room. There is an all-red billiard room with a giant stuffed camel (we didn't actually see that, but they must have had one).

Just as I can imagine a life of luxury in the more modest estates surrounding our snickets and ginnels, I wonder if the owners of those properties think of their lives as common and look to palaces like Harewood House as some ultimate ideal of a luxurious life?

For me, witnessing this pinnacle of luxury does not inspire a desire for a life of luxury. The lesson here is not that there is so more to be desired, but rather that there is such a thing as excess. One man's luxury is another man's absurdity. 

When I think of a life of luxury, I think of how I want to spend my time, not how I want to spend my money. Traveling the world, being with my family, and waking up to decide how I want to spend my day is luxury to me, and I'm living it right now. If only I could decide when I get to wake up. 

It's easy for me to be self-righteous about not working and living meagerly while Erin is working to support us, and all of our stuff is waiting safely in storage for us when we return from our travels next year. 

But that's the point of this year of travel. It's a ginnel through the walls of our own lives, from which we can peer in to question and criticize what we've been doing, why, and what we really want. 

If we can live a life of luxury out of a suitcase, then why would we want to burden ourselves with anything else?

Well, maybe just one giant stuffed camel. And that's all I need. 

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