Somebody Else's Ordinary

by EMILY ORTON

Sometimes I feel like I’m in this Netflix series called Drama World.  It’s a spoof on K-drama (i.e. Korean dramas) where the main character keeps waking up in a new show.  The settings and situations are different but the cast is always the same.  In real life, my family is always together, but we keep waking up in different countries and different seasons.  Usually, it’s no big deal, but sometimes it’s trippy. (That’s a travel pun).

In the past couple of years, our family has traveled outside of New York City waaaaay more than any of us anticipated. We’ve been to several different countries on a couple of continents. We’ve lived on a sailboat, in a van, out of tents, and most recently, on a farm.  We’ve visited ancient ruins, museums, and dressed up for an immersive evening of Regency period battles, dinner, and dancing.

When we’re traveling, most of life is still just life.  It’s the stuff we all sort out—eating, cleaning, helping kids with school, work, emails, and finally that blessed moment when we get to sleep.  I’m increasingly convinced that travel is just visiting somebody else’s ordinary.

In another country, somebody else’s ordinary is exotic, sophisticated and culturally expansive.  I feel awake and open. I’m curious. I point out the different colored street signs.  I note the unfamiliar height of the light switches.  I take photos of grocery store foods—like frozen octopus or buffalo mozzarella.  

But it’s just their way of doing things—often the same way they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years. Finns don’t gush to their friends about wool socks and wood-burning saunas. It’s mundane in Finland.  Greeks don’t snap pictures of street signs written in Greek. It’s everyday in Greece. Germans do not swoon over massive pastries in their bakeries. Well, maybe they do.  The point is those pastries are always there.  

This is true for historical people as well. We love seeing somebody else’s ordinary.  Every year hundreds of thousands of tourists hike around the lost city of Pompeii. In Pompeii, we are literally oohing and ahhing over the corner soup shop, wheat grinders, and the road.  

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Seeing what we have in common with other people creates connections.  Seeing how we are different causes contemplation. Why do I do what I do? Is different better or just different? Do I want to make some changes? Is there something I want more or less of in my life? 

This month, travel has me contemplating a new question:  Why is it that when we visit a new nation or engage with a new culture, we’re impressed and curious, but if an individual person in our life does things differently than us, we get annoyed?  

Michael Pollan wrote, “Culture… is a fancy word for your mom.” As the mother of five children, I know that our diversity goes even more granular than family units. Individually, we are all different.

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What if we brought the same curious, accepting approach home to our families that we bring to our travels? What if we brought our openness to work, sports, or politics? Or even, heaven help us, to the Internet?  

Wherever we are, we’re in micro-cultures of other people’s ordinary. They are exotic to us and we are exotic to them. What if we noted our similarities and differences with the same energy and delight as discovering a new city? 

What if we were more patient navigating the unfamiliar terrain? What if we were brave enough to say, I’m lost, will you help me? What if we learned how to speak a few words in their language?

That would be exotic.

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The Pocket Lint Theory & Update from New Zealand

Sunrise view of Dunedin Harbour from the farmhouse

Sunrise view of Dunedin Harbour from the farmhouse

by ERIK ORTON

We’ve had some pretty epic experiences lately as we’ve transitioned from house sitting in Hawaii to farm sitting in New Zealand (pictures below). But the thing that’s been on my mind a lot is pocket lint.

When traveling internationally, little things can matter a lot. Some examples include: having cash in the native currency, having cell/data service, knowing the right word (“togs” = “swimsuit” in NZ).  I suppose it should come as no small surprise that I was really struggling when my phone wouldn’t charge. I rely on it a lot. I use it for maps, finding a grocery store, buying bus tickets, and communicating in real time, just to name a few. So when my phone stopped taking a charge, I was distressed.

At night—if I connected with our best lightening cable and set it ‘just so’ and didn’t touch it all night—it would charge and be ready for the next day. But then I couldn’t count on charging it throughout the day because I couldn’t leave it ‘just so’. I had to be out and about using it. So I would resort to “low energy” mode first thing in the morning. I would switch to Airplane mode while driving.  And I was judicious about turning off Wi-Fi whenever I knew there was no signal. These are all fairly standard energy saving techniques when trying to extend a phone’s battery charge throughout the day. So then what?

My first-world-problem distress was further compounded by the fact that we’re in South Island, New Zealand and—shockingly—there are no Apple stores here. Right?! I knew getting a new charge cable would not solve my problem, because I’d already tried several. And I would have to fly to a different continent to get it serviced. And I didn’t want to pay for a new one. My refurbished iPhone 6S that is two and a half years old should still work, despite “planned obsolescence” (don’t get me started on this last bit). So I went to the internet.  My first few searches came up empty. But then I came across what I’m calling the pocket lint theory.

The Pocket Lint Theory: you keep your phone in your pocket. Over time pocket lint creeps into the charging outlet of your phone. As you plug in your phone to charge, the cord packs the lint into the base of the charge outlet. Enough of this makes it impossible for the charge cord to seat properly and connect with the charging nodes. Everything else with the phone can be working just fine, but a little pocket lint can get between me and a fully charged phone.

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I found a small bladed knife and scraped at the base of my phone charging outlet. I was surprised how much black and grey crud crumbled out on the desk where I was performing this crude surgery. I scraped until I’d fully scratched the itch. Then I warily connected a charger to my phone. Had a just ruined the charging outlet? Was I a victim of another YouTube conspiracy? Was my phone actually more damaged than I thought?

Right away, my phone lit up with a green battery. Whoa! I couldn’t believe it. It worked. I unplugged it and tried it again. It worked again. I went to the car and connected it to the charger in the car. Same success. 

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I’m ashamed to admit the wave of relief that swept over me. I am pathetically reliant on this little device for so much of my connection to the world. That said, I was reminded that, no matter how powerful the device and everything it could access, a little pocket lint could shut the whole thing down. It reminded me to attend to the small things. Keep things clean. If there is crud accumulating in my life, whether it’s a relationship, my work or my health, let alone my technology, a little time to clean it up can make all the difference. Now I can truly enjoy New Zealand! (just kidding)


Here are some highlights from our time in New Zealand thus far:

Playing at the fundraiser book sale event for the Regent Theatre in downtown Dunedin.

Playing at the fundraiser book sale event for the Regent Theatre in downtown Dunedin.

The Regent Theatre, Dunedin.

The Regent Theatre, Dunedin.

Morning light from our room here at the farm.

Morning light from our room here at the farm.

The farmhouse at Tayler Point.

The farmhouse at Tayler Point.

Emily feeding the horses.

Emily feeding the horses.

Walking the sheep’s feeding paddocks.

Walking the sheep’s feeding paddocks.

Emily and I climb this hill each morning and watch the sun come up.

Emily and I climb this hill each morning and watch the sun come up.

Cooking in the kitchen with friends.

Cooking in the kitchen with friends.

Delicious birthday cakes prepared from scratch with love.

Delicious birthday cakes prepared from scratch with love.

Moonrise over the Harbor.

Moonrise over the Harbor.

Bea, Billy and Lily all regard each other.

Bea, Billy and Lily all regard each other.

Feeding nuts to the sheep.

Feeding nuts to the sheep.

Outside our front window tankers make their way in and out of the harbor.

Outside our front window tankers make their way in and out of the harbor.

Paper machét seals in the Midwinter Festival parade.

Paper machét seals in the Midwinter Festival parade.

Icebergs and penguins make their way around the center of Dunedin in the Midwinter parade.

Icebergs and penguins make their way around the center of Dunedin in the Midwinter parade.

Emily watching the fire dancers at the Midwinter Festival.

Emily watching the fire dancers at the Midwinter Festival.

Japanese drummers playing for the fire dancers. Visit  my Instagram feed  to see videos of the fire dancing.

Japanese drummers playing for the fire dancers. Visit my Instagram feed to see videos of the fire dancing.

Fireworks to cap off the evening.

Fireworks to cap off the evening.

Carousels for the kiddies.

Carousels for the kiddies.

Eli about to have hydrogen ignited in his bare hand. Visit  Emily’s feed on Instagram  to see the video.

Eli about to have hydrogen ignited in his bare hand. Visit Emily’s feed on Instagram to see the video.


And in case you missed it, we were thrilled for Seven at Sea to get a shout out in The New York Times. It was listed as the top travel book in the Summer 2019 Book Review.

SJ played it cool when we she saw her picture in the NYTimes.

SJ played it cool when we she saw her picture in the NYTimes.

True Experts

by ERIK ORTON

I’ve learned that I like spending time with people who make me feel like things are possible.  This is especially true for things that feel complicated, intimidating or beyond my reach. 

Last week we went to Maui to see the island but mostly to spend time with new friends. They’d invited us over after a video chat a few weeks prior. They made complicated things sound simple.  

Sunrise view from the highest point on Maui.

Sunrise view from the highest point on Maui.

It was an illuminating experience. Our friends grow their own fruit and vegetables on their modestly sized property. In Hawaii growing things is pretty simple. Stick a seed in the ground and let it grow. They grow bananas, oranges, tangerines, figs, pomelo and various other fruits and vegetables. They run their cars off used vegetable oil they collect from restaurants.  

I saw how our friends collected the vegetable oil, filtered it and then stored it in a large container with a fuel dispenser hose attached. They essentially have their own private gas station in their backyard.  How simple is that?

Gardening the banana trees. Each true produces exactly one bunch of bananas. The tree is cut down to get the bananas. Another tree then grows up in its place.

Gardening the banana trees. Each true produces exactly one bunch of bananas. The tree is cut down to get the bananas. Another tree then grows up in its place.

Apple-bananas from a wild banana tree we chopped down. They do not ship well so are only grown and eaten locally. They are sweet bananas with a slight apple tartness. So delicious!

Apple-bananas from a wild banana tree we chopped down. They do not ship well so are only grown and eaten locally. They are sweet bananas with a slight apple tartness. So delicious!

Backyard gas station.

Backyard gas station.

Vegetable oil ready. The aluminum sleeve is the only engine modification.

Vegetable oil ready. The aluminum sleeve is the only engine modification.

The Hawaiian islands are also filled with wild chickens. Our friends’ younger kids were put in charge of catching the chickens in a simple homemade trap with cheerios for bait. The captured chickens were then kept in a coop until enough were gathered. They were then killed and butchered for eating. They taught us the process for killing the chicken, removing the skin with all its feathers, discarding the intestines and keeping the edible organs. This was all done thoughtfully and carefully. Ultimately we carried the chicken meat to the kitchen where it would be prepared as chicken curry. No Styrofoam and Saran wrap in the freezer section.  For those of us who have ever eaten a chicken sandwich, this is where it comes from: chickens.  Simple.

Chicken thighs.

Chicken thighs.

I’ve realized that people who want me to feel intimidated, overwhelmed or scared are usually “experts.” The complexity, intimidation and anxiety they create justifies their existence. I’m wary of experts. A bad realtor makes home buying complicated. They “earn” their commission by creating confusion and then taking care of it all for you. The bad stock broker makes buying and selling stocks feel incomprehensible. They earn their commissions by explaining how complicated investing is and how they’ll take care of it for you. The bad climbing instructor tells you the summit is impossible without their help.  You will need to hire them if you ever hope to reach the top.

I find the best guides and mentors simplify the process, make you feel capable and put you in the role of protagonist.  People that do that are true guides.  They are mentors.

Our true expert and guide, Matt. The islanders called him “Big Red.” He had red hair and wore that big hat.

Our true expert and guide, Matt. The islanders called him “Big Red.” He had red hair and wore that big hat.

Example 1

When Emily and I went to the Caribbean many years ago for our first big water sailing class, our instructor, Matt said, “Who wants to be at the helm?” There were four of us students living together on the boat for a week. It was our first day. We hadn’t even left the dock yet, and here he was putting one of us at the wheel. He had nothing to prove. He was there to guide us through every step, but from the very beginning he was the guide, not the hero. He was not there to show off how much he knew. 

In contrast, I was recently in New Hampshire with a friend. We’d gone up to the White Mountains and hired a guide to learn how to ice climb.  Our guide went to great pains to make sure we know about all of his climbing accomplishments, all the famous climbers he knew and all the routes he’d established. He wanted to be the hero. He would show us how something was done and then quickly move on to another concept. He hardly let us practice or try. And—frustratingly—we never actually ice climbed. He deemed the conditions not right, despite it being a beautiful day with cold temperatures and clear skies. But what do I know? I’m not the expert.

The rope and double axes we never used.

The rope and double axes we never used.

Example 2:

Last year I wanted to do a big wall climb in Zions National Park. We walked into a climbing store to get some last minute pieces of gear. The owner of the shop began to grill me on details of the route.  Did I have this? Did I have that? If I didn’t have this one piece of gear, I’d never get up the route. My confidence began to falter. After taking a class from him (he’d intimidated me enough to justify his existence as a guide) he laid out a road map of several years that would allow me to some day climb El Capitan. I’m glad I didn’t listen to him.

I contrast this with my friend who has climbed El Capitan over a dozen times. He told me, “You could totally do it. It’s not rocket science. You just have to think clearly, be steady and keep moving up.” The guide in the gear shop spends most of his day selling gear. My friend climbs a big wall a couple times a year. In fact, he just climbed El Capitan again last week.

Me practicing aid climbing just outside Zions National Park

Me practicing aid climbing just outside Zions National Park

Calder’s crew up on El Cap last week. Photo by Matt Galland (I think).

Calder’s crew up on El Cap last week. Photo by Matt Galland (I think).

Why do I want to overcomplicate things?

So when someone starts to explain to me whey something is difficult, I immediately get suspicious. What are they selling? They may be selling a product. Or they might just be selling their own ego. Either way, they want me to buy it.  I know I’m guilty of this. When people ask, “How do you write a musical?” I’m tempted to delve into the frustrating years of blood, sweat and tears the process requires. But I could say, “You can do it. You just have to be steady and write songs and a story that have a beginning, middle and end.” That’s all it is. Why do I want to overcomplicate things?

I love being around people who are capable and competent and would rather set me up for success than set themselves on a pedestal.  I trust people when they say, “Oh, you can do that,” especially when they’ve done it themselves.  They often then go on to explain simply and clearly how it’s done. The rest of the noise and complication is either an expert trying to validate their expertness or myself trying to justify why I can’t or shouldn’t start.

On Maui we stayed in a house that was beautiful and basic. The walls were single layer wood. There was no air conditioning. The doors and windows opened to allow the trade winds to blow through and keep it cool. The stove and hot water ran off a propane canister. The water heater was mounted to the outside wall and clicked on when hot water was called for. The electrical wiring was simple and straightforward. The whole house had four breakers.  It had a tin roof and ceiling fans. It felt like a house that didn’t require an expert. 

Single wall construction: tongue and groove walls with cedar strips covering the seams, and a tin roof.

Single wall construction: tongue and groove walls with cedar strips covering the seams, and a tin roof.

No insulation and lots of natural light.

No insulation and lots of natural light.

The electrical connection.

The electrical connection.

I worry that I’m forgetting my to trust my own capabilities.

When I was young, my dad taught me how to change the car oil, replace brake pads and I even helped him replace the engine in our big Dodge van. I did all the maintenance on the old VW Rabbit I’d bought with my own money. My dad designed our second story kitchen extension and three layer deck. I helped him build both. We planted our own trees, put up our own fences, repainted the house and even grew a small garden. This was in the suburbs of Washington D.C. After twenty years in NYC I’ve gone a little soft. I don’t even wash my own car. Someone else changes the oil and we call the super when something breaks. Not good.

This past weekend I was pleasantly reminded that we are smart and capable. We can figure things out. We can grow our own food. We can prepare our own poultry. We can build our own homes. We can find our own fuel. Experts can be helpful, but they have their place. I most trust experts who instill me with confidence and who clearly and simply convey their knowledge and wisdom. If they can’t convey it simply and clearly, I don’t trust they really know what they’re talking about. A true expert can distill something to its essence so it can be shared.

So where does all this lead us?

One of the things our friends explained was how they lived in New Zealand twice.  It wasn’t complicated. You just had to do this, this and this. We’re not planning to move to New Zealand, but we are going there to visit. We’ve been wanting to go for years. And we’ve had plenty of excuses in our heads. We were making it complicated. We now have airfare, a house sitting gig and we’re figuring out the rest. So far, things are shaping up nicely.  We’ll be sure to keep you posted on how it all goes.

In Maui we spent time with true experts. I want to fill my life with true experts and mentors and see where it leads us. And I want to be an expert and mentor for others.

Mother’s Day in Maui.

Mother’s Day in Maui.

Looking down into the central valley of Maui.

Looking down into the central valley of Maui.

 

Is Fun for the Whole Family Even Possible?

Is Fun for the Whole Family Even Possible?

by EMILY ORTON

I held our first baby for the first time knowing nothing about her except that she was ours, she had soft brown hair, and she was healthy.  Then the nurses whisked her away for a bath. Erik sat at my bedside, elbows resting on his knees, hands together.  He looked me in the eyes. 

“You want to follow her and see her first bath?” I said.  

“What if she doesn’t like any of the things that we like?” He asked.  

“We’ll love her anyway,” I said.

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You Can Do That?!

You Can Do That?!

by ERIK ORTON

I love it when I meet someone who challenges my assumptions.  

A friend of mine invented the computer code that makes online stock trading possible.  He thought broker-based trading was unfair so he did something about it.  You can do that?!   

A friend of mine bought a vintage barn and moved it across town to his backyard so he could cover his fixer upper sailboat (which he’d trucked 740 miles inland from San Diego to where he lived) while he refurbished the sailboat.   You can do that!?

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Death and Taxes - Unexpected Insights this Tax Season

Death and Taxes - Unexpected Insights this Tax Season

by EMILY ORTON

Taxes have generated grief for millennia.  Jesus was born in a stable instead of at home with friends and family to help out because of tax season.   In a 1789 letter, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” 

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Free Tickets to Hawaii

Free Tickets to Hawaii

If you got an all expenses paid trip to Hawaii and you had to leave tomorrow morning, could you be ready?

What would you have to put in order, postpone or prepare?  What would you have to give up?  This is a question Zig Ziglar (similar story here in his own words) asks in his book, See You at the Top.  My parents played his cassette tape over and over again on our cross-country trips from our home on the east coast to our relatives in the Rocky Mountains.  It was Zig or a 1950’s mix tape we picked up at a gas station.  Ear buds were not an option for us in the 1980s, so we listened. 

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My Birthday in Hollywood

My Birthday in Hollywood

Earlier this week was my birthday and that always makes me contemplative.  I turned forty-five.  I like to think I’m not even half way through my life.  I hope to live to 100.  We’ll see how that goes.  But when I think about my life that way, it’s astonishing to me that—even though Emily and I are well on our way to having raised our kids and started launching them into the world—most of my life is still ahead of me.

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