30 Years to Finland

by ERIK ORTON

It’s been 30 years since I’ve been to Finland.  My mother is Finnish.  She moved to NYC at age seventeen to be a nanny.  A few years later she met my dad and they got married.  I’m half Finnish.  I used to spend summers in Finland as a kid.  My last summer there I was fourteen.  My mom worried I would be bored spending all day in my grandmothers two-bedroom/one bath apartment, so she signed me up for a cycling race.  I was big into cycling at the time.

 Me with my great-grandfather, Pappa.  No wonder I think accordions are cool, and Madonna.

Me with my great-grandfather, Pappa.  No wonder I think accordions are cool, and Madonna.

I was too young for my driver’s license, but I was desperate for independence, so I would cycle all over Northern Virginia to do what I wanted and see my friends. I had the fingerless gloves, black shorts, clip-on shoes and everything. But I rode relatively short distances 10-25 miles.  For my flight to Finland, I packed my bicycle into a big box planning to ride when I got there.  When I arrived, my mother informed me I was registered for the rather grandly named Tur de Finlandia, not to be confused with the Tour de France.  The Tur de Finlandia was 180km/120 miles and it was to be held in two weeks.   That didn’t leave me much time to train.  

My quick-on-my-feet training strategy was to have my mother drive me out of town and drop me off.  I would then ride home.  I did this every other day for two weeks, extending my distance until my last day I rode 150km/100 miles from Lahti—where my grandmother lived—to Helsinki where they had Pizza Hut.  The plan was for my mother to pick me up in Helsinki and go to Pizza Hut to celebrate. I was desperate for American pizza.   Unfortunately, my mother never showed up.  

It started to rain; pouring rain.  As I waited alongside the highway, with only my biker shorts, short-sleeve biker shirt, no food and only a little water, I started to shiver.  It was pre-cell phone/internet, I didn’t speak the language and back then most Finns didn’t speak English as a second language.  I didn’t know what else to do, so I got on my bike and started to ride home.  Long story short, after an hour of riding in the pounding rain, I saw my mother speed past in the opposite direction.  She kept going.  But then I saw break lights.  She almost didn’t see me because the rain was so heavy.  She hung a u-turn, pulled over, wrapped me in a blanket and gave me a big hug.  She’d been looking for me for hours. We later realized there were two highways, the old highway and the new freeway.  She had originally driven the freeway. I had ridden the old highway.  Two days later I raced in the Tour de Finlandia.  Riding alone, without a team, the older bikers called me the "Américan poika," American boy.  They spoke to me in broken English, smiled at me and encouraged me as I set a new distance record for myself and completed the race as the youngest registered rider.

 In my riding bib after the Tur de Finlandia.

In my riding bib after the Tur de Finlandia.

 Getting driven home after the race in the same car with which my mother picked me up in the rain.

Getting driven home after the race in the same car with which my mother picked me up in the rain.

That experience did a lot to shape how I saw myself, my family and the world.  I knew I could do hard things.  I knew the world could be merciless; the sky could crack open and pour down on me.  But there was also so much generosity; complete strangers took me under their wing and helped me. And I knew my mother loved me and would always look for me to bring me safely home.  That was 30 years ago.  I haven’t been back since.

I've since gotten married, Emily and I had five kids and over the years we’ve sent our older daughters to Finland so they could meet my grandmother, my uncles and see the “mother land.”  This past summer my grandmother passed away at age ninety-three.  She was happy and healthy to the end.  My mother and Karina went to the funeral.  Now the rest of us are going.  I have the key to my grandmother’s apartment sitting here on my desk.  We have one-way tickets to Helsinki.  I told this to my friend, Casey, and he said, “Sounds like the beginning of a movie.” Grandmother passes away, haven’t been there in 30 years, you have the apartment key, one-way tickets.  I wouldn’t disagree with him.  For me, the question I love is, what kind of movie will it be?  

Don Miller, a favorite author of mine, opens one of his books with this:

“If you watched a movie about a guy who wanted a Volvo and worked for years to get it, you wouldn’t cry at the end when he drove off the lot, testing the windshield wipers. You wouldn’t tell your friends you saw a beautiful movie or go home and put a record on to think about the story you’d seen. The truth is, you wouldn't remember that movie a week later, except you’d feel robbed and want your money back. Nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who wants a Volvo.

But we spend years actually living those stories, and expect our lives to be meaningful. The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won't make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either”

If it won’t make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either.  I’m going back to Finland after a long time. We’ll be gone for all of fall and most of winter.  I’m not sure what story will unfold while we’re away, but I look forward to trying to write my best story.  

 Alison and SJ visiting my grandmother in Finland.

Alison and SJ visiting my grandmother in Finland.

 The old highway from Lahti to Helsinki.

The old highway from Lahti to Helsinki.

Meet Our Mentors

Meet Our Mentors

A few weeks ago I wrote about drinking the Kool-Aid and how we can leverage our natural inclination to conform by deliberately choosing who we want to follow and then giving them lots of space in our brains. That’s what we did with Totem.
 
In early 2014 our family of seven moved out of our small Manhattan apartment into an even smaller boat where we lived for most of that year.  We did lots of two-steps forward one-step back preparations.  We’ll tell more in our upcoming memoir available March 2019. Nothing beats just starting, but one of the most important steps for facing our fears was finding mentors.

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Wendy and the Surface

by ERIK ORTON

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My favorite part of the class was to lay on the ocean floor and stare up at the surface.  The light shimmered across it, the same way the water sparkled from above, but with a muted, quiet kind of beauty.  I was taking a scuba certification class and I was swimming along thirty feet below the ocean’s surface for the first time in my life.  My body drifted with the surge in unison with the school of yellow fish.  I looked a sea turtle in the eye as it swam toward me.  We stayed below for the better part of an hour.  I was in another world.

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This week my friend, Wendy, passed away.  She was young.  My age : ) She has an amazing husband, David, and a daughter the same age as our Lily.  She’d been battling a brain tumor for five years.  She was a sweet, kind, beautiful person.  She loved our girls and had them over often.  Her family would come to our home and we would play music and sing together.  Even when going through chemo treatments should would send us kind notes and make encouraging comments online as we went about our lives. 

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As I lay there on the ocean floor looking up I couldn’t help but think about how this world and that world are so close.  I don’t know the physical location we go to once we die.  I know our body stays here, but I believe our spirit lives on, and it goes somewhere.  I believe it goes somewhere close, on the other side of the surface.  We are the ones who are below water. We are breathing from tanks and the bubbles from our lungs always float up.

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It’s a beautiful and inspiring place below the surface, but it’s not our natural home.  Our natural home is above the surface, breathing air from the sky, green leaves rustling in the wind, the sun on our skin.  I believe that’s where Wendy is right now.  She’s above the surface, watching, smiling and waiting while we swim for the better part of an hour.  We’ll all surface eventually.  The tank only holds so much air.  And then we’ll all be there together.  I miss you, Wendy.

Say that I'm crazy or call me a fool
But last night it seemed that I dreamed about you
When I opened my mouth what came out was a song
And you knew every word and we all sang along

To a melody played on the strings of our souls
And a rhythm that rattled us down to the bone
Our love for each other will live on forever
In every beat of my proud corazón

We watched Pixar's Coco this week.  What a beautiful story about family, death and love. If you haven't seen it, check it out (song audio below). Above are some of my favorite lyrics from the show. Something tells me Wendy likes this song too.

Connecting the Dots

El Capitan is 3,000 feet tall, the largest single monolith of granite on the planet.  Climbers come from around the world to attempt an ascent.  It rises straight up from the Yosemite Valley Floor and dominates everything else.  The most prominent line runs straight up what’s called The Nose, the corner where the East and West walls meet.  This is what I wanted to climb. 

A year and a half ago, November 2016, I walked up to the base of El Cap for the first time and set my hand against the granite.  My daughter, Alison, took this picture and I made it my profile pic.  Babysteps. 

 Meeting the Captain for the first time.

Meeting the Captain for the first time.

Fall 2017, I did my first big wall climb in Yosemite, Leaning Tower.  It was a break through for me: 11 pitches.  The Nose would be 31 pitches.  A week later, I tried The Nose, but  weather, speed and injuries forced us to bail.  Some other time.

 Our first bivy on Leaning Tower.  A good start.

Our first bivy on Leaning Tower.  A good start.

 We spent our second bivy in the portaledge.  Super comfy.

We spent our second bivy in the portaledge.  Super comfy.

Six months later, April 2018, I came back.  It was part of a plot twist as my family and I made our way to Hawaii.  Floods kept us out of the park and forced all the climbers to leave.  Once the floods subsided, we returned and I found two potential climbing partners.  The first one was game to do the Nose, but within 24 hours, changed his mind.  He wanted to practice more on something smaller.  The other guy was stoked, but our calendars didn’t line up.  We’d decided to do a cool but less ambitious climb in another part of the Valley, but even that got washed out by weather. 

 My note posted on the board at Camp 4.

My note posted on the board at Camp 4.

It was raining a lot—it was spring after all.  Not ideal climbing conditions.  My family didn’t have campsite reservations past the rainy days.  We were on our way to pick up Alison from the Fresno airport when I turned to Emily and said, “I think I just need to give up my big wall ambitions for this trip.  We gave it a good try.  Things just aren’t working out.”  We’d made good decisions along the way, but things just weren’t lining up in our favor.  I proposed we pick up Alison, finish out our camping reservations, head to the coast and drive Route 1/Big Sur until it was time for our flights to Hawaii.  Emily thought that was a good plan.

We were in Fresno, waiting for our daughter’s flight, when the text came in.  “Hi Erik, are you still around? Saw your note about climbing. I might be up for the Nose...Josh”  That was Sunday afternoon. 

Tuesday morning Josh and I met to climb something small.  A get-to-know-you climb.  While leading the third pitch, I got into a spot that was wet and directly over a ledge.  "I'm slipping," I called down to him.  I was roped in, but worried I was going to fall and hit the ledge on my way down.  "Just keep breathing," he called back up.  It was good advice.  I kept breathing, calmed down and pulled through the moves and got to safer ground.  I liked this guy.

 The maroon dots mark the belay stations (end of the pitch).

The maroon dots mark the belay stations (end of the pitch).

 Connecting the dots:  The Nose is 31 pitches, ending at the pine tree on top.

Connecting the dots:  The Nose is 31 pitches, ending at the pine tree on top.

That afternoon--once I'd plied him with brownies--we decided to go for The Nose.  We sorted gear that evening, packed our food and water the next morning and ferried our first loads up to Sickle Ledge (~500’ up) that afternoon.  It was Wednesday.  We sat out some rain on Thursday, but Friday at 4am we were up and at it.  We had a ton of fun.  The pace was steady and we worked hard, but we laughed a lot.  It was nice to climb with someone who knew how to enjoy the climb and not just grind.  The first day we climbed 10 pitches above Sickle Ledge and made it to El Cap Tower in time to enjoy the evening, heat up some soup and watch the sunset.  The next day we climbed Texas Flake, The Boot Flake, Josh did the King Swing, and we pushed on through the night up to Camp V where we slept on scattered ledges.  The last day I led The Great Roof, a pitch called Changing Corners and then Josh led us through the last large overhang, and from there I led the easy face climbing to the top. We climbed for three days and two nights, stuck to our plan and topped out with enough daylight to eat our leftover food and walk down in the dark. This was his eleventh ascent of El Cap.  It was my first. 

As Steve Jobs says, “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” 

As I look back, I see how little things add up.  I first went to El Cap just to see it and touch it.  I made it real to me.  Then I came back with my family and climbed a big wall.  An important baby step.  Then I tried the Nose but failed.  But I learned how to start.  Then I came back and succeeded.  I was in the right place at the right time to climb with the great partner with great weather.  Looking back, the dots connected.  

Day 0 - Hauling Loads and Fixing Lines to Sickle Ledge

Day 1 - Sickle Ledge to El Cap Tower

Day 2 - Texas Flake to Camp V

Day 3 - Camp V to the Summit

Your Perfect Day

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Yesterday I turned 44.  Birthdays make me philosophical.  So I’d like to speak briefly about time, my perfect day and taxes. 

Taxes are not part of my perfect day.  That’s what I did the day before my birthday.  It put me in a funk.  Maybe it doesn’t have the same effect on you, but it did a number on me.  However, my birthday pulled me out of it, and I’ll tell you why. My birthday reminded of one of my personal mantras:  the longer I live, the faster time moves.

I know my life is only accelerating.  My next 44 years will feel like a fraction of my first 44 years.  If there are things I want to do, I don’t have time to waste.  I gotta get on it.  No time to sulk over taxes.  And I’m pleased to report that my birthday was a perfect day.  The nice thing was that I didn’t do anything different than what I would do on a normal day, and I liked that.  Here’s the rundown:

  • Got up with the sun
  • Went for a walk with Emily in the park (the same walk we do every day)
  • Worked out, got ready for the day (the same routine I do everyday)
  • Breakfast:  bran flakes and raisins with whole milk (my usual.  I love it.)
  • Sat at my desk and mapped out my work time:
    • Worked on book project #1
    • Worked on book project #2
  • Lunch (leftovers, my favorite)
  • Sent texts, emails and responded to messages as needed.
  • Worked on the online financial class we're creating:  Video chat with some dear friends who are beta testing it.  They sang happy birthday to me in Polish (not usual).  They live in Warsaw right now.
  • It was climbing day, so I drove up to the climbing gym with my buddy Rob and my daughter, SJ (as usual)  I climbed okay, but nothing special.  I was pushing myself, but just a little bit.  Jane had some breakthroughs.  I was really proud of her.
  • Drove home (as usual)
  • Visited with someone I’m going to serve with at church.  Invited him to stay for dinner. 
  • Had dinner, birthday cake, ice cream.  No gifts, no decorations.  Just the way I like it. 
  • We played my favorite board game:  Cashflow.  I’m a nerd.
  • Did our regular bedtime routine with the kids.
  • In bed by midnight.

I loved this day.  I recognize that it may not be your perfect.  And that’s okay.  That’s actually kind of the point.  I learned something yesterday: it’s important to know what you want, which may be different from what you think you’re supposed to want. 

Often times we’re tricked into thinking what other people want is what we should want.  If everyone wants to own a home, I should too.  If everyone wants to ski over winter break, I should too.  If everyone wants to sail the world, I should too.   Not so.

As we video chatted with our friends about this class, I said, “We don’t have to accept other people’s Instagram dream as our own.”  They said, “You should say that.  Write a blog post about that!”  So here we are.  Everyone needs to know what they like and what they want.

I’m so inspired by Warren Buffet, because I think he’s a classic example of this.  He’s one of the richest men on the planet, but he knows what he likes.  He likes his simple home in Omaha that he bought in 1958, so he still lives there.  In a shareholder meeting, he said, "My life couldn't be happier.  In fact, it'd be worse if I had six or eight houses.  I have everything I need to have, and I don't need any more."  I once read his favorite meal was a Chuck-a-Rama steak and a Cherry Coke.  His current favorites now include rootbeer floats, McDonalds breakfast food, and more steak.  The point is, he knows what he likes. 

I like to sit quietly at my desk, looking out the window at the park, figuring out my thoughts and writing them out.  I also like road trips.  We’re hitting the road again on Monday.  We’ll be gone a couple months.  In fact, if all goes to plan, this year will be a string of trips where we go far but we go slow.  I don’t like fast travel.  The slower and simpler, the better.

I know that if I’d never figured out what I wanted, I never would have gotten it.  If I didn’t discern what I actually enjoyed and liked, I very easily could have run the risk of pursuing what someone else liked or wanted.  And if I got it, I wouldn’t have been happy, because I would have achieved someone else’s dream.  Lame.

Some people think we do cool stuff, and that’s okay.  They say nice things and it makes us feel good.  I’m glad that sometimes we can inspire and encourage people.  But what I don't hope is that people read what we share and say, “I want to do that too.”  Rather, I hope they think, “If the Orton’s figured out how to do what they want, I’ll bet I can figure out how to do what I want.”  It may be the same thing as us--and that'd be cool--but it may not be the same thing.  I don’t want to open a yoga studio, but our friends did.  I’m so happy for them.  I don’t want to be an organic farmer, but my friend does.  I hope she makes it happen.  My dad loves to work with wood.  I do too, but it’s not my top priority.

As I sit here looking out the window, watching the latest blizzard and the kids sledding on the hill across the street, I’m grateful.  I’m grateful I’ve found my own version of the basic steak and Cherry Coke life. 

We’re going to some places I’m excited about, and we’re going to do some things I’m eager to learn.  But mostly importantly, I hope I can be honest with myself and make sure I’m clear about whether I like it, or whether I hope other people like it.  Because only one matters.

What is your perfect day?  Is it truly your own or borrowed from others?  If we can figure out what we really value and live our lives that way, each day will be a perfect day.  And a whole bunch of days like that can add up to a pretty amazing life.  And each life can be completely unique.  Whatever it is, try to describe it to yourself before you look at Instagram.

 

Why Do We Wait to Do the Things We Say Matter the Most?

Why Do We Wait to Do the Things We Say Matter the Most?

I’m trying to figure that out.  I’m sitting in the lodge at Half Dome Village.  I’ve dreamed of coming to Yosemite Valley since I was a teenager.  I came close once in high school.  I actually flew out to Utah, met up with some buddies and we drove through Nevada and up to California.  I was the second youngest climber in the bunch, a junior in high school, so I wasn’t planning the trip.  Turned out we ended up climbing in the highlands of the park (Tuolumne Meadows), where it was cooler and less crowded.  We didn’t go down into the Valley, the land of the big walls.  Even so, it was the best rock climbing of my life, and I promised myself I’d come back and climb in the Valley.   Twenty five years later I’m here.  Why did it take so long?  Again, I’m trying to figure that out.

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Are You Getting In Your Own Way?

Are You Getting In Your Own Way?

Sometimes we get in our own way.  I know I do.

With my eyes closed, my weary head on the pillow, and a fluffy duvet beginning to warm me, Erik asked, “What are you interested in these days?”   What a thoughtful sweet man trying to connect with me at the end of the day.  I rallied.   My brain flipped through the mental files of my day.  I told him about a podcast on philsophy in the secular age, a Google search on fascial tissue (our bodies are held together with snot!), a news article on teens growing up in New York City (we have some of those), a new geography resource book, and how bacon isn’t actually that bad for you.  My enthusiasm grew.  Eyes open.  I was sitting up now.  I told him about DIY word books for Lily, and this terrific ebook series on copywriting...  ZZZZzzzzzzzzz.  Erik? Before I got halfway through my list, he was asleep.

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Answer to the Question Everyone Asks

Answer to the Question Everyone Asks

We’re not sailing again, but we are spending a lot of time thinking about sailing, because we’re presently working on a book about the trip.  It’s going to be epic, so stay tuned.   We promise it will make you laugh, make you cry, transform your life, double your income and probably be better than the iPhone 7.  But we’ll see. 

That said, digging into the book has conjured up lots of thoughts about our time on the water as well as what it means for our lives right now.  Life certainly never stops.  It’s a constant dynamic of going back to remember and extract meaning from the past, but also continuing to live going forward. 

I don’t see us spending a lot of time reminiscing about sailing Fezywig (we’ll save that for the book), but I couldn’t resist one crack at that time and what it meant.

Since living on our boat with our five kids, I would say there are two questions we’ve been asked most frequently: “Did you run into any storms?” and, “What did you learn?”  The answers are:  Yes, and keep reading.

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The End / The Beginning

The End / The Beginning

So I suppose it’s worth writing about how all this ended up.  Wouldn’t want to leave anyone hanging.  Here goes 

After two weeks on blocks, Fezywig was back in the slings, ready to launch.  We packed the kids in the car and drove to NJ to pick up the boat.  We got there a little later then planned, but as usual with boats—there was a delay.  The starter motor needed to be replaced.  It finally rusted out as a result of the flooding.  It was 10am.  The part was supposed to arrive by 11am. We could wait.  We cleaned the boat.

There’s always a certain catharsis in cleaning something.

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T-Minus Friday

T-Minus Friday

Friday was my last day in NYC.  Next:  Sleep.  Get up.  Throw my stuff in the van and drive out of here.  Just like that.

I turned in my access cards at work.  I packed my favorite mug.  Gave some really great people hugs.  I'd brought donuts.  They'd brought cake.  Walked out the door.  That was it.  Done.

It’s funny, all the things we think we can’t change.  Or don’t want to change.

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