It's Important to Fall


I’m sitting here with a very sore left foot and a bruised knee among other injuries.  Today I went rock climbing and pushed my limits.  I’ve consistently been upping the difficulty of routes I do as I prepare for our trip this fall.  Today I reached a breaking point.

I went out with a new climbing partner, Rob.  Rob is a solid climber and makes great company.  We did a longish, easy climb to get us acquainted and physically warmed up.  We then did a short, more difficult climb at the edge of my ability.  The hardest moves were right at the beginning.  I popped off the rock, but was only 5-6 feet up.  I landed on flat ground and Rob made sure I didn’t topple backward.  With some help and encouragement I made it up the whole route, clipped into the chains at the top and repelled down.  I then tried a route that was pretty far above my pay grade.  It was a joke.  I could barely get off the ground, but I tried.  I went back and tried the opening moves I’d flubbed on the previous climb.  I nailed them.  I was getting better.  But I was also getting a little tired.

My trusty climbing harness.

My trusty climbing harness.

We gathered up our rope and gear and walked down the path to some more climbs.  I picked a long route that was again at the edge of my ability and we started up.  It was what climbers call an off-width crack: too big for hands and fingers to hold onto anything, but not wide enough to get your whole body inside and ascend using opposing pressure.  I aced the off-width section and was relieved to be at the ledge, clip into the anchor and set up my belay.  The sun came out and it started to really warm up.  My mouth was dry.

I started up the last section.  After this I knew I’d be ready for some water and lunch.  It got half way up and started to feel unsure.  The route went straight up, but there was a side step that looked like it would get me up to the same point and was a lot less strenuous.  I waffled.  I ended up stepping out to the right, leaving the vertical corner and standing on small ledges about 150’ above the ground.  Once I was out there, the side step route didn’t look so promising. 

I climbed up a bit further and stepped left back into the corner system.  All the holds felt greasy.  My hands were sweating.  Even the white chalk I carried wasn’t helping.  I clipped into a pin that someone had pounded into the crack.  It looked sketchy, so I set another cam device into the crack and clipped my rope.  I stepped up and started to pull around the rock that was jutting out from the cliff.  My hands were exhausted.  I heard my self say, “I’m going,” and then everything flashed in front of my face.  I dropped 15-20 feet before my rope pulled tight.

I hadn’t taken what rock climbers call a “lead fall” since I was 16.  I’m now 43.  Twenty-seven years is too long to between falls.

The spot where I took my first lead fall as a teenager.

The spot where I took my first lead fall as a teenager.

The sketchy pin I’d clipped had snapped.  The back-up cam I’d set held.  I’d banged my foot pretty hard, but was okay.  I could still climb.  Rob’s adrenaline was pumping but he’d aced his part too:  he’d kept me from splatting.  My mouth was a desert.  We checked in with each other.  We were both okay.  I took a breather, and then headed back up.  (Those cams are expensive, I couldn’t just leave it there.)

The cam that held my fall.

The cam that held my fall.

I climbed upward, this time staying in the corner.  I saw new holds I hadn’t seen before.  I made it past the overhang and continued upward.  I set another piece in the crack and kept moving up.  Nothing felt solid in my hands.  I was getting sewing machine leg (when you stand on a small foothold and--because your leg it exhausted--it spasms under the exertion).  I clipped another pin and set another cam.  I pulled into the overhang.  I heaved up and got my upper body almost onto the ledge.  And then I tumbled backward.  I flipped over and landed head down, my back to the cliff, facing out into the Hudson Valley.  I was spent.  I had no energy left. 

Rob checked in with me to make sure I was okay.  I was, except for my disappointment and exhaustion.  I hoisted myself upright, heaved up on the rope, got myself back to the last pin I’d clipped.  I removed my cam and lowered off.  I left one of my oldest carabiners—one I’d bought when I was fourteen—clipped to the pin.  After 200 feet, I retreated, just six feet from the top.  We repelled all the way to the ground.

Friendly reminders.

Friendly reminders.

Strangely, I was glad I’d fallen.  I was disappointed and a bit banged up, but I’d pushed myself.  I hadn’t been flagrant or glib.  I’d put all the proper safety protections in place, but I’d still failed.  That was okay.  I knew something I didn’t know before.  There was a very clear line between what I could do and what I wanted to do.  It had been twenty-seven years since I’d taken a fall.  Now I’d fallen twice in one day.  Yes, I was tired.  I probably could have completed the climb if my energy was fresh, but knowing my endurance level was important too.  Falling had helped my define my next steps.

So I’m sitting here after rubbing Arnicare on my foot and taking an Epsom salt bath.  I’m sure I’m gonna feel more pain tomorrow.  But that’s okay.  It will remind me I have work to do.

If you want to learn about how to fall safely, check out this video.  I'm not endorsing REI, but I do like to buy some of my gear from them.  Falling on bolts must be nice : )

Crossroads and Commencements

By Erik Orton

Alison graduated from high school on Saturday.  She homeschooled from 2nd to 12th grade.  Emily and I organized the graduation ceremony ourselves.  Emily ordered the diploma and we chose a seal that says, “Non scholae sed vitae discimus.”  We do not learn for school, but for life. 

That is the approach we take here at the Awesome Factory.  We strive to not learn for arbitrary reasons or to please someone else.  We learn because learning is valuable for its own sake.  We learn because we are curious.  We learn because it makes us and the world a better place.  As we mark this occasion, a couple things come to mind:

  1. Love of learning is the best outcome of an education
  2. Marking special occasions matters

The first point I’ve believed for a long while.  The second I’m still learning.  I’m realizing the value of celebrating crossroads, acknowledging milestones and pausing to reflect. 

Yesterday Emily and I went on a 9 mile hike with friends.  We had our smart phones, but we weren’t sure GPS would work deep in the woods, so we also carried paper maps. As we used our paper maps, it was a good reminder how to find our place in the world when we don’t have satellites feeding us precise longitude and latitude.  I think life is a lot more like that. 

Hiking along the Appalachian Trail, we intersected with several other trails.

Hiking along the Appalachian Trail, we intersected with several other trails.

Ironically, it was when we were at the cross roads that we knew exactly where we were.  We could look at the map and say, “This intersects with this.  We’re right here.”  Most of the time, we knew we were somewhere along the winding line that marked the trail, putting one foot in front of the other.  But then we would come to a landmark or crossroad.  At a crossroad you know where you are, and you choose where you will go next.  It is the nexus of certainty and uncertainty.  You arrive to a certain point then proceed into uncertainty.  More than ever I feel the need to place mile markers, acknowledge moments of culmination and commencement.  That is how I know how far we’ve come. 

It was a treat for me to look back over Alison’s last 18 years and squeeze a bit of it into just a few minutes.  I’m so proud of her love of learning and--rather than building a life to please someone else--choosing a life meaningful to her.

Here is Alison at a crossroad and commencement:

Thanks to The Decembrists for the music:  "Sons and Daughters"  © The Decemberists

6 Ways to Shake Things Up


You might think this post is about homeschooling.  It's not.  It's about thinking new thoughts.  It's about figuring what works for you and your family even if it's unconventional.

Doing the unconventional thing:  taking a chest freezer camping

Doing the unconventional thing:  taking a chest freezer camping

Yesterday I mailed our 10th set of annual homeschool assessments.  We never planned to homeschool.  Our first child got into our first choice lottery school in New York City.  That became our anchor.  Like most parents we planned our lives around the school calendar.  We gave up job and travel opportunities that might jeopardize our kids’ places in school.  Erik left for work at the same time the girls were released.  We complained about rarely being together, but we didn’t question.  School was a given.

The simple version of this story is that one day Karina asked if she could be homeschooled; that question opened the door to more questions.  After much research, discussion and prayer we decided to do the unconventional thing.  It was scary.  We had to make our own map.  We had no idea that doing one thing differently would change the course of our lives, but it did – in a good way. 

Accepting that one responsibility increased our freedom in every other aspect of life. We’ve enjoyed absurd amounts of family time.  We’ve taken career and travel opportunities that would have been impossible otherwise.  We’re permanently set on rookie mode because we’re always learning.  This lifestyle is both challenging and satisfying.  That’s on the parenting side.  We have two homeschool graduates now and it seems to be working for them too. 

They are curious.  They know how to learn.  They are pleased to pay their own rent and tuition in college.  They know how to cook, clean and get along with others.  They have cultivated a high tolerance for uncertainty and problem solving.  Karina has been hiking Europe since early May.  She's found it glorious with scattered showers of completely unnerving.  She'll hit Finland and Russia on her way home.  Below are some pictures of our kids' travels without us.

The more autonomy we have in our own lives, the more we want.  Still, it's nerve wracking to take those leaps.  Below are six ways we stay open to shaking things up:

Take a break from daily routines (At least 72 hours is ideal)

This is most effective if we physically go to a different location.  By the third day we have enough distance from our routines that we’re ready to talk about what might be better or best for us.  We write down our new ideas before we go home.  Old routines have a way of making us forget our good intentions.

Gather feedback

We ask ourselves, each other, and the kids about current interests and future dreams.  We ask What do you want more of?  What do you want less of?


We imagine a holiday gathering 25 years into the future and envision where it will be, who will be there, what we’ll talk about and what our relationships will be like.  Then we discuss how to get there from where we are today.


We do something out of the norm like visiting a new location, listening to a new band, making a new recipe or learning about an unfamiliar place or topic.  


We pick any part of our life and start cleaning out the mulch.  It could be an email inbox, Facebook friend list, closet, junk drawer or book collection.  Here’s some inspiration.

Make new friends

We hang out with people who are already doing the thing we want to do, but are still feeling nervous about.  Online communities work well.  When I want to focus on wise spending, I frequent websites where everyone is talking about how cool it is to be debt-free.  When we wanted to live aboard a sailboat, we followed bloggers who were already living that life. 

Bora bora not required, but it doesn't hurt

Bora bora not required, but it doesn't hurt

This Independence Day we’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of our unconventional decision to homeschool.  Homeschool isn’t for everyone, but doing what’s best for you and your family is for everyone.  Shaking things up is for everyone.  Being deliberate about this one wild and precious life is for everyone.  

Happy Independence Day!!

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The Ancient Art of Waiting

I’m terrible at waiting.  I don’t like it.  I’m a big believer in taking action and getting things done.  That’s good, right?  Not always.  Sometimes taking action can be a big mistake.  Sometimes the hardest thing to do is nothing.

I’m not talking about procrastination or laziness.  I’m talking about the discipline to not undertake wasteful, superfluous tasks, thus being able to focus on, and actually do, the things that will truly make an impact.  It’s about avoiding busyness and choosing effectiveness.

Right now I’m waiting.  Our agent is shopping our book around and, since we don’t know which editor we’ll be working with, there’s nothing to do on the book for now.  We want to collaborate with an editor, not steamroll them.  If we keep pressing forward, we will not leave room for their contribution.  Or we may have to undo things we felt were improvements.  So we’re doing nothing.  Which I find very difficult.

But to make myself feel better, I’ve figured out how this process makes me like a Spartan warrior.  According to The Art of Manliness Spartan warriors were known for waiting.  Their active stillness was deliberate. They were allowing the right moment to arrive.  They were in control. While facing off on the battlefield, their enemies would lose their nerve, buckle under the pressure of waiting and charge, flailing in a fear filled rage. Their enemies squandered energy and lost focus of their actual goal.  The Spartans engaged in combat with calm poise.  The Spartan’s waiting was impactful.

When I wait for the right moment, it is an action.  So you see how I’m like a Spartan warrior, right?

While waiting, I’m reading a book:  The Reminiscences of a Stock Operator.  (I’m sure Spartans would have read this book if they could.)  It’s about Larry Livingston.  Livingston is a boy who starts out updating stock price chalkboards.  After endless seasons of calculating and posting stock prices, he realizes he can predict what a stock will do before it does it. Over the ensuing years, he becomes a multi-millionaire.  But then, through a series of bad business decisions and bad market conditions, he finds himself not only broke, but $1,000,000 in debt.  True story.  He has to turn things around.  He has to turn a corner.  A former colleague hesitantly agrees to float him 500 shares.  No one else will help him.  Livingston has one shot.  It has to work. 

He sees his opportunity in a stock that carries all the perfect indicators of an imminent and fast rise.  So what does he do?  Nothing.  He waits.  He knows at what point the stock will break open, but it is not there yet.  He waits like a Spartan.  He sees it coming.  He has one chance.  If the trade doesn’t work, he’s done.  He’ll have no more friends to ask.  So he waits.  He waits six weeks.  When a man is broke, his back up against a wall, and knows that something has to work, six weeks is a long time.  Waiting is hard work. 

At the right moment, he executes the trade.  It breaks open just as he thought it would and keeps going.  He continues trading and his trades snowball, building on each other.  Within two years he restores his fortune, repays his debts and makes sure he has learned from his past mistakes.  As he looks back on his career he says, “Those six weeks of waiting for the right moment were the most strenuous and wearing six weeks I ever put in.” 

I think we do all we can, and then we wait.  We wait for love, money, jobs, customers, help, forgiveness, reassurance.  Whatever it is, if we wait in the right way, we are taking action. 

When Is Helping Not Helping?

by Emily Orton

Friday night I was at church trying to coax Lily out the door.  I thought I had that I’m-going-home-now vibe, but two desperate women approached me.

This girl never wants to leave a party

This girl never wants to leave a party

“We need help,” one woman said.  “We’ve found a motherless bird.  It’s probably injured.  It can’t fly.  We can’t see a nest anywhere.  Somebody needs to take the bird home tonight and turn it in tomorrow.”  I could tell by somebody they meant me.

“And…where would you turn in an injured baby bird?” I asked.  “Like a pet store or something?”

“There’s an organization in the city that takes care of injured birds that have fallen from their nests,” she said.  The other woman watched my face for willingness.

My first thoughts were not charitable.  These strangers wanted me to take this bird home and spend Saturday morning transporting it to a care center, wherever that may be in this sprawling city.

The woman sensed my concern, “We can’t take it because we have a cat.”  

“Okay,” I said.  “I’ll get my daughter (who had snuck into the youth activity while we were talking) and then pick up the bird.”

Dopplegänger of the bird I encountered   photo by Christen Goguen for

Dopplegänger of the bird I encountered   photo by Christen Goguen for

The bird was guarded by a man dressed all in black squatting on flat feet in front of a young tree. 

“Thank you,” he said immediately.  “I think it’s injured.  I can’t take it because I have a cat.”  Apparently, it’s hard to be a do-gooder if you own a cat.

“Sure,” I said.  By now, I had seen the tiny feathered thing and my heart softened.  Of course I would stop everything and change my plans to ensure its survival.  I’d folded a blood drive poster into a portable platform for the fledgling.  I didn’t want make it a pariah among its own kind with my human scent.

Before we were halfway home, Lily decided the bird was a girl and named it Mira.  She didn’t know that was Spanish for Look.  Everybody looked.  As we passed people on the sidewalk Lily threw out her arm in a dramatic stand-back way and said, “We have a baby bird.  She lost her Mama.” Mira pooped, peed and squawked. 

The bird we took home

The bird we took home

Settled into a gourmet cookie box lined with paper towels, she pooped again.  I tilted her box to one side and she extended her right wing for balance.  I tilted the box the other way and she did the same on her left side.  Everything seemed to be functional, but she wasn’t flying. 

I Googled for guidance while Eli and Lily watched her ignore a capful of water and a sprinkling of baguette crumbs.  I learned a lot.  I learned we had a fledging sparrow.  Mostly, I learned that I had done everything wrong. 

The first thing I did wrong was taking the bird home.  Sparrow fledglings spend about a week of flightless hopping on the ground while they strengthen their wings to fly.  Their parents are nearby supervising multiple offspring, making sure they are all fed and progressing. 

The second thing I did wrong was worry about touching the bird.  The wildlife expert assured me that the bird parents had invested so much in this fledgling already that they wouldn’t abandon it because it smelled of human. 

The third thing I did wrong was tried to feed the bird.  Initially, I didn’t know what species the bird was.  I didn’t know what the nutritional requirements for its precise phase of development were.  I could’ve accidentally poisoned it.

The first thing I did right was taking Mira back to her home.  An hour after we’d first "rescued" the sparrow, I knelt on all fours in the mulch boosting SJ up Mira's tree.  Eli handed SJ the cookie box.  We wanted to set Mira on a branch so nobody else would "rescue" her.  I posted a highlighted printout of instructions on when to help a bird and when to leave it alone in case the fledgling jumped down again before she learned to fly.  Mira latched right on so we left her on the branch.

On the way home a woman closing up a hair salon told me sparrows are spiritual.  They bring a message.  The message this sparrow brought me was that a little struggle is normal and sometimes necessary to thriving.  I don’t think I should ignore flightless birds.  I don’t think I should callously neglect my children, my neighbors or strangers so they can toughen up.  I do think I should remember that while my inclination to help may be commendable, it is possibly ignorant and potentially dangerous.  Helping is not helping if I steal the struggle that will allow someone to strengthen their ability to fly.

Female House Sparrow                                          photo credit

Female House Sparrow                                          photo credit

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by Erik Orton

A lot has happened in the Orton home in the last month.  Emily and I went sailing in French Polynesia for a week with some good friends.  Our agent started sending our book proposal to publishers.  And Karina has moved to Europe for the summer.  Turns out she was in Manchester when the bomb went off in Manchester Arena.  She was a mile down the road.  She was fine. 

The other week I was laying in bed reading a book.  The book slipped out of my hands and the surprisingly sharp corner hit me on the forehead.  I was literally hit right between the eyes.  It drew blood.  At the risk of sounding insensitive, I got more injured reading a book in my own bed than my daughter did being close to one of the most horrendous terrorist attacks of late.

I never know where danger hides.  I never know where disaster will strike next.  I think about fear and how it holds me back.  Fear is what terrorists want me to feel.  Their goal is to conform the world to their view point by creating fear.  I don’t agree with their approach.  I recognize and condemn terrorists.  I also think there are more subtle and wide spread forms of terrorism.  If I ever try to tell my kids, “Watch out, be careful,” I don’t think I’m a terrorist, but I am saying “be afraid.”  Sometimes this is with just cause.  Sometimes this is me transferring my own fears to them.  Caution can be good.  It can put us on alert and help us prevent danger.  Isn’t that what’s happening right now in England?  They’re on high alert. 

I don’t pretend to have the answer for what is the right balance of caution and fear.  But I want to be conscious of whether or not I am creating fear, uncertainty or trepidation in myself or others.  I think much of the time—out of love—I want to warn and sound the alarm.  And yet, I may inadvertently be making it more difficult for someone else to feel calm and peace.  This book about George and Martha is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.

While Emily and I were sailing there were 10,000 miles between us and our oldest daughter.  There were 6,000 miles between us and the rest of our children.  We got some minor bumps and bruises but otherwise we came home safely.  Karina is now in the Welsh countryside hiking through the hills and dells.  When and where are we safe?  Who’s to say.  But I hope I personally am never guilty of instilling fear.  After all, I could justly say, “Never read a book in bed.  You never know what could happen.”

Take a Break


Erik and I just finished a book proposal for our literary agent.  I use the word ‘finished’ tentatively.  Her feedback will likely require major revisions.   We’ve spent the past six weeks crafting and then chucking this drastically abridged summary of our story.  Our workspace is littered with index cards and sharpie markers tracking the arc and reversals.  But for now, it’s done.  Our oldest is home for 72 hours and we’re taking a break.

Taking a break is generally good advice, like taking a deep breath and relaxing those shoulders.  Doesn’t that feel better?  When you’re leveling up or trying something new, taking frequent breaks is critical to maintaining stamina.  Lily taught me this. 

Ready for blast off.

Ready for blast off.

Lily learned to swim at a hotel pool when we were ‘stuck’ at a hot, humid, windless dock in St. Maarten for three weeks waiting for our boat engine to be rebuilt.  With daily access to the pool, she quickly graduated from the first ankle-deep step to the chin-deep (for her) pool floor.  After touching each new level—ankles to waist to chin, she jumped out reaffirming her exit strategy.  Gradually, she stayed deeper for longer until she felt comfortable letting go of the sides and lifting her feet. 

The first time she pushed off from Erik’s chest and made it safely to my arms, five inches away, it felt like she had just learned to walk.  We wanted her to keep going.  We wanted her to do it again and again, to increase her distance.  We were ready for more.  Lily hopped out of the pool. 

A little break on the beach after swimming.

A little break on the beach after swimming.

If you had just base jumped off your first skyscraper in Dubai, would you run up and do it again or would you take a break?  Lily watched the other kids swimming laps and choreographing underwater ballets, but that was her first time free-floating in the water.  She needed a break from the scary zone to analyze. Eventually, she returned.  She progressed a little and took lots of breaks until she was comfortable kicking several feet on her own. 

Making a break for it.

Making a break for it.

Last summer she took a guppy swim class in a lake.  There were three teachers and they couldn’t keep her from swimming off.  Why would she wait in line for her turn to float, dive and flutter kick to an instructor when the whole lake was right there in front of her?  She wouldn’t.  I eased their safety concerns by swimming after her.  Lily stayed in long after the lesson was over…until I needed a break.

If you’re doing something new or extra challenging, consider taking a break.  It could be the fastest way to progress.

If you think this would encourage someone, please consider sharing.

Saying thanks with a kiss.

Saying thanks with a kiss.

You Are What You Read

You Are What You Read

I have a habit of rereading books I like.  But I don’t reread the whole book.  I like to skim through while I’m eating my bowl of cereal in the morning, only reading the bits I’ve underlined or highlighted.  I get reminded of all my favorite ideas and it stokes my fire for the day.  Here’s a selection I bracketed in Timothy Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek.  As I re-read it, I found myself nodding my head in agreement, realizing how reading these kinds of books were a big part of what helped us get ourselves off the dock.  Several years later, I literally hear myself saying the exact same things I underlined.

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How The Boring Stuff Binds Us

How The Boring Stuff Binds Us

I recently went toe to toe with a newly minted productivity guru.  “I totally disagree!” I said a little too loudly.  Okay.  So maybe he was a podcast voice in my ear buds while I was hula hooping in my entry way. 

I bristled as the expert neatly separated the time we spend working on maintenance like laundry, meal prep and trimming toenails, from Life.  He blithely recommended strategies for minimizing those menial tasks so we could get back to Life.  He spoke as if Life was somehow separate from living. My sister was working on her master's degree in social work when she taught me this truth: 

Whatever the task, the relationship is the goal.

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Where Did All Your Time Go? And What to Do About It


The longer we live, the faster time moves.  We can all feel that.  When we’re kids, summer vacations stretch on forever.  Not anymore.  A semester used to be an eternity.  Not anymore.  But why?  Christian Yates, at the University of Bath talks about logarithmic time, “The idea is that we perceive a period of time as the proportion of time we have already lived through."  I love how this first video explains the math and the psychology of logarithmic time.  It all makes perfect sense. 

But then there’s the heart and the spirit; how we actually experience things.  This second video covers that beautifully.

I know the second half of my life will only be a fraction of the first. I know that if I don’t do the things that matter most now, I simply won’t do them.  Time is spiraling faster and faster.  But I’ve also learned how to slow it down. 

Time slows down when I experience something new.  When I travel to a new country, learn a new skill or make a new friend, time slows down.  Preparing a new recipe, driving to a new place, speaking a new language all slow down time.  The more unfamiliar, the slower time moves.  We pay attention to everything.  We have to.  We become children again, because everything is new.

Settling back into the familiar, time speeds up again.  Our minds and hearts relax.  We don’t need to pay as close attention.  We don’t need to exert ourselves as much.  Comfortable can be good.  We need rest.  There’s a reason children, especially babies, sleep a lot.  Their minds and bodies are exploding with growth.  The familiar gives us a chance to rest.

If my everyday is filled with vapid activities and hollow relationships, I am wasting my life.  If it is filled with new explorations and meaningful slowness, I feel like it is time well spent.

Familiar and unknown.  Rest and Growth.  Fast and slow. 


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