Boys are different

Bill Cosby once said that “all children have brain damage.” It’s true. However, boys are born with more. They come out underbaked. Girls do too – all babies could use a fourth trimester if it weren’t for their gigantic heads – but in my experience, the brains of girls were wired by an electrician who was getting paid by the hour, not by the job. He was an apprentice electrician, but still, you get my point. Baby girls are smarter. More careful. They learn from their mistakes and remember what they learn. They’re more empathetic and socially aware – immediately. By the time they’re towering over their 6th grade stick-weilding male counterparts in the back row of their class photos, the average 11 year-old girl probably has more social skills than I do as a 34 year-old man.

As an example, I’ll relate the following scene from last summer. I had taken Josie to the beach, which, thanks to the melee of boys whacking each other with sticks and leaping off logs, looked more like a scene from the beaches of Normandy than Port Townsend. We sat on a log, watching the boys, but to the left, ignoring the machine gun fire of the boy’s semi-automatic sticks, was a circle of girls, lying on their stomachs, facing in, quietly talking. Chronologically speaking, they appeared to be the same grade. From behind us a family approached from the parking lot. Like meerkats, all the girls raised their heads to ascertain the new girl. (The boys on the other hand, wouldn’t have noticed if a unicorn had galloped through the waves, ridden sidesaddle by a shimmering pink and turquoise mermaid.) One of the girls stood up, trotted over to the new girl, and after making her acquaintance, took her hand, and led her over to the circle of girls, where, I swear to god, she introduced her by saying, “Everyone, this is my friend Lindsay from music class.” The many outstretched legs of the circle moved like a caterpillar’s, scooting to make room, until the new girl was fully integrated into the group circle. To our right, two boys began arguing about who killed who, which, unresolved, devolved into an unholstered spray of spittle punctuated gunfire.

At the time my wife was pregnant, but we didn’t know if we were having another girl or a boy. Secretly, sitting on that log, I have to say, I hoped for another girl. Of course, the Universe has a funny sense of humor, so we got a baby boy. From 0-8 months, there’s not a lot of difference: just wobbly human larvae semi-fastened to your wife’s swollen milk bags. Then they start crawling. Now, if you’ve ever been in charge of a crawling infant male of our species for any amount of time you will agree with me on this point: although 30,000 years separates them from their cavebaby ancestors, developmentally, there hasn’t been much progress. If I gave my son a club, he would bash a hole in my sheetrock, laughing hysterically with every blow. If I gave my son a lighter, I have no doubt that he could somehow summon the fine motor skills to burn down my house in under two minutes. And the way he pulls at my dog’s fur any time they meet, you’d think he was getting her ready for the spit. But what continually amazes me, every day, about my son, is his unbreakable compulsion to put EVERY GODDAMN THING INTO HIS PIEHOLE.

If my son should crawl across the floor and encounter dirt, small rocks, dog hair, marbles, power cords, a domestic pet, a lit firecracker, open switchblades, of a rattlesnake…? Into the mouth it goes. I practice the choking-mouth-sweep maneuver from my first aid training about 1,723 times a day. My only theory on why this trait has persisted through the ages is that the immunity conferred by putting disgusting things into your mouth all day slightly outweighed the millions of cavebabies who must have silently choked to death on mammoth scraps in some shadowed corner of the cave while their exhausted parents tried to relax by watching the fire channel and eating some rotten fermented fruit.

My daughter never had this compulsion. By ten months I could leave her, unsupervised, with a gigantic bowl of marbles and when I came back out of the shower, she would have them all sorted by size and color. The thought that these small glass spheres might be food would have never crossed her functioning brain. When I finally took her binky away, I told myself never again. I never thought I’d need to use it as my mother-in-law (who also had a boy) refers to it: The Plug. It’s literally the only reason my son survives an afternoon in our yard.

Inside is safer, but not by much. When I get done writing this I am going to go down to the basement, haul up the fireplace surround, and reassemble it. Mind you, it is July. Why? Because my brain damaged son keeps throwing himself off of the bricks, face first, every time I turn my back for THREE GODDAMN SECONDS. Two minutes later, if left to it, he will do it again. Zero learning has occured between faceplants. I find myself wondering if he had brain damage to start with, or whether it’s just been the result of repeated head whacking.

Do you remember this scene from Parenthood? Rick Moranis’s character has a genius daughter. The choice of genders of the children wasn’t a casting accident.

I think of that scene often when my son engages in his new favorite activity, which is accessed via the aforementioned brick step of facial plantation. He was pretty tired in this clip, but this sound has become the soundtrack to my life. He comes back to it like a heroin addict – compulsively, unconsciously, and takes extreme joy in the sound, and then crashes. Literally. Looks pretty similar to the bucket doesn’t it?

Everyone says, boys are hard in the beginning, but they get easier. They say the opposite of girls. Or as Louis CK said, “Boys fuck things up. Girls are fucked up.” If you only have boys or you only have girls, you’ll only know what you know. Great, really, because you can’t compare. If you have both, though, you’ll compare genders constantly. Comparisons are relative of course, so there are two options by which you’ll compare: Older Boy/Younger Girl or Older Girl/Younger Boy.

The first is desirable, I would think, because a baby boy really lowers your intelligence expectations, so when the girl shows up, it’s like, Holy shit, she’s a fucking genius! She doesn’t lunge at outlet covers like those caged Velociraptors in Jurassic Park! I don’t have to helicopter parent her every encounter with a dandelion! Instead she’ll just sit there in the yard, humming the tune of some nursery rhyme, making a necklace out of them. But if, like me, you have a girl first, it’s absolutely confounding when you son engages in behavior that would draw stares from even the gorillas in the zoo if he were to, y’know, inexplicably crawl into their exhibit.

And trust me, if he could get into that exhibit, he would. I’ve seen the way he stares at them pooping. It’s the same way the gorillas stare at you from the other side of the glass, as you taunt them with your popcorn. My son would gladly trade them the popcorn for the opportunity to cruise the soiled faux-rock floor of their exhibit. Which just goes to prove my previous point: the popcorn would surely kill him, but if the ape shit didn’t, why even bother with the rest of his vaccination schedule, right? He’d be golden.



Toddlerhood: a Prescription for Anti-Psychotic Drugs

Living with a toddler is like living with a senile manic depressive.  You are a captive social worker belted into their emotional roller coaster.  They can deliver you, with a kiss and a “I really love you Dada,” to the clouds, and in quick succession they can send you hurtling toward the earth in a death spiral of banshee-like screaming at the back of your friend’s wedding.  When the ride stops, you are a crumpled emotional carcass while they are smiling like a cherub, handing the ticket man another token.

I heard someone once say that if an adult treated you the way a toddler does, you would probably punch them and call them a jerk.  You’d probably also swear at them, with the most common refrain being, “What the hell is wrong with you?”  There is a lot “wrong” with them from the adult perspective, so much so that if a toddler were treated as an adult by a psychiatrist, I think they could be prescribed the following four anti-psychotic drugs.  I will provided evidence for each of these drugs’ associated conditions using examples from our recent camping trip to Mt. Rainier National Park.

Lithium (for bipolar disorder). If I could choose only one drug for my toddler’s mental first aid kit it would be Lithium.  If toddlers were an emotional landscape they would look like the Himalaya.  Adults, on the other hand, mostly look like the Midwest.  This causes friction.  Iowans don’t acclimate well to being dragged up frigid 8,000 meter peaks and run back down to the sweltering Indian paddy fields over and over again.  It is exhausting and gives them severe headaches.  Lithium smooths things out.

Sarah and I like to hang onto the delusion that we are still hardened hikers without a two year-old on my shoulders and a baby growing in her tummy.  So we do not eat at picnic areas set up by the NPS.  No, we hike 0.3 miles up to a ridge, lugging our camp stove, water and noodles and cook our dinner like real thru-hikers on the trail.  While I’m boiling water, Josie tells Sarah she needs to go “poop poop.”  Uh oh.  Josie is not a seasoned outdoor pooper.  She is also tired and hungry.  It is a Saturday in July and there are literally hundreds of people on this trail.  Sarah valiantly scoops her up and departs for the small grove of alpine firs nearby.  As I’m stirring penne, I begin to hear screaming.  So do about 30 other people walking down this section trail.  It sounds like a cougar is mauling a small child in the woods.  I’m thrown back to a sociology class in college, learning about the murder of Kitty Genovese.  Five minutes pass, and Sarah emerges.  Aside for some reddened eyes and uncooperative sphincter, Josie has emotionally recovered completely.  Sarah and I, on the other hand, are a little ragged.


This is five minutes after the code red shitfest in the woods. Also note the hallucinatory behavior she is exhibiting, mistaking Sarah for a pot.

Valium/Xanax (for anxiety).  Traveling with toddlers is the worst.  The reason why is that change makes them anxious.  Routine is their friend, so in a way they’re a little autistic too.  Therefore, taking down the tent in the morning is a rife with trauma.  After a number of meltdowns, we finally got it right by having her “help” with undoing the clips and collapsing the tent poles.  Then again, she didn’t collapse the tent poles.  They became play things and I eventually had to take them away, which led to more banshee screaming.  Thirty seconds late she was fine.  Look – a squirrel!

I wouldn't call toddlers monsters, but then again they do seem to possess an innate fear of fire.

I wouldn’t call toddlers monsters, but then again they do seem to possess an innate fear of fire.

Haldol (for megalomania)  Megalomania is characterized by four conditions, where individuals believe themselves omnipotent, have a deluded sense of possessing extraordinary power, or exhibit grandiosity, which is a view of personal superiority and disdain for others.

Mt. Rainier is a massive stratovolcano 14,411 feet high, and possess more glacial mass than all the rest of the glaciers in the continental United States combined.  When Josie first saw it up close from her car seat she declared it “My mountain” and referred to it in this way for the rest of the trip.  Enough said.

Narcissism is also a marker of megalomania.

Narcissism is also a marker of megalomania.

Of course I wouldn’t recommend giving a toddler Valium.  If, however, I could get Josie a prescription I can’t say I wouldn’t pilfer her stash the next time she devolved into a convulsing jelly of screaming.  Just to smooth things out a little.  Then again maybe I’ll just break out that ear protection again – probably less habit forming.

Month one. 2:30am. 120 decibels.

Top ten things that happen in your thirties that you thought happened in your fifties

10.  You begin to say ridiculous things like, “When I was your age you didn’t have to cut english muffins, they just tore apart!”

9.  When you push your kid on the swing, you’re the one who gets queasy.

8.  Switching sides of the bed with your wife is CRAAAAAZZZZZZYYYYY.

7.  To your wife at a party you utter the sentence, “I don’t know, I’d rather get home before it gets dark.”

6.  A friend at work has a genuine conversation with you about prostate health.

5.  You see a pair of New Balance shoes in a store and think to yourself, “Huh, those look pretty cool.”

4.  You brag to a friend about how you fell asleep the night before at 9:15pm.

3.  You’re still at the bar when you start to feel hungover.

2.  You buy a half-day ski ticket at 9am.

1. You look at a picture of yourself from before having kids and think to yourself, “Damn, I looked GOOD back then!”  The picture is from two years ago.

Josephine “Danger” Axling Volume II

If you missed the first one, this is part two of a photo essay where I try to have perfect strangers (or my mother-in-law) call Child Protective Services on me.  For the first volume click here.


Traversing a Sharp Field of Lava

Band Saw

Playing with a Rod of Plutonium

Hanging Out on Top of a CliffNew York trip 159
Jumping Off the Roof (thank God I was there to catch her)



Bear Spray




and finally my favorite…

Playing with the Garbage Disposal Switch* Underneath the Thickness Planer, While Holding a Box of Rat Poison

041*The planer stand doubles as our apple grinding station during the fall when we press cider, and a garbage disposal makes easy work out of crushing apples into sauce prior to pressing – just to head off all the questions.

Things you never say until you cohabitate with a toddler

What follows is a list of phrases that I had never previously used much or at all before having a child, but now use with disturbing frequency.  Most seem to be focused on telling the toddler not to put certain items in their mouth that will land them in the ER with Hepatitis or an x-ray that doctor looks while muttering, “Now how did THAT get in there?”

“Be careful with people’s eyes”
“If that is poop, should we be touching it?”
“Please don’t grab the doggy’s face”
“Did your bear go poop?”
“Way to go pee pee in the potty!”
“Sitting at the table comes with certain privileges and putting your feet up on the table is not one of them.”
“What’s in your mouth?”
“No, no amount of water is going to make that clean.”
“Oh my God, what have you been eating?”
“Mmmm…no that’s been on the ground way too long.”
“Don’t eat rocks.”
“Please don’t put the orange I just peeled for you between your toes.”
“Dog biscuits are for dogs sweetie.”
“Don’t run with your fingers in your ears!”
“No we can’t go today, it’s bouncy castle.”

And finally, something you never say until you become a dad.  As these words left my mouth, my feeble inner teenager exhaled his last breath, rolled over and died, and I officially became my father.  I said this in reference to an 18-wheeler who was tailing me as I was driving five-under on a curvy road at night with my family.

“I’m more than happy to pull over for some guy who’s probably coked-out on speed and hasn’t slept in 22 hours.”

Thankfully, this toddler isn’t a compulsive everything-in-the-mouth-putter-inner, so if you have better lines, I’d love to hear them.

Smile for the Propaganda!

When Josie was just a few months old, I remember stumbling upon Rufus Griscom and Alisa Volkman’s TED talk on the four taboos of parenthood.  In it they explain their own experience of reconciling their expectations of parenthood with the reality that their first son delivered.  Being in the publishing world they had prepared, among other things, by reading lots of magazines, but as Griscom realized “when we lowered the glossy parenting magazine that we were looking at with these beautiful images and looked at the scene in our actual living room” there seemed to be a gaping disconnect.

Part of this, of course, is marketing – showing us impossible ideals we wish we could live.  I remember trying to reconcile my parenting expectations during those first few sleepless months when I came to think of my daughter as a small vampire-like energy parasite whose banshee-like crying sucked my own life force for her own.  This was not in those glossy magazines, but I wouldn’t know, since unlike Griscom and Volkman, I had never picked up Parenting magazine.  So where did this “false-advertising” of parenting come from?  Surely by then, I had seen thousands of commercials featuring smiling families driving new cars or smiling kids sliding down a slip n’ slide, but I’ll argue that the false advertising of parenting is far more effective when it is done by your closest friends.

Our family just got back from Hawaii.  Over the course of our eleven days on the Big Island, I took nearly one thousand photos.  Most of those photos feature my smiling beautiful wife and our daughter happily embracing, or other wised engaged in some positive parenting activity like tide pooling.

Of all the photos I took I don’t think there is a single picture of Josie crying.  Nor are there any of Sarah, feeling nauseous, trying to comfort Josie in the backseat on a curvy back road.  In fact, if a picture had anyone not smiling or showing our daughter as anything but inquisitive, peaceful or happy, I probably deleted it or at least didn’t make it public on Facebook.  And there’s the rub.  While we are all more or less programmed to smile for a camera, when we only show the happy depictions of parenthood to our childless friends I believe we create a more believable expectation, than they would otherwise receive from the mass media, that parenthood for them will be a warm and snuggly blanket of love you and your partner can wrap yourself in.  And while sometimes it is, like your offspring’s wildly shifting moods, sometimes that blanket more resembles one of those silver emergency blankets handed out to survivors of airplane crashes.  And either way, it probably has spit-up, pee, or food stains on it.

So why do we do this?  Why is it heretical to whip out the camera when your kid is throwing a fit?  I can think of three reasons.

1.  Subjectivity.  When you are emotionally attached to your photographic subject, the objective nature of the lens conveys a cold disinterest or unwillingness in helping to reduce the cause of the distress.  This is good journalistic practice when you’re working for National Geographic, but considered bad parenting (no matter if your subject resembles an irrational wild animal).

2.  Pictures of your kids crying don’t paint your parenting in a very flattering light, while pictures of smiling happy children make you look good.  Everyone knows that in our culture that the number one goal of public parenting is the prevention of crying children.  And since photos are shared, this taboo is adopted as a matter of course in photography.

3.  Recruitment.  For those out there to be the first of your social group to fall into the fold of parenthood, photographs are the best propaganda.  Admit it – you’re not going out anymore – after spending your Saturday night comparison shopping strollers on Amazon, you’re sitting on the crapper before going to bed at 8:30, lingering on a magazine’s Toyota Sienna ad.  If you want to maintain your old friendships, you’ve got to get your friends to take the gloves off.

Butwhen I dissect the reasons for the absence of anything but happy photographs in my vacation’s album, I find each a little shallow.  The first is the hardest to refute, but the truth of the matter is, if photos become the surrogate for memory as we grow old and senile, then our recollection of our children’s lives will surely be erroneous.  For example,  I made this heretical video of my colicky daughter during her second month, and though it wasn’t easy to film, there wasn’t much else to record.  Next, stroking your ego by self-editing your kids emotional range isn’t probably healthy for anyone.  And lastly, doesn’t the planet already have too many people, without satisfying your selfish need to maintain your tenuous Friday night friendships?  I’d say so.  Maybe we should all just share videos of our kids having Grand mal tantrums for the betterment of the planet and share them on YouTube.  Oh wait….




We’ll see if I get a response

This is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but only sort of…

Hinkler Books Pty Ltd.
45-55 Fairchild Street
Victoria 3202

August 28, 2012

To Whom It May Concern:

My daughter is about a year and a half and loves your 2006 edition of First Animals.  She loves seeing all the different animals, grouped together in different ways.  As I’ve been reading it to her though, I’ve come to notice a few animals that are named incorrectly, and some that, I believe, deserve a somewhat more specific labeling or accurate ecological categorization.  While I’m sure these taxonomic and ecological issues may seem trivial to other parents, I think that we have a responsibility to accurately teach budding naturalists the correct names and habits of the animals that capture their interest.

In the first section ‘colorful animals’ your ‘dragonfly’ is actually a damselfly.  While both are in the order Odonata, damselflies are distinguished by their smaller size, their tapered wings as they near the base, and their habit of holding their wings parallel to their body (as your photo shows) rather than flat and perpendicular as dragonflies do.

I wonder why you chose to label the Red-eyed tree frog as ‘frog’ in ‘colorful animals’ but gave it some distinction in ‘tree climbers’ as ‘tree frog’?

While your labeling of ‘angelfish’ is correct, it’s rather vague, as marine ‘angelfish’ of the family Pomacanthidae comprises 86 species across three oceans.  ‘Angelfish’ could also refer to a family of Amazonian freshwater cichlids so, as you can see, this colloquial term is really quite broad to apply to a single blue and yellow fish.

Still in ‘colorful animals,’ the ‘beetle’ appears to be a click beetle (probably from the genus Alaus), which is a great addition to the book because it is a familiar insect to kids.  I certainly recognized it from my childhood memories, but I wonder why it wasn’t labeled at least ‘click beetle,’ especially to differentiate it from the (Scarab) ‘beetle’s in the ‘armored animals’ and ‘mini-beasts’ sections?  And really, with an estimated 850,000-4,000,000 species of beetles on the planet, a little differentiation wouldn’t hurt.  You gave family distinction by labeling the ‘longhorn beetle’ in the ‘striped animals’ section after all.

Also in the ‘armored animal’ section your picture of a ‘turtle’ is actually a tortoise – a desert tortoise if I were to guess.  Note the absence of webbed feet.  This appears to be the same tortoise, similarly mislabeled and ironically placed in the ‘water lovers’ section.

Again in the ‘water lovers’ section the ‘seal’ is a sea lion.  Note the external ear flaps and the long hairless fore flippers.  This may sound trivial, but sea lions are a completely separate family from seals, comprising five genera.

The ‘otter’ in the ‘water lovers’ section, while correctly labeled, is more specifically a North American river otter.  As a person who lives where river otters are most often seen in saltwater, it is a personal pet peeve of mine to hear people on beaches refer to these Mustelids as ‘sea otters.’  Therefore I would encourage you to teach young readers the difference between, at least, these two types of otters.

The ‘crocodile’ in the ‘water lovers’ section is a juvenile American alligator.  Note the dark coloring, blunt snout and the black and yellow striped tail.  While phylogenetically you are correct, since all alligators are crocodilians, it seems more accurate to label this little guy an alligator.  The crocodile in the ‘powerful animals’ section is correct.

And why is a toad, and not a frog, featured in the ‘water lovers’ section, when one of the primary differences between the two is a toad’s relative preference for dry, terrestrial habitats?

It seems like the gecko in ‘spotted animals’ and the iguana in ‘tree climbers’ are being a little slighted by being called ‘lizards’ when there is an ocelot and a leopard next door who aren’t just labeled ‘cats.’  The ‘chameleon’ got his name in ‘colorful animals.’

In the ‘striped animals’ section the snake you labeled red, black and white ‘corn snake’ isn’t even close.  A corn snake is a family of snakes, which are mostly orange/yellow.  This snake is unmistakably a Louisiana milk snake, which even southern United States schoolchildren can identify using the pneumonic sing-song to differentiate it from the venomous Texas Coral Snake: “Red and yellow kill a fellow, red and black venom lack.”

I think by this point in the book your editor may have just started to make names up.  The ‘gibbon’ in the ‘tree climbers’ section looks nothing like a gibbon.  This is a Vervet (Chlorocebus pygergythrus), native to eastern Africa scrublands and a member of the superfamily Cercopithecoidea, unlike gibbons who live in southeast Asia and belong to the superfamily Hominoidea!

From my brief experience as a parent, it is my opinion that young children understand much more than many adults give them credit for.  Even our expectations, when it comes to animal identification seems inconsistent – expecting children to have no problem grasping the latin names of some animals like ‘rhinoceros’ or ‘hippopotamus’ (giant animals section) while simply calling a tarantula a ‘spider’ (mini-beasts section).  This probably also reflects our own prejudices and familiarities, but I feel we do a disservice to our little naturalists by not teaching them the names of animals at least down to their taxonomic family, and better yet to their species level.  From watching my daughter, she seems to need no help broadly categorizing different, say, birds as ‘birds,’ unless it is an emu at the zoo.

E.O. Wilson, the distinguished Harvard biologist who has written extensively on the conservation of biological diversity, spent his early childhood in Alabama with his nose to the ground fascinated with ants.  It was the differences between the ants, the different species and what they did that fascinated him.  Identifying those differences leads to nomenclature, correct naming gives power to observation, and observation is the beginning to all empirical scientific knowledge.  By the young age of 13, E.O. Wilson was the first person in the United States to identify a new species of ant to the southern U.S. (the invasive red fire ant).  Surely, this ability to discriminate between ant species did not follow a childhood that regarded all ants, simply, as ‘bugs,’ and I would hope that our early childhood natural history texts would hold a similar expectation for all children.


Chris Axling