Small Community Living with Chris Axling

10 Sep

Please welcome my childhood neighbor and friend, Chris Axling and his family, to our ongoing Family Profile series. I am forever curious as to how and why people pick where to place their home and set some roots. Chris is a special case in that he grew up on the same island that I did and spent some time in the same city that I did (Seattle) – so I have to figure that his opinions about particular places will speak to me in some form or another. Chris has always been an artist for as long as I have known him (I still possess a vibrant painting of a butterfly he made me way back when) but his woodworking takes it up a notch – I am a daughter of a woodworker so I think I have some authority in saying that his woodworking projects are masterpieces – just solid beautiful works of art. He is also a gifted writer – he shares some of his witty observations on parenthood on his blog Babies and Dogs. So without further ado, I present to you our talk about his home, his family and his dreams:

Q: Tell us about your family – who lives here?

I live here with my wife Sarah, my 18 month-old daughter Josephine, and our dog Clover.  Sarah and I are in our early thirties, and have been together for twelve years.

Q: Where do you live? Will you tell us the story of how it came to be yours?
We live in Port Townsend, Washington – a Victorian seaport at the top of the Puget Sound.  We moved here three years ago.  After renting for a year to make sure it was somewhere we wanted to commit to for awhile, we bought this house.

Q: You started in the city. How did you decide to live in the country? Why did you choose this town?

We spent about six years renting in Seattle.  After getting engaged, we began to talk seriously about what where we wanted to live.  Seattle kind of ‘chose us’ for its jobs, but we really wanted to live on a few acres and build a house.  Not wanting to buy in Seattle’s outer bedroom communities (where we could afford what we wanted, but become a commuting zombie), we turned our attention to communities not directly connected to Seattle’s economy.  I had become a carpenter, in part, to fulfill the goal of building a house, but also because it would be a profession that’s not exclusive to cities.  Sarah could take her job with her, which became an important financial bridge as the financial crisis blew up and I was laid off.
On our weekends we visited communities around the Puget Sound, real estate adds in hand.  My wife needs sun, and I’m pretty stubborn about living in Western Washington, so we focused on Whidbey Island or Port Townsend (Sequim was out of the question until we are in our 60s at least).  We decided on Port Townsend, which gets half the rain of Seattle, and it’s close to the Olympic Mountains, which is where Sarah and I met.  But, perhaps more importantly, it seemed to have a more vibrant community, which I remember from visiting it as a kid with my parents.For a town of only 9,000 residents, it has a lot going on.  It has a tremendous diversity of restaurants, and many of them source much of their food from our surrounding farms.  We have a wonderful food co-op and our farmer’s market won Washington State’s farmers market of the year last year.  It has two historic movie theaters and one of the last drive-ins in the state.  Our old Carnegie library is great, and proportionally our town has the highest rate of library card ownership in the state.  Fort Worden – the most diverse and well used State Park in the state’s system, is within city limits, and houses Centrum, an art’s programing non-profit that attract local writers and musicians for a variety of festivals every summer.  And mixed in with all the old hippies, are boat builders, mill workers, “trustafarians,” liveaboards, and Seattle retirees.  As our town’s bumper sticker says, “Port Townsend: We’re all here because we’re not all there.”

Q: Now that you have a child, has it changed your outlook on living in the country? How do you think this will shape your family?

When Sarah and I first moved here, we were taking a walk when a group of teenagers were coming the other way.  Expecting that they, like most teenagers we knew in Seattle, would remain in their own little teenage world, we just smiled politely their way.  When one of them caught our eye, he said in a very assertive manner,”Hi, beautiful day today huh?”We were speechless for a second until we could respond,”Uh, yeah, yes, yes it is.  Have a nice day.””You too.”On another walk, Sarah was out with Josie in the Baby Bjorn.  She had fallen asleep, so when she came upon three teenage boys playing with one of those god-awful loud gas-powered scooters, she cringed.  One of the boys, seeing her, pointed her way and made some comment to his friends.  The scooter turned off, and they quietly said, “Hi” as she passed, and when she was a block away, she heard them fire it up again.

We live in a small town, where kids are raised by the community.  I almost always bump into someone I know when I go shopping, and I can tell from the high school kids I’ve met that they can’t be anonymous here either.

I think it if we lived a couple of hours farther away from Seattle, and in a more rural area, life could feel a bit limited.  But it takes two hours to get to Seattle door to door.  Obviously, going to Port Townsend High School won’t be the same as going to Garfield, but I also don’t feel like Josie is going to grow up in a backwater.

Q: Do you miss anything about the city?

One thing you really notice when you move away from the city, is the lack of young people in small towns.  Like we did, they’ve all gone off to college towns or cities for their twenties and early thirties.  So there is a hole in the demographics of Port Townsend and I miss the energy that young people bring.  Twenty-somethings come here in the summers, but they’re usually seasonal farm interns, and tend to stick together and then leave in the winter when their work dries up.  So I guess as a larger corollary would be that I miss the larger number and diversity of job opportunities that a city offers.  Maybe we’re just getting older, but it does seem like there has been a slow and steady increase in the amount of young people moving here, which I’m hopeful for.  Still, sometimes when we see a person under 30 walk by our house, my wife turns to me and says, “Look!  A young person!  Go out and pretend to check the mail!”

Other than that, we go over to Seattle often enough for visits or errands, that we don’t really feel like we’ve metamorphosed into country bumpkins…except when we’re stuck in traffic.  There’s no such thing as traffic out here, and your patience for it goes down rapidly when you’re never in it.

Q: What’s your favorite feature in your home? What makes you the happiest about it? Also, what are you dying to change?
It’s a far cry from the five acres we had envisioned back in Seattle, but one thing that really attracted us to this house was its large sunny yard.  This was a top “must have” on our wish list we handed to our relator, as we are big gardeners.  Since the house had already been recently remodeled, we first tackled the yard, ripping up lawn, edging out flower beds, building raised beds, laying a flagstone patio, and transplanting all our poor plants that we’d been moving from apartment to apartment over the last seven years.  Though it’s a lot of work, we’re not the type to lay around, so we’re happy to weed and gorge on the produce it gives us year round.Whoever did the remodel inside had a good eye, and did a really good job with all the interior trim details.  I think our relator’s eyes actually lit up with dollar signs when she took us into the kids’ room with the built in bunk beds.The one thing we weren’t so thrilled about was the exterior of the house.  Asbestos shingles, painted all white, with a red door, and blue shutters.  Since we had created a nice cottage garden feel outside, we decided to make the exterior warmer to reflect that.  So this Spring I painted the house yellow, with white trim and dark espresso brown doors.  I also added clear cedar tongue and groove to the soffits, which I had picked up years ago for a song off Craigslist.  I still have more of that to put up, but it’s all around Josie’s room and nail guns and nap time don’t mix so well!
Q: What’s your basic philosophy on living with kids?
Gosh I don’t know.  I feel like every time I read a parenting book, the author does such a  good job of convincing you that they have all the answers that I adopt they philosophy for the next couple weeks until I go back to what I was doing before.  I’m a pretty middle of the road parent I think.  My kid is vaccinated, but I try to buy organic food as much as my wallet will allow me.  There’s not a lot of refined sugars in her diet, but she gets ice cream, cookies or chocolate every so often.  I give her lots of opportunities for independent play, but we go to library story-time most Thursdays.  I let her do things a little outside her abilities that come with a chance of ending in tears, but I’m always there to hold her hand if it could result in major wailing.One thing I believe in is that there are only so many things I can teach Josie at this age.  I can tell her the English names for things, what is hot to touch, when water isn’t for drinking etc.  Fundamentally though, sometimes it’s best if I just get out of the way and let her figure out the world on her own.  I don’t think that it is more effective to give her science lessons on ‘things fall down, not up’ (gravity) with a power point.  She’ll probably make that connection better if I just let her play with a ball.I also believe in limits at this age, and fortunately I have a toddler who actually seems to obey them.  Sidewalk chalk is for any horizontal surfaces outside, not vertical ones.  The bricks around the fireplace are off limits, even in July.  Dog food is not for playing with, and neither is dog poop.  We pick dandelions and calendulas, but we only smell and pet Mama’s lilies.

Q: The woodworking in the house is incredible – are you a trained carpenter? That crib is amazing! How is the use of wood in your home important to you?
I actually went to school for carpentry, which is pretty unusual, using an AmeriCorps education award (after getting my bachelor’s degree) to go to Seattle Central Community College’s Wood Construction Program.  This is certainly nothing I would bring up voluntarily on a jobsite, as experience is way more valuable than being a “college boy,” and most have more of the former than me.Contrary to what I would have expected from the house we decided on, this house actually has very little exposed wood work.  Most of the wood that isn’t painted in the house is furniture I’ve built, but I’d hardly call any of them ‘fine woodworking.’  Like most carpenters, I like to pretend I’m a furniture maker on my weekends.  It is satisfying to look around and see functional things that you’ve made yourself.  I am a fundamentally creative person who likes to create things with my hands, and for the last few years, those things have been made out of wood.

Q: Your garden is beautiful – how did you come about planning it?

There wasn’t a whole lot here when we started, just a few mature fruit trees, some neglected beds and a rock wall.  We get some good southern and eastern exposure, so we watched where the shadows fell, and planned the raised beds around them.  I wanted four foot wide beds, with three foot paths, so after taping out the yard, and planning around what we couldn’t move, we came up with the design we have now.  I built the beds out of 2×8 rafters I had squirreled away from a Seattle remodel, filled the beds with 8 yards of garden soil from Short’s Family Farm in Chimacum, and lined the paths with cedar sawdust from my shop.  The rest of the flower beds line the perimeter of the property, and we are always digging up more sod to expand them, or transplanting deer hardy plants outside the fence to make room for more.

Q: How does your garden change the way you look at food?

Gardening makes you realize how food is supposed to taste.  As a kid I remember hating tomatoes until one summer my mom planted some.  I remember being skeptical that these sweet fruits were the same things sold in the store.  Taste and quality go hand in hand, so I would like my daughter to learn that.  I’d also like her to understand that food doesn’t come from grocery stores.  I will be very proud if one day she toddles over to the door, points outside and frantically give me the sign for ‘food.’  So far she seems to get it, and helps herself to the peas and strawberries, though she has a hard time waiting for the strawberries to turn red all the way down to the tip.

Q: Do you partake in adventure? How do you bring it into your family life?

Y’know, we’ve been kind of home bodies since we had Josie. Sure we’ve taken Josie backpacking, and we’re set to go to Hawaii in the fall, but when I think about backpacking around Belize and Mexico for three weeks like we did on our honeymoon, I can’t really imagine doing that with an 18 month-old.  She won’t be this age forever though.  When I was 7 years old, my parents packed my brother and I up in a converted Dodge camper van one summer, and drove us 10,000 miles across the U.S.  That trip is one of my childhood’s most precious memories, and honestly if I were any younger, I probably wouldn’t remember as much as I do.  So we’ll see what the future holds.

Q: What are some of your hobbies/free-time activities? Does living where do you shape these activities?

Sorry, what is this ‘free-time’ you speak of?  As a stay at home parent, I have a bit of a tag-team approach to parenting with my wife.  When she comes home, I dash into the garage and try to squeeze in a bit of work or finish something I started during nap.  This sounds like work, but it’s more of a type of therapy – something that stokes my creative nature, exercises my brain, and makes me feel productive in a way that changing diapers can’t.  Lately, on visits to the grandparents, I’ve been working on an elaborate treehouse for Josie and her cousin, which has been a really fun project.We take a walk as a family every night after dinner, and this often takes us around the neighborhood or to the beach.  When our friends from Quilcene visit they often remark on how many choices we have for where we go.  It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but if you live out in the county there might only be one road to walk and that’s your walk – every night.

Q: What are your family’s values – what is important to teach your daughter?

We’re not a religious family, so the Golden Rule governs the ethics in our house.  Perhaps one of the most common instructive words we say to Josie is “gentle.”I know life will just get progressively busier as Josie gets older, but for right now, we are able to sit together as a family for breakfast and dinner.  This is made way easier living here, where Sarah’s commute takes five minutes.Both Sarah and I are pretty independent DIYers, so Josie will probably grow up thinking it’s normal that you fix things, brew your own beer, wine and cider, can produce, glean fruit, plant seeds, build furniture, whittle soup ladles, turn compost, or create art.Waste is also a big deal for me.  Perhaps it was my Mom always reminding me at the dinner table about ‘all the starving children in China,’ or maybe it was my college education in ecology, but I’ve always abhorred waste.  I find myself already telling Josie that she can’t just take one bite out of a strawberry and then throw it on the ground.

Q: If you had a magic wand, what would be one thing you would change or improve?

Well, as a carpenter who has been laid off twice before becoming a stay at home dad, I’d fix the economy.  Small towns don’t bounce back as fast as big cities.  A number of businesses have folded (though others have always opened in their stead), and there are a lot of cars parked outside the food bank on Wednesdays.  Sometimes you can just feel a collective unease or stress about making ends meet.  A lot of cool young people are also drawn to Port Townsend, try to make it work, and then leave after not being able to find a job.Oh and the weather.  For those of you on the east coast, it may come as a surprise that global warming is not uniform.  We, in the Pacific Northwest haven’t had a summer in three years, and it’s getting old.Lastly, Port Townsend feels like a little city in many ways, except that it is pretty lacking in ethnic diversity.  I don’t know stats, but I would guess that 95% of us are white.

Q: Any favorite products so far when it comes to home life or baby rearing?

Instead of the traditional pack-n-play, we love the KidCo Peapod Plus.  It’s like a little tent for toddlers, and our daughter loves it.  We love it because it weighs maybe two pounds, folds up to the size of large pizza, and we can take it anywhere in our small car if we’re staying over at the grandparents’ or friends’ houses.Also the Inglesina Fast Table chair has been great for us.  It’s compact, portable, washable, takes up no floor space and you can sweep and scrub underneath it.
Q: Any future dreams/goals for your home or family?
The dream to build a house on acreage is still alive, it’s just being postponed for awhile.  Seeing how little I can get done with one toddler, much less a possible other one, has put off that dream until they are in school.  Until then, I’ve always got other projects in mind for the house, and either lack of time or money will make sure they are spaced out over the next few years.

2 Responses to “Small Community Living with Chris Axling”

  1. Chris Axling September 16, 2012 at 9:24 pm #

    Reblogged this on Babies and Dogs and commented:
    Dana was the girl next door in high school (literally) and interviewed me for her blog Oh Darling Love’s series on family profiles.


  1. I Think I Just Fell in Love… « oh darling love - October 2, 2012

    […] Chris’s interview didn’t persuade you that this town is the cat’s meow maybe this post […]

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