Don’t Take Your Kid’s Stitches Out Yourself

At some point in the past our oldest son smacked his head on the stairs at the playground. I can’t remember how old he was at the time – he could walk but he wasn’t in diapers, if that helps. From across the playground we heard him crying and assumed someone had smashed his sand castle, or called him a boo-boo head. Kids are always making mountains out of molehills. When he ran toward us with split in his forehead, and lots of blood, it became a legitimate mountain.

In terms of head lacerations, our oldest takes after his old man. We both had stitches three times before first grade. Mine were from:

  1. tripping into the coffee table, and catching my fall with my face,
  2. trying to open a door with my eyebrow, while running, and
  3. back-flipping into the edge of a pool rather than into the water.

Headbutting the playground stairs was our son’s second ER visit. He also caught his fall once with one of his two front teeth, which ended up getting pushed upward into his gums. It was gruesome – at first, we thought he had swallowed it. So, my oldest and I both have a history of catching ourselves without using our hands, or arms, or legs. Just our head and face.

This reminds me of an injury I saw while teaching gymnastics. I was spotting a girl as she fell from the uneven bars and braced herself with her hands and arms when she hit the mat. When falling backward, it seems natural to stop your fall with your hands, but you’re supposed to sort of tuck and roll instead. This works because there aren’t any coffee tables or doorknobs nearby. Well, she put her hands back and her elbow completely dislocated and bent in the wrong direction. It was frightening to watch. Not as bad as a tooth mashed into gums, but still pretty terrible.

Most the time, I’m one of those parents who ignores their kids when they get hurt. That, or I might ask, “do you want to go home and take a nap, or keep playing?” It seems to work. They always choose “keep playing.” I also encourage activities that are usually considered unpleasant, like canoeing in the rain and camping in the winter. It’s not so much that I want my kids to be tough and brawny. Instead, I want them to be optimistic and enjoy overcoming challenges.

I’m also one of those parents who likes to do everything himself. When a pipe bursts, I spend all day soldering and re-soldering it, while an actual plumber could fix it in about 15 minutes. When my son gets stitches, I take them out at home.

I wish that last part weren’t true.

On Christmas Eve the year after the head-stair collision, the same son was spinning on the trapeze in our family room. Yes, I put a trapeze in our family room. Where else would it go? Anyway, he lost his footing when he dismounted, sending his eyebrow into the corner of our piano. There was crying, and yelling, and pressure to stop the bleeding. Next, there’s usually a moment when you assess the damage and determine if a butterfly bandage will suffice. But, given the blood flow, we didn’t even check. I just picked him up and headed for the car.

The ER at the children’s hospital was pretty tranquil at 8PM, probably because most kids were snuggled in bed dreaming of sugarplums, not performing acrobatics. We were back home in less than an hour.

A week later, not wanting to go back to the ER to have them removed, I decided to cut the stitches out in our kitchen. The doctor said they could come out in five to seven days, so the timing was right. Plus, I had seen it done once before. How hard could it be, right? Dads have been cutting out their kid’s stitches for thousands of years.

My dentist friend gave me a pair of fancy tweezers and some piña colada anesthetic. After numbing the area, I started snipping and pulling. I was feeling pretty good about my surgical skills until the last stitch. That’s when I realized I was out of my league, that my red-neck confidence had gotten me into trouble. I’m not a red-neck, or a the kind of doctor that helps people. As soon as the final thread was cut, my son’s brow popped open like it was never closed. No blood or pain – just a gaping wound that now needed to be restitched. My training had not prepared me for this.

I wasn’t looking forward to another ER visit, putting my son through all the trauma of needles next to his eye. So, I called my doctor friend, who ended up cleaning and super-gluing the cut in his kitchen. He told me that the wound should have closed by then, and that I shouldn’t feel bad about removing the stitches myself, that he would have done the same thing. That made me feel a little better.

The moral of this story: don’t remove your kid’s stitches yourself, unless you’re a true red-neck, or the kind of doctor that helps people.

I guess there’s another lesson to be learned: trapezes, like uneven bars, should be in a gym rather than a family room.

Newton Creek, Shoshone National Forest

car campingA few days ago, my oldest and I were reminiscing about “that time we slept on top of the van.” Ah yes, I remember it well. Pretending that were trying something new, getting a better view of the stars, when in reality I just wanted get as far as possible from the hungry grizzly bears.

It was the summer of 2011, if I remember correctly, and Newton Creek, apparently home to some grizzlies, was the final stop on our road trip from California back to Minnesota. We had departed from Sacramento three days earlier in a caravan lead by my parents in their RV. The trip took us east on highway 80 through the Sierras and most of Nevada, and then up to Nat Soo Pah, an RV park near Twin Falls, Idaho, that boasts of “magical mineral water” in its spring-fed swimming pool.

As a kid, our road trips often took us through Nat Soo Pah. My dad loves a good swimmin’ hole. From all accounts, he spent most of his childhood on the banks of the American river, like a modern day Huck Fin, exploring and causing trouble. Those were the good ol’ days, when you could jump from Rainbow Bridge into Lake Natoma, a reservoir on the river, and not go to jail. Nat Soo Pah is great because it has a massive high dive. With enough bounce, it’s almost like jumping from a bridge. Also, the water is a consistent 99 degrees, so it’s like a giant, communal bathtub. The kids have fun, at least.

As far as I could tell, nothing at Nat Soo Pah had changed, from the slimy diving boards, to the mustachioed camp host, to the arcade games with their familiar theme songs and worn-out joysticks. After 20 years, we were crunching the same gravel and sitting at the same picnic tables around the same fire pits. The nostalgia was flowing like spring water from the prairie. It was nice to go back.

Shoshone riverNewton Creek was beautiful, and definitely memorable, but I don’t have any yearning to return.

I’ve never seen grizzly bear warnings, let alone campgrounds prohibiting tents because of “grizzly activity.” Leaving the east exit of Yellowstone on the North Fork Highway, we passed 2 campgrounds (Threemile and Eagle Creek) which allow only “hard side” campers and RVs. My parents had turned back at Yellowstone, and all we had was a 2-person backpacking tent, the sides of which are quite soft.

Next up on the North Fork Highway is Newton Creek, which allows tents after June. It was late July, so we were safe. I reassured my wife, who slept in the tent, at ground level, that bears use calendars.

Campsite on the Shoshone riverThe meaning of “grizzly activity” is up for interpretation. I can’t remember if there’s a sign as you pull in to the campground that attempts to depict the “activity.” I think there was a small sign, but it only made things more ambiguous. I’m going to stop joking about this now, because after returning to our hard-sided home and getting on the internet I learned that a few people have been pulled out of their tents by bears at Newton Creek and neighboring campgrounds. So, I appreciate the warning, despite the ambiguity.

At the time, I thought I was being nice by giving my wife the tent. I guess nice would have been some structure that could withstand a bear claw. After making sure she and the girls were situated, I wished them luck and my son and I climbed on top of the van and tied ourselves to the roof rack. We watched shooting stars in the clear mountain sky, confident that we were out of reach of the shorter grizzly bears. I reflected on my nighttime half-dome hike and eventually dozed off for a couple of hours.

Campfire at Newton Creek campgroundThe best part about this campout was dinner. We brought some frozen salmon that my dad had caught in California, but I had forgotten to bring suitable cookware. Rather than holding it over the fire on a stick, or frying it on a hot rock, which I’ve done, we decided that the easiest cooking method would be to foil wrap it.

We bought the foil for a ridiculous price at an outpost on the way out of Yellowstone (a new frying pan would have been cheaper). And for seasoning, we crushed some potato chips inside before wrapping it all up. Flame-broiled, Lay’s-encrusted, wild pacific salmon. Good eatin’.

Looking back, I would add some moisture to the foil wrap, even if it’s just some water. The grease from the chips doesn’t really distribute itself like it does on your hands.

Also, don’t feast on salmon before camping out in bear country. We were like foil-wrapped salmon in our sleeping bags. Good thing it wasn’t June. And good thing we smelled more like diapers and road trip than anything else.

Potty Training, Daytime and Nighttime: Secrets Revealed

Black bear and cub in YosemiteI don’t want to write about potty training. I’ll have to type the word “potty” too many times, and my true potty humor will be revealed, like a dirty diaper that manifests itself through multiple layers of clothing, in a restaurant, at the back of a plane. Plus, I don’t want to unwrap any disturbing memories for parents who suffer from potty training stress disorder (PTSD). But, I feel an obligation to share my experiences, successes and failures, with one of the stinkiest stages of raising a human.

I should clarify that I’m not going to touch number two. OK, I will share a quick story. We were on vacation and staying with family at some point in the past, I think it was last summer, or before that. I know it was before today, and I do remember that the perpetrator was our fourth child. He was probably one at the time, and I had just released him from the bathtub, when he escaped into the hallway and immediately doo-dooed on my sister-in-law’s new hardwood floor. I heard some commotion and peeked from the bathroom to see what was going down. C®@p. You guessed it.

I ran to the scene, and without really considering the ramifications, I grabbed what I could with my bare hands and carried it to the toilet! No one was there to witness it, so I announced to the rest of the house, “Um, I’m carrying poop, in my hand!” That was not a proud exclamation. I wasn’t triumphant or happy, looking for congratulations. I was scared. It was more like an urgent distress call. It was a state of emergency. All hands on the poop deck.

On the bright side… no, never mind, there is no bright side.

I should also clarify our current urination situation. We now have children at all stages of bladder control, from zero to almost fully functional, from diapers all the time, to diapers at night, to only occasionally needing a diaper at night. That’s the gamut. That’s a ton of diapers. Really, if you add them all up, it might be a ton. Gross.

OK, I’m tired of writing about poop and pee already, so I’m just going to list a few of the things I’ve seen and learned so far:

  1. Like most of the unpleasant challenges in parenting, potty training is just a stage of life, and it’s usually successful. We’ve got four down and one to go. Most days I can look back and laugh at how absurd it was to go through ten or more diapers in a day. It’s like that canoeing trip where the lake was so turbulent and there was so much snow we had to portage for three miles. Though it was grueling, and produced many aches and blisters, in hindsight, it was a good experience. Actually, potty training is never a good experience, especially in hindsight, but, it does come to an end (sorry).
  2. Potty training can be a battle, and your kids have considerable leverage. With ease and without shame, they can ruin your carpet, and bring any event to a screeching, smelly halt. Their bowel movement can become a weapon of mass destruction. As in any parenting conflict, you have to stay calm and keep emotions out of it, or at least hide them until later. Disappointment is OK. I don’t think anger or frustration are, though sometimes they can’t be avoided.
  3. Every kid is different. Our first was brilliant. At 20 months, he abandoned the diaper like a bad habit and has never looked back. Others have struggled with it, and have required reward systems, encouragement, and months of patient and sometimes not-so-patient reminders. So, you have to be flexible. The potty boot camp may work well for one kid but not another.
  4. Before the days of carpets, and houses with floors, and super-absorbent diapers, I imagine that kids just roamed free and learned quickly about the consequences of their actions, so to speak. Today, the diaper takes care of it before the kid can realize what’s happening. I think potty training could be a lot easier if it weren’t preceded by diaper training. But I’m not sure there’s any way around it.

If you’ve made it this far, I will share with you my greatest discovery in potty training. The nighttime was a mystery to us. All of our kids have needed pullups at night for at least two years after they’re trained in the day. That just seemed unreasonable to me. But, based on parenting advice, nighttime training is really just a matter of time – some kids aren’t ready, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Suspecting that was a myth propagated by the diaper companies, I decided to take matters into my own hands.

Two of our kids were in diapers at night, as of last year. I set my alarm to go off at two hour increments, from 10PM to 6AM, and took them both to the bathroom five times a night, every night, for about two months. It was grueling, like a three-mile canoe portage, but at night. I lost some good somnia, and my REM are still cycling. But it worked. After two months, the older of the two was a pro, either holding it or waking herself up. The younger still had an occasional accident, so I gradually reduced the number of sleep disruptions, and now, a year later, she’s a champion.

That’s all I’ve got, for now. I have to give props to my wife, who does the majority of the potty work. It’s a thankless task and my contribution has been a fraction of hers. To all you parents out there, keep your nose plugged, keep your kids in the bathroom till they’re dressed, keep your emotions in check, and you’ll pull through.

Wildwood Lake, Nebraska

sunrise at wildwood lakeLast weekend the temperature jumped to 50 °F, with clear skies and an overnight low around freezing. Those seemed like prime conditions for introducing a toddler to winter camping. I decided to take the four older kids to Wildwood Lake, a tiny reservoir hiding among the corn and soybean fields about 45 minutes north of Lincoln.

Wildwood is free, semi-primitive camping. Semi-primitive includes latrines and fire pits, but no running water and no designated sites. As a result, you have to stake your claim. That’s not a problem in the winter. We saw a dozen or so people ice fishing on the lake, but ours was the only tent on the entire shoreline.

The kids behaved like they owned the place. They shouted to each other when it was absolutely not necessary – when they were only a few inches apart and when they didn’t actually have anything to say. For example, “Hey, Anthony! Are you hitting that stick on that rock!? Whoa!” They also never stop running places. Unnecessary yelling and running are two signs of a successful outing.

The kids really staked our claim by never using the latrine. Not once. Peeing in the middle of nowhere, or right next to where you’re going to sleep, is one of the simple beauties of camping. It’s especially fun for a newly potty-trained two-year-old, though it’s also strange at first, given that pottying anywhere but in the toilet is usually a problem.

ice fishing at wildwood lake

Walking on a lake is really strange, too. My oldest was fine, but the others, especially the toddler, were spooked. They were very cautious for the first 30 minutes or so, looking down to scrutinize each step, and then looking up to remind themselves that other people were doing this too. I could see the wheels turning in their little heads: “Is this OK? Well, dad’s doing it. But dad is crazy. I think he eats bugs. Oh, other people are doing it too. And they look normal. Wait, that one is eating candy!”

Really, as soon as the candy comes out, everything is OK. We lasted for about an hour out on the ice. The kids ate candy and then transitioned to nuts and these amazing dried bananas from Costco that taste just like candy. But, with the warmer weather, the surface of the lake was becoming one giant puddle, making it difficult to run without slipping. Once everyone had confirmed this to be true, we decided to head back.

At camp, amidst the yelling, running, and peeing, I’m continually reminding the kids that these freedoms are only available when we’re camping. My goal here is to make camping seem super rad, building it up into the greatest thing that has ever happened to them, partly because I want them to share in my obsession, and partly because it’s getting cold as the sun sets and two of the kids are going to realize that mom is not there to comfort them.

wildwood lake campfire

We cooked hot dogs and marshmallows and then started the transition to bed time at about 7PM. Transitioning from party time to bed time is one of the major challenges of camping with kids. Sadly, the party has to end – no more running, peeing, or yelling. No more candy. None of these are compatible with sleep. It is tragic, really.

The younger two kids lost it soon after we got in the tent – their toes were cold, they were still hungry, and they wanted mom. But, after about 20 minutes of tears, I finally prevailed by reading to them from Call of the Wild. My explanation of “the dominant primordial beast” put them right to sleep.

Nebraska: A Different Kind of Great Outdoors

Backyard bonfire In case you missed it, in 2012 we moved from one Midwest city, Minneapolis, Minnesota, to an even more Midwest city, the solitary Lincoln, Nebraska. Both are very flat, no-nonsense, Midwestern places to work and live, but one contains a surprising number of things to do outdoors, despite its consistent lack of altitude. Most of these things to do involve H2O, whether in liquid or solid form. I’m talking about the land o’ lakes, of course. It was there, among the water and snow, that I soaked and froze my butt off. I also started to appreciate the gentler side of nature, one that’s without ocean or mountains but still 100% natural. And 100% cold.

Lincoln, which appears on a map to be the absolute center of the US, surrounded by more country than any other point, is lacking in altitude and all other forms of topography. As of 2012, it was declared to be the furthest I have ever been from things to do outdoors. In that first year here we camped out just one night in 365. Abysmal. For someone who dreams of retiring to a yurt, that was a bit of a downer. But I’m better now. I’m over it. After a year and a half in the flatland, I’ve decided that nature is in the eye of the beholder, and lots of other deep thoughts about perception and attitude.

What has taught me this great wisdom, you ask? I got desperate. First, I built a fire pit in our backyard. We have bonfires and roast mallows whenever we want now. And Nebraska is totally OK with that.

Second, I bike everywhere. Like Forest Gump, but on a bike. Previously, I would come in contact with the elements mostly during carefully planned excursions. I think that’s how it works for many outdoors folks. Before and after the big trip, we’re in a house or a car or other man-made structure for weeks or months, breathing conditioned air full of asbestos and other unnatural nastiness, dreaming of an adventure. But bike commuting puts you outside daily – more oxygen, more wind, water, earth. More elements in your face than on all your regular outings combined. Ironically, before coming to Nebraska, I never spent so much time outside.

Lincoln is connected by a nice, paved trail system. When I was a kid, we called them green belts, strips of grass, trees, and trails that usually protect creeks from residential areas and other development. Lincoln has a bunch of them, and most of my 8 miles to work are on them. This week I was biking just after sunrise and I jumped a red-tailed hawk perched near the creek. Not a big deal, until he decided to cruise along with me for about 30 seconds! I could have spit on him, if I were a camel. Of course, he could have pooped on me, so we called a truce. We were buddies, enjoying a little slice of green space in the middle of the city. Nebraska’s birds of prey are very courteous. They make you feel like Mary Poppins, or pretty much any of the Disney princesses.

Finally, to fit in, I’ve also started hunting. I’m a convert. I’ll describe the experience some other time because I’d get sidetracked by how strange it is to go from loving nature to also killing and eating it, to go from granola-eating tree hugger, to venison-eating gun slinger. Actually, I’ve only bow hunted so far. And I caught my first buck from a tree stand, last fall, so I am still hugging trees, sort of. The point is, hunting has taken my appreciation for the outdoors to a new level.

A good friend of mine has been my mentor through the conversion to hunting, helping me ease into a hobby, maybe even a lifestyle, that most people who hunt, I imagine, are raised with. I realized that I was stepping into something very strange and new when we were walking through the woods and my friend picked up some deer droppings and squished them between his fingers. “Squishy poo,” he said, was fresher and meant that deer had passed by recently. I had to raise my eyebrows to their maximum height on this one. A father is no stranger to squishy poo, of course, but I usually avoid skin-to-poo contact if at all possible. I guess handling deer feces is something I’ll have to get used too.

Anyway, this is all to say that Lincoln and Nebraska are both very livable, even for a former Californian (said while doing a hang-loose hand wiggle). The outdoors here are just a different kind of great. They’re great big, empty, windy, and isolated, with an occasional tornado. People may not get it at first. Without the mountains or lakes you end up focusing more on the dirt and the animals and the air and the deer poop. It’s less exciting, yes, and sometimes a little bland, but still filling and satisfying. The outdoors, that is.