Sunday, July 25, 2010

How not to introduce your children to camping

This weekend I attempted to demonstrate the wonders of tent camping to my two young offspring. Unfortunately, as most Pittsburghers are aware, this was NOT the weekend to go tent camping.

It seemed like a simple enough plan. Two guys, their four young daughters, a couple of tents, and enough s'mores to power a Girl Scout troop for weeks. My kids were very excited, this being their first experience sleeping in a tent that wasn't set up in the basement. We had our supplies ready, our juice boxes on ice, and our GPS coordinates entered. What could go wrong?

Well, for one thing, we failed to count on that predictable summertime weather in western Pennsylvania. Threat of rain + plans to do something outdoorsy = guarantee of rain.

After meeting at a local pizza shop for dinner, we all headed out in two cars to Cook Forest, about two hours away. The skies were clear, but it was one of those typical hot summer days that usually brings on a good whalloping of rain when you least expect it. We reached the campsite just after dark, and just as it started to rain lightly. Ever try finding a campsite in the dark while it's raining? It's about as easy as finding a lost penny at the bottom of a tar pit. Nonetheless, we found it just after that point where the girls began to get tired and cranky, wondering if we were ever gonna be there. You know how it goes.

We pulled in as the rains dissipated, and started to set up the tents while the girls proceeded to explore their surroundings by shining flashlights in each others faces. By the time I got my tent laid out, the rain came back. And this time, it brought friends. It was then I realized a crucial camping mistake, which is to ASSUME you remember how to set up the tent based on a foggy memory of doing it several years ago. Naturally, attempting this in the dark during a torrential downpour, With two children leaning over your shoulder screaming that they're getting wet, was not a pleasant experience. As I proceeded to set up the rain cover upside down, I started to wonder if parents of kids on the boat from the Poseidon Adventure felt the same way when it turned over.

Nonetheless, I got the tent set up keeping the inside relatively dry, managed to get the sleeping bags and the girls' things into the tent without completely soaking them, and attempted to lay them down for the night. Tried to, anyways. The girls sat staring at me, with fear in their eyes, as the thunder started. One began to cry in fright. The other just looked at me with an "are you serious?" look on her face. I explained to them that we were perfectly safe, and the thunder and lightning were far off, and that the tent would stay dry. Lucky for me, they were both exhausted enough that they fell asleep within minutes, each one with a death grip on one of my hands, while I lay wide awake for the next several hours listening to pouring rain and wondering if they felt I'd kidnapped them and were going to leave them in the forest as a very wet snack for the bears.

At around four in the morning, just as I began dozing off, Natalie tapped me on the forehead to inform me that one of her molars fell out. Well, at least there was that.

The next morning they recovered quickly from their night of terror, ate some breakfast, and were off to start the day. After quite a successful canoe trip down a lazy river, some go-karts, lunch, and a visit to a swimming hole, my buddy and I felt we'd probably redeemed ourselves from our attempts to permanently scar our children the previous evening. We made our way back to the campsite and cooked hot dogs and s'mores over the fire, and felt pretty good about ourselves. Then, the thunder returned.

This time we were prepared, and simply made our way into our now dry tents, just in time for yet another torrential downpour. It was then that my wife called me to inform us that the area was expecting severe thunderstorms until around one in the morning. Natalie began to cry again, and Jessica simply took on the same vacant stare that I remember Jeremy Piven having in the movie Judgement Night, when he realized that in a couple of seconds Dennis Leary was going to drop him off the side of a building to his demise. It was then that my buddy and I tossed in the towel and decided it was time to pack up.

We waited for this rainstorm to stop, made our way out of the tents, and began piling items into the cars. The girls, overjoyed with the idea of getting out of this god-forsaken place, were more than happy to actually help with the teardown and packing. And of course, just as we began to tear the tents down, the downpour began again. While the girls waited in the cars, the two of us finished packing up the tents while being drenched head to toe. When I finally sloshed my way into the minivan, one of my daughters greeted me with an outstretched arm holding my last dry shirt. She handed it to me and said, "maybe next time it won't rain."

That was all I needed.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


At last, I have her where I want her.

When my older child wants something, she's very clear about it. Her latest "thing" is dogs. Everything about dogs. Her room is decorated with thousands of stuffed puppies, ceramic puppies, pictures of puppies...there's even paw prints neatly painted on her bookshelves (very tastefully, I must say). This week, she's going to "camp" at Animal Friends, the local no-kill shelter. There, she's being immersed in puppydom. And it's getting to be a dangerous thing.

If you've been following my rants, you know we already have a dog. A crazy nutbag, neurotic, chew-up-everything-in-sight-if-you-leave-me-alone-for-more-than-38-seconds dog. So, naturally, she wants a second dog.

Each day she's come home not only telling us what she's learned about dogs that day (today we learned the term "hybrid dog!") but also about the latest little cutie that she absolutely must have. Trouble is, it's not just her saying, "oh, she's so cute, I MUST have her!". No, instead, she comes with justification, explaining the numerous reasons why it would really be beneficial to have a second dog:

1. It would help with Daisy's anxiety and attachment issues.
2. Daisy would have a buddy.
3. It's not like it would be TWICE as expensive to have two dogs (really?).
4. Daisy would play with the dog while we were gone and stop chewing things.

Hmm, well, frankly a couple of those items DO make sense. However, as the person who does 90% of the walking, feeding, mess cleanup and paying for, as well as 100% of the poop cleanup in the yard, I ain't too interested in doubling my efforts.

Naturally, my almost-ten-year-old declared she would step up to the plate and help with all that. I asked, "even poop cleanup?"

Of course, she replied with "eww...gross!"

I told her that's what it's going to take for me to even CONSIDER a second dog. She then declared that, yes, she'd help.

I tried to make her feel better about it by explaining that if you leave the poop in the yard a couple of days, it hardens like a rock and is easier to pick up. For some reason that didn't make her feel better.

This evening she and I walked Daisy together, and she continued to spout out facts about why it would be good to have another dog, a boy dog, one Daisy could be buddies with, one that would distract her, keep her busy, and she would certainly help more with the feeding and care, and yes, she'd even help clean the poop....

And right then and there, Daisy left a deposit in the neighbor's yard. So with a wide smile, I handed my daughter the little plastic bag.

She replied with, "what, now?"

"Yup, if you even want me to CONSIDER IT..."


But she did it. Arms extended, holding her nose the entire way back. But she did it.

Upon our return, we walked into the basement and was reminded of the massive pile of cardboard boxes, destined for recycling, that Daisy turned into confetti all over the basement floor. The pile that's been sitting there for two weeks.

She's downstairs cleaning it now, as I write this.

Ah, a classic parenting moment. I wonder how long I can milk this?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Family Vacation

We've just returned from what can only be deemed a classic American vacation. Last week we packed the minivan with beach toys, scooters, coolers, and antacid and headed for a rented beach house in Delaware, where we stayed with our close friends who also have two small children and an SUV filled with crap.

Overall the week was a success. We left on speaking terms with our friends. The moms got their well deserved rest and yet left more exhausted than they arrived. We only broke two dishes, a glass, and a vase containing fake flowers that was a victim of poor placement in the first place. And the dads, also known as the "pack mules", managed to squeeze out just enough relaxation to not go completely insane.

Paul, my fellow pack mule, reminded me of a post I created several years ago as a warning to future parents on what they should expect when a new member of the family arrives. Well, in a similar vein, a couple with no kids perhaps debating whether or not to join the parenting game might just decide against it after reading the following vacation highlight reel. I'm pretty sure the sound of doors slamming and tires squealing that I heard one night early in the week was the unmarried vacationing couple next door sneaking out in a combination of disgust and panic.

The bunk beds
The kids were quite excited to find two sets of bunk beds in the house where we stayed. Of course, with one kid still in a pack-and-play, that meant two top bunks for three kids. Time for a lesson on sharing, right?

Before the first night's sleep it was decided that, each night, the kids would switch things around so that the duty of sleeping in a lower bunk would be shared equally amongst them. This seemed like a reasonable idea at the time. Unfortunately it also meant that, each night, the parents had to deal with a child who was so traumatized by the possibility of bumping her head when sitting on the lower bunk that they would refuse to go to bed. For some reason, none of the kids bought into the logic that my buddy and I both spent four years of college sleeping on a bottom bunk while somehow avoiding a concussion. Go figure.

The tantrums
By the end of the week, Paul and I made it a game of deciding which kid would be next to tantrum, and why. With only a little practice we were able to call them moments before they would occur, much like Radar O'Reilly in M*A*S*H would announce the arrival of helicopters before anyone else could hear them.

There were tantrums over sharing of toys. Over naptime. Over sandcastles. Over hair clips. Doors being closed on fingers. Sequence of showers. Showers instead of baths. Baths instead of another five minutes in the pool. Getting out of the pool. Getting out of the bath. Getting out of the shower. Shopping for trinkets. Shopping for t-shirts. Over ice cream. Over dinner selections. Over being dragged on a pirate cruise. Over who got to be the 8th person in the minivan, forced to sit in someone's lap.

In other words, it was just like being home.

Fear of the ocean
I suppose it's healthy for a child to have some level of fear of the ocean. It's big and swirly, tastes bad, and movies are made about it with sharks eating people who like to swim. On the one hand, there's the level of fear that allows the child enough courage to go ankle deep into the water, only to dash out at full speed before the cold wave splashes at thigh level. On the other hand, there's the child who's level of fear is so high that just the sight of seeing dad enter the water without her causes screaming and panic. We experienced both levels, and every one in between. My oldest managed to work up the courage to join her dad several yards into the water where the waves broke, only to refuse to speak to him for the rest of the night when he somehow managed to allow the wave to crash directly into her face, filling her open and screaming mouth with salty sand. Paul's oldest took the stance of "uh uh...if I don't go in, you don't go in, so get your butt out of that water, mister!". Thus, he stayed pretty dry all week.

Out to Dinner
What would a beach vacation be without that night out at a big ol' seafood restaurant? Well, we belted through two dinners out this week, one more successful than the other. The first was in classic style. The little one's nap failed to take, so he was the typical bear that every parent dreams of. The only way to keep him from fussing was to constantly distract him with the spotlight-induced images of fish swirling around the restaurant floor, and thus we didn't see much of him or his mom the entire meal. And of course there were the usual bathroom breaks. First a child announces it's time to empty the bladder, so mom takes her. Upon returning to the table, the second child announces it's her turn, and the parent returns to the bathroom. Once back, she realizes that she, herself failed to go, and it's time for another trip. By then the appetizers are finished, and it's the dad's turn to go. Overall, we would have all seen more of each other if we'd asked for a table inside one of the restroom stalls.

The second dinner was almost strangely successful, with little issue to speak of. This was despite the 45-minute wait for a table, which we realized would be worth it when we thought about the fact that it would take us at least that long just to find another restaurant, and on a Friday night that place would have a wait as well. But the kids kept themselves occupied the entire time. Perhaps it was due to the four iPhones we had in our possession, each with a copy of the game "Pee Monkey" on it.

The noise, noise, noise, noise!
After accepting the challenge from my eldest child to swim down and touch the bottom of the nine-foot deep pool, I found myself unable to remove the water from my ear. After three days of asking people to repeat themselves and turning the TV volume up to eleven, a trip to the local urgent care facility was necessary. It turned out that the water pressure had compacted enough wax into my ear canal to make an entire colony of bees say, "dude, that's a lot of wax."

Unfortunately I didn't realize how good I'd had it. After my ear cleaning, I quickly learned just how loud a house with four children who've had nothing but ice cream and popcorn for four days straight can be. I promptly went back to the urgent care facility and asked for my wax back.

It only took about thirty years, but at last I finally understand why my parents never took me or my sister anywhere.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

On LEDs, snoring dogs, and the Daily Show

My wife and I have a pretty good sleeping space. Though it's a fairly big bedroom (about 30 feet long, 12 feet wide), it doesn't feel cavernous or empty. Probably because of all the crap everywhere, but that's for another post. It's quiet and peaceful most of the time, except when the neighbor kid plays basketball in the driveway next door at midnight, but that's also the subject of another post. What IS the subject of this post, you ask? Well, tonight I'm going to talk about the wonders of LED technology and how they manage to nerf up my REM sleep.

You may recall a year or so ago, the fun adventure I had attempting to replace the ceiling fan, due to a light clicking noise that came from the motor at 4 in the morning. Well, along with that episode I've managed to build up a fine little collection of enemies to my feng shui. For example:

A couple of years ago we picked up an admittedly cheapass 19" LCD television for the bedroom. After the first hour of the first night with it in our room, I had to trudge down to the workshop and locate the roll of black electrical tape to cover up the bright blue LED light shining from the bezel of the TV when it was OFF, because it lit up the entire room at night. Now I ask I REALLY need an indicator to know that my TV is off?

A few months ago, when we upgraded our Tivo, I moved the old one into the bedroom. We quickly realized that the need for quiet sleep outranked the need to watch last night's episode of Jon Stewart in bed, and the Tivo's fan was soon silenced by our unplugging the unit and selling it on ebay.

I'm currently typing this on our Mac in the bedroom. This Mac usually resides in the office downstairs, but its been temporarily moved to the bedroom while we remodel the office. I've taken to putting it to sleep each night, so that it doesn't randomly spout out midnight appointment reminders or blind us when the screen suddenly wakes up. I've also had to cover up the external hard drive, which has yet another blue LED that lights up the room.

Last but not least, we just received a new bedroom cable box from our cable provider. This unit is a DVR (the reason we have a DVR along with the Tivo is yet another post). Between the loud fan and the ultra-bright clock on the face of this unit, it gets unplugged at night as well.

It seems to me that these are all fine examples of weaknesses of the product testing process. Just like the way only left-handers tested the iPhone's antenna strength, obviously no one bothered to test out the TV or cable box at night in a real world test, only to discover the LEDs are bright enough to land a plane by. Kudos to the LED industry for making an impressive product. Sell it with a dimmer switch next time.

It never used to be this way. Back in my college years I spent many a night zonked out in the back bedroom with 40 or 50 of my fraternity brothers on the other side of the wall, doing and consuming things that really aren't appropriate for this blog. I blame this change in my ability to sleep soundly quite squarely on my children. 9 or so years of waking up to the slightest whine or sniffle has really taken its toll. And right now, as I turn to look behind me, I see my lovely wife zonked out across my pillow and breathing heavily, my dog in her crate snoring, and my younger offspring asleep on the couch and coughing lightly every thirty seconds or so. I think I will go downstairs and catch last night's Jon Stewart.