“Kinda” Excited to Have a Baby


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The nostalgia of summer permeates nearly every thought in my mind this time of year. Years of summers had. Years of summers to come. But then I think of the summer that actually awaits me. And it causes much cognitive dissonance. Last night at BuyBuyBaby (a store run completely by untrained monkeys — a smear blog for another time), I asked Laura “Aren’t you so excited to meet him” (of course referring to our unborn child who will most likely cook for another 34 days). She gawked at a $20 price tag on a onesie and said “Kinda.”

To the casual observer, that might come across as her sounding like the Distant Mother or someone who Doesn’t Understand the Miracle of Childbirth. Whatever. When the word “kinda” oozed out of her mouth, my over-jubilant expression morphed into the same expression I make when someone walks in on me while I’m on the toilet — confused, vulnerable, bewildered, befuddled, amused. If you haven’t figured out Laura, it’s that she has an innate knowledge of Things that remain a mystery to the rest of us. She’s the Dumbledore of Decision Making. The Mufasa of Marriage. The Atticus Finch of Family. The Tinkerbell of Teaching. The Obi-Wan of <can’t come up with an alliteration>. If she said “kinda,” then she knows something I don’t. And because I was too confused by her response, I didn’t Jack-Bauer her into a tortured confession as to what she meant.

But here I am at 7:30 in the morning, awoken (awaked? awoked?) by the one word that slithered off her tongue so nonchalantly yesterday. Kinda.



I’m about to go upstairs where she is most likely sleeping with a relaxed smile on her face, shake her awake, and yell in to her face, “Tell me everything you know! Devil! Release her!”

Perhaps her “kinda” refers to the same cognitive dissonance that I’ve been trying to understand about my own feelings of the approaching summer. On one hand, to see my flesh and blood, hold him in my arms, play with his baby feet (a weird obsession) — I’ll finally experience fatherhood. On the other hand, I won’t be able to do what I did yesterday: Read upside down on the couch for hours without a care as to what anyone else in the world is doing. Sit on the porch by myself in the sun — staring at neighbors and making up stories about their lives. Work in the yard with headphones on before coming inside to … read. Get in my car driving wherever it takes me to eat something for lunch, listening to an audiobook. Then there’s the traveling. The “hey, want to go see a movie?” two hours before it starts and, yes, being able to drop everything to go do it. The Absolute Freedom to Be Absolutely Free.

That will be gone. That’s kinda exciting. That’s kinda unfortunate.

Laura and I have long been caught up in making each other happy. So when she says “kinda,” it’s perhaps an acknowledgement that we’re about to experience a new kind of joy that will bind us together like nothing has before. Instead of our focus aimed at each other, it’s aimed at our child. It’s also, perhaps, an acknowledgement that the change that’s about to occur is unknown — a beautiful change, yes. But unknown.  I catch her sometimes sitting in the rocking chair in his nursery holding his stuffed elephant. Her expression is usually serene. She rocks slowly, as if peacefully anticipating what it will be like to hold him here in just a little over a month. I like to read her “kinda” as an optimistic and anxious nod to our future.

Or maybe she’s just freaking out that a onesie costs $20.


An Exhaustive Salute to 2013


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It’s no secret that the holiday season (of which I consider to start on my birthday, November 20, and end on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6) is my favorite time of the year. Each day, I do that half-walk half-run thing to the mailbox to see who has sent the latest Christmas card. Not because of the card itself, but because of those fascinating holiday letters that some friends and family write. You know, the letters that have the photo on one side and a recap of the entire year on the other. I used to find these self-absorbing on the part of the sender, but in the last few years, mainly because of my flirtation with the grim reaper on the eve of 2011, I have taken an eager interest in what happens in people’s lives over the course of 365 days. And my 2013 was certainly one for the books as well.

It was one of those years during which I imagine God sat back with a bucket of popcorn watching the Restivos on one of his millions of spy cams, pointing every few days at the screen and shaking his head, laughing, crying, or shouting “What on earth are you doing?!”

The year started off with death. Our 9-year-old rat terrier, Finny, became sick and died in a short two-week period in January. And two weeks after that, Laura’s granny died. On more than one occasion, Laura and I muttered “This year sucks” to each other during those first several weeks of 2013. It was a somewhat maudlin month, simultaneously mourning the loss of a dog and a matriarch.





As is typical with many deaths, nostalgia settles in about the lost loved one. In our case (or I should say in Laura’s case) it was how perfect Finny was. And so throughout the month of February, Laura excavated the internet for the perfect rat terrier. And while I was away in Arizona in March, she drove an absurd distance, to some wonder of America called Texarkana, to pick up this little turd.

Basil, 2 months old

Basil, 2 months old

Basil has since marked our lives. And several of our underwear, patches of carpet, stuffed animals, blankets, and toilet paper rolls.

And the spring proved just as wacky when we sold our townhome earlier than expected (March), forcing our realtor Mike to lead these grand odysseys around the city, showing us this house and that. The pool of houses is kind of limited when you tell a realtor that you want to live in Johnson County, that you’re not rich, that you need four bedrooms, that you dislike split levels, that you hate open concept, and that under no circumstances should there be a homeowners association, which I firmly believe to be organized hate groups. Eventually, the seemingly endless checklist of wants resulted in the perfect home for us.

Unfortunately, the owners were not ready to move out, which forced us into temporary housing for the better part of five weeks. We moved everything into a storage unit, save a few bedsheets, a barely house-trained puppy, a reclusive cocker spaniel, and a couple of weeks worth of clothes, and played the part of drifters quite well. Our friends, Barb and Mike, gave up a bedroom in their home for us. No big deal, right? Except for the fact that they had just moved into this beautiful home and were still unpacking. And except for the fact that they have a one-year-old. And except for the fact that Barb was six months pregnant. Amazingly, we’re still friends. I’m still flummoxed at their generosity.

That was all in the first half of the year.

The second half saw me returning to my fraternity as an alumni board member for the second time, volunteering to teach weekly Confirmation classes to middle schoolers at the Catholic Church down the street, and embracing my family (and heavily Italian) roots as the New Jersey clan joined us for a weekend in early fall.


the cousins

the cousins

But nothing at all could compare to what dominated the final four months of the year. I still vividly remember walking in the front door one hot late summer day only to hear Laura say “Peej, come upstairs now.” I peeked up to the landing above the foyer to see her holding the pregnancy stick. And as they say, life changed course right then and there.

A year that began focused so much on death ended focused so much on new life. If I thought 2013 was a cornucopia of cheers and jeers, something tells me it has nothing on 2014.

And the Gender Is …


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No daughter wants this conversation to occur:

“So, dad. What was your reaction when you first saw me on the sonogram?”

“Well, dear. I was kind of hoping you were a boy. But I got you instead.”

No son, of course, wants that conversation to occur either. So I began mentally preparing myself for today’s sonogram. For years, even before I was married, I wanted a boy. Don’t most men want to have at least one boy? Someone to carry on the patriarchal seed? Or just someone with whom they can be equal around the house?

Yet soothsayers abound in my family and circle of friends. My dad never said “I hope you have a girl.” Instead, it was “You’re having a girl.” As if his words would end up in the driver’s seat of the sperm’s journey to the egg. And remember the moment when the pregnant Virgin Mary meets Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s womb jumps? Elizabeth immediately knew that Mary was full of grace and was carrying someone special. We had a similar encounter with my friend Mike. As soon as we walked in the door to his home, he gave Laura the once-over: “You’re totally having a girl.” And on it went. Relatives wishing for the girl. Friends insisting that Laura’s cravings and weight gain suggested two X chromosomes.

Naturally my grin was wider than normal today when the sonogram technician exclaimed the gender. I ultimately had the last laugh. Yes, I smiled because I was looking at my child’s face for the first time. But the smile was also one of triumph over the fortune tellers of the womb.

And they’ll be just as happy on May 10 when they meet my son.

May 2014: The Month We Enter Parenthood


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Yes, she’s having a baby. But I should explain.

Laura and I are five and half years into this marriage. One of the things that attracted me to her was not her potential for fertility, but rather her intense desire to succeed at whatever it was that she was doing at the time. And parenthood was not on either of our radars. In 2008, it wasn’t that we, as 27-year-olds, didn’t want to be parents. I mean, come on, I’m an Italian Catholic. I should have churned out a half dozen by now. That just wasn’t on our five-year-plan. Now, when I have a five-year-plan, something usually screws it up. If Laura has a five-year-plan, then damn-it, nothing will get in the way of it. So the years came and went. We secured jobs. Income went up. Doctoral degrees were secured. Two introverts as happy as can be, holed up in Kansas, peeking out at the world when we wanted.

Throughout the last five and a half years, though, we would say things to each other like “Well, OUR kids aren’t going to do THAT.” Or our endless conversations about our students would ultimately turn in to a discussion about how we would raise OUR children differently. When I reached 30 years old in 2011, those conversations became awkward. I started to make comments like, “You mean the children we talk about but are never going to have?” Or when we jumped on to one of those discussions about OUR children SOME DAY, we would both awkwardly end the conversation because we knew the years were ticking away and that we eventually wouldn’t be able to talk about the children that never were.

The minute our realtor, Mike, walked us into our new home, those four bedrooms cooed out us like spirits. “I’m ripe for a baby,” the room at the top of the stairs murmured. So naturally I put the dog cage in there. Our story, though, was ending a significant chapter. We knew our parenthood chapter was looming. But we never, not once, had a conversation like this: “So you ready to have a baby?” “Uh, yeah, ready, set, go.” Small smirks, creases of a smile, sauntering through the baby sections at stores — this is how we communicated that we were ready.

And so when I walked through the door that summer Sunday and heard, “Uh, Peej, you need to come upstairs,” I looked up at the landing to see her holding the “stick.” I wondered, in nightdreams, in daydreams, how I might respond to the news. I hoped dearly that it wouldn’t be something like, “WTF! How?!” So when I started laughing and smiling for the next two hours, I knew that kid would be welcomed in our home.

So here we are: She’s 17 weeks pregnant. I’m buying groceries and cooking like a mad man. I’m suddenly a stickler for watching our sugar intake (minus the occasional trip to Smallcakes.) I scold the dogs for putting their paws too close to the fetus bump. And I’m suddenly trying to figure out what kind of adult I want to be, what kind of parent, what kind of disciplinarian. It’s driving me a little bit crazy. But I kind of adore it.

Death is Life’s Auditor


There’s a scene in a Tim O’Brien’s book Going After Cacciato in which the characters — a group of soldiers — are successfully making their way through the forest when they literally fall into a hole in the ground. And in the blink of an eye, they were lost. 

That scene came to mind this week when our next door neighbors lost their son in a tragic car accident. This is a family that functions on 100-miles-an-hour. Soccer practices. Two kids in college. Full-time jobs. Career mom and dad. And all of a sudden, their normal became anything but. 

To be honest: I never met their son. I’d only seen him outside, working on his car, or in the backyard, playing with our dog Basil. And I only had a handful of casual how-do-you-do conversations with the parents. Still, this tragedy shook me in a strange way. It shook me in that way that makes me look to my left, then to my right, and to make sure I’m living the way I should. For years, I was handcuffed by a family tragedy that occurred when I was 15. The handcuffs then turned into a sort of grace that calmed me when confronted with life’s boogeymen. And in the last year or so, I’ve sped my life up to my own 100 miles an hour — just like my neighbors and so many others. 

I detest when people try to explain life’s tragedies as “part of life’s plan.” I’ve never thought that God uses people as pawns in order to force those of us still here to put ourselves on some sort of course correction. Foolish. But these tragedies certainly cause me to audit what I’m doing. 

Just like O’Brien’s soldiers, I want to find a path out of those holes in the ground. In his story, it required that they “fall back up.” 

The Gospel According to the Syllabus



With 20 days until the start of my 10th year of teaching, I’m feeling the pressure to purge my instruction of anything stale that might have accumulated over the years. I remember as a younger teacher looking pathetically at the veteran teachers who had spent more years perfecting their lesson plans than their own marriages or families. They could turn on the teacher auto-pilot mode and find comfort in the one consistent part of their lives. That was exactly why I didn’t go into teaching, I remember thinking.

So, naturally, I’ve had to hit control-alt-delete this summer to ensure that I don’t just rinse and repeat the same strategies, lessons, and handouts from the year before. I have nine, count ‘em, nine courses to teach this fall. Yes, I’ll be raking in the benjamins, but I’ll also be raking in the migranes and the piles of essays to grade. Nine courses might be OK for a ceramics teacher, or a math teacher. But an English composition teacher? Check, please.

I’ve mapped out three of those nine courses for the fall. That leaves me with 20 days to map out the remaining six. My process is pretty simple. I plot out what I want the final to be. Then, I establish the anchor papers (formative assessments). I build in peer review days and socratic discussions. After that, I’m usually left with about 26 days of actual instruction to plan for a Tuesday/Thursday course. A bit more with Monday/Wednesday/Friday courses. I fill in those 26 days with in-class readings, discussions, group activities, and direct instruction on writing skills and working with sources. Usually, I run out of days for the amount of content I want to deliver.

Then comes the syllabus. Back in high school, most of my teachers didn’t even pass one out. In college, it consisted mainly of the required materials and the schedule of assignments for the course. Then came about a gazillion regulations. The college now emails a document to us each semester with all of the required policies (and specific wording) that must be included in the syllabus. Deans and Department Chairs use the instructor’s syllabus as their own shield to deflecting student complaints. “Was it in the syllabus? Yes? Then it’s gospel. Sorry, kid.” And really, that’s fine with me. I’d prefer it that way. But it also means that the instructor better know what to put in that document.

In 2008, my syllabus was 7 pages. Yep. It included every policy and rule that I could think of. The problem? Students didn’t take the time to read it. So I pared it back to 4 pages and organized the information in a more readable format:

2011 Syllabus

2011 Syllabus, Page 1 of 4

But what I had really done was put lipstick on a pig. It was really seven pages of information that I had squeezed into four, thanks to a clever three-column design. In 2012, I went a bit overboard and turned my syllabus into a 4-page magazine layout. I filled it with comic strips, pictures of Bart Simpson writing on the chalkboard, and even a scowling picture of Eric Cartman.

2012 Syllabus

2012 Syllabus, Page 1 of 4

Students embraced it. They even quoted my syllabus to other students when they had questions about course policies and assignments. Mission accomplished. Until one student put on my teacher evaluation that my syllabus was too playful. He even complained to the Dean about it. The picture of Bart Simpson, apparently, was just too much for his squeaky clean eyes. I rolled my eyes at the incident but no doubt committed myself to redesigning my syllabus while preserving the readability that my students embraced. I pared it down to just three pages (actually eliminating content this time), placed more “culturally sensitive and neutral” images in it. And I came up with this:

2013 Syllabus

2013 Syllabus, Page 1 of 4

I think it works. It forced me to examine my own practices, which proves useful for a teacher in the game as long as me. After I finish planning these six courses, it’s a sprint to that first day of school. Summer. Where did you go?

Before I Build a Wall


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I have this Intro to Literature class looming over me for the fall semester. I haven’t taught the course for years, which means much of my pleasure reading for the summer is being tossed aside to make room for the heavy preparation the class requires. Half-reclined on the couch with the anthology opened to page 342, I read and re-read Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.” Much to the displeasure of some of my colleagues who detest Frost, I have obsessed over the man since I encountered him as a knowledge-hungry college student in 2001.

You’ve heard the poem. It has that famous line: “Good fences make good neighbors,” which I’ve always thought the majority of casual readers have misconstrued as something that means you have to have a nice fence in your yard in order to maintain positive relations with your neighbor. If you’ve read Frost enough, you know he was always up to something. He also writes in that poem, “Before I build a wall, I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out and to whom I was like to give offense.” He begins to question why the fence should be built in the first place. All the while, his neighbor keeps telling him that “good fences make good neighbors.”

It makes sense that, as a college student, I embraced this poem. It asks essentially “Why do we do the things we’ve always done?” Why do we evolve the way we do? Or perhaps, why do we not evolve when we should?

As I finished the poem a second time earlier this week, I removed my glasses and looked up at the scrolling marquee across the bottom of the television. “SUPREME COURT STRIKES DOWN DOMA.” There were images of crowds bursting with shouts and cheers, men and women hugging their partners. While perhaps several years later than it should have been, the court decision addressed one of the largest civil rights issues of my lifetime.

Perhaps reluctantly, and always with one eye open, I opened up Facebook. As per usual, the vitriol poured down my news feed. Folks defending traditional marriage. Gay-marriage proponents bashing traditional views. Liberals and Conservatives slinging turds at one another. With Robert Frost staring up at me from my lap, I asked him with my eyes what he thought of all this. The words on the page, written decades ago, seemed to hurl themselves at the TV. Preserve tradition, yes. But understand why. And if the need arises that the wall you’ve built for years shows decay, it’s time to tear it down and build another one. It’s time to redefine it. Redecorate it. Reinforce it. After all, who doesn’t like a quality renovation from time to time?


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