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

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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

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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?

Letter From a Student

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Screen Shot 2013-06-29 at 2.19.45 PMI sized him up as an unfortunately scrawny, somewhat needy, attention-seeking hobbit-of-a-boy when I first called his name for roll call. It was the first day of school in August of 2005.

One glaringly obvious quality of mine is that I often give off a bad first impression. But more so, I tend to completely misread others during the first encounter. And so it was true with my student-apprentice Joey that day. Teachers would understand that there is a short list — regardless of how long one has been teaching — of students we would list under the category of “most influential on my teaching.” For me, it’s certainly fewer than 10. Boy am I glad that first impression was sorely off-target because Joey has comfortably sat on this list since that 2005-06 school year — my second year in the classroom.

It wasn’t necessarily the quality of his work. In fact, as a journalism student of mine, this 15-year-old didn’t write much better than many other 15-year-olds I taught. Instead, the way in which he went about the process of learning struck me as unusual for a boy his age. He often sidled up to my desk not wanting to know what he may have done wrong on his writing assignment, but rather asking what habits he could practice to become a better writer. For Joey, the grade on the paper factored little into his definition of success. It mattered more that he learn the trajectory to higher achievement.

And the somewhat abrasive, too-cool-for-school, has-all-the-answers, humor-injecting attitude that I brought to the classroom as a 23-year-old proved exactly what Joey thought would help him achieve at a higher level.

So it went that as Joey took to my teaching, I took to his learning. We talked furiously and enthusiastically about writing, editing, design. But over the course of several months, it became more about leadership. I learned about his love for family and the emotional toll it takes on him when that life at home isn’t exactly picture-perfect. I learned of his love of God, though it was merely a mustard seed of faith at the time.

When I knew I would be teaching at a high school across the state line the next year, I first thought of Joey. I had looked so forward to seeing his inevitable growth both academically and personally. And, perhaps selfishly, I lamented that I would miss out on what I had yet to learn about myself from him.

The years betray good intentions of keeping in touch. Oh, we’ve attempted. An email here. A random lunch there. A wedding gift through the mail. But a few weeks ago, I received a package in the mail. The inside bore a Casa Hogar Coffee Co. mug — courtesy of Joey’s latest philanthropic business venture. A letter clung to the box. In it, Joey proudly described the mission and purpose behind his company. And as he typically described life changes of his, he included that he wasn’t sure if this was his calling or if he would be doing this five years from now. But he, in a round-about way, feels confident that this is what he is supposed to be doing right now. The journey he is on now, he wrote, includes and respects the lessons gained from his time in my classroom, lessons he said he would never forget.

What continues to make me smile (or smirk?) is that he lives his life hard. There are no wasted minutes. I’m not lost on the irony that I sit here in a dark den typing a blog to no one. Impressive too is his humble nature of knowing where he came from, the people he has encountered, and truly understanding that we are who we are because of the people we’ve surrounding ourselves with. Too often, I credit my achievements to my own hard work. And while self-reliance certainly is a respectable trait, Joey’s letter reminded me not to forget those who taught me — parents, teachers, students, friends, enemies. All of them.

Joey’s Company Website

Remembering Finny

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FinnyWhat I admire so much about dogs is how they always seem to love freely, without expectation. Such was true with Finny, my rat terrier that died yesterday.

I surprised myself over the course of the last two weeks with how much Finny was able to consume my thoughts. He quickly, unexpectedly, and still without a known cause, fell ill with renal failure at the beginning of this year. We kept him at the vet, flushed his system with fluids, experimented with Chinese herbs — anything to save his life. The empty spot at the end of the bed seemed more pronounced without his 15-pound body there. The unrelenting bark when the door bell rang. The harassment and desperation for just a scrap of food while I prepared dinner. The 10-minute-long lick-Dad’s-ear-and-neck sessions.

It was so noticeably absent.

I can’t remember the moments I meet most people. Those moments lack interest and significance for me. But I can remember that March afternoon in 2005 at a Kansas City rat terrier breeder’s home when the owners explained how everyone had scooped up this newest litter rapidly. But, for some reason, no one had taken the “dog that prances.” A head nod toward the kitchen area told me where I would find the prancing dog. And around the corner came this 3-pound, posture-perfect black dog, far from expressionless due mostly to his golden brown eyebrows broadcasting his emotions. I signed the paperwork, paid a little too much, and walked out a proud papa.

While I thought he was cute, we didn’t have the “man’s best friend” relationship that I was expecting. He seemed more like a “mama’s dog” — somewhat prissy, would be perfectly content in a purse, and wouldn’t complain if he were hand-fed.

When my life changed in 2007 and 2008, it came with the blessing of marriage. But it also came with a few headaches: a new job and a drastic pay cut, a new home, and an out-of-control flare-up of Crohn’s disease. My bond with Finny materialized during this time. No matter how many people I disappointed during the day, or how many times I screwed up, Finny had no idea, didn’t care, never held a grudge, threw out judgment. Instead, he waited for me to sit down so that he could spend the rest of the day proving how big his heart was. On walks, he turned his head around routinely to make sure I was still with him. While I watched TV, he maneuvered his body on the couch so that he could watch me watch TV, sometimes for hours. And he stood at attention, tail wagging, while I chopped, diced, and julienned each meal, knowing that I was in his debt and would throw him a carrot if he tilted his head just the right way.

And he knew that, because of his loyalty, I would return the favor to him. Even when he crept on the dining room table when my back was turned to inhale every last Christmas cookie. Even when he climbed on top of my head in the middle of the night so that he could slurp out of my tea mug on the bedside table. Even when he humped our cocker spaniel in front of company. Even when he turned the bathroom into a landfill and feasted on the contents of the trashcan.

Even when.

I think back on the events in my life since 2005. And at the end of the days of triumph, at the end of the days of sorrow, Finny was at home, waiting to show that he loved me just a little bit more than he did the day before.

And so, when it came time to make the decision to end his life, it tore at me in the deepest way. He had gone nearly lifeless in his last 24 hours with us. He was preparing himself to die. And, on the frigid evening of a full moon, we walked in silence as we carried him inside the animal hospital. Laura sat and held him in a blanket in her arms. I knelt on the floor so that I could watch him and let him know that I was committed to him to the last second of his life and would not let the sterile walls of a vet hospital be his last image but rather the unbroken, devoted gaze of his best friend. He lay there, weak, broken, and at his most vulnerable. He didn’t wince. He didn’t complain. He rested his head in my palm. And when the doctor injected him, I caressed his neck. I whispered a thank you. I said goodbye.

He loved because he could love. And I’ll be forever grateful to him for that example.

Finny, December 2004 ~ January 2013

Sifting Through It

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My memory is a sieve. Most daily events drain right through, but the most important parts remain. Today, I spent some time picking through those important parts. The treasures. The residue. The treasures and residue of 2012 — what I wasn’t able to forget.Sifting-Gold1

This was the year I beat Crohn’s disease for a few months to train for the Las Vegas Half-Marathon, where I and 30,000 others ran up and down the Las Vegas strip, many of us raising over $4 million for research into this disease. I learned just how many supporters I had in my corner — the lurkers on Facebook, the periodic text messages from family and friends, or the donation that would come in from the most unexpected of people. I found out who cared. And it’s taught me that I need to start caring back.

This was the year I finished my doctorate in education alongside my wife. Besides the sheer accomplishment of the blessed thing, I feel a deeper responsibility to my profession as a teacher — to uphold the dignity of my practice as an educator. More so, I enjoy my family referring to me as “the doctor” when they introduce me to people. And maybe more than that, I enjoy seeing my older brother roll his eyes at that and introduce himself as “the one who isn’t the doctor.” The turd.

I attended two funerals, two weddings. I experienced the divisions dug among family and the bridges built to reconnect them. I hugged friends and relatives in their darkest moments. I celebrated with them on their best days. In the same month I spiked the punch at my mother-in-law’s wedding reception, I paced in a waiting room waiting to hear the verdict of my uncle’s surgery to remove cancer. It’s the beauty and ugliness of living a life.

It was the year of words like “fiscal cliff” and “binders of women.” A year when politicians turned into circus clowns and partisan mouth pieces. A year when I finally came to terms with the idea that my government wasn’t going to take care of me, nor should it.

It was the year I remained firm in my belief that the Kardashians serve no purpose in American entertainment. That people like Bill Maher, Sean Hannity, Ed Schultz, and Rush Limbaugh remain on Paul’s Least Influential But Most Poisonous List.

It was a year that tested my 31-year faith journey as a Catholic when Bishop Finn was convicted of failing to report child abuse. The same year I began my 3-year term on my church’s Pastoral Council, helping to set the vision for our Catholic community, was the same year I questioned whether I could remain in a Catholic diocese so scarred by scandal and sin. The cross the bishop bore was also the cross thousands of us bore each Sunday in those pews. But the deep, undividing sense of community, and steadfastness toward faith reminded me that no faith community is led by one individual. It’s led by a belief system that is unrivaled by any other. And no government law or Chick-Fil-A media storm can darken that faith.

I was reminded again that alongside joy there is tragedy. While I administered a final to my Comp I students, sharing our comedies of the semester, hugging and high-fiving on the way out, a man gunned down a group of children in Connecticut. Life is beautiful. Life is sick. And when I pulled over to the side of the road that cloudy day in December to just weep, I turned that ignition and drove forward.

Because enduring tragedy isn’t all I’ve learned. If 31 years on this earth has taught me anything, it’s that it doesn’t just get better. It gets worse. Then it gets better. Then it gets worse. Then it gets better. And every time it gets worse, it’s just that easier to deal with. And every time it gets better, it’s just that sweeter.

And right now, it’s getting better.