Mr. Macala


Mr. Macala, 1976 Gage Park High School Yearbook.

When I think of influential people in my life, I don’t often think of teachers. Some teachers merely teach, but others offer valuable lessons that don’t sink in until much later in life. So when I think back to influential teachers like Sister Laverne at Holy Cross School and Enrico Mordini at Divine Heart Seminary, I also recall Robert Macala and would like to add him to my list of influential teachers. Whenever I recall him, it’s as Mr. Macala, as we were taught to address our teachers in high school.

I met Mr. Macala at Gage Park High School because he took my picture for the chess team and when I won a trophy at a chess tournament at the La Salle Hotel in downtown Chicago. I’m not sure how he found out that I had won the trophy, but he came looking for me with his camera and took a picture of me with the trophy. If I’m not mistaken, I believe that he called two girls walking in the hallway to come in and pose with me for another picture. I suppose to give me this aura of being a sexy chess player. I may just be imagining some of the details about the girls as I recall the incident. But it seems so real now as I imagine it. Forgive me if I have embellished the story. Lately, I’ve been recalling events that I have never experienced!

Anyway, Mr. Macala asked me to write a short description about myself and about the chess tournament and he would then publish the picture in the school newspaper. He asked me to write this with such great confidence that I would do it immediately. He just assumed that I was capable of such a simple assignment. But, alas, I never wrote the brief description and my picture never appeared in the school newspaper. He overestimated my capabilities, but I liked the fact that he truly believed I could do it.

I met Mr. Macala again in the summer of 1975 when I attended summer school at Kelly High School and he was the English teacher. I must admit that I had a very bad attitude that summer. I had just failed English in my senior year, so I didn’t graduate. I had to make up the English class during the summer. I truly believed my life was over. FML! That’s how I felt, long before the acronym was even invented.

I worked midnights at Derby Foods, the peanut butter factory, and then went immediately to English class in the morning. I had failed English because I worked and I didn’t sleep enough before my midnight shift. I often fell asleep during my classes. Plus, I didn’t do any of the reading or writing assignments. And, sometimes I didn’t show up to class. Was that any reason to fail me? Oh, yes, I also failed to write the required term paper!

So, I was greatly relieved in summer school when Mr. Macala announced on the first day of class that we wouldn’t have to write a term paper. The whole class breathed a collective sigh of relief! Perhaps the class wouldn’t be so bad after all. I don’t recall all the details about what was taught in class. But I do remember how Mr. Macala kept the class’s attention by straying from the lesson. He did teach us English, even though I don’t remember exactly what, and he also gave us writing assignments. I still have a book report and a couple of assignments that I wrote for Mr. Macala. I was so happy with the class that I actually saved some of the assignments instead of throwing them away as I did with all my other high school classes. Occasionally, he read student papers aloud and I was surprised he read mine. The assignment was to write a letter that you would like to receive. I tried to be funny and apparently he thought it was funny because he read it to the class. No one had ever read my writing to the class in high school before.

What I remember most are the lessons that were not part of the curriculum. He told us stories to entertain us. Some were works in progress, I’m sure, that he was perfecting for future use. He once told us a mystery story. “It was a hot summer day. We ate some apple pie, but there was still once slice left in the pan. We put the pie pan away. I took a nap and when I woke up–the last slice of pie was gone! I never did figure out what happened to it!” Perhaps this doesn’t sound like much of a mystery story to you, gentle reader, but Mr. Macala had a way of telling stories that kept you hanging on his every word.

The story that fascinated me the most was the one about how he started a backgammon club. He loved to play backgammon. Someone suggested that he start a backgammon club. So he put a flyer up at the local supermarkets asking backgammon players to send money to him to join a backgammon club. He was surprised when many people actually sent him money to join. He had to actually follow through with the club. Soon, he was holding backgammon tournaments with prize money. This proved to be a very profitable venture. I learned a very valuable lesson about capitalism, but I had never had the initiative to do anything comparable. I didn’t capitalize on this knowledge.

He also inspired me academically. He told us he wasn’t a very good student in high school, but discovered he was intelligent once he started college. I would remember this fact years later when I contemplated going back to school. I never thought I was a good student either. Ever! I recalled his words when I went back to school. I told myself to do all the homework for all the classes and study for the exams. My goal was to try to get at least a C in every course. Once I applied myself, I discovered that I was a much better student that I had thought. Eventually, I graduated Phi Beta Kappa. Thanks in part to Mr. Macala’s story of his student days.

After high school, I lost track of him. Jim, Vito, and I often remembered Mr. Macala. We all agreed that he was a little wild and crazy. But that’s what appealed to me about him. He was intelligent and a little eccentric. One Saturday night, Jim, Vito, and I were on Rush Street for a night on the town. Picking up girls, the way we always did. That was our joke. Picking up girls the way we always did. Actually, we weren’t very good at picking up girls at all. On Saturday night, one of us would ask, “What do you want to do tonight?’ “I don’t know” “Why don’t we pick up girls!” “Yeah! Let’s pick up girls. Like we always do!” We never managed to pick up even one girl! If a girl fell unconscious in front us, we couldn’t pick her up. Not even if we all lifted at once.

Anyway, we were on Rush Street picking up girls as per usual. Suddenly, we see a man standing at the entrance of a night club, actually called a disco back then. This man was flirting with every woman who walked by. He made comments to every passerby. He started telling us something when we approached him. We all recognized him immediately. “Hi, Mr. Macala!’ We were surprised to see him there. Now that I think back, it makes perfect sense that he’d be there!

Well, of all the teachers who greatly influenced me, Mr. Macala is the only with whom I still communicate. In fact, we are friends on Facebook! He now lives in Florida and he asks me questions about Spanish all the time. The roles seem to have reversed.

Bilingual idiot


I bought this dictionary in 1979 at the PX in 29 Palms, California.

As a boy, I set the ambitious goal of learning ten foreign languages. I’m not sure how I came up with the number ten, but once I picked ten I stuck to it. And I’m still sticking to it even if it’s an unrealistic goal. As of today, I am still many languages away from achieving fluency in ten. But I like ten because it’s a nice round number.

I have had several setbacks along the way. For example, people would tell me, “Learn to speak English first!” (Have you ever noticed that people who insist that foreigners learn English only speak English? I’d like to see them learn another language!) Of course, they were right because my first language was Spanish. I spoke English very poorly at first and later with a foreign accent.

In my quest for foreign language fluency, I have studied many languages over the years. At Divine Heart Seminary, I took French as an elective my sophomore year in addition to Spanish with Señor Mordini. When I went to Tilden Technical High School, I continued my French studies with disastrous results, about which I wrote a blog post. At Gage Park High School, I gave up on foreign languages altogether.

In the Marines, I tried learning Japanese from a roommate who was stationed in Okinawa, Japan. I learned only as much Japanese as he knew, which wasn’t very much. But I can still say, “Domo arigato” and “Sayonara“! During this time, I spent a lot of time reading. I many read books on English grammar. I would check out books on grammar and writing from the library and read them cover to cover. My Marine roommates thought I was crazy, but that helped because then they avoided started trouble with me. I also bought a Spanish/English dictionary and I would browse through it to improve my Spanish vocabulary. I got this great idea from reading the biography of O. Henry who read a dictionary that he received as a gift for the first book he had ever read. Amazingly, I also improved my English vocabulary.

When I finally went to college, I studied Spanish in earnest for the very first time. The grammar I had learned from the English grammar books helped me immensely with the Spanish grammar that we studied in class. I also took Portuguese and did well in class, but I never did learn to speak Portuguese fluently because of a lack of time and contact with Portuguese speakers. I took Latin because I thought it would be fun and might prove helpful for the foreign language requirement if I actually went on for my Ph.D. Well, I didn’t learn to speak Latin either. Not that anyone speaks Latin anymore, but I did learn the difference between the relative pronouns who and whom.

So, I thought I would take a practical language that someone actually speaks worldwide.  I studied Russian for four semesters. There were very few cognates! It was only then that I realized that I had only studied Romance languages, other than English, and learning new vocabulary was fairly easy because of all the cognates derived from Latin. Sadly, I did well in Russian class, but I can’t speak Russian either.

The next language I studied–actually, I’m still studying it–is Polish. There aren’t very many Latin cognates, but since I studied Russian, some of the grammar rules are similar. Polish pronunciation is much easier than Russian. The most amazing part about learning Polish is that the accent always, with very few rare exceptions, falls on the second to the last syllable (la sílaba penúltima, en español). After studying Russian, I feel more confident studying Polish. Perhaps I will learn another language after all!

But I’m not so sure I will. Even though I have attempted learning other languages and failed, I console myself that I’m fully fluent in Spanish and English. Perhaps I am destined to forever remain a bilingual idiot.

Cedar Point


Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio.

I’m not sure how the conversation started, but my sons and I thought back to all the amusement park that we had ever ridden. Of course, when you speak of amusement park rides, you also conjure up images of roller coasters. Tall, scary fast roller coasters. They wanted to know what was the scariest roller coaster I had ever been on. I thought long and hard and finally recalled the Blue Streak at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio.

Way back in 1975, I went to Cedar Point with Jim Harmon because he had gone there with his family when they lived in Indiana. He told me about what a great amusement park it was. And, it was within driving distance from Chicago. We really enjoyed all the rides (I was much, much younger then). However, I only remembered one ride: The Blue Streak. It was the most wicked roller coaster I had ever ridden. Jim warned me in advance of the big drop at the beginning, but even with advance warning, I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to experience. Back then, the only safety feature was a bar that we pulled back over our laps. So, when we went down that first drop, I actually felt myself floating off the seat and I clung to the safety bar for dear life! Then there were a whole series of little dips that actually caused me to be airborne many times during the rest of the ride. From then on I compared all roller coasters to the Blue Streak, which had become my gold standard.

So, I told my sons about the best roller coaster in the world. They suggested we go to Cedar Point to check it out. Since I keep becoming more and more like my father, I follow many of my sons’ suggestions. We went to Cedar Point in 2004 for the first time, but the Blue Streak was no longer the most exciting roller coaster at Cedar Point. In fact, Cedar Point became the roller coaster capital of the world. There were so many roller coasters that we didn’t have time to go on all of them in one day. Yes, the lines for the main attractions like the Millennium Force and the Top Thrill Dragster were more than two hours long!

Well, we loved all the roller coasters! But just for old time’s sake, I suggested that we ride the Blue Streak so they could experience firsthand what I had described to them. They were not as thrilled. Of course, after riding all the other roller coasters, the Blue Streak was anticlimactic. They were like, “Dad! What a boring roller coaster.”

When we went on the Blue streak again last week, after I insisted–actually, begged–, They said they couldn’t believe how the Blue Streak could have been the main attraction at Cedar Point. I told them, “Just wait until you have your own children and you tell them about the rides today. They will be surprised at how boring these roller coasters are. They’ll have something way faster and scarier.” I don’t think I entirely convinced them. But roller coasters just keep getting higher and longer and faster and scarier all the time.

Check out some of the roller coaster world records at Wikipedia:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_roller_coaster_records

Vanity license plates


This is not my vanity plate!

Vanity of Vanities! Everyone seems to have a vanity license plate. Everywhere I look on the road, I see a vanity plate.

I give up! For a while there, I was taking pictures of clever vanity license plates, although I must admit that some vanity plates weren’t so clever. People are more than willing to pay extra for these license plates, whether or not they’re clever. There are just too many vanity license plates for me to photograph!

I quit taking those pictures for safety reasons. Occasionally, I would take a picture of vanity plates while driving and a couple of times I almost got into an accident. Is my life worth risking for the sake of documenting people’s idea of “wit”? Will I further humanity by continuing to risk my life? Will anyone notice that I’ve stopped taking these pictures on the road while driving?

Lately, I’ve noticed that there are so many vanity license plates in Illinois. So many that I’ve reached the conclusion that we must be the vainest state of the Union when it comes to vanity plates. Every time I drive, I see at least one vanity plate. When I drive to other states, I don’t see as many vanity plates. Okay, I did see quite a few in California, but not the other states I drove through. But I’m sure that other states will catch up with the growing popularity of vanity license plates.

On becoming a man


Are you a man?

If you had the (mis)fortune of being born a male, you know that you must endure certain rites of passage to manhood. However, no one ever asked me if I want to participate in these rites. They were not optional. But they were thrust upon me. Unfortunately, no manual exists for these rites of passage. Sometimes, I didn’t even know I was undergoing one of these rites until after I had passed it.

The real question about all these rites of manhood is, “Is there a defining moment when you pass from boyhood to manhood?” You know, one moment you’re a boy, then something, je ne sais quoi, happens, and suddenly you’re a man.

I bring this up because my friend Jim, according to his father, had such an experience. Let me explain. Jim and I met at Gage Park High School in physics class and he encouraged me to join the chess team. We soon became good friends. In fact, we’re still friends to this day.

Anyway, we would visit each other at home and occasionally play chess. I got to meet his entire family because I visited them so often. Once when they went to a family reunion in Kentucky, I got to tag along. Actually, I think they needed another car and I was willing to make a road trip with them. I really liked Jim’s mother because she always laughed at all of my jokes. And I do mean ALL of my jokes. So, naturally, I always enjoyed talking to her. Jim’s father, on the other hand, sometimes made me feel a little uneasy. He always exuded this high-testosterone manhood, even when he fell asleep on the sofa with a beer in his hand while watching TV.  He was a hard-working man who enjoyed a beverage or two (especially ones containing any amount of alcohol) after work. Sometimes, he would talk to Jim and I. He enjoyed telling us about his work history. He was truly a working man. He was never unemployed the whole time I knew him. He always worked and he took great pride in that. Once, he didn’t like how he was being treated at work, so he quit his job and found a new one the very next week.

When I started working at Derby Foods as a manual laborer, Jim’s father was so proud of me. He held me up as the ideal role model of a working man. Suddenly, in his eyes, I had achieved manhood by virtue of being a working man. I felt uncomfortable because I didn’t like to see Jim be put down by his father. “Jim,” his father would say, “Dave and I are working men. I hope I live to see the day that you work.” Despite what he said, I felt very much the same as before, like an overgrown boy, but I wasn’t about to tell Jim’s father. I was a working man and old enough, at age nineteen, to buy my own beer and wine in the state of Illinois. Jim’s father was proud of my manhood. He soon started telling Jim, “If you ever worked a full day’s work and then drank a six-pack after work, you’d probably drop dead!’ He really wasn’t happy until one day Jim was working at the same factory as his father. But he would not concede to the fact that Jim was now a man.

One day, I went to visit Jim and his father answered the door. I could tell that he was either hung over or drunk, or both. He was smiling like  never before. I had never seen him in such a mood. I asked him if Jim was home and he smiled proudly. Jim came down from his bedroom just in time to hear his father say, “Dave, you should be very proud of your friend Jim. Today, Jim is a man!” He then put Jim in a headlock that looked potentially fatal. Jim immediately freed himself from his father. “See!” his father said. “Jim is now a man!’ He tried to explain further, but neither Jim nor I could fully understand him. But I had never seen him so proud of his son before. He soon decided that it was time to go to bed. Jim thought it would be better if we left the house.

Later, he explained that the night before his father had gotten really drunk and he was looking for a fight. He started up with his wife and he was holding her so she couldn’t get away. So, Jim grabbed his father, which totally surprised him because Jim had never had a physical encounter of this sort with his father before. So his father turns to assault Jim, but Jim managed to throw him to the floor. Jim really thought his father was really going to tan his hide. At first, his father was angry as he got up, but then he realized that his son was no longer a boy. Jim then yelled at his father to go to bed and go to sleep. Surprisingly, Jim’s father obeyed.

For a few months after that, Jim’s father would beam with pride and tell me that his son was now a man. Jim had stood up to his father–who if you believed his father’s stories. he had never lost a fight–who was a real man. Jim had knocked him, a real man, down. For a while there, I really envied Jim. He was a man now!

Pete’s Market


Pete’s Fresh Market, Chicagolandia, Illinois

Because of its large Mexican community, you can shop for Mexican food at many grocery stores in Chicagolandia. There are the real supermercados like El Güero or La Internacional in Chicago, but Pete’s Market has been expanding recently. There are several stores on the south side of Chicago, one in Evergreen Park, and one in Calumet City. They’re very successful because they sell authentic Mexican products at low prices, although I’ve heard that they are Greek-owned.

I love their tamales. I used to go the Pete’s Market on 47th and Kedzie early in the morning just to buy tamales because they tasted great and I didn’t have to make them myself. If you love authentic Mexican food, you will certainly find it here.

They also sell Mexican candy and piñatas. Most of the employees speak Spanish. Even in Evergreen Park where you wouldn’t expect to find many Spanish speakers. Actually, I was surprised to see a Mexican grocery store open in Evergreen Park. But then again, Chicago wouldn’t allow a Walmart to open within the city limits, so they opened a store across the street in Evergreen Park, a suburb that always finds new and creative ways to generate tax revenue.

Don’t be surprised if a Pete’s Market opens up near you.