Nihil


Talk about potential!

Sometimes I have crazy ideas. Okay, maybe a little more often than sometimes. If you’re a regular reader, you know what I mean. Well, my latest idea–actually, I’ve thought about this one for years–involves renting an empty storefront. I would paint a simple sign in the window: NIHIL. I would set up a desk with a computer where I could write. I would also surround myself with my books in bookcases. There would be inviting desks, tables, and sofas for for the curious to come in and be creative. Or, if they’re not creative, reading would also be permissable. If no one came in, I would sit there in public view writing my blog or working on my website. Anyone would be welcome to come as long as no one talks and interrupts the creative process of anyone present.

For the uninitiated who entered and asked, “What does ‘Nihil’ mean?” I would say, “Nothing.” Or perhaps I would say nothing. And maybe they would catch on that they were not supposed to talk. I would point at the available furniture. If they left, so much the better. This way I could keep writing. If, however, they stayed quietly, I would feel as if I had accomplished something.

This is a crazy idea for me because I basically do that at home right now. Whenever I’m at home I sit at my computer writing something or other without any interruptions. Or, I read. Some people can’t do anything productive at home, but not me. I’ve always been at my most productive while at home! Besides, I can’t afford to rent an empty storefront.

Reading


 

Reading has been my lifelong passion. I have always loved reading! Even when I went camping with my friend Jim, I took books along. He took this picture of me reading while I was so engrossed in reading. 

I loved the first grade when we started reading. At that level, it didn’t matter that I didn’t know English. Our homework involved reading to our parents at home. My mother thought that was too much trouble for her after a long day’s work, so I would read to my abuelita. Unfortunately, not only did she not speak English, but she was also blind. But she loved it when I read to her. And I was grateful to have someone to listen to me read. 

When I was a little older, I used to go to the library to read. I mostly read joke and riddle books, but that still counts as reading in my book. In the seventh grade, Divine Heart Seminary let me check out books from their library via the USPS. I only remember two of the books that I read. One book was about Father Damien who was a missionary on a leper island in Hawaii. And the other one was Fighting Father Duffy who was a U.S. Army chaplain during World War II. Now why would the seminary only send me books about priests? I’ve always wondered about that. Not!

I like reading at the library because I had more privacy. If mother saw me reading comic books or even books, she would criticize me for being lazy. When I finally bought my first car, I would drive to Marquette Park just to read in my car. When I would come home, my mother would ask me what I did. When I told her I went to the park to read, her blood would boil. Then she would tell me about other constructive things I could have been doing around the house. 

In general, the uneducated masses don’t understand why anyone would want to read a book. When I worked in the peanut butter factory, I always carried a paperback in my back pocket. Whenever the production line stopped or I was on break or lunch, I would pull out my book and start reading, even if I had to stand. No matter who my boss was, he would come by and tell me to pick up a broom and start cleaning up my area. No one at the factory really understood why I liked reading so much. 

Ironically, the books I chose to read were the books that I refused to read in high school. In high school, I spent most of my time reading chess books. For two years my life revolved around chess.  But once the assigned books weren’t required reading, they piqued my curiosity. Why were they required reading in the first place? So, one by one, I read all the books I once rebelled against. Suddenly, I felt a certain sense of fulfillment. 

In the Marines, I bought the Great Books set and I would read them every free moment. My fellow Marines thought I was a bit crazy, but that’s why no one started any trouble with me. That and I told everyone I knew kung fu. No one wanted to risk starting trouble with me. 

Devil in the White City


The audio book I borrowed from the Chicago Public Library.

I just finished reading this great book about Chicago and the 1893 Columbian Exposition. And when I say reading, I mean “reading” as in I didn’t actually read the book. Rather, I listened to the audio version of it on CDs while I drove. So I’ve been doing a lot more “reading” lately because I’ve been doing a lot more driving (no quotes) lately. And that’s all thanks to these audio books on CD. For some reason, I didn’t like listening to audio books on cassette and I only listened to a few. Cassettes just seemed like to much work. For a while, I wasn’t reading as much because I was always on the go. But now I can do both at the same time! I love audio books on CD!

I had heard about this book years ago and I had always meant to get around to read it, but somehow I never had time. A few weeks ago, I was in my local library and I saw this book prominently displayed on the shelf. I love reading books about Chicago! This book focuses on the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, which is represented by one of the red stars of the Chicago flag below. (Note to self: Write a blog entry about the symbols of the Chicago flag.) I learned so much about Chicago history through this one book alone. First modern serial killer was H.H. Holmes who got his start during the World’s Fair.

By being awarded the World Fair, Chicago had to top the previous World Fair that was hosted by Paris, France, which had set attendance records for a peaceful event. And they also introduced the world to the tallest man-made structure ever built: The Eiffel Tower! Chicago was undaunted in trying to top Paris. From the ashes of the 1871 Chicago Fire, not only did Chicago rebuild itself, but it also topped the Paris World’s Fair. The engineering marvel that topped the Eiffel Tower was the Ferris Wheel that was then the tallest man-made structure. And people could actually ride it to the top and witness breath-taking views. To this day, most carnivals still have a Ferris Wheel. (In Spanish, it’s call la rueda de fortuna.)

The Chicago World’s Fair, or the World’s Columbian Exposition as it was also known, helped shape Chicago as a modern city and introduced the world to many modern inventions, including electricity on a wide scale at the White City. The main feature of the fair was the White City that was constructed by Daniel H. Burnham and company. This provided the creative spark for the Emerald City of Frank L. Baum when he wrote The Wizard of Oz. And the White City also influenced Disneyland and other amusement parks. The White City is also mentioned in “America, the Beautiful,” as “alabaster cities.”

On the road


CD Book from the Chicago Public Library.

For someone who spends so much time on the Internet, I also spend a lot of time on the road. Since I’m on the road a lot, I feel like I’m wasting time I’m not on the Internet. True, I occasionally check my e-mail on my iPhone while I’m driving and I do study road maps while on the Internet. The best of both worlds! Years ago, I tried listening to books while driving. That was back when most of them were on cassettes. I quickly gave up because it involved too much work. So lately, I once again felt the need to occupy myself productively while driving. While studying Russian, I listened to the oral activities on an mp3 player via my car radio. But it just wasn’t the same as reading. I remembered the audio books. Most books are on CDs now and are much easier to manage while driving. The first one I heard was On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Because I imagined writing a blog entry, titled “On the road”! I also listened to Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, but decided against writing a blog entry titled, “On the River Niger”! How would that be possible while driving my 2005 Pontiac Vibe?

I went to the library to check out their collection of audio books. I immediately gravitated toward Jack Kerouac because On the Road has been on my “To Read” list since the 1980s. I have always heard about that book and any book that constantly attracts my attention deserves to be read–at least in my book. I had no idea what it was about, but I knew I just had to read it. I was intrigued by the fact that it was written on one continuous sheet of paper. I tried to imagined how Kerouac could have written his book lugging his manual typewriter and roll of paper while driving all over the country. To think that I complain whenever I have to lug my laptop computer around with me! Anyway, the book was an interesting read because I was disappointed by its plot, but enticed enough by the writing style to continue listening to the end. The reader of the audio book made it very interesting in the way he acted out some of the scenes. He added so much to text. If I were reading the actual book, I would have finished reading it because it did captivate me in a way I had not expected.

Kerouac has this enormous vocabulary that occasionally upstaged the action of the novel. For instance–however, I don’t recall all the details nor the exact wording–in one scene Kerouac and his friends find themselves released from jail after a night of heavy drinking, carousing and fist-fighting. They have no money and they don’t know where their car is. Jack says, “whereupon we pondered our dilemma.” Somehow, the high diction added to the incongruity of their situation. Of course, I would never associate with such friends for very long, which is why I never wrote my own On the Road.

When I was in high school, I inherited a manual Underwood typewriter that was in the attic where my new bedroom was located. Since I was little, I wanted to be a writer, so this was my perfect opportunity. I spent a lot of time in my unfinished-attic bedroom typing away on that typewriter. I also found a roll of paper and inserted it into my typewriter. This was before I even heard of Jack Kerouac! Now I wouldn’t have to stop writing to insert a new sheet of paper! I can’t say what I wrote was very interesting since I spent most of my waking hours cooped up in that attic. I don’t know what ever happened to my manuscript(s) (Depending on how you count everything I wrote on the scroll), or if anything I wrote was very good. But I enjoyed my time as a writer, living in squalor in an unfinished attic, living the Bohemian lifestyle. Minus the Kerouac road trip and alcohol.

Pass me another CD.

Stuff White People Like


 

Stuff White People Like on my iPhone.

I started reading the blog Stuff White People Like about two months after it started up. I think I read about it on the Internet somewhere and I checked it out. I really enjoyed reading it and found myself laughing out loud many times. Then, one day, I thought, “I could write for this blog.” So, I contacted Christian Lander and asked him if he accepted freelance submissions. He said that he would, but that he had just signed a book deal and they didn’t want a lot of other new writers now. I understood perfectly. But for some strange reason, I had really, really wanted to write one post for the Stuff White People Like. I tossed around several ideas in my head during my idle moments–of which I seem to have more and more with each passing day. But I never actually wrote anything down, as I am wont to do.

Soon the blog announced the forthcoming publication of the Stuff White People Like book and there was much excitement in the blog’s comments. I commented that I wouldn’t buy the book since I had already read all the posts and comments on the Internet for free. As it turned out, the book version had several new never-before-read entries. However, I still refused to buy the book and ended up reading it for free at Borders in two visits!

Before the book’s release, Lander announced that there would be a contest for the best post written for Stuff White People Like. The prize? A free copy of the book. I immediately sprang at the opportunity to write for this blog. There were hundreds of entries. Since there were so many good entries, the first prize was expanded to the top five best entries. In addition to the free book, the winners would also receive a subscription to The Onion.  Well, the first winner was announced and there were scores of complaints about the quality of the entry. Commentators complained that it wasn’t written in the same style, that it wasn’t funny, etc. With each winning entry announced, the complaints grew more vocal. Soon, readers started posting their own submissions in the comments. Okay, so did I! And since I wrote it, I’m posting it here for the sake of posterity! 🙂

The dream job for the English major.

English Major

When choosing a college major, white people often choose the tried and true English major rather than the last resort of Undeclared. When asked why, they will give the convincingly believable reason that an English major will help them get accepted into law or med school. Worst case scenario is that they can always go to grad school for that arts degree and work at the local coffee shop and be the most intelligent, misunderstood barista there. Being misunderstood adds to the mystique of the English major.

Whenever a college student announces that he or she is an English major, be sure to state, “But you already know English!” This will reaffirm his or her belief that no understands the value of a great liberal arts program. When speaking to an English major, whether a current student or a proud graduate, always comment on how well they speak English and how flawless their grammar is. Also mention the decline of the English language since the Elizabethan Era. Many English majors have learned some very funny jokes while enduring long, boring seminars on Chaucer and the Romance of the Rose. They will even share these jokes with you if you let your guard down. English majors are proud of the fact that they are English speakers.

When engaging in a conversation with an English major, be sure to nod in agreement but never interrupt. There is no need to start an argument with an English major. Oftentimes, he or she will start one without your assistance. For example, the conversation may suddenly turn to The Wasteland, and without your aid, he or she will begin arguing whether T.S. Eliot was American or British. Be sure not to get involved in the argument. You will not win. If you would like to change the subject of the argument, simply mention how you always felt that the Nobel Committee screwed James Joyce.

In order to gain the confidence and friendship of an English major, be sure to ask about his or her writing: “What are you working on now?” But don’t expect an answer immediately. In fact, don’t expect to learn any details about anything he or she has ever written. He or she will tell about how difficult it is to write. Be sure to ask to read a recent work. Of course, the reply will be, “I haven’t let anyone read it yet. Very few people will understand all the literary allusions.” Give them a consoling look and say, “It must be hard to write with all the long hours you put in at the coffee shop.”

See! I can act white, too!

Modern Bookstore


Translated into Spanish, published in Moscow, Russia

When I moved from Marquette Park to Bridgeport, I really missed having a bookstore a mere block away. Bridgeport had the reputation of being the center of city politics, rather than being an incubator of intelligence. So, needless to say, Bridgeport had no bookstores at all! Even their Salvation Army lacked a book section!

One day in the early 1990s, I was shocked when I saw an empty storefront on the 3100 block of South Halsted Street open as Modern Bookstore. For a neighborhood bookstore, it was very big. I was there the very first day it opened. The woman who greeted me let me browse for a while. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this bookstore, especially for one in the heart of Bridgeport. Imagine my surprise when I saw that most of the books were about socialism, communism, and labor unions. The woman asked me if she could help me find something. I asked to see the fiction section, but there was none. Then, even though I was sure that she would say no, I asked if they had a foreign language section. I told her I was interested in buying books in Spanish. Would you believe it? They did have a Spanish section that was actually bigger than most of the others in Chicago bookstores I had visited. And they actually had books by authors and biographies of political figures that I had actually heard of.

I bought a poetry anthology by Nicolás Guillén. Later, when I read the book, I discovered that the book was published in La Habana, Cuba, and probably shipped to the U.S. violating at least one embargo law. But wait, I also bought biographies about Diego Rivera, Benito Juarez, Benardo O’Higgins, and a few others that were written in Spanish. Much later, I realized that the books were written by Russian writers and later translated into Spanish. All these books were published in Moscow, Russia. I wondered if there would be any trouble if our local politicians had actually visited the Modern Bookstore and realized what kind of books the bookstore was selling there. But then I realized that’s why there wasn’t bookstore in Bridgeport in the first place. No one in Bridgeport reads!

Abuelita


Mi abuelita en México.

I remember when my abuelita came to live with us in Chicago back in the 1960s. I liked having my grandmother living with us because she used to take care of me when both my parents went to work. She even protected me from my mother when she hit me a little too hard or a little too long.

I remember once for homework in the first grade I was supposed to read aloud from our reader to one of my parents. My father wasn’t home, so I went to my mother. She said she was too tired from work to help me do my homework. I told her that all she had to do was listen to me read. The reader was quite simple: “See David. See Ann.” And so on. I didn’t even know that much English at the time.

Anyway, my mother didn’t want to be bothered by me. I kept begging her to listen to me. Finally, my abuelita said that I should read to her. I wasn’t sure if she could help me to read this book. At first, I hesitated because not only did she not know English, but she was also blind. One of the reasons she came to Chicago was to get eye surgery.

I remember we would all go to Cook County Hospital and wait for hours until the doctor finally saw her. After her surgery, she no longer had her eyes. I remember my parents struggling to put her glass eyes into her eye sockets and my grandmother complaining about how much pain she was in. Eventually, my mother learned how to put them in herself. My mother wanted my abuelita to stay in Chicago and live with us. Abuelita didn’t like the weather in Chicago. It was too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. She thought our fair city was ¡una Chicagada! A rough translation of this word would be “Shitcago.” I couldn’t help myself and I laughed out loud. I’m sure my mother would have smacked me if abuelita wouldn’t have been so close to her.

Spanish textbooks


 

Spanish books

Sometimes Spanish textbooks inadvertently include words that invoke negative connotations or just plain poor choices. For example, I’ve seen some books include “tonto” in the glossary as meaning, “silly” or “foolish.” Yes, it does mean that, but in general no Spanish-speaker uses that word unless they really want to insult someone. “Tonto” is practically a swear word in almost every context. I always warn students not to use this word, and if they do, they should be prepared to be punched. I saw one book explain the diminutive of words like “casa” changing to “casita,” and “hijo” changing to “hijito.” That’s all well and good, but then the textbook gave the example of “mamá” changing to “mamacita.” In real life, no Spanish speaker would call their mother “mamacita.” The only time you really hear “mamacita” is when the vato on the corner is flirting with a girl walking by and he says, “¡Oye, mamacita! ¡Qué chula estás!” Another book bothered me with its choice of negative examples. I prefer something that offers positive reinforcement, but, no, this textbook in explaining comparisons of inequality stated, “Estos estudiantes son más estúpidos que esos estudiantes.” What kind of thing is that to say in a classroom? “These students are stupider that than those students.” I used one textbook with all these ambiguous illustrations that didn’t really clarify the lesson at all. In one of the drawings for the lesson on reflexive and reciprocal sentences, one cowboy is removing the boot off the foot of another cowboy! Every class of mine that looked at the drawing always laughed when we did the exercise. I would just tell them it was a scene taken from Brokeback Mountain.

¡Oye, mamacita! ¿Would you like to go out with this tonto?

Chess


 

I can't believe my mother let me grow my hair this long!
I can’t believe my mother let me grow my hair this long!

When I was in high school, I met my friend Jim Harmon in physics class. We really didn’t learn much physics because Mr. Wlecke the teacher didn’t really teach much in the way of physics. He would sometimes make a half-hearted attempt at teaching us something, but then he would lose his focus and stop. My friend Jim always carried a chess set wherever he went. So one day, after Mr. Wlecke inexplicably stopped teaching, Jim challenged me to a game of chess. I accepted, but explained that I only knew how the pieces moved and that I wasn’t very good. We played anyway and Jim won–of course. From then on, we always played chess in physics class and at lunch sometimes. Once Mr. Wlecke missed class and the substitute teacher was surprised to see Jim and I playing chess in class. I told him we played chess in class everyday, but he didn’t believe me. I slowly but surely improved my game of chess. Jim later talked me into joining the chess team. I later learned that Jim was the best player on the chess team.

I became obsessed by chess. I loved playing on the chess team! I studied the chess books that the chess coach Mr. Crowe had lent us. I even bought chess books of my own. When I decide to dedicate myself to something, I go way above and beyond the call of duty! I really improved as a chess player. I wanted nothing less than to be first board on the chess team. Eventually, I played well enough to play first board, but then I lost my game at the match and I never played first board again. This failure only drove me to study chess even more diligently!

Soon after joining the Gage Park H.S. chess team, we went to the La Salle Hotel downtown to play in chess tournaments sponsored by the Chicago Chess Club. I really wanted to win a chess trophy. All my brothers had various trophies for different sports, but I was the only one in the family without a trophy of any kind. So I spent every free moment studying and breathing chess. I won more and more of my practice games. I even beat my uncle at chess even after he stopped letting me win. One day, I did win my division in a tournament. I was the 1974 Northern Illinois High School Novice Unrated Champion! I know this is the exact title because I’m looking at the trophy as I write this. However, as luck would have it, the trophies were not delivered to the tournament on time because the trophy factory had burned down the previous week. These eerie coincidences have happened to me throughout my life. I’m used to them now. None of my friends went to that tournament, so no one believed me that I had actually won a trophy. Especially my mother! She almost didn’t give me the $6 for the then astronomical entry fee to enter the tournament. I was told I would receive my trophy in the mail within four weeks, by February of 1974. Well, it didn’t come until May! And then, finally everyone believed me that I had actually won a trophy. And it was bigger than any of the trophies that my brothers had won. Even my mother had to believe me then!

Mi casa


 

Mi Casa: Aztec calendar, la Virgen de Guadalupe, Mexican flag, and a picture of mi abuelito.

Mi casa es su casa. Come into my home, por favor. So you tell me. Am I Mexican or not? I have books written in Spanish on my bookshelves. I have movies in Spanish without English subtitles! I have a wooden Aztec calendar that my friend bought for me when he went to Mexico. However, I have a regular calendar to find the current date. I have a votive candle with the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe. My mother always lit up one these when she prayed for someone or wanted something. I haven’t lit my candle yet, but I have it just in case of an emergency. Just in case there’s a blackout and I run out of tortillas at the same time. And I also have a Mexican flag hanging on the wall. Well, it’s actually a bandana that says “Made in China” in the corner. If you go to any Mexican home, you will find at least an Aztec Calendar, La Virgen de Guadalupe, and a Mexican flag.

Be careful not to step on the chihuahua!