Combination locks


Security against terrorists

As a law-abiding citizen and patriotic American, I would like to participate in our fight against terrorism. I agree that we must stop the terrorists at the border. 

I have crossed the border a few times, so I have an idea that may help. Sometimes the customs agents ask you questions to see if you’re really an American citizen. I don’t think they care how you answer the questions, but rather, they’re really just checking to see if you speak English. I heard a story of an American family who was trying reenter the United States, but all their luggage, credit cards, and passports were stolen from their hotel room. They reported the theft and then flew back home without passports. Customs refused to let them through without passports or some form of identification. The customs agent asked them a lot of questions. Finally, the mother lost it and shouted, “We’re Americans! We only speak English!” Well, that was enough for the agent to wave everyone through! 

We have a cabinet in our UIC Spanish department where the exams are stored so all the instructors have access to them. The cabinet had a combination lock so we wouldn’t need to make thirty plus keys. Well, even with the combination, not everyone could open the cabinet. On occasion, I had to help other instructors open the combination lock. Then, I noticed a pattern. Only instructors who were foreign-born had trouble opening the lock. 

I guess only Americans are familiar with combination locks. Combination locks are an American rite of passage. I was indoctrinated to the use of padlocks in high school. Combination locks were perfect for adolescents who lose or forget their key. Plus, the school authorities could open any combination lock in the school by looking up the combination or with a little key that fit into the back of the lock. Everyone knew how to open a combination lock or they would learn quickly enough out of necessity. Turn the dial twice to the right until you reached the first number. Then turn the dial to the left passing the second number once. Then to the right to the last number. It was that easy! After a while, I would forget the actual combination numbers. I would spin the dial absent-mindedly and the lock would mysteriously open. The locks created the illusion that your property was safe. All those combination locks did was keep the honest people honest. 

So back to my fight against terrorism. One of the tests to test for citizenship and reentry to the U.S., in addition to all the previous ones that have been proven to be effective, would be to hand a combination lock to the person requesting to enter the U.S. Tell them the combination: 27 – 32 – 15. If they can’t open the lock, well, well, well! They will require more scrutiny! This will not pick out every terrorist, but it’s a step in the right direction. Don’t be surprised if terrorist camps begin offering training workshops on how to operate combination locks in order to circumvent the new security measures. But I’m just trying to do my part. 

Reading


Reading and camping in Wisconsin

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 a picture of me reading while I so engrossed in whatever book it was I was 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 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 would a seminary only send me books about priests? I’ve always wondered about that. 

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 be 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 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 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 maybe 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. 

Chess memories


I bought this chess set in high school.

Now that I’m playing at the UIC Chess Club, I’m starting to recall how I used to play chess. The last time I played chess seriously was in high school about thirty-two years ago. Somehow, my chess skills have gotten rusty! The chess atmosphere has changed a lot since then. I kind of miss the cigar smoke while playing chess.

These players in the UIC Chess Club are really into chess, but their attitude is completely different from mine. When I got into chess, I felt impelled to learn everything possible about the game. I learned the history of chess, the important chess players, the terminology, and the classic chess openings. As I played the last two Tuesdays, I tried to remember some of the terminology, but no one knew any of it–or even seemed remotely interested in learning terms like rank, row, file, or column.

One player, touched a piece and said, “I adjust.” I said, “You mean, ‘J’adube.'” My remark was met with a blank stare. Hmm.

One player asked advice of another and I never heard anyone talk about “control the center” or “castle early.” This was like culture shock to me. Later, a few players discussed the merits of learning book openings and the general consensus was that learning openings wasn’t necessary to become a great player. I was so rusty that I lost most of my games. I was surprised that I won any games at all. I would inadvertently give away pieces or set myself up for a knight fork. When I was playing chess, I used to open P-K4; now it’s E4. This will take some getting used to. My biggest surprise came when I had to take back a move because I was in check. No one says, “Check!” when they check your king. I’m so rusty that I didn’t realize that I was in check.

Well, I improved when I returned the next Tuesday. I try to be realistic try to evaluate just how well I played when I was high school. Even back then I made bad moves or gave up pieces. But I’m sure I will improve with a little more practice.

UIC Chess Club


My high school chess set

Well, last night I played chess again at the UIC Chess Club. It was my first time in about thirty years playing at a chess club. Yes, I was a bit rusty. And no, my moves didn’t suddenly come back to me. But I’m glad I went. I need some sort of intellectual stimulus to exercise my mind. I mean I go running to exercise my body, so I want my mind to be healthy, too. I actually enjoyed playing chess last night. I was easily the oldest one in the room. But I got along well with everyone there. I plan on playing chess every Tuesday from now on. But I’m promising myself not to get too involved with chess so that it becomes an obsession. That’s why I haven’t played chess for years. I’m afraid to become addicted to it–again!

Love is …


Chicago Sun-Times

“Love is …”

I’m talking about the little cartoon that you see in the newspaper comic section. You know, the one with little cartoon couple that illustrate some aspect of love. I saw it today, but I didn’t even read it. I just kind of stared at the picture because I recalled the very first time I became aware of the cartoon way back when I was still in high school. All the girls used to like reading it. Some of them even clipped out the ones that they especially liked. I was your typical teenage boy who didn’t pay much attention to those cartoons. But then one day, I met Maria Pardo …

At Gage Park High School, I met a lot of interesting people that I still remember to this day. I’m still friends with many of them. Instead of staying in the assembly hall for the study period, I used to go to the library because I loved reading magazines or whatever book caught my interest. I never actually studied for any of my classes. I used to read U.S. News and World Report cover to cover. Occasionally, I talked to the librarian.

Then, one day, I looked up from my magazine and I saw her. Apparently, she had been sitting there for weeks, but I had not noticed her before. Actually, she noticed me first, but it took her two weeks to catch my attention. But that’s how I am. I’m frequently oblivious to everything around me once I start reading. When I finally took a good look at her sitting at the table across from me, she was smiling and signalling me to sit by her. She was beautiful! She had long black hair and brown eyes. She wore makeup even though most of the other girls didn’t. She even painted her fingernails. When I sat next to her, I smelled her perfume that just captivated me. From then on, I always sat next to her in the library. And somehow, she always managed to sit right next to me. She always read the Chicago Sun-Times, but she always read the horoscope first and then the comics. I always preferred brainy girls, but she was the prettiest girl I had met at Gage Park and she had asked me to sit next to her.

At first, I thought she was Mexican. I mean, she looked Mexican, very Mexican. But then she told me that she was born in Ecuador. I was surprised because I thought everyone who spoke Spanish in Chicago was either Mexican or Puerto Rican. She spoke English with this really very sexy accent. I loved listening to her talk, so much so that when she spoke to me in Spanish, I lied to her and told her that I didn’t know Spanish just so that she would continue talking to me in English with her sexy accent. But the highlight of the study period was when she would read the “Love is …” cartoon. No matter what it was about, she would always squeeze my hand and say, “Isn’t that so cute?” Frankly, I didn’t get it, but I played along. We got to know each other quite well that year. Or so I thought. When spring came, I asked her to the dance, but she said that she already had a date. At the end of the school year, I asked her what she was doing for the summer. She said she was getting married and moving back home to Ecuador. I was disappointed, but for a while, everyone thought I had the hottest girlfriend in the school!

Isn't this so cute! Love is keeping him company!

Cheating


Cheating may be hazardous to your health

Well, this last semester was full of surprises for me. For some reason, students opened up to me a little more than usual. Partly because I’m very friendly and partly because I encourage them to express themselves, but I do maintain control of the class for the most part. I always encourage students to study for all their classes. I tell them that if they cheat, they’re only cheating themselves. A university education teaches them how to think. If they cheat, they are depriving themselves of a valuable education. However, one student told me that this semester that all he learned was how to cheat. He really believed that graduating only involved passing courses, and that could easily be done by cheating. I told him that he was cheating himself because he wasn’t developing valuable cognitive abilities, but he didn’t seem to care.

When I was a student, I only cheated three times in my entire life. The first time was in eighth grade. We were doing an English grammar quiz in which we had to match columns. I was almost done except for two answers. I was very sure that the rest of the answers were correct. My friend Robert Kurpis who sat in the next row looked at my paper and shook his head. He lifted his paper so that I could copy his answers, but I shook my head no and looked away. He insisted that I copy his answers, so I did because I didn’t want lose him as a friend. I wanted him to think I was as cool as him. Well, it turns out that I changed my correct answers to his wrong answers and I failed the quiz. I had learned my lesson and I didn’t cheat anymore. I realized then that I was much smarter than I thought I was.

My parents always taught me to second guess my intelligence. But I after that, I never cheated again. Until high school. I didn’t do my homework in physics class and I was failing the course. Toward the end of the year, Mr. Wlecke said I could pass the course if I made up the homework. However, when I tried to do the homework, I couldn’t because Mr. Wlecke never actually taught us physics, and on those rare occasions when he did, I was too busy playing chess with my friend Jim Harmon. So, I talked to my friend Bill Pappas who had done all the homework. He lent it to me and I copied all of it. I passed physics with a C, although I still feel guilty about it to this day.

In college, I only cheated once because we received a take-home final exam for Latin American literature class in Spanish and I didn’t have time to answer one question before the due date. My friend Ernesto Mondragon let me read his answer and then I wrote my own original answer. When classmates tried to copy off of me, I would always cover my paper and not give them my answers. I had studied very hard. Why should I help them out? I only helped one student once, but we were very close friends. We were in a literature class that focused on the works of James Joyce. I believe I was the only student in the whole class who actually read Finnegan’s Wake in its entirety. Well, we had a take-home final exam and one of the questions was on Finnegan’s Wake. Daniel Buckman couldn’t find the passage in the novel that we had to analyze for the final. Well, since I had read the whole book, I was determined to find it. And I did! I had to help my friend out, so I told him on what page the passage was. He was so grateful to me and I was so proud of myself for having found it in the first place. He did go on to publish several books.