Isle of the Dead

Chicago Symphony Center

I love music! But I don’t know very much about music. In fact, thousands upon thousands of music books have been written about everything that I do NOT know about music. And, I am proud to say that I have never read even one of those books! Despite the fact that I love music so much.

I really do love music. I listen to music almost every waking moment. But I listen to different kinds of music, depending on where I am. When I’m at UIC, I listen to  rock on my iPhone. When I’m driving, I listen to the oldies. However, whenever I’m home, I listen to 98.7 WFMT. All the time! Even when I’m sleeping. And I always crank up WFMT all the way to eleven. Except when I’m sleeping. Listening to classical music allows me to read or write, or even correct Spanish compositions. I don’t know much about classical music either, even though I listen to it all the time.

Even though I’m not qualified to critique music, I would like to tell you about a concert I attended at the Chicago Symphony Center. I went to see Beyond the Score that explained the structure and meaning of Sergei Rachmoninov’s Isle of the Dead. The orchestra played the works of other composers who influenced Rachmaninov for this piece. It was a multi-media presentation, so there was a giant screen to show pictures of the painting Isle of the Dead that also influenced this piece as the story was narrated. I sat in the third row right in the middle of the screen. When the conductor Vladimir Jurowski came out, he stood right in the middle of the screen, illuminated by it from behind. This ominous sight made such an impression on me that I wanted to take out my camera and take a picture. But I managed to refrain myself. I regret it now. I should have lived a little more dangerously and taken the picture anyway!

So why do I love music so much? I’m not really sure. Why do I especially love classical music even though I don’t understand it? Okay, you really got me on that one!

However, if I think really hard, I picture Sister Cecilia from my school days at Holy Cross. Sister Cecilia was the music director for our school. She would teach the school songs for Sunday mass, for Christmas, and–her favorite holiday–the pastor’s birthday. For Father Edward’s birthday, the school would meet in the assembly hall at least twice a week and we would sing a special birthday song that Sister Cecilia prepared just for him. She would take a current top forty hit and change the lyrics just for Father Edward. For example, one year, she took “Georgie Girl” and we sang “Hey there, Father Edward …” Another year, “What’s It All about, Alfie?” became, “What’s It All about, Father Edward?” Pretty clever, huh? Unfortunately, I can’t remember the rest of the lyrics to these wonderful songs or any of the other songs we sang for Father Edward’s birthday.

Sister Cecilia went through great pains to teach the entire school these songs. When we met to rehearse, she would pass out the sheet music with her new, improved lyrics. She was very demanding. We would stand at attention while we sang and she would walk among our ranks ensuring that everyone sang. She would tell us, “Open your mouths wide when you sing! I should be able to put a silver dollar in your mouth when you sing!” Things didn’t always go smoothly. Sometimes she would yell at us if too many students sang out of key. She would yell, “Look at the music! If the note goes up, your voice goes up, too!” I always sang at my best when she stood directly in front of me. The rest of the time I merely lip-synced the words. I think I was ahead of my time.

When we got a new pastor, Father Mikolaitis, she didn’t seem that enthusiastic about his birthday celebration. In fact, we never called our new pastor by his first name.

In the seventh and eighth grades, we took a music appreciation class, taught by none other than Sister Cecilia. I actually enjoyed this class. I don’t remember much from this class. Well, I do remember f – a – c – e and every good boy does fine, but other than that, not much. My favoritie part of the class was learning about the orchestra. She would place the phonograph that came in a box that always reminded me of a traveling valise. She would put it on her desk and play a 78 rpm record. The narrator described all the instruments of the orchestra one by one. Each instrument would demonstrate its range and what it was capable of playing. I was truly fascinated by this information. To this day, I recognize most of the instruments of the orchestra. Sometimes, I like to amaze my friends with my knowledge of music while we listen to classical music, despite insisting that we listen to something else. Ever the veritable font of wisdom that I am, I will correctly point out, “Did you hear that instrument? THAT was a triangle!” And they’ll stare at me with their mouth gaping. Because I know that they’re truly amazed by my knowledge of the classical music and the orchestra!


Most Holy Redeemer Church, Evergreen Park, Illinois

My son Adam was confirmed today. And I recalled many things past and present about being Roman Catholic.

The holy sacrament of Confirmation is usually the fourth sacrament that a Roman Catholic receives. A Christian baby is baptized soon after birth and then around the age of eight makes his or her Confession and receives his or her First Holy Communion. Then around age twelve or thirteen, usually, he or she makes a conscious decision to denounce Satan and become a Christian, unlike Baptism where an innocent baby has no choice but to be baptized a Catholic.

I am a Roman Catholic (or just plain Catholic). There were times in the past when I told people that I was an ex-Catholic or a lapsed Catholic. I was once hospitalized at St. Anthony’s Hospital and when I was asked my religion I said, “Catholic” just out of guilt. A Catholic priest then came to visit me everyday. I told him that I wasn’t sure if I was still Catholic and he told me that it was normal to doubt. Now, whenever someone asks me my religion, I say I’m Catholic. If I think about Catholicism very objectively, I realize that, once you go through all of my religious training, I will always be a Catholic and never an ex- or lapsed Catholic. That would be the equivalent of saying, “I used to be Mexican.”

Today, I tried to compare Adam’s confirmation to mine. But I couldn’t remember my confirmation because I was baptized in México when I was about two months old. When it came time for my class to get confirmed at Holy Cross, my mother told me that I was already confirmed. That was news to me! Whenever we had confirmation classes, Sister Cecilia would just look at me with disdain and shake her head. She couldn’t understand how Mexicans could confirm babies. That was so contradictory to the whole concept of confirming that one voluntarily and willingly wanted to be a Catholic. Well, I was an outsider during the whole confirmation process. I had to go to the Confirmation, but I couldn’t sit with the class because I wasn’t getting confirmed. I didn’t feel very Catholic that day. Or today when I tried to compare my confirmation with my son’s.

I was happy for my son, but this was an awkward day for me. Since the divorce, we no longer celebrate anything as a family. But such is life.

So did I miss out on anything by being comfirmed so young?

Many are cold, but few are frozen

Pilsen, Chicago, Illinois

I’ve heard a lot of complaints this winter about how much snow we’ve had in Chicago this winter and last. People are also complaining about how cold it’s been lately. Most of these complainers are either too young or haven’t lived in Chicago very long. These are the cold, bitter winters that I remember as a boy! No, I won’t exaggerate about how cold and snowy winters were in Chicago in days of yore. I don’t have to. Just recall the weather since December and you’ll see how much snow we used to have and how cold it used to be. Once you get used to the weather, you can actually still enjoy living in Chicago. There are, after all, much colder places than Chicago.

When I was a boy, I spent a lot of time outside during the winter. I delivered newspapers, shoveled sidewalks for money, played ice hockey, and occasionally, played baseball in the snow. We liked to do things that would make adults shake their heads at us. Like staying outside in the cold. The one thing I did learn–although somewhat accidentally–was to dress in layers. We didn’t have very much money for proper winter clothing such as down coats, wool socks or sweaters, or insulated gloves. One day, while ice skating at Davis Square Park across the street, I got cold, so I went home and put on some more pants and socks and shirts, eventually experimenting until I learned the correct amount of layers to wear. I would wear two or three t-shirts, three or four pairs of pants, and four or five pairs of socks, depending on the temperature. When everyone else went into the park fieldhouse to warm up, I continued skating outside. I never got cold again once I learn to dress for the weather.

And I also taught my brothers how to dress properly for winter. One extremely cold, snowy winter, our school, Holy Cross School, had a fundraiser for which we had to sell Christmas cards door to door. There had been snow on the ground since Thanksgiving Day. Even though the sidewalks were shoveled, there was snow pile up everywhere where no one walked or drove. My brother Tato and I started knocking on doors trying to sell our Christmas cards–unsuccessfully. We were at the third house and the woman who answered the door told us she was interested in buying Christmas cards. So, we turned around and started walking down her front porch stairs. When I reached the sidewalk at the bottom of the wooden stairs, I heard my brother Tato slip on the ice and fall down the stairs. I checked to see if my brother was okay and I helped him up. The woman who was watching us through the front window opened the door and called us back up to the porch. “I’ll buy a box of Christmas cards,” she said. Well, we sold her a box of Christmas cards and went on our merry way to the next house. This woman also refused to buy Christmas cards from us. As we were walking down her front porch, Tato again “fell” down the stairs. Of course, the woman called us back and bought a box of Christmas cards from us. We persisted with our sales pitch until we sold all of our Christmas cards. In fact, the next day, we asked Sister Cecilia for more Christmas cards for us to sell. She was suprised that we could sell that many Christmas cards!

Divine Heart Seminary

Divine Heart Seminary
My mother Carmen and me. 1971

I attended Divine Heart Seminary in Donaldson, Indiana, despite my protests. It all started when I was in the seventh grade at Holy Cross School. Two seminaries, Divine Heart Seminary and Divine Word Seminary, sent priests to talk to the boys about vocations. When I was thirteen, I thought I might be interested in becoming a priest. After all, I attended mass almost everyday. My father and all his brothers attended a seminary in Montezuma, New Mexico. My aunt was a nun, and two of my uncles were priests. But I had my doubts about the priesthood because I would have to take vows of obedience, poverty, and celibacy. Celibacy? Now wait a minute. The vow of celibacy was my main stumbling block. I knew that someday I would like to have children. Anyway, I gave both priests my name because I said I might be interested in the priesthood. Then, I forgot all about their visit.

In the eighth grade, Divine Heart Seminary called me to see if I wanted to visit their campus. They would come to my house to pick me up and drive me all the way to Donaldson, Indiana. How could I say no? Before I went to visit DHS, I truly wondered if I wanted to become a priest. I was an altar boy then and a very devout Catholic, but I did have my mischievous side. Overall, I considered myself a good person.

At the Divine Heart, I saw how the seminarians lived. I spent one weekend there and got a taste of seminary life. I slept in the dorm where I would sleep as a freshman and I got a tour of the campus with the “big brother” that I was assigned. I got to see how real seminarians lived! Well, I was disillusioned by the seminary life. I didn’t think that potential future priests should behave like these seminarians.

At Holy Cross, I was taught that just about everything was a sin: swearing, smoking, playing pool, etc. Well, I was shocked to hear the boys swearing when their were no priests or brothers present! And they were going to be priests? Then, my big brother showed me the smoking lounge. These boys were allowed to smoke? I thought smoking was a sin. But my biggest shock of all was that they had pools tables! Not one or two pool tables, but many pool tables. In fact, there were several rooms that were exclusively reserved for playing pool. At that moment, I decided that future priests should not behave like these seminarians. I absolutely knew that I would not attend this seminary because they lived sinful lives.

Later, when I had forgotten all about my visit to Divine Heart Seminary, Sister Cecilia, the principal, called me outside of the classroom to talk to me. I thought I was in trouble for something I did. She told me that DHS called and wanted to know if I was still interested in attending their seminary. I immediately told her, “No.” She said, “You’re just too shy to admit it.” We went back into the classroom, I sat down, and she addressed the class, “Well, boys and girls, you are all very fortunate! David has received a vocation. He will become a priest someday! Next year, David will be attending Divine Heart Seminary in Indiana.”

Well, that little announcement truly changed my life forever. I sure didn’t want to attend any seminary, let alone Divine Heart Seminary. Soon, my classmates started calling me Father David. In the neighborhood, the kids would see me coming and mutter under their breath, “Watch what you say. Here comes the priest.” The girl I really liked in the class lost all interest in me. The next morning when I served mass as an altar boy, Father Gilbert congratulated me on my vocation. I told him that I didn’t want to become a priest, but he didn’t believe me and said that I was just being modest.

I told my father about what had happened to me with the seminary. That’s when I learned he, too, had attended a seminary for many years. He was actually proud of the fact that I would also attend a seminary. When my mother found out about my “vocation,” she told me that she was so proud of me. No one would listen to me! I didn’t want to attend Divine Heart Seminary. I had narrowed down my choices for high school to Leo High School or De La Salle High School. Try as I might not to attend DHS, I was forced to attend DHS. Before I even started school there, I had already made up my mind that I would never become a priest. Yet everyone was so proud of me and the fact that I would attend Divine Heart Seminary!