Sante Matteo, born and raised in a small agricultural town in southern Italy, emigrated to the United States with his family when he was almost ten. He had the good fortune to maintain and strengthen his ties to Italy by becoming a professor of Italian Studies. He is currently Professor Emeritus at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, where he resides, reminisces, and writes. In retirement, he has switched from academic to creative writing. Recent stories, memoirs, and poetry have appeared in: The Chaffin Journal, Dime Show Review, River River, Snapdragon, The New Southern Fugitives, Ovunque Siamo, Showbear Family Cirrcus, KAIROS.
To Thine Own Self Be True! But Which Self?
Subject: A plea from your nice niece
Hi, Uncle Mel,
Our school closed because of the Coronavirus epidemic, and we’ve started online schooling. For Social Studies we have to interview someone with an unusual job and learn about “hidden” aspects of the work that the person finds rewarding and the public would find surprising. We should solicit memories and reflections from the person about their work and life experiences and then articulate some lessons or insights about life that we have learned from the exchange.
I’ve heard plenty of family discussions about your choice to be a custodian. So, it strikes me that your job is precisely one that might have hidden dimensions that could be explored for my interview project.
Would you be willing to help me out? If so, we could do it by phone, if you prefer, but then I would have to transcribe your words. It would be easier for me, and maybe fairer to you, if you could write down your own memories and thoughts and send them to me by email..
Thanks a lot. Love,
p.s. Your big sister says hi and sends hugs—and orders you to STAY SAFE!
Subject: Why this job; why this life?
It’s nice to hear from you. Tell your mother, thanks, that I obey her as always, and be sure to do likewise.
The university where I work is also closed because of Covid-19, and I’m stuck at home too. So, this is as good a time as any to reminisce and ruminate about my life and work. I’m not sure that it will lead to any valuable advice for you or the young generation, but who knows?
You’re right: my “career choice” has puzzled family and friends: “Oh, he could have done so much better!” I understand their perplexity. When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I never said, “I want to become a janitor who works at night.”
At first, it was just supposed to be a part-time job. But I liked it, and to everyone’s surprise, mine too, I applied for a full-time position when it became available. And, strange as it seems to most folks, I’ve never really regretted my decision.
I like the evening hours, which leave me much of the day free to do things that I couldn’t do in the evening or at night, such as going to museums, to the library, to movie matinees (in the old days, when you had to go to movie theaters to watch movies), and auditing college courses now and then (for free!). I even like the loneliness of the work. I listen to a lot of audio-books.
I like going through classrooms and faculty offices, tidying up the materials of the day’s educational activities. It’s sort of like cleaning up after a banquet of information, ideas, and discussions, with leftovers still strewn about: traces of questions and answers, confusion and frustration, new realizations and excitement.
There’s a sense of satisfaction in putting things back in order for the next day. It makes me feel that I play a role in the educational process, even if it’s only the equivalent of washing the dirty dishes and putting them back in the right place, ready to be used again. But, hey, washing the dishes is important, isn’t it? (I notice that I keep using the present tense, but wonder if it will all be in the past once this crisis is over—if it’s ever going to be over—if online teaching becomes the norm.)
Working nights, I don’t get to interact with students and professors much. Still, I do run into students now an then when they’re “pulling nighters” (as we used to say for staying up all night when I was in college) to study for an exam or to finish an assignment due the next day and don’t want to disturb or be disturbed by roommates. (Now that I think of it, it’s like quarantining or self-isolation, in their case, to keep from being afflicted by interruptions.)
And more often than you might expect, I also find professors in their offices doing exactly the same thing as those procrastinating students: preparing an exam—sometimes the same exam for which the students are cramming—or urgently trying to finish an article or a conference presentation. Sometimes they’re too stressed to chat and don’t even want me to empty their trash, but sometimes they welcome a chance to take a break for a few minutes. Occasionally they use me as a sounding board for what they’re preparing. When they manage to put it in terms I can understand, I like learning new things. I get the sense that explaining complex concepts in language understandable to a layman is useful to them too. Or it could be that as teachers they just like sharing their knowledge and ideas with others, even a custodian, or that they just like to hear themselves talk.
When I clean their offices, I get glimpses of their lives: diplomas that show where they got their degrees; awards they’ve won; certificates for contributions to professional associations; mementos of travel and friendships forged abroad; the books on the shelves: some untouched, gathering dust, others piled up helter-skelter, borrowed from the library for the current (overdue) research project; pictures of family, showing their kids growing from year to year; papers stacked on their desk: exams and term papers to grade, drafts of essays, lesson plans, photocopies of interesting articles; even the trash in their garbage cans that tells me what they like to eat for lunch or for snacking—a lot of candy wrappers after Halloween!
It’s fascinating how many parallel lives they lead—that we all lead, I suppose. The clues reveal the many circles of friends, colleagues, and collaborators among which they circulate: a galaxy of relationships contained in one small space. And I wonder: Is it the same person in all these roles? Or is the person different for each circle: perceived one way by students, another way by family members, yet another way by university colleagues; differently by professional acquaintances, by old high-school or college friends, and so on. How many faces or masks do they have?
In that microcosm, the faculty office, many things come together and intertwine: the professional and the private, the social and the individual, the abstract (ideas) and the concrete (lesson plans, tests), the eternal and the momentary, the ideal and the practical. Those little spaces, little more than cubicles in some cases, contain traces of many separate yet related roles or incarnations.
I’m not sure if any of that makes sense to you, and I’m pretty sure it’s more than you bargained for—or maybe much less than you hoped for, in that it doesn’t provide much factual information at all. But I’m not going to try to make it more coherent now, otherwise, I would probably delete the whole thing, give up, and decline your request. So, I’ll send it without even re-reading it.
See what you make of it, if anything, and if you think it’s worth pursuing, let me know, and maybe pose some specific questions to keep me from rambling on this way.
Love (to my big sis and the rest of the gang too),
Subject: More of the same, please!
I just love what you’ve written! I really do. I knew you were the “philosopher” of the brood but still didn’t expect that kind of speculation. Not sure I understand everything you’re trying to express. I wonder if it might be useful to focus on one faculty office and one professor so that I can get a clearer picture of the intersections you mean?
Thanks for sharing so much about your inner self, as well as about your work, which does indeed sound much more interesting than most people would suspect. I hope to get more.
Love (from mom too and the rest of the crew here; we’re not at each others’ throats yet, but are starting to wear scarves and other protective neck coverings).
Subject: One for all
Scarves are a good idea. You can convert them to face masks when you go out and thus protect your throats from viruses as well as from the nails and canines of parents and siblings.
I re-read my ramblings after I sent them to you and, as expected, did regret sending them. I would indeed have just deleted them, but am now glad I didn’t, since you claim to “love” them. Your suggestion to focus on one case strikes me as a good one. So, onward and forward!
There was one prof whom I encountered fairly frequently in my nightly rounds and who was always glad to chat, so much so that we got to be pretty chummy. How that acquaintance developed might explain better what I mean about perceiving the different faces that people put on.
My first encounter was with the prof’s nameplate on the office door: Sante Matteo: a strange name, foreign-sounding, but not so foreign as to be unpronounceable and impossible to remember. It was in the Department of French and Italian, and I guessed the name was either French or Italian, but couldn’t guess if it belonged to a man or a woman.
Some high-school French came back to me, and I remembered that “à votre santé” means “to your health,” and wondered if the person’s name was French for Health. But wouldn’t it have an accent on the e?
I surmised that Sante was probably French and that it belonged to a woman. But the last name, Matteo, sounded Italian and masculine. Maybe the names were reversed, even though there was no comma between them. Don’t Europeans tend to reverse the order like that more than we do, and without a comma?
My first impressions of the person were shaped just by the name, which both revealed and hid quite a bit of information. And those initial impressions, to some extent, probably determined our relationship from the outset.
I open the door and step into the office. The first thing I notice is the shelves of books taking up all available wall space that is not taken up by the desk and two file cabinet. They seem to consist mostly of Italian literature. But there’s some French lit too, and a big section on cinema. Probably an Italian professor.
On the walls above the shelves, desk, and cabinets, some framed certificates and diplomas: a BA, two MA’s, and a PhD, but they don’t say in what field and don’t have Mr. or Ms. before the name. They provide an account of a professional identity, if not a personal or physical one: someone who has devoted time and effort to study. Framed “Outstanding Professor” awards reveal another facet: a teacher appreciated by students and recognized by colleagues and supervisors, and one who cares enough about that aspect of a professor’s profession to display those awards.
On the desk, three pictures: one of a woman; another of the same woman with a child, still a baby; and the third, of the child, a boy, a little bigger. So, I now assume, this professor is probably a male, not a female as I had previously surmised. But I can’t be sure of that, of course. Nevertheless, it does give me a glimpse of the prof in a family relationship and tells me that it’s something that he (or she) values considerably, enough to display prominently in a work setting for all to see.
As I dust the bookshelves, I notice one shelf with books that have the professor’s name on the covers. One has a picture on the back cover: a man (with a beard, no less; and a lot like mine). So, now I know he’s also a publishing scholar and that he must have a circle of acquaintances in his professional field, in addition to his colleagues in the university.
Over the years, as I got to know more about him, I learned that he had emigrated from Italy as a child and still had many relatives there, with whom he stayed in touch because he spent summers in Italy teaching or doing research. The life experiences he continued to share with them had little connection with other spheres of his life.
During those summers in Italy, he also developed new friendships that he was able to cultivate over many years, creating another circle of friends that had little or nothing in common with his other connections.
He led several parallel lives. And in each of these contexts, he was both the same person and slightly different. To some he seemed strict, to others, easy-going; to some, reserved, to others humorous; to some, erudite, to others, down-to-earth and practical.
In one of our chats, the prof alluded to the writer, Luigi Pirandello, probably because he was teaching his works or preparing an essay on him. He pointed out that Pirandello had expressed these ideas a century ago in his fiction and plays. As it happened (and to his surprise), I had read one of his plays, Six Characters in Search of an Author. I don’t know if it’s still read today, and if you’ve ever run across it, but it was widely read back when I was a student.
Actually, the prof said that Pirandello had come to his mind after he found out that I had gone to college. A custodian with a college education struck him as a very Pirandellian character. Eventually, he also found out about my writing, and I shared some of my poems and stories with him. That added to the Pirandellian mystique. He wondered how people who know me in different contexts perceive me: as a friend, a brother or father (or an uncle, in your case), a church member, a proponent of a particular political ideology: as just a janitor, or as a thinking individual with various interests and abilities?
So, I’m actually turning the tables on him now by making him a Pirandellian character with many masks, or identities, for your benefit.
There was another curious fact that connected us: the prof and I look enough alike to be mistaken for each other occasionally—mostly because we have similar beards, I suspect. And yet our lives and our career paths are mirror opposites. I, who come from a bourgeois family of prosperous, educated professionals, became a blue-collar worker. He, who came from an immigrant family of peasants and stonemasons and whose parents had not finished elementary school, became a professor. We seemed to have emerged from a Pirandello play: both of us surprised by the unexpected paths we had taken—or that had taken us—and the unlikely destinations we had reached: so alike and so different.
But lo, I hear the dinner bell. Time to go eat. I’m not sure where I’m going with this anyway. I’ll try to sort out the threads later, but will go ahead and send it for you to try to make sense of it at your end.
Hope all throats are still intact chez vous. Here, it’s a good thing that your project is taking up so much of my time and attention, keeping me from aggravating the other prisoners in our home, sweet jail.
Subject: Who is who?
Salut, mon oncle! I had some French, too.
I’ve heard the name, Pirandello, but really didn’t know anything about him. So, I looked him up on Wikipedia. He does sound pretty interesting. I can’t go to a library to look for any of his stuff, but thank Jobs and Gates and the other Deities of tech, I did find the play you mentioned on YouTube and watched it. Very weird! Not sure I would have gotten it at all—or if I would have kept watching it—if what you said hadn’t prepared me a little bit. As it turned out the play in turn helped me figure out what you were trying to say about perceptions and reality. Maybe I’ll read more of his other stuff in college—if, as you say, there will still be college after this is over. Or books? Libraries? Theaters?
One niece in search of an essay
Subject: Stop cloning around
Buon giorno, caro zio Guglielmo!
Aren’t these online translators awesome? Who needs to study languages anymore?
I’ve been thinking more about what you wrote earlier about multiple identities, and the more I think about it, the more puzzled I get. On one hand, we are not one but many: a different person for each situation and context. On the other hand, it’s the other way around: an individual is stuck being just one, himself, even when he wants to change: to adapt to new conditions, to grow, because those who know him force him to remain what they think him to be. So, should I conclude that I can’t just be myself since there is no such thing and have to get used to being many different selves, or that I’m stuck being “me,” forever and everywhere? Do I have many selves in me or only one self, a unique prison from which I can never escape and which I cannot change?
Con affetto, tua nipote (Italian sounds great and looks cool too; even if I have no idea whether this translation is right or not)
Subject: Contradiction can be fun
Good questions, mia cara nipote! And very eloquently stated, might I add? I don’t have adequate answers, only more questions and speculations.
Doesn’t the quandary you present seem to mirror the situation we’re facing these days? We’re called on to self-isolate, staying away from each other, and to all come together in a common defense against a common enemy. Maybe it’s that very social paradox forced on us by this pandemic—come together; stay apart—that brought my discussions with the professor to my mind in the first place (with Pirandello as collateral baggage). We have to avoid contagion, which means avoiding contact with each other. And yet it’s only when the whole “herd,” which means all of humanity, builds up “herd immunity” that the virus can be resisted.
We’re each trying to preserve our own life. But we also have to ensure the survival of our community. And we can only do both or either of those two things by doing the other: acting as selfish individuals out to protect our own skin, while simultaneously acting as members of a species programmed by evolution to ensure the survival of the whole herd, at the expense of individuals if necessary. It’s somehow contradictory and complementary.
We resemble each other. We’re all part of the same herd and are as much alike as sheep or zebras. Let me put it this way: If I die, there are currently about eight billion other units of my kind in the world to occupy the space I vacate. My removal would not be much of a loss, numerically speaking.
But we’re also unique individuals, and want and need to be perceived as such, both by others and, even more urgently, by ourselves. Our brain, the product of blind evolution, allows us to survive and thrive but also happens to create consciousness, thinking: a mind—as either a bonus or collateral damage, not sure which. And a mind creates a personality, a “self,” which is compelled to have a special mission or purpose: an identity. It’s all superfluous, but we can’t help it. It comes with the package of evolutionary tools we inherit.
That’s the contradiction: we must be “special” and we must “fit in.” And that’s also how the contradiction is overcome: we can’t do one without the other.
But, hey, this is getting much too Pirandellian (or is it Hegelian?). Why don’t you see what you can put together for your report at this point, teasing out that information that you find useful? Then, if you want, I can work from that draft to fill in gaps, and that way maybe manage to stick to factual information rather than taking off on flights of philosophical fancy.
Think well. Write well. Stay well!
So says your uncle Mel.
Subject: Another voice, another choice
Never mind, zio mio! You’re off the hook.
Aunt Jenny has just sent me her work history: go-go dancer while in college, Peace Corps volunteer in Comoros (had no idea there was such a country, let alone where it was; had to look it up: an archipelago of islands between Madagascar and Mozambique—but I guess you knew that, since she’s your sister), park ranger, law school, UNICEF lawyer. It’s a treasure trove I can’t resist.
It’s not that your life and work are less important or valuable, but her pursuits and activities are just easier to write up in a high-school research paper: a lot of fascinating occupations and settings, strung together in ways that no one would expect. It’s kind of a narrative that writes itself and that would probably be easy and engaging for my teacher to read, without me having to do much to make it interesting—unless my teacher turns out to be a big Pirandello fan, which I doubt.
So, I’m going to switch tracks in mid-journey and impose on Aunt Jen. Hope you don’t mind. But, on the other hand, if she minds, then I may be coming back to your own awesome tale.
But boy oh boy, what a weird and wonderful family! So many bizarre and astonishing paths taken and new horizons and possibilities for me to consider—which might be especially useful now that conventional options are fading and shifting and may have to be replaced.
Oh, no, look at that! You’ve got me philosophizing! Or maybe it’s just being alone with my own thoughts for such long periods. Without having to act out for my friends and teachers at school, I’m forced to figure out who I am or want to be just for myself.
Do you think your sister would kill you if her daughter decided to become a philosophical custodian like her uncle (that is, if schools ever open up again)?
But no, not to worry! After reading aunt Jenny’s story, I think I’ll opt for go-go dancing instead, maybe with a little philosophizing on the side. That Pirandello guy would probably approve. That old prof of yours, too, I suspect. Mom and dad, maybe not.
It seems, in fact, that what I’ve already learned from this project is that I don’t have to choose just one self to be, but can cultivate several selves, or a self with many facets. That’s pretty enriching already, even empowering. So, thanks. I’ll send you a copy of the paper when it’s done.
My love to you, whoever you are now! Or better yet, love to all the yous in you from all the mes in me.
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