Saturday, December 26, 2009

Talking World War Blues

I’m here in Queens for a couple of weeks tutoring Spanish, to later spend all I earn on graduate school application fees. I am, also, relying on my parents to proof read my cover letters, because all my professors (whom I have bothered enough already) are on Holiday vacations. Witnessing how my parents engage in this task, allows me to notice the difference between my father’s Christian protestant ethic and my mother’s Italian, war-survivor ethic, both which I have incorporated in my own life.
For example, when proof reading my cover letter, Dad mostly makes sure I put all my commas and capitalize words correctly. He also makes sure there is nothing exaggerated in my narrative. This is important because, knowing me; he also knows that I tend to make up fictions for whatever I lack in reality. So when I mention that I lived in NYC ever since we moved from Argentina, to sound more of a “native New Yorker,” my father reminds me that going to community college in CT may ruin the logical structure of that time line. Or when I mention that I am thoroughly impressed by the work of so and so, my father makes sure I have actually read their works before I state this. Because, to Dad, if one exaggerates or tells white lies regardless the circumstance, one will always suffer the consequences.
Also, this is an example of how my father reacts to the information in my cover letters for Philosophy programs:

Bill: “Queer Theory?! Why are you using the word ‘queer’ in your cover letter? Isn’t that an inappropriate word to use?”
Me: “Because I went to that seminar at Penn State, remember Dad? And we covered Contact Theory, but also Gender and Race Theory, and Queer Theory. Philosophy departments are OK with queer theory Dad, it makes me look cool. Plus, I’m not gay, if that’s your worry.”
Bill: “O.K, then maybe we should capitalize all these philosophy words, such as Structuralism, and Deconstruction.”
Me: “That’s fine, but then we are going to have to capitalize a lot of words.”
Bill: “You mention John Dewey!? Let me tell you, I’ve been working in the NYC Public school system for three years and there is nothing that Dewey has said that changed education one bit.”
Me: “Fine Dad, but I like his pragmatism in philosophy, just keep making sure my commas are in the right place.”

And this is what I always get from Dad who looks for certainty in every story, and who makes sure my terms are not inappropriate. Honestly, I’m glad I have his view to constrain me from going to the other side. ..Which leads me to my mother’s ethic.

My mother on the other hand is proof reading my cover letters for Spanish Literature programs. She is the one who taught me to use some fiction whenever we fall short on reality, and in my life I have mostly fallen short on reality. So I have used this whenever in need to sound more interesting, or cooler than what I really am, specifically in resumes and cover letters. Recently talking to my neighbor Austin (one of those people who likes to act) he mentioned how acting implies unlearning everything you already knew about the craft. This reminded me of what Helene Cixous says about writing, "To live, one must learn to lie, but to write one must learn how to unlie." So as opposed to a craft, which implies unlearning, or un-lying, what is interesting about reality is that to live one must know how to lie.* As opposed to my father’s strict honesty policy, my mother believes that if one doesn’t exaggerate some things, one eventually gets screwed over for being too honest anyway.

So I was brainstorming ideas on who to get a letter of recommendation from, and figured I should find at least one professor in Buenos Aires to write me a letter for this program. Being honest only got me two letters from professors in the U.S, and I needed one more. My mother, who studied in the University of Buenos Aires, contacted Roberto Ferro, her thesis adviser in Argentina. This is all great except that I have never worked personally with Ferro. While Dad would advice me to constrain the search to professors whom I have worked with before, my mother advised me to write an e-mail to Ferro. In it, I should ask him for a letter, promising that I would someday return the favor. In Argentina, my mother grew up practicing the art of borrowing and returning favors. You help me and I help you, because nobody else is going to help us anyway in this place, and nobody cares- so take that as an ethic.
This is the e-mail I wrote to Ferro:

“Dear Roberto, I read your latest work on Jacques Derrida and really enjoyed it. I’m applying to the Spanish program at Columbia University, and was wondering if you could write me a letter of recommendation. If I get in, I would love to have you as one of my thesis advisers in the future. Also, Mirta says Hi.”

Before I sent it, my mother looked at it. While Dad aims for certainty, mom makes sure the fiction is always coherent in its own narrative universe.

“Did you read his book?” she asks me
“No” I answer.
“Oh, OK, you misspelled this word. Also, don’t mention the word ‘future’, in Argentina nobody has the energy to be concerned about the future.
“OK. Thanks Mom.”

Two hours later, Roberto replies to my e-mail. Here is when I remember that this time of the year, in Argentina; everybody is out of work. Hanging in the middle of summer weather, beating the humidity under the breeze of their fans. I also know that Ferro, who directed the movie "Bolivia" is now also directing the movie "Paraguay" in his own apartment, so I’m assuming he’s been spending time inside his place a lot.

“Dear Caro, I just wrote you a letter for Columbia University, Hugs, Roberto.”

(The real version goes: "Caro, te mande la carta a Columbia. Un abrazo. Roberto.")

That was the last piece I needed to complete my Columbia University application: a letter from Buenos Aires from a film director who also teaches Spanish Literature, and I did it my mother’s way. In the absence of certainty, there are always plenty of doors to knock.

Obviously, getting accepted into any P.h.D program this year will be a whole different story, flooded in rejection letters.

But these two ways of doing things are the two resources I use when I am learning or un-learning. The Christian protestant ethic of my father keeping me sane and on the right path. But without the war-survivor ethic of my mother, the times I’ve fallen, the times my reality was way bleaker than my fiction... I would never be able to land back on my feet, never be able to find, somehow, that missing piece.

(* When I say that "to live, one must know how to lie," I'm not talking about cheating, deception or other things of that manner, I'm merely addressing exaggeration, and learning how to pull strings as a survival skill for some of us.)

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