The coathanger: looking forward, looking back

I had a lovely (re)discovery recently – a piece of writing I’d forgotten about which emerged as part of an enlightening package of family memorabilia my auntie and uncle have painstakingly prepared and labelled on DVD for the enjoyment of other family members.

On the DVD are old photographs from my Dutch side of the family, along with a Word document containing transcriptions or translations (or both) of oral and written family history from grandparents and great grandparents from the early 20th century. They’re quite a read.

Right at the end of the document, I was surprised to see my own contribution (I still don’t know where you found it, GJ), which was an entry submitted to ABC Radio National’s The Comfort Zone program in 2002. The nasally eloquent Alan Saunders had asked for listener contributions on the subject of ‘what’s the best gift you’ve ever received?’ Although I didn’t win the competition with my entry, it was given a ‘special mention’ on air, which was pretty exciting at the time.

Now, in the interest of not offending anyone who’s ever given me a present, let me just say that the timing of the competition was perfect, just after my son was born. Here’s why:

“Picture this,” my grandmother said to me earlier this year on one of our increasingly special visits, “a young girl of sixteen, walking along the beach on the island of Vlieland, part of Holland. It’s 1932 and she’s about to go to college, a big step for a young woman.

She sees a wooden coathanger on the sand and picks it up, noting the inscribed ‘N.Y.K. Line’ and immediately has fanciful notions of its owner. It must belong to one of the dashing officers from a passing ship, she thinks, looking out to the North Sea. He probably hangs his shiny uniform on special hangers just like this. It might even have been the captain’s!

And so with these romantic thoughts she pockets the hanger and decides it will be a special but practical keepsake for her college uniforms.”

With that, Oma hands me a coathanger from her wardrobe. The wood is smooth and worn with many hues, but the grain still shines thanks to staining and polishing over the years. The ‘N.Y.K. Line’ is carved in a gentle half circle following the yoke shaped wood, from which emerges the curved hanging wire which, amazingly, is still in shape and devoid of rust.

Below that inscription is another one, ‘R. Kapsenberg,’ my grandmother’s maiden name; and the number 37, her college number. I recognise the deliberate, neat lettering as hers and it blends comfortably with the corporate logo.

Having been to Holland with my husband for the first time three years ago, I have seen those North Sea beaches that stretch for miles under the grey-blue skies of Europe. It was easy for me to imagine my grandmother walking along those shores, young and full of promise, never dreaming that in fifteen years she would leave Holland with her husband and two young daughters bound for Indonesia, where a son was born, before arriving in the totally foreign environment of the Western Australian goldfields in 1950.

After fifty years she calls Australia home, but in 1932 her imagination was dominated by the landscape of her youth and the romantic sentiments of adolescence.

“Here,” she says, “you have it”, because she knows, without either of us saying anything, that I will treasure it as a memento of her youth and a reminder of my cultural history.

“What a coincidence about the 37,” I say, “because that’s how old I am now.”

It seems to have been the right time for me to receive it, because I then tell her I’m pregnant, and in September my grandmother’s first great-grandchild is born.  

So now the coathanger rests with a superior air on the nursery clothes rail alongside its smaller plastic, mass-produced relatives, waiting for its story to be passed along.

A few years after finding the coathanger, my grandmother graduated from college. On the DVD are two photos from her family graduation celebration, including this one where she is being congratulated by her mother. It’s the only photo I have ever seen of my grandmother as a young person looking relaxed and happy – isn’t it wonderful!  

[Kapsenberg house, Groningen, c1936]

Radio that melts your ice cream

What’s the best bit of advice you’ve received from your professional training? It doesn’t matter what work you do, but at some stage have you ever had a manager tell you something, or read something in a manual (heaven forbid) that’s actually come back to you down the track and made you think, “ahh, that’s what they meant.”

When I first began working with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in the early 2000s I was fortunate to be part of some rare nationwide training with a visiting US radio guru.  Radio was new to me so I took it all in, and one of the things I remember her saying was, “interested is interesting.”

In other words, during an interview, if you’re interested in the topic of your guest, you will make your interview more interesting for the listener. And being interested is more than just being interested; it also depends on your research, preparation and listening skills, among other things. That bit of advice has always stayed with me – and not just in radio. I’ve found it applies equally to study, and conversations in general.

Equally memorable is a line that an ABC manager told me in the early days – maybe originally from the guru, maybe one of his own originals – that good radio “keeps you in the car when you’ve pulled into the driveway after shopping and you’re prepared to let your tub of ice cream melt so you can hear the end of the story or interview.”

I’ve had that experience three times in the last year, twice recently, and all on ABC Radio National programs.  They were figurative melts – no real ice cream was harmed during the listening of these programs – but twice I drove around the block a few times and took a detour to prolong pulling into the driveway, and once I sat in the car park at uni bawling a little longer than usually acceptable when students sit bawling in their cars for whatever reason.

These are the three stories:

A Prairie Home Companion – 8 Jan 2011 – ‘The News from Lake Wobegon’.

I’m a late convert to Garrison Keillor’s whimsical program which has been on air, on and off, since 1974 and was made visual through the late great Robert Altman’s swan song movie of the same name. In it, I believe Meryl and Lily are great – you might remember their Oscars set piece the year it was released – but I haven’t seen the movie, and being an Altman fan that’s a bit disgraceful really, but I digress…

APHC is a live radio show recorded weekly from the Fitzgerald Theatre in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and it contains a mix of music, comedy, drama, and guests – all tied together by the urbane and lilting voice of Keillor as host and writer. He’s an acquired taste, to be sure, but once your appetite is whet, you just want to consume more.

A regular segment of the program is the ‘News from Lake Wobegon’, where Keillor updates us on the goings on of the residents of his fictional town, loosely based on the locations and people of his American Midwest upbringing. One of the regular characters is the Lutheran Pastor Liz, and in this episode so much of her character is revealed so beautifully and compassionately.  Boy, can he write – and deliver. Enjoy. [Let the music finish; about 93:45]

This American Life – broadcast on 13 Feb 2011 – ‘Valentine’s Day 98’

It’s no accident that the two programs above occupy/ied the 7pm slot on a Sunday night on RN, which is the time I’ve been driving home from weekend shifts at the ABC.  There’s a nice little ‘circle of life’ about that, isn’t there.  Anyway, Garrison got bumped from his slot by This American Life on 30 January this year so I’ve had no choice but to jump from APHC to TAL, and so far I ain’t complaining.

My first exposure to the delights of this weekly program produced by Chicago Public Radio was the day before Valentine’s Day. Being only the third scheduled TAL broadcast on RN, the programmers, in their wisdom, went back to 1998 for a love-themed program. But not with the usual stories of true love or love across the miles, but rather:

Stories about couples that all take place decades after that moment their eyes first meet.

Having been married nearly 16 years and well and truly living whatever love is in the second decade of marriage, this angle appealed to me. I was, after all, a captive audience in the car for my hour’s drive home. Well. These stories – all three of them – had me gripped.  And it proves ‘interested is interesting’ at its best. The amount of preparation and production to make these so powerful cannot be underestimated – and, of course, the talent and passion of the story tellers. Enjoy.

360 documentaries – May 2010 / Jan 2011 – ‘Lonely Funeral’

I can’t explain this any better than the blurb from the 360 Documentaries site; that this is simply a story about an unlikely friendship between two men who make such a difference to the dignity of the recent (unidentified) departed.  The comments posted by listeners echo my thoughts on this wondrous half hour of radio. Litres and litres of ice cream would have melted if they’d been in the boot; instead, this was the uni one.  Enjoy.

I’d love to hear if you’ve had similar experiences.

What are your inheritance tracks?

I discovered a lovely radio idea recently while, as often happens these days, pinging from one web page to the other on t’interweb. I was reading about the near-miraculous percussionist Evelyn Glennie, and found she’d been invited to contribute her ‘inheritance tracks’ on BBC Radio 4.

If you’re not familiar with what the inheritance tracks are, as I wasn’t, the BBC Saturday Show says describes them as:

the magical feature where we ask our guests to think of the song that they inherited from their parents and also the one that they would pass on to the next generation.

Well, if ever there was a statement that a rabid music sponge was meant to contemplate, that is it.  And I have, so here are my inheritance tracks.

From my parents: The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band.

For the next generation: Gioacchino Rossini Thieving Magpie. And, because I really couldn’t choose, Jimmy Buffet One Particular Harbour (live verson on ‘Feeding Frenzy’). Both of these provide the nearest thing to spiritual experiences for me.

What are yours?

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