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]

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My Top 10 lists

You either love ’em or you hate ’em, but Top 10 lists are popular these days, so here are my top 1o lists:

  1. The shopping list – an eternal favourite, never quite complete, which you never quite know until you get home without the milk/lentils/Vegemite/castor sugar. However, disappointment and frustration can somewhat be mitigated by using just gorgeous shopping list stationery. Two of my favourites – Remo’s fridge magnet and pad with helpful memory prompter (right), and, from the 1980s, Sandra Boynton’s clever little ‘Chopin Liszt’ (couldn’t find an image anywhere!)
  2. The Christmas present list – begun in earnest about September, edited and reviewed about November 30, and then scribbled and rewritten frantically on 23 December, just to make sure. Try not to add a $ column; I used to, but have now abandoned it as I just get depressesd.
  3. The Christmas card list – this one’s just come back into vogue as a reaction to the separation of church and state good ol’ fashioned card writing from the online social media circus that allows us to say “Merry Christmas”- and in only 15 characters too, enough left over to tweet a link to my blog with the remaining 125 and upload a pic of the Christmas tree on Facebook and did you see The Digital Story of the Nativity on YouTube it was really cool and Tumblr’s the one to watch — where was I?? Oh yes, getting out my pen and writing cards to the special people on this list who may only hear from me once a year, but it’s Christmas,  goddammit, and we’re all full of love and my thoughts are with them; that is, if I have their address, and extra time after the present shopping. So don’t take it personally if you haven’t received a card, it’s early days in a Back to the Future kinda way.
  4. The dreaded ‘To Do’ list – oh, my notebooks are full of them. It’s a subset of its own: there’s the renovation to-do list, the cleaning to-do list, and the work to-do lists (blog post lists, chargeable hours lists, tax document lists); even the gardening to-do list, which seems a bit silly as you’re not going to have your notebook outside to check items off the list with mulch-encrusted gloves.  But this is a real one from a clean-up a few years ago – and notice the diagonal line, a healthy sign of list completion!
  5. The New Year’s resolutions list – the last one seen was as recently as 2009.  Most of it is still waiting to be achieved. Achieving my new year’s resolutions is going to be one of my new year’s resolutions … next year.
  6. The calendar list – this is a fairly new arrival on the scene, for all those busy parents who now not only have the option of individual columns for each family member, but can also make lists within the columns with nifty little stickers that say things like, “Piano,” “Dentist” and “Play date”. They never seem to have stickers for “Euphonium,” “Gynaecologist” or “Big night out” so you can see who they’re pitching at. I received one of these as a present this year (although I confess I’ve been buying them for the past couple of years) and, by coincidence, it’s a Boyton calendar. With stickers. And a fifth column, which I like to call ‘Other’.
  7. The holiday list – now divided into four columns to ensure all parties of the household are accounted for, although the kids pretty much need the same things which wastes a column, unless you use that now-vacant column to put in all the things that are for the whole family – like iPods and toilet paper.
  8. The ‘just in case’ list. This is not a favourite of mine.  This is the list you make when you have to remember details just in case they a) are needed for future medical purposes, b) are needed for future insurance purposes or c) are needed for future legal purposes, possibly as a result of the outcomes of a) or b).  I have one of these too, from a particularly nasty time in 2009 that involved four hospitals, three ambulances, an RFDS flight and a great potential for the unintentional spread of misinformation. So I recorded everything according to who was affected and treated over a 30-day period. Don’t call me OCD – but at the time I would have answered to “that anxious, stressed-out and exhausted mum over there”.
  9. The wish list! This is a real thing in our house now, thanks to my friend Julie. How many times throughout the year do you see or hear about something and think “I’d love that for Christmas”, or your child/spouse/ significant employer says “I’ve always wanted one of those”.  Well, when you/they do, nip over to the printout you’ve stuck on the fridge/filing cabinet with the handy table courtesy of MS Word and write it on the wish list! Then, come little or big Johnny’s birthday six months later, or at Christmas, you nip back to the list and see that he wanted a Star Wars: the Force Unleashed DS game, or Bluetooth, or hopefully something under $200. Problem solved!
  10. Rounding out the top 10 list is this top 10 list because, frankly, I didn’t think I’d be able to find 10 lists I use and can demonstrate. But I have. And that’s a bit revealing.  Hmm, there’s an idea for a list: top 10 things I’ve revealed about myself on this blog …

[And I’ve just thought of two more: the Santa List for True Believers, coming soon on Brownie Talk; and the, ahem, To All The Men I’ve Loved Before list, Julio Iglesias style.  I’m not the only one, right?]

I am NOT a sucker

I made a bad decision on 8 August last year.  A really, really bad decision.  Not a life changing decision, but a financially irresponsible decision that continues to gnaw away at me and, more specifically, my bank account like a parasitic worm with my funds getting thinner each month as its contents are consumed.

Everything about this decision astounds me: that it happened, that I let it happen, and its ramifications.  At this stage I must say that my husband agreed with my decision, but I was the one doing the urging so I shoulder the responsibility of making it.

It had been a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Fremantle, and we were walking back to the car when a man approached us with a scratchie and asked if we’d like to scratch with the opportunity to win a prize.

Now, I am not a sucker.  I can play along with the game, so I did.  I asked him who he worked for and he told us it was for a travel organisation.  Sure, I’ll scratch.

Well, we had a chance of winning three things: a voucher blah, or a local two-for-one cafe blah, or – the big prize – $1000 cash OR a flat-screen TV OR a week’s accommodation at a resort. Why not?

Bugger me, we won the big prize. The man was pretty pleased because, as he said enthusiastically, he’d just scored $50 commission for having the big one.  I was a bit taken aback as I thought it was all about us, not him, so I thought this added some credibility to the situation.

But! And here’s the first but: we had to come with him now and sit through a no-obligation presentation for an hour or so in order to find out if we’d won the cash, the TV or the accommodation.  At this stage, we thought we were in a pretty good position – we’d won something tangible – but we couldn’t go now because it was late on a Sunday.  “No problem,” said our man, “let’s book you in for next week” and he took our number and said someone would call us to confirm a time, which they duly did.

And we duly rocked up the following weekend, on the promise that there was a play area for the kids and they’d be fine – which there was, and they were.  It was an older building which had had a touch-up, with lots of posters on the freshly painted walls of smiling couples and families on sun-bleached beaches or staring from balconies across an ocean/coastline/cityscape. We were then given what can only be described as ‘the hard sell’ for a worldwide travel organisation that has accommodation properties in Australian and overseas, and access to one of the world’s largest US-based travel organisations.

All we had to do was just sit down, listen to the spiel, watch the video, say ‘no thank you’, take our voucher and leave. After all, I’d worked in the travel industry, and was confident in handling all our travel requirements directly.

We had just become a single income family for the first time. We have no disposable income. We only travel once a year, and that’s usually short hops within WA.

We signed up. And paid a deposit. And completed a finance agreement for direct debit over the next 2 years.

Now, I am not a sucker!  But I was sucked in by a very well run selling team of three people. I watched their tactics, their faces, their body language throughout. Dammit, I was critiquing them! And still I signed up.

I regretted it the very next day. I knew we’d made a mistake.  I was so devastated I couldn’t bring myself to read the all the glossy brochures and paperwork they’d put in the gorgeous faux leather folder we’d been given, along with our introductory 2-for-1 cruise voucher.

I wish I had. Because then I would have realised, as I subsequently did eight weeks later when I finally took a deep breath and read the fine print, that there had been a cooling off period, as is legally required, and we could have changed our mind.  But now it was well and truly too late. Fuckit.

I must congratulate the organisation for its selling bravado. On the day we went in for our presentation, there was a steady stream of couples coming in to the room to be welcomed to a desk and personally presented to. Later, the video in the dimly lit lounge sold the concept of ‘holiday’ beautifully – especially to the target demographic of our age group and salary range (established from the outset by our man on the street – he wasn’t going to waste his time on the ‘non-holidaying-sort’).

I’m still not exactly sure where they got me. I think it was doing a cost comparison of our long-proposed holiday to Europe in 2012 using anticipated costs versus what we could save in using their properties – a considerable amount which cancelled out the combined membership costs.  The fact that they don’t have a lot of properties or choice in the UK, Netherlands and Paris is now no help, but it’s still 18 months away so anything’s possible …

And, what did we win?  We won the week’s accommodation, with a choice from across a number of South East Asian resorts (Thailand and Bali from memory). So we’d still have to get airfares etc.

But! And here’s a good ‘but’ – because we’d signed up, we could transfer the accommodation to 25,000 points, and then use the points at our discretion for whatever travel goodies we wanted.  We’d just heard about how the organisation is aligned with a campervan company, and thought, “yippee, perhaps this will help us plan a campervan holiday in Tassie next time we visit the family.”

Fast forward eight weeks or so, and I did want to check out campervan options for Tassie after deciding to plan a surprise holiday with the tax return money coinciding with a signficant birthday and a significant sporting event in March.

Would you believe it: the allocation of campervans for that time in Tassie wasn’t available.  And the hire car costs weren’t going to be cost-competitive, the travel consultant told me, so I should keep the points for a later date. That then put the campervan option out the window.  And the hire car option. So I went ahead and booked a hire car directly with the rental car company.

Just recently we went to a lovely wedding in the South West of the state. We needed a night’s accommodation. We ended up using the points for one night’s accommodation at a new property in the regional city – probably worth about $190 based on what the Receptionist told me when we checked out.

We’ve already paid $1747 in fees.  Sure, once it’s all paid we’ll have membership for 15 years. That’s a lot of accommodation, and a lot of travelling we’ll have to do to get our money’s worth. While we’re working our guts out to pay off the debt … with little time for holidays.

The whole thing has reminded me of the great expression, “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.”

What an experience this has been.

I am not a sucker.

Thanks to Cat and Girl for Bad Decision Dinosaur – seemed to sum me up.

How the great washed travel

The queue is shuffling patiently towards Gate 3.

Waiting in line are the usual assortment of business types, ubiquitous fly-in fly-out looking blokes even though we’re flying to Sydney, a smattering of mums with babies, and retirees heading back to the Central Coast, or perhaps going to visit their daughter who’s just bought her first apartment in the CBD now that she can afford it after landing that great job.

I’m about five or six back from the ever-so-polite-smile-through-clenched-teeth of the Qantas flight attendant as she beeps the crinkled boarding passes through the machine – “I’ll just do that one manually I think” – when I hear the voice descending from the Qantas Club stairs.

It’s one of those loud female husky voices that isn’t a result of bronchitis; just one of those voices. Like if you were to slow it down on an audio track it would sound like a drag queen … with bronchitis.

The voice has an accompanying look which says 40 is the new 30, and it took an hour or so this morning, along with the right jeans and genes, to make that happen. She’s coming in sideways now, merging with the queue ahead of me without a look behind, her kids now fanning out around the entrance to the aerobridge:

“Mimi, Mick, Jasper, wait for daddy – he has to show your tickets.”

Sometimes a queue is actually quite useful. It gives you time to get yourself together to deal with unexpected surprises at the gate.

Which might really piss you off.