What Was I Thinking?: English 101, Phil Donahue and the Politics of Identity

I started college in the spring of 1991.  I had been visiting New York City since April the previous year, returning only once to my native Germany to avoid exceeding the six consecutive months I could legally stay in the US on a tourist visa.  The few weeks I spent in the recently reunited Vaterland that October had been difficult to endure, and for years I had nightmares about not getting back to the place I thought of as my elective home, the realities of the recession, the AIDS crisis, Gulf War jingoism and anti-liberal politics notwithstanding. 

The cover of my 1991 journal, with an image collage
borrowed from a copy of Entertainment Weekly

I was determined not to repeat the experience of that involuntary hiatus once the next six-month period would come to an end.  A close friend, who worked at Lehman College in the Bronx, suggested that I become a student and generously offered to pay my tuition for the first year.  We decided that, instead of entering a four-year college such as Lehman, I should first enroll in classes at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), an option that would cut those “foreign” tuition fees in half.

Having gotten by thus far on my better than rudimentary German high school English, I had doubts nonetheless about my fitness for college.  My first English instructor, Ms. Padol, was both exacting and reassuring.  She worked hard to make her students try harder.  Not only did she give us bi-weekly essay assignments, and the chance to revise them, but also made us keep a journal, which she would collect at random during the semester.

“This requirement for my English class comes almost as a relief,” I started my first entry, titled “A journal!” That it was only “almost: a relief was, as I wrote, owing to the fact that, whatever my attitudes toward my birthplace, I felt “so much more comfortable in my native language.” Back then, I still kept my diary in German.  

What I missed more than the ability of putting thoughts into words was the joy of wordplay.  “My English vocabulary does not really allow such extravaganzas,” I explained, “and even though the message comes through – in case there is any – the product itself seems to be dull and boring to read.”  This reflects my thoughts on writing to this day.  To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, I write to entertain myself and strangers.

In the days of the lockdown – which were also a time of heightened introspection – I scanned the old journal to remind myself what I chose to entertain notions of back in 1991.  Many entries now require footnotes, if indeed they are worthy of them: who now recalls the stir caused by Kitty Kelley’s Nancy Reagan biography? Not that I had actually read the book. “Nobody will use this book in a history class,” I declared. Being “a compilation of anecdotes” it had “no value as a biography.” Autobiography, being predicated on the personal, cannot be similarly invalidated, as I would later argue after taking a graduate course in ‘self life writing’ with Nancy K. Miller at Lehman. What I knew even in 1991 was that a journal was not a diary.

Unlike the diary, the journal provided me with a chance to develop a writerly persona.  I was playing the stranger, and what my reader, Ms. Padol, may have perceived to be my outsider perspective on what, in one entry, I called the “American waste of life” was in part my rehearsal of the part I thought my reader had reason to expect from me.  However motivated or contrived, that performance tells me more about myself than any posed photograph could. 

In an entry dated 3 May and titled “O temporaO mores!” I shared my experience watching Donahue, a popular talk show at the time, named after its host.  The broadcast in question was “People Who Change Their Sex to Have Sex with the Same Sex,” the sensationalism of which offering served as an opportunity to air my queer views as well as the closet of a journal that, for all its queerness, opened by lexically straightening my life by declaring my partner to be a “roommate.”

After expressing my initial confusion about the title and my indignation about the “exploitation” of the subject, I considered my complicity as a spectator and confronted the narrow-mindedness of my binary thinking:

Like the audience in the studio I asked myself why anybody would go through such a procedure only to have a lesbian relationship.

But then I realized that this is really a very shallow, stupid and yet typical question that shows how narrow-minded people are.

It also reflects ongoing intolerance in this society.

The woman in question made it clear that there is a difference between sexual identity and sexual preference.  When a man feels that he is really a woman most people think that he consequently must be a homosexual.

I refer to myself in the journal as gay.  What I did not say was how difficult it had been for me to define that identity, that, as a pre-teen boy I had identified as female and that, as a teenager, I had suffered the cruelty of the nickname “battle of the sexes,” in part due to what I know know (but had to look up again just now) as “gynecomastia”: the development of breast tissue I was at such pains to conceal that the advent of swimming classes, locker rooms and summer holidays alike filled me with dread.  I had been a boy who feared being sexually attractive to the same sex by being perceived as being of the opposite sex.

Reading my journal and reading myself writing it thirty years later, I realise how green – and how Marjorie Taylor Green – we can be, whether in our lack of understanding or our surfeit of self-absorption, when it comes to reflecting on the long way we have supposedly come, at what cost and at whose expense.  We have returned to the Identity Politics of the early 1990s, which I did not know by that term back then but which now teach in an art history context; and we are once again coming face to face with the specter of othering and the challenge of responding constructively to difference.  I hope that some of those struggling now have teachers like Ms. Padol who make them keep a journal that encourage them to create a persona that does not hide the self we must constantly negotiate for ourselves.

There is no record online of a Ms. Padol having worked at BMCC.  Then again, there is no record of my adjunct teaching at Lehman College from around 1994 to 2001, or at Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center thereafter.  The work of adjuncts, and of teachers in general, lives on mostly in the minds and memory of the students they shaped.

I was more surprised at not finding any references online to that particular Donahue broadcast, except for a few mentions in television listings – two, to be exact.  The immediate pre-internet years, that age of transition from analog to digital culture, are a time within living memory to the access of which a minor record such as my English 101 journal can serve as an aide-memoire.  Whatever the evidentiary or argumentative shortcomings of anecdotes, by which I do not mean the Kitty Kelleyian hearsay I dismissed as being “of no value,” historically speaking, they can be antidotes to histories that repeat themselves due to our lack of self-reflexiveness.

Those of us who have been there, and who feel that they are there all over again – in that age in which the literalness of political correctness was pitted against the pettiness of illiberal thinking – can draw on our recollections and our collective sense of déjà vu to turn our frustration at the sight of sameness into opportunities for making some small difference: we are returning so that those who are there for the first time may find ways of moving on. Instead of repeating the question in exasperation, we need answers to “What were we thinking?”

Travelling Through: Landscapes/Landmarks/Legacies

Travelling Through, installation view
As a frustrated writer, or, rather, as someone who is disenchanted with the business of publishing and of ending up not reaching an audience, I have come to embrace exhibition curating as an alternative to churning out words for pages rarely turned. I teach curating for the same reason.
Staging an exhibition reminds students of the purpose of research and writing as an act of communication.  Seeing an audience in walking into the gallery – or knowing that anyone could stop by and find their research on display – is motivating students to value their studies differently.

As someone who teaches art history, and landscape art in particular, to students whose degree is in art practice, curating also enables me to bridge what they experience as a gap or disconnect between practice and so-called theory, between their lives as artist and art history at large.

It also gives me a chance to make what I do and who I am feel more connected.

Angus McBean’s personal album of travel photographs featuring McBean and his gay companions (1966)

In my latest interactive and evolving exhibition, Travelling Through: Landscapes/Landmarks/Legacies (on show at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, Wales until 8 February 2019), I bring together landscape paintings, ceramics, fine art prints, travel posters and luggage labels, which are displayed alongside personal photographs, both by a famous photographer (Angus McBean) and by myself.

Here is how I tried to describe the display of those never before publicly displayed images from my personal photo albums:

Plinth display of NYC, Travelling Through Me (1985 – 2018), digital and digitised photographs
Before the age of digital photography, smart phones and social media, snapshots were generally reserved for special occasions.  Travelling was such an occasion.

For this collage, I rummaged through old photo albums and recent digital photographs. When I lived in New York, from 1990 to 2004, I very rarely photographed the city.  All of these images either predate that period or were produced after it. The historic event of 11 September 2001 can be inferred from the presence and absence of a single landmark.

The World Trade Center is prominent in many of my early tourist pictures.  Now, aware of my gradual estrangement from Manhattan, I tend to capture the vanishing of places I knew.
Lost New York City landmarks: Twin Towers and Gay Pier, 1987

Back in the 1980s, New York was not the glamorous metropolis I expected to find as a tourist. My early photographs reflect this experience.  Most are generic views of the cityscape.  Others show that I tentatively developed an alternative vision I now call ‘gothic.’  Yet unlike Rigby Graham, whose responses to landscape are displayed elsewhere in this gallery, I could never quite resist the sights so obviously signposted as attractions.

Like the personal photo album of the queer Welsh-born photographer Angus McBean, also on show in this exhibition, these pages were not produced with public display in mind.  McBean’s album was made at a time when homosexuality was criminalised.  It is a private record of his identity as a gay man.


I came out during my first visit to New York.  The comparative freedom I enjoyed and the liberation I experienced were curtailed by anxiety at the height of the AIDS crisis.

Being away from home can be an opportunity to explore our true selves.  Travelling back with that knowledge can be long and challenging journey.

Harry Heuser, exhibition curator
Pennant Tour of Wales featuring illustrations by Rigby Graham, with one of my photo albums and a collage of luggage labels beneath it

His Name Was Montague

Holding on to Montague

Twelve years ago I introduced Montague on the pages of this journal.  Today, it was time to bid farewell.

Montague, a stout, furry Jack Russell terrier, developed a cancerous growth in his snout and the last few weeks were (mostly) painful for him; he quickly lost his eyesight, his hearing, and his sense of smell, even though, until the very last day, he still ate with relish as much as he could swallow with ease.

I stroked the sedated dog in his basket as the veterinarian administered the lethal injection; his heart was so strong that it required two injections to put an end to his suffering.  It even made me doubt, momentarily, whether he could not have pulled through after all.

I had never experienced dying before; that is saying a lot, considering that, in my youth, I worked in a hospital for twenty months and have been around since then for decades.

Adopted and at first reserved, Montague was the only dog ever to live with me.  Given his past, shadowy though it is to me, he was cautious and not overly attached to anyone in particular; so it would not be right to call him ‘my’ first dog.  He let my husband, me – and friends and relatives – take care of him as he saw fit; and I was glad of it.

He’ll stay in that carpet.

I had to go to work after the veterinarian appointment.  It was a gloomy Saturday, the day that Storm Callum caused the worst flooding in Wales in thirty years. When I walked to the School of Art, where I work, I heard organ music play in a nearby chapel.  I do not recall having heard music coming out of that place before, at least not in my presence, atheist that I am.  It felt like something out of Victorian melodrama; not that I, being late as usual, had time to dwell on the peculiar aptness of the music as a soundtrack for the moment.

On the previous day, my latest exhibition, “Travelling Through,” opened at the School of Art Museum and Galleries at Aberystwyth University.  The wistful, melancholy title has added meaning on this day of loss.

I am prone to sentimentality; but, in this age of meanness,  discord and accelerating indifference, I am glad to be feeling sorrow – though some may sneer that I simply feel sorry for myself – along with the need to let it be known; not in the hope of letting it dissipate but of making it resonate.

Farewell, Montague. Little though I know, you taught me a lot.

A Night’s Wait: Hemingway, the Apocalypse and I

“It’s not the end of the world.”  How often do we utter those words, whether to calm ourselves or to dismiss the concerns of others.  Well, I never found anything calming about that expression.  It is the belittling by hyperbole that irks me.  We tend to judge the gravity of a situation by the magnitude of its physical manifestations rather than the depth of feelings it produces in the experiencer.  I, for one, have experienced the end of the world in early childhood; yet there is no evidence of an event having taken place, no trace of its existence save for the lachrymal salt on a crumpled pillow that, I suppose, was disposed of decades ago.  No surface trace, that is.

How am I looking? Is this an expression of trust, apprehension, or a questioning of portraiture as truth?

One evening, in a working-class flat in the grim sterility of the German industrial town I was expected to call home, I overheard my parents make mention of the apocalypse.  Someone had predicted that the world was going to end, and the date was set for the night to come. It was one of those doomsday prophecies that adults shrug off or subscribe to, depending on their intellect, faith and psychological make-up.  As a child, I had no recourse to experience.  I had no knowledge of having survived any number of doomsdays pronounced previously.  Nor did I yet doubt that adults knew all and spoke true.  I only had that night to go into, with a sense that it would be my last.

I was put to bed, and it felt as if I had been abandoned, cast out to face the unfathomable by myself.  I was going to be no more.  Everything I knew was to turn into unknowable nothingness.  No one seemed troubled to prepare me for this chaos, the void that I already felt lying alone in the dark.  I remember well the agony of that night, an angst that I now might term existential.

I have no recollection of the morning after.  What followed, though, were years of nightmares involving the atom bomb, cold-war sweat inducing anxieties about nuclear fallout and the nihilism of the No Future generation, mingled, in my case, with an awareness of my queer otherness that made it seem impossible for me to go into those nights in a fellowship of the doomed.

No doubt, this is why Ernest Hemingway’s short story “A Day’s Wait” appealed to me when I first read it as a teenager.  It is a story of a boy who, owing to a momentous misunderstanding, believes himself to be dying.  It is that story I chose to write about as an undergraduate student in English literature, even though it has often been dismissed as a minor work of magazine fiction beyond the canon of Hemingway’s supposed greatest.  I, on the other hand, was drawn to what I read as its theme of trivialized sublimity and the terror of that trivialisation.

Until recently, I did not consider that my first last night might have been the beginning of the end, not of childhood – a concept I have long come to question  – but of trust, faith, love and a sense of order and stability.  Now, as I am preparing for a lecture on gothic ruins, I am piecing together those haunting, Frankensteinean fragments of my past and present selves, and I wonder just how much fell apart that one nightfall …

[This entry is dedicated to the students of my Gothic Imagination class, whom, during the last few weeks, I exposed to visualisations of nightmares, sublime views and dystopian visions.]

Immaterial Is the Word for It

“Etherized Victorians,” my doctoral study on American radio plays, had been lying for years in a virtual drawer.  A string of rejection letters made me leave it for dead.  Then, when I learned about an opportunity to get it out of that coma at last – from a reputable academic publisher to boot – I went for it.  I have regretted that decision ever since.  The anger welled up in me anew when I read this article in the Guardian, which a colleague of mine had shared via Facebook.
 
A toothy smile after years of anger and disappointment
It is not that I believe that should have let the book lie, that it did not deserve to be revived.  Rather, I feel it deserved a better home than the publisher provided for it.  Funeral home is more like it.  To send it there, I agreed to pay £1600 for the production of a book that contains no images, except for the cover art that was supplied to me by my artist friend Maria Hayes.  Besides, I did all the editing, proofreading and indexing myself.  I got no input from the publishers, Peter Lang, other than a list of instructions and some rather irritating feedback on my blurb for the back of the book, which was only printed as a paperback.

 

Turning “Etherized Victorians” into Immaterial Culture meant cutting back and stripping bare. It was an instructive experience, painful though it was.  I renegotiated but was nonetheless obliged to cut about 50,000 words, and I rue the quick decision to get rid of an entire chapter (available online, on my website). I also had to let go of the list of primary sources, the plays I discussed.  When I asked for corrections of errors or inaccuracies I spotted close to the deadline, I was first told that no further changes were possible and then threatened with a £30 per hour editing fee.  So much for academic standards.

 
Peter Lang did nothing, apparently, to promote the Immaterial Culture.  Living up to its new name, my study does not even show up on Google books.  I got my ‘complimentary’ copies, some of which I sent to a friend with connections to the BBC.  Nothing came of that.  I also walked one copy up to the theater, film and television department of Aberystwyth University, where I work for next to no pay, thinking I might give a lecture or make a course out of it.  I have not heard from the department since.
 
And who else besides a library or an institution of higher learning would bother to purchase a text that is overpriced at £ 52.00 ($ 84.95), thus too expensive to attract radio drama aficionados? Not that anyone potentially interested would have even heard of the book.  Apart from one long and highly complimentary review (in German), Immaterial Culture received no press, despite my filling out a great number of forms to aid in its promotion.

 

It is disappointing – let’s make that ‘pointless’–  to write for an audience that proves allusive and impossible to reach.  So, I decided to donate a copy of the book to the Paley Center for Media in New York City, where I conducted research for it.  It would be rewarding and reassuring to me if someone got use or pleasure out of it.  Why else ‘publish’? Never again will I let a publisher like Peter Lang kill one of my books; and, unless to show support for anyone in a situation similar to mine, I would never purchase any of their books or recommend them to fellow educators.

Immaterial Me

My study Immaterial Culture: Literature, Drama and the American Radio Play, 1929-1954 has just been published. So, as well as explaining the subject matter of the book and the objectives of its writer, I decided to devote a few journal entries to the story behind its production, to its birth and life in relation to my own journey.  There is also the small matter of its afterlife, a matter to which no parent, proud or otherwise, can be entirely indifferent.

Along with my other recent publications and current projects, of which I have said nothing in this journal, Immaterial Culture has long kept me from materializing here.  No doubt, I could have made more effective use of broadcastellan as a promotional vehicle.  And yet, writing, like listening to radio plays, is a solitary experience; at least it is so for me.

Like the performers behind the microphone, writers are generally removed from the audience for whom their performance is presumably intended, an audience that often seems so abstract as to be no more than a construct.  The writer, script reader and listener may be sitting in a crowded room, and that crowd may well matter; but what matters more is the immateriality of the words once they are read or spoken.  Words that create images or match stored ones.  Words that evoke and awake feelings, stimulate thought.  Words that, uttered though they are to the multitude, begin to matter personally and take on a multitude of new lives.

That Immaterial Culture is a profoundly personal book will not be readily apparent to anyone reading it.  After all, I have refrained from using the first person singular to refer to myself as the reader or interpreter of the plays I discuss.  I thought I’d leave the privilege to say “I” to that “obedient servant” of the Mercury Theatre, the orotund Orson Welles.  Instead, I decided to disappear and let the play scripts and productions I audition take center stage, a prominent position they are often denied.

Talking about old radio plays as if they have no presence, as if they are chiefly of interest to the (broadcast) historian, only makes matters worse. Immaterial Culture, then, is an invitation to listen along, an invitation to talk about American radio plays of the past as one still discusses the material culture of books, motion pictures, theater, and television programs …

Down Memory Street; or, Thanks for the Sesame

The sight was monstrous. There was shouting. They were shooting. Someone stood guard to keep strollers from trespassing while the action went on undisturbed. Few folks seemed to care, though, so familiar had such sights become in New York City. One could always catch up with it later, on television. Besides, this wasn’t a crime scene. It sure wasn’t Needle Park or Fort Apache, The Bronx. This was the peaceful, upmarket East Side, for crying not too loudly, and the wildly gesticulating savage in fur was of the Cookie Monster sort. Sesame Streetwas being filmed on location—and the location, on that May day, was Carl-Schurz Park in my old neighborhood of Yorkville.

It seemed fitting that the beloved children’s television series should be shot here, right in front of Peter Pan, the bronze statue that, some fifteen years earlier—when the park had gone to seed other than Sesame—was violently uprooted and tossed into the nearby East River like an innocent bystander who, some thugs decided, had seen too much. It seemed fitting because Carl-Schurz Park is a tribute to German-American relations—and, in a long and roundabout way, I came to New York City from Germany by way of Sesame Street.

As a prepubescent, I spent a great deal of time in front of the television, a shortage of viewing choices notwithstanding. My parents were both working and I turned to the tube for company, comfort and the kind of guidance that didn’t come in the form of a command or a slap. West German television had only three channels until well into the 1980s, and the third one, back in the early 1970s, was still experimental, reserved mainly for educational programs aired at odd hours. Odd hours would have been anything before mid-afternoon, when regular programming commenced on weekdays.

So, there was literally nothing else on when I pushed the knob of our black-and-white set (a stylishly futuristic Wega) to come across Ernie, Bert, Oscar and the Cookie Monster—and they all spoke, growled or squeaked English. That is how I heard them first and how, several years before I was taught English at school, I got my first lessons in a foreign language.

I had just gotten through the alphabet and the numbers from one to ten when, without “Warnung,” Sesame Street turned into Sesamstrasseand the felty, fluffy foreigners became German, even though they changed neither looks nor situation. Being beyond pre-schooling, I now tuned in chiefly for the puppetry and the antics of the Krümelmonster. That is the way the Cookie Monster crumbled. “Krümel” literally means “crumb,” suggestive of the state to which something solid could be reduced in the process of translation.

Educationally, the early dubbed version of Sesame Street was dubious, to say the least. Spoken and written words and images did not always match.  Sure, “A” is for “apple” as well as “Apfel,” and “B” for “banana” and, well, “Banana.”  But there was little use for “C,” since few words in the German language begin with that letter, at least they didn’t during those days before Computers.

I remember watching a lesson on “A” that ended in “Alles am Arsch,” an expression only a tad short of the exclamation summed up in the last three letters of “snafu.” For once, even my parents took note.

Never mind, I remained loyal to Ernie and Bert, whose odd coupling I envied; and once the magazine accompanying the series was launched, with images of the puppets as centerfolds, the pair became my first pinups.

If only Sesame Street (a pun that, too, is lost in German translation) had remained on the air in its original language.  By the time high school started, and with it lessons in English—British, if you please—I had all but lost the enthusiasm; for the next nine years, I learned reluctantly and none too well, being that we were forced to go through joyless Grammar drills to arrive at the point of meaningful self-expression.

As a child, I never associated Sesame Street with any real place, let alone New York City, the seedy ways of which, back then, conjured scenes of violence and decay: the turf of gangs, the marketplace for drugs, and the inspiration for nothing except TV cop shows. It was just as difficult to get that image out of my head as it had been to get English into it.

Indeed, my first exposure to the Big Apfel demonstrated that image to be truer than the pictures of it in glossy travel brochures; no doubt, I had spent too much time eyeing the Carringtons of Denver, Colorado. That I fell in love with old, crime-ridden Gotham all the same had more to do with hormones than with anything we traditionally understand to be “tourist attractions.”

Since the mid-1990s, Manhattan has cleaned up its act, even though it wiped out much of the city’s character along with the crime—so successfully, in fact, that I once was slapped with a fine for dozing off on a bench opposite Peter Pan because I felt safe enough to rest my eyes.

Sesamstrasse, Carl-Schurz Park, and the old Wega set (images of which I had to google to remind myself).  The neighborhood of memory sure gets crowded as you travel ever further down the road . . .

Some Like it . . . How? Youth, Vampires, and Marilyn Monroe

Del Coronado mirage
There I stood, in the shimmering sands of Coronado Beach, California. I had come, of course, to see the famous Hotel—and to share the views once taken in by Marilyn Monroe during the filming of Some Like It Hot. Marilyn was here. Now I was. Footsteps. Sand. The old hourglass. I won’t indulge in such clichés here; but there is something pathetic about this kind of out-of-sightseeing, this belated catching up and impossible reaching out to which I am prone. The inclination to seek out what is long gone is more than morbid curiosity: it is an approach to life as a retreat from living in which even the here-and-now becomes dreamlike and chimerical. How did this get to be my way of not facing the world?

Marilyn Monroe died before I was born; yet her life and times became a fascination of my teenage years.  Mine were not erotic fantasies.  I did not long for her body.  Nor did I think of her as being gone.  She was never absent for long from the television screen, ever present on the iconic posters I pinned onto the wall above my bed.  Records spinning on the old turntable, her voice filled my room. I had no regrets about never being able to meet her in the flesh; rather, it was a relief.

The wonder of her incorporeal existence made living in the body I loathed more tolerable; and it made the physical relationships I dreaded easier to contemplate in the abstract.  Marilyn—and we call her by her first name because she is more familiar than famous, more girl than goddess—was not some facile paradox: “I Wanna Be Loved by You” and “I’m Through with Love” she sings in the same movie, expressing the hurt and hunger that are far from mutually exclusive.

Our teenage selves are preoccupied with the demands that both nature and society make on us, propositions and impositions captured in that horrible phrase haunting and taunting us until death: “grown up.”  As a response to and rejection of the implied threat—the finality and premature stunting of our infinite potentialities—Marilyn’s afterlife was as much a reproof of society as it was a society-proof alternative: a twilight life, expired and undying, bright though snuffed out, a fragile, indomitable spirit-presence in whose shadowy glow I could luxuriate, just as many a young person nowadays revels in the gothic gloom inhabited by zombies and vampires, except that my imaginings transported rather than dispirited me.

No doubt, this twisted bent of casting myself into times preceding my birth is born of a desire to bring forth alternate selves of mine without having to bear the vagaries of the present or the uncertainties of the future.  Like a life presumably squandered in reverie, bending the past to our will is a testament to a vestigial will power—or would-be power—in which the retrospective becomes invested with the prospect of an ever glimmering what if . . .

So Long, Onslow

Onslow? Why not!
One of my too few regrets in life is that I did not manage to inspire any of my fellow students to make up a nickname for me when I was in high school. Not counting “Battle of the Sexes,” that is. That was more of a cut than a nick, and all because I didn’t seem quite ready to shave—or perhaps even to be beyond shaving—at least not where man folk is supposed to. It was much later in life that I earned a moniker, one that didn’t make me feel I should be called Monica, and without having to do much or make an effort to look like much to deserve it, if deserve it I do. Onslow’s the name—a name that, to millions of television viewers, conjures up an image of a lazy slob in what is dead commonly referred to as a wife beater, a bad name given the kind of shirt I tend to don when the point of dressing up beats me, when reaching for a respectably casual shirt seems a waste of time, especially of daylight savings. Is it that shirt, or perhaps the silvery whiskers to the swift removal of which I do not always see soon enough now that I got them, at last? Else, it might just be those extra few pounds around my waist that just scream handle, luv! Handle, nickname, dishonorific, or what have you. It’s a name only an uppity so-and-so like Hyacinth Bucket would call a sobriquet.

That I learned to live with—since that is so much easier than having to live up to anything else—can be readily demonstrated by the above shot taken on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The star thus honored is, in truth, character actor Onslow Stevens; but I put my foot down to give the underachieving Onslows of this world their due, especially since I had already shed my shirt in the midday sun and was undressed for it.

Onslow, of course, was, like Ms. Bucket, a character in the Britcom Keeping Up Appearances, and Geoffrey Hughes was the actor who played the part, filling that undershirt better than I could ever hope or fear to do. Hughes died at the age of 68. And while I only knew him as Onslow—or Twiggy on The Royle Family—the fact that his passing topped news about the Olympics on the BBC website well before fatigue about that event set in even among High Jump (or Canoe Slalom or Trampoline or Water Polo) fanatics shows just how big a name he made for himself.

His Mother’s Voice

Myself, age 19

So, there I was, at my grandmother’s side—a reunion twenty-one years in the making—when the phone atop the slippery hospital bed table rang us right out of our reminiscences.  I reached over, handed Ella the receiver and, in an impulse of synesthetic kindness, turned to look out of the window, as if our ears could be as easily averted as our eyes.  Unable to listen away, I could readily deduce the identity of the caller, both from my grandmother’s tone of voice and from the nature of her greeting.  It was her daughter, my mother, on the line; and being so close to the phone made me wriggle in the chair I wished I had vacated instead of deputizing my eyes to take a hike.

I knew that, in a conciliatory gesture, grandmother would eventually pass the phone to me, and with it the onus to act polite in the absence of the kindness such an imposition was unlikely to inspire. You see, the last word exchanged between mother and myself had been a reference to the very spot of my anatomy I was now itching to shift.

During that fateful call, the relationship terminating vocable formed part of an expletive suggesting the inconceivable meeting of the listener’s glossa and the speaker’s gluteus maximus, as if what escapes us in our often less than choice utterances did not suffice to render the propinquity of kisser and keister conspicuous.

The posterior in question had been mine, or rather the figurative proffering of same.  Thereafter, a silence lasting a quarter century, not counting the telling incommuniqués that are the occasional scratches on the surface of glossy picture postcards—those ocular proofs of our inability or unwillingness to hear out whatever say others might still be having it in them to impart.

My gut feeling was to sit still, now that the time to steal away had passed; but Oma had gone through enough, especially of late, to be made to endure such a display of filial disaffection.  So, there in the impersonality of a hospital room, I talked to my mother for the first time in what amounted to nearly half of my father’s lifetime—except that the voice I heard did not sound like the one I thought of as my mother’s.

The momentary lack of recognition bespoke our estrangement. Now, I hardly expected the phone cord to reach right down into my navel; but, as it turns out, there is nothing intrinsically umbilical about a mother’s vocal chords, either.  That I might one day struggle to match my aural memory of mother with the vocal presence of her had, barring dementia, never occurred to me before.

The regional Rhineland accent seemed far more pronounced to me who had been brought up by her speaking High German. The timbre, too, was altered.  The voice was lower now, as if to compensate for the robustness that had once been wanting in the listener, her only son, whose androgynous adolescence had called traditional definitions of manhood into question years ago.  The tone was as jovial as a pat on the back, a nudge, a kick in the ribs or some such gesture standing in for an embrace.  The sense of the words I scarcely took in, so taken aback was I by their sound.

Had I really crawled that far from my cradle no longer to know by ear the woman who bore me? What was that, triumph? A validation of selfhood? Or was it an indictment? The conceit of “mother tongue” never sounded more foreign to me.