Thursday, December 7, 2006

Inhabiting the Spectrum

“Este pinche colina!” shouted a voice over the squealing of tires. Someone was stuck on our hill again. I stretched my neck to peer short-sightedly at the alarm clock: 6:50 AM. The barrio dawn chorus.

I sat up in bed and considered the day ahead: drop off laundry at fluff ‘n' fold; buy gubbings for dinner tonight; write up the interviews I had conducted with workforce development participants; mend my son’s pants; write Christmas cards. The last two I knew to be impossible, but I added them to my list every day in the hope that little elves would come in the night and miraculously next morning there they would be – jeans patched with tiny little elf stitches and Christmas cards correctly addressed and stamped. If you have never received a Christmas card from me, now you know why.

Later that morning, as I was making my way home via the convenience store, my cell phone rang.
“You never call, you never write… ” It was my brother, in town to shoot a commercial but MIA as usual on these fleeting trips to LA. “Lou, how’s your French? How would you say: You can take my life, but you can never take my soul?”
At least this time he wasn’t asking me to explain to the Guatemalan police that he’d been attacked by a gang with machetes.
“Vous pouvez prendre ma vie,” I said, slurping a coffee and reaching into the refrigerated case for shredded cheese, “… mais vous n’aurez jamais mon alme. Kahm-sa-hahm-ni-da.”
“Cum sum humnida?” repeated my brother. How do you spell that?”
“No, sorry, that’s Korean. I was just thanking the store clerk,” I said, balancing my coffee on the roof of my car so I could open the door.
“Vous errez…” tried my brother. “How quickly could you get to Paramount studios? I need you to coach the actress.”
I looked at the shredded cheese on the seat beside me and then down at my sweat pants. I remembered my interview write-ups and all the other tasks I had set myself for the day. “How much will you pay me?”
“A hundred bucks.”
“See you in 20 minutes.”

Exactly twenty minutes later, I pulled into the Paramount main gate, giving directions over the phone to my French friend, Anne-Helene. (I am pretty confident about making myself understood in French, but I could unwittingly ruin a whole advertising campaign if I missed certain nuances. Like the Spanish-language campaign for 'got milk?' which was rendered in translation as, 'are you lactating?' Or the Chevy Nova that had disappointing sales in Latin America until someone pointed out that 'no va' means 'won’t go' in Spanish.) The security guard was a cheery chap, smiling and joking as he looked up my name, all the while giving me sidelong glances, as if trying to figure out whether my glasses and pulled-back hair were the grunge disguise of someone famous. Then he took in my dusty Honda with the cookie crumbs and candy wrappers in the back and obviously decided that the grunge was for real. But he did look twice. I entered the parking lot feeling just a little bit glamorous.

Head up, shoulders back, stomach in, I schooled myself, as I strode down the alleys between stages. Whenever I don’t feel confident about how I’m dressed (every day I have to walk past the BCBG mothers at school) or am threatened with the feeling I don’t belong, I stand up straight and smile. It doesn’t fool anyone of course, but at least I do scruffy social misfit with dignity. It had been a while since I’d been on a studio lot. I couldn’t help feeling a little nostalgic as I walked between the sandy buildings with their huge hangar doors. I spotted a cluster of people drinking coffee and helping themselves to snacks from the craft services table. A white-haired security man hovered over the goodies, shooting me furtive glances. Did I look that much like my brother? Or maybe I really did resemble someone famous? More likely I had forgotten I was wearing my 'proud to be queer' T-shirt again. That and my 'Drug and Alcohol Programs' T-shirt has earned me some strange looks from the elderly couple at the fluff ‘n fold. The occupational hazard of being a social program consultant who actually wears the freebies the client gives her. Thank God I turned down that contract for sexually transmitted diseases.

“Epoch films?” I asked a hirsute gentleman, who was standing with a gaggle of grips. I knew they were grips because a roll of duct tape was hanging from every conceivable part of their bodies. He nodded towards a door that said 'Keep Out!' 'Do Not Enter – Filming In Progress' in large red letters. I pushed the door gingerly, expecting to walk into a daze of lights and the whole crew to start shouting at me. Fortunately, the action was elsewhere and the only thing on this part of the set were cables, camera boxes and a knight in armor. “Lost your horse?” I said, taking in his mournful face. He gave me a disdainful look and shuffled off, clanking. There I go with the sarcasm again! At this rate, I’ll never be rescued from my tower.

Following the golden rules of movie production (don’t walk in front of the camera or trip over the cables) I made my way to an island of 3 tall black canvas chairs clustered around TV monitors. “Vous pouvez prendre ma vie, mais vous n’aurez jamais mon alme!” I declaimed to the back of my brother’s head. He turned around. “Aher,” he explained to the startled faces, “this is my sister.” They continued to stare. “Lou, this is The Director, The Creative Director, The Client…” his eyes opened wider at each title, telegraphing the imperative to behave. “Thanks for helping us out,” said the director, and returned to the monitors.

My brother quickly ushered me behind a black curtain where a damsel in a blue torn dress was being dabbed with powder and having her lips painted by two attendants with matching blond spiky hair. The actress turned her eyes towards me, while keeping her face uplifted for the ministrations. The two blonds fell away, and without smiling, the actress recited the French words in a flat accent.
“You should push your lips forward,” I corrected, “and put the emphasis on ‘jamais.’”
“I studied French for seven years,” she said, looking down her nose in a fashion that was indeed very French. Her attendants took on similarly pained expressions. It didn’t help that in the throes of proper French articulation, my chewing gum had popped out of my mouth and onto the floor.
“And you should make the ‘a’ in ‘alme’ wider” I carried on, undeterred. After all, there was a hundred bucks at stake here.
“There’s an ‘l’ in ‘âme?’” the actress asked, looking from one to the other of her make up artists as if for elucidation. Blond hair bristled in suspicion.
Just then, Anne-Helene arrived and quickly confirmed that yes, indeed ‘âme’ had no ‘l.’ I could have told them that the circumflex accent was actually a sign that a letter had been missed out, and as the spelling in Spanish was ‘alma,’ it was reasonable to believe that at one time the French spelling also had an ‘l,’ so technically I was right, in a historical sort of way, but by this time I had grown bored and decided to head over to where three black leather sofas had been grouped into an impromptu sitting room at the other end of the stage.

The lounge arrangement was to house the so-called ‘creatives’ from the advertising agency, who hang around on set listening to iPods, drinking white wine and generally getting in the way. All dressed in black, it was hard to distinguish them from the sofas. The client was typing furiously on a laptop, but paused long enough to register me as I perched on the sofa arm for a chat. I happened to glance up and caught sight of my brother in a booth overlooking the stage. When our eyes met, he stood up with an alarmed expression on his face, all the while continuing to talk into the phone.

After my chat, I picked my way over cables and between lamps and screens to the iron staircase leading up to the booth.
“I’ve got to go, my sister’s been talking to the client,” said Rob as he hung up the phone. “What’s wrong?” he demanded.
“Wrong?” I asked. “Nothing. I was just telling them how I got out of the film industry because it is so meaningless and the people so shallow and egotistical.”
My brother put his head in his hands, but his groans were drowned out by the cries of the extras, who appeared to be doing their best to storm a bright green backdrop, waving sticks and rolling their eyes. The telephone rang. Rob picked it up and clamped his free hand over his ear: “Sorry? I can’t hear you; the peasants are revolting.”

I decided to resume my ‘meet and greet’ tour of the crew. Three gentlemen stood together, observing the peasants. I surmised they must be art department because they weren’t adorned with rolls of duct tape and didn’t have the whippet hound quiver of production assistants, who stand poised like Pharaoh’s slaves to satisfy the slightest whim of the production elite. (Earlier Rob had seen the director eating a pear. “That looks good,” said Rob, and moments later a PA materialized bearing a polished wooden bowl filled with wax-perfect pears. My brother has come a long way from the days when he used to have to rugby tackle me for the last cookie.)

Meanwhile, Anne-Helene had been taking her duties very seriously. The actress was now bound to a stake on top of a bonfire (no wonder she had been a bit tense earlier – the unruly extras were wielding real fire brands) and Anne-Helene had positioned herself in the actress’ sightline, right next to an impromptu hand-written autocue. I watched several takes, but all this standing around was making my back hurt. Time to reclaim my quotidian life, now that my brother’s crisis had been averted. I said my goodbyes and slipped away, back out into the sunshine, back down the wide walkways, past an awed group of tourists on a studio tour, past office workers with ID badges swinging from their neck, and into the parking lot where two men in suits were having an argument as they climbed into a BMW convertible.

“Bueno,” I was at home and conducting a telephone interview in Spanish with a 56-year old Mexican lady, “and did you want more than four-day week cleaning at the hospital?”
“Pues, no,” she replied, “I’ve had seven children, I’m tired. Four days is enough.” We laughed companionably as I wrapped up the interview. After writing up the interview notes, I picked up the sewing, just so I could do it badly enough that my mother would be obliged to finish the job properly once we got home for Christmas.

All in all, a very good day, I reflected. It was fun to revisit the movie world, but more satisfying to finish the day relating to someone whose daily dramas were about feeding her children. But then everywhere on set I saw baby pictures – inside camera cases, as screen savers – reminding me of my early days in program evaluation when my own screen saver read 'Josh needs to eat.' People really are all the same, it’s just that in the rarified stratosphere of fame and fortune and the razzle-dazzle of movie production it is easy to forget. How could that actress, who received $100,000 for one day’s work relate to the señora on minimum wage? I consider it my very good fortune that I inhabit neither extreme, yet get to rub shoulders with both. Now if I could only harness those little elves, my life would be perfect.

Copyright © 2007 Louise Godbold

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

We, the Deserving Poor

Even though at the elite private school I was visiting, today was 'casual Friday,' I knew better. Think Françoise, I told myself, as I clicked through the mothers at Josh’s school and landed on ‘understated professional.’ To create the look, pants, not low slung, denim or any other dubious material, and fastening around the waist without the aid of a safety pin and a gaping view of underwear. Okay, jacket then. Long, copious, double-breasted and therefore unlikely to reveal the substandard trouser fastening. Boots. Winkle pickers, but they lent me a somewhat dangerous air; just how dangerous a certain scone on a low coffee table knew only too well. (My sister arranged an afternoon tea at a posh hotel when I was last in London and was mortified when I managed to spear one of the raisin scones and jiggled it about unwittingly as I kept time to the string quartet.)

Although I have elected by certain life choices to distain the privileges afforded to me by birth (i.e., being white), and although material possessions are a low priority when compared to love, laughter and paying my son’s text messaging bill, I always believed, that should push come to shove, I could muster a suitably bourgeois wardrobe. After all, I did have my mother’s example on how to put myself together, whether it be for an audience with the Queen or a trip to the supermarket (my mother makes no distinction, both require lipstick and pantyhose). What I hadn’t realized, was that 15 years of living in the US and going to the supermarket in sweats had left me woefully deficient in understated professional wear and I couldn’t even produce ‘casual separates’ without bleach stains or B.U.M. (the British equivalent of B.U.T.T.) emblazoned on the front.

An hour later, I had perfected my interview outfit. We are applying to 5 schools, which means 5 open houses and 5 interviews. I wondered how I could accessorize a bright red jacket and black pants to look different 10 times. Perhaps they would think I worked as a parking valet and that this was my uniform? Good excuse, but hardly likely to impress any Admissions Director.

Such was my desire to appear the perfect parent, I arrived at the school half an hour early. After driving up and down the street for a while in a kind of lazy reconnaissance of the neighborhood, I turned into an up-market grocery store. The cashier rang up my bag of oranges: $8.25 – more than she was earning per hour. Poverty is relative, I realized, smiling at the baggers, who were yawning and chatting to each other in Spanish, but they didn’t smile back. I had dressed the part too well; I was just another gabacha.

At the school, it was another story. An elderly security guard ushered me to my parking space, walking backwards and bowing. Did they practice court etiquette here? Would he also spread his jacket on the ground before me? Perhaps the school had received word that the Notre Dame scout would be arriving in a black 1995 Honda civic? If this kind of attention was the result of my carefully chosen wardrobe, Francoise must live a charmed life.

I walked to the admissions office, passing teenagers in jeans and tennis shoes; nothing baggy, frayed or vaguely gang banging – my son would also have to go through a wardrobe upgrade. Waiting alone in the reception area, I leafed through the hefty yearbook: lots of theatre, lots of sports, lots of graduates in jacket and ties – this wardrobe thing was worse than I thought. I peered at all the pictures obsessively, no longer interested in academic standards or extra-curricula activity, but focused purely on apparel. Is this what private school would do to us? At least at the French school I am not expected to have any sense of style, because, after all, I am British. Our French cousins have long given up expecting elegance or good food from their neighbors and are satisfied with being able to rely on us for pop music and waxed coats.

A couple walked nervously to the nest of chairs I was occupying. Parents from the diversity program, I surmised. After my struggles this morning, I recognized the look that strives for Jackie Onassis but stalls at Madeleine Albright. Just then, a slim, blonde arrived, flashing a perfect smile and greeting everyone with confidence. Our wardrobe insecurities did a quick inventory of her green leggings and riding boots, topped with a long green sweater. She looked like the mounted section of Santa’s elves. As I embarked in casual conversation, it did not surprise me to learn that she lived in Beverly Hills. Good skin and expensive highlights didn’t need dress-up clothes. The security guard was probably still prostrate in front of her car.

The Admissions Director was suddenly before us. She escorted our little group around the building, which housed the library and various classrooms. I hung out with the couple and chatted in Spanish. She was from Mexico, he was American. I liked them; they laughed at my jokes. The Admissions Director, on the other hand, did not appear to share my sense of humor. “I’ll have to move to a bigger place,” I said, as we viewed the art projects, which included a 6-foot papier-mâché carrot. “Well, you could put it outside,” said the Admissions Director, with a thin smile. Had I somehow insinuated that the school was not being sensitive to families living in cramped housing? She obviously had me ear-marked as a financial aid candidate. Next time I would wear leggings.

The tour included a well-equipped theatre, which prompted the question: “Do you have many parents in the film industry?” She again gave me a guarded look. “Well, this is Los Angeles, but I always say you won’t see our entertainment industry parents in the National Enquirer.” She swung round with a beaming smile to the Beverly Hills elf:
“They’re all family people.” I had forgotten this was The Valley. Perhaps she now thought I was suggesting the parents were porn stars.

We returned via the elementary school. I hurried to catch up with the Admissions Director and the Beverly Hills matron, desperate to redeem myself.
“I think it’s great when the big kids and the little kids are all on one campus,” I enthused from behind.
“Yes,” agreed the Admissions Director, keeping step with the Beverly Hills woman. “I remember seeing our football coach out on the field with his baby in a harness. It was such a good role model for the boys,” she smiled over at her companion.
“I see that a lot in my neighborhood,” I said, trotting to keep up, happy to have at last found common ground: “All the gang members look so tough and there they are with their little babies, taking such good care of them.” There was a silence. “Of course, I guess you don’t see much of that in Beverly Hills, ha, ha, ha!”
“We have other problems,” said the Beverly Hills blonde, fixing me with a hard stare.
I fell back to ponder this. Could she have possibly known about the time my car caught on fire on Rodeo Drive?

Our walk-through ended back in the admissions office. The Latina and I stood awkwardly as the Admissions Director addressed the Beverly Hills mother standing behind us. “So sorry you couldn’t make an orientation, then you would have had a chance to meet the parents,” who are nothing like this motley crew, was the unspoken end to the sentence. The Lady In Green departed. No regret was expressed about us not being able to make it to the orientation.

I went back to my car wondering if my son stood a chance in hell of getting into this place. I had a feeling we might be tolerated for our ethnic, economic and sartorial diversity, but clearly we would not be donating a new wing to the library. “What can your culture bring to our school?” was one of the questions on the minority program application. What did they expect? That because his father was born in Mexico, my son could teach them ballet folklorico?

I drove away already writing an ironic account of the visit in my head, but the truth of the matter is that it did not sit well, this role of the deserving poor. My own fault. I have never much cared for wealth and privilege, so I should not now be surprised if wealth and privilege do not seem to much care for me.

Copyright © 2006 Louise Godbold

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Thank You For The Hand

…Overhead, overhead
Rushes life in a race
As the clouds
The clouds chase
And we go
And we drop
Like the fruits of the tree
Even we
Even so.

“Can you make oatmeal?” asks Camille. I fear I may be forced to resign from my position as Chief Caretaker for the Day on the spot.
“I can try,” I answer. “How much time have you got?” Ouch! That was almost as tactful as the message I left on the answer machine talking about looking forward to when this is all over.
I navigate the unfamiliar kitchen with its family-style veneer of meals past, the ocean bottom sink-drainer and crunchy floor. However, the contents of the dishwasher are clean and there is a roasting pan and vegetable steamer in the bone-dry dish rack. Signs of life before surgery? Everywhere I look, there is evidence of life interrupted – a suitcase from the recent trip to France, a skirt on the ironing board, laundry beside the machine sorted into a dark and light wash. Then there is evidence of the meteor strike – Steven’s bedding on the sofa, a bloody, gauze stocking-cap nestling with unfolded laundry on a chair, get well cards shuffled with unopened mail.
Camille staggers to the bedroom door. “I’m going to try to sleep now,” she says. Good. More time to figure out how to make oatmeal.

When I arrived this morning, I found Camille lying on a ridiculously cheerful Provencal yellow sheet, wearing chartreuse silk pajama bottoms, gray tank and an orange organza scarf around her head that lent her a jaunty, gypsy look. “Isn’t she the most beautiful person you’ve ever seen after brain surgery?” asked Steven. She glowed under this flattery, but looked to me like a broken doll with the puffy brown bruises around her eyes, chewed up hair and the Frankenstein scar at her hairline.
“I think I’m making progress, little by little, each day?” She looked to Steven for reassurance. I didn’t look at him but suddenly I felt like I was part of a conspiracy; I just couldn’t tell who were the conspirators.

Within half an hour, she is awake and asking for the oatmeal, which to my great gratification she polishes off while I sit beside her on the bed. There is one moment when she dips the wrong end of her spoon in the honey and sucks it, then laughs, realizing she had meant to add the honey to the oatmeal. Apart from that, and believing Bill Clinton is President, I don’t see any other manifestations of the bizarre behavior I had been quite looking forward to. And the Bill Clinton thing is probably just wishful thinking.
She’s tired again and slides down under the naked duvet, resting her head on the bare pillow. That’s why it looks so improvised in here – all the linen is in a pile behind the bedroom door. “Did Steven tell you about the hospital?” she asks. “The intensive care unit?” I shake my head. “The nurses were so horrible!” she says, bursting into tears. I stroke her hand and try to find sufficient vehemence to express my solidarity.
“The bitches!” I manage. “I’m surprised you didn’t bop them on the nose. That’s probably why they sedated you – they were in fear of their life!” She grins through her tears. When she smiles, she looks as impish as her 8-year old son. It’s the freckles, I think, and the way her whole face shines. She looks so tiny under the cover. I’m ready to go finish some business with the nurses at the hospital.

Desperate to be useful, I start folding laundry. My eye catches movement through the front door: It’s Sylvie, one of the mothers from school. She enters full of complaints that Steven won’t respond to her emails, that he’s building a wall around his family, denying us access: “He can’t possibly do it all!” she declares. I settle her with a cup of peach tea and make room in the sticky refrigerator for the soup and fruit she has brought. “I knew he was giving her supermarket soup!” she says as she spies the open carton, offended to her Gallic core. We put her tulips in a blue Tupperware jug since we can’t find any more vases. Earlier, I had made half-hearted attempts to wipe down the kitchen with the grimy dishcloth. Sylvie clicks her tongue as she looks around: “When I come I’m going to clean!” I feel vaguely insulted.
“Well, I wanted to, but there were no gloves…” but she’s already eying the windows and searching under the sink for a bucket. I began to sympathize with Steven. No doubt he would be the first thing to be transported out in the bucket.

After Sylvie leaves, I decide it’s time for lunch, taking my book and salad into the garden. It is very peaceful here, only the clacking of bamboo swaying in the breeze and the occasional bump coming from Camille’s room to remind me to enjoy every last drop of the sunshine and silence. Looking at the bolting rose bush and sprawling plants, I imagine Camille enjoying many peaceful lunches here. At least, I hope she was peaceful. Unlike me, she’s always had an immense capacity for making the best of her life: When I stay at home and do chores, she takes the boys swimming; when I wrap myself in doom and gloom, she does yoga in the sitting room; and when I shuttle between school and my desk, she is to be seen exiting the local coffee shop with a cappuccino. “I haven’t got much work this month,” I said this morning, “so I can spend time with you.”
“And on yourself,” she said, a slight reproach pursing her lips.
“Oh, I went to the beach on Monday, but I didn’t enjoy it. I guess I’m too task oriented.” She made no comment, but I had blundered yet again. The air hung heavy with lost possibilities and my ingratitude.

After lunch, I am suddenly inspired to investigate the laundry situation and gingerly open the interior door to the garage. It is a cavern filled with miscellaneous items, but under power tools and laundry baskets, I find a washing machine. I think I hear something. “Louise!” Camille is calling, a slight edge of panic in her voice. I emerge to see her careening across the living room, now in a green silk shirt that comes down to her knees.
“You need a bell so you don’t have to get out of bed each time you need something.”
“No, it’s good for me to get out of bed… but I think I’m going to pass out.” She collapses onto the bench next to the table. Her eyes light on the gold chain and tiny gold heart that I found among the laundry: “Ah, I’m so pleased you found it!” she says, smiling fondly at the necklace. “It belonged to my cousin who committed suicide at 30.” Thirty? Forty-two? There should be some allotted amount of life that is fairly distributed, like a mother serving cake to her children. Why would you give one child a smaller piece than the other? To build character? To show your ‘Grace’ as you comfort the swindled child? I don’t think so! God seems increasingly to be a fan of reality TV shows: Big Brother meets Survivor, with maybe a bit of Fear Factor thrown in. Camille clutches the heart and reels across the room back to bed.

This time, I stick a shoe in the door when I go into the garage, so that I can hear her call. I begin to sort the wash: boys shorts, definitely; Adrian can’t wear swimming trunks to school again. Camille’s exercise gear I put to one side – she won’t be needing that for a while. It is amazing how dispassionate I can be. I am hoping this is a protective mechanism and not that I am some ghoul who is enjoying the drama, escaping her own petty life immersed in the misery of others. Or worse still that my co-dependant tendencies are on overtime. I don’t really believe that of myself, but I’ve learnt that our motives are never really pure, that we can find all manner of ways to hide from our lives and ourselves, including altruism.
I wrestle with the knob on the washing machine. Come on, I tell myself, You’re an intelligent woman, you can figure this out. Finally, the drum churns, the machine bucks and over the sounds of reluctant metal, I hear Camille call. The light is hurting her eyes. She has appropriated a shawl and sends me in search of pins in the boys’ room. There is a mountain of clothes in the middle of the floor. I had seriously underestimated the laundry problem. After I’ve rigged up the shawl across the high window, I sit beside her on the bed. She explains that she is desperate for sleep, but can only knock out for a few minutes at a time. “My mind, it’s racing, racing,” she says, and draws a finger across her forehead as if to describe the trajectory of her thoughts. The notebook beside her is filled with scratchy writing and asterisks to pin down her fleeting memory. “It’s because they operated on my brain,” she explains, gripping my hand hard. “It’s all messed up.” She thinks that’s why she can’t sleep – that and the medication. I wonder about this desire to sleep, which has become an obsession. The body wanting to heal but sabotaged by the tumor growing deep inside her brain. I want to tell her to come out into the garden, into the sun. Soon you may be sleeping for a very long time.
I sit and hold her hand. I feel a bit stupid, to tell the truth, just sitting there. I close my eyes and try to send a stream of warm, healing light into her body. I feel the energy bubble inside me, but I don’t know if it does her any good. When she turns on her side, I gently extricate my hand and return to the laundry. I used to do that when my son was a baby, sit beside him until he fell asleep and then creep away to get the chores done. Now he’s almost grown, I wish I spent more time just looking at his sleeping face, hearing him breathe. When will I learn to savor, to be peaceful in inaction? Probably always too late.

Steven returns to find me folding clothes. I quickly stuff his underwear under the T-shirts, fearing indelicacy. I realize that it will soon be time to pick up my son and I haven’t even started on The Dinner. I had come up with this grand plan by trying to imagine what my most practical friend would do in this situation. It came to me in a flash; she would prepare a taco bar, with all the fillings nicely laid out, so Steven and the boys could fix themselves tacos. The beauty of the plan is that most of the ingredients can be bought, which only leaves the meat to cook. I put oil in a pan and start chopping garlic. A neighbor arrives with flowers and while Steven busies himself preparing to collect the boys, the neighbor and I enter into a detailed discussion about where exactly he lives. I am on my eighth clove of garlic when the neighbor suddenly seizes the pan, which is now smoking evilly. Steven registers the tableau of me and the neighbor holding the pan and a dishtowel aloft, shakes his head, and disappears out the front door. I shouldn’t have entertained him the other night with the amusing story of my uncle setting the house on fire. He’s probably worried that it’s a family trait.

I leave the neighbor pondering the ground beef, hoping that Steven will find the other ingredients still sitting in the refrigerator (that’s the problem when your most practical friend is from South Texas – her solutions may be culturally inappropriate for a domestically disabled Brit) and hasten to pick up my son from school. Sylvie finds me on the play-yard. “What do you know about Camille’s diagnosis?” she demands. Oh, heck! I fudged the answer earlier, not wanting to say anything if Steven had not made the biopsy results public. It turns out she confronted Steven when he picked up the boys this afternoon. I confirm what she has already heard. “I had to put on my dark glasses,” she says. I can tell she is still crying behind them. “He told me before that the tumor is deep inside the brain. So that’s it, isn’t it? There’s no hope.” I can’t contradict her.
“We can just do what we can to help – that’s all we can do.”
“Oh, you are British, aren’t you!” she snaps and turns away.

The children and parents ebb and flow around me. I am greeted by several people I know but it is as if I am underwater. My mind is replaying the sequence of an exotic coral reef fish darting into the sitting room in a green silk shirt. Among the milling neighbors and smoking oil, she pulls her small body against mine: “I just wanted to thank you before you left.” She breaks away smiling the trademark impish smile: “Thank you for the hand.”

© Copyright 2006 Louise Godbold


Flashing in sequence
like a fan
of show girl high kicks
or wood anemones
nodding in the rain

the yellow lights
their ballet
only for me
as I swing across
the intersection

the drivers
to the harmony

Copyright © 2005 Louise Godbold

Healthcare Options

(Jaunty music and then over, a bright voice) You have reached Healthcare Impedimente, where we don’t just want you to be healthy, we want you to thrive. (End music)

To continue in English, press 1. Para continuar en español, marque el numero nueve, uno, uno. If you are on a rotary phone, please stay on the line and we will transfer you to the gerontology department.

Please listen carefully, as some of our options have changed:
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(Congratulatory) You have selected Healthcare Impedimente Metro appointment center.
To cancel only using our automated service, press 1.
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(Suddenly casual) Okay, you have chosen to schedule an appointment.
Enter your medical record number followed by the pound key. Your Healthcare Impedimente medical record number can be found next to your address on the front of your Healthcare Impedimente membership card. If you can’t find your medical record number, stay on the line and the mental health professional will assist you just as soon as she’s finished helping the other morons who couldn’t find their address.

You have entered: dot, dot, dot, dash, dash, dash, dot, dot, dot. If this is correct, please press 1. Otherwise, press 2.

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For an appointment today excluding physical exam, press 1.
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Currently all representatives are busy helping other members. Due to an unusually high call volume of people who actually want a physical exam, your anticipated wait time is: (computer voice) Two. Hours. Twenty. Minutes.

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Copyright © 2006 Louise Godbold

Still Finding Ways To Kill Injuns

This summer, I went with much anticipation to my first sweat lodge. I was excited because unlike most psuedo-religious fringe activities indulged in by the sun-addled residents of Southern California, this time I would be in the company of a genuine Native American, member of the Oneida tribe and renowned ‘Fancy Dancer,’ Hanna Gilan. I was instructed to bring my sweat dress (my Hawaiian muumuu, but near enough), water, and the commitment not to laugh no matter how weird the white people became so that we would not offend Hanna's well-meaning friend who had invited us.

Let me tell you a little about Hanna. If you can imagine a female basketball player with the physical range of a bendy toy, the energy of a puppy, the face of Pocahontas, and a punk haircut, then you can pretty much picture Hanna. She is kind and wild all at the same time. She will be as likely to launch into a rant, down a bottle of champagne to no apparent effect, and curse like a fishwife, as she is to bring a yoga class to tears with her gentle wisdom. A lady who has lived a lot, won’t tolerate BS, and like a stray solar flare, brings warmth and light in a combustible mix to any universe she happens into. I adore her!

The universe we were happening into that night was a bungalow in a sedate suburb of Pasadena. Our first intimation that we were near the lodge was a young woman wandering around Ophelia-fashion in a long dress and smoking a cigarette. A car pulled up behind us with two gray haired ladies in muumuus - another clue. We assembled in a living room where photos of children graduating and in military uniform competed with tribal artifacts - masks and feathers, an arrow, and many books ranging from Shirley McClain (help!) to the 9 Principles (I didn't have time to find out the 9 principles of what, but you can be pretty sure of the content, none-the-less). The house belonged to an elderly man with surprisingly good teeth and the demeanor of a sprightly janitor. I looked in vain for evidence of his loving wife but found only male hued towels in the bathroom (emerald and claret), although there was toilet paper, so if he's widowed or divorced it's been for a while. He hovered in the background, showing off his good teeth, while we deposited our potluck offerings in the kitchen, paid our dues ($10 each for our entrance into another realm tonight) and took our place in the seats around the living room. I sat very close to Hanna, who sprawled in her seat, legs crossed defiantly. I figured she was already wound up by the Native American artifacts. Any moment now, she's going to reclaim the pipe and make off into the night, I worried.

Our Mistress of Ceremonies was a brick-built woman (who claimed Native American trace elements), with the face of a Scottish sheep farmer, and an amazing resemblance to one of my former teachers, who lived with another elderly lady in the days when female companions were considered exactly that. I expected to be drilled in my times-tables, but instead was given an overview of the evening’s procedures. We went in turn around the room to introduce ourselves. The usual mixture of impressionable women with long hair, pedicures, Valley Girl accents, and a sweetness about them that was just begging to be exploited. We had the two obligatory Northern Europeans (German and Austrian), who of course were taking the whole thing way too seriously, and a couple of Asian girls who had become stuck somewhere between blonde and Hindu but were perhaps hoping to resolve that by transforming themselves into Native Americans. Most were new to the sweat lodge, but very, very keen to experience it. Two hippie-dippy veterans spoke of amazing releases they had experienced in the past and “getting it all out.” Hanna and I must have looked like twin Pierrot clowns at this juncture, eyebrows arching to the ceiling. Then it was Hanna’s turn. “I am Hanna,” she began, and in her mellifluous, woodwind voice recited her credentials, among them convener of sweat lodges for the women of the Oneida and for the youth of North East Indian tribes. The Scottish-ancestored Shaman looked nervous as the other women looked on enthralled. I sensed a mounting spiritual stand off, but the Scottish woman had the good sense to offer Hanna the most honored position – that of the water pourer. Hanna had already explained to me that it was such an important job that only those who could remain humble were offered it. She was charged with “balancing the energy.” Then it was my turn. “I am Louise Godbold and I’m British,” (pause, then Hanna’s whooping laughter) “and I’m already looking for the door!” Despite my promise to Hanna, her paroxysms beside me hardly allowed me to get the words out for my own hysterics. “And if you see me make a slight gesture or change my facial expression, I’m having a big release.” The group laughed politely and then settled down as Hanna and I continued to heave silently on the sofa. I fixed my gaze on a painted mask to control my giggles and didn’t dare look at Hanna.

A few points of protocol later (don’t cross in front of the stones or the lantern because somehow that would harm the children – what children?) and suddenly women were stripping naked and wrapping themselves in towels. Hanna was nowhere to be seen. I managed to disrobe under my muumuu, which doubles as a kind of bathing hut. Out in the backyard, I was greeted by what must be a point of curiosity for the surrounding neighbors. It appeared to be an igloo made of Indian blankets. There was some complicated protocol about walking anti-clockwise around the igloo, stepping on 7 stones, each with a different color to represent a different chakra. There was some procedural point I had missed while studying the bookcase about these stones and rising energy. I didn’t feel anything and then wondered if that was because I was still wearing my sandals. I hastily removed them and hoped there were no penalty points for wearing shoes on hallowed ground. At the lodge door, the Scottish woman (aka my math teacher) did something with eagle feathers and sage smoke, finishing by tapping the feathers on your belly and inviting the ancestors to “accept this sister.” I noticed she had a practiced flick of the wrist that seemed to come in handy when wielding feathers or making what looked like the sign of the cross at her breast. I wondered if I should perfect that as part of my own professional repertoire. Perhaps a flick of the laser pointer when doing a PowerPoint presentation? A flourish of the cell phone when taking calls in public? I remembered to crawl into the lodge and turn left so that I didn’t harm the children, or myself, by falling into the fire pit. Inside, I could just make out what looked like a survival shelter made of bent twigs, hung with dream catchers and lined with black bin liners. Somehow the black bin liners were very incongruous. Skid Row architecture meets Plains Indians. One by one, I watched my sisters’ knees as they were blessed and crawled into the lodge. I found myself sitting at the back between the ashram Asian and the German. People filled up the space in front of me until we were 20 shadows sitting in the dark and cramped space of the only other structure I’ve seen smaller than my bedsit in London. The grinning janitor brought glowing stones on a shovel and deposited them in the pit next to Hanna. “Close the flap!” called the Scottish woman in an imperious voice, and we were plunged into total darkness.

I can’t breathe! I panicked, surrounded by impenetrable blackness, the pressure of bodies and viscous heat. It was so dark it was like I had already fainted. The womb of Mother Earth. If this was the womb, then I was drowning in amniotic fluid. Trying to remember what I had been told, I pressed my hands into the floor, scrabbled to my knees and hit my forehead to the floor. Got to keep my heart higher than my head, I instructed myself, Keep in contact with the ground, the ground remains cool. The piece of sage we had been handed was worse than useless. What I needed was smelling salts. As someone practiced in the art of fainting, this was old familiar territory – only I don’t usually faint packed in among 20 bodies in complete darkness and unable to breathe. By the time they discovered my body I would have truly passed into another realm – permanently! I swallowed the hysteria and clung to the towel rolled up under my forehead as the Scottish woman called upon the spirits of the North and the South, the East and the West, the Red, White, Black and Brown people, (this is hell, this is hell) various strange-sounding deities, Mercury and Uranus (I recognized those), the little people to tickle our toes so we wouldn’t take ourselves too seriously (not much chance of that as my bottom was now high in the air in an attempt to stave off the waves of dizziness), our ancestors, Merlin (Merlin? Whoops, wrong tape, reacted my befuddled brain), and the rest of a long litany which I could only pray would be over soon. I searched my brain for the part of the schedule when they opened the flap again. I seemed to remember there was Part One: prayers for ourselves; Part Two: prayers for others; Part Three: open round (which sounded like something from a game show); and Part Four: blessing. Yoga breathing, I told myself, This is what Navy Seals do in confined spaces. Fill the back of the lungs, deeeeep breath, exhale pulling stomach to the spine. Mercifully, the incantation had stopped and we had started on the round of prayers. “Identify yourself to the universe,” boomed our Mistress of Ceremonies. Hanna was ladling water on the stones for all she was worth, judging by the hissing coming from that corner. I wished she wasn’t quite so punctilious. As I gulped soggy hot breaths from between my knees and tried to ignore the ringing in my ears, my body started squidging about under my dress until my belly slid off my knees and one side of me collapsed onto the blanket. “I am Sitha,” one of the participants informed the universe. “I pray to my ancestors and the spirit of Spiderwoman,” (did she really say Spiderwoman?) “ to allow me come into the fullness of my power.” “Ho!” responded the group, in what seemed an unlikely choice of affirmative. I willed the earth coolness along my side to rise into my body. I wondered if anyone would notice my prayer would be a bit muffled, but figured I didn’t dare pull myself into a seated position. “I am Kelly,” sang one of the Valley Girls, “please help me do well in my massage therapy mid-terms.” “Ho,” responded the group. “Idiot!” I muttered into the floor. It was my turn. I struggled to get my bottom back in the air. “Erm, this is Louise. Please help me to write my book, finally,” I prayed and subsided back onto the blanket. When it came to Hanna’s turn, she launched into the Oneida language. She appeared to be taking it all very seriously, but I noticed some references to the Healing Center at the reservation, which probably meant she was praying that she could get back to a proper sweat lodge as soon as possible. “Open the flap!” commanded our misplaced druid and suddenly the light of the lantern illuminated the glistening bare breasts of a lady to my right. I finally got close to dancing around naked in the moonlight, I mused, as I sucked in the meager amounts of fresh, cool air coming in from the flap. Somehow it didn’t seem worth the accompanying near-death experience.

Our faithful janitor appeared with more glowing stones. One of the lodge participants made a bid for freedom and I was tempted to follow after. Partly being stuck at the back, partly wanting to experience something (however bastardized) that was dear to Hanna, and partly the Empire Spirit held me back. “Close the flap!” Pitch darkness again and Part Two had begun. I resumed my bottom-up position but still experienced the blood rushing away from my head in dizzying waves as I choked on the darkness. “I am Sitha,” (Oh, here we go again!) “I pray for all children around the world.” “This is Helen,” (the Valley Girls had adopted my telephone manner of address for the universe) “I pray for my boyfriend/brother/friend/mother/step-father/cousin-once-removed/gas-station-attendant-near-where-I-live, that they can be delivered of their addiction/intestinal problems and pass their mid-terms.” It all blended into one. Apart from the boyfriend in Cabos, who was there without his girlfriend on his first vacation since joining the Sheriff’s department 4 years ago. Somehow the specificity of it stuck with me, along with the impression that the relationship was not destined to last long. Unless she was the one with glistening breasts, that is. My turn. I prayed something innocuous for my son and that he would get to experience a sweat lodge. Why the heck did I pray that?! Definitely suffering from lack of oxygen to the brain. Not only that, but I was in danger of drowning in my own sweat as rivulets cascaded into my upside down nose. My dress was now sodden, but I didn’t have time to contemplate the aesthetics of the situation as I was still concentrating on deep breathing. There is nothing spiritual about this, my mind raced, It’s purely an endurance test. Hanna’s turn. Thank God, must be near end of Part Two. “I pray that people don’t spend energy on self improvement, but concentrate on self acceptance,” prayed Hanna in Please Take Note English. “Amen! I mean, Ho!” I waved my bottom in agreement, sniffing away the sweat and trying to edge away from the burning flesh either side of me. Swelter. Suffocate. The print on plastic bags floated into my mind: Do not put over head. How ridiculous! Who would put a plastic bag over their head? Let alone seal it and then heat it up! Got to get out of here. My fingers scrabbled at the bottom of the plastic to pare open a hole. Nothing doing. I imagined punching a hole in the wall and only just controlled the impulse as the final “Ho!” signaled the rising of the flap. “Fan!” we gasped and the janitor obliged by plugging it in and sending cold air into the fetid lodge. Immobile and light-headed, I sat upright against the flimsy wall. I could make out Hanna’s silhouette by the entrance. Some of the women were lying down, legs curled. I can’t take this anymore, said my voice in my head, but couldn’t utter the sounds. Before I knew it, more stones arrived and the flap was closed again. I hit the deck. Whatever happened now was purely about survival.

Part Three, I remembered, was about letting it all out. There were moans and whines in anticipation. I suddenly had a premonition of group hysteria tipping my own already barely controllable hysteria into a frenzied outburst; limbs torn asunder in my race for the exit, trampled flesh mashed into the blankets, hot stones ricocheting off the plastic walls and the Scottish woman’s head. The incipient whines mounted into crying, then sobbing, then high-volume gibberish as the Valley Girls explored primal screams, the German discovered her inner child, and others raved: “Need to forgive,” “Self acceptance!” “ Guilt, guilt, guilt!” “Finger painting.” (Huh?) “Maniacal laughter!” prompted my neighbor. “Please don’t!” came my only muffled contribution. Impressionable to the last, the group started laughing like oxygen-deprived hyenas. In rising desperation, I stuck my fingers in my ears and burrowed my forehead deeper into my towel. Slick legs and damp clothing hemmed in my blindness and my lungs struggled to fill with the mixture of heat and sweat and steam. “Now imagine you are 2 feet in front of yourself,” said our guide (not easy, given the dimensions) “and you’re seeing all your beauty and talents.” “I love you!” said a very convincing voice in my ear, until I realized she was talking to a separated version of herself. “Now give away those talents to the universe!” warbled the voice of our chief tormentor. “I give away my poetry,” she started us off. I can only imagine, I thought ruefully. Hopefully, the universe will find some appropriate receptacle for it. “I give away my intelligence, my beauty, my compassion,” chirruped the others in turn. Not much left for me. “I give away my ability to find humor in extreme situations,” I said from between clenched teeth, “and my desire for new experiences!” That one I didn’t want back. Hanna growled in the corner. Whatever she was giving back included whole migrations and enough wackiness to sustain several Old World mental health systems. The ringing in my ears had started a dance with the darkness, swirling in red and black patterns. My heart was jumping against my collarbones. “Open the flap,” Scottie commanded. This time there was no hesitation. “Girl coming through!” I shouted. “Oh stay!” pleaded one of the ninnies. “You can’t leave before the blessing!” remonstrated the High Priestess of the Back Yard. “Sweethearts, I know when I’m about to go,” I responded remarkably lucidly for someone who was nearly tearing her wet rag of a dress in her desperate attempt to climb over bodies and crawl for the flap, “I’ll spare you the drama.” “Thank you!” said one of the Valley Girls, sweetly. “Close the flap!” issued the draconian voice. Our janitor duly sealed the flap as I took my last look at the prone forms steaming gently in the dark interior. I lay back in a deck chair and tried to get oxygen into my beef jerky head. As the leaves of the surrounding trees came into focus, I avowed my preference for ‘the everyday spiritual.’ I also praised the wisdom of the universe that with my low blood pressure I was born Catholic, not Native American. The sound of women’s voices floated from under the pile of blankets: “Spirit of the wild woods.” “ I am.” “Spirit of the rushing wind.” “ I am.” I looked around for agog neighbors, but nothing disturbed the peaceful evening; evidently in Pasadena they are accustomed to chanting igloos and the servant of Hades with his glowing shovels.

I grew chilly in my wet dress and was relieved to find my towel had retained the heat of the lodge. I wrapped it around my shoulders as the last invocation to the ancestors drifted out and bore with it the imperative to “Open the flap.” The lantern light bounced off the janitor’s teeth as he helped slippery, naked women out of the lodge, to then fall spread-eagled on their towels. Some of the larger ladies reminded me of something laid out on a slab in a fish market. Our intrepid ashram Asian went behind the tree and did sun salutations, steam still rising from her head. Hanna boiled in her towel on a bench. Our solicitous janitor was instructed to pour 6 glasses of water and then seal the lodge so that our ancestors could continue to sweat. I could just imagine my father in the spirit world groaning and reminding me this was another reason he had raised me Catholic.

Once dressed and reassembled in the living room, Hanna and I resumed our position on the couch. “What did you think of the heat?” asked the Scottish Shaman slyly. (Hanna had mentioned that she was used to very hot sweats.) “Fine, if you want to tie a plastic bag around your head!” retorted Hanna. “You should really get rid of that plastic. You’re supposed to use skins so that there can be an interaction between earth and sky. I’m sure I’ve lost a few brain cells!” “Different traditions,” came a voice, “Done plenty before,” murmured another. The ashram Asian made some sort of ‘ohm’ hand gesture at her heart. I worried for her equilibrium. “Did you notice how it suddenly started to get hotter in the third round?” asked our hostess, deciding to ignore Hanna. “Yes,” agreed Miss Massage Therapy Mid-term enthusiastically, “We were giving so much out!” My interpretation inclined more to Hanna’s analysis that in fact we were all being slowly asphyxiated.

“It was interesting listening from the outside,” said the janitor, who was still hovering. “It all seemed to be one musical note.” Musical note? I had expected the next sound to be sirens. The janitor suggested we all took a turn at smoking the pipe, which I discovered from the look shot at me by our ceremonial priestess to be what was in the blanket roll beside my feet on the table. She reverently produced a 3-foot long wooden pipe, a shell, various beaded pokers and yet more sage and eagle feathers. I had heard from Hanna the call of the traditionals to return all pipes to the Native Americans (to prevent precisely this type of Native American-flavored Tupperware party) and so watched Hanna’s face for signs of impending trouble. Our presiding priestess packed the pipe with Natural American Spirit tobacco (what else?), stretched her arm to light the bowl and instructed us (with no sense of irony) not to inhale. The pipe was passed from shaky Valley Girl to shaky Valley Girl who each did a very poor impression of a smoker and actually failed to notice when the tobacco ran out. The priestess harrumphed over and with a wrist flick, stamp, and twitch of feathers replenished the tobacco. Hanna disdainfully took her turn. I declined. It was unfortunate that this could be interpreted as a statement of disunity, but frankly after nearly losing consciousness and being kippered in the sweat lodge, I was not about to contract some orally transmitted disease into the bargain.

We were told to remain seated while the pipe was packed away again and it was returned to its buckskin bag without being either appropriated by Hanna, or the subject of a furious tug of war. Relieved, I went to join the throng in the kitchen and ate copious amounts of fruit while Hanna sat morosely on the sofa. She made an abrupt move to leave. “You’ll have to drive,” she said, handing me the keys, “I feel sick.” I hurriedly shook the gargantuan hand of the would-be Shaman and thanked her for an “interesting” experience and waved to the Valley Girls, who waved cheerfully back. “I think I’ve been poisoned,” Hanna moaned in the seat next to me on our way home. “I can think of better ways to lose brain cells… Suffocated in the name of enlightenment!” She leaned out of the car door at the next stop sign: “They sodomized my culture,” she said, and spewed onto the pavement.

Copyright © 2006 Louise Godbold

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Stays in Las Vegas

Las Vegas was all it promised to be: hedonism on tap. My girlfriend and I took full advantage. However, there was a disturbing undercurrent which I really only understood on the second night. The whole town is run like an adult theme park, people shepherded from airport to gaming tables with possible detours to restaurants and shows, but all highly controlled by security personnel. In the nightclub I found a flashlight directed onto my toes. “If you don’t put your shoes back on you’ll have to leave,” came the gravely voice of a man with a curly wire in his ear and the shoulder span of a pterodactyl. “Excuse me, I need your towel!” screeched the bikini-clad young girl guarding the doors from the pool. An attempt to stop theft, or free titillation for the casino guests as women in wet swimwear stumble around slot machines to find the only restrooms in the complex? At night, going up to your room, another curly wire man in the generic Mafiosi suit holds the elevator door for you. The elevator camera records the results of too many banana daiquiris framed by leopard carpet and mirrors. A small security man and a very big dog wonder around to sniff out bombs (Bin Laden’s heard of the Hard Rock?) and simultaneously terrorize the Girls Gone Wild and the liquored-up young men in Fedora and Bermuda shorts who come to watch them. It was like being at a teenage party when the parents don’t leave.

In case you were confused, the primary interest of Peter Morton and the other casino owners is not your enjoyment. He wouldn’t have been able to sell his place for $770 million without keeping an eye on his investment in pool towels. At 6PM the people herders dressed in bikinis and playing-card Bermudas clear the pool area. Later, if you should stray out to enjoy the balmy air under the stars, a security man electronically rigged to People Control will politely guide you back inside to the air conditioned gaming. Waitresses magically appear at your elbow at the crap table, beside the slot machine, in line at the reception desk, while reapplying your lipstick in the restroom: “Can I get you anything to drink?” Rock music fills the space normally reserved for rational thought and budgeting. A white-feathered bra? A cigar? What I thought were table-tennis bats? Thank goodness the casino stores were at hand to reveal what I had been lacking by way of entertainment.

“There is no coffee machine in the room,” I complained to the concierge, clutching my tea bags and UHT milk. What naivety to believe that the Starbucks concession wouldn’t have seen to that. “I can get room service to bring you hot water,” the slicked and groomed young woman told me, eying my tea bags like so much contraband (perhaps the dog wasn’t for bombs, after all),“for a charge.” Seeing as the water in the mini bar cost more than my weekly groceries, I declined.

Extraordinarily, despite the inducement to party the night away (as long as it is within range of the gambling), somehow the engineering department hasn’t read the memo and sends out leaf blowers at 8AM and stations them directly below the guest windows. “Shut up down there!” cried a woman’s voice from a 12th floor window. Empty plastic daiquiri glasses rained onto the concrete. To no effect. Duly programmed, we all appeared an hour later for breakfast and (was it coincidental?) the first heavy metal track and running landing of waitresses in substantial footwear but not much else that signaled the opening of the pool.

“I would just like to let you know that this was the only jarring note in an otherwise satisfactory stay,” I complained to the concierge about the leaf blowers. “It’s mandated hotel procedure,” she explained through her nose in a less-than conciliatory fashion. My friend Hanna fared better when she complained about the lack of the promised cabana. “Don’t offer me something and then don’t give it to me!” she said, leaning her 6’1” frame over the counter. Her face was redder than ever from the sun and the blond tips to her spiky hair looked like they might just be dipped in poison. We suddenly found ourselves with a free dinner. If only Hanna had been negotiating those treaties, it might have been me growing up on a reservation. Or maybe there was a certain respect for her Native American blood in a casino town. They save the fighting for ballot initiatives.

So what did Hanna and I get up to in this Mecca of vice, this playground for those who want to let go, but lack the imagination? There was much laughter while oiling up our suntans and watching music videos on the plasma TV; gentlemen from Santa Barbara who plied us with drinks and taught us how to shoot craps; and even some tipi creeping on the last night. I would give you a full account, but you know what they say, “What happens in Vegas…”

Copyright © 2006 Louise Godbold

My Son Has A Girlfriend

My son has a girlfriend. Nothing wrong with that, you say. Or you could be like my comadre, who would cross herself and say, Thank goodness he likes women.

The thing is that my son is eleven. He makes fun of Barbie commercials and reacts in disgust should I ever mistakenly buy him anything he considers “for girls.” His commentary on the fair sex usually amounts to “Eurgh!” All perfectly normal, along with mysterious objects that I have to fish out of his pockets when putting things in the wash, and a delight in imaginative stories where Arnold Schwarzenegger unleashes armies on unsuspecting Teletubbies, with all the resulting flying day-glow fur and tangled antennae.

So what, you may ask, would make my darling, perfectly developmentally correct son attractive to a fellow 11-year old, who being female is probably considerably more emotionally mature and not hung up on decapitating Teletubbies? I know he’s tall for his age, has a broad chest from a self-conscious season of nightly push-ups, his father’s smooth olive skin, almond eyes, my dark blond hair, and a certain cachet in his grade based on… based on the kind of quiet confidence that has made him a leader since kindergarten (Josh, as you’re leaving, can I be in charge now?” his schoolmates would ask when I picked him up from school), and I’m ashamed to admit it, probably also based on his cell phone which I bought him in a flush of “Yes, I can give my son what he wants,” followed swiftly by, “$100 of text-messaging!?” “I don’t care if it’s a cool ring tone, it cost me $5!” Whatever the reason, it seems Silver has found a hook upon which to hang her prepubescent fantasy of romantic love.

Silver (firm friend of Chynna and Crystal – as one wag remarked, together they made a place setting) is a gorgeous filly. I choose the word deliberately because she is long-legged, with a mane of long blond hair, and has a quickness and focus that suggests intelligence. She’s also smart enough to greet me enthusiastically every time she sees me. Her mother has the kind of looks that makes fathers miss their child scoring a goal during soccer tournaments if she should walk by the bleachers. If I had breasts like that my life would have been different. Silver’s father occasionally comes to pick her up. Her parents are not together. My amateur psychology divines that Silver wants male attention and so in her hapless, romantic, vulnerability, has picked my son.

– My son who loves computer games, soccer, a good dinner followed by ice cream, laughing with his mates and skipping a shower if he can get away with it. What on earth possesses Silver to believe that my son could possibly have the emotional capacity to respond to her complicated, delicate heart? That he could hold her, heal her, make her whole? But wait a minute, doesn’t that sound familiar? Why do I, at 44, still hold out the hope that I could find a man who would gaze deep into my eyes and not be thinking about either bed, dinner or escaping to be with his friends? Do not most males of my acquaintance like nothing better than computer games, soccer… You take my point? Easy to pity the feeble romanticism of a preteen girl until you realize she is only mirroring the same fantasies we still live with in middle age when we’re old enough to KNOW BETTER!

Personally, I blame Pretty Woman and all the Hollywood fluffy, feel-good, marry to live happily-ever-after movies for encouraging us to inhabit this imaginary world where Josh sees Silver as anything other than an alien life form, and men in limousines pick up hookers for anything other than anonymous sex. “Stop expecting someone to come rescue you!” I wish I could print it in every teen magazine, alongside the make-up tips and “My Best Friend Stole My Boyfriend” stories. If only Julia Roberts would tackle the role of Annie Oakley, she could save generations of teenage girls to come.

Copyright © 2006 Louise Godbold


Arranged in pews
bells neatly lacquered
rinsed in old rose
and faded blond

nodding a scent
of handbag interiors
of Max Factor
and hairpins

the hyacinths
huddle by the automatic door
sniffing in seniority
over the brazen tulips
and tightly coiled rose.

Copyright © 2005 Louise Godbold

Woman Eating Ice-Cream

In a corner of the ice-cream parlor
she sits
in self-conscious consumption
one hand resting
awkward on her thigh

Her mouth opens wider
than strictly necessary
the spoon tethered by her lips
as if performing for an invisible
or being monitored
by the drip police

A guilty pleasure
I wonder
noting a spreading stomach,
or the painful loneliness
of those who swallow enjoyment
like a pill
with no company
to wash it down

She has the look
and Jesus sandals
of Catholic lay clergy
hair tight
in a gray ponytail
dressed in a uniform
of faded blue

There go I
but for my hairdresser
and the slight hope
that keeps me
from double scoop sundaes
and nervous acts
of self love
and self loathing
on an empty afternoon

Copyright © 2006 Louise Godbold

Monday, November 27, 2006

Little Bird

“I am getting better, aren’t I?” she asks repeatedly.
“Yes, yes of course,” I reassure her, taking in the puffy bags under the eyes and the frail body, trying not to cry with her. Camille is out of danger, her tumor is not growing, is unlikely to metastasize, and she should be on the road to recovery. Should be, except that in the weeks, months now, since her surgery her progress has been slow. In the first weeks she sat flapping her arms to a yoga video while I took on the full aerobic “warrior” sequence, until we both collapsed in laughter. She took short walks to the top of the hill where the Chavez Ravine drops away into the dusty tops of palm trees. We went to the beach, where she sat on a sun bed until the October sun slanted low across the ocean. The scar at her hairline is just a pink patch as if she had been reading with her head propped on her hand. But something is wrong. Something defies every empirical reason for hope by the very weight of its presence.
“Do you think you could prepare the salmon?” she asks. I jump up from my computer, suppressing a slight irritation at the chatelaine that comes out in her every now and then. So much for writing my report. Fortunately, one of my more recent culinary adventures (they number about two a year) was poaching salmon. This time I was prepared, once set in motion, sprinkling dill and chopping cucumbers for all I was worth, a blizzard in the kitchen, emptying the dishwasher with my feet, opening cupboards with my nose, closing the refrigerator door with my behind, dazzling myself with my speed and efficiency, until, voila! Poached salmon on a bed of herb greens with a white balsamic vinaigrette. “You should be a chef,” said Camille when I brought it out to her in the garden. Wait until she sees the wrecked kitchen, I thought. That’s how I’ll spend the afternoon of not writing my report.
We sit in the mild sunshine, the leafy bamboo canes clacking against each other with the sounds of a village cricket match. She prods at the scraps of salmon with her fork, both of us interested in the plate, neither of us remotely concerned with eating. Her other hand is clasped to her clavicle, kneading. I know that feeling, that welling, choking feeling that lives right there: It is a sentry that will not permit any color to pass into the heart or any clarity to filter into the brain. It sits right there, pressing down, eliciting great sighs as we try to breathe through it, squeezing up fountains of tears and the wide cat yawn of high-pitched misery.
“It’s normal,” I say, stealing the favorite French expression. “You are probably just processing all the trauma, the fear surrounding your diagnosis. At first you were insulated by shock, but it’s natural that you would have to work through it, cry your way through to the other side.” “It’s probably the meds, it’s such a tricky business getting the right balance.” Or, “You are probably feeling the strain of both you and Steven needing support and being unable to provide it to each other.”
“Thank you,” she says, as I offer each rational explanation, then sighs a big sigh. The sighs continue as I bring order to the kitchen, put on a load of laundry, and pack up my bag. I leave to pick up the boys, her sighs echoing in my ears; my last view is the back of her head in a round chair, burgundy cushions rising to cradle her, a broken little bird.

© Copyright Louise Godbold

The World According To Grandad

Dear Sis,

I just wanted to share some of the wisdom imparted to me by Grandad today. He asked if I had heard your news. "Yes, she's expecting," I said, hoping that was the news he meant and I hadn't let the cat out of the bag. "She and Richard built up some compost, did some lovemaking and now there's a baby." "Excuse me?" I said, wondering if he thought I didn't have a grasp of the birds and the bees, or if his great age had addled his brain.

"I knew this bloke once, who came to me because he and his wife couldn't have children. He said he and his wife had regular sex (Grandad, talking about sex!!!) but no babies. I told him: "Don't go near her for 3 weeks, then do your business and it's guaranteed to work." It did too! Afterwards, he and his wife wouldn't look me in the eye; thought, "This old boy knows too much." See, being an animal breeder (oh God!), you know about these things."

Well, seeing as your youngest is now 6, I guess Grandad believes you had built up very good compost indeed! I had better be careful. My uterus must be the human equivalent of Miracle Gro™.

While I was still trying to digest Grandad’s views on your fertility, he started on a new tack: "When you're 50 it's all over. Then any looks you might have had are gone and you become, well let us say, obese. People will think any of your ideas are antiquated." Mistakenly believing that Grandad was talking in the abstract and wanting to make a joke, I said: "Well, that means I only have 6 years to go!" But to my horror I realized he was speaking directly to me. "I only say this as your grandfather. If you had a father I'd refer you to him, but he's gone now." I gave my belly a quick check: round, yes, obese, no. And no one's been digging over the compost, so I should be fine.

Of course, I should have realized that no phone call could pass without the lecture and the subtle or not-so-subtle enumeration of Reasons Why I Should Come Back To Britain, which were:

1) Global warming (it was as hot as California in the summer)
2) Good opportunities as evidenced by cousin Clare getting a good managerial position and her husband going to work for the police force
3) Being able to find a house near the post office and shops (does he think LA doesn't have those?)
4) My family loves me (this is the point I always cry, along with his references to Dad and how much he always respected him)

Just when I thought I'd heard everything, Grandad then decided to close on an exhortation: "You know, you've got good genes. All our family is respectable, hard-working, honest, dyslexic..." (Dyslexic? Was he confusing the word with something else? What could it be? Anorexic? Apoplexic?) "...You see, being dyslexic we have original ideas because our brain works differently to other people's." Then I figured it out: Aunty Vicki's doing fundraising for the dyslexia charity - she must have done a very good job in educating him on the cause and maybe overcompensated a bit for the fact that indeed many of our family are lousy spellers and some of us get our words jumbled up, and not just when we're drunk.

So there you have it! The world according to Grandad. At 91 may I be as lucid, healthy, and dyslexic.


Copyright © 2006 Louise Godbold

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Another Day in Paradise

What will I discover? I wonder, as I am buzzed through the metal gate. Images of drooling patients shuffling around in carpet slippers or deranged men with long hair and a penchant for blondes. I tell myself off firmly. I’ve worked in a mental hospital, complete with restrainers (otherwise known as straitjackets) for patients who would otherwise bite the nose off other patients in the night, and enough feces to make motherhood when it came, a breeze. So what am I frightened of? After all, this is only a private mental health facility. I have already encountered most of the serious lunatics in Los Angeles when I worked on Skid Row or traveled on the buses.
I wander between low, modern buildings with curtains at the windows holding my vase of peach tulips. The grassy pathways and quiet institutionalism remind me of college dormitories during exam time. A groomed woman with a badge around her neck flashes a curious smile in my direction. Time to look collected.
A series of polite signs direct me towards security. I descend carpeted stairs to a sunny desk where a white-haired security guard laboriously copies my name into the visitors’ book. If he has this much trouble with Godbold, I can only imagine what he is going to do with Gabriel de la Broderie. “Camille G?” he asks into the telephone. “She just got out of group,” he says to me. “It’s snack time, so she’ll be over at the cafeteria,” and hands me a blue paper VISITOR sticker. First, he instructs me, I have to relinquish the vase (no glass), and transfer the tulips into my wide-necked water bottle.
“Should I give you my cell phone?” I ask, spying the long list of forbidden items on a sign behind him.
“No, just turn it off.” Fortunately, I have not brought razors, penknives or an AK-47 rifle with me, so I am allowed to proceed. However, should I have any of those items stuffed in my bright orange purse, the benignly smiling guard would be none-the-wiser.
I bound up the stairs with a sense of victory. Official visiting hours are 7-8pm, and I was expecting just to drop off the goodies I brought for Camille at the nursing station and maybe manage a wave hello. Steven said she didn’t want visitors, so I am taking a risk by crashing her snack time. I’ll just leave the gifts and disappear if she doesn’t want to see me, I reason.
The hallway is filled with flower paintings, on a par with the ones I see drying on the line at the preschool – art therapy, no doubt, or possibly some famous modern artist who has progressed from riding bicycles over his paper. The open lounge is deserted apart from an overweight lady in pink, who investigates the coffee table with determination. Ah, one of the patients, I think, until a side door opens and the ‘group’ spills out. “I’m waiting for him,” says the pink lady, and points at an elderly gentleman who is looking around for escape. I suppose I should explain the presence of me and my now-drooping tulips to the gentle, white-haired lady who appears to be the leader of the group, but I hear “Louise!” and Camille is hugging my neck.
“Let’s go outside,” she says, heading for the glass doors to the patio.

The sun burns through my long-sleeve T-shirt, but Camille seems not to notice the heat in her black sweater. She sits with her feet on the bench and sinks her teeth into one of the organic apples I brought. Suddenly, I feel awkward. What am I doing here? Maybe she really doesn’t want visitors. Maybe I have overestimated the depth of our friendship and she sees me as a curious hanger-on, or worse, an interfering busybody. On the day she was admitted she left a tearful message thanking me for looking after the boys. “I love you!” she finished, her voice breaking. I had to sit in the school parking lot with my hand to my chest, trying to calm myself before facing the boys. “She’s just having a feeling. It’s just a feeling; it won’t kill her. She’s okay.” Now her face is turned to mine, glancing up every now and then to read my expression, but there is no sadness, only weariness and resignation in her eyes.
“I always feared I would end up in a psychiatric hospital, but now I’m here, it’s a relief.”
“How so?”
“Because I don’t have to worry about figuring out the meds and I’m not sitting at home staring at all the things that need to get done.”
Everyone is very “sweet,” she continues. The nurse took away her fruit when she first came in, but let her keep her toiletries. “They eat so freaking early!” she exclaims, “Eleven thirty for lunch.” I sympathize. In England ‘elevensies’ are the snack we have at eleven o’clock to keep us going until lunch. But then we are not in England, not even in Europe, and the agriculturally derived customs of our adopted country prevail. I have done my seditious part by supplying her with apples and organic raisins; now we contemplate how to arrange them under the magazine and greeting card so the nurse won’t see them. A man appears at the glass doors, dressed in jeans and a sweater, badge flapping at his chest. “Camille!” He sees us at the table: “Oh, you have a visitor,” and retreats.
“He’s nice!” I say and then we both giggle as we hear the, “And cute!” in my voice. “I think I’m having a turn,” I goof, “You’ll have to admit me right away!” Our laughter dies away and I become awkward again. Sitting in the sun and the silence we could be co-workers hanging on past the end of lunch break to enjoy our last moments of freedom, if not for the 6-foot iron fence that hems the view of a distant downtown and County jail.
“What should I tell the girls?” I say, curling the last vowels in an affectation of an American accent.
“Tell them what you like,” she replies, flatly.
“I mean, about visiting.”
She tells me she would like visitors, an injection of the “outside world.” I ask about the schedule, wondering if there are other opportunities to steal a visit during the day.
“They wake us up at 6:30, breakfast at 7:30, then they take us for a walk.” I cock an eyebrow. “Around the parking lot,” she grins ruefully. At least this is more like the old Camille; she is tired, a little anxious, depressed even, but she has a sense of irony and an edge of defiance that lends her dignity. She might have to be in this place, but she doesn’t have to like it. That’s my girl! “Well, I guess I’d better get back up to find out about the evening schedule,” she says. I glance at my illegally illuminated cell phone: It’s 3:30pm; almost time to put the cows in the barn and go to bed.
She relieves me of all my quarters for the payphone and gives me a letter to mail to her grandmother. The letter was the goal she set for herself in morning group, she says, making a face. I bounce towards the gate, lighter without my gifts, as she slowly makes her way back through the glass doors, booty hidden in the gift bag and clutching a polystyrene cup of chamomile tea.

The gate clangs behind me and I stop to turn over the envelope in my hand. It is covered in spidery handwriting and has no return address. I wonder what her grandmother in the ritzy first district of Paris will make of the contents, if she will be able to imagine this ‘mental health facility’ clinging to a hill among the whitewashed apartment blocks of Chinatown, where a bran muffin is considered health food and the male nurses all look like film stars. I wonder if she too has misgivings about demented roommates and lunatics perched on windowsills. It’s okay, I want to write on the flip side, Tout va bien. Your granddaughter is actively resisting paradise.

© Copyright Louise Godbold