Not at ALL What You Thought

Sunday, October 22, 2006

At the Salon on Wednesday

Wednesday night, Juice and I went to our loctician to have our locks tightened. (We prevailed upon Goobs, who prefers dead-straight hair now, to come along.) M, easily the most proficient and happiest loctician in the Eastern Seaboard, is also quite insane. Vn and M own a shop called Black Butterflies, a haven for all-natural black hair. The stylists there don’t relax, press or perm hair; they braid, cornrow, twist, lock --you get the idea.

Vn has the place decorated in earth tones. When we come in, we see the burlap and magazine-covered table on the left and, on the right, an interminable glass case full of long, feathery earrings and other dangly jewelry. In between, there’s a semicircle of simple, waiting-room chairs. The wallpaper’s a matte gold and cream with strands of wheat-colored yarn, or something, tacked to hang in intervals along the tops of the walls. The waiting room opens into a styling floor that’s a gauntlet of six gleaming styling chairs, with a television perched high in the upper left corner of the room, along with VHS, DVD, and CD players. When we come in, the TV’s invariably playing some bootleg video, either horror or comedy. (Wednesday, though, the girls were catchin up on 24 episodes.) Beyond the gauntlet is the shampooing room, where, besides washing hair, the stylists eat and use the restroom. Actually, anybody can use that restroom; that’s what it’s there for.

Vn and M are both tall black women whose locks (because we don’t say dreadlocks anymore) hang down to their backs. Vn has beautiful, absolutely flawless dark skin and perfect, white teeth. Her locks are a deep, brown-red color and decorated with tiny, glittery, dangly hair jewelry. She’s in her forties, narrow-hipped, big bosomed, and muscle-armed. (Most stylists, I’ve noticed, have arms like Angela Bassett.) She loves Jesus and horror movies (although she denies her love of the latter), and she always gives me a big, sandalwood-smelling hug when I come in. Vn, when she’s not listenin to other people talk, is given to short, pithy lectures. She’s always proselyzing Goobs about locking her hair. Goobs pays her no mind.

Oh, and she belongs to my church. (After all, everybody does.)

M, her business partner, is also tall, narrow-hipped and bosomy. But M has a harder demeanor. Her locks are a brasher red, and she has one real diamond attached to one lock somewhere in there. Her skin is not as smooth, and M doesn’t care. She doesn’t wear lipstick, or any makeup, for that matter, as a rule. (I suspect she gets all dolled up for parties, concerts, and clubs, though, however M. defines “all dolled up.”) Both Vn and M were wearing all black (t-shirts and jeans) on Wednesday. We believe M loves Jesus (He certainly loves her; she cracks Him up), but she definitely does not love church, and after the experience she described for us, I don’t blame her.

“I went to my uncle’s church, Sunday, Vn,” she said. “Girl, let me tell you. It’s one of those tiny, family churches. Girl, the pastor anointed [her two-year-old] with oil and laid hands on her. Her eyes popped open like this.” And then M showed us how the baby’s eyes popped open. We fell out laughin. “I didn’t know if I wanted him to pray for me after that! But I did. And, look, Regina: I just smoothed that oil right up into my hair. I needed that anointing.” And then M showed me how she smoothed that oil right up into her hair. “Cause, girl. When I went back to my seat, the pastor’s mother jumped at me!”

“She what?” asked Vn.
“What?” I asked.

“I said she jumped at me –like she wanted to fight me!”
“Stop lyin,” said Vn.
“I wish I was lyin,” said M. “That woman. . . .my aunt had to grab my arm, else it’d been on!” I thought about the kind of strength it would’ve taken to hold M back, and I figured that M hadn't really wanted to jump back at the pastor’s mother, especially in church, and that’s why the story wasn’t as exciting as it could’ve been.

“What’d she jump at you for?” asked Vn.
“She said, ‘Please don’t push against me.’” M’s eyes got big, like her baby’s had when the preacher prayed for her. “I was nowhere near her! I don’t know what she was talkin about!”

“Ain nobody like church people,” I said.
“Got that right. Somethin must be wrong with that woman,” said Vn.
“Somethin gon’ be wrong with her, she jump at me again,” said M. “And get this. My uncle touched me on the hand, got up and went to play on the organ. Our grandmother taught all of us to play, you know.”

“Was he good?” Vn asked.
“Naw! He was off-key! And lookin at me like this,” M said, and then she showed us her uncle’s expression. It included a wink. Apparently, her uncle had no idea he was playin off-key.

“Why he wanna get up there, playin in B, when everybody else was playin in A?”
“He ain know he was off-key?” Vn asked.
“Naw! He thought he was tearin that organ up! And the keyboardist kept lookin at him like this,” said M, and then she showed us the keyboardist’s expression. Goobs was leanin over her homework, snortin, and Juice was wipin tears of laughter from her face. I had nearly fallen out of my chair at the proudly confident expression on M’s uncle’s face, but I was undone by the keyboardist throwin eyeball daggers at M’s uncle.

“Were you laughin?” asked Vn.
“Naw! I was turnin around, askin my aunt, ‘Do he know he’s off-key?’ She shrugged. And then, Vn, and then, tell me why the pastor asked for another offerin? Who did he have in the congregation? About thirteen people: him, his wife, his mama, his son was playin the keyboard, his son’s cousin was on the drums, and the other eight of the congregation was family, too! Why—“ and here, M lost it, just cracked up. Funniest part of the story. Because M, this gangsta-lookin stylist, when she got to laughin, had the sweetest, most lilting laughter you’d ever expect. Imagine the kind of laugh you’d hear out of the princess of the “Princess and the Pea” story –you know, that chick who was so delicate, she could feel a pea through umpteen mattresses? This was M’s laugh. No lie.

“Why didn’t he just go to they houses –he knows where they live—and just ask for more money there?” M asked around her silken giggles. “But lemme tell you: that man preached his butt off! Yes, he did. Girl,” said M, “I’m goin back.”

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Voices Trouble (now with EDIT!)

I usually look forward to choir rehearsal. It’s at the end of the week, Thursday night, and because it’s the kind of choir it is, I’ve found rehearsal like scream therapy, only (usually) prettier.

Last night wasn’t so pretty.

It started out like usual, with the girls and me flyin through I-664 to downtown Newport News. Goobs and I had picked up Juice from band practice, and we were on our way to Hardees so we could shove ourselves outside something really unhealthy just before choir rehearsal. (I had the jalapeno burger.) Squealing into the church parking lot on two wheels, we saw one of the new choir members sitting in her car, waiting for somebody to unlock the doors. We waved at each other. This is part of the Thursday night ritual. There’s always somebody (or more than one) sitting in her car, waiting in the parking lot, waving. At about five minutes to the hour, Juice said, “We better go in, or we’ll be late.” Juice is the arbiter of punctuality, especially when she feels it is her responsibility to remind me, several times in a half hour, that we’d better go.

Just then, V called me on my cell phone. I had called her early that morning, about twelve hours ago, and this was my call back.

“Never mind,” I said into the phone. I mean, I’d even forgotten what I’d wanted from her. (That happens a lot: I call the woman in the morning, and she calls me back later that evening, asking, “You call me?” It’s gettin old.)

“Okay,” she replied. “The door’s unlocked. Y’all can come on in.” Our new member was already out of her car, walking determinedly into the wind that hung around our church parking lot this time of year. The building we have church in was built near the James River, so beginning in October, the Hawk starts creepin in, with a view to inviting its whole family round there by the holidays.

Juice grabbed my umbrella, and Goobs grabbed my gigantic choir notebook. (This is a common three-inch binder, stuffed with those loose-leaf plastic sleeves which are, in turn, stuffed with pages and pages of black gospel song lyrics. This particular collection is at least ten years old. The uninitiated gasp when they see it, and I add so many sheets during the year, I usually have to replace the actual binder. [Course, throwin it in the back of the car, makin it ride around with us day in and day out, probably has something to do with the regular need for replacement, too.]) I grabbed my purse, keys and cell phone, shoved the last two into the first and went inside.

First disappointment: TPTB had decided to move the choir proper upstairs to the room where our dancers rehearse. They wanted the musicians to rehearse in the sanctuary (where choir rehearsal usually is). I suppose it’s easier to let them do their thang, especially when they need more work on their thang, in the sanctuary, where the heavy instruments already are, than to lug the Hammond (for example) upstairs. I suppose. So the girls and I walked (well, they walked, I panted and puffed) two flights to the upper rehearsal room.

Second disappointment: somebody had arranged the choir’s chairs in front of the long mirror on one of the walls. This means I got to see just how huge my huge thighs are –for two hours nonstop. I resolved to sing all night with my eyes closed. Choir members trickled in, hugged other choir members, and then sat down. P, the best soprano I’ve ever heard, sat in the chair next to me on the left. Another new member, whose name I can’t remember, sat on my right. He’s a lovely young man, slim and twentyish, with beautiful long, curled eyelashes. He had kissed me on the cheek before he sat down. He was a little nervous because this was his first time singing with the premier choir of our church. He probably thought rehearsal would be hellacious*, even though we were all grinning at him and V, one of the other new members and T, because we were genuinely happy to have them. This particular choir has a high turnover. We’re “just a church choir,” as my pastor likes to remind us, but we play hard. We have less than fifteen members now. We've never had much more than twenty, as diligently as our various Ministers of Music recruited.

Third disappointment: we’re in the process of learning a song by Donald Lawrence , one of my least-favorite gospel artists. Someone in choir leadership heard the first song on the Finale project, “Blessing of Abraham,” and said, “What a great song!” I’ll betcha. I hate it when people listen to the very first song of a new musical project, or hear some song getting heavy play on the radio, and then decide to teach it to our choir. (Yes, everybody did love Donnie McClurkin’s “I Call You Faithful”; it’s a wonderful song, but everybody else is singing it. Can’t we learn something that every choir in the country's not singing?)

The other problem I have with this song, aside from being the first on the project, is that it’s in line with the prosperity doctrine my pastor preaches against. Most of Donald Lawrence’s songs are, these days. He went from “I am God,” a song which extols the supreme Creator, to “Prayer of Jabez” , which begs Him over and over and over and over, “Bless me, indeed”, extolling what we can get from Him. “Blessing of Abraham” points out that we, Christians, are the “seed of Abraham” and we should demand and expect (“by faith”) the same blessings God promised the Patriarch. (I was particularly appalled by a “testimony” on the live recording, from one of the young men in the choir: after having discovered a serious condition in his health, and after what cure was available from modern doctors, he stopped the course of medicine, deciding “If I was gonna be a worshipper, I wanted God to do what He said.” And if you don’t understand what I find so appalling in that remark, I don’t know if I can explain it.

And personally, I prefer the second song on the project, “Encourage Yourself,” which exhorts Christians to do just that: cheer up ourselves, sometimes, instead of always lookin for encouragement everywhere else, but ain nobody ask me.)


We got through another chapter of perfecting our execution of “Blessing of Abraham,” and then V decided she wanted us to try a new song, Israel Houghton’s “Holy Spirit”. V couldn’t teach it the way she wanted to teach it. For one thing, she didn’t have a copy of the song for us to listen to; our keyboardist/Minister of Music (actually a genius in his own right) wasn’t yet quite sure how the song went, and V had a few doubts about the song herself. But she wanted to try it. What most of the choir didn’t know was that V was angry with our k/MoM because she had given him a CD of choir songs to make copies for choir members, more than a month ago, and he hadn’t gotten around to it. If he had, you know, we could’ve been working on the words and parts to the song ourselves, before choir rehearsal, because that’s how we roll, and most of V’s work would’ve been done. But he hadn’t. So V had a lot of work to do now. She felt very frustrated, even before she’d sung the first note to us. (This is how traditional black church choirs learn songs: we don't read music; we listen to it and thereby learn the parts to sing.)

I knew because she had told me about it last week. I sympathized with her, completely, but I discovered that I didn’t agree with her decision to teach us the song anyway, without everything she needed to teach it. In fact, I had had no idea that this was what she had planned to do. But V sent downstairs to the sanctuary, to S, our bass player (another genius), who, she thought, had a copy of the song somewhere. S came reluctantly up to us with his MP3 player and a device that would use the speakers of a boom box to play MP3 player songs. It was a slightly complicated process, but finally, we could hear the song, kinda.

Unlike the rather smooth way she had gone about teaching “Blessing of Abraham,” V’s manner of teaching “Holy Spirit” manifested her current lack of resources. She stumbled over the words and the parts. She forgot that she should use the buttons on the MP3 player --not the boom box-- to move backwards and forwards in the recording of the song. As she became increasingly flustered, choir members’ faces became, by turns, curious to confused to frustrated. The air was heavy (and not because heat rises). To lighten the mood a little, I raised my hand and said, “Y’all are gettin’ on my last nerve! How does this part go again?”

V, normally a joker, even about the most serious things, didn’t crack a smile. I’d noticed that, since she had become our choir director, she had become more and more edgy during rehearsals. The bottom-line problem was, she didn’t believe she was capable of what we all knew she could do. She lacked no expertise, as far as we were concerned, but she lacked confidence, she didn’t believe in herself, so what difference did it make that we believed in her?

At the end of the rehearsal, V made a speech. She told us that we needed our respect, because the mess that choir rehearsal had become wasn’t her fault. She said, “It’s not my fault” more than once. After an awkward pause, our k/MoM asked one of the tenors, R, to raise the closing prayer.

The next morning, during an early-morning break at work, I made the mistake of emailing some advice to V about last night. I was careful: at the beginning and throughout, I avoided the pronoun “you,” as much as possible, and I ended with “I’m praying for you. Love. . . .” In the middle, I advised against telling a group of people “It’s not my fault,” unless planning to lay blame specifically; I advised against teaching a song when resources were unavailable; and I advised that V find her sense of humor again. (Honey, the message was much longer, but I figured you'd appreciate me just hittin the high spots.)

V responded only, “In the future, disruptive choir members will be asked to sit down from the choir for a period of time after several warnings.”

I knew what she meant: unaccountably, she was blaming me for some of what had happened the night before. And this was not the first time V had accused me of being “disruptive” --and disrespectful—during her choir rehearsals. I was her friend. I had encouraged her, prayed for her, kept her confidences, stood up for her when others criticized her. Somebody else had gotten on her last nerve, let her down. She felt she couldn't attack him in public (I dunno, maybe because he's a man?) but the rest of the choir? Sure! And now, somehow, her self-doubt had turned into doubts about me.

That’s how women do their friends in the Church.


My pastor's been talkin, for weeks --or for quite a few Sundays and Tuesdays, anyway-- about the way Church People react when they're under stress, and then the johnbrown prophet weighs in on our situation: we don't get mad at the situation, or even the people who put us there; we get mad at the messenger. After about two or three of these messages, V couldn't take anymore. She ran across the sanctuary after service and threw her arms around me.

"I'm sorry. Girl, I've been stressed out for the last six months. I didn't know how to act," she said. "I love you with your mean self!** I don't want any mess between us." I hugged her back.

"I love you, too," I said. "Don't worry about it. You just have to realize that you got this. You can do this."

That's how women do their friends in church.

*The word of the day on Friday
**The general consensus of my disposition, at home and at church. Three hundred and two people can't all be wrong. . . .

Monday, October 02, 2006


I’m a mean teacher, but only when I’ve been very, very sick.

Last two weeks of September, I was sick with. . . .something. Fevers and chills and aches and pains on Monday and nausea and fever on the next week’s Tuesday. (Yes. Sick again the next week, a week later.) On Monday evening, I fell sick, but managed, on Tuesday morning, through a feverish haze, to go to my 8 am class and leave them a note on the chalkboard:

[Prof. Gine] is sick today (24 Oct 2006). Please read chapter four in your SMG and bring your “Remembering a Place” drafts in on Thursday (26 Oct).

Having done my duty, I ran away home and stayed in bed till I had to get up and pick up my chirren. On Thursday, I went to class, discovered my students with their bright white essays on their desks, and I asked (unnecessarily), “Is everybody ready?”

“Yes!” everybody said.

“Okay, then,” I said. “Here are your peer-review sheets. Y’all get into groups and read each other’s papers!” Silence. Then a babble of confused conversation. Folk were lookin at each other in bafflement. I became a little annoyed. I could see the papers I’d asked for (or so I thought) right there on various and sundry desks. What was the problem?

“What’s the problem? I left y’all instructions for today!”
“They were unclear,” the bravest of my students said. I got more annoyed.
“Unclear? That wasn’t unclear!”
“We didn’t understand what you meant!”
“It was very plain. I’m an English professor. I don’t write unclearly. Never mind,” I said. “Just give me what you have and go away. Read the chapter for next class.” My students came up one by one and turned in their papers. Silently.

In a steam, I put the essays in alpha-order (my only obsessive-compulsive thang, as far as I can tell) and began to read them. And then I realized what had happened.

My writing classes run by a pattern:
essay assignment given;
essay drafts brought in;
peer review workshop (in which students read each other’s drafts);
drafts teacher-marked up;
drafts teacher-returned;
revisions brought in.

I was reading revisions, which meant that I had forgotten about the “draft” and “peer review” part when I wrote instructions on the board on Tuesday. My students had already gone through that part of the process, and every one of them had turned in what was due when I came back to class. In my mind’s eye, I could see the face of one student, the young woman who sat front and center –and always had her assignment ready on time. Her face was full of hurt and confusion. I wanted to die.

I had yelled at my babies for nothing. I was an evil woman, unfit for human congress. Curse and revile me an you please.

Next class, I apologized profusely.
“Although my note was perfectly clear, Mr. D.,” I said, “it was perfectly wrong. Y’all came to class with the right assignments on Tuesday. Please forgive me. I must’ve been sicker than I thought.” I looked right at my front-and-center student, and she was smiling brightly again.