Not at ALL What You Thought

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Night With William Jefferson Clinton's Favorite Writer

A woman of my age should go to the bathroom before major events; I should know this by now; I’ve been taught, all my life, by Mama, to “go before we leave the house”; however, I still get too distracted now and then to act with any sense. I was sorry about that last night, when I went to see Walter Mosley speak at Christopher Newport University’s Ferguson Hall. Because I had moderated* a panel where four colleagues talked about four different Mosley novels, we all got tickets to the talk. But about halfway through Mr. Mosley’s talk, I felt An Urgency. I felt hot with embarrassment, and I felt forced to lean over and tell my girlfriend, with whom (and her husband and Juice) I had come to the talk, “I need to find the ladies’ room.” Without batting an eye, she pointed and said, “It’s right outside this room.”

I appreciated the fact that it didn’t even seem to occur to her to recoil in horror at the possibility that I’d have to leave the front row (“priority seating,” the usher told us) , in front of God and everybody, and run all the way back to the ladies’. As I mulled over this appreciation, I realized that, at my age, NONE of the people I truly like and love (virtually or IRL) would feel embarrassed by having to watch me do that. In fact, I know a couple who’d get up, all in front of God and everybody, and go with me. I have to say that I do not include my daughters in that number, although I like and love them, too. Either or both of them would just die of embarrassment in such a situation. Fortunately, I didn’t have to witness Juice’s embarrassment: when I thought about my friendships, for some reason, The Urgency passed.* I got to hear Walter Mosley talk about writing, politics, sex, race, celebrity, and family. It was a joy, thoroughly entertaining and enlightening.

Walter Mosley is a tall, roundish, balding, extremely light-skinned black man. (Juice, sitting next to me, asked, as he came to the podium, “Is he white?” She had been confused by her programme, which had a picture of a café-au-lait-skinned black man on the cover. The fact is, Mosley’s father was black and his mother was Jewish. This is how he describes his parentage; as he says, “Anybody who knows the history of the Jews in Europe would not call them ‘white.’ And I am not white.”) He was dressed entirely in black, black suit, black mock turtleneck shirt, black shoes; one corner of the back of his suit jacket was kind of hiked up over one hip. I kept getting distracted by that corner of his suit jacket. (My gf said she had had the strong urge to run up to the stage and pull it down, but she didn’t feel such solicitation would be appropriate or welcomed, so she beat the impulse down.)

Mosley talked about writing. He said that, every morning, he got up, made coffee, and turned on his computer. “After that, everything else comes easy.” He rejoices in the discovery (twenty years ago) that he is a writer, despite the fact that his father had wanted him to go into “the prison system, a growing industry,” and had predicted (wrongly) that he’d never make any money as a writer. When an audience member asked him, “What do you do to get started?” he replied, “Nothing.”
“You mean you just get up, drink some coffee and just write?”
“Yes. That’s what I mean.”
He said that every writer should take a poetry course. “I’m a terrible, terrible poet. Terrible. But taking a poetry course taught me about rhythm and rhyme and the sounds of words, how sentences should work –everything, really, about writing a novel, except characterization and plot.” He also said it might be a good idea for poets to take novel-writing courses.

Mosley talked about politics. He said that he hadn’t watched the debates. “What? Am I gonna suddenly change my mind [because of a debate] and vote for McCain? I guess I should’ve said ‘the other guy,’ huh?” He believes that, whoever we vote for, “the lobbyists will continue to run the country.” But, although he has decided to “vote for Obama, stump for him,” he realizes, he says, that one man can do only so much for an entire country. “We all have to go to work,” he said, “on November 5th, to create change, to end the control of those lobbyists.”

Mosley talked about sex. Or, rather, the sex in one of his new books. He published his thirtieth (?) book, Killing Johnny Fry: A Sexistential Novel, this year, and the critics have panned it as “just porn.”
“And,” he said, shrugging, “it is. . . .It’s about sex. So if you don’t like to read about people having sex, lots and lots of sex, don’t buy it.” He was amused by non-critical reaction to the novel. “People were reading it, getting aroused by it, and not wanting to be aroused!” But, as one of the audience members (one of my favorite colleagues. I was so proud of him) pointed out, there is more than just sex, lots and lots of sex in the novel. Mosley was thinking of Sartre and Camus and Malraux (but not Eliot) when he wrote that thang. He was thinking about what happens to a person “when sex is the problem.” His girlfriend said, “In ten years, they’ll get it,” and he hopes that’s true.

Mosley talked about race. He pointed out that, after 9/11, he got “two thousand phone calls, one thousand from white people, and one thousand from black people.” Everybody was stunned and grieving, he said, but “only the white people were surprised.” (And one black woman, whom he laughed at.) He claimed that black people, having watched white people for centuries, always “know what white people are going to do. ‘See what Massa did right there? Know what he’s gonna do next?’”

Mosley talked about celebrity. People keep confusing him with another writer. Some gentleman at an airport told Mosley how much he had enjoyed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. When Mosley said, “I’m not August Wilson; I’m Walter Mosley,” the gentleman flapped his hand derisively at him and said, “Oh, never mind, then.” And then, at a panel, the late, great Wilson told Mosley, “I’m bout sick of people tellin me how much they like Devil in a Blue Dress!” Mosley doesn’t understand it. “I think I look like Billy Joel,” he said. At this point, I apologize, but I have to tell y’all that Juice asked me, “Who’s that?”
“August Wilson? A great playwright. He wrote The Piano Lesson, remember?”
“Not him. The other guy he said.”
“Billy Joel?”
“Yeah. Who’s that?” At that moment, after telling her he was a pop legend, I couldn’t remember any songs except, “My Life,” “Innocent Man” and the very, very, very end of “Just the Way You Are,” none of which I could sing to her at that moment. (Y’all help me. What Billy Joel would the child’ve heard?? Today, I remember the “la lalala” hook from “Piano Man,” but otherwise, I’m drawin a blank.)

Mosley talked about family. I liked his stories about his father, who told great stories and listened while his son learned how to tell stories. I liked what he said about his mother, who helped teach him how to function in the world. He said that he learned everything he knew about white people from his mother (although, as I said, he contends that she herself “isn’t white”). I liked what he said about his aunt, a very, very short woman “who was the strongest member of the family.” (He meant physically, too.)

Mosley was very generous with his time. During questions from the audience, one audience member, about a hunnert and fifty years old, apologized first for having "a bad cold," coughed (“all the way from his but-tocks,” said gf’s hubby) right in the microphone, and finally asked a question Mr. Mosley said he’d have to take notes for. But he answered a LOT of questions, patiently and as completely as (he thought) possible. Mostly, he was very effective with questioners. He knew how to cut off an answer and then move, expeditiously, to the next. He was good. I was filled with admiration.

And then he walked away to a table to sign autographs. The line was ridiculous long, but Mr. Mosley sat and signed and sat and signed. GF had left her children (one a 10mo) with Goobs and her own 14yo, so she was a little antsy about standing in that long line, waiting for an autograph. But the line moved rather quickly, so we got in it.

GF’s hubby had sketched Mosley while he talked. Hubby told us the story of how Toni Morrison refused to sign his sketch of her.
“Did I write this?” he says she asked.
“No,” Hubby replied, still not even seeing what was coming.
“Then I’m not signing this,” she said. “Next!” (Here, GF interjects, “And I shoved him aside and pointed my book –her book—at her. Got my autograph.”)
“I don’t like Toni Morrison anymore,” Hubby ended. But Walter Mosley signed the sketch, and my copy of Gone Fishin and GF’s copy of Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, and Juice’s copy of the programme.

Then he allowed everybody and her brother to take pictures with him. Around this time, I found one of my former students. Hadn’t seen her in years, though we email all the time.
“Ms. B! You gotta take a picture with me and Mr. Mosley!”
“That’s not happenin,” I replied, filled with dread.
But, honey, it happened.
I stood there, on the right side of Walter Mosley, one arm around me, feeling like a rabbit on the interstate. My former student was saying to Mr. Mosley, "I never would've known who you were if it hadn't been for her!" My stank friends were standing around, with their own cameras, yelling, “Stop bein so shy, Gine! SMILE!” I couldn’t. I hate picture-taking, and I hate forcing myself on celebrity strangers.

“Gotta tickle her,” said Mosley. And then he did: first behind my ear, then at my considerable waist. It’s gonna take me a long time to forget that. On the ride home, while everybody was laughing at the cougher, I had both hands on my face, thinking, I do not believe what happened. At home, in bed, I was still shaking my head.

It was the second coolest thing that happened that night. The best, best thing, ever, was being there with Juice, who had asked to be my date.

Dear Jesus, my Brother, thank You for the Great Ones.

* That means I kept the panelists from fist fights. No, really.

*No, I did not pee in the seat.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Goobs’ Trombone Spit Valve Repair

Saturday, we got up, went to the bank, and then spent nea’bout everything we had on bills. I rejoiced greatly about the loss of about $67 of it.

I might’ve told y’all that the girls are in their HS band: Juice plays French horn* and Goobs plays sax and t-bone.** I bought nearly everything the girls play at school from one pawn shop or another. And I get the instruments repaired at a little place called Woodwinds Plus. A very correct gentleman, tall and very dark and thin, Mr. Sylvester Artis, manages the place and, along with very correct colleagues who call each other “Mr,” repairs all kinds of musical instruments.

Saturday we had to go to Woodwinds Plus because the spit valve on Goobs’ trombone had broken off. (I could go on for just pages and pages about the disgusting necessity for spit valves, yes, on certain instruments, yes, simply because some human habitually blows into them, a necessity that had never occurred to me before my daughters became musicians, but, this time, I’ll spare you.) Goobs, quite aware of the cost of instrument repair (yes, because our instruments come from pawn shops, mostly), had taped up the hole left by the departing spit valve, and had been satisfied with her own work –until we went to the bank. Then, of course, she saw her opportunity and leapt upon it.

I always feel intimidated by the very correct gentlemen at Woodwinds Plus, probably because they’re older and wiser than I. Now, I know, in this day and age, it’s a stupid reason to feel intimidated by mere people, but there you are.

“What can I do for you today?” Mr. Artis asked Goobs as we walked up to the counter. I always make Goobs and Juice talk to the very correct gentlemen. The girls hate it because they’re shy, but I really hope something of these gentlemen will rub off on the girls, so I insist.

“The spit valve. . .” she said and kinda trailed off. She opened the case for Mr. Artis and his colleague (who had sauntered up to the counter, too), and, ignoring the spit valve issue, they made admiring noises over the dents all over the trombone. The colleague took the trombone lovingly into his hands.

“You hit somebody with this?” Mr. Artis’ colleague asked. “Tell the truth. You beat some poor boy with this, didn’t you? In the head?” He took the trombone and the case and walked off to the repair area, central to the little shop. There are two big tables there, covered and surrounded with the arcane paraphernalia used by those who coax abused instruments back to their former glory: poles and tubing and valves and buttons and keys and screws and knobs and pliers and mallets and things. This section of the shop is wide open, except for a wood bar separating the repair portion from the rest of it, so we watched the repair for a while. Before even playing with the spit valve, the very correct gentleman worked, for more than an hour, on the dents. He stuck metal sticks into a vise and then stuck the various trombone parts on the sticks, beating out the dents. Then he washed the parts, inside and out. Then he polished and buffed them. THEN he sat down at his table and took the valve apart. He cut Goobs’ tape off the hole the valve was supposed to cover and frowned at it. He scrubbed the black gunk from around the hole and began the work to put the valve in its rightful place.

(Juice and I had told Goobs that this repair was not one of those Super Glue thangs. “He’s going to have to solder it back on,” I told her, but neither I nor Juice could explain the work to Goobs’ satisfaction. I was glad she was getting a chance to see the work. Mostly, though, I was glad I had been right about how the thang would be repaired.)

Woodwinds Plus is packed to bursting with extremely old and brand-spanking new musical instruments. Today, a viola, a cello and a guitar sit in the big front window. Some of the glass cases inside, near the cash register, are full of things instruments --and, I guess, musicians-- need, like reeds, oils, picks, drumsticks, spotless white gloves, mutes, strings, metronomes, swabs, drum heads, mouthpieces, cork grease, cases, polish, books, and straps, for example. The glass cases up against the walls are full of memories: old, old, faded black and white photographs of the three gentlemen, looking younger and more intimidating, and other musicians and soloists and their friends and colleagues, pretending to play, so the picture’d look interesting. The last time I was there, I managed to identify Mr. Artis in one of the pictures.

When the girls and I come to WP, we’re always fascinated by the stuff on display. And the stuff kind of hidden, or just pushed out of the way of old feet: Saturday, we found a beautiful brand-new French horn, in its open case near where one very correct gentleman was repairing Goobs’ trombone, and a gorgeous viola, its bridge broken, leaning up against the wall near where another very correct gentleman was giving a saxophone lesson.

The girls and I have visited WP many times, but we have never witnessed any lessons, despite the fact that we knew at least one of the very correct gentleman gave flute, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, and God knows what-all other instrument lessons. Saturday, people were running in and out of WP, taking half-hour lessons. When we came in, Goobs heard somebody struggling with a saxophone.

“He’s just learning,” she said confidently.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“His tone,” she said. “Shaky.” Nosy, Goobs maneuvered herself around so she could see the sax student. It was a man, nearly my age. He finished his lesson and walked out, smiling. The next student, a boy with a trumpet, was already waiting for his turn. Of course, Juice commented upon the trumpet player (because she used to play trumpet). "He's holding it down. He shouldn't hold it down. His tone is good, though." The teacher sang the notes he wanted his students to play, corrected the way they held their mouths, the way they breathed, and even the way they sat (probably). When the aspiring trumpeter left, an aspiring flautist, about my age, rose from his seat and went back to the teacher.

At one point, one of HU’s former band directors, a Professor Brady, came in, with a baritone saxophone (according to Goobs). He looked at Goobs’ trombone and asked her who she’d been hitting with it. He asked Juice if she played, what she played.
“French horn,” she said. The atmosphere changed. (Earlier, before the director came in, the teacher, walking slowly from the back of the shop, asked, “French horn?? I can’t do nothing with that.” Mr. Artis said, “If you can play French horn, these colleges, they’ll give you a full scholarship. You don’t even have to major in music.” We had heard this before. I was waiting to see what the band director would say.)

“You any good?” he asked Juice. She shrugged.
“She’s very good,” I said. Nobody had asked me, but . . . you know.
“Modest, huh?” He joked around with the girls some more, asked me if they looked like their daddy or me, if they were recruiting trombone and French horn players, asked if they were on good terms with Mr. Smart (the girls' own band director), looked at a cello somebody was trying to sell, and then he left. But he asked for Juice’s name twice.

We had been at WP for nearly three hours when Mr. Artis (who had joined his colleague in the repair –when he wasn’t busy returning already-repaired instruments to their owners and taking in sick instruments, and appraising instruments to buy) said, to Goobs, “All right, young lady, let’s hear you on this trombone.” Mr. Artis’ colleague had tucked the trombone in its case –along with the repair bill—and brought it to the counter.

Mr. Artis, et al ALWAYS make young musicians play before they leave. It’s part of the repair payment, I think, and my favorite part, mostly because I’m proud of my girls’ talents, but also because I learn something, too. Every time. Goobs got up and took her trombone, blew into it. By now, the third very correct gentleman, the teacher, much older, I think, than Mr. Artis or the other colleague, was making his way to the counter. He was slightly, habitually bent, as were his fingers, and his steps were very, very, excruciatingly slow. He stopped Goobs and said something about the way she was holding her mouth. Asked her to play “Taps.” Goobs didn’t know what “Taps” was, so the teacher sang the notes, three at a time, for her, and she played them back to him. Almost satisfactorily.

“Now you play something of your own,” he commanded. Goobs played something or other. “Louder,” he said. “Play it strong. Not like a peashooter.” Goobs played some more, until the teacher was a little more satisfied.

“Thank you,” said Goobs.
“You’re welcome,” he replied. After asking Juice about the parade their band had participated in last week, last Friday, he talked to me a little about Friday nights, and how dangerous they were nowadays.
“Folks killing each other,” he said. “And I know why, too. I know why, too. Children aren’t held responsible for anything they do. Their parents are put in jail for whippin ‘em. I got whippin’s. Didn’t hurt me none.”
“I got whippin’s every day, seem like,” Mr. Artis, working on something behind his colleague injected. We all laughed.
“One them grown folk tell you do something, you did it.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “No conversation about it.”
“No. And sometimes, they didn’t even say anything. Just a look.” And he demonstrated. He made other pleasantries, and then made his way to the repair area.

I looked at the bill in my hand. It cited the replacement of the spit valve. The three hours of straightening and beating and shining and loving on the instrument wasn’t on the bill at all. And the trombone? It looked like a different horn entirely, a million times*** better than it had when we brought it in. Mr Artis’ colleague, coming in from smoking a cigarette, came close to me and murmured, “I like to see the young musicians, like to encourage them.” He was a very, very fair-skinned black man, with blue eyes and thinning, curling, shiny hair. I looked at him and imagined that he had been a lady killer back in the day. All of them, no doubt. Women have always loved musicians.

“I appreciate that, sir,” I said. “Thank you.”

“Here,” he said to Goobs, “give me your case. Let me shine it up for ya.” He didn’t charge for that, either. He wished "a blessed day" upon us as we left Woodwinds Plus. We wished it back upon him. Upon all of them.

Thank you, Lord Jesus, my brother, for folk committed to passing on the good traditions.

*. . .and trumpet and keyboard and guitar. . .and anything else she thinks would be fun to play.
**Got this cool abbr from Woodwinds Plus.
***Damning with faint praise here.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

You Know, They WARNED Me. . .

. . about MySpace, but I really had no proof that the warnings were true until yesterday.

See, bein of the "Can't beat 'em? Run off and hide" crowd, I hate and eschew online communities, but somebody's always invitin me to join somethin or other. (I'm lookin at you, Christina and Ranuel.)

But it seems like I'm raisin a coupla joiners. Goobs, for example, wanted a MySpace page. The very thought raised my hackles (my total ignorance* notwithstanding). I talked to my pastor (yes, the one I bother when I want a Father POV) about it, and he said as long as I had the password to Goobs' page, I shouldn't worry: I'd have creative control. Ran this past Goobs, and she was agreeable. I also got my own page. We've had pages for a few years, now, and neither of us has had any weirdness. Well, one total stranger contacted me with some assumptions about me, but he was merely annoying. And summarily blocked. (Gotta love that "block" option.)

Yesterday, though, I was approached by a strange 19yo who wrote, "Hey! how r u? I kno ur alot older than me but, i found u attractive. and i have a foot fetish and wus wondering wat color r ur toes painted? if u aint mind?"

I laughed until the dogs were frightened and Goobs said, "It's not that funny, Mommy" (her standard evaluation when I'm laughin).

Christina and I discussed our respective "toe paint" color, but Christina urged me not to "be cruel."

Another friend and I played with the idea of playin with him, but she finally said, sadly, ". . . . folks are too crazy to have fun."

Yet another friend said, "Hey, young brother might hook you up girl!!!!"
(She's the one with Priorities.)

I took Goobs' advice: "Go look at his page!"

Never take a 14yo, fellow MySpacer's advice about other MySpacers. Toe-Color Boy had a scary, scary page: large scenes from SAW IV; thonged butts for which no thongs had clearly been imagined; a half-naked MySpace friend who called herself "The Black [really, really white movie-star icon]"; rap music; red and black background. And there was Toe-Color Boy himself, staring intently, intently into his PC camera. Now, y'all ain never read me use this adjective, but the word demonic hovered in the front of my mind. I clicked immediately on the word block. And immediately, my heart smote me.

Y'all can (and do) call me crazy if you like, but I do not believe in coincidence. I believe God manifests in every circumstance; I believe every encounter is an opportunity to manifest the God in me. After blockin that child, it occurred to me that TCB's expression wasn't necessarily "intent." Maybe it was just a searching expression. Like all of us, this child was looking for something. So I unblocked him.

First I threw a "LOL" at him for making me laugh so hard. (Till the day I die, I will deeply appreciate every one of my ROTFLAGL** moments. Laughter comes from God; it's The Big O of the spirit.)

Second, I dropped him a little note.***

THEN I blocked him.

Dear Jesus, my Brother, teach us to grab every opportunity to make somebody laugh.

*Since when has total ignorance kept anybody from makin and expressin an opinion?
**Rolling On The Floor, Laughing And Gathering Lint. Bethany's.
***Because all sane people appreciate it when somebody's prayin for 'em (and tellin 'em, "Jesus wouldn't want you obsessin over butts and SAW IV, baby").