Random observations and memories — i.e., stuff floating around in my head trying to get out. I call upon my backgrounds in both journalism and creative writing to try to bring these ideas to light.
Author: John Becton
I was born in Asheville NC in the first half of the last century. At 18, I left for Chapel Hill to attend the University of North Carolina. After graduating with honors in English, I spent three years in the Boston area, earning a Master of Divinity degree, then returned to Chapel Hill "for one year." I'm still here. Much of my public relations career gave me a lot of experience in journalism. Creative writing has been a life-long interest and avocation. In 2016, I published a collection of short stories, "Life Among the Letters," available from Amazon.
I have a wife, three adult children and four grandchildren.
I had just graduated from college and was headed to Boston for graduate school in the fall. Part of my existence and a big part of my identity for several years before and after was as a musician. I spent most of that summer performing folk and folk rock at a small club in Augusta GA, Monday-Saturday nights from (I think) 8 or 8:30 p.m. till closing.
By mid-July, I was ready for a short retreat back to Asheville, where my parents and brother still lived in the family home. Saturday closing was at midnight, as opposed to 2 a.m. the rest of the week. On Saturday, July 19, I headed north as soon as my last set ended. I got there at 4 a.m. My brother, eight years older, came in shortly after that from an “all-night” gospel-singing concert in the Asheville City Auditorium.
Apollo 11 was orbiting the moon. It had been only 66 years since the Wright Brothers’ first flights at Kill Devil Hills NC, and yet now three men were flying all the way to the moon. They would land that very day, July 20, 1969.
My life-long friend, Larry Freeman, was living at his grandparents’ house across the street. I had gotten to know him from his frequent visits and some-time residency at their house, beginning as far back as I could remember. He was almost two years older, and by that point enjoying a successful career as a jeweler and watch-repairer.
He came over to visit and watch the moon landing with me. I’m sure that our childhood fantasies, at one time or another, included being spacemen. Now we were 20-somethings having our minds blown by surreal reality.
I was impressed with Neil Armstrong’s cleverness, when he seemed to ad lib the “giant leap for mankind” quip. I was disappointed some years later to learn it was scripted. Nonetheless, it was an impressive event, to say the least.
I was back on stage Monday night. I was refreshed from the short trip. I find myself wanting to say something dramatic such as, But I was a changed person, because the world had changed. Seems a bit over the top, but something was different.
It would take the astronauts a few more days to return to the Earth.
Someone once suggested to me that I try stand-up comedy. (Well, OK, that person was a therapist.) I guess if I ever did try to craft a humorous monologue based on my personal experiences, one direction I might take would be Keilloresque, making light of an ingrained inferiority complex. Garrison Keillor notes that Minnesota calls itself “The Land of 10,000 Lakes,” though in fact the state contains 11,842 lakes, and he goes on from there.
I was subject to the same calculation method. Here are some incidents that someone with more comic talent than I (see what I did there?) might craft into a series of jokes.
We walked about a mile to elementary school. I don’t know if anyone ever really clocked it, but neighbors all said it was a mile. In our house, though, it was “nine-tenths of a mile.”
I hit puberty earlier than most kids. (That could be a whole comic routine there.) I had an identifiable mustache by the time I became a teenager. I never really looked forward to shaving (still don’t), but self-consciousness over looking different began to outweigh the macho feeling of displaying facial hair. I was close to taking the razor plunge when some adult in some context commented on the dark hair on my upper lip. To which my father replied, “I keep thinking he ought to rake that fuzz off.” Well, I thought, if it’s merely “fuzz” that can be “raked off,” why bother? I kept it a good while longer.
Our family finally got a new car when I was in junior high school. The previous car was at that in-between age, old enough to be embarrassing but not old enough to be cool. The new car, a small Ford, got better mileage than any car we’d had previously. Not good by today’s standards, but in the early ’60s anything approaching 20 mpg was considered good. I liked the car, and meticulously computed the mileage on early trips. It was between 17-18 mpg. My father, who didn’t like the car, would tell people it got 15 mpg.
Speaking of cars, during my college days, I drove between Asheville and Chapel Hill several times a year. It was a longer trip then than it is now, because two sections of I-40 were still on the drawing board. At some point, I checked an official reference — a state-issued road map, I think — and found the distance to be listed as 234 miles. It was a few miles further from our house, since we lived on the western edge of town, and Chapel Hill was to the east. Despite my having shared this number, I still hear my father commenting at one point that “it’s about two and a quarter,” lopping off a good 10 miles.
A closer rounding would have been 240. Many people would have said 250. In fact, I think some did. But many people give themselves full credit, and their default rounding is up, rather than down.
There were other examples, but you get the picture. Any one single incident would be fairly innocuous, but over time they add up. None of this ever sounded funny to me, but maybe with the right delivery . . . .
When Don McLean, in his hit “American Pie,” refers to “the Father, Son and Holy Ghost” as “the three men I admire most,” I suspect many people find that consistent with their own view of the Trinity. There is much that can be said about the anthropomorphic and gender problems with the word “men,” and I am among those who have a problem with those, but that discussion is for another time. I want to look at the number.
I think that most, if not all my Trinitarian friends will easily affirm a belief in One God. Yet the way many talk about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit sounds polytheistic at times. Thus, I can understand why my Unitarian friends can be led to scoff at such a notion.
I ascribe to the doctrine of the Trinity, yet I am a monotheist. Is that possible?
One God in three forms. Is that simple or complex? It seems simple until someone starts talking about the Trinity as “three men” or three seemingly independent beings. Why go out of the way to say “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” when it’s just one Being?
I saw a program on public TV many years ago that attempted to show how a two-dimensional being (i.e., length and width, but no depth) would experience a three-dimensional one. As the three-dimensional being passed by, it would appear to the two-dimensional one in changing, two-dimensional forms. The 2-D cannot experience the 3-D any other way. It has been suggested that our ability – or rather shortcoming thereof – to understand a Triune God is kind of like that. God has more dimensions than we do, thus appearing to us in different forms in different circumstances.
Countless volumes have been written about the nature of God. I could write a lot of words in trying to explain what I may understand on this topic at this point in my life, but I’m aiming here for a page, not a book. Many words and phrases come to mind, including “Creative Force,” “Sustainer of Life,” “Power” and, especially, “Love.” I grew up hearing the Bible verse “God is love.” In recent years, I applied the “if A=B, then B=A” logic and have found it helpful to say also “Love is God.”
And here’s something I don’t believe: I don’t understand God to be some white-haired and -bearded man in a robe sitting in some large chair somewhere up in the clouds.
I’ve always resonated well with the rock song “Jesus Is Just Alright with Me.” I find that I refer to “Jesus” in couple of differing, though related ways. In the past tense, I mean the historical figure who taught us a lot about God and how we should live. In the present tense, I am referring to God as revealed in the teachings and personal example of the historic person. “Christ,” to me, refers to the special and mysterious way in which God was present in the historical man, and to the spirit that he engendered and which lives on today in many people.
I’ll admit I’m a little hazy in distinguishing between “Spirit of Christ” and “Holy Spirit.” But maybe that’s OK, since both refer to God’s presence within us. I think perhaps one distinction may be that “Spirit of Christ” has to do with how we want to live and “Holy Spirit” how we can more nearly do so. Maybe “Christ” is the Love; the “Spirit” is the Power.
I’ve also learned that “Christ” means “God incarnate” – Jesus in the first Century and now the “Body of Christ,” which is the Church – and that the “Holy Spirit” is the “breath of God.” This suggests to me that the doctrine of the Trinity is a reminder that God is living and breathing. That’s helpful to me, as is remembering that “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” can mean “We honor You in all the ways we experience Your Presence.”
At this moment in my journey, I find that I identify as a Unitarian Jesus freak, empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Being never-too-old-to-learn, I’ve recently been led to refine my understanding of The Golden Rule. I’ve always interpreted “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” as “Treat everyone exactly as I want to be treated.”
When I began to hear what I took as challenges to The Golden Rule, my first reaction was, “How could they? This is basic to all major religions. This simple rule is how we could all get along, if we followed it.” When I got out from behind my unnecessary defensiveness, I realized the challenge wasn’t to the rule but to how we often interpret it.
What if someone doesn’t want to be treated the same as I want to be treated?
Some examples that come to mind are almost frivolous, others more serious. If I am offering someone coffee the way I want it, I will not provide them sugar or cream. It’s the way I want it given to me, but I’m not being hospitable. Many people enjoy engaging in trash talk. They give it out, because they like to give and receive such banter. But for some of us, maybe a small few, this interaction is not fun at all. In these incidences, people are treating others as they themselves like to be treated, but it’s not working for the others.
On a deeper level, there are psychological, cultural and physical differences to consider. One example: Say someone is at a stage in the grief process at which he needs some alone time, whereas I, at that same point, would want someone with me. If I insist on hanging close right then, my treatment, though well-intended, isn’t golden.
I still think my old way of looking at it was pretty good, but it falls short. Maybe a better way of looking at it is: I want to be treated a certain way. Doing unto others the same suggests trying, in so far as possible, to understand how others wish to be treated and then treating them that way. We aren’t all wired exactly the same.
On Easter Sunday, the newspaper had a feature story on “Sunday-best” clothes. An on-line search reveals that it is a popular topic. It was especially appropriate on Easter because of the tradition of getting and debuting new “church clothes” on that Sunday. The article discussed this tradition, bringing back memories for me.
Our family tradition included picking out our new clothes some weeks before Easter, then putting them on layaway. For any not familiar with the phenomenon, layaway meant the store set the clothes aside for you until you made enough interest-free payments to equal the total cost. This allowed someone on a tight budget to spread the payments over more than one paycheck. Or for those tight-fisted with money, it eased the pain of parting with the whole sum all at once.
In those days, it was important to dress one’s best for church, and a little more so on Easter. That has changed in many circles, notably in those of my experience. I still see some individuals dressing a little better on Easter. I used to have a green sport coat I wore only on Easter — because I got tired of being asked if I’d won the Master’s every time I wore it on any other Sunday. When I got one of those comments even on Easter — to which I’d said, “No, it’s Easter. New life and all” — I stopped wearing it then, too.
I was a young adult, in a church where people wore anything from jeans to suits or dressy dresses, when I realized that one of the negative things about Sunday morning in the past had been the hassle of getting dressed up. And the discomfort of being dressed up. Now I could throw on whatever in a couple of minutes and not be distracted from the spiritual experience by itchy pants or choking ties.
I rarely wear a tie for any occasion. I do wear a sport coat to church and certain other places in the cooler months. It’s not so bad without a tie, plus I like having all the pockets. I generally wear my “dress jeans” — i.e., they are black — and my “dress sneakers” — also black. (I have always hated shoes. I prefer to be barefooted. So I wear the least uncomfortable possible.)
It’s just a personal choice, but I don’t wear shorts to church. I have no problem, though, with others who do. Similarly, I do not wear sports team clothing to church. Some people do. That’s their prerogative.
When I appeared as a choir member in a Playmakers Repertory Company production of “The Christians” in early 2018, we wore robes, making pants leg + shoes visible to the audience for only the two or three steps between the stage door and choir loft on our entrance and exit. Our costuming instructions were “Wear church clothes. No jeans or sneakers.”
I was amused, since my church clothes include jeans and sneakers.
My wife Nancy and I visited Cuba March 23-29, 2017. Our trip was our 8th tour with Tauck, a company based in Connecticut. The tour began in Miami, where we got acquainted and learned the basic logistics. A Tauck staff member guided us through filling out forms we would need. Later, our tour director, Ronny, would walk us through entering Cuba and then returning to the US. It was basically the same as a trip to any other country.
The US does not allow its citizens to go to Cuba as tourists. It must be for cultural and/or educational purposes. This was a “people to people” experience. It truly was, though every Tauck tour we’ve taken anywhere has been an educational and cultural experience. To the Cuban government, we were tourists, though the element of people meeting people and our learning about Cuba was important. We did have to have a local guide, employed by Havana Tours, a government-owned company. This was a plus. She was great. She often works with Ronny, and they are good friends. The bus driver also was a government employee; also a great guy and a good friend of Ronny. The bus, made in China, was a very recent model.
We stayed in Havana and took day trips. Information we received before the tour listed a number of restrictions about photographs. When we got there, we learned that the only thing we could not photograph was the inside of the cigar factory we visited and that was for proprietary reasons, not government censorship.
Our hotel, the Melia Habana, is owned 51/49 by the Cuban government and the Melia corp of Spain. I think this is standard. It is a modern, luxury hotel. There were other similar ones, and more under construction.
Shortly after we checked in, we were walking around outside, and a local resident struck up a conversation. He asked that we not judge the Cuban people by their government. I promised I would and asked him to do the same for American people. Walking around, btw, is permitted and safe.
Our local guide went to college to be an English teacher. I suspect she makes more money as a guide. Tourism provides some of the best jobs. Most wages are low, but most people at least seem to get by. Health care and college are both free. She told us there has been more change in Cuba in the past 5-7 years than for 50 years before that.
In the past, everyone was employed by the government. One thing that has changed is that there now are more than 200 occupations in which individuals have the option of buying a license from the government to own their own business. Raul Castro has loosened restrictions on individual freedom since assuming the presidency from Fidel. (I always heard both referred to by their first names.) Previously, while individuals could own their homes, they could sell them only to the government. (People still circumvented this by “swapping,” which was allowed, and paying the difference under the table.) Now, people can sell their homes (openly) to each other. Raul also eased travel restrictions on Cuban citizens.
Most of Cuba’s food is imported. They don’t grow a lot of different vegetables, and you don’t see a lot of farm animals. We were told that if you order chicken in a restaurant, it might be Tyson or Perdue. There are programs under way to make more land available to those who would farm it. We did visit and eat at an organic farm on land provided by the government. They grow a large variety of vegetables, which they fed us along with a fresh roasted hog, plus several other meats.
We started learning about Cuba, as well as beginning our sight-seeing, on the trip from the airport. This included a stop at Revolution Square. There we saw tributes to Jose Marti, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. It was also our first up-close-and-personal with vintage U.S. cars, mostly from the ’50s.
Havana is like a classic car museum. It’s a testament to the industriousness and ingenuity of the Cuban people. They find something and make it work. Not only parts from other cars (a lot of these cars have diesel engines from Japan and elsewhere), but other sources — washing machines, what-have-you. Ronny commented, “Cubans aren’t mechanics. They are magicians.”
Our tour director told us not to drink any water other than from sealed bottles, and even to use bottled water for brushing our teeth. The problem, he said, is not the water, but the plumbing. In the rural areas, the water is fine. He said Tauck and the hotel would keep us supplied with bottled water, which they did. He encouraged us to bring all empties to the bus. The driver gives them to someone who recycles them.
Our first meal in Cuba was pizza for lunch at the Italian-style restaurant in the hotel. That night, Nancy and I went to the Asian-style restaurant there. Nancy had pork fried rice, and I had sweet and sour pork. Much of the time, though, we did have Cuban food, often at paladar, a privately-owned restaurant. They are called paladars, because that was the name of a restaurant in a popular soap opera some years ago. Cuban food is rich but not spicy.
Yes, Cubans do watch TV. Pretty much every family has a TV. Yes, the government controls content. But there is political satire and, for the past few years, U.S. baseball games. Yes, many love cheesy soap operas.
On our second day, the first full day, in Cuba, we got to visit with Habana Compass Dance. This is a professional troop, whose members majored in dance in college. They also run programs for kids. Their home is in a previously abandoned building they fixed up. They performed several numbers for us.
Next we visited the Museum of the Revolution, in what had been the Presidential Palace until Batista was overthrown. We learned that the first attempted coup was in 1957 when a small group of students stormed the palace. We saw many of the bullet holes left from that event. Batista escaped to the roof, and all the students were killed, either at the scene or a short time later.
After lunch, we had a walking tour of Old Havana, a UNESCO site, led by an architect. Then, back at the hotel, we heard a pithy talk by an economist. Some of what I retained is scattered throughout this document, and we heard a lot about the economy throughout the trip. The U.S. embargo definitely affects the Cuban economy, but there is a growing understanding that there are other factors as well. Another problem is that far years, the Soviet Union was a great benefactor. So when the Iron Curtain fell, that aid came to a sudden stop.
The speaker is published and has lectured in a number of countries, including the US. As an aside, he told us about being with some French colleagues when some news item about the Kardashians came up. He told them that these people in no way were representative of the American people.
We had another speaker the next morning, former baseball great Rolando Macias, a national hero. As he waited in the lobby with our guides before going to the conference room, hotel staff members came up to greet him. Through an interpreter, he told us of his life and career. In 1958, the Cincinnati Reds offered him a contract. He was young and didn’t want to leave his mother and grandmother. He was also illiterate at the time, yet intelligent enough to realize that he should avoid a contractual situation he might not understand.
A right-handed pitcher, he continued to rise in Cuba’s baseball system. Twice after the revolution, he was offered the chance to defect and play MLB in the US. But by then he was well-established in Cuba as a player and as a family man. While playing baseball, he not only moved beyond illiteracy, he earned his college degree. His wife and daughter are physical therapists. His granddaughter is a professional pianist.
Afterward, we went to a field where some 11- and 12-year-old boys were practicing baseball. We got to interact with them and learn about the baseball system, which is pretty much like ours. There also are sports leagues for girls. Elsewhere on this large field, there were pick-up games of both baseball and soccer. It is the site of a free concert given by the Rolling Stones a year ago.
Next we went to Arte Chef for a cooking demo. A cooking show for TV is produced there. Our instruction included how to make a mojito. After lunch, we went to the San Jose Craft Market. The three-block long warehouse by the water was filled with a variety of vendors, including artists. Nancy and I bought a small original painting from a local artist, something we like to do when traveling.
The following day, we traveled 120 km from Havana to tobacco country. We saw the whole cigar process: A farm where tobacco is grown and cured, a facility where it is fermented, and a factory where cigars are rolled. Our lunch that day — nothing short of a feast — was at an organic farm.
Our last full day began with a visit to the Cementerio de Cristobal Colon, one of the largest cemeteries in the world and renowned for its elaborate memorial architecture. There is a Catholic Church on the grounds where masses are often held for those being buried. No requirement to be Catholic.
We learned that the church was never officially banned in Cuba, but for years after the revolution, many people were hesitant to attend. Also, one could not be a member of the Communist party if a church member. And young people were encouraged to join the party. These days, church attendance is up.
Then it was on to Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway’s home from 1939-1960. He bought it with some of the money he received for the movie rights to “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
To see the home, as it was when Hemingway lived and wrote there, one walks around the outside, looking in the windows. We saw his 9,000-volume library, the typewriter he used to write some of his greatest works and “Pilar” the boat on which he gathered intelligence about German boats in the area, while appearing merely to be fishing. Hemingway left the house and furnishings to the Cuban government, which now runs it as a museum.
In the afternoon we visited La Casa del nino y nina, a before- and after-school program for children. The project, supported by UNICEF, focuses on children’s rights through love and nurturing. Each child introduced her- or himself, giving us name, age, career goal and a right that children deserve.
Education in Cuba begins with day care at age 1. It begins then because mothers get one year of maternity leave.
School is required through the 8th grade. At that point, the student may go on to “pre-university” or enter a trade school. At the end of pre-university, which goes through 12th grade, students take a test with three parts: history, math and Spanish language. There are 67 universities, each with its own focus. Students can list, in priority order, up to 10 personal preferences for university study. The higher they score on the test, the better their chance of getting a higher preference. They are required to study English from 3rd grade through university.
We were promised a “farewell surprise” on the last night. We’d heard there were two surprises, and that proved to be true. As the bus was pulling away from the hotel to take us to the promised surprise, the engine stopped. The driver got it going, but it stopped again in the road in front of the hotel. “We have a problem,” he said. Our Tauck tour director and local guide seemed worried and briefly discussed putting us all in the some of new taxis parked in front of the hotel.
The driver got the bus started and drove slowly into the parking lot across the street from the hotel. Then Ronny, our Tauck guy, smiled and said, these seven convertibles are here to take you to our next event. We hadn’t paid attention to the vintage cars parked nearby, because they are everywhere. But these were waiting for us. Then Ronny added: “We are good actors.” The whole bus problem had been a ruse.
The cars took us to the second surprise: A private concert in the Museum of Fine Arts, some miles away. The concert was given by a group of talented, university-trained singers and instrumentalists. Besides the salsa numbers you would expect, we heard other pieces from around the world, including one in French. From the US, they offered “Summer Time” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”
We had wanted to go to Cuba a year earlier, but by the time we came to that decision, the tours were all full. We signed up for this one as soon as it became available. We wanted to go to see firsthand a place we’d only heard about, and we wanted to go before it became a tourist attraction.
That first night, in Miami, in the get-acquainted session, each participant was asked to share why he or she chose to go on this tour. The answers were all consistent with ours.
Every year when Final Four Weekend rolls around, I think back to 1977. As some will remember, the team representing my alma mater made all the way to the final game, but lost.
Here’s what I remember most: On that Friday, my mother had a massive stroke. I drove to Asheville that evening not knowing if she was still alive. While the semi-finals were going on, I was camped out with others in my family in the intensive care waiting room at Mission Hospital. By the time of the finals, she at least was out of intensive care. I avoided a significant loss. It’s a matter of perspective.