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.
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.
We used to get gasoline for our cars at service stations. Now we fill up at convenience stores with gas pumps. “Service” isn’t part of the name. Or the product.
To me, it’s not just that I pump my own gas and — if needed — clean my windshields. I don’t mind doing this. It’s the lack of concern for anything other than collecting my payment.
People who ran service stations often would help you any way they could if you needed it. One time, many years ago, we were on an interstate, coming home from somewhere or another, when the VW van’s accelerator stuck. I threw in the clutch and coasted off the next exit, into a service station. The guy running it took a look and discovered a worn-out spring. He fished around in his stuff and found one that would at least get us home and put it on. No charge. Just glad to help.
It also used to be that if you ran out of gas and could get to a nearby station, they’d find some container you could borrow to put enough gas in your car to drive it back and refill its tank.
My most recent experience in running out of gas (in an old truck with a non-functioning gas needle) was different. I walked to the nearest convenience-store-with-gas-pumps where, no, they didn’t have any container I could borrow, but they did sell me one for what I recall was a premium price.
Another time I was gassing up at a place not far from my house. My battery was on its last days, and I had plans to replace it that week. After the fill up, I couldn’t get the vehicle started. I called my wife to come right over with the jumper cables. Still it wouldn’t start. So we called AAA.
While we waited, we got a couple of bacon-cheese biscuits and coffees — a treat for us and a little more revenue for the store. As we were partaking, the manager came over and asked if that was our truck by the pump. I explained about the battery and assured her AAA was on the way. The owner, she said, wanted customers to be able to get to the pumps. Now, let me point out that there were three two-sided islands. I was blocking one of six places you could get gas. It was not a busy time of day. At most, two other gas customers came in during this ordeal.
Outside, a few minutes later, the manager came out to complain again about my being parked next to a gas pump. She did say it would be OK to be somewhere else on their lot, but if the vehicle remained where it was, they would have it towed. This, even though I had told her: We have a tow truck coming.
I asked if there was anyone who could help us push the truck to a more acceptable spot. She said, “No, there isn’t,” just as two able-bodied employees walked by.
My wife and I were beginning a futile attempt to push the vehicle as the AAA man drove up. He was able to get it started.
As I drove away, it occurred to me that at no time did I prevent anyone from buying gasoline. I also thought about how people used to help one another out at such places and in such situations, rather than treat them like an anathema.
Well, I most certainly will never again cause them any problem, real or imagined.
Here’s a couple of recent encounters with people showing their better sides.
One night recently, we attended a concert by Sammy Miller and the Congregation. They play “joyful jazz–music that feels good. It is a style the entertains, enriches, but most of all uplifts.”
As you can surmise from the group’s name, Sammy Miller is the leader. When the concert began, he came out on stage (without fanfare), along with the pianist and bass player. Sammy was carrying an armload of bottles of water. He dropped at least one, then picked it up before depositing most behind three standing microphones.
The three began to play as soon as Sammy sat down at his drums. Shortly, we heard more music behind us. I turned to see the trombone, trumpet and sax players at the top of three aisles. Ah, so that’s whom the three mics and the water were for, I thought. I also realized why they couldn’t have carried their own bottles onto the stage. So the band leader — rather than a stage hand — took care of that for them.
After the requisite number of bars, they made their ways down the aisles, greeting audience members. The trumpet player, appropriately named Alphonso Horne, shook my hand on his way to the stage.
It was a great show and not just because they are such talented musicians. For about an hour and a half, they really had a good time, which easily rubbed off on the audience. It was easy to feel joyful and uplifted.
Ringo Starr tells of a time he visited George Harrison during George’s last days. When Ringo mentioned that he was about to fly to the US because his daughter was to have surgery there, George asked, “Do you want me to go with you?” Here was a man who was terminally ill and in poor health offering to support his friend.
I was reminded of this a couple of days ago when a friend texted me, expressing concern for my relatives in Alabama (none of whom she knows personally), after the tornado-filled storm that had just blown through. (They were fine.)
Certainly a thoughtful gesture from anyone. More so, perhaps, from this person, who is in Hospice care.
There are some concerts I attend and whose audiences include a lot of older people. A while back, I frequently observed that the water had been left running in the men’s room sink. As I stepped up to the sink one time and stuck my hands under the flow left running by the elderly man who had just left, I was aware of another man just approaching the sink to my right. Without turning to look at him, I shared my observation, “Some men just don’t seem to know how to turn the faucet off.”
Then I glanced to my right to see an old friend. “Oh, hi. I didn’t realize I was talking to someone I know,” I offered cheerily.
Yet his reply was, “You’re not talking to me.”
Wait. What? Did he think I was accusing him of leaving the water running? I wouldn’t confront someone in that situation in the first place, but how could I think that someone just about to wash his hands could’ve possibly left the water on?
I couldn’t muster any words before the brief encounter ended. Not long after, it occurred to me that my best response would have been, “To you, but not about you.”
You know the situation. You think of exactly the right thing to say — moments, hours or days later. Sometimes I’m just too shocked to think of a response. I just can’t believe what I’m hearing. Sometimes it’s not that I can’t think of a good reply, but the opposite: I think of too many appropriate responses to choose just one. So I stand there running through the menu in my mind while saying nothing.
One day in a small workout facility, as I was wiping down the machine on which I’d just been exercising, an older woman said something about how good it was to see a man actually doing some cleaning. All kinds of things went through my head, none of which came out coherently.
The sexism implied was bad enough, but there’s also common gym courtesy — and the signs reminding all patrons to wipe off machines after use. This woman was a regular and the wife of a physical education instructor. That seemed to be two good reasons for her to be familiar with workout room customs. So one of the things I wished I’d said was, “Just following protocol.”
As for the antiquated attitude about gender roles, I thought of saying something about how I’d learned about and practiced housecleaning from an early age. But that could’ve involved more time than I had as I moved on to the next machine.
I was working in the public relations office of a major medical center many years ago. Someone I vaguely knew worked there and was involved in workers’ right. One day she saw me and the job title on my name badge. “How can you do public relations for this place?”
I offered how much I enjoyed the activities I personally got to do, including taking photos and working on the in-house newspaper. By the next day, I knew the best response would’ve been: “Well, somebody has to.”
Sometimes people pick up on one word in what you’ve said and use it to steer the conversation in a different direction. My first mother-in-law, before she was, had trouble with my longish hair in the early ’70s. One time, at the urging of a friend, she got up the nerve to ask me directly why I wore it that long. I said it had been short most of my life, but in recent times, I’d decided to go with something different. She picked up only on “different,” saying that with so many guys having long hair, I’d be different if mine were short.
The sudden change in direction of the conversation threw me, as it always has and does. I’m not sure I said anything. Obviously, she was conceding that I wasn’t varying from the norm of the day, but she didn’t want the norm of the day dating her daughter (or coming in her house). Some time later, I realized I could’ve simply said, “I mean different from the way I have worn it in the past.”
I don’t think this change-of-direction tactic is characteristic of mothers-in-law or women in general, but I did have an analogous experience with MIL2, who at least was more accepting of me. There was a myth in that family that I could “eat anything and not gain weight.” She perpetuated it as much as anyone.
While it was a positive myth, it wasn’t true. After I had slowly put on 40 pounds over a number of years, I pointed out to her that the facts belied the myth. Her response? “Well, you weighed too little to start with.” Again, the sudden change in direction flustered me. Days past before my appropriate response crystallized in my brain: “Whether or not that’s true, it doesn’t change the fact that I have been gaining weight all along.”
Btw, it wasn’t true. I had been close to an ideal weight when she first knew me.
I was visiting a church one Sunday. During the passing of the peace, a woman stepped across the aisle, said “Sorry but I’m the congregational hugger,” and threw her arms around me.
What I thought and regret not saying was, “That’s certainly not something to apologize for.”
I was with a small group of people at the home of mutual friends. The hosts had not been married long and were anxious to start a family. Guests included a couple who were militantly anti-children. The wife of that couple noticed, picked up and examined a detailed temperature chart our hostess was keeping.
“I can’t believe someone would go through all this to have a baby.” I said nothing, but eventually wished I’d thought to have said: “Why not? You’d go through that much not to have a baby, wouldn’t you?”
I’m one of those few people who figures the engineers and law enforcement people who set speed limits know more about it than I do. So, taking my “courtesy” into account, I tend to drive no more than 5 or so faster than the posted limit. On multi-lane highways, I stay over to the right as much as possible. I’m the old guy creeping along at 72 in the right-hand lane of a 65 mph zone. On two-lane roads, I deal with a lot of tailgaters.
One time, I listened as some person ranted about having to be behind someone going too slowly on a two-lane highway. I thought of the times I’ve had someone’s headlights in my rear-view mirror while I was going 60 on a 55-mph road at night. But I decided to give this person the benefit of a doubt and assume she was talking about someone going well below the limit, which does happen.
I just said something supportive and let it go. What I could have said, though, was, “Yes, that is quite frustrating. I’ve been there. And you know what is also frustrating? When you’re going 60 in a 55-mph zone and someone is riding your back bumper, putting you both at risk for an accident, as if you were holding up traffic”
I was a young adult when my mother was diagnosed with high blood pressure. As a hedge against heredity, I stopped adding salt to my food. I found other ways to help it be favorable. At a luncheon one day, as I declined an offer of the salt shaker, I told the others about my mother’s HBP and my desire to minimize my risk.
I then immediately said, “Pass the pepper.” There were giggles, which didn’t seem to fit the situation. I let it go, but later wished I’d thought to have said, “It’s not flavor that is the culprit, just sodium. ”
I’m sure you can think of similar experiences. I could go on, but that’s enough (maybe more than enough) examples. Tomorrow or next week, I’ll probably think of one more I’ll wish I’d included.
Early in 2018, I was a supporting character in a Playmakers Repertory Company production of “The Christians” by Lucas Hnath. The drama is set in a mega church, complete with choir, which is on stage for about 2/3 of the play. I sang in the choir for 10 performances.
There are five main characters. As created by the playwright and presented by the actors, they are all full-dimension human beings. I found in each things with which to agree and to disagree. All were sincere individuals struggling with their beliefs.
Some people who saw the play missed a lot of what it offered because they chose to see the characters as flat.
The action centers around some changing beliefs about heaven and hell that the church’s pastor shares from the pulpit and the fallout therefrom. For one friend, generally open-minded about most things, mega church means religious right. He wrote the pastor off as “a Billy Graham,” showing little (or no) interest in what happens to him and those around him. There’s some irony here in that the new theology the pastor espouses is not something Rev. Graham would believe in. Also, Billy Graham was never pastor of a mega church. But such distinctions don’t matter when one deals in stereotypes.
Another friend, who is Jewish, dismissed the whole play with “I’m of another persuasion.” It angered my wife, who also is Jewish, to hear this. This same man, I am sure, would never, ever dismiss a drama about African Americans because he’s not of that race.
The theological themes raised were not issues that only Christians ponder. Further, one doesn’t have to focus on the theological questions. They play works as a study of relationships and personal issues. Some who have little or no use for religion may have tuned out a compelling human drama.
During some performances more than others, there would be those in the audience who would laugh at lines that were not funny. Did they just not get the seriousness of what was going on? Or did they not care to? This was during a time when the pastor is being taken to task. Perhaps some in the audience figured, “I’m glad to see this Billy Graham mocked.” Maybe others, conversely, held on to the conservative view from which this man departed and thus were glad to see him put in his place.
In either case, they were flattening his character and that of the person questioning him.