A VISION OF THE WORLD

Long ago, when the late author John Cheever wound up on the cover of TIME magazine — it was the early 60s, I believe — I decided to read his work and grew especially fond of a fairly short short story called, “A Vision of the World.” It begins, “This is being written in another seaside cottage on another coast. Gin and whisky have bitten rings in the table where I sit.”

Sounds like a rental. Our narrator continues….

“The light is dim. On the wall there is a colored lithograph of a kitten wearing a flowered hat, a silk dress, and white gloves. The air is musty….”

Yes, definitely a rental. Feel like I’ve been there, right down to the cat lithograph. And the story wanders on for six bizarre but pleasant, absurd but bracing pages that I invite you to visit sometime, along with Cheever’s other wonderful stories.

“A Vision of the World” is ultimately the musings of a suburban man wending his way — very comically — toward earthly peace and reconciliation, though you have a clear sense of disorder in his crazy life. He is a momentary refugee from the class conscious upwardly mobile world of American suburbia. One might think he seems a little tipsy but it’s not clear that the gin and whiskey rings on the table of this seaside cottage were made by him. He seems to be alone, and it is in solitude that men and women best commune with the universe, don’t you think?

But then, why is he alone? Did those he loves dispel him, at least briefly, from their midst?

It all ends as our narrator, after a glass of milk and a sleeping pill, finds himself awakened by the sound of rain. “I think of some plumber,” he writes,” who, waked by the rain, will smile at a vision of the world in which all the drains are miraculously cleansed and free….And I know that the sound of the rain will wake some lovers and that its sound will seem to be a part of that force that has thrust them into one another’s arms. Then I sit up in bed and exclaim aloud to myself, ‘Valor! Love! Virtue! Compassion! Splendor! Kindness! Wisdom! Beauty!’ The words seem to have the colors of the earth, and as I recite them I feel my hopefulness mount until I am contended and at peace with the night.”

I want that vision! I may dispense with the milk and sleeping pill and hope it overtakes me merely at the sound of the rain.

Bravo, John Cheever! And, by the way, my copy of his collected stories is autographed by the author, thanks to a good friend who met him at a book-signing party and thought of me. It pleases me to know that the master held this very volume in his hands. And though I never met him, I’ll always have, in black felt tip on the very first page, his salutation, “to Greg Wayland, with cordial regards,” as I read and re-read “A Vision of the World” and several other stories, enjoying especially a “A Country Husband”, once voted one of the best short stories of the 20th Century. It is every bit as delightfully quirky as everything else Cheever wrote and ends with yet another vision of the world “where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.”

No, they were not pink elephants, so far as I know.

MY QUIRKY SHEPHERD HAS WANDERED OFF AGAIN

My nephew Christopher in Arizona was musing on Facebook about Pope Francis’s latest off-hand comment approving of the idea of gay civil unions. He was, being something of a wag, what impact this would have on the U.S. Supreme Court. He wasn’t serious, of course — at least I hope he wasn’t — but he implied that a court now “packed” with Catholics — and another one on the way — would make it awkward for justices to overturn gay marriage (which, as an issue, never should have come before the court but have been resolved by popular will; and no one is talking about overturning because of the huge “dependency” issue that has been created.

Nonetheless, I chose to respond to Christopher’s antic surmise.

First of all, I note the assumption — dead since the days of JFK — that Catholic public officials take orders from the pope. As for this latest “Francis Flash” — most Popes issue encyclicals. Francis issues Confuse-o-Grams. Thank God, like Donald Trump, he doesn’t have a Twitter account ( Or does he?)

No denying, Francis continues to be a problem for faithful, meaning orthodox, practicing, conservative, if you will (though Catholicism, rightly conceived of, is by its nature “conservative.) Catholics.

Under this pontiff, Vatican foreign policy, among other things, has taken a historically tragic turn. He and his Secretary of State have inexplicably cut the legs out from under the long-suffering Chinese underground Church which has stayed loyal to Rome through persecution, torture and murder, since the Communists took over. This has caused enormous suffering of both underground priests and the faithful, leaving them naked to their powerful enemies. And, needless to say, it’s caused tremendous confusion, which seems to be Francis’s special pastoral style. And — again, inexplicably – he has renewed this secret — yes, secret — deal with the Chinese regime. I like to think he’s just susceptible to bad advice. The Vatican refuses to release details.

Then you have the very deep scandals and intrigues besetting Vatican finances. Francis also scandalously reinstated arch sex abuser and fraud Theodore McCarrick, now defrocked, once powerful former D.C. Cardinal, who proceeded to do enormous mischief. All very unamusing. As for Church teaching on marriage, it hasn’t and won’t change, under him or any Pope. This is just Francis being Francis. He’s capable of clearly, compassionately setting out the Church’s reasoning across a range of vexed issues. But he prefers to open closed issues, create false hopes among some critics and Church enemies, and confusion and alarm among the faithful, all, apparently in some wrongheaded effort at “dialogue”. Then he’ll reverse himself and slam the door shut again; a door he never should have opened in the first place. Quirky, Kooky Frankie The First. What a piece of work! God help us! (And, of course, I man no disrespect to my shepherd. The next time I make a pilgrimage to Rome, I’d be humbled to have him hear my confession.

LAKE NO ONE: A FABLE

(Musings inspired by a frequently observed curbside marker along a busy Florida road.)

Imagine this. You see a signpost that says, Lake No One.

You think, how strange!

It is night. You are driving outside the heart of a city. You’d been approaching two small granite post on either side of the entrance to a narrow road. And a signpost by the granite posts, when you can finally read it — sure enough — tells you that this is, indeed, the entrance to Lake No One.

You see dwellings beyond the entrance. This is obviously a housing development around lakes, mostly man-made, that you know have proliferated around housing developments in this area. You wonder, is there no one in those houses? Nobody? No person? Is there a great dark emptiness around Lake No One?

And just what kind of a body of water might Lake No One be? Who’d want to live near it? No one, obviously. Hence, it was called Lake No One. Dark waters, no doubt, giving no reflection of sun or moon. Poisoned, perhaps. A lake of absence, named for no one.

After passing the sign, you continue to envision Lake No One somewhere at the end of that road, surrounded by bare trees typical of a landscape no one would want to visit in a place no one would want to live.

You think of the Beatles Song, “Nowhere Man.” Maybe you’d find Nowhere Man by Lake No One, “making all his nowhere plans for nobody.” Maybe you could talk to him; ask him why he didn’t aspire to be Somewhere Man. But you suspect he’d tell me he was happy being Nowhere, planning for Nobody. And you’d have to ask yourself, along with the Beatles, “isn’t he a bit like you and me?”

Nonetheless, in the spirit of exploration, you think: I must turn around and go back and drive down that road and explore Lake No One. It must be quite a place. Or, rather, quite a non-place.

But before you can turn, you find yourself approaching, after a short distance, yet another set of granite posts marked by yet another signpost marking a road into yet another neighborhood complex where there is apparently yet another lake.

The signpost say, Lake No Two.

It is followed by another entrance and another signpost that reads, Lake No Three.

Then comes, Lake No Four.

Crestfallen, you drive on, wondering why those who erect signposts would omit the period from their abbreviations. Unhappily, they’d succeeded in putting a period on your sense of intrigue –not to mention your hope that a visit to this Lake No One, if it truly existed, might, paradoxically, bolster your God-given need to be — Someone.

THE SOFT TOTALITARIANS

America’s politically correct intelligentsia is, day by day, posing a deepening threat to the rest of us. It is growing into a “soft totalitarianism.” You may be familiar with the phrase and the notion. It may be the sum of many of your fears as well. Orwell warned us that this “soft totalitarianism” or cultural imperialism would inevitably extend into the realm of language. We are already far down that road in our boardrooms and classrooms, but there are always new lingual barriers going up to divide us or test our allegiance to a “woke” understanding of the world.

In this regard, I was struck by the exchange between Hawaiian Democrat Senator Mazie Horono and Judge Amy Coney Barrett during the latter’s confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court. “Not once, but twice,” Horono scolded Judge Barrett, “you used the term ‘sexual preference.'”

Having no transcript in front of me, I recall the rest of the exchange consisting of an official upbraiding of Barrett and instructions on how such a phrase is outdated and offensive to the LGBTQ community. Judge Barrett, perhaps a tiny bit flummoxed by the objection, nonetheless dutifully apologized and insisted she meant no harm.

Let me give you the politically correct lowdown on this:

The phrase “sexual preference” in place of “sexual orientation” suggests that same sex attraction is not immutable from birth. That’s a no-no. The intelligentsia currently overseeing our culture and all that is strictly in and strictly out has settled the matter. It must include some behavior scientists or geneticists. At least I hope so. I’d hate to think this injunction against the word “preference” in this context comes from a bunch of English or Philosophy professors.

At any rate, they have stamped the word IMMUTABLE on this package.

But allow me, a non-scientist and ordinary bloke, to venture into deeply controversial waters where the intimidation factor is currently equal to the presence of a circling school of bull sharks. It seems to me, based only on lifelong experience and fellowship with many fellow mortals — many of whom identify as gay — that immutability is still very much an open question outside certain closed culturally totalitarian circles. It seems rather soon to affirm scientifically what the political and cultural cogoscenti has ordained to be the truth, i.e., that homosexuality, or homosexual “inclinations” or same-sex “attractions” or “orientations” are, in fact, immutable from birth. I hope no one who thus identifies will cease to be my friend if I speculate or divagate on this tender subject. My research consists of listening and reading on the matter, and it continues. But I don’t like being dragooned into acquiescence or silence.

Make no mistake about it. If you choose to explore the subject or suggest a contrary view, as I am here, the weight of an enormous media/academic/ scientific/Hollywood juggernaut is poised to come down on your head, after which you’ll be put on the train to society’s gulag for the culturally insensitive.

Judge Barrett plainly heard the threat in Senator Mazie’s schoolmarm’s voice. (I have read — but have no idea if it’s true — that the senator herself was unaware that the phrase was unacceptable until she received angry emails from gay constituents, handing her, in the process, yet another charge to lodge publicly against President Trump’s high court nominee. It seemed yet another way to suggest that Judge Barrett might harbor retrograde attitudes toward a favored and powerful special interest of the Democrats– and one whose issues, such as the right to marry, have come before the court, and may come there again.

I have an associate and friend who commented on the Horono/ Barrett exchange recently. His name is David Carlin, a retired professor of philosophy and sociology at Rhode Island Community College. (He is very active on Facebook where this observation appeared in bold print, leading me to assume he won’t mind my sharing it.) He wrote: “Even if we don’t choose our sexual orientations (a doubtful proposition), we choose whether to act in accordance with our orientations and whether to publicly define ‘who we are’ in terms of that orientation and those actions.”

Makes sense to me. But I fear the consequence of saying so. ( And no, I have not missed the irony of my affirming, albeit tentatively, the opinion of a Philosophy and Sociology professor on this subject where I’d prefer to be hearing from scientists –and psychiatrists. But, on the other hand, I think this critical battle in the culture wars may be entirely philosophical, even spiritual, in nature.)

As for why Professor Carlin finds doubtful the widely embraced assertion that sexual orientation is not a “choice”, you’d have to ask him. My own sense is that we are born with a multitude of inclinations, attractions, vulnerabilities or, if you will, orientations — perhaps all of them immutable. That orientation etc. can be good or bad for us and for society depending on society’s and our own view of the matter. We might find it very hard not to act on those inclinations. For my part, upon reflection, I think “preference” would be too weak a word to characterize the struggles of many self-identifying gays. The struggle ends for many, of course ( or seems to end) when they simply say, hey, this is me, take it or leave it. And the current culture even affords them civil rights protections for their choice, which is essentially a choice to elevate their sexuality to the heart of their identity.

There was a time when those with a same-sex attraction (orientation, etc.) were cruelly treated, stereotyped and marginalized in society. Those days are gone — I challenge anyone to tell me otherwise. The bottom rail is definitely on top now — at least in the United States of America.

There are strong religious prohibitions — Christian, Islamic, Orthodox Judaic — against homosexual practice as opposed to inclination, etc.. Gay rights lobbyists and activists have long rejected and reviled those who attempt to make the distinction between having an orientation and acting on it. They will say, as Professor Carlin notes, that their orientation is “who we are” — hence, immutable. Not a “lifestyle” but their “reality” and we must embrace and make civic room for their choices just as we embrace the choices of those who are heterosexual or bisexual or transsexual. And now we are well into the multifarious issues growing out of gender reassignment. And with them come a whole new lexicon of lingual dos and don’t.

There has been a cultural tsunami in this whole area. (Talk about stating the obvious.) But a mordant side note: I have seen four video clips — four! — of insistently gay-friendly Joe Biden, on four separate occasions, averring his friendship for people of different “sexual preferences”.

I guess he didn’t get the softly totalitarian, politically correct memo. Just wait until Mazie Horono gets wind of this.

DEAR DAN…..

Dan Rather — remember him? –has recourse to twitter which, on many if not most occasions, strikes me as kind of 5th Avenue tickertape torrent of streaming white lies, sometimes benign, mostly somewhere between vile and half-hearted. And, I confess, I’ve thrown out, over a few years, a modest wads of curling streamers via twitter from high above the motorcade of life. ( Enough with the metaphors, Greg!) It all winds up in a heap in the gutter, best forgotten. (Merciful END of metaphor.) That includes many of the President’s tweets. Sadly, all the stupid things he’s had to say on Twitter have come to haunt his Supreme Court nominee — all those things he’s said that show no respect for the independence of the judiciary. He throws out tweets, then throws out red meat at his rallies. (Forgive THAT metaphor.)

So, back to Dan Rather, who, with a retired newsman’s free time, freely opines. Thus he has tweeted on this October 15th, if you want to be an “originalist” in law, maybe you should go all the way. Cooking on the hearth, leeches for medicine. And old mule for transportation. Or maybe you can recognize that the world has changed.

Strange that this celebrated ex-newsman, seemingly of normal intelligence, albeit with intellectual pretentions, would fail to see the patent and careless mixing of categories here, especially since he claims to be referring to originalism IN LAW.

I tweeted back, for better or worse. I don’t know if Dan will see my tweet since this beloved ex-CBS mouthpiece has droves of adoring fans — into the thousands — and they all quickly affirmed him with little hearts in piles of tweets. Nonetheless, I tweeted, If you truly aspire to be a scholar, you’d be less disingenuous and acknowledge a distinction between eccentric backwoods “originalism “in one’s lifestyle — and THE LAW, and you’d see your error ( though, of course, we suspect you see it and are not serious or sincere here — at least we all hope not). But you’ve put on display your signature “Danish” sanctimony. Yet, even by your new lower standards for fairness, this is unworthy of you.

You know what? That’s not EXACTLY what I tweeted, but is in the ballpark. (For one thing, it’s way over the Twitter character limit.) Being a rare visitor to Twitter, I could not bring my original tweet up to the surface. It was, you’ll be comforted to know, less snarky, more to the point.

And you get — MY point. It was D.R. who was being snarky. I was, in however bitter a manner, trying to speak for truth. Truth is always original. It doesn’t matter how, as Dan puts it, the world has changed.

THE NEW WOMAN IN TOWN

I guess you call them memes, and they are all over the worldwide web mocking the new Supreme Court nominee. They are unfair and repulsive and have often been propagated by other women, e.g., a photograph showing Amy Coney Barrett in her red dress side-by-side with an image of submissive flocks of handmaids in red dresses and bonnets from the show, “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

So this is the savage snobbery of the elite and the woke against the new woman in town. Think of it as girls in the schoolyard making fun of the new girl, her looks (she’s prettier than them) and her background (she’s from New Orleans, lives in the midwest and is Catholic, etc.).

Of course, what they really don’t like — is that the new girl is also smarter than them.

MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE

In my beginning is my end. In succession

Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended

Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place

Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.

T.S. Eliot from East Coker (in Four Quartets)

Not a real estate report — just a bit of poetry that, at this midnight moment, seems to fit the beginnings and endings and falling, crumbling world of this late October, 2020. Let’s all take the by-pass.

SHALL WE SOON SEE A COURT IN …..”SHAM”-BLES?

“Sham” was the most favored word the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee deployed against Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett today. Remaining for a moment on the verb “deployed” I’ll note that Rhode Island Democrat Senator Sheldon Whitehouse compared Judge Barrett to a “torpedo” aimed by the Trump Administration at the Affordable Care Act. (Block that Metaphor!!)

The hearing is just beginning but senators on both sides gave us an earful on Monday. All we got to hear — in this hearing — from the nominee herself was her opening statement. She has a high-pitched, girlish voice and looks very much like the suburban mom she is. But her statement, at one point, contained the hard nugget of truth — at least to traditinalists — about the role of judges in every court in the land — again, at least to those, like Barrett, who profess an “originalist” or “textualist” view of the law — a view quite obviously opposed by the liberal Democrats on the Committee who seem to favor a more activist court. Not that that’s exactly a late bulletin.

Barrett said: Courts have a vital responsibility to the rule of law which is critical to a free society. But courts are not designed to solve every problem or right every wrong in our public life. The policy decisions and value judgements of government must be made by the political branches, elected by and accountable to the people. The public should not expect courts to do so and the courts should not try.

She’ll likely be confirmed, but what will happen to a court the Democrats plainly hope to “pack” with two new members in order to gain more control over it. Not that they’re owning up to it.

What’s in progress here is an assault on the system itself. This hearing is, in a sense, just a sideshow. The real trouble is down the road.

Stay tuned.

AND SO IT BEGINS….

The spectacle is underway as I write — the confirmation hearings for Trump’s high court nominee. I feel I must listening and watch.

But….

It is so awful. And the vetting is not over yet, the cross examination not begun. The nominees sits masked, listening. Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse is giving a timely civic lesson. Good idea, based on what I’ve heard from the Democrats. Democrat Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, in a long, angry peroration, essentially called the nominee a “torpedo” aimed at the Affordable Care Act.

On and on. Later.

FURIOUS SEASON

It is so easy, so cheap and easy to ridicule our enemies, political or otherwise, when they have an embarrassing moment beyond their control. During the televised Vice Presidential debate, viewed by millions, in this fraught and consequential political season, a common house fly found its way out of the Salt Lake City night and into the debate hall on the campus of the University of Utah. It then found its way into the brilliantly lit halo of studio lighting and decided, following a fly’s mysterious mental logic, to wing its way in front of the cameras that are electronically conveying images across the continent and into the homes of millions of Americans– and lands on the hair of the gentlemanly Vice President of the United States who, as it happens, is Vice President to the most polarizing President ever to sit in the White House. Michael Pence has generated some hate of his own. I hated him constantly talking over the moderator and wondered why the Trump/Pence team had not learned its lesson from the spectacle that was the Presidential Debate. I say that unreservedly. When I saw it land, I thought, “here will begin the easy ridicule.” I half-hoped the moderator could see it and, seeing it, seized the moment to clear away this distraction in jocular fashion. I knew if the insect landed on Senator Harris, nothing would be made of it – or, if so, only by the cheapest of cheap Trump/Pence supporters. Of course, it showed up brilliantly on Pence’s snow white hair.

Odd thing about flies. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s retelling of the Electra myth, the flies are The Furies. Trappist Monk Thomas Merton wrote a book of poetry entitled, Seasons of Fury about the troubled world outside his monastery’s walls.

It is, indeed, a troubled season. The monastery beckons.