Saturday, March 28, 2020

Objective Reality

By the time I was sixteen I was already damaged goods. Too old for my age. It has taken me decades to find my child again. I was too serious. Too afraid to enter that forest of menacing creatures, of mystery and uncertainty. After all, a wild boar might run off with my shoe… and then what?

The deal, unwittingly, was to trade imagination, nuance, and doubt for the sanctimonious safety of dogma. For a few months I attended The Jefferson School in New York City, taking Marxist courses in such light-weight frivolity as Dialectical Materialism or Subjective Idealism and the Masses. Neither, your average beach book. The classes were at least half-filled with F.B.I. agents probably reporting on each other. Ironically on the other side of the wall was Dashiell Hammett teaching a class in I know not what. He was the author of one of my favorite films, The Maltese Falcon. My road not taken. 

The very name Jefferson attached to this school reveals their faulty thinking. Jefferson was an elitist polymath slaveholder who did not include Native Americans or African Americans in his lofty words having inalienable rights. Apparently the American Communist Party was blind to his hypocrisy just as they ignored the oppression and ruthlessness in the Soviet Union. 

Of course I had no idea what I was missing. After reading the assigned books about Marxist philosophy I had a firm grip on Materialism and it had an even firmer grip on me. A certain rigidity had set in. I had all the answers but forgot the questions. The key phrase was the primacy of Objective Reality. Looking back I suppose this was the basis of establishing the undeniable plight of workers in the class struggle. It could not be denied or wished away. Objective Reality affirms the truth independent of perception.

Yet there is a price to be paid for such tidy thinking. It doesn’t accommodate the full range or reach of the imagination. It refuses entry into messy humanity where art begins. It settles for the rational and abhors the inexplicable. In her masterful novel, To the Lighthouse, Virginia Wolff explores this other dimension of subjective reality, the free-floating ramble of one’s inner life and its startling connectivity. She goes beyond Materialism and deposits her readers in irresolution, that country of elsewhere to fend for ourselves.

Wallace Stevens created a world where Reality and the Imagination are in a continuing irreconcilable marriage. Reality is what he calls the Necessary Angel which grounded him yet Seeming allows him to fly. It accounts for that green cockatoo in the poem, Sunday Morning and communion by way of late coffee and oranges in a sunny chair.

Objective Truth need not be absolute but is more than an agreed-upon lie. Context matters. We are not allowed our own set of facts to suit our purposes. This is now Saturday morning in Los Angeles. It cannot be decreed Thursday night.                                                                                                         
Now we have the phenomenon of Donald Trump out of whose mouth comes a litany of self-serving lies. He has tortured Truth in his reign of tyranny against the English language. He has a profound disregard for both the Science of Objective Reality and the full flowering of artistic sensibility. He could be a poster boy for nescience. Another four years of him will revive the Marxist axiom of Objective Truth reminding us of what we have abdicated. I’d hate to think I've returned to that place where I began. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2020


I tried Goggling myself this morning to see if I really exist. I do not. Maybe I'm too analog in this digital age and have been struck from the grand ledger. There are many Norm Levine impostors or what I like to think of as my generic equivalents but, I suspect, we all prefer to regard ourselves as the name brand.

There are Levines noted for their norms and other Norms who didn’t know how to spell their last name having dropped the final e. Then there are Levines as in serene and other Levines whose name rhymes with divine or sublime. I’m more comfortable with serenity than divinity. Maybe the Levin name was designed to resonate with heaven. Granted the better climate up there, to paraphrase Mark Twain, but all my friends would probably be in hell.

There’s someone using my name who finished a marathon race crossing the finish-line from the wrong direction. Then there was my namesake who is some hot-shot insurance salesman. This must be my disowned self. I couldn’t sell Greenland to Trump.

When I had my own pharmacy there were seven of us in the San Fernando Valley, alone. One was a customer for a while. I couldn’t help giving him preferential treatment.

Driving through the Hudson River Valley we slammed on the brakes having spotted a bookstore whose proprietor bore my name. I met the man and noted he was my age. Apparently British names were in vogue circa 1933 especially for Jewish families wishing to dis-identify with the Old World. In fact this Norm Levine had a brother named Mitchell which was my brother’s middle name.

Here’s a Norm Levine who was a much-admired Canadian writer of short-stories, poetry and novels. He died with an impressive body of work. I see his obit from fifteen years ago. If that’s me it must have slipped my mind.

Googling oneself can be a deflating experience. Proceed at your own peril. If you are not listed better check the mirror or call your mother. There were times in my life when anonymity was devoutly to be wished for. I can remember how I wore a shirt to class in college which I hoped would blend into the seat rendering me invisible. The subject was Physical Chemistry which required us to memorize structural formulas. I should have known then to change my major.

Come to think of it being un-noted in this info-glut is quite an achievement. Something like leaving a zero carbon footprint. Living all these years without a trace…but famous among huntsmen and herdsmen, in the words of Dylan Thomas. Those adventurers were merely the imaginary friends of his youth.

Oh, here I am on page three. Just another one among many Norm Levines. That suits me fine. Maybe I’ll make page one posthumously. Given the threat of all Creatures Great and Small I should probably start planning my afterlife. I wonder if we have any input as to our next incarnation. There are so many rooms in the mansion I’ve never visited and Google has yet to take notice.

Friday, March 20, 2020


Listen. If you hear a rustic flute in the far distance or spot a half goat roaming the countryside that would be Pan. That very early Greek God who made off with nymphs and liked to frolic in caves and grottoes. Pan comes down to us in pandemics, pandemonium and panic but he also is embedded in companion, panoply and Pan American.  

Pan has an appetite for mischief. Legend has him evoking fear when his shouts upon waking are enough to cause a stampede among flocks. Pan also means all as in pandemic which literally means upon all people (Demos).

Peter Pan was a boy who never grew up. He consorted with other Betwixt and Between characters such as fairies, mermaids and pirates from Neverland. Could this damnable virus be his pixie dust? Maybe the coronavirus has mistaken our pulmonary tissue for his natural habitat in the fields of Arcadian antiquity.

I’m glad we’ve cleared that up. We need to know whom we are dealing with. With parents like Penelope and Apollo or Dionysus we are up against some heavy hitters with temper management issues. 

We have to change our way of living and if that ain’t enough? /  We have to change the way we strut our stuff. 

For those who believe this viral visitation serves some purpose it may be a test of our assumptions and adaptability. Maybe work doesn’t require being there. Traffic has vanished along with air pollution. There are signs of global consciousness even as xenophobia is used by demagogues to stoke fear and blame. Neighbors are caring for neighbors. This morning our friends shopped for us and now we received a note from our new neighbors concerned for our well-being and offering their help in shopping.

Two hundred years ago Haiti was liberated from Napoleonic rule thanks to the Yellow Fever epidemic. African slaves had immunity but the French did not. A case could be made that the Louisiana Purchase was a further extension of Napoleon's fear of the microorganism.  

We will not emerge from this scourge unchanged. Science itself has been at risk against the forces of ignorance and deceit issuing from the President. Hopefully truth will be restored and we'll gain an appreciation for the essential role of the federal government to provide and protect the population. Pan is out of control and demands nothing less.

Monday, March 16, 2020


Games Over. That was the headline of the six-page reduced Sports Section of the newspaper last week. The next five pages consisted of stories about the closure or suspension of the baseball season, basketball tournament, hockey championship playoffs, golf etc... In other words, life as we know it. Sports have long blurred into Finance, Theater and front-page news but never before into a sweeping Obit.

What more endearing and enduring signifier for spring than the crack of the bat, green grass and the smell of hot dogs? Our National Pastime is now out of time. For grown-ups none of this matters much but for those of us who never grew up our alternative universe just disappeared.

My memory bank just opened its vault to my twelve year old innocence when I imagined the demise of all newspapers in NYC during the summer of 1945. Up until August that year I had been avidly following the progress of the war on the front page of the N.Y. Times (morning) and N.Y. Post (evening). I must have thought that all news was war news and it was all good as the Allies pushed across Europe and the Pacific Islands. With the surrender of Germany in May and Japan in August hostilities came to a screeching halt and I wondered how the eight newspapers in New York would ever survive. Of course my worry was about 65 years premature.

News is what's happening and also what isn't. When the voter turnout for the recent primary was only a mere 25% in some counties that is news. When the pomegranate, now regarded as the true forbidden fruit in Eden, is said to contain 613 seeds matching the number of commandments (mitzvahs) in the Old Testament that was news to me but doesn't qualify as newsworthy. 

It also happens not to be true but that never stopped our illustrious fable-maker, the incorrigible liar-in-chief from tweeting himself down the toilet. Bad news seems to have more legs than the good. I recently read that the Israeli/Palestinian corridor is a fly-over migratory route for 500 million birds twice a year of 483 different species. Ironic how birds and butterflies know whose woods these are while humans continue to build walls and check points.

News is not an acronym for North, East, West, South. Nor does it stand for News Events, Weather and Sports. It is simply the English form of the Latin word for New as in novelty, supernova or renovate. Sometimes we see things that aren't there like the peach in impeachment, juicy as it was.

Peggy has a sign over her bathtub which says, Make It New. These are the words of Ezra Pound, that politically misguided Modernist poet. He was better at mentoring others (Eliot, Hemingway, Joyce, Williams) than he was a poet or pundit. 

I should add that the word NEW has long ago been hijacked and subverted by the advertising world. New and Improved usually means neither.

No news, these days, is good news since we are being fed a diet ranging from the calamitous to the dire. Could it be that this dreaded virus will bind our national wound communally even as it takes its toll? Friends and neighbors are looking out for one another. It feels like a return to that summer of '45 when chapter one of a new narrative was happening with everyone on the verge instead of on the brink. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Notes on the Anniversary of Myself

I have a birthday coming up in ten days. I’ll be glad to get past number eighty-six since a psychic predicted this would be my last one, many years ago. I think I paid her five bucks for that news; for ten dollars I might have bought immortality.

Preoccupied as I was, if I go into a deep trance I can almost remember that day in 1933. There I am doing the backstroke in an embryonic sea when my umbilical life was shattered. It took me years to stop crying. Or that could have been because my brother never forgave me for ending his status as an only child.

Birthdays are a sort of punctuation. Some are merely parenthetical to the chronicle. Others signify a moment of pause while end of decade years deserve an exclamation point. A jab of jubilation along with a sometimes agonizing reappraisal.

I have no memory of celebrating my birthday as a kid. Maybe nobody showed up for my party. More likely there was none. Times were tough. Cakes and candles were a luxury and my mother was a no-nonsense person. If I wasn’t invited to friend’s parties it was because singing Happy Birthday would have been embarrassing since I couldn’t carry a tune. I was designated a Listener by the music teacher and consigned to the last row at school where we were told to lip-sync the Star Spangled Banner.

Claude Monet lived till eighty-six; many seasons of hay stacks. He is experiencing a remarkably extended after-life on museum walls and that lotus pond at Giverny as well as images on coffee mugs, calendars and umbrellas. On the other hand when Vincent Van Gogh was my age he’d been dead for forty-nine years.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez also died at my present age. The last book of his I read was Love in the Time of Cholera, not to be confused with Trump in the time of Coronavirus. The two men stand in stark contrast of how much and how little one can enhance the progress of civilization in their allotted time. 

However prodigious the body of work contributed by great writers and artists that cannot be the measure of the person or the rest of us wouldn’t get through heaven’s gate. It is something other than the achieve of.  

Too late for greatness. It’s enough to be good. Noble even, at times. Caring. Open-hearted. What David Brooks describes as a depth of character infused with gratitude. Anne Lamott calls laughter a form of carbonated holiness. That’s my kind of worship….worthship of fellow human beings.

Age is, of course, the supreme fiction. The calendar documents our years but our real age is in our spirit, not our weary bones; how we enthuse, our juice, our appetite for meeting each day. By this measure Peggy, nearing 99, is still in her youth and has blessed me with some of that nectar.

As for a bucket list I have none, except, for a pie in my face. And I’m not so sure about that unless it be key lime. I suspect there may be a hole in my bucket. All my grand wishes come down to one...dump Trump. I would hate to leave this realm on such a retrogressive note. I prefer to keep the illusion that we are progressively moving toward a larger pie, key lime or otherwise, with portions enough for all. 

In addition, as long as it doesn’t cost anything, I wish I could listen better to what flowers have to say and for my bones to be more fluent in the language of music and my hands become instruments to strike the dark air for mellifluous sounds.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Going Viral

I’ve never cared much for dystopian novels but I’d rather read one than live in it as we are now. It is as if the virulence of Trump’s world has been made manifest by this corona virus. His toxicity found its corporeal match.

For the past three years we have been delivered to the time when German fascism took root. Now we are about to feel the sting of the 1918 influenza pandemic. What’s next? Another Dust Bowl? Locusts? No need for any re-enactment. I’ll take their word for it. 

I suppose microorganisms need love too but must we really provide them with a homeland? They appear to be shaped like some sort of spiked wheel, similar to the icon for settings. Here I am hitting the delete button. Nothing happens, proving that there is a world out there, actual, besides virtual.

Before antibiotics I dodged diphtheria in my day. Scarlet fever got me red-faced and left behind a murmur of the heart to be remembered by. I whooped past whooping cough, loosened the vise of the Grip and defeated polio with coins in the March of Dimes collection box . Chicken pox, measles and mumps had their way with me but German measles with its tiny swastikas never got past my Maginot Line.

If the Putin-Trump Axis had designs to sow chaos within our borders they might as well not bother any further. We've endured their ethical pestilence. The landscape is already unrecognizable. Language itself is on life-support. Dow and Jones are in mortal combat. People are masked, quarantined.  Shelves and stadiums emptied. We have become even more atomized than before, shut-ins. 

In the last chapter of Jose Saramago's dystopian fable, Death With Interruptions, he depicts Death as defeated by the music of a cellist. Death succumbs to the resonant chords of Bach's Suite Number Six. Finally a work of fiction I'd be happy to inhabit. Let Art have its way; its transport may be our best hope. But just in case better wash your hands again.