Americans Are Delusional–And It’s An Old Story

So you hear it over and over from TV news show panelists and on-line opinion piece writers: we have a Reality TV presidency and this is something brand new, hard to fathom. But is it, really?

Unreal lives aren’t anything new in American history, according to Kurt Anderson in Fantasyland: we’ve been living in fantasy since our foundation. Jamestown’s settlers were actually looking for gold and the Puritans wanted to create a New Jerusalem. If you think you know early Colonial history, think again: Andersen paints our first founders in a highly unflattering light as delusional bigots.

This scathing book is encyclopedic as it whirls you through our long, sad, and sometimes goofy history of what Anderson classes as crazes: conspiracy theories of all kinds dating back to the 1800s, theosophy, phrenology, patent medicines, creationism, ESP, alien abductions and so much more that you might be left gobsmacked at how exceptional we are. Exceptionally deluded, and given to believing whatever the hell we want whether there are facts supporting our beliefs or not. It’s our right to, as Americans. Fake facts aren’t a new concept, just a new label.

The main “inflection point” for Andersen was the 19th century Gold Rush out west where thousands of people become millionaires overnight. Many thousands more failed. Just as the same thing would happen time and again in real estate and the stock market. Those few, epic, golden years left a searing imprint on our collective consciousness: anyone can get rich quick and anyone can become anything. “Something like magic could suddenly sweep aside common sense. Miracles actually happened in America.”

This kind of thinking exists in every realm Andersen exhaustively explores with wit and extensive research. Nobody is safe from his thoughtful scorn, not televangelists proclaiming The End of Days or academic institutes researching psychic phenomena and other “crackpottery.” It’s likely to make some readers angry because he classes all religious belief as fantasy in a country that’s more religious than any other First World nation. But then he also has harsh things to say about crystals, yoga, Reiki and other New Age staples—and the anti-vaccination campaign which to him shows that people on the Left can be as misguided, misinformed, and fact-averse as people on the Right.

Fantasyland is not a quick read because you may keep putting it down in amazement (or disgust) with each new example of our “extreme, self-righteous individualism.” But it’s a book that can make you laugh as much as squirm, defiantly answering that Talking Heads question: “Well, how did I get here?” We Americans have always been addicted to believing in the fantastical, and now we’re drowning in it.

“Same as it ever was….”

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery, and you can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com

When You’re An Author, Fans Can Keep You Going

There are a lot of things nobody prepares for you when you start a career as an author.  Going on my first book tour years ago, my publisher and editor didn’t ask if I knew how to do a reading.  Luckily I had some acting experience and my spouse was on sabbatical, so after every reading I got “director’s notes.”  What worked, what didn’t work, where did I need to slow down, how did I need to engage my audience better–and much more.

It was invaluable, like taking a one-person seminar, and it made each successive reading more successful.

That tour was when I first discovered how amazing it is to encounter fans.  People who haven’t just read your work, but have absorbed it and want to thank you.  One person told me she actually had read my book half a dozen times and kept it by her bedside.

I was blown away.  Writing is so solitary, and discovering the impact your work might have shifts you out into the world so differently than when you sit there reading a review.

The other day I was at the gym chatting with a trainer.  She’s used to seeing me wear blue but I was once again all in black and she asked what was up. I joked about going to Paris and wanting to fit in.  A woman nearby asked when I was going and we go into a talk about travel and learning language.  She was studying Italian for a big trip to several cities.

I told her about my last trip to Florence and that I’d done fine ordering meals, asking directions, and buying things, but that was about it.  She asked how many languages I spoke.  French and German were my mains, with side dishes of Swedish and Dutch.  Then I had to explain how I’d gotten involved in studying the latter two and we traded more travel notes.

I asked her name and introduced myself and she said, “Oh, I know who you are, I see you here a lot but haven’t wanted to bother a celebrity.  I’m a big fan of your mysteries.”

It made my day, made my workout.  And reminded me once again how lucky I am to have people reading and enjoying my work.

Lev Raphael is the best-selling author of a guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  You can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com

My First Trip To Canada

I grew up in a wildly multilingual family and Canada’s bilingual nature fascinated as soon as I started learning French in elementary school.  It was just a short flight from New York, but felt as distant and exotic as Belgium where my parents had lived for awhile.

I eventually became my high school’s star French student, thanks to tutoring from my mother whose French was perfect. Even the subjunctive somehow sunk in. I received a certificate of achievement from the Alliance Française in New York, so a trip to Montréal seemed ideal after I graduated high school and was feeling almost bilingual (unlike my older brother whose French was not very good).

He put me in charge of hotels and I picked one on Place Jacques Cartier which was then somewhat ramshackle and noisy, but exciting for a student like me. Just being able to use French outside of a classroom–and be understood–was thrilling. I’d been studying it for eight years but in a hot house—now it was alive, transactional.

Getting into the country was unexpectedly dicey. It was 1971 and both of us looked like hippies. Clean hippies, but hippies just the same. And I didn’t realize that joking with Passport Control was not a good idea. When I was asked by a suspicious agent if I had any money with me, I emptied my wallet onto the table and made some remark like “Ai-je assez?” (Do I have enough?)

My brother claims that we were taken aside for an hour and interrogated. I have no memory of that. What I do remember was the superb food everywhere we went in Vieux Montréal and the wonderful feeling of being a different person when I was speaking and thinking in another language. Oh, and how difficult it was walking in stalked heels on cobblestones (it was the early 70s, remember?). I

I knew then that I’d be back—and in more suitable shoes.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-five books in genres from mystery to memoir, He is an assistant professor in the English Department at Michigan State University and also teaches creative writing on line at http://www.writewithoutborders.com

What I Discovered When Flying With A Disability

The New York Times recently ran a story about being in a wheelchair and feeling invisible. When I injured my knee a few days before a trip from Lansing to D.C. via Detroit, I hesitated about arranging for wheelchair assistance in Detroit. It wasn’t invisibility I dreaded, it was exposure.

For those of you who don’t know the route or the Detroit airport, if you’re flying to or from Lansing, the connection there can take at least fifteen minutes even with the moving walkways and the monorail, because you have to switch terminals. As they say in the city of my birth, it’s a schlep.

My injury didn’t require surgery, just physical therapy when I got back. I had already cancelled a previous family visit to D.C. due to a severe migraine that kept me in bed for a whole weekend and I was determined to go this time. The trip was important, but then so was my health and comfort. I did not want to aggravate my injury.

I’d been in an airport wheelchair before when I had to take a flight to London and I didn’t like it. Yes, I got through security much faster, but at a price. People stared, then looked away. Both parts of that equation were very discomfiting. Were they wondering what was wrong with me since I seemed fit? Were they embarrassed for having been caught staring? I was embarrassed myself to have my disability—however unseen—on public display.

For this D.C. trip, a friend joked that I could wear a sign that said: INJURED KNEE. STOP STARING. That made me laugh, as she knew it would.

Being transported by wheelchair because of an injury, being helpless for what seemed like ages on that London trip made me feel reduced to that injury at a time when the pain, reduced mobility, and inconvenience had disrupted my normal routine enough already. In a chair, the disability felt like it was in charge and I was along for the ride.

I could easily imagine the flip side for my D.C. trip: limping the whole painful way. My light, well-packed roll-aboard would turn into a loathsome burden. Stopping to rest would be mandatory. Knowing that I might have to speed up at some point because the closer I got to the gate, the slower I’d be going as the pain and fatigue caught up with me. And people would stare anyway since airports aren’t made for limping but for rushing, and my face would likely reveal how miserable I felt.

Having dealt with shame in other areas of my life and written about it, I knew facing this was important, so I did order the wheelchair. And? Well, there was no happy ending. No sense of “closure.” No soaring ballad by Adele over the credits. But at least I was comfortable and on time– and most importantly, I won’t hesitate next time if need a wheelchair.

I’ve never been a sports nut, but I’ve belonged to a health club for years. I’ve done yoga, weight training, spinning classes, had swimming lessons with a coach, and I’d taken my physical being-in-the-world completely for granted until recently. I wonder now how many times over the years I’ve stared at people in airport wheelchairs. What was I thinking?

Lev Raphael is the author of two dozen books in genres from memoir to mystery, including the travelogue/family history My Germany.

Five Reasons Why You Have to Stay on Facebook–Besides The Adorable Puppy Photos

Everywhere you go, people are talking about giving up Facebook because their data has been given away.  But Facebook is essential in this wildly narcissistic age because it keeps people humble.

1—Are you excited about posting a link to your first blog? People will be sure to comment about the title without having read the blog, and disagree with it somehow in a way that makes you feel very small. Or if they’ve read the blog, they won’t comment at the site where it appeared, or even say anything on your Facebook page, but will FB chat you about your typos.
2—Are you delighted about something as innocuous as finally having seen every movie that Helen Mirren’s ever starred in and you start your day by posting that news, hoping fellow fans will chime in? Someone you know will post about having had lunch with Mirren and talk about how charming and unassuming she is. Ditto Ian McKellan, who dropped by for dessert.
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3—Are you proud of having written 1500 words on your new novel? The book it took you months to plot? Well, count on this: Dozens of your Facebook buddies will let you know that they write twice as much as that a day. On a bad day. Even after having had surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome.
4—Are you pleased that you got a weekend away and went to the beach where you happily posted photos of surf and sand? At least one of your pals is sure to post pictures of the fabulous villa they recently rented in Spain for a month, including shots of smiling sexy locals, and let you know how their shopping sprees, drinking binges, mani-pedi sessions, yacht hopping are going, moment by moment.
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5—Are you thrilled that you finally got a book published? Someone will humble brag about not being able to figure out where the newest foreign language edition of their umpteenth novel came out, but they think from the look of the title if might just possibly be Bulgaria? Which isn’t that big a market really compared to Germany where their book was also published last year and Angela Merkel wrote such an awesome blurb….but she’s just a politician….I mean, so….
Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery.

“Do You Know Stephen King?”

It sounds like a specialized question, but it’s not. Apparently, if you know King, your reality as an author is verified, whether the person asking will ever bother to read a book of yours or not.

I’ve been asked about King many times times by cab drivers when I’m doing book tours across the country and they find out why I’m in town. It’s almost always the first question.

So, here are some sample answers to help out all you road-weary, flummoxed authors in those moments when your mind might go blank and you’re wishing you had stayed home or taken your parents’ advice and gone into your cousin’s wallpaper business. Feel free to suggest your own.

— “We went to college together. Dude could par-tay!” Make up the wild story of your choice at this point. You’re a writer. Be grotesque. Embellish.

— “That SOB? Never wanted to. He used to date my cousin and he was into really kinky sex that left her with a limp and allergies. It’s really sad.” Sink into your seat and mutter darkly.

— “Yes, but he trashed my house once after a séance and we haven’t talked since, though our lawyers are working it out. At least he says those are his lawyers. Sometime you can see right through them…. It’s kinda creepy.”

— “Stephen who? Is he some kind of writer or something? Like, wha has he written I might have heard of?” Look truly puzzled.

— “Are you kidding? I’m the one who gives him his book titles and plot twists. He gets writer’s block all the time and calls me drunk at three in the morning. Shit, I shouldn’t have said anything. Please don’t tell anyone!”

— “No. Have you?” Glare.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery.

Betsy DeVos and Winston Churchill?

Dana Milbank just quipped in The Washington Post that every time our Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks, “it feels as though the sum total of human knowledge is somehow diminished.” There’s a gravitas about that witty put-down that sounds Churchillian.

Read any book about World War II and you’re bound to find inspiring quotes by Winston Churchill, along with some withering comments he made about rival politicians. One of his favorite targets was Clement Attlee who inspired these classic lines:

A sheep in sheep’s clothing.

A modest man, who has much to be modest about.

An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened, Attlee got out.

 

Clement Attlee 1945My multilingual mother–given to quotations in Latin, German and French–especially loved the middle one above. She also credited Churchill with the line “Every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

When I looked for the source, the brilliant line didn’t show up anywhere on Churchill web sites. But there’s a cinematic connection: The Dark Horse, a forgotten 1932 political satire starring Bette Davis.

dark horseIt features a nitwit politician whose adviser has instructed him to answer tough questions with “Well yes, but then again no.”  The politician is classed as “so dumb that every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

The line’s political lineage extends further back to the powerful Republican Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed, who was nicknamed “Czar Reed.”

In 1909, Pearson Magazine no. 22 reported Reed explaining why he ignored one Representative while paying attention to another:

“Whenever A takes the floor, the House learns something, but when that fellow B speaks, he invariably subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

We have to assume the line had filtered into political discourse enough so that the script writers of Dark Horse could use it to comic effect not too many years later.  Did Reed come up with it on his own?  At first it seems likely, since his recent biographer says he was renowned for his wit.

Teddy Roosevelt, though, would seem to get ultimate credit for the phrase.  Biographers Peter Collier and David Horowitz wrote that TR used it to dismiss an opponent on New York’s Civil Service Commission when he was the Commissioner from 1889-1895. He put down his rival with these words: “Every time he opens his mouth, he subtracts from the sum total of human wisdom.”

Theodore-Roosevelt_The-Talented-Mr-Roosevelt_HD_768x432-16x9Lev Raphael’s comic mystery series, set in the hothouse world of academia, has been praised by The New York Times Book Review and many other newspapers for its wit and one-liners. You can find them on Amazon.

 

 

 

Commencement Speeches Have Nothing To Do With Free Speech

It’s that special time of year when protests erupt over commencement speakers at various colleges and universities around the country.  Then editorial writers and talking heads blather endlessly about the subject, and comment sections on web sites erupt in abuse and foolishness.

2014-09-30-talkingheadsI’ve watched the yearly uproar about commencement speakers being invited (or uninvited) with disappointment.  Why?  Because the discussion is consistently off base.

One thread that comes up over and over is that students protesting a speaker’s invitation interfere with free speech. That’s just idiotic, and completely misunderstands the Bill of Rights.  Someone like Dick Cheney, for instance, is free to speak about his beliefs, his past, his hopes and dreams, his view of foreign affairs, whatever he likes anywhere he wants to.  And he does. He’s a public figure and can appear on TV talk shows, can publish Op Ed pieces, blogs, essays and books.

But the First Amendment says nothing about people who are invited to speak somewhere and are paid to do so.  It specifically refers to government intervention in individual expression.  That’s just not the case where a speaker proves controversial and campus protests arise.

Just as foolish as invoking “free speech”: the noxious moralizing about how students should be open to a free expression of ideas.  The Washington Post editorial board hasn’t been alone in taking that tack, but are they for real? After four years of college, you don’t want a lecture in the middle of a grueling, dull, long ceremony in the heat–and you shouldn’t get one.  Some schools even have two speakers from opposite political sides of a question to “promote open discussion.”  What a joke!

graduates_1Commencement speeches aren’t seminars or workshops with Q&A.  They’re supposed to be inspiring and entertaining.  Funny, if possible.  They’re throwaway, forgettable, a moment’s ornament as Edith Wharton put it in another context.  And that’s okay, because graduation is about transitions, about moving on, about celebration.  The ceremony isn’t an intellectual milestone for anyone involved. It’s not meant to go down in history, and the speaker sure isn’t Moses coming down from the mountain top.

Academic freedom doesn’t suffer and nobody’s rights are interfered with if someone gets invited at a very hefty fee to speak to a graduating class of students, and is suddenly uninvited.  Free exchange of ideas?  What a laugh. The only exchange is the speech the speaker gives and the check that speaker leaves with or gets in the mail.

colbertLev Raphael is the author of the suspense novel Assault With a Deadly Lie and 24 other books in many genres which you can find on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

The Secret to Get People Reading Your Blog

So you’ve started your blog and there’s minimal traffic?

A sure-fire way to generate an audience is to write smack about somebody famous, especially if that celebrity just died.

Just see what would happen if you blogged that Prince’s music was over-rated, that he hadn’t really written any hits lately, that he was derivative, that he always looked like he got dressed in the dark–or whatever nastiness came to mind.  The comments would explode.

prince orangeIf you dissed Prince so soon after his death and all the memorials praising his genius, you’d be endlessly re-tweeted on Twitter. Now, people do respond to the 5 Ways to De-Clutter Your Sock Drawer blogs, but when a blogger targets somebody popular, it’s like swatting a bee hive with a bat.

You can do better than that, though: don’t just attack a person, attack a whole genre.  Look at Curtis Sittenfeld.  Never heard of her?  That’s true for lots of readers.  But she recently generated a ton of publicity by saying that most romance novels are badly written.

Bingo!  She got tons of press and widespread attacks by romance writers and readers.

Of course, she was after bigger game than blog readers because she was publishing an updated version of Pride and Prejudice which she thinks is a romance.  But the strategy could work just as well for you: diss a popular genre with a provocative blog title, and watch the comments mount.  Try writing a blog “Crime Fiction is Crap.”

The comments won’t be pretty. You’ll get dissed as a hack or moron or worse.  Ignore all that.  Ignore all the negatives, because what’s the point of getting into a conversation with someone who wants to insult you?  Just watch for the people who agree–because those people will show up, too.  And who knows, they might stick around….

BlogLev Raphael is author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in genres from mystery to memoir.

Into the Woods, Without Delay!

As a writer and story-teller, I’ve been in love with Into the Woods for years. Ever time I see or hear it, I’m awed by Sondheim’s trademark wit, his long elegant vocal lines, his surprising rhymes, his dark humor, his complex music.  So I was worried that the Disney musical would be too cute, but I was wrong; it’s fairly true to the spirit of his work. Disney’s found ways through cinematography and specials effects to capture the heart and soul of an American masterpiece.

The movie is full of surprises. Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep have rich expressive voices and break your heart. Johnny Depp is appropriately creepy as the Wolf and Chris Pine isn’t just a wonderful singer, he’s even funnier and sexier than he was in Star Trek. He almost steals the show in the beautifully staged “Agony.”

There’s more: “On the Steps of the Palace” is absolutely brilliant and it’s not the only show-stopper in a movie which looks and sounds beautiful all the way through.

635531969902481362-ITWAnnaKendrickCinderellaWell, almost. Perhaps to appeal to kids, Disney picked the young actor who played Gavroche in Les Misérables to play Jack. He’s a dud.  His diction and thick accent turn the soaring “Giants in the Sky” into mush.  There are other things you’ll miss if you know the musical. The “Mysterious Man”/Narrator isn’t here in person. Lyrics are trimmed throughout and the two Princes only sing together once.

More seriously, “No More” is cut, and it’s the pivotal song that makes the Baker turn and face his responsibilities. Perhaps most sadly, almost all of the ensembles are axed and so you lose most of Sondheim’s glorious harmonies. You also lose the amazing group finale on screen which is all about journeying into darkness towards self-discovery, a journey that never ends: “Into the woods, each time you go/There’s more to learn of what you know.”

But none of that should stop you from seeing Into the Woods, because it’s deeply moving and often powerful. And there’s always the DVD of the original Broadway production to fill in all the gaps. I mean, moments.

Lev Raphael’s 25th book Assault with a Deadly Lie is a novel of suspense about a journey into the dark woods of stalking, gun violence and police militarization.