Jan. 20, 2012

Red, Red Bra

by Hal Sirowitz

I bought a red bra, she said.
I knew you'd like it.
The only problem was I didn't
have a red blouse to wear with it.
I bought that & red pants
& shoes, so it wouldn't stand out
so much. I also thought of getting
red panties. But I said to hell with that.
I'm not going to worry if one small part
of the outfit doesn't match. And who's
going to see my underwear? Just you.
what do you know about fashion? Nothing.

"Red, Red Bra" by Hal Sirowitz, from Before, During & After. © Soft Skull Press, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

LaMarcus Thompson patented the first Coney Island roller coaster on this date in 1885. It was called the Gravity Switchback Railway, it cost a nickel to ride, and it was an immediate success, drawing huge crowds and bringing in $600 a day. It's considered the first commercially successful roller coaster, and it was the first roller coaster specifically built as an amusement park ride.

It's the birthday of the fiction author Robert Olen Butler (books by this author), born in Granite City, Illinois (1945). He won the Pulitzer Prize in short fiction in 1993 for his collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992).

He was theater major who worked as a cab driver, an editor, in a steel mill, and as a teacher in both high school and college. He enlisted in the Vietnam War and was assigned to Army intelligence, and he spent a year learning Vietnamese living in an old French hotel in Saigon.

He returned to the U.S. in 1972 and worked as an editor and reporter in New York City. He wrote his first novels on a legal pad, while traveling to and from work on the Long Island Railroad. Butler's first novel, The Alleys of Eden, came out in 1981 after 21 publishers had turned it down. It was the first book in what would become a Vietnam trilogy. The novel received very good reviews, but it sold only a few thousand copies.

In the fall of 2001, he produced a webcast of his writing process, following the journey of a short story from idea to final polish in real time, narrating his thought process as he went along, and answering emails from viewers. The series, called Inside Creative Writing, ran for 17 episodes of two hours each, and it's still available for download.

Butler's most recent work includes a short-story collection — Weegee Stories (2010) — and a novel, A Small Hotel, which was published last year (2011).

Today is the birthday of novelist Susan Vreeland, born in Racine, Wisconsin (1946). She taught high school English in San Diego, California, for 30 years, and had done a little writing, including a novel called What Love Sees (1988). But she didn't really embark on her writing career full-bore until after she was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1996. She had chemotherapy and operations, and during her recovery she couldn't do much but look at art books. She found the paintings of Vermeer very soothing, so in her hiatus from teaching, she decided to write a book about him. Vermeer only turned out 30-some paintings, so Vreeland began a novel with the premise that he had painted one more, called Girl in Hyacinth Blue. It became a bestseller in 1999.

Her most recent novel is Clara and Mr. Tiffany (2011), about a young widow who goes to work designing stained glass lamps in Louis Comfort Tiffany's studio.

Today is the birthday of comedian and talk show host Bill Maher (1956) (books by this author). He was born William Maher Jr. in New York City, and he grew up in River Vale, New Jersey. His father was a news editor for NBC, so the family dinner table conversation usually revolved around the big issues of the day, and young Maher was encouraged to contribute his own thoughts and feelings. He wanted to be a comedian ever since he was a kid, but he didn't tell his parents about his career aspirations until after he graduated from Cornell with a degree in English and history in 1978.

His career progressed along the usual trajectory: first comedy clubs, then small parts in small movies and TV shows, and eventually stand-up gigs on The Tonight Show. His big break finally came in 1993, when a fledgling cable network called Comedy Central approached him. They were struggling, and they asked him if he would be interested in hosting a show. That show was Politically Incorrect, and it brought together people from across the political spectrum to discuss current events, leavened with Maher's own opinionated quips. It ran for nine years. He's hosted a similar program, Real Time with Bill Maher, on HBO since 2003.

Bill Maher on American exceptionalism: "Always waving the big foam number one finger; we're not number one in most things. We're number one in military. We're number one in money. We're number one in fat toddlers, meth labs, and people we send to prison. We're not number one in literacy, money spent on education. We're not even number one in social mobility. Social mobility means basically the American dream, the ability of one generation to do better than the next. We're tenth. That's like Sweden coming in tenth in Swedish meatballs."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
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  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
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  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
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