Jun. 28, 2014

The Benefits of an Active Lifestyle

by Hal Sirowitz

You seem to like things the most
if you can do them while you're sitting,
Father said. It doesn't seem like it's
the books you're reading that give
you pleasure, but that you read them
while you're sitting down. You
get most of your satisfaction from doing
things that require very little physical effort.
It's not that your brain needs to be filled
with new facts, but that you have grown
accustomed to being lazy. You can learn
just as much from being active. And since
that'll put you with other active people,
none of them will have the time to sit down
& read a book to prove that the information you got was wrong.

"The Benefits of an Active Lifestyle" by Hal Sirowitz from Father Said. © Soft Skull Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this date in 1928 that Louis Armstrong and his band, the Hot Five, recorded "West End Blues." Armstrong was 26 years old at the time, and living in Chicago, where he'd been for six years. He'd moved there from New Orleans as part of Joe "King" Oliver's band; Oliver had been a friend and mentor to the young singer and trumpeter since Armstrong was a teenager. They parted ways in 1925. Oliver composed "West End Blues" and had just recorded his own version a few weeks earlier, but Armstrong's cover, recorded in Chicago's OKeh studio, is legendary. It features Earl "Fatha" Hines on piano, and it's one of the first recorded examples of Armstrong's trademark "scat" singing.

The recording took the jazz world by storm. An ecstatic audience carried Armstrong off the stage when he performed the song live one night. Billie Holliday mentioned the record in her autobiography: "Sometimes the record would make me so sad, I'd cry up a storm. Other times, the same damn record would make me so happy." Armstrong's playing inspired Holliday's vocal technique, too; she told a music critic, "It sounded like he was making love to me. That's how I wanted to sing." And jazz composer Gunther Schuller wrote that the record "made it clear jazz could never again revert to being entertainment or folk music. The clarion call of 'West End Blues' served notice that jazz could compete with the highest order of musical expression. Like any profoundly creative innovation, [it] summarized the past and predicted the future."

It's the birthday of half of the Rodgers and Hammerstein songwriting team, Richard Rodgers, born in New York City (1902). He wrote the music for the musicals Oklahoma! (1944), South Pacific (1950), The King and I (1951), The Sound of Music (1959), and dozens of others. They included songs like "Funny Valentine," "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," "Getting to Know You," and "My Favorite Things." He collaborated with the lyricist Lorenz Hart for more than 20 years. When Hart died in 1943, Rodgers asked his friend Oscar Hammerstein II to write a musical with him. He agreed, and they wrote Oklahoma!, one of Broadway's biggest hits. His melodies were easy to sing and dance to, and he could compose them at the drop of a hat.

It's the birthday of comedian and filmmaker Mel Brooks, born Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn, New York (1926). While Brooks was in the Army in World War II, deactivating mines after the Battle of the Bulge, he was also organizing shows for fellow servicemen. When he returned to the States, he worked as a drummer and pianist in the Catskills, taking over for an ailing stand-up comedian one night. In 1949, Brooks' friend Sid Caesar asked him to write for his comedy program, Your Show of Shows. In 1968, he wrote his first feature film, The Producers. Although the movie didn't do well at the box office, it has been made into a Broadway musical, winning 15 Tony Awards. He's known for off-the-wall comedies such as Blazing Saddles (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974), and Spaceballs (1987).

Today is the birthday of Aimee Bender (books by this author), born in Los Angeles in 1969. She wrote her first story when she was in the second grade, and it was the story of a kangaroo and a bat. She co-wrote it with her best friend, alternating sentences, and they read it to their class. The first time she sold a story — to a small literary journal — she used her $10 payment to buy the Jamaica Kincaid book Annie John (1985). She recalls, "I think I wanted to buy a book because someone had told me, 'Use the money to have something tangible that you can hold on to as a memory.'"

Since 1995, she has set herself a strict schedule of two hours' writing time in the morning, five or six days a week. She doesn't require herself to actually write during that time, but she can't do anything else — like checking email or surfing the Internet — either, so eventually she gets bored with staring at the computer and produces something. She once converted the closet in her apartment to a tiny writing studio, intending to give it a two-week trial. She wrote in that closet for more than two years. She later said: "I'd always assumed that when Virginia Woolf referred to a room of one's own, she meant a light-filled studio by a lake. But the truth is, there can be something very useful about a small, dark space. Large meadows are lovely for picnics and romping, but they are for the lighter feelings. Meadows do not make me want to write."

Bender is known for introducing surrealism into her stories. "I just like that kind of storytelling," she says. "I like it as a reader, I liked it as a child, I like it in other art forms. I like metaphor and I like strangeness as a way into emotion. It's just something I respond to very viscerally. [...] I think if something's really direct, sometimes I have a harder time accessing what's underneath it as a reader."

Bender's most recent book is The Color Master (2013).

It's the birthday of author and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (books by this author), born in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1712, whose first important work, Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts, was published in 1750. He wrote in this work that man is good by nature but has been corrupted by society and civilization. He later coined the phrase: "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," and wrote: "Man was born free, but he is everywhere in chains."

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
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “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
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
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