Jul. 7, 2013

At the Cottage of Messer Violi

by Paul Violi

The mailbox, painted dark blue,
sits atop a tilted cedar post.
It has a little red flag on one side
and it is altogether remarkable.

The Toyota in the driveway
is very old and is said
to have come from Japan.

There is in the hallway
an immense dogfood bowl.
It is made of iridescent pink plastic.
It is, as I have said, immense
and it is hideous.

In the kitchenette is a statuette
of Ceres, Goddess of Wheaties.

The dishwasher is a Kenmore
and altogether worthy of praise.

In the foyer the over-sized painting
of a porkchop provides
visitors many opportunities
for conversation.

In the servants' quarters
there are many impressive works
that stress the imminence of death
and the probability of hell fire.

Placed on the broad maplewood table
beside bottles of cognac
there is a recording device
with a silver megaphone
into which natives are often
invited to shout
the oral histories of their people.

We whose hearts have been gripped
by life, scoff at the idea of art

as mere ornamentation: So they
seem to proclaim,
the three statues that adorn
the neighbor's lawn, plaster deer
with real bulletholes in them.

"At the Cottage of Messer Violi" by Paul Violi, from Breakers. © Coffee House Press, 2000. Reprinted with the permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the popular historian David McCullough (books by this author), born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1933). His first big book was Truman (1992), one of the best-selling biographies ever published. The sales were even greater for his biography John Adams, in 2001. Both books won the Pulitzer Prize.

David McCullough said: "History is about life. It's awful when the life is squeezed out of it and there's no flavor left, no uncertainties, no horsing around. It always disturbed me how many biographers never gave their subjects a chance to eat. You can tell a lot about people by how they eat, what they eat, and what kind of table manners they have."

Sliced bread was sold for the first time on this date in 1928. Up until that time, consumers baked their own bread, or bought it in solid loaves. Otto Frederick Rohwedder, a jeweler from Davenport, Iowa, had been working for years perfecting an eponymous invention, the Rohwedder Bread Slicer. He tried to sell it to bakeries. They scoffed, and told him that pre-sliced bread would get stale and dry long before it could be eaten. He tried sticking the slices together with hatpins, but it didn't work. Finally he hit on the idea of wrapping the bread in waxed paper after it was sliced. Still no sale, until he took a trip to Chillicothe, Missouri, and met a baker who was willing to take a chance. Frank Bench agreed to try the five-foot-long, three-foot-high slicing and wrapping machine in his bakery. The proclamation went out to kitchens all over Chillicothe, via ads in the daily newspaper: "Announcing: The Greatest Forward Step in the Baking Industry Since Bread was Wrapped — Sliced Kleen Maid Bread." Sales went through the roof. Rohwedder not only gave Americans the gift of convenience and perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but he also provided the English language with the saying that expresses the ultimate in innovation: "the greatest thing since sliced bread."

It's the birthday of "the dean of science fiction writers," Robert Heinlein (books by this author), born in Butler, Missouri, in 1907. He served in the Navy, but when he got sick and was discharged, he was too weak to get a normal job. So when he saw an ad in a pulp fiction magazine offering $50 for the best story by an unpublished author, he decided to give writing a try. In four days, he had finished a story about a machine that could predict a person's death. It was published in 1939, and he went on to write almost 100 novels and short stories, including his famous novel Stranger in a Strange Land (1961).

Heinlein said: "I took up writing because I needed money. And I continued to write because it's safer than stealing and easier than working."

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