The Cheese with the Paper Between the Slices

Note: A good 50% of this story is true. 

The date is the mid-40s. Probably. Mrs. Elvira Jones returns from the market and is faced with every housewives' nightmare: the cheese that the nice man sliced for her at the deli counter has melted into a sweaty blob. Mrs. Jones sighs sadly. She would now spend hours with a small cheese-separating spatula especially designed to delicately render asunder the hell that humidity hath wrought.

Cheese separation has been a long-standing problem for Americans. This video, taken sometime in the 1800s, as the character's appearance and demeanor would suggest, illustrates how they had to use crackers to separate cheese slices. How horrible that must have been.

Mrs. Jones had done her best to avoid this painful circumstance. She had rushed home, ignoring her neighbor's cheerful attempts to engage with a slightly panicked: “Can't chat. Cheese!” But she was too late. A long night of cheese separation lay ahead. She set stoically to her task.

Imagine housewives' relief just a few years later when they discovered the new cheese packaging created by Victor Dorman that would free them from the tyranny of cheese surgery forever.

Victor Dorman's father Nathan owned a cheese delivery business that was founded in 1896. With a heavy Lithuanian accent, he passed through the streets of New York, yelling “A ton of cheese! Who wants a ton of cheese?” No one ever responded.

Eventually, Mr. Dorman realized that his customers were not going to come to him, and that selling bulk cheese was best done through the proper channels: Delis, restaurants, cheese-wrestling establishments, corner markets and eventually supermarkets became his clients and the Dorman Cheese Co was well on its way.

Born in 1915, Victor Dorman grew up in Brooklyn. During this time, he served in the navy, ate sausages, and read books. He tied his own shoes thousands of times, and once stepped on a nail that miraculously pierced his shoe's sole but did not break the skin. He graduated from college, envied successful people, and celebrated his birthday every year by eating a clementine, in honor of his grandmother whose name the fruit shared.

Throughout this time, he lived in anticipation of taking over his father's business, Dorman Cheese Co. “When I run things,” he probably said, “there are going to be some changes around here!”

And he was right.

Dorman Cheese Co. specialized in selling bulk cheese. Victor almost certainly watched as both vendors and customers struggled to separate slices using all manner of techniques. Many used the aforementioned cheese spatula or similar gadgets that did not solve the problem. Others just used their hands. Nicknamed “cheese peelers,” these folks were considered disgusting and unsanitary and no one went to their picnics.

A collectible statuette available in the 1940s, or around that time, entitled "Filthy cheese peelers!"

A collectible statuette available in the 1940s, or around that time, entitled "Filthy cheese peelers!"

Victor Dorman figured they had a real problem. He most certainly pondered solutions. After his death, his family discovered blueprints for failed contraptions at the bottom of a drawer of filed taxes dating back to 1969. One ridiculous example involved dried seahorses, another a vertical guillotine that was used only once with horrible results.

Then in the early 1950s or late 1940s or some other time, Victor and his Cheese Co. worked with a machine company to develop what would become the complicated machinery that would alter the course of cheese packaging.

Form Mr. Dorman's obituary in he New York Times:

“. . .the United States Slicing Machine Company developed the interleaver -- a machine that cut a slice of cheese, placed it on a conveyor belt and then, with mechanical fingers, laid down 'what we called parchment -- some kind of paper,' Neil Dorman, who served as vice president for administration and finance at Dorman Cheese Co] said.

'My father and his brother, Louis, were the first to do that,' he said. 'They did it first with Muenster, because it tends to stick together.'"

Mechanical fingers!

There are three patents for interleaving machines that explain in detail (I am sure) the inventors' creative solutions for this frustrating problem. My guess is that the first patent below, issued in 1954, is the one Dorman Cheese Co. used.

So while the machine took care of the practical tasks, it was up to Victor to let consumers know what now set his product apart.

His trademarked slogan said it all: "The Cheese With the Paper Between the Slices."

The jingle that ran in a Dorman's Cheese Ad in the 1970s went:

Get yourself a package of natural goodness
Dorman's Endico cheese
From Wisconsin 100% grade A
Grade A cheese the old fashioned way

Dorman's Dorman's
Moo moo moo moo moo moo-moo mooooooo
No processing or flavoring
Nothing artificial

Get yourself a package of natural goodness
Dorman's Endico Cheeeeeeeese!

The cheese with the paper between the slices!

The lone review of this jingle at the reads: “This jingle is repetitive and boring. Too many moos.”

Though that trademark has sadly expired, interest in cheese paper continues. A Facebook group exists that is just waiting for its first post.

Hats off to packaging innovator Victor Dorman!


HIGHLY recommended reading on a slightly related topic: A HISTORY OF INDIVIDUALLY WRAPPED PROCESS CHEESE SLICES

An excerpt:

“In the late 40s, there were a number of cheese processors selling a large volume of five pound loaf for use in either direct retail outlets or for slicing operations that sliced and packaged for retail outlets. This calm world was upset by the explosive force of a wonderful idea - Kraft deluxe slices. These were process cheese formed and packaged in one continuous operation from hot cheese to an item that looked like slices. Apparently the consumer neither knew nor cared that these so-called slices were not actually sliced off a loaf.“

The King of Herrings/48 Hours without an IPhone


Wikipedia Commons public domain image

I was a late adopter of the smart phone. I’ve had one for only a few years, but it has quickly filled my waking hours with nonsense, insinuating itself into every corner of time. Almost from the start, I fell into this siphoning off of otherwise useful minutes. I often sit down just to check a few things on its wee screen and magically it’s 20 minutes later.

The oarfish, also known as the king of herrings, is the world’s longest bony fish with an average length of 10 feet, but specimens have measured more than 50 feet. Rarely seen in its natural habitat deep in the ocean (it hangs out between 600-3000 feet), this long ribbon of silver is crowned with a red crest. A few photographs on the Internet show a line of twenty people or more supporting the massive dead specimen, as though posing for a Guinness Book of World Records photo.

The ribbonfish (another name for the oarfish) lives a solitary life. Like me, it has no swim bladder. Unlike me, it does not have teeth.

On Friday night I couldn’t find the phone. Usually this situation quickly escalates into annoyance, followed by phone anxiety (a precursor to phone panic, an all-new sensation with the rise of the smart phone where suddenly one pats one’s pockets, desperate to ensure that the gadget is still there – such relief when it is where it should be!).

But then, I contemplated 24 hours without the thing. What would that be like?

The gelatinous flesh of the oarfish is not edible, which is probably why it is not endangered. Like many fish, the round eye and down turned mouth give it the appearance of a shocked frown.

Friday night, no big deal. Saturday, I noticed twinges, much like a cigarette smoker’s withdrawal: at the gas station when my husband was filling the tank, at a restaurant, whenever my husband checked his own smart phone. If I had a few minutes of time alone, like a reflex, I thought to pull out the little general and just “check a few things.”

Oarfish spawn and are gone – their eggs float on the ocean’s surface and their larvae congregate there as well. A photo of a young one reveals it has the body shape of an adult and long skinny branch-like structures on either side behind each eye.

By Saturday night, I felt as though I were on vacation. There was nothing in the outside world that I had to attend to. I was experiencing the ultimate filter, and it was sweet. I decided to go for another day.

In the past two days I:

  • Rarely knew what time it was and did not know the date.

  • Ate at a restaurant that I did not know anything about beforehand. It was delicious.

  • Did not check email or facebook.

  • Was unaware what new movies might be available streaming on Netflix nor what programming PBS had to offer through its app.

  • Did not read blogs.

  • Did not make or receive phone calls. Even though we have a land line, I never thought to use it.

  • Did not price check or purchase anything with 1-click on Amazon.

  • Was unaware of the news. Did anyone famous die?

  • Did not stress about not marketing my novel.

Instead I:

  • Repotted plants.

  • Fixed a chair.

  • Went to a wine tasting though I think wine tastes bad. It was a beautiful day to sit in the sun. (I would have included a photo of the vineyard but, you know.)

  • Wrote.

  • Read The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, one of those “bran cereal” books that you read not because you enjoy it but because it is good for you.

  • Put on make up.

  • Went to the Freer. I was not inspired by the artist’s murky muted colors, but we did find this visually delicious poster book at the gift shop.

  • Took a much deserved nap.

I also thought about the recent and not-too-recent losses – both human and animal – in my inner circle, inescapable images of suffering and death. Like anesthetic, the distraction of the phone – including the accumulation of fascinating but somewhat useless facts about animals – had undoubtedly kept me from these unpleasant but necessary thoughts and the complex emotions that they stirred within me.

We’ve rarely seen the king of herrings – they come to the surface when sick or dying, and wash up on the shore occasionally in what must be a spectacular and sad sight. If undiscovered, I wonder how long it takes before the body is picked clean?

Vegetarians encourage meatless Mondays. I will attempt Phoneless Phridays. I am not evangelizing – but I did find the results interesting. Ascending from the depths, under any circumstance, is a welcome change.

Find a Mate the Stalk-eyed Fly Way!

Are you tired of sitting alone at home on Friday night, binge watching American Binge Watcher on Netflix and eating gluten-free gluten? Do you look in the mirror and say “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I find that special someone to share the next four hours with?”

Are you at the end of your rope?

Well, don’t kick the chair away yet – because you can take a page from the stalk-eyed fly playbook and be scoring in as soon as an hour.

I love you.

I love you.

Image by Rob Knell (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Stalk-eyed flies live near water and are part of the immense invisible clean-up crew that keeps the planet from overflowing with what once was. As larvae and adults, they eat decaying vegetable and animal matter (thanks, flies).

When a stalk-eyed fly emerges from the pupae after metamorphosis from larvae to adult, its body is transparent, a robot-alien that could have been designed by HR Giger. It immediately goes to work on itself while its body is still malleable.

The fly sucks air bubbles into its head through an oral cavity and forces the bubbles into its eye stalks, stretching them until the span between eyes is, well, eye-catching. In some species it is longer than the fly’s body length. Bizarre is not the half of it.

Once the exoskeleton hardens, the span between its eyes is so extreme that it could be an aerodynamic handicap. But what impairs flight is what also allows the male to win the only game that matters. Male rivalry is all a matter of measurement.

Flies gather in a lek at night to prove their superiority in the eye-width battle. According to the blog Daily Organism:

In “lekking species of animals. . .males come together to a central area to show off for the females, usually defending a very small territory, sometimes as small as a few body lengths depending upon the species of lekking male. . .while the females arrive at the lekking grounds and choose what they consider to be the ‘best’ of the males.”

Mostly, the males face off comparing eye spans, sometimes elongating their legs to heighten the effect. Females usually prefer mates with eyes that have a “wide stance.”

Stalk-eyee flies are classic examples of both sexual selection and the Handicap Principle. Wikipedia says:

“The central idea is that sexually selected traits function like conspicuous consumption, signalling the ability to afford to squander a resource. Receivers know that the signal indicates quality because inferior quality signallers cannot afford to produce such wastefully extravagant signals.”

In other words, the male is such a healthy specimen that he can survive with sexual ornaments that would put lesser organisms out of business.

Males will even measure themselves against their mirrored reflections. As I assume these contests would result in an eternal draw, I hope scientists have the decency to eventually remove the glass.

The handicap principle isn’t the only reason that females choose wide-eyed dudes, as Wikipedia, as always, explains:

“Male eye span still reveals genetic variation in response to environmental stress after accounting for differences in body size. . .these results strongly support the conclusion that female mate choice yields genetic benefits for offspring as eye span acts as a truthful indicator of male fitness. Eye span is therefore not only selected on the basis of attractiveness, but also because it demonstrates good genes in mates.”

This is all very well and good, but what can the lonely take from the fly’s tale?

Stand out from the crowd in obvious, sometimes disfiguring ways. Get a cranial implant to flatten and broaden the top of your skull, so that casually balancing a stick of 25 external hard drives on your head while sipping an espresso is effortless, or balancing a gallon of espresso in an over sized cup while connecting external hard drives to machines in public places looks like a breeze.

Take on rivals where potential mates can see you. Pick the proper lek – whether night club, post office, or county fair – and confront inferior individuals such as the elderly, the apathetic, or the confused.

When you are born, pump air bubbles into your head.

Note: The stalk-eyed flu, which I accidentally did a search on, thankfully did not return any hits.  Lookee here! A video of the dang thing!

Overdue Obituaries: History has forgotten them – until now.

Liv Upsheizer (1906-1956)

Liv was a complicated woman.

Liv was a complicated woman.


Proto-feminist, poetess, laundress, Livian (“Liv”) Upsheizer escaped her meat before, as her uncle said in an interview in the literary journal “Animal Grooming,” “she reached her full potential. Had she lived another 20 years, there’s no telling how many poems she would have written, or horses she would have shaved.” Her self-published autobiography, To the Bathroom Born, was never sought after by collectors.

As a young girl growing up in North Dakota, she often found herself alone. Her parents would disappear for weeks, trapping squirrels and gambling with their pelts across three states. By the age of 6, Liv could shave an entire horse by herself. By the time she was 10, she realized her parents weren’t doing anything for her, and she was tired of waiting around for them. She had learned where food could be found all around her – sweet nettle, black thrush, orianderaderodder, and a tuber whose taste she would crave in her later years, purple mountain muscly potatoes.

Her resourcefulness pulled her through and she was soon an apprentice to an apprentice in the clothing sanitation industry.

Then a war happened.

The apprentice to whom she was an apprentice was called to duty so Liv moved up, but she soon became more than a laundress – she learned to repair the newly invented, gas-heated mangle and plug holes in washing tubs.

She could split a log and break a trestle and hang a hog as well as most men. She understood what it was like to take care of herself.

She preferred the company of men because they were emotionally distant but incredibly competent. Liv was often accepted into their social circles easily as she never asked them what they were feeling. She said, quite simply, “I don’t ask because I don’t care.”

She published 15 volumes of poetry – including The Shunter is the Shunted, Long ago and Next Door, What the President Saw, and The Mouse. These books sold in the dozens, remarkably well for their genre, but few copies remain.

Her most famous poem, “Horse Shaving,” was found among her papers after her death. Like the works of Sappho, only a few lines survive of what must have been a powerful verse:

Shaving cream, just warm, I rub on this fine steed,

Who bucks in jest, for he must surely love

The razor’s gracious service and the feed

From bags of apples —-

Liv’s life was, not surprisingly, ended by a swift and well-placed equine kick while she was stropping a razor.

Jode Meesum (1898-1948)

Jode Meesum, holding hot dog.

Jode Meesum, holding hot dog.

A right-handed man in a left-handed world, Mr. Meesum shook himself free from life just thirty years shy of his 80th birthday. As a boy, it was said he drove himself crazy by keeping flies in his ear canal. An unknown fever took him not long after he gave the world the egg cup cup, which caught the overflow from the popular, petite serving vessel. He is survived by the population of planet Earth.

Barold Mulchur “Beloved Asshole” (1935-1957)

Mr. Mulchur was also known as “Mr. Crabby.”

Mr. Mulchur was also known as “Mr. Crabby.”

The town of Old City lost a man with terrible credit but a regular-sized heart. He was known for giving it all away, and then asking for it all back. “Barry” spent more time than he should have learning to interact in polite society with an increasingly high tolerance for alcohol. He would come screeching down the main street in his automobile an hour before sunrise, which the town resented, but he was also violent, which the town was afraid of. He was all about the tchotchkes: shot glasses from the contiguous states, dish towels featuring tasteless jokes, but his favored piece was the replica of a bathtub carved in wax from memory and in haste after the sculptor visited the incredible toilets at Touruche. To the town’s relief, Barold was lost to the ocean in a perfectly normal boating accident. “Anyone can fall over the side of a boat,” the deputy mayor, who accompanied Barold on the fateful journey, is said to have stated when he returned to shore before breaking out the champagne. Barold’s aunt insisted on donating his useless collection to the town archives, where it was cataloged before being thrown away.

Rock on, Diatoms!

I’ve been dipping into the fascinating Book of Barely Imagined Beings, a contemporary bestiary that often celebrates the squishy and undersized creatures, the ones that don’t inspire donations to conservation groups but are often vital to the planet’s survival. In it, there is this list of the names of diatoms:

The Tufty Table. The Marine Letter-stalk. The Oceanic Letter-stalk. The Arching Threadwand. The Musical Delight. The American Delight. The Double-rowed Surirella. The Norwegian Surirella. The Splendid Surirella. The Thinstriped Surirella. The Ovate Surirella. The Spiral Curvydisc. The Roundshield Curvydisc. The Sharpsandal Floretflank. The Elliptical Floretflank.


The All-seeing Furrowdisc. The Rayed Furrowdisc. The Eightfold Ray-cycle. The Cross Furrowdisc. The Engraved Piccolo The Subtle Toothdisc. The Ornate Spiderdisc. The Iris Colander.

A full list is available here.

The list was created by performance poet Will Holloway for an exhibition at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford England called Small Worlds: The Art of the Invisible which ran from 2007-2008.

Through photosynthesis, diatoms produce a boatload of oxygen and scientists often use them as an indicator of ocean health. Just as important, these single-celled algae, a type of phytoplankton, are at the very bottom of the food chain for most of the ocean’s creatures.

As Richard B. Hoover wrote in an article for National Geographic called Those Marvelous Myriad Diatoms:

There is probably more available organic matter – in other words – food – contained in the world’s diatoms than any other living thing. Sometimes called the grasses of the sea, they are the main fodder for the little vegetarian animals, such as copepods and shrimplike krill,that make up the zooplankton community. These are typically consumed by small fish such as herring, which in turn become food for larger species. It requires several hundred billion diatoms to feed a humpback whale for just a few hours. Marine biologist N. J. Berrill estimates that it takes half a ton of diatoms to make a pound of seal. A pound of killer whale, a predator of seals, would require five tons of diatoms.

And they can be resurrected!

Diatoms can endure lengthy droughts. Recently, while studying the famous Van Heurck diatom collection in Antwerp, Belgium, I added water to diatoms that had been dried on paper in 1834. I was astounded when they began to swim – revived after nearly 150 years in slumber.

The diatom’s silica shells form intricate patterns that inspired artists and microphotgraphers alike. At two to two hundred millionths of a meter across, I can’t imagine the patience involved to depict them or get a clear picture (at least they don’t move).

Ernst Haekel (1834-1918), the German naturalist and artist (and author of the seminal Art Forms in Nature) created unparalleled illustrations of diatoms. The symmetry of the arrangements echo the symmetry of the hypnotic subjects.

John Diedrich Möller (1844 – 1907) was a microscopist who prepared slides of diatoms (besides being arranged artfully, they were also used to test microscope optics). His skill as a mounter was much admired and his slides are worth a lot to collectors. (Yes there are Victorian microscope slide collectors.) He would prepare collections of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of diatoms on one slide neatly in rows with a text identification below the specimen.

Champions of the game Operation have nothing on Möller. The work demanded such precision – what if he saw a misspelling in a diatom name? Did he fix it?

It takes a very steady hand indeed.

He never revealed the technique.

According to this website:

In the late 19th century, diatoms were arranged in “show preparations,” artfully arranged slides that showed either attractive geometric patterns or even pictures composed of diatoms, wing scales of butterflies and small hard parts of marine animals. The diameter of these works of art were less than 1 to 2 mm and so they were inspected with special low magnifying microscopes every item displaying beautiful interference colors.

See examples of show preparations for more evidence of Möller's skills.

So, rock on, teeny diatoms, you Shiny Raygrooves. Thanks for feeding the sea citizens, helping us breathe and looking so good.

LPs That Can't Live Up to Their Covers

None of these records are horrible by any means. I could not locate samples of many of them already online to share, so you will have to take my word for it. The albums’ contents are simply not as good as the covers. Honestly, how could they be?

1. This lovely lady was willing to go the extra mile to be photographed in a cypress swamp in her leotard to ensure the success of Los Llopis’ No Pidas Mas Perdon. According to Google translate, this album‘s name in English is “Do not ask Forgiveness more,” while the artist is “The Llopis.” The record is actually quite enjoyable (at least my African grey parrot likes it).

2. It turns out 750 sound is just good old fashioned lounge music (a la the Command label) that uses the stereo mix to its full advantage. I find this kind of music hilarious, but I am old. Man or woman on the cover? You be the judge.

3. Not only is Chod* in the Czech Republic, it is in my heart. Their music is delightful, but you will have to take my word for it. I am unable to find a sample to share.

*Not to be confused with a definition of “chod” from Urban Dictionary: “a penis whose circumference is longer than its length. ”

4. A woman getting off a plane that just landed by the ocean’s edge has never looked this happy. Beryl is from Yorkshire England but this record was recorded in DC. Her liner notes describe each song’s style. Of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”: “Dixieland: Today’s permissive society would probably label little Maxwell as a misguided youth with a bloody strong thing for hammers. Actually, taken in the proper perspective, he’s got a problem.” I got news for you Beryl: In today‘s permissive society Maxwell would likely have his own TV show.

5. A family with TERRIFIC outfits from Hong Kong who released pop albums in Indonesia in the 1960s.

Here is their version of “Spinning Wheel.”


6. A Peruvian purveyor of exotica with a four octave range, Ms. Sumac’s music is ok, if a bit piercing at times. Her serene beauty in the faces of an Incan god’s fury and an erupting volcano is to be admired.

7. Pasty placement in the days before Photoshop on Volume 5 of a series. This enjoyable album is a different volume but features equally compelling music from the Egyptian city.

8. Music from the 1961 Peruvian movie Kukuli, (again, unfortunately, unfindable online) which tells the story, according to IMDb of “Kukuli, a young llama herder, who leaves her grandparents in the countryside of Cusco to attend the Feast of Mamacha Carmen in the town of Paucartambo.” Kukuli is obviously distressed by the large being covered in purple hair while her friend seems to be asking, “What’s the big fuss?”

9. Dr. Murray Banks is still alive! This record from the 60s, and others by the good doctor, are thrift store staples.

What Dr. Murray Banks has to share is fine, but this cover is a gem. Sadly I cannot find the illustrator’s name. I love the pervert on the far end, but these five characters all represent the human condition quite well. Which one are you? Other LPs by Dr. Banks: “Just in Case you Think You’re Normal!,” “The Drama of Sex,” and “Dr. Murray Banks Tells Jewish Stories Mit Psychology.”

Bonus, many years ago in the land of cassette tapes, I used samples from this record in “The 4 Basic Wants.”

What is a cackle-bladder?

Is it the name of a person who urinates during a good chuckle? An alternative moniker for the whoopee cushion (a gag that was neither glee-inducing or comforting to the derriere)?


In The Big Con by David W. Maurer, a linguist who studied the argot of the underworld, the tactics employed by early twentieth century criminals are revealed.

The mark, the unwitting subject, is brought into the con by the roper, who along with the insideman (the true “confidence” man of this endeavor) and a cast of dozens, perform ”carefully rehearsed plays in which every member of the cast except the mark knows his part perfectly.”

The insideman is the star of the cast; while the minor participants are competent actors and can learn their lines perfectly, they must look to the insideman for their cues; he must be not only a fine actor, but a playwright extempore as well. And he must be able to retain the confidence of an intelligent man even after that man has been swindled at his hands.

One such swindle is called the Pay Off, in which the mark is introduced to a phony betting parlor (set up in a permanent store) complete with stacks of cash and convincing gamblers chewing on fat cigars. An elaborate and elongated performance by the roper, the insideman and the parlor’s customers serves to separate the unaware mark of a large sum of money. The final step in the con, called the blow off, ensures that the mark flees from the city. The mark thinks the insideman has saved him from prison or worse.

One type of blow off is the cackle bladder.

Towards the end of the Pay Off, the roper is blamed for the loss of the mark’s money on a horse race, and the insideman, “sharing” the rage and shock of the mark, attacks the roper:

[The mark] has a glimpse of [the insideman’s] white face, distored with rage, his eyes bulging. He catches the glint of a pistol in [the insideman’s] hand. . . The heavy report stops [the mark] in his tracks. . . [the roper] is on the floor, gasping. [The mark], appalled and fascinated, steps closer. A stream of blood spurts from [the roper]’s mouth, spattering [the mark’s] face and shirt. He feels it, warm and slippery, on him. The spectators close in.

The mark is rushed from the scene by the insideman – an upstanding fellow who only has the mark’s best interests at heart – and sent out of town on the next available train to avoid any involvement with the police.

The cackle bladder is “the small bladder filled with chicken blood which the roper conceals in his mouth.”

All quotes from

Maurer, David. The Big Con. New York: Random House, 1940.

A Poem about a Man with 8 Names

Rudolph Valentino, the silent film icon who starred in the sixth highest grossing silent film of all time (the $375 in ticket sales from “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” allowed the entire studio staff to eat nothing but oysters for a week), was named Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla. A clip from the film shows that he could cut a rug and smoke cigarettes with panache. 

He was one of the first pop icons who inspired hysteria in ladies, much as Frank Sinatra, Liberace and Elvis Presley would a few decades later. But, unlike all of these famous, complex, and vastly overrated men, he died at the right time to guarantee his legend status. At the age of 31, too young for anyone to go, he expired due to complications from appendicitis and ulcers.

At his public funeral in NYC, 10,000 people walked past his coffin to pay their respects. It was claimed that a few despondent fans took their own lives.

Well, darn it, this is all kind of depressing.

Here’s a poem I wrote about Valentino many years ago, back in the days before mobile phones, the Internet, and environmentally responsible toilet paper.

Valentino Returns to Castellaneta

It’s a car with red seats

that he drives into the small dirty town

where he was born.

He wears a scarf, long and white,

that he bought in Barcelona

for a price that makes Ritz-Carlton Pictures squirm.

It twists around his cauliflower ear,

it tickles his imperfection.

He anticipates parades, admiration,

a pat on his silky back from the citizens of his hometown.


His wife Natacha refused to accompany him.

“l will go no further south,” she sniffed

settling further into the couch,

pulling her five Pekingeses around her like a rug.

But Valentino presses on

demanding some kind of triumph

over a time in life which would give him none.


In Castellaneta, he smiles into the sun,

teeth Hollywood white, waiting for applause.

The people are only confused.

Who is this strange man

who smells like the inside of a coach car,

who examines each tree

for his own personal effect on it?

Imagine Valentino’s pride

when someone pulls from their pocket

a copy of Photoplay,

his face mirroring the face on the cover.


The issue has been translated into curly Italian words,

the words he wrote in the magazine about this town,

his place in it. The story tells nothing

of his father’s disappointments

at having a son who skipped agricultural school and hid in the fields

who refused to learn how to steer the plow,

how to clean dung off its wicked blades.

Instead, he claims, his family is noble, important,

his father (long dead) a renaissance man.

They begin to laugh

for no one is important here.


Valentino becomes frightened as they jeer and taunt him.

Dirty hands reach out from the crowd demanding money,

vegetables and garbage pelt his car,

his silk shirt, his smooth skin.

He barely makes it to his car before he is covered

in the failure of the past to conform,

in the failure of one people to be exactly like another.


Valentino is crushed, he speeds north

through Italy to his Pekingese-stroking wife.

“It was lovely,” he tells her.

“They had a banquet with what little money they had.

Though meager, it meant more to me

than a meeting with Mussolini.

Sometimes the damage that the past inflicts

can be repaired with the slightest gesture.”

He smiles wearily at Natacha.

She does not regret staying behind.

In Praise of Failure: Write a Stinker

Originally published in the Rebel ePublishers Blog.

While Unrequited is my first published novel, it’s not the first one I wrote. I spent over a decade writing and rewriting a book called Hurricane Frank, a sprawling, ridiculous, and frustrating exercise that put me off writing for a year.

In the book, a lot of things happened. The story branched off into so many directions that a London cabbie would be challenged to keep them straight. The Tattersalls, Misty and Bud, lose everything to the storm. Bud is a clueless oaf. Misty has the power to repair broken objects by looking at them, but she can’t fix this.

They have two children: Seth, a bewildering man-child who ends up hosting a human interest program not unlike Real People, a show from the 70s that featured the bizarre and charming antics of ordinary people like you.
The Tattersalls’ other child was, at one point, told in second person and genderless. Then I rewrote the story in the first person from that character’s perspective. Then I reorganized the time line, while introducing more bizarre folks to this screwy world, such as Professor Isidore who writes an equation to predict a program’s success, Johnny Ace, a low level thug who loves Led Zeppelin, and Misty’s mother, who has a fateful encounter with Efrem Zimbalist Jr at a Frankie Avalon concert. There is a product called Liquid Lumberjack that pops up often. The plot thickens when a character peels a banana and find a human hair in the fruit.

The hurricane of the title was sentient. The book’s climax featured an interview with the storm on the Natural Disaster Channel. “The production of Hurricane Frank’s weatherography was made possible by technology, structures, and machines that stabilized Frank’s size and wind speed, and allowed it to be interviewed in a special studio, with a tube that descended from the ceiling and came to rest on an oversized chair designed by the U.S. military. The other end of the tube opened into the sky above the NDC studios, where Frank’s 100-mile diameter, greatly diminished from its peak size, spread out over the land.”

And this ain’t the half of it.
Working under the sunk-cost fallacy, I restructured and rewrote, even though it felt like trying to cram an obese dead man into a too snug coffin. When I finally decided to trash the book, I saw it as a huge failure and didn’t write for a long time.

But then, finally, came some short stories, including the one that would become Unrequited. A friend read the story and said “I want to know more about these people.” And the engine started again.

And this time, Unrequited came together in a year and a half. It was work, of course. Writing always is. But what I learned from Frank played a huge part in its relatively speedy completion. For example:
• Keep the number of characters to a minimum. If two or three people are similar, combine them.
• Odd characters are wonderful, but make them human and recognizable. Create characters that even a mother could hate.
• Decide which characters own the story. Focus on them.
• Give yourself permission to suck. Throw everything on the page. Let your most outrageous ideas and pigheaded opinions pile up into a towering pyramid of malarky. But then toss hundreds of pages if need be. It’s not wasted time. As long as you are writing, you are not wasting time.

Most people do not set out to write an awful book. Perhaps we all should. It is only when we are truly open to failure that we take the most risks.

Fail fabulously. Then, go write your good book.