Category Archives: Learning Is Fun

What We Talk About When We Talk About Fritz Haber

18Here’s the thing: The reason billions of people haven’t starved to death is thanks to German scientist Fritz Haber and the Haber-Bosch Process, which basically allows large-scale fertilizers to exist. He won the Nobel Prize!

But he also pioneered chemical warfare, deriding those who called it inhumane by pointing out that death is death, no matter what horse it rides in on.

His wife Clara may have disagreed; shortly after Haber personally oversaw the deployment of chlorine gas at Ypres (which saw 67,000 deaths), Clara and Fritz argued and she shot herself in the head with his gun. Their 13-year-old son, Hermann, heard the shots and found her. (Hermann would later commit suicide after WWII and the death of his youngest daughter; his oldest daughter would do likewise.)

And just as Haber saw no difference between modes of death, the Nazis saw no difference between Jews, whether they had served their country during the Great War or not. Presuming himself safe from persecution after converting to Christianity, Haber was stunned when he was ordered to dismiss all Jewish employees. He was dead by January 1934.

Allegedly, some of Haber’s extended family would be killed in concentration camps, courtesy of chemicals that had been developed at his lab.

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Calling All Lovers

This Valentine’s Day, celebrate your love of the phone with 1967 Bell!

Also, hello strangers! We’ve been undergoing some major life and home renovations over the last four months that include brand new furniture and becoming single for the first time since 2008.


A Softer League of Their Own

image001wThere was a time, before the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair made it popular and before Walter Hakanson christened it in 1926 by the name we all know it as, when softball was called kittenball. Or lemonball. Or pumpkinball. (Can we keep calling it kittenball?)

But here’s the thing—eventually, the game found widespread popularity as an indoor activity, something to keep baseball players sharp during winter months, but the very first game happened by accident at Chicago’s Farragut Boat Club on Thanksgiving 1887, when a Yale gentleman threw a boxing glove at a Harvard gentleman after a football game, and someone swung at the glove with a stick. Being gentlemen, they were all so tickled by this novel new sport that they immediately tightened up the glove, grabbed a broom handle, and set about playing. When rich white men set about to do something, they do it right!

Then again, all of this comes from Wikipedia so the game could have been invented by Mary Todd Lincoln when she accidentally hit a ball of yarn with a length of broadcloth. Who can say, ultimately?

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Understanding Finality As an Adult

lonelyplace3Film writing, when done smartly and astutely, can be almost as transformative as film. And few are better at it than James Harvey, whose book Movie Love in the Fifties is essential reading for anyone who love classic film. He’s particularly strong when he devotes an entire chapter to Nicholas Ray’s masterpiece In a Lonely Place, possibly the most adult drama to ever come out of Hollywood (and starring KCD favorite Gloria Grahame). What other movie could possibly be described thusly:

Not only the final film but the presence and performance of both Grahame and Bogart make that earlier rejected ending, with its trashy, dumb irony, seem all but unimaginable. The grown-upness of Dix and Laurel is so central to our understanding of them—their ability to recognize too-lateness, to accept what cannot be unsaid or undone. Whatever their problems or flaws (sizable in both), they are not the sort of characters who need to be arrested or killed to understand finality.

Just reading that makes me want to watch the movie again—and that’s how I spent Labor Day this year, sitting with an audience of strangers in the dark at Lincoln Center, crying because a fictional relationship wasn’t destined to work out despite how much both parties wanted it to.

Jill Soloway’s Craziest Moments in the NYT Magazine

So Jill Soloway was profiled in the New York Times Magazine this weekend regarding her Amazon Studios series Transparent, starring Jeffrey Tambor as a middle class, white trans person. Here are the craziest, most God-I-really-can’t-stand-her, and Is-she-really-getting-a-pass-on-saying-that? moments from that story.  Continue reading

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The Formation of One

Coming back to my hometown is ultimately an exercise in “What the fuck?” regarding the past. Case in point: it didn’t occur to me until today, talking to the head of my community theater, that most people didn’t spend high school under the specter of a teenaged girl disappearing from a freeway without a trace. In 1997, a 17-year-old was driving home…and vanished. Her car was found on the side of the road, doors locked, purse inside. And that’s it. Nothing else. To this day, no one knows what happened to her. And that’s the kind of thing that forms who you are, whether you realize it it not.

(Plus I grew up 10 minutes away from the Texas Killing Fields, so…)


Meet Edward Mordrake

edwardmondrakeHe allegedly had a face on the back of his head (I mean, it’s pretty obvious there’s a face there) that spoke to him in a demonic whisper at night. Edward begged doctors to remove the face but no one was willing. Edward killed himself at 23. Tom Waits wrote a song about him!

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Weekend Challenge: Grapple-Snap

1490444Before Monday morning, find a way to use the phrase “grapple-snap” in everyday conversation. This is a phrase invented by Elizabeth Taylor’s brother Howard when they were children and went in search of snacks. Once they found a snack, they would grapple for it and then snap it up.

The things one learns from Elizabeth Taylor’s health and diet book, Elizabeth Takes Off! I guarantee that this will not be the last tidbit gleaned from it.

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Misericord Business

5211590647_09b438ac9d_oI visited the Cloisters over the weekend. That would be the outpost of the Met dedicated to medieval art and architecture? Strangely enough, it’s been on my to-do list for a decade! And now it’s crossed off.

Anyway, the Cloisters is a bit of a bore (except for the crypt room and the unicorn tapestry room) but I did glean something important from one of the exhibits: I learned about misericords.

Misericords (“mercy seats”) are the wooden shelves included on the underside of chapel seats. Back when the devout stood to pray for extended periods of time, the shelf was there to lean against and rest one’s weary bones; I would have appreciated a misericord myself, except that as a small boy in a Southern Baptist church I simply crawled under the pew and napped on the carpet. Sorry, medieval peasants!

The thing about misericords, though, is that they’re elaborately carved to be comic, grotesque, or terrifying. Which sums up the medieval era, right? I’m looking at you, Chaucer.

And, as you might imagine, the Internet is rife with fans of misericords. And, as you might also imagine, those fans are a bit…odd. Thankfully. I was planning to include a slideshow here, but it seems redundant given the very thorough Flickr sets out there.

I hope that, should you ever find yourself in my parlor, you’ll take a moment to check for faces beneath your seat?

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Killing Drinkers During Prohibition

ProhibitionLet’s be clear: Prohibitionists were very serious about it. For instance, did you know that federal officials poisoned the industrial alcohol that bootleggers stole to make their hooch? (It was called The Chemist’s War.) The goal was to scare people into become teetotalers. This is the kind of stuff that history books don’t really bother with, right? Remember how reluctantly historians finally started including smallpox blankets in high school history books? I can’t imagine anyone will ever get around to tell students about how the American government not only banned alcohol on a federal level but actually tried to kill those who thought to break the law.

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