Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Things I Learned While Looking Up Other Things

Back when I was a kid, my dad used to bring home the Sun-Times at night after reading it on the train. He liked the Sun-Times, he claimed, because it was a tabloid and easier to handle on the crowded train car. I've always suspected though, that the real reason was that the Sun-Times was Chicago's blue collar paper, and my dad was more comfortable reading the every man's rag. He usually read the Wall Street Journal in the morning, so the whole tabloid vs. broadsheet bit was a tad suspect.

One of my dad's, and later on my, favorite columnists was Sidney Harris. Mr. Harris was an interesting sort since he was kind of an intellectual and had a habit of writing about a broad range of topics. A notable accomplishment for a writer in a tabloid.

Over time I became familiar with Mr. Harris' work, and he had one feature that I always found fascinating: Things I learned while looking up other things. It was great! In one column title he let you know that in a short time you were going to be treated to certain odd facts and tid bits that would intrigue, inform, and on the whole, entertain. Simultaneously, Mr. Harris was also revealing not only the fact that we are always learning, but that the learning process itself is one of life's great adventures.

I have no illusions, that this new feature in my blog will be as revealing or as regular as Mr. Harris', but I do hope you find the following of interest:

1. Since the first Thanksgiving, cooks with varying degrees of success have been stuffing turkey cavities with all sorts of items in an effort to impart more flavor to the turkey. The best way to ensure that you're successful in this venture is to first stick with aromatic vegetables, and the most importantly, steep them in a cup of water in the micro-wave before draining them and putting them into the turkey

2. Penultimate: Means the NEXT to last. For some reason I thought it meant the last

3. Division 1 schools can only give 9.9 scholarships for each female soccer team per year. Division III schools are barred from giving athlete's sports scholarships

4. Note to Hillary and Obama: The vast majority of lost jobs in Ohio went to states with lower taxes and right to work laws, not foreign countries. For example, GM is right now building a new plant for hybrids in Texas, not Ohio or Michigan

5. And speaking of manufacturing, per the St. Louis Fed we now manufacture more goods (even adjusting for inflation) than we ever have! We're just doing it with less people per unit produced.

6. Following on this productivity theme, in 1900 it took 40% of the population to feed the country while today it takes only 2.5%


  1. I discovered Sidney J. Harris pretty much on my own as a high schooler. Our local paper in Toledo, Ohio, The Blade (which I delivered for seven or eight years), had a small four- to six- page section Monday through Saturday, called the Peach Section. In it were a few cartoons (Family Circle, Herman), the Jumble puzzle, some entertainment stuff, some local writers (stuff you might see in a "Living" section, the local movie listings (and reviews), the television guide and—something like three times or four a week—Sidney J. Harris's Strictly Personal

    As best I know, neither my dad nor my mom read the column, but I did. Religiously. Perhaps it was the trivia of "Things I Learned While Looking Up Other Things"; perhaps it was his occasional "Random Thoughts"; or maybe it was the regular word games he devised that hooked me. Regardless, by the time I was out of high school I began also to read his incredibly insightful columns. I credit my love for the English language (as well as my disdain for those who abuse it) to reading Strictly Personal. I credit Harris, too, with my love for writing, of which I do so very little these days (I take pictures instead).

    Whenever I do manage to write something of any significance, I imagine putting what I write through a sort of Sidney J. Harris filter. I imagine what he'd say about the structure, content, grammar, economy of words, the tone.

    I have most of Harris's books and I occasionally re-read essays I loved years ago. I often glean the pages for his thoughts on my subject at hand. I wish there were more writers like him—thoughtful and wise—appearing in today's newspapers (dying out thought they might be). I wish there were more people reading and thirsting for such writing.

  2. Born in Chicago and moved to Toledo, Ohio where my parents both were able to continue their love of Sidney J. Harris. In their files I found many clippings (Peach and otherwise). Just reading them brings me back to being a kid. I "hear" my parents' voices and thoughts. His books are also a great read, but in my life now I am constantly learning new things while looking up something else. Thank you, Mr Harris, you make it seem less distracted and more noble.

  3. Interesting that I should land here, on an apparently inactive blog. I, too, was a regular reader of Mr. Harris', and tonight I am trying to locate references to two of his columns which I think are particularly pertinent to our failing education system and our need to prepare our work force for the jobs of today and tomorrow. One column dealt with the different types of intelligence, and the other how we overvalued "white collar" jobs at our future expense because we were going to run out of skilled tradesmen.

  4. Daryl... email me at ptpower [at] gmail.