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The Dark Comedy of Thomas Midgley, Jr.

You might not expect this from a white movie fan with a blog, but I've picked up more than a few useless bits of trivia over the years.  A lot of this stuff just rattles around waiting for the right context to come out, but it never does - after all, at what point at a party can you say, "Have you ever heard about Inaccessible Island?"

Well, today I wanted to write a brief tribute to one particular bit of trivia.  There's still no context for this, but when has that ever stopped me?

Let's take a brief moment to honor the gallows humor that was the life of Thomas Midgley, Jr.

And here's that same picture of the guy that everybody always defaults to under the fair use license from Wikipedia

Until the middle of the twentieth century, Midgley would probably have gone down in history as one of the greatest minds and inventors the world has ever known.  Unfortunately, today we know him best as the inventor of both leaded gasoline and freon, which led to the proliferation of CFCs.  The double-whammy of environmental disasters, along with his bizarre death (he strangled himself in a machine he invented to help himself move around after he contracted polio) has led to him being a favorite oddity of history for the Internet, which frequently puts him on little trivia lists like this one and this one.

But I'm not here to blow anybody's minds by talking about Midgley as if this is the first time you've ever heard of him.  (And if it is... hooray!  I get to be your source for useless trivia!)  What I'm more fascinated by is the legacy Midgley left behind.

His life story reminds me that "success" is merely the word we give for failure that people like.  At the time he invented CFCs, he was hailed as a genius and given awards for his hard work.  Just because his contributions are now a source of shame and regret doesn't change the fact that he was on his way to getting a Nobel Prize back then.

His legacy is the opposite of somebody like Emily Dickinson, who in life was unpublished and unknown, but who became a posthumous hit and whose works now hold a massive influence on literature and culture.  Dickinson probably had some snotty cousin who kept making fun of her poetry and sneered about it at her funeral.  ("Oh, she died alone and nobody ever read her stupid angst rhymes?  What a shock.")

Success is such a relative term with such a fleeting reward.  Maybe it's just because I'm constantly humbled by failure (and boy, do I mean constantly, like how just this morning I tripped on my shoelaces because I still can't tie a proper bow even at 31), but as I get older, I find myself less excited about the prospect of success.  The term continues to lose meaning and the allure keeps fading.

I find more joy in the adventure, in the pursuit of success.  When I actually achieve something, the glow lasts only as long as it takes me to realize there's something else I can be chasing.

And that's why I like the story of Thomas Midgley, Jr.  His success and failure were one and the same, and the real reward of his life wasn't what he did but what we learned from it.  In the wake of his contributions / destruction, we find ourselves on a global pursuit to undo his damage.  We are all now characters in his sequel, and if we pay enough attention, maybe we'll find a bit of wisdom in where we take the third act.

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