Birthday observances should continue after death
& the confessions of a resignedly mediocre celebrity golfer
6-15-2023 (issue No. 92)
Eric Zorn is a former opinion columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Find a longer bio and contact information here. This issue exceeds in size the maximum length for a standard email. To read the entire issue in your browser, click on the headline link above.
I left for a three-day golf trip early Wednesday morning, so this issue was prepared Tuesday and has more than the usual number of items about golf.
Land of Linkin’ — Where I tell readers where to go
Squaring up the news — A new feature from Chicago Public Square proprietor Charlie Meyerson
Word court — On “enormity”
Mary Schmich — A thought for summer travelers
Race to the slop — Break up the A’s!
Re:Tweets — Featuring the winner of the visual tweets poll and this week’s finalists
Correction — I had it wrong last week about the cost of the Tribune’s “premium” issues. The Picayune Sentinel regrets the error
Tune of the Week — A very powerful Father’s Day song
Birthday observances should not be just for the living and the famous
Earlier this month, I made note of the 117th anniversary on June 6 of the birth of my paternal grandfather Max Zorn, from whom I appropriated the title of this newsletter. Two weeks from today will mark the 94th anniversary of the birth of my late mother-in-law, Tobey Wolken.
As I think more about these dates and these important people in my family’s life, I’m regretting that we too often stop observing or even remembering the birthdays of those who have died. And this hastens the inevitable fade nearly all of us make after death into obscurity.
I’m resolving to put onto the family calendar the birthdays of not just our living family members — my dad turns 92 next Monday — but also the important ones gone on before; the ones to whom we cannot send cards or make phone calls but whom we should pause to remember, consider and thank. Maybe in a family email or group text. Maybe in a toast at the evening meal. Or maybe in a moment of silent reflection as you gaze at that square on the calendar that once meant so much.
We do it for important figures in a nation’s history. Why not for grandparents, parents, departed siblings and other close relatives who are important in our family histories? Give each one his or her own day again.
I don’t want to forget to remember all of them.
Last week’s winning tweet
As part of the merger in the golf world, the PGA controls holes 1-8 and 12-18. The Saudis do 9-11. — @JamesHesky
News & Views
News: There is still no portrait of Rod Blagojevich in the state Capitol’s “Hall of Governors.”
View: Who’s trying to whitewash unpleasant parts of history now? The General Assembly in 2010 passed a law banning the use of public money to generate a painting of the disgraced, felonious, then-imprisoned former governor, as we learned in coverage of this week’s installation of the portrait of former Gov. Bruce Rauner. Of all the former governors who’ve worn a prison jumpsuit — including Otto Kerner, Dan Walker and George Ryan — Blago’s the only one not included.
I don’t think the state would have to spend much money to get one done. AI generated this one for me for free:
News: Mike Pence and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are promising on the campaign trail for the Republican presidential nomination to change North Carolina’s Fort Liberty back to Fort Bragg.
Views: Appeals to racism don’t get more brazen. Braxton Bragg was a traitor who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, and his poor record as a general on the battlefield is widely considered a result of his strategic incompetence and inability to inspire respect among his troops.
The official renaming of the Army installation was earlier this month but a long time in the works. Going backwards to reinstate honors on a particularly inept leader in a poisonous cause in order to win the favor of white Southerners who cling to this ugly part of their past is so very on-brand for today’s Republican Party, isn’t it?
Equally on brand was “Republican delegates in North Carolina voted Saturday at their annual convention to censure Republican Thom Tillis, the state’s senior U.S. senator, for backing LGBTQ+ rights, immigration and gun violence policies.”
News: “Sci-fi author says he wrote 97 books in 9 months using AI tools, including ChatGPT and Midjourney.”
View: I have no interest in reading these “books,” some of which are just 2,000 words, and it’s unclear from the article linked above or from the author’s own essay in Newsweek exactly what it means to “use” artificial intelligence to create fiction.
I agree with those who contend that AI can never have the creative spark and human resonance acquired by authors who actually live in and experience the real world. But I also suspect quite strongly that as this technology continues to gallop along, it will be impossible, sooner or later, to tell creative human works apart from “creative” machine works generated by synthesizing and processing the reported experiences of millions of actual people.
Because it feels to me like we are at the “computers can win games of checkers but they will never be able to beat a competent human at chess!” stage of narrow thinking when it comes to AI. And my father sees parallels between those who think we can halt the international rise in AI and King Canute, the 11th century ruler of the North Sea Empire, who, according to legend, thought he could stop the tides:
When he was at the height of his ascendancy, he ordered his chair to be placed on the sea-shore as the tide was coming in. Then he said to the rising tide, "You are subject to me, as the land on which I am sitting is mine, and no one has resisted my overlordship with impunity. I command you, therefore, not to rise on to my land, nor to presume to wet the clothing or limbs of your master." But the sea came up as usual, and disrespectfully drenched the king's feet and shins. (Historia Anglorum)
While little stories like the prolific AI novelist are amusing and troubling all at once, they also raise profound questions about what the brain is and what constitutes creativity.
News: Evangelist Pat Robertson is dead at 92
View: Given how Robertson exploited human tragedy to make his fetid, grotesque theological points, I don’t feel bad about using this occasion to remind you that he was a malign public figure.
He said the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were the result of God’s wrath over abortion, pornography and the separation of church and state.
Of “Gay Days” at Disney World, he said, “I would warn Orlando that you’re right in the way of some serious hurricanes, and I don’t think I’d be waving those flags in God’s face if I were you … It’ll bring about terrorist bombs; it’ll bring earthquakes, tornadoes, and possibly a meteor.”
Of the 2012 tornadoes that ripped through the Midwest, he said, “If enough people were praying, (God) would’ve intervened. You could pray. Jesus stilled the storm. You can still storms.”
His false prophecies and evidence of his odious religious and cultural bigotry go on and on.
Confessions of a celebrity golfer
I came across this 2006 blog entry while digging through some old files and enjoyed reading it again. Thought you might enjoy it, too.
In an appearance last Thursday, veteran stand-up comic Tom Dreesen remembered his first "celebrity golf" outing back in the 1970s.
Just before tee-time, he met up with another member of the foursome to which he'd been assigned. The man introduced himself.
"I'm Tom Dreesen," said Tom Dreesen.
"I wonder who our celebrity is going to be," said the man. "Last year, it was a guy I'd never heard of!"
At this punchline I kept my eyes on Dreesen, not daring to turn to my left to see what I feared would be knowing glances exchanged between the three guys who'd been assigned to me earlier that day at a celebrity golf outing in North Barrington.
One of them, Scott Ross of Gilberts (second from left in the on-course photo below), had told me straight out when we met at the putting green many hours earlier that he'd had to look me up online after he'd found out that I was his "celebrity" golfing partner.
The other two golfers, Peter Yi (far left) and Brad Akers (far right), both of Chicago, were less blunt, but in conversations over our long day together it was clear that, prior to tee-time, my name barely rang a wind-chime with them, much less a bell.
I'd predicted just that in long, self-reproachful monologues to my wife the week before the event.
For the most part, in most circles, newspaper writers aren't "celebrities;" aren't famous enough to cause a person to say to his friends, "Hey, you'll never guess who I played golf with today."
The exceptions — Richard Roeper comes to mind, though I doubt he has time for golf — acquire most of their celebrity cachet through TV and radio appearances.
And that's fine with me. Fame has always seemed like a bother, at best, and a corrupting influence on those who acquire it at worst.
Fortunately for me, I have little use for its trappings -– the invitations to fancy parties, the good seats at the best restaurants and so on. Even if I were regularly offered such things, which I'm not, I'm such a homebody that I'd find it easy to decline.
However, the invitation to be a "celebrity golfer" at one of the area's finest country clubs was one I couldn't resist. … continue reading here
I choose to be a crummy golfer, thank you very much
I wrote this in October, 2015:
The other day I played my last round of golf for the year — a quick nine holes on the lakefront course formerly known as Waveland.
I ended up 12 over par, a score even lousier than it sounds given the generous rules by which my friends and I play. And a score identical to what I shot on the same course just a little more than 20 years ago, according to a little golf journal I used to keep.
Twenty years of playing nearly every week during the warm months, tweaking my swing based on tips from the self-assured and periodically upgrading my clubs. Yet I'm still a common duffer, spraying the ball off the tee, flubbing chip shots and stabbing at putts.
The difference is that now, at last, I'm OK with it.
People who play golf often refer to "swing thoughts" — those telegraphic mental reminders they click through just before and during the process of striking the ball.
Left arm straight … relax the grip … shoulders square … bring the club back slow … head down … club face open … bring your weight through …
For many, what happens next is a series of unwholesome post-swing thoughts expressing rage and self-loathing with a full range of Anglo-Saxon oaths. And that was me until this summer, when, in a moment of clarity I hit on a calming pre-round thought:
I choose to be a mediocre golfer.
I could hit straighter drives, crisper chips and truer putts. I could regularly shoot 3 or 4 over par for nine holes. But that would require professional instruction and, most important, practice — hours at the range and on and around the putting greens, turning those swing thoughts into reflexes. And I've chosen not to do that.
I've taken three lessons in the last 20 years and made maybe a dozen separate trips to practice facilities. Week in and week out I've made the decision that I'd rather not spend the time and money to get better. The frequency with which I hit errant shots isn't confounding, it's inevitable.
In this light, every shot of mine that sails out of bounds, drops in the water or skitters pathetically along the grass in front of me isn't a failure so much as it is a consequence.
And the solution remains at hand.
I could choose, next spring, to devote myself to improving my game. I could sign up with a pro, steal away on occasional evenings and weekends to hit buckets of balls, and start putting at targets in the living room to groove my stroke.
One of the members of my regular foursome, a guy I used to beat regularly, made such a choice maybe a dozen years ago. Now it's a fluke when I beat him — a divergence from the natural order so eerie that Rod Serling should narrate it.
Realizing that I choose to be a mediocre golfer was emotionally liberating. And it made me realize what other choices I've made — what else I've blamed on fate, genetics or a lack of natural aptitude that are actually the result of decisions I've made and continue to make, decisions that reflect my actual priorities, not my fantasies.
I choose not to speak Spanish (or any foreign language). I choose to have major gaps in my reading of fine literature. I choose to be in lousy shape. I choose to be an idiot about investing. I choose to be a terrible sketch artist. I choose not to be much of a cook. I choose not to be able to play the accordion.
You could probably make a similar list of choices you've made, though it probably wouldn't include the accordion.
Sure, natural limitations, including those of age, can take away some of these choices. And practical limitations, money as well as time, mean you can't possibly have time to exceed mediocrity in all areas that tempt you.
And that's what I'm talking about here — a choice to attain competence that exceeds mediocrity, not a choice to attain professional excellence.
I don't tell myself that I choose not to be on professional golf's Champions Tour, the circuit for players 50 and older. No amount of practice, probably even starting when I was a child, would have vaulted me into those elite ranks. Or put my pen-and-ink drawings into the Art Institute of Chicago or let me play accordion at Orchestra Hall.
Innate talent and physical gifts take over at the margins. But in this vast middle ground of talent and accomplishment, the lesson is not to storm and swear about the results of the choices we've made, but either to accept them or change them.
Me: When it comes to golf, at last I've accepted my choice.
You: If you're playing one fairway over, you've been warned.
The alleged Devious tactics of a travel insurer
On Facebook, renowned old-time fiddler Brad Leftwich of Bloomington, Indiana, posted about what happened to him when he had to cancel a trip because a member of his family had to have unspecified “urgent but non-life threatening surgery.”
If you are buying a nonrefundable airline ticket, don't waste your money on travel insurance from AIG Travel.
I bought the insurance in good faith in the same transaction with the tickets. But despite providing proof of the reason for cancellation signed by the doctor as initially requested, I was then sent a mountain of forms that were designed in a way that made it impossible to accurately describe the situation.
I was required to have the very-busy surgical specialist fill out another form asking for details of events that happened before he was even on the case. I was required to provide unlimited access to *all* medical records, and permission to speak to any medical personnel, facility manager, insurance company, consumer reporting agency, or employer about any aspect of medical history, hospitalizations for physical or psychological reasons, drug prescriptions, etc., whether related to this diagnosis or not.
All email from AIG came from a no-reply address, and the telephone help line rang a call center in India where "Ralph" could only read from a script, same script regardless of the question. The script essentially said "fill out and return all the forms."
Ralph had no authority to do anything else, and he told me it wasn't possible to speak to a claims adjuster. So lesson learned: AIG travel insurance doesn't make your ticket refundable, it only makes it more expensive.
This resonated with me because of my family’s experience with long-term care insurance. My parents have a policy, but getting reimbursement is so complicated and involves so many restrictions, requirements and limitations that we pay a third party to help us navigate the system.
It’s pretty clear to us that the company hopes we’ll just throw up our hands and forget the whole thing. Just as it appears AIG is doing with Leftwich. I wrote to AIG’s corporate communications department with Leftwich’s story, but I did not receive a response.
I was reminded of the motor-insurance sketch from Season 2 of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” in which a man of the cloth pleads his case with his agent, Mr. Devious:
VICAR: It's about this letter you sent me regarding my insurance claim.
MR. DEVIOUS: Oh yeah, it's just that we're not, as yet, totally satisfied with the grounds of your claim.
VICAR: But it says something about filling my mouth in with cement.
MR. DEVIOUS: That's just insurance jargon, you know.
VICAR: But my car was hit by a lorry while standing in the garage, and you refuse to pay my claim.
MR. DEVIOUS: Well, Reverend Morrison, in your policy it states quite clearly that no claim you make will be paid.
VICAR: Oh dear.
MR. DEVIOUS You see, you unfortunately plucked for our “never-pay” policy which, you know, if you never claim is very worthwhile. But you had to claim and, well, there it is.
Land of Linkin’
“I lost 40 pounds on Ozempic. But I’m left with even more questions” writes Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus in a nearly 7,000-word essay about the new array of weight-loss drugs. “How amazing it is that millions of people who have endured the misery of struggling with their weight now have what appears to be a safe and effective way to address it,” she writes. But she also quotes critics and skeptics.
“Investigations, Collaborations and Alligators: Exceeding its DNAinfo origins, Block Club Chicago hits 5th anniversary doubling down on the power of neighborhood reporting” by Mark Caro for Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative. “While plenty of neighborhood-focused sites have faltered, Block Club Chicago has maintained an upward trajectory on both the journalism and business sides while remaining true to a core set of principles. It has built up its coverage neighborhood by neighborhood–it now reports to cover 45 of the city’s 77 community areas–while continually adding reporters.”
Mouseprint looks at the shady come-ons from online gambling sites that seem to promise you free money via risk-free wagers.
My take on the Trump indictment was in Tuesday’s Picayune Plus.
House Digest: How To Use Plastic Forks To Keep Animals Out Of Your Vegetable Garden. A number of gardening sites are recommending this.
The New York Times’ Wirecutter division offers “Sorry, But It’s Probably Time to Replace These 17 Household Essentials.” On the list: toilet brushes, water filters, mascara, surge protectors, plastic cutting boards, sunscreen and pillows.
Tribune critic Nina Metz is on point, as usual, with “TV Cliffhangers don’t work in the streaming era.” “The traditional network season — awash in cop shows and diminishing in quality by the year — still offers an external structure that does a lot of your thinking for you: New episodes will show up in this window. With streaming, that reliable calendar is gone. New seasons can drop any time. ‘I didn’t even know it was coming back,’ is a persistent refrain because it’s unrealistic for most audiences to stay on top of so many unpredictable premiere dates. Streaming favors the fire hose of new over the pleasures of the familiar and the regular, which means it’s harder than ever to remember which shows even exist.”
The Sun-Times’ Stephanie Zimmerman’s report, “Inside Chicago’s catalytic converter theft epidemic”is helpful yet disturbing.
What’s a Podcast Doing at a Film Festival? New York Times pop culture reporter Reggie Ugwu interviewed the Picayune Sentinel’s occasional podcast columnist for this article: “ Johanna Zorn, who co-founded the long-running Third Coast International Audio Festival and presented audio work at multiple documentary film festivals in the 2010s, said the payoff sometimes fell short of the promise. ‘We went to some fabulous film festivals and we were happy to be there,’ she said. ‘But did they help us get real press coverage? Get us into a room with people who could lead us to the next thing? Give us something that we could really build on? Not so much.’”
The Picayune Sentinel preview: Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. I talk with WGN-AM 720 host John Williams about what’s making news and likely to be grist for the PS mill. The WGN listen-live link is here.
Squaring up the news
This week I’m launching a new feature in which veteran area journalist Charlie Meyerson spotlights for Picayune Sentinel readers some intriguing links he’s gleaned while curating his invaluable daily email news briefing, Chicago Public Square:
■ A veteran Chicago prosecutor offers Donald Trump unsolicited legal counsel: “If you want to die in jail, keep talking.”
■ Chicago and network TV news veteran Jim Avila recaps what ousted CNN CEO Chris Licht got right — and wrong.
■ The Guardian explains the shell game through which Amazon and Google fund anti-abortion lawmakers.
You can (and should) subscribe to Chicago Public Square free here.
Reader Jack O’B writes, “People are always using the word ‘enormity’ when what they are really trying to say is ‘enormousness’ or ‘largeness.’ But shouldn’t ‘enormity’ be reserved to describe something heinous?”
My response: I’ve always thought so, and most dictionaries seem to think so as well. But Merriam-Webster’s Word History site makes several interesting points, one being that “enormity” to mean hugeness is a usage that dates back 400 years, and another being that “enormousness” also used to mean “great evil” until semantic shift turned it into a synonym for largeness.
You should bear in mind, should you decide to use enormity to refer to the size of your bar tab, that there will be people who think less of you (or less of your language) because of this. It is up to you to decide whether or not you feel comfortable with incurring the wrath or scorn of these people. And while we feel that there is sufficient evidence of enormity being used in reference to size to merit an additional definition for this, we are not insensitive to the fact that this annoys some people.
But what do you say?
Mary Schmich: A thought for summer travelers
My former colleague Mary Schmich posts occasional column-like entries on Facebook. Here, reprinted with permission, is her most recent offering, a photo and four-line poem:
I love to go off traveling To look, to learn, to roam The only thing as good as that Is fin'lly coming home.
Race to the slop: Break up the A’s!
Update on the Oakland A’s chances of being the worst team in big-league baseball’s modern era (since 1900). That mark currently belongs to the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics, who finished 36-117 — a winning percentage of .235.
The A’s went on a tear starting last Tuesday, winning seven straight games through Tuesday, boosting their winning percentage to .275, inching them ahead of the Kansas City Royals who had fallen to .269.
Until and unless the A’s (or the Royals, for that matter) edge closer to the 1916 record for futility, I will reluctantly discontinue this feature.
I was traveling and not on “The Mincing Rascal” panel this week in which host John Williams is joined by Austin Berg and Mark Jacob. Subscribe to the Rascals wherever you get your podcasts. Or bookmark this page. If you’re not a podcast listener, you can hear an edited version of the show at 8 p.m. most Saturday evenings on WGN-AM 720.
In Tuesday’s paid-subscriber editions, I present my favorite tweets that rely on visual humor and so can’t be included in the classic Tweet of the Week contest in which the template for the poll does not allow the use of images. Subscribers vote for their favorite, and I post the winner here every Thursday:
I liked this one a lot but didn’t have it in the contest:
The new nominees for Tweet of the Week:
Kids, you can be happy about it being the last day of school. But you’ll never be as happy as the teachers. — @skittle624
Years ago, I worked for a company that sold sandwiches in airports. I once got a complaint email that someone’s chicken cordon bleu sandwich was missing the chicken. I replied that “cordon bleu” was French for “not there,” and I haven’t felt that level of job satisfaction since. — @UncleDuke1969
I’m convinced the first ‘Kirsten’ was a typo. Everyone was like, “Yeah, obvious misspelling but she’s pretty cool, so whatever,” and now we can’t get rid of ‘em because we let that first one slide. — @jordan_stratton
Doctor: You're applying for workers' comp? Are you sure you developed this carpal tunnel syndrome on the job? [Cut to me doing the jerkoff motion through every conference call] Me: Positive. — @abbycohenwl
Not to brag, but I have sychic powers. For example, right now you're thinking: "It's psychic, you idiot." — @jtothet
The “lock her up” crowd is freaking out about “lock him up.” See, pronouns do matter. — Unknown
My ex got a name tattoo of the girl he married after divorcing me and now they're divorced already. I love that shit, universe. Keep it up. — @ADDiane
So HBO Max is now just “Max.” Your move, Peacock. — Unknown
]I often think of the time I thought I had lost my phone and spent five minutes looking for it while on the phone with my sister. As I was looking, she asked if I wanted her to call it. We are geniuses. — @MediocreMamaa
This is literally the correct use of the word literally. — @wildethingy
Last week I wrote that if you are a Sunday Tribune print subscriber, you will be charged an extra $9 a month for what the paper calls “premium issues,” such as “Spice up the Summer,” the June 2023 outdoor entertaining guide. This was the information provided me by one of the newspaper’s overseas customer-service operators
Monday, however, I got a postcard from the Tribune informing me that the price of each “premium issue” is now $10, with up to 14 such extra inserts a year. It was $6 a month for up to 12 such issues when I first wrote about this in PS No. 9 on November 4, 2021. Here’s this week’s postcard:
So the Picayune Sentinel regrets the error.
But $10 a month is a good price for digital access to the Tribune. And I don’t pay more than that because at least once every six months, I call 312-546-7900 and ask to opt out of paying for the premium issues — a savings of up to $140 a year ($139.86 to be accurate). No, you can’t opt out permanently.
Are you paying more than I am? You can’t find out online! You either have to check your credit card statements or call the customer service number above. It’s a rather disgraceful bit of consumer-unfriendly opacity and I’ve failed in numerous efforts to get the Tribune to justify it for me.
Are you paying less? Let me know.
Tune of the Week
When I first heard Craig Johnson’s “New Harmony,” I assumed it was a song of lost romantic love or parted sweethearts — “you’ve been on my mind” and all that.
But the song really hits when you learn it’s a song Johnson wrote to his late father and you hear the ache and melancholy in his voice.
“The things I can’t tell you now” are among the saddest words in the English language. Even those of us lucky enough that our fathers are still alive feel that truth.
Here are the lyrics, in honor of Father’s Day Sunday:
Evening hillside, summertime Jars we filled with fireflies I remember you and I Yes, it's been a long ol’ time CHORUS: I've been sittin’ by the Ohio Watchin’ the tow boats rollin' up slow Thinkin' on the places we used to go You've been on my mind Rain across the bottom land Broken stones from an old mill dam West wind in the dawnin' day Enough to blow the blues my way Rusty rails, an old river town Whistle blowin' New Orleans bound Cornfields waitin' for the plow The things that I can't tell you now. Indiana back roads, Winter's sky so deep and cold The new moon's arms, cradle the old Come-home songs on the radio.
The title refers to New Harmony, Indiana, the town on the border between Illinois and Indiana where Johnson’s grandfather was born. It’s actually on the Wabash River, which is a tributary of the Ohio River. Jim Ringer and Mary McCaslin did a wonderful version of “New Harmony” as well.
It was just two weeks ago that I featured “Keweenaw Light,” another great song by Johnson, who died in 2009 at age 56.
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