'Coffin Flop' flops and other reactions from readers
& some great thoughts (by humans) about writing
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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. Become a paid subscriber to receive each Picayune Plus in your email inbox each Tuesday and join our civil and productive commenting community.
Notes and comments from readers —lightly edited —- along with my responses
On the Adam Toledo story
Dave W. — I read your recent commentary, “Mayor Johnson's unwise decision to invoke the death of Adam Toledo” and I want to question your opinion that, “there is something particularly disturbing about the slaying of a police officer. Civil society feels the loss as well as friends and family.”
Your implication here is that the shooting of a police officer by a young man is more disturbing than the shooting of a boy by a police officer. And I’m sure “civil society” – by which you must mean those in our city who are white and not impoverished – really does seem to feel the loss of a police officer more acutely than that of a 13-year-old boy.
But why is this? Why is it that, whenever a police officer is killed, whether in the line of duty or when choosing to pull her gun on robbers while off-duty, is more disturbing to “civil society” than the death of a 13-year-old boy? Or even, for example, the on-duty death of a construction worker killed by a hit and run driver?
The fact is, construction workers have far more dangerous jobs than police officers for lower pay and fewer benefits. They don’t cost the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in lawsuits, don’t disrespect, assault and kill fellow citizens, and they make our city a better place for all of us to live in. It is odd that many of us recognize that a large percentage of our police officers are prejudiced and prone to violence, but mourn their deaths as though they were saints.
So, unlike you, and probably, most white Chicagoans, I see the death of Adam Toledo equally as tragic as that of Areanah Preston, or Kenneth Hernandez. And Brandon Johnson went out of his way to praise Aréanah Preston, elaborating on her tragic death at the age of 24 — saying nothing more about the tragic death of Adam Toledo at the age of 13.
The fact is, the police are never going to see a Black mayor as their ally, no matter what he says or does. This is a police department that overwhelmingly voted to reelect John Catanzara as their leader — a man who most would agree is racist, and who had to resign to avoid dismissal for multiple violations of police policies. He ran in a runoff against a man who is less outspoken, but who criticized Eddie Johnson for not attending a Trump speech to police chiefs, saying, “Trump has been a leader to the police officers across this country and he deserves our respect.”
I would like to understand why it is that you — and so many other Chicagoans — have what I would consider an undue reverence for our police officers. Why is it that a police officer’s life is considered to be of more value than that of a child, a construction worker or, for that matter, a journalist? I truly don’t understand your thinking on this, but would like to.
Zorn: I wouldn’t say construction workers have far more dangerous jobs. Their annual on-the-job fatality rate is 18 per hundred thousand workers compared to 14 for police officers I know it’s tricky territory to assign comparative moral weights to death, but as I see it, police officers run toward danger, intervene on our behalf, willingly put themselves into confrontations with violent people who with them or others harm in order to preserve the peace we all depend on.
I don’t romanticize police or believe they are inherently saintly or even necessarily virtuous — but when they are slain by evildoers it does feel different to me than when a road construction worker is struck by an inattentive or heedless motorist. The former feels more threatening, more destabilizing, more unsettling.
In absolute moral terms you can argue that the death of a career criminal shot by a shop-owner during a hold-up attempt is no more or less tragic or sad than the death of a community leader beaten to death in a parking lot for her wallet and phone. But it’s human nature to measure losses of those we don’t know against some arbitrary notion of the loss to the world.
Thom C. — Mayor Johnson was simply trying to say that all families of victims of violence shed the same tears.
I think you and Neil Steinberg are just itching to find fault in what was a truly inspiring if aspirational inaugural speech. Can we give the new mayor at least a few weeks before searching for perceived slip-ups?
Zorn: This particular remark was part of a carefully crafted speech, and putting Aréanah Preston into the same thought as Adam Toledo — of all the possible other dead victims of violence in Chicago in the last two years, was pointedly and needlessly provocative and divisive.
Ask yourself why that death? Why the victim in a story that deeply divides this city? Ask yourself, what signal was that intended to send to police? To the activists who portray Adam as a martyr to gratuitous police violence? And remind yourself that by picking that case, Mayor Johnson muddied up whatever point he was trying to make by appearing to be playing to his base rather than uniting the city. It was clumsy at best. But it was just one sour note in otherwise excellent speech. We’ll see if portends anything about how he deals with police in the future.
Joanie W. —Could the way Officer Stillman killed Adam Toledo be an example of the way many white people, including police officers, judge people of color differently than they judge white people? Unconscious or implicit bias? Is it possible that police interactions are more dangerous for people of color not because most police are consciously violent and racist thugs, but because, in judging the danger posed by interactions with citizens, many police judge the danger differently if the citizen is a person of color? If the shots had been fired in Winnetka, and if Adam had been a white kid, he would be on probation now instead of in the ground.
Zorn — Such a framing throws racism into every unpleasant confrontation between a white police officer and a person of color. We could also ask if Officer Stillman were Black or Hispanic, would he have fired at a suspect who until less than a second ago had been armed wheeled about. We don't know.
Officers of color are also prone to stereotyping and making assumptions, such as the assumption that someone running down an alley in the middle of the night in a high-crime area with a gun in his hand poses a threat to the community and anyone he encounters.
The cries of "murder!" that followed this tragedy implied the belief that Officer Stillman acted with malice and indifference to life, that he fired for the hell of it. That a good cop would have known better. And those accusations were flying even before we saw the body-cam footage. Minds were made up on both sides very quickly.
We'll find out more at the upcoming hearings, but my sense, based in part on Stillman's reaction after the shooting, is that he made a horrible, instantaneous error in judgment in a split second, and that Adam's age, his ethnicity, his gang involvement (if any), his behavioral issues were all irrelevant to that decision.
But even if I saw it differently, I would still recognize that it was a highly problematic comparison for Johnson to make.
Ed G. —I am a progressive resident of Rogers Park, but I agree with your take on the new Mayor's speech. A leopard cannot change his spots to stripes. Johnson's disdain for the CPD is evident when he compares those two deaths . Mind you, I am not a fan of John Catanzara, the president of the local Fraternal Order of Police, but, like everybody else, police officers want and deserve to come up every day at the ends of their shifts healthy and alive. They want a mayor who supports that. Johnson took a big step backwards in his first hour.
Marc M. — I heard the mayor saying that the criminals are victims and that we need to spend oceans of money to solve every social ill. He did not say anything about getting guns off the street. It was an elaboration on his root message: Less policing, more spending, less crime.
Zorn: He has said he won’t cut a dime from the police budget.
Jim McC. — On the subject of “nodcasts,” things to listen to that can help you fall asleep, The New York Times published an article in February about the value of the BBC’s shipping forecast as a soporific. This sample video is five hours long and gives you an idea of how dull it is.
Zorn — Too dull doesn’t work to put me to sleep because too dull isn’t distracting and doesn’t take my mind off the cares of the day.
Peg — Thank you for including Mary Schmich’s posts in the Picayune Sentinels on Thursday. It's reassuring to be able to relate to her thoughts and recollections because they are so genuine and familiar.
Zorn — I’m grateful she gives me permission to use her material. Mary is a treasure.
Jay G. — I have to say that I found this recent crop of tweets to be well below your usual standards. Pickings must be slim.
Zorn — Some weeks are just like that. But yes, pickings are getting a bit slimmer as some of my more reliable wits have recently quit the platform.
Cinda P. — What concerns me about Mayor Johnson and his far left friends in the teachers union is that they don’t seem to understand basic economic principles of supply and demand. Right now with the real and perceived crime spike on the city streets and transit, and the rise of “work from home” and changing office needs, the demand for Chicago as a product is decreasing. Johnson should focus his efforts on increasing demand for our product by improving public services (clean streets, public safety, education, reliable transit) rather than raising the cost to live and work here. Taxing businesses and the rich may make him feel better and popular with his union friends, but in the end people and businesses will do their own cost/benefit analysis and vote with their feet.
Steve H. — Regarding the ranking of months in Chicago, you nailed it when you wrote that you put "promising March ahead of portentous December.” I've always been an autumn guy, but as I've gotten older, the knowledge that "glorious October" portends the rapidly approaching winter has taken a bit of the shine off of it. And so, I've come to appreciate spring more than I used to. While the weather almost always disappoints, at least you know that winter is receding and better times are ahead.
Daniel B. — Eric I enjoy your work very much and have been freeloading for some time. I’m happy to become a paid subscriber but there is no link or obvious way to do so.
Zorn — Thank you! There is a link. It’s here and in the newsletter it looks like this:
But I concede that it’s not as obvious as it should be. I’ll begin adding more such links.
Rick W. — Regarding the question of what you call the last piece of food that everyone is eyeing but no one wants to take, the “mannersbit” or “mannerspiece” is a remnant from before the Depression that referenced “Miss Manners”—no relation to the current columnist, who writes:
“The sad truth is that a century ago, it was indeed the case that children in families that could afford it were taught not to finish everything on their plates. The embarrassing part is that the rule was phrased as “Leave something for Miss Manners” (and in England, “Leave something for Lady Manners”).”
The column goes on to say that this rule no longer applies. In my family (inherited from my mother’s family in which there were three sisters), the person who took the last piece of anything was dubbed the Old Maid. The folklore, apparently, was that if you took the last piece you were doomed to remain unwed, thereby giving papa dibs on the last piece. In my generation, when there was one piece left, my mother would ask her three boys: “Who wants to be the Old Maid?” We didn’t care and made a grab for it.
Zorn — The patriarchy heartily approves of the “Old Maid” terminology, but the rest of us — who think it’s perfectly fine an honorable for people of any gender identity to remain single — blanch at the term
Tony D. — I stumbled upon the Midnight Special radio folk music-based radio program (Saturday’s 9 p.m.—midnight, WFMT-FM 98.7) many many years ago. Still think it is one of Chicago's best kept secrets.
Zorn — Yes. I think it would be better known and more widely heard if there were also a podcast version of it, but my guess is that music rights issues make that impossible.
The Tune of the Week
Rich R. — Hip hip hooray to Peter Sagal. His nomination last week, “The Mary Ellen Carter,” should be in the pantheon of folk music. It's a stunning narrative topped off by that uplifting finish. Thanks for recognizing greatness. More people should hear this song.
Zorn — If you like uplift, about a year ago I featured "Another Train" by Pete Morton (A better but slower recording is here) The tempo isn’t bouncy or upbeat, but the song is quietly, forcefully inspirational. You will find there are times when it’s just what you need to hear.
There's another train. There always is. Maybe the next one is yours. Get up and climb aboard another train.
Carole P. — Rich Warren, former host of “The Midnight Special,” used to play a parody of “The Mary Ellen Carter” involving a computer that died and the valiant tech people who wanted “to make the IBM computer rise again” so that it’s data would not “be lost to the knowledge of men.” I tried to find the parody online, but couldn’t. Instead, I found another pretty good one linked to the Exxon Valdez disaster:
And you to whom diversity means maximized return, With fuzzy mammals sniveling at you everywhere you turn, Won’t grumble if, from time to time, a black and greasy stain Forces gas and oil prices to rise again. Rise again! Rise again! Though the land it be poisoned, and life about to end. No matter what the cost, be it the whales, the seals, the men, Long as gas and oil profits rise again!
Note: Bill C. and David O. wrote to take issue with my lengthy essay, “The truth about John Kass’ dispute with the Tribune and the Tribune Guild.” Since many of you are tired of this topic, I posted their letters and my responses as an update to that essay instead of taking up space here. Click this link to read.
This is a terrific passage on why doing one’s own writing — as opposed to letting an AI interface do it for you — is so important:
Think at length about writing and you may come to the conclusion that it’s an impossible task. The world doesn’t come readily organized into a neat narrative. Ideas do not appear in a linear fashion, labelled by words that represent them perfectly. The writer faces masses of information and her growing network of still-inexpressible hunches about them and tries to translate them into prose that’s bound to seem inadequate. It’s like crafting a shell necklace while swimming in the ocean, the molluscs wriggling away as you reach for them.
At every step of the process, the writer has to make decisions about what to focus on and what to leave out. Each one of these choices opens up new opportunities and closes others off. This back-and-forth movement between the structure of form—even in the most basic sense of words on a page—and the chaos of human thought is generative. It can produce something new: a fresh way of expressing an idea, a thought the writer finds surprising and worth pursuing. Sometimes this struggle helps the writer discover notions that were already in her but that she wasn’t yet capable of articulating. We speak of the writer drafting, shaping, and revising a text, but at times, the text changes her.
From “Will ChatGPT Kill the Student Essay? Universities Aren’t Ready for the Answer” at The Walrus, a Canadian publication.
I also took note of this quote from British novelist Martin Amis, who died Friday at 73:
Writing comes from silent anxiety, the stuff you don't know you're really brooding about. And when you start to write you realize you have been brooding about it, but not consciously. It's terribly mysterious.
Against ‘e-mail us’ forms
Curmudgeonly thought for today: Business websites with “email us” forms may imagine that they are simplifying the process of contacting them, but in fact they complicate the process by making it more difficult to track the correspondence.
I’m OK with it only if there is also a direct email link that leaves prospective customers with a copy of the note/request in their “sent mail” directories.
Picayune Sentinel readers have rendered their verdict. The “Coffin Flop” sketch from “I Think You Should Leave” on Netflix is “tediously tasteless.”
Ya gotta see these tweets!
I often run across tweets that rely on visual humor and so can’t be included in the Tweet of the Week contest (the template I use for that poll does not allow me to include images). Here are a few good ones I’ve come across recently:
Vote for your favorite. I will disqualify any tweets I later find out used digitally altered photos. I’ll share the winner in Thursday’s main edition.
There’s still time to vote in the conventional Tweet of the Week poll!
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Alas, I am not a fan of folk music. But your discussion of train songs reminded me of my favorite: Roseanne Cash’s My Baby Thinks he’s a Train. “🎶Just like a train he’ll always give some tramp a ride.”
Thanks for noticing my comment on "The Mary Ellen Carter" and for recommending another of my favorite inspirational songs - "Another Train". That's a great song to help one survive a long career in corporate America for sure. As long as we are trading songs that lift us, try David Wilcox's "Rise". I imagine a person who has suffered a significant loss and the accompanying sadness as the recipient of this song. And, I can extol the virtues of David Wilcox all day long as a singer-songwriter.