Mary Hoffmann was out of my league. Star gymnast. One of the cutest girls in the ninth grade. Rumored to date upperclassmen.
I thought of her immediately when I was invited to be one of three contestants last Friday in the season finale of "Shame That Tune," a live, monthly game-show series at the Hideout in Wicker Park.
Each contestant gets three minutes to tell an embarrassing story or read a humiliating diary entry, ideally from adolescence, and a few minutes later, improv musician Abraham Levitan plays piano and sings a version of the story that he's written on the spot.
I've told the Mary Hoffmann story on myself many times over the years, never in print and certainly never on stage. And here it is, to the best of my memory:
I saw a slim opening for my hopes. In civics class, we were running a mock senate and the teacher put me and Mary into the same four-person caucus.
And the spring dance was coming up. So my plan was to charm her in the mock senate with my friendliness and wit, so she'd welcome my attentions at the dance, at which point we'd naturally fall into soulful conversation during which I would ask her to "go with me."
We were not much for preliminaries in my school. Missy, my eighth-grade girlfriend, agreed to "go with me" based only on the content of a series of notes we passed in history class, before we actually had a conversation. She broke up with me six weeks later. Via a note.
Anyway, the mock senate was going well. My caucus elected me leader. On the day of the dance I was particularly eloquent, I thought, holding the floor as our group met in a small circle of desks.
"What we must do," I said, "is come up with a compromise bill that still meets our main objectives."
"No," said my best friend Howard, who was also in the caucus, mimicking exactly my pomposity and bluster. "What we must do ... is get that booger off the end of Eric's nose."
I reached up, and, sure enough, hanging there, for God knows how long, for all to see.
Did Mary laugh? I don't know. I didn't look at her. I couldn't look at her. I'm not sure I ever looked at her again. I certainly didn't go to the dance that night.
Looking back, I have two contradictory fears. One is that I was always of so little importance to Mary that she forgot about this incident by the end of class that day.
Two is that she also still tells this story. That it's become a family fable to remind her children of the importance of good grooming. That in her circle, my name has become slang for poor nasal hygiene, as in, "Don't leave the house until you wipe that Zorn off your nose."
Did my story win? Check chicagotribune.com/zorn for the results and a wrap-up.
"I haven't even begun," said Elie Wiesel during a phone conversation I had with him last week. "I have so much still to do in this life, and I sometimes have the feeling I haven't even begun."
Imagine. Wiesel is 84. He's written more than 60 books, including "Night," the haunting, internationally acclaimed account of his time in the Nazi death camps. He's won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among countless other awards. He's the founding chair of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and still teaches at Boston University where he's a professor of humanities.
"It's not a question of whether I've done the wrong things," he said. "Surely not. But I have so much else to do, so many stories to tell, so many lessons to give, so many books to write."
I've received several reader complaints about the appearance in my column this month of the expression "outside-the-womb fetuses" to describe what Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell is charged with murdering.
I agree that it's a peculiar, tendentious phrase and that readers are right to criticize it.
But let me give you a behind-the-musings look at how it came to me.
Here's the sentence I wrote: "Gosnell, 72, is charged with running what amounted to a squalid abattoir where he performed late-term abortions and severed the spines or otherwise killed outside the womb fetuses who showed signs of being able to survive."
I intended "outside the womb" — no hyphens — to describe where the killings took place; to underscore that these were not surgical procedures performed in utero or what are commonly called "partial-birth" abortions. It was a clumsy attempt at economy and, prior to publication, one of the editors who routinely saves me from my infelicities added the hyphens in a way that didn't change the meaning of the sentence so much as it changed the tone.
Terminology is a minefield in any discussion of abortion, where so many of the words — fetus, baby, infant, choice, life — are freighted with emotion and tend to set off one side or the other. Even the arid "products of conception" seems to take a stand. And though I'm not neutral on the issue, I do my best to lay out facts, describe situations and even present arguments using neutral language.
I stumbled here, and the confusion of editors and anger of readers is understandable.