Monday, October 31, 2016

"A little disappointing"




     Today's initial post is just a re-jiggering of yesterday's—kind of a rip-off, really, for regular readers—so I thought I would offer something fresh. Since today is the 75th anniversary of the opening of Mount Rushmore, it seems appropriate to share this chapter from "The Quest for Pie," the unpublished memoir of my trip with the boys out west in 2014.

     Gutzon Borglum is not famous. Though he should be, if only for embodying the truth that you can do something great, something truly great, that you can create a masterwork through tremendous personal effort, a masterwork that is known around the globe, leaving behind a shrine to yourself and your genius in the bargain and still be completely, utterly obscure.
     And if you are the one person in a thousand who knows who Gutzon Borglum is, well, you should feel good about yourself, because you are extraordinary too, in your own way.
     Borglum sculpted Mount Rushmore. He worked on it for more than 14 years, aided by some 400 workers. The job was finished after his death in 1941 by his son Lincoln.
     Maybe because we first stopped by the small museum to Borglum in town, on our way in, before visiting Mount Rushmore itself, and viewed up close Borglum’s competent but soulless bronze of Lincoln, sitting on a bench by the curb, as if waiting for a bus, in addition to Borglum’s other artless, static metal creations. But by the time we got done passing all the tributes to Borglum, not just the museum in town and the studio shrine at the Mount Rushmore site, plus various busts and plaques peppered all around, I began to suspect that the whole endeavor was a deliberate ploy on Borglum’s part, an artist’s trick to drape honor upon himself, using America’s presidential greats as a pretext. It seemed almost post-modern.
      Not that Mt. Rushmore wasn’t impressive — it is. Big and impressive and patriotic. Sometimes a hugely famous artwork is a let-down when you finally see the genuine article. Michelangelo’s David, for instance. By the time I got myself to Florence, on that vexing trip to Italy with my father, and we laid eyes upon David, it struck me as a well-wrought garden sculpture. I had seen it too many times already.
    
     Not Mount Rushmore, whose scale allows it to survive the hype. It really is enormous, and enormous is one quality that is hard to sap away with trinkets. I was particularly intrigued, as we hiked the “Presidential Trail” around the mountain, to catch the four faces from different angles, peaking through the trees. For some reason, we always get Mount Rushmore reproduced from a single, head-on perspective, as if it’s the only view possible, and it felt marvelous, almost subversive, to see Washington in profile. It was surreal, like glancing at your change and noticing a penny with Lincoln gazing directly at you.   
  Yes, Mt. Rushmore memorializes four men who need no memorializing. Nobody says, "Oh, right, George Washington, I forgot about him. High time somebody did something in his honor.” And Jefferson, well, he doesn’t really resemble Jefferson here — his nose is wrong. (That is, he doesn’t look like Jefferson as commonly depicted in portraits and statues — it isn’t as if anybody has a photo).
     But Mount Rushmore is patriotic, and there’s a joy in patriotism, a sentiment you ruin if you think about it too intensely — here it probably helped to skip Wounded Knee. I felt very God-Bless-America-y, so long as I diligently ignored the various aesthetic disappointments. Mount Rushmore is also a reminder of how generally polite the world can be — had France at some point decided to erect the massive heads of, oh, Louis XIV, Charles De Gaulle, Napoleon Bonaparte and Charlemagne, carved into a peak in the Pyrenees, we’d never stop laughing at them. The world is very kind to Americans when it comes to Mount Rushmore, or maybe they just mock us out of earshot in languages we don’t bother to learn.
     The boys and I had lunch — another let down, since Ross, an avid film buff and Alfred Hitchcock fan, discovered, by reading the signs, that Hitchcock didn’t actually film “North by Northwest” here, except for some outside establishing shots. The scene where Eva Marie Saint guns down Cary Grant was not filmed in the room where we were having our $27 worth of tepid foil-wrapped cafeteria cheeseburgers, but in a studio in London.
     Having just seen the Badlands and the Corn Palace in Mitchell, I couldn't help but place Mt. Rushmore in league with the latter. The Corn Palace is a brick building, not made of corn, but decorated anew each year with corncob designs, honoring the local crop and, not incidentally, drawing the dupes off the highway to buy popcorn and postcards, which also was Mt. Rushmore's original purpose — that’s why the local boosters contacted Borglum, to create a magnet to draw visitors to the Black Hills of South Dakota. As is its purpose to this day, once you blow away the mist of unfocused patriotic zeal that the park service sprays over the place. Give them credit: it works.   

     We tramped around, probably longer than we should have, and it struck me that on our way here we had passed a thousand more dramatic mountaintops, carved by the wind and the rain, and we make a big deal out of this one and flatter our own abilities because of the crude likenesses of ourselves we managed to blast upon it. Omnia vanitas.
     My boys were even cooler than I to Mt. Rushmore.
     “A little disappointing,” Ross concluded. “Nature is more wonderful than anything we can build.”
     “The Badlands were better,” Kent agreed. “Man-made creations don't compare to nature.”
     I was surprised, pleased, proud and a little unsettled to hear the line from Pomerance's “The Elephant Man” that I had delivered in the Badlands echoed back to me, in slightly altered form, a day later. Here I thought I was a Polonius-like blabbermouth whose constant stream of platitudes are completely ignored by his sons. But kids are listening even when they don’t seem to be listening. Keep in mind that whatever you tell your children they'll eventually tell you.


                                                                                      

A rough beast is born and slouches toward 2020




     The column I originally wrote for Monday just assumed the Cubs would boot Sunday night's game against the Indians. But as the day progressed, it dawned on me that Chicago might actually win, and thus the column would seem out-of-place. I toyed with adapting it, but that didn't work, and in the end I decided to hold it and run this instead, which sharp-eyed readers will notice is a version of Sunday's blog post.

     Eight days to the election. One week from Tuesday. Just under 200 hours.
     You’d think we’d be home free.
     Yet we’re not. The thing keeps getting weirder.
     Where to start?
     There’s the Washington Post/ABC poll last week that finds the candidates 1 percentage point apart, with 46 percent of voters backing Hillary Clinton and 45 percent backing Donald Trump.
     A dead heat.
     And at week’s end the whole email server nightmare came roaring back. How could it not? As with any good horror movie, just when the monster has been blown up and shot and stabbed and the building has collapsed atop him, just when the heroes are finally grinning and ruffling each other’s hair and making their movie’s-over jokes, suddenly the ya
mmering yam comes bursting out of the rubble, red eyes glowing, his election hopes inexplicably alive.
     Wasn’t it a week or two ago that Trump’s campaign chances were dead and shriven and buried under the weight of squalid allegations of him groping women? Now he comes rearing out of the grave, a la “Carrie,” supercharged by the electric zap of news that FBI Director James Comey sent an inexplicable letter to Congress saying, in essence, we’ve got some emails that may involve Clinton on Anthony Weiner’s computer.

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Sunday, October 30, 2016

Enter Anthony Weiner, with a seltzer bottle




     Nine days to the election. One week from Tuesday. Two hundred hours and change. 
     You'd think we'd be home free.
     Yet we're not. The thing keeps getting weirder. 
     As with any good horror movie, just when the monster has been blown up and shot and stabbed and the building has collapsed atop him, just when the heroes are finally exhaling and ruffling each other's hair and clapping one another on the shoulder and making their movie's-over jokes, suddenly the yammering yam comes bursting out of the rubble, inexplicably alive.
     So Donald Trump, whose campaign chances were dead and shriven and buried, comes rearing out of the grave, a la "Carrie," with news that the FBI director James Comey sent an inexplicable letter to Congress saying, in essence, we've got some emails that may involve Hillary Clinton on Anthony Weiner's computer. 
   The thing was almost instantly debunked, but it doesn't matter. I hesitate to declare that facts have mattered less in this election than any in our history — there have been some doozies— so I will just say, "Why should the truth start mattering now?" Just the word "emails," like the word "Benghazi," is enough to erode Clinton's narrow lead. 
    Anthony Weiner. The former Congressman whose career was destroyed, not once but twice, by naughty cell phone photos he felt compelled to send to strangers. First as Congressman, then as mayoral candidate. He happened to be married -- in one of those coincidences that would look trite in fiction -- to one of Clinton's top aides, Huma Abedin. 
     That the emails don't seem to reveal anything or even necessarily involve Clinton is just the icing on the cake of horror. Of course. When one of the major candidates lives in a fact-free echo chamber  —"This changes everything!" Trump exulted—it makes sense that this non-story would rock the campaign. 
    Actually, it doesn't change anything. Clinton has been thoroughly demonized for offenses, —the tragedy in Libya to her high-paid speeches to the endless server scandal — that wink out into insignificance when held up against the bone-deep bigotry, ignorance and anti-Americanism of Donald Trump and everything he unambiguously and proudly represents. 
    I was tempted to conclude that, in generations to come, saner heads will recall the 2016 election with wonder, as the nadir, the hard bottom we bounced up from. Pretty to think so. Because that doesn't sound right. My gut tells me that this is just the opening bell of our dystopian future, with charismatic non-politicians whipping up grass roots mobs, tweet wars and battling TV comedians giving us our news. As terrible as the election of 2016 is, it is only the beginning. Hillary might win — I hold out hope she will win, unless of course she loses. But somewhere, a better, more palatable version of Donald Trump — Donald 2.0 — is being assembled. Some Marco Rubio-calibre fraud is staring hard at himself in the mirror, liking what he sees, and cooing, "Next year, it's your turn baby!" The rough beast awakes and, in anticipation of its hour come round at last, slouches toward Washington to be born.  

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Tiny planes flying underground in Cleveland

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     As far as the World Series goes, you didn't think it was going to be easy did you?
     Otherwise, about all I have to say is that I was hurrying to the airport in Cleveland on Monday, having popped into town to write a quick scene-setter for the paper, when I noticed a small model of this very familiar red and white plane mounted on the wall over the tracks. The Granville Gee Bee R-1, my favorite plane, winner of the Thompson Trophy at the National Air Races in Cleveland in 1932.
     The RTA stop at Hopkins Airport sort of had a mixed aeronautical metaphor going on — antique racing planes on the walls, jetliners on the floor.  It didn't quite mesh, but give them credit for trying. 
     I should dig out the story I wrote about the plane —another day, it's late. But I had the honor of talking to the pilot of the Gee Bee, Jimmy Doolittle, the same Jimmy Doolittle who later led the raid on Tokyo in 1942. If I remember correctly, he was in the phone book in Arizona, and was more than happy to chat about his brief time in the cockpit of the Gee Bee. Flying it, he said, was like "trying to balance a pencil by its point on your fingertip." Or words to that effect. It had stubby wings, an oversized engine and a little sump of a tail, and killed several of the men who flew it, but not Doolittle, who won the race, stepped out of the plane, declared the era of racing planes over, and never raced again. 
      Decorating train stops is one of those small details that brings joy to city life, though Cleveland certainly has nothing on Chicago, which has been installing gorgeous mosaics and artworks at certain 'L' stops. Though I liked something I saw in the subway in Paris -- they had glass cases displaying wares from nearby stores, as advertising and display. That seemed a good idea, though security is no doubt a concern. 
    Anyway, I spent the entire evening watching Game 3 of the World Series, am feeling — tired and subdued — so this post will have to be brief and slight. I have to admit, the game was not a font of fascination, which could have been forgiven had we won. But we didn't win. 


     

Friday, October 28, 2016

Be president of the United States! Earn big bucks!

Old Post Office, now the Trump International Hotel, summer 2016

     Jimmy Carter is perhaps the most disdained president of recent history. Thinking about the late 1970s, the American public generally remembers the energy crisis, the hostages in Iran whom Carter couldn’t free, his “national malaise” and that’s about it.
 
National Portrait Gallery
   Which is unfair. At first he was very popular, for common man moves like walking with his family during the inaugural parade. Carter offered welcome relief from the Greek tragedy of Richard Nixon and the Roman farce of Gerald Ford.
     His being a peanut farmer was celebrated, and companies offered products trying to capitalize on Carter’s grinning likeness. The government quickly moved to make it stop.
     On May 3, 1977, Assistant Attorney General John M. Harmon prepared a memo suggesting the Federal Trade Commission might prevent the president’s likeness from being used commercially.
     “The commission could probably prohibit the use of advertisements, labels, or trade names which implied that the president endorsed, profited from, or was connected with the sale of a particular product,” he wrote. “The prestige of the presidency and President Carter’s well-known background would probably allow the commission to eliminate most of the attempts to attach the president’s name to peanuts and peanut products.”


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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Bartman is one of us




     I had completely forgotten about this column, when Ald. Joe Moore reminded me of it. I was going to post it only if the Cubs punted the pennant. But they didn't punt, they nailed it, something we need to remind ourselves should the World Series victory elude our grasp. 
    I'm posting it anyway because it speaks to the Bartman question, which is with us far more than I would have thought possible, between people who want him to throw out the pitch before a game — a bad idea; what if we then lost? — to that vindictive dick holding up a large "Bartman for President" sign in the first row along the third base line at Progressive Field, one of those details that magnified the horror of Tuesday's loss to the Indians. I'm proud that, back when people were calling for his head, I stood with the star-crossed fan whose only sin was doing what anybody would have done.

     Mrs. O'Leary was a real person. Catherine O'Leary. Married to Patrick. They owned a cow and lived on DeKoven Street. When much of the city of Chicago burned down in 1871, blame fell to Mrs. O'Leary and her cow, which supposedly kicked over a lantern. She denied it to her dying day, and historians agree it never happened. But people hounded her anyway -- reporters and circus owners who wanted her to appear in freak shows. The O'Learys moved from place to place, becoming bitter and withdrawn. It still annoys their descendants six generations later.
     I thought of Mrs. O'Leary when this Steve Bartman story broke. As the world knows, he's the 26-year-old fan who deflected a ball that Moises Alou might -- and here I want to emphasize the word "might" -- otherwise have caught.
     Bartman was guiltless, only doing what fans at the ballpark do. The ball comes to you, you strain to catch it. Happens every time. The fans around him were reaching too -- any one of them, or us, could have done it.
     Yet people blamed him. Why they should blame him and not, oh, Alex Gonzalez who muffed an easy double play shortly thereafter, is a mystery. If I were Gonzalez, I'd send Bartman a fruit basket at Christmas.
     Rather than vilify this young man, we should embrace him. He is one of us -- he was a fan, at the ballpark, in his baseball cap, cheering on his team. He bothered to get a ticket and go -- did you?
     Why do we need a villain? I didn't see the Cubs dogging it. Kerry Wood says he choked, but the only reason he had a lead to protect was because of his own home run.
     We need to remember: Baseball is a machine designed to break your heart. I think that's why I generally keep it at arm's distance — there is enough heartbreak in life without caring about a game.
     But I was surprised, when the moment came, that I did care. A lot. Call it Johnny-come-lately fandom, if you like. Still, I was glad to have been drawn in. Even though I must have looked like a fool Wednesday night, perched on the edge of the sofa, in my sweats and old Cubs cap and my Little League mitt — for luck, or in case a ball came flying out of the TV.
     "That's it boys!" I shouted, when Wood hit his home run. "They'll never beat us now."
     My wife, wiser, wouldn't watch the game with us. "I can't bear to see them lose," she said.
     But I had hope. That's ridiculous, isn't it? And you know what is more ridiculous? I still do.
     Who are the losers?
     Let me ask this: If the Cubs are such losers, what are the Braves — we beat them earlier in the play-offs, remember? How about the Pirates, or any other team that didn't even make the playoffs? What are they? Sure it's frustrating to get so close to the dream.
     But that's also the essence of baseball, isn't it? Remember "Field of Dreams"? Remember Moonlight Graham? The Burt Lancaster character wasn't a former Yankee. He wasn't a swaggering slugger who regretted a muffed play in his chain of glory. He was a guy who never got a chance to bat.

Build Bartman a statue

     That's baseball. Sure, we lost, and it was heartbreaking. But the thing to do when your heart is broken is to hold your head up and claim your pain. Don't be too dumb to be proud. Turning Bartman into Mrs. O'Leary would be wrong. He is us. We need to fold him under our wing, because he is the vehicle chosen by Fate, and Fate rules baseball. If you think that the Cubs would have won without him, then you don't understand. Fate is more resourceful than that, and if it doesn't get you one way, it gets you another.
     Besides, what is Bartman's sin compared to the die-hards who are now losing faith? We're through, they seem to say. Boo hoo. Forget about the Cubs. We're done. Let the Tribune tear down Wrigley Field, like they've always wanted to do, and build whatever gross and gargantuan Col. Robert McCormick Memorial Stadium that looms in their corporate dreams.
     If baseball is all about winning, why not go be a Yankees fan? They win every year. Your team will never be far from a Series.
     Life goes on. The Cubs had a season in 1970. We are facing a long winter now. But spring will come. In February. In Arizona.
     Let me tell you something. I was on the couch watching Wednesday. With my two boys, who, like their dad, are not big fans. At one point during the game my 6-year-old said something he had never said before.
     "Daddy," he said. "Can we go to Wrigley Field?" I said sure, in the spring, I'd get tickets. "No," he said, "I mean, can we get in the car right now and drive there?"
     I told him we would wait until spring. We'll be there. And so will you. The Cubs will recover from this. Chicago will shake it off.
     I wrote the editorial that was supposed to run after the Cubs won the pennant. It was beautiful. I know that by saying this I'm reinforcing my reputation as my own most ardent admirer. But it was. My mother cried when I read it to her. I cried when I wrote it. It was about what binds a city together, the years of waiting ended, the iron faith of little boys grown old rewarded, building to a joyous crescendo of how great it is to win.
     I read it one more time and then tucked it away. We'll use it next year.

                 —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 17, 2003



Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Turning down World Series tickets can be done



     It’s sad that the Chicago City Council needs an ethics panel to yank back the World Series tickets that aldermen should know enough not to accept on their own.
     It is possible to turn down World Series tickets. I know, because I’ve done it. Not so much from ethical as practical considerations. But the process is the same. You just say no.
     But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s begin at the beginning.
     I grew up near Cleveland and followed the Indians. My father, a nuclear physicist, didn’t do the whole sports thing. But my mother was a fan. She was 12 when the Indians won the World Series, and I knew that team well — ace Bob Feller, Larry Doby, the second black player in the league, third baseman Al Rosen, who was Jewish. Jewish players meant a lot to me.
     My grandfather took me to my first game, around 1966, but that was it. He was a stern, silent Pole, and I only got the one game with him. Otherwise I would go to the enormous Cleveland Municipal Stadium with friends. I remember one doubleheader against the Red Sox in 1973 where we waited in the parking lot for the players to go to their cars. I got Carl Yastrzemski’s autograph, Gaylord Perry’s too. I still have the program.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Looking to son's future is a sentimental journey

Ross, age 5

     Our elder son Ross turns 21 years old today. I can't express how proud I am of him, or how unfathomably great being his father has been. But this column, written when he turned 5, touches upon it. 

Dear Ross:

     Surprised? I thought you might be. It didn't take a genius to realize that databases such as old newspaper files would hang around for a long, long time, and a bright guy like you would figure out he could plug his name and his dad's byline into some search device and kick out everything the old man wrote about him while he was growing up.
     Wasn't like that when I was a lad. No fancy search engines for us. No, we had it tough. We had to trudge miles to libraries, through blinding snowstorms, to scour thick indexes and court eyestrain reading scratchy microfilm reels. . . .
    I won't start. You've heard that enough. See, that's the thing about being a dad. You set off in one direction and suddenly find yourself somewhere else entirely, off on some stupid tangent, about to explain how music sounded sweeter played on a thick vinyl 33 rpm record.
     Begin again.
     Five years old, this week. Hard to believe. The time just snapped by. That's a cliche, I know, but it's also a fresh reality for me. I knew it was coming, I tried to avoid it, seizing the moments, clutching at them, observing closely, listening hard, taking all those pictures, and it flashed by anyway. You were born, now you're 5, and a few more flashes from now you'll be—what? 30, 35—reading this in the blue glow of some sleek little computer gizmo at Mach 5 high above the Earth.
     I picture you tall, handsome as sin, of course, hair closely cropped at the temples with maybe some sort of a weird futuristic touch — a single Anakin Skywalker rattail, beaded or dyed or something. You're wearing the charcoal-colored spandex business suit we've been projecting into the future for the past 30 years, and relaxing in the big aqua leather seat on the 7 a.m. suborbital shuttle from Chicago to Tokyo.
      You glance out the window at the curve of the Earth, give a last look at the sales figures for carbon fiber data couplings in the Asiatic rim, sigh, then hit a few buttons, and up pops one of dad's old columns.
      Five years old. Happy birthday, boy. Did you like the metal Chicago police car? Just like the real ones. The doors open, and everything.
     I wish you could see yourself as you are now – the videos just don't convey it. Sprawled on the floor, doing a hard puzzle, working through a maze, tossing tough questions from the back seat. "Dad, what's the difference between hornets and wasps?" "Dad, why does the moon follow us?" "Dad, what happens if somebody shoots a missile at us?"
     I remember well the moment you were born, howling complaints like a Steinberg. They cleaned you up, and then they did something I didn't expect, despite all the books and preparations and Lamaze training. The nurse shoved you at me, and everybody turned to pay attention to your mother. I looked down – there was a baby in my hands – and got another shock. Most babies are all red and creased and squished and look like Jake LaMotta after 12 rounds. But you were beautiful, china pale and perfect, and I held you and sang the Air Force song –"Off we go, into the wild blue yonder, flying high, into the sun . . ." – because it was the only thing I could think of.
     I wrote it all down in a letter to you that night. I meant to write letters on every birthday, but you know what happens. Time passes, everyone's so busy, and important things get pushed aside.
     I did try to soak moments in, to look at you and see what was in front of me. It's so easy for adults to ignore kids, to treat them like the curtains, the stage scenery, and not as the point of everything. I will take credit for that much; I realized, when you were born, that you were what everything I was working toward was about, you were the thing I was going to leave behind, you and your brother, and everything else ratcheted down a few notches in significance.
     That sounds nice, but there's a downside to that attitude. Expectations grow and grow. There is no glory that I haven't imagined for you, from smashing World Series-winning homers out of Wrigley Field, to being sworn in as president, to saving the world.
     In fact, I lied about the shuttle to Tokyo image. That's the watered- down version. My actual thought was something grander. I imagined you on a mission to Mars — Lt. Col. Ross Steinberg, NASA, commander of the International Mars Mission. It's a three-year-trip, so you have plenty of downtime, and you found yourself surfing the Tabloids of Yesteryear Web site.
     I was embarrassed to admit that. I know how harmful expectations can be. They're good in that they set standards of ambition, but bad in the sense that life falls so short so often. Expectations can be a trap that parents, with the best intentions in the world, set for their kids.
     That might seem like an odd message to drop into an electronic bottle and toss into the churning sea of cyberspace. Maybe you are reading this, not aboard the shuttle to Tokyo, not on the flight to Mars, but in the free computer room of the public library. Maybe you play the washboard in a skiffle band on Madison Street, and you've come in to get out of the cold. Life does that to people. I'm still proud of you.

Love,

Dad


                   —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 22, 2000

Cleveland and Chicago: A Tale of Two (Baseball) Cities


 

  


     About an hour after the Cubs won the pennant Saturday night, my boss told me to get myself to Cleveland "pronto.' I was on the 7:35 a.m. flight Sunday. By 10 a.m. I was on the Rapid downtown. I dropped my bag at the Hyatt at the Arcade—I wasn't sure if I was going to stay a day or a week—and was snapping this picture about 12 noon, while wandering around Progressive Field, looking for ... well, anything. My only instructions were to compare the two cities. It was Sunday, and all I could think to do after checking out the ballparks was go to the East Side and talk to black Clevelanders about baseball. I figured, if nothing else, I could look at race and baseball. Somehow the whole thing came together and by 4 p.m. I was back at the hotel, writing this.  Rahm Emanuel hasn't been very high on my list for the past few years but, I have to admit, comparing his remarks to the mayor of Cleveland's, you have to give him credit for verve.

     CLEVELAND — Both downtowns bear ghostly scars, names of great department stores now gone: Marshall Field’s in Chicago, The May Co. here. Plaques in both commemorate where Abraham Lincoln once trod, and both struggle today with notorious police shootings of young African-Americans, reminding us that Lincoln’s work remains undone. Both have hollowed-out industrial zones, more memory than manufacturing, and startup tech centers straining to replace them.
     Still, Chicago and Cleveland, whose Cubs and Indians meet for Game One of the World Series on Tuesday, are more different than alike, starting in size. Chicago is a behemoth. The third-largest city in the United States, 2.7 million people in 234 square miles. Cleveland is a relative sliver, barely squeaking into the top 50 at No. 48, a bantamweight 390,000 people over 82 square miles.
     Which means Cleveland has 15 percent of the population of Chicago and about a third of its density; walk around, and Cleveland just seems emptier: weedy lots, empty streets, distant suspension bridges and rusty warehouses slowly reverting back to nature. Parking downtown can cost $7.50 a day. On Monday morning, a stretch of Concourse C at Cleveland Hopkins Airport contained no people at all.


   
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Monday, October 24, 2016

WikiLeaks snooping is as scary as the election

WikiLeak's founder, Julian Assange

     Imagine a politician’s relative who is a very private person. Could be his wife, could be his grandmother. Someone not in the public eye.
     Say I decide to gather insights into that little-known relative’s personal life gained by kicking in a basement window at the family home, creeping into their bedroom and rifling through her diary. It says here, on the entry for May 17, that she worries her children are . . .      What? Intrusive? Some of you are wondering if I had any right to break into her house and snoop around? How about if I don’t actually break into the house — which for the record, I did not actually do. How about if I just stole some letters to friends after the relative put them out for the postman?
     Still bad? How about if I hacked her emails and found some cutting observations about various politicians? You want those?
     You see where I’m going with this. The 2016 campaign is so fractious, the standards of civility so degraded, we’ve all overlooked a very bad precedent that’s being set.


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Sunday, October 23, 2016

Fight cancer with more than a book




     The last time I was in Myopic Books on Milwaukee Avenue, I faced a dilemma. They had Time on Fire, Evan Handler's funny and terrifying account of surviving leukemia despite being treated at Sloan-Kettering in New York City. It is something of a guerrilla guide to beating cancer (Practical Tip #1: don't feel reluctant about hectoring reluctant medical technicians about washing their hands) and I give it to all my friends when they get cancer, and every single recipient survived (well, Jim Tyree is no longer with us, alas, but he wasn't done in by the cancer, but by the ineptitude of a med tech trying to insert a line for dialysis. Handler is right; you have to watch them like a hawk). 
     I always pick up a copy, because someone is always coming down with the Big C. The challenge was that Myopic had three copies -- my instinct was to buy them all, to have a reserve. 
     But that seemed a commitment to my friends getting cancer en masse, and I didn't want to err on that side. I bought one, and still have it, so I made the right decision. 
     Passing along books to people who contract cancer is, I admit, a rather low key approach to fighting the disease. Which is why I'm so much in admiration of my friend Eleni Bousis, who last year took much more dynamic course of action: she formed the Hippocratic Cancer Research Foundation. 
    The HCRF has one goal -- "to eliminate cancer and save lives" — and is doing so by supporting the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Canter at Northwestern University, in the forefront of what is called "translational research," which basically means speeding new therapies from the lab to actual patients who can be helped by them. 
     Toward that end, the HCRF is holding its Inaugural Gala at the Hilton Chicago on Nov. 5, hosted by Susanna Homan, Anna Davlantes and Lou Canellis. That's only two weeks away, but there are still tickets available. I'll be there, adding my sequin's worth of sparkle to the black tie evening.  I'll also auction off my new book, though I'll warn you -- I'm instructing Edie to jack the bidding up so it doesn't go for less than the Amazon price. And yes, there is dancing.
    You can learn more about the event and buy tickets by clicking here. As you know, I don't ballyhoo causes upon my readership here very often -- in fact, I never have. But I'm a big fan of Elani Bousis, and I think that cancer sucks, so it's also the least I can do. By the time I deliver a copy of Time on Fire to friends, they're already in the thick of the struggle. Curing cancer seems a much more more aggressive approach to the problem.  It's a fun night for a great cause and I hope you can join me. 

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Cold? Flu? Yes, that's the ticket


     A colleague asked me if I were excited about the Cleveland Indians winning the pennant this week, and I answered, candidly, that I was excited when they won it in 1995 and actually saw a World Series game in 1997, leading to the column below, which got me in hot water at work, for reasons I will explain afterward. As you read, try to imagine what landed me in the editor's office, having my future employment called into question.

     I'm sorry, but there won't be a column today; I'm feeling under the weather.  

     World Series tickets!
     Must be some kind of virus I picked up Monday — I forgot my wool hat at home, and with the change of weather and all those people sneezing on the bus. 

     An old friend from Cleveland called and said he had a big piece of Fall Classic pasteboard with my name on it.
     Much as I'd like to be at work Tuesday, finishing that piece on global warming (really), it seemed the responsible thing to stay at home and not risk infecting my co-workers. 

     "I can't. . . ," I began, pausing long enough in shock that he began to reply when I cut him off, ". . . believe it! Yes! In a heartbeat." There was the sticky matter of my job, however, the livelihood supporting me, my loving wife and two adorable children.
     Because colds have a way of racing through a workplace, especially at this time of year.     

      Southwest Airlines. One-hundred and sixty-three dollars. That was a lot. But my God, the World Series. I'm 37 years old and I've never been to a World Series, never mind one in Cleveland, with the Indians, whose dismal record of endless, soul-crushing mediocrity served as the dreary background to my nondescript youth.
     And who knows if it's just a cold? The flu, pneumonia, meningitis — all going around this time of year. Better to take a day and rest and not risk making it worse. 

     Game starts at 7:20 p.m., Chicago time. Though I'll be there an hour or two early, just to gaze in abject awe at the red-white-and-blue bunting surrounding the upper decks, to soak in the atmosphere and, if history is any judge, a couple of big cold ones.
     To be honest, as sick as I am, I still hate taking a day off. Responsibility is key to any job, and if you don't show up one day, well, that just adds your burden to the weary shoulders of your co-workers. 

     Of course we'll win in dramatic style, the way the Giants beat us back in '54. The only thing people remember from that is Willie Mays running to make The Catch, and then that tremendous throw to the plate, his cap flying. A nice moment for him and most everybody else. Not so nice for those in Cleveland.
     Slack off and you risk getting in trouble at work. That's awful. Your boss is all grim-faced, and everybody is discussing what to do about The Problem, and you feel like you're back in first grade, in the principal's office for building a volcano of snow on the radiator. 

     The Marlins aren't even a real team, just a marketing concept put together to sell sportswear to teenagers. Teal? How'd they come up with teal? They had to do a survey of what teens wanted to wear on their hooded sweat shirts to get a color like that.
     I remember getting fired from a job once — my last job before this one, now that I think of it. A small suburban daily newspaper. For something I wrote in my column, coincidentally. My boss looked like he just swallowed a lemon, and he asked me to go for a walk. He did the deed on the side of Schmale Road, in Wheaton, with the traffic whizzing by. 

     Did I mention that my grandfather took me to my first Indians game? It was the only thing we ever did together in our entire lives. I can still see him sitting there in his neatly laundered sports shirt, smelling of cigarettes and Luden's cough drops, cheering. He's long gone now.
      But things have a way of working out. That newspaper folded shortly after I left, and the guy who fired me took some job in the distant collar counties and was never heard from again. I ended up here. 

    Well, not here, not at the moment, but at the World Series in Cleveland. I'll be back here tomorrow. Eight a.m. flight. Don't tell anybody.
      —First published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Oct. 21, 1997


    "What is this?" the editor at the time asked me, an hour after I turned in the column. I brightly explained to her that I was going to call in sick and attend the World Series in Cleveland. She frowned. "You know you could be fired for this? For calling in sick when you're not sick." 
     I'm not sure what I replied. Certainly not, "But I'm NOT calling in sick, not really, you muddle-minded martinet. I lay it all out in the column. I'm attending a World Series in another city at no cost to you whatsoever! Plus you get a fun column out of it. Isn't that the important thing?" 
    Apparently not. I no doubt apologized and wheedled, my only goal being to get my ass to the game, which Cleveland lost to the ersatz Florida nine in what I remember being a 4 and half hour ordeal in 42 degree weather that saw my pal and me at a bar in the flats before the final pitch was thrown.  I do remember seeing Bob Hope at the beginning of the game, a distant speck in a box, waving to the crowd. 
      The editor, incidentally, went on to a glittering career at the Tribune, where fidelity to rules is highly prized.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Trump brand now shining like a lead balloon




     There are many ways to vote against Donald Trump.
     Vote early now or at the ballot box Nov. 8.
     Either way works. But that still isn’t enough for some to register their disdain for the talking yam who would shrug off our cherished democracy.
     Walking through a Barnes & Noble this week, Michele Kurlander turned books by Donald Trump around, so their covers faced the wall.
     “Childish,” she said. “But it made me feel better.”
     In May, when the Los Angeles Dodgers were at Chicago and staying at the Trump International Hotel and Towers, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez refused to join his teammates at the hotel.
     “I didn’t stay there,” Gonzalez said. “I had my reasons.”
     And Elonide Semmes, president of Right Hat, a boutique branding agency headquartered in Chicago, instructed her staff not to stay in Trump hotels as they crisscross the country helping companies forge corporate identities. The epiphany came on the Chicago River during an architectural boat tour.

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Thursday, October 20, 2016

A sort of genius really




    Donald Trump exists in that surreal zone of stupidity that is so extreme, you'd almost feel sorry for him, that is, if he weren't trying to lead the country over a cliff. 
    The day after his third scowling, shrugging, blathering performance at a presidential debate, he raised what has become one of his trademark baseless charges: that Hillary Clinton was "inappropriately given the debate questions."
     Which leads us to the subjects raised at the debate: the Supreme Court. Immigration. The economy. Couldn't of seen these coming, eh? These were surprises to Trump? No wonder he was so badly beaten by Clinton and her secret information. No wonder, even as the debate was transpiring, Trump was aware enough that he was blowing it, again, badly enough that only cheating on Clinton's part would explain it. He lashed out at her, poised despite his constant interruptions, insults, one of which, "nasty woman," instantly became a badge of honor, the way that the ((())) denotation used by Trump's anti-Semitic supporters to tag Jewish names was seized and used by Jewish writers on Twitter.
      While I have been slow in surrendering my pessimism, my nagging fear that he will win, the polls are such that I'm beginning to yield that up to actual hope that he won't. 
    Still, it's grim that he's even running, that he's in contention, that anyone supports him. He'd be embarrassing as a fringe candidate that got a whopping 10 percent of the vote. 
    Let's touch upon the undeniable qualities: a bigot and a bully, a fraud and a liar. Rolling like a puppy at the feet not only of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, but too dumb to be ashamed of it. Lauding Syrian butcher Bashar al-Assad, calling him smarter than both President Obama and Hillary Clinton in Wednesday's debate, when he hobbyhorsed on his dozen or so familiar concepts, ignoring the substance of the questions he was asked. 
    Hillary Clinton didn't get the questions ahead of time.* Any idiot would have known what policy questions Chris Wallace would raise. But Donald Trump is not just any idiot.  He's special. Idiocy is the one area where he truly excels. 


* Events later showed that, actually, she had, the rare instance of one of Trump's wild charges actually being true. That said, I think the point still stands.

"Soul clap its hands and sing'




                              That is no country for old men. The young 
                               In one another's arms, birds in the trees

     Ever since Google maps started listing 'L' stations, I take the train everywhere. Why bother with a cab? Trains are convenient, usually faster, and cost a lot less.  
     Plus the 'L' pulses with life, energy. The middle aged suburbanites on the Metra gaze at their phones in dull silence, like cows in a pen. The city kids tumble on and off the trains, shouting, laughing, practically dancing in place.
      Or such is my romantic view of it.
     So I took the Brown line from the Merchandise Mart to Sedgwick Tuesday to meet a friend for lunch at Kanela's Breakfast Club on Wells Street. Try the barbecue chicken salad. Mmm.
     While I was in the neighborhood, I stopped at the Up Down Cigar Shop to pick up a couple Rocky Patels as a treat. And now I'm taking the train back to the paper. 
    Most people stand by the door, but that gets crowded, makes it hard for others to get in and out. So I step into the center of the train. Considerate. The train is full, there isn't a seat, but that's okay. I can stand for two stops, or 20. I'm a man in motion, moving through the city, on the 'L,' healthy, happy, or as close to happy as I come. 
    A young woman is sitting next to me. I don't notice her until she speaks.
    "Would you like my seat?" she says. I look around, to see who she's talking to. She's talking to me. I look down at her face. About 20. I'd almost guess Navajo, by her cheekbones and her gleaming black hair, but that can't be. Probably Hispanic. A college student maybe.

                                —Those dying generations—at their song,
                                   The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
                                   Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
                                   Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.


    "No thank you," I say, automatically then, unable to resist, jut out my lower lip and add petulantly, "Nobody has ever offered me a seat before." But she has already looked away, and I do the same. 
     Fifty-six. A bit grey in the beard, yes, but I thought in a dashing, Richard Branson sort of way. Not in a geriatric, young-people-offering-me-a-seat way. I keep my gaze level, watching the apartments roll past. 
    "A person is always startled when he hears himself seriously called an old man for the first time," Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. wrote in 1858, when he was ...ulp... 49. 
     Then again, Holmes lived to be 85, old enough to see his son, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the future Supreme Court Justice, rise to the high court of Massachusetts. Still plenty of time to get used to my role in the universe. 
    Besides, the offer is a good thing, to see the young offering their elders a seat. And kids, really, they aren't able to judge how old people are. Everybody over 30 is ancient. You can't feel bad about that. Though of course I do, a little. No one wants to grow old, though we all do. Most of us, that is. Nothing to do but accept it. Growing old, remember, beats the alternative.  Yeats, as always, points the way out in his "Sailing to Bzyantium."
                                          
                                          An aged man is but a paltry thing,
                                          A tattered coat upon a stick, unless 
                                          Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
                                      For every tatter in its mortal dress

     That's a plan. The doors slid open at the Mart stop and, not looking again at my would-be benefactress, I put on my bravest face, not quite clapping and singing, but striding out of the train with all the purpose and dignity and vigor I can muster.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Now is the time to salaam before Steve Bartman



 
     Life is not fair.
     I hope I’m not the guy spilling the beans to you. But the best competitor and the one who wins are not always the same person.
     Baseball teaches us that. It isn’t just any player who whiffs to sink the Mudville Nine. It is the Mighty Casey.
     The team whose pitcher racked up the most number of perfect innings in a game — 12, by Pirate Harvey Haddix — also lost that game, in the 13th.
     And the Cubs … well, they’re in the playoffs now, still, in the second half of October. Acclaimed the best team in baseball, for all the good that does. Fans strode into the post-season confident in our champions who just needed to execute a few preliminaries, to sign some paperwork, the bill of lading for our long-delayed and much re-routed delivery of glory.
     Then we felt a chill.
     An apt moment to give reverence to Steve Bartman, to salaam before him, like a minor household deity. You remember Bartman. He was just another fan at Wrigley Field on Oct. 14, 2003, at Game 6 of another National League Championship Series, this one against the Florida Marlins. One out, eighth inning. Luis Castillo drives one down the left field line. Moises Alou goes after it....


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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

"Such a storm of vulgar force"— Books on the nightstand

  



   It's been a long time since I updated my Books on the Nightstand section. 

      We beat up ourselves for whipping out phones and text messaging each other, posting Facebook updates and sending Snapchats. But in truth, the desire to keep in touch with our friends and loved ones, as much as possible, is neither regrettable or new.  
    On Thursday, Oct. 7, 1773, Scottish lawyer James Boswell  watched a dreadful storm lash rain against the windows of the house he was staying at on a remote island in Western Scotland and felt cut off.
     "We were in a strange state of abstraction from the world," he wrote.  "We could neither hear from our friends, nor write to them. It gave me much uneasiness to think of the anxiety my dear wife must suffer."
     And Boswell was with the man he most admired in life, Samuel Johnson, the great English author and dictionary compiler, taking a long-anticipated trip to Boswell's home nation, visiting its western islands, the Hebrides.
    While they were warmly received wherever they went—Johnson at the time was among the most famous men of letters in the English-speaking world—It felt like both the outer rung of the civilization, and at times its lowest rung as well. At one point they peer into a poor hut, smoky and filthy, where the simple family sleeps all in one bed.
    "Et hoc secundum sententiam philosopherum est esse beatus,"  Johnson murmurs to Boswell. "And that, according to the opinion of philosophers, is happiness," no doubt a dig at Boswell's idol, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and his lauding of simple country virtues.
    Boswell would meet Rousseau. And Voltaire. And David Hume. And King George III. He thrilled to be in the presence of greatness, so much his adoration was almost charming. And Johnson, who once said "The road to hell is paved with good intentions," is the avatar of pithiness and reason. They're great guys to hang around with.
    Johnson remarks on the value of being attacked in print, as opposed to being ignored.
     "A man who tells me my play is very bad, is less my enemy than he who lets it die in silence," he tells Boswell. "A man whose business it is to be talked of, is much helped by being attacked."
     Words to remember.     
     Having read Boswell's Life of Johnson and found it perhaps the best biography I've ever read, I long anticipated Hebrides as a kind of looser encore, and it is exactly that, although Johnson does sometimes fade away, nearly lost amidst the lairds and lochs and crumbling castles that are being reported upon by Boswell. It nearly shocked me when Boswell paused to address it, as if he had read my mind.
     "He asked me today how we were so little together," Boswell notes, on Sept. 19, 1773. "I told him my Journal took up so much time. But at the same time, it is curious that although I will run from one end of London to another to have an hour with him, I should omit to seize any spare time to be in his company when I am in the house with him. But my Journal is really a task of much time and labor, and Mr. Johnson forbids me to contract it."
   The book is still a box of candy for any Johnson fan, and I've been reading it with much joy and happiness.  I happened upon a 1936 Viking Press imprint (in Evanston's delightful Amaranth Books on Davis Street) that reproduces the original manuscript, whole, and includes much tart personal observations that are cut out of the book as published at the time, his arguments with Johnson, his nightmares about his child's face, eaten by worms, and his tendency to start each morning with a dram of Scottish whiskey, until Johnson, a teetotaler, berates him. "For shame!" 
     They have an exchange that would be current this week, with the conservative Boswell taking up the popular Republican cry, and Johnson providing the draft of common sense.
    "But is there not reason to fear the common people may be oppressed?" Boswell asks. 
    "No sir," Johnson answers. "Our great fear is from want of power in government. Such a storm of vulgar force has broken in."
    "It has only roared," parries Boswell.
    "Sir, it has roared till the judges in Westminster Hall have been afraid to pronounce sentence in opposition to the popular cry.  You are frightened by what is no longer dangerous, like Presbyterians by Popery." There are many people nowadays, Johnson observes, quoting a popular work, who "would cry "Fire! Fire!' in Noah's Flood." 
    Such people are still with us, unfortunately, though the likes of Boswell and Johnson are not. But they can still be found alive and well and talking lustily in his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. Plus a lot about Scotland. They even observe a game of golf, circa 1773.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Saying goodbye to Ed McElroy

Sept. 8, 2016, Poetry Foundation

     The third to the last time I saw Ed McElroy alive was in early September, when he showed up at the Poetry Foundation for my book launch. That's what Ed did: he showed up. Old-school, no excuses. While typical friends are always there when they need you, Ed was always there, in a suit and tie, driving a black Cadillac. Though he wasn't always happy about it. "I thought there would be food at this," he said after the reading, his subtle hint that maybe I should invite him to the foundation's private dinner, so I did. He parked in a crosswalk on Clark Street, which puzzled my New York publishing pals — why was the car still there 90 minutes later? I pointed out the ceremonial police baton with its red tassel placed conspicuously on the dashboard. Welcome to Chicago.
     Ed was famous, once, in the 1950s and 1960s, on WJJD. He announced wrestling, boxing, bicycle races. He hung out with Ted Williams. When married Rita in 1955, Richard J. Daley attended the wedding. Daley once sent Ed to the airport to pick up a young senator from Massachusetts. John F. Kennedy and Ed had dinner on Rush Street.
     "Ed knew Martin Luther King," I told our table mates. "King was very good to me," agreed Ed.
     The second to the last time I saw Ed alive was at the end of September. He invited me to dinner at Gene & Georgetti with Marc Schulman, owner of Eli's Cheesecake. The occasion was pure Ed, in that I had no idea why we were there -- for Marc's benefit, or my benefit, or his. After radio, Ed became a publicist, for the Water Reclamation District and the Fraternal Order of Police and countless judges. He worked so smoothly you forgot he was working. We talked about Marc's dad, Eli, and the last time Ed and I ate at his namesake steakhouse on Chicago Avenue. Colleague Ray Coffey had grown weary in retirement, and we were cheering him up. That was also the sort of thing Ed did. He kept tabs. If you were Catholic and homebound, he'd slide by an give you communion, removing the wafer from a gold box he kept in his pocket. If you needed cheering, he'd take you to a steak house.
     In that light, maybe dinner was for me.

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Rita and Ed McElroy ins his home office. 

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Oddness and telephone service



     The phone stopped working.
     So my wife called AT&T, to see what the problem was. 
     During the 45 minutes she was on hold, she asked, "Should I just cancel our line?" Lots of people are doing that now. No need for land lines. Cell phones are sufficient. 
     "Go for it," I said. The only people who call are surveys and charity come-ons, inevitably while I'm trying to nap. And my mother, though she can call my cell. 
      But when my wife finally got a representative, she found it would cost $10 a month more to not have a phone, under our plan. It seemed odd to pay for a service we'd no longer be getting. Might as well keep it. 
     She continued on hold.  A thought came to me. 
     "Why get the line fixed?" I asked. We didn't want a phone. We could pay the extra ten bucks a month to have the line discontinued. Or we could just leave it dysfunctional and get the same result: no phone. Heck, we could throw our phones away — except of course for the rotary dial classic that I bought for $5 on eBay just because I wanted one. 
    My wife's face fell.
     "We're paying for it," she said. "We might as well get the service."
     A service, I hasten to add, we no longer want.
     That's psychology for you. 
     So we'll have to wait until our contract is up, in January, when we can discontinue home phone service without paying the penalty. It'll seem odd, without it. Then again, lots of stuff feels odd lately. Oddness seems a condition of 21st century existence. 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Something new along with the Gideon Bible.



      I've stayed in a lot of hotels, high and low.
      There was the Gritti Palace in Venice, the Biltmore in Santa Barbara, the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec. 
      Those were highs.
      Then there was that motel on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles, the one were you paid for your room by pushing your money into a stainless steel tray under a bulletproof window. The dump in Des Moines where we couldn't open the windows nor turn the heat off. And that place with the flies.
     Those were lows.
     But I've never, ever, been in a hotel anywhere in the world that set out earplugs on the night stand, along with a cheery business card, trying to put a bright spin on it. 
     Don't get me wrong. We loved our stay at the Starved Rock Lodge. A Civilian Conservation Corps classic, with an enormous lobby with a huge stone fireplace. Rustic rooms. An adequate pool.  We've already booked our room for next year.
      But the moment we checked in, well, it was in room 201, at the end of the hall. And I thought as we trooped toward it, Well, at least we'll be far away from the elevator. But just as we approached the room, we passed another, single elevator, right next to our room. We opened the door, as I was processing this, set down our bags, and my eyes fell on these ear plugs. "Just how loud could that elevator possibly be?" I wondered. My wife went outside and pushed the button. I sat on the bed, feeling unfortunate, and listened. You could hear the ping of the elevator loud and clear, like a ball peen hammer to the base of the skull.  You'd think hotels would turn those pings off. I would have passively cursed my lot, jammed the earplugs in and worn them for the next day.  But my wife is a woman of action—while I sat morosely on the bed, staring at my foot, she trooped down to the desk and got us moved, to room 208. 
     Which also had earplugs. I realized they were standard issue. Every room has 'em. Yes, the hotel is old, and poorly insulated. We would hear the whoops and muffled shouts of families parading down the hall. But you get that in most hotels, and none of them have earplugs.
     We never availed ourselves to the earplugs, despite the familial clatter, though we did take them home, for use at Union Station, where I'm an enormous fan of earplugs -- people don't realize they're deafening themselves by standing for hours, cumulatively, next to roaring engines. 
     Earplugs are a bad bit of equipment to set out on the night table. Necessary or not, they set the wrong tone, and says, "This room is really loud." To be honest,  the Starved Rock Lodge didn't seem louder than any other hotel, once we got away from the elevator. So much about life is psychological. It's as if they had a can of air freshener, or a fly swatter. I am not a hotelier, but I do have a single word of advice:
     Mints.