Jay Gatsby and Notorious B.I.G.: A Match Made in Baseball Heaven

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Ah, baseball season has arrived! And with it, the joy of the walk-up song. For the true baseball fans among us, name a favorite player and you can name his walk-up song. Same for your team’s closer (whose walk-up song is known as the “entrance song”). Including even those greats who’ve retired. What Yankees fan, when hearing Metallica’s “Enter the Sandman,” doesn’t sigh at the memory of Mariano Rivera coming in from the bullpen for yet another save?

(For the uninitiated, a walk-up song is that heavy metal, hip hop, or country tune that blares throughout the stadium as the player walks from the on-deck circle to the batter’s box–or, for the closer, as he jogs in from the bullpen to the mound.)

Being not only a baseball fan but a mystery author and a former English major, I’ve twice before welcomed the baseball season with a post challenging readers to come up with walk-up songs for some of their favorite literary characters.

For example, imagine Jay Gatsby, wearing that baggy Yankees uniform from the 1920s, stepping off the on-deck circle and heading toward home plate, elegantly swinging his bat. What would be the perfect walk-up song for the cheering crowd? My choice: “Mo Money Mo Problems” by Notorious B.I.G.

From some great characters in literature, the perfect walk-up song is obvious. Take Satan from John Milton’s Paradise Lost? Easy: “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones. Shakespeare’s Iago? “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogrood. Dr. Pangloss from Candide? I’d opt for Louis Armstrong’s version of “What a Wonderful World.” And Marlow from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness? Talk about low hanging fruit. No question: Gun N’ Roses’s “Welcome to the Jungle.” (I originally stupidly credited the song to AC/DC, but my daughter Hanna caught the error and I corrected it. Thanks, Hanna!)

Mystery fans? Harry Bosch would opt for the Indigo Swing’s jazzy version of “Another Day in L.A.” As for Philip Marlowe? ZZ Top’s “Sharp-Dressed Man.” Why that particular song? Read the first paragraph of The Big Sleep, one of my favorite opening paragraphs by one of my favorite writers:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning mid October with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything a well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”

The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler

“Sharp-Dressed Man,” right? Of course.

Okay. Your turn to come up with some walk-up possibilities.

Are you a classic literature fan? What’s the appropriate walk-up song for Captain Ahab? For Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy? For Shakespeare’s Falstaff? Or Hamlet? Or Huck Finn? Anna Karenina? Holden Caulfield? Or whatever character you love.

Mystery fan? Sherlock, of course. But perhaps Dr. Watson. Mickey Spillane? Kinsey Millhone? Sam Spade?

Romance fans? Sci-Fi fans?

Then join in! We need some more walk-up songs for our favorite fictional characters.

Fathers and Sons and the Iliad: An Apology to Homer

I confess to a failure to appreciate certain works of literature that bask in universal acclaim. One example triggered my apology to Tolstoy for failing to love Anna Karenina–a novel on every list of the greatest works of world literature. And for years I felt a similar bafflement over my lukewarm reaction to Homer’s The Iliad.

I had started that classic excited to finally read the original version of the Trojan Horse episode, that brilliant strategy that ended the 10-year war between the Achaeans and the Trojans. Instead, as I soon discovered, the plot of the Iliad covers just a few weeks in the ninth year of the war and focuses mainly on a ridiculous quarrel between the great warrior Achilles and Agamemnon, who has become leader of all the assembled Greek forces besieging Troy. Agamemnon, in his bloated sense of self entitlement, decides that he hasn’t had enough of the spoils from this war. Specifically, he’s had his eye on a ravishing slave girl given to Achilles. So he takes her for himself. Achilles, now pouting over the loss of his concubine, refuses to fight in the war. Worse, the gods interfere in the outcome of every single battle in the book, each time depending upon the whims of that particular god. And even worse, the Iliad ends before the Trojan Horse scene. Sort of like watching Oceans 11 or The Sting but having the film end before the big climax. It reminded me of my surprised disappointment at the end of David McCullough’s engrossing 1776, when I realized that the Revolutionary War would be continuing beyond the year 1776, and thus beyond the end of the book.

So why have I returned to The Iliad with new appreciation? Because of Hector and his father. Let me explain:

Hector is the great warrior of Troy. He is the son of Priam, who is the king of Troy, and he is the brother of Paris, the handsome bozo who caused the war by seducing Helen, the beautiful wife of Agamemnon’s creepy brother Menelaus, and convincing her to return with him to Troy. Yes, the cause of all the death and devastation suffered in that ten-year war is an angry cuckold seeking revenge.

To me, the two most compassionate scenes in the Iliad are (1) when Hector says goodbye to his wife and baby son before heading off to his battle with the fearsome giant Ajax, and (2) when Priam, at mortal risk, comes alone at night to the tent of Achilles to beg for the corpse of his son Hector that Achilles has killed.

You will not be surprised that I am hardly the first to be moved by these two scenes, both of which have inspired numerous paintings, sculptures, and other works of art.

Priam Begs Achilles for Hector’s Body (Alexander Ivanov)

In that nighttime scene in Achilles’ tent–which occurs in the final book of the Iliad–Priam tearfully begs Achilles to let him take his son Hector’s body back to Troy for a proper funeral. In making his plea, Priam asks Achilles to think of his own father, Peleus, and the deep love between them:

Revere the Gods, Achilles! Pity me in my own right, remember your own father! I deserve more pity. I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before–I put to my lips the hands of the man who killed my son.

The Iliad, Book 24 (Transl. by Robert Fagles 1990)

Both men weep–Priam for his dead son, Achilles for his own father. Achilles agrees to give Hector’s corpse to Priam, who brings the body back to Troy for the huge funeral pyre that is the final scene in the poem, which ends with these words: “And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses.”

But, at least for me, the other scene–the one just before the battle between Hector and and the fearsome Ajax–is even more heart wrenching. Hector has returned to Troy to lead the battle against the Greeks on the plains outside the walls of Troy. We readers know already that he is destined to die in his later battle with Achilles. Hector dons his armor and heads toward the Scaean Gates, the grand entrance to the city where many confrontations have already occurred. But as he reaches those gates, his wife Andromache comes running to meet him, followed by a nurse carrying his infant son Astynax.

The Farewell of Hector to Andromache and Astyznax (Knarl Friedrich Deckler)

Hector turns toward them. “The great man of war,” the poem reads, “breaking into a broad smile, his gaze fixed on his son, in silence.” Andromache, weeping now, pressing against her husband, holding his hand, pleads:

Reckless one, my Hector–your own fiery courage will destroy you! Have you no pity for him, our helpless son? Or me, and the destiny that weighs me down, your widow, now so soon?

The Illiad, Book 6 (Transl. by Robert Fagles 1990)

When she finishes her plea, Hector nods:

All this weighs on my mind too, dear woman. But I would die of shame to face the men of Troy and the Trojan women trailing their long robes if I would shrink from battle now, a coward.

And when he finishes his long speech to his wife, the poem says that “shining Hector reached down for his son–but the boy recoiled, cringing against his nurse’s full breast,” screaming in fear at the site of his father dressed for battle, “terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest, the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror.”

Hector’s farewell to Andromache and Astyanax (C.W. Eckersberg)

And then comes that tender scene that makes me–and perhaps other fathers–teary eyed: “And his loving father laughed, his mother laughed as well, and glorious Hector, quickly lifting the helmet from his head, set it down on the ground, fiery in the sunlight, and raising his son he kissed him, tossed him in his arms, lifting a prayer to Zeus and the other deathless gods”

He asks the gods to grant his son strength and bravery and glory among the Trojans . . .

. . . and one day let them say, He is a better man than his father!

I look at my three sons, all grown men now, and Hector’s final words resonate with me. One day let those who know us say of my three sons, “They are better men then their father.”

Tonto, Aunt Jemima, and the Challenge of Oblivious Bias

Surrounded by dozens of hostile Indians on horseback waving rifles and tomahawks, the Lone Ranger turns to his faithful companion. “What are we going to do, Tonto?”

“What do you mean ‘we,’ Kemo Sabe?”

Earlier this year I gave a Strafford webinar presentation entitled “Rebranding Trademarks: Challenges of Walking Away and Choosing a New Mark.” The focus was how the Black Lives Matter movement had forced many companies to finally realize that one their most profitable trademarks was offensive to a certain portion of their customers. The result? Lucrative trademarks–such as the iconic Aunt Jemima and Eskimo Pie–became toxic. Indeed, the Washington Redskins, which had spent millions of dollars in legal fees defending its brand, played the 2020 season as simply the Washington Football Team.

But as I dug into the issues for that presentation, I realized that recognition of the harm caused by culturally offensive trademarks had preceded the Black Lives Matter movement—in some cases by decades. My personal experience was perhaps the best proof. I played on my high school football team. Back then, we were the U City Indians—and none of us back then perceived anything offensive about that name. And keep in mind that more than once, when we got off the bus for our games at rival high schools, we were met with derisive chants of “Jew City, Jew City.” In other words, if anyone should have been aware of an offensive term, it should have been my teammates. More precisely, it should have been me. Nevertheless, by the turn of the century the Indians had become the Lions.

When I attended Amherst College, our sports teams were the Lord Jeffs, named for Lord Jeffrey Amherst, who gained distinction during the French-Indian Wars of the 1700s by selling smallpox-infected blankets to the Indians. The chinaware in the school dining hall best captures the oblivious bias of that era, with dishes depicting our esteemed Lord Jeff on horseback chasing Indians around the outside of the plate. (You can’t make this stuff up.) Were any of us outraged? Nope. We were suffering from oblivious bias.

Early in the 21st Century the Amherst sports teams became the Mammoths—perhaps an overly aspirational mascot for a Division 3 school of 2,000 students, but certainly an improvement over the Indian infector of yore.

But two recent incidents remind me—and perhaps you—that we shouldn’t be too quick to congratulate ourselves for the cancellation of that handful of culturally offensive trademarks.

The first example was triggered when I overheard a screed about how “offensive” and “unAmerican” it was that the introductory recording for all of those call centers—government entities and otherwise—begins by giving you the option of proceeding in English (by pressing 1) or Spanish (by pressing 2).

“This is America,” he shouted. “The Pilgrims spoke English, not Spanish!”

I shook my head in sad amazement at his ignorance. The rich history of our Spanish heritage is on full display throughout our western states, including, of course, the names of four of them–Colorado, Arizona, California, and New Mexico–and all of the major cities in California, including San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara. And then there is Florida, named by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513 in tribute to Spain’s Easter celebration known as “Pascua Florida,” or Feast of Flowers. Don’t forget Texas, where one can take a boat ride on the Rio Grande (in English, Big River) right through the town of El Paso (in English, The Passage). Yes, our founding fathers (and mothers) included plenty of Spaniards. And plenty of French, the obvious evidence of which remains in the names of all of those cities within the territory acquired from France in the Louisiana Purchase, including St. Louis, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans–all three of which still celebrate the holiday of Mardi Gras (translation: Fat Tuesday).

Jeep Cherokee

And as for the Indians, my elementary school lessons pretty much ended with that largely fictitious first Thanksgiving feast in 1621. Still, I had thought that after 2020—and the final demise of the Redskins brand—we had ended the culturally offensive use of Native American names. But just this past month I learned that the Chief of the Cherokee Nation has asked Jeep to stop using the name of his Native American tribe as the brand of one of its vehicles. As reported in the New York Times, the Chief explained that the name belonged to the Cherokee people, and that Jeep’s appropriation of it without permission was troubling: “The use of Cherokee names and imagery for peddling products doesn’t deepen the country’s understanding of what it means to be Cherokee,” he explained, “and I think it diminishes it somewhat.”

The point here is NOT to criticize Jeep, and certainly not to criticize you. No, the point here is to ask you (as I have asked myself) the following question: before you read this (or saw that news report) had you ever connected the Jeep brand with that Native American tribe? When you saw a TV commercial for the Jeep Cherokee or found yourself idling next to one at a red light, did you make that connection? I confess that I never did. Ever.

And regardless of whether you find that Jeep brand offensive, what does that failure to make that connection say about us? Why are we still so oblivious?

If you’d like to discuss this further, perhaps you could join me during my ski vacation at the Squaw Valley Resort. I’ll be driving out there in my Pontiac, and on the way we can turn the radio to the Blackhawks hockey game.

Remarkable Graveyards and Sad Words of Wisdom

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As our days in St. Louis grow shorter–we move to Chicago in November–Margi and I took a hike through the remarkable Bellefontaine Cemetery, rightfully named a Best Hidden Gem by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

In addition to serving as the final resting place for many historical figures, such as William Clark of Lewis & Clark renown, this burial ground features row upon row of grandiose mausoleums with the names of their “inhabitants” etched on the marble or granite lintels above the doorways. For example, the mausoleum above is for someone–or some family–named Tate.

Adolphus Busch Mausoleum

So, too, the earthly remains of Adolphus Busch, the co-founder of the Anheuser-Busch Brewery, has what could hardly be described as a modest burial structure.

And those were just two of dozens and dozens of mausoleums that we strolled past on our hike.

As we passed one row after another, I was reminded of the sad but wise meditation of Marcus Aurelius on this very subject. Nearly 2,000 years ago, he wrote:

People who are excited by posthumous fame forget that the people who remember them will soon die too. And those after them in turn. Until their memory, passed from one to another like a candle flame, gutters and goes out.

At Bellefontaine Cemeery
On our walk through Bellefontaine Cemetery

From Covfefe to Aunt Jemima R.I.P.–Trademarks in the Era of Black Lives Matter

In my day job as an intellectual property lawyer I’ve been blogging occasionally about the strange new world of trademarks that began three years ago with the explosion of trademark registration applications for the 7-letter typo in one of Donald Trump’s late-night Tweet complaints about what he claimed was “fake news.”

Following that trademark silliness was this year’s explosion of registration applications for variations on the term COVID-19. Those applications now number more than 350 and even include one referring back to the Trump typo: COVID-19 TAKES DOWN COVFEFE (Serial No. 88849328).

But in recent days that trademark narrative has undergone a profound change. Specifically, many profitable but controversial brands–from the Washington Redskins (dating back eight decades) to Aunt Jemima (introduced in the 19th Century)–have been undergoing an overdue but inspiring evolution, largely in response to the social protests and cultural reckoning inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. This has been the commercial trademark equivalent of the removal of statues of Confederate generals and other formerly iconic historic figures.

You can find my blog post, along with links to the earlier ones, here.

Benny and the Greatest Bowel Movement in Literature

Several years ago, as an interminable mediation of a high-profile trademark case stretched into the wee hours of the night, I stepped outside my crazy client’s breakout room to get another cup of coffee and found the mediator–the late and beloved Dick Sher–seated at a table in the lunchroom sipping his own cup of coffee and reading one of the short stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners. Grateful for a chance to discuss something other than damages issues in the lawsuit, I joined him at the table.

Turned out we were both English majors in college, and our favorite short story of all time was “The Dead” by James Joyce, one of the stories in his Dubliners. But, I confessed to Dick, as much as I loved that short story, I was embarrassed to admit that I had tried to read Ulysses at least three times but never got past the first chapter.

“Really?” Dick said. “That’s my favorite novel. I’ve read it several times. Tell you what: find a few others willing to take it on and I will lead the group through the novel.”

And so I did. While it was a bit of challenge to find anyone–much less a half dozen–willing to join a Ulysses reading group, I finally gathered them all. Over the next few months, we met every other week to discuss the chapters for that session’s homework assignment. And we made it all the way through the novel, which some of us loved and some us, well, did not love. I was somewhere in the middle–deeply moved by several sections of the novel and deeply exasperated by other sections.

All of which made it inevitable that Rachel Gold’s best buddy, Benny Goldberg, would eventually weigh in on one of the more surprising scenes in Ulysses. And he eventually did so during a midnight stakeout with Rachel in the novel Face Value. Here’s Benny, in all us unique and off-color glory:

“Do you remember our nighttime stakeout a few years ago,” Benny asked. “We were at that self-storage operation out by the airport?”

I thought back. “Vaguely.”

Then you may also recall that while we were sitting there in your car waiting for something to happen I provided you with some enlightened commentary on an important gap in world literature.”

“You mean your demented rant on why no one in a novel ever makes a poop?”

“A ‘poop’? Did you just say ‘poop’? Good grief, Rachel. That is proof of the detrimental side effects of raising a child. But back to my commentary. It was a thoughtful and, if I may say, a profound discourse on the noteworthy absence of a certain bodily function from the novel. Great characters in world litera­ture eat and sleep and eat some more and occasionally fuck but they never ever take a shit. Huck and Jim on that raft for weeks, Captain Ahab on his ship, Jay Gatsby in his mansion, and even Tarzan in the fucking jungle, for God’s sake. Nary a dump.”

I sighed. “Yes, Benny, I do recall that rant.”

“Well, my dear, I must amend it.”

“Oh?”

“I finally dragged myself through that James Joyce piece of shit—no pun intended.”

Finnegans Wake?”

“Of course not. No one has ever read that book. Anyone who claims they have is full of shit. Again, no pun intended.”

Ulysses?”

“Exactly.”

“You read it?”

Benny shrugged. “Sort of.”

“What does that mean?”

“To quote the great Lord Arthur Balfour, ‘He has only half learned the art of reading who has not added to it the more refined art of skipping and skimming.’ Try to read Ulysses. You’ll see what I mean.”

“So what caused you to amend your prior diatribe?”

“A massive dump. In Chapter Two. Probably the biggest one in the history of world literature. And guess what? It’s by a member of the tribe.”

“A yid?”

“You got it. Leopold Bloom. You’d be proud of him. And then, near the end of the book, Leo and that other guy—that preten­tious putz from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—they stand side by side under the night sky and take huge pisses together.”

That is an endorsement worthy of a dust jacket blurb.”

Sex, Ecclesiastes, and Jewish Mothers

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One of the unexpected joys of writing a mystery series–or any series–is getting to spend more time with your main characters and, in the process, learning more about them. Such has been true with my Rachel Gold series, with has now reached #11 with the recent publication of Bad Trust.

Over the past several novels, I have become totally enchanted with Rachel’s mother Sarah. Indeed, she is now my favorite fictional Jewish mother of all time. A widow in her sixties, Sarah Gold speaks her mind on any topic and without inhibition. For example, she is apparently the subject of the amorous fantasies of many of the elderly men who work out at the Jewish Community Center at the same time she does. As Rachel explains in my new novel:

Though she recently turned sixty-six, my mother still looks terrific. She works out three days a week in the Fitness Center at the Jewish Community Center—and apparently the arrival of the red-headed Sarah Gold is eagerly anticipated by the older men. They flirt while she’s on the StairMaster and vie for position on the treadmill next to hers. Just last week my mother remarked that there should be a special place in Hell for whoever invented Viagra. I try not to think about the implications of that statement.

Rachel and her mother have a special loving relationship, as best exemplified by what she did after Rachel’s husband Jonathan died in a plane crash, leaving Rachel with two step-daughters and her little son Sam. As Rachel explains: “My mother lives about thirty steps from my back door. More precisely, she lives in the renovated coach house behind my house. After my husband Jonathan died, my mother sold her condo and, God bless her, moved in to help me raise Sam and my two stepdaughters, Leah and Sarah.”

Which is not suggest that Sarah is some mild-mannered timid granny.

Although my two step-daughters call me Rachel, they call my mother Baba, which is Yiddish for grandmother. Their Baba is hard-headed and opinionated and sets lofty standards for her grandchildren. Don’t ask the two girls how many times their red-headed Baba made them rewrite their college application essays. Though she can exasperate me like no other human on the face of the earth, we all adore her—and the “we” definitely includes Benny.

Nothing captures the essence of Sarah Gold more than her questions regarding Rachel’s relationship with the man Sarah fixed her up with: Abe Rosen, a tall, handsome Jewish doctor (of course) and a divorced father of two. Abe’s and Rachel’s children attend the same religious school on Saturday mornings, and the two of them meet for coffee while their kids are in class. Rachel (herself a widow) and Abe (recently divorced) have decided to take it slow. Too slow for Rachel’s mother, who interrogates her daughter as follows one evening after dinner:

My mother leaned back in her chair. “So?”
I frowned. “So what?”
She gave me one of her knowing smiles. “You and Abe.”
“What about me and Abe?”
“Are you two finally shtupping?”
“Mom, what kind of question is that?”
“One a mother should ask of her daughter, that’s what kind.”
I rolled my eyes and shook my head. “Really?”
“Yes, really. I know that a girl shouldn’t be opening her legs on a first date but come on now. How long have you two lovebirds been dating? A big virile man like that, well, I shouldn’t have to remind you, Rachel, a man’s got needs.”
“So do I, Mom. But that’s not the point. Abe and I are taking this slow. We both agreed.”
“Slow for how long?”
“I don’t know. We’re fine with it. I promise. Okay?”
“Okay, Doll Baby. But remember what that Ecclesiastes fellow said.”
“Huh?”
“There’s a time for everything under the sun. There’s a time to plant and a time to harvest what was planted. Right?”
I gave her a look, “Okay.”
“And you know what else? There’s a time to meet for a cup of coffee, and then there’s a time to say enough already with this coffee.”
I shook my head. “Oy.”

Sara Gold–I love her!

An Author Event in the Era of COVID-19

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I now have my own sequel to one of my favorite novels by the great Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera.

While I concede my sequel may not have the same poetic charm as the title of the Marquez novel, I can now say that have presided over a Book Signing in the Time of COVID-19.

The events in Love in the Time of Cholera take place over decades in an unnamed South American country about 100 years ago. By contrast, my event took place in under an hour last weekend in the alley behind the wonderful Left Bank Books in the Central West End of St. Louis, Missouri. And as you can see from the photo above, I arrived with all the proper gear for a COVID-19 book launch: pen, mask, and gloves.

Strange times.

Stay safe and healthy!

Marcus Aurelius and COVID-19

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I keep a copy of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius nearby and am continually amazed by the wisdom and the timely relevance of the musings of a Roman emperor from nearly 1,900 years ago.

I learned today that he lived through the Antonine Plague of 165 CE, a global pandemic that wiped out more than 10 million people. At some point during that horrible pandemic he wrote the following in his diary:

Bear in mind constantly that all of this has happened before and will happen again—the same plot from beginning to end, the identical staging. Produce them in your mind, as you know them from experience or from history: the court of Hadrian, of Antoninus. The courts of Philip, Alexander, Croesus. All just the same. Only the people different.