All Posts By Michael Kahn

More Seductive Pick-Up Lines for Authors

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As I have previously written, an enticing opening sentence to a novel is the author’s equivalent of a seductive pick-up line in a singles bar. You want to grab the attention of–indeed, entice–that potential reader who just picked your book off the shelf at the bookstore and, after examining the cover, opens to page 1 and starts reading that first paragraph. Granted, if you get lucky enough to end up that evening on the nightstand of your reader’s bedroom, you had better live up to that opening line or you’ll be haunted for years by a nasty one-star review on Amazon.com or Goodreads.

And as I have also previously written, I believe the greatest opening line of all time is the first sentence of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

My list of great openers goes on and on, and includes not only novels but great works of nonfiction, ranging from Hunter J. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.

to Norman Maclean’s A Rive Runs Through It:

In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing,

So why revisit this topic again? Well, I had just finished City on Fire, the latest novel by one of my favorite authors, Don Winslow. Winslow is the master pick-up artist, and his latest novel is no exception. Indeed, the opening sentence compels you to read the next one, and by then you are hooked:

Danny Ryan watches the woman come out of the water like a vision emerging from his dreams of the sea.

Except she’s real and she’s going to be trouble.

Right? And that reminded me of his most unusual opening: a two-word sentence–indeed, a two-word first chapter. His novel Savages opens: “Fuck you.” Yep. That’s Chapter 1. How can resist turning the page to Chapter 2, eh?

At the other extreme is the opening sentence to True Grit, the beloved novel by Charles Portis that has now been made into a movie twice, the first time in 1969 with John Wayne in the role of Rooster Cogburn and the second by the Coen Brothers in 2010 with Jeff Bridges in that same role. But often overlooked is the main character in both the novel and the movies: Mattie Ross. This is her story, and we meet this gritty young girl in the brilliant opening sentence of the novel, which sets the tone for what is to follow:

“People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.”

Ironically, my second favorite sentence from a Portis novel is the first sentence of Chapter 2 of Gringos, an hilarious tale that Entertainment Weekly  praised as “a glimpse of how a 20th-century Mark Twain might write. Here’s that opening sentence:

You put things off and then one morning you wake up and say: today I will change the oil in my truck.

I know. Weird, eh? Read it again. It’s sort of a redneck version of a Zen master’s koan.

Well, I can’t compete with those pick-up artists. But I do enjoy crafting the opening sentence to each of my novels, and in doing so try to hook the reader at least through the end of the first paragraph. By way of example, here is the opening paragraph to my novel Firm Ambitions:

Despite the allegations in the petition, fellatio is no longer included in Missouri’s list of infamous crimes against nature. It remains, however, “deviate sexual intercourse,” which the criminal code defines as “any sexual act involving the genitals of one person and the mouth or tongue of another.” The code calls it a Class A misdemeanor. Vicki MacDonald call its a Big Mac with Special Sauce.

The Trial of the Century? Man Plans and God Laughs

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The editors of The Common Reader asked me to review the posthumous publication of F. Lee Bailey’s book about his role in the so-called Trial of the Century: The People v. Orenthal James Simpson, in which the former football star was charged on two counts of murder for the gruesome multiple stabbings of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, whose bloody corpses were found on the front steps of her condo. Back in the 1990s, F. Lee Bailey was one of the most famous criminal defense attorneys in America and his client, O.J. Simpson, was one of the most famous celebrities in America, whose post-football career had included roles in Hollywood movies (he was “Detective Nordberg” in the Naked Gun comedies), guest appearances on daytime and late night talk shows, and other prominent commercial activities.

As a Boomer, and thus one of the tens of millions of Americans my age who were glued to the TV  on October 3, 1995, when the jury announced its infamous verdict, I was happy to read and review the book. But, as I read it, I became even more intrigued by a crucial omission.

Here is a link to my review. I hope you enjoy it!

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

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As I have stated before, the legal world offers up frequent new evidence in support of that hoary maxim: “Truth is stranger than fiction.”

A copyright lawsuit over a farting doll?

Check.

A trademark registration dispute of the brand of a sucker (lollipop) for fans of the University of South Carolina Gamecocks?

Check.

And thus here is yet another example of the wild and crazy realm of the law we intellectual property lawyers inhabit–and, in addition, a nice victory for the First Amendment. This particular case involving the size of a former president’s, er, private member. Enjoy!

More Thoughts on the Brave New World of X-Rated Trademarks

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Yes, you are looking at the one-word trademark whose registration dispute eventually reached the United States Supreme Court. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office had refused to register the FUCT trademark for apparel. The ground for refusal? Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, which prohibited the registration of trademarks that were immoral or scandalous. Erik Brunetti, the applicant, refused to give up, and the matter eventually reached the Supreme Court, where the issue was whether that immoral/scandalous prohibition violated the First Amendment.  I eventually wrote a blog post for my law firm on that crazy case, which the Supreme Court resolved in the summer of 2019.

Well, I confess I hadn’t thought about that case or that trademark for more than two years until I found myself at a traffic light, idling behind a Honda Civic displaying an X-rated bumper sticker. And thus the catalyst for another blog post for my law firm, which you can read here.

In this new world of Trigger Warnings, however, I warn you that there are some words–indeed, some trademarks–mentioned in this post that you can’t say on the radio. Enjoy.

The Bumper Sticker

Literary Foreplay: How the Pros Get You in the Mood!

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While out in Phoenix last week I had the pleasure of spending a delightful afternoon with two of my book publishing heroes: Barbara Peters and Rob Rosenwald, the founders of Poison Pen Press.  While sipping Rob’s amazing limoncello, which he creates with fruit from the lemon tree in their backyard, our conversation drifted, as you might expect, toward books. And in particular, the import role played by the opening paragraph–a topic I had discussed here a few years ago in the context of short stories. For a novel, that opening paragraph is the literary version of foreplay in which the author–and the publisher–hope to get their potential reader in the mood.

Rob read to me his favorite opening paragraph of all time, which he first saw in the manuscript for a thriller. He was so blown away by that paragraph that he was able to convince the author James Sallis to allow Poison Pen Press to publish that novel, Drive. That opening paragraph reads as follows:

Much later, as he sat with his back against an inside wall of a Motel 6 just north of Phoenix, watching the pool of blood lap toward him, Driver would wonder whether he had made a terrible mistake. Later still, of course, there’d be no doubt. But for now Driver is, as they say, in the moment. And the moment includes this blood lapping toward him, the pressure of dawn’s late light at windows and door, traffic sounds from the interstate nearby, the sound of someone weeping in the next room.

I was hooked! I read the novel as soon as I got back home–and it was terrific.

But it got me thinking about some other favorite opening paragraphs from novels I love. In each case, the opening sentence–like a great opening line in a singles bar–catches your attention. But what follows in the rest of that first paragraph is just as important if you, as the author, hope your reader wants to take you home. Here are just a few:

  1.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly – Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is – and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.
  2. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson: We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive….” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”
  3. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
  4. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler: 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 the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

My list goes on. But I wanted to end this with two truly unique opening paragraphs–one that tends to get lost in the shuffle because of the fame of its opening line and the other that has spawned an entire cottage industry of celebrators and dissectors.

The first is Moby Dick, which probably has the most famous opening line of all American literature. But that opening line only gets you to the second sentence–and as the Mark Twain example above demonstrates, that second sentence better not drop the proverbial ball. What’s remarkable about the lines that follow “Call me Ishmael” is how they lure you into the story:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

And the second is the opening paragraph of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, which has, as noted above, generated a cottage industry of analyzers and celebrators. Here is a link to just one of them. Do a Google search for “a farewell to arms opening paragraph” and prepare to descend into a rabbit hole of commentary. But first, here is that opener:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

Okay, readers. Any other openers you’d like to share?

Winnie-the-Pooh and Hemingway, too! Happy Public Domain Day

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The past few New Year’s Days, and every January 1st going forward, herald a special event in the realm of copyright for an ever-growing collection of works of creative arts that fall into the public on that first day of the year.

This January 1st marks that special day for one of our favorite literary characters, Winnie-the-Pooh, who famously said to one of his friends, “It isn’t much good having anything exciting if you can’t share it with somebody.”

Well, guess what, Winnie? A.A. Milne’s beloved tale of you and your pals entered the public domain on January 1, 2022, and can now be shared and re-published for free. And not just Winnie-the-Pooh. The life of a copyright–including all the exclusive rights and restrictions encompassed by that copyright–is 95 years. Accordingly, the copyrights in a whole slew of beloved books, movies, songs turned 96 on January 1, 2022–and thus entered the public domain. In addition to Winnie-the-Pooh, the public domain now includes Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Dorothy Parker’s Enough Rope, Langston Hughes’ The Weary Blues, and on and on and on.

What this means for all of us is a topic I explore in this post I wrote for my law firm. And, as you will see in that post, there is an important cautionary lesson lurking within the realm of public domain, as best exemplified by the action figure below from the McFarlane Toys’ “Twisted Land of Oz” collection.

 

The Tin Woodman

Trademarks, Pelotons, and Heart Attacks: The Sex in the City Trifecta

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During my years as an intellectual property lawyer, I have gathered a collection of NSFW cases in a folder labeled You Can’t Make This Stuff Up.

As discussed in my latest “lawyer” post (linked below), those cases include:

  1. A copyright dispute between the makers of two competing farting dolls–yes, dolls that fart;
  2. A lollipop company that sought to register the trademark for a sucker it hoped to sell to fans of the South Carolina Game Cocks (yes, you can probably guess the trademark for that sucker): and
  3. Groucho Marx’s brilliant response to a demand letter from Warner Bros., owner of the rights in the movie Casablanca, over the Marx Brothers’ film A Night in Casablanca.

Ah, but the recent Peloton brouhaha over what can best be described as the Product Placement from Hell deserves pride of place in my folder.

Hope you enjoy! Here is the link.

Why Is the Wisest Advice in the World so Hard to Follow?

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Many years ago I came across some words of wisdom from Mark Twain that have both inspired and haunted me ever since:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the things you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

Mark Twain

Ironically, those words were similar to advice my late father gave me: “Son,” he said, “make your errors in this life ones of commission and not omission. There are far worse things in this life than fucking up. You can always start over again. But if you fail to take that leap, it will haunt you forever.”

Or, to quote that wise 20th Century philosopher :

When you come to a fork in the road, take it

Yogi Berra

And yet we all realize (a) the deep wisdom of that advice, and (b) the difficulty of following it. Think of it as the lifetime equivalent of the first time you stood at the end of the high diving board staring down at the water below–or maybe at the edge of a cliff a good twenty feet above the lake. Should I jump?, you ask yourself. C’mon, just jump, you wuss. You can do. Just do it already!

Well, we’ve all been there. Over and over. At so many decision points in our lives–big ones, such as a new career opportunity, and little ones, such as what to order at a restaurant. And, as we look back on those decision points, we realize how often we decided not to jump, decided to back away from that cliff. Inertia is a powerful force in all of our lives. But then think of the times you did take that leap. Take a moment to gather some of your fondest memories–big and small–and how many of those would not exist today if you hadn’t taken that leap. Perhaps those memoires include a rock concert you decided to attend at the last minute, a hike you took in a national or state park, an oddball class you enrolled in during college and loved, a trip to someplace you’d never been, a yoga class, a guitar lesson, or any of dozens and dozens of other memories you are so grateful to have.

But then there are the bigger (and scarier) opportunities–your career, your relationships, your move to a new town or even a new country. The leaps you took, and the ones you didn’t take.

In a class I taught for years at the Washington University School of Law, I encouraged my students not to focus too narrowly on what they believed was the optimal career path, which many viewed as a clearly marked, well trod stairway up to that treasured tier known as “success” in a law firm or business. “Look at the careers of some of the most admirable people you know,” I would tell them. “I guarantee that none of them got to their present position following a straight line. Each of their life paths is a dizzying set of crisscrosses, screw-ups, back steps, and re-directs.”

Whether your personal hero is Barack Obama or Jeff Bezos or Ruth Bader Ginsberg or Ernest Hemingway or Lin-Manuel Miranda or Phil Knight or Oprah Winfrey or some other woman or man you admire (and even envy), take a moment to track their career paths and you will see the wisdom and the deep challenge captured in that timeless Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken”:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
 
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
 
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
 
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

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.”