Category Archives: Book Reviews

Coming Home with my Helmet On

Since I began re-re-re-reading The Iliad, I’ve looked forward to one scene more than others.  I’ll set it up for you and then let Mr. Lattimore do the heavy lifting.  A hard day’s fight has gone badly for the Trojans, thanks to some serious divine intervention on behalf of the Greeks.  The seer Helenos, brother to both Hector and Paris, has suggested that the women of Troy pray to Athena to help the Trojans and sends Hector from the battlefield to carry the suggestion.  Hector races through Troy to find the appropriate priests and then goes home to see his wife and son.

So speaking, glorious Hector held out his arms to his baby,

who shrank back to his fair-girdled nurse’s bosom

screaming, and frightened as the aspect of his own father,

terrified as he saw the bronze and the crest with its horse-hair

nodding dreadfully, as the thought, from the peak of the helmet.

I recalled this passage for two reasons:

  1. I have a student named Hector and the only thing that helped me learn his name is that he wears his long, curly hair tied on top.  It’s not horsehair, but it’ll do.
  2. Classicists love this vignette.  Of all the heroes in The Iliad, only Hector appears in both a martial and a domestic setting.  To modern readers, he most resembles what we’d call a good man.  He fights hard and he takes care of his family.  He leads his people.  He never seems greedy or cruel.  In addition, the audience, both modern and ancient, knew the characters’ fates.  His wife would live to see his husband run down and killed by the Trojan’s chief antagonist, Achilles.  His son would die a gruesome death, tossed from the walls of the city that failed to protect the Trojans.  All in all, a sad piece of business.

Reading The Iliad as a family novel, however, adds a third perspective, one deeply personal to me.  I can imagine Hector’s heart beating and his mind racing with the urgency of his task.  He’s got to save Troy; only he can save the city.  When he arrives at his home, his urgency is written all over his face–he hasn’t even had time to take his helmet off.  His urgency scares his family.

I’ve been there, Hector.  I have never had an easy time leaving work at work.  In particular, I let a bad day come home with me.  I come home with my helmet on and it clearly upsets my family.   It’s a bad habit I’ve kept with me as I’ve made the transition from advertising to teaching.

Fortunately, I’ve made progress. A little, anyway.

While I may come home with my helmet on, the impact has changed. I no longer come home especially angry and thus I don’t cause concern. Rather, I bore the living hell out of my family.

I have gone from coming home in a bad mood because of a stupid, pointless project to having nothing to talk about except my classes. Whether I had a good day or a bad day, I have little to talk about round the dinner table (yes, we mostly eat together still) other than what I did at work.

For context, I have almost no time during school for those mental breaks or water-cooler conversations I took for granted in my previous job. In class, I can’t slack off or a minute lest students take advantage of a lull to do something counter-productive. I do not exaggerate. Hell, they find time when I’m teaching them directly to do something counter-productive.

After class, I have to start preparing for the next day or to attend meetings where, as the new kid in town, I have to take whoever’s up front talking seriously. I rarely have an opportunity to mutter more than a brief greeting to another adult.

As a result, when I come home, I can’t talk about something funny I saw on the internet or the latest gossip about my co-workers because I barely had time to check Facebook or Twitter and I have no idea what my co-workers are doing when they’re not flogging education on students. So I don’t scare my family so much as bore them to pieces. I don’t blame them. How many times can I say “Manny was really extra today” before they tune it out?

I have to look at this change as progress. It’s taken me a few months to get here. As with many new teachers, I had an especially rough October as a result of flagging initial enthusiasm on my part mixed with the contempt borne of familiarity on my students’ part. It took well into November for me to feel settled again. And by that time, my family had heard all they needed to about my students’ and administrators’ antics.

If anything, the realization that I have bored my family stiff encourages me to talk less, not more, at dinner (a good thing). Maybe soon I’ll be able to leave my helmet at work for good.

Pre-Modern Family: My Fourth Trip through the “Iliad”

note: Off-topic post.  Way off-topic.  It relates neither to my new career as a math teacher or my old career as an advertising something-or-other.  Proceed with caution.

I first read the Iliad between my freshman and sophomore year in college, inspired by the truly inspiring Martin Ostwald.  Still a boy, I enjoyed the boys’s adventure aspect of the story, one of the first great combat narratives ever committed to paper.  As a recovering Dungeons and Dragons player, I could easily imagine myself slipping on Diomede’s greaves and sailing into the Trojan host with fervid glee.

When I told Mr. Ostwald that I had read it, he took his pipe from his mouth (perhaps metaphorically) and issued a challenge in two words: “in Greek?”

Hence I read it again as an analyst, decoding the letters, words, syntax and structure in a language that I never quite came to grips with yet one I bluffed someone into thinking I knew well enough to minor in it.  When I wasn’t wrestling with the text, I occasionally got to ponder the great questions about the book, such as the meaning of honor.

I even accidentally wrestled with an even greater question, “what is the meaning of ‘time’ in the Iliad?”  The poem only mentions time in passing, usually in some metaphor regarding sunrise (“rosy-fingered dawn”) or sunset.  It turns out that the fellow student who raised the question in a paper meant τɩμἠ, which transliterates as “time” (pronounced “tee-MAY”) but means “honor.”  Fun question though.

After a few years in the working world, I took an adult education course through my alma mater that involved reading the Iliad and Odyssey again.  This time, I immediately glommed onto the source material as an allegory about organizational management, of all things.  That is, Agamemnon reminded me of every son-of-a-bitch boss I ever had, Achilles stood in for the arrogant-but-effective star and Odysseus resembled the scheming ladder-climber who lurks somewhere in every cohort of middle managers.  Moreover, the whole structure of maybe three people making decisions for thousands without any input from them rang a little to true for a 30-something advertising veteran.

So, just as Paul Simon’s records make more sense when you reach the age he was when he recorded them, the text took on newer meanings with each re-reading.  However, unlike my previous readings, I went into my fourth time through the epic with a specific goal, to understand how the Iliad works as a family story.

I suppose as I near 50, family takes on added definition to me.  The family that raised me no longer exists as such.  All my grandparents have gone as has my mother and favorite aunt as well as some supporting characters.  Smaller though by no means less momentous meals have replaced the big Thanksgiving and Passover dinners of the past.  I guess I always expected continuation but I find myself in a new thing entirely.

More to the point, recent events both personal and professional have made family the first thing on my mind pretty much all day every day.  Naturally, as a new teacher, I see evidence of both supportive and non-supportive families every day.  I see a brother and sister whose ability and persistence in math couldn’t differ more.  I see miniature versions of my students in grades 6 & 7 and larger versions in the high school.  I hear from parents and guardians via email and I call them on the phone.

My own family has moved into a new set of hopes and needs.  My wife and I are helping our dyslexic son apply to high school.  Our daughter is overcoming her ADHD and blossoming as a student and an artist.  My father-in-law is falling deeper and deeper into dementia.  My brother has some form of heart disease.

At the same time, family is often all I have time left for.  New teachers essentially build their own toolboxes of lesson plans, homework assignment, quizzes and tests, which means they’ll probably never work harder than in their first years.  I also have the same after-class responsibilities as other teachers, such as faculty meetings and training.  I have graduate school as well.  What time I might have spent on myself generally goes to my family.

As a reflection on family, the first book of the Iliad has rewarded me handsomely.  Since I focused on derring-do, technical factors or organizational son-of-a-bitchery in previous readings, I hadn’t fully appreciated how family binds the work together.  At bottom, of course, the epic focuses on two pairs of brothers fighting for family honor, after a fashion.  Hector feels obliged to protect his prodigal brother.  Agamemnon, jerkoff though he may be, also needs to protect his brother’s interest as well as uphold the normal order of things.  You don’t just steal another man’s wife, no matter how hot you think she is.

I had forgotten, though, how often Homer used patronymics–fathers’ names.  Maybe reading War and Peace a few years ago should have reminded me.  Just in the first book, we learn that Agamemnon’s father is Atreus, that Achilles’ father is Peleus, that Zeus’ father is Cronos and that in turn several gods are children of Zeus.  We’re also introduced to the father-daughter pair of Chryses and Chryseis and Achilles’ cousin Patroclus.  We meet Achilles’ mother, Thetis, as well.

Remember that this first book involves a tangled set of family disputes.  It starts with Chryses begging Agamemnon for his daughter, whom he’s kidnapped and presumably raped as his captive (this is not evidence of his son-of-a-bitchery in the context of bronze age rules of engagement).  As a priest of Apollo, Chryses begs his patron for revenge, so Phoebus starts killing Greeks with either metaphoric arrows or real disease, depending on how you read it.  This pisses off Agamemnon, who decides to pack Chyrseis off back to her father and takes Achilles’ human war trophy (Briseis) in compensation (by contrast, this is evidence of Agamemnon’s son-of-a-bitchery in the context of bronze age rules of engagement).  In turn, Achilles calls on his mom to intercede with Zeus, who we must remember is Apollo’s father.  Zeus reminds Thetis that he wants to help but doesn’t want to annoy his wife, Hera (Apollo’s stepmother since Zeus couldn’t keep it in his pants and had him by Leto).  Got all that?

In short, book one of the Iliad already resembles a mid-series story arc from The Sopranos.  It readily displays that importance and responsibilities of of family.  We seek succor in our families but we also inherit their struggles.

I suppose there’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Book Review: Written in Stone

At first glance, a book on geology should have no resonance with marketing communications whatsoever.  Other than the outsize role that pressure plays in both fields, very little links them.  And yet I found a simple truth in Written in Stone that speaks to me and should also speak to anyone whose job entails understanding consumer behavior.

These rocks are 440 million years old and were formed in the era of the 15% commission

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Robert Pirsig’s Marketing Lesson (to me, at any rate)

Those of you old enough to have owned LPs when they represented the highest fidelity audio source rather than a hipster accessory will no doubt offer a tear or a heartfelt sigh at the passing of Robert Pirsig.  The author of a seminal work of seeker literature has died.

While some enjoy sneering atZen And the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” I wanted to share the life and marketing lesson I drew from it: value is always relative and sometimes hidden.

Yeah, shaft drives are great until you have to lubricate one

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Book Review: Hamilton

While it may seem counter-intuitive that Lin-Manuel Miranda chose to portray the life of one of America’s most patrician Founding Fathers via hip-hop, it shouldn’t.  This descendant of a Scottish laird had words.  Lots of words.

He wrote poetry as a young boy clerking for a merchant in his native Caribbean.  He wrote his first political tracts as a student at King’s College before the Revolution and the institution’s name-change to Columbia.  He wrote dispatches after dispatches as an aide-de-camp to General George Washington.  Most significantly, he helped write the United States Constitution and, most importantly for us marketers, the first great piece of content marketing in the new republic, the Federalist Papers.

While the Federalist Papers represent content marketing at its best, other Hamilton publications show content marketing at its worst.  These extremes serve as good guideposts for modern content marketers.

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Book Review: The Vikings

Culture change is hard.

I’m sure if you clicked on the link, you expected me to go into detail about the funny helmets and the wonton killing and whatnot.  Sorry to disappoint.  The biggest thing I took away from the book as a marketer is that culture change is hard.

Robert Ferguson’s “The Vikings: a History” focuses on the years from the late 7th century to the early 12th century, when bands of warrior-traders fanned out from Denmark, Sweden and Norway on raids and conquests.  I read the book because of this recent find of a potential Viking settlement in Newfoundland.  I’d always wondered how the hell Scandinavians made it to North America and menaced Sicily in roughly the same time frame.


Someone’s about to have a bad day

Turns out the Vikings ranged even further than I had thought.  In addition to the short-term excursions to North America a half-millennium before that Genoan fellow‘s travels, the Vikings also:

  • Sailed up the Seine to attack Paris and later conquered northwestern France (hence, “Normandy” for the Norsemen)
  • Conquered a large chunks of Ireland and Britain as well a bunch of those islands where they make Scotch
  • Founded Iceland
  • Colonized Greenland, where they first encountered Native Americans
  • Sailed across the Baltic, portaged boats to the Dnieper River and founded Russia in Kiev
  • Continued south down the Dnieper to the Black Sea and traded with the Byzantine Empire
  • Also traded with Arabs, as evinced by hoards of Arab-minted coins found in Scandinavia

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Book Review: The Fires

I’m going to recommend that you read a book I hated.

More accurately, I want you to read one chapter of the book I hated: The Fires by Joe Flood.  So don’t buy it; instead, borrow it from the library or find it in a Barnes & Noble and just read chapter 12, “Quantifying the Unquantifiable.”  Apart from the awfulness of the rest of the book, chapter 12 gives a master class in how not to use data.  The lessons therein pertain to anyone using data, although of course I find it most useful to apply those lessons to marketing data.

The book covers an interesting point in New York City history, the late 60s through the mid 70s, when fires ravaged poor neighborhoods despite the city’s best efforts to stop them with better management courtesy of management consultants (what could possibly go wrong?).  Yes, the book covers the “Bronx is Burning” era (a much finer book with a broader perspective).

Dino fire engine

Today, FDNY is well-integrated with the neighborhood.  Note the dinosaur skull on the truck that serves the American Museum of Natural History.

Why I hated the book

Before getting to the good part, I should explain why I hated the book overall.  Author Flood rehashes mid-20th-century New York City through a highly distorted lens.  How distorted?  Let me put it this way: he attributes the failure to the efforts of arch-liberals Mayor John V. Lindsay (who was, in fact, a liberal) and the RAND corporation (which grew out of the Douglas Aircraft Corporation, those filthy hippies who built the AC-47 gunship for the Vietnam War).  He also intimates that Tammany Hall maintained a strong grip on city politics into the 1960s, which would have come as a surprise to Tammany Hall, had it existed in more than name only at the time.

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Book Review: The Box

I’m trying out something new here: book reviews.  No, I don’t intend to gun for Michiko Kakutani’s job.  Rather, I can’t help but draw parallels between what I read and what I do.

So let’s begin with the only book I’ve ever read to devote an entire chapter, and then some, to setting dimensional and material standards for shipping containers.


Hey, this was a major plot point for Season Two of “The Wire!”

Marc Levinson’s The Box  covers the roughly half-century in which the hidebound world of ocean shipping transformed from rugged stevedores placing each and every carton in the hold of a freighter by hand to the current era where nearly all shipping except bulk commodities and motor vehicles takes place in a metal container moved by giant cranes.  While the topic only indirectly broaches marketing, it has important ideas for marketers nevertheless.

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