Corporate Money and Influence Undermines Our Democracy

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsSenator Kirsten Gellibrand (NY) responds to the question: why hasn’t there been any meaningful reform on gun violence in Congress: “First, I just want to say that my heart is broken. I mean, this is unfathomable how many deaths we’ve had to see over and over and over again. And Congress has done nothing. The silence is literally deafening. And they don’t get anything done because the NRA has a chokehold on Congress. The NRA is concerned only with gun sales. It is literally all about money. It is all about greed. It has nothing to do with the Second Amendment. And we’ve seen death after death after death, and it has to stop… [The NRA] has so much power that nothing was done after Aurora. Nothing was done after Sandy Hook. Nothing was done after Charleston. Nothing was done after Las Vegas. And nothing was done now [Parkland school shooting]… that is the power. It’s the power of money. It’s the power of communications. It’s the fear they instill in members [of Congress] — and it’s wrong. It’s morally wrong. I think it is a [Republican and Democrat] problem and I can tell you what the solution is. The solution is they need to listen to these kids. They’re starting a movement and taking this into their own hands and [speaking] truth to power. Because for me, when nine years ago I sat down with a mom and a dad, who just lost their teenage daughter to a stray bullet, and I met with her classmates — the anger and fear and resentment in their community because Congress does nothing, made me want to change. And so the solution to this problem is listening to those kids, and hearing their pain, their frustration, and anger and doing something about it… I came from a hunting family, but I can tell you the minute you meet a mom or dad who’s lost their child [to gun violence], you know… I recently met a mom who lost her four-year-old son on a park bench in Brooklyn. That’s in our neighborhood, that’s our community, right there. So we need to do somethng about it and I think this whole conversation has a chance of changing because of these kids. You know, people like Emma Gonzalez telling her story, speaking so forcefully, it could change… and to shame any member of Congress that takes money from the NRA and calling them out and holding them accountable. [When asked, nothing happens in Washington; is Washington owned by the corporations?]. Well, yeah, I believe that first of all, we have dark money in politics. We have unlimited corporate spending with no accountability, no transparency, so we have to get money out of politics. I’ve just banned corporate PAC checks, actually, because I think it is really important that [we lead by example]. I believe that other Congressmen have already joined [the bandwagon]… Cory Booker did right away, and other people are doing it… several of my colleagues. And the reason I think we have to lead by example on this is because we have start taking the money out of politics because it undermines our democracy. Money is not free speech. I do not believe that the Supreme Court saying that money is speech and corporations have the same free speech right as Americans. That is not true, it is false. We need publicly funded elections. You need to get the soft corruption out. You need to get the hard corruption out. And you need to take away the voice and the outside influence that corporations have over members of Congress — and the NRA is one of the worst offenders.” [emphasis added]

Excerpt from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert broadcast on Feb 20, 2018

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The School Shooting that Inspired Elton John’s Song, Ticking


Words for Superior Persons

alex atkins bookshelf wordsPeter Bowler is the quintessential word lover. He is the author of the successful logophile cult classics The Superior Person’s Book of Words (Volumes 1-3) that sold more than one million copies. The goal of these books were to provide readers with “constantly edifying and unfailingly highfalutin words that are guaranteed to provide the quotidian man on the street with new and better verbal weapons.” Here are some gems from those lexical treasure chests:

aasvogel: a vulture

battology: the constant repetition of the same words or phrases in writing or speech; for example: “like,” “literally,” “believe me”

dandiprat: a silly child

doxy: a prostitute; or a belief or religious doctrine [now that’s what you call a paradox!]

farraginous: having the characteristics of a mixture or hodgepodge

fopdoddle: an insignificant fool

jobation:  a lengthy, tedious scolding

opsimath: one who learns late in life

pilgarlic: a bald-headed man

Qhythsontyd: an obsolete form of Pentecost, the seventh Sunday after Easter

slubberdegullion: a dirty, wretched slob

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For further reading: The Superior Person’s Complete Book of Words by Peter Bowler

Famous Misquotations: A Civilization is Measured by How It Treats Its Weakest Members

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsThe quotation “A civilization is measured by how it treats its weakest members” or “The greatness of a nation can be judged by how it treats its weakest member” is often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. However, Gandhi never said or wrote those words. There is a related quote where Gandhi is speaking about cruelty to animals: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated. I hold that the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man.” The source of the quote is supposedly a speech given by Gandhi in 1931; but according to quotation sleuth Ralph Keyes, the words cannot be found in that speech. Nevertheless, this quote is often cited by animal rights organizations and advocates.

It was American writer and novelist Pearl Buck (1892-1973), best known for her novel, The Good Earth (winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1932), and recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature that wrote:  “Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.” The daughter of a missionary, she spent a large part of her life in China. When she returned to America she became a passionate advocate for mixed-race adoption, minority groups, and women’s rights.

Another notable individual who spoke about “the weakest members” was Hubert Humphrey (1911-1978) who served as U.S. Vice President from 1965 to 1969. At the Hubert Humphrey Building dedication in Washington, D.C. on November 1, 1977, Humphrey spoke about the treatment of the weakest members of society as a reflection of its government: “the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

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For further reading: The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When by Ralph Keyes, St. Martin’s Griffin (2006).

Could Jane Austen Find a Publisher for Her Work Today?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureIn a literary landscape filled with wizards, vampires, the undead, night walkers, and salacious love stories (eg, Fifty Shades of Grey and its ilk), one wonders if Jane Austen were alive today, could she find a publisher for her work? That’s the question that David Lassman, director of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, England posed back in 2007. Lassman submitted the opening chapters and plot synopses of Austen’s most famous novels to 18 of England’s largest publishers and prominent literary agents. Of course, he had to make a few slight modification to disguise her work. He changed Austen’s name to Alison Laydee (a play on her actual nom de plume, “A Lady”), altered the titles and the recognizable names of the main characters. He was however, bold enough to leave the famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice intact: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

So what sort of response did Jane Austen, one of the greatest and enduring writers in British history receive? Shockingly, Austen was rejected by all publishers and agents — yes, you read the correctly: the great Jane Austen received those wretched impersonal and disheartening rejection slips — aspiring writers can commiserate. Lassman elaborates, “I was staggered. Here is one of the greatest writers that has lived, with her oeuvre securely fixed in the English canon, and yet only one recipient recognized them as Austen’s work.” Bloomsbury sent a rejection letter stating that the “chapters had been read with interest but were not suited to our list.” Penguin sent a rejection letter that read: “Thank you for your recent letter and chapters from your book First Impressions [disguised Pride and Prejudice]. It seems like a really original and interesting read.” Thanks a lot, mate.

David Baldock, director of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath,  who was very disappointed with the results of this clever literary experiment, recognized that there is something very broken with the publishing industry today: “It’s interesting that there are these filters that stop work getting through. Clearly clerks and office staff are rejecting these manuscripts offhand.” He is being very polite. Look, when you diss a literary great like Austen, the gloves come off (and you don’t want to see what happens when you piss off all the Janeites who will quickly shed the polite and proper customs of the Regency Period and go off on a rampage, Game-of-Thrones style…). The problem is much deeper, much worse than “filters” that stop literary work. Let’s face it — one can surmise that these clerks are not very well-read. How is it possible that these appointed literary gatekeepers lack a level of education where they cannot even spot one of the most famous opening lines in literature (“It is a truth universally acknowledged…”). Would they even recognize Dickens, Shakespeare, Hardy, Eliot, Tolkien, Bronte, Orwell, or Woolf? And more critically, would they appreciate the brilliance, the creativity, and the depth of these great writers?

Based on the results of this literary experiment, one might arrive at the depressing conclusion that the decisions made by this new generation of literary gatekeepers would deprive the world of the greatest writers from the pantheon of literature. Nearly 400 years ago, Ben Jonson eloquently praised William Shakespeare in the preface to the First Folio by stating that the Bard was “not of an age, but for all time.” Perhaps Jonson was wrong. Sadly, as Lassman found out, that although some of of these author’s work has endured for several centuries, it is not for modern times, the Google Era. Alas, we live in a culture where readers crave banal, formulaic narratives, and the internet surreptitiously continues the dumbing down of the masses by offering fleeting digital communication filled with emojis, 140-character tweets, disappearing messages, sound bites on an endless loop, and Kardashianism. To quote Puck, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

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“Rejecting Jane” by David Lassman, Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine, No 28, July/August 2007

The School Shooting that Inspired Elton John’s Song, Ticking

alex atkins bookshelf musicThere was a time in the history of America when mass shootings, particularly senseless and shocking school shootings, were not so commonplace. The 1960s was a time of peace, harmony, hope, and free love, punctuated by protests that espoused the sanctity of human life and strongly denounced war and violence. Make Love — Not War. Perhaps that era is best epitomized by that famous uplifting Coke commercial of teenagers coming together to sing “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” Things were groovy, man. But one horrific event in 1966 — long before the heartbreaking tragedies at Parkland, Sandy Hook, Columbine, and Virginia Tech — shattered that innocence and inspired a famous music artist and his talented lyricist to write a song about it.

When Elton John sat down to perform this song at a concert in Exeter, England in July of 2003, he turned to the audience and introduced it this way: “We’re going to do a slightly more serious song now. This song was written for an album in the early 70s called Caribou [released in 1974]. It’s a song that deals with violence in America in about the year 1973. When Bernie [Taupin] wrote the song, we thought things would get better — not worse. Well, here we are 30 years on, down the line, and things have gotten worse. And so the song is more relevant [now] than when it was written and its called Ticking.”

It has been suggested that Bernie Taupin wrote Ticking as a response to the movie “Targets” [or “Before I Die” released in 1968], a thriller directed by Peter Bogdanovich. The film focuses on Bobby Thompson, a seemingly normal, quiet young man, who is a Vietnam vet and gun collector, and works as an insurance agent. One morning he just snaps and proceeds to kill his wife, his mother and a delivery boy. Then he climbs on top of an oil storage tank adjacent to a freeway and begins shooting at passing cars. The police begin closing in on Thompson and he makes an escape, finding his way to a drive-in theatre. The gunman shoots the projectionist and then begins shooting at the patrons. Thompson is finally captured by the police after being subdued by an aging actor, played by Boris Karloff. (Yes, of Frankenstein fame.)

Bogdanovich’s film is based on the shocking and horrific University of Texas tower shooting (also referred to as the University of Texas Clock Tower massacre) in Austin, Texas. On August 1, 1966, 11:25 am, Charles Whitman (1941-1966)  climbed to the observation deck (28th floor) of the Main Building tower and opened fire, targeting people on campus and a nearby city street where students hung out. The shooting spree, that lasted about 90 minutes, killed 18 people and injured 31 others. Whitman was shot and killed by police that afternoon. Up until then, this was considered the deadliest mass shooting in American history [today, it ranks as the eighth deadliest mass shooting].

Sadly, in the context of increased gun violence and far too many tragic mass shootings in America, the backstory and details seem all too familiar today: Whitman was a seemingly normal young man, 25 years old, a intelligent (IQ of 139), an Eagle Scout, who joined the Marines. He did very well in the military, earning a Good Conduct medal, a Sharpshooter’s Badge, and a Marine Corps Expedition medal. In 1961, he earned a scholarship to study architectural engineering at the University of Texas. There he met and married his wife, Kathleen Frances Leissner (1943-1966), an education major. Doing these years, Whitman struggled with a gambling addiction. His grades suffered, he lost his scholarship, and he was ordered to active duty at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. In 1963, he was court-martialed for gambling, usury, possession of a personal firearm on base, and threatening another officer. He was demoted and eventually honorably discharged at the end of 1964. Whitman returned to the University of Texas to complete his architectural engineering degree. He worked as a bill collector, bank teller, and traffic surveyor. But Whitman’ marriage began to crumble as he became violent and sought help for what he described in his daily journal “overwhelming violent impulses.” He was losing himself, overwhelmed by frequent “unusual and irrational thoughts.” Whitman even sought help, meeting with a psychiatrist at the university clinic to complain that he was haunted by a morbid fantasy of shooting people with a deer rifle from the top of a tower. Those red flags, unfortunately, were missed.

At some point on July 31, 1966, Whitman just snapped. At 6:45 pm, he began typing up a suicide note. He began: “I do not quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I do not really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. These thoughts constantly recur, and it requires a tremendous mental effort to concentrate on useful and progressive tasks.” Soon after midnight he drove to his mother’s house and stabbed her in the heart. He returned to his house, to kill Kathleen, by stabbing her three times in the heart as she slept. In the morning he visited several stores to fulfill his lethal shopping list: at a hardware store, he purchased an M1 carbine (a lightweight semi-automatic rifle) and carbine magazines; at a gun shop, he purchased more carbine magazines and boxes of ammunition; and at Sears he bought a Sears Model 60 12-guage semi-automatic shotgun. Whitman returned home and placed these items along with 6 more guns, supplies (food, coffee, aspirin, water, knives, binoculars, radio, toilet paper, razor, and deodorant) into a footlocker and placed it on a hand truck. He drove to campus and reached the Main Building at the University of Texas at 11:25. Before reaching the observation deck, Whitman killed 2 employees and injured another one. The first shots rang out at 11:48 am. Initially, people mistook the sound of gun shots for construction noise, since there was construction site nearby. Four minutes later, a history professor realized that these were actually gun shots. Soon after police began to arrive. Eventually they made their way up to the top of the building, and one brave officer rushed at Whitman and shot him at point-blank range, killing him instantly. The time was 1:24 pm.

Let us now return to Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s song, Ticking. Although John and Taupin are best known for their top-40 hits, their genius is most often found in what DJ’s refer to as “deep cuts” — the songs that are neglected by radio stations, and appreciated by true aficionados. Ticking is no exception: it is an example of Taupin’s brilliant storytelling that is heightened by Elton John’s haunting melody and searing vocals. The title is a reference to the ticking of the clock of the proverbial “ticking time bomb.” The phrase, that appeared as early as 1893, means a person or situation that will likely become harmful or very dangerous in the future. The story begins with Taupin taunting us with a wonderful juxtaposition of the past and the present: we are presented with the image of a child who was a very good student and flash forward to the moment that his parents are notified of their child’s death. It immediately begs the question: what happened here?

Taupin then leads us through the life and qualities (namely, the ones law enforcement profilers recognize: narcissistic traits, paranoid ideation, and passionate hatred) of the troubled protagonist, taken right out of the news stories we have come to read in the wake of most of the most disturbing mass shootings. We learn that he is “a male caucasian” who seems to be a normal person, a quiet child, a good student, not competitive, obedient, grown up straight and true blue, repentant.” We get a sense that he has been brought up by a pious, and perhaps overbearing mother: “Grow up straight and true blue / Run along to bed… Don’t every ride on the Devil’s knee / Pay your penance well, my child, fear where Angels tread… Now you’ll never get to Heaven.” But the young man has felt alone, isolated and haunted with “strange notions in his head,” perhaps paranoia, that others “mean to do [him] harm” since childhood. At some point “his brain just snapped” and the troubled young man storms into a bar in Queens, the “Kicking Mule,” and kills fourteen innocent people. The police are called in, and soon after, the media descends on the scene and begins reporting: the scene is sealed, schools are closed and children are sent home. [Presumably, this is the time when politicians who value guns — and gun lobby money — more than human lives broadcast their two futile, trite messages: our prayers go out to the victims and thanks to the first-responders.] The police surround the bar, pleading for the gunman to surrender and come out with “hands held high.” As soon as he does, the police shoot him: “But they pumped you full of rifle shells as you stepped out the door / Oh you danced in death like a marionette on the vengeance of the law.” Although the song conveys that justice is quickly served; it leaves you with a haunting image — a mother’s admonition coupled with the ticking of the clock. The suggestion here is that there is alway another time bomb in the making: when will the next one explode? Hear it. Ticking. Ticking. Ticking…


Ticking (music by Elton John; lyrics by Bernie Taupin)

“An extremely quiet child” they called you in your school reports
“He’s always taken interest in the subjects that he’s taught”
So what was it that brought the squad car screaming up your drive
To notify your parents of the manner in which you diedAt St. Patricks every Sunday, Father Fletcher heard your sins
“Oh, he’s unconcerned with competition he never cares to win”
But blood stained a young hand that never held a gun
And his parents never thought of him as their troubled son”Now you’ll never get to Heaven” Mama said
Remember Mama said
Ticking, ticking
“Grow up straight and true blue
Run along to bed”
Hear it, hear it, ticking, tickingThey had you holed up in a downtown bar screaming for a priest
Some gook said “His brain’s just snapped” then someone called the police
You’d knifed a Negro waiter who had tried to calm you down
Oh you’d pulled a gun and told them all to lay still on the groundPromising to hurt no one, providing they were still
A young man tried to make a break, with tear-filled eyes you killed
That gun butt felt so smooth and warm cradled in your palm
Oh your childhood cried out in your head “they mean to do you harm”

“Don’t ever ride on the devil’s knee” Mama said
Remember mama said
Ticking, ticking
“Pay your penance well, my child
Fear where angels tread”
Hear it, hear it, ticking, ticking

Within an hour the news had reached the media machine
A male caucasian with a gun had gone berserk in Queens
The area had been sealed off, the kids sent home from school
Fourteen people lying dead in a bar they called the Kicking Mule

Oh they pleaded to your sanity for the sake of those inside
“Throw out your gun, walk out slow just keep your hands held high”
But they pumped you full of rifle shells as you stepped out the door
Oh you danced in death like a marionette on the vengeance of the law

“You’ve slept too long in silence” Mama said
Remember Mama said
Ticking, ticking
“Crazy boy, you’ll only wind up with strange notions in your head”
Hear it, hear it, ticking, ticking

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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For further reading:

The Bar that Will Literally Kick You Out for Kardashianism

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIf a civilization is judged by its culture — the books we read, the movies and shows we watch, etc. — and some future historian discovers episodes of Keeping Up With the Kardashians (KUWTK) then I think that the assessment will not be very favorable. God help us! Some television critics have suggested that vapid shows like KUWTK have led to the dumbing down of America. The show, featuring the antics of the Kardashian clan, has even contributed a new word to the English lexicon: Kardashianism. Urban Dictionary defines Kardashianism as “A chronic condition of extreme self-indulgence, characterized by self-involvement, absence of moral character, histrionic attention-seeking, inappropriate sexual activity, and overly large buttocks.” [That last attribute might be too cheeky.] To that definition we can add: constant, shameless promotion and mindless speaking, specifically the overuse of the word “literally.”

But one noble establishment in New York is drawing the line in the sand, bravely battling one aspect of Kardashianism that they find most offensive: the overuse of the word “literally” and its degradation of the English language. The Continental, a bar in the East Village, has posted a sign in the window that reads: “Sorry but if you say the word ‘literally’ inside Continental you have 5 minutes to finish your drink and then you must leave. If you actually start a sentence with ‘I literally’ you must leave immediately! This is the most overused, annoying word in the English language and we will not tolerate it. Stop Kardashianism now!” Kardashianites consider yourselves warned.

Let’s raise our glasses and toast the Continental and its noble efforts to stop Kardashiansim — literally!

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For further reading:

The Most Beautiful Valentine Ever Written: Pablo Neruda


Like a flower without sun, a human being cannot grow or blossom without love. To live a happy, healthy life, one must love as well as be loved. As Leo Tolstoy observed in the epic War and Peace: “Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly.”

But as we all know, love can be elusive as well as ineffable. To a poet, love evokes a symphony of words that in turn can inspire beautiful, profound poems. The poet’s soaring language and vivid metaphors can effectively render a complex concept into something simpler — and comprehensible. Recall T.S. Eliot’s diffident Prufrock who blurts out in a moment of frustration: “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” Fortunately for Prufrock, and the rest of us, a great love poem can eloquently express exactly what we mean, how we feel. And that is why we read, memorize, and recite some of the greatest lines from love poems and sonnets from the great poets, like Shakespeare, Byron, Keats — to name just a few.

When it comes to poems about love, the passionate Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), towers above all other modern poets. Neruda has been recognized as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century; in 1969 The New York Times Book Review called the poet “the most prolific, influential, and inventive poet of the Spanish language.” Two years later, Neruda won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. His two books of love poems (Twenty Love Poems, 1924; and 100 Love Sonnets, 1957) became instant classics when they were published.

This being Valentine’s Day, let us turn to Neruda’s breathtaking bouquet of sonnets, entitled One Hundred Love Sonnets, originally published  in October 1959. Like Shakespeare’s sonnets, Neruda’s sonnets are as enduring as they are beautiful. This modern master of poetry transforms the prosaic English language into music, crafting symphonies out of letters. But putting these timeless sonnets aside, perhaps is a passage early in the book that will touch your heart deeply. You see, Neruda penned a beautiful, heartfelt tribute to his wife, Matilde Urrutia Neruda, to serve as the book’s introduction. In short, the tribute — not to mention the brilliant love sonnets — make it one of the most beautiful valentines ever written:

“My beloved wife, I suffered while I was writing these misnamed “sonnets”; they hurt me and caused me grief, but the happiness I feel in offering them to you is vast as a savanna. When I set this task for myself, I knew very well that down the right sides of sonnets, with elegant discriminating taste, poets of all times have arranged rhymes that sound like silver or crystal or cannonfire. But—with great humility—I made these sonnets out of wood; I gave them the sound of that opaque pure substance, and that is how they should reach your ears. Walking in forests or on beaches, along hidden lakes, in latitudes sprinkled with ashes, you and I have picked up pieces of pure bark; pieces of wood subject to the comings and goings of water and the weather. Out of such softened relics, then with hatchet and machete and pocketknife, I built little houses, so that your eyes, which I adore and sing to, might live in them. Now that I have declared the foundations of my love, I surrender this century to you: wooden sonnets that rise only because you gave them life.”

Say “I love you” — deeply, eloquently by sharing Neruda’s valentine with someone you love.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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For further reading: Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon by Pablo Neruda (1997)
100 Love Sonnets by Pablo Neruda (1986)
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda (1993)
The Book of Love: Writers and Their Love Letters by Cathy Davidson (1992)



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