Funny Epitaphs: Having the Last Word and the Last Laugh

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Death stalks us from the moment we are born,” writes Kathleen Miller, author of Last Laughs: Funny Tombstone Quotes,  “and we all know that someday, somehow, we will have to confront our own mortality. In this final feud, why shouldn’t we have we have the last word? Hence the epitaph.” While some epitaphs are perfunctory, listing the name of the deceased, role in the family, and dates, some are bold, brash, and downright funny. Here are some funny epitaphs from actual tombstones:

Here lies the body of J. Blake / Stepped on the gas pedal instead of the parking brake

Too bad for heaven, too good for Hell / So, where he’s gone, I cannot tell

Here lies the carcass / Of a cursed sinner / Doomed to be roasted / For the Devil’s dinner

I told you I was ill

We must all die, there is no doubt / Your glass is running—mine is out.

Here lies an atheist / All dressed up / And no place to go.

Here lies a Foote / Whose death may thousands save / For Death now has one Foote / Within the grave

Here lies the body of J. Fiddle / In 1868, on the 30th day of June / He went out of tune.

Here lies Ned / There is nothing more to be said / Because we like to speak well of the dead.

Those who knew him best deplored him most

Here lies Peter, who was accidentally shot in his 30th year / This monument was erected by grateful relatives.

Here lies the body of E. White / She signaled left, and turned right.

Born 1903 – Died 1942 / Looked up an elevator shaft to see if the / Car was on the way down. / It was.

She always said her feet were killing her, but nobody believed her.

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Little Books, Big Ideas: Jackson Brown, Jr.

alex atkins bookshelf booksIf you visit a used bookstore, you might stumble upon an often neglected section: miniature books. A miniature book generally measures 3 by 4 inches. Some of the smaller ones are 1.5 inches by 2 inches. Unfortunately, miniature books are often dismissed due to their small size. “If they are so small, how can they possibly matter?” you think to yourself. Astute book lovers, however, know that even little books can contain big ideas — profound thoughts that can change your life.

In my periodic visits to used bookstores, I recently came across such a thought-provoking miniature book: On Things That Really Matter written by Jackson Brown, Jr. who wrote the New York Times bestseller Life’s Little Instruction Book: Simple Wisdom and a Little Humor for Living a Happy and Rewarding Life (1992). One of Brown’s central beliefs is that “when you take inventory of the things in life that you treasure most, you’ll find that none of them was purchased with money.” “Hey — isn’t there a song about that? you ask?” Yes, it is “The Best Things in Life are Free,” by Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson from the musical 1927 Good News. The song was popularized by Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, and Bing Crosby for an earlier generation. But we digress.

Let’s turn back to Brown’s more recent miniature book. “There is a fundamental question we all have to face,” writes Brown, “How are we to live our lives; by what principle and moral values will we be guided and inspired? I once heard a minister compare life to a slippery staircase—an apt analogy. Slipping and sliding as we all do, we intuitively reach out for support, for anything to keep us from falling. There is a handrail. But its stability is determined by the values we have chosen to guide our lives. It is, therefore, no stronger, no more reliable, than the quality of the choices we have made.” Spot on, brother.

Brown’s little book is filled with big ideas — ones that will fortify the handrails of your life. Here are some of those ideas from notable thinkers and writers, as well as individuals who did not achieve fame but lived full, meaningful, and fulfilling lives and have wisdom to share:

“Treasure the love you receive above all. It will survive long after gold and good health have vanished.” (Og Mandino)

“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an art but a habit.” (Aristotle)

“A thousand words will not leave so deep an impression as one deed.” (Henrik Ibsen)

“Do not care overly much for wealth or power or fame, or one day you will meet someone who cares for none of these things, and you will realize how poor you have become.” (Rudyard Kipling)

“I ve learned that the best way to have friends is to be the kind of friend you’d like to have.” (Anonymous)

“I’ve learned that every person you meet knows something you don’t know. Learn from them.” (Anonymous)

“Never underestimate the influence of the people you have allowed into your life.” (Anonymous)

“I’ve learned that a happy person is not a person with a certain set of circumstances but rather a person with a certain set of attitudes.” (Anonymous)

“I’ve learned that pain is inevitable; misery is optional.” (Anonymous)

“I’ve learned that I don’t need more to be thankful for; I need to be thankful more.” (Anonymous)

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A Book Can Be Lost But Its Truth and Poetry Remain With You Forever

alex atkins bookshelf booksIn My Life in Paris and Rome, James Arbuthnot (1799-1880) discussed a dedicated book lover that lived in his apartment building in Paris, France. “There was a very ancient man, who had a room above my apartment. His was a sad story; he had been tutor to a noble family but he had been abandoned by his employers in the upheavals of the Revolution. Fearing that their castle would be looted, he had fled, taking with him some of the rarest volumes in their library. Now, in distressed circumstances he was selling off his little hoard book by book. ‘But, do not pity me’ he said, ‘all I sell is the [leather] binding; the truth and poetry remain with me‘; and he would tap his dry, old pate.” (Emphasis added.)

What a beautiful sentiment: the truth and poetry remain with me. In the context of today’s world, we can rephrase it this way: books can disappear — they can be lost, banned, or burned — but once read, their truth and poetry remain with you for a lifetime, providing a wellspring of inspiration and insight. And no one can ever take that away from you. Share this story with a book lover you know.

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: Quotable Quotes: The Book Lover by Tony Mills

What Does Elizabeth Holmes’ Real Voice Sound Like?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureYou’ve probably seen Elizabeth Holmes’ face dozens of times by now — the inventor and CEO of Theranos who was going to revolutionize the blood-testing industry with the Edison machine that could analyze dozens of medical tests from a single drop of blood. Her career mirrored a Shakespearean tragedy: a meteoric rise (at its peak, Theranos was valued at $9 billion dollars), followed by the revelation of a tragic flaw (Holmes had to spin a web of lies to fool investors and regulators about Edison’s deep flaws), followed by a tumultuous fall from grace. There are so many layers to this modern tragedy that make it such a compelling story, but for now let’s focus on one of the most fascinating aspects of our tragic hero.

There are many videos that show Holmes appearing in interviews or technology conferences. Out walks this tall, attractive woman, dressed entirely in black (black shoes, black slacks, and black turtleneck — her feeble attempt to say: “Hey look at me! — I am the female Steve Jobs!”), creating a sharp contrast from her very fair skin and baby face, framed by a mane of shimmering blond, wispy hair. One is immediately mesmerized by those huge, piercing blue eyes. She stands there for a moment, a female Svengali, sizing up her audience that sits quietly with bated breath. What will she say? And then she speaks. That voice! WTF? Is there something wrong with the microphone? Out of those bright blood-red lips comes this deep, baritone voice that is so amazingly discordant from her appearance. It’s like looking at some clueless old chap who is wearing a terrible toupee that you can spot a mile away (you know the type: light fine hair on the sides, dark thick hair on top). After a few sentences one reaches an inescapable conclusion:  “This voice is totally fake!” Naturally, Holmes’ low, deep voice has been fodder for endless ridicule and criticism: “Her voice sounds like when children try to pretend they are adults.” “Her voice sounds like a woman pretending to be a man.” “Her voice sounds like a woman who has a potato stuck in her throat.” “Her voice sounds like Kevin McCallister in the Home Alone movie when he calls the police near the end of the movie.” “She sounds like a zombie.” “She sounds like Kermit the Frog getting an enema.” “Wasn’t she that whacked-out chick in the movie The Exorcist?” I could go on… 

So this begs the question: what does Elizabeth Holmes’ real voice sound like? The best person to answer that questions is John Carreyrou, the investigative reporter from the Wall Street Journal and author of Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, whose carefully-researched stories brought down the Theranos house of cards. At a talk during his book tour in 2018, Carreyrou explained the truth behind Holmes’ deep, low voice: “It’s an affect. There’s an anecdote in the book where an employee joins in early 2011 and at the end of a long day she concludes a meeting with him in her office. [She] gets up, grabs her jacket to leave and on her way out expresses excitement that he’s joined the company, that he’s on board, and says that they’re gonna do great things. [She] forgets to turn on the baritone and lapses into a more natural sounding young woman’s voice… And I just don’t base it on that anecdote. Her best friend at Stanford was a source for the book… and she says that Elizabeth’s voice sounded nothing like that when she was at Stanford. … A family member was [also] a source for the book and that person says that the voice was affected as well… The best proof of it is that I have a recording of an interview she gave in May 2005 to NPR’s Biotech Nation program and at that point she’s 20 or 21 years old… and she sounds nothing like the Elizabeth Holmes of 2014 or 2015. [In the interview] the pitch of her voice is higher, she speaks fast — almost so fast that she sort of stumbles over her own words. She is like this bubbly young hyper-enthusiastic woman. And when you contrast that to the very poised, contrived persona that she fashioned over the ensuing decade, it’s quite a contrast.” The NPR interview, where you can hear Elizabeth Holmes’ real voice, can be found here.

Several reporters have suspected that Holmes’ must have expended quite a bit of effort to maintain this particular charade. Too bad she didn’t redirect this effort to develop positive and moral leadership skills, to seek better guidance from individuals with integrity and experience, to help guide her company toward triumph rather than an abysmal failure. Through her deceit, on so many levels, Holmes became the poster child for one of the biggest con jobs that Silicon Valley has ever witnessed.

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For further reading: Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
Presentation at Politics and Prose

How Bands Got Their Names: 5

atkins-bookshelf-musicSome band names are very clever, and some are just plain odd. Regardless of how they sound, all were inspired by some random or carefully-considered connection. For this set of band names the inspiration came from a magazine article or ad, toy, nickname, or book title. Below are a few interesting band names and their origins:

Dishwalla: The name comes from a word they saw in a Wired magazine article. Dishwalla is an Indian term for a cable satellite pirate.

Goo Goo Dolls: Originally named the Sex Maggots. Because a newspaper would not print that name, the band had to change their name for a gig one night. While looking through an issue of True Detective magazine, they came across an ad for a toy called the “Goo Goo Doll” and they ran with it. Guitarist Johnny Rzeznik said in an interview: “We were young and we were a garage band not trying to get a deal. We had a gig that night and needed a name. It’s the best we came up with, and for some reason it stuck. If I had five more minutes, I definitely would have picked a better name.”

Hoobastank: The brother of the singer lives in Germany, close to a street Hooba Street. Hoobastank is simply a phonetic variation of that name, that has no particular meaning. In an interview, Chris Hesse elaborated, “When we were looking for band names it’s almost impossible to find a band name that hasn’t been taken. Anything remotely normal has been taken already. I don’t remember how it came up but someone said it and we were like yeah.”

Hootie and the Blowfish: The name comes from nicknames of the singer’s two friends, who used to sing together in choir: “Hootie” had a round, owlish face; “Blowfish” had large, puffy cheeks.

Imagine Dragons: The band is an anagram from different words that all members of the band agreed on. Exactly which words may never be known, since the band decided to keep them a secret.

Limp Bizkit: The name came from a roadie who once observed that his brain felt like a “limp biscuit.”

Maroon 5: The band started out playing pop songs under the name Kara’s Flowers, after a high school girl that all the band members had a crush on. How adorable. The band even recorded a few albums under that name. Naturally, when they switched labels and genres, management asked them to change their name. For whatever reason, the band has not been forthcoming about how they came up with the name. Perhaps they have been hanging out with members of Imagine Dragons. One likely explanation is that the band is named for an alma mater and its official color. Two band members, Levine and Carmichael, both briefly attended Five Towns College, a private college focused on the creative arts located in Long Island, New York. The “five” also ties in nicely to the number of members in the band. And guess what is the college’s official color? You guessed it — maroon. So until one of them writes a biography, or gets drunk and inadvertently address this, we’ll have to go with the “academic” theory.

Mott the Hoople: Named after the title of a book, Mott the Hoople by Willard Manus about a man who works in a circus freak show.

Porno for Pyros: The band was named after an ad for fireworks in a porn magazine.

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For further reading: Rock Names: From Abba to ZZ Top by Adam Dolgins, Citadel Press (1998)

When We Blindly Adopt a Religion or Political System We Cease to Grow

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“When we blindly adopt a religion, or political system, a literary dogma, we become automatons. We cease to grow.”

From the April 1944 entry from The Diary of Anais Nin (1944-47) by French-Cuban American writer Anais Nin (born — get ready for it: Angela Anaïs Juana Antolina Rosa Edelmira Nin y Culmell). Nin began writing her diary at the age of 11 in 1914 and kept writing until her death in 1977. Initially the diary was to be a letter to her father, who had left the family when she was young. Over time, even though she had a psychotherapist (Ott Rank), the diary turned out to be her best therapist. By the end of her life, the diary encompassed over 15,000 typewritten pages in 150 volumes — talk about dedication! It was her wish to have the diaries published. Due to its length, many publishers passed; however she eventually found a publisher who began with Volume 1 in 1966. The quotation that began this post is ubiquitous on the internet, largely because it is incredibly relevant to what is happening with respect to politics and religion in America and around the globe, yet there is rarely a precise source or context. So let’s learn a bit more about the specific context for Nin’s piercing observation and prescience.

In the 1944 letter, Nin describes her encounter with Olga, a political journalist who wants to return to writing poetry: “Olga felt she had deserted her poet self for a more altruistic occupation. Now her task was over. It was rendered futile by the turn of events… When the system failed (historically), there was never a question that it may have failed because it was composed of incompleted human beings, human beings who had ceased to work on their individual development. And it is this development which I believe will influence history from within, rather than systems. If enough individuals had worked at their own development, history would be formed as natural things are formed, organically, from the impulse of quality and maturity…. [Olga was] no longer the political journalist, no longer the woman of the world, but a woman in quest of her poetic self, trying to unlock the many doors she had closed upon this self. She had not only locked them, as she said, but she had lost the key.”

Nin ponders her friend’s situation and advocates focusing on inner reflection and growth. She writes: “Every time our hope for a better world is based on a system, this system collapses, due to the corruptibility and imperfection of human beings. I believe we have to go back and work at the growth of human beings, so they will not need systems, but will know how to rule themselves. Now you have suffered the shock of disillusion in an ideology which has betrayed its ideals. It is a good time to return to the creation of yourself, not as a blind number in a group, but as an individual. Poetry is merely the language of our night-self, in which are imbedded the seeds of all we do and are in the day. We can only control it by knowing it. Better to make this journey back to what you had intended, rather than to die of disillusion.”

Nic then gave her friend a copy of Nightwood by Njuna Barnes and Choix des Elues by Jean Giraudoux “to help her re-enter the world of myth which alone makes the monstrosities of history bearable. She had to return to an incomplete woman because the task she had undertaken had not matured her. When we blindly adopt a religion, or political system, a literary dogma, we become automatons. We cease to grow.”

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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What Advice Does Polonius Give His Son?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureAny parent who has a child going to college faces that moment when they must let his or her child leave the proverbial nest on a journey of discovery, to seek out those transformative experiences that will shape the edifice of young adulthood to be built on the foundation of familial values, traditions, and years of parental guidance. As your child hugs you and says goodbye, what final parental advice should you impart? If you are Polonius, the chief counselor to King Claudius (father of Prince Hamlet), you want to dispense some life lessons covering a wide variety of topics before your son, Laertes (brother to Ophelia), leaves to attend university in France. This is one of the most famous speeches in Hamlet — and certainly, its eloquence is matched by its verbosity.

Modern readers who read or listen to Polonius’ famous fatherly advice with its verbal flourishes and rather peculiar Elizabethan diction typically have one response: WTF? What is that Polo dude really saying? Can someone please translate this into modern English? Sure. But before we proceed, we should mention that in the context of the play, Polonius is considered to be a bit of a pretentious buffoon, much like a modern congressman or presidential spokesperson. Although Polonius is a sincere father, we have to question his intentions because the sum of his advice is rather ironic: as his son prepares to leave for college (ostensibly to take chances and explore the world, discover his true self, etc.), he tells him essentially to play it safe. Say what? You also have to question the timing: realize that Laertes is now in his late teens or early 20s, and it might be late for some of this advice. For this reason, some literary critics believe that Polonius is a bit of a hypocrite: he hasn’t been around for his son, and now as his son is leaving for college, Polonius decides to cram 18 years of fatherly wisdom into one speech. Thanks for nothin, Pops! Nevertheless, when the advice is taken individually, one has to admit that it is quite sound. So let’s break it down into bite-sized chunks and see if you agree.

Yet here, Laertes! aboard, aboard, for shame!
The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay’d for. There; my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory

Meaning: Laertes, my boy, you’re still here? Get going! Your ship awaits. I give you my blessings (again). But, before you leave, I do have a few life lessons to share with you. You might want to record this on your iPhone so you don’t forget my longwinded speech. Besides, realize that you cannot count on Siri to dispense meaningful life lessons!

See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.

Meaning: Don’t just say what you are thinking (think before you speak!) and don’t act in haste (don’t be impulsive!). Be friendly to people but don’t go overboard and embarrass yourself.

Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade. 

Meaning: Know who are your true friends (news flash: they are not your Facebook friends or Twitter followers!). Really appreciate those friends and hang on to them. Don’t work too hard to make new friends — they will never be as good as the ones you already have.

Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.

Meaning: Don’t be too quick to pick a fight, but if you do — hold your own. (And if you are going to be in a sword fight, make sure you are holding the sword with the poisoned-dipped tip!) Next, learn to be a good listener. Listen to people, but be circumspect. Listen to the views or opinions of others, but don’t necessarily share your own. It’s OK for someone to disapprove of you, but try not to judge others.

Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.

Meaning: Be a good consumer: spend as much as you can on nice clothes. Don’t waste your money on tacky clothes from strip mall outlets. Shop the good sales at A&F, Gap, etc. And since you are going to France, where fashion is king, remember that “clothes make the man.”

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

Meaning: Don’t be stupid and lose a friendship by borrowing from or lending money to a friend. Trust me, you’ll lose both! Besides, borrowing money just makes you careless with money. Live within your means — or I am cancelling your credit cards!

This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!

Meaning: And the most important lesson, of course, is to be true to yourself. (Of course, this last advice sort of contradicts all the very specific advice that he just dished out). That way you will not come off as a phoney (and you know how much Salinger’s Holden Caulfield hates those kind of people!) Goodbye, my boy, I hope my blessing helps you understand the life lessons I have shared with you. If not, you’ll end up in crazy town, like your sister.

So now that we have translated or paraphrased Polonius’ advice to Laertes into modern English, let us now ponder the inescapable question: is this the best advice that a father could give his son? What — or more precisely, what other — life lessons should Polonius have imparted to his college-bound son?

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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