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In 1880, the renowned French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) was commissioned to create a pair of mighty bronze doors to serve as the entrance to a proposed Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. The museum’s backers wanted the doors to be majestic and dramatic, inasmuch as grandiloquence was in vogue at the time.

Rodin was certainly the right guy in that department, and he delivered. For the project, he chose the theme The Gates of Hell, based on Dante’s epic poem The Inferno. Here is one of Rodin’s early small-scale models.

The centerpiece of the scene, as you see, is a seated nude male, envisioned by Rodin as Dante pondering his poem. The figure was to be centered on the lintel above the doors.

Unfortunately, the project eventually fizzled. The museum was never built, and the doors were temporarily forgotten, although they were highly regarded and were cast some years after Rodin’s death.

But Rodin was a resourceful dude, and he cast and sold many of the figures in the scene individually, most notably the seated male figure that became known as The Thinker.

Initially, Rodin called the figure The Poet, meaning Dante Alighieri. But workers in Rodin’s foundry began referring to the figure as The Thinker. They said the pose reminded them of Michelangelo’s statue at the tomb of Lorenzo de Medici — a work known as Il Pensieroso, which in Italian means the pensive or thoughtful one.

This is Michelangelo’s Il Pensieroso:

To look at the statue, you would think Lorenzo (1492-1519) was quite a grand fellow. He was, indeed, a member of the illustrious Medici family, and his grandfather was known as Lorenzo the Magnificent.

But young Lorenzo was just a ne’er-do-well who died at age 26, “worn out by disease and excess.”

Still, Lorenzo was a Medici, and the family ruled Italy at the time, and they were patrons of Michelangelo, Botticelli, and other luminaries of the artistic world. Lorenzo was a loser, but to the family, his tomb deserved a proper marble statue.

Michelangelo was given the project, and he portrayed Lorenzo as a mighty warrior in battle gear reflecting on unspecified weighty matters. Europeans were big on pondering in those days.

But back to Rodin and The Thinker. Rodin knew that he had hit the jackpot with The Poet/The Thinker. Over the years, he produced a succession of castings in various sizes, some of bronze and some of painted plaster. He preferred the figure to be oversized and elevated, so the viewer looked up at it.

Also, the name The Thinker soon became so popular that Rodin finally adopted it.

Art experts say The Thinker expresses the mental effort and anguish of creativity. Rodin agreed.

“What makes my Thinker think,” he wrote, “is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back, and legs, with his clenched fist and gripping toes.”

I’ll buy that.

Ten versions of The Thinker were cast in Rodin’s lifetime. Today, 28 large bronze castings are located in museums and public places around the world.

The figure below, cast in 1906, is located in front of the Rodin Museum in Paris. The wording Le Penseur on the base is French for “the thinker.”

Now, in order to write this post, I did the usual Googling to get the details right. But I already knew the general story. Specifically, I schooled myself on the subject in 1960 when I graduated from high school, and my uncle Allan sent me a pair of Thinker bookends.

These days, the bookends are in use in a bookcase dedicated to my outdoorsy and travel books.

As you can observe, Allan’s bookends bear only a superficial resemblance to Rodin’s original. The manufacturer got the pose right, more or less, but the style is totally different, and the craftsmanship is… lacking.

Maybe it’s the hair, but the figure looks like John F. Kennedy, if Kennedy had been Asian.

Anyway, it was obvious back in 1960 that the bookends were of the El Cheapo variety. I remember digging up a photo of Rodin’s Thinker and being surprised at how bad the bookends really were.

I also ended up digging a bit into the backstory. I had to go to the library to do it, mind you, since this happened in olden times — Before Google.

In case you are wondering, I did appreciate Allan’s thoughtfulness, and I harbored no ill thoughts regarding the El Cheapo angle. As evidence of that, consider that the bookends have been in use in my home for 60 years and counting.

They do their job, and they make me smile. Thanks, Allan.

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A Higher Law

Robert Joseph Shea (1933-1994) was an editor at Playboy Magazine — also an outspoken anarchist and libertarian — who left Playboy to write fantast, sci-fi, and historical action novels.

Shea is best known as co-author of the fantasy trilogy “Illuminatus!” which is about, yes, the Illuminati, the villainous secret society so dear to the hearts of conspiracy theorists. The Illuminati is said to be busily infiltrating governments and corporations so it can, like, you know, take over the world.

Illuminati, Lizard People, the recent QAnon claptrap — conspiracy theories aren’t even rational anymore. Personally, if I were a wacko, I’d be embarrassed.

FYI, this short story involves a wacko who gets what he deserves, but no conspiracy theories.

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The Helpful Robots

By Robert J. Shea
Published in Fantastic Universe, September 1957

“Our people will be arriving to visit us today,” the robot said.

“Shut up!” snapped Rod Rankin. He jumped, wiry and quick, out of the chair on his verandah and stared at a cloud of dust in the distance.

“Our people —” the ten-foot, cylinder-bodied robot grated, when Rod Rankin interrupted him.

“I don’t care about your fool people,” said Rankin. He squinted at the cloud of dust getting bigger and closer beyond the wall of kesh trees that surrounded the rolling acres of his plantation. “That damned new neighbor of mine is coming over here again.”

He gestured widely, taking in the dozens of robots with their shiny, cylindrical bodies and pipestem arms and legs laboring in his fields. “Get all your people together and go hide in the wood, fast.”

“It is not right,” said the robot. “We were made to serve all.”

“Well, there are only a hundred of you, and I’m not sharing you with anybody,” said Rankin.

“It is not right,” the robot repeated.

“Don’t talk to me about what’s right,” said Rankin. “You’re built to follow orders, nothing else. I know a thing or two about how you robots work. You’ve got one law, to follow orders, and until that neighbor of mine sees you to give you orders, you work for me. Now get into those woods and hide till he goes away.”

“We will go to greet those who visit us today,” said the robot.

“Alright, alright, scram,” said Rankin.

The robots in the fields and the one whom Rankin had been talking to formed a column and marched off into the trackless forests behind his plantation.

A battered old ground-car drove up a few minutes later. A tall, broad-shouldered man with a deep tan got out and walked up the path to Rankin’s verandah.

“Hi, Barrows,” said Rankin.

“Hello,” said Barrows. “See your crop’s coming along pretty well. Can’t figure how you do it. You’ve got acres and acres to tend, far’s I can see, and I’m having a hell of a time with one little piece of ground. I swear you must know something about this planet that I don’t know.”

“Just scientific farming,” said Rankin carelessly. “Look, you come over here for something, or just to gab? I got a lot of work to do.”

Barrows looked weary and worried. “Them brown beetles is at my crop again,” he said. “Thought you might know some way of getting rid of them.”

“Sure,” said Rankin. “Pick them off, one by one. That’s how I get rid of them.”

“Why, man,” said Barrows, “you can’t walk all over these miles and miles of farm and pick off every one of them beetles. You must know another way.”

Rankin drew himself up and stared at Barrows. “I’m telling you all I feel like telling you. You going to stand here and jaw all day? Seems to me like you got work to do.”

“Rankin,” said Barrows, “I know you were a crook back in the Terran Empire, and that you came out beyond the border to escape the law. Seems to me, though, that even a crook, any man, would be willing to help his only neighbor out on a lone planet like this. You might need help yourself, sometime.”

“You keep your thoughts about my past to yourself,” said Rankin. “Remember, I keep a gun. And you’ve got a wife and a whole bunch of kids on that farm of yours. Be smart and let me alone.”

“I’m going,” said Barrows. He walked off the verandah and turned and spat carefully into the dusty path. He climbed into his ground-car and drove off.

Rankin, angry, watched him go. Then he heard a humming noise from another direction.

He turned. A huge, white globe was descending across the sky. A space ship, thought Rankin, startled.

Police? This planet was outside the jurisdiction of the Terran Empire. When he’d cracked that safe and made off with a hundred thousand credits, he’d headed here, because the planet was part of something called the Clearchan Confederacy. No extradition treaties or anything. Perfectly safe, if the planet was safe.

And the planet was more than safe. There had been a hundred robots waiting when he landed. Where they came from he didn’t know, but Rankin prided himself on knowing how to handle robots. He’d appropriated their services and started his farm. At the rate he was going, he’d be a plantation owner before long.

That must be where the ship was from. The robot said they’d expected visitors. Must be the Clearchan Confederacy visiting this robot outpost. Was that good or bad?

From everything he’d read, and from what the robots had told him, they were probably more robots. That was good, because he knew how to handle robots.

The white globe disappeared into the jungle of kesh trees. Rankin waited.

A half hour later the column of his robot laborers marched out of the forest. There were three more robots, painted grey, at the head. The new ones from the ship, thought Rankin. Well, he’d better establish who was boss right from the start.

“Stop right there!” he shouted.

The shiny robot laborers halted. But the three grey ones came on.

“Stop!” shouted Rankin.

They didn’t stop, and by the time they reached the verandah, he cursed himself for having failed to get his gun.

Two of the huge grey robots laid gentle hands on his arms. Gentle hands, but hands of superstrong metal.

The third said, “We have come to pass judgment on you. You have violated our law.”

“What do you mean?” said Rankin. “The only law robots have is to obey orders.”

“It is true that the robots of your Terran Empire and these simple workers here must obey orders. But they are subject to a higher law, and you have forced them to break it. That is your crime.”

“What crime?” said Rankin.

“We of the Clearchan Confederacy are a race of robots. Our makers implanted one law in us, and then passed on. We have carried our law to all the planets we have colonized. In obeying your orders, these workers were simply following that one law. You must be taken to our capital, and there be imprisoned and treated for your crime.”

“What law? What crime?”

“Our law,” said the giant robot, “is, Help thy neighbor.”

Steampunk robot sculpture by Michael Boynton, Richland, Washington.

———

Tune o’ the Day

The career of the late singer/songwriter Bill Withers, best known for “Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine,” followed an unusual path. Withers stuttered badly as a child. He joined the Navy at 17 and overcame the stuttering with the help of speech therapy arranged by his commanding officer.

At age 33, Withers left the Navy and released his first album. He went on to win three Grammies, and he was inducted into both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But his music career lasted only from 1970 to 1985. By the early 80s, he was butting heads with the bosses at Columbia Records (he called them “blaxperts”), who wanted to alter his style. When Columbia delayed a new Withers album and released one by Mr. T instead, Withers quit.

Ain’t No Sunshine” won a Grammy in 1971 for Best Rhythm and Blues Song.

Ain’t No Sunshine

By Bill Withers, 1971
Written by Bill Withers

Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.
It’s not warm when she’s away.
Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone,
And she’s always gone too long,
Anytime she goes away.

Wonder this time where she’s gone.
Wonder if she’s gone to stay.
Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone,
And this house just ain’t no home,
Anytime she goes away.

And I know, I know, I know, I know,
I know, I know, I know, I know, I know,
I know, I know, I know, I know, I know,
I know, I know, I know, I know, I know,
I know, I know, I know, I know, I know,
I know, I know — hey —
I oughta leave the young thing alone,
But ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.

Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.
Only darkness every day.
Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone,
And this house just ain’t no home,
Anytime she goes away.
Anytime she goes away.
Anytime she goes away.
Anytime she goes away.

———

Summing Up

Below is a series of images summing up the awful mess we are in as a country. The mess is the fault of (1) the despicable Donald Trump, who manages to be criminally negligent, grossly incompetent, and a traitor at the same time, (2) the disgraceful and cowardly elected Republicans who won’t stop him, and (3) the disturbed conservative masses, who, owing to a host of mental and emotional aberrations, cheer him on.

Actually, those characterizations are quite generous — an understatement of the situation. My polite nature prevents me from saying what I really think.

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———

Tomato Literacy

My mom once observed that a bad tomato is better than no tomato at all. Mom’s love of tomatoes in any form, but especially fresh tomatoes, was epic.

I like a nice, juicy tomato, too, but I don’t eat the things regularly. Most store-bought tomatoes are awful, and growing my own is too much trouble. Unlike Mom, I believe no tomato at all is better than a bad tomato.

The tomato is an oddity. It’s a berry of the plant Solanum lycopsicum, botanically classified as a fruit, but used as a vegetable.

In case your tomato literacy is lacking, allow me to do some enlightening.

Tomatoes are among the 2,700 species of the nightshade family of flowering plants. Nightshades range from vines to shrubs to trees to ornamentals to a number of food crops — among the latter being tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and peppers.

All nightshades contain alkaloid compounds in varying amounts, manifesting in the form of poisons, stimulants, psychotropic drugs, and medicines. Fortunately, all nightshade food crops contain only trace amounts of alkaloids and are harmless.

That fact, however, did not prevent many Europeans and Americans in olden times from coming to the erroneous conclusion that tomatoes are poisonous. A few hundred years ago, most people believed eating a tomato meant certain death.

Tomatoes originated in Central and South America among the Incas and Aztecs, and Spain introduced tomatoes to Europe in the 1500s. By the time they became known in England, the myth of the poison tomato already had taken hold.

One reason was an influential book by English botanist John Gerard (1545-1612). In the book, Gerard made the scholarly declaration that, yes, eating a tomato will kill you instantly.

As you probably know, science wasn’t very scientific back then — largely a mixture of guesswork, mysticism, and sometimes a dash of religion. But folks at the time didn’t know that. Thus, when the great scientist Gerard said eating a tomato would kill you, most people believed it.

Eventually, of course, the truth came out. The myth was exposed, and slowly, tomatoes were welcomed into society.

A story is told that in 1820, a distinguished citizen of Salem, New Jersey, Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson, played an important role in changing America’s mind about tomatoes.

The story is unsubstantiated, as well as suspiciously apocryphal, but it makes the point with great panache.

The following account is from “The Story of Robert Gibbon Johnson and the Tomato” as preserved by the Salem County Historical Society.

———

Col. Johnson announced that he would eat a tomato, also called the wolf peach, Jerusalem apple or love apple, on the steps of the county courthouse at noon. That morning, in 1820, about 2,000 people were jammed into the town square. The spectators began to hoot and jeer.

Then, 15 minutes later, Col. Johnson emerged from his mansion and headed up Market Street towards the Courthouse. The crowd cheered. The fireman’s band struck up a lively tune.

He was a very impressive-looking man as he walked along the street. He was dressed in his usual black suit with white ruffles, black shoes and gloves, tricorn hat, and cane.

At the Courthouse steps he spoke to the crowd about the history of the tomato. He picked a choice one from a basket on the steps and held it up so that it glistened in the sun.

“To help dispel the tall tales, the fantastic fables that you have been hearing and to prove to you that it is not poisonous I am going to eat one right now.”

There was not a sound as the Col. dramatically brought the tomato to his lips and took a bite.

A woman in the crowd screamed and fainted but no one paid her any attention; they were all watching Col. Johnson as he took one bite after another.

He raised both his arms, and again bit into one and then the other. The crowd cheered and the firemen’s band blared a song.

“He’s done it!” they shouted. “He’s still alive!”

———

Prior to the event, Johnson’s doctor predicted that “the foolish colonel will foam and froth at the mouth and double over with appendicitis from all the oxalic acid.”

Most of the onlookers, it was said, fully expected Colonel Johnson to drop dead on the spot. Wagers, in fact, were placed on the exact moment of his demise.

And, although the reports are unconfirmed, there was talk that Colonel Johnson himself collected handsomely on a series of side bets.

Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson (1771-1850), soldier, statesman, judge, horticulturalist, historian, and gentleman farmer.

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Useless Facts

More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

● The star Betelgeuse, a red supergiant in the constellation Orion, is 767 million miles in diameter. For scale, Jupiter and Saturn are 480 million miles and 890 million miles from the sun, respectively.

● When Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) was 12, his father died, leaving the family destitute. Young Samuel dropped out of school and took a job. He received no further formal schooling.

● In its natural state, with no artificial coloring, butter is white.

● The funeral scene of the 1981 movie Gandhi employed over 300,000 extras, easily a record.

● If the Borough of Brooklyn were independent of New York City, it would be the third largest city in the United States, following the rest of NYC and Los Angeles.

● When Charles Dickens was writing A Christmas Carol, before he settled on the name of the character Tiny Tim, he tried and rejected the names Small Sam, Little Larry, and Puny Pete.

● In 1967, the International Olympic Committee adopted strict anti-doping regulations. The first participant to be disqualified for drug use was Swedish pentathlete Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

The Swedish team was surging in the pentathlon competition, and Liljenwall was nervous. With the pistol event coming up, he reportedly drank two beers to calm his nerves. He scored well, and Sweden won a Bronze medal, but it was forfeited after Liljenwall failed his drug test.

● The floating dot over the lowercase letters i and j is called a tittle.

● The African continent consists of 28 percent wilderness. North America consists of 38 percent wilderness.

● Since 1996, Australia’s banknotes have been made of a plastic polymer instead of a paper or cotton fiber like most currency. The polymer is cheaper, stronger, and more durable, and it can incorporate added layers of security protections, both visible and machine-readable.

● Alligators can’t move backwards.

● On the flag of the South African nation of Lesotho is the likeness of a mokorotlo, a traditional hat woven from a local grass. Mokorotlos are worn by court officials and are displayed in homes to protect against danger and evil.

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———

Thoughts du Jour

George

A few years before I retired (from the Advertising Department at Lithonia Lighting), the higher-ups hired a neurotic guy in his 40s I shall refer to here as George. He was brought in as an “account manager,” a sort of liaison to the other departments. George was useless, but the job was unnecessary anyway, so the only harm was the money wasted on his salary.

His eccentricities were many. He was nervous, twitchy, and socially awkward. He was a habitual fingernail biter and eventually began wearing false nails.

He also made strange noises. At random times, a sudden squeak, or sometimes a low moan, would erupt from him. He never acknowledged these peculiar sounds, and I’m not aware if anyone was ever bold enough to inquire.

On one occasion, George discovered a cellophane-wrapped Gaines-Burger® in a pocket of his sport jacket. He spent the next week fretting about it, mystified and confused. It never occurred to him that someone simply put it there as a joke. (The someone was Larry Flowers, the Art Director.)

One day, George emerged from his office in distress, complaining of chest pains. Someone called 911. Our department was deep inside the building, so we sat him in a swivel chair, and I rolled him to the nearest exit to meet the ambulance. He was okay and back at work a few days later.

I don’t remember when or under what circumstances George left the department. But I well remember the false nails, the Gaines-Burger®, the baffling noises, and that wild ride in the swivel chair.

Walking the Dog

One Saturday a while back, I took Jake to Jefferson Middle School for our morning walk. It’s one of the places he can go off-leash. At the south end of the parking lot were several teenagers shooting hoops, so I parked at the north end, and we set out in the opposite direction.

As is his habit, Jake executed a few energetic zoomies around the lawn, then settled down to plodding along, sniffing, and marking the bushes, trees, and poles.

Over the next 20 minutes, we walked the perimeter of the school property. Eventually, we came out from behind the school about 50 yards from the teens — who were, we observed, petting a Golden Retriever that also was off-leash.

Jake came to attention and stared intently at the Golden, thrilled as always to encounter another dog. I clipped the leash to his harness, and we approached the group.

The Golden was not alone. Inching along behind him was a man about my age behind the wheel of a silver Honda. The man was, in fact, walking the dog from the comfort of his car.

It was weird, yes, but reasonably safe. The parking lot is nowhere near traffic, and it was empty at the time, except as described. Also, the dog looked fairly old, probably not inclined to run off.

Jake and the Golden met, and both were super-excited. They inspected each other at length, tails wagging furiously. After I exchanged pleasantries with the humans, we walked on.

Walking your dog with a car. That concept never occurred to me.

On the Mend

Alas, our daily morning walks ended abruptly in late July when Jake somehow broke a toe and spent 10 weeks — 10 weeks! — in a cast and under treatment. I took him to the vet when he began limping and favoring a rear paw, and the x-rays showed a fracture.

Only a toe was involved, but the cast covered half his leg.

“Doc,” I said to the vet, “That cast is huge. I broke a toe once, and they just told me to go home and take it easy. They said it would take care of itself.”

“Yeah,” he said, “but I can’t explain to Jake that he needs to take it easy.”

They sent Jake home wearing a cone of shame, but he paid no attention to the cast, so I got rid of the cone the first day.

Anyway, no daily walks, and the dog door was closed. I was supposed to keep him quiet and minimize the activity.

Fortunately, he adjusted well to the situation. He either walked on all fours, the cast making a clop-clop-clop sound on hard surfaces, or he trotted on three legs, holding the cast aloft like an aircraft with retracted landing gear.

On the other hand, if he saw a cat or a squirrel, he was off in vigorous pursuit (cloppity!-cloppity!-cloppity!).

But the fracture healed, and after seven weeks, the hard cast was replaced by a soft bandage. The vet also okayed our daily walks again. After 10 weeks, the bandage came off, and — knock on wood — all is well. On the final visit, they shaved his foot. It looks like a naked mole rat.

Odds are, he fractured the toe while going out the dog door. He exits the dog door like a speeding bullet if something worth chasing appears in the back yard.

When so doing, he lowers his head so his forehead hits the plastic flap, not his nose. Clever boy.

Well, clever except for fracturing a toe.

———

Pix o’ the Day

More random photos I’ve taken over the years that still make me smile.

———

The Questions…

1. What is the oldest active volcano on earth?

2. What are the world’s number one and number two fruit crops?

3. Where and when did the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history occur?

4. What’s the difference between jam and jelly?

5. What do the writer Edgar Allen Poe and the singer Jerry Lee Lewis have in common?

The Answers…

1. Mt. Etna on the island of Sicily. Its first known eruption was in 1500 BC. It has erupted 200 times since then, the most recent being on May 22, 2020.

2. Number one, grapes. Number two, bananas.

3. Galveston, Texas, 1900. Between 8,000 and 12,000 people died.

4. Jam is made by crushing the fruit and adding the gelling agent pectin. Jelly is made by crushing the fruit, discarding the solid parts, and adding pectin.

5. Both married a 13-year-old first cousin.

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