The Gates of Paradise

At the end of winter, when we first moved to the city, I went on a lot of walks in San Francisco. I'd pick out a "tourist" camera icon on google maps and head on out.  One of my treks was a brisk, two mile roundtrip walk up the hills of San Francisco to Grace Cathedral to check out the replica of Lorenzo Ghiberti's eastern facing doors of the Florence Baptistery. The cathedral is a big old gothic church originally built in 1862. It burned down, along with most of the city, in 1906. It wasn’t until 1927 that construction began on the current building, and as with many great gothic cathedrals, it wasn’t really finished until many years later: in this case, 1995.

Ghiberti's Baptistery doors are the doors that, legend has it, Michelangelo said were so beautiful, they must be “the gates of paradise.” Did he really say that? Probably not, but the doors are a marvel: exceptionally beautiful and exquisitely crafted.

But before he designed these doors, and the reason he was commissioned to do so, was because he won a commission for an earlier set of baptistry doors in 1401. The wool merchants set up a competition: whoever designed the best doors for the Florence Baptistry would get the honor of having them installed. There were seven competitors, but the only ones we care about are Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi: two towering figures of the Italian renaissance facing off as rivals for a great prize.

The judges ruled it a tie. Some stories say the judges scored it a tie assuming the two would work together,  but Brunelleschi scoffed at the idea of working with his rival and ditched out. Others say Ghiberti won outright, and Brunelleschi, licking his sculptural wounds, went away to focus on architecture. All apocrypha aside, Ghiberti did design the doors, and Brunelleschi went off and designed the dome of the Florence Cathedral, the most technologically advanced dome of the time.

Skip ahead to 1425,  when the wealthiest guilds of Florence, impressed with Ghiberti’s first doors, commissioned him to craft a new set for the north side of the Baptistery. It took him 27 years to complete, and  when the guilds saw how amazing his new doors were, they moved them to the east side, in the place of honor, facing the Florence Cathedral (oh, you know, just Brunelleschi’s fabulous white and black striped Cathedral).

So how did Grace Cathedral wind up with a set of copies? Back in WWII, the Nazis took down the doors to “protect them,” and put them in an old dusty abandoned subway. There are nefarious rumors that the intent was less to protect them and more to supply Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering’s art collection with new treasures. But after the Nazis lost, an Italian curator found the doors, cleaned and burnished them, made silicon copies, and tried to sell the copies for profit. An American bought a copy, had them cast, and here they stand in San Francisco. Well, technically, a copy of the copy stands here. The original copy of the original doors is in a museum to protect against elemental damage.

The modern copy in San Francisco, like the original, is made out of brass. There are 10 total panels, five per door. It’s hard to express how otherworldly the doors seem because the images in the panels are so realistically carved, and they extend so far out of the 2D realm that it seems like you’re entering into new worlds in each panel of the door. They’re amazing, and Ghiberti shows off his skill in not only metalworking, but in linear perspective in metalwork. Take a look at each scene closely and you’ll spend hours here.

I had the whole place to myself to do just that. In Florence, you have to fight through a ring of people 10 deep just to get a glimpse of it. Maybe it was the rain, or maybe just because it’s a copy, but whatever the reason, I was happy to have it to myself.

Harry Potter: Idiot

Let’s just come right out and say it: Harry Potter is dumb. Even if you don’t admit it, you know it deep in your heart. You know he has no right for his accolades in this story, just as you know that you’re not giving Hermione enough credit; and your cuddly feelings for Ron Weasley are just as misplaced as your newfound respect for George W. Bush.

There, now we’re out with it.

So let’s just talk about what we know and appreciate him for what he is. Harry Potter is famous because his parents died saving him. Or rather, he’s famous, in the series’ universe, for being a phenomenal novelty. He’s an “unknown known” that defies his universe’s rules. He refutes the irrefutable wizarding world logic: Voldemort kills who he wants, he wants to kill baby Harry, therefore the boy...does not die. That’s it. By all accounts, he’s worth worrying about, but the special power he’s imbued with isn’t anything anybody else doesn’t have: he has love, which, thankfully, is an abundant resource.

Of course, the grand mistake (borne very classically via ignorance by the populace) is that he has some special power, some capacity for greatness nobody else has. In fact, he’s a rube.

One would imagine, that if one were enrolled in a great wizarding school designed to teach  everything one needs to be a fantastic wizard, and one had the capacity to learn how to be a fantastic wizard, one would apply that capacity and learn.

Harry Potter learned nothing beyond a couple of first year spells. Stupefy! Expelliarmus! And that’s about it. Oh, and the great parlor trick, expecto patronum. A dastardly evil wizard bent on killing you with a great shadow spear? Expelliarmus! A terrible dark servant fiendishly endeavoring to torture you with ancient arcanum? Expelliarmus! A Dark Lord who can kill you without uttering a single word, and the fate of the entire world hangs upon his defeat in a solo duel? So too again, Expelliarmus! At least the boy is consistent.

If it is so easy to disarm and disrupt those desiring evil on and destruction of the known world, what does that say about the competence of the wizarding world in the first place? How has it fallen to a boy who stopped going to school in any meaningful way after his second year to stop the greatest threat to humankind? But we’re getting a bit too far ahead of ourselves, so let’s just stick to Harry.

One might argue he never had a chance to learn in any meaningful way while he was beset upon by the forces of darkness. How can he expect to learn while fighting evil at every turn? Well, ought one not then spend the most of one’s resources and talents to learn everything possible to fight that evil? Shouldn’t one so endangered devote every waking moment to preparing for the inevitable battle against forces far stronger? Shouldn’t one then enroll in every possible class available and spend every waking moment researching the histories of spells and the consequences of history to find solutions to their problems? Ought not one seek counsel and learn from others far wiser and knowledgeable? In other words, shouldn’t Harry Potter have done exactly what Hermione Granger did?

Rather, Harry (not to mention the oaf-child Ron) spends a considerable portion of his time on earth relying entirely upon Ms. Granger. Not because he loves her, not entirely because they are friends, but because she’s the only person who has the wherewithal to actually figure anything out.

You have time, dear reader: go back through the novels and make a chart with three columns: one for “problem solved solely by Harry,” “problem solved by Hermione,” and “problem solved by Harry with Hermione’s help.” You’ll find the columns with the most robust evidence will both bear the name Hermione.

In fact, the entire series really is an exercise in accepting gender inequality. We applaud Hermione for staying in the background. We laugh at her for knowing more than the boys. We accept that they know less than her, and we accept that the boys will get the glory. They can go off and get bruised and bloody, while she stays behind learning the complicated lore and history to actually win. She's Virginia Woolf's "The Angel in the House,"*of the wizarding world: sympathetic, charming, unselfish, sacrificial, and above all, pure. 

So we have two little boys galavanting in the foreground, nearly getting themselves killed because of their own ignorance and stupidity, all the while the girl in the background is saving their lives and providing them with all the answers. And eventually, the girl settles for the dumb boy, because why not. At least he has a good reputation. The end.

I’d say a series is in order for Hermione Granger and her exploits, not another dufus white wizard boy.

*Woolf, Virginia. "Professions for Women." The Death of the Moth: And Other Essays. London: Hogarth,

          1981. N. pag. Print.

Toilet Paper

At times, while sitting on the toilet, I’ve been overcome by the paralyzing fear of having run out of toilet paper. Not just in the bathroom, but run out entirely. What do you do when there are no more rolls left in the house? Are you stuck in the bathroom, a hostage to uncleanliness, hoping that a family member or roommate will eventually come to your rescue? Do you call a friend? At what point do you begin to explore other options? Are there tissues in the house? Paper towels? Are those flushable? Will it be a mark of shame for my entire life? 

I remember as a kid being entirely revolted by the idea of Romans using a gompf stick, essentially a stick with a sponge on one end soaked in salt water, to clean up after defecating. Then, for some reason in school, I learned that early American settlers used corn cobs to do the trick, like some kind of gross reanimation of the original vegetable.

So against that backdrop, toilet paper is certainly an improvement. But how did we even get to toilet paper? Who looked at a tree and thought, “you know what? I bet I could wipe that on my butt and it’d feel great.” Apparently the first cosmetic use of “toilet paper” was in China in the 6th century (Needham, 1986). This came as a byproduct to making paper: basically, if you can turn trees into pulp and make paper, you can make it into soft plushy toilet paper, too.

It wasn’t until 1857 in the U.S. that it was sold as a marketable solution. We can thank that early entrepreneur for getting us away from old Sears and Roebuck catalogues and corn cobs to Ultra Soft (the predominant use of the word Ultra is worth exploring in toilet paper advertising. I suspect it’s not much more than, “it sounds better”). And like all successes in capitalism, it saturated the market (gross).

That leads us to now: where “Every day, about 270,000 trees are flushed down the drain or end up as garbage all over the world,” as the WWF claims ("Don't Flush," 2017). Back in 2009, “the United States spen[t] more than $6 billion a year on toilet tissue—more than any other nation in the world” (Rodriguez, 2009). We use a ton of toilet paper, and that’s probably an understatement.

This really gets to the fundamental hubris of our humanity. We’re claiming that the comfort of our butts is greater than the life of a tree, or rather, millions of trees. I’m your average city dwelling hypocrite, and even to me that calculus strikes me as pretty ridiculous. I know we do this everyday with all our objects of leisure and productivity--cell phones, plastic bags, HDTVs, individually wrapped string cheese; we’re asserting our supremacy over the natural world daily and without a thought through the waste we create from the natural world--but somehow it seems even more vulgar and blatant with toilet paper. Take a look at a tree: they’re beautiful and complex. We’ve all learned their critical function in keeping us breathing. They support vast ecosystems and biodiversity. They even talk to each other through a complex relationship with fungi (Mcfarlane, 2017). And we grind ‘em up and wipe ‘em on our butts. The ultimate troll move.

I’m not suggesting you just go ahead and stop cleaning up after yourself, but maybe it’s time to seriously consider the bidet. I know, it’s gross. And any temperature of water seems wrong. And what do you do after you get your butt wet? Don’t you then need to dry it off? What do you dry it off with? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, and quite honestly I’m a little terrified of the answers. But, for the shameful ignominy we inflict upon our trees, it might be time to try.

Works Cited

"Don't Flush Forests down the Toilet." WWF. World Wildlife Fund, n.d. Web. 08 May 2017.

Macfarlane, Robert. "The Secrets of the Wood Wide Web." The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 19. Jan. 2017.

Web. 08 Apr. 2017.

Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and ChemicalTechnology,

Part 1, Paper and Printing. Taipei: Caves Books, Ltd.

Rodriguez McRobbie, Lisa. "Toilet Paper History: How America Convinced the World to Wipe." Mental Floss.

N.p., 07 Nov. 2009. Web. 08 Apr. 2017.