Tender Fish

“Take the horn shark eggs and hang them in that tank, the one by the moon jelly hatchery. We don’t want them to get infected so they can’t be touching anything, not the sides and not the bottom. That’s why they have to hang.”

“Do they float?” I asked Willy.

“No they don’t. Take some fishing line from the supply closet in the back corner and rig up some kind of noose to hang them down from the top of the tank. Not too tight.”

“They hang from strings in the wild?” I was being kind of a smart-ass.

“In the wild they’d lodge between rocks or coral in the shallows and the current would keep them clean. You’ll have to brush them. There should be a toothbrush with the fishing line. And maybe find a stick long enough to lay across the top of the tank to hang from.”

The bucket looked like it had just a couple of pounds of water (when you get used to hauling buckets of water around you think more about the weight than the volume) with three caramel brown horn shark eggs bobbing around the bottom, bizarre looking dumplings with fleshy spiral fins winding around the outside like an organic drill-bit. I understood how they’d wedge between rocks or twirl in the water like Willy had said.

“They aren’t that important,” Willy told me. “Those sharks haven’t produced fertilized eggs in years.” I guess he said that so I wouldn’t feel bad if they died. He retreated to his backroom office, leaving me in the bubbling wet sounds of the concrete-walled lab with a bucket of eggs. I always watched Willy Gartland as closely as I could because I didn’t know anything about who he was and where he came from and it felt like he didn’t want anyone to know. He was tall and gaunt and always tired, it seemed, with his face roughly shaven and mustache untrimmed. He knew everything about the aquatic life in the marsh. Willy didn’t know birds or snakes or lizards or anything dry, animal-wise. The nature preserve where we worked had other people for the birds. Willy was the fish guy.

“When you’re done with that,” said a voice from a hair-cracked open door in the corner, “feed the jellies. Siphon too.”

I found the fishing line and tied the eggs one by one in the tank as he told me, three little pods suspended from a thin pole across the top of the tank, my hands pink and cold from working in the water. It seemed like important work, carefully stringing up the weird little delicate pods and tying them tight enough to stay put without hurting them, but like Willy said, it didn’t matter that much. They’d rot through in a few days. When we cut them open out back, they oozed down the ground drain and stunk like all heck and I hoped he was right about them being unfertilized. That’s why we cut them open, to see what was inside. But there was nothing in the gunk.

Afterwards I was cleaning the big moon jelly tank in the visitor’s center where people came to look at the animals. It was a cylinder, five feet tall and a few feet across, and I was standing atop a step ladder with a thin long pipe connected to a rubber tube, siphoning out dirty bottom water with all the floating bits into an industrial-sized bucket on the ground. Willy taught me how to start a siphon by sucking the water through the tube with your mouth and then putting the full tube of water down in the bucket and letting gravity do the work. The height of the siphon gave it a fierce suck. I thought about Willy in his office doing I don’t know what, and about why he might be so thin and defeated, and thought there are quite a lot of reasons he could be that way. Maybe he had a white whale he never caught and now he was just cleaning tanks at the dumb aquarium. The white whale’s a metaphor but frankly it could have been a real whale too, considering.

My mind was wandering too much and it was dumb to have a wandering mind when you were dodging jellyfish with a vacuum tube and cold, numb hands. I didn’t know if jellyfish were the kind that sting you. I didn’t ask. If something’s dangerous you can use ignorance like armor. But my hands brushed against the jellies a couple of times while I was working in the water and nothing happened; all I felt was cold. I liked to think I had a special power, or I was a rare genetic anomaly that could touch jellyfish. Something to brag about.

I only sucked a few tiny jellies up with the siphon, accidentally, and poked a hole right through a big one but I didn’t tell Willy Gartland about it. There were always plenty of jellies growing in the backroom tank and it’s hard to have sympathy for something without a brain. A school of jellyfish in the open ocean, their magic pink floatingness breathing and eating sea with the light going through, can be one of the most beautiful things you’ll see, but they don’t feel alive like something with fur and bones. They’re more like a flower.

I let the bucket get too full of muck water and bits of jelly flesh and it was too heavy when I tried to lift it, so I dragged it on the ground and got splashed all over the front of my pants. When the girl assistant came by and saw me, she made some jokes and we had a good laugh, but I was just pretending to laugh because I was too busy thinking whether or not to tell her about my jellyfish immunity. I didn’t.

Willy thought it was funny too even though he didn’t usually laugh. He offered me some paper towels but I didn’t bother cleaning my front because it was nearly time to close and no one was in the aquarium anyway.

Sundays were the quietest and emptiest and the best days for real work. There weren’t any school kids running from tank to tank to watch you make a mistake, to suck up a fish or drop a scrub brush in the sandy bottom of a deep tank, too deep for arms. The kids were scarier than the jellies. I preferred the quiet sound of bubbling water with no one but the fish to talk to, though the goby were not very gabby. I made myself laugh when I was alone sometimes.

I was cleaning out the horn shark tank in the back while Katie, the other assistant, was chopping squid for feed, and we were talking.

“I think something’s wrong with Willy. I think he’s sick,” I said to her.

“Sick? Why? Because he’s skinny?” She looked down at her cutting board as she spoke, careful-fingered, sliding chopped squid to one side in neat piles, her small hands covered with gooped stomach innards and ink.

“Besides that,” I said, “he always looks defeated. I don’t know.” I stopped my absent-minded scrubbing. “Like a man who knows his own end.”

She kind of laughed. “That sounds like a movie poster.”

I started scrubbing the tank again. “Oh hey! There’s another egg in here.”

“Did you know today is Easter? How appropriate.”

“Looks deflated though.” I could tell the egg was nothing but shell, just some detritus at the bottom of the tank drifting softly back and forth.

Then I watched as she fed the chopped squid to the rays and leopard sharks. They were nose-headed flying, curve-drawing bodies of slick soft skin—you could put your hands in the ground-level tank and feel them. They knew they were about to be fed and the bat rays would come flap-flapping along the sides, along the waterline, smelling and feeling for food with their ocean wings, thwack-flapping the water and the walls of the tank, and they’d glide under your hand smooth and wet. I was fond of them because they seemed to have a sense of humor about themselves. Or maybe they were just stupid. The little sharks were different. They never bit anyone but I didn’t trust them or like them as much. And when it was time to lock everything up for the night we’d cover the tank with a round tarp that looked like a trampoline. It was always easier if Katie was there. Sometimes I had to fumble the big circle onto the tank all alone because Willy Gartland never did the work himself; he was all cerebral in his office.

“Maybe he has a tragic love story,” I said. “His fair maiden was swallowed by the sea on a research expedition and now he waits forever for her return, every fish a reminder of what will never be.” I said it like a thespian and it was silly but I sighed hard because it made me sad.

“That’s cute. I don’t think I’d ever want someone to think of me when they saw a fish.”

“Did I ever tell you I’m immune to the jellies? I touched them and I’m fine.”

“That’s stupid.”

I guess that meant they weren’t the stinging kind.

“Tim,” Willy called from the door, “Do you drive?”

“I’ve only got a permit,” I told him.

“All right. Get an empty bucket. We’re going to collect some kelp for the snails. I’ll drive.”

We went in his white van across the bridge to the thin strip of beach that enclosed the bay. I turned and looked at Willy and he was Willy as always, thin-skinned, sharp-boned, and probably a marathon mind, I would guess. There was a baseball card with some kind of Buddhist or Hindu symbol in the corner of the windshield.

“Hey Willy?”


“Hey Willy, where are you from?”

He took a second, either to remember something or decide what to say.

“Up north, from Salinas originally.”

“Oh. That’s garlic country.”

“No, you’re thinking of Gilroy.”

“Oh. Yeah, that’s Steinbeck country.”

“Not really.”

“Got kids?”

“Just the fish.”

He asked me about my future plans but I didn’t have any so we didn’t talk more after that. But it was just a fifteen minute drive. He parked along the beachfront sidewalk.

“Go near the water and look for any washed-up kelp that seems fresh. Wet and shiny. There should be plenty.”


“I’ll be here.”

“Ay’ll be bach,” I said like Schwarzenegger, but I don’t think he got it. Not even a courtesy chuckle.

The next week I got to the aquarium a little late and Willy Gartland was out front at the trailhead where the nature walk started, and he was looking out over the fields of brush and grass that hid little streams, looking over the marsh and out into the bay, and I went to see what he wanted me to do.

“Hey Willy.”

“Oh. Hey Tim.”

He looked like a man with heavy thoughts. I half expected him to collapse into a puddle or go jump face first into the bay. He looked at me with those milky green eyes from under camel lashes and his old woolen sailor cap. His eyes were too young for his scraggled face, I always thought. Looked like a lost baby, scared and open mouthed. Maybe I was projecting.

“Slow day—just the usual. Siphon whatever looks dirty.”

“Hey Willy—you doing alright?”

“Sure. Getting cold though. I can feel the cold coming in.”

“Yeah. Not too cold though. Nice breeze.”

“Easy for you to say,” he snickered.

I didn’t know why the cold would be easier for me, aside from being young, but I did know he always wore thick layers of undershirts over his flesh-stretched body. Poor old Willy, cold and longing for his long lost maiden, or whale, or something.

I stood out there with him for a while longer. We watched the rusted machine boats far out in the bay, slow and heavy in the water, and the large unmoving blocks of cargo freights. The wind got cold like he said but the sun felt good just standing still. You could feel the hot point in the sky without looking—that meant it would be plenty warm further inland.

Sometimes a little fish would hop out of the water in the marsh and you’d hear a small guh-wop, and even if you could see the water running low between the bushes, you’d never see the fish. At best your eyes would be motion-struck on the periphery and you’d hear the glop again, but you’d never see the fish straight on. Never. Like a shooting star.

“Okay Willy. I’ll be inside. The usual.”

I walked through the exhibits and tanks and there was a group of small kids speaking Spanish and running from tank to tank and they stopped at the eels. I didn’t like the eels. I thought they looked like pug-faced demons, things from a child’s bad dreams. The kids smudged the glass and I went to find something to clean it after they ran to another tank.

When I passed the ray and shark holding tank I saw something strange on the bottom, something white and unmoving. There was a dead bat ray, upside down and ever sad, tender white belly up, vulgar mouth wide and gaping, drifting little inches when another ray would glide by. Saddest thing I ever saw. The scales of most fish make them impersonal and machinelike, but rays aren’t like that. Their soft skin and little head humps get to you. Makes them vulnerable, valuable, almost infantile, like you just want to care for them.

I went to Willy’s office but he wasn’t there, and found Katie prepping some brine shrimp for the jellies.

“Do you know where Willy is?”

“Probably in his office.”

“No. One of the bat rays is dead.”

She was measuring something in plastic beakers and didn’t look up. “Oh?” she said, like I had just told her some sports scores or something. “That’s a shame.” I thought she’d be shocked. I hadn’t noticed till then that she was a few years older than me.

“Should I get it out of the tank?”

“Ask Willy.”

I went back to the tank with a bucket and a net on the end of a long pole and found Willy leaning on the edge and staring into the water.

“What do you think happened?” I asked.

“Nothing really.”

“Nothing?” He could see I was upset.

“It just happens. I’ve been doing this for a long time and it just happens. No matter how close you watch them. Something just gives and there’s nothing you can do.”

“That’s it? No autopsy or anything?”

He laughed. “No. Go ahead and fish it out. Easiest fishing you’ll ever do.”

“Jeez Willy. That’s it?”

“Sure that’s it. What else?”

“Don’t you think it’s sad?”

“Sure is.”

It wasn’t as if I had cared for that ray or that I had a special thing with the bat rays. It just got to me. Part of the trade is not letting it get to you because things die all the time.

I asked the front desk lady about Willy and she just said he used to work for a university and now he worked here. Maybe his white whale was tenure. I knew it was a mistake to try and figure out what made Willy the Willy that he was. Every person has a whole life behind them and you can never tally it all up to find out the whys. You just get a sense of who a person is from all the glimpses over time, added together.

On a grey, rain-sprinkled day, I was setting up a new batch of brine shrimp in the lab while Katie was chopping something up for feed. Making brine shrimp is like making cocoa or gelatin. The eggs are a dark brown powder and you’ve got to mix it and some other things in the right amounts and I’d done it enough to ignore the number lines on the beakers. Kind of stunk, even in the normal fish smells of the lab. I got to thinking and I realized that if I could smell it, I had probably breathed some of the eggs, and there might be a few tiny shrimp hatching in my lungs. Not really but I thought about it. I thought about different occupations and wondered if someone who works in a bakery had cookie crusts and bread bits in their lungs.

“Hey Katie—you think a baker has breaded lungs?”


She looked slender-necked like the herons, the proudest birds in the marsh, and among the only birds that weren’t camouflaged against the muted greens and browns of the low-lying vegetation.

“Never mind. Hey Katie—you want to go do something after work?”

“I’m gonna go do something with my boyfriend probably.”

“Yeah that sounds fun.”

She was practically an old lady anyway.

Then Willy came in with a pair of lobsters. Crustaceans are another kind of creature that are hard to sympathize with. Real ugly I thought. But it was kind of funny. The tank for the new lobsters was near the entrance to the aquarium and it looked like we were running a high-class sea food restaurant. Exotic food too—you could get some sand rays, morays, maybe some tartar sauce. I even made Willy laugh with a bad French accent I did when we were trying to get the lobsters into their tank.

“Magnifique!” I said. “Willy—get me zeh buttar!”

They were a real pain though, the lobsters. The two of them were in a five gallon bucket and I had to get them out with a small net on a pole. They were wild lobsters, as lobsters tend to be, and they might snap at me if I tried to grab them. Getting them out of the bucket wasn’t hard but getting them untangled from the net and into their tank was the tricky bit. They were prickly-shelled with delicate antennas, and all of that would get caught up in the net. I couldn’t thrash it too much without hurting them and I couldn’t reach in and untangle them without hurting myself. So I stirred them around in the big tank like it was a boiling pot and the net was a ladle until they fell loose, and we laughed about their ugly faces. Willy seemed to be in a good mood, warm despite the cold outside.

That was the end of my time there. Those lobsters were one of my last projects at the aquarium before I left for college.

The same grey day I found another horn shark egg, another brown corkscrew dumpling in the water, but this one was different. It was thick and ripe and full. It seemed clear that it was a real egg with a real shark in there—a beautiful little spotted fish, full-futured. We got it out of the water and Willy held it up to the light the way you’d hold an envelope with a letter you weren’t supposed to read, or maybe a vegetable you were sizing up at the grocer’s, and he smiled, all of him, and his mustache practically danced, and his jade green eyes flashed, and we both laughed the way you might laugh when you get some real good news, or you see a precious old face from long ago, and you just laugh because what else is there to do.

I’ve been meaning to go back and count how many horn sharks they’ve got now because I strung up the egg just right.

A story based on my time volunteering at the nature center in the Sweetwater Marsh in Chula Vista, CA. The people are fictional, but the fish are real.

Why I Wrote a Story Inspired by Walt Disney

Foreverland by Andy Orin

I wanted to talk about a short book that I wrote. It’s called Foreverland.

It’s about Louie, an animator in the 1950s who works for a big animation studio. And the studio is just finishing a feature film and puts out a call to all levels of the company for new ideas. They invite anyone to pitch the next big thing. And Louie has an idea: he wants the studio to create some sort of carnival. He wants to make a big festival with all the cartoon characters — essentially a theme park. But he has trouble articulating this idea. And in trying to get his idea across he eventually loses his job. And the only way he can make people understand what he wants is to build the thing himself. And that’s the story of Foreverland.

It’s a novella, I suppose — 25,000 words, if you’re the sort of person who checks the word count on your documents. About 80 pages on Kindle. The reason it’s this length is because I actually started writing it as a screenplay, about a decade ago. I was in film school and wanted to write a whimsical feature-length film. And I tinkered with it off and on for years, but I was never actually going to make the movie, so this summer, in 2021, I wrote a version people could simply read. (That it was originally a movie plot dictated the length; I constructed it to be around 100 minutes long, and I didn’t want to add chaff to the story just to make it more of a book.)

So, obviously this story was inspired by Walt Disney. I love Disney history and wanted to create a story that felt like it took place in a sort of idealized version of an animation studio in the 50s, you know, without labor disputes or anything like that. But when I was first trying to come up with a story, I was particularly interested in Walt Disney’s fascination with trains. Walt had a lifelong interest in trains of all sizes and had a ridable miniature railroad in the backyard of his house in Los Angeles in 1949. And he wasn’t alone in his interest in trains — other animators at Disney also had trains, namely Ollie Johnston and Ward Kimball. (They’re two of the fabled ‘nine old men’, a group of old-timers at Disney Animation.) Ward Kimball’s train was 5/8 scale, meaning it was a colossal, working steam engine about the size of a car. So it’s no surprise that Disneyland also had a train since its first inception (which I believe is also 5/8 scale). Anyway, that’s where my story started. That’s what the first draft was about — a man trying to build a train in his backyard.

But I got stuck on that version of the story and eventually rewrote it. The story became larger and the train became smaller.

I should mention that if you’ve any interest in Disney history, you should absolutely visit the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. They have Walt’s original miniature train, in addition to thousands of other sights and stories. And if you’re in Los Angeles, Walt’s train barn is now in Griffith Park.

One more thing. I want to explain why I published this story myself (aside from the somewhat moot point of trying to place a 25k word narrative fiction story anywhere). There was an art installation outside the Brooklyn Museum in 2018 that struck me. It was just big letters woven onto the front railing that read “do not disappear into silence.” That phrase has stayed with me. Do not disappear into silence. When I was younger I used to agonize over the futility of trying to write. What’s the point if you can’t get published and no one will read it? So after college, I just didn’t try to do anything for a while. I chose silence. Aside from tweeting, I guess.

Moreover, if you’re a writer or an artist or musician or YouTuber, it can also be very frustrating when you try to create something but you feel like you’ve reached the limitations of your talent. You hit your head against the ceiling of your own mediocrity and you know it. And for a while, you may give into the frustration and choose to do nothing. You may give into the silence. But you can’t get any better when you don’t challenge yourself to do something. You’ve got to try and do it — whatever it is you want to do — to improve your craft and maybe even find an audience some day. Not that you need to put every first draft online. But maybe the second or third draft.

So after a while of not really trying I realized it’s better just to try to express yourself even if you aren’t at the level you want to be yet. This is story is an expression of myself, trying not to disappear into silence. And it’s a pretty fun story, in my opinion.

Fitzcarraldo in a Bottle 2021

Photo: Andy Orin

Eight years ago I thought of one of the only good ideas I’ve ever had: I should make a ship in a bottle depicting the ship from Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog’s 1982 film about a deranged but determined opera lover played by Klaus Kinski.

In attempt to raise money to build an opera house in a small Peruvian city, the titular character tries to gain access to an untapped source of rubber trees by dragging his steam ship across land to another portion of the river. The production was fabulously calamitous — there were multiple plane crashes, Mick Jagger shot a whole part and then dropped out, the thousands of native extras were questionably cared for, a guy sawed off his foot when he was bit by a snake, Kinski was a bigtime freako — but the film is best remembered from the scenes depicting the ship being dragged up a hill. Not a model of a ship or anything like that — they just literally did the thing to film it, portaging a massive 320-ton ship across land, uphill, in the jungle.

It’s one of my favorite movies.

I also love ships in bottles. Not specifically the mystery of their construction, but the complexity and tedium required to create that mystery around an object that is completely useless. They’re little works of sculptural art that also perform a magic trick by existing in an impossible space. That being said, just depicting the Fitzcarraldo scene was more important to me than constructing it with any guise of traditional ship-in-a-bottle trickery. I was particularly inspired by this bottle depicting Jaws. A movie! In a bottle! A movie-ship-in-a-bottle!

In 2013 I drew this on a post-it note:

fitz doodle

I briefly looked for existing model kits of similar ships but didn’t find anything that would work. So I modelled this ship in Autodesk 123D (a free design app which no longer exists):

Six years later in 2019 I printed the model about three inches long using Shapeways:

In “smooth fine detail plastic.” Photo: Andy Orin

There were two factors in deciding that scale: first of all, it needed to fit through the neck of a bottle. And secondly, a smaller print is cheaper (this cost $21.69 and scale increases price exponentially-ish). In 2013 I did toy with the idea of slicing the model so that it would be glued back together inside the bottle, piece by piece, but as I said, performing the traditional construction magic trick wasn’t that important to me.

And I didn’t have a bottle yet anyway. No rush.

This month I happened to have a glass jar from a soy candle that was just about right for this scale. (What’s… the deal... with soy candles? Are normal candles a big problem we need to solve? Are soy candles…. edible?) Jars are obviously less compelling than narrow-necked bottles but it was good for the purpose. A little clay and a bag of miniature trees (insert referral link here) and I had this:

Do you like my improvised light box? Photo: Andy Orin

I’m not over the moon with the outcome but I am over the hill. It looks fine; if you know the movie you know what I’m depicting. I don’t plan on working on it anymore unless I happen across a good model kit that compels me enough to increase the scale of the whole thing.

Why did it take eight years? Did my creative vision persevere through years of setbacks? Did I need time to germinate the idea until a plan bloomed? No! It was a low priority and time was abundant.

There are no lessons about stick-with-it-ness here, pal. This isn’t even a pandemic project; I just have the stupidest long-term goals around.

The Case of the Missing Coat Hangers

Illustration: Andy Orin from a Le Samourai screenshot.

Getting packages reliably in New York City depends entirely on where you live. Not your neighborhood, but your building. Some have lobbies, some have stoops, some have nothing but a door that opens directly to the sidewalk. Some have doormen if you can believe it.

I reside in the Belvedere, a large, squat, six story building that dates to 1924. Not that anyone calls it the Belvedere, but that’s what it they wrote on the front in cement when they put it up around a hundred years ago. It has a big empty lobby where there probably used to be a kid in a bellhop outfit and about 70 apartments above. All good and fine for general living. But I’ve always had a hard time getting packages delivered. Delivered to me, anyway; they deliver them somewhere. Most things just sit in the lobby by the mailboxes but some things do not.

A few days ago I ordered some coat hangers to clean up a messy closet. (Technically it was a “hanging organizer,” but let’s keep it simple for rhetorical sake.) It was from Amazon, and was scheduled to be delivered the next day just in case it was a dire closet situation and Marie Kondo was at my neck.

Indeed the following day the package was dispatched, and I checked its status every so often while I worked. Around half past noon, it was delivered. (Funny how all the delivery services use a passive voice; it never says ‘a person handed you a box’, it just says that the ‘package has been delivered’.)

But first let me tell you about the police who knocked on my door in April holding a scrap of cardboard. A worrying sight. They explained that they had caught a package thief fleeing from our building the night before. Around 2am or so a man got into the lobby and rummaged through the mail, helping himself to whatever looked enticing. But the building’s super intendent somehow caught wind and chased him out. A good man, perhaps one of the only good building supers. The police subsequently caught the thief and his cache of nicked packages, and among the detritus was a shipping label with my address. So the police knocked on my door the next morning just to let us know.

As such, whenever I am expecting something to be delivered, I try to be expedient when retrieving it from the lobby.

When the coat hangers arrived I went down to the mailboxes and found nothing. Nada. No note, no boxes. Unfortunate, but not a big ticket item. The absence of coat hangers is no tragedy. Prior to this, in all the years of chasing boxes I’ve only had one thing go missing, for-real missing: an iPhone. An iPhone! Practically the most valuable thing you can mail. Like slipping an gold ingot into a mailbox. But this isn’t about the iPhone.

I went back to my apartment to check the delivery status again, to see if they left any specific detail of where it was left — ‘by the door’, ‘in the mailbox’, etc. — and there was none. But this particular shipping company provided something new with the delivery notification that I hadn’t noticed before going downstairs: a photo.

Photo by Lasership

That’s not my door.

No clear number on the door either, though the hallway is recognizably somewhere in my building. But it reminded me of the missing Indian food.

Last September I ordered Indian food for my birthday. When the delivery person arrived outside the building, he called my phone to let me know. I went down but there was no one there. Assuming he had gotten inside and I just missed him, I went back to my apartment — and there was no one there. He called my phone again and said he was outside my door, where he certainly was not.

So I walked down the hallway and heard him in the distance, on the other side of a fire door that separates the left and right sides of the building exactly in the middle. He was standing outside of an apartment door with no number that he had incorrectly guessed was mine. In fact, I had to show him my phone to prove that I was me and not some meddling neighbor trying to steal the food. I haven’t ordered from them since. Too much work.

But I knew why he thought that was my door. For some reason this building, the old Belvedere, has all the odd numbered apartments on one side and all even numbers on the other. I’m an even number, so my immediate neighbors are 2, 4, 6, etc. My apartment number is 8.

The man with the Indian food followed the numbers and went to the door next to 7, a door that just happens to have no legible number. But it’s over in odd-numbered land where the odd people live so the door next to 7 is 9, presumably. Or 5. I don’t know if other hundred-year-old buildings are like this, but that’s how they designed things at the Belvedere. All the odds on the right, all the evens on the left.

So when I saw the photo of my coat hangers outside of a door with no clear number, I had a hunch. Even though the address wasn’t visible, it was next to the perpendicular swinging doors that separate the building exactly in the middle, between the left and right side of the building. Odds and evens.

Sure enough I went down the hall to the same door where I argued for my Indian food a year earlier and found my coat hangers.

It hadn’t occurred to me until now that the lost iPhone might have ended up there too, at the door with no number. But that’s another mystery. Someone signed for it and left the initials “OA”, according to the post office. (Perhaps a clue, but those are also my initials, reversed, so that might be a dead end. It could also be Brit Marling.) Lucky for me the cell company replaced the lost phone (and mailed it directly to the post office for pickup) so that case is all hung up as far as I’m concerned.

But if you’re ever in the Belvedere and run across the no-number door in the odd hall, ask them about it for me.

Four Movie Special!

Toshiro Mifune in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Illustration: Andy Orin

One of the best habits I developed during the pandemic was what I call “four movie special.” Time for four movie special! I say, in my head, every Friday night.

Four movie special IS the weekend. Four movie special is an attainable goal. Four movie special is what separates the weekend from the same-but-drearier weekdays.

Can you guess what four movie special is? Have you unraveled the mystery?

Four movie special is this: watching four movies every weekend. This is how you do it: you watch four movies over the weekend.

It started as a game to see how many movies I could watch every weekend, trying to get the high score. But four became the standard goal — an exceptional amount of movie-watching in normal times but a normal amount in exceptional times.

Obviously — and this should be excruciatingly obvious — I’m speaking from a place of privilege in which my primary concern during the strictest lockdown of the pandemic was simply to stay put, indoors. I work on the internet, I’ve no kids, and all I had to do was not go outside. That involved the challenge of killing time. Whittling time down like a hunk of spare wood into a spoon, sliver by sliver. Time spoon!

You know takes a lot of time? Movies! You know what I love? Movies! Take your timespoon and have a dollop of film!

Weekdays just aren’t conducive to movie-watching, in my experience, because my attention span during the week is generally shot from the workday. I can’t stare at something for a solid two hours without checking the news to see if the planet exploded, and that kind of ruins the movie for me. So I only watch movies on the weekend. Four of them!

Quattro film speciali! Fantastico!

I count Friday night as the weekend. A movie on Friday, a movie on Saturday afternoon, a movie on Saturday night, and then a movie on Sunday.

Feels like something has been accomplished when you accomplish the four movie special.

Sometimes only one on Saturday, sometimes two on Sunday; four movie special is a goal, not a mandate. Now that the pandemic in New York is less awful than it was (though the viral trends are not moving in a good direction) I do in fact leave my apartment on the weekends to look at trees and buildings various things you can see outside — which can inhibit the four movie special. But any number of movies is good. Occasionally I achieve five movie special. Cinco peliculas, mis amigos!

All manner of movies are fair game, but I just happened to subscribe to Criterion Channel in February this year just before the virus really took over the world. It’s such a reprieve from contemporaneous reality and I highly recommend it. I watch plenty of new stuff too, on Netflix and HBO (Maximum) and Amazon and Hulu, but usually at least two of my weekly four movie special selections are on Criterion. Even if you aren’t versed in ‘classic’ films you can just check out what’s recommended and curated and spend a couple of hours in 1970s France or wherever. I’ve been going through all the Akira Kurosawa movies I never heard of. In October there was a glut of 70s horror movies. (Movies come and go like any streaming service, so it might not have a specific title if you’re looking for something famous.) So many movies!

Feels great when you can spend time watching them. Four of them! Even three is a lot of movies. That’s my whole life hack here: watch some movies. Movies!

I have watched a lot of movies.

Fitzcarraldo-in-a-Bottle Recorked


In 2013, I had an idea to make Fitzcarraldo’s ship in a bottle. I had planned to 3D print a model, maybe in modular parts so it could actually fit in a bottle, and designed a fairly simple model of the ship in one of Autodesk’s free apps. Then I got a little busy in the intervening years. I am now less busy.

(Fitzcarraldo, a film by Werner Herzog, follows a fanatic’s dream of funding an opera house in the jungle by harvesting rubber from trees in an untapped territory, but to reach them, he needs to drag a boat across land where two rivers almost meet. Herzog famously filmed the sequence by actually doing what’s depicted: dragging a giant boat up a hill.)

Werner Herzog.

So obviously the bottle would depict that scene, with the boat mid-hill.

I got to thinking about it again, and decided to see what sort of new 3D printing materials Shapeways has added since I last tinkered. They now offer a “fine detail plastic” that’s particularly well-suited for scale models and miniatures.

Another reason I hadn’t done any more work on it in six years ago simply was the price; at the time I uploaded a 6″ version, but printing a nearly banana-sized boat would cost $100 today (and significantly more back then, but I don’t remember how much).

So I tried a 3″ version, and it only cost $21.69 in fine detail plastic. Sure, why not. (Plus shipping and taxes and a expedition fee unless you are very patient, making it thirty something dollars altogether.) That’s where I am now.

DSC_8003web.jpgI haven’t found the perfect bottle yet. The boat is specifically 2.7″ and .99″ tall at its highest point, the smokestack thing. I’m thinking about something like this:


That’s about 3″ long; it would be a pretty tight fit if I want a substantial hill in there. A little bigger and I might be able to fit some little trees in there too. And the wide neck is essential, since I’m not actually bothering to assemble the boat in the bottle. More of a ship in a jar.

So now I’m just thinking about jars, looking at jars. I can go ahead and paint the ship (although the translucent plastic is itself fascinating, maybe good for a ghost ship).

But I’m in no rush, so it might be another six years before I stick a cork in this idea.

Do Allbirds Give You Wings?

After seeing advertisements for Allbird shoes everyday on Instagram and Facebook and countless other webpages for a year, I bought a pair. I knew what they were before I ever saw an ad because I regularly read the sorts of publications that cover things like a shoe startup company. But seeing them every single day, in video ads with toes wriggling in soft wool, got to me. I needed to experience the future of feet.

Did they reinvent the shoe? Is wool the future of shoe tech? Will these shoes change my life, foot-wise?

No, not really, but they’re fine. They are soft. They are comfortable. Maybe more environmentally-friendly in some regard?

The shoes are different from most shoes in that their top shell is made from wool. It’s more dense and thick than a sweater or something, but it is indeed a woolly material. Thus the shoes lack the rigidity of most sneakers that are made from plastics and rubbers and artificial materials. That’s a plus; there’s no need to break them in. There are no new-shoe-blisters because there’s just nothing in there that’s rigid enough to rub you the wrong way.

The sole is a nice squishy foamy sole, good for everyday use. I have some Adidas running shoes with soles that are slightly more rigid, and I think the Adidas feel a little better for actual running… if running was something I did. Maybe it’s the more aggressive profile of the Adidas–thick heel for impact tapered toward the front–but the Adidas shoes feel more designed for GO FOWARD! motion. The Allbirds are called runners, but feel less runny. Which is fine, just less go-forwardness. I opt for the Adidas when I know I’m going to be walking a lot.

And some people wear them without socks. Feels wrong to me! But you could. I’d imagine they’d feel like dirty socks very quickly, but they are also machine washable.

Allbirds have a unique, unremarkable aesthetic; they’re a shoe with no visual flare beyond ‘shoe.’ No stripes or stars or reflective bits. Kind of reminds me of Odo from Deep Space Nine, a shapeshifter who, for some reason, couldn’t quite master a human face, so his face looked like melted silly putty without wrinkles or defining features. Just the idea of a human face. Just the idea of a shoe.

Odo, the featureless face guy. The Allbirds of faces.

And the laces are oddly stubby.

I’m fairly ambivalent about the look; I bought the aforementioned Adidas shoes because they came up on Zappos when I clicked SHOE, because I needed shoes, for walking in. Some people, the sneaker people, think Allbirds are grotesque business casual things. Not wrong! Not bothered! (Also, Allbirds are popular among Silicon Valley types.)

They are fine, they’re fine. Fine. I’ve been wearing them for a few weeks and they are still comfy. No doubt about that. But–mostly because of their indistinct, perhaps orthopedic look–they do not exactly spark joy. They look like something a grandpa from the future would be wearing in retirement. Futuristic grandpa. Fine.

So put on your Allbirds, jump on a Bird scooter, and ride into the future, gramps! It’s woolly there.

(An editor would tell me to write a better kicker [a kicker is the last sentence in an article]).

So here’s the kicker: shoe.

(Shoe is the thing that kicks.)

Throw Me the Idol!


Adam Savage occasionally mentions what he calls “everyday cosplay,” a casual use of movie-related clothing in everyday life. Sometimes he wears replicas of Captain America’s gloves, for example, as just normal gloves. Sometimes he wears NASA jackets. And of course Savage often wears a wide-brimmed hat, no doubt influenced by Indiana Jones. I have my own bit of Dr. Jones kit that I use almost every day: the bag.

Jones wears it in all the movies (somewhat curiously under his jacket; I guess that keeps it from swinging around too much while he’s doing all that adventuring). It’s probably most clearly seen and utilized in The Temple of Doom when he’s carrying the Sankara stones and they burn through the bag. You might call it a satchel bag or side bag or whatever, but it’s actually a specific, unique thing: a British World War II gas mask bag called a Mark VII. If you google it you can find dozens of places to buy various reproductions, as Indy is a pretty easy and popular costume to put together. I got one from Todd’s Costumes. (It’s not a vintage bag from the war, but an accurate recreation of one.)

Is a gas mask bag really the best option to carry around my bits of daily junk? Not really. There are a few odd quirks in its interior design, being that it’s literally for gas masks. There are odd metal gaskets at the bottom for ventilation (though useful for a wet umbrella!), and a few bits and bobs of ambiguous metal and string.

Satchel Bag worn by Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) as seen in Raiders of the Lost Ark

I had to modify the interior a little bit to make it actually usable; the interior was separated into two horizontal pockets–obviously for whatever mask device it was designed for–so I cut the bifurcating flap of material to create a single, open space. It also has a couple of little other pockets that can hold earphones or a pen. Otherwise it’s just a small tote bag. But it looks cool. It’s too small for something like a laptop or even a full-sized magazine. But it looks cool. It can hold a book! You bet I toss a Chipotle burrito in there like it’s an ancient fertility idol.

At first I used a strap from another bag I own–a vintage Soviet map case that I happen to have–but I didn’t have an elegant way to attach it so I eventually bought the leather strap from Todd’s Costumes as well. But! The leather was bright and clean and new when it arrived; of course it was new, but I didn’t want something that looked brand new. So I flexed around to loosen the rigidity of the leather, roughed it up with sand paper a little bit, and stained it a darker brown color that seemed truer to the movie, or at least more like a vintage object. And it’s corny, but I like that it’s unique that way; my stupid Indiana Jones gas mask bag is now one of a kind, and looks the way it does because I weathered it that way.

So what’s the point of using part of a movie costume that is less usable than a bag that’s actually designed to be a daily bag? Does it make me feel like Indiana Jones when I’m buying batteries at Walgreens and carrying them home in my accurate gas mask bag? Yes.

The Cake Outside the Door


The other day when I left my apartment to run some errands I stepped out into the hallway and there was a cake outside the door.

A boxed cake, an Italian panettone. Not a freshly-baked cake but a sort of seasonal coffee cake with the requisite shelf life such that you can buy at retail stores. I picked it up to check for any notes or addresses to explain why it was here (I don’t know anyone in the building; you nod and say hello to people, good morning, to 80 or so other people, but I don’t know anyone who might gift me something), and there was no note. Just a cake, in a box, outside my door.

I thought, perhaps, it was from the immediate neighbors. They accidentally set off the fire alarm in the hallway just a few days ago, and perhaps this was some kind of penance, penance for making us step into the public light in pajamas to check if we were going to die or not. But there was no note! (And we did not die.) No hi sorry here’s a cake from your neighbors! Nothing! Floor cake, and that is all.

I thought, perhaps more likely, that the cake was intended for a different apartment, and the person just got the number wrong. Intended for a different apartment that would understand an unmarked cake at the door. But what could I do to rectify the location of an unmarked cake?

I also considered that there are some kids in the building, frenetic children who run through the hallways and bounce off the walls and play in the lobby, and perhaps they placed it there for whatever reason. Like some kind of ring-the-doorbell-and-run game. Here’s a cake! Suckers! A reverse dine-and-dash.

So without any clear resolution, I brought the floor cake inside. What else could I do?

I share a two bedroom apartment so I waited until my housemate got home before I chose to eat, dispose off, or give away the item; perhaps floor cake was entirely comprehensible to her. (And though I was distrustful of the cake, I would have definitely just eaten it anyway.) I was right to wait, because the explanation was mundane.

There’s a place in the lobby where people sometimes put free stuff; books or whatever. A box of coat hangers. Children’s toys that have run their attention span. Dianetics.

I said to my housemate, I found this cake, someone brought us cake? And she had an explanation. Someone has placed the cake in the lobby, in the free zone, and these particular types of cake were a recent topic of conversation at her work. She was curious. So she ran back up stairs with the cake but needed to catch an Uber so she just left it outside our door, as you might with any package when you have places to be, things to do. Deals to make! Modern businesswoman! Catching cars, finding cakes!


That was a little disappointing–no one intentionally gave us cake–but also a little gratifying in its explicit unremarkableness. Which is the only lesson I have, the only kicker: the explanation for everything you don’t understand is probably more boring than you expect it be.

I Can’t Stop Watching This Clip of Bohemian Rhapsody


Bohemian Rhapsody is a silly cartoon movie starring fake teeth. It’s not good, but it is popular. I can see why; it’s not not entertaining! Particularly if you enjoy the music, which carries the movie along with Rami Malek’s wholehearted dive. But it’s all an absurd mess that glosses over reality and is haunted by the spectre of its director, Bryan Singer, who was fired from the production before filming completed. The band might also be partly to blame, the Actual Queen band, supposedly wanting to make a movie that was innocuous to all legacies involved.

So it’s not surprising that the entire thing feels like a weird fever dream. I half-expected interstitial placards that just said SCENE MISSING. Nonetheless they finished the film. And now it’s an Academy Award-winning film, including a gold statue for editing.

Before the awards, this clip was widely circulated online as an example of how messy it all is (what’s with the glossy surreal color grading, by the way?), particularly the editing:

And yeah! The pace of cuts is obviously absurd; it’s just a calm conversation around a table but it feels like there are at least 50 different shots in 82 seconds. You might expect wildly fast cuts in an action sequence, but not tea time.

But people kept pointing to this clip as an example of terrible editing. And I kept watching it over and over to find a glaring error. Any cut that just doesn’t work. And… I couldn’t! Is it… is this editing actually fine?

The whole scene and everyone’s place in it is completely comprehensible. It reads fine; I know where everyone is around the table. With most of the characters framed following a basic rule of thirds, my eyes are never not in the right place during the fast-paced cuts.

Have I gone mad by watching the same clip seventy dozen times? Probably.

I realize that the sheer number of reaction shots is preposterous. It seems to me it would have been a simpler to set up a couple wider shots where you can see multiple characters without making cuts. Instead, there are about 6 or 7 different camera set ups for this one scene around a table. Individual shots for almost every character is not how I would do it! But the editing never takes me out of the moment.

Aside from watching this one scene over and over like a zoetrope, it is difficult to discern how much an editor’s decisions help to elevate a movie. It is laborious and almost invisible work. It is as if the only people who really know how much work the editor has done are the director and the cinematographer and their teams, who know what was shot, and what was not.

But he got the votes, and now John Ottman, the editor of Bohemian Rhapsody, has an Oscar.

Update: Here’s a good examination of why this scene is crazy and how it could be less crazy.