Strange Radiation

Andrew Willett, unreliable narrator.

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I’m Gonna Live Forever

So, um, I’m going to be on Letterman tonight, part of the chorus backing up Ray Davies and doing Kinks songs. Set your DVRs, or check it out on the Letterman show website when it goes up tomorrow. The performance is to support his current tour, which has two nights’ performances at Town Hall on Thursday and Friday. I’ll be in those too. (Tickets still available!)

Still can’t quite believe this is happening.


Dear Molly Lewis:

I’d never heard of you before Jonathan Coulton Twittered about this video this morning. And I don’t really have much of a file on Lady GaGa.

But I love you.

Lizard Lady Sings the Blues

Recently found in a pile in front of our building’s mailboxes: the new issue of the magazine Hybrid Mom. There was a smiling blonde on the cover, wearing a cute-yet-sensible pink long-sleeved T-shirt over a black sports bra. She stood on some random stretch of Pacific seashore and held a volleyball.

Of course I grabbed a copy as soon as I saw it, but I gotta say: what a disappointment. It appears that the hybridization in question is of cultural strains of female H. sapiens: (mom x office lady) or (mom x athlete), for instance. (mom x savvy internet user) seems to be another.

Whatever. I know for damn sure that I am not the only person who saw that cover and hoped it was a magazine for transgenic women. Imagine the features! “What to Expect When You’re Expecting to Incubate Your First Clutch of Eggs,” maybe, or “Menopause and Metamorphosis.” God, and the monthly romantic-advice column…. The mind boggles.

This is why publishing is going down the tubes, kids. Mark me well.

On the Crystalline and Complex Beauty of the World We Live In

I should really be in bed at this point, but instead I need to share this with everyone.

It started with the UN job: suddenly I had time to kill on the subway again, time enough to read or whatever. Back when I worked for the kids’ dotcom, I read books. When there were lots of trips to the offices of Major Publication, I read the New Yorker. But for whatever reason, with the UN job came a taste for podcasts. Lots of Dan Savage, at first, because who doesn’t like to listen to people talk about sex? Especially when it’s not only intelligent and unafraid of getting into the juicy and polymorphously perverse details but it’s also funny? And then there was Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me, which was smart, funny people discussing recent news and politics and things. And these satisfied me fine for a while as I came down the West Side on the IRT and then across to Grand Central on the shuttle train and then walked the last few blocks to the General Assembly building and then came home again the same way only in reverse. But somewhere along the line I found out about Radiolab.

Radiolab is science. It is the awe-inspiring wonder of the universe. It is two funny, intelligent people talking about stuff that will blow your mind. In the most recent episode, “Parasites,” they talk about the zombie-cockroaches story that I remembered reading about a while back, and they talk about why the chestburster scene in Alien is such high-octane freakout material, and they talk about the theory that Toxoplasma gondii is responsible for “Cat Lady syndrome” and other behavioral changes in humans. And they talk about this guy who makes an extremely compelling argument that hookworms, whipworms, et al. coevolved with the human immune system and that infection by certain parasites seems to control autoimmune or autoimmune-related disorders (such as allergies, asthma, colitis, and freaking Crohn’s disease, for heaven’s sake) in a number of those who have voluntarily become hosts to the parasite.1

And then there was the episode a few months ago called “Stochasticity,” which was all about randomness. Worth listening to for the discussion of how biological function is some sort of weird-ass emergent property of the random noise of protein synthesis via RNA. I was on the bus when I heard that one. I just about jumped out of my seat and did a little dance.

If science is your thing — if you think that the universe is a cool place to live — you need to check out Radiolab. Especially if you write SF: Radiolab is a flowery field of fat, happy, fluffy plot bunnies. Seriously. Everywhere you look, there’s a cool idea, and then another.

That is all.

1 He went to Africa and infected himself with hookworm and his crippling allergies and asthma went away. Poof! He now sells squeaky-clean, bacteria-free “infect yourself with my hookworms” kits over the internet. At first I was horrified. And then I was transfixed by the idea. Now I can’t get it out of my head.

People’s Parties

So another couple of months pass, and it’s August in NYC. It’s muggy and hot; it rains every now and then; we go to the beach when we are able. When you go to swim practice you don’t have to wedge eighty-leven pounds of overcoat boots hats gloves sweater flannel-lined trousers into the locker, rumpling your work shirt beyond redemption.

Life here is good. The job proceeds apace, and there are even suggestions that I might get my contract extended by a couple of months to work on another project. We go to the beach when we are able, and find ways to amuse ourselves when we are not. I have been taking in more theater and crazy performance stuff than is typical, too — a side effect of hanging out with the charming D.

Take a recent evening, for instance. D and I went to go see John Kelly perform the entirety of Joni Mitchell’s album “Court and Spark” down in the open-air performance space of Castle Clinton in Battery Park. Kelly, for those of you at home, has had a long and varied career as an artist, but has found a weird sort of fame performing as Joni Mitchell. The hair, the clothes, the mannerisms. Or what I’m assured are the mannerisms. Before this summer my file on Joni Mitchell was mighty thin. Actually, lacking familiarity with the template does make your mind go looking for some other something to compare it with on first exposure. I ended up at a cross between Janice from the Muppet show1 and Hedwig, which was totally wrong and made me laugh inappropriately. But that’s the mindblowing thing about his performance: it’s not camp, it’s not drag, it’s not parody. Even if you wouldn’t know Joni Mitchel if she asked you for directions on 63rd Street, you can tell after about 30 seconds that Kelly is totally committed to what he’s doing. There’s nothing arch or ironic about it. Which makes it a whole ‘nother flavor of awesome.2 And the crowd plugs right into it.

In fact, it was the strength of that commitment that made the next thing that happened such a stunning moment of theatre. We sat in the VIP section, which had a great side-on view of the stage, and everybody’s grooving right along and we’ve hit the album’s fifth track, “Down to You.” And everyone’s having a fine time, and Kelly’s band is crazy tight, and one of the backup singers, who’s decked out like she’s been a dedicated flower child since back in the day, keeps looking over toward someone in the VIP section with this smile on her face like it’s the craziest gig she’s ever done, or the best, or possibly both. And we hit the long instrumental part that makes up most of the second half of the song and Kelly starts to pick his way back through the band toward the back of the stage, and crouches down to root through a duffel bag. He’s vanished from the view of the audience, except for some of us in the VIP section.

He drops the shawl he’s been wearing, folds it up. He slips the velvety green dress from over his head: there’s a black one beneath it. Hey, costume change! But after a moment’s thought he pulls that one off as well, and the silvery one that had been beneath that. And then the wig. He takes a cloth from the bag and wipes off his makeup as best he can. He stands, slowly, returning to view: he faces the back of the stage and the walkway running behind it and turns his face to the sky, a 49-year-old guy in a pair of black Calvin Klein underwear. He stretches, breathes deep. He returns to the bag, pulls on jeans and a T-shirt, and goes back to the mic. The band has been playing the whole time, and the song reaches the end, and they go into “Just Like This Train,” the sixth track. And he looks like Alan Cumming, but drained of that faint undercurrent of malice; he looks a little like Terrence Stamp. And the music goes on.

Not a new thing, the transformation. It has been done in any number of other acts. But for some reason, in this instance, it is profound. It hits you like a delivery van. D is crying. But there’s no time to linger, because Kelly doesn’t need the wig to sing the hell out of the material. There’s a woman in the second row: flowered pants, coral-to-pink-grapefruit blouse, curly dark hair, big sunglassess; someone’s Jewish grandmother from Staten Island. She’s been rocking out from the start, she knows all the words, and the exultant smile on her face stays exactly where it has been and like everyone else in the audience she stays right with Kelly and the band right through to the end of the show, having a fine time as the sun sets over the harbor and gleams off the silver towers of the Financial District. And I think: I fucking love this town.

1 Janice’s main claim to fame, of course, is that she delivered the single greatest line in film ever.

2 This summer has also been the Summer of Awesome. I have no idea why this word is suddenly my favorite adjective, and I’m not sure I’m happy about it, but there doesn’t seem to be anything I can do but wait for it to clear up on its own.

Putting My Left Foot Forward

I have a gig! I’ve just finished my first week working for the UN Trust Fund for Human Security, doing a writing project that is scheduled to keep me busy until the end of the year. Which is a great thing, especially as copy-editing work at Major Publication is getting harder and harder to come by. But knowing-where-my-rent-check-is-coming-from considerations aside, it’s a great thing to be working for an organization that is engaged in such boots-on-the-ground humanitarianism. It really does help make the world a safer, healthier, happier place for people who need the help — via the sorts of projects that you read about and think, Yes, this is exactly the sort of thing I want the United Nations doing. Science fiction fans believe in better worlds.

So that’s done a great deal to keep my mood buoyant lately. Meanwhile, I’m trying to figure out which market to send “Nightbird” to (aka the Stevie Nicks Death Androids Story, although it contains no androids. Or Stevie Nicks, really. Well, sort of). I figure I should strike while the iron is still warmish from the success of Daisy, which I recently found out was brought to a meeting of fiction-read-out-loud afficionados called NYC Storyreading. Having random strangers enjoying my story in public still kind of freaks me out. Even if it was sort of the point. Thank you, random strangers; I am flattered beyond words.

And finally, I do a lot of walking with the new job — from Grand Central to the UN in the mornings, and as often as not from 1st Avenue all the way to the West Side in the evenings, if the weather is good. There is much headphone-listening, and I’ve been reminded once again that the scars of Band Geekitude run deep. I keep catching myself adjusting my stride so that my left foot comes down on the downbeat; the only reason I notice it at all is that sometimes the tempo speeds up and I’m wondering why I’m going so fast….

Anyway, I’m off to the theatre now: a preview of the new Coraline musical, which looks like it’s going to be a blast. And then an overnight in Philly tomorrow with the swimmers. Enjoy your weekend.

Today’s Thing That Is Crazy

Hokey smokes! Some total stranger in — Scotland? Ireland? Suddenly I can’t tell, how embarassing — took ‘my story “Daisy”’: and produced a free audio version of it, because he liked it. (And because its Creative Commons license encouraged him to do so.)

I am agog. And flattered. Thanks, Ian McMillan!

Who is Better Than Stephen Fry? Nobody.

It’s the first of May, and I’ve been going around the office of Major Publication all day reminding myself over and over not to sing the Jonathan Coulton song out loud; it’s as brilliant and catchy and hilarious as his work is wont to be, but it’s also seriously NSFW. (So if you’ve never heard it before and you’re downloading it now at the office or in front of easily horrified grannies or whatnot be sure to put your headphones on. [And if you enjoy the song, show JoCo some donation love.])

But that’s not why I’m here just now. No, sir. I wanted to direct people’s attention to this letter from Stephen Fry to his 16-year-old self, which I found pretty moving. God knows most of us would love to go back and give a message from the future to our awkward and dopey younger selves, or at least give them big hugs and tell them it’ll be okay. I’m not sure anyone else would be able to do so with such intelligence, humanity, and general awesomeness. It’s also a look at gay history and a meditation on love, which is of paramount importance to all people. It’s good stuff.

Julie & Julia (& Nora) (& You)

I was going to post something about the Weimar cabaret orchestra that’s doing drop-dead fabulous covers of New Wave tunes, but this is even better.

Julia Child started cooking classes at Le Cordon Bleu in the late 1940s. She published Mastering the Art of French Cooking, her first, revolutionary cookbook, in 1961, and began her equally revolutionary television program not long thereafter. In 2002, a woman in Brooklyn named Julie Powell started a blog, The Julie/Julia Project, in which she cooked a different meal from MAFC every night in her teeny tiny NYC-style kitchen in a neighborhood with no decent grocery store, gradually working her way through the entire book. In 2004, Julia died; I found Julie’s blog through the lovely essay she wrote reflecting upon the yearlong experience and how Julia had transformed both Julie’s life and her own. In 2005 the blog became a book, as they were wont to do at the time. In August 2009 the cookbook that became a blog that became a book will become a movie, staring Amy Adams as Julie and Meryl freaking Streep as Julia Child. Written and directed by Nora Ephron, of course, because who else could it have been?

Come on, how can you not see this? With a group of dear friends who like to eat. And then you go out for a fabulous meal afterwards. Or — even better! — cook one together.

That’s all for tonight. For my part, I have completed the laundry and am going to bed.

Culture time!

I’m presently singing with the Dessoff Symphonic Choir, which is the giant economy-size version of the Dessoff Choirs, a long-running NYC amateur chorus. We’re preparing for a pretty spectacular series of June performances with the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center.

First, Britten’sWar Requiem”,” his spectacular antiwar piece from 1962. Composed for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral in England (destroyed in a World War II bombing raid), the piece sets two soloists singing English-language poems by Wilfred Owen about the experiences of soldiers during World War I in juxtaposition to a massive choral performance of the traditional Latin Mass for the dead. It is harrowing and fabulous, sometimes angry, sometimes achingly sad, sometimes transcendently gorgeous. June 11, 12, 13.

Then, Mahler’s [Symphony No. 8)], which will feature about a skillion singers and instrumentalists packed so densely on the stage that frame-dragging phenomena will be measurable in local spacetime. Big, bombastic, wonderful. Probably the more listener-friendly to those arriving unfamiliar with the music. June 24, 25, 26, 27.

For tickets to either performance — going fast! — or more details, see the Dessoff website. (You may need to scroll down to get to the actual text; there’s something wonky in their stylesheet.)

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