Friday, October 21, 2016

You Wish You Could Throw Like My Girls!

"You throw like a girl!"

I despise that expression with a passion. But I've said it. So have you, I'm sure, and loads of people you know, too. I've even heard women say it. It's supposed to mean that you throw weakly, awkwardly, wimpy, and not the right way.

It's a load of bollocks.

Before anyone wonders, I am not turning this into any sort of political or ideological post and I will not tolerate anyone who does the same in the comments, because that's not even my point. I'm writing this from personal experiences but also in the hope that I can get anyone who hasn't come around to at least look at it from another point of view even if it doesn't change anybody's mind.

In order to set the stage, let me back up a bit. As I said above, I was guilty of using the expression growing up, and as I've already pointed out, I have heard almost as many women as men use it in its intended derogatory/chiding manner. However, my thinking began to change a lot once I became a parent. My wife and I were blessed with four incredible kids, three of whom are our beautiful daughters. I swore from the day that they were born that my girls would play sports, not cheer others on (and no offense intended to anyone who was/is a cheerleader or has daughters who cheer. It's just not something I ever wanted for my girls). I didn't realize how much I disliked the phrase "you throw like a girl," though, until I was watching the Super Bowl a couple of years ago (which my Patriots won!) with a former friend and his kids. There was a commercial which examined how the phrase makes boys and girls feel, both those who say it and those who it's said to. It was the rare ad that actually made me stop and pay attention and really hit a nerve, especially since I was watching it with my two oldest daughters (my wife was upstairs putting our younger two kids to bed). What really made it hit home for me was when my former friend was sitting there next to me mocking the ad and the kids in it while his own daughter was right there in the room! I couldn't believe it, but I held my tongue and didn't say anything (and this situation isn't the reason we're not friends any more, but that's neither here nor there). By that time, both of my daughters had been playing softball and soccer and I supported them (and I still do) every step of the way, so to realize that this term was meant to imply that doing something poorly was equated to doing it the way my girls might...I didn't like that at all.

Fast forward to the present and my two oldest girls are 11 1/12 and 10. Both play softball and both are really good at it. I've taught them how to throw, catch, and hit a softball properly and they do it every bit as good, if not better in many cases, than any boy their age. They play hard, slide into bases, get dirty diving for grounders and fly balls, and are tough. One is a shortstop/first baseman and the other is a catcher (just like her dad!). I've taught them how to throw a football with a tight spiral, how to shoot a jump shot, how to read stat lines and box scores for baseball games, and the finer points of basketball and football. My youngest daughter is 5 1/2 and good at hitting and throwing a baseball, although she prefers soccer. She's fast, aggressive, and has a good strong kick. (My 7 year old son is really good at baseball and plays basketball, but he's a boy so he gets left out of this post!). My girls most certainly don't throw, hit, catch, kick, or run any differently than any boy, and in many ways they're better than many girls AND boys their own age who play sports. So nowadays, every time I hear someone mocks another person by saying they "throw like a girl," I tell them straight up what an insult that is to my girls!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Big Papi's Final Rodeo (or, the Red Sox Are Back in the Playoffs!)

Our view at Fenway Park, August 14, 2016

Another sports/baseball related post, but that's okay because it's one of my favorite times of year...MLB playoff time! My Boston Red Sox won their division (AL East) and open up their postseason tonight in the ALDS against the Cleveland Indians. Since winning the World Series in 2013, the Sox finished in last place the previous two seasons before finally fielding another winner this year, which happens to also be David "Big Papi" Ortiz' final season. It's been really exciting to see how well the team played with a mixture of veterans like Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez, David Price, Rick Porcello, and Dustin Pedroia alongside exciting new homegrown stars like Jackie Bradley, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Andrew Benintendi. Even though there were some ups and downs along the way, the team was able to hold off the Orioles, Blue Jays, and Yankees and capture the division.  Here's hoping that the Sox can get Big Papi (and Red Sox Nation) one final parting gift ahead of his retirement at the season's end: a fourth World Series ring!

My prediction for this series is based on several factors: the Red Sox having the best offense in the American League, having nearly identical home and road records (Cleveland has homefield advantage for this series), the Sox having two great starters in Porcello and Price, and Cleveland's starting rotation being decimated by injuries. In their favor, the Indians have a much better home record than they do on the road, the second best offense in the AL (behind the Sox), a superior bullpen, and our former manager Terry Francona at the helm. The managerial advantage alone is a huge one for Cleveland, especially given Sox manager John Farrell's penchant for making poor in-game decisions. 

That being said, I predict that the Red Sox will win the series in four games and move on to the ALCS.

Whatever happens, it'll be interesting...that's why they play the games, and I'll be watching every pitch!

How about you? For all the baseball fans reading this, who's your favorite team and, if they're in the playoffs, how do you think they'll do?

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year (If You're a Sports Fan!)

Ah, September is almost over and the weather is finally starting to cool down as autumn approaches. This has always been my favorite time of year for a multitude of reasons, ranging from the weather to the beautiful fall foliage, my kids starting another school year, and of course SPORTS! At this time of year, football season is starting, baseball season is coming to an end and heading into the playoffs (and in my opinion, baseball playoffs are second only to hockey playoffs in greatness), and basketball and hockey seasons are starting.

For a Boston sports fan like me, in 2016 this means that the Patriots, even with Tom Brady out for the first four games, are already 3-0 and on their way to contend for another Super Bowl; the Red Sox are one game away from clinching their division, tied for the best record in the American League, and a contender for the World Series; the Celtics should be the second- or third-best team in the Eastern Conference this year with their successful season last year and the addition of Al Horford; and the Bruins...well, they're still rebuilding but they should at least be better than last year!

On top of all of that, all four of my kids are playing sports this fall: my two oldest daughters are playing softball, my son is playing baseball, and my youngest daughter is playing soccer. With at least one practice just about every night of the week and multiple games on the weekends (we had *FIVE* last weekend), it keeps us busy, but they're having fun and so are my wife and I. The improvement in all of their skills just from the spring is huge and more than that, they are all passionate about their sports.

Yep, I love fall!  Do you? If so, what are some reasons why?

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Come Together: Lennon and McCartney in the Seventies

The friendship and songwriting partnership of John Lennon and Paul McCartney has fascinated nearly everyone who has been captivated by the Beatles in the half century since they became the most successful musical group of all time. They met as teenagers in 1957 (John was not quite 17, Paul just 15) and for the next thirteen years were each other's best friends, songwriting partners, and in a very real way, brothers. However, due to the very public falling out the Beatles had when they split in 1970, as well as the numerous nasty swipes Lennon took at McCartney in the press during the early 1970s, the conventional wisdom for many years was that from 1970 onward, they hated each other. While more information has come out over the years showing that they did reconcile by 1974 and maintain a friendship until Lennon's tragic murder in 1980, there hasn't been an in-depth look at their relationship in the decade following the Beatles' demise until now. When I was approached with the opportunity to review the brand new book Come Together: Lennon and McCartney in the Seventies by Richard White, I was very excited. Not only did the premise seem interesting, but it purported to be newly and extensively researched. With all of that anticipation, I was eager to dive in to this book when I got it; however, the reality was far different. Read on to see what I mean...

***special thanks to Neil at Omnibus Press for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

From the beginning, author Richard White makes it clear that the premise of his book is that, contrary to what the general public believed during the decade following the Beatles' split in 1970, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were indeed still friends and had definite plans to work together again...plans that sadly never ended up coming to fruition for a variety of reasons. This information has been well known for a long time, but the promise of new interviews and evidence shedding more light on these tantalizing rumors initially made the book enticing. My trepidation was heightened a bit after reading the introduction and the first couple of chapters which dealt almost exclusively with John Lennon. "Uh oh," I thought..."another book focusing almost entirely on Lennon at the expense of McCartney." For the most part, that turned out to be the case with Come Together. While there was a lot of in-depth analysis and discussion of John's life and music in the immediate aftermath of the Beatles' break-up, any mention of McCartney was tossed in almost as an afterthought, or at best in a "oh yeah, Paul did something that year, too" fashion. This is just one of the many problems I had with the book, which I'll break down into content (this paragraph) and style (the following paragraph). As far as content goes, Come Together not only didn't really offer anything new in terms of information, but it didn't even present the existing information in an effective way. Almost all of the "new" material White researched for the book seems to be from new interviews with a few members of Lennon's one-time backing band Elephant's Memory, one of the engineers from the Record Plant who worked with John, and session drummer Jim Keltner (who played on loads of John's records, but none of Paul's...more on this later). These ended up being little more than anecdotes about how cool John was, how nice he was, how excited they were to work with a real live Beatle, and how talented and hard-working he was. There wasn't much insight into his life with Yoko, May Pang, or Paul (all of which has been described in greater depth elsewhere), and was actually quite contradictory: on one hand, Keltner and the others were quoted as saying John never spoke about Paul, while on the other hand Pang (who was closer to John than anyone else during the mid-1970s) says he did. There's some discussion on their meeting in Los Angeles in 1974 when they were photographed together for the only time post-1970, and their plans (partially thwarted by Yoko) to reconvene in New Orleans in 1975 to work on music together, but other than that, for a book that is supposed to be about their relationship in the seventies, it ended up being little more than a John Lennon-in-the-1970s biography with a little bit of McCartney, too much Harrison and Starr, and not much else sprinkled in throughout. There's also entirely too much space devoted to the history of the Beatles' career and music (including a whole chapter on Sgt. Pepper!) and their break-up and the subsequent lawsuits. Again, it's been done elsewhere, done better, and doesn't fit into the narrative of this least certainly not in terms of how many pages were devoted.

As for style, this book was a real slog to get through and I was very tempted to give up halfway through, although I stuck it out to the bitter end. The writing does not flow well at all and is not particularly sophisticated. There are numerous passages quoted from well-known sources, which make up large chunks of each chapter, and one incredibly annoying habit the author has throughout the book is the repetition of entire paragraphs and themes mere pages later. For example, a discussion on Lennon's work habits would finish and the chapter moved on, only for the EXACT SAME discussion on his work habits, word for word, be repeated completely a few pages later. It's the literary equivalent of this:

...and I'm not even exaggerating. This had the effect of stretching the chapters out far long than was necessary and comes across as though it was a high school student trying to hit the page limit for a term paper using this trick. Another thing I noticed that really irritated me was how certain passages were lifted from their sources out of context in order to imply something completely different from how they were originally intended. In one case, the author wanted to show how the individual Beatles all had differing musical tastes and how they combined them to create their music; he then proceeded to use a passage from Lennon's 1971 court statement where he was originally savaging and poking fun at McCartney by saying that he (Paul) had mainstream pop tastes while he (John) and George had more underground and avant garde tastes. By taking it out of its original setting and context, White set this passage up to sound more like John having a good-natured discussion on their different likes and dislikes when it was anything but! The description of the infamous bootleg "A Toot and a Snore in '74" is also poorly done. This recording of the only known time John and Paul jammed together after the Beatles is a fascinating document from a historical standpoint, but an absolutely unlistenable mess musically. However, from reading the write-up in this book, one would think that it was simply a slightly sloppy and loose but fun jam session when in reality it's little more than drugged-up studio banter and a handful of half-hearted and soon aborted stabs at some old 1950s & 60s rock classics that the assembled group of musicians can barely remember and get through.

Almost all of the books referenced, mentioned, or used as source material in Come Together are books I own and have read, so apart from the new interview with Keltner and the others mentioned above, there's little new in this disjointed book. Even the two sections of photographs add little, as most consist of photos either of the two during their Beatle years, or random shots from the 1970s. There isn't even a photo from their 1974 get-together which makes absolutely no sense given that their relationship in the 1970s is the entire premise of the book in the first place! I found this omission to be overall emblematic of this book's numerous problems. For me, it failed in all of the criteria I look for in a worthwhile book: it wasn't well constructed or well written, it wasn't enjoyable to read, and I didn't learn anything new from it. While the songwriting and lives of John Lennon and Paul McCartney will continue to fascinate people for years to come, this book won't.


Wednesday, August 31, 2016

CONCERT REVIEW: Billy Joel at Fenway Park, Boston MA August 18, 2016

My ticket stub
This review is coming to you quite a bit after the fact and I'm well aware of it, but this concert was right in the middle of my vacation and I had planned all along to unplug and relax as much as possible during my time away. Now that I've been back home for over a week and have readjusted to the normal everyday routine of life, I'm back in the saddle (desk chair?) and ready to write, so here it is!

Earlier in the week of August 14th, my wife and I took our kids to see the Red Sox play the Arizona Diamondbacks at Fenway Park. We had also invited my uncle and cousin so we met them there to enjoy a Sunday afternoon at the ballpark. It was the Sox' final home game before a long road trip and the first time our kids had been to a Major League Baseball game. They loved it and we had a great time, even though it happened to be the hottest afternoon of the week, 95 oF and humid and with the heat index the "real feel" air temp was 105 oF! A few days after the game, Mrs. Chemist and I left the kids with my parents and drove back into Boston. For this occasion, we had booked a hotel room in advance so that we could stay in the city after the concert instead of driving back late a night; it would also be the first time since we starting having our kids almost twelve years ago that we'd ever had an overnight on our own, so we were really looking forward to it. After parking the car and checking into our great hotel (shout out to the Newbury Guest House...we'll definitely be back!), we decided to stroll around and grab some dinner before hopping the T to Kenmore Square. As soon as we got up to street level at Kenmore, it was predictably mobbed with people trying to make their way the two blocks to Fenway Park, as well as people trying to scalp tickets and T-shirts. I was even offered an "intense sideburn discount" for one of the shirts...I guess he liked my 'burns! Once we got inside the park, we made our way to our seats. I had known from buying the tickets back in January that the seats were to the side of the stage and, knowing the funky angles of Fenway Park from all of the baseball games I've seen there, was a bit worried that the view wouldn't be good, but they turned out to be very nice seats. We were up above the field on the wall about halfway between third base and the Green Monster, and at the end of a row so we had a clear view of everything. The concert was set to start at 7:30pm and we were in our seats by 7pm, but it didn't actually start until close to 8:15pm. In the meantime, we ended up speaking to two very nice ladies sitting next to us who had seen Billy in concert over a dozen times. Finally, the lights went out and some classical music was played over the PA system as Billy and his band took to the stage. After sitting down at his piano, it was time to get started!

The stage from our seats

The Green Monster before the show

Dr. and Mrs. Rock and Roll Chemist in our seats waiting for the show to begin

Seeing as we were all in the oldest ballpark in the country, they started the concert off with "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" before setting things off with a bang with the rapid-fire piano intro to "Prelude/Angry Young Man." The sound mix was pretty good although, surprisingly for an outdoor concert it was a little shrill and tinny on the ears. Overall a nice mix, but Billy's vocals were a bit too low and his piano a bit too high such that it got lost in the other high frequencies (cymbals, guitars) sometimes. One of the great things about his set lists is that while he has a core set of songs that he plays at every show, he mixes up the rest a LOT, pulling lots of deep album cuts and rarities into the set making each show quite different. After the opener and an excellent "Pressure," they did the first half of "Dirty Water" in honor of being at the Red Sox' home field, although Billy admitted that as a Yankees fan (to which he got some good-natured booing), he didn't know the rest! Before "Big Man on Mulberry Street" he announced that "this wasn't a hit single, so if you want to go to the bathrooms now would be a good time!" A recurring theme throughout the night was his very humorous (and oftentimes self-deprecating) banter...very off-the-cuff and real, and very funny!  Throughout the show, he kept swatting at the bugs attracted to the bright stage lights with a flyswatter, many times in perfect time during songs without missing a beat. During one break between songs, he mentioned how he hasn't "had a record in the charts in 23 years...and here I am playing baseball stadiums at 67!" This drew loud and appreciative cheers and was a nice acknowledgment that his fantastic body of work has stood the test of time and continues to do so.

He did a quick audience vote for either "Summer, Highland Falls" or "Vienna" and while I love both songs, the crowd overwhelmingly voted for "Vienna" which was fine with me as it's one of my favorite songs of his. For the instrumental "Root Beer Rag," which is a showcase for Billy's piano playing, he brought up "a local Boston musician...Bradley Bartlett, the Boston Piano Kid!" Bradley is only 13 years old, but he sat down at a piano that had been set up opposite Billy's and proceeded to play the song along with Billy note for note. The sellout crowd and loud cheers didn't seem to phase him one bit and he had the biggest smile on his face once the song was done and he got a standing ovation...a very cool moment! A pair of New York-centric songs followed and were excellent, although I wonder if anyone else who was there noticed the pockets of cheers after Billy sang the line in "Miami 2017" where they "threw the Yankees in for free!" I grinned to myself at that one. "And So it Goes" was Billy alone at the piano and was just beautiful, while the crowd singing along to "She's Always a Woman" so impressed him that he gave us a big compliment after the song ended. Guitarist Mike Delguidice sang lead on "Sweet Caroline," a Neil Diamond cover that is played near the end of Red Sox games at Fenway Park.  Personally, it's one of the new "traditions" over the last decade that as a longtime Red Sox fan (i.e. one who actually remembers what it was like for many years before 2004) that I loathe, but I duly stood up with the rest of the crowd and half-heartedly made the right motions and hollers at the appropriate times. Mike also sang a short Puccini opera song (in impeccable Italian) as a lead in to one of my favorite songs, "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant." For the set closer, as soon as Billy put the harmonic around his neck we all knew what was coming, and I think every single person present sang every word to "Piano Man." 

Set List:

Take Me Out to the Ball Game
Prelude/Angry Young Man
Dirty Water
My Life
Big Man on Mulberry Street 
The Entertainer
Root Beer Rag (w/Bradley Bartlett)
Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)
New York State of Mind
The Downeaster Alexa
Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)
And So it Goes
She's Always a Woman
Sweet Caroline
Sometimes a Fantasy
Don't Ask Me Why
The River of Dreams (w/Heatwave)
Nessun Dorma
Scenes From an Italian Restaurant
Piano Man

We Didn't Start the Fire
Uptown Girl
It's Still Rock and Roll to Me
Big Shot
You May Be Right (w/Rock and Roll)
Only the Good Die Young

Before the band came back onstage for the encores, my wife turned to me and said she hoped she'd hear one of her two favorite Billy Joel songs, "We Didn't Start the Fire" or "Uptown Girl." Coincidentally, he led off the encore section with those two songs! Neither she nor I had looked at any of his previous set lists online before the show, so to say that was an eerie coincidence would be totally appropriate. He played rhythm guitar for the first song, while for the next couple of songs, Billy sang at the front of the stage and worked the mic stand like a 1960s rock and roll pro. The concert was brought to a close with "Only the Good Die Young"...the band went off stage, the lights came on, and the concert was over to thunderous applause and appreciative hollering. They threw a couple of covers into other songs during the set ("Heatwave" in the middle of "River of Dreams" and Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" in the middle of "You May Be Right") and delivered a powerhouse (and fun!) performance from beginning to end. The horn section was so nice to hear, as many of Billy's songs are very heavy on the horns and most bands these days try to mimic those parts with synthesizers (*cough* Paul McCartney *cough*). The entire group was tight and locked in, and you could really tell they were having a blast playing those songs with each other. Billy spent the vast majority of the show behind his piano, which was on a rotating swivel at the front of the stage so that he could spend portions of the show looking at each side of the crowd, as well as dead center. His voice was clear and strong, the result of him wisely lowering the keys to his songs as he's aged in order to compensate for its deepening.

"And So it Goes"

"Piano Man" complete with harmonica

"We Didn't Start the Fire"

"You May Be Right"

We left the concert absolutely blown away by Billy's energy, musicianship, and humor. It was one of the best concerts I've ever been to and I will definitely go see him again if given the chance. He played for over two hours and the range of material from his entire career that they played made it very hard for me to imagine anyone leaving dissatisfied. One thing I noticed right away both at the concert as well as on the T back to the hotel was the cross-section of ages and backgrounds we saw at the show: men and women of different races, ranging in age from Baby Boomers to teenagers and everything in between, all enjoying the show. I heard kids barely in their 20s on the subway after the show talking about how great it was, and it's nice to see how much of a late-career critical renaissance Billy has gotten after being dismissed by a lot of the more smug critics during his heyday of million-selling albums and chart-topping singles in the 1970s and 80s.  After getting off at our stop, we walked the few blocks to our hotel in the still-muggy night. It took a while for us to relax and decompress from how great the concert was, but after managing to get to sleep, Mrs. Chemist and I woke up early and spent the next day enjoying Boston, just the two of us, before heading back to my parents' house and our kids. It was great to combine a mini-overnight vacation with my wife with the concert, and it was definitely worth waiting eight months after buying tickets to see Billy. He may have stopped writing, recording, and releasing new music but he is still an incredible musician and performer and with that body of work to his credit, he has more than enough to draw on to make every show a worthwhile and fantastic experience. If you haven't seen Billy live, I recommend won't be disappointed!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

It's Catch-Up Time!

This week marks my return from the long, relaxing, and much-needed vacation I took with my family, and my return to the real world of the daily work grind, kids in school and on sports teams, and normal everyday life. While I was away, I purposely avoided checking my work email, answering work-related phone calls and texts, and limited my time online.  What this means is that even though I did many things that warrant being written about, I didn't spend a lick of time at the keyboard! Now that I'm getting settled back into the "real world" (or as "real" as it can be at present), I'm also getting back into the writing groove. There's lots for me to write about: book reviews, my review of the Billy Joel concert I went to last week, taking my kids to their first Red Sox game at Fenway Park, thoughts on sports, and more.  I hope those of you who enjoy reading some (or all) of my posts can bear with me as I begin to work on all of these...I promise (hope) it'll be worth the wait!

Friday, August 12, 2016

Holiday, Vacation...Whatever You Want to Call It

It's that time of the year when a nice, long break from the daily grind of work is in order. Unlike most years where I typically take several short 3-4 day breaks over the course of the year, in 2016 I've barely taken any time off. The plan has been to cash in all of my vacation days for an extended break this summer, and while I'm excited that it's finally coming this week, I'm also pretty burned out. More than anything, I'm mentally exhausted from the stresses of work and just need some time away to recharge my batteries, relax, and enjoy time with my family and friends.  Mrs. Chemist and I have a lot planned for our time away (including, among other things, taking the kids to their first Red Sox game and seeing Billy Joel in concert) and while I'll continue to write, my posting on here will probably be sporadic (if I even post anything at all while I'm away). However, you can rest assured that I'll write about our trip, the game, and the concert (among other things) when I get back. I've also got lots of ideas for posts that I just need time to flesh out and write, so hopefully the extended break will get the creative juices flowing even more than usual.

Here's to coming back more refreshed and focused as the summer comes to an end!