Monday, September 28, 2015

Looking Forward, Looking Back

As they age, most people wistfully look back at pictures from their younger days and long to look as they once did. Inevitably as we grow older, we put on weight, we lose our hair or go gray, we gain wrinkles and creases, all the while wishing we could look a little bit more like we used. Most of us, men and women alike, probably look back at things like our wedding photos or pictures of us in our 20s and admire how we looked. For me personally, though, I'm the complete opposite of that much as I love my wife and have been blessed to have been married to her, the only reason I like looking at our wedding pictures is because she was as beautiful then as she is now and it reminds me that I made one of the best decisions of my life in marrying her. When it comes to me, I prefer to not see myself back then at all. I was 22 when we got married and it must seem strange to many of you, but I absolutely cringe when I look at myself in our wedding photos. In fact, I'm at the point where I can't really bear to look at any pictures of myself between the ages of 20 and 30. For me, that decade was marked by my becoming really overweight and out of shape. Most of it was my own fault as I stopped exercising and eating right, partially caused by the time consuming and stressful nature of being a PhD student and postdoc. I got lazy and stopped taking care of myself, and I figured that since I am tall (6'5") and have a large frame, I just carried it differently than other people. I had been slimmer and very active in my teens and early 20s, playing many different sports and running avidly, so I figured I could go back to doing at some point in the future.

It didn't really hit me until I turned 30 and it began to affect my health. My annual physical that year was not so good, with my blood work showing high cholesterol and the beginnings of diabetes. I also had high blood pressure and constantly sore knees and back. The final straw for me was when my doctor at the time gently suggested that maybe I should consider weight loss surgery. For whatever reason, that was the kick in the ass I needed and over the next year, with the help of a free iPhone app for tracking my calories and improving my habits, I took up running again after a decade and managed to lose over 100 lbs. I'm proud to say that even now at 5 years later, I've kept it off. In fact, my new doctor, who has only known me since we moved here this past year, commended me on how excellent my health is when I had my annual physical last week, something for which I was justifiably proud. 

However, I've never been able to reconcile the contentment I feel with being healthier and in better shape now than I have been since I was 18 or 19 with feeling so ashamed to look at pictures from my 20s. So many wonderful moments, from getting married, the birth of all four of my children, graduating with my PhD, and fun times and vacations with family and friends...all are preserved in images that are painful for me to look at because of how awful I looked and felt back then. The fact that this prevents me from reminiscing and enjoying those memories is doubly sad and does nothing but exacerbate those emotions in me. I've always been self-critical and self-conscious, but there is basically an entire decade of my life, which at the moment is almost 1/3 of my existence, which I can't bear to literally look back on because of this. When most people my age are looking back on those years with fondness and wishing they looked like that now, apart from the fuller head of hair I had back then I'm the complete opposite. I'm not sure if I'll ever get over how much I wasted my 20s being so unhealthy and out of shape, but for the sake of so many of the good things that happened in my life during those years, I've got to try and at least make enough peace so that it's not too painful to look back. The one good thing, though, is that all of those photographs have been excellent motivation for me to keep living a healthier life. Any random day when I feel too tired to run or decide that eating right is too much of a hassle, I just pull out one of those pictures to remind myself where I was five years ago and where I am keeps me going and gets me back on track because I will never allow myself to go back to that ever again. Having just written that, it's occurred to me that perhaps that is the silver lining in all of this; those photographs can serve as a cautionary tale and continue to motivate me to live as I am now out of fear for how I was then.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: XTC: Song Stories

Never achieving the international stardom that they seemed to be eventually destined for in the early 1980s, XTC nonetheless managed to carve out a long and successful 25 year career as critically acclaimed cult favorites in both their native UK and the US. They've sold millions of records and have influenced a whole host of bands (including personal favorites of mine, Blur). Led by the twin songwriting talents of Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding (although throughout its history, the band direction was dominated by Partridge) and augmented by superb guitarist/keyboardist/arranger Dave Gregory, the three core members of XTC produced a vast and rich body of work that has been picked apart and dissected by their rabid fans for clues and meaning in much the same way the music of the Beatles was. However, their prior experience with an authorized biography, Chris Twomey's Chalkhills and Children, was an unsatisfying experience for the band. While author Neville Farmer states upfront in his foreword that Song Stories is not a biography in the traditional sense, the track-by-track stories behind all of XTC's music, as well as their memories and feelings on the creation of each album, serves as a quasi-biography in its own right. I first bought this book when it came out in the late 1990s and it's one I've read several times in the years since.  For this review, I've given it a fresh re-reading and found yet again that each subsequent passage through the book offers new nuggets of information and insight that I either never picked up on or forgot since my previous readings.

Starting with a brief history of the band's origins in their native Swindon, England, the book is broken into chapters devoted to each album in chronological order. The first two chapters are devoted to their first two albums, White Music and Go 2, which featured their original line-up of Partridge on guitar/vocals, Moulding on bass/vocals, Barry Andrews (the only member not from Swindon) on keyboards, and Terry Chambers on drums. With Andrews' departure in late 1978, childhood friend Gregory joined and the classic XTC line-up was completed (Chambers would eventually depart in 1983). From here, the book goes through every album, single, B-side, and side project up to the date of the book's publication in 1998.

Serving as a guidebook to XTC's body of work as well as a quasi-biography, each chapter begins with a short synopsis of the years(s) of a particular album's creation by Farmer. This is then followed by a section of interview Q&A between Farmer and Andy, Colin, and Dave, followed by a song-by-song breakdown of each song recorded for the album as well as associated singles and B-sides. The exchange between the three XTC members and Farmer is easy, comfortable, humorous, and candid owing to not only their long working relationship with the author, but also due to the friendship and trust that developed with him during those years. The insight offered in each chapter is really interesting and enlightening as the band (especially Partridge) are brutally honest and open about their states of mind, personal lives, and moods surrounding each album's creation. The song breakdowns offer much in the way of revealing the hidden meanings (or lack thereof) for every song, as well as what the inspirations and creative process behind each of them was. What is also revealed is that the three band members have a deep, varied, and encyclopedic knowledge of music, ranging from the Beatles, Kinks, and Who to dance music, English Music Hall, medieval, classical, and just about everything in between. All of this is woven into their music, as are their individual passions for comic books, gardening, jazz, blues, toys, and more. The book is especially helpful in charting and understanding their evolution from a typical write-record-tour-repeat band in the late 1970s and early 1980s toward a Beatles-esque studio-only band following Andy Partridge's panic attacks and stage fright, which culminated with their cessation of touring in 1982. Along with this, their struggles and continual penury under the yolk of their first manager is explained, as is the five-year strike where they refused to record any music for their label, Virgin Records, in the mid-1990s. The book ends with the band in the midst of writing and recording what would end up being their final two albums, 1999's Apple Venus and 2000's Wasp Star: Apple Venus Vol. 2 (both of which were untitled as of the publication of the book), as well as Dave Gregory's departure from the band in the during the recording sessions.

While not a biography in the truest sense of the word, Song Stories is still an essential book for any fan of XTC and serves its dual purpose well. In light of what I've read regarding the band's attitude toward their earlier authorized biography mentioned above, Chalkhills and Children (a book which I intend to seek out and read in order to see for myself), and the fact that Song Stories was written by one of their close friends, this book should be considered the final and most accurate and informative word on this unique and fantastic band, especially in light of their final split in 2005. It's not a perfect  book: I would have liked more photos and perhaps more depth as to the meaning behind the songs as in many cases it's a bit superficial. More information straight from the band's own words regarding their music can be (and has been) found elsewhere, mainly online, but on the whole reading Song Stories is a satisfying and richly rewarding experience. As someone who has read it numerous times myself, I can attest that just like XTC's music, it invites multiple visits toward perpetual enjoyment.


Saturday, September 19, 2015

One Month 'Till China

In less than a month I will be boarding a plane here on the east coast and flying to China for a week in Shanghai. The closer it gets, I'm actually getting a little less nervous and a little more excited. Even the prospect of the long flight (14 hours!) doesn't seem quite as daunting to me although that is still an awfully long time to be on a plane. I'm sure I'll still have issues with how long the flight is once I finally board the plane, but being in business class will definitely help. I've been starting to think of what I should pack in my bags to occupy me on the long flights (hint: lots of books and my iPod stuffed to the gills with 140 GB of music). For me the biggest stresses of the whole trip at present are finishing my paper and presentation for the technical conference, both of which need to be completed before the end of this month. Thankfully, I've already found out that I'm presenting on the first day of the conference so once I get there and present, I'll get to spend the remainder of the week attending presentations by colleagues and enjoying the conference and Shanghai. Adding to the stress I'm under right now, my home life is in quite a bit of flux as well since Mrs. Chemist and I have recently bought a house and will be moving our family into it at the end of this month. Add in my lightning-fast weekend trip back home to Boston to see Ride in concert with a friend, as well as our son's birthday, both of which happen in the weeks immediately preceding my trip, and you can surely agree with me that my life is going to be more than a little crazy until I get back from China! 

Monday, September 14, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Comfortably Numb: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd is one of the most critically and commercially successful bands in rock history, carving out their own uncompromising niche as sonic pioneers who revolutionized music and the live concert experience in the 1970s in a manner analogous to the Beatles in the 1960s. However, even to their legion of hardcore fans, there has always been an air of mystery and the unknown around Pink Floyd. Much of this is due to their carefully cultivated anonymity (these are not four distinct personalities the public knows in the way other bands are), how insular and closed-off they were during their heyday, and how little they spoke to the press. Additionally, there has been much myth making behind some of their biggest albums, and especially surrounding their gifted and ultimately doomed original leader Syd Barrett. In Comfortably Numb: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd, author Mark Blake (whom I interviewed a while back about his excellent Who book which was reviewed here a while back) cuts through all of the murk from the past in order to separate fact from fiction and present the entire Floyd story as accurately as possible.

***special thanks to Sean at Da Capo Press for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

Like so much having to do with Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett is a central figure in their story even beyond his all too brief tenure in the band. It's well known that much of the Pink Floyd mythos, at least in the early years, was due to Barrett's songwriting and his subsequent mental health issues, but he remained an almost constant influence on the band and their music for the bulk of their career. Having grown up together in Cambridge, the three principal Floyd songwriters (Barrett, bassist/vocalist Roger Waters, and guitarist/vocalist David Gilmour) had known each other as kids. Along the two other members (drummer Nick Mason and keyboardist/vocalist Rick Wright), Syd's mental decline and eventual absence from the band and their lives left a wound that never really healed and had a profound emotional impact on them, borne out in much of their later music and lyrics. Drawing on extensive research as well as his numerous interviews with the members of the band, their friends, and associates, Blake lays out the complete story of the band from their beginnings as boys in Cambridge to the top of the music world in the 1970s, through the bitter legal proceedings and fallings-out in the 1980s to their eventual one-off reunion in 2005 and their status as elder statesmen of rock.  As with everything to do with the band, it always comes back to the place of Waters', Gilmour's, and Barrett's youth: Cambridge, England. Born within a couple years of each other in the middle of World War II, the three men grew up together through school and were all part of the burgeoning Cambridge scene, where numerous creative young people floated in and out of each others orbits. (The legendary Hipgnosis album art team of Storm Thorgersen and Aubrey Powell, who designed almost all of the band's album covers, also came out of the Cambridge scene). Beyond their geographical roots, Barret, Waters, and Gilmour also had in common their upper-middle class upbringings, and in the case of Waters and Barrett, a further connection of having lost their fathers: Roger's was killed in the war when he was an infant, and Syd's died when he was a young boy. Making their way through school, Roger, Syd, and Dave all played in loosely associated bands after being bitten by the rock n' roll bug like so many other British boys of their generation in the mid-to-late 1950s. Syd ended up continuing the great English rock tradition of attending art school, joining the likes of John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, and and Graham Coxon, while Waters studied architecture in the city, befriending two fellow upper-middle class students and budding musicians, Nick Mason and Rick Wright. The duo joined up with Barrett and Waters in 1965 and began playing around London as The Pink Floyd Sound before eventually shortening their name to Pink Floyd. Becoming part of the burgeoning underground psychedelic rock scene and led by the quirky and idiosyncratic songwriting and guitar playing of Barrett, the band were signed by EMI and released a successful debut album, The Piper At the Gates of Dawn, as well as the two popular non-album singles "Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play." However, the eccentric but light-hearted behavior Barrett had always displayed in his youth was disturbingly exacerbated by his increased consumption of hallucinogens, such that by the time the band undertook their first US tour in 1967 he had become a liability. With their promising career suddenly in jeopardy, they made the decision to bring in old friend David Gilmour as a second guitarist and so, for the first month of 1968, Pink Floyd had five members (although Barrett spent most live gigs wandering around the stage barely playing). Eventually they made the decision to jettison him and so began Pink Floyd's classic, most commercially and critically successful period.

From here, Blake does a wonderful job taking the reader through the band's entire career, moving through each era and album and breaking down the various songs and sonic experimentation they were pioneering, as well as the developing power struggles as they became more successful. Up to and including the release of the landmark album Dark Side of the Moon in 1973, the band as a whole was truly greater than the sum of its parts, with all four members pulling together as one and creating some truly astonishing work. By this point, Roger Waters had long since taken over as the primary lyricist, and though he was starting to exert his influence as a songwriter more and more, Gilmour and Wright were still contributing quite a lot. As Blake points out via the band's own words, though, by the time they'd achieved superstardom with Dark Side of the Moon, they were left wondering where to go next. From Dark Side through the end of the decade they would make the best music of their career and solidify their place as the rock band that put on the best rock concert experience in both musically and visually, with landmark albums such as Wish You Were Here, Animals, and The Wall rounding out their discography in the 1970s. However, now that they were wealthy and successful, they were a bit adrift. In an eerie parallel to what happened with the Beatles in the wake of Brian Epstein's death, Roger Waters (shades of fellow bass-playing songwriting genius Paul McCartney) stepped into the breach and exerted his control and drive over the rest of the band, dominating the remainder of their classic period work such that there was very little room left for contributions from the others. Gilmour managed to fight and claw his way to some co-writing credits, but while Mason was content to be the mediator, drummer, and sound effects guru, Wright stopped contributing to the writing to such an extent that he frustrated the other three enough that they sacked him during the making of The Wall in 1979. The final album from the classic Floyd, 1983's The Final Cut, had music and lyrics credited solely to Roger Waters, the only time this happened in their career. After this, there were lawsuits and nasty comments lobbed back and forth between Waters and Gilmour as the former sought to dissolve the band's interests while the latter wanted to carry on. A few more albums under the Floyd name came out in the 1980s and 1990s, and while not matching by any stretch their earlier work, they and their accompanying tours were hugely successful on a financial level. A mellowing over the years led to a reunion of the four men during 2005's Live 8, which was to be the final time Pink Floyd would ever reform. Barrett's death in 2006 and Wright's in 2008 put paid to that.

What is utterly fascinating about this band and the way Blake tells their story is how three things loom so large in their history: the Cambridge roots of Waters, Gilmour, and Barrett; the psychological decline and mental illness of Syd Barrett; and the death of Roger Waters' father during WWII. First, Cambridge was host to a vibrant scene of young musicians, artists, actors, and directors in the 1960s, many of whom decamped to London to form what many in and around Pink Floyd would dub the "Cambridge Mafia." Beyond the three band members, their lighting director, roadies, and the Hipgnosis visual arts collective all hailed from the city. Second, regarding Barrett: his sad decline and subsequent withdrawal from music and their lives had a profound effect on them, not only on a personal level as their friend but also on their music. The themes of mental illness, emotional distance, doomed rock stars, and absent friends inform much of Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here (indeed, they are the theme of that particular album), and The Wall. Finally, the death of Waters' father was a wound from which he never truly healed and impacted his writing to such an extent that The Wall and the Final Cut almost exclusively centered around this pivotal event, much to the eventual chagrin of his bandmates. Blake does a good job pointing out when each of these aspects reared their heads during specific events throughout Pink Floyd's career. In particular, the mental decline of Barrett is the most tragic as his friends and family saw it happen over a relatively short period of time in 1967, but it was dramatic and severe enough that he was never the same. To their credit, the band kept their distance as Syd requested, but always made sure that Syd's royalties made their way to his bank account while never once downplaying his contribution to their early sound and career.

When all was said and done, Pink Floyd were a collection of five well-educated young men who joined together to make some of the most interesting, boundary-pushing, experimental, dramatic, and successful music of the 20th century. Mark Blake has written an eminently compelling and readable book on their entire career that manages to cut through much of the myth behind the band and tell the true story. Their purposely cultivated anonymity, eschewing becoming a band of identifiable personalities in order to let their music and visuals do the talking, would go on to become both their blessing and their curse. It is but one of the many interesting aspect of their career that may not have been apparent to many fans before reading the book.  However, Syd Barrett is the constant thread at the heart of the band's story and indeed, of the book. To Blake's credit, he never allows Barrett to overwhelm or overtake the story of Pink Floyd. He also doesn't shy away from including passages that make Waters look like an egomaniacal rock star, nor the moments when he later admitted he was wrong. Likewise for not always showing Gilmour to be the "good guy" in the whole feud with many instance, his behavior was as petty as his rival's. This balanced approach is what keeps the reader from taking sides in the dispute (unless you have preconceived notions going into the book, in which case you'll ether have them strengthened or confounded). This is one of the rare band biographies that I can find little or no fault with...if I were to have one complaint, it's that I wish it had since been updated to include Richard Wright's death in 2008 and the more recent controversies Roger Waters' touring of the Wall has attracted in recent years. This are but minor quibbles, though, and for any fan of Pink Floyd this has to be considered as the best comprehensive biography on this unique and beloved band.

MY RATING: 9.5/10

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Harry Potter Tag

The Harry Potter section of my bookshelf

I love the Harry Potter series of books and films. That's probably not a surprise to you since after all, you're reading the beginning of a post on them, and why would I write about something I'm not passionately interested in? I've been a fan of classic fantasy and sci-fi series like Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Dune saga (ONLY the six real books by Frank Herbert...none of the dross his son has churned out since his death!) but I readily admit I came to the party a bit late when it comes to Potter. I was certainly aware of the series as they were being published...I was 17 when the first book came out and 27 when the final one did. My parents, cousins, and several of my friends were huge fans, reading them as they were released. For two of the books, the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999) and the Order of the Phoenix (2003), I was in London on vacation with my parents and my mum bought both of them within a week or two of their initial publication. However, despite entreaties from everyone that I needed to read them, I resisted. "Oh, it's just a Tolkein rip-off," I thought, or "those are kid's books." Looking back, I'm stunned that I didn't jump all over the books especially since I've been a lifelong Anglophile with regards to just about everything, especially music and books. My parents raved about the movies as well as the books, and one time while my wife and I were staying at my parents' house for a visit, there was a marathon of all of the movies and I ended up staying up late to watch the first and second movies on TV with my dad. I really enjoyed the films so, eventually in 2012 I decided to have a crack at the series. The thing I'd been told by everyone I knew who had read them was that the first book was a bit more whimsical and could almost pass as a children's book, but the series got a lot darker and more serious as it went on. I read the first book in a couple of days and really enjoyed it, and by halfway through the second book I was absolutely hooked. I made my way through the entire series in less than a month and by the end I was kicking myself for not having read it sooner. To say I thoroughly enjoyed it would be an understatement! The same goes for the movies, as I watched them all, one after another, shortly after finishing the books. While I'm embarrassed that it took me so long to come around, I now have the books proudly on my shelf next to the Lord of the Rings and the vacant space where my Dune books belong (my brother borrowed them and is hopefully reading through them!).

Last week I was scrolling through Twitter when I saw a retweet of a link from a blog called The Savvy Student. It was for a post called the Harry Potter Tag. Intrigued, I clicked on it and had a lot of fun reading it. Basically, it's a post that gets passed from blog to blog by Potter fans to answer a set of questions, with everyone's answers being as unique as the person writing them. Because I enjoyed it so much, I decided to have a go myself, the results of which are below.

What is your favorite book?

Book #6, the Half Blood Prince. I've always been a sucker for transitional things, whether they're albums, books, movies, tours...I find them so fascinating and interesting beyond just their content. I like to see where ideas and execution have been and where they're going, and I've always been fascinated with the uncertainty of those at the middle of the transitory period. For me the Half Blood Prince is my favorite book for that reason as it bridges the events of the previous five books while it sets up the epic battles and conclusion of the final book. That being said, it's got plenty of excitement, twists, and turns in its own right. It's also when so many of the mysteries that have been weaving their way throughout the entire series begin to be revealed, which had me almost unable to wait before I could finally tear into the final book.

What is your favorite movie?

Again, the Half Blood Prince, although it was a close call between this and a few others. Mainly for the same reasons above, plus the final half hour which is even more pulse-pounding and exciting on film than it is in print. The character of Horace Slughorn comes to life even better on the screen than he already does in print.

What is your least favorite book?

Book #5, the Order of the Phoenix. It's certainly not a bad book...there's no such thing as a bad book in the Potter series. However, Order of the Phoenix is my pick mainly because even though it's important and advances the story, not a whole heck of a lot actually happens in it and it's rather bereft of action until the climactic battle at the Ministry of Magic near the end. Great book, great characters, important story points advanced, and it's one the longest book in the series, but it also feels a bit unresolved when it's all over.

What is your least favorite movie?

Ditto my choice for least favorite film, the Order of the Phoenix. Again, great film but it's just a bit slower of pace and not as exciting as the others. Plus, Sirius Black's death, which I felt was a bit weak in the book, is even weaker in the film. It still makes me sad and upset at how and why he died. It's hard to knock the epic battle between Dumbledore and Voldemort at the end,!

What parts of the book/movie make you cry?

The two that always get to me are when two of my absolute favorite characters die: Dumbledore and Snape.  In the case of Dumbledore, he's such a wise, caring, powerful, and interesting person who also happens to be a real badass when it comes to magic, with some dark secrets hidden in the corners of his past that make him more intriguing than your run of the mill good guy. His death at the hands of Snape is always shocking, even when you eventually learn the reasons behind it. As for Snape, where do I start? When my daughter started reading the series and I told her Snape was my absolute favorite character, she couldn't believe it. Mean and grumpy Snape? It wasn't until she finished the series that she finally understood why. His death is so poignant, especially because it's shortly after this moment that Harry finally understands what Snape has always been about. Combined with the mystery of Snape's past unravelling over the course of the entire series and realizing the incredible guilt and emotional burden he's carried for all of Harry's life, and how could I not tear up every time?

If you could hook up with any character, who would it be?

Hey, I'm a happily married husband and father...what kind of question is this? All kidding aside, as this is as make believe as the world of Harry Potter itself, Hermione Granger is my choice. She's got the perfect blend of beauty and brains and can be an ass-kicker when she needs to be. She's also fiercely loyal to her friends and never once considers leaving Harry's side on his quest to find and destroy the horcruxes. Luna Lovegood comes a close second because she's beautiful and a very free, flighty spirit who knows what other people think of her but doesn't care. I have many flighty moments myself, but I admire that ability to not care what others think as I'm incredibly self-conscious and insecure and could learn a thing or two from Luna. She's also quite clever in her own right and not afraid to speak up and demand to be listened to when she knows something. That and I've always been a sucker for an English/Scottish/Irish accent on a woman.

Who is your favorite character?

There are so many to choose from and so many I adore (of course Harry, Ron, and Hermione, but also Dumbledore, McGonagall, Sirius, Lupin, Moody, the Weasleys, Dobby, Hagrid, etc) but my absolute favorite has always been and always will be Severus Snape. I just find the character incredibly interesting, with so much depth and complexity. The way his persona and characterization unravels throughout the course of the entire series from a seemingly one-dimensional cranky teacher to this richly complicated person who is hiding so many secrets and bearing such an emotional and psychological burden in silence is absolutely masterful, and is a testament to J.K. Rowling's writing and character development.  Dumbledore's absolutely steadfast and unwavering trust and confidence in Snape seems to be directly at odds with Harry's mutual antagonism with him, yet if only Harry knew the real reasons for it, which he finally learns at the moment of Snape's murder. By the time we, the readers, discover his true story concurrently with Harry, the final pieces of the puzzle fall into place and Snape is finally and wholly understood. Combined with Alan Rickman's superb portrayal of Snape in the films, it all adds up to one of the great characters in both print and on screen. In fact, as with all of the characters, I cannot help but visualize and hear Rickman as Snape every time I now read the books.

Who is your least favorite character?

Probably these choices are too easy, but it's a tie between Dolores Umbridge and the Malfoys. Umbridge is just a supremely evil psychopathic and sadistic bitch whose seemingly sweet old lady exterior makes her that much more chilling, while the Malfoys' arrogance and entitled airs would make them eminently hateable whether they were a magical family or Muggles themselves. The fact that the Malfoys (especially Lucius and Draco) are classic bullies, backing down at the first sign of their victims standing up to them, only makes them more loathsome. The actors and actresses who portrayed them on film did a wonderful job...while they seem to be nice people in real life, they are absolutely hateable on screen. My only regret in both the books and movies is that they didn't all die horrible, painful deaths, which is what they all so richly deserved!

What is your favorite quote?

Again, so many to choose from, but Dumbledore telling Harry that "help will always be given to those who ask for it" is one that's always stuck with me.

What is your least favorite quote?

There aren't too many I don't like, although Sirius' entire exchange with Harry in his old room in Grimauld Place in the Order of the Phoenix (especially the film version) comes off just a bit cheesy.

What would your patronus be?

Probably a horse as they're one of my favorite animals and would convey beauty and majesty as well as strength.

What would your boggart be?

This one is easy...I've been terrified of stinging insects since I had a couple of bad experiences as a kid, so my boggart would be a giant wasp. Just writing this and thinking about it is giving me shivers!

What of the Deathly Hallows would you rather have: the Elder Wand, the Invisibility Cloak, or the Resurrection Stone?

I've no need for ultimate power, and besides, how can the Elder Wand be "unbeatable," as was so often claimed, when it kept passing from wizard to wizard? I'm tempted to say the Resurrection Stone as it would be nice to bring deceased family members and friends back, although recalling what happens in the Tale of the Three Brothers, this doesn't seem like such a good idea. I've always wanted the power of invisibility, so my choice would be the Invisibility Cloak.

What house would you be in?

Easy choice...Gryffindor, of course!

If you were on the Quidditch team, what position would you play?

Because of my size (6'5", 275 lbs) and the fairly good speed and quickness I have, in every sport I played (basketball, baseball, soccer, football) I always played a position that was a hybrid of defense and offense, so I would most likely either be a Beater or a Keeper. I'd leave the Chasing and Seeking to those smaller and quicker than I am!

If you could bring one character back to life, who would it be?

So many great characters met their end in the series, and there's a bunch I'd love to bring back: Dumbledore, Sirius, Moody, Fred Weasley, Tonks. However, the one at the top of my list would be Remus Lupin, one of my favorite characters whose gentle yet strong personality, wisdom, humbleness, and kindness would be sorely missed by anyone fortunate enough to have known him.

If you could meet any member of the cast, who would it be?

Either Alan Rickman or Ralph Fiennes, both for their masterful performances in bringing two of the greatest fictional characters of all time to life and absolutely owning them.

Were you happy with the ending?

Overall, yes. I always like stories where you see a glimpse into what the characters are like and what they're doing after the denouement. I will say that some of the fan theories and alternate fan fictions where Harry wakes up in the cupboard under the stairs after the final events of the Deathly Hallows, showing that it had all been a dream, bother me to no end. I would have HATED for the series to have ended like that!

I swear to God I would have cried if this were the actual ending...

How much does Harry Potter mean to you?       

It means a great deal to me for a few reasons. I've long been a fan of the Lord of the Rings, Dune, and Narnia series, but Harry Potter was the first one that was entirely released during my lifetime. It was also one of the rare new series that lived up to and eventually surpassed the hype...I've no doubt it will stand the test of time. Even more than that, the opportunity to share in the joy and magic of the books and movies with my second oldest daughter has been really special. She picked up the first book a few months ago, knowing how much I and my parents love the series, and was absolutely hooked. She read them all in a matter of a couple of months and we've since watched the entire series on film as well. Being able to share the experience with her and discuss every minute aspect of the story and characters has been a blast. I was too old to have grown up alongside Harry, Ron, Hermione, Neville, Luna, and the rest the way so many younger readers did, but I'm able to see my daughter have a similar experience and as a father, that's really rewarding.

So there you have it, my entry in the Harry Potter tag! I hope you've enjoyed it and if you're a fellow Potter fan, please chime in on whether you agree/disagree with my choices. If you happen to be a fellow blogger as well, please take a stab at it yourself and share your post when you're done. And remember: Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus!