What Marvel Movies Do I Need to Watch?

Welcome to the first post of the new year. I’ll be keeping things a little on the lighter side for now. I’m still very into my work and learning lots of share-worthy things in the data world. But for now, movies!

I also want to take a moment to appreciate those who reached out to us after our devastating loss. Thank you for your thoughts and prayers. Please continue to remember our family as we struggle to find a sense of normalcy.

So, some of my elder moviegoers asked me the question that many people have been asking over the last year or two: “What Marvel movies do I really need to watch before Infinity War?”, or more recently, “before End Game?”. More generally, which ones are worthwhile viewing to a casual non-geek, to someone who doesn’t need to obsess over every little minutiae, someone who is not by nature a “comic book movie lover”. It’s a completely fair question, and honestly it needs more.. less nerdy answers.

Hence, this post!

Iron Man (2008)

Really, how could you not? RDJ at his finest, and the start of what we now call the MCU. One could argue that it’s actually not entirely critical to “Avengers”, as a whole, especially if you have a general idea of who and what Iron Man is. But come on.

Thor (2011) OR Thor: Dark World (2013)

Opinions vary on which is a solid film and which is a dud. Either one is sufficient to introduce the Asgardians, the handsome dude with the big hammer, and our favorite flip-flopping hero-villain-depending-on-the-day-of-the-week.

Avengers (2012)

Obviously. While it precedes Thor 2, chronology isn’t the most important thing in the early storyline. It’s more about understanding the characters and the way they work together. If you just did Thor 2, you might not understand why Loki is the bad guy at this point; whereas if you just do Thor 1, you’ll miss the part where Loki “turns good” (ish?) as a lead-in to a future story. Not terribly important; just enjoy the big battle with giant alien snake-ships.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

While not critical to the Avengers storyline, per se, it’s an excellent movie, with some key character development that ultimately explains a pivotal point in Starlord’s (Pratt) behavior in the third Avengers film. And the music is fabulous!

Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014)

This is also not technically required viewing, but is widely regarded as one of the best films to this point in the timeline. It also sets up some important elements in the larger story arc. However, if, like me, you’re not a giddy schoolgirl superfan of Chris Evans and/or the Cap in general, you can skip this one in favor of Civil War.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Not the greatest movie from a quality perspective, but quantity, you get. Plus major plot and character development. Paul Bettany is amazing as always, and newcomer Elizabeth Olsen does not disappoint.

Honorable Mention: Doctor Strange (2016)

Again, not critical to the overall arc, but it’s something different. Cumberbatch really made his mark as a cross between the sarcastic cynicism of Tony Stark and the higher moral calling of Steve Rogers.

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Basically Avengers 2.5, this film gave us so much plot and character push that it’s a sin to ignore. And it’s a truly fantastic movie to boot. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man is a breath of fresh air, and he will definitely make you want to see his first standalone feature, even if it’s not super essential to the Avengers storyline as a whole. As I said before, I’m not a drooling Captain fan, but this is truly a full-fledged ensemble worth watching.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

If Civil War was business as usual for the Avengers, Ragnarok is a welcome departure. It nearly flies in the face of the serious and dramatic tones of its predecessors, and I absolutely LOVED it for that. Hemsworth and Hiddleston are back to their charming selves, Ruffalo comes off a Hulk-high and bumbles back into our hearts, and Jeff Goldblum ramps up the ridiculousness. But the star of this show is Cate Blanchette’s villianess, Hela.

you're in my seat

I’m Hela.

Hella what?

Hella fab in this badass latex bodysuit!

The most important thing about Ragnarok is that it directly leads into the beginning of Infinity War. So watch past the credits and get ready for some epicness.

Honorable Mention, prior to Infinity War: Spider-Man Homecoming (2017) and Black Panther (2018)

As I mentioned, Tom Holland managed to breath fresh life into the Spider-Man character, after Sony churned out way too many movies bearing his namesake. Here he’s re-established as a pop-culture-savvy teenager who just wants to do the right thing and finds this HUGE world of good-vs-evil that he may hesitate about but ultimately knows he needs to become a part of. Black Panther really needs no introduction; it was one of the top performing movies of 2018, and for good reason. Not just because it’s one of the first black super hero movies of the decade, and indeed of the Marvel universe, but because it firmly and distinctly fired on all major cylinders of modern comic cinema – action, character, heart, culture, morality, and legacy. Yet, neither of these movies is, I argue, absolutely critical to understanding the larger Avengers plot-line. You get enough of an introduction to both characters in the other movies.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

The big daddy of them all. So far, of course. End Game will likely rightfully claim that title once it hits, but for now, this is the climax, the apex of the Avengers arc, and the MCU in general. It’s got everybody. It’s long, at 2.5 hours; it’s epic, full of action, and (semi-spoiler-alert, but honestly if you haven’t at least heard the gist of it by now, you have nobody to blame but yourself) heartbreak. If you’ve enjoyed any of the preceding movies, you will want to see this. And if you plan on seeing the final one, you definitely need to see this one first.

Upcoming: Captain Marvel (2019)

We know that, chronologically, this one takes place in the past. So it’s not absolutely crucial to the Avengers storyline, on its own; but we know that the heroine herself DOES play a crucial role in End Game, so it’s probably worth the time investment. Plus who doesn’t love a strong female superhero flick? We haven’t seen enough of those from the MCU, to date. To be fair, the source material is fairly patriarchal too, but this is 2019, so it stands to reason that a studio of Disney’s size could do anything they damn well please, including giving the leading ladies more of their own features. (Fingers crossed that the Jean Grey and Black Widow spinoffs do well!)

Where does it all end?

Avengers: End Game (2019) is hyped to be the absolute biggest superhero cinematic event of the decade. Some of the characters will continue to have their sequels or even origin stories, while others may meet their permanent end, be it death or just old-fashioned retirement. One thing is certain: if you haven’t at least watched the first three Avengers movies, you are by no means prepared for what’s coming.

Dude, that’s still like.. NINE movies. Ain’t nobody got time for all that!

Fair enough. Let me cut the list in half… almost. If you had a gun to my head (RUDE!) and asked me which films were absolutely 100% guaranteed required viewing, I would tell you this: Avengers 1, Avengers 2, Civil War, Thor Ragnarok, and Infinity War. That’s roughly 10-ish hours of quality cinema, and includes just about every hero and villain that you need to care about going into this year.

So I excluded your favorites, big whoop, wanna fight about it?

Do you disagree? Did I leave out anything terribly important? Do you still think Steve Rogers is a dreamboat and should be idolized by all his fellow heroes for his unwavering moral righteousness? (Spoiler alert: WRONG.) Let me know in the comments!

Briefly, here’s my two-cents about why the rest are unnecessary. Starting with the Iron Man sequels: 2 is messy and doesn’t really move the hero forward, while 3 is a far better character study at the expense of being slightly too CGI-heavy. (Then again, they all are going that direction, so you might as well embrace it.) The Incredible Hulk was ret-conned into the MCU, and it’s not Ruffalo’s Hulk, so it really serves no great purpose other than to fill a slot on a timeline. With the first two Thor‘s, as I said, you could do away with either one and still understand that world in general. Then we have the one-off origin stories in Captain America and Ant Man, which, fine, they’re decent, but quite unnecessary to the bigger picture. And Guardians of the Galaxy 2, while a very good sequel, has nothing earth-shattering (see-what-I-did-there?) to add to the timeline. Finally, like I mentioned before, Panther and Homecoming are truly great movies; in fact the adorable surrogate-father-son relationship that Stark (Iron) and Parker (Spidey) establish in the latter makes one of the final moments in Infinity War exponentially more heartbreaking. But do you absolutely need to have seen them to get up-to-speed for Avengers? Not really.

A final note. About the TV shows. I don’t watch them. Never have. If that’s your game, great, go for it. But the movies know that they can’t rely on the shows to make any significant plot contributions, let alone to be seen by nearly as many, or the same, people. So in my book they’re still all fluff. Maybe that’ll change someday, but I doubt it.

Now, go do your homework and watch some movies! =)

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In Loving Memory

Do not waste moments. Put forth light and love into this world. Emanate joy and kindness. And cherish each day, for our time here is never guaranteed.

may your wings be strong
-her favorite quote, from the movie Maleficent.

Dear readers. It is with a heavy heart that I write this. 2018 has seen some significant losses of meaningful lives, whether it be in #SQLFamily or elsewhere. Sadly, that toll increases again.

In October this year, my wife of 10 years passed away unexpectedly, at home. No chronically debilitating illnesses being fought off, no sudden acute onset of horrible afflictions, just here one day, gone the next. Words could not express the deep sorrow and profound shock we experienced that night, and in the days and weeks that followed.

I count myself incredibly blessed to have been loved by her. She loved so deeply and so fiercely, pouring out her generous heart to those who would take the time to truly know her. The day we said “I do!” was the happiest day of my life. She had a contagious laugh and a smile that could light up the room, even when she was hurting, sometimes more than anybody knew. It gives me some small comfort that she no longer feels any pain, but is surrounded instead by joy, light, and love.

She was a sensitive soul, leaving a little bit of herself in every life she touched. She was an empath, which means she would often know how you were feeling before you did. She felt the emotions of others, magnified in herself, and was an amazing listener, who could always be counted on for comfort and support.

The holidays were her favorite time of year, specifically Thanksgiving and Christmas. So today, on the heels of our day of thanks and the toes of the season of giving, I encourage you with two things.

First, be thankful for your loved ones, your family and friends, and most of all your children, if you are so blessed to have them. Life is so precious. Spend it with those you love, and do not waste any moments.

Second, give of yourself unto others, be it time, money, helping hands, a listening ear, or a friendly voice. Put forth light and love into this world, not darkness or hate. Emanate joy and kindness, not malice or bitterness.

And above all, cherish each day, for our time here is never guaranteed.

May you ever walk the beaches of paradise,
May you dance along the sunsets,
And sing until the end of eternity.
You are forever loved, and always in my heart.

Movie Wednesday #3 (on a Thursday)

I’m a sucker for a good revenge flick. Especially if the protagonist is a strong female lead.

It’s that time again kids! Today (which is now yesterday), I saw Peppermint at the local cheap-seats theater. Aside from being surprisingly uncomfortable compared to the plush recliners of the deluxe place, it was a nice bit of nostalgia. There was almost nobody there. Frankly, I’m not sure how they’re still in business; their operating costs must be absolutely minuscule. But hey, works for me, $4 movies! Let’s get to it, shall we?

Revenge is Fun to Watch

sweet sweet revenge raccoon
Revengecoon is on point.

Call me a sucker for a good revenge flick. Even more so when the protagonist is a badass woman. I don’t get into the really graphic “rape-revenge” stuff like I Spit On Your Grave and its ilk, but in general, if you’ve got a leading lady kickin’ ass and taking names to avenge some injustice done to her or her loved ones, I’m game.

And the user reviews agree with me, but the critics decidedly do not. That’s typical. Critics look at lots of deep facets of film-making, but the average audience just wants to be entertained. Are there a few moments when it’s difficult to believe the character, or the lines feel just a tad forced? Sure. Are there some bits where perhaps we stretch reality just a bit? Of course. But it’s a damn fun movie to watch, as Garner takes out one gangster or corrupt-cog-in-the-justice-machine after another.

Jennifer Garner’s Appeal

Speaking of our leading lady… I’ve never seen Alias, so you’ll forgive the lack of comparison. I did see Elektra, which, although a pretty bad movie overall, at least showed that she could convincingly play a tough action hero, even if that particular character was over-sexualized. Obviously that was 13 years ago, but her age plays well as the seasoned, slightly weather-worn mother, who can still whip herself into better shape than the cartel thugs half her age, dispense her vigilante justice, and look good while doing so.

It’s purposeful, and effective, that she does not show skin or become a sex-object at any point. That’s not what this is about, nor should it be. She’s all business, and that business is bloody, brutal, and filled with sharp objects and shotgun shells.

The Bad Guys (and their deaths)

peppermint movie still showing judge trapped
See this? This is explosive rope. It can cut through really big trees and sh*t.

One of the best parts of a revenge flick is seeing the imaginative or poetic-justice-esque ways in which the hero deals death to those that deserve it. (Yes, I’m using those terms “hero” and “deserve” loosely and in the context of the film itself, not engaging in a philosophical debate outside the world of the story.)

While some of these are lackluster, especially for an R rating, there are few that really shine. The judge, a sort of Kevin Spacey lookalike, gets it good with nails-in-the-hands and a courtroom-sized explosion. The three shooters are strung-up by their ankles on a ferris wheel, the process and lead-up to which, I feel, would have been even more interesting to watch than the end result. And there are at least a few fantastic head-shots that you’ll just want to see for yourself.

As I said, given the rating, I do think the film makers could have gone darker with some of the kills, but overall, we get what we came for. It feels very similar to Taken, for obvious reasons (same director), and that’s a good thing.

Trailers Lie

Sadly, and seemingly more often these days, the trailer showed some sequences and dialog that either didn’t make it into the movie, or misrepresented it slightly. The titular ‘Peppermint’ moment isn’t there, at least not with the same impact; and a couple of the more badass-sounding vengeance lines are diluted by too much context or a lack of ‘oomph’ in the background score.

But again, that’s Hollywood. The trailer’s job is to make you desperately want to see the movie, and they often succeed. So we can’t blame them too harshly. The film is gritty, well-made, and compares favorably with others in its genre.

Speaking of trailers, they played one for Glass, a really intriguing upcoming crossover-continuation of Unbreakable and Split, from everybody’s favorite writer-director name to purposefully mispronounce. If you haven’t seen either of those, do yourself a favor. (McAvoy is phenomenal in the latter.)

Conclusion

peppermint angel graffiti wall
I brightened this up a bit from the original. I tried to find a better one but no luck so far.

If you enjoy watching a tough female lead, seeing bad-guys get their comeuppance, and following a story through to the end, this movie is for you. Even if you’re not generally a J Garner fan; she really does well with this role, and there are no hints of her typical rom-com personality sneaking in. It’s a good solid ride with a satisfying conclusion — exactly what you want from a popcorn vengeance flick.

Til next time, readers!

Movie Wednesday #2 – The Meg

The only thing deep here is the water. But it’s good-old-fashioned shark-movie fun.

It won’t always be new movies, I promise.  I could go on for pages about such classics as The Gladiator, Independence Day, Jurassic Park, Scream, Pulp Fiction, Face/Off, Lord of the Rings, and more.  And I will, eventually.  I’m going to try out a hosted WP service with my own domain soon, and then I’ll have more freedom to draw lines in the sand between the tech stuff and the fun stuff.  But for now, you’ll have to settle for reviews of new or recent movies that we go enjoy semi-regularly at our local recliner-lined pizza-serving cineplex.

Without further ado…

Things Are What They Are

Let’s make something clear right off the bat.  This is a popcorn flick.  For those who aren’t up on the movie-goer lingo, that means it’s more or less mindless fun.  It’s CGI-infused, big-screen big-sound action, with a few recognizable faces, a few up-and-comers, and a whole gaggle of extras.  Throw in a Wilhelm Scream for good measure (fair warning: TVTropes link!).  And yes, a black guy dies first.

Statham is no stranger to this sort of film.  One might even say he’s built his entire career on them.  But most of those are more the dark, gritty, pure action flicks.  Yet he’s proven he can handle himself with the lighter, more humorous side as well.

The monster, the Megalodon, is sufficiently large and in-charge.  It menaces and mangles effectively, and even outsmarts a hapless human or two.  The premise around where and how they find this beast is mildly interesting, despite the occasional disregard for high pressure physics.

bro-do-you-even-science
Because Bill Nye will have your arse…

Who Dat?!

One of our favorite things to do with movies is to call out where we know the actors from.  Here we have Dwight from The Office, and Travis from Fear TWD — we’re supposed to believe he’s Statham’s brother, which is a pretty hard sell, unless one is adopted.  Oh, and that short-haired techie chick with the annoyingly hipster name? That’s the lead singer of ‘Evermoist’ from Pitch Perfect 3!

pitch-perfect-3-evermoist-wave
Pitch Perfect 3 – the ladies’ main rivals

Where It Hits and Misses

We get some cinematic moments of shock and awe, a few tearful goodbyes of self-sacrifice, and a handful of suspenseful close-calls.  And obviously, some big meaty carnage.

Unfortunately, the dialog falls a little flat sometimes, and the humor isn’t always snappy. Now, you’re not watching this for deep character development.  The only thing deep here is the water.  But there could have been a bit more emphasis on some key elements that would make the characters more memorable or relate-able.

Comparisons Are Fair Game

It’s quite natural to compare this to Jaws, and the many myriad of mimics that it spawned.  Obviously, this film has no such aspirations, nor does it feel the need to shove this fact down the audience’s throat. Unlike, say, Sharknado, which tries way too hard to be “so bad it’s good” that it ends up looping back around to terrible again.

Furthermore, the actors understand this, which means that, while they do take their roles somewhat seriously, they allow themselves to have fun with it.  Nobody’s trying to impress the Academy here.  And frankly, nobody’s expecting you to watch more than once. Your enjoy it for what it is, and then you walk away.

someone once said in a meeting let's make a film with a tornado full of sharks
No, let’s make SEVERAL!  Best idea EVARRR!!!1

The Verdict: one solid thumb up

Lets be honest.  You’re going to watch this because you enjoy big sharks, Jason Statham, and/or ocean-themed action-adventures / creature-features.  And you won’t be disappointed.  It’s just good-old-fashioned shark-movie fun.  Enjoy your popcorn, then go about your business.

Have fun!

Movie Review Wednesday

So I’ve Been Thinking…

Data isn’t literally everything.  I mean it is, technically, but it’s not all super happy fun times, so we need to take a break once in a while and do something less neuron-intensive.  Thus, my new segment: movie reviews!  Because, despite what you may have read, all work and no play make Nate a dull boy.  And yes, I promised you this blog would be professional.  Mostly.  I remember specifically using that word.  So don’t wag your naggy finger at me.  If you don’t like it, you can simply avoid the tags like #offtopic and #movies.

You, dear reader, may have guessed this already, but just in case you haven’t:  We watch a lot of movies.  Like, a lot.  That new red MoviePass card came out just around the same time that our local cineplex remodeled itself into a “luxury theater” with the reserved reclining seats, dining service, and all that jazz.  But besides that, when the day’s work is done and it’s time to chill, Netflix/Prime/Kodi are our M.O.’s.

Side-note, I’m running Kodi on LibreElec on a Dell micro-PC that I procured for $99 a few Black Friday’s ago.  It’s puny by PC standards, but beefy by media-stick/RPi standards, so it works pretty well.  We’re finding that our WiFi isn’t always quite up to the task of steadily streaming 1080p, but… meh.  It’s generally usable.  It serves up movies from my 3TB spinning-rusts on the circa-2014 gaming PC via Plex, which is a phenomenal app for the modern moviephile — if you haven’t checked it out, do it.

Let’s Get To It!

Back on topic.  Off topic, I mean.  We recently saw The Spy Who Dumped Me.  I was excited for this movie as soon as I saw the poster: Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon.  Need I say more?  Not really, but I will, because that’s presumably why you’re reading.  I mean, I could watch these two actresses do just about anything for 2 hours.  Let alone a buddy-action-comedy about international intelligence intrigue gone awry.

I first loved McKinnon in the Ghostbusters reboot, where she, no disrespect to the rest of the phenomenal cast, stole the show.  That was a super fun movie too.  (I’m not an SNL guy, though her Hillary impersonation was superb.)  And Kunis, I’ve loved since she took over the voice of Meg in Family Guy.  It didn’t hurt when the wife said she had a girl crush on her too.

This is somewhat of a directorial debut from Susanna Fogel (she has some credits, but nothing blockbuster-worthy, as far as I can tell), and it hits a lot of good notes.  The acting is solid — especially, obviously, the two leads — the action believable, the punchlines not overly cheesy, the character development realistic, and the twists compelling, if a bit predictable.

The one notable gripe I have is the completely random and unnecessary bit of male nudity.  And it’s not that I’m a prude; nudity can have its place in movies, if it serves a purpose.  Look at Forgetting Sarah Marshall — very similar to this instance, technically, but its purpose was clearly to emphasize the point of the character’s vulnerability and shamelessness.  Contrasted to here, where it’s just some dude that Kate’s character hooked up with who turns out to be the first of dozens of agents to try to kill the duo in pursuit of the elusive “flash drive of doom” (which, surprisingly, is not yet a TvTropes trope, but I feel like it should be).  There was literally no point.

Anyway.

On the whole, the movie was excellent — a fun ride through Europe on the tails of two hapless yet confident, inexperienced yet tough, and sometimes supremely lucky ladies who go toe-to-toe with agents of CIA, MI6, and the big scary Russian Mafia.  We see these amazingly close best friends overcome frightening odds and tense situations by sticking together and encouraging each other, which is pretty awesome if you think about it.  There’s a lot of negativity thrown around these days, whether it’s in the name of politics, social movements, or otherwise.  Even your standard male buddy-cop movie usually hinges on the guys’ “banter” of tearing each other down (even in jest), and rarely does it truly bring out the best elements of their character.

Speaking of characters, the chemistry of these two women is top-notch.  They’re different, to be sure, but it works in their favor.  McKinnon is obviously more extroverted; “a little much” as someone tells her derogatorily, but that’s why we love her.  Kunis is of course more subtle; coy, yet never a damsel in distress.  One of the best bits of dialog in the movie, I think, comes from McKinnon’s positively bursting joy at seeing the head of MI6 is in fact a woman, who “hasn’t sacrificed one ounce of femininity!” (Gillian Anderson, of course, being very familiar with the role of an intelligence officer).

Now, I will normally try to avoid spoilers.  Today I will simply tease that yes, while Kunis ends up falling for a guy, he’s proven worthy, and there’s no reason to fault her for it.  If anything, it keeps us grounded in reality.  Of course that reality quickly turns fantasy again in the “post ending”, but that’s for you to enjoy.

The Verdict

Highly recommended, two thumbs up.

Happy Hump Day!  Now go watch some movies.  Preferably this one.  But hey, I ain’t the boss of you.  Do your thing.  And stay tuned for more!

Off-Topic: A Short Story

As the rest of the years dragged on, I would always look back fondly at that first exhilarating victory.  There was nothing quite like it.

The wifey has been obsessively binge-ing Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” recently.  It’s a fantastic show that addresses real teen issues in a respectful yet thought-provoking way.  It made me want to reminisce a bit about my own high school years, and really try to think about why and how it wasn’t all that bad.  And don’t get me wrong; I understand that my experience is probably not noteworthy, and I actually count myself fairly lucky to have had, essentially, an unremarkable four years.  It’s not that being unremarkable should be a goal, nor that I even encourage it; it’s just that, for me, it served a purpose of avoiding big drama and simply getting me where I wanted to go — even if I had no idea where that was going to be.

So I’ve put together a sample story – a “chapter”, if you will – from what I hope will eventually become a memoir of sorts, a “story of my life” to one day pass down to our kids.  If you remember high school, and especially if you were a band kid, I hope you’ll get a kick out of it.


Chapter 3 – Band

High school band, specifically marching band, was a great experience, and a suitable alternative to sports.  I was terrible at sports.  My younger brother had proven decent at baseball in little league, but none of that talent made its way to me.  (He didn’t take it any further, either, so I don’t feel bad about it.)  It worked out that, after freshman year, marching band counted as phys-ed. credit, so I never had to take another P.E. class after the first one. I did anyway, but that’s another story.

Trumpet was my instrument. Had been since 5th grade, after my father’s encouragement from having played the French horn back in his day. I’d tried French horn before, but I never quite got the hang of it. It’s a strange instrument, for a brass, in that you actually need to use your 2nd hand to hold and muffle the flared bell to produce subtle tone effects. Trumpet’s a little simpler — you just purse your lips and blow, and press a row of 3 buttons to control note progression.

I wasn’t that great at it — never made “first chair” (which means you’re the best at your particular instrument) or had any solos, but I toed the middle line satisfactorily. Having braces didn’t help; in fact, the position of the mouthpiece on the lips coincided exactly with the brace brackets. But with a combination of inner-lip calluses and sheer will, I made it work.

I always admired and envied the “rock stars” of the band, especially the trumpet players who could hit those super-high notes with such ease.  There were two guys in particular — Jared and Mark. Mark was a junior, a lanky rude-boy (fan of ska & jazz) with spiky hair and a contagiously good attitude.  Jared was a no-nonsense senior who’d seen and done it all, making a great section leader.

Editor’s note: said Wifey should skip the next paragraph.  =P

And then there was our junior leader, Nicole.  Ooh boy let me tell you.  Picture a hot summer morning out on the football field for marching practice; icy water bottles being used to cool off sun-soaked sweat-beaded skin; and a tall tan teenage Cali-girl in short shorts and a rolled up tank top, telling us young’uns what to do and where to go.  Can I get a 2-syllable ‘day-umn’?  Yes, that first year of marching band was quite the eye-popper.

In order to truly appreciate this story, you need a basic understanding of the way high school marching band works.  It’s in the fall, or first semester of school, to coincide with football.  While we support and play at some home-games, our biggest commitments were “tournaments”.  These are competitions hosted by various large high schools where they invite a number of other schools in to display their marching band’s “field show”, which is basically a series of songs played while marching into various formations that look like shapes and figures from above.  Each band is judged on both their musical and visual performance.

The color guard, a small team of girls (usually, at least in those days), performs along with the band, by waving colorful flags and banners and doing some choreographed dancing on & around the field.  Think of them like cheerleaders, but more elegant, and replace the pom-poms with twirlers and the mini-skirts with more flowy dress-like outfits (sometimes.. though here were definitely other schools who pushed the sex appeal angle much more with their own color guard).

You also have to understand that, unlike a sports team, the band didn’t have locker rooms.  So essentially, the buses were our locker rooms.  We did probably 5 to 10 events in a given season, only one of which was our own self-hosted tournament, so we were on the road a lot — at least, it seemed like a lot to me.  The bus was our changing room for putting on our uniforms, our break area for chatting and hanging out between the performances and the awards, and our celebration circle (or, in worse times, our den of commiseration).  Different types of people put up varying degrees of protest or privacy — some had to be in the very back with complete coverage and make-shift curtains made from spare shirts or towels, while others were happy to flaunt their undergarments to most of their peers, probably in an effort to tease and woo the opposite sex.  I was somewhere in the middle (as usual); I hid behind the seat-back and kept it quick & subtle, but I also tended to wear a regular tee-shirt underneath the uniform.  The aforementioned Katrina (of my previous chapter) was always around to cast a flirty glance or suggest a extra spray of her favorite cologne to make the stank more bearable.

A small side-note. Our school colors were brown and gold — the Golden Bears — but this made an absolutely horrible color scheme for uniforms. The regular ones were a brown base with gold and white trim, but they never quite got the hue far enough away from ‘shit brown’. The alternate uniforms were a little better, having a white base with gold and brown trim, but of course, they got dirty much faster, so we didn’t wear them as often as I would have liked. I do hope they’ve come to their senses and changed up the color scheme, or at least tweaked the uniforms so that they don’t remind spectators so much of human waste. Thankfully the color guard’s uniform colors were more friendly, being of a teal & fuchsia variety.

Finally, the third key concept here, is that each band is in a “class”, which is like a ranking system based somewhat on your high school’s historical performance, but mostly (read: almost entirely) on your size — the number of band members. Generally, the larger, and richer, high schools — in our area, Rancho Bernardo, Poway, Mount Carmel, and a couple others from the wealthy areas of greater San Diego — had the biggest bands and were thus in the highest class, AAA. We had historically been in AA (just below the top), and had, from what I heard in passing from the seniors, a decent ‘win’ history. Depending on the size and attendees of a given tournament, we could default down to the same class as the others involved; i.e. if nobody else was above ‘A’, we’d compete as ‘A’ too, which would be to our benefit.

Think of it like your weight classes in boxing or wrestling. Just because you’re a heavyweight doesn’t mean you’re more skilled than a featherweight, it just means you weigh more. Sure, the weight (or size) does make some difference in the competition, especially if we use the wrestling metaphor. It’s just not everything. And there can be a hidden motivation to try to “make weight”, i.e. to get into a smaller class so that you have an edge over your opponents.

This being the late 90s at a growing suburban school, our band was growing in number, but not necessarily in skill or in booster dollars. In the wrestling metaphor above, we were basically gaining flab. The class system also hadn’t been updated in a while — basically anything over 150 was AAA , but those big rich bands I mentioned before tended to be in the 300s. So unfortunately, we were basically “forced up” into the AAA class with our larger number, but we were still way outgunned and out-funded by those that had long held the candles in that high hall.

Now, having said all that, my first year in marching band was one of the most exhilarating, and it’s largely due to our first and only “sweeps” win in one of the first tournaments of the year.  A sweeps win is when your band wins the highest trophies in its class and in the tournament.  Looking back, there must have been a perfect storm of coincidences that led to it.  This was a relatively small tournament; none of those big rich bands attended, and we ended up being the largest one there.  I think it was hosted by Orange something-or-other high school.  The bus ride was a bit longer than most, maybe an hour or so.  Our uniforms were freshly pressed, having not been worn yet this season; and we’d barely finished mastering our show (the music and marching steps/positions, i.e. the choreography).

There was something in the air that night.

We arrived in the late afternoon, not too long before our turn was scheduled. We changed on the buses and lined up to take the field.  It was cool and temperate that evening, not too cold, but not warm enough to cause a sweat.  Perfect marching weather.  The emcee called out, “Tuh-MEC-you-la Valley High!”, and we took the grass.  It was well maintained for a small school; no big potholes or divots, clean and even yard-lines.  Our fearless leader, ‘H’ we called him — short for Mr. Hrbacek (her-ba-check) — took the conductor’s stand, counted it down, and the crisp snap of the snare drums meant it was on.

Our set was a big-band/swing theme, including “Moonlight Serenade” and “Sentimental Journey”.  We’d memorized pages upon pages of marching positions and music for this. Practiced dozens of hours — “sectionals” for an hour after school, those sweaty Saturday mornings, and every chance we could get at a field during class — it felt like hundreds.  Our feet were sure, our instruments were on-key and in-tempo, and we pulled it off, all the way to that final high note and conclusive closing drum beat.

The percussionists were always my favorite, even if I’d never admit it.  They were the driving beat that kept us all going, and the catching energy that fueled our desire to win.  Yeah, the brassy solos and deep booms of the tubas were great — hell, you’ve got to be a ridiculously strong dude (or dudette) to lug one of those bad boys around and march in tempo — but those drums made it all mesh together into something more than the sum of its parts.

So we left the field knowing that we’d gave it our all.  Yeah, we weren’t perfect, there were a few missteps and a few misplaced notes here and there, but we covered them up and soldiered on.  Thus, we took to the bus-changing-rooms once more, traded our uniforms for our street clothes, and gathered in the bleachers for the award announcements.

This was before the post-millennial days of “everybody’s a winner, everybody deserves a trophy”, but perhaps band culture was a bit ahead of its time, because almost everybody did get some kind of trophy.  Although that may have been due to the smaller size of this tournament, as I mentioned before.  Anyway, as with most competition awards, they worked their way up from the bottom to the top.  I wasn’t aware of this at the time, which made me quite confused as to why my elder band-mates were cheering progressively louder and louder as the announcers didn’t call our name. Obviously (now), it meant that we were toward the top.

The announcer has made his way to the final 3 awards – best musical performance, best visual performance, and the granddaddy of them all, “the tournament award”.  He calls the first.  “Best Musical Performance… Temecula Valley High!”  Loud but muffled cheers from our band as the director and seniors try to shush everybody.  “Best Visual Performance… Temecula Valley High!” Louder cheers from our mates as they struggle to contain themselves.  “And the Tournament Award goes to… Temecul–”

We erupt with elation before he can even finish the word.  Hoots and hollers, whoops and whistles.  Our director walks up to humbly accept the giant trophy, which I’m sure looked a lot bigger to us back then than it really was.  The stands empty of the competing bands as we make our way back to the buses.  The air is absolutely electric; high-fives and kudos abound, even between the flautists and the woodwinds, who are, for those of you unfamiliar with band sub-cliques, the quietest and most reserved of the bunch.  As we settle into our seats and prepare for the drive home, from a boom-box in the back of the bus come those timeless strains of Bryan May’s guitar and Freddie Mercury’s piercing vocals.  “Weeeee.. are the chaaaampions, my friennnd. Nooo time for looosers, cuz weee are the chaaampions… of the Woooooorld.”

The adults try to quiet us down, but this kind of celebration isn’t so easily subdued.  A few of the seniors try to explain that we got lucky, that we did ok but we mostly won because we outclassed the other bands.  And we knew, in the back of our minds, that it wasn’t always going to be this way; that jocks would still laugh at us and popularity queens would still snub us; that we’d be coming back on Monday to loads of schoolwork, and to the pressures and insecurities that go with high school life — particularly if you’re a band geek.

But damn if we weren’t gods in that moment.

And then, as the saying goes, it was all downhill from there.  That’s not quite fair, I suppose.  Heck, maybe I don’t give the old coot enough credit; perhaps he carefully planned this strategy of giving us an easy win to hit us with a taste of that sweet drug of victory, so that we’d stick around and keep trying harder, week after week, year after year, to replicate it.  Friggin’ brilliant, perhaps.  It never quite happened, as I said; we were hopelessly outclassed by those infamous high-society bands with their own logo-painted trailers and catered meals and mysteriously shiny pristine instruments that never seemed to fade.  Those top 3 award spots that I mentioned, well – let’s just say we got real tired of hearing the name “Rancho Bernardo”.  Over, and over, and over again.

The tournament that we hosted ourselves came towards the end of the season.  It was a nice break from the competition because, even though we had to perform – twice – we weren’t being judged.  So it gave those rock-star trumpet players time to show off their solo bits in a less subtle way.  In the first performance of the day, Jared actually popped out of line formation and did a half-kneel toward the crowd as he belted out those crisp 4 high notes – but in doing so, he flubbed just a bit, and he got crap for it later from H. and Mark.  Thus, at the night performance, he stayed in position, but absolutely nailed those notes, complete with a little trill-up and doo-wah.  There were a lot of bands here, more than almost any tournament we’d been to, it seemed.  I wondered why, but I’d come to realize later, after learning a bit of regional geography, that were we a convenient mid-way location between Orange and San Diego counties, so it made sense that those bigger schools wanted to come battle each other on the marching field without driving over 2 hours to either one’s hometown.

As the rest of the schoolyears dragged on, I would always look back fondly at that first exhilarating victory.  There was nothing quite like it.  Along with the occasional cleavage-peek on the bus, the weeks of pizza and coke on the road, and that Saturday morning navel-gazing at practice, it was enough to get me hooked for 4 solid seasons.  I even convinced my parents to buy me a Letterman’s jacket with the band letter in junior year. But the biggest adventures were yet to come.

TSQL Tuesday #96: Good Influences

This month’s invitation is brought to you by Ewald Cress (blog, twitter), who I already like based on his tagline —

finds joy in minutiae..

Yes, my friend, don’t we all.

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I can’t spend the rest of my life coming into this stinking apartment every 10 minutes to pore of the excruciating minutiae of every single daily event!

The topic at hand is fairly non-technical, but still important: folks who have made a positive contribution to your career or professional development.  So it’s time for a shout-out!  About a year ago, I wrote about my first major career move.  There were several great influences in my first job, from the developers that taught me how to code, to the DBA who taught me how to keep cool & calm in the face of outages, to the boss who taught me the importance of time management and breadth of knowledge.

Post-mortem

Since I am way too late in posting this, and I don’t feel like waxing poetic, I’ll just say a general “thank you” to all those who’ve helped me along in my career so far, with special acknowledgement to my former boss, my current boss, the SQL family, and my own family.  Happy belated Thanksgiving and have a safe & pleasant holiday season!  I’ll have a real post again quite soon, diving back into the tech stuff.

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hope they don’t mind me borrowing their image… =D