Tomorrow I'm leaving for Los Angeles to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) Level 3 on Sunday! I feel like I'm a little more prepared than when I took Level 4 last year, so I'm looking forward to the experience (but I'm not looking forward to waiting until March for the results!). I'm glad that I've stuck with it and studied all year, and it's great to know that my pals are cheering me on, too. My pal Kumiko sent me a Japanese e-card, and my pal Melinda went all-out and surprised me with a "good luck kit" full of snacks and Christmas goodies! I'm going to enjoy the trip, especially seeing Dae and Ernesto again, and when I come back I'll be in full relax mode!

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya / Vol 2 : 3 of 5

I hardly ever continue watching an anime series so quickly (I usually watch other things between volumes for variety), but Netflix was super-fast and these episodes are so short that it's been easy to breeze through this show during study breaks! These four episodes take a big turn from the last volume as the plot goes from weird to completely bizarre, and at the same time the situation gets more serious as Haruhi's "cosmic powers" are revealed. Somehow she actually creates reality with thought (unknowingly), so the fact that she's bored with everyday life means she might just end the universe to start up a new one! There's a nice Haruhi monologue where we get to see past her tough exterior for a moment, which leads nicely into a great episode where Haruhi and Kyon find themselves in another reality, and Kyon has to convince her to give the "real" reality another chance (with an unexpected kiss!). After all that drama, the other episodes lighten up with the SOS Brigade entering a baseball tournament, which is pretty hilarious since Yuki, the alien representative of the Thought Entity (yes, that's pretty weird), helps them win the game by changing the physical properties of the bat. There's some funny cheerleading from Mikuru in this episode, too! I should also mention that these DVDs have a lot of bonus material, the best of which is some Japanese-produced behind the scenes segments with the voice actors for the show. Watching the recording session for one of the show's songs was really interesting! Now that I can kind of see the tone of this series, I'm a little more into it than I was after watching Volume 1, so of course the next DVD will be on its way to me soon.


Enjoying Leopard's new features

Being the Mac fan that I am, of course I pre-ordered Mac OS X Leopard (and got a great deal from Amazon), but when it arrived I was in the middle of too much video editing to worry about installing it. But as soon as I got a chance, I upgraded my MacBook and Power Mac right away, and I've really been enjoying it (and I didn't have any problems with the installation!). There are lots of great visual changes that I love, but the new Dock is definitely a little space-age (I thought the reviews I read were just whining, but I kind of agree now). But I've always been kind of a Mac purist – I never use hacks or utilities to modify the behavior or look of the OS, so I'll stick with the true Apple design for now (I'm betting they will offer more visual preferences later). I'm getting used to Stacks in the Dock, too - I really like the concept, and it definitely seems helpful to me (especially the Downloads stack), but I hope there will be a way to pick a stack icon someday. I think my favorite improvements have to do with using my two Macs together. File Sharing is much easier since my other Mac shows up nicely in the Finder sidebar, but even better is Screen Sharing, which is a fantastic way to monitor my machine upstairs from my MacBook downstairs! It's great when I need to check on a bunch of videos I'm converting, or change the tunes I'm listening to. I'm also using Quick Look all the time! It's so nice to browse through a folder of documents, movies, or images and see them with a single press of the space bar. And I can't forget to mention the fantastic Print dialog with it's awesome built-in preview - I can't imagine a better way to do it. I'm definitely happy with Leopard, and there are still lots of features I haven't even touched yet!


Batman Chronicles / Vol 1 : 4 of 5

After rereading the old Eternals comics I enjoyed as a kid, I've been eager to discover the original stories and artwork of famous characters, so I was excited to find this fantastic series which presents all of the original appearances of Batman in a nice (and extremely affordable) graphic novel format. This first volume was incredibly fun to read, since I had never seen Batman's original beginnings as a regular feature in Detective Comics (starting in 1939). The artwork is somewhat crude, but still dynamic and full of charm (and dramatically improves as the series progresses). I love the old style of narration, which describes everything Batman is doing right there on the panel in front of you, and I like the nostalgic touches (such as Bruce Wayne always smoking a pipe!). I was amazed that Batman's origin story isn't told until several issues have past, and it only takes a page and a half to cover it! Robin's origin is pretty short as well, but he's only getting started as this volume ends with the first issue of Batman's own comic in 1940. There are a few regular villains, such as Doctor Death, Hugo Strange, and of course, the Joker, but it's fun to see Batman go up against weird things like werewolves, too. Batman himself is definitely a tough guy, and he barely thinks twice about killing his enemies if he has to, which certainly changes later on. If you're fascinated by the humble beginnings of one of the most popular heroes of all time, you'll definitely enjoy this book, and I'm certainly ready to continue with the next volume!


The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya / Vol 1 : 3 of 5

I've had this series in my Netflix queue from way back when I was still subscribing to Newtype. They were constantly gushing about what a great anime series this is, and it's definitely got a ton of attention online and everywhere else, so I'm glad I finally got the time to give it a try. Recently my taste has been leaning towards more serious anime and manga, but I have to say that Haruhi was pretty funny, so I'm definitely going to keep watching! I was really impressed by how the series begins, since the entire first episode is nothing more than a homemade film created by the characters (but it does reveal some interesting hints, in a way). In the next three episodes, Haruhi and all the members of her new SOS Brigade are introduced, and they are soon revealed to be exactly what Haruhi is devoted to finding: aliens, future people, and ESPers (psychics)! The only normal guy is Kyon (his nickname), and the story unfolds from his point of view, which is great since he's just as confused as the viewer! There are some really outrageous moments dealing with Haruhi's "handling" (literally) of Mikuru, the super-cute girl of the group, especially when she's forced to wear crazy outfits like a bunny suit! This entire DVD went by really fast - the episodes seem a little shorter than average, but it kind of helps the story move along. I'm worried that if they don't bring a little true emotion into all this craziness that I will get bored with the series, but for now I'm content to giggle and enjoy the hilarity!


Enchanted : 4 of 5

I've been so excited to see this movie, mainly because as an animation fan, Enchanted is especially important, since it's the first 2D traditional animation from Disney on the big screen in years! Since Enchanted is designed to celebrate and spoof the "Disneyness" of classic features, I was totally in love with the opening animated sequences - all of the wonderful artwork, characters, and music was there right before my eyes, and it was so fantastic to see. But aside from keeping the animation geek in me happy, Enchanted is actually a hilariously clever film that anyone can enjoy! It's a great story about animated characters being transported to the real world, where they have to struggle with the harshness of New York, but end up showing people that fairy tales actually do have value. There are some fantastic laugh-out-loud moments, such as a pigeon eating a cockroach right after tidying up the house with it, and Prince Edward's line "Thank you for taking care of my bride, peasants" had me rolling (right when I was getting misty-eyed as Giselle was saying good bye!). Disney references are totally overflowing (such as cameos from princess voice artists, little animation details, and tons of plot moments), and I had lots of fun finding them. I really don't have anything bad to say about Enchanted, except that I thought it could have used a little more heart-tugging at the end, but I'm fine with the light-hearted tone of the story. Go see it both for a fun time at the movies, and to remember what real animation is supposed to look like!

Vacation highlights

Whenever I visit Mom's family in Waco for pre-Thanksgiving, I like to bring some photos on my iPod so I can show them to everyone on TV. Since everyone enjoys seeing them so much, I decided to do a few short videos this year, using footage I've taken on trips with Mom & Dad, both from recent vacations (like Niagara Falls), as well as older ones. I managed to get three of them done, so I thought I would share these on YouTube. It's fun going back through old video and putting together the highlights of fun times! (I've also moved a few older QuickTime movies over to YouTube, which you can find on my Videos page.)

Watch video: Niagara Falls Vacation
Watch video: Washington DC Vacation
Watch video: Fishing at Walt Disney World


Balloons, butternut, benkyou

I'm really enjoying this Thanksgiving holiday! My pal Tom came over with breakfast to watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade with me, and I thought the new balloons were cool, although Shrek seriously had a "pull my finger" pose, and Scooby Doo's nose was deflated. Hello Kitty looked great, though, and I always like seeing Pikachu, since he makes a great balloon! In the afternoon my pals who were still in town met at Chris & Eliza's for their annual Thanksgiving feast, which was especially incredible since she's going to give birth in just a few weeks! The food was awesome, and I was touched that Eliza made her yummy butternut squash soup just because she knows I look forward to her Thanksgiving soups. Yesterday I stayed at home all day to study Japanese (since the JLPT is barely over a week away!), and I met my goal for the day of re-taking both the Level 4 test from 2006 and Level 3 test from 2004. I can score really high on the Level 4 test now, which proves to me that somehow I have improved since last year, which is usually hard for me to see since each day of studying is a challenge. I took breaks by watching Jpop DVDs and a little anime, reading some comics, and doing a few other things around the house. It's been relaxing and fun for the past couple days, and now I have two more days of weekend to enjoy!

View photos: Thanksgiving 2007

Dr. Koto's Clinic : 5 of 5

My pal Barron watches a lot more Japanese drama than I do, so his reviews really help me filter out what I should watch with my limited time. He went absolutely crazy for Dr. Koto's Clinic, so I had to watch it, and I just finished the whole series yesterday. When I started watching the first episode unfold, I was a little worried that the series was going to be too slow for me, since all the dramas I've watched previously have been much more goofy and romantic, but suddenly there was a dramatic appendectomy happening on a boat in the dark, and I knew I was hooked! The basic plot involves a talented doctor from Tokyo who moves to a remote island as the only doctor for a small community of people. Koto has to gain their trust, and he does so in the most gentle, caring way, making him one of the most fascinating and inspiring characters I can think of! All of the acting is wonderful, with actors ranging from old folks who truly seem crazy and children who can cry so convincingly. And speaking of crying, this is definitely an emotional drama! There are lots of other things to say about this great series, but to me its best quality is the way it communicates the value of living and what life is all about. Dr. Koto finds a way to persevere and enjoy his circumstances, and affects everyone around him not only by saving their lives on the operating table, but by demonstrating humble dignity and love. Dr. Koto's Clinic perfectly accentuated my thankful Thanksgiving mood!


Thankful day

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I'm really going to enjoy this holiday weekend, both for getting things accomplished and for personal recharging! Last weekend I went to Waco to meet Mom & Dad for our usual pre-Thanksgiving dinner with family, and it was fun to be with them, as always. I gave Mom this year's Christmas Minnie Mouse plush (like I do every year!) and Mom loaded me up with sweets and other goodies to start my holiday eating! Last night I enjoyed some of Mom's homemade banana nut bread and pumpkin bread, which were both more than delicious! It was so relaxing to enjoy Mom's baking and read a good book, and I was in a sentimental mood thinking about all the love that Mom put into making those treats. I wouldn't trade the taste of Mom's cooking for any meal in the world, and I'm thankful for every bite!

Remembering Walt / Favorite Memories of Walt Disney : 4 of 5

Each year my cousin Clinton gives me an early Christmas gift, and amazingly, somehow he succeeds in selecting one of the few Disney books I don't already have! This year he gave me this wonderful book on Walt Disney himself, and I enjoyed every page. Although I've read so much about Walt and know a lot about his life, I actually haven't read a true biography, but in my opinion, this book is far better than any biography could be! Remembering Walt is a collection of quotes by people who knew Walt (family members, animators, Imagineers, and many others) - their anecdotes, things he did and said, and how they felt to work with him and after he was gone. Reading Walt's impact on their lives really shows who Walt was and what he accomplished, and it's all so inspiring! Along with the quotes, there are hundreds of photos, many of which I've seen, but several I haven't (including the best shot of Annette Funicello I've ever seen, and an incredible shot of Walt in Disneyland as they were planting the famous Storybook Land letters!). This book was so interesting that I had read the whole thing before I knew it, but I could easily see myself going back to enjoy it again. Understanding how Walt saw things and looking at why he did things the way he did is really uplifting to me, and definitely makes me think about my own life!


Music Moments

One of the reasons I like to write WEBmikey is to keep track of the things I watch, read, and hear, but I always seem to forget to write about CDs (or I get too lazy to really say anything interesting). So, I've decided to adopt the same tactic (or cop-out!) that I use in my Manga Mentions series, which means I'll just briefly mention (and slightly review) the previous five CDs that I've been enjoying. So, here's the first Music Moments post! Just to prove how behind I am listening to things, I'll start with GAM's first album Amai Yuwaku (which was released back in May!). Who knows if GAM has a future, but I'm glad they at least got this CD out the door, because I really like it (although I wish the piano-only version of Melodies from the CD single was included). After watching Linda Linda Linda, I did the obvious thing and bought Blue Hearts' Super Best compilation CD, which is fantastic to listen to when I'm in the right mood. They seem so tame compared to what most people call punk, but I love the emotion that pours out through that scratchy voice. Next, after enjoying several Zone videos, I thought I would try out their E - Complete A Side Singles CD, but even though I liked it, I really wanted to hear more tracks like Secret Base, so most of the tracks were too mellow for me. Sticking with Jpop, of course I bought Morning Musume's Onna ni Sachi Are, and I really like it (both the song and the video). Maybe it's because it's easy to sing or because I like melancholy, yet determined lyrics, but I'm definitely a fan of this single! Finally, since I loved the movie, I had to get the Marie Antoinette Soundtrack, which is a fantastic two-CD set. The first CD contains all of the bouncy hits from the film, while the second has the moody, atmospheric pieces (including some opera and other classical selections). This soundtrack has officially become my rainy day music, and it's also done wonders to calm me down on busy days!


Bee Movie : 3 of 5

I always try to see every animated feature that hits the theater, just to show my support for animation in general, but I was especially excited to see Bee Movie, because I knew Jerry Seinfeld would be a great voice actor, and because DreamWorks Animation keeps getting better! After so many insect-related movies in the past few years, you would think they would start to run out of ideas, but Bee Movie is filled with creativity. I really koved the introduction to the film, seeing the incredible honey factory, and enjoying all the bee puns (and there are a million of those, right down to the beehive hairdos on all the girls!). The animation is definitely fun, and I was glad to see the quirky style of the human characters (definitely not up to The Incredibles standards, but they're on the right track), but even though I enjoyed the bees themselves, I think the character design didn't allow for enough emotion to come through. The story starts out predictably with Barry the bee seeking an exciting life outside the hive, then gets really wacky with the whole "bees vs. humans" court trial, and then suddenly tacks on a third act to bring the moral home. Normally I would say the story is a little disjointed, but the final scenes in the airplane are pretty funny, so I guess it's worth it for the sake of the finale! As a suspected, Seinfeld's voice really works in the movie (he's just playing himself, of course, but he's so natural!), and Renee Zellweger is great as well (but no one can top Patrick Warburton, who seems to have a contract to do at least one voice in every animated feature ever released). I'm glad Bee Movie has done well at the box office, and I'm always happy to see studios making animated features for me to support and enjoy!


The Imagineering Field Guide to Disney's Animal Kingdom : 4 of 5

I'm really a fan of the Imagineering Field Guide series (even though I still wish they were larger format books), so I was especially excited to read this latest volume about Disney's Animal Kingdom, which is the park I know the least about. Although the first section of the book is yet another reprint of background terminology, the rest of the book delivers with flying colors - in fact, it's my favorite of the series so far! Thanks to Joe Rohde and his team, Animal Kingdom has some of the most complex, symbolic, and fully back-storied theming of all of the Disney parks, and this book does a great job revealing the details. I was amazed to read about the care taken to choose even the animal motifs for shops and restaurants (I had no idea each room in Pizzafari has a different animal theme, such as "spots and stripes" or even "migratory animals"). I really enjoyed learning the complete back-story of the different lands, such as the history of Harambe in Africa, and I even finally understood the reasoning behind Dinoland U.S.A. (though it's still my least favorite land by far). There's lots of discussion and photos about hidden details that really make me want to go back to the park and explore! I didn't realize before that the tiger habitat ruins are a former king's palace, or that the new temple near the water in Asia matches the outline of the Expedition Everest mountain range! I also really enjoyed the artistic philosophy about the plant life in Animal Kingdom, which will continue to grow somewhat wild and change the look of the park over the years. I'm still hooked on these Imagineering Field Guides, and I can't wait for next year's release on Disneyland!


Hana Yori Dango / Season 2 : 5 of 5

A great way to take breaks from studying Japanese all day is to watch an episode of a Japanese drama, so suddenly I'm already finished watching the second season of Hana Yori Dango! I really enjoyed the first season, so I was looking forward to finding out what could happen next. The first episode is double-length to kick things off, and even takes place mostly on location in New York City, but unfortunately I thought it was disappointing (just like the first episode of the first season), since it was filled with too many boring flashbacks to last season. Thankfully, every other episode really delivered, and now I think overall that the second season is much better than the first! The main plot this time has to do with a marriage forced by Tsukasa's witch mom as a business ploy for a corporate merger, so while Tsukasa is busy with his fiancee Shigeru, Tsukushi has lots of time to spend with Rui (who I still like more than Tsukasa as a character). Shigeru starts off disgusting but eventually becomes a fascinating personality, but besides this main thread, there are loads of subplots to flesh out the other characters. I loved the story of Tsukushi's brother's kokuhaku, as well as Yuki's love for Nishikado. The end of the season gets a little weird with a convenient "selective memory loss" plot, and introduces a new cutie named Umi-chan, but she turns out to be the most evil of them all! Finally everything wraps up a little too perfectly, but when you're sitting there crying in front of the TV, you don't really care! In the end, both seasons of Hana Yori Dango were so much fun to watch, and I'm definitely going to miss it now (but I'm going to check out First Kiss soon so I can see more of Inoue Mao)!


Hitting the big time

My bands had a couple amazing gig opportunities last week, and they were sure fun (and exhausting) shows! First, the Greatest American Heroes played at a party for the University of Texas, who just happened to rent out the studio of Austin City Limits for the event! We could hardly believe we were actually going to play on that stage that we've all seen on TV so many times, the same stage where huge entertainers like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and a million other folks have stood. The stage was really fascinating, especially the fake Austin skyline (that looks much better on TV), and the sound crew was unbelievable! They helped us all with our equipment, setup tons of mics on my drums, and made sure we all had excellent personal monitor mixes. When we did the sound check, we couldn't believe the sound - it was the best we've ever experienced! The show itself was fun to play and the audience enjoyed it, but I was a little intimidated by the stage, so it was mentally tiring, but definitely an incredible experience. (In addition to my photos, check out our bassist Francis' website, too!) The very next day, the Ernesto Marquez Sextet played at a huge conference for Planview at the Lost Pines Hyatt Resort and Spa, a cool resort in the woods about an hour out of town. It was a big dinner, jazz and casino night, and we filled the big ballroom with our sound and enjoyed the good food (and the scotch just kept on coming!). Although we love playing clubs and restaurants, it sure is nice to have big gigs like these every now and then!

View photos: Heroes at Austin City Limits
View photos: Sextet at Lost Pines Hyatt


Car maintenance saga

My 1998 Acura Integra is starting to get a little old, now that it's creeping around the 94,000 mile mark, so I never know what to expect when I take it in for regular maintenance. Last month I had a bit of an adventure, right when I was super-busy editing my Christmas video! First, I had a leak in my oil pump seals, which is one of those cheap parts that takes all day to take the whole car apart and costs a bundle. But, I needed to have it done, so I dealt with it. Then a week later I started noticing more leaks! I took it in again, thinking it was nothing more than a simple botch from last time, and they told me my rear seals were leaking! Another whole day of labor and another giant gob on my credit card, but I figured that would take care of it. But a week later, it was leaking again (very small, but I wanted this taken care of)! When I showed up the third time, the mechanics were actually surprised, since they totally remembered taking my car apart twice. This time it was the cam seals – more huge work! But they discovered that my PCV valve was the problem all along – it was completely clogged shut, so my car was just finding new seals to pop to release pressure. They kind of felt bad about it, I think, so they did the cam seal work at a 75% discount, which was nice! On the down side, it was really a pain to have my car in the shop three weeks in a row when they could have replaced that valve in five minutes, but on the up side, my seals were all 10 years old and probably ready to go anyway. For now, I'm happy to have a leak-free engine, and since I love not having a car payment, I'm going to keep driving my Acura for a long time to come!


Simply the Best / Austin Lyric Opera : 3 of 5

Austin Lyric Opera has been transitioning from the Bass Concert Hall (which is closed for renovations) to the new Long Center, which will be an amazing theater and their new permanent home. But for the end of last season and the beginning of this one, they've been stuck at Riverbend Center, which is a nice facility, but just doesn't accommodate the spectacle of opera (Riverbend is a church, after all). ALO did a nice job with Barber of Seville in this environment, but they decided to open this new season with a "greatest hits" concert called Simply the Best. I was a little disappointed when I first heard about it, since it felt like I was getting cheated out of a full opera, but the concert was surprisingly well planned and beautifully performed! It was wonderful to see the orchestra onstage (since I haven't been to a symphony in months), and the vocalists were simply amazing, both for their incredible voices and acting ability, which I didn't expect to see in this type of concert. The selections were all over the place, including not only sure-fire hits like the Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute or the Toreador song from Carmen, but also pieces ranging from a Baroque aria from Handel's Xerxes to some modern songs from Bernstein's Candide (presented with great comic flair!). The complete ALO chorus was also onstage and their combined voices certainly were powerful! I'm looking forward to ALO's next production in April, but Simply the Best was definitely more than filler, and I thoroughly enjoyed it!


Ernesto says goodbye to Austin

I'm about a month late, but I finally have the chance to write about my pal Ernesto's last few fun days in Austin before his big move to Los Angeles to help out his family. Our last Greatest American Heroes gig with Ernesto seemed pretty crazy, since we played for a gathering of several hundred Lutheran women (mostly on the old side)! When were setting up, we were sure they had no idea they had hired a TV theme song band, but when we started playing, they turned out to be the best audience we ever had – no kidding! Those Lutheran ladies just loved our stuff, and they really got into the show and even bought tons of CDs! Next there was a going-away party for Ernesto, which was a combination celebration for the publication of Tom's book, Taxi to Tashkent. Besides Tom's fun live readings, there were lots of toasts for Ernesto (with crazy gifts), making it another fun party at Jonathan's house. Finally, we had our usual Sunday guys night together, and Matt made Day Jobs, the drink that was actually created for our swing band at the Caucus Club back in the old days. They tasted a lot better when we were younger and could handle more booze, but it was still some nostalgic fun. All of us really miss Ernesto now, but I'm glad that I'll get to see him whenever I head to Los Angeles to visit Dae (and Mickey Mouse)!

View photos: Ernesto's Goodbye


High School Musical / Zach Scott Theater : 4 of 5

Being a hard-core, card-carrying Disney fan, I used to feel bad that I hadn't explored all the High School Musical hype. I just never got around to watching the movie on the Disney Channel or even listening to the songs (although I had heard a few during park visits), but I knew it was my Disney duty to check it out soon! Thankfully, Zach Scott Theater gave my pal Melinda and I the opportunity to enjoy this super popular phenomenon, and I totally loved it! The stage show was my first exposure to the story and music, so I couldn't compare it to the original movie at the time, but it was still a treat to see it onstage, actually performed in a school auditorium for extra atmosphere. The young performers that Zach Scott cast were all spectacular at dancing, singing and acting, putting lots of energy into their roles. The dance numbers were pretty complex, but they somehow managed to pull them off with no mistakes, including lots of synchronized basketball dribbling on Get'cha Head in the Game! I've finally seen the original movie now, so I can comment on a few blaring differences, such as portraying Sharpay's brother Ryan as flaming as possible, which made the character much funnier on stage than in the movie (if you ignore the questionable taste). Even though this was a local production, it definitely had the Disney mark, using official logos, stage music and so on – I wonder how Disney makes sure no theaters mess up their valuable property? They definitely had nothing to worry about with Zach Scott, since this particular High School Musical was a blast!


Hiatus over

The past couple weeks have been one of the longest spans of time without a WEBmikey post in quite a while, but I'm happy to say that I'm back! My Christmas video project for my pals is now completely finished, and I can't wait to get readjusted to normal life. I've really seen the value of being single-tasked, since by putting 100% of my effort and free time into the video I was able to finish well ahead of my plans! Working on the video was really fun - more fun than the past couple years, for sure - and I'm happy with the result. Now I can forget about it for a month and when my pals and I get together to watch it, it will seem new to me, too! This morning I've been enjoying my old morning routine, and it feels so nice. Part of that routine is studying Japanese vocabulary and kanji, and thankfully I haven't forgotten as much as I expected I would. My new purpose in life for the next month will be getting back to solid Japanese study, since the JLPT is coming up fast! Anyway, welcome back to WEBmikey - I have lots of things to write about, so hopefully I'll be back to daily posts from now on!