Passenger trains still work (really)

I probably should have suspected this, but now I know for sure: This whole passenger-train thing really does work.

Movies and TV shows -- my main reference points in life -- always hint that trains work. They show passengers riding effortlessly; along the way, people find romance, sex and mysteries, plus a mean  guy who's intent on killing James Bond.

Still, I keep forgetting to try. My one previous train trip (from Minnesota to Michigan) had included fun and Scrabble; then I went back to my usual car life.

This week, I finally re-trained myself.The goal was to go from near Lansing, Michigan, to Madison, Wisconsin. It's a tough trip, because Chicago keeps wedging itself between. I checked with Amtrak, which said it would take me there (train to Chicago, then bus) for $49.

I had no illusions of finding mysteries, Scrabble or Bond-killers, but I was hoping to see some upcoming TV episodes during the trip, before the battery on my little DVD player gave out.

When I got to the train station, I was delighted to find an electrical outlet. When I got into the train, I found another outlet right next to my super-comfy seat. I even found a place to plug in at the Chicago terminal.

The second half of the trip was adequate. The terminal had no interest in telling me where or how to find my bus. The bus was (again) super-comfy, but didn't have outlets. I read, instead.

By the end of the trip, I knew a lot about "Oliver Twist"; also, I had seen:

-- A good "Heroes" (9 p.m. Monday, Feb. 4, NBC), which finally gets most of the characters back together.

-- A great "American Experience" (9 p.m. Monday, PBS), looking at the massive efforts to prevent polio.

-- A fairly good "Frontline" (9 p.m. Tuesday, PBS), offering a personal view of Parkinson's disease.

-- And more, including a wonderful George Carlin tribute (9 p.m. Wednesday, PBS). Scooting across the countryside in comfort, I was watching clips of a comic genius. I think I like trains. 



"Bride Wars" is a minor skirmish

OK, I have only myself to blame for this: On Oscar-nomination weekend, still giddy over having seen "Slumdog Millionaire" (see previous blog), I ... well, went to "Bride Wars."

It's not that it's a bad movie. It was co-written by Casey Wilson, one of the newer "Saturday Night Live" people, who also has a brief role. It's resoundingly adequate.

And maybe I should have guessed that. Anne Hathaway sometimes ends up in movies with texture and content; Kate Hudson's movies -- at least, the ones that make it to the multiplex -- can collectively be greeted with a shrug and an "eh."

This one is Kate's kind of movie. It does have a few decent moments and it's always fun to see two brides wrestling in the aisle, their veils and trains tangled into one fluffy souffle. Mostly, though, I think I'll get back to the Oscar nominees. 


Slumming it with Oscar

By the time I'd left Los Angeles, I was filled with buzz for and against "Slumdog Millionaire."

Critics who had seen it were giddy. Producers of "Skins" (an above-average teen show on BBC America) were delighted; Dev Patel, an obscure actor in the first season of their show, suddenly had the title role in this Oscar-bound powerhouse. And on the way to the airport, a fellow passenger (heading home to Calcutta) said he disliked the film: "They only show the bad parts of India."

Well, I do agree with that part. After seeing scenes of poverty, crime and corruption (plus a cute kid soaked in feces), I wasn't dreaming of a vacation in India.

Still, there is much more. "Slumdog Millionaire" is a bracing, energizing film. And it gets there in time-tested, Hollywood ways.

Hollywood loves ships that pass in the night, would-be lovers who keep almost meeting. That has worked wonders, from the old black-and-white films to "Doctor Zhivago."

Hollywood loves the extreme underdog, from Charlie Chaplin to "Rocky." And it savors the love-hate relationship of brothers.

"Slumdog Millionaire" uses all of that and more. Often, great movies come from an outside perspective. Now Danny Boyle, who grew up in blue-collar England, brilliantly captures the visual sweep of India.

Boyle even throws in a bonus. After the story is done -- after filmgoers have been swept on a roller-coaster of emotion -- he offers a surprise: The actors return for a splendid, Bollywood-style musical number. It's the perfect ending for a movie that would be liked by Zhivago and Rocky and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers ... and will be loved by lots of modern movie buffs.


A true gourmet adventure

So there I was tonight, at my anniversary dinner at Olive Garden. This tends to be a good thing. I've had many anniversaries and many Olive Garden meals and generally been happy with them.

So this time, I pulled out the menu and spotted the symbol that says something is good for me. It happened to be chicken, smothered in asparagus and apricots. I like chicken and smothering it in things -- you know, mushrooms and asparagus and other sorts of vegetables -- tends to do it no harm.

Then they brought it out and -- well, someone had poured fruit sauce all over my chicken.

I started to protest, when I remembered something important: Apricots are fruits.

I would have realized that earlier if I had thought about it. I didn't, though, because:

1) "Apricot" sounds like "asparagus," so the two blend in my mind.

2) Who would pour fruit sauce over meat, anyway? Apricots are for English muffins, not for drowning an entree.

My excuse in all this is that I grew up in a small Wisconsin town where there was little emphasis on the gourmet. One restaurant's only sign said the following, in neon: "Eat." A few years ago, the restaurant was for sale for $19,900.

That's my excuse, anyway. Except that my wife comes from small-town Wisconsin and she seems to know all sorts of food things, including what an apricot is. And Cole Porter grew up on an Indiana farm and Barack Obama's dad grew up in a Nigerian village and Dick Bennett (who re-shaped Wisconsin basketball) grew up in the same town I did, at the same time I did. They all grew and learned and expanded; I'm still trying to remember to beware of apricot sauce. 


Odd thoughts on inauguration night

Some scattered thoughts on Inauguration evening. After a few hours of giddiness (see previous blogs), I've re-discovered my inner cynic:

1) OK, I agree with Barack Obama that "neighborhood" begins with "neighbor." (If my sense of word construction is correct, this is not a coincidence.) Still, the word also begins with "neigh" and ends with "hood"; I don't know what to make of this.

2) For that matter, "neighborhood ball" ends with "ball." That may be accurate.

3) The day's biggest fib came from Joe Biden: "One thing I've learned is when to shut up."

4) Then again, the biggest truth-telling was also by Joe Biden, when he said: "I can't dance."

5) Speaking of that, someone at CNN (Campbell Brown, I think) pointed out the biggest change. Here was a president dancing "and in rhythm."

6) I know that's not politically correct, but it's true. Bill Clinton tried the hardest, complete with saxophone and such. Still, the best he could manage was to be pretty hip for a white guy.

7) I think I can work for the fashion shows now. I loved Michelle Obama's gold afternoon dress, but found her white evening gown to be bland. Then the experts said they were expecting her to wear a more exciting color. And they get paid for that stuff, you know.

8) Fashion designers have their off moments. One almost managed to make Beyonce look average; another made Kate Walsh look sub-average.

9) Please bar CNN's John King from any more technology. He made a big thing of merging 11,000 viewer photos into one high-tech collage -- which, interestingly, wasn't as good as many of the shots we'd already seen.

10) Also, no more talk about "exclusive footage" on CNN. The first two such shots I saw involved a car driving quietly in the night. Neither was terribly informative.

11) As the parties went on, I agreed with Ray Romano's comments: Wednesday is Obama's first day of work and he has the same concerns as anyone else on the first day: You really don't want to be hung over; you want to find out where your desk is and when lunch is and when you get paid. And when Obama does get paid, like everyone else, he'll grumble about the federal taxes.

12) OK, my inner cynic is gone now. The most wonderful two minutes so far in 2009 involved the Obamas dancing to Beyonce singing "At Last." It's a gorgeous song, sung by one of our greatest singers, danced by graceful people with rhythm. And even though that wasn't what the song was about, the rise of this man to president of a diverse nation brings people the thought, "at last."