Sunday, December 27, 2009


The kids got the Beatles Rock Band Limited Edition for Christmas.  It came with the full regalia: the drum kit, the microphone, the Gretsch, the Rickenbacker and that great Hohner bass, and of course the songs.

This has been a pretty wonderful experience, watching my kids get steeped in the music of the greatest band in the history of the world.  This is the music I grew up on, scratchy vinyl LPs of "Rubber Soul" and the "White Album" played to distraction.

Rock Band is too hard for my Vienna sausage fingers and suspect motor skills to master.  It's not instrument playing, though being musical helps.  The rhythmless have no chance in this game, for being able to keep a beat is essential.  I mostly sit and watch, and nod pleasantly to the music.

The game is a little like Tetris with a backbeat.  Notes, represented by little shining rectangles of red, orange, green, yellow and blue, hurtle down what appears to be a guitar fretboard.  You press the corresponding colors on the fret of your little facsimile guitar while flipping a strum flapper, and you make music and earn points.  Hit the wrong fret buttons, or strum too late, and you sound like Marty McFly at the "Under the Sea" dance, when he was about to become extinct.  Mess up often enough, and it's game over.

That's fine.  I'm all for building motor skills.  But the real appeal is the music. It is a joyful thing, a wondrous thing, when your thirteen year old announces that "I'm Looking Through You" is about the best song he's ever heard, or you daughter perfectly masters the drum part on "Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End", the closing portion of the mini opera that is Side Two of Abbey Road, or when your older son, the one who so beautifully sang the opening tenor aria from "The Messiah" the week before Christmas, is pouring his heart and soul into mastering the screaming lead vocal on "Oh Darling".  It reinforces your inner conviction that your kids are Amazing and Wonderful and blessed with that rarest of commodities, Good Taste.

We are chain makers, our actions and memories convicting us, Marley-like, or connecting us, the way Chekhov describes in "The Student of Religion".  The Beatles are a few of the links on my chain, and now they are links I share with my children.

Wigilia is another one of those connecting links.  This is the traditional Polish dinner, served on Christmas Eve to welcome the advent of the Lord.  The menu and specific traditions vary from household to household, region to region, but there is usually mushroom soup, and lima bean soup, and fish (in our case, breaded and fried haddock), potatoes, and pierogis, little Polish dumplings filled with mushroom and potato and fried onion and farmer's cheese, boiled then  pan fried in butter and onions.  (For me, the meal has to include a cola beverage, too, preferably Pepsi, but Coke in a pinch, because my grandparents kept a prodigious supply of cola on hand for the holidays, wooden cases of glass bottles stacked by the steps to their tiny attached garage, delivered there by the guys who supplied Litwin's Bar and Grill down the street.  Just the smell of Pepsi, and I am instantly in that tiny house on Sixth Avenue, and it is Christmas Eve and there are people crammed into every room and the dining room table takes up most of the floor space and my grandfather is playing his fiddle and singing in Polish and I'm sweaty and somehow I manage to maneuver past my siblings and my cousins and my aunt who is loud and drinks too much and her husband who is quiet and morose and Mom who always seems edgy at these things and Grandma who always looks slightly ticked off and Dad who hates every bit of the Polish food but loves Grand-pa so he keeps his mouth shut about it and sweaty and hot I get to the door in back, the one that leads to the tiny garage and it is Christmas Eve and bitterly cold and I see my breath as I stand on the stairs and I reach for one of those glass bottles and pop it open on the steel bottle opener screwed into the wall and drink and it's so cold and so good and it is almost Christmas and my grandfather is playing the fiddle and singing the Polish songs and I can hear him laughing and I feel peaceful and light.

This is Christmas Eve, a sip of cola, onions and potatoes and farmers cheese, salty simple soups and crisply battered fish.  It's not fine dining.  It is an aid to memory.  When we take our places at the Wigilia table, eating the same things we have eaten (or pretended to eat) for generations, we are sitting with all our family.  For they are all there, Mom who lives far from here, and my grandparents, who don't live at all.  We are at every Christmas Eve we've ever had, every Christmas Eve we ever will have.

This year, one of my sons suggested we should mix it up a bit.  Maybe next year, we could make the fish course sashimi.  Sashimi is great, it's just not Wigilia.  It's like playing "Spirit of the Radio" on Paul McCartney's bass: not heretical, exactly, just inappropriate.

Sometimes, things need to stay the same.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Boxing Day

It's a joke, OK?  Today is, in much of the English-speaking world, a holiday called Boxing Day.  Traditionally, it is the day that people in service industries -- the butchers, the bakers, the deliverymen -- celebrate the holiday season.  It has nothing to do with fisticuffs.

I haven't written for a while.  Tolstoy argued that writing, perhaps all art, burbles up out of a deep well of opposition and sadness, that when we are happy, when things are going well, the source of Art dries up.  In Tolstoy's mind, the greatest works of art -- giving birth, for instance -- come only in the face of great pain and the potential for death.  Christ's atoning sacrifice, that matchless art of saving souls, caused him to "suffer both body and spirit," and to ache with a depth and intensity that moves the faithful in soul-stirring ways.  

Maybe I haven't been sad enough.  Maybe, like the character in Neil Young's "Hawks and Doves", "I just don't got nothin' to say."  That's probably not it, though.  I am convinced that our Eastern European heritage includes at least some strains of Judaism.  Given the places our family lived, it seems impossible for it to be any other way.  The world-weary outlook of the shtetl, witty and cynical and talking a wall of words, burbles inside me.  Poles, long oppressed and deeply devoted to their faith and traditions, rival Monty Python's Black Knight in their willingness to fight unwinnable battles.  That's there, too.  So is my father's Irish melancholy, and my mother's relentless optimism, her "The house is on fire; let's make some S'mores!" determination to see Hope in even the most dire situations.  Layered over all of these often contradictory outlooks is this heaping mound of Mormonism, its own contradictions -- guilt and joy, optimism and dourness, competition and cooperation, and always, always, an abiding sense of obligation, a knowing that There Is Work To Do -- smothering everything like a cheese sauce.  With all of that working, all of those emotional tectonic plates grinding grinding grinding against one another, there is always a touch of sadness, always something to say.

So maybe it's just laziness.

My audience is small, mostly indulgent family members and people who are either looking for a similarly-named wine blog, or who think "The Three Thousand Project" is a group bringing goats to impoverished Botswanan villages (Howdy, Mister Clinton!).  I don't aspire to Art, either the traditional, careful-crafting-brings-transcendence kind, or the American version, Fame and A Book Deal.  It's no more likely that some intrepid reader will see these words, and weeping, vow to Change His Life, than some powerhouse literary agent, having stumbled across this blog in his unending search for the next Julie Powell, sign me to a six figure advance and inform me that Meryl Streep has bought the movie rights.  I do, however, have some of the actors picked out for the movie version of my life.  My brother-in-law Mo will be played by Duane "The Rock" Johnson, to whom he bears a striking resemblance. My brother Nathan will be played by Matt Damon, mainly because I'm pretty sure the casting will aggravate both of them.  I will be played by either Garrison Keillor, who shares both my morose mien and my rebellious eyebrows, or the angry Elf Foreman in "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", who has the build, the nose, and frankly, the fashion sense:
The one on the left is the cartoon elf.

This isn't Art.  I write because it makes me feel happy inside.  And I write because I hope that someday, my children read it, and learn something about who they are, and where they came from, and where they can turn for peace.  The scary thing about writing is realizing, once the words are committed to paper or electronic media or whatever it is you're writing on, you see that it's not as good as you want it to be, that what is in your heart and your head somehow does not make the trip to your fingertips.  Nephi wrote on metal plates, and he confessed that he wasn't "mighty in writing."  Someone -- Fitzgerald, maybe? -- burned dozens of manuscripts, because they weren't good enough, and their flaws tortured him.  In my own small and ineffectual way, I have been struggling with the same thoughts: this is no good.  This does not say what I want it to say, not the way I intended it to.  

But not writing is worse.    

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Never Trust a Homeless Dog



A few years ago, my brother spent a summer working for me.  This was before law school, before the big job in Tokyo, before he became a minor celebrity on one of those creepy Japanese comedy shows that involve people staring at one another while scorpions crawl up and down their legs and girls dressed in sexy schoolgirl costumes sing cover versions of Carpenters tunes.  The Japanese have an unslakable yearning for such entertainment.

My brother and his wife lived at my office, which sounds sad, like Gob on "Arrested Development" setting up housekeeping in Bluth corporate headquarters.  It wasn't like that, not much, at least.  Our office is in a converted cottage, which dates to 1936.  There was a kitchen and a bedroom and a living room, in addition to the rooms we use for business: it wasn't perfect, but it wasn't horrible.

Our office is in Pasadena, in a little neighborhood called "Golden Acres." It's a nice, working class area, maybe a little more bronze than golden, but nice.  I really like it here.  

We have homes and businesses all around us, but there are plenty of open fields very close by, and a major highway is just a block away.  That means we get more than our share of stray animals.  A growing family of cats lives in the stack of  six inch pipes outside the fabricating plant next door.  Every once in a while, I'll find a shifty-looking black cat, loitering on the front porch.  I've learned not to feed these four legged hoboes; they tend to overstay their welcome when their bellies are full.  I counseled Josh and Satchiko to steer clear of the vagrant hounds and kitties.

They ignored my counsel.

"We've adopted a dog for the company," he cheerily announced one Monday morning.  "His name is Sticky, because we gave him a plate of pancakes with syrup on Saturday morning, and they made his snout all sticky."

These were The Days of Sticky.  Every morning brought a new account of Sticky's loyalty, bravery, and intelligence.  "He won't let us get too close -- I think he's afraid of humans -- but as soon as he does, we're going to bathe him and groom him and give him a real home!"  Even though I'd never actually seen this animal, even though the only dogs I really care for are made by Sahlen's and come in a natural casing, I was actually warming up to the notion of a Company Hound.

Then it ended.

"Well, we finally got close to Sticky," Josh morosely reported one morning.  

And did you clean him up?

"Well, when you get close to him, he's kind of scary-looking."

You told me he was a little like Benji.  How could that be scary?

"He's got crazy eyes.  And he growls a lot, growls and shows his teeth.  And I think he has mange.  He's got bugs and little white things crawling all over his fur.  And he really, really stinks.  I just don't think we can handle Sticky.  Plus, I think he's a she, and I get the feeling there are puppies somewhere."

I finally caught a glimpse of Sticky -- who hung around for a few days after Josh stopped setting out food for him -- shortly after this conversation.  The dog stood by a telephone pole, listing, like an abandoned Soviet ship, rusting in Vladivostok harbor.  He (she?) did indeed have a crazy look in his (her?) eyes, and there was clear evidence of The Mange.  When it was obvious that there would be no more free meals, Sticky hit the road, like The Littlest Hobo on that old Canadian teevee show, except the Littlest Hobo was clean and disease-free and he didn't hang around looking for handouts, he Solved Mysteries and Helped People In Trouble.

I've been thinking a lot about this today, mainly because our office was visited by a salesman this morning who reminded me of Sticky in a suitcoat: kind of personable and pleasant from a distance; crazy-eyed and scary up close.

So on the one hand, you could say that the lesson for today is, "Never open your door to a stray dog or a salesman."

On the other hand, I've got King Benjamin's words rattling around in my brain, reminding me that the true Christian doesn't "suffer the beggar to putteth up his petition in vain," for "are we not all beggars?"

Am I really the kind of Christian who doesn't have time for stray dogs and salesmen?