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.

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