Monday, April 30, 2012

Sports Mom (not)

Tug, Sheridan and company (and a pregnant me)
Sports spectating is not, as they say, my bag. Living in a city known for its sports nuts, I watch with detached amusement as grown men scream and jump up and down, curse, high five each other and spill beer on themselves as they view their Flyers or Sixers or Phillies or Eagles. Who cares? We have a photo of us with World Series pitcher Tug McGraw (Tug had his own segment on Action News in those days and was covering Steve’s children's theatre performance at a school). Steve was thrilled. I was unthrilled in the extreme.

If I care not a whit for professionals who play the games, you can imagine my keen interest in sports back when my own children played. None of them were exactly kindergarten standouts, so what I recall most were the baseball games that lasted well into the night (on unlit fields I might add), when the frenzied dad-coaches swore they could still see the ball and we could go one more inning. I also remember the Arctic chill of late-fall evening soccer. When "our" team was behind, I secretly hoped their opponents would crush them quickly so we could all go home. Confession: during an early Rose basketball game, I was totally engrossed in conversation with my friend Holly. At one point the ref, who happened to be a friend from church, actually came over to me and informed me that Rosie had just made a basket (her very first, in fact), and that I should pretend later to have seen it. I viewed watching their games as my motherly cross to bear, and counted the days until I would be off the hook forever.

Well, guess what? It's happened. I am no longer contractually obligated to sit on any bleachers, anywhere. And you know what? I kinda miss it. Not the sports themselves of course--nor the sports-crazed parents (one parent of a kid on Evan's team was given to shrieking at the children, even following them out to the parking lot to rant and rave). I miss being an important game-watcher--important to my kids, that is--even when I was rooting for a field hockey player I could have sworn was Julie and wasn't. My offspring never got mad if I cheered their adversary's goal by accident; they just wanted me physically present for them.

So PJ came home for Steve's birthday and needed to go back to Millersville for a lacrosse game (the team he plays on is doing very well, on its way to a national championship). On an impulse Steve and I decided to drive out and watch him play. It was all so familiar--the cold, the bleachers, the requisite bizarre screaming fan (this guy wore a full yellow bodysuit). Wonder of wonders, I enjoyed myself. College lacrosse is very fast-moving and exciting. PJ was, himself, fast-moving and fun to watch.

Best of all: PJ was genuinely happy we had come.

And I was happy too.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Stranger than Fiction

my novel
Don't know why, but lately a number of folks have asked me why I don't write a novel, a short story or another work of fiction. Perhaps they have read my books and blog and realize that anyone I know is fair game, fodder for my next essay, and they'd be more comfortable in disguise.

Fact is, I did try my hand at a novel 5 years ago, in the throes of my manic depression. The result belonged more in Psychology Today than on the NY Times bestseller list. It was up! It was down! It was up and down! I swear you needed Dramamine to read it.

I am intrigued by the possibilities of make-believe. I stand in line at the supermarket, inventing back stories for my fellow standers. Mr. Tenderloin and Asparagus is frantically wooing the girl who is ready to leave him. Mrs. Giant-size Pampers is wondering if she can afford to buy food after she's taken care of her baby's diaper needs. The teens with the cart full of Oreos and Tostitos have the marijuana munchies. The dapper elderly gentleman with the solitary chicken breast and single tomato will go home to an empty apartment, with Turner Classic Movies for company.

Part of my problem is my severe ADHD. I simply cannot keep track of a plot, and often lose interest before I have even named all my characters. I read about successful authors who create complex charts detailing everyone's comings and goings. I envy those who can home in on Conflict and Resolution, and tailor a manuscript that brings both to life. One of my friends in my writer's group worked on a novel set in 19th century Rockport, MA for years, and recently finished it. Casey has a distinctive Victorian-era voice, and I look forward to reading her book. I don't think I could ever go down that road myself. And yet...

 And yet. How much of our lives are our own fanciful creations? As we shave or brush our teeth in the morning, don't we gaze into that mirror and decide who we will be that day? Don't we dress in our costumes and enter into our plot? Are my “real” tales not just a recounting of my made-up days? Don’t know about you, but I often stand on the blurry line between fact and fiction, wondering if I can believe my own eyes and ears. Amazing things happen, things that would stretch credulity on the page. Rose's casual coffee-shop conversation in NYC leads to the realization that the other person’s cousin lives on the same block as we do in PA. 30 years after my sister's death, I get an email from her someone who'd dated her--and found my book in his doctor's office.

 So I’ll keep writing my truthful essays about my actual life, knowing that there is a world of mystery and fantasy contained within. And if anyone asks me if I write fiction, I’ll nod and say, “Maybe.”

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Sounds Like...

I am not a trophy winner. Back in the day, young athletes actually had to earn their awards (now, paying your $100 team joining fee pretty much ensures a shiny statuette at season's end), and so of course Miss Last-Picked never won a thing. My music, science and art skills have also been totally unremarkable--no ribbons or certificates there either.

The sole exception, growing up, was my spelling bee prowess. I can modestly say I cleaned up in Sister Brendan's 4th grade class, blithely ABC-ing my way from antediluvian to xenophobia. My prizes? Holy cards and miraculous medals (I amassed a shoebox full of these babies). While it's been many a moon since I last stood in line to spell anything, when the need arises I can instantly supply the correct letters in the proper order.

As an adult, I discovered a bee substitute: charades. While, like spelling, this is not the world's most important skill, it is my skill, darn it! Charades is the perfect combination of abilities for someone (like me) who knows boatloads of esoteric book and movie titles, and is a ham to boot. My pulse races with excitement when it's my turn to either act out or guess (I love doing both equally). I especially enjoy pulling along the more reticent members of my team ("How many syllables? Huh? Huh? Come on, don't freeze up on me, we only have a minute left!") and hope they enjoy being pulled. Whenever we get the family together, charades is our number #1 post-dinner entertainment. The five kids grew up knowing the various signs ("play" is a hand lifted dramatically to the forehead, "sounds like" is a tug on the earlobe) and are fiercely competitive ("Oh, come on, that is NOT a song! I challenge you to sing it!")

Last Saturday was our church’s Oreland Cup Double-Elimination Charades Tournament. This lively event pit teams of four against one another, gradually winnowing out until two final teams remain to duke it out. The winners have their names inscribed (in magic marker) on the side of the Oreland Cup (a coffee can spray painted gold). Most participants take the evening in stride, relaxed and with good humor. Not me. I’m in it to win it. This year was no exception: I screamed, I gesticulated wildly, I “pulled” my poor teammates along. We gave (“Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk”) as good as we got (“The Book of Psalms”) and in the end…Team Elise won the day. Victory is sweet. My name is etched on the cup for posterity (at least until the can falls apart).

In real life, uses for charades may be limited (they help when communicating with my Taiwanese future in-laws). But are they any more pointless than a volleyball trophy? I think not. You can have your Science Fair Best in Show, your Most Improved Pitcher Award. Words are my specialty, and I’m not half bad at them. Ask me to spell, or act out, “prolix”. I’m your girl.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Pleasure of their Company

Had a lovely Easter dinner at our friend Mary Ellen's Sunday. Her son Tim (Evan's good friend) was home, and Mary Ellen was gracious enough to invite all available Seyfrieds (PJ, Julie, Sheridan and our Seyfried-to-be Ya-Jhu). As we ate, I was struck by how very much I enjoy hearing these grown-up kids converse. They moved from Freud and Jung, to Lenin and Stalin, and the talk was informative and entertaining. As PJ translated Sheridan's German joke, Tim talked about his DC job, and Julie shared tales of her brunch shift at the retirement home, I was in heaven. I had been similarly transported to my happy place when we ate our traditional pre-Christmas Eve supper at the Carlsons.' All of both families had gathered for that one--and once again, the patter and laughter flowed freely.

Who are these delightful young people? What has become of our querulous, sloppy, picky children?

Wasn't it just last week that Sheridan was in his high chair, consuming his vat of Gerber oatmeal? He LOVED this stuff, and accompanied every bite with "yum, yum, yum." As he was our first, I thought all babies so vocalized--until we had houseguests who found his sound effects strange and hilarious. Wiry little Evan was far more interested in climbing the dining room door jamb than sitting and consuming anything on his plate. Rosie was a fourth grade vegetarian, a fine choice had she liked any vegetables ( a better term for her dietary predeliction: bread-and-cake-arian). PJ sent his drinks flying with such regularity that toddler Julie automatically headed for the kitchen to get a mop-up dishtowel (his New Year's resolution one year: "no more spilling!"--which he kept for about a week). Jules would try any food, but had a hands-down favorite: shrimp alfredo made with--important--jarred alfredo sauce. One year I did a scratch sauce and she could tell instantly (more preservatives, please!)

Conversationally, we were not exactly the Kennedys at the dinner table. The two older boys in particular were totally unforthcoming about their days at school. When asked, the stock reply was "nothing happened." Apparently, the fire that broke out in the cafeteria one lunchtime also qualified as "nothing" (I heard about it from the mother of a girl, of course). Rosie was a chatterbox, but also incredibly over-sensitive to anything resembling teasing (in addition to a knife and fork, she needed a box of tissues at her place). Often, our supper convos degenerated into warnings: "PJ, if you keep tipping that chair back you're going to...I TOLD you you would fall!" and fights over the dishes (somehow, though we had a chore list, it was never anyone's turn to do them).

But we got through the years when mealtime was a five-ring circus, and suddenly they've all come out the other side of childhood. Their company, in any combination--and I include their wonderful friends-- truly is a pleasure.

                                       So come on home for dinner, kids. Anytime. I miss you.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Fellow Travelers

I'm about to get all Garrison Keillor here.

I get a charge out of Lutherans.

At church last night (Maundy Thursday) Pastor Kay and I set up two stations for foot and hand washing. Hand washing had been introduced last year as an alternative practice for those too modest to display their tootsies, and it was a hit. This year my station (the feet) had exactly one customer, whereas the line for the hands was quite long. Several times, folks who didn't want to wait came over to me and asked ME to wash their hands. Well, that does it. We've decided to bag foot washing altogether next year.

It's ironic, because this tradition is all about humility (Christ washing the disciples' feet), and if Lutherans are anything, it's humble. From their propensity for sitting in the back pews, to their reluctance to toot their own horns in general, you'll find most Lutherans fading into the woodwork when folks of other denominations take center stage. For many years, the evangelism committee at Christ's Church had an annual budget of about $200, and rarely spent it. Why badger people to come visit our house of worship? If they really want to find us, they can look us up themselves! We won't turn them away!

In this respect, the Seyfrieds make lousy Lutherans. Almost all of us have gravitated toward "look at me!" professions--acting, music, writing. PR is a specialty of our family. I like to think our egos are not too outsized, but we sure do have healthy self images. The members of our congregation have embraced our "otherness" and seem fond of our bunch (though I'm sure they shake their heads from time to time at our very public antics). We are the quintessential front pew sitters, and never turn down an opportunity to stand up and speak up, both in and out of church.

Misfits though we may be, the Lutheran church really means a lot to us. The belief in the sufficiency of God’s grace, grace overflowing into every aspect of our lives, that we don’t have to do a thing to “earn,” has a powerful appeal to Steve and me. Lutheranism has been called "Catholicism without the guilt." I will not take potshots at Catholics (I was one for decades); I will merely say that I find the idea of Heaven as a gift already given, quite wonderful.

Is this faith perfect? Of course not. We sing too many verses of the hymns (for Catholics, two verses meant it was Christmas or Easter), and we stay until the very end of the service (as a Catholic, my post-communion motto was “receive and leave.”)
Martin himself

Every believing family makes a choice—how do we want to raise our children? I don’t think there are any wrong answers: God loves us all, whatever path we travel to Him. We Seyfrieds cast our lot with our shy, retiring, wonderful Lutheran friends.

Who do coffee hours and soup suppers up right.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Down the Garden Path

When I was about 16, I fell in love with a Brit. Not what you're thinking (sexy rock star, cute exchange student): my dear one was a 70 year old gay novelist, gardener and dramatist named Beverley Nichols. Nichols, largely unknown in this place and this time, was tremendously popular in mid-20th century England. He was incredibly prolific, churning out everything from poetry to memoir to children's books.

What drew me to Beverley, I can't honestly say. I had been dallying with several other authors from the U.K. for years--Trollope, Dickens, Galsworthy. When, in 9th grade, after one too many moves with my family, I was deposited in the huge and impersonal North Springs High School in Atlanta, Georgia, I rebelled against making yet another group of temporary friends. My rebellion took two forms—one healthy, one not so much. On the plus side, I spent my school lunch hours immersed in thick and engrossing novels from merrie old Englande. On the flip side, I essentially stopped eating, relying on chicken broth and ice cream for sustenance. It was a tough year, made bearable by The Forsyte Saga and David Copperfield.

Later, when I had regained my equilibrium and graduated from size 00, I continued my love affair with British literature. At a used bookstore one afternoon I discovered Merry Hall, the cozy and witty tale of Nichols' purchase and renovation of a suburban London Georgian cottage. The characters were utterly charming: the neighbors, the manservant Gaskin, the cats One and Four, and most of all, the garden. Everything and everyone was sweet, quirky and delightful, and evoked a bucolic scene totally alien to me in real life...escapism at its finest.

Now I was on the prowl, tracking down Beverley's oeuvre in used bookstores from Ithaca to Minneapolis. A find in Philadelphia, or at the fabled Strand bookstore in Manhattan, was cause for celebration. Mind you, these were pre-internet days, so there really was the thrill of the chase for these out-of-print gems. Gradually, I became the owner of the Nichols canon, over 20 books, from The Stream that Stood Still to A Thatched Roof to No Place Like Home. Reading a Nichols tome was like pulling up the covers in bed on a cold and gloomy night--warm and comforting.

When was the last time I re-read one of these much-loved tales? I can’t recall. Currently, once I wade through a stack of books on Christianity and spirituality for work, I either tackle an edgy new piece of fiction, or plunge into the sugar-sweet pool of chick lit and fashion mags. Beverley Nichols sits on my bookshelf, patiently waiting. Offering me an escape to a place and time I truly love, a literary visit with people I feel are my soul-neighbors. Beverley is, above all, a gentleman. He would never press.

Whenever I’m ready, he will be too. To delight me with gentle stories of an era long gone.

Hang in there, Mr. Nichols. I’ll be there soon.