The Stories I Tell ~ from The Word Cellar

Stories. Anecdotes. A free round of words for everyone!

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Location: Pennsylvania, United States

I love stories. I'm the one at social functions with a dozen new anecdotes. But I worry about hogging the conversation. Sometimes I tell myself that I'll be quiet and let others do the talking. But no matter how hard I try, my stories insist on bursting out! Here I can let my stories (the classics that I tell again and again, as well as new ones that unfold along the way) run free. I'm a professional writer and editor, and sole proprietor of The Word Cellar. I write for a variety of publications and clients on everything from green buildings and nuclear reactors to entrepreneurship and the arts. If you need words written, edited, or enlivened, I can help. Contact me.


Sunday Scribblings: Eccentricity

I think that some "eccentricities" are just code for being high maintenance. Find out others' quirks at Sunday Scribblings.

1. I must have Burt's Bees Beeswax Lip Balm with me at all times. I have them stashed in my purse, car, and around the house. (This one also made my previous list of oddities.)

2. The sound of a ticking clock turns me into a ticking time bomb. If there's one within earshot of my sleeping quarters, you can count on me unplugging, dismantling, de-battery-ing, or smashing it.

3. Chewing noises can gross me out. I have a friend to thank for making me even more aware of this nasty sound.

4. I find it nearly impossible to sit with both feet flat on the floor.

5. I often feel more at ease on cloudy days.

6. I choose my side of the bed based on the location of the room's door.

7. I used to dip carrots in orange juice.

8. I also used to eat ketchup and butter sandwiches on white bread, a delicacy named an "Uncle Ken Special" after my great-uncle whose one index finger stuck straight out and wouldn't bend, having been sewn back on after a machinery accident. He also taught me to say: "See my finger? See my thumb? See my fist? You better run!" I used to replace the last line with "I better run!"

9. I listen to almost no current mainstream music, but am a big fan of 80s music. A good power ballad with a killer electric guitar solo gets me every time. (Oops, this is also a repeat from the previous list.)

10. I'm an obsessive sign reader. Road trips with me can be taxing.

Are you weird? Of course you are! Tell me about it in the comments.


add to kirtsy | 1:39 AM | 7 comments


My First Night as a ΘΑΠ (5th 1st)

[Part of the Five Firsts series and winner of the reader's poll.]

I bought an SUV last week. Which makes me feel very much like I did when I joined a sorority in college.

After years of railing against the evils of both SUVs and the Greek system, I found myself awkwardly drawn to the objects of my scorn. It's an uncomfortable feeling.

Even my explanations (excuses? justifications?) sound similar:

It's a Toyota RAV4, so it's small! And it has good gas mileage for an SUV -- almost as good as Toyota's hybrid SUV. I was tired of being the smallest thing on the road and not being able to fit anything in my little coup. Plus, the RAV4 is the safest vehicle in its class and it'll go great in the snow!

It's a really interesting group of women! They're not like your typical sorority girls at all! I know that I used to make fun of the whole idea. It's not like I'm using them to replace my current friends. I just felt like this was something I should do!

I felt the same way, to a lesser degree, when I started liking sweet potatoes and corn chowder. I had allowed dislikes such as these to define me. I mean come on: sweet potatoes and chowder? I was afraid that any deviation would make me look like a poseur. Like I had just pretended not to like Thanksgiving yams. I often imagine that if I decide to have a child, I will feel compelled to make the same sort of embarrassed, groveling statements, like "I was on the pill -- I don't know what happened!" I've spent so much time saying that I don't want children, or at least don't know if I want them, that I'm afraid I'll look like a fraud if I change my mind. What will people think? I wonder. And then: Why do I care? (And then: Who puts chowder and child bearing in the same category?)
My first night as a sorority girl was surreal and embarrassing. After finding an invitation to join the sorority of my choice slipped under my door, I went to the gym for a ritual known as "table pounding." Each sorority had a small, round table covered in its "colors." We newbies, affectionately known as "pledges," gathered with our sisters-to-be around our respective tables and expressed our loyalty and jubilation with various cheers, chants, songs, and much pounding on said tables. And of course, we were all decked out in shirts showing off our new affiliation. Then the real fun began. We set out for a campus tour that included more cheering and chanting.

Back in my days as an "independent" (a status I still proudly maintain politically), my other indie friends and I would use this night to mock the silly girls who paid to have friends. None of us were really the cheerleading type, and this was waaay to perky for us. But now here I was, clapping and shouting, declaring my allegiance to Theta Alpha Pi:



Theta Alpha!

Theta Alpha!

Theta Alpha Pi!

When I finally came back to my room after my public humiliation, I found the wall next to my door covered in handmade welcome signs and my desk buried in a mountain of burgundy and grey. Each active ΘΑΠ sister had welcomed me with a sign and a gift. There were candles, notebooks, mugs, mason jars, shot glasses, and stuffed rabbits (our mascot). The sisters who weren't at table pounding were responsible for setting up these bizarre altars for each new pledge. Jess, my roommate, was horrified. "All those damn bunnies!" she remembers with a shudder. Keep in mind, this is the same girl who once held a mock "toilet pounding" for her fake sorority called Guava Guava Guava.

When I first started thinking about joining a sorority during my junior year, I kept it to myself. Here's what I wrote in my journal at the time:

27 October 1996
I have just attended the informational meeting for Spring Rush. I told no one that I was going, except hinting at it the other day to D. B and M both saw me on my way there. I told them I was going to pray when asked where I was headed. This wasn't a complete lie ~ I did pray and I did plan on coming to the Chapel afterwards. So here I am on the front Chapel steps.

I was extremely nervous ~ to the point of sick-to-my-stomach ~ before I went. I think I shook through the first half of the meeting. Thankfully C. go there at the same time that I did. 'Twas good to see a familiar face. I commented to her that I couldn't believe that I was there. She said that she was surprised too, because I "didn't look like the type to rush." Am I the type? What in tarnation is "the type"? No, I am indeed no stereotype. What am I doing?

Not looking like "the type" has come up more than once in my life. When I dated my husband back in high school, another black guy looked me up and down in the lunch line one day and said, "You and Simpson, huh? I wouldn't have thought you were the type." That's me -- breaking down barriers, baby.

But if I wasn't perceived as the type to date outside of my race, I certainly wasn't considered the type to join a sorority. I was terrified to tell my friends. Just the previous year, a close friend (the "M" above) had confessed that she'd considered rushing. We were all so relieved when she told us after the fact that she'd ruled against it. No one was more vocal about the idiocy of the Greek system than I had been. No one, that is, except Jess.

Telling her was the hardest. I sat her down one evening on my bottom bunk and said something dramatic like, "You know I love you, right? And remember how you said that we'll always be friends?"


Loooong pause.

"Well, I'm rushing."

Her response was so anticlimactic that I almost felt disappointed instead of relieved: "Oh. Is that all?" she said.

"Is that all?" I wanted to shout. "Is that all? What do you mean 'Is that all?' I'm thinking about joining a sorority. Don't you want to tell me how ridiculous this is?"

Because even though I knew this was something I wanted to try, it did feel ridiculous. The idea was so far removed from my reality that I feared I was going through a pre-quarter-life crisis. Why did I want to do this? I asked myself that question a lot.

The real reason I considered "going Greek" will sound ridiculous to some people: I felt like God was asking me to join.

Yes, I had come to the point of "table pounding" on a mission from God.


Sort of.

I'd spent the previous summer at the Ocean City Beach Project, which I like to describe as MTV's Real World for Christians: less hot tub debauchery and more Bible study. During that time I realized that everything I did and everyone I hung out with was Christian. This had been a blessing for my first two years at Grove City. At age 16, my new-found faith had alienated many of my friends and was partially responsible for destroying the long distance relationship with the apparent love of my life. (The fact that he was 21 and in the Air Force is neither here nor there.)

By my senior year of high school I was depressed, and terrified that college would be four more years of being misunderstood, ostracized, and lonely. But after a few shaky months, I found my footing, including wonderful friends and people who "got" me for the first time in my life. And it was perfectly fine to believe in God there. I was finally happy. In a melancholy English major kind of way.

After spending the summer learning about being a student-leader at OCBP, I came to my junior year of college with a new perspective. I wondered if I was too insulated in an artificial all-Christian environment. I felt like it was time to branch out. And it occurred to me: If I was so opposed to the Greek system, why not become a part of it? That way I could better understand it and try to be a force of positive change.

Why was I so against sororities in the first place? I suppose they seemed like a hotbed of debauchery on my quaint little Christian campus. And beyond that, they just seemed so stupid. I couldn't understand the point of them. I've never been very good at organized groups. I love Jesus, but don't like church. I'm glad to live in America, but don't understand the veneration of our flag or rabid patriotism. And school spirit? Assemblies and pep rallies were only cool because you got out of class early. (Althought I was in the marching band for six years. Go figure.)

I agonized over why I suddenly wanted to join such a group. Was this really a calling from God, or did I just want to do something "cool" for once in my life? Here's how I summed it up at the time:

4 October 1996
There is a twisted part of me that wants to pledge. I like to think that my reasoning is to bring Christ to a group that needs Him. However, if I'm honest with myself, I would like to be part of a sorority to satisfy this desire to "belong." But realistically, as a Christian, I doubt that I would find a lot of "belonging" to the sorority as a whole.
Looking back, it's easy to think that I really was searching for something. Three of my friends, including two of my very best, were planning weddings for the next summer. My other best friend and roommate was graduating. Several others were studying abroad. Everything was changing, and I didn't know how I fit into any of it. Here's what I wrote at the time:

27 October 1996
Am I doing this because I feel stagnant? With all of these friends having adventures in foreign lands and others getting engaged, I feel like I need to do something! I feel empty because I'm not giving anything. But a sorority... Do I want to go in that direction?
By the beginning of spring semester, I'd (mostly) made up my mind:

27 January 1998
...I think I'm fairly sure that I want to pledge. Just when I felt secure in the decision to pledge, all these doubts and questions crept in. So now I have all these voices yelling at me trying to confuse me. Like what will others think of me? M showed me how selfish of an attitude that is. By focusing on others' opinions of me, I'm really just selfishly thinking about myself.
Less than a month later:

9 February 1997
I'm a ΘΑΠ girl. How odd. I signed a bid. They sent me a bid. I'm in. Weird.

10 February 1997
So. Officially, I don't consider myself Greek. But I guess I technically am. Table pounding is tonite at 6:00. That's in a little over two hours. The reality of being in a sorority has definitely not hit me yet. I wonder if I'll like it. I'm excited about it. And I'm surprised that I'm excited. I swore I'd never pledge (at the very least, it was an unspoken, underlying vow). But now I'm at the start of Pledge Week. I haven't signed my life away. People still drop out during or after Pledge Week. I don't think I will. ... If nothing else, perhaps this will be good fodder for writing. I hope, though, that it comes out to be more than that.

Being in a sorority, especially ΘΑΠ, introduced me to new and wonderful people, and reaffirmed my belief that books and covers don't always match. I remember the first time I met my future sorority sisters. I looked around and wondered how on earth these women were in the same room, let alone members of the same group. There were the soccer players, the drinkers, the intellectuals, the artists, the pretty girls, the slightly punk, and the ultra-conservative Christians. Other sororities on campus had individual group images. This one had a bunch of individuals.

I made new friends. I did new things. And yes, I even talked about God and my faith with some of the girls, but only when they came to me with questions or a prayer request. I wasn't so delusional to think that I was there to "save" them all. I certainly wasn't the only Christian in the sorority. Looking back, I may have been just a tad too concerned with the perceived immorality of it all. Most people tend to get more conservative as they age. I've gone in the opposite direction.

Even now, being in a sorority feels foreign to me. I never fully got into the idea of "sisterhood." I've lost touch with all of them, even the ones I came to consider good friends and wish I could find again. The whole experience feels more like a story someone told me, rather than something I did. But I did it. And I don't regret it. If nothing else, it's good fodder for writing, right?

Oh, and the RAV4? As soon as I get over my guilt about being a gas-guzzling American I'll be fine.

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add to kirtsy | 10:55 PM | 3 comments


Thank God for Loving

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the legalisation of marriages like James' and mine. On June 12, 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in the case of Loving vs. Virginia:

Marriage is one of the 'basic civil rights of man,' fundamental to our very existence and survival ... The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State. (Thanks to Karen at Chookooloonks for this.)

In other words, less than 10 years before James and I were born, our union would have been illegal. This is just one of the many reasons I'm glad to be alive in this era, despite its many problems. This, central air conditioning, and Rita's gelatis.

Here's to all loving couples, no matter what they look like!

p.s. Don't you just love that the defendants' name in the 1967 case was "Loving"? How perfect is that? It's like a dentist named Dennis Tooth. Or a podiatrist named Paul Foot. There's been some research into how names impact our lives. Check out the quirky science.

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add to kirtsy | 1:08 PM | 1 comments


Sunday Scribblings: Spicy

Five things that are good a little bit spicy:

1. Tom Yum and Tom Kha Kai soups
2. Conversation
3. Sex
4. Sweet potato pie
5. Paint colors

Five things that are better bland:

1. Mashed potatoes
2. Your feelings for your college professor
3. The smooth, cool feeling of clean sheets
4. Angel food cake
5. Toilet paper

Where do you like it spicy?

More scribblings here.


add to kirtsy | 3:19 AM | 4 comments


One life must be enough

When I wrote this week's Sunday Scribblings musings on Town & Country, I was thinking of something that Linford Detweiler of Over the Rhine wrote in a little booklet called Northern Spy Number One: Crawl Low Under Smoke. I couldn't find it at the time, but found a portion of it copied in my journal from June 1997. He says it so beautifully:

One life is hardly enough. I've had to kill so many lives to be alive in this one. The college professor life. The life lived in the South with the brave dancing words full of sweet storm clouds, grace and the reign of laughter. And me struggling with a first collection of short stories.

The life on the Northeast Ohio farm with mist like the secret birthing night breath of angels coming up off the five a.m. fields and the grey birds praising the new coming day in their secret symphonic language, full of mercy and foreshadowing. The life of the pianist braving The Well-Tempered Clavier, making the Mozart glimmer with purity, getting the warm fire of the Chopin Nocturnes and Preludes and Etudes under the palms of miracle hands, making Ravel's impressionist poems come in and out of focus, breathing all the while.

The young are apple trees. We prune off many limbs so that we might bear a little fruit. One life must be enough, but damn. (p. 18)

Yes, Linford, yes. Damn.

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add to kirtsy | 12:26 AM | 1 comments


Sunday Scribblings: Town Mouse & Country Mouse

We give up a thousand lives to live just one.

I could be an actor, waiting tables in New York City.

I could be a college professor, all tweedy with cat-eye glasses, enduring New England winters.

I could be a Peace Corps worker, somewhere hot and humid with giant bugs that I learn not to fear.

I could be a radio producer in Chicago or Seattle.

I could own a horse farm deep in the mountains of North Carolina.

I could work with political refugees in London.

I could run a bed and breakfast in Nova Scotia.

I could make jewelry and textiles in San Francisco.

I could live in a loft, a flat, a studio apartment, a farm house.

I could walk out my door to the forest. To a coffee shop. To the beach.

I could be.

And I am. I am living in a Pittsburgh suburb, struggling to figure out what it means to be a writer, and a self-employed one at that.

The grass is always greener, the sky bluer, the living easier. Over there. Wherever we are not. Just over the fence or across the tracks or around the bend or beyond the sea. Anywhere but here is where we want to be.


When I chose a college, I wanted a small, non-urban campus that was no more than three hours from my home. I ended up at a lovely school, two hours away, where I made wonderful friends and learned much about myself and the world. I was where I was meant to be.

After leaving my idyllic college years behind, I moved to London for a year. It was exciting and scary. Living abroad was a dream come true. I made wonderful friends and had fabulous experiences. But I was also lonely a lot of the time. Walking past houses at twilight would fill me with profound sadness. The light inside was so inviting. Even ugly little houses looked cozy because they were homes. People lived there with families. I lived in a room at the YMCA. But despite my lonliness, I was where I was meant to be.

Today, I live about 45 minutes outside of Pittsburgh, the most livable city in America. I'm also equidistant to the Laurel Highlands, home to gems such as Fallingwater and myriad state parks. My location means that I escape the traffic of the city and the isolation of the country. But it also means that I have to drive 35 minutes to get Indian food. It's an equal drive if I want to take a hike or sit by a rushing stream. I have the best and worst of both worlds. I live in a sort of suburban purgatory.

I daydream about moving. But I can't make up my mind. I can see myself in a trendy loft apartment, with cultural amenities just steps from my door. But then I'd miss the green open spaces and hillsides heavy with trees. I can see myself in a 100-year-old farmhouse with acres of land and gardens galore. But then I'd long for easy access to the theatre and cafes.

Town Mouse and Country Mouse live in me, side-by-side. They argue over who has the best cheese. But mostly, they try to be happy where we are. When they're not bickering, they say encouraging things like:

"Listen here," says Town Mouse. "You live less than hour from America's most livable city. Stop whining, chickie. If you want 'cultural amenities' that badly, get in the damn car and drive to them! Okay, so it's not London with it's convenient maze of public underground tunnels, but you can afford gasoline, even at this high price. Go get your urban groove on!"

Equally emphatic, country mouse says, "Listen here, sweetie pie. You have a big backyard and plenty of trees around. Sure, you can see your neighbors' houses from your deck, but you know you'd feel anxious out in the middle of nowhere with just the cows and crickets to watch over you. If you need some more fresh air, take a short drive to the mountains. I know you don't like to burn too much fossil fuel, but you don't commute to a job. So treat yourself to an afternoon in nature. After all, it's oh-so-close."

The suburbs have a bad reputation of being full of box stores and soccer moms. Sadly, too much of that stereotype is true. But for now, this is where I live. And there is beauty and love here. Whenever I start to feel restless or ungrateful, I remember those cozy English homes. It's trite, but true: Home is where your heart is.

Last month I went to New York City for a writing conference. I was excited for the big city buzz, but knew that I'd be relegated to the tourist traps since I had very little time and no practical knowledge of the city. And then I met fellow writer and conference goer Kelly, an Austin native who's lived in NYC for about seven years. We hit it off like old friends and she saved me from tourist trap hell by having an extra concert ticket for Mason Jennings and the willingness to show me a tiny bit of her New York. We ate at a crazy Indian restaurant (which deserves it's own blog post) and had a great time.

My city-envy was on full display. But Kelly admitted that she might eventually like to get away from the bright lights. Being the only writer in a square mile seemed like a refreshing concept to her. It was another good reminder to appreciate the grass in my backyard as well as the pavement on my street.

I may have given up a thousand lives to live this one, but I get to live this one. My responsibility is to do that where I am. And for now, this is where I live. I am where I am meant to be.

Where do you live?

Read others' thoughts on this topic at Sunday Scribblings.
6/8/07 Addendum: Check out One life must be enough for further thoughts on this topic.

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add to kirtsy | 1:05 AM | 5 comments