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.


What We Call Ourselves (Part 2)

I sit down in the chair at the hair salon and Stacy, my stylist, says to me, "I have to tell you something. My name's not really Stacy." She's completely deadpan about this. I ask her if she's in the witness protection program and suggest that she not reveal her true identity. I don't want to end up at the bottom of a river somewhere. She glosses over my joke and says, "My name's not really Stacy. It's Jody."

Turns out that when Jody started working at the salon, there was already a Joni working there. And the receptionists couldn't distinguish who clients were asking for over the phone. So Jody, being the newbie, was forced to choose a new name. Thus, Stacy was born.

About a year after I started going to Stacy, Joni quit. And Stacy became Jody once more. But here's the thing: She was totally a Stacy. Even now, I sometimes have trouble remembering her real name. To me, Jody is the essence of Stacy.

What's in a name? I disagree with Shakespeare. I'm not so sure roses would still smell as sweet by any other name. Words in general, and names in particular, mean a lot to me. Just a small change in spelling affects how I perceive a word, even if the pronunciation doesn't change. For me, the words "gray" and "grey" are completely separate colors and ideas. (Grey is always much nicer, by the way.) Start mucking about with the pronunciation and my world turns topsy-turvy. An American to-may-to and a British to-mah-to might as well be completely different vegetables. (Okay, different fruits.)

What we call ourselves shapes us. Our names meld with us, becoming part of the fabric of our being. They also give us shape, acting as a sort of architecture on which other people can hang their understanding of us. Names become nearly inseparable from who we are. But what do you do if you don't feel like your name fits?

I had a friend in college named Katherine, but she went by Kat. After she graduated, she decided that Kat didn't really suit her and started calling herself Kate. That was fine for her new, post-college friends, but the rest of us had trouble letting go of Kat. I still have a hard time adding that extra "e" and remembering to make the long vowel sound in the middle. To me, Kat(e) will always be Kat, even though I honor her wish to be called Kate.

My failed attempt to rebrand myself from Jenn to Jenna wasn't the first name makeover I'd attempted. When I was much younger and people called me Jenny, I decided on "Jennie-with-an-i-e" instead of "Jenny-with-a-y." I chose that spelling, of course, because it seemed so much more sophisticated than "Jenny-with-a-y." But really, how sophisticated can the name Jenny get? It's young and cutesy. Perky, even. It's also the term for a female donkey. So essentially Jenny is an ass. It's also a type of bird, a jenny wren, which is rather sweet. (As is the Paul McCartney song of the same name.) And also? Jenny is the name of the world's oldest gorilla in captivity. It turns out that Jenny is really quite diverse.

Nowadays, the only people who still call me Jennie are a few family members and one friend from college. (She's Jessie and I'm Jennie. I think we should be characters in series of children's books about solving mysterious crimes.) The year I lived in England, people automatically shortened my name to Jenny. I'd say, "Hello, I'm Jennifer." And they'd say, "Hallo, Jenny!" I let it slide due to the accent. (That accent will let you get away with a lot. Just try it. Tell off the next person you see using a British accent and see what happens. They'll probably ask you out for fish 'n chips. Or spit on you. Proceed at your own risk.)

I never really liked my name until I discovered that it derives from Guinevere, which was Gwenhwyfar in the original Welsh. Still, I hated how commonplace Jennifer was. (This belies deep-seated insecurities, I'm sure.) When I grew out of my Jennie phase, I needed something more mature. This essentially meant that I needed something with as few syllables but as many letters as possible. And so Jennie became Jenn. I loved that second "n". I cherished it like it was my lifeline to individuality. It showed the world that although I had the most common name for girls my age, I had put some serious thought into my nickname. It gave me an edge. A certain je ne sais quoi. That's a heavy burden, even for such a stout little letter.

I still go by Jenn to almost everyone who ends up knowing me in person for longer than a month. But here's the thing: I think I might actually be a Jenna. I squashed that urge 14 years ago, but it's been floating around in the back of my consciousness ever since.

Would it be weird to start calling myself by a new name at the age of 32? Could my friends ever add that final vowel with any real level of comfort? Or would they forever be saying "Jenn" and then tacking a hasty "a"' on the end so it sounds like "Jenn...a"? In my professional and online worlds, I introduce myself as Jennifer. But when people actually call me Jennifer, it feels a bit foreign. In essence, I guess I could end up with four names: Jenn to most of my existing friends and family members; Jennie to a select few; Jennifer to business contacts; and Jenna to anyone I meet from here on out.

I'm not ready to make any changes just yet. Names get into our being. They're part of the story we tell to ourselves and about ourselves. I don't know if I can cast aside Jenn or Jennifer for Jenna. Plus, my husband is the only person who calls me Jenna. Do I want to offer up that name to just anyone, or keep it as a sort of sweet secret between us?

What do you call yourself?

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add to kirtsy | 1:22 AM | 7 comments


What We Call Ourselves (Part 1)

It's the first or second week of freshman year. My new friends and I are at a college-sponsored freshman mixer, complete with dancing. Magic fills the air. It could be from the twinkly white fairy lights strung around the stone patio. More likely it's from the cosmic longing for love that can only be generated by amassing a group of lonely and slightly scared 18-year-olds. It feels like anything could happen here under the dark night sky.

We've been meeting new people for days now. I'm tired of introducing myself, mostly because nobody remembers my name. "Hi, I'm Jenn," I've said several dozen times. And always, always, they -- the boys especially -- forget. They remember everyone else but me. Allyson? No problem. Melissa? Check. Erin? Gotcha. Sara? Howdy. ...And you are?

Fed up with feeling invisible, I decide that the problem must be my name. I'm not a wallflower. In fact, sometimes I cringe at my own outspoken nature. I know I'm not the hottest girl in the dorm, but I'm pretty sure I'm not hideously ugly. (If I were, maybe people would remember my name. As in: You know, Jenn, the lady troll.) I realize that I'm fairly normal looking; a bit plain, I suppose. This, coupled with my all-too-common name, makes me forgettable.

Being named Jennifer is a curse that links me to thousands upon thousands of American girls born between 1970 and 1984, which turned out to be the extended high season for baby Jennifers. (The name spent 14 years at the very top of the charts.) If only I had a more interesting name, I reason, maybe then the boys will remember me.

So on the night of the mixer, I make a spur of the moment decision. I figure I need a new "hook;" a new "handle," as it were. Something that keeps me close enough to my roots that I remember my new name, but something with just enough zing to make me stand out in the beige sea of Jens and Jennifers. (Incidentally, I go by Jenn with two n's, but nobody asks you to spell it in conversation.) The round-the-circle introductions get to me and I blurt out, "Hi, my name's Jenna."

And my friend immediately blurts back: "It is?!?"

I don't remember what I said next, but I never introduce myself as Jenna to anyone ever again.

Fourteen years later, there is only one boy who calls me Jenna. My husband didn't go to college with me, but he always knows who I am.

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add to kirtsy | 10:18 PM | 6 comments


The Kindness of Unwitting Strangers

I try to pull the dress up over my head, and just as I feared, I'm stuck. It's about 115 degrees in this damn dressing room, I'm sweating, and now I'm stuck in an Isaac Mizrahi dress at Target.

I knew I shouldn't have put it on. It's a shift dress, like an oversized A-line tee shirt, with no zips or buttons or clasps. It was a bit tight on my shoulders on the way down. And I thought to myself: Maybe you shouldn't do this. What if you can't get it off?

If you don't ignore your own advice, whose can you ignore?

I get the skirt of the dress up above the top of my head, but the bodice isn't budging. I feel the fear rise in my chest. I wish there was a more poetic and original way to say that, but at this moment, I am a half-naked cliché. I look toward the ceiling and gulp a breath, trying to force down the anxiety. No good. I'm suddenly sure I will die.

I yank the dress back down and the stiff cotton makes a flapping noise. I stand there for a minute and consider my options.

Cut the dress off. But I don't have scissors.

Call my husband and tell him I'm stuck in a dress and need help. But he's at work about an hour away.

I check my watch, hoping it's close enough to 6:00 to call my mom and have her come rescue me after work. It's only a bit after five. I consider sitting in the dressing room for the next hour, but decide that's not efficient.

It doesn't occur to me to just pay for the dress and wear it home. (My mom's suggestion on the phone later on.)

What does occur to me is that I need to get out of this dress now. Right now. Because the panic? Still ebbing and flowing. Mostly flowing every time I even imagine pulling the dress above my head.

I realize there is only one option left: I choose utter humiliation over sheer terror.

I take as deep a breath as the situation allows and stroll out to the front of the dressing room area. A middle-aged woman is fussing with hangers and cheap summer clothes. I'm glad to see her instead of the younger, perky girl who was there when I went in. This woman is just right: slightly hardened with a cynical edge; looks like a smoker. Clearly a woman who has seen a lot of things and isn't easily fazed.

I walk straight to the counter. There's no backing out now. "Hi," I say, giving her my most sincere I-swear-I'm-not-crazy smile. "I need your help. I'm claustrophobic, and can't get this dress off over my head. I'm about to have a full blown panic attack. Would you be able to help me pull it off? I know it's awkward, but I figure it's better than me freaking out."

I remain disturbingly chipper throughout this little monologue. The woman doesn't seem to have much reaction. It's almost like I just asked her to get me something in a different size. See? I knew she'd be unfazed.

We walk back toward the dressing room and she asks, "Where do you want to do this?"

"Um, I'm in this room, but I don't think we'll both fit. Maybe we could use the handicapped room there. It looks bigger."

She nixes that idea and suggests that I stand in the open doorway of my dressing room while she stands in the hallway. I briefly wonder if she thinks that I'm running some kind of scam whereby I lure unsuspecting discount chain store employees into dressing rooms to beat them and steal their little vests or nametags. But she has a good unspoken point: I don't want to be in such close quarters while a stranger undresses me. So although I'm not too keen on flashing any other passers-by, I've reached the point of no return.

I'm standing eye to eye with her, and she says, "Do you want to turn around?"

I give her another sincere look and say, "I'm really sorry to put you in this situation."

I turn around and pull the bottom of the dress up to my shoulders. She grabs it and pulls it the rest of the way over my head. I have just a split millisecond of panic as it gets hung up on my ears, but suddenly the dress is off. I'm standing there in my bra and gutchies, and I'm free!

As she walks away with the dress, she calls back, "Oh, did you want this?"

Um, no.


add to kirtsy | 12:57 AM | 9 comments


Saturday Sayings: Change the world

image by exfordy
(it's so much better bigger)

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

~Margaret Mead

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add to kirtsy | 9:31 PM | 0 comments


Taking What I Can

I gave myself until 2:07am. If I wasn't asleep, or at least nearly so, I would get up and do something else. I made it until 2:02 and then got out of bed. I was exhausted at 7:30 in the evening. I could have slept for hours had I shut my eyes then. But in the wee hours of the morning, my tiredness apparently doesn't hold as much power. That said, my head and vision are swimming while I write this. I'm tired. So why is it so hard to rest?

I crawl into bed and suddenly there are two dozen things more pressing than sleep: cleaning the bathroom and kitchen floors, putting away laundry, figuring out a new design for this blog, writing five articles for two different online publications, going grocery shopping so I can cook a healthy meal sometime this week. Trust me, the list goes on for awhile. It will bore you. It bores me.

I tried cataloging all of it; allowing myself to acknowledge each item that distracted me and then letting it go. I got to the end of my mental list, and suddenly an image of a beach at sunset or sunrise came into my mind. (I kid you not.) For the briefest moment, I knew fully that none of these other things mattered. I felt weightless and grounded all at once.

And then it was gone. I rolled over and looked at the clock. I got up and got online, which I've read is a bad insomnia-related activity because the light from the computer screen stimulates your body and mind, making it harder to fall asleep. (To compensate for the computer screen light, I'm sitting here by the soft glow of fairy lights.)

I call this non-stop mind chatter my hamster in a wheel. She can run and run and run. If the Energizer Bunny ever does stop, my hamster could take over and just keep going. (I think she'll need a smaller drum, though. Or maybe a small pair of castanets. That would be nice.)

It's now an hour later. I think I've finally run myself out. I think my body is finally too tired to listen to the hamster squeaking. It's not exactly a moment of enlightenment, but at this hour, I'll take it.


add to kirtsy | 3:12 AM | 2 comments