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Something Out of a Fairy Tale

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This is a short story I wrote for a recent round of NPR’s 3 minute fiction. The prompt asked for stories in which a character found something that was not theirs that they had no intention of returning.  

Look, I don’t know exactly why I’m here. I’ve already told my story twice, once to the homeowner, and once to the cops. I’m sorry? No problem. Record away. I’m not even going to bother calling my lawyer. I’m telling you what I told them – this whole thing is just a big misunderstanding.  Is it okay if I smoke? Thanks.



I’ve been working in real estate for ten years. Lately, it’s been rough, with the market being so poor. It takes, like, twice the work to make the same commission it did five years ago. I was the last one in the office on Tuesday, and I was just about ready to lock up when I noticed the Post-It on the floor. What? Oh yeah, I absolutely knew it was Ella’s. Her handwriting is, I’ll just say, distinctive. Loopy cursive, predilection for multiple exclamation points. This address must have meant something to her, because there were five of the suckers, complete with little hearts for the dots, and it was triple underlined. The neighborhood was on my way home, so I decided to swing by and have a look.  Don’t let the blond hair fool you – I’m not stupid. The second I saw the property, I knew it was a goldmine. 


Not being in real estate, you probably wouldn’t understand why I reacted the way I did.  To the untrained eye, the property doesn’t look like much. The house definitely needed some sprucing up. New roof, for sure, a coat of paint. Some landscaping love. But the setting! The ad just wrote itself: “Quaint bungalow set on six park-like acres. Backyard pond, gorgeous babbling brook. Right out of a fairy tale!” I went straight back to the office and did a little creative computer work. By ten that night, it was one of my listings.  


Why did I do it? For the record, I did feel a tad guilty, especially when Ella gave the custodian an earful for tossing the Post-It. Of course she believed my story over his – we used to be inseparable.  Went out for happy hour, clubbing, stuff like that. Then, we’re out dancing one night about three months ago, and she meets this guy. And elopes! Can you believe it? I mean, I even talked to him first! Now she never goes out, just stays at home mooning over that charming husband of hers. He’s so rich that she doesn’t even need to work anymore, she just does it out of boredom. 


Wednesday I was supposed to meet Ella for happy hour, but she stood me up for the fifth time. I’ve been keeping track. Guess I had a little too much to drink when I decided to do take another peek at the property that night. No one was home, and the door was unlocked, so I went in. This is where things get a little fuzzy. Yeah, I know what the police report says. I raided the dinner table, broke a chair that was some kind of heirloom. Embarrassing. The owners found me passed out in one of the beds and freaked out. I didn’t mean to hurt or scare anyone. They seem like a nice family. Husband, wife, sweet kid.


Ella and I haven’t spoken since the story hit the papers. She did send me an email, one of the “all caps” kind. Called me an annoying perfectionist, said I was petty and low, worse than her stepsisters. Whatever. If I had to do it again, I’d do the same. Sometimes you gotta do what feels just right. 


Written by Jen Szymanski

July 10, 2013 at 8:10 pm

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Why the %$#* Do We Swear?

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(Note: the following contains actual swear words.)

What kind of human are you? I admit, I have been known to weave a rich and intricate tapestry of swear words into conversation – with my cats. I’ve also been known to  take the middle ground in email and text conversation, and give the top row of my keyboard a workout. It depends on the audience. Scanning one such conversation with an old friend motivated me to do a little research on why we swear. 


Swearing feels good sometimes.


Lets clear up a few misunderstandings. All languages have some kind of “swear” words in them (even Finnish and Japanese, despite urban legends to the contrary.) And most people do it, even those who claim otherwise. Some social scientists estimate that between 0.3% and 0.7% of all words in daily conversation are swear words. But the intensity, origin, and frequency of cursing vary from culture to culture. Most languages have a word similar to the english “fuck,” as well as bawdy or offensive slang for genitalia and excrement. (Check out before your next trip overseas if you want to be prepared to swear like a native.) 


This common thread isn’t surprising if you consider that, in many traditions, curse words had roots in exactly that – the pagan curse. Pagan rites were rich in sexuality, since many promoted fertility and propagation. Hence, many curses had to do with the sexual act, sexual body parts, sexual prowess, or, as the outcome of sex, one’s birth station.    


Other curse words didn’t start out bad, but slithered into the cursing lexicon through association. Take, for example, “bitch.” A bitch, in dog lovers’ circles, is a perfectly acceptable term – it’s a female dog. How to turn this perfectly good word into an insult? Use it to deride one’s birth (son of a bitch,) or, of course, tie it back to sex in a misogynistic way (she’s such a bitch.) The reverse, the redemption of foul words, is also true. Calling someone a “scumbag” or “scum” is fairly common in even elementary schools, but it didn’t start out that way – scum originally referred to semen; scumbag, a used condom. 


Why do we love to swear? Why does the tale of Adam and Eve exist? Because with that which is forbidden there is power. Swearing gives us a sense of release, of being defiant, of flouting social norms. Swearing, in the literal sense, means to defy the ultimate authority: thou shalt not take the Lord God’s name in vain. Even innocuous and archaic-sounding words like “gadzooks,” were once blasphemous, stemming from a contraction of “God’s” and “Hooks,” referring to the nails on the cross. 


Swearing also just makes us feel good. Curse words convey a height of human emotion – they’re mini-cathartic rants. Drop a hammer on your foot? What feels better? Yelling” DAMMIT!” or yelling “ouch?” (See?)  


So, based on the parameters above, what makes a good swear word? Let’s analyze our favorite swear word, the one that probably won’t be featured in next Disney picture. That is, of course, the F-word. Considered to be the worst of the worst swears, it follows the general pattern of most obscenities: 


(a.) It refers to sex

(b.) It’s short, and cathartic.

(c.) It’s taboo because it referred to sex in a religious text

(d.) It meandered into English via another language – German, and was used as code in the 1500s to describe the sexual act (It’s not, by the way, an acronym for anything.)  


But even this most cherished of obscenities is, alas, starting to run out of steam, becoming more and more commonplace. Will there be another new word to take its place? That’s for swearophiles to determine.



Just for the sake of curiosity – here’s Wikipedia’s list of movies that drop the F bomb the most. 



Written by Jen Szymanski

April 8, 2013 at 8:50 am

“Sick” Days

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This will not be a rehash all of the blog posts you’ve read about how women don’t get sick days, especially if they’re moms.

This is still pretty funny, though.

The topic of this post is trying to write while staying home with a sick kid. Most writers I know, (know = have read about their writing habits) shut out the world while writing. Some close the door, some play loud music, some claim better writing through the use of biochemistry.

None of these things are possible when you are tending to a cranky kid with a cold. Some will say power down the laptop, take care of the child. Take a day off. And I would, if she needed me to. I’d toss the laptop out of the window if she asked. But she’s engrossed at the moment with Tinkerbell and her vaguely mean girl friends acting out their latest melodrama. Still, despite her interest, it’s taken me over an hour to compose this paragraph, having run to fetch tissues, to take her temperature, to refill a juice glass, and just to check on her to see how she’s doing.

Each time I’ve come back and reread what I wrote and  have thought about it differently. I’ve broken my “hash out a first draft” rule by sneaking in some editing, and changed the tenor of the post twice because my train of thought switched to another track.

I haven’t even tackled any of my science writing yet. I read over an assignment, and the generally familiar and friendly scientific terms look like gibberish.

I recognize that the end of this post “should” read with language akin to “but I know what’s really important in life, and so, I will take that day off.” But sometimes that’s not reality.  Sometimes reality is deadlines. Is not getting paid if you don’t make them, is losing the job altogether. Reality is losing the story if you’re writing fiction.

So I brush up my balancing act, and press on. And kiss my coughing baby. And hope she sleeps.

Written by Jen Szymanski

March 12, 2013 at 11:28 am

Posted in Personal, Writing

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You Really Should Clean That Thing More Often

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Fomite art

This “art” was produced by imprinting a smart phone on a Petri dish.

From the annals of “biology and art collide”:

Students in the undergraduate Practical and Biomedical Bacteriology class run by Simon Park were encouraged to imprint their mobile phones onto a petri dish filled with the growth media to see what bacteria were present. After three days, the imprints had bloomed with bacteria.

This is an excellent way to present biology to the public. For all of the hand-washing I do, I’m still quite guilty of checking my cell phone for incoming texts/emails while I’m eating. Even though I know in the back of my head that it’s dirty, I keep it on my person so much of the time that it almost seems to be an extension of me – and somewhere deep in my brain’s recesses I rationalize that it can’t be that bad.

Except it is, apparently.

(More “dirty phone pictures” here.)

Did this picture inspire  you to clean your phone or other personal device?

Written by Jen Szymanski

February 28, 2013 at 9:14 am

Posted in Science

Still Life With Cats

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Written by Jen Szymanski

February 20, 2013 at 8:40 pm

Posted in Personal, Uncategorized

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For all of the science I do, and did, music was always my first love. And I was a band “geek,” (though we we usually called a much less flattering word,) a competitive band geek at that. I learned hard work, and discipline, and responsibility…and I would be nowhere near the person I am today if I hadn’t been in the band.

All We Have to Decide is What to Do With the Time That is Given Us

Back in the day—don’t fall asleep!! It’s not one of those kinds of stories!!—it used to be cool to say “I’m with the band,” because for the most part, that meant you were a roadie or a groupie, or a friend of the band, hanging around to help out, move things, or provide all sorts of moral and immoral support.

But that’s not the kind of band I want to talk about here. No, this band is the high school band; in the fall, it is the marching band, focus of half-time shows at football games, and the highlight of most parades (unless you happen to like the politicians or the screaming fire trucks, that is). In the spring it is the Concert Band and the Jazz Band. And for the longest time, it really wasn’t “cool” to admit you were with that band (marching, concert, or jazz), and that’s…

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Written by Jen Szymanski

February 6, 2013 at 4:56 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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Written by Jen Szymanski

January 22, 2013 at 10:18 am

Posted in Science