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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

Still Life With Cats

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Written by Jen Szymanski

February 20, 2013 at 8:40 pm

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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

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Holiday Insanity: The Definition

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I’d like to begin this post with the obvious:

1. Many of us drive ourselves insane over the holidays.

2. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Two aspects of Christmas, came crashing together in ironic juxtaposition yesterday – “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” started on my car’s CD player just as I was punching in my PIN at the Credit Union’s ATM. This event jarred me out of the zombified state I’ve been in since Thanksgiving weekend.

What are we doing?

Everyone takes a different meaning from “the holidays.” Some of us celebrate the birth of Christ; some celebrate a miraculous night where not enough oil became enough; others simply take the time to remember those less fortunate. But there’s a common thread woven through the snowmen, and menorahs, and manger scenes: we are told to “give.”

And we know what giving is “supposed” to mean. And yet we trample each other on Black Friday, and experience a financial holiday hangover when we sit down to pay the bills on that first cold January weekend.

It’s not like we haven’t been told, either. For some fifty years, children have been brought up learning the “true meaning of Christmas” via television specials.

“Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. Maybe Christmas, he thought… doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps… means a little bit more!” (1966, How the Grinch Stole Christmas)

“Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’ That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

(A Charlie Brown Christmas, 1965.)

The tiniest tots (eyes all aglow or not) can recite what Christmas is supposed to be about.

Yet we don’t stop.

Some of us do, or try. But what to do when you have family that insist on celebrating a Christmas that rival the Griswold’s, and expects at least a certain degree of reciprocation, suck it up and quote Ellen Griswold?

(“I don’t know what to say, except it’s Christmas and we’re all in misery.”)

Why do we do the same things over and over again? Can we not overcome the basic need to keep up with the rest of the (human) tribe? Or are most of us just going along with the flow, afraid to speak up and say what everyone hopes will be said?

Written by Jen Szymanski

December 11, 2012 at 12:58 pm

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Sensory Overload

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I start my day, every day, by reading. Many days, I make my way over to Andrew Sullivan’s awesome blog, where I find posts on science, politics, world events, the arts. I’m always rewarded with something that fires a few neurons while I sip on a warm cup of caffeine, and wait for its effects to seep into my bloodstream.

This was the first thing I read today: ‘Sensing Too Much.’ It features this video, by Migel Jiron:



I found it difficult to watch. But it is a brilliant reminder of the things so many of us take for granted.

Written by Jen Szymanski

November 20, 2012 at 11:22 am

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Drowning, Not Waving

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This will hardly count as a “real” blog entry, but I have a question for anyone who reads this. When you get behind on your blogging, what do you do? I’m not complaining – I’ve been writing for work-related projects. Still, I miss the time spent with my thoughts and the quiet click of the keyboard putting them in black and white.

What do you do when you are too busy to blog? How do you prioritize things? Any advice is welcome!


Written by Jen Szymanski

November 1, 2012 at 8:26 am

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TL; DR or Why I Fear Not the Tumblr

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Lovecraft and Poe: would they have played well on Tumblr?

Look out writers, Tumblr is in tha’ house. Assuming the Mayans are wrong, and we make it to the end of 2012, “Tumblr” is set to overtake “blog” in Google searches by the end of 2012. Is this the end of blogging as we know it? Is even a 500 word post going to qualify for TL;DR (“too long, didn’t read”) status?

Ever since Nicholas Carr’s 2008’s hand wringing article on how Google is changing the way we think appeared in The Atlantic, we’ve worried about what is technology doing to us and whether  we are witnessing the death of communication as we know it. We fret that texting lingo and cramming thoughts into 140 characters on Twitter has irrevocably changed publishing. And blogging? Don’t get us started. Blogging takes too much work, says society. Social media is the way to go.

To make matters worse, in bursts Tumblr to kick writers while we’re down. For those of you who aren’t one of the approximately 65 million who run a Tumblr micro-blog, a big chunk of the content is visual. Photos, videos, are easily shared, and reblogged. Because of its social media aspect,  (blogged items from users you follow come into your view via a dashboard,) quotes, text, and links can be easily lost. But I say don’t throw flowers on my blog’s casket just yet.

Here’s why: I adore Tumblr. I admit it. I love the insane GIFs, the unfettered human emotion. The creativity (oh, the joyous celebration of creativity!) The chaos of some Tumblrs,  the focused nature of others. And I think “traditional” bloggers can learn from it. I think if I’m going to be serious about writing, I need to do as some of the microbloggers on Tumblr do. If you want to make an impact on Tumblr, you need to do it creatively, boldly, and in as few words as possible. So I write. And revise, trying to paint as visual as a picture as I can with as few words as possible. To be brave, creative. To accept feedback (even the less than flattering variety.) And live to blog another day.

What do you think? Do Tumblr and Twitter “count” as blogging (as some have suggested?) Do you have a Tumblr? If so, how do you use it – to promote your blog? Or to just be creative?


Written by Jen Szymanski

September 17, 2012 at 2:36 pm

Do You Have Cyberchondria?

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Are you feeling kind of “off?” Fatigued, headachy, maybe a little nauseous? What do you do? If you’re like many of us, you hit the internet for an instant answer.  After hours of entering symptoms, and sifting through endless lists of conditions and diseases, you’ve got an answer: you definitely have a brain tumor. Realistically, you probably don’t. But what you might have is a new type of anxiety disorder, called cyberchondria.

WebMD, one of the most popular and “trusted” medical advice sites, draws about 85 million visitors a month. It’s in good company: according to a 2009 poll, 61% of Americans claim to use the web for medical advice. The problem is that, while the services can be helpful, when they’re misused, they create a whole host of new issues. Why are we doing this to ourselves?

“Finances” is certainly a plausible answer. About 17% of Americans are uninsured, and don’t want to cough up the cost (or even in some cases, the copay) for an office visit.  But that doesn’t really explain why we’re so ready to self-diagnose thyroid cancer, when it’s more likely that we have a common sore throat. Or why we end up rushing, panic stricken, to the ER, running up enormous and entirely unnecessary medical bills. There are some good explanations that have their roots not in our bank accounts, but instead are in neuroscience and psychology.  Here are three to consider before you open your browser to see what that thing is on your foot.

Your Brain Likes Order and Sees Patterns

Imagine how our brains interprets two cherries and a bar sign on a slot machine. It instantly recognizes that we’re close to a win (three cherries.) Even though we haven’t actually hit the jackpot, we still catch a little thrill (“darn, I was so close!”),  as well as a mini natural high (a jolt of the endogenous opiate dopamine.) Both of these encourage us to pull the lever on the one armed bandit again.

This “near miss” phenomenon also happens when we think we’re exhibiting two out of three symptoms for a rare medical condition. Our brain may give up on one disease, but we feel that we’re close – and are inspired to look further, even when there’s nothing there.  Moreover, our brains evolved to discern patterns of all kinds. While this skill can be very handy when you’re roaming the jungle intent upon survival, sometimes we do it so well that we a pattern even when none exists. So, when your brain reads a list of symptoms on a medical site, and finds that you are exhibiting three out of six symptoms for a disease, you tend to conclude that you do have (or will get) the rest, even if they aren’t any more specific than malaise, headache, and the sniffles.

Your Brain is Wired to Love a Good Story 

Another plausible explanation? We like to know “why.” To be more blunt, we like a good story. And if we are perusing WebMD, we probably are not a trained physician, our brains will fill in the details where there are gaps. It doesn’t matter if the specifics aren’t based in reality, or whether they reflect what happened to a friend of a friend.

We Want Control

Finally, we like to be captains of our own fates. A recent UC Davis study found that we still hit the internet for answers, even after we’ve seen our doctors.  There’s nothing scarier for some of us than to put our lives in the hands of another human being, especially one we don’t see very often. It’s easier for us to read bad news on a small backlit screen than to have to face another human who might tell us we are ill, or have to submit to tests. Furthermore, we can get an answer right now and do something about whatever is bothering us, even if it’s the wrong remedy.

Are you guilty of cyberchondria?

Written by Jen Szymanski

September 14, 2012 at 10:07 am

Telepathy Not Required

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(Author’s note: trigger warning for quotes from Stephen King’s It concerning sexual abuse.)

Looking back on my childhood reading habits, I realize that I was a terrible “girl.” As a young lassie growing up in the 80s, I should have gone to Beverly Cleary Elementary, moved on to Judy Blume Middle School, and graduated with honors from Sweet Valley High. (Full disclosure: I did read these authors. I read just about everything I could get my hands on.) But none of them spoke to me, inspired me to write. When I grew up, I wanted to write like Stephen King.

Stephen King is not a purveyor of  fine “literature.” He’ll tell you so himself. Fancy prose and valuable life lessons are not the point (though there are some mini philosophy lessons woven into his tales if you’re paying attention.)

The reason I relate to his stories? Psychology. Inner voice. Often it’s more about what his characters don’t say than what they do. Thanks to italics, we’re privy to what they think: what’s motivating the girl chained to the bed, or the dad trying to save his son from the monsters that have overrun the supermarket. It’s why most Stephen King movies, honestly, kind of suck. Because what makes his books scary is about the insanity within.

I relate to this. When I can’t sleep at night, it’s the thoughts running through my head that keep me from dozing. During the daylight hours, it’s having to quell the impulse to do something utterly irrational that makes me wonder if I’m crazy. And it’s scary as hell.

An example, if you will indulge me.

Beverly Marsh, one of the characters in It, suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her father. He excuses his behavior by telling her he’s just “worried about her.” Bevvie’s mother is no fool – she knows something’s not quite right in her little domestic circle, but she’s not ready to confront it. In this excerpt, Beverly is also awakening to the fact that her father’s concern for her is more than just paternal love.

“Bevvie, does he ever touch you?”

“What” Beverly looked at her mother, totally perplexed. God, her father touched her every day. “I don’t get what you -”

“Never mind,” Elfrida said shortly. “Don’t forget the trash. And if those windows are streaked, you won’t need your father to give you blue devil.”

“I won’t

(does he ever touch you)


“And be in before dark.”

“I will.”

(does he)

(worry an awful lot)

(It, p. 403)

King could have written in agonizing detail about Beverly’s thoughts and motivations. He did not. Instead, we get to experience what she is thinking directly. In my opinion, it’s more visceral, more moving than a paragraph of prose. It just works.

And it’s influenced me. In my novel (don’t tell me that you’re a blogger and don’t have at least the inner workings of novel or potential novel on your hard drive, or you can add “liar” to your c.v.), my protagonist is a teacher who wakes up one day to find that overnight the world has changed. Early in the story, she’s not sure exactly how – but it’s beginning to dawn on her that she’s a little different than everyone else. Here’s a brief passage in which she realizes she’s not in charge of her classroom anymore:

“Sit down, Mr. Frye.” He didn’t appear to hear her, but just continued moving toward her, the look in his eyes intense, and…something else… fear?

“Biggie, PLEASE return to your seat.” The buzzing got even louder, roaring, crashing, her head pounding in rhythm to the throbbing of the noise. Blackness started to creep into her peripheral vision. Hal’s dry, reasonable voice fled.


The boy stopped as if frozen, and the buzzing cut off abruptly, switched off. That was when the laughter began.

There was no other way for me to write how Julia was feeling. Maybe it’s because of the way I read – quickly, pulling the gist from large description filled paragraphs in my haste to get to what happens next. Maybe it’s a reflection of my nature, impatient, mercurial. Or maybe it’s just mental release. Whatever it is, I’m heartened to know that it works.

Written by Jen Szymanski

September 13, 2012 at 9:59 am