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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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