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Still Life With Cats

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Written by Jen Szymanski

February 20, 2013 at 8:40 pm

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“Be Kind. It Matters.”

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In late December, or maybe mid, I can’t be certain, as my brain was muzzy with caffeine and wine and cries for rest, I stumbled on a signature in a political forum. I see many signatures every day, attached to text messages, e-mails, posts, status updates. I’m a little fascinated by signatures, and what they say about the writer. Is it a song lyric? A bit of a poem? An inspirational quote from a famous author? Does the sender use it to shore up an image? Advertise a company or brand? Are they talking to the reader, or are they a personal reminder to the writer?

This signature was brief, just four words long:

Be Kind. It Matters.

Each word was capitalized, the formality of correctness dispensed with in order to stress the importance of each term. I read it as a challenge. It made an impression on me, so much that I decided to add it to my outgoing emails beginning January first. Could I be kind, knowing that to someone…it might really matter?

We’re a week into the new year. It’s been harder than I ever imagined, to have to face  that signature, clinging as it does to the bottoms of email replies from friends and colleagues.


“Be Kind.”

…to myself, to people I don’t normally correspond with, to people who have, in the past, hurt my feelings, even when I don’t feel like being kind or nice or think in my own shallow judgement that they (or I) “deserve” it.

“It Matters.”

…because I don’t really “know” anyone’s thoughts or situation, because I don’t know if someone is ill, or depressed, or hurting, because maybe just someone who is a really good person is  having a really bad day.

Sometimes it’s hard to be kind. Even when you know it matters. I wonder how long I’ll be able to leave it as my signature.

Written by Jen Szymanski

January 8, 2013 at 10:24 am

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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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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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Nightstand Psychology

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My nightstand as it appeared this morning.

“There’s no place for me to put a cup of coffee.”

I opened my eyes to see my husband standing next to the bed, blue spatter mug in hand. I absolutely require caffeine first thing in the morning, so this was a real problem. Glancing over at the nightstand, I could see he was right. My bedside table is in a constant state of disarray. I ended up having my coffee in the kitchen.

My husband and I have a bit of an Felix Ungar/Oscar Madison relationship when it comes to our respective reading habits. He tends to read one book (usually history or other non fiction) straight through, while I have an open book in every room. He chides me for my inability to use a bookmark, harangues me about the state of the spines of my hardbacks. Having read that your stuff can say a lot about your personality,  I wondered what all those books mean to me, and thought I’d give my nightstand library a second look.

I have my constants, the books that never leave my bedside:

The Bible, and an ancient, cracked Book of Common Prayer; Gladys Taber’s Stillmeadow Sampler; a book of Robert Burns’ poetry in dialect.

I have my literary “To Do list,” the books I want to read next:

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Brave Companions.

I volumes of short stories by Stephen King and Alice Munro, for when it’s time for sleep, but I need that little “reading fix” to relax me.

I have the books that evoke childhood memories: My favorite (and recently deceased) aunt’s circa 1940 copy of Alice in Wonderland.

I have my current read, Chocolat.

What does this say about me, this eclectic group of tomes in hard and paperback, old and new, scattered as they are? I’ve thought about it since that first cup of coffee (I’m on my fourth…it’s Friday, no judgement, please,) and I think the answer is: I like to read, nothing more.

What do you think someone would be able to tell about you by just looking at your nightstand or bookshelf?

Written by Jen Szymanski

September 21, 2012 at 9:10 am

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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

Sleeping Beauty

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I never cared for princess movies much. Sure, there are qualities specific to some of them that I can relate to (Belle’s penchant for rereading books over and over again springs to mind,) but I’m not much for the whole “little girl as princess” culture that’s taken over the 2-8 year old set. Wands, gowns, tiaras have little value to me. But one of my favorite things is something that’s right out of a fairytale – a spinning wheel.

You probably get the impression that I live in a HGTV worthy colonial house, the kind that’s included on house tours and featured once a year in the local paper’s Style section. Let me assure you: it is not. I live in a constantly-under-renovation suburban 1950s style brick ranch, with the Mamie Eisenhower pink tiled bathroom to prove it. The spinning wheel fits into my kitchen – barely – and looks as natural there as does a flamingo among a flock of seagulls. But I can’t let it go.

Once upon a time, the spinning wheel stood in my grandmother’s foyer. She had a house big enough to have a foyer. It was also big enough to have a curved and polished wooden staircase, and a den stuffed full of souvenirs that my Uncle sent her and my grandfather from Thailand and China. It is as unlike my house is now as it could be (except it too, had a pink bathroom.) None of these things spark particularly pleasant memories for me: I recall sleeping in the den when I had one of my yearly bouts of tonsillitis, and I know I tumbled down the staircase at least once. Even the spinning wheel was, at that time, no real friend – my brother and I both suffered bruised fingers from daring each other to stick our hands into the spokes when it was spinning. Yet we were fascinated by it, had to press the treadle to get it spinning until it was a blur, and then try to stop it.

But when I was ten, my grandparents sold their house to move closer to my mother. They downsized into the top floor of a small house in suburban Pittsburgh, and there wasn’t room for most of their furniture. Most of what I thought was the “cool” furniture got passed to my Uncle for good reasons: he’d bought her the wicker end table shaped like an elephant; the grandfather clock that had chimed many nights away had been handed down from father to son. My mom ended up with lots of tables, some neat music boxes, all of the jewelry. But no spinning wheel.

By the time I was in college, I forgot about the spinning wheel almost altogether. I grew up, my grandparents died. I remember seeing it once, grandly displayed in front of my uncle’s stone fireplace, draped with white twinkle lights. It seemed to belong there, I had to admit – it was easy to imagine a old woman in long skirts and a mob cap sitting there spinning, humming “Chester” while three tabby kittens frolicked at her feet. I was convinced it was fate.

Then, two years ago, I got a birthday card from my aunt. Jotted beneath the pre-printed text was, “Hope to see you soon. Maybe you’d like to come and get your grandmother’s spinning wheel in the spring.” I would, and I did.

So now I have a relic from Sleeping Beauty sitting next to my front door. My daughters pretend to prick their fingers where the spindle would go as they come in from play, dramatically making their way to the couch to “fall asleep” until the cats jump on them to wake them up from their enchanted slumber. In a way, this plain wooden wheel has a certain kind of magic. It speaks not only of my family’s history, but of human history.

And like in a fairytale, it came back to me.

Written by Jen Szymanski

September 10, 2012 at 8:34 am

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