Robert A. Szyper, remembered

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For my father’s birthday, and for posterity, I’ll post the full version of the obituary I wrote for him here, along with photos I would have liked to share at his memorial.

Bob Szyper passed away on August 3, 2109, 9 months after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of gastric cancer.

Bob, born November 5, 1948, grew up in Pittsburgh. Family was extremely important to him. He hosted multigenerational gatherings up until a month before his death, when he welcomed his sisters and their families for the Fourth of July.

Community minded, Bob was a supportive neighbor, helped organize annual reunion picnics for his high school class at St. Canice, and enjoyed regular lunches with his “old dudes” band of friends.

Bob enjoyed travel, good food, and time at the Jersey shore. He was a Steelers fan, a skilled gardener, a crossword puzzle whiz, and a regular on his exercise bike and rowing machine. He was quick to do a favor for a friend, eager to share a story, and generous in his time and attention.

Bob taught English for over 30 years at Chartiers Valley High School, including a period teaching AP English, when he discovered “literature is more than just dead white guys,” an epiphany that excited him. His students enjoyed his humor and passion.

He was a devoted putzer who (proudly) used MacGyver as a verb. He followed politics closely and lived for a good New Yorker cartoon, texting them to his daughters regularly.

Bob was a devoted husband, a loyal friend, an occasional curmudgeon, an engaged father, a sharp wit, and a proud papap who endured many hours on hard benches watching his grandson play baseball.

Bob is survived by his wife Roberta (Robie), his daughters, Andrea and Lauren, grandson Robin, sisters Beverly and Cathy, nieces and nephews and their families, and several prolific tomato and cucumber plants. 

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My Week in the Hermitage: Radical Lessons in Self Care

Nothing like a broken ankle to slow you down. I’ve been trapped in my house for a week, spending large chunks of each day completely alone. No bus stop banter or small talk with colleagues. No client calls or dinners with friends.

Meanwhile cities are freezing and Rome is burning. There are ice quakes in Chicago and arrests in Washington’s inner circles while I am safely ensconced in my recliner. Let the arctic winds roar and the snow fall. Two hour delay? No problem.

I am on social media more than ever and take immeasurable comfort in sympathetic texts from family and friends. My phone is my portal, and I mindlessly scroll it for stimulation and connection, until I catch myself and stop.

For mood regulation, I have budgeted a mere hour a day for NPR, eating my lunch on a stool in the kitchen, arms length from the radio and fridge that feed me. I have a reassuring routine that includes eating the same salad with bread and cheese everyday.

I work from my recliner, getting in full work hours and making progress on a number of personal and family projects. I am focused and prolific, writing and editing numerous blog posts in a day. My brain feels sharp and alert.

Robin takes the bus home each day from school. He’s a good helper, taking on new responsibility. He now knows how to operate a can opener, the microwave, and the stove and oven. When I butt-bounce myself downstairs, I find him proudly eating baked beans from the can for breakfast.

At first I am only bathing every three days, as it is so difficult and I feel so fragile, even sliding my leggings off over my ankle is painful. So I marinate in the same clothes until I can’t stand being in my own skin.

But it evolves into a bath every other day, using my son’s organic, tear-free, all natural son-of-hippies hair and body wash from the pump. No conditioner. No hair dryer. Just a simple soak, lather rinse, and air dry. Within a few days, my hair is shiny and healthy.

My Fitbit chirps from my wrist and makes me smile. My daily steps are in the hundreds, and I track with inverted goals. I have a valid excuse to decline invitations.

I have sat out the Polar Vortex in my recliner, with an array of good books and magazines. My skin is so healthy, my lips supple and soft. In the mirror and I look five years younger, like Venus in a clunky boot cast. Is this what it’s like to be a kept woman?

I like the simplicity of this life, though perhaps it is the temporal nature of it that makes the whole thing work so well, for now…

Dave & Bluster

I think we can all agree that Dave & Buster’s is a little toxic, the kind of place that most parents endure but do not enjoy. As I descend into the dark hallows of the game room for my first visit with Robin, my senses are overwhelmed.

Not just because I am a Highly Sensitive Person (look it up) and I immediately feel overstimulated. Not because I would rather be hiking the Wissahickon on a beautiful Sunday morning. Not because it is a money suck.

OK, so for all those reasons. But also because it feels like pre-K for a gambling addiction. No daylight. No boardwalk to lure guests away from the dark side. The worst of casino culture for vulnerable developing brains. A suck on the soul and wallet, the drain narrated by blinking machines and electronic pings and whistles. You fight to hold on, but the metal claws let go just before the stuffed animal is about to drop into the prize shoot.

We’ve survived this man-made hell on earth, and you can too. Here are my survival tips.

1. Go when they open. Try 11 am on a Sunday, when the good souls of the earth are at church. At this ungodly hour, things are just getting started. Even with a couple birthday parties going, there are fewer people on the floor. This is critical not for crowds so much as the exponential noise pollution of multiple games at play.

2. Seek out games that are active, requiring some physical interaction rather than the passive video games and screens. Look for basketball, tossing games, and air hockey. Avoid the ticket-grab, one-button-push games that are over in an instant, with no real entertainment value.

3. Look for the old, incontinent Skeeball machine. They might have tarted it up with some neon or a colorful sign, but its weathered concentric circles speak of a gentler era’s amusements. Every arcade seems to have a couple tired machines that leak free wooden balls after your paid session ends. Keep playing for free with whatever you get.

4. Look for chances at free play, and teach your kids to do the same, and to be triumphant when they find them. After a little free skeeball, remind them to shoot the extra basketballs after Game Over, even though they don’t count for points. Jump on the air hockey table and free play without paying for the air. It builds character and upper body strength.

5. Pool! We pay $8 an hour for access to a pool table at the D&B near us. That’s physical, the whole family plays together, and it is a ton of entertainment for the money, a true bargain. And the best part is that at our location it is above ground, flooded with the natural light of large windows, not in the basement of despair.

6. Beer.

HAPPY FATHER’S DAY

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by Robin Kester

Happy father’s day dad!

I hope you have an awesome day! Thank you for taking such good care of me and mom. I am really grateful for you because if there wasn’t you I wouldn’t be alive.

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You’re really good at sports and boot ball. You’re really smart, really funny, and you have crazy ideas. I like the way you think. I love your imagination.

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When I walk up to the door, I see you opening the doors and greeting me, and I think you’re the best dad ever! I feel loved and cared for when you grab me and give me a nice big hug.

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I’m glad that we’re a family, just like the song goes: “we are family. I got all my sisters with me”. Our family is special because you’re in it and there’s only three people. Three people is enough people for me. The three people in our family is the perfect number because there’s a woman, a man, and a kid.

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The trip to Italy totally blew me away. I remember going to the Pantheon. When we went to Ireland, I remembered the Ring Fort. I can’t wait until we go to Iceland and London. I’m really looking forward to going to the Blue Lagoon and going on the London Eye. You are really good at traveling.

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I love it when we bake together. We usually bake cookies around Christmas time and a random Day when we want to bake cookies. I hope we can bake cookies today! Don’t you love cookies because I do! Anway if we don’t get to bake cookies on Father’s Day I’ll still be happy because you’ll always be there.

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By the way, our next boot ball game is coming up, and it’s the Philadelphia Franklins vs San Francisco Marshes! (they sound like a pretty good team!)

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Do you want to have a basketball tournament. You know, the one on the door of my room. I’ve been practicing my dunks and three pointers. For me basketball is funner than I thought it was. The basketball season is over, but the basketball spirit is still in the air. The slam dunk is coming to town for the best game ever.

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We watched High School Musical 3 Senior Year. I can’t wait to watch Black Panther. The music in Black Panther is good right.

We’re gonna have a great time in Iceland. Like I said: “the blue Lagoon is gonna be fun!” The soccer game at midnight is gonna be fun and I hope we can go to a soccer game there. I really want to see a Geyser in action and a waterfall with a double rainbow.

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When we go to London, I want to ride a double decker bus. It’s really cool that we have a free apartment. I hope they have really good sausage and bacon because we’re gonna be there for awhile and you know I love breakfast sausages and bacon. I’m really looking forward to going to Buckingham Palace, going across the London Bridge, going to the Big Ben, the Shakespeare theater,  Thirty saint Mary Axe, Twenty Fenchurch, and the Shard (also none as the Gherkin (pickle), the Walkie Talkie, and the Cheese Grater) with you.

You’re the best dad ever!

The End

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Guest blogger Robin Kester is a sought after little league athlete, currently playing with the Flourtown Erdenheim Tournament Team. He also plays soccer and enjoys mathematics, badda-bing writing, video games, street basketball with his neighborhood friends, and international travel. As of publication date, he has traveled to 4 countries outside the US, soon to be 5. Look for his upcoming features on glacier walking, geothermal swimming, and the mating habits of puffins.

No Whiners

I’m wise enough and old enough to walk away.

My first time was when an uncle who tells big, blowsy stories, always the victim, started in at a family gathering. He was mid gripe about some jerk in a store when I looked vaguely in the other direction and excused myself, walking off to another room without proper explanation.

We’re not close. I owe him nothing more than a discreet exit, perhaps the assumption of a needy kid in another room and the general agreement of the family that I am not an asshole.

It was liberating, to walk away. To choose something else.

Another time in a gelateria I ran into a guy I’d casually dated, back in the 90s. He’d mattered more to me than I to him, but all these years later I was happily on the arm of my husband. He and his date struck up a conversation that turned quickly to construction in our shared neighborhood and its unfortunate impact on them.

When this topic stretched on a little long, I interrupted with something that went like “if you’ll excuse me, there’s a man over there with an espresso waiting for me.”

It was true, and a hot coffee was more important to me than listening. To him. To rambling complaints. I was proud of it, like I’d mastered some last phase of assertiveness.

Life’s too short to be overly polite in such situations.

I listen to people who matter to me, people who have real problems, people who need compassion and humanity. I will always make time and emotional space for them.

With years I have gotten better at separating drama and self involvement from true need. With the coming and going of friends and acquaintances, I’ve gotten better at assessing who matters and better at editing.

I will always be there for friends just as I will complain to them about things that bother me. With time and maturity, I am learning what pain points to share and what perceived slights and small indignities to bear quietly.

And some shit just doesn’t bother me as much anymore.

Like some people overshare, some complain indiscriminately, to people who do not care. If we are lucky, they are witty and clever about it. Either way, their complaining tells you more about them than about any injustice, real or imagined, that they might share.

Parking tickets suck. Post offices are inefficient. Planes are delayed. I know you’re busy; I am too.

In my 40s, I find I am wise enough to avoid negativity. Pettiness. Other people’s shit.

I am old enough to have seen real problems and pain. I am old enough to feel entitled to a prompt, unexcused exit. I urge you to do the same.

(Hey, wait a minute. Where are you going?)

Eulogy for Gem

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I found this recently, the eulogy I wrote for my grandmother’s funeral. I miss her, especially as her birthday rolls around. So for posterity, here is how I remembered her…

Losing my grandma is losing a little bit of childhood.

At the playground, who else would have known that wax paper on a hot metal slide makes the slide go faster? Lauren and I passed many summer days at your house, Grandma. We loved those walks to the playground.

Who else would quench my thirst with cream soda over ice, served in a big bright blue aluminum tumbler? I remember sitting on your small porch drinking it. And picking flowers from your colorful garden, so many snapdragons.

Who else will give me cute money? (Anyone?)

Losing my grandma is losing an incredible woman.

Who else would have loved my grandfather so well? You smoothed his rough edges and set his heart aflame. You weathered so much together, and remained true in your love to him through his last long days in the hospital. Please bring him our love now. (Give him a kiss for me.)

Who else could keep up with my Aunt Noreen and Uncle Bob at 500 bid? You were sharp for so long, and always up for adventure. You shared my aunt and uncle’s love of the lake, happy to sit at the bonfire but also game for a golf cart ride to the docks or a pontoon cruise up into your last years. Are there corn roasts in heaven?

Who else could have held my mother through all the trials and triumphs of her long life? You have been a constant source of love and strength for her. And I know you will remain with her for the rest of her days.

Who else could change with the times, understanding and digesting all the complication of the people around her? Who could watch Andy Williams on Youtube with me or observe me on a Skype call, and help me understand how truly miraculous our new technologies are? You are Thoroughly Modern Tillie.

Who else would have inspired me to be a mom? I wasn’t sure I wanted a child until the night you, mom and I sat on my couch in front of the fireplace talking until late in the evening. That night I felt the power of our friendship, and the importance of the generations.

Losing my grandma is losing an anchor.

Who else could hold together our constellation of families? You are the sun around which our holidays revolve. I’ll always remember you quietly holding court on Sharon and Robin’s couch at Christmas, an extra mild mimosa on the table next to you.

Gathering around you in your final days, I felt such love and kinship with my aunt and uncle and cousins. Aside from the love, we really like each other. We are a small but powerful family, and we will remain so.

Who else could have represented your generation so well? You were one of the last, an adopted mother to cousins and family friends. So gracious and unassuming in your role as matriarch.

Who else will drive the red sports car? You are my son’s beloved Gwandma Tillie, and you will remain part of our story time, as he assigns you vehicles to drive in his story books. He always includes you, and you will live on in his memory.

You are a love in all of us.
A gentle kindness and sweetness that informs who we are as your family.
I hope to carry some of your humility and grace with me.
I know you are a part of me and of every one of us who loves you.

Thank you, Grandma. I miss you.

My __________ Valentine

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Contemporary art isn’t pretty. At least not always.

It need not be beautiful but rather can be judged by its power. Its message. The feelings it stirs. The universal truths it exposes. Any loveliness is fortunate but may be purely incidental.

This is the case I made to Randy, and why I needed to own a piece by Amberella, a Philadelphia street artist who has been wheat-pasting her hearts all over the city’s fringes. Her poignant slogans peek out from their backdrops of graffiti and urban decay, projecting messages that may warm your heart or stop you cold.

Either way, they have impact and connect you to your urban environment in a new and exciting way. Crumbling paint and rusting metal frame heart-shaped messages you’d never find on real candy hearts. Valentines for the human condition. A perfect V Day treat.

So when Amberella expanded her web shop for February, and I was all too happy to open my wallet and own one. But I leapt without thinking…

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I love the irony of this one, the melodrama and implied violins. The delicious nihilism of the thought and the way it mocks the heart that contains it. But even with my tongue in cheek, I feel a real power in this one fueled by a silent fear. Like it is a bad luck charm or curse, something to hide or bury. This one is a powerful work of art, and isn’t that the point?

Even before it was delivered, I knew Randy would overrule it. So I hid it in its frame. And when I finally did have the guts to hang it, just after Valentine’s Day, he objected.

But it was OK, because I had ordered another to hang in its place.

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This one is loaded, open to a couple interpretations. And that’s how I realize that context is such a critical part of this sort of art. And even in a happy middle class home, this brings some of the street with it. I’ve cut my teeth on Banksy and Shepard Fairey, so I shouldn’t be surprised. Trying to own street art is a fraught thing. 

I want to support an artist. But just like someone who rescues their first stray animal, I am a little overwhelmed by the power of her art in my own home.

Context is everything. Do I want to be drinking coffee with my husband and son with a FOREVER ALONE heart peeking over their shoulder?

ALL I EVER WANTED works well in our breakfast room, feeds a sense of familial contentment. “…all I ever wanted.” But imagine the feeling it would evoke in my office. “All I ever wanted…”

As someone who writes for a living, I should be the last one to be surprised by the power of this artwork. These words are chosen here. Owned. And they don’t fade quite like the ones that wear down or peel in the urban landscape, time and elements slowly reclaiming the public spaces they occupied.

These ideas are captured behind glass in my tidy home, nailed to the wall, domesticated wild things.

FOREVER ALONE now hangs in the quiet solitude of my office, where it better fits the mood.