Things to Write - Tell a story that begins with a ransom note

It took three of them to handle the task at hand: two sprawled their stubby little bodies across the page to keep it in place while another held most of the crayon to his chest and left wax marks this way and that, sometimes trailing over errant fingers and toes in the process. There was much bickering between the three strange creatures, and much excitement -- so much so that they didn't hear the fourth member of their party come stumbling upon them, huffing and puffing and flailing his little arms until he collapsed in their midst and completely wrecked what they were doing.

The crayon was dropped and the paper-holders stood up, all three glaring down at their comrade with a mix of anger and dismay. Urg the crayon-bearer tapped the collapsed creature in the ribs, making him flinch. "Did you get them?" He poked him again with his big toe. "Garg, did you get them?"

He moaned and rolled over, and raised his hands in the air. "I return triumphant!" The others leaned forward and let out a collective "oooooh." In his hands were a collection of tiny sticks.

Urg was the first to get suspicious. His crooked eyes narrowed. "Where did you get them?"

Garg pushed himself to his feet carefully to avoid snapping the twigs. "Dunno. Got 'em from some man."

Blurb, who held down the left side of the paper, thrust his hands on his hips and stuck his potbelly out in front of him. "What man, eh?"

Garg shrugged. "Didn't give a name."

Oof, the keeper of the right side of the paper, scoffed. "Tell me, Garg: did you trust him?"

To this, Garg pondered for a moment. "No, can't say I did. Shifty sort of man, too quiet if you ask me, and a little too eager to get rid of the sticks in the first place..." The other three looked at each other warily for a moment, and then looked down at the sticks in Garg's hands. After a moment or two, they raucously declared the sticks "PERFECT!" and went back to the task at hand.

Garg moved off the piece of paper and looked it over from the sidelines. "What's it say, then?"

Oof and Blurb shook their heads and looked to Urg -- he was the only one who knew letters, so he was the one in charge of the note. "It says," he began, clearing his throat, "'we have your baby. If you want him back, we want gold. Lots of it."

Garg scratched his strange little chin for a moment with the end of one of the sticks and agreed it was a good note. Urg made a few more strokes of wax down on the paper and declared it finished, leaving Oof and Blurb to roll the paper up and carry it off. Garg and his sticks took up the rear behind the others as they marched through the designated family's house.

Blurb rubbed his palms together as they surveyed the front room. Lights were still on and various family members were still awake in separate parts of the house. "This'll be good! Haven't done this in years, so it's bound to be amazing!" He did a little dance for a moment before Urg smacked him upside the head.

"Calm down or you'll ruin everything."

"I can't help it...this is a big deal!"

"Big or no," Urg reminded Blurb, "if we don't get out of here with that baby, it's an even bigger deal! So shut up and wait until we've got something for you to do." Blurb flattened and the four passed a few hours in relative silence until the house was asleep.

When the time was right, the four carefully scaled the stairs to the second floor and headed into the nursery. The room was dark, save for a nightlight in the corner of the room. One by one the little men crawled up the side of the cradle and dropped onto the mattress.

"Why do we want this thing again?" Oof asked, his frog-like voice croaking just loud enough to make the baby's eyelids flutter. "It's all pink and wiggly and it smells awful. Are we sure the family will want it back?"

Urg rolled his beady eyes at Oof but decided to otherwise ignore him. "Garg, the sticks."

With a noise of surprise, Garg jumped into action, once again pulling the sticks out for everyone to see. "Let's see here..." he trailed off, giving the sticks a good shake one by one. Despite being made completely of wood, they tinkled like the smallest of windchimes, and each of the four felt heartened. Garg positioned the sticks to mimic the relative shape of a person, conjuring up some small spat of magic to connect the touching edges. The bark began to not only change color but plump and soften as well, increasing in size beyond a reasonable measure.

"Alright, almost done," Urg said. "You two, tuck the note under that bear. Then we need to get this baby out of here before anyone notices something is amiss."

Garg put a few finishing touches on the stick-figure before standing back and admiring his work. Oof and Blurb were fighting over note placement -- "Let's lean it against the bear so it looks like he's the one giving them to note!" and "Can you not just do what you're told? You know how Urg gets about these things," mostly -- while Urg was doing some baby-recon in order to figure out their escape route.

When everything was taking shape (especially the stick-figure), they turned to their apparent leader with an expectant "now what?", to which Urg shook his head. "Can't do it."

"What do you mean, 'we can't do it'?"

"We spent all this time. We have to do it."

"This is ridiculous. Do you know how long it took me to find those sticks?"

Urg stood by the baby. "It's too big." He leaned against the baby's skull, his entire body able to comfortably use it like a wall. "Can't be done. Not enough of us."

The three others started to squabble with Urg, not noticing the sound of screaming having been winding up in the baby's throat. The stick-figure baby was also beginning to make noises of its own, set off by the real baby's finicky cries, and the four strange little men found themselves completely overwhelmed.

Oof and Blurb were the first to abandon ship, most likely because they had the least to lose. For a moment Urg attempting to grab the baby by the collar of its jammies and Garg bemoaned the loss of the sticks before ultimately running off in pursuit of their comrades. They sadly never saw the expressions on the parents' faces when they arrived to their wailing baby's side and found themselves staring down the barrel of two screaming infants where only one was expected.

They found the note under the stuffed bear and wondered if this meant there was actually supposed to be a third baby somewhere, never mind wondering how much "lots of gold" was supposed to be. But first, there were more crying babies to attend to.

Things to Write - You are an astronaut. Describe your perfect day.

If there is one thing I have never actually wanted, it is to be an astronaut. I may be fascinated by space by the pure fact that we know so little about it, but the myriad ways of potentially dying in space haunt my brain, even though I'm not at all in a position to be jettisoned out of the atmophere. To make a long story short, in this scenario where I am an astronaut, trying to envision a perfect day ultimately boils down to "whatever results in the least chance of me dying alone in the inky blackness that makes up most of the Universe."

I've certainly spent countless hours looking at astronaut-taken photographs and can appreciate the beauty of the universe from an astronaut's privileged position. But my understanding is that an astronaut doesn't simply "hang out" in space: there are things to do, things to maintain, and things they are required to do every day in order to survive in what I would only describe as a potentially hostile environment.

For anyone not aware, if you're in space and something catches on fire, you can't just call the fire department. If you hurt yourself, you can't just call an ambulance. I'm not really Good at Things(tm) so maybe if I were, the idea of free-floating away from all conveniences wouldn't be so all-consumingly terrifying.

I could go on for a long time about the terrors of space and why I won't want to go up there, but I guess I'll just say this: if I were an astronaut, my perfect day would be the one where someone at NASA realized their mistake and took away my astronaut license, leaving me to stand on solid ground and deal with the potential disasters inherent in living on Earth.

Things to Write - Write Facebook status updates for the year 2017

I hate the premise of this, mostly because I can barely figure out what I'll update my Facebook status with next week, to say nothing of two and a half years from now -- to also say nothing of how any of you people handle your own personal Facebook situations.

What is comes down to for me is this: I have very little faith in the improvement of the human race. So I suspect that the Facebook of 2017 will be much like it is now: political arguments and human drama balancedout by distracting and soothing pictures of babies and animals, punctuated by the occasional hilarious or poignant video.

There will be wars and disasters in various parts of the world, some we will try to raise money for and others we will try to ignore. Some people will hate the president and others will love the president, and other people will just scroll by those posts as quickly as possible in order to get to the next batch of adorable baby/animal pictures. Some people will bitterly comment on friends-only posts about how much they hate all the photos of babies and animals and weddings because they're not in the same boat. Others will beg their friends to post more photos of their kids because sometimes those photos are the only hope we have in the future. Fights and love-fests will break out side-by-side, and you will still wonder why that random person unfriended you despite your Facebook presence being nothing short of amazing on a regular basis.

Facebook will probably remain a good place to keep up with corporations or brands (okay, and family members too, but clearly that's not the point), and some people will probably still be playing Farmville. Or is it Hay Day now? Maybe it'll be ZOOOMG and you will stil have that one aunt who consistently asks you to help clean out her lion cages. (That's how those games work, right? I somehow managed to avoid them against all odds.) Either way. Most likely a number of us will continue to use Facebook the same way we always have, unless Google has managed to take over our lives completely and made Google+ a reasonable alternative.

My ultimate hope for the future, all else be damned, is that by 2017 we will live in a world where people stop sharing Onion articles and believing them to be true. It's unlikely, but sometimes I like to put faith in the impossible.

Things to Write - A house plant is dying. Tell it why it needs to live.

Dear House-Plant-who-is-dying,

Hi. I'm Nina, and I have been directed to write to you regarding your current sad state of health. I've been asked to discuss reasons to live, but given I don't know the specifics of your circumstances, I don't think I can go about this the way it was intended. That will not, however, stop me from plowing head-first into this, so let's see where this goes.

I don't know what type of plant you are, but I wish that I did. The prompt makes me feel like your life/death scenario involves an option on your part, which I was lead to believe by high school biology was not really how this works. Far be it from me to argue with book over a hypothetical plant, but someone thinks I'm up for this, so I guess I'm going to run with it. 

Our natural inclination when it comes to someone or something being in declining health is to wish for that decline to end -- but not in a fatal way: we want a status quo maintained, one where everyone involved is happy and feeling good about life. But, like plants having the mind to take their own lives, that isn't how life works.

Let me be "one of those people" for a moment and bring up an excellent line written by Chuck Palahniuk in Fight Club: "On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero." It isn't a matter of if as much as when, which I think some people forget when dealing with someone or something clearly reaching the end of their life span. Death is something that can always happen "later," maybe when it's more convenient, or when we have had our fill of that person, enough to live without anything more than their memory. But we can never truly get our fill of someone or something, and death is seldom if ever convenient. 

I'm rambling, dear Houseplant, so let me get back to you.

Maybe you're tired (do plants get tired?), or maybe you don't get enough sunlight or water. Maybe the house cat nibbles on you or perhaps you have a nasty aphid infestation dragging you down. Perhaps you're having trouble with your chlorophyll, or maybe your housemates aren't talking to you as frequently as they once did and you're endlessly lonely. Regardless of the reason, things are grim and, as a plant, you have limited options. Most involve waiting around fruitlessly (I'm sorry for the pun) and hoping someone else notices and helps you out in some fashion.

As a plant (again, as my understand from biology class nearly 15 years ago led me to believe), there isn't much else to do. So what is there to live for?

My initial instinct is to go, "fuck" and be bummed out for a while, pondering how empty your life must feel even if you've been mostly well-cared for the entire time. I don't want to outright say, "I can't blame you, so maybe casting off your leaves for the final time is your best option" either because that's awful. But I don't want to lie and say, "it'll totally get better, just wait and see!" because I don't believe in blowing sunshine up anyone's ass, even if in your case, it might actually help.

The point is, what you have to life for is ultimately up to you. Just remember that the people around you telling you to keep going are thinking about everything positive and beautiful your existence provides them, even if you can't see things that way. Wishing life on people and things is selfish, but understandably so. That doesn't mean we aren't allowed to die, since 100% of us are going to die completely ignoring how anyone else feels about the situation.

No one can really determine your quality of life as well as you can. People can be supportive of you and want you to flourish again and again, but they can't name your struggle and they aren't the ones who determine what you can actually soldier through. What I think personally doesn't really matter, especially if you've already made up your mind (which, arguably, you haven't, since you lack a mind to make up), and no amount of wishing otherwise will make a plant keep flowering and blooming beyond its capability (caveats exist, I'm sure, but I never finished college so I'll admit a dearth of knowledge on this subject).

As requested, though, here are a few things you may miss if you decide that you are ready to go (I can't say "be one with the earth," really, since your kind generally has that covered pretty well):

-the beauty of a sunrise or a sunset (in your case, maybe beauty doesn't come into it, but I'm okay with projecting, given the circumstance)
-the refreshing feel of water misting across your leaves (presumably, anyway)
-the "ooh"s and "aah"s of passersby who are taken in by your beauty
-those first days after being replanted into a larger pot and letting your roots stretch out in the space
-the pride of new growth every year

...the problem I'm having seems to be that I can't get away from things that either happen rarely, things that involve massive amount of ego-stroking, or things that might have no real appeal to you. I mean, don't get me wrong, but these aren't things that I use to talk myself out of a rough patch, so why would I use them on you? I can't think of the last time I actually *watched* the sun rise or set. Maybe you've never been misted. Maybe no one appreciates you. Again, I don't know.

What I do know is, it's ultimately your choice. I'm a firm believer in the idea of allowing someone to die with dignity, as much as I am a believer in not doing anything too risky in too rash a fashion. If you sleep, I would say sleep on it. I won't beg you to stay since we've all got to die sometime...but know without a shadow of a doubt that the world will be less lovely without you in it.


Things to Write - The Worst Thanksgiving Dish You Ever Had

It's a little shocking to me when I try to think about Thanksgiving meals gone awry, and my mind comes up with nothing but good meals. I think of my mom's stuffing, or the bacon my in-laws drape across their turkey, or the time my ex's mother made Yorkshire pudding...! 

How in the HELL can someone so negative as me not come up with a single bad Thanksgiving meal, especially when you take into account the fact that holidays often stress me out for a variety of reasons? My mind just kept running through good meal after good meal, delicious food insulating memories of tense days. 

Then, it hit me.

The first time I lived on my own, it was in the fall. I was working two jobs and mostly staying home, attempting to jumpstart my dating life while spending most of my downtime with my faithful companion, Zena. I met someone quickly but he was out of town for Thanksgiving and my family and I weren't getting along particularly well, so I went to the store and got myself fixings for a low budget thanksgiving meal.

Specifically, I bought two things: a Stoffers spinach souffle, and a turkey loaf.

Let me start by saying that I love that spinach souffle beyond reason. This is a longstanding love affair that I refuse to give up on. It would be perfect, and I remember being excited that the souffle and the weird box of turkey required around the same amount of time in the oven. Within minutes, my meal was on its way to Donesville, so I had an hour to sit around and do nothing for an hour.

I don't remember this part of the day, but if I know myself at all (and I would like to think that I do), I most likely brought my aging iBook into the bathroom and browsed the internet while sitting on the toilet. It was a rough day, and all I wanted was comfort; in a weird way, the bathroom has always been my happy place, and remains that to this day.

Speculation aside, the food cooked and eventually I pulled it out of the oven and tried to arrange everything on a plate. The problem with turkey loaf is that it's essentially a rectangular cube of meatishness. I chose to leave it in its corrugated metal tray full of tasteless gravy and plopped the whole thing down on my plate, clumps of souffle leaning against its sides and getting stuck in the divots. 

What I realized is that I only liked the spinach souffle when it was cooked in a microwave: the consistency is perfect, with creamy undercooked bits eventually mixing with overcooked crunchy parts...but cooking it in the oven didn't have the same effect, much to my dismay.

The turkey loaf was worse, in a way I can say with neither an attached "thankfully" nor "unfortunately." It was dry and devoid of flavor, which I somewhat expected. It was still somehow a shock, but not a shock that kept me from finishing the whole mess.

I refused to admit defeat and ate all of it, but I certainly never tried to replicate the saddest holiday meal I've ever made myself eat. There's a line there that isn't worth crossing, even for the weird definition of nostalgia that my brain occasionally employs.

Things to Write - What Can Happen in a Second

Sometimes I feel like I have some form of OCD. Is that normal? Maybe that's normal when you already have a diagnosed mood disorder that you aren't actively (medically?) treating ("just" major depression with a few accessories, so clearly something I can leave alone, clearly) and the understanding is that these sorts of problems typically only get worse. Regardless! The point is, I will sometimes find myself checking and rechecking something (especially somethings that involve knowing "how many" somethings there are) because I feel like I've forgotten or miscounted. I second-guess my own mind constantly, but because I can't exactly remember if I've already second-guessed myself before (...was I counting something else, perhaps? Did I miss one? Was that number a two or a five? Maybe a three of an eight...?), it just keeps happening over and over again. Or maybe three times. Five? Maybe four. Definitely more than once, but I suppose that's kind of a given.

It's technically a problem, but it's one I try not to fall into that often --I don't use change when paying for things; I only play board games involving counting if the things being counted are easy to break down into non-confusable numbers or symbols, or, barring that, if my husband or stepson are around to do the counting for me; I don't do a lot of specific math for fear of messing it all up or getting stuck counting and recounting until I make myself cry; and, in a similar vein, I don't leave the house much in case I get confused over something, especially on "bad vision days."

The math thing is the worst on days where my eyes decide they don't want to focus properly -- hell, everything is worst on a day when I can't properly see. On "good vision days," I can see individual leaves in the trees, their edges clearly defined and awe-inspiringly beautiful. On "bad vision days," I can lose Robin in a store and spend what feels like several minutes stumbling around in a haze made worse by encroaching tears. It's hard to explain because I can *see,* but I can't see *well.* I wouldn't trip and fall into anything or go out an in-door, but the finer details are completely lost and makes getting my bearings incredibly difficult.

On the plus side, "bad vision days" mostly only happen during times of intense stress. On the downside, that throat-catching hyperventilating panic has started to bleed over into "normal vision days" and, like their "bad" cousins, makes it increasingly difficult for me to comfortably go out in public without the worry that my vision will essentially fade and I'll be alone and lost. It's disorienting and smacks horribly of losing your parents in a department store as a toddler.

When I'm willing to go out in the world, I will eventually shed my panic and start looking at things -- you know, the way people do when they're in a commercial paradise. Inevitably, I lose sight of my husband, and the dread creeps up my spine as I stand on tiptoes or look up and down aisles searching for him. It always takes longer than you'd imagine to be reasonable, especially considering I had the great fortune of marrying a very noticable man -- he's a big guy with a bright orangy-red beard and a penchant for wearing hawaiian shirts and interesting hats. There are many like him across the world, but usually there are few enough in the immediate vicinity that it's simple enough to pick him out of a crowd. When I find him again, I lock on and move strategically toward him, panic held at bay knowing I haven't accidentally abandoned myself (since I'm normally the one to initially walk away).

I move with speed, taking the shortest route possible in order to push my anxiety toward a downward spiral. I zip around people, rush down aisles, get a few steps away -- and then --

This is where a second makes all the difference.

Let's step back for a moment: we leave me there, a step behind my husband (his back to me, reading the back of a dvd held in his hand, his torso clad in a blue Hawaiian shirt, head covered in a tweed newsboy cap), one my hands extended to make my presence known by way of a friendly back rub. There's the initial pang of relief washing over my face, but there -- right  there -- in that split second before contact is made, complete panic begins to resurface. But why?

This same thing has happened in movies over and over: a kid gets lost during Christmas and looks around wildly and sees their mother's coat! It's brown, they know, and has that fur lining that's slightly darker in color, so they chase after that coat...then, after they've happily tackled the knees of the person believed to be their mother, they reel back in horror and realize they've just chased down a complete stranger! The child then runs off and all number of terrible Hollywood-movie-things happen before they're ultimately reunited with the missing parent. End scene.

For me, it's back to the counting problem, which is ultimately a noticing problem -- is the person I'm about to touch in a very personal gesture of affection wearing the right shirt? Is that the right hat? Am I sure Robin's beard is that color? Did I just completely forget what he looks like, even after all of these years? It's a panic-packed second, and it's completely unfounded given I've never taken down the wrong person. But it happens. Every. Single. Time. And it happens mere instants before contact has been made, even if I've spent the past several minutes making my way toward him with my eyes locked securely on the back of his capped head.

It doesn't matter how many chances I've had to make sure I know it's him, there's that one single zap. "Maybe I'm wrong, maybe it's someone else, maybe I'm about to make a complete fool out of myself and scare the crap out of this poor person." I can't tell if I'm lucky or not that this happens as my body is relying on momentum to propel me the last few centimeters toward making contact. I don't know if it'll ever go away. But that second is strong enough and solid enough that it can fully throw off my emotional groove for the rest of the day. 

Let it never be said I don't take the tiniest of things seriously.