The Last Image: Flash Fiction

When you heard the news, you had an idea. Recreate the picture. Get the team together one last time, toast Cassini goodbye in the same place you celebrated her successful launch. How many times have you pulled out that photo, stared moony-eyed at the third girl from the left. It was your first job, and how it thrilled you just to walk into that room in the morning and see scientists you’d idolized since you built a spaceship out of Lego and zoomed it up to an imaginary moon. You mumbled at your shoes for the first three days. Then you settled in, and found each other, in that way young people find each other in offices. In coffee rooms, at the copier, lingering after the staff meeting so you’d both be leaving at the same time, “helping her” bring back lunch. Staying late to pitch in. You teased her about her thick glasses; she ragged on your Star Trek socks. And you were the last one to know how she felt about you. By that time she’d been reassigned. Or at least that’s what she said.

You brought the picture with you. You distract yourself with comparing the faces that walk through the door with the ones in the photo. People laugh. The tall, sharp-eyed guy who made origami swans for everyone at the Christmas party—stooped over a bit, a little blurry around the edges. The round-shouldered dude who wore sweaters his mother made him. Still rocking them now, but in a grandfatherly way. You wonder what they might be thinking about you. If you ever got married. If she had… You dread the moment you know is coming, where someone will say: “You made such a cute couple, why didn’t you ever—”

And then you start to think this had been a really bad idea. You slink away to the bar with the excuse of ordering another round. The television monitor shows the last images Cassini will ever transmit. Your eyes mist over, remembering when the first ones came in. You thought of her then, too, and thought for sure she was out there, somewhere, remembering you, wondering if she’d made a mistake. Or counting her blessings that she’d moved on. Then you sense someone on your left. Myrna, the office “mother”—who made the birthday cakes and hugged them all so very tightly when their part of the mission was done.

She gives you a sweet smile, and her hand, a little smaller, a little more wizened, lands on your arm. You think of things to ask her but aren’t sure you want the answers. Is her husband still alive? Do her children appreciate her, do they come to visit?

She points up at the screen. “It was beautiful, you know. Being a part of that. Like we’re all out there.”

You nod, want to make some joke about all of you together plunging into Saturn, but you don’t trust your voice.

For a long moment, you’re silent, and the commentator jabbers something about the project he probably just read off of Wikipedia, and with a deepening hole in your stomach, you realize that he’s probably the same age you were when you started working on it.

“I called her,” Myrna said. “She said she’d try to make it. You know. For the picture.”

For the picture. Your fingers dig into the sticky varnished wood of the bar. The part of your mind that makes words has turned to jelly. Cassini’s time is done, and perhaps it’s time for you to move on, too. You put some cash on the bar and ready the least jerky goodbye you know how. You mumble something to Myrna as you head for the back door. You try not to think about the birthday cake she made you, in the shape of a rocket.

You’re in your car, about to turn the key in the ignition when your phone trills with a text. You don’t know the number but you know it’s her.

She’s written: “At least we didn’t crash and burn like Cassini.”

He grins, then replies, feeling brave behind his words. “Maybe if we’d gotten off the launch pad we could have.”

He imagines how she would smile, maybe giggle a little. Tease him for the corny joke. But her words blip slowly onto his screen.

“Ten… nine… eight… seven…”

On six you take a deep breath, open your car door, and eject yourself into space.

Stupid Human Brain Tricks and Your Productivity

brain_power_memory_2_3I love being a writer. It’s one of my main reasons for living, but it’s tough sometimes. Okay, it’s tough a lot of the time. Sometimes the enemy is my own brain. Even the most facile thinker can have problems bouncing from project to project, reorienting his or her brain toward the required task. You’re tapping away at your magnum opus, when BOOM, the phone rings— your best client needs to talk to you right away about Madagascar hissing cockroaches. You scribble down notes about revisions to the project and go back to your computer to find fifty new e-mails, a handful of which require your immediate action.

So how can you shift your focus and apply your best self to each task?

Discipline, yes. Those things you’re supposed to do, like keeping a to-do list, blocking out spaces of time for each project, returning messages promptly… those Highly Effective Steps all of those Highly Effective People use every day.

But there’s much more to the task of balancing tasks than mere paperwork or better productivity software. According to Dr. Nick Hall, internationally recognized psychoneuroimmunologist, (try fitting that on a business card) we can work with our own biology to become more productive.

For instance, some studies show that our brain hemisphere activity cycles every 90 to 110 minutes. This is a brilliant method the brain uses to manage its energy throughout the day. The trick is to harness and work with your gray matter’s natural rhythms.

The first step is to figure out which brain hemisphere happens to be switched on.  According to Dr. Hall, you only need to pay attention to your breathing. More specifically, your nostrils. Sit very quietly, inhale through your nose a few times (blow your nose if you’re congested), and note which nostril feels less constricted as you breathe. As I’m writing this, my left nostril is definitely doing more than its fair share of the work. Using Dr. Hall’s hypothesis (cribbed from ancient India), my right-brain is more active. So it’s a good thing I’m using my right-brain language skills now. And in about 90 to 110 minutes, I should switch to my left-brained tasks, like sorting out my inbox or updating my contacts list. Theoretically, this will make performing all types of tasks more efficient.

Another way Hall recommends you improve productivity is to match your breaks to your tasks. After spending 45 minutes composing a proposal (language skills), don’t hop on down to chat with your friends at the water cooler (or the virtual representation of the watercooler) for a break. Okay, this is not really a break. This is a continuation of language skills. Sure, we need breaks. But if I hang out on FaceTwit for fifteen or twenty five or ten minutes and then return to that proposal, my brain is already tired and hasn’t rested. Probably a more effective break would have been a quieter activity like fetching a cup of tea, going for a short walk, or taking a few deep breaths. Then I can go back to my linguistic pursuits refreshed.

One method I use is to work with my biological rhythms. I am peppier and more creative in the morning. That’s when I do the bulk of my fiction writing or tackle tasks that require more energy or focus. After lunch, I work best at editing or revising. At around four or five o’clock, though, my mental energy plummets. This is when I normally exercise. And from banging my head against the wall time and time again, I’ve learned that the part of my brain that makes sentences checks out after about ten o’clock, so I have no business writing then. Better to perform a more rote task, or even better, chill out and get ready for sleep.

You probably know when you’re at your best for certain things and not for others. It’s much easier to fit your tasks around your rhythms than trying to muscle your way through something your brain is not up for.

But I know what you’re thinking: “I’m at work, and my report is due in two hours. According to my ‘nostril clock,’ I’m on the right side of my brain. So I’m screwed, right?”

You might not be. Some studies have suggested that you can change which side of your brain is “switched on” by closing the currently active nostril and forcing the other to do the work. I’ve been playing with this trick for a couple of years, on and off, and it has worked for me about fifty percent of the time. Maybe you’ll have more success.

What are your favorite productivity tips that don’t involve your nostrils?