January 30: Story Challenge in 99-words

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at CarrotRanch.com. She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

January 30, 2023

I was asked to mark this day on the calendar — Todd did the dishes. It’s his little joke and we are rolling in the jokes big, small, and best not repeated. When you are a brain-challenged former Army Ranger with PTSD, debilitating body pain, and comorbidities, you can have a questionable sense of humor. As the spouse who decided to stay on this sinking battleship, I’m allowed to laugh inappropriately, too.

Sometimes Todd does the dishes. Remarkably, he gathers all the garbage every week as the self-appointed trash czar. I’m not sure why he remembers the garbage every week but can’t remember the shipwreck YouTube video we watched last night. But there is something to be said for rhythm and patterns. If he has garbage collection imprinted on a solid spot in his brain, he can go for it.

I was serious when I told him that my one and only concern is to be happy.

When his mood slips or his triggered brain needs a reset, I remind him of the happiness threshold. It’s enough to get through to him. The simplicity works. I just want to be happy, I say. No longer do I track episodes or worriedly watch for signs of escalation. I grab the happiness sheers and nip the negativity in a way he understands and (gratefully) agrees to. I note if he’s hurting, tired, hungry, or Mause-frazzled.

My caregiver skills have grown since I was accepted into the VA program at the end of 2021. And, I’ve added new tools to my mental health toolkit that align with my ambition to be happy — positive psychology (not to be confused with Pollyanna or toxic positivity because neither are authentic cultivations of a positive mindset). It aligns with the appreciative inquiry I’ve cultivated in my career. Let me explain both because the latter is vital to understanding the mission at Carrot Ranch, and the former has become a tool to nourish my writer’s life.

In the 1990s, I discovered appreciative inquiry, and it changed how I approached my college education and resulting career as a marketing communicator and successful freelance writer. Until my mid-20s, I sucked as a student. I didn’t know how to study. I didn’t understand why my writing was considered “good” and I hid inside books, dreaming of discoveries I felt I couldn’t make because schooling was a barrier to me. Back then, I was committed to cognitive behavioral therapy, how to heal as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and break generational cycles. I knew I had c-PTSD. I also had three incredible children and a hero for a husband. They were my incentive to be well. Appreciative inquiry became my ladder out of what I called pit-thinking.

The pit might be filled with all my hardships, weaknesses, and human flaws but the ladder was built from my strengths. Each rung taught me to appreciate who I am. As the saying goes, “Energy flows where the focus goes.” When I learned to appreciate my strengths, a foundation emerged. I built a solid education, career, and writing life from that base. In the workplace, I used appreciative inquiry to build strengths-based teams and projects. From the start, I saw the possibility of play and collaboration at Carrot Ranch. Each week, the Collections prove to me the magic of collaborative creativity (even when the collecting goes awry).

Positive psychology popped up on my radar when I sought support to continue with the veteran spouse group after the regional Vet Center abandoned our remote outpost in the Keweenaw. Our fearless combat leader moved on to a justice job within the VA hospital south of here and we were promised by her superiors that her position would be filled. They lied, which is immensely harmful to a veteran population suffering from moral injury. We have a high number of Vietnam veterans and their families living in our area who helped start the Vet Centers across America because they distrusted the US government so deeply. Thus, it damaged many when their legacy organization left them and lied about replacement.

“It’s happened so many times before in the past 24 years, I lost count,” says one Vietnam veteran spouse. I only meant to stand in the gap until we could get another group going. But the Vet Center remains closed down, their flags, posters, and brochures about their promise to vets abandoned in a mostly empty shopping mall. Over winter break, I created a syllabus of sorts for my Warrior Sisters. We are back to meeting weekly every Friday. One every other week we lunch and write letters to our shut-ins. On alternate weeks we Zoom to allow greater access for those who can’t go out. The VA Caregiver Support Program is great but far away. We need closer interaction.

That’s when I found and purchased an online positive psychology workbook to incorporate videos, worksheets, and practical tools to cultivate a positive mindset. The definitions help us recognize and honor our resiliency, too. If you are interested in this path for yourself, you can start with this in-depth article and a list of references (mostly books). It helps me stay centered in my quest to be happy in this grand adventure I call my writing life (where lots of unintentional non-writing things happen).

I needed deep breathing and a positivity exercise after last week’s collecting, that’s for sure. The stories stirred, surprised, and inspired me but the snafus with collecting chomped me like a coyote on a ski slope. The situation is what it is for now, and I’m doing my best, staying close to the happy side of life. What was lost was restored. The new website is out for at least another month, so be patient with me, and don’t hesitate to speak up if your story is missing.

A new path slowly emerges. I see familiar faces and places, but the flow has changed. Do you feel it, too? I wonder what future historians will call this period in time? I wonder what will shift in our writing? Refind the path if you’ve awoken in the weeds. Roll over and remember the joy of finding shapes in clouds or peering into the blue eye of the sky. A writer’s life is made up of cyclical seasons anyhow. If the writing calls to you, then write. If not, read, dream, and readjust the vision. It’ll come back.

And, mark this day in your calendar. Todd did the dishes.

January 30, 2023, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about the dishes. It can be the every-single-day activity, a precious collection, or any other interpretation of dishes as objects or activities. Who is stuck with the dishes and why? Go where the prompt leads!

  1. Submit by February 4, 2022. Please use the form below if you want to be published in the weekly collection. The Collection publishes on the Wednesday following the next Challenge. Stories must be 99 words. Rules & Guidelines.
  2. Writers retain all copyrights to any stories published at Carrot Ranch.
  3. A website or social media presence is not required to submit. A blog or social media link will be included in the title of any story submitted with one.
  4. Please include your byline with your title on one line. Example: Little Calves by Charli Mills. Your byline can be different from your name.
  5. Please include the hashtag #99WordStories when sharing either the Challenge or Collection posts on social media.

Submissions are now closed. Find our latest challenge to enter.

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  1. Chel Owens

    I am far too familiar with dishes.

    And this is beautiful, Charli. You sound much like me so I’m encouraged to look into this non-Pollyanna positivity.

    • Charli Mills

      Every day. Every day. Those dishes, Chel.

      Check out the positive mindset. It’s practical and can be authentic even when times, emotions, or thought patterns are difficult.

  2. restlessjo

    Charli, you are a wonder and an inspiration. I just want to be happy too. And you make me smile and give thanks. ????????

    • Charli Mills

      I’m discovering that’s the key to the second half of life, Jo. We’ll keep it simple, smile, and be happy!

      • restlessjo


  3. pedometergeek

    Baby steps. Hey, it is a reason to celebrate. For Todd, for you, and for all veterans who suffer from the wounds of war. Throw confetti and celebrate, Charlie, and I WILL mark it on my calendar. Next year, the party. All my best to Charli and Todd. ~nan

    • Charli Mills

      Nan, your call to celebrate makes me happy! Thanks for marking your calendar!

  4. Liz H

    You’ve had a tough road, Charli, but your openness in sharing means you also open the window to spring breezes and all our good wishes for you and the family. Even when you don’t know or say, we feel and care.
    Stellar job, Buckaroo! And as the little blue fish tells us, “Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…!!”

    • Charli Mills

      I remember that little blue fish, Liz. I just had a flash memory of a child’s book I once had. Thank you for the reminder about open windows.

  5. Colleen M. Chesebro

    Ron collects the trash each week and takes the heavy trash containers out onto the street. He does the dishes, which means he loads and empties the dishwasher. He does all the snow blowing too! These tasks give our disabled vets the ability to be part of the family. Bravo to Todd, Charli. ??

    • Charli Mills

      You’re right, Colleen, these chores give our disabled vets a sense of belonging. Ron and Todd carry on! Thank you!

      • Colleen M. Chesebro

        Thanks, Charli. It definitely gives them a sense of belonging. ??

  6. Jules


    I’ve learned to be a more positive person. There are things in the past we cannot change. And being in the moment and happy are good ways to live. Thank you for continuing to provide a safe space for us to be creative.

    I had to change up the form again… but for the most part it works and I can live with it. Sometimes I will ask my hubby to help. But it is nice when he does lead his Helping Hands (The title in blue is the link for anyone who would like to visit before the round up.)

    • Jules

      OK the title showed up in ‘red’ 🙂

    • Charli Mills

      Jules, I agree that we learn to be more positive. I appreciate you saying this is a safe place to be creative! I love everyone’s creativity and for those of you who’ve been here a while, I’ve witnessed so much growth and creative breakthroughs.

      Ha! Around these parts we make red what is usually blue.

      • Jules

        While I’m sure I’ve my numbers aren’t 100% – I’m nearing 500 – 99 word contributions. If it were only one story a week that’d be close to 9 years of sticking around!

        I think I can reinterpret your last line…

        Ha! Around these parts we make ‘read’ what is usually ‘colorful’ 😀

    • Charli Mills

      C.E. your story gave me goosebumps and yet left me feeling empathetic.

      • Charli Mills

        Oops! Now I realized I was thinking back to your last submission about the optimist! Great use of dishes to pull us into a gritty story.

    • Charli Mills

      I’ll try not to succumb to the pressures of your character who no longer wants to do the dishes!

      • sweeterthannothing

        Best to stay out of her way completely I think, who knows what will set her off next.

        Thanks for reading/ commenting 🙂

  7. Norah

    I’m pleased you’re choosing happy and love your happiness shears. I must get a pair for myself. The dishes and the garbage. Those are good contributions to the running of a home. Everyone needs to feel valued, if only in a small way.
    It’s always a pleasure to read the positivity of your apporach, Charli, regardless of what life throws your way. Thank you.

  8. Nicole Horlings

    Appreciative thinking is a fantastic mindset to foster throughout life. I’ve been encouraged to deliberately think this way by my mental health counselor, although she never used this exact phrase. I also really like that saying, “Energy flows where the focus goes.” It’s my first time hearing that one, but it’s going to stick with me.

    It’s so important to also celebrate the little things. Whenever someone in my family does a household chore that I usually take care of, I really appreciate their efforts too.

    For the prompt this week, I used “dish” as a noun for a cooked meal, and more subtly as a verb – to dish out an opinion. I surprised myself with the direction I took it, but I really love what I ended up writing.


  9. Jennie

    Charli, this is wonderful. I immediately thought of Roald Dahl’s quote, “If you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams, and you will always look lovely.” I think ‘look’ really means ‘feel’. Here’s to sunbeams!

  10. Hugh W. Roberts

    ‘A new path slowly emerges. I see familiar faces and places, but the flow has changed. Do you feel it, too?’ – yes, I do, Charli, but it all started for me when the pandemic hit. Ever since that first day of lockdown, I feel like I’ve shifted to the same me but on a parallel Earth.

  11. D. Avery @shiftnshake

    “Kid, what’re ya doin here? Thought you was watchin over the Saloon. It’s Cowsino Night.”
    “Thought you was watchin the Saloon, Pal. I’m lookin fer Shorty, wanna tell her I’m thinkin a hirin Thickpuddle McDrawer ta be full time cook at the Saloon.”
    “He’s thet good?”
    “Best wurst ever, it’s kind of a signature dish. They’s somethin bout it… anyways, his barbecue cain’t be beat.”
    “How’d ya hear of it?”
    “Thinkin Liz H cooked this character up.”
    “McDrawer kin cook?”
    “Yep, an his missus too; always got somethin in the oven.”
    “Hire ‘em both, see what comes of it.”

    • suespitulnik

      I’m taken with the new names, as usual. Bring on the cooks.

      • D. Avery @shiftnshake

        Please know that these characters are from the imaginative pen of Liz H, debuting over at the current Cowsino prompt. I tried to include links but comments kicks them off.

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