The Gift of the White Elephant

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The Holiday Game that Highlights the Best and the Worst

 

Photo by James Hammond on Unsplash, and slightly modified by the author

“Okay, everybody take a number!” she chirps while walking around the room holding a small jute bag containing blue slips of paper with numbers ranging from 1 to 25 written in black Sharpie marker.

25 slips. 25 people. 25 gifts that range from boring, to gag, to “oh that’s sort of nice.”

I draw my folded slip and put it in my pocket. I’m in the middle of telling some nonsense story that gets a laugh from my coworkers, spinning a yarn in between sips of good red wine.

It’s the annual holiday party. It’s the boss of my boss. We are at her house and enjoying catered appetizers. Two weeks ago we were commanded to attend and to bring a $15 gift. Pay for play. “Remember, $15 is a ceiling and not a floor!”

The White Elephant is among us.

Some people love the White Elephant. Some people loathe the White Elephant. One thing is for sure, there are no set rules for playing the White Elephant’s dangerous game.

How many steals, how many rounds, what value, and what is proper etiquette depends on who is running the game. The Ring Master controls the Elephant.

My favorite annual White Elephant game is played with a group of salty network engineers. Instead of using slips of paper with numbers, they use two decks of playing cards. It lends a little gambler’s air to the proceedings.

Today it is slips of paper and when my story is told and the laughs die down, I head to the kitchen to refill my cup. Only then, alone with bottle and corkscrew, I allow myself a peek at the blue slip in my pocket.

I groan. There on a background of robin’s egg blue is the number I least wanted to see. A single dark slash on a pristine paper background.

My number is 1.

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

(I’d have shown you a photo of the actual slip if I hadn’t washed it in the pocket of my jeans in the weekend’s laundry run.)

I have been chosen to start the game. Fate has determined that I select the first gift. How the game opens sets the tone for the entire White Elephant event, and that responsibility now lies with me.

I nervously gulp red wine from the plastic cup, tannins bitter on my dry tongue.

I recalled a day several years ago when I — a confused, jet lagged, and nervous American — rode a busy commuter train between Reading, UK and London. No seats available, I stood in the packed rail car near one of two doors. At each train stop the other door provided egress onto the platform, so I felt safe by the door across the aisle.

But as the train slowed, making its approach and then stop into Paddington Station, a train car filled with intense British commuters turned to look at me. I was unprepared for my moment, which demanded that I quickly and without delay lower the window, reach outside, turn the handle to open the door and usher these good people on their way.

It was a terrifying yet exhilarating event. I’m glad to say that day in London I executed the door as well as any foreign traveler could be expected to.

I drew from that memory to find my confidence on a rainy holiday evening in Northern California. My coworkers now turned to me to open the door to a successful White Elephant gift exchange.

I doubted myself in that moment just as I had doubted myself in Paddington Station. I knew I needed to stay grounded. I needed to visualize my way through the process. I needed to control the speed of the game.

And I needed to smile genially and do my best.

When the time was right and all were seated around the tree, my number was called. I raised my hand, saying “right here” and the crowd roared “oooooooooooh! Karen has number one! This should be good.”

I slugged back the last of my cup of wine and allowed the game’s host to refill it with champagne. The bubbles were too festive for such a solemn task, and I carefully set the newly full cup down on a coaster and stepped up to the tree.

Its genuine pine boughs welcomed me under its skirts. Salt and flour dough ornaments with a child’s paint job gave me a true horizon to focus on while I got my sea legs. I paced the half circle around the tree, side to side, like a caged panther scanning my holiday wrapped prey.

“Let’s see, what present looks good?” I said aloud, encouraging suggestions from the audience in the style of Price is Right.

Finally, when I felt I’d eyeballed every present under the tree, I made my selection. A long narrow box tightly wrapped in red and gold paper. It was crisp, clean, and inviting.

Quickly I skinned the paper from the gift and found an Amazon box. Cue a round of jokes about “Does anyone shop in the stores anymore?” and “Why would we? Amazon has everything!”

I pulled at the clear packing tape sealing the box and with no small amount of trepidation parted the flaps and peered inside. Would a pearl lay inside the cardboard oyster? Or only rotten sand?

My eyes landed on the treasure that lay within and my shoulders fell. Hope died when I saw clearly the item that began our game of chance.

I withdrew it from the box and said:

“I believe I have found the gift that will be coming home with me.”

With left hand firmly on hip, I took a solid stance and raised my right hand high above my head in the style of Lady Liberty, then announced to the overhyped crowd:

“It is a Donald Trump toilet brush.”

The crowd roared and the White Elephant smiled, for it was the perfect holiday gag gift.

“And with that,” I say,

“We are game on.”

 

 

My Fear of Flying

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It never goes away, it can only be managed


Photo by Lucas Ludwig on Unsplash

“I love to travel, I just don’t like what it takes to get there.” — Me, before every trip

Last week I was delighted to pack by bags and head out on a business trip on behalf of my employer. My job gives me the opportunity to travel once or twice a year and I am happy to get out of the office and on the road. I really do love to travel. Anywhere. Large, small, domestic, international, if there is travel to be done, I’m in.

Over my life I have traveled a lot, not the “gold status for a lifetime” kind of amount, more like 3–4 trips a year, sometimes more. I’ve seen quite a few countries, with a whole lot more to go.

My first plane ride was at seven years old. My mom, sister and I traveled to Oregon to visit my mom’s family. We flew to Salt Lake City, changed planes, then on to Portland. I remember the excitement, the thrill of the ride, the joy at seeing how lush and green Oregon was in comparison to Albuquerque.

I love seeing places I have never seen before, just as much as I love going back to a place I know and remembering all the things I like about it.

One thing that hasn’t changed over a lifetime of traveling: I’m moderately terrified of airplanes. Okay, to be fair, I am not a nervous flyer gripping the armrest like a life raft, but I do have trepidation every time I board a plane.

I’m usually cool as a cucumber getting to and through the airport, but once boarding is called and I am on the jetway, the reality of what I am about to do takes hold. To cope, I have to run through a well-practiced serious of thoughts to calm myself down enough so I don’t turn around and sprint back off the plane.

What I am saying is most of the time I do just fine. I’ve gotten used to your average passenger plane, three seats on each side, air safety is pretty good, all of that. But it’s still a hard thing for me to give up all control of my fate, pack my ample curves into an narrow and uncomfortable seat, accept being sealed inside a tin can, and allow one human being to pilot me and my fellow passengers high into the air.

Every once in a while, my travels throw me a curveball. A few years ago I was beyond excited to be asked to travel to Porto, Portugal. I think I said yes so fast I broke the time-space continuum and said yes before my boss even asked the question.

However, when the day of travel arrived what I found waiting at the airport gate was the largest passenger plane I had ever seen in my life. I actually started laughing out loud. “I am not getting on that thing,” I said to nobody but myself.

A plane so large it needed a special gate at the airport to load. Called an Airbus A380–800, it’s occasionally referred to as a whale. This plane has two floors. It has an actual staircase inside. I mean, come on now.

Airbus A380 on MAKS 2011. Image from Wikipedia and used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

 

I had to sit down and really, really ask myself if I was going to willingly get on that plane and ride for the eleven hours needed to get to Frankfurt. On the logical side of my brain, I reminded myself of watching loaded C-130s take off from a nearby military airfield, so I knew this plane was possible. The dimensions of the thing were just more than my brain could take.

Well, this past week, I had the opposite problem. After flying from San Francisco to Houston, I was to board a small regional plane that would get me over to Knoxville. I have flown very small planes before, including one bumpy ride on a terribly noisy turboprop, but for some reason I was not prepared for the plane that awaited me at the gate.

An Embraer Air ERJ-145, new, shiny, sleek, and terrifying. I texted my husband this photo with the caption “aw, shit.”

Photo by the author, ©2019 Karen Fayeth

I knew I was going to be flying a small plane to Knoxville, I’d even made a joke a few weeks back about “Flying on a La Bamba plane.” When faced with the reality of the situation, the joke just wasn’t funny anymore.

When the glass door opened and I stepped out onto the tarmac, I began to run through my usual mental roll call of thoughts: “You are going to be fine, you don’t have to get on this plane if you don’t want to, these are professionals who do this every day, planes are very safe, you are safe, but you have choices.” And so on like that.

I locked up pretty good, but given my stubborn nature, I refused to let myself balk. I gamely walked up the ramp, got my stuff stowed, and crammed into the seat. I texted my husband, “I’m in my seat. I think I’m now wearing this airplane,” as it certainly felt snug about the hips.

This plane has two seats on one side and one seat on the other but is fairly comfortable. I was lucky to be on the one seat side, enjoying both a window and the aisle.

Once the doors were shut, I immersed myself in my book and did my best not to think too much about it.

If my trip to Frankfurt was riding a whale, to Knoxville I rode a sardine, and in both instances got there safely, on time, and no worse for the wear.

Look, fears and anxieties aren’t always rational, that’s kind of the point. I know flying is very safe, but my mind still has an awful lot of questions about the wisdom of being 30,000 feet above the surface of sweet, sweet Mother Earth.

One upside? The Sardine had nice big windows, all the better to capture a Tennessee sunset above the clouds.


Photo by the author, ©2019 Karen Fayeth

The Meme is Not Me

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I am a middle-aged white woman named Karen.

I’m not even ironically a Karen, like a teenager wearing some sort of normcore olive green cardigan. I really am named Karen.

I am not blonde. I do not have a severe jaw-length bob haircut. I do not want to speak to your manager.


From the Know your Meme website.


I know none of that matters, for I am a Karen, which was a perfectly good name in the 1960’s when it was applied to my natal form, but is now a burden upon which I have been saddled.

Memes, jokes, and Reddit threads all define what it means to be a Karen and none of them adequately describe the real me. I just have to wear the veneer of the meme, but on the inside, I know the truth.

Please embrace me in these troubled times.

I remember when Becky carried this burden. Who didn’t disdain Becky with the Good Hair? Or barbeque Becky? I laughed and laughed for the Becky memes were funny (and a little sad), but now fate has turned like the worm that it is.
Ask not for who the meme tolls, it tolls for me. I swallow my Becky laughter and stoically take my unearned meme lashings.

I do not have kids, but if I did they would be vaccinated and would attend public schools. I believe the earth is as round as a shiny blue marble. I do not try to cure my ailments with oils, balms or salves unless medical science calls for that, then oil, balm, and salve me up.

I’ve always seen myself as the very anthesis of the memeified Karen.

And yet here we are.

Karen is not a person, she’s a state of mind that shall live on in internet form for many, many years.
When I was a kid, I always wished for a hurricane to be named after me. I wanted to hear every weather person on every news station say my name.

I wanted hurricane Karen to be a good strong storm.

Just a few months ago, the name Karen was applied to a developing hurricane.

And then this happened:


From Peter Matti on Twitter


Not only was the hurricane joy stolen from me, storm Karen couldn’t even gather together enough wind to become a hurricane. Downgraded to tropical depression, she just sat out there being petulant, demanding attention without putting in the work.

What a disappointment. I refuse to allow this to become my metaphor.

I am not meme Karen. Meme Karen is not me.

My name may never be associated with something like Good Guy Greg, but at least I am not Scumbag Steve/Stacy.

Today, I shall go out, order something and not demand to speak to anyone’s manager, because I am a good Karen and I will represent my name nobly for all the decent Karens of this world who will redeem our name, one positive encounter at a time.



Two Decades Later

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The year was 1998. I was a young professional, new to California, and working for a big company. The big company had just merged with another big company and the employees of neither company seemed to be happy about it.

There was a lot of rabble rabble about how we needed to do a better job partnering. How we should act like one company. The leadership wanted to take two companies, each with their own very strong corporate culture, and smash them together fast.

Phone calls were had. Terse emails were exchanged. And then leadership had an idea, as leadership tends to do.

Each site from both companies (we each had a lot of locations) were tasked to send an employee to visit the new headquarters. We were going to have a “team building” event. (I use the scare quotes purposefully, as they convey more than my words could do)

Being young and dumb and not smart enough to move faster when leadership wants to force a volunteer, I was designated to travel to represent our site. In hindsight, sending someone so green was probably a good way to show HQ just how much our site wasn’t going to play ball. But fine, okay. I’m not bad at making friends and I like to travel, so load up!

Headquarters was located in Virginia, so this girl from the west was handed a plane ticket headed east. My travel plans worked out where I had a day there on my own, and my hotel was located right by a Metro station, so lo and behold, I found my way on board and took my first trip into Washington D.C.

Washington D.C., capitol of these United States, home to an overwhelming number of things I’d read about in history books in school. After a short Metro ride, I found myself on the National Mall with eyes wide and a full day head.

The Ken Starr report had just been released, so there was a weird tension in the air. Every now and again, one or several black Suburbans with blacked out windows came hurtling up the streets with police escort. There were questions about things the leadership of our country did or did not do, and it was a weird time to be in D.C. But there I was.

I walked from one end of the Mall to the other. I started at the Lincoln Memorial and made my way uphill. For obvious reasons I couldn’t get near the Capitol Building, but got closer than I thought I would.

I saw a painting that I would never forget at the National Gallery of Art, saw the actual Star Spangled Banner at the Smithsonian, looked at buildings, statues, and items that I never imagined seeing all the while feeling very patriotic.

I enjoyed my time in D.C., but I also felt very out of place. I tend not to follow politics much and my memory for history is pretty terrible, so I felt like I stuck out like a hayseed. After a full day, I headed back to my hotel after a fun tourist day thinking that D.C. ain’t my kind of town, and I ain’t D.C.’s kind of girl anyway.

And that was that. Over the last two decades I’ve availed myself of Dulles Airport several times, as it’s a decent stop on the way to and from Europe, but haven’t spent any more time in D.C. itself.

All that changes next week as my job for a much smaller company has decided to send me eastward for training in support of my new job role.

I had thought this training was going to be a casual event, exchanging ideas, best practices, whatnot. Turns out it’s kind of a big deal and a VIP is scheduled to attend the event to give a talk. So yeah. New Mexico by way of California is going to D.C., and this time I get to stay at a hotel inside the Beltway, right in the heart of town.

This is happening just after yet another report is being released tomorrow with questions about some things the leadership of our country did or did not do. So that’s an odd parallel. A decade apart and politicians are still (allegedly) behaving badly. (no comment)

On this trip, however, I have a guide. A fixer. An inside person. One of my coworkers is also going to the training, and she used to live there. Used to work right where we’re going to be staying, and knows her way around. She’s originally from Texas, but we forgive such things. She’s promised to take me to her favorite restaurant for what she claims is a good local bourbon.

And suddenly Washington D.C. seems a lot more like my kind of town.

_____________________

Speaking of New Mexican’s in Washington D.C., here is a boost to Silver City native and fellow New Mexico expat Avelino Maestas. Hit that Instagram link to take a look at his gorgeous photography in and around Baltimore and surrounding areas.

_____________________




Though I will be staying near here, I think I have missed D.C.’s legendary cherry blossom explosion


Photo found from NBC Washington news site. Link here.




A Baseball Story of My Own

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A few years back, I participated in a flash fiction writing event and drew the genre of Historical Fiction as my prompt. Historical Fiction! I had no idea what to do with that. None. At all.

I believe the full prompt was Historical Fiction, a dentist’s office, and a leather jacket.

Uh. Okay. Sure.

So off I went and wrote a story. My own little sort of baseball story and turns out it did pretty well in the competition, meaning it was good enough to get me to the next round.

After finishing the story, I’d had a bit wish that my sorta kinda baseball story would get to see the light of day, and be published during the baseball season.

Well, my wish came true. “The Dilemma” was published this past April in issue 13 of SLAB Literary Magazine.

My baseball story! Published in April! During Spring Training!!

So why am I telling you this in June?

Well, it came out in the print version in April and I decided to wait for the issue to be loaded up online before sharing. Well, Issue 13 is online, however…..my story is listed in the table of contents but it’s not printed in the online version.

Grr.

I’ve sent a few notes but I think the editorial team is off on summer vacation.

While I love the folks and SLAB and am so very, very grateful they published my story, I don’t really want to wait anymore to share my little story with the world.

So I scanned that bad boy and you can read my little baseball story today, a few weeks before the All Star Break.

Here it is:  The Dilemma

You can also find the link in the right side of this page.

If you take a few moments to give it a read, I’d be quite grateful. If you don’t wanna read but just wanna send “yay you” thoughts, also fine by me.

Either way, I’m going to be over here feeling pretty darn proud of myself for taking a bit of an oddball prompt and making something good.




Issue 13






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