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

If We Make It Through December

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Everything’s gonna be all right I know

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

 

Every year on December 1, the classic Merle Haggard song “If We Make It Through December,” becomes my theme for the next 31 days.

Released to the world back in 1973, Merle’s words still resonate in 2019 as I play the song on repeat in my car driving back and forth to my job.

I play it on those days when it’s both dark in the morning and dark in the early evening. When I’ve been inside all day, completely missing the sun. When the rain comes down. When my feet ache and my head hurts and I wonder why, for another year, I’m anxious, depressed and overwrought during what is meant to be the happy time of year.

Every year I look forward to December and the holiday season, hoping to capture some small bit of that childhood joy and anticipation and magic. I watch movies like White Christmas and Holiday Inn that are filled with optimism and dancing and songs about snow.

But every year I feel crushed by an avalanche of end of year business activities. It’s the nature of the profession I have chosen that December is just always going to be busy, stressful, and intense.

Now I don’t mean to hate December
It’s meant to be the happy time of year

Thanksgiving seems to come easy with a few days off of work and a bit of turkey and gravy. The moment the last morsel of pumpkin pie is consumed, the ho-ho-ho expectations ramp up into high gear. Already I see my calendar filling up with events which are all wonderful taken individually, but are a lot to manage all together.

I always wonder how certain friends are able to hold down a full time job while also decorating their home top to bottom, entertaining with ease, baking up a bunch of seasonal treats, getting their shopping done, presents wrapped to perfection under the tree, and look good (and calm) doing it, too.

There has been more than one year where it was a trick for me just to drag the artificial tree out of the garage, much less set it up, get the lights working and hang some ornaments.

Every year I dream of the perfect December where I move through the holiday season with the ease of Martha Stewart after one of Snoop Dogg’s special brownies. Color, sparkle, magic, joy. Calm.

Every year I fall well short of that mark and blame myself for not being more organized, not being a better hostess, not being just, you know, a better person.

I think my holiday present to myself this year is to ease up on all the negative self-talk. To give myself the grace to do the work that is demanded by a full time job and to do the best I can with the holiday preparations.

Perhaps good enough really is good enough.

This all sounds well and good, the words are easy to type, but it’s harder to go out there and really live that decision. Hard to unwind the old recordings in my head that tell me if I don’t pull it off perfectly, I’m a loser.

But this year I’m going to try a little harder.

If we make it through December we’ll be fine

And I will. I’ll be fine. This annual hell and highwater (literally, the rain is pounding down as I type) will recede, the perfect storm of work and holidays will draw to a close and we’ll all find our way back to level ground.

Maybe this year I’ll enjoy the holidays a little bit more for what they are, not what I should have done.

You know, December ain’t so bad.

In the words of ol’ Merle “I don’t mean to hate December.”

December certainly doesn’t hate me.

 

The Ballad of a Walnut Bladder — Tales of a Pressing Need To Go

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Photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash
___

I was born with a troubling affliction. It’s been difficult to manage my whole life, and is embarrassing to discuss. Today I feel is the time to go public with my ailment.

I am affected by a disorder known colloquially as walnut bladder. Yes, it’s true. I so much as look at a glass of water and I have to pee.

In such times that my walnut bladder-itis impacts the life of my husband, he refers to me as a frog. “You know, you pick up a frog and it piddles in your hand?”

That’s me.

As a child I presented quite a challenge to my folks who liked to take road trips. You see, I had the kind of dad who refused to stop once we were on the road. “Gotta make good time,” he’d say.

The average child has to pee frequently but I was even more prone than normal. It was a problem.

We used to spend summers in a small town in Eastern New Mexico. The drive from our home in Albuquerque took about three hours, plus or minus. Even as an adult, three hours is just too long for me without a pit stop.

This vexed my mother terribly as she had to manage both my bladder and my straight-through-without-stopping father. Once she threatened to use a clothespin to clamp off my leaky plumbing.

Well that got my attention.

From that day forward I planned well ahead for any family road trip. My plan was to cease intake of liquids at least a day in advance of the trip and steadfastly refuse to drink any liquid until we arrived and a toilet was in sight.

In hindsight, not having much liquid while living in the high desert probably wasn’t the best idea, but it worked, thus avoiding any clothespin type of situations.

In my adult life I manage my ailment by working a path between my desk at work and the restroom. At home I get up a minimum of once a night to pee.

There was a recent situation where I again recognized the utter torture of a completely full bladder and no good plan to empty it out.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

It was a typical afternoon at work and I was, as usual, drinking lots of good fresh water. Stay hydrated, right? That means ol’ Walnutta has to be actively managed.

Before a work meeting I will use the restroom right before heading into the conference room to help ensure I can get through the hour stretch.

On this day, I was so busy with work and in other meetings that I bumped right up to the top of the hour when my next meeting was due to start. I did an internal gut check and then a clock check and thought, “Yeah, I’m ok.”

Silly, silly me.

At about twenty minutes into the hour and a half long meeting, a job interview with a prospective candidate no less, I had that first twinge of “oh…hmm, I’m going to need to pee here pretty soon.”

As the seconds on the clock ticked by with molasses speed, and the candidate droned on and on and on, things started to get bad.

I began to go through the stages of grief:

First, denial: “Pfft! I’m fine. No big deal. I can make it.”

Then bargaining: “Ok, well, if I can make it just ten more minutes, maybe I can excuse myself and take care of this. Please please bladder don’t let me pee my pants.”

Anger: “Dangblamit why did I drink so much water today! And why is my bladder so tiny? And why can’t I just distract myself and make this feeling go away!?!”

Depression: “Dude, you are such a loser. Look at everyone else at the table, they can hold their liquids. What is wrong with you?”

Acceptance: “It’s going to be ok. I’m going to make it. I’m not going to pee my pants. And if I do, it will be fine, right?”

Over the course of an hour and a half I moved up and down and back and forth through all of those stages while squirming mightily in my chair.

Look, my attention span isn’t that long to begin with, add in a full to bursting bladder and I don’t hear what anybody has to say on any topic.

It was horrible. At one point I thought I might even cry, I had to pee so badly.

And finally! Finally at the hour and forty five minute mark that damn candidate stopped talking and I was free to go use the restroom all the way over on the other side of the building.

Then it becomes that age old question of walking or running in the rain.

As in:

Do I walk to the bathroom thus taking longer and upping my odds for peeing my pants?

Or do I run thus jangling my bladder and making it more likely I’ll pee my pants?

I chose the middle road: a sort of tight-legged shuffle which worked and I made it safely to the bathroom stall.

Once in the safe zone my whole world looked a little brighter. A little happier. A little more at peace.

I know everyone has gone through the ballad of the full bladder at one point or another. When you have a walnut bladder it happens a little more often than I’d like.

For any reader who might have questions about my affliction: it’s been this way since I was a kid, I have discussed it with more than one doctor, and it just happens to be a feature (not a bug) of the big Karen machine.

Did You Ever Have The Kind Of Day Where….

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Photo by Benjamin Child on Unsplash

 

Did you ever have the kind of day where you are going ninety miles an hour at your work desk, cranking out the emails, spreadsheets and taking phone calls left and right, all while balancing the Greyhound bus stop that is the chair in front of your desk….

And despite all the chaos and kerfuffle, just in the nick of time, you manage to whip out one page with a beautifully wrought, easy-to-read table that contains the cheat sheet you’ll need to answer every question that will be machine gun fired at you at your 3:00 meeting.

So you send that sumnabitch to the printer and grab your notebook, hike up your pants, run to the copier, and grab that thing off the machine so you can make it to your meeting at something less than five minutes late.
Then you squeal your tires around the corner into the copy room and you are heartened to hear that the machine isn’t working. It’s done. It’s printed your copy.

Only it hasn’t.

The screen reads “out of paper, load tray three.”

Inside your head, you say, “I can deal with this.”

It’s one of those big industrial machines and to fill the paper tray takes not one, not two, but three reams of ecologically friendly 50% post-consumer lily white paper.

Being a good office citizen, you could throw half a ream in there and call it good, but you don’t. You fill it up to the top, slam the drawer and the machine fires up.

Sweet sound of the Gods!

And the machine begins spitting out page after page after page…..

After page.

After page.

And you realize the guy in front of you must be printing like a hundred copies of his forty page slide deck and it’s HIS FAULT that the machine was parched for paper when you arrived.

Photo by Kev Costello on Unsplash

Nothing you can do now but watch that machine like a bird dog after a duck, all the while not-my-copy, not-my-copy, not-my-copy shoots out of the machine, perfectly stapled and collated and tidy as you please.
“Ok,” you say to yourself. “I can deal with this.”

Then the machine stops again. The engine winds down.

“Thank god!” you think.

But wait, your copy isn’t there.

“WHAT THE [EXPLETIVE DELETED]!!!” You may or may not shout.

The LCD screen on that machine says “Replace Toner” and provides helpful animated arrows to guide you through the process.
“Ok,” you think to yourself, “I can deal with this. It can’t be that hard.”

So you find a box with a new toner tube and you follow the bouncing arrow on the screen and the old toner comes out and the new toner slides in and now you may or may not have black toner dust peppering your arms.

But you slam closed the toner door and the machine begins to make a noise.

“Warming up,” it tells you.

And you wait for what must be an [expletive deleted] eternity while the machine “cleans the wires” and “recalibrates” itself at the pace of an anemic snail.

Then Holy Mother of Xerox, the machine starts spitting out copies anew and more and more of not-my-copy of someone’s presentation comes out.

Then, most miraculous! The single sheet that you desperately needed finally exits the machine!

Victory!

So to be helpful you pull the other copies off the machine to lay them aside in a nice, neat stack.

And because you are nosy by nature, you look to see exactly what is the document that held up your progress and made you irretrievably late for a very important meeting, and you come to realize that it is…..

Handouts for someone’s upcoming Cub Scout meeting.

You ever have a day like that?

No way, right? Because that story just has to be made up.

Unless truth really is stranger than fiction.

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