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.”

 

 

In The Flow

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I wrote a short essay about Albuquerque back in the day. About Cutter field, little more than a dirt lot and a bunch of crazy hot air balloonists.

The Balloon Fiesta was a lot different back then, and it was a whole lot more interactive.

Take a minute to reminisce with me through my little essay titled “In The Flow” which just found a home on a place called The Story Pub.

You can find a link in the right column of this page, or you can…


Read it Here: In The Flow






Photo from the family archives.



Top Ten Things I Love About Christmas In The Bay Area

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A few days ago I posted the refreshed for 2018 Top Ten Things I Miss About Christmas In New Mexico, which has become something of an annual nostalgia trip for me.

As I was writing it, I thought to myself, you know….I’ve lived in the Bay Area for twenty years. Maybe it’s time to write a top ten for my current home.

I mean, I am an ex-pat New Mexican and will always be a New Mexican, but I’ve lived in the Bay Area long enough to also call it home. I guess I’m lucky in that way, to call more than one place my home.

And so without further ado:

Top Ten Things I Love About Christmas In The Bay Area


1) San Francisco’s buildings lit up like presents. Around Thanksgiving the buildings on and near the Embarcadero turn into glittering holiday presents and the Ferry Building lights up red and green.

My first Christmas living here, I’d taken a ferry over to Sausalito to buy presents. When I came back over on the ferry, just as the sun was setting, I saw those gift-wrapped buildings for the first time I couldn’t stop staring. It’s so beautiful and an annual tradition.



This was taken just after New Year’s Eve fireworks last year, hence the smoke, but the view can’t be beat. Image found here


2) And while we’re talking about things down on the Embarcadero, how about the tradition of Palm trees wrapped in Christmas lights? Other than one sickly Palm tree doing its best to grow by the NMSU library, there aren’t really a lot of Palm trees in New Mexico.

But there are plenty here and I love that they get in on the holiday fun. The Bay Area is hardly the only place to feature lit up holiday Palm trees, but it is the first place I ever saw the style and I’ve always loved it.

Here’s an example of the Palm trees outside of AT&T park (there are 24 Palm trees to honor legendary #24, Willie Mays).


Image by Fuzzy Traveler and found on Flickr.

3) To stay on the theme of trees, the Bay Area hosts and awful lot of offbeat Christmas trees each year. I don’t recall seeing a lot of weird trees back home in New Mexico, mostly normal trees decorated in the traditional way (which I love). But since living here in the Bay Area, I’ve seen a variety of trees including one decorated with only the heads ripped from dolls (weird), a tree decked out solely in Star Trek gear (nerdy), trees made of alternative materials like lab supplies, computer servers and routers, and then this one found at an architecture firm by internet friend, UPS driver extraordinaire, and longtime San Franciscan, Rafael Monterrosa.


Photo copyright Rafael Monterrosa (@rafael415 on Instagram), and used with permission. Give Rafael a follow, he is a fantastic photographer and posts photos from his travels all around the city of San Francisco. He’s got a sharp photographic eye and knowledge of the City like no one else.



4) Okay, one last tree thing: Another fine Bay Area holiday tradition is tree lighting ceremonies. Usually happenig the weekend after Thanksgiving, every town has at least one. From the Union Square and Ghirardelli Square events in San Francisco, to Jack London Square in Oakland, to Christmas in the Park in San Jose, and lots of smaller neighborhoods and businesses in between, people love to come out to see trees light up for the first time of the season, drink hot chocolate, and get into the holiday mood.

Here’s a photo from my little neighborhood’s second annual tree lighting event this year:



©2018 Karen Fayeth

5) Now it’s time to move on to the fantastic Bay Area food traditions at the holidays. Let’s talk about Lumpia which can be found at just about every holiday potluck. Living in the Bay Area has opened me up to the traditions of so many cultures that I just never experienced back home in New Mexico.

I have been honored to know and work with so many amazing people from the Philippines, and they have lovingly introduced me to their food, most notably lumpia, which can roughly be described as a Philippino egg roll. More colloquially it’s been called the food equivalent of crack, and I can’t disagree.

Nothing more joyful than a huge pile of lumpia at the holiday party. No matter how many are in the pile, they will certainly ALL be gone within no time, and I will do my part to make them disappear. So freaking good.


6) Let’s keep talking about holiday pot lucks because the Bay Area likes to eat, something I have always loved that about living here. In addition to lumpia, holiday eating in the Bay is an enormous cross section of diverse foods, all of them delicious.

This year my loaded down holiday plate included lumpia, pork buns, chow mein noodles, Italian seafood lasagna, samosas (delicious little savory pockets from Indian culture), German stollen, Hungarian floating island dessert, pecan pie (hello pecan producers in NM!), enchiladas, guacamole, ceviche (done in a Brazilian style), and much more.

I mean, come on! The amazing diversity of the Bay Area means the best of foods from around the world. What’s not to love?


7) I’m not done talking about food either. Holiday season is also Dungeness crab season. Starting roughly in November (start dates depend on a lot of things), this is the time of year where the commercial crab season opens, and oh what a season.

For many Bay Area families, it’s tradition to go down to the wharf or to certain places at the coast on Christmas morning to buy crab. Fresh caught that morning, and you can take it home and cook it yourself, or pick one out from the steaming vats.

As a single gal, I used to celebrate holidays with a dear friend, and she loved this tradition. She’d go out early in the morning to buy crab then put a huge stock pot in the middle of her dining room table to catch the shells and we’d dive in with hands and metal crab crackers. Some folks think eating crab is too much work, I say those people leave more crab for me and that’s just fine. Delicious!

8) Going to the beach on Christmas day. One of the best Christmases I ever had was when I was all alone, a little depressed, and I made the excellent decision to pack up some leftover Chinese food, a blanket and a small radio and head to the beaches of Half Moon Bay for the day. It was a balmy 65 degrees and for many hours I had the beach all to myself. I read, I ate, I zoned out, I watched the waves, and I wasn’t lonely for a minute.

9) The smell of eucalyptus and fog. Okay, fair enough, this is not just a holiday thing, but for some reason it stands out for me during the holiday season. The Bay Area is home to quite a few Eucalyptus trees, which are actually an invasive species, but are now just a part of life here.

The Bay Area geography means we have what is called a “marine layer“, which is the reason for the iconic fog we experience. Roughly explained, when a warm Bay Area day meets the cool, cool Pacific Ocean, they crash into each other and create fog.

Add to that when a Eucalyptus tree gets warmed up, it releases its very aromatic oils.

So you have a warm tree giving off oils and by the afternoon a marine layer pushing ocean fog into the Bay Area. This creates a smell that is unique to the Bay Area all year round. Add in the moist damp air from the rainy season that starts around the holidays and you have something that will forever be etched in my mind. Even my sister recently commented on her memory of the Eucalyptus smell from her last visit.

10) To use a colloquialism from the internet, I truly love the way the Bay Area is so very extra at the holidays. Examples include the enormous real Gingerbread House at the Fairmont hotel, the entire Oakland Zoo covered in holiday lights, the huge Dickens fair, the full size skating rink constructed every year at the Embarcadero Plaza, real live reindeer at the Discovery Museum, the lighted boat parade with holiday lights from San Francisco’s not one but two yacht clubs, and that’s not even the beginning of a comprehensive list. There is always something to do, to try, to remember, and to make a tradition.

The Bay Area loves the holidays and I love everything about that.

_______________


Well that ended up being an awful lot of fun to write. Maybe posting this version right after my New Mexico version becomes my new holiday tradition.

Basically, I just love the holidays and all the food, smells, and trees, so I guess wherever in the world I live, I’ll find something to love and write about at the holidays.

Thanks for coming along with me on this journey. Feel free to tell me what you love best about the holidays where you live either here or on any of the social media where we connect.

And to you and yours, wherever in the world you are, wishing a wonderful, joyful, and magic holiday season.





The Politics of Orientation

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Sense memory is a funny thing. Seemingly insignificant things are ingrained early in your cells and pop up at the darndest times.

***

Earlier this week, after a long day at work and in a post-dinner stupor, I emptied the dishwasher and put away our clean dishes.

No big deal, right? Common, unremarkable.

After I’d put away the dishes, I looked at the cabinet where our glassware is kept and laughed, because I had done something that harkens back to an earlier time.

When The Good Man and I first moved in together more than ten years ago, there was a lot of negotiation. To be expected, I’d been living alone an awfully long time, was a bit set in my ways, and I was no spring chicken either.

So having this dude move into my space was, well, weird. I honestly had some difficulties, which we were able to work through bit by bit.

One such negotiation had to do with the orientation of drinkware on the shelves. You’d think this wouldn’t be a big deal, but it became one of many lessons in “things you do because of where your from.”

You see, I grew up in dry ol’ New Mexico. We loaded our glasses rim down so the dust doesn’t get in ya drink.

The Good Man grew up in Brooklyn. They loaded their glasses rim upward because god knows what crawled across the shelves and it’s gross to drink from a rim that’s been in the yuck. “That’s why my mom puts new shelf paper down in every place she lives,” he explained.

Ah. Well. Sure. That actually made sense. So I relented and agreed our home would be a rims up sort of space.

Besides, I knew that picking battles was going to be the key to success. We still had to settle if our home was going to load toilet paper over the top or from below. (Over the top is the final determination, my preference, The Good Man doesn’t care either way)

So this past week, tired of mind and body, doing something I must have done thousands of times in my life by emptying the dishwasher, I loaded the glassed rim down. And laughed.

Then thought about the early days of The Good Man and Me. As we approach our ten-year wedding anniversary, I have been doing that a lot lately.

So did I then turn the glasses back over? Nope. I left them, figuring we’d use all the clean glasses before the next washer run, and then on the next unload one of us would get the right orientation.

This morning, better rested, I unloaded the dishwasher again. Sense memory, I didn’t even think about it. I put the clean glasses rims up and walked away.

Here is a true and accurate representation of the current state of our cabinet.



Where avoiding dust and avoiding rat droppings meet



I wonder how long it will be before my rather obsessive need for uniformity will get the better of me….can’t blame that on New Mexico.





Photo taken this morning using the Camera+ app on an iPhone 7. I mean, why would you want to steal a photo of my drinkware? But if you do, please remember it’s subject to the Creative Commons in the right column of this page. Attribution, please! :)



Ok, I’ll Pick A Side

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Recently, as I perused the pages of Facebook, I came across a Newscastic (read clickbaity) article with a New Mexico topic. I took the bait so you don’t have to.

The title of the article is:

Pick A Side: 11 Famous ABQ Rivalries Since The Day You Were Born

They said to pick a side, so I did.

Herewith, the 11 so called rivalries (many of which came well after the day I was born, by the way) and my pick for each.


1) Comanche vs Candelaria


We can all agree not Montgomery, right? My preference always was and will always be Comanche, since it was quite close to the house where I grew up.

Sideline here, I looked up the house where I grew up on Google Street View. Wow, hardly recognize it. Brought a little tear to my eye.

Back in my day Comanche had way less traffic than Candelaria and made it worth taking, even with all of the stoplights. Who knows how it goes today? Maybe my ABQ folks can let me know.


2) Twisters vs Golden Pride


Have I been out of the state so long I don’t know what Twisters is? Had to look it up. Established in 1998. Psh! No.

Golden Pride (est 1972) all the way.


3) Sadies vs El Pinto


Isn’t the right answer first one then the other?

Okay, okay, look, I grew up in the days when Sadies was located in a bowling alley. That’s the kind of clientele they drew. El Pinto was always nice, a little more upscale (and pricey).

So to me it’s Sadies if you want casual and El Pinto if you want nice. Even with the lovely Sadies stand-alone restaurant, I stand by that rule of thumb.

Verdict: No pick, love ’em both in different ways


4) Rio Grande vs Alameda


Shrug. No opinion. I was a Northeast Heights girl. Didn’t get down either very often. Probably Alameda, based on my limited memories.


5) The Shins vs Brokencyde


Who? I thought this was “rivalries since the day you were born.”

Let’s go with neither. How about Joe King Carrasco, who is not from ABQ but played the hell out of it back in my day. Yeah.


6) UNM vs New Mexico State


I believe my feelings are this matter are abundantly clear.

And when we win this game, we’ll buy a keg of booze, and drink it to the Aggies til we wobble in our shoes.


Best. Fight song. Ever.


7) Eldorado vs La Cueva


Richie rich versus the really Richie rich. Who cares? Not me.

Del Norte for the win.


8) Sandia vs Rock Quarry


For skiing? Sandia. Oh Sandia and your bare dirt patches. Your hard icy spots. Your imperfect but nearby skiing, how I miss you.


9) La Cueva Skatepark vs Los Altos Skatepark


Hey! You children get off my lawn!


10) Scorpions vs Dukes


Those Dukes are comin’ up swinging. No contest whatsoever. Love the Dukes. Likely because I am a huge fan of the sport of baseball.

While I love the sport of hockey and have nothing against the Scorpions, it just never seemed…right…to have hockey in the middle of the desert. (Yes, yes, I know about the Coyotes)

Side note, the Dukes used to have dollar dog and dollar draft days. Wow there are some games I can’t remember but had fun.


11) Sandhill cranes vs Balloons


Stop it Newscastic, you’re drunk. This is a ridiculous question. What, because they both fly?

Here’s the answer, hot air balloons in the morning, sandhill cranes at sundown. Owl burgers all day long.

Solved.


Okay, ABQ folks, what are your picks?





Image found here.