The Gift of the White Elephant

  • No Comments

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.”

 

 

If We Make It Through December

  • 2 Comments

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.

 

Please Notice

  • 2 Comments

“And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’”

― Kurt Vonnegut Jr., from the book A Man Without a Country

Last night I ran across these bon mots from the author Kurt Vonnegut. This is not the first time I’ve seen the quote, it’s fairly well known, but for some reason this quote had a little more resonance than usual.

Miles of text have been written by people like me about their feelings on this quote and on Vonnegut himself. To be fully candid, I am not a devotee of Vonnegut only because I haven’t actually read any of his books.

I know, I know. Who didn’t get Slaughterhouse Five in High School? Me along with all my fellow students in the Albuquerque Public Schools. Saaaaalute.

My beloved is a fan of Vonnegut’s work, and has read most or all of his published writing. Let’s be honest, he had a better public education than I did. But let’s set that aside for now.

Vonnegut seems to be quite quotable. I mean who can ignore this brilliance of words like this:

I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”

― Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

Can’t argue with that. But back to the quote at the top, about taking the effort to notice those moments where the prevailing winds are happy.

That sentiment is a little bit different from prevalent mindset to be found online and in the media. There is a real drive to getting mad about just about anything and staying mad about it. About taking the maximum offense as often as possible. About grinding out misery. I guess perpetuating the agony keeps the eyeballs coming back, and eyeballs = ad revenue.

I really do get it.

But I just can’t thrive with that anymore. In the real world, not online, beautiful things happen every day. Happy moments exist and it’s not only good to notice them, it may be a matter of survival.

For example: There is a quirky scrub jay that inhabits my yard. I put out a bowl of peanuts and the bird picks through them like the pickiest toddler in the history of food, tossing aside the items that don’t meet exacting standards. It’s a funny moment of joy when I scold an unscoldable bird to “just take that one and stop being so picky!” The scrub jay never listens.

There’s the unscoldable rascal!

Today at work I did a nice thing for a coworker that really wasn’t that difficult, was right in my wheelhouse for the work I’ve spent a career doing, and helped my coworker out of a jam. They were so surprised and delighted I felt like I’d performed magic.

This morning I woke up next to the most wonderful man in the world. Tonight, I get to come home from work and hug him again.

See? If all of that is not nice, then I don’t know what is.

Feels good just to notice. Makes me want to keep noticing. Makes me want to pause a little when my own outrage seems to take the lead in my response to anything I read or hear or see.

Maybe I’m running too hard, reading too fast, reacting too soon.

Maybe I need to fart around a little more.

Maybe I can just remember it’s never as bad as it seems. Nor is it as good as it can be. But everything is always just a little bit better than I give it credit for. Leaning more toward the side of doing okay rather than not.

And that’s more than nice.

Back Out Into the Wintry Days

  • 2 Comments

Here it is, Sunday, January 7th and I’m staring down the barrel of Monday.

It’s time to get myself back into gear.

You see, not only does my employer shut down between Christmas and New Year, but I was also able to scrape up enough hours to take this past week off. I’ve just had seventeen glorious and fun filled days away from work. Days of setting my own agenda. Of not looking at work email. Of working on photography at midnight if that’s where the fancy took me because I could sleep in the next day and the next one after that.

Last week I existed in a fabulous sort of limbo land. 2017 no longer, not quite 2018. It suits me.

All good things must come to an end, and so must my extended vacation. Tomorrow, reality slaps me across the chops, as reality is prone to do.

This morning The Good Man and I left our warm and cozy home to venture out into the rainy, wintry cold for Sunday breakfast. Pancakes to bid adieu to vacation and bonjour to 2018.

Through visible breath and rubbing hands together I looked up and saw a bright red maple leaf shellacked to the windshield. “Hey that’s pretty,” I said and took a quick snap.

Now, I realize that in this simple winter image I somehow exactly captured my mood. No more holly jolly songs and soft Christmas lights. No more Santa and wrapping presents and warm cookies baking in the oven.

It’s now winter, plain and straightforward. No more looking forward to the holidays, instead we look to Spring. I have a lot of (needed) California rain to endure this year because that is what the Bay Area does in winter.

This is the long slog, when it’s still dark early and foggy mornings and shivery cold.

But soon. Yes soon, the world moves into winter so we can know the spring. Daffodils and cherry blossoms are just around the corner, but for today it’s a sodden leaf in cold rainy hazy blue surroundings.

So I won’t lose hope. Tomorrow may loom large, but I will pop back to the surface like a bobber and keep swimming. I will have great successes and I will fail a lot too. I will be mad and sad and happy and grumpy and overtired and all the things I was on December 21 when this wild leave from work began.

Okay 2018. I put you off as long as I could, but you are now top of my To Do list and I’m going to tackle you.

Starting tomorrow.



©2018 Karen Fayeth



And So It Is…

  • No Comments

…that we find ourselves on the final day of the year 2017. I’m both a little surprised it is here already, and a little relieved too. It is as though I have been anxiously awaiting the arrival of a delayed guest.

So many people are saying, “Ugh! I can hardly wait for 2017 to be over!” and “Good riddance” and bon mots like that.

Sure, 2017 has been a trying year, but remember when we all bid 2016 goodbye with a gruff hacking noise and an emphatic *patooey*?

I keep reminding folks of that, of how everyone was eager to flush 2016. One very nice lady recently asked me to cease reminding. She didn’t want to remember that narrative, I suppose. She was too content to be down in her hacks and patooeys and other rude noises regarding the year 2017.

Recently, the musician Taylor Swift was publicly and roundly lambasted for saying she had a good 2017. I mean, she won a pretty ugly court battle, released an album that sold over a million in one week and spun off several number one hits. I don’t particularly care for Ms. Swift’s style of music, but all in all, I’d say she had a pretty good year. But no one wants to hear it.

Celebrating what is good from 2017 doesn’t fit the hack-patooey narrative. We must all be miserable! Blame the year! Blame the world!

I don’t think that is quite fair. 2017 has certainly tried the patience of the most gentle of souls, but there is still good to be found through adversity. Not to get all quoty and stuff, but isn’t it through fire that mettle is tested? Isn’t that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger?

And don’t we win by remembering the good even through dark skies?

There are a lot of horrible things to recount from the year. Fires, floods, earthquakes, famine, Congress, hunger, poverty and people treating their fellow humans horribly. I’m sure many a news source will remind us of all of this and more in bright Technicolor photos and videos.

But what if…and bear with me here…what if on the eve of the new year dawning, instead of remembering what was bad, we celebrate what was good? What worked for us in our own lives?

I mean, I’ll start. In 2017 I had five short stories published. FIVE. This is the most success my writing has seen in any year. I was boggled as the acceptances rolled in. In 2016 guess how many of my stories were published? I won’t make you wait, it was zero. I received zero acceptances of my work in 2016. And I kept on writing. Kept on hustling. And 2017 rewarded my hard work.

By the by, all five are linked in the right column of this page, in case you missed any of them.

In 2017 I completed one of the most intricate and challenging projects in my work life. It was a slog, and I had very little support and help from coworkers or direct management. But I did have a lot of expectations from senior leadership that I’d get it done. And on December 21 I did just that.

In 2017 I went to a photographer’s retreat where many professional and experienced photographers looked at a portfolio of my work and congratulated me, gave me good and honest feedback, and began to treat me as one of their own. I went from dabbler to serious photographer in the span of twelve photographs. I was utterly terrified to present in front of that group, but I did it and it was incredibly inspiring. I’m working that much harder on my photography now because I took that chance.

In 2017 I celebrated nine years married (and twelve years total) to The Good Man. Nine years is both not that much and a whole lot. Every day that I wake up and he still loves me and I still love him is a victory.

In 2017 I accompanied my eighty-three year old mother on a tour of the Midwest to visit family. I was scared that something would happen, that I would break the Mom, that it would be a terrible trip, that all of my plans would go awry. Instead we had a fantastic and utterly memorable trip. I both grew closer to many of my cousins and felt so happy to have that time with my mom.

In 2017 I opened my eyes every day and got out of bed and went out in the world with the thought and the wish that today might be another good day in my life. And the vast majority of them were.

And so while it’s unpopular to celebrate the year of 2017, I am going to swim against the tide and say Thank You 2017, for giving life, for the journey, for the trials and tribulations. I won’t send you off with a hack-patooey, I will instead say, thank you for the lessons, the gifts, the challenges and for showing me that I am much tougher than I give myself credit for.

Thank you, 2017. Rest easy old friend. 2018 just rolled around the corner and will be here in a minute. I’m going to be all right.







Fabulous image by tsugami on Deviant Art, which allows downloading of images. I believe in giving artists credit for their incredible work, and this image is deeply inspiring to me. Thank you, tsugami.


Secured By miniOrange