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.”

 

 

Affirmation Phrases are as Emotionally Nutritious as Cotton Candy

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Now that is a good click bait title, right?


“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me” — Stuart Smally

For those of us of a certain age, we remember the Stuart Smally pseudo-self -help skits by Al Franken on Saturday Night Live.

The catchphrase became an oft quoted in regular conversation, both joking and more than a bit serious.

In reality, there are an awful lot of resources out there that tell us about self-talk, about taking a strong stance, about giving ourselves positive affirmation phrases to bolster our courage and bring us to great heights.

Good words are all well and good, but do they actually work?

Here’s the thing, all the pretty words in the world are not a replacement for the discipline needed to actually take that first step.

Mohammad Ali told himself and the world that he was the greatest fighter that ever lived, then he went out there in the ring and proved it.

He did that not because of his hype words, but by putting in the training work well before the fight. The kind of work that’s less pretty words and all the more necessary.

What I’m saying is: The road less traveled doesn’t get traveled until you strap on your boots and walk it.

Self-care and self-discipline matter a whole lot more to your success than the perfect laser cut vinyl words stickered to your wall.

Live, laugh, love is all well and good, but you have to live by taking care of yourself, drinking enough water and for god’s sake eat a salad now and again.

You have to laugh, even when you are in such a dark place that laugher feels hollow. Sometimes it takes work to find anything funny, but once it’s there, the laugher soars.

And love, a lovely romantic notion but real true love takes hard work, which is, unto itself, cotton candy words. We all talk about “how hard” it is to make a marriage work, but you have to commit yourself to actually doing the work, to sticking around when everything in your brain says to run, to firmly holding that trash can while the love of your life barfs their brains out three days before the wedding.

Okay, that last one may be just a bit too personally specific.

How about this one:

Huh, really? Pretty sure that is impossible. There will ALWAYS be someone more than happy believe the bad stuff about you, even if you were the best person that ever lived.

Shouldn’t it be more like “Live in such a way that if someone spoke badly of you, it might make you sad for a little while, and then maybe you get a little drunk or eat french fries about it. Then you either hold on to that pain for a lifetime or you talk to your therapist about it and find a way to move on.”

I know talking about “doing the work” isn’t crazy cool, fun, and sexy. It doesn’t look cute on a shirt with butterflies and shooting stars. But that is how you get where you want to go, and by that I mean real, tangible results take effort.

Which is not to say you shouldn’t have some fighting words in your pocket to inspire when it is go time. I’m trying to say that catchy words are fine, but they don’t get the work done, so don’t get so lost in the memes, wallpaper or the “inspirations” aisle at the craft store that you forget to focus.

I mean, if you want to chant a phrase to get you fired up, get you off the couch and augment your inner motivation, then by all means!

I myself love to watch YouTube videos of tribal Maori doing a Haka dance. The strength and passion gets me fired UP to go out there and kick some butt.

I am not Maori so I try not to appropriate anyone’s culture, but I admit sometimes in the bathroom before a big presentation, I’ll stick my tongue out to my reflection in the mirror and make my best Haka face. AAAAGH!

Photo by Old Youth on Unsplash

Then I go out there and do the work. I stand tall and get it done. If I succeed or I fail, it wasn’t because of my affirmation phrases or my faces, but because I put in the time, dug deep, and did the work.

Pondering My Existence In Two Languages

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Last night I found myself on the Southwest Waterfront of Washington D.C., right on the Potomac River. The neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying and filled with shops, restaurants, and a music venue.

My coworker, who used to live and work around here, says she remembers when the Wharf wasn’t much of a place to hang out on a Wednesday night. But now it’s welcoming, fast paced, and vibrant.


Like, didn’t George Washington cross the Potomac? Well now I have too.

This just in….ol’ Jorge crossed the Delaware not the Potomac in that mas famoso painting. My bad. Thanks, Google. No thanks ABQ public schools.

So on a beautiful evening after a very long day at work, we headed over to a schmancy so-called designer Mexican place to eat. Now, as a New Mexican, anything called “designer Mexican” gets a hard side-eye from me, but I went along to get along, as they say. Plus, I was hungry.

It was a short walk and we got there early so I looked around, got a couple photos and then noticed this:


How great are those annotations, huh?

To answer a few questions: Those are two different restaurants. I don’t think this was a planned thing. No, they are not owned by the same people. Mi Vida is Mexican, with a “celebrity Chef” (I know, I know), La Vie is a Mediterranean restaurant.

(For a side road, this review of La Vie in the Washington Post worth the read for sheer snark: La Vie on the Wharf is so bad I’m only writing about it as a warning.)

So there I stood on the banks of the Potomac, in a place where I could feel the gentrification galloping by like wild horses, being imposed upon to ponder the nature of life. In two different languages. What course of events brought me to this place where two restaurants, one on top of the other, are called Life and My Life? What message are they trying to send?

Then I laughed. I shook my head. I took a photo.

In the words of the droll host of a favorite podcast:

“That’s so delightfully…stupid.”

My existential crisis didn’t last long. Soon we went to eat, snagging a table up in that balcony section toward the middle of the building. Lovely views. Decent food. Excellent night.

And the basis for a fair to middlin’ blog post, with photos to remind me of it all.

Boom. That’s life, baby.

Apropos of mostly nothing, my favorite rendition of “La Vie en Rose”

Photos ©2019 Karen Fayeth, and subject to the Creative Commons license in the right column of this page.




On Hideous Lizards and Good Brown Dogs

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It’s funny the things that stick with you. The seemingly forgettable details or moments that you look back on with fondness.

This past weekend, I returned home to New Mexico after a far too long two-year personal drought. Life, work, whatever, gets in the way (no excuse is good enough).

The occasion of my return was the high school graduation of my oldest goddaughter. At almost 19 she is no longer that curly-haired blonde toddler who captured our hearts. She is a smart, sassy, funny, talented and gorgeous woman and I’m a bit weepy right now just typing that. I’m so proud of her.

I have been working too many hours and it’s fair to say I dragged my ragged self onto a plane, glad to go home. Sometimes I feel like I wander a little too far away from New Mexico. I forget the foundation of my soul and going home never fails to readjust my mind, my very DNA. It gets me back to remembering who I am and what matters.

Plus I eat good when I’m there, and green chile itself will help anyone get right.

Each time I go home, I’m overwhelmed at all of the things that have changed since the last time I was there. El Paso is growing fast. The area around Las Cruces too. More cars, more buildings, more people. It’s crazy.

So then I start to seek the familiar. What hasn’t changed. What is there that I remember so I can have a touchstone. A “hey, there that particular thing is, just where I left it.”

The feedlots in Vado, for example. I was pleased to find them there, cows huddled under the water misters. The inevitable cow scent on the breeze.

The Organ Mountains. Craggy, uneven, and absolutely gorgeous. I see those mountains that once watched over my college education and smile, glad to say hello again.

So today at work when I was homesick, missing my best friend and the peace of her back patio, I started going through the photos on my phone to help me with the pain.

Did I find photographs of vast mountain landscapes? Did I see the faces of my loved ones? Did I have a whimsical photo of a cow?

No I did not.

All of those sorts of photos are on my actual camera. Weirdly, I took very few photos with my phone on this trip.

So I will share with you the two photos I did take. Memories I’m carrying in my pocket to remind me of home. This gives you an awful lot of insight into my muddled mind:

First, a photo of my goddog. I may have taken one or two photos of him in the past.



The gray hair around his eyes and in his muzzle makes my heart hurt, just a little

The second will take a little more explanation.

You see, to get back to Las Cruces, I have to fly into El Paso and while that’s not my town, over the years I’ve even grown a bit fond of that crazy place.

When I stumble off the airplane and into the terminal I find that nothing much has changed. Then my heart softens a little when I see the genuinely godawful carpet in ELP’s main terminal. Seriously, it’s so bad, it makes me sentimental.

Nothing says “welcome home” like lizard carpet. Apparently, I was so overcome I had to take a photo.



Not conducive to overcoming a hangover

And now I’m glad I did, I just found out today that the infamous ELP carpet is due to be replaced, like this month! Yipes.

That means next time, I won’t be greeted at the door by the funky lizards. And as my goddog isn’t getting any younger, one day I’ll roll up to my best friend’s house and won’t get to experience his side-angled lope and velvety soft ears.

That’s too much to consider. Right now, I will rest easy knowing that hideous lizard carpet and beautiful brown dog eyes remain just where I left them. I feel my connection to home, which makes sitting in this dull gray office just a tiny bit easier to take.





Both photos ©2018 Karen Fayeth, taken using the Camera+ app on an iPhone. Don’t steal ’em. Thanks!



Taking Myself Way Too Seriously

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What follows is me working out some “stuff” up there in the ol’ brain pan. A bit indulgent to do this publicly, but maybe putting it out there helps someone else. Or makes me accountable for my own crap. Either way.

So here it is… I have been taking part in a Flickr group that challenges its members to do a new macro photo every week based on a theme the moderators choose.

I started participating on December 4th with this photo:



©2018 Karen Fayeth

I felt clever. Sassy. Like my photo was more creative and of better quality than the others in the group. Go me! I was rewarded with well over one hundred faves in the first day. Hey, fun!

So I kept going. Each week working hard and having fun doing these weekly photo challenges. Creating a new image every week. Some weeks I worked really hard (or agonized) over executing my idea.

Other weeks it came easy to me, I snapped a photo that was exactly what I wanted and went on about my day.

But always having fun and not taking it too seriously.

Until two weeks ago. Two weeks ago I stopped having fun and got deadly (overly) serious about my weekly photo entry.

Let me back up. This Flickr group is huge, over 13,000 members. Each Monday between 800 to 1,200 photos are posted for the theme. This means in order to function, the group must be tightly moderated. And it is. Tightly.

I both like and respect that there are heavily enforced rules for the group. But I also HATE it because I’m an *artist* and The Muse can’t be contained by your silly rules. I should be able to break them because MY work is the best.

Yeah, okay. I own it. I got weird. I hate it when I get weird.

The week’s theme was monochromatic, and I turned this one in:



©2018 Karen Fayeth

I really like this photo. I worked hard on it and felt really good about it. I feel like I did something worthwhile. Artistic.

Less than ten minutes after adding it to the group, a moderator pulled it, telling me “This is not monochromatic, I can see both brown and green.”

I seethed. I stewed. I started looking at other photos in the group and found SEVERAL that also had tiny bits of another color that made it through the moderator’s net.

I bellowed about how unfair it was. I started making a list of all the other photos that were let through. I prepared to launch my vitriol on anyone who would listen and demand answers for my mistreatment. How could they hate my photo so much!?!?! (I know, I know)

Then I went to talk to The Good Man, and as I detailed all the ways I had been wronged, I heard myself. I listened to my words and realized…aw damn…I’d stopped having fun. I was this worked up over a photo on Flickr in a group where the only prize is some eyes seeing the photo and some faves.

Yeah. I hit the wall pretty hard. This came just a day after struggling with a story for a writing contest that just would not gel for me. I hadn’t given myself enough time to work on it and the story would not come together no matter how hard I tried. I tried to shotgun it and I failed hard. I did still turn in the story but I know it’s not good.

You see, I wasn’t mad at that stupid unfair moderator. I was mad at me.

And that’s no way to create. That is the antithesis of creativity. This dampens The Muse.

So I went all the way there and now I’m reeling myself back in. I swear. I sat my Muse and my brain down and we had a talk. Feelings were felt and admonitions were issued. Promises to be better. To loosen up. To remember why I do any of my creative work…to have fun. To let the creativity out. To create something.

And I’m better. I am. The following week I swore I wasn’t going to participate in the Flickr group again, but that was EXACTLY why I needed to get back in the game. So I made a photo based on the theme “in a bottle.”

Here’s my Valentine to myself. Green like the Hulk who gets very, very mad. Sweet like the victory of turning out a piece of art and something I really like. It also met the rules and made it past the moderators.



©2018 Karen Fayeth

Lesson learned. Scars formed. Exterior just a little bit tougher.

And this week? Try, try again.





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