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.”

 

 

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.

 

Cutting The Line

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What Cutting Mats for my Photos Taught Me About Creativity


Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

While writing is and will always be my first love, it is not my only creative outlet. I am also an avid photographer (I dabble a little with painting too). I have been doing photography for a much shorter time than I have been writing and while I’ve had some success in photography, I am still learning.

I love being at different levels of mastery for each of my creative outlets. They feed off of each other and help me stay motivated overall as an artist.

Recently, I was getting ready for an event where all photographers were to bring a portfolio of ten photographs to be shown and critiqued by a group of professional photographers who, for some reason, let me hang out with them.

This is a formal, annual event and is something I take very seriously. I had carefully curated ten good prints of my photos and needed to cut mat boards to perfectly frame each of the ten photos.

Now, I could have taken the photos to a framing shop and had them cut the mats for me, but my photography mentor is a stickler that a photographer should know how to cut their own mats and do so with a ruler and a blade, no need to use a mat cutting device.

A fifty-year professional photographer, she is very quick and efficient, zip, zip, bam a perfectly measured, perfectly cut mat.

My mat cutting is more like, zip, curse word, zoop, why god why, zap, damn! Did you know that paper has a grain, like wood? And your very sharp blade, if not well-tended, can slip into the grain and wander well off of your carefully measured and drawn pencil line?

Yeah. I’m not so good at cutting mats, but I am getting better.

This year I tried a different approach. One that I hoped would result in less shedding of tears, fewer pieces of ripped up mat board on the floor, and a happier me.

Instead of trying to go faster, to push quickly to complete the essential cuts in the board, I went slower. Much slower, using both deep breathing and intent. I kept my eye on the pencil line and my hand firmly on the blade, I watched the slow progress as I cut, making micro adjustments as needed. I didn’t let up on the pressure to the blade until I hit the end of the pencil line, and stayed focused on finishing each mat and not thinking about how many more I had left to do, just on making the one in front of me the best it could be.

The result? Instead of using up 2 to 3 pieces of mat board to get one good matted photo, I ended up spoiling only three boards total over ten photos.

This is significant.

Which caused me to think about what lessons I could apply from this experiment to the rest of my creative work.

Here’s what I learned:

1. In any creative work, errors will be made. There is a one-hundred percent chance you will make errors if you are doing creative work. Own that and learn to love the serendipity now.

Mistakes are what Bob Ross used to call “happy accidents.” It’s not whether or not you will make a mistake, you will, it’s how you recover from it that makes all the difference.

Fear of making mistakes, or giving up once a mistake is made is the number one obstacle I see limiting my fellow creatives.

2. Don’t let mistakes keep you from creating new work. How are you ever going to get any better if you don’t dive in, make mistakes, and learn what not to do next time?

Doing the work and continuing to create is how you start to make fewer mistakes.

3. Keep the end in mind but don’t make it your only focus. Finishing your project matters, but not at the expense of quality in the progress needed to get there.

Don’t get cocky, don’t take shortcuts, and stay focused at all stages as they each need different attention and they all matter in the finished product. People can tell when an artist takes a shortcut. It shows in the final product and is the difference between good and great work.

Photo by Jo Szczepanska on Unsplash

4. Know your tools and know your medium. Being in the flow is so cool and when that creativity flows through you like an electric charge, there can be no better feeling. And there can be no quicker way to kill your flow than having to fiddle with your tools or finding the medium you work in doesn’t respond the way you thought.

Take a little time to experiment, play around a bit before you get serious in order to see what your tools and medium can do before jumping in there with ambitious plans.

5. Be willing to change your approach if something isn’t working. You may see another artist do something (in person, via YouTube, etc.) and wonder why you can’t make it work that way. You might try and try, following the exact instructions and still not get there.

What I am saying is: Don’t give up too soon, but don’t be afraid to make changes in your approach to see if it helps.

And finally…

6. Stay centered. It’s easy as an artistic type to go off on fun flights of fancy. To get in your head thinking “look at me being an artist!” and “where should I post photos of this thing when I’m done?” All of that takes you away from the work in front of you.

Allow yourself that fun dream time after you are done. While in the act of creating, stay in the now and stay purpose-driven in your work.

I know we are all writers here on Medium, so this may not seem like a story about cutting mat boards is for you, but rest assured, this applies to all creative endeavors, no matter the medium or the Medium (see what I did there?) you work in.

 

Well If You Didn’t Want Me To…

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Today was my first day back at work after a nice and relaxing weeklong vacation. Always tough to get back into the routine.

Last week, I missed a big event at work. It was The Great California ShakeOut, an annual earthquake preparedness event. On a set day, they sound the sirens and we take cover and hold for a period of time to simulate an earthquake. Then when that is over, all must evacuate the building.

It’s getting us ready for “the big one” that we all keep hearing about. Practice like this has proven to be useful. We do this every year meaning once a year I get to check out what’s going on under my desk.

Since was on vacation and I live pretty close to work, I heard the sirens, but I was driving in my car so I hunkered down in my mind.

Today upon unlocking the door to my office I see my employer has left me a little gift in the wake of the ShakeOut event.



Lemme hear you whistle, baby…



Seeing this laying on my desk, I did what any mature, right-thinking adult would do when presented with a shiny red whistle. I picked it up and blew that sucker.

It’s loud. A little piercing. The sound rattled off the high roof of the building.

You’d think this would be occasion for another one of those “talking to’s” that my boss so enjoys providing to me. But alas no, she was in a meeting and missed it.

Instead the group administrator came over and stood in the doorway of my office, gave me the world record of stink eyes, then walked away.

I mean, if you didn’t want me to USE it, then why didja give it to me?

Anyhow, my pretty red whistle is now safely stowed in a drawer. Guess I won’t do that again.







Pretty whistle photo ©2016 Karen Fayeth, and subject to the Creative Commons license in the right column of this page. Taken with an iPhone6 and the Camera+ App.



Gimme Me the Check

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In those heady days of youth when skin was firm, recovery time was fast and the brain still spongy, I remember thinking “pfft, I don’t need to use lists to remember things. That’s so lame.”

Then somewhere in my late twenties I had to make the hard admission that my memory was just never going to be what I wanted it to be. I thought it would always be easy to remember things, and then suddenly it wasn’t so easy. Too many seemingly obvious missed items at the grocery store and dammnit, you start to love a real honest to goodness list.

So I started, grudgingly, making lists. Usually only a couple items on a sticky note, words to jog the brain. Over time that just wasn’t enough. The random words were no longer enough to evoke memory. I had to put down multiple and specific words. No longer could I trust my brain at ALL. These were dark days, indeed.

Years passed and my eyes got worse and my hair more gray and the little lines at the corners of my eyes were no longer laughs but crows, and I learned to love my Swiss cheese memory.

These days I am all about my to do lists. I write one up, by hand, every few days at work. Hand writing the tasks helps me to have SOME potential for a wispy memory of them.

I get out a shiny orange Sharpie and then I get all of those pesky things I am supposed to remember down onto a big sticky note. Once written, it feels good to let them go. No longer does my brain have to work to keep important tasks retained, nope. I can fill the brain holes with mental cotton candy like the score of last night’s Giant’s game (don’t ask) and the fact that there is going to be a Sharknado 2 (not that I saw the first one).

I love my lists so much that I actually keep some of lists that have all of the tasks marked off. It’s a keepsake to show me that busting my butt at work really does matter. A visual and handwritten progress bar that keeps me motivated.

There is a little dopamine blast I get when I check several items off the list. Yeah baby, that is the stuff. Gimme some more.

I even like to use the British colloquialism “tick the box” instead of check mark because “tick the box” is fun to say. It makes things feel official and proper and oh yeah, there’s that dopamine rush again. Gimme, gimme, gimme.

Seeing an unticked list doesn’t demoralize me, it peps me up. If I work a little harder, stay a little more focused, I can get out the black Sharpie and POW! Mark off the list. That little huff of Sharpie ink. The sound of the pen across the words. The tingles in my spine. The smug satisfaction I feel. Yeah. Love it. Love everything about it.

Even making the little fake list for the end of this post was utterly satisfying…

I should probably get help.









Photo and To Do List © 2014, Karen Fayeth, and subject to the Creative Commons License in the right column of this page. Taken with an iPhone5 and the Camera+ app.




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