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.”

 

 

For Just a Moment, Time Pauses Long Enough for the Moonlight to Catch Up

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Dateline: May 18, 2019, Las Cruces, New Mexico

It is a full moon Spring night and I am on the back patio of a home I know so well. Not my home, but the home where I live sometimes in my dreams. A storehouse for that part of me that exists back in my homestate while I live a bit farther out West.

The decision to leave New Mexico was made a long time ago, and with time I can see many of the reasons were wrong and many were also quite right. That audit can only occur looking backwards.

Tonight, time pauses because I am back home. I am where I belong with people who care about me. I am in a place so familiar I don’t even have to think hard about it, I just need to be.

It’s not always so easy just being me. It has been a bit of struggle lately. A tug of war inside my mind, but tonight is a welcome cease fire. I get to let my guard down a little, a lot, quite a bit.

“I was drunk…the day my mom…got out of prison,” we sing in full, robust, well-fed, and drunk voices. “And I went..to pick her up…in the rain.” We’re all in time but off key, which makes the sound that much more perfect. Our voices blending into a harmonic patchwork quilt.

This is a celebration of birthdays for four people. One of the four is me, and the other three are people who matter a whole lot to me. We eat, tell stories, drink a little more and remember the past. The past and the present merge until it is just us and now and then. Tomorrow is something to think about later. It will come back, but we don’t think about that now. The Wayback Machine is running at full capacity.

More dried bark and wood chips go into the firepit, making flames leap up. We keep the unseasonably cold desert wind at bay with flame and firewater.

An iPhone, an Apple music account, and a Bluetooth speaker keep the old songs rolling. Current technology pushes the old, old songs back to our ears. Patsy Cline, Jim Horton, George Strait, Foster and Lloyd, the Mavericks, Johnny Rodriguez. That’s only an appetizer plate of the ten course musical meal we serve. The music is like seeing old friends, and we sing. And we drink. And we dance.

I’m dancing around the brickwork patio with my best friend’s husband and I find myself looking down. I’ve known him for thirty years, so there are few secrets left between us. I say “It’s been so long since I danced, I have to look at my feet to make sure I still remember how.”

“Karen, you don’t have to look at your feet, it’s like riding a bike.”

I raise my head and look him in the eye. He’s right, of course.

“Besides you always were light on your feet.” I smile. It’s an awful nice compliment.

As the final notes of “Heard it in a Love Song” wrap up, he spins me around. In the centrifugal force I feel just like I did back when we danced to the same songs at Corbett Center or at Cowboys bar. We laugh a little, and then we hug. It’s good and right and fun. We’re both a little older, but it feels just like the good old days, dancing together and singing along with the music while we do.

I find my seat, my drink, the next song on the playlist. We all go “yeah! This one!” or “Haven’t heard this song in so long!” or “What else do you have on the playlist?”

It’s easy. The simpatico of friends who are family. We have a new friend in our midst, and she sings the songs as loud as any of us. She’s instantly our family, folded in like she was always here.

“We have to howl at the moon,” she says and we all howl like a mangy half-drunk (full drunk?) wolfpack. She makes each of us howl in turn, giving constructive critique, the director of our backyard opera. When we all meet her exacting criteria, we’re asked to howl together once more, and we do. And it feels good.

The songs keep rolling and the stories told a thousand times before seem fresh again. We laugh and laugh. Everything is funny. No mean words or contentious topics are exchanged. No need for that. We are in our groove, where we know who we are and what we are and we have nowhere to be other than right here with each other. We’ve laid our burdens down by the fire. They will be there for us in the morning.

I look up at the full moon between the branches of a mulberry tree. I look over at my best friend and her husband dancing together, looking like they did so long ago. Back when they first met and love was new and we knew then like we know now that they were simply meant to be.

It’s good. It’s right. It’s a balm on my wounds, mostly self-inflicted, invisible but quite real.

A moment where time has stopped. We’re together. We’re happy. And we dance.

They’ve done this together once or twice before

—–

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

“In the fight between you and the world, back the world.” **

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So without going into specifics (because it’s the internet and who knows what people do with facts anymore) the job I do every day is, essentially, a customer service gig. We don’t support the general public, but support the operations of my employer. We serve all of my coworkers as customers. Confusing enough?

Anyhow, since we have a focus on customer service and have standard corporate performance measurements to maintain, on a regular basis we send surveys to our customers to ask how we did so they can grade us and provide feedback.

Fairly standard stuff. If the surveys for my team come in good, then fabulous. It’s logged and reported and so forth. If a survey comes in bad, then a member of the team that collates responses will discreetly make a copy and slide it onto my desk. This usually happens when I am off in a meeting or something so they don’t have to make eye contact. It’s all very clandestine.

Bad surveys happen. It’s normal. I usually review them, see what the beef is about and move on.

Except for yesterday. Yesterday gave me pause. I returned to my office to find the dreaded folded sheet of paper on my desk. “Ugh” was my first thought as I unfolded and read the survey.

It was a good time. Suffice to say, my team was blamed for everything wrong in this person’s life, including (and I’m not kidding) the reason the person is leaving our institution to go work somewhere else. All our fault.

The words “byzantine” and “Kafkaesque” were used. And after looking up what those words meant, I was really offended.

Just kidding, I wasn’t offended. To be honest if bureaucratic, surreal and nightmarish processes aren’t your bag, then working anywhere that receives federal funding is not going to be a fun time.

This unhappy person did wrap up by saying they thought my employee that they worked with lovely, but the processes were ugly.

Fair enough.

To be honest, I appreciate this customer for giving me the first good laugh I’ve ever had over a bad survey response.

And the search for just the right image for this post was also a nice distraction from my byzantine day.

I think I nailed it:






**An actual Franz Kafka quote that just supremely fit this post




Where To Swear Your Oath

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As a sort of minor and mildly entertaining footnote to Tuesday’s Congressional election in Alabama, there was a CNN interview where the spokesperson for the Republican candidate made a spirited argument that Muslim politicians should not be allowed in Congress because they’d be required to swear on a Christian bible.

The CNN host went on to utterly decimate the spokesperson’s assertion by letting him know that not only is it not required to swear on a bible, if you are swearing an oath of office, you can technically swear on anything.

Something about that pesky separation of church and state, I suppose.

Look, I’m not here to wade into political waters. What I am here for is to wade into this debate:

If you became an elected official, upon which book would you swear your oath of office?

As a lover of books, this question intrigues me. One might suggest that the book used for an oath of office would have some meaning, some gravity. Something that matters to you.

So where to start? I mean, what are the books that made me who I am today? That have, to me anyway, a sacred meaning. Something upon which an oath would really matter?

Okay, I’ve had a noodle on this, and decided that here would be my top five picks, in no particular order:

  1. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry


    This is the book that made me want to be a writer. It’s seminal to my creative life and had particular meaning for me years ago to read an author from the west write the west (and not some east coaster’s idea of the west, I’m looking at you Cormac). This book is in my DNA and it’s the perfect book upon which to swear, because Gus and Call do an awful lot of swearing in the story.

  2. Red Sky at Morning by Richard Bradford


    When I was a kid, my mom suggested I read this book and I am so glad she did. I’ve opined plenty on this book, and it’s perfect for swearing an oath because this was the first book to make me feel like it was not only okay, but pretty damn cool, to be a New Mexican. Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s no one knew where or what New Mexico was, nor cared. Heisenberg putting us in the media spotlight was years away. This book is me and I am this book, I give you my oath on that.

  3. Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff by Christopher Moore


    The story of the Son of God, as told by his best friend Biff. It’s historical and hysterical. This book will make you laugh right out loud as our man Biff pulls his somewhat clueless friend Jesus out of scrape after scrape. It’s outright blasphemy which makes it the most logical choice to swear my oath of office.

  4. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

    As noted before on this blog, Las Vegas is something well woven into the fabric of my life. I got my start in life there and spent an awful lot of time there as a kid. I have a much different view of Vegas than most. It’s a strange sort of indescribable thing. This book is on my list because, uh, it’s Hunter S. Thompson. What better FU to the whole swearing an oath to the government?

    But mainly, it’s because of this part:

    “A little bit of this town goes a very long way. After five days in Vegas you feel like you’ve been here for five years. Some people say they like it — but then some people voted for Nixon, too. He would have made a perfect mayor for this town…” — Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

    C’mon! This is the perfect oath of office swearing in book.

  5. Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn, or maybe Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella, or possibly Ball Four by Jim Bouton, or, or, or… It’s a long list.


    The right choice for swearing in because baseball is my religion.

Okay, now that the book question is sorted, the next item to tackle is what music is going to be played at my swearing in? I’m going to assume I will be elected to a low-level office with no budgets for live acts. So, assume a bumpin’ sound system. Who gets to warble under my swearing? Ooooh, that’s a good one…..

If you have a mind to, holler at me here or on any of the social medias and tell me what book you want to swear your own oath on. I’d love to cuss and discuss.

———————




The exact moment where the one on the right realized his whole argument was just verbally punched to the ground


Story source.





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.



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