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.”

 

 

My Fear of Flying

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It never goes away, it can only be managed


Photo by Lucas Ludwig on Unsplash

“I love to travel, I just don’t like what it takes to get there.” — Me, before every trip

Last week I was delighted to pack by bags and head out on a business trip on behalf of my employer. My job gives me the opportunity to travel once or twice a year and I am happy to get out of the office and on the road. I really do love to travel. Anywhere. Large, small, domestic, international, if there is travel to be done, I’m in.

Over my life I have traveled a lot, not the “gold status for a lifetime” kind of amount, more like 3–4 trips a year, sometimes more. I’ve seen quite a few countries, with a whole lot more to go.

My first plane ride was at seven years old. My mom, sister and I traveled to Oregon to visit my mom’s family. We flew to Salt Lake City, changed planes, then on to Portland. I remember the excitement, the thrill of the ride, the joy at seeing how lush and green Oregon was in comparison to Albuquerque.

I love seeing places I have never seen before, just as much as I love going back to a place I know and remembering all the things I like about it.

One thing that hasn’t changed over a lifetime of traveling: I’m moderately terrified of airplanes. Okay, to be fair, I am not a nervous flyer gripping the armrest like a life raft, but I do have trepidation every time I board a plane.

I’m usually cool as a cucumber getting to and through the airport, but once boarding is called and I am on the jetway, the reality of what I am about to do takes hold. To cope, I have to run through a well-practiced serious of thoughts to calm myself down enough so I don’t turn around and sprint back off the plane.

What I am saying is most of the time I do just fine. I’ve gotten used to your average passenger plane, three seats on each side, air safety is pretty good, all of that. But it’s still a hard thing for me to give up all control of my fate, pack my ample curves into an narrow and uncomfortable seat, accept being sealed inside a tin can, and allow one human being to pilot me and my fellow passengers high into the air.

Every once in a while, my travels throw me a curveball. A few years ago I was beyond excited to be asked to travel to Porto, Portugal. I think I said yes so fast I broke the time-space continuum and said yes before my boss even asked the question.

However, when the day of travel arrived what I found waiting at the airport gate was the largest passenger plane I had ever seen in my life. I actually started laughing out loud. “I am not getting on that thing,” I said to nobody but myself.

A plane so large it needed a special gate at the airport to load. Called an Airbus A380–800, it’s occasionally referred to as a whale. This plane has two floors. It has an actual staircase inside. I mean, come on now.

Airbus A380 on MAKS 2011. Image from Wikipedia and used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

 

I had to sit down and really, really ask myself if I was going to willingly get on that plane and ride for the eleven hours needed to get to Frankfurt. On the logical side of my brain, I reminded myself of watching loaded C-130s take off from a nearby military airfield, so I knew this plane was possible. The dimensions of the thing were just more than my brain could take.

Well, this past week, I had the opposite problem. After flying from San Francisco to Houston, I was to board a small regional plane that would get me over to Knoxville. I have flown very small planes before, including one bumpy ride on a terribly noisy turboprop, but for some reason I was not prepared for the plane that awaited me at the gate.

An Embraer Air ERJ-145, new, shiny, sleek, and terrifying. I texted my husband this photo with the caption “aw, shit.”

Photo by the author, ©2019 Karen Fayeth

I knew I was going to be flying a small plane to Knoxville, I’d even made a joke a few weeks back about “Flying on a La Bamba plane.” When faced with the reality of the situation, the joke just wasn’t funny anymore.

When the glass door opened and I stepped out onto the tarmac, I began to run through my usual mental roll call of thoughts: “You are going to be fine, you don’t have to get on this plane if you don’t want to, these are professionals who do this every day, planes are very safe, you are safe, but you have choices.” And so on like that.

I locked up pretty good, but given my stubborn nature, I refused to let myself balk. I gamely walked up the ramp, got my stuff stowed, and crammed into the seat. I texted my husband, “I’m in my seat. I think I’m now wearing this airplane,” as it certainly felt snug about the hips.

This plane has two seats on one side and one seat on the other but is fairly comfortable. I was lucky to be on the one seat side, enjoying both a window and the aisle.

Once the doors were shut, I immersed myself in my book and did my best not to think too much about it.

If my trip to Frankfurt was riding a whale, to Knoxville I rode a sardine, and in both instances got there safely, on time, and no worse for the wear.

Look, fears and anxieties aren’t always rational, that’s kind of the point. I know flying is very safe, but my mind still has an awful lot of questions about the wisdom of being 30,000 feet above the surface of sweet, sweet Mother Earth.

One upside? The Sardine had nice big windows, all the better to capture a Tennessee sunset above the clouds.


Photo by the author, ©2019 Karen Fayeth

An Open Letter to an Inanimate Object

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How my new undergarments done me wrong

Photo by 🐴chuanyu2015 from Pexels



Dear Package of Fruit of the Loom underwear that were on sale at Target:

Look, let me just start with the end in mind. It’s not going to work out between us. Mostly because of the way you have behaved around my hind end.

Oh sure, the early days were grand. Glorious. Filled with anticipation. You lured me over to your side by wearing that fabulous “on sale” tag at my local Target store. Your price was so shiny and new and your colors, oh your colors. Yes.

I’d been with my old yonderwear brand for years. And years. YEARS I TELL YOU! And I had been wanting to get some new pairs, since time makes fools of us all. Yes, the holes, the leg elastic is shot, the droopy nature of the old drawers made me long for something fresh.

The store for my usual brand of chones is a bit of a drive and I thought hey, maybe it’s time for a change. Maybe I can make a new friend with a new brand and I won’t have to drive over hell and tarnation and deal with a jacked up parking lot just to get undergarments.

Just as I was thinking this, you entered my life. There I was already at Target and your price was right and you looked cute and I thought “why not?”

Why not, indeed.

I flipped over your simple package and I looked at the sizing chart on the back. I checked and double checked and yes, I picked out the right size in the right colors in the right style.

Oh how excited I was to bring you home and try you on! I’d also procured a new nightgown so I looked forward to all of the newness and shiny and happy and joy in my house!

I did hesitate for a moment. Yes, I did. I also walked over and considered another brand of undershorts but they were more expensive. You got me on price. Oh ho ho, you sure got me.

I put you into my basket and then took you out again. Then I decided I was being a fool and put you back in there.

That warm Saturday evening I took a nice long bath, scrubbed up, shaved the ol’ legs and then toweled off, ready for my new garments.

I opened your pack, picked a color and slid on my new skivvy fashions. Ah yes, they fit perfectly. Excellent!

But then, oh then, I began to move around. I picked up some towels and hung them up, put some things in the hamper, emptied out the trash in my room.

The bending over. That’s where things took a long bad trip. Instead of being supportive and helpful, each time I bent over you packed up shop and moved north.

Very far north.

And so I’d forcefully tug you back in your assigned location only to have you shoot north again at every turn.

Twenty minutes. That’s how long you lasted on my nether regions. Twenty. Minutes.

Then you were cursed at and quickly removed and thrown across the room in favor of a pair of the ol’ standby. The brand that knows my curves and cherishes them so. I did a bend test and nary a problem in Ol’ Faithful. Everyone stayed in their assigned campground and didn’t drift in wrong directions.

Photo by Todd Trepani from Pexels

So here’s the thing Fruit of the Loom knickers…it’s not me, it’s you. Very much you. One hundred and ten percent YOU.

I’m so disappointed and so ashamed I cheated on my loyal and trusted brand.

Thus, I must banish you from my home.

Don’t go away mad, just go away. Forever.

Unkindest regards,

Karen

The Meme is Not Me

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I am a middle-aged white woman named Karen.

I’m not even ironically a Karen, like a teenager wearing some sort of normcore olive green cardigan. I really am named Karen.

I am not blonde. I do not have a severe jaw-length bob haircut. I do not want to speak to your manager.


From the Know your Meme website.


I know none of that matters, for I am a Karen, which was a perfectly good name in the 1960’s when it was applied to my natal form, but is now a burden upon which I have been saddled.

Memes, jokes, and Reddit threads all define what it means to be a Karen and none of them adequately describe the real me. I just have to wear the veneer of the meme, but on the inside, I know the truth.

Please embrace me in these troubled times.

I remember when Becky carried this burden. Who didn’t disdain Becky with the Good Hair? Or barbeque Becky? I laughed and laughed for the Becky memes were funny (and a little sad), but now fate has turned like the worm that it is.
Ask not for who the meme tolls, it tolls for me. I swallow my Becky laughter and stoically take my unearned meme lashings.

I do not have kids, but if I did they would be vaccinated and would attend public schools. I believe the earth is as round as a shiny blue marble. I do not try to cure my ailments with oils, balms or salves unless medical science calls for that, then oil, balm, and salve me up.

I’ve always seen myself as the very anthesis of the memeified Karen.

And yet here we are.

Karen is not a person, she’s a state of mind that shall live on in internet form for many, many years.
When I was a kid, I always wished for a hurricane to be named after me. I wanted to hear every weather person on every news station say my name.

I wanted hurricane Karen to be a good strong storm.

Just a few months ago, the name Karen was applied to a developing hurricane.

And then this happened:


From Peter Matti on Twitter


Not only was the hurricane joy stolen from me, storm Karen couldn’t even gather together enough wind to become a hurricane. Downgraded to tropical depression, she just sat out there being petulant, demanding attention without putting in the work.

What a disappointment. I refuse to allow this to become my metaphor.

I am not meme Karen. Meme Karen is not me.

My name may never be associated with something like Good Guy Greg, but at least I am not Scumbag Steve/Stacy.

Today, I shall go out, order something and not demand to speak to anyone’s manager, because I am a good Karen and I will represent my name nobly for all the decent Karens of this world who will redeem our name, one positive encounter at a time.



And So It Is…

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…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.


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