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.”

 

 

Two Decades Later

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The year was 1998. I was a young professional, new to California, and working for a big company. The big company had just merged with another big company and the employees of neither company seemed to be happy about it.

There was a lot of rabble rabble about how we needed to do a better job partnering. How we should act like one company. The leadership wanted to take two companies, each with their own very strong corporate culture, and smash them together fast.

Phone calls were had. Terse emails were exchanged. And then leadership had an idea, as leadership tends to do.

Each site from both companies (we each had a lot of locations) were tasked to send an employee to visit the new headquarters. We were going to have a “team building” event. (I use the scare quotes purposefully, as they convey more than my words could do)

Being young and dumb and not smart enough to move faster when leadership wants to force a volunteer, I was designated to travel to represent our site. In hindsight, sending someone so green was probably a good way to show HQ just how much our site wasn’t going to play ball. But fine, okay. I’m not bad at making friends and I like to travel, so load up!

Headquarters was located in Virginia, so this girl from the west was handed a plane ticket headed east. My travel plans worked out where I had a day there on my own, and my hotel was located right by a Metro station, so lo and behold, I found my way on board and took my first trip into Washington D.C.

Washington D.C., capitol of these United States, home to an overwhelming number of things I’d read about in history books in school. After a short Metro ride, I found myself on the National Mall with eyes wide and a full day head.

The Ken Starr report had just been released, so there was a weird tension in the air. Every now and again, one or several black Suburbans with blacked out windows came hurtling up the streets with police escort. There were questions about things the leadership of our country did or did not do, and it was a weird time to be in D.C. But there I was.

I walked from one end of the Mall to the other. I started at the Lincoln Memorial and made my way uphill. For obvious reasons I couldn’t get near the Capitol Building, but got closer than I thought I would.

I saw a painting that I would never forget at the National Gallery of Art, saw the actual Star Spangled Banner at the Smithsonian, looked at buildings, statues, and items that I never imagined seeing all the while feeling very patriotic.

I enjoyed my time in D.C., but I also felt very out of place. I tend not to follow politics much and my memory for history is pretty terrible, so I felt like I stuck out like a hayseed. After a full day, I headed back to my hotel after a fun tourist day thinking that D.C. ain’t my kind of town, and I ain’t D.C.’s kind of girl anyway.

And that was that. Over the last two decades I’ve availed myself of Dulles Airport several times, as it’s a decent stop on the way to and from Europe, but haven’t spent any more time in D.C. itself.

All that changes next week as my job for a much smaller company has decided to send me eastward for training in support of my new job role.

I had thought this training was going to be a casual event, exchanging ideas, best practices, whatnot. Turns out it’s kind of a big deal and a VIP is scheduled to attend the event to give a talk. So yeah. New Mexico by way of California is going to D.C., and this time I get to stay at a hotel inside the Beltway, right in the heart of town.

This is happening just after yet another report is being released tomorrow with questions about some things the leadership of our country did or did not do. So that’s an odd parallel. A decade apart and politicians are still (allegedly) behaving badly. (no comment)

On this trip, however, I have a guide. A fixer. An inside person. One of my coworkers is also going to the training, and she used to live there. Used to work right where we’re going to be staying, and knows her way around. She’s originally from Texas, but we forgive such things. She’s promised to take me to her favorite restaurant for what she claims is a good local bourbon.

And suddenly Washington D.C. seems a lot more like my kind of town.

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Speaking of New Mexican’s in Washington D.C., here is a boost to Silver City native and fellow New Mexico expat Avelino Maestas. Hit that Instagram link to take a look at his gorgeous photography in and around Baltimore and surrounding areas.

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Though I will be staying near here, I think I have missed D.C.’s legendary cherry blossom explosion


Photo found from NBC Washington news site. Link here.




“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




Redux: A Treatise on Monday…or Everything Old is New Again

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Five years and one day later, Facebook saw fit to remind me of my history: A Monday in 2013 that I don’t actually remember, can’t pick out from the rest of the over 1,800 days that have passed since then, and was, I suppose, wholly unremarkable.

And yet, the early morning hours were remarkable enough to get my brain going and some writing done. I re-read my own words on a Sunday with Monday looming large and realized that other than riding the train to work every day, the sentiment remains much the same.

I have a big deal meeting at 8:00am today, and the Monday ahead has me quite thoughtful.

This post has aged well, so I’m happy to share it again today. It still works.



A Treatise On Monday
Originally posted January 28, 2013

Written this morning at something like 5:45am


And so we find ourselves back at Monday. Ah Monday, both the beginning and the end.

I have sad, tired, squinting, groundhog eyes as the alarm goes off. I’m begging the world not to pull me from my burrow. Please don’t shine that bright light in my face.

But I’m pulled from my burrow anyway and instead of a prediction the world anticipates my arrival at the train station and my seat on the next ride into the city.

The bright light turns out to be a beautiful ray of light, glimmering off the slowly rising sun.

All possibility is in Monday. Will this be a good week? Will this be a bad week? Will it rain?

Monday is everything and nothing. A blank canvas ready to take the paint.

What will I make of my Monday? What will I achieve? How will I stumble and will I recover gracefully?

It all exists here in these quiet pre-dawn hours. The sun hasn’t even said hello yet and here I am, writing. Scribbling the words that want to exit my head.

There is already acrylic paint on my hands from a project that is due Thursday morning. I had to get some early painting done so I can hit that deadline.

In this Monday, all things are possible including finishing a painting that is due in just three days.

Oh my.

I feel strangely happy today. What the hell is this? How unusual for a Monday morning.

The weekend was weird. I was cranky and then he was cranky and then it was Sunday night and another two days of not working were jettisoned to the ether. Monday turned the corner and sat down for a visit.

So here I am again loading a backpack for work, stumbling around to find my badge and my phone and my sense of self-worth.

I look again at my canvas and already I fear I have screwed it up. Don’t they say in art there are no mistakes? Just roll with it and incorporate the error. OCD and art are not friends. This major but fixable error must wait until later tonight to find its cloak.

There is a train to catch and a Monday to face. I’d rather stay home in my studio and put gorgeous turquoise paint on a willing canvas. Can I do that for a living?

You know, a girl can dream, and so I will dream as BART gently sways. When I disembark dreams stop so reality can start.

But no matter, I can dream again, later. Dreams don’t die easy.

And dreams don’t wait for the weekend.









Image from The Miracle Journal.




When Did I Become The Grown Up?

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My parents were pretty strict when I was growing up, but I’m not here to complain about that. I think my brother, sister and I turned out pretty well, overall. Well, my brother and sister did, jury is still out on me.

But it’s true, my folks were a bit old fashioned and handed down strict discipline. They kept us in line.

One thing my Dad was all about was his kids answering “yes, sir” or “yes, ma’am” when addressed by an adult. It’s ingrained in me, automatic. It’s a show of respect for elders, along with respect for a person’s position.

And so when either of my parents would call out “hey Karen?” I would automatically drop a “yes, sir” or “yes, ma’am” without hesitation.

It’s carried into my adult life and usually has served me well. On a recent visit with one of my favorite Aunties in Michigan, she at one point called out my name and I dutifully replied “yes, ma’am,” and I knew it was right. I felt like a good kid.

As the digits in my age advance, however, I also notice that I get ma’amed here and there. At first I didn’t like it, but then I began to appreciate that for those younger than me, their parents raised them with that same value. Yes sir!




Here’s where it gets weird: My new boss at work? She’s my same age. In fact maybe a year or two younger. She was my peer for the past several years and was recently made the acting manager. It’s also very likely that she will soon be the permanent manager. And I’m okay with that.

I have nothing but respect for her and we’re working out the bounds of going from peers to boss and employee.

Yesterday, she came wheeling into my office, fresh off one of her many meetings each day and with something on her mind. “Hey Karen?” she said sharply.

“Yes ma’am!” I replied.

And she looked at me kind of strangely.

And I looked at her kind of sheepishly.

“Ahem. What can I do for you?” I revised.

It made me think maybe I need to change up the ma’am/sir thing. I mean, it still fits in many cases. For example, if I come across any of the distinguished scientists that I work with, I’m sure as heck going to ma’am or sir them, regardless of age. Or any dignitary.

But maybe I have to realize that I am the grown up now. I am the one to receive the ma’am treatment. I suppose it is time to finally own my own mildly elder status. Right?

It’s just so weeeird! And will take a while to reprogram my brain.




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