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.”

 

 

The Serendipity Of Nature Photography

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One little camera. One little bird

 

Photo by the author, ©2019 Karen Fayeth

This weekend I found myself at the UC Botanical Garden and marveled again at how rich it is with subjects to photograph. Gorgeous trees and plants, winding walkways, seasonal flowers in bloom, epic views of Strawberry Canyon.

I have taken many photos here and find endless new things to photograph on each visit.

Plants are easy, but photographing wildlife is a bit more difficult. For me, at least.

I know the old adages, one that patience is required in shooting wildlife, another that one should expect to take a lot of shots to get to one good image.

I’ve been shooting long enough to know better. But I’ve also been me long enough to know that patience isn’t always my virtue.

Under the auspices of “the best camera is the one you have with you” I tend to shoot a lot on my iPhone. There is hot debate on the topic in the various photo clubs I belong to. Some of my fellow photographers see iPhoneography as a perfectly acceptable medium and encourage the ease and accessibility of on-the-fly photos.

Others of my peers scoff and say they will never accept iPhone photos as legitimate (really, seriously, in 2019 they say this). In that particular photo club I strip the exif data off of my photos before posting to our monthly theme review. They won’t look at my photos if they know for sure it’s an iPhone photo.

So while I shoot a lot on my iPhone (the header image, for example), I also feel the limitations of the hardware. The light has to be good to get anything worthwhile. The image quality, even in good light, is not always the best. And zoom? Forget it, the pixelation from the software zoom is more than I want to deal with.

About a year ago I decided I wanted a camera that was a little less than my big boy camera and a little more than my iPhone. After some research, many reviews read, and lots of waffling, I finally settled on a Sony Cybershot. It’s cute, fits into my pocket or purse, and has a real optical zoom versus a software zoom.

It’s a neat little camera and does a whole lot more than point-and-shoot devices used to do. In fact it’s scary how good simple pocket cameras have become.

I’m still learning the Sony and it surprises me every time I give it a try.

Like, for example, this photo:

Photo by the author, ©2019 Karen Fayeth

I was enchanted by this little bird at the botanical garden. I have no idea what type of bird that is, I’m not that good at identifying species. My husband and I watched it flit from branch to branch, often coming quite close to us. The light was good, but the movement was way too fast for an iPhone. (though my husband used Live Photo and that worked pretty well)

I tried pulling out the Cybershot and fiddled with settings. I found one I hadn’t used before called “reduce motion blur” and gave it a go. I tracked the little bird, zoomed in and quick took a snap expecting very little.

No planning the shot. No endless patience waiting for the bird to turn in the right direction. No one hundred shots to get one good one.

One snap, one photo. Got it.

Because I’m naturally superstitious when shooting, I took another photo. I did so thinking I knew more than I did with the first photo, so I must be able to take a better photo, right?

Truth is, I had much less luck on the second shot (note the bird butt in the top left corner):

Photo by the author, ©2019 Karen Fayeth

And with that, I gave up. Yes, I took only two shots and got one worth keeping. How often does that happen? For me, not very often. It was a good reminder lesson in allowing serendipity in my photography.

Maybe knowing a bit more when taking the second shot turned out to be a hindrance? Maybe on the second photo I was trying too hard?

In photography, I can get rigid about the shot I want to make. I have been known to see a shot evolving in real time and then pressing too hard when trying to take the perfect version of it.

I can get obsessive and fire off image after image and come back with nothing worth looking at. In those moments I wanted the photo to be something I was not capable of producing.

Sort of the divine struggle of photography, right? To produce an image that is how you saw it in real time.

What have I learned from this serendipitous nature photography moment?

  1. Right place, right time. Meaning let the image happen the way it wants to evolve.
  2. Don’t press, just let it flow and let it go. If I don’t get the shot I wanted, okay to try again, also okay to move on.
  3. It helps to know your camera. In this case, I tried a new setting, but knew pretty well how to use the features of the camera including zoom, focus and settings.

It is not hyperbole when I say that little bird is among the best wildlife shots I’ve ever taken (the first one, not the bird butt one) in that it comes very close to how I saw that beautiful late afternoon winter sun on the green and yellow and brown botanical garden.

True, wildlife photography isn’t my main focus, and practice would certainly improve my images, but dang if I’m not pleased with that photo of one little bird taken with one little point-and-shoot camera.

Does it have less value since it wasn’t taken with a “real” camera? (scare quotes used on purpose. Isn’t any camera a real camera?) I don’t think so. Others might disagree.

But I like it, and that is what matters the most. Trying to shoot something I think will please someone else is always going to be hard road with no destination.

One of the things I love about photography is that it is both so easy (just get the exposure triangle right!) and so very difficult.


Note: I have done no post processing on any of the photos in this story. I could certainly fiddle with all three of them, but that was less important for me and not quite the point of this story.

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

When The Word Artist is Used as an Insult

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The Careless Use of a Beautiful Word

 

Photo by Елена Можвило on Unsplash

As both an artist and a career business professional, I embrace both and switch back and forth in my brain, depending on the situation. One pays the bills, the other pays my soul.

I am currently on a business trip for a fairly important meeting and at these events it is customary to have a group photograph taken by a professional photographer.

To that end, yesterday we were told to gather in the lobby for this year’s group photo. We were told we were going outside where it was a bit cold, so the photographer was going to arrange us inside then we’d head outside for the shots in front of a lovely green space.

Immediately the carping began “Why are we going outside, it’s cold out there!?” The photographer’s answer, “Because it’s very pretty outside and will make for a much nicer photo.”

“Can’t we just do it in here?” The photographer’s answer “Yes, but we want a really good photo and the lobby isn’t very nice.”

Then the photographer began to evaluate the shot and arrange us by height, clothing color, and other aesthetics he wanted to see.

Herding about 20 bossy people is no small task, but this photographer is an old hand and firmly took command.

“You in the blue shirt, would you switch places with this person in the charcoal jacket?” and so we’d switch around, moving forward and back as he studied the pose.

More than once I heard a comment along the lines of “Artists, sheesh! Just take the picture!”

Or “Why all this fuss, let’s get on with it!”

Or “This is an awful lot of trouble for a picture, can’t we just use a cellphone and be done with it?”

With this, my hackles began to rise. You see, a business professional is what I do, an artist is what I am. To hear this kind of careless talk is not unexpected, but fully disheartening. I took it personally.

Maybe people don’t see photographers as “real artists” or maybe because the photographer is employed by our institution and not hired from outside he is subject to coworker’s careless talk, but I found the comments rather tactless.

What stings me the most is when the word “artist” is said in an unkind and sarcastic way. As if being an artist is somehow bad.

It is not the first time I’ve run across this in my work setting, only the most recent.

I have been at my creative work for a long time, and I’ve long since grown past any discomfort or sheepishness I have in calling myself an artist. In other words, I own it and I’m well beyond trying to defend it. It just is.

However, I somehow have not gotten past people going “pfft, sure” when I describe myself that way.

Photo by naeim jafari on Unsplash

I think there is a perception that an artist is a hippy-dippy, flowing skirt, wacky hair, free spirited, out of touch soul. And why not? But in my experience a working artist is also a nuts and bolts, down to earth, hardworking soul with enormous amounts of self-discipline, organization, and drive.

In this instance, I get that people don’t like having their photo taken, but if a photo is taken, people certainly want it to look nice. Good work takes work.

People love to consume art, but for some reason underestimate the work it takes to produce quality art. A few minutes in the Choosing Beggars sub-Reddit offers a few sobering examples.

I do sometimes feel like there are two of me walking around in a one-human unit, and that’s okay. My business side brings some discipline to my art and my artist side brings some creativity to my business work.

So while I grimaced a bit and noted the careless and arguably rude undertone in the use of the word artist, I chose to move past it (under the guise of “pick your battles”), moved where the photographer told me to stand without comment, and thanked him when we were done.

Because artists must support artists, always.

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.

 

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