Next to Kerri's side of the bed.
On Kerri's desk, poised rakishly behind her laptop screen.
Beside the coffee maker.
In the kitchen cupboards.
In the refrigerator.
In the freezer.
In the oven.
In the shower.
In Kerri's sock drawer.
Anyplace that Kerri will see it. Ever.
This was a particularly rough Gift Swap year and many people will be suffering badly; some as a result of receiving certain gifts–some as a result of giving certain gifts. I am lucky enough to be in both categories this year.
Every year, we gather together with a small group of friends and exchange gifts that are lovingly selected to inflict as much pain, suffering, and humiliation as possible for whoever receives the gift. Over the 17 or 18 years we have upheld this venerable tradition, there have been tears, there have been laughs, and, in one case, there have been entire friendships ended. Sad, true fact.
But none of those risks can deter us from our annual Festival of Suffering. Probably because people always bring really delicious food.
|This year, Caleb particularly liked the cookies. Or, possibly those are spring rolls in his mouth. It's really kind of hard to tell.|
Over the years, Swappers have come and gone. Some have never returned. Some have never recovered. Occasionally, some new sucker decides to join our merry band and there is always much rejoicing because the new kids never quite seem to get it.
Seasoned Swappers spend the entire year scouring the earth, looking for something truly mind-bendingly awful to enter into The Swap. The new kids tend to run down to the dollar store and grab some tacky figurine or something on their way to The Swap. Then, after they discover the true nature of the gifts that are exchanged, they never return. Or recover.
New Swappers are a hot commodity and all the seasoned pros look forward to getting a gift from a newbie. "It won't be that bad," we tell ourselves.
This year we had 5 new Swappers in The Swap. A new record. Joy reigned supreme with the old pros. Our chances of getting a newbie gift were very, very good.
The evening started off as they always do - with a frenzy of greetings and hugs and food and drink and conversation.
|Ryan in silent prayer that his suffering is brief. It will not be.|
|We had a large teenage population again this year. Caleb is still enjoying the cookies. Alex throws up gang signs to prove that he is a real OG street thug here in rural New Hampshire. Kayley humors Alex and tells him that he's totally gangsta.|
|Molly joined us again this year and seems to be having the time of her life. Or smelling a fart. Or, possibly, both.|
|Caleb claims that he did NOT fart. As I understand it, there is still some small debate about the matter.|
|Kristen, a new Swapper, is justifiably nervous about The Swap. She also smells Caleb's fart.|
|Julie, Ben, and Ann. Veteran Swappers, battle-hardened and seemingly unconcerned by Caleb's fart.|
|Pat and Carolyn enjoy the food, content in the knowledge that they are merely spectators, far too smart to take part in The Swap.|
|Scott, another veteran Swapper is calm and collected and looking a bit like an advertisement for Guniness Stout.|
|The calm before the storm.|
|Food and libations to ease suffering.|
|Tahra and Avery spent some quality time coloring before the swap began and Avery took up her new position as "The Namer of Gifts".|
|Kerri looks off into the middle distance, hoping that we don't get the huge gift that Ryan and Nichole brought. We have suffered greatly at their hands before.|
|Kayley and Tori rejoiced in the fact that they, too were mere bystanders, in attendance only to revel in the misery of others. Little does Tori know that we are planning to display our gift in her room. Mwaaa hahahahahahaha!|
|Ben is happy, knowing that the gift he has brought will make someone suffer dearly.|
|Ann contemplates whether or not Caleb did actually fart. He is her son after all and the quality of the fart could reflect on her as a parent.|
|This will be the last time Julie smiles for a long, long time. (Foreshadowing.)|
|Tim is excited that Caleb is being blamed for a fart that he actually dropped. (Fartshadowing.)|
|Except for Caleb.|
We came here for a purpose: To cause our friends pain and suffering. Through some sort of unspoken signal, there was a general migration toward the living room where the gifts were tantalizingly displayed for all to see.
|"Choose me!" the gifts beckon with their festive trimmings and wrappings. Except for the one that Tim & Katie brought, which is wrapped securely in masking tape and covered in dire, scrawled warnings.|
Because there were so many people involved, Kerri devised a numbering system that was far more complicated than simply drawing names. We have been married long enough so that I merely nodded in agreement and followed her complex, convoluted plan to the letter. Each gift was numbered, 1-10 and then each participant drew a number from a bowl. Each Swapper gets the gift that corresponds with his number.
This is not like a Yankee Swap. There is no choosing and changing. The slogan for our swap is:
"You get what you get and you DO get upset. Very upset."
Tension mounted as Swappers drew numbers and sealed their fates. We had 10 Swappers this year, up from 5 last year, so chances of getting a gift from a New Swapper was high.
|Ryan and Nichole got # 1. Ryan is recklessly happy about it. Nichole, a veteran, is properly wary.|
|New Swappers Kristen and Dave got #2. Please note that New Swappers tend to be happy. Ignorance is Bliss. But only temporarily.|
|#3 went to Tahra, whose young daughter, Avery, was in tears when she found out that they couldn't keep the gift that they had brought for The Swap. Usually people cry AFTER they get a gift, not before they give it away.|
|Kerri and I got #4. A gift brought by a NEWBIE! WE WERE SAVED. Almost.|
|Ben and Ann got #5. Not a newbie gift. They are concerned. And rightly so.|
|#6 went to Kat and Anthony, New Swappers who were smart enough NOT to be happy at this point. Nobody should be happy at this point.|
|Lucky #10 went to Tim and Katie. Veteran Swappers unable to hold up the pretense of happiness any longer.|
|Tim puts on a brave face, but the facade was thin and crumbled quickly. Amy finished her seltzer water and refilled her cup with Katie's tears which, it appears, were allowed in her "cleanse".|
|Caleb jumped in on that and shared the cup of tears with Amy. Tears act as a nice salty counterpoint to cookies.|
Numbers were drawn, fates were sealed, cookies were consumed, and the moment of truth was upon us.
Ryan and Nichole were first. Ryan bravely stepped forward and unwrapped his gift. We sat in breathless silence as the wrappings were removed to reveal...
|A possibly holy icon that should be treated with reverence and respect.|
|Price tag left on. Though not required, this assures that the $5 maximum rule was followed. The $4 price tag also seems to assure that this is not an ancient sacred holy relic.|
|Ryan is a brilliant engineer by trade and he immediately devised an ingenious use for the sanctified relic.|
|If the back is filled with ice, it works as a convenient, easy to use, fashionable drink holder. He demonstrated how easy it is to use.|
|Amy was about to start a seltzer water intervention for Ryan, but Caleb took the holy drink cooler and filled it with cookies.|
Dave stepped up next. He was a New Swapper who got a gift from another New Swapper. It should have been a very easy year for him and Kristen.
|Dave is happy in the knowledge that he has a gift from an inexperienced Swapper.|
|His bravado holds up for only the briefest moment as the full, glittery horror of this unicorn is unleashed upon his eyes.|
|Behold this sparkly abomination!|
And this is the point where things shifted a bit. The veteran Swappers began to realize that the New Swappers had not just grabbed something awful at the dollar store. (Or, in the case of Kat's unicorn, given away a cherished childhood keepsake.)
These new kids were good.
We got nervous.
Tahra was next. She picked up her gift, the one that didn't lie about what it held.
|She's happy. But not for long.|
|Tahra had Avery to help her with the wrapping, which was a good thing.|
|It took them about 45 minutes to get all the masking tape off.|
|And when they were finished, Avery couldn't have been more delighted.|
|I'm certain that Tahra was equally delighted with her mosaic fish, hastily and poorly constructed from hundreds of shards of razor sharp glass.|
Avery then began her official duties as, "The Namer of Gifts That, In Avery's Opinion, Require Names". It's a long title that she'll probably have trouble fitting on a business card, but it's important and she took her duties seriously. The fish is named Marco Jr., after Marco Polo.
Next, it was our turn. Our gift had been brought by Kristen and Dave. I like them. They're great people. But they were new and inexperienced and I was giddy with joy at the thought that we would get off easily this year.
I was wrong.
So very, very wrong.
|Kerri's nearly pathological fear of snakes will be in full bloom this year. Please note that she is viewing from 15 feet away, the closest she has gotten to this snake which, I am sad to report does not yet have a name. Thanks for nothing, Avery.|
|Alex demonstrates the safe way to handle this beauty.|
|Caleb tried to eat it. He said that it tasted like chicken. But crunchier and sharper.|
|There was some brief confusion until Avery pointed out that Ben was holding it backward.|
|Then there was still confusion, but of a different sort. It was more like, "Why me?" and "Why do we keep doing this to ourselves?"|
Avery swooped in immediately and named the cow Milky Stripes.
|Milky Stripes also sounds like the name of a candy bar Caleb might eat.|
After Milky Stripes, it was Anthony and Kat's turn. They were delighted with the small size of the package they got - a rookie mistake. Small packages can hold large-scale horror.
|"How bad can it be?" Anthony asks himself.|
|Pretty bad, as it turns out. Anthony and Kat will be sharing their lives with these two adorably evil little soul-stealing pieces of painted fruit, straight outta Satan's fruitbasket.|
And then things got really, really bad.
All year, I had been a-tingle with anticipation about giving the gift we had found. It was truly one of the most horrible things I have ever entered into the swap.
It's a clown-themed sort of item and Julie has what may delicately be called, a THING about clowns. Not a small THING. A kind of big THING.
I didn't know exactly how to feel when I saw that Julie and Scott had drawn our gift, especially since, in all the years they have played, they have never gotten our entry. This year, with so many new players, they had a 10% chance of getting ours.
It was not the bestest night of Julie's life...
|Scott relaxes as Julie begins unwrapping. These are the last few seconds of joy Julie will know for the next year.|
|A quick peek in the box and the color drains from Julie's face.|
|Julie hands the box to Scott and attempts to put some sort of voodoo curse on me.|
|Scott tries his new Touch-A-Clown Therapy™ to help Julie overcome her fear. It does not work. At all.|
|Scott triumphantly explains all the places that Julie can expect to find the clown over the next 365 days. Julie contemplates my destruction.|
I am certain that Julie's retribution will be complete and terrible. It will not, I am equally certain, be swift. Julie will lull me into a false sense of safety and sometime - perhaps many years in the future - she will push me off a cliff while we are hiking. As I plummet into the abyss, she will call out after me - her words barely audible over the wind rushing past me as I spiral toward the jagged rocks below, "Now who's laughing, jerk?"
The answer, at least for the moment, is "me".
Things quieted down after Julie stopped screaming and slipped into a whimpering sort of catatonia.
Rayla was up for her first solo foray into The Swap. She got Ryan and Nichole's gift. The really, really big one that everybody was secretly relieved not to have gotten. Everybody except Rayla, that is.
She bore her burden bravely.
|It took Rayla a bit longer than it should have to open it because Avery wasn't able to help. She was behind Rayla, delivering cookies to Caleb.|
|He enjoyed them.|
Next up was Amy who got special help from Avery because Avery and Tahra had brought this gift and Avery cried about the fact that she wouldn't be allowed to keep it.
|Avery helps Amy to unwrap her new favorite thing in the world.|
|Behold it's sublime glory.|
Amy longed for a rustic cabin in which to hang her rustic art. Maybe next year, as there is no prohibition against giving dwellings as swap gifts.
But if I wind up with a yurt next year, the rules are gonna change, y'all.
Katie and Tim were next up. Their gift was also small, but as veteran Swappers, they knew better than to get excited about it.
|Ben, however, was VERY excited that his gift was going to move in with Tim and Katie.|
|Tim looks to Julie for some moral support, but she is still in shock, mumbling quietly and incessantly about clowns, clowns, clowns...|
|Tim reveals a gift of ethereal beauty and superb craftsmanship. One to rival the great religious art of centuries past.|
|A brilliant, lenticular painting of an angel and two really creepy kids. It's blinding beauty and constant appearance of motion prevented me from getting a good picture of it. You'll just have to trust me. It was REALLY nice.|
|Katie had to hide behind Kat to prevent herself from being overwhelmed by its awesomeness.|
|Nichole tried to cast a spell on it to make the picture disappear, but it didn't work.|
|Nichole's spell might actually have backfired and given Julie's clown a spark of life. Maybe. I mean, have you seen the clown recently, Julie? Where is it right now?|
|Rayla's new deer poster.|
|Satan's fruit with the as-yet unnamed snake.|
|Ryan's sanctified drink cooler.|
|Mr. Happy Clown, Julie's new BFF.|
|Still life with clown, fruit, and drink cooler.|
|Motion Activated Angel Kids™!|
|The installation art piece I am calling, "Everything In The Kitchen Sink".|
In spite of the snake that is now inhabiting our home (in a location that Kerri will no doubt discover shortly...), we did get one excellent piece of art out of all this.
I'm already excited for next year.
|So is Caleb!|