And all my friends.
Each year, for the past 19 years we have gathered together for an annual celebration of ugliness. Some new friends have joined us, some old friends have left us.
Usually, in tears.
Over the years, some traditions have developed. The evenings generally start with food, drink, and lively conversation as we give the pile of gifts the side-eye and toss out any silent, last minute prayers to the universe to please not let us get THAT gift.
Every year there is THAT gift.
The one that casts a hush over the room when it is brought into the house.
Or, in the case of THAT gift this year, when Tim and Katie drove up with the gift strapped to the roof of their car.
|Let's play a game. Can you tell which one Tim and Katie brought?|
Next year, I am planning on telling them that we have moved and providing them with directions to somebody else's house. Please feel free to post your address in the comments section of this blog if you'd like to try Tim and Katie's Artichoke Dip next year.
Soon, the dip was gone and, as it happens every year, a deep, collective, artichoke-scented sigh of resignation signaled the beginning of The Swap. I wrote names on slips of paper and somberly allowed each victim to select his fate.
This year, I tried having some photos in SWAP-VISION™ so you can really feel like you were with us.
|Hello. Welcome to The Swap. Are you ready to begin?|
|Please select a name. Mwaaa hahaaaahahahahahahahahaaaaa!|
|I'm not certain, but I think she went first because she happened to have a mouth full of artichoke dip when I said "NOT IT!" and she couldn't reply fast enough.|
Rayla is Ben and Ann's daughter and has been exposed to these swaps for nearly her entire life. Last year, she decided to become an active participant and–for some reason that nobody understands, because she is a very intelligent young lady–she decided to participate again this year.
Grace is Rayla's roommate at college. She was a delightful person and all of us felt a small sense of sadness that she had been dragged into this mess. That slight sadness would morph into full-blown, tear-stained despair before the night ended.
In an effort to give this event a sense of dignity, someone suggested that gifts should be presented in a formal fashion.
|"I, Rayla, do bequeath unto you, Julie, this mind-boggling piece of crap. To display prominently in your home pro anno."|
|Julie declined the available safety goggles and dived right in.|
|Julie made the game-changing decision to show all of us the gift before she looked at it. It gave her time to judge our reactions and see if she needed to fake a medical emergency in order to leave without it.|
|Julie, meet your new roommate, Cecil the Monkey.|
|The price tag says $6, a dollar over our limit, but Rayla and Grace haggled and got the price down to $5. They brought a receipt just in case there was a dispute. Julie was too sad to dispute. Plus, she still had artichoke dip in her mouth.|
|Julie begins the presentation.|
|Katie accepts the gift with a smile. The last one she will have for at least a year.|
|We are awe-struck by the beauty of this masterpiece.|
|Katie's smile dissolves into her new permanent look of sickened horror.|
|The Carousel Animal will come to life at night and eat your toes while you sleep.|
A hush settles upon the room as Tim and Katie stand to deliver their gift. The one that they had to strap to the roof of their car because it was so huge. We each give a silent sigh of relief that we didn't get it.
Each of us except Ryan, that is.
Ryan accepted his fate in a brave, dignified manner. Ben and Dave caught him as he attempted to dive out the window. They sat on him and forced him to accept his fate in a brave and dignified manner.
|Tim and Katie discuss their options on lifting the huge gift. Crane or front-end loader?|
|Eventually, they are able to lift it and deliver it to Ryan, as he struggles to free himself from Ben and Dave's clutches.|
|We shackled Ryan to a chair and he began the process of unwrapping. Nobody breathed.|
|It took us all several minutes to figure out that the painting was upside down.|
|It was no better right side up.|
|Ryan contemplates it as Ben holds it up for him.|
|Ben had to go all the way across the room so Ryan could behold it all at once.|
|Ryan set off his camera's flash into his eyes several times in a desperate attempt to blind himself.|
|This is an intellectually challenging piece of art that poses many questions for the viewer.|
|Ryan set up a delightful Logo diorama on the painting in an effort to ground it in reality somehow, but the Lego people kept jumping off the painting in a desperate attempt at preserving their dignity.|
Ryan, still seeing colorful spots of light from his camera's flash, groped his way over to his gift and presented it to Ben and Ann.
|Ryan held the gift out in the general direction of Ben and staggered back to his seat to rethink his friendships.|
|Ryan's gift was wrapped with a Trump theme - a near automatic disqualification this year.|
|Ben tried desperately to get himself excused from having to accept this clear violation of our NoTrumpPolicy™.|
We needed to see the gift before rendering a verdict.
|Ben tore into it. Kristen prepares for the worst, squinting slightly to protect herself from a the full impact when it opens.|
|With a grace and flair honed over almost 20 years of swapping, Ben reveals his gift with a flourish.|
|Our baffled silence confuses him slightly.|
|He spins the painting around and looks at it.|
|And looks at it.|
|And looks at it.|
|And looks at it. When he finally realizes that it can never be fully explained or comprehended, he is relieved and returns to his default state of Buddha-like serenity.|
|Tip Line - If you or anyone you know can explain this painting, please call our anonymous tip line.|
Ben pulls himself away from his painting's hypnotic mysteriousness and presents me with his gift.
|We are old masters of this swap and are able to hide our terror behind masks of carefree joy. I am crying in the inside.|
|Now I am sobbing on the inside.|
|I pull off the blanket to reveal a masterpiece that I am certain Ben and Ann have stolen from the Vatican - a piece of art that is truly miraculous.|
|Look at it from here, it's a really bad painting of Mary.|
|Take a step to your right or left and it's a really bad painting of Jesus.|
I sob quietly to myself as I hand our gift to Dave and Kristen.
|The Happy Birthday bag is a delightful coincidence as it it actually Kristen's birthday. My suspicion, however, is that it isn't a happy one.|
|The family helps on this one.|
|And they are struck speechless by the transcendent beauty of the hand-carved reed turkey that will be on display in their house for the next year.|
|Kristen tries casting a spell on it to make it go away, but remembers that she has no magical powers.|
|Evelyn tries to make peace with the turkey.|
|Brennan tries to call DCYF to charge his parents with some sort of turkey-related child abuse.|
|Dave suggests possible locations to display it as Kristen suggests divorce.|
But not for us.
They got bad for Rayla and Grace.
Really, really bad.
|Dave and Kristen, in keeping with the cultural tradition of delivering unspeakables in a plain, brown wrapper, presented their gift to Rayla and Grace.|
|Grace reveals the bubble-wrapped nightmare. Rayla holds back the avocado dip as her stomach lurches.|
|Grace cannot look directly at it. Rayla tries to gouge out her own eyes.|
|Rayla attempts to destroy the evil doll using her mind.|
|She gets a terrible headache but the evil doll remains.|
|Katie is frozen in shocked horror. Evelyn hides behind the turkey and Kristen dissolves into hysterical shrieks as the full horror of the doll is unleashed.|
|Grace announces formally that she will be seeking a new roommate at college.|
|Grace, a newbie to The Swap, puts on a brave face that even a seasoned pro like Rayla cannot match.|
|Grace finds out exactly what evil smells like. |
|Ann cautiously inspects Mr. Evil.|
|She risks touching him and momentarily forgets what happiness feels like.|
|No matter where you stand, it's a good bet that one of his eyes is looking at you and plotting ways to eat your soul.|
|Attempts at posing the doll in front of Ryan's painting were met with mixed success. It kept mysteriously moving when nobody was looking.|
Soon, the night drew to a close.
Friends wiped their tear-streaked faces and made their way to their cars to spend another year wondering why we do this to ourselves and vowing that next year, provided the Evil Doll hasn't tracked us all down and devoured our souls, we will get our revenge.