Monday, February 4, 2019

Celebrating 20 Years of Pain & Suffering With Consolation Monkey Jesus Cake.

Our Story So Far:

Ecco Homo (Behold the Man), a delicate fresco that has been displayed in The Sanctuary of Mercy Church for nearly 100 years, is not looking so good.

It has become faded and water has damaged its surface. Jesus is in need of some maintenance.

Cecilia Gimenez, local parishioner and amateur art restoration wannabe,  takes matters into her own octogenarian hands.  Tired of waiting for the piece to be restored professionally, the plucky go-getter got her paints and brushes and fixed the darn thing herself.

And by fixed, I mean that she turned the ancient fresco, now dubbed "Monkey Christ", into something that a BBC reporter described, with typical British reserve and understatement, as "a crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic".

To add the extra bit of irony that stories like this need, the church had just received a donation to pay for the restoration of the fresco.

And that brings us to to this year's Gift Swap of Horror™ (feat. cake!).

Monkey Christ Cake is as tasty as it is ugly.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of this annual tradition whereupon we gather together to willfully bring pain and suffering into our lives, Ben & Ann bought a cake with an image of the famous botched restoration with the inspirational slogan "you did your best. Bad Art Swap 2019" written across it.

To add the extra bit of irony that cakes like this need, the lettering by the grocery store bakery expert is scrawled artlessly and off-center across the cake. Well played.

Ben and Ann, always innovators, also introduced the concept of dressing for the occasion. Last year, we thought they had outdone themselves with their sartorial embellishments, but we were wrong. There is always room for improvement. Just ask Cecilia Gimenez!

My own lovely wife, Kerri, got dolled up as a sort of Voodoo Queen in Crocs.

Caleb sought a bold mix of comfort and fashion with SpongeBob accents.

Tori went full old lady circa 1967 and Sloane opted for 1970's polyester Hellscape.

With Cowboys.

Ann, with her crocheted Daisy Duck hat, sequined belt, and flashy blue dress, was an inspiration and an eyesore all at once.

Ben opted for a somewhat pimpier look with sweet shades, a smooth, sleek shirt, and lovely dress pants.
I opted for relaxed and casual on the top...
And business on the bottom. Dave described my outfit as being like a mullet in that way.

Generally, I add links here to send you to previous blog posts where I explain the origin of the The Swap. But this is a special year. It's the 20th anniversary of this tradition and I'd like to ruminate and regurgitate a bit while staggering back along Memory Lane. Many of the memories are ones that I had hoped would have been suppressed by now. but they still bob along like turds in the river of my consciousness.

The Swap started as part of a love story. Kerri and I got married and spent our romantic honeymoon in a cozy cabin in the rugged wilderness of the The White Mountains of New Hampshire. Naturally, since it was our honeymoon and we were alone in a cabin in the woods we couldn't think of a single thing to do. After a few hours in the cabin we were totally stir crazy and needed to get out and do something. Our wanderings took us to a local establishment called "Fifi's Clutter Shoppe".

The extra "pe" on Shoppe is your clue that you are in for a treat when shoppeing at Fifi's. Fifi's was, as promised, a cluttered hellscape of kitch, crap, and clutter. We staggered around in a daze for several hours and decided that we couldn't let a treasure trove like this go to waste.

As soon as we returned home from our honeymoon (this was WAAAAY back in the pre-cell phone days, called The Dark Ages by my children), we told our friends about this amazing place.
We immediately arranged a return visit to Fifi's with a plan. And thus, The Swap was born. Or hatched. Or spawned in the deepest pits of Hell. Depending on your point of view.

The original Swap consisted of Kerri & me, Ben and Ann, and our friend Jim. We all wandered around Fifi's with five dollar bills clutched tightly in our sweaty hands. We could purchase whatever we wanted as long as it didn't exceed $5. Then we would draw names and exchange items. Whatever you got had to be displayed prominently in your home for a year.

The rules were brutally simple and have remained so for two decades. You have one year to shop. You cannot spend more than $5. Whatever you get must be prominently displayed in your home until the next swap.

There have been slight modifications, based on past swaps. The "No furniture" rule was enacted after our friends Jay and Cris saddled Kerri and me with 6 horrible velour covered chairs that they had to bring to The Swap in a pick-up truck.

In their defense, they were reacting to the previous year - their first - when they brought a tacky soap pump and went home with a light-up ceramic witch head that was terrifying enough to bring Cris to tears on their drive home from The Swap.

Yes, there have been tears. Yes, there have been longstanding friendships that actually ended. There have been more tears. And still The Swap is the social event of the year for many people*.

*Or, at least for me. Maybe I should get out more.

This year was a larger crowd than normal. As our children have grown, they have brought their own friends and they have started playing independently of their families, bringing their horrible gifts back to dorm rooms, apartments, and, no doubt, very distressed roommates.

As always, we started off with food and drink. Lots of each, but more of one than the other.

We chat. We catch up. We laugh. We reminisce. We stand in awe of Ann's outfit. We take pictures that we cannot explain the next day.

Everett, the youngest member of the ensemble, was a great sport and, as his father owns a brewery, was able to offer beer pairings that went with bad art cake and sorrow.

Huddling protectively in a single chair offers no protection from the horrors to come.

That soup is hot but Caleb's outfit is hotter.

Wine, cake, popcorn, soup. It's like Charlie Brown's Thanksgiving! but with bad gifts.

Pre-Swap Happiness.

Please note the HUGE item lurking behind Kristen. Tim and Katie brought a gift that shocked everyone into horrified silence when they came through the door. It loomed over the evening like a death sentence.

We didn't have enough chairs so Tori had to carry Sloane all night.

Or they had to sit on the floor.

Rayla smiles happily while behind her Grace contemplates the looming horror of Tim & Katie's gift.

The calm before the storm.

Alex and Libby are both happy because they don't have any skin in this game. They are just here for the food.

I don't know what this is.

This either.

I know what this is, but I don't know why I took this picture.

And all the while, the gifts taunt us silently.

Tim and Katie's, which for legal reasons, Tim asked me to refer to as "Katie's contribution", is really, really big.

And the contribution from Kerri and me glows a soft, angry red under the classy garbage bag wrapping job I did.

When the time arrived, I wrote names down on slips of paper and The Swap began.

Names were placed in The Hat.
Name after name was drawn. Each slip of paper that didn't say Tim & Katie drew a silent sigh of relief.

And then Ben drew it.

Tim and Katie.

He was doomed.

The drawing of names continued, all of us unaware that I had made a colossal mistake.

Names were drawn and Caleb was chosen as the sacrificial first Swapper.

I just want to point out that the red light behind Caleb makes it look like he has a really hot fart happening. 
Everett, briefly freed from his duties offering beer selections, very kindly helped Caleb open his gift.

What appear to be three Wise Men Plus an Extra Wise Man are removed from the box. Everett is underwhelmed with this gift.

He removes a head from one of the figures, possibly inviting holy retribution down upon the gathering

A quick consultation is had and we all decide that The Swap is already biblical-style suffering and we need not fear any other divine punishment for accidentally decapitating a possible Wise Man.

Grace is next in line. Since seeing what kind of things lie beneath the wrappings, Everett is unwilling to help anyone else unwrap gifts. He is quite obviously the smartest person in the room.

Grace marches resolutely toward her undoing.

She and Marilyn unwrap a delightful Easter Rabbit which will adorn their dorm room and will definitely not come to life at night and wreak havoc across the campus of Colby Sawyer College.

But wait! It plugs in? What could this mean?

It means that they will suffer audibly AND visually!

They trudged back to their spot, their spirits broken by a happy, singing bunny.

Next up was the Lawson family.

The box is small, but Kristen is smart enough not to fall for that trap. 

She gathers herself together to put on a brave face for her children.

It seems that in all the commotion of coming to The Swap, Grace and Marilyn somehow forgot to bring their gift. As a temporary placeholder, they draw their renditions of it.

We are intrigued.

Each member of the trio contributed a version.

And none of them gave the Lawsons any hope. They were as doomed as the rest of us.

Ryan and Nichole were up next. As an added bonus, their house is on the market for sale and they are looking forward to some open houses where whatever they get tonight will be displayed prominently.

Ryan is ready to swap.

The plain, brown wrapper gives away none of its secrets.

Nichole waits anxiously while Amy and Lauren relax in the background, happy that they have decided not to swap this year.

It's a lovely ballerina! And, as an added bonus, it used to hang in Kristen's childhood bedroom. 

Nichole is delighted. Amy and Lauren are also delighted. But for completely different reasons.

Ryan is sure this will help them sell the house. People may buy it out of pity.

Rayla was next. She marched bravely to meet her fate.

"How bad could it be?" she asks herself. But she knows. She knows...

It's small...

It's soft...

She actually kind of likes it! Or she's a great actor. 

The peanut gallery is amused.

Tim & Katie are up next. Tim, secure in the knowledge that, if nothing else, he isn't going home with the giant thing that he and Katie brought, approaches the dwindling pile.

Again, it's not big, but Tim is a veteran and will not be fooled by the size of gift. 
It's a... THING!

It appears to be a planter or a pencil holder or, possibly a very poorly designed coffee mug.

The wide stance of the faceless woman gives the impression that she may, at any moment, deliver more faceless horrors into the world.

Katie is in awe of the spectacular badoncadonk on the figurine.

Ben and Ann are next. Ben sighs deeply and steels himself for the ordeal he is about to endure.
And, as yet, we are still all unaware of the spectacular mistake I made earlier.

Ben fights back tears as he hugs Tim to let him know that this may be the last time the brothers ever speak to one another. 
Ann comes forward to help as the gift if too large for one person to maneuver safely.

And, just as they are about to unwrap it, Julie quietly says, "I have Tim & Katie, too."
Stunned silence fills the room.
Caleb fires off another flaming hot fart in surprise.
And chaos ensues.

I accidentally wrote down Tim & Katie's names twice and didn't put Kerri's and my name on the slips of paper. I botched the one job I had!

The gifts have been opened. There is no going back!

A quick suggestion was made that since Ben drew Tim & Katie's first, he will take it. Julie will be stuck with ours.

Julie is relieved by this.


Ben and Ann work as a team to unveil the monster whose shadow has been cast over the party all night.
They work slowly. The anticipation builds. 
And builds.

They decide to enjoy the piece privately for a moment.

We all squirm in morbid anticipation.

A quick consultation and Ben & Ann agree that the piece may be upside down. They fix it before revealing it.

Right-side up,  it is still no treat.

Ann tries to kill Katie with her mind. Fortunately, she fails.

Ben kind of likes it.

Ann tries once more to kill Katie. And again she fails.

She seeks guidance from a higher power.

Lloyd does not offer her guidance.

But what is this? Intrigue? The price tag on the back says $279!!
Ann, seeing a way out of this,  demands a receipt from Katie, who is still very much alive.

Katie produces the receipt and will hear no more about it.

Not now.
Not ever.

And all the while, Ben is growing to love this piece.

Kerri and I are next and, there is more intrigue.

I unwrapped the small box that Ben & Ann had brought with them and immediately exploded in a fit of laughter.

There is nothing funny about this, you will say. And you will be right.

While there is nothing funny about the bear, the story of how it came to be wrapped up and in my possession for the next year is a morality tale that will make you think twice before you play dumb tricks on your friends.

About a month ago, Ben & Ann invited Kerri and me to their house for dinner before a show. We decided, because we are lovely people, to bring them a gift. We selected this bear from the stash of Swap gifts that we have on hand at all times.

We brought the bear with us to their house and, as we entered, we quietly placed it on a chair on their front porch.  After dinner, we somehow all made it out the front door and into our cars without Ben, Ann, or Caleb noticing the bear we had delivered unto them.

At some point over the next few day, the bear was discovered and there was much discussion at the Putnam house as to its provenience. they did not know where it came from. With the Swap just days away there was hot debate about whether to bring it as a gift or not.

They did.

And I got it back.

Karma is real.

And fast.

And it has a sense of humor.

We named the bear Boomerang for obvious reasons.

Julie, having briefly dodged something horrible, was about to regret it.

Despite the fact that Kerri warned me about a dozen times that the lightbulbs will burn the plastic bag, I did not listen. 
Julie carefully removed the melted plastic from the bulbs.

And uncovered an ancient Chinese altar.

Which brought her much joy.

She broke into a rousing song singing my praises.*

*That is a lie.

She is captivated by its beauty.

And a tear of joy, I assume, slid down her cheek. It sparkled merrily in the sordid red glow of the plastic-scented bulbs.

And in the end, joy and love and ugly cake reigned supreme.
And once again, I am reminded how lucky I am to have such amazing, fun friends in my life.