White Elephant = War

Dear Blue,

It’s Christmas season. This year, we’re celebrating in the frigid tundra of Southern California. Last night, it dropped all the way to 38 degrees. There was almost, ALMOST, frost on the ground. It’s frigid. I had to wear a windbreaker to church this morning.

Next year, if everything goes according to schedule, we will travel to the great state of Kentucky to visit my side of the family. You’ll be less than a year old, but even then, I feel as if I must prepare you for what you will encounter. This will be a constant challenge, keeping you connected to your roots. You are an IriMalaynese Californiatuckian, and we currently have no idea how to make sure you get all of that without losing some of it along the way.

So let’s start with Christmas. It’s a perfect starting point for talking about family. On the California side, your mother’s family Christmas gathering is picturesque. Every commercial ever created to convey warm holiday feelings did a case study on her family, Blue. Everyone is warm and kind and generous and thoughtful. We sit down at a nice long table and eat turkey and munch on tortilla strips and then open presents. It’s like the last scene in A Christmas Carol, only there is no Scrooge.

Then you have my side of the family. They are just as nice and kind and generous as your mother’s side but they also like to play games. Every year, we gather at a house, eat cheese, laugh, play poker, eat cheese, play basketball, eat cheese, and then, as the grand finale, we play white elephant.

Generally speaking, in most offices or households where white elephant is played, it’s more for fun than anything else. There is stealing involved in the game, but usually, no one ever steals much because they like their family or coworkers or whomever. Someone spends a few minutes going over the rules, and then the game is over in about five minutes and everyone is happy with their perfume or rice cookers.

Our family, your family, takes their game playing a bit more seriously. Even though it’s a game, rest assured it is not just a game. Hungry, hungry hippos is a game. Candyland is a game. Basketball is a game. White elephant is war. You’ll catch on quick. That, or you’ll be stuck with the crappy set of snowman sculptures every year.

Beginning in November, each year the council of elders (your grandfather and siblings) sends messages back and forth via Facebook outlining the terms of engagement for the upcoming Christmas party. Generally, the hosting party decides on the final rules for the game. It started back in the 90’s and by now, the list of amended and proposed rules is about as long as the US Constitution.

As the family expands, the game gets longer and longer, more and more complex. The number of participants is now pushing three dozen, Blue, and it’s only getting bigger. Which means that if we start the game around 4pm, we generally finish up on New Year’s Eve.

Controversies abound. Your grandfather and your aunt still argue over a crock pot that was the coveted item a decade ago, and recently, your uncle began employing the guerilla tactic of sending in his daughter to steal presents, then standing in front of them with big puppy dog eyes when someone wanted to return the favor. It didn’t do any good. Some crocodile tears are not going to stop anybody.

One year, your grandfather was so excited when he won a bunch of lottery tickets in a shoebox. When he began scratching them off, he shot up his eyes in surprised, gasped, and proclaimed, “I JUST WON 10,000 DOLLARS!!!” He was shocked. For a few minutes, he was completely speechless, giddy with his dumb luck. Then he turned over to read the contest rules and how to get his money. His grin became a frown as uproarious laughter filled the room.

The ticket was a fake. Someone had spent $25 just to have a good laugh your grandfather’s expense, and were this in the era of youtube, his reaction would have gone viral. Like I said, we are a family of game players.

Another year, my first in the game, your grandfather bribed me to steal a knife set for him in order to lock it in place. Within our immediate family, it was secure. He then agreed to steal the gift I wanted. This had all been worked out ahead of time, and sometimes, playing this game is like playing chess. You need to see several moves ahead in order to get where you need to be.

Like I said, it’s war. White elephant is a game of tribes. Factions. We work together and against one another, taking from aunts to give to our wives. It’s a glorious day. You’re going to love it, Blue.

Stealing coveted household appliances from family is what Christmas is all about.



Baby, Winter. Winter, Baby.


Dear Blue,


Next week, our fledgling family of three will travel to Kentucky to see my side of the family. We’re excited. They’re excited. Everyone is excited. This trip will encompass a dizzying number of firsts for you. In no particular order, here’s the list of firsts for you I’ve compiled thus far: first Christmas, first road trip over two hours, first Vegas trip, first hotel stay, first flight, first visit to the bathroom on a flight (This, of all the first, keeps me up at night.), first time in Kentucky, first time meeting your uncles, aunts, cousins and nephews, first winter and possibly first snow.


Whew. That’s a lot of firsts, and that list is undoubtedly incomplete. We have some traveling ahead of us, and while the plane flight is thankfully a direct flight into Cincinnati, we have to drive to Vegas to catch it. That’s because to fly from Los Angeles to anywhere in the Midwest other than Chicago around Christmas time costs approximately eleventy gobillion dollars. It costs substantially less to fly out of Vegas, and so we drive. Four hours through the desert and then four hours on a plane. During which, we will not be allowed to honor your frequent use of the one word you can now say. That would be the word “down”, and “down” is where you cannot go. Not on a plane. You will be in our lap, hopefully sleeping peacefully 29,000 feet above the Earth’s surface and not at all bothered by the pressurized air required to sustain us at such heights.


Then, as if that were not enough to contend with, when we land you will have your first true encounter with the heartless scourge known as winter. Thus far in your short life, you’ve only had the briefest encounters with the Season That Shall Not Be Named.


This is, of course, because you live in California, Blue. Here, there is no winter. Only wet and dark summer. Californians are cute about winter. It gets down to a frigid 50 degrees here and the next day, everyone is wearing scarves, beanies, peacoats, UGGs and sweaters with those little wooden toggles around the neck. Meanwhile every transplant from the Midwest or the East Coast heartily mocks them and goes out in shorts and a t-shirt because 50 degrees in December is balmy in most states.


Regardless, your mother is furiously preparing your wardrobe for Winter with a capital W as if it were the zombie apocalypse and snowflakes were zombies. You will NOT be leaving the house in Kentucky in anything less than 3 layers at any given time, and you will NOT have any extremities exposed to the air at any time whatsoever. You will get to play in the snow, however. If there is snow. But you will do it warmly in the warm embrace of snow pants and a down jacket.


There may be snow. There may not. For your sake (and your mother’s), I hope it falls on Christmas morning and not before then. Seeing it coat everything, even the sound of the world around you, is a magical experience. It’s the one weather event that I truly miss after living out here for so long. For just a short time, snow gives everything a fresh coat of paint, and then the salt trucks come through and ruin everything. Gone is the pristine silverly whiteness of fresh powder. In is the grimy layer cakes of muck, filth, salt and packed snow forming walls around every road and highway. I want you to see the first part, and nothing more before we’re whisked away back to the land of no Winter.





What I Intend To Tell You About Santa Claus


Dear Blue,

You’ll catch on quick to this, but I’m a good liar. Your mother is as well. A few years ago, I convinced a teenager that he had to hold his breath when riding on Space Mountain because we were going into outer space. His face was blue from near asphyxiation in the photo at the end. Likewise, last Christmas Eve, your mother convinced your three year old cousin that Tinker Bell was real by setting up an action figure in the bathroom. Then, she had me initiate a face time conversation with her while she imitated Tinker Bell’s voice on the other end.

As we approach the last Christmas we’ll ever celebrate as a silent night, it dawned on me that I have to figure out how I’m going to explain Santa Claus to you. The opportunities are absolutely endless, but surprisingly, I don’t intend to lie to you at all.

I found out Santa Claus wasn’t real in the 4th grade. Up until then, I had the vague suspicion it was all a hoax. It just didn’t make any sense. How could one man carry every child’s toy in one bag? How did he get to houses without chimneys? If he ate a cookie at every house, how did he not die from diabetes at the end of my suburb? How did elves make Nintendo games? Wasn’t that violating copyright law? How exactly did he get the raw materials to build all those toys to the Arctic Circle? Was there a distribution center close by?

Deep down, I knew. He was either a time traveler who defied the laws of physics and was coming back into the past every December 25th to drop off toys to inspire one unknown child to someday develop the technology to defend Castle Greyskull from the Decepticons and Cobra, or he wasn’t real.

There were rumblings in the 4th grade. It’s inevitable. Parents can only keep this up for so long, and in the grade school rumor mill, lies get crushed quickly. So I decided to find out the truth by scouring the house when my mom took my brother to the doctor. I found the stash hidden away in the upper shelf of my parent’s closet. It was three weeks before Christmas, and here before me, I spied with my little doubtful eye every single unwrapped present waiting for me on December 25th.

Without a doubt, it was the least joyous Christmas ever. I grinned and beared it, but knowing every gift I was getting before I unwrapped the paper was misery. I hated it. In that season, I learned something very important about Santa Claus. Forget all that corporate noise you’ll hear about “You just gotta believe.” Ad agencies use Santa Claus to push product. Honestly, I don’t care if you ever believe in a fictional man who homesteads at the North Pole and comes down our chimney once a year to leave presents. Belief in something like that is stupid, because it’s obviously false and when you figure that out, what then happens to your sense of belief? To use Santa Claus as an ambassador for this sentiment is like proposing to your girlfriend with a fake diamond ring you got out of a vending machine. The illusion can only last for so long, and when it fades, there are inevitable consequences.

I want you to have fun with things that are mysterious. Mystery is good for your soul, and this is where Santa Claus is useful for parents. He’s a story that makes the anticipation fun, a silly figment of our collective imagination that adds a little bit of intrigue to those final few days leading up to Christmas. (And keeps kids from ransacking their house looking for gifts.)

In terms of belief, though, Blue, he’s on the same level as Mickey Mouse. I don’t plan on telling you he’s not real, but I won’t be sad when you figure it out. In fact, I’ll be proud. However, I will not be pleased if you ever find the presents before Christmas Day. You’d better be a good liar, too, Blue, if that day ever comes. Because you’re going on the Naughty list.