Eighteenth Day of Christmas: Scrooges & Grinches

What follows is an account of the events that occurred last Sunday when I attempted to gift my coworkers with a nine-part holiday-themed scavenger hunt. The first segment is an article that will run in tomorrow’s New Times as an Art Bash. The second segment is the extended version. I also put together a video of the rather sad affair. I’d always intended to blog about the scavenger hunt, though I have to admit that when everything fell so spectacularly to pieces I considered dropping it altogether. But the fact that I’ve devoted so much time to the effort over the last few weeks and months makes me reluctant to drop the topic altogether. Perhaps there’s some holiday message here–even if it is merely to give carefully of your time and energy.

Good grief

BY ASHLEY SCHWELLENBACH

It’s 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 15 and I’ve got a brownie in my left hand, a mug of hot chocolate in my right, and my eyes on a platter of dates garnished with mascarpone cheese and honey. The house is littered with stockings from The Dollar Tree—pink ones with Disney princesses and traditional red and green ones with Mickey and Pluto and Santas. They’ve all got names on them, embroidered by hand—a hand you would never call deft with a sewing needle. I’ve got a raging headache and the regret that’s curdling in my belly is spoiling the hot chocolate. Tchaikovsky’s sugar plum fairies offer an unlikely but seasonally appropriate soundtrack for my failure.

Swept away on a tide of Christmas cheer and entirely too much frosting, I erred. Two months ago I decided to put together a holiday-themed scavenger hunt for my coworkers. Twelve tasks—for the 12 days of Christmas—and at the end of those 12 tasks a stocking for each of them, stuffed with goodies I’d picked up in Peru—leather bookmarks from Nazca, bird whistles that chortle when filled with water, alpaca leggings, and the like. I checked their schedules, and planned the scavenger hunt for one month out. That’s when the intense planning began.

They would meet at New Times at 11 a.m. and be given a missive explaining what was going on:

 On the twelfth day of Christmas, your insane friend gave to you, 12 tasks that you must merrily do. Your stockings have been hung by the chimney with care, but whose chimney and in what condition and where? To secure your treats, you must play by the rules, solve all the riddles, decipher the 12 simple clues. Refuse to play, or perform with half a heart, and you’ll miss out on the message the caper was designed to impart. Fail to comply and baby Jesus will cry, and the Grinch will have won and what are you a terrorist? Because that’s just no fun. A camera has been provided for you to document your progress. Kindly film each stage for the benefit of the cape’s authoress.

—Cap’n Santa

 P.S. Colin said there was a reasonable chance—given the quality and patience of the clue hunters—that I would have an angry mob scenario if I gave you as many tasks as originally intended. So, I’ve narrowed it down to nine. Proof that I’m both reasonable and capable of compromise.

 There would be a ready-to-assemble gingerbread house waiting for them in the New Times kitchen, as indicated by the first clue:

You can’t catch him, but if you use the right tools you may find him sufficiently wooed, to furnish the information you need to advance. ‘Tis the season when the gingerbread folk expand their brood, and they require safe haven from the feral, hungry hordes and their rolling pins so lean and so lewd. Build an abode befitting Mr. Bread’s stature and message a photo to the scavenger hunt dispatcher (XXX-XXXX).

ArtBash-Scavenger2-12.19 IMG_0105

The scavenger hunt dispatcher—my boyfriend, Colin Rigley, who was also responsible for preparing the hot chocolate, brownies, and mascarpone dates, all while indulging liberally in the peppermint schnapps—texted the following clue:

Reid carefully: With great power comes great responsibility.

An obvious reference to Reid Cain’s comic book (Dr. Cain’s Comics & Books) shop and, more specifically, Spiderman, right?

ArtBash-Scavenger3-12.19

Beneath Spiderman there would be an envelope with a chewed up piece of gum, leading them to Bubblegum Alley where I had stuck GPS coordinates—at great risk to my health, I would like to add—that would lead them to Linnaea’s Café.

ArtBash-Scavenger4-12.19

 

The baristas at Linnaea’s had a missive that read:

He’s got rosy lips, eyes sparkling and merry, and a lap fashioned for sitting, so hurry, don’t tarry.

Santa’s house is temporarily located in Mission Plaza, and no holiday caper is complete without approval from the big man himself, so he would give them the following clue:

He’s making a list and checking it twice, but your chances aren’t great if you share Matt’s vice. Follow the Jamo and find your clues, but resist the allure of the Siren Booze.

A not-terribly-subtle reference to McCarthy’s. Every Odyssey has its moment of temptation—press forward with a stalwart heart and clear mind or fall behind with the day drinkers? Staff writer Glen Starkey was situated at the bar with his wife, Anna, and a packet containing the next clue and accompanying paraphernalia.

Wassail the hippies where they roam free and nude. Sing your best carols and the hippies may just collude to send you on your merry way, clue in hand, on the course Captain Holiday Nutter had established for you.

Translation: Carol the Establishment using the lyrics to “Deck the Halls” and “Santa Baby” in the manila envelope.

Following what I presumed would be a successful carol, the clue hunters would be given the following missive:

In the spirit of Christmas, you’ve a package to deliver, so tighten your waistbands for a narrow chimney shimmer. The house will be stirring, that’s for certain, with baking and tantrums and storytelling and whirling dervishes of three elf-sized humans.

They would make their way to Executive Editor Ryan Miller’s house to deliver his stocking and receive a puzzle in exchange. The puzzle in question was a photo of my cat’s dollhouse—another story for another time—which, once solved, would direct them to my house where they would find the food, drinks, and, mostly importantly, stockings.

(The final puzzle showing the locations of the stockings. Apparently they solved just enough to see the word “lesbian” on the sticker on the fridge and, for a brief moment, considered the possibility that they were supposed to go to our former coworker Maeva’s house. Which would have been quite funny had she not been at work, which prevented her from participating.)

Scavenger Hunt_Dollhouse

What could be difficult about putting together a nine-part scavenger hunt, right? Actually, putting the scavenger hunt together was the simple part. The morning of the hunt, one writer bailed. Two abandoned the effort at McCarthy’s, all but one refused to sing at The Establishment, and throughout the effort several texted and called to complain about various indignities including standing in line outside Santa’s house and having been forced to leave their beds before 1 p.m.

After playing his role at McCarthy’s, Glen texted, “That’s one pissed off, unhappy group of scavengers.” And I realized that I had made a mistake. I’ve seen people without adequate food, without sufficient shelter, without access to medical care. And yet none of them expressed their outrage as vociferously as a group of people asked to spend three hours solving riddles for Christmas presents.

I conclude, not with a “bah humbug,” which I will always consider beneath me but with a question, and an important one: Have I learned my lesson? Am I cured of elaborate scheming for the benefit of those around me? It was touch and go for those first terribly depressing hours immediately following the hunt, but the answer is no. Colin pointed out that I merely need to be more selective of the beneficiaries of my efforts. Not everyone was born to turn off their Xbox and step into an alternate reality in which the objective is whimsy and merriment, just as I was not born to do anything on a small scale or in a fashion most would consider normal. Live and let live. Keep writing clues, just make sure you give them to the right people—preferably ones as crazy as you are. ∆

Managing Editor Ashley Schwellenbach is one bah humbug away from a peppermint stick stabbing. Send tidings of good cheer to aschwellenbach@newtimesslo.com.

 So that’s the short made-for-newspaper-print version.

Here’s the longer account:

It’s 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 15 and I’ve got a brownie in my left hand, a mug of hot chocolate in my right, and my eyes on a platter of dates garnished with marscapone cheese and honey. My boyfriend is hobbling around the house on a toe he broke earlier that morning, in the mad dash to prepare for our guests. The house is littered with stockings from The Dollar Store—pink ones with Disney princesses and traditional red and green ones with Mickey and Pluto and Santas. They’ve all got names on them, embroidered by hand—a hand you would never call deft with a sewing needle. I’ve got a raging headache and the regret that’s curdling in my belly is spoiling the hot chocolate. Tchaikovsky’s sugar plum fairies offer an unlikely but seasonally appropriate soundtrack for my failure.

Swept away on a tide of Christmas cheer and entirely too much hot chocolate (Colin makes it with honey and chili powder and doesn’t even use the microwave to heat it, which amazes me), I erred. Two months ago I decided to put together a holiday-themed scavenger hunt for my coworkers. Twelve tasks—for the 12 days of Christmas—and at the end of those 12 tasks a stocking for each of them, stuffed with goodies I’d picked up in Peru—leather bookmarks from Nazca, bird whistles that chortle when filled with water, alpaca leggings, and the like. The year before, I’d put together stockings consisting of miniature bottles of booze and Dollar Store toys—not a terribly impressive display, but the idea had occurred to me too late in the season for me to really go all out.

IMG_0126

I checked their schedules, and planned the scavenger hunt for one month out.

I should probably note that it’s never easy planning much of anything these days. People are likely to bail at the last minute or simply decide they’re too busy to schedule anything at all, so coordinating 10 schedules for 10 people who don’t seem to possess datebooks or have much regard for punctuality, well, I knew there was a fair chance they wouldn’t all make it, even if they said they would. Sure enough, the Friday prior to the event one writer began insisting he was busy and wouldn’t have time. I was frustrated but offered him an out: if he told me that day that he wasn’t going to come, I could give the spot (and stocking) to someone else. There was still time to invite someone who actually wanted to come. He decided to attend the scavenger hunt.

They would meet at New Times at 11 a.m. and be given a missive explaining what was going on:

On the twelfth day of Christmas, your insane friend gave to you, 12 tasks that you must merrily do. Your stockings have been hung by the chimney with care, but whose chimney and in what condition and where? To secure your treats, you must play by the rules, solve all the riddles, decipher the 12 simple clues. Refuse to play, or perform with half a heart, and you’ll miss out on the message the caper was designed to impart. Fail to comply and baby Jesus will cry, and the grinch will have won and what are you a terrorist? Because that’s just no fun. A camera has been provided for you to document your progress. Kindly film each stage for the benefit of the cape’s authoress.

 –Cap’n Santa

 P.S. Colin said there was a reasonable chance—given the quality and patience of the clue hunters—that I would have an angry mob scenario if I gave you as many tasks as originally intended. So, I’ve narrowed it down to nine. Proof that I’m both reasonable and capable of compromise.

In reality, at 11 a.m. there were three writers (the calendar editor, an intern, the news editor) and the calendar editor’s husband. Everyone looked nervous as Chris unwrapped the Christmas paper scroll and read the explanation for what was happening that day. The former office manager arrived a couple of minutes late, and I never saw the staff writer who had threatened not to come at all, though I later learned that he arrived late.

I had stationed a ready-to-assemble gingerbread house in the New Times kitchen, as indicated by the first clue:

You can’t catch him, but if you use the right tools you may find him sufficiently wooed, to furnish the information you need to advance. ‘Tis the season when the gingerbread folk expand their brood, and they require safe haven from the feral, hungry hordes and their rolling pins so lean and so lewd. Build an abode befitting Mr. Bread’s stature and message a photo to the scavenger hunt dispatcher (XXX-XXXX).

I only learned what took place in the kitchen by watching the video footage our staff writer took for me. Our calendar editor and intern quickly assumed the role of leaders. The staff writer continued to document and functioned as a cheerleader of sorts. The other participants mostly did their best James Dean impressions and flipped off the camera whenever there was an opportunity. Somehow, the reluctant team (two people, really) managed to assemble a house which probably would have resided in the gingerbread slums, but was nonetheless a house. In the video, you can hear the calendar editor quip that it looks like the Grey Gardens of gingerbread houses.

The scavenger hunt dispatcher—my boyfriend, Colin Rigley, who was also responsible for preparing the hot chocolate, brownies, and marscapone dates, all while indulging liberally in the peppermint schnapps to dull the pain of his broken toe—texted the following clue:

“Reid carefully: With great power comes great responsibility.”

New Times illustrator Reid Cain owns a comic book shop called Dr. Cain’s Comics & Books, which is a mere four blocks from our office. The previous Friday, I’d delivered a chewed up piece of bubblegum concealed in an envelope to the shop. Despite Reid’s distaste, he allowed me to stash the clue beneath a Spiderman statue.

From the video footage, I gleaned that the crack scavenger team deciphered the clue fairly rapidly. At least, those of them who were participating deciphered the clue. The video also depicted a trio of hunched over surly figures, one of whom had texted Colin that 11 a.m. was “too early.”

They ventured to Bubblegum Alley where I had stuck GPS coordinates—at great risk to my health, I would like to add—that would lead them to Linnaea’s Café. I realized fairly quickly that chewing up my own gum and sticking it to the wall wasn’t sufficient adhesive, so I instead found strands of gum already adhering to the wall and slipped the coordinates between them. With great difficulty, I managed not to touch the wall, but that didn’t stop me from washing my hands at the first available opportunity.

According to the staff writer who was documenting the caper, this was the most difficult clue. Sure, they knew that the numbers were GPS coordinates, but it apparently took some time before they realized they could just type the numbers into their phone to get the corresponding address. Once they did, however, they had less than a block to walk to Linnaea’s.

The baristas there had a missive that read:

“He’s got rosy lips, eyes sparkling and merry, and a lap fashioned for sitting, so hurry, don’t tarry.”

Santa’s house is temporarily located in Mission Plaza, and no holiday caper is complete without approval from the big man himself. I knew when I wrote the clue that there was no way I could get all the writers into Santa’s lap. I would have been satisfied with just one, and the Downtown Association assured me that Santa would have the clue I had e-mailed them.

There was one thing I could not control: the length of the line to see Santa. The writers found themselves among children in broad daylight before 1 p.m. waiting to visit Santa. It was, apparently, the last straw. My phone rang. A writer wanted to let me know how stupid he found the endeavor. I was wasting everyone’s time. What the hell was wrong with me.

Eventually, they managed to find a Santa’s Helper who could pass along the clue (though most of the helpers apparently insisted they had no idea what the writers were going on about). The clue read:

“He’s making a list and checking it twice, but your chances aren’t great if you share Matt’s vice. Follow the Jamo and find your clues, but resist the allure of the Siren Booze.”

A not-terribly-subtle reference to McCarthy’s. Every Odyssey has its moment of temptation—press forward with a stalwart heart and clear mind or fall behind with the day drinkers? Staff writer Glen Starkey was situated at the bar with his wife, Anna, with a packet containing the next clue and accompanying paraphernalia. He apparently demanded that they buy him Jameson in exchange for their clue. I’m not sure if they capitulated, but he did surrender the envelope at some point, so I can only assume they did. Two people chose to stay behind. As the group left, Glen texted “That’s one pissed off group of scavenger hunters.”

The envelope Glen bartered for booze contained the following clue:

“Wassail the hippies where they roam free and nude. Sing your best carols and the hippies may just collude to send you on your merry way, clue in hand, on the course Captain Holiday Nutter had established for you.”

Translation: Carol the Establishment using the lyrics to “Deck the Halls” and “Santa Baby” in the manila envelope.

The dwindling team made it to the Establishment where everyone but the intern—who is, in fact, an accomplished vocalist and had his final choir concert of the semester later that day—refused to sing. He made it through “Deck the Halls” and “Santa Baby” completely alone, but with a reasonable amount of cheer considering the circumstances. In return, the hippies surrendered a stocking embroidered with “Millers” and a clue:

“In the spirit of Christmas, you’ve a package to deliver, so tighten your waistbands for a narrow chimney shimmer. The house will be stirring, that’s for certain, with baking and tantrums and storytelling and whirling dervishes of three elf-sized humans.”

They would make their way to Executive Editor Ryan Miller’s house to deliver his stocking and receive a puzzle in exchange. The puzzle in question was a photo of my cat’s dollhouse—another story for another time—which, once solved, would direct them to my house where they would find the food, drinks, and, mostly importantly, stockings.

I have to confess I’m not particularly fond of puzzles, and this was a 500-something piece behemoth. However, I figured that 10 people working together could assemble enough of it to determine the location within about half an hour. Unfortunately, before they’d invested any time in the puzzle, I received another phone call reminding me of what an inconvenience the entire day had been, of how angry and bored everyone was.

And that was the final straw. I had been doing an interview for work, and returned home in tears to tell my boyfriend that I would be gone when and if the writers arrived. He could give them their food, their drinks, their stockings, and I’d come home once they were gone. I was far from composed and didn’t see the point in upsetting or alarming the three people who had genuinely tried. Colin looked kind of stunned and, when he realized how upset I was, ultimately called the person who had been calling me all day to tell him not to come to our house.

And there we were. In a house full of presents and food and drinks for people who couldn’t spare three hours to come and find them. Who couldn’t recognize that I’d put dozens of hours of effort into my plan, which was silly, admittedly, but intended to be joyful and fun.

Two of them made it, and one writer got lost coming to our house (which is entirely reasonable). So they got their stockings. I took apart some of the others to bulk up the stockings of the people who made it. But I’ve still got more. Maybe once I’ve processed what happened, and why, I’ll be able to figure out what do to with the leftovers.

ArtBash-Scavenger1-12.19 IMG_0117

How is it that single-handedly putting together a nine-part scavenger hunt was easier than convincing the people in my life to take part? I realize that I made a mistake. I’d unleashed a pack of grumpy, outraged, indignant writers on a tinsel-strewn downtown, all because they’d been asked to spend three hours solving riddles for Christmas presents.

I conclude, not with a “bah humbug” which I will always consider beneath me, but with an entreaty to those who feel beset and surrounded by Scrooges and Grinches: Don’t let the bastards get you down. Sure, you’ve got a surplus of brownies and a bunch of unclaimed stockings that you can’t regift because they’ve got freaking names on them. And in a world of naysayers, laze-abouts, whiners, complainers, too-cool-for-Santa’s-house dudes, too-busy-for-this-silliness-despite-spending-five-hours-watching-Real-Housewives-of-New-York broads, the greatest crime is giving a damn.

I guess the real question is: Have I learned my lesson? Am I cured of elaborate scheming for the benefit of those around me?

It was touch and go for the few terribly-depressing hours immediately following the hunt, but the answer is no. Colin pointed out that I merely need to be more selective about the recipients of my efforts. Not everyone can handle the idea of a friend putting dozens of hours into planning something special for them. And if they can’t, then there are, in fact, better uses of my time. Especially given the fact that people who can’t handle receiving such surprises are also incapable of reciprocating in even the most minute fashion.

The sad reality is I had bully, plead, and cajole people into coming to an event that I had planned more than a month out and tailored around their schedules. And a number of them didn’t bother to show up anyway. It’s tough not to take that personally.

But people are busy! So terribly busy! Even if they already committed to an event they know you poured your heart and soul into, they’re so busy!

Here’s the thing: You make time for the stuff that matters to you. I’ve watched people too busy to spend time with friends and family find time for a Breaking Bad marathon. That’s not a critique of the show or the person’s priorities, but I am calling out the lie that you’re too busy. Most of the time, we fancy ourselves busy. But we still make time for Facebook and Netflix and Angry Birds. So how busy can we really be?

I say this not as a condemnation of those of you who are too busy to enjoy the holidays, but as a note of support for the rest of you—those of you who feel alienated by the pervasive “bah humbug” attitude of the majority of the people around you. Don’t let the fact that they can’t and won’t find timestop you from celebrating, enjoying, appreciating, planning. Don’t feel bad when the bah humbug folk can’t find time in their schedule to participate.That’s not about you, or about the holidays. It’s about them and their priorities—which they have as much a right to as you have a right to yours.

Don’t let the Scrooges of the world deprive you of something that brings you joy. And there are a lot of them. So many Scrooges. But instead of “Bah humbug” their refrain seems to be that they don’t have time or Christmas is too commercial. This coming from people who pay $5 for their daily frappucino and practically live in a strip mall. Yeah, Christmas can get pretty damned commercial. So why not do handmade presents for people?

Because you’re too damned busy. Right.

How about telling your friends and family you’re opting out of receiving and giving presents this year? Oh wait, but you love receiving presents. You just don’t want to be bothered putting thought and effort into someone else.

Take the $30 and 100 hours or so you spend watching television each month and channel it into presents for the people in your life. Assuming you have anyone in your life. And if the concept of buying or making presents for people offends you, take that money and time and spend it on an activity with the people you care about.

Rather than end this long, strange tale on a note of condemnation or defeat, I’m opting for self-reflection. I can be a handful. I plot, I scheme, I dream. My plans are never small, or easily executed. Sometimes people just don’t understand them. It’s difficult to explain why I felt compelled to create a scavenger hunt, even if it makes a great deal of sense to me. But I will always prefer difficult to a shrug of apathy or indifference. A corner in which to write will always feel more like home than a barstool. And if anyone ever invests any amount of time into a scavenger hunt for my benefit, I’ll be there (wherever there is) on time and without complaint. And thought it may be uncharacteristically optimistic of me, I maintain that I am not the only one. In fact, I know that I am not. The three coworkers who tried, whole-heartedly and valiantly, despite the whining and grumbling of their fellow clue hunters, give me some measure of hope. I doubt they enjoyed themselves–who can in such unpleasant circumstances?–but they took stock of the situation, recognized how hard I had tried and returned the favor.

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