Christmas Blitzkrieg

When I have those moments when I think I’ve gotten too old, and I think I’m starting to feel like my age, I’m thankful for sudden sustained bursts of activity that remind me that, really, I just lead a much duller life than I used to, and my exhaustion is usually due to lack of sleep than from trying to do too much.

Heck, it even makes me feel a bit young! Ish. Sort of.

Except for the prolonged yawning, anyway.

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A Hangar Christmas

Although we’re still trying to figure out how to get the most basic things (like reliable phone service), we did manage to throw together a halfways-decent Christmas Party this year. I can take no credit for this whatsoever, as Mark pretty much handled all the basic groundwork for it, with Angelica finishing off the key part of securing a caterer.  

Me? I was nose down trying to figure out how to get everything done before we leave for New York City (which is tomorrow, at 13:20). Mark is a master juggler, a skill I’ve sadly let slide now that I’ve got a few more things to juggle. Party organising just doesn’t seem to be one of them.  

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How to throw a surprise party (and not get caught)

Surprise parties are one of those great little joys in life. While I’ve never had one thrown for me, I’ve thrown a couple myself. They’re not the easiest things to do, to be certain, but they are definitely some of the most fun.

What makes a surprise party so good? If you’re the host or planner, it’s from the giddiness that forms from knowing what will happen. If you’re the guest of honour (or the victim, depending on your point of view), you get the joy of knowing that people have planned something just for you. It’s a special feeling … or rather, I would hope that it is (not actually knowing myself).

I’m going to speak to the planners, which I assume is why you’ve come to this page. (If you think someone is planning a surprise party for you and are trying to find out if it’s true, I can offer no hints here. If they’re following these suggestions, you won’t know until it’s too late.) You’ve got a hard task ahead of you, but it is a rewarding one if it’s done right.

At all times, you need to remember who is in control: you. Everything that happens is because of you. If you lose control, don’t expect things to go off without a hitch. You can delegate, but you need to know that those you’ve delegated to are trustworthy and reliable. Otherwise, your intended surprise might end up a dud.

There are some basic rules you should follow to ensure that your party goes well and without hitches. Above all, you don’t want to get caught in making the preparations, and spill the beans to the indenting surprisee.

  1. Secrecy are the first and second words
  2. Separate and isolate communications
  3. Better to over-involve than under-involve
  4. Inform clearly and explicitly
  5. Know what’s going on at all times
  6. Be mindful of what you say
  7. Cover your tracks
  8. Make sure you have a backup plan

Secrecy are the first and second words

The first rule of the Surprise Party is: you do not talk about the Surprise Party. The second rule of the Surprise Party is: you do not talk about the Surprise Party.

You never know who’s around and don’t think for a second that the six degrees of separation is a myth. So idle chatter about a surprise party is not a wise idea. Similarly, you should always make sure that any communications you send are to specific people, be it by phone, email, or IM. Never send things by post (unless you’re certain there is no way information could leak), by fax (it’s out in the open), or leave voicemails on residential lines (especially if the intended victim lives there).

Swear everyone to secrecy. This means they cannot discuss it with anyone else except you. And ideally, unless they’re involved with the planning or execution, they shouldn’t need to. The less anyone talks, the less chance of the wrong people finding out. As the WWII saying goes: Loose lips sink ships.

Separate and isolate communications

As alluded to above, you need to make sure your communications lines are clear and isolated. This cuts down on crosstalk chatter and sidebars, which are guaranteed to cause problems.

When you talk to people, talk to them individually. This is best because you get immediate feedback, and there’s no question about whether or not they understand what is being asked of them. If you have to do discussions with a group, make sure each person acknowledges what you have said and/or asked. The last thing you need is ambiguity.

Make sure your communications are direct — never make public statements. If you have to send out invitations, make sure that they’re received in a private manner (e.g. the office, through email, talking on the phone). Never leave messages where others can see or hear them, especially if it’s the person you’re surprising.

Finally, don’t communicate unless you have to. Updates are fine, but don’t randomly send out information until you’re ready to do so. This lessens the change of leaks.

Better to over-involve than under-involve

On the flip-side of secrecy is an inadvertent foul-up due to conflicting plans. The best laid plans can go to pot in mere seconds by the actions of someone who is not privy to the surprise party. So when you’re planning, make sure that everyone within the sphere of influence knows what is going on. They don’t have to be invited, just need to know that they can’t foul things up.

Naturally, you can’t cover for everything. There are always things that you simply can’t plan for. (For that, see “Make sure you have a backup plan”.) Consider it as an 80/20 rule. You can cover 80% of all possible actions with relative ease. The remaining 20% are a lot riskier and difficult, and might not interfere with your plans, anyway.

You need a list of culprits. Some will be invited, some not. The list of invitees is up to you, but they still need to be informed:

  • friends
  • significant others
  • co-workers
  • teammates
  • housemates
  • roommates
  • spouse
  • parents
  • siblings
  • aunts and uncles
  • cousins
  • nieces and nephews
  • uncle’s cousin’s roommate’s older brother’s girlfriend’s dog

Okay, that last one was a bit much, but you get the point.

Really consider who you’ve got on your list. Each of these people will have contact on a regular basis, and could introduce plans that could thoroughly foul up anything you’ve got going.

Family is particularly important, especially if the party does not directly involve family. Family is the single most powerful thing for some people, and is the reason why your intended guest might decline your casual invitation to spend time with their parents. So if you’re throwing a party, make sure the family knows what’s going on.

Plan big. Get as many people as you can. Sure, you can throw a small surprise party, but why bother when you can have a big one? Besides, you can get a much louder yell out of more people.

Inform clearly and explicitly

Once you’ve got your key list of people, make sure you give details. Tell them everything they need to know: time, place, reason, attire (if any specifics are desired), and who the other people are.

Make sure that you get accurate contact information for each person, and ensure that it’s secure (e.g. that no-one else might inadvertently overhear something they shouldn’t). You might have to employ one or more of your intended invitees to help out if you don’t know enough people up-front.

Don’t be vague at any time. Once you have the details, make sure they’re broadcast to everyone else. Make sure everyone else knows the details, so there’s no question. People need to make sure that they arrive at the surprise location before the unsuspecting target(s) arrive. There’s nothing worse than a surprise with only a few people.

Know what’s going on at all times

Know your details, and know them cold. Make sure you can answer any question about the party or the plans if asked, without having to refer to notes (unless it’s something esoteric). It’s a bit of work, but it’s easier when you’re running around trying to organize things.

Be mindful of what you say

In short, you have to learn to lie.

This is particularly important if you’re the one doing the planning, and the person you’re surprising is close to you (spouse, significant other, friend, family). If you want to conduct a surprise, you need to make sure you don’t tell them anything accidentally.

You also have to make sure they don’t suspect anything. This is the hard part. Humans are inquisitive by nature. If you have a look of “something’s up”, the other party will immediately suspect something. You have to be able to look someone square in the face and say: “No, honey, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Be able to avoid the topic. If they want to plan something for the same time that you’re planning the party, allow them to do so. This will keep them occupied and they will not expect anything than their plans. Defuse the plans as necessary by canceling reservations (while informing of the real plans), or deferring purchases as long as possible. If necessary, go to a backup plan and use some of the invitees to construct a “just in case” scenario to distract.

Cover your tracks

Never leave your plans lying around, even if you live alone. Chances are, someone will see what you’re doing, and if it’s the wrong people, it’s game over. Hide them in drawers (under locks, if needed) or in password-protected files. Delete messages once you see/hear them. Jot down only the most crucial notes.

Create distractions. This is the same technique magicians use to make a ball disappear before your eyes. Make fake plans that will keep someone on their toes. You can even create real plans designed to take the person away from what’s going on, only to bring them back to the surprise to unfold.

Make sure you have a backup plan

No plan is ever perfect. So long as you deal with humanity, you must expect something to go wrong. Be it discovery of the plans, suspicion of a surprise, a sudden illness, disappearance of the subject (hey, it’s been known to happen), or transportation failures, make sure you’ve got something in your back pocket to save the day.

Some things you can plan for. If the gig is up, and you’ve got a few hours before the surprise is planned to go off, admit to a surprise. Just not *the* surprise. Grab a couple of friends and set them up at a different location. Do a small surprise there. Have them all need to leave for different reasons (when in reality, they’re all going the same place you will be going), and then head to the actual surprise.

Some things you can’t. If the gig is up less than an hour away, you might pretty much be screwed. At that point, you might have to resort to the worst thing you can do: ask that they act surprised when they enter the room, if nothing else than for the benefit of everyone else.

A few suggestions

The Home Surprise Party.
This is an easy one, if planned well. Ensure that a trusted person has the keys to the house or apartment. Make sure everyone arrives at least an hour ahead of schedule for decorations, etc. Make sure all cars are parked away from the home. Set a window of 10 minutes before you arrive with the subject so that no-one comes in. If you can, call ahead with a pre-defined ring (twice, and then twice again) to set a “five minute warning). Lights should be off (or in whatever expected state they should be in), and all evidence (especially shoes) should be hidden.

The Office Surprise Party.
A little more difficult, but often the most fun. Call the person away from their desk (get a manager to call them into a closed office or another floor or building) for 30 minutes. Decorate their desk, string lights and streamers, set out snacks and cake (if possible). Get the manager to walk them back to their desks such that it would be difficult for them to see what is about to happen until it’s too late. This works best in environments with actual offices or tall-walled cubicles.

The Central Location Surprise Party.
Sometimes, due to size, you’ll need to hold a surprise party at a restaurant or hotel ballroom. These are harder, since you might draw immediate attention. The trick is then to give the person a reason to have to go there. In the case of a restaurant, you can go under even the most simple reason: lunch or dinner. Make sure you have reservations for all the guests, and make sure the restaurant knows that it’s a surprise party. Ballrooms are much harder, since they have special purposes. You can play it by going to a hotel’s restaurant, and go into a different room. If it’s a community hall, say you were asked to pick something up.

Abort! Abort! Abort!

Okay, let’s face facts. This could go wrong. You might not actually succeed. There are a million things that can go wrong, and you might get to the point where you have to pull the plug and abandon the attempt.

First off, don’t panic. Secondly, don’t feel bad. And thirdly — and most importantly — don’t tell the Surprisee. EVER.

There’s a couple of reasons for this. You (or someone else) might try to surprise them again. There’s no sense in tipping off your potential victim by telling them “oh, well, we tried, but it didn’t work” — they might thing you might try again. And if you do, the surprise might not be as effective.

But most notably — I think, anyway — telling someone runs risk of actually hurting their feelings. Not for the failed effort, but because it might be something they really, really wanted. Finding out that you came close to having a wonderful surprise, but it won’t happen is … well, it’s really hard to learn, and it can be very depressing. This is not something you want your surprisee to go through.

So, yes, you may have to just suck it up. You tried, it didn’t work, and aside from those who you’d already talked to (and you should make sure they know why it’s aborted), no-one else needs  to know. In the end, it’s better for all.

How to Throw a Surprise Party

There’s nothing better than seeing the look of complete terror upon someone’s face. Especially if you know there’s a benevolent force behind it. Such as with a surprise party…

Allison’s birthday was on Sunday past. And I wanted to make it something special.

So at the beginning of November, I started contacting her friends, seeing who I could get to come out and scare the bejeezus out of my fiancée. I knew that I had to start early, because it takes a while to plan out all the little details. And it doesn’t matter how straight-forward something seems — there are *always* little details.

The last time I’d organised a surprise party was when my close friends Stuart and Therese announced they were moving to Calgary. I wanted to give them a farewell present, by showing them how much their friends would miss them. The party was as much for me as it was for them…

Planning it had been a nightmare … the logistics were murder. While Therese and Stuart were wandering about Europe, I had been pulling together their friends (with the help of Therese’s friend Rachel and Stuart’s friend Jay) and planning out all the details. How?

Rule #1 when planning a surprise party: Get the parents involved.

Why? Simple: If you don’t tell the parents, they’ll inevitably screw up your plans. Not intentionally, mind you, but they’ll do something that will make your well-laid plans worth sqwat. (Yes, “sqwat”.) So, if you get the parents involved with the process, you don’t have to worry about things backfiring on you.

That’s how I succeeded with Stuart and Therese’s party … and that’s how I succeeded with Allison’s party. The best part is, most parents are clever — they’ll suggest good ideas without you have to tell them what to do. In the case of Allison’s parents, they invited Allison over to Nanaimo for her birthday. This left our apartment open.

So brought about the second problem: How to get people into our apartment to surprise Allison. This took a lot longer than I thought it would, and the ultimate solution was so simplistic I had to kick myself for not thinking of it earlier. Keys. Cut a spare set of keys, and leave them with a friend.

Then it was setting up a decorator, and making sure that our Key Master would arrive before everyone else. Where we would go for dinner … even a theme for the evening.

But above all else, the hardest thing to do was keep Allison in the dark. She’s a smart cookie, and it’s really hard to keep things from her. Especially when it comes to her birthday. Luckily for me, Allison’s parents were running a good cover for me.

We left on Friday the 3rd, catching the late ferry to Nanaimo. This gave me enough time to clean up the bedrooms. We did this under the guise of not having enough time to clean before Allison’s aunt appeared on Monday for a visit. (I hadn’t asked her aunt to come the day after Allison’s birthday as an added distraction … it just kinda worked that way.)

But we didn’t get everything. Allison’s insistence that we leave negated any argument I could have to clean the kitchen table. I didn’t want to have papers all over it when her friends showed up.

The wonders of today’s modern technology no longer amaze me … I use them with gusto. I made several calls over my cell phone to Michelle (our Key Master) and begged her to clean off the kitchen table before people started to show up.

(There’s always one thing that doesn’t go quite right.)

Allison’s family birthday party was the next day, the 4th. This amounted to a wonderful dinner of salmon, which Allison had asked for. Also on the menu was chocolate cake. This was no ordinary chocolate cake, mind you — this was the King/Queen of Chocolate Cakes. It was called something like Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate Chip with Chocolate Whipped Chocolate Filling, or something like that.

It was evil.

In a chocolatey good way, that is. I have never, ever has such a devilishly good chocolate cake in my life. (I’m actually beginning to salivate, just thinking about it.) I can’t even begin to describe what was in this thing … all I know is that it was really, REALLY good.

The next day, we were to leave on the 1:00pm ferry. We would arrive in Horseshoe Bay around 3:00pm, and back at our apartment around 3:30. We would talk, chat, whatever for about two hours, and then go to dinner.

That was the plan. But plans have a way of not working exactly as planned.

The ferry was at 12:30, not 1:00pm.

I started to panic a little.

It was a fast ferry. We would arrive nearly an hour before we were supposed to.

I started to panic a lot.

Miracles of modern technology. I called Michelle, and let her know that things were not as well-planned as I had hoped. We tried to figure out what I could do to stall. I had suggested taking Allison to lunch, but she wanted to eat something on the ferry … that ruled out lunch at the other end. I couldn’t take the long way home, as it would make her suspicious. Feigning car trouble wasn’t even a thought — BCAA would put an end to that right quick.

Then Allison proposed the solution herself — she wanted to go to IKEA. That would blow an hour and a half, easily.

So it was with much relief that we bypassed our apartment completely and went directly to IKEA. It was a failed mission, in that respect — the chair covers we had gone looking for were not to be found. IKEA didn’t carry them in the style we thought they would. We headed home, Allison a little apprehensive about what I had planned for her.

When we arrived (at nearly 4:30, about an hour late because of nightmarish traffic going back), I made sure to grab all the bags, thus tying up my hands so I couldn’t open the door. No, it’s hardly chivalrous. but I had to make sure that Allison was the first into the apartment. As we passed the security camera, I looked, waved, and smiled. Because I knew that the 12 people sitting in our living room were watching Channel 59 — the security camera channel. They knew we were there.

The elevator was a bit slow, by my heart was racing. It was part anticipation, and part realising that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. But it was too late, so I concentrated on the anticipation. The hard part was not showing it.

The elevator took forever to finally deposit us on the 6th floor. I exited first, but let Allison lead the way. As we got to the door, I saw that our weekend paper was still wedged in the mail slot — our awaiting guests had not removed it. I was excited beyond repair. Allison had no clue what was about to happen.

She got in, remarked that the bathroom door was closed (our friends had tossed their shoes in there). The lights were off and it was dark inside, which was good because if we could see, Allison would have seen some of the snacks left on the counter in our kitchen. But she didn’t see it. (Mind you, Allison saw the extra jackets in the closet, and *still* didn’t clue in.)

Then it came. A giggle. From someone in the living room.

Allison gasped. Someone was in the apartment. Someone had broken in, and they were still there! As the onset of sheer terror was about to take effect, a very loud and resounding cry was heard (probably through the entire building): “SURPRISE!”

Several camera flashes went off. I’m told the pictures are priceless.

I nearly fell over laughing. Yes, I’m cruel. I admit it. It was mostly from pure relief that things worked out, after all. (Although for another 20 minutes or so, I was still a bit edgy, wondering if Allison was all right with everything.)

The group went out to dinner at a restaurant not far from our apartment. Wasn’t the best overall venue, I’ll admit, but it was the best choice given the size of our party. The place would probably be more interesting later in the evening.

After dinner, most people went their separate ways. (It was a Sunday night, after all, and many people had to go to work the next day.) But Michelle (our Key Bearer), Mike (her husband), and Tyler stuck around. It seemed that there were other things in the evening that I had not planned.

The evening became organic, developing its own events as we went along. We started off at Commodore Lanes, with some five pin bowling. I’ve discovered how to beat Allison in five pin: Get drunk. Both of us. Her bowling average goes way down, and mine goes way up. (Otherwise, Allison is virtually unbeatable in five pin.) The five of us had a grand old time being really lousy at many things. Especially table hockey. I’ve always been a lousy player. And foosball. I got creamed at that.

After our bowling excursion, we ended up at Death By Chocolate on Burrard. One of us mentioned that it was Allison’s birthday. When her dessert showed up, it had a candle on it. Our server just stood there, waiting. Finally, she said: “C’mon folks, work with me here.” We sang Happy Birthday, and indulged in really bad things for us to eat…

The day so ended as we headed home. Overall, it was a good day, all stress aside. Now I just have to figure out how to outdo myself next year.