The world is an amazing place full of unexpected joy. I remind myself of this when everything in my news feed ranges from “that’s a downer” to “I’m scared”, and this week was the 8 year anniversary of something so amazing and unexpected that I still think “Did I really get to do that?!” I did! In December 2012, the Obama White House Christmas card featured my painting of the First Dog Bo in the snow.
I don’t know if anyone sets a goal of being on the White House Christmas card. I didn’t even know it was a thing (no one ever sent ME one), but when my friend Pam, who is a big Democratic Party supporter, found out that Michelle Obama was looking for artists to work with, she put my name in.
I didn’t think I had a serious chance of getting it. I knew it would be very competitive, and when you live in Des Moines, IA, you get used to thinking Big Opportunities are something that happen in Big Cities. I submitted myself for what I expect is the lowest form of government security clearance (the “is she gonna embarrass us by being a retired porn star turned artist”), got an official image they wanted all the potential artists to work from, and got to work. I will be frank. I bought a cheap masonite panel and spent all of 2 days on the painting. I didn’t labor over it because I just KNEW this was going to be a waste of time. Still, I was proud of how the painting turned out. I wasn’t invested in getting picked for the card, but I’m ALWAYS invested in the quality of my art. I packaged up the painting and sent it to the White House telling no one except my husband Chris. I forgot about it.
A month later I ran into Pam at the Civic Center. She ran over and clutched my arm in a tight grip. “You’re in the top three for the card!” She said. Holy smokes! I imagined telling people at future parties about how my art made it to the finals for a White House Christmas card. Then I forgot about it.
Weeks later I was up to my elbows in pizza dough when I got a call from a member of Michelle Obama’s staff telling me that my painting had been selected. I’m pretty sure I didn’t say much that my expressed surprise or delight because it was so unexpected and had dropped in the middle of a domestic conflagration. I was just stunned and covered in wet flour.
I was told to not tell ANYONE that I had been selected. It was all very hush hush. I also learned that my husband and I were invited to one of the White House Christmas parties and that we would be getting our picture taken with the President and First Lady. All of this communication was happening in the fall of 2012. Obama was in the last stages of his re-election campaign, and he was going to have his final rally the night before the election IN Des Moines AND my husband’s band had been asked to open for Bruce Springsteen that night. I mean…WHAT?! I got to watch from the front row of that rally, Chris got to shake The Boss’s hand, AND we were going to head to Washington, D.C. to meet the President and eat cake or whatever happens at one of those parties. It would have been a bittersweet experience if Obama had lost, but he didn’t.
On the day of the party, my very first best friend Amy Haines drove from Baltimore to D.C. to meet us for lunch. We had that dreamy experience of dropping into a familiar conversation after many years of absence, but suddenly my stomach started to wobble right there in the restaurant. I made it to the bathroom before my beautiful lunch came back up, but it was only the beginning of a sickness the likes of which I’ve never experienced before or since. I would vomit violently every hour and a half like clockwork, and then I would feel pretty good for another hour and a half when it would start all over. Still, Chris was determined that I WAS going to go to the party. Late in the afternoon he propped me up in the shower, pulled out my party dress, and gave me a pep talk. My gut was having none of it. I finally convinced him that we had come all this way, and even if I couldn’t make it, he should go. Within 10 minutes of him walking out, I threw up and realized….I had an hour and a half in the clear! I threw on my clothes, decided that whatever was going on with my hair would be good enough, and hurried to the White House.
You have never seen a more ebullient group of people than the guests at a White House Christmas party. All the rooms were full of smiles and excited chatter, the decorations were beautiful, there was an amazing military jazz band playing and so much food, and I couldn’t focus on any of it. All I wanted to do was find Chris and not throw up at the White House.
When I finally found him, his face lit up. “You made it!” He crowed. “Yeah, but I’m just here in the calm before the storms,” I told him. “I’ve got about an hour.” We were whisked down to the Map Room which staff told me “has its own private bathroom” and listened while a chorus serenaded the President and First Lady in the next room. They weren’t joining the party because the Sandy Hook massacre had happened just a few days before, but they were still meeting a few guests for photos. When we were finally ushered in, I was struck by how tall they both seemed - bigger than life and . Michelle gave me a big hug and thanked me, and the President shook my hand. Oh my god, I thought, his hands are as soft as kittens! So weird! We all lined up, smiled for the camera, and then they started to leave. “It was such an honor to meet you,” I said. “I’ve been curious who actually would want this crazy job.” He paused in the doorway and looked back. “I’m crazy,” he said, “But I’m the good kind of crazy.” Then he was gone.
I looked at Chris and said, “I gotta go.” We got our coats, grabbed a cab back to the hotel, and barely got back to the room before I threw up. SUCCESS! I thought. I didn't vomit at the White House Christmas party!