National Geographic: Take in the State Fair

Original Publish Date: July 2009

The state fair is a ritual carnival marking the end of summer and gardens and apple orchards and the start of school and higher algebra and the imposition of strict rules and what we in the north call the Long Dark Time. Like gardening, the fair doesn’t change all that much.

The big wheel whirls and the girls squeal and the bratwursts cook on the little steel rollers and the boys slouch around and keep checking their hair. It isn’t the World’s Columbian Exposition, the Aquarian Exposition, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, the Exposition Universelle, the Gathering of the Tribes, or the Aspen Institute. It’s just us, taking a break from digging potatoes.

The Ten Chief Joys of the State Fair are:

1. To eat food with your two hands.

2. To feel extreme centrifugal force reshaping your face and jowls as you are flung or whirled turbulently and you experience that intense joyfulness that is indistinguishable from anguish, or (as you get older) to observe other persons in extreme centrifugal situations.

3. To mingle, merge, mill, jostle gently, and flock together with throngs, swarms, mobs, and multitudes of persons slight or hefty, punky or preppy, young or ancient, wandering through the hubbub and amplified razzmatazz and raw neon and clouds of wiener steam in search of some elusive thing, nobody is sure exactly what.

4. To witness the stupidity of others, their gluttony and low-grade obsessions, their poor manners and slack-jawed, mouth-breathing, pop-eyed yahootude, and feel rather sophisticated by comparison.

5. To see the art of salesmanship, of barking, hustling, touting, and see how effectively it works on others and not on cool you.

6. To see designer chickens, the largest swine, teams of mighty draft horses, llamas, rare breeds of geese, geckos, poisonous snakes, a two-headed calf, a 650-pound man, and whatever else appeals to the keen, inquiring mind.

7. To watch the judging of livestock.

8. To observe entertainers attempt to engage a crowd that is moving laterally.

9. To sit down and rest amid the turmoil and reconsider the meaning of life.

10. To turn away from food and amusement and crass pleasure and to resolve to live on a higher plane from now on.

The Midwest is State Fair Central, and it thrives here because we are the breadbasket of America, Hog Butcher, Machinemaker, Stacker of Particleboard, Player With Chain Saws, Land of the Big Haunches. And also because Midwesterners are insular, industrious, abstemious, introspective people skittish about body contact, and a state fair is liberation from all of that, a plunge into the pool of self-indulgence, starting with a thick pork chop hot off the grill and served on a stick with a band of crisp brown fat along one side. The fat is not good for you. You eat the pork chop, fat and all, and your child eats her pork chop, and then you score a giant vanilla shake from the Dairy Bar to cushion the fall of a bagful of tiny doughnuts. Now you’re warmed up and ready to move on to the corn dog course.

But first here is a flume ride your child is agitating for, so you climb onto a steel raft and plunge into a concrete gorge and over a waterfall, and a two-foot wave washes over the gunwales, and now your pants are soaked. You disembark. You look like a man who could not contain his excitement. For cover, you hide in the crowd. You walk close behind people. You join the throng at the hot-corn stand and comfort yourself with a salty ear of buttered corn. Your pants chafe. You wander among booths of merchandise looking for men’s pants and find encyclopedias, storm windows, lawn mowers, vegetable peelers and choppers, humidifiers, log splitters, and home saunas. Your search for dry pants leads you through buildings where champion jams and jellies are displayed on tables draped with purple, blue, red, yellow ribbons, and also champion cakes (angel food, Bundt light, Bundt dark, chiffon, chocolate, chocolate chiffon, German chocolate, jelly roll, pound, spice, sponge, vegetable, or fruit) and pickles (beet, bean, bread-and-butter, cucumber sweet, dill without garlic, dill with garlic, peppers sweet, peppers hot, watermelon). And through an education pavilion where headhunters lie in wait for you to pause and make eye contact, and they leap on you and make you hear about the benefits of beautician training, the opportunities in the field of broadcasting.

The way to dry out your pants is to get on a motorized contraption that whirls you through the air. Your child suggests you ride the giant Slingshot that is across the street. A long line of dead-end kids wait to be strapped into a cage and flung straight up in the air. The mob of onlookers waiting for the big whoosh looks like the crowds that once gathered to watch public executions.

You pass up the Slingshot for the double Ferris wheel. An excellent clothes dryer, lifting you up above the honky-tonk, a nice breeze in your pants, in a series of parabolas, and at the apex you look out across the gaudy uproar and the blinking lights, and then you zoom down for a close-up of a passing gang of farm boys in green letter jackets and then back up in the air. You tell your child that this Ferris wheel is the ride that, going back to childhood, you always saved for last, and so riding it fills you with nostalgia. She pats your hand. “You’ll be all right, Dad,” she says. After ten minutes you come down nice and dry, and also the food has settled in your stomach, and you’re ready for seconds.

Of the Ten Joys, the one that we Midwesterners are loath to cop to is number three, the mingling and jostling, a pleasure that Google and Facebook can’t provide. American life tends more and more to put you in front of a computer screen in a cubicle, then into a car and head you toward home in the suburbs, where you drive directly into the garage and step into your kitchen without brushing elbows with anybody. People seem to want this, as opposed to urban tumult and squalor. But we have needs we can’t admit, and one is to be in a scrum of thinly clad corpulence milling in brilliant sun in front of the deep-fried-ice-cream stand and feel the brush of wings, hip bumps, hands touching your arm (“Oh, excuse me!”), the heat of humanity with its many smells (citrus deodorant, sweat and musk, bouquet of beer, hair oil, stale cigar, methane), the solid, big-rump bodies of Brueghel peasants all around you like dogs in a pack, and you—yes, elegant you of the refined taste and the commitment to the arts—are one of these dogs. All your life you dreamed of attaining swanhood or equinity, but your fellow dogs know better. They sniff you and turn away, satisfied.

Some state fairs are roomier, some gaudier, but there is a great sameness to them, just as there is a similarity among Catholic churches. No state fair can be called trendy, luxurious, dreamy—none of that. Nothing that is farm oriented or pigcentric is even remotely upscale.

Wealth and social status aren’t so evident at the fair. The tattooed carnies who run the rides have a certain hauteur, and of course if you’re on horseback, you’re aristocracy, but otherwise not. There is no first-class line, no concierge section roped off in the barns. The wine selection is white, red, pink, and fizzy. Nobody flaunts his money.

The state fair, at heart, is an agricultural expo, and farming isn’t about getting rich, and farmers discuss annual income less than they practice nude meditation on beaches. Farming is about work and about there being a Right Way and a Wrong Way to do it. You sit in the bleachers by the show ring and see this by the way the young women and men lead their immaculate cows clockwise around the grumpy, baggy-pants judge in the center. They walk at the cow’s left shoulder, hand on the halter, and keep the animal’s head up, always presenting a clear profile to the judge’s gaze, and when he motions them to get in line, the exhibitors stand facing their cows and keep them squared away.

You and I may have no relatives left in farming, and our memory of the farm, if we have any, may be faint, but the livestock judging is meaningful to us—husbandry is what we do, even if we call it education or health care or management. Sport is a seductive metaphor (life as a game in which we gain victory through hard work, discipline, and visualizing success), but the older metaphor of farming (life as hard labor that is subject to weather and quirks of blind fate and may return no reward whatsoever and don’t be surprised) is still in our blood, especially those of us raised on holy scripture. The young men and women leading cows around the show ring are relatives of Abraham and Job and the faithful father of the prodigal son. They subscribe to the Love Thy Neighbor doctrine. They know about late-summer hailstorms. You could learn something from these people.

Twilight falls on the fairgrounds, and a person just suddenly gets sick of it all. You’ve spent hours gratifying yourself on deep-fried cheese curds, deep-fried ice cream, testing one sausage against another, washing them down with authentic American sarsaparilla, sampling your child’s onion rings, postponing the honey sundae for later, and now it is later, and the horticulture building and the honey-sundae booth are four blocks and a river of humanity away. You and the child stand at the entrance to the midway, barkers barking at you to try the ringtoss, shoot a basketball, squirt the water in the clown’s mouth and see the ponies run, win the teddy bear, but you don’t want to win a big blue plush teddy bear. You have no use for one whatsoever. There is enough inertia in your life as it is. And now you feel the great joy of revulsion at the fair and its shallow pleasures, its cheap tinsel, its greasy food. You are slightly ashamed of your own intake of animal fats. Bleaugh, you think. Arghhhh. OMG. You have gone twice to ATMs to finance this binge, and you regret that. No more of this! You take the child’s hand. There will be no honey sundae tonight, honey. We got all that out of our system. We are going home and sober up and get busy.

You hike toward where you recollect you parked your car this morning, and by a stroke of God’s grace you actually find it, and your child does not have to watch a father roaming around pitifully, moaning to himself. You get in, and you drive back to the world that means something, the world of work. The Long Dark Time is coming, and you must gather your herds to shelter and lay in carrots and potatoes in the cellar.

The fair is gone the next day, the rides disassembled, the concessions boarded up, the streets swept clean. Dry leaves blow across the racing oval, brown squirrels den up in the ticket booths, the midway marquee sways in the wind. You drive past the fairgrounds a few days later on your way to work. It looks like the encampment of an invading army that got what booty it wanted and went home. And now you are yourself again, ambitious, disciplined, frugal, walking briskly, head held high, and nobody would ever associate you with that shameless person stuffing his face with bratwurst and kraut, mustard on his upper lip, and a half-eaten deep-fried Snickers in his other hand. That was not the real you. This is. This soldier of the simple declarative sentence. You have no need for cheap glitter and pig fat and pointless twirling. You have work to do. Onward. 

A modest proposal: Make today a new day

The beauty of quarantine is that you don’t have to see people you don’t want to see, which simplifies life, just as memory loss does. Life comes down to basics. Sleeping, eating, talking, reading, writing, cooking, doing your business. Days are so quiet that a cup of ginger tea might be a highlight or my wife’s beautiful shoulders where she stands in the kitchen and I put my hands on her, and feel like singing a few lines of Verdi’s “Celeste Aida”. But she’s slicing onions for supper so I don’t. Never sing a big aria to a woman holding a knife, she may forget which opera this is.

In the opera, Aida is locked in a tomb with her lover, Radamès, which is like quarantine but without grocery deliveries and no Zoom. Saturday I did a Zoom chat with fellow workers from back in our touring days, doing shows, and we reminisced about shows in outdoor venues in the rain and the show from Yellowstone where a bison lay down to sleep in front of the satellite dish and the show where squirrels ate the mike cables, the show in Dublin where the audience was completely schnockered.

We won’t be sitting around telling pandemic stories five years from now, stories about sitting on the terrace and looking at the moon, and that’s okay by me. I’m not as interested in stories as I was back in the day. Since January 2017, the nation has seen a thousand fascinating stories out of Washington, each one with the same name in the headline, all of them unbelievable and fascinating, and after three years, a person is exhausted. What remains to happen? Will there be a big statue of him holding a Bible? Will he sign an executive order making the coronavirus go away? Will Jared be put in charge of the Pentagon?

My wife, who I almost sang Verdi to, said a sweet thing the other day. She said, “I wish people would just focus on the future, rather than the past.” I had been saying something about renaming our national capital because George and Martha had 300 slaves, renaming it Emerson after Ralph Waldo who had no slaves and had all his teeth and said smart things, such as “If a man can make a better mousetrap, the world will make a beaten path to his door.” He recommended good books, good friends, and a sleepy conscience. He was in favor of curiosity and science and ambition. All Washington said was “I cannot tell a lie” and that was not true. He was a general who got lucky and caught the British in a trap. Emerson was a philosopher and a poet. If you renamed Washington Emerson, people would start reading him and this would be a far better country.

But she’s right. This country is guilty of mistreating its children. Seventeen million of them struggle to get enough food; malnutrition in the first three years of life can cause enduring problems. Lousy schools limit a child’s prospects for a happy life. Feeding and teaching children are things we know how to do. A sensible society looks after its children, its future. Nothing you do for children is wasted. We can condemn each other for old mistakes, but if we decide that 2021 is a new start and we start looking forward with a clear eye, then we can get somewhere. If Mississippi can finally surrender the Confederacy and take down its flag, there’s hope for the rest of us.

The city of Washington is an object of general scorn and abuse across the land. Let’s wipe the slate clean, rename it Emerson, and restart the idea of good government and common sense. We desperately need his optimism. “Trust thyself,” he said. “Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries. Let us not be invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, advancing on Chaos and the Dark.” This year, we’ve seen the worst. Good. Now we know what it is. Now we can rise above it and join forces and work for what should be, equality, justice, prosperity, and good sense.

“Bad times have a scientific value,” he said. “These are occasions a good learner would not miss.” Washington state and all the Washington counties are enough for George. “This time, like all times, is a very good one if we but know what to do with it.” No need to make a statue of Ralph on a horse, just quoting him is good enough.

Some good advice from an old memoirist. Take it.

My advice to you, young people, is to start asking questions of your elders about family history and who did what when and why and don’t stop until you get answers because, though you’re much too cool to be interested in family history now, someday you’ll want to know these things and by that time they will all be dead.

Okay? Read that paragraph over a couple of times to yourself and then go do it.

I’m trying to finish a memoir and I realize now how much I don’t know and I was too busy careering around as my elders began taking the long walk and I didn’t sit down and ask for the story. My elders were self-effacing Midwesterners brought up not to talk about personal things and they kept many secrets from me such as how did the men fall in love with the women and vice versa, they being such righteous folk and sensible and circumspect. Mother came from a family of thirteen, Dad from eight, and when I knew them, they were all settled in comfortable marriages, and what I want to know is what transpired when they were infatuated and savoring sensual moments and looking forward to throwing caution to the wind.

It happened, even in cautious Christian families like mine. I see the pictures of my youthful aunts in their white summer dresses sashaying around the lakes of Minneapolis and I sense adventure and light-heartedness, not wary mothers I knew them as.

I know that my parents met on July 4, 1931, as teenagers at a picnic at the Keillor farm and were crazy about each other but I wish I’d asked them for more details. He was a farmboy, she was a city girl, slender and shy, and they didn’t marry until six years later, it being the Depression and all, but what happened in those six years? I grew up with two parents who held hands and flirted with each other all their long lives and I’m grateful and I want to know how come and there’s nobody left to ask.

I write about my life, the lost world of hitchhiking, which I knew as a kid and got picked up by angry half-drunk men who raged against the government, their bosses, their Army commanders, their wives, and I got a view of life you couldn’t get in school or from the newspaper. It’s gone and so are the downtown department stores of Minneapolis, the smells and bells, the ladies with white gloves who ran the elevators. I went to a state university back when tuition was so cheap you could pay for your education with a part-time low-wage job, no debt, no need to ask your dad for money, and so you were free to make impractical plans such as become a writer of fiction. I came from a fundamentalist family that was wary of higher education and I plunged into campus life and before I knew it I had four close friends, Larry and Barry and Maury and Arnie, all of them Jewish. I did an early-morning radio show back when people listened to radio religiously, before YouTube and Google and InnerTube and Bugle and iPod and pPod and all the other platforms.

It’s all interesting, but it’s the love stories that a person craves. You want to know that you’re descended from passionate irresponsibility, not a business arrangement or a science experiment, but two people mysteriously drawn to each other. My mother’s parents, William and Marian, courted in Glasgow and she was four months pregnant when they married. Their brood of thirteen children testifies to their feelings for each other. Dad’s parents, James and Dora, were twenty years apart in age. He was an old bachelor on the school board and she was a teacher; she boarded with him and his sister. He came to school and helped her clean blackboards and clap erasers and he kissed her and they ran off and got married. They came home in the buggy and he left the horses standing in harness all night, the reins on the ground, as he carried Dora into the house, his sister having disembarked for a house up the road. It’s good to know these things.

Sit your people down and ask questions. The secret of investigative journalism is: ask questions and keep asking — people want to spill the beans, they just need some warming up. Apply the heat. You will thank me for this someday. I won’t be around but you’re welcome.

In mid-June, we look ahead and think big

I’ve now spent three months in a Manhattan apartment with my wife and daughter, a life that is not so different from, say, living in a lighthouse in the Orkneys. We can see tall buildings, some bright lights, helicopters overhead, but it’s not the New York high life I dreamed of growing up in Minnesota. The problem is that I like it just fine. Solitude suits me pretty well. So why am I here?

I look back at dining out and I don’t miss it, two hours in a loud room where waiters with big personalities serve you tiny portions of a dish that includes much too much lentils to be worth $48. I look back at dinner parties and most of them were two hours too long and the conversation felt like a rehash of the Op-Ed page.

In quarantine, you learn that there’s a lot to be said for a fifteen-minute phone conversation with one other person who’s been in lockdown too and is excited by verbal communication with another human being.

I’m not complaining. People have died from the virus, many of them my age (77). I’m a writer, a trade that can be practiced in a lighthouse as well as in New York. I loved working in the reading room of the New York Public Library but sitting in my kitchen in the month of May, I wrote a novel about a small town in Minnesota. It can be done.

I’m a hermit in a cave. My daughter is fully engaged with her social circle via electronics that I, having grown up with a paper tablet and a No. 2 pencil, know zilch about. My wife knows about it and Zooms with people and puts on a mask and walks through Central Park and I, the fragile old guy with underlying conditions and other conditions lying under those, sit in my room and am okay with that. What once was a punishment is now a privilege.

Thanks to a sensible governor, New York has come through the plague reasonably well, but now comes the hard part: do we want to stay?

I came here because in the eighth grade, a teacher handed me a copy of the New Yorker magazine with a story by John Cheever and I loved his writing and loved the magazine, the urbanity, the humor, the curiosity. I once saw John Updike on the downtown Broadway local train, a thrilling experience. I once went to a party at a writer’s that was so wonderful I stayed until 5 a.m. and stood on the street and felt too happy to go home to bed. I bought a notebook at a newsstand and went to a café and sat and wrote and had breakfast. People passing, heading for the subway, the writer deep into invention.

For true New Yorkers, the city is the only place to be. But for a guy who wrote a novel in the back bedroom? I don’t think so. I don’t need to see Times Square and its flashing signs and canyons of glass where rivers of humanity move through, most of them simply for the experience of being in Times Square.

Locked up for three months, I’ve lost interest in the big city. The Orkneys have sandstone cliffs, seal colonies, and the electricity is wind-generated. Exports include beef, whiskey, cheese, and seafood. The climate is mild, thanks to the Gulf Stream. There are sheep and many lighthouses. Surely there would be one that would welcome a lightkeeper.

It sounds wonderful to me, sleeping in a room under the glass dome, the light sweeping over the North Sea, the sense of public service, warning fishermen from the rocks. Being the only novelist on the island. And I’d escape from the heavy burden of being an American, which has become onerous lately. In my Orknitude, I would only be an old man in a tower and a provider of light.

It’s a perfect plan and now all I need to do is convince my wife. I’m looking at her now as she reads the paper. Surely a man with my language skills can sway this woman’s heart. My darling, my love, take my hand, let us speak of things to come. We’ve done New York. Let me tell you of a wonderful place far away. Put your trust in your husband. If, after ten years, you don’t like the island of Graemsay, I promise we’ll move straight back.

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Garrison Keillor did “A Prairie Home Companion” for forty years, wrote fiction and comedy, invented a town called Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average, even though he himself grew up evangelical in a small separatist flock where all the children expected the imminent end of the world. He’s busy in retirement, having written a memoir and a book of limericks and is at work on a musical and a Lake Wobegon screenplay, and he continues to do “The Writers Almanac” sent out daily to Internet subscribers (free). 

He and his wife Jenny Lind Nilsson live in Minneapolis, not far from the YMCA where he was sent for swimming lessons at age 12 after his cousin drowned, and he skipped the lessons and went to the public library instead and to a radio studio to watch a noontime show with singers and a band. Thus, our course in life is set. 

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