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. 

Garrison's weekly columns

For full list, click here

Time passes except when it suddenly leaps backward

Snow on the ground in Minnesota and a frosty grayness in the air and a delicious chill that makes a person feel alive and vibrant. Cold is a stimulant, but of course some people don’t tolerate it well and they decamp for the Sun Belt and — don’t tell anyone I said this — everything works better when those old people leave town. Traffic flows, the line at checkout moves faster without querulous oldsters demanding a discount on bruised bananas, you don’t have fifteen cars waiting at the drive-up ATM while some old coot tries to remember his PIN number. I can say this because I’m 76. If you said it, you’d be accused of ageism, which it is, but past the age of 70, one is entitled.

It’s the Age of Sensitivity. A house down the street has hung up Christmas lights, but as I look closer, I see that alongside the star of Bethlehem is a Star of David and also a star inside a crescent moon with an inscription in Arabic. These people are liberals, like me, but their inclusivity strikes me as show-offy — and why did they leave out Buddhism and Hinduism? And how will agnostics feel when they see this?

Last month, I went to the grocery store and I asked a clerk where I’d find the dairy case and she told me and I said, “Thank you, kid” and she said, “I don’t accept people infantilizing me.” She was in her fifties. I was stunned. I told the manager I wanted to apologize to the woman and he said, “Don’t worry about it. She is nougat intolerant and it makes her hypersensitive, though I’m not supposed to use that word, and if you report me, I’ll deny everything.”

In the Minnesota I knew, there was very little sensitivity. We played hockey on backyard rinks with rolled-up magazines for shin pads. It was bitterly cold. Kids whacked me with their sticks, I was pelted with insults — dodo, dummy, dimwit, moron — until, a few years ago, I was diagnosed as being “at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum” and I got a card to carry in my wallet: “I am an autist, high-functioning but with limits. Please be patient.”

The big cultural shift came with the introduction of no-smoking areas in the Sixties, after the Surgeon General’s report. Back then, everyone smoked except sissies and pantywaists, and then suddenly it was uncool. I loved smoke and still do, though now I limit myself to pre-inhaled smoke. But the ban on smoking was followed by rules about joking and poking and then a city ordinance was passed forbidding the custom of “Ladies First” as patronizing: women demanded the right to open doors for themselves. Church attendance plunged due to the threatening language of the Bible.

In the old days, threats were everywhere. Parents yelled at their kids, kids yelled at each other. That’s why I’m not a hugger; when someone takes a step toward me, I step back. In the old days, someone stepped toward you, they’d say, “Look down there” and you looked down and they stuck a foot behind you and shoved you and yelled, “Doughnuts!” I grew up with that.

(Meanwhile, Individual-1 is still in power, a man straight off the grade school playground of 1954, swiping candy from the weak, pushing, shoving, depantsing people. He enjoys a latitude of rudeness denied to the rest of us and half the population approves of this.)

The other morning at the coffee shop, I said, “Good morning, dear” to the barista. I knew I shouldn’t say it but she had given me such a sweet smile, I thought maybe she is the granddaughter of an old classmate, maybe she loves my writing. She stiffened when I deared her. She said, “You are using your power position as a customer to imply an intimate relationship that doesn’t exist and thereby enjoy a fantasy that is demeaning to me.” I said, “Your smile implied a personal relationship and made me think I might know you and simply had forgotten your name.” She said, “You’re out of your mind.” And I showed her my Autist card. She said, “I am so sorry. I had no idea you were mentally handicapped.” And then she recognized her mistake, using the forbidden h-word. I told the manager and she was fired. I got a gift certificate for two dozen lattes. Cool.

Having reached the end, he continues

The real news these days is about science, and last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy is dropping in the U.S., and the American male’s average life expectancy is 76.1 years, a figure I reached in October. My expiration date has passed. This comes as a shock, to think that I’m expected to die now, in a state of ignorance, still trying to figure out the basics (What am I here for? Why do rainy days make me happy? Where are my glasses?).

The CDC says life expectancy is declining due to substance abuse and an increase in suicide rates, neither of which apply to me, unless the substances include coffee or unless they now consider lack of daily strenuous exercise to be suicidal. So I am hopeful that I will exceed the average. My dad made it to 88, my mom to 97, so I am counting on reaching 94.

President George Bush reached 94 and that is why his eulogies have been so kind and gentle. The world is not generally so kind to oilmen and Texas Republicans, especially one known for his tangled syntax, whose job for a time was to defend Richard Nixon, but Mr. Bush, as a one-termer, got into less trouble and he outlived his controversies. And he was married to a gallant woman who once said, “I married him because he made me laugh.” A Republican could hope for no greater recommendation.

On the heels of the CDC report came the news from China — the birth of the first genetically edited babies — the door opening to a whole new phase of history, well-designed human beings. Babies coming down the chute, each with an IQ of 143, no allergies or addictive tendencies, no syndromes or complexes, good teeth and strong bones, and eyes and hair in your choice of the many colors available.

We 76.1-year-olds shudder at the thought but we know that our descendants will accept this as commonplace, just as we accept social media as a useful replacement of actual conversation. Designer babies: why not?

I grew up with kids who were deeply flawed in so many ways. There was no therapy back then, just people yelling at you to shape up. I was a very quiet boy, kept to myself, didn’t say much — which back then people thought meant I was gifted, so I went along under that illusion — now they’d say “high-functioning end of the autism spectrum” but autism hadn’t been invented yet — so I was gifted instead. Ignorance spared us from knowing the severity of our problems.

Cruelty was rampant in the schoolyard of my day. We played Pom-pom-pullaway and for most of us it was enough to simply tag a runner, not tackle, kick, or bite him, but for others it was open warfare. In the boys’ lavatory, you had to beware of boys who, as you stood at the trough, would jerk your trousers up so that you’d wet yourself. I’ve lost track of the bullies in my class — I assume they’re in federal penal institutions — and would I feel deprived if genetic editing had been around back then so that everyone would be just as nice as I? I don’t think so.

I sat at supper last night next to a friend with a basketball under her blouse, a little girl fetus due to make her big entrance in mid-January, and so the future is on my mind and what sort of life this heroine will enjoy. She’ll grow up in a house in the woods and I hope the natural world brings her pleasure and at the same time she comes to love our language and to devour it in books. I hope she’ll have a dog. When I am 92, I’d love to see her, tall and rangy, take a pass, go high in the air, and hit a swisher from the free-throw line. Or sit at a piano and play a Chopin étude. Or both. And one day a door will open — maybe math, physics, history, poetry, art — and she’ll go marching through it.

Meanwhile, I must figure out what to do with these bonus years I have coming to me. At 76.1, one’s world gets smaller, the ambition to triumph and conquer has pretty much receded. My glasses sit beside the computer, next to the coffee cup, and there is bread in the kitchen waiting to be toasted and spread with peanut butter. Onward.

A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Love & Comedy Tour Solo The Gratitude Tour
Schedule

December 16, 2018

Sunday

5:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m.

Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, MN

December 16, 2018

Garrison Keillor returns to Crooner’s with singer Christine DiGiallonardo & pianist Richard Dworsky. Shows at 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

Radio

The Writer’s Almanac for December 15, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 15, 2018

It’s the birthday of writer Edna O’Brien (1930), one of a select number of Irish artists who have been bestowed the honor of Saoi.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for December 14, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 14, 2018

It’s the birthday of Shirley Jackson (1916), author of morbid short story “The Lottery” and novel-turned-Netflix-hit “The Haunting of Hill House.”

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for December 13, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 13, 2018

It was on this day in 1577 that Sir Francis Drake, described by victims as a very nice pirate, set out to sail around the world.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for December 12, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 12, 2018

Today is the birthday of Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863) who said, “My sufferings…are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for December 11, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 11, 2018

It’s the birthday of Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz (1911), who delivered his acceptance speech in Arabic when he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1988.

Read More
A Prairie Home Companion: December 15, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: December 15, 2007

This episode’s got five concertinas, four melodeons, three button boxes, two tin whistles, and a partridge in a pear tree. Guests include Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and the Boys of the Lough (pictured).

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for December 10, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 10, 2018

It’s the birthday of poet Emily Dickinson (1830), who grew up very social and only gradually became reclusive.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for December 9, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 9, 2018

Today is the birthday of John Milton (1608), who coined over 600 words including ethereal, sublime, impassive, terrific, dismissive, anarchy, and fragrance.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for December 8, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 8, 2018

It’s the birthday of humorist and cartoonist James Thurber (1894), who said, “Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.”

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for December 7, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 7, 2018

“We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it — for a little while.”
–Willa Cather, born this day in 1873

Read More
Writing

Time passes except when it suddenly leaps backward

Snow on the ground in Minnesota and a frosty grayness in the air and a delicious chill that makes a person feel alive and vibrant. Cold is a stimulant, but of course some people don’t tolerate it well and they decamp for the Sun Belt and — don’t tell anyone I said this — everything works better when those old people leave town. Traffic flows, the line at checkout moves faster without querulous oldsters demanding a discount on bruised bananas, you don’t have fifteen cars waiting at the drive-up ATM while some old coot tries to remember his PIN number. I can say this because I’m 76. If you said it, you’d be accused of ageism, which it is, but past the age of 70, one is entitled.

Read More

Having reached the end, he continues

The real news these days is about science, and last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy is dropping in the U.S., and the American male’s average life expectancy is 76.1 years, a figure I reached in October. My expiration date has passed. This comes as a shock, to think that I’m expected to die now, in a state of ignorance, still trying to figure out the basics (What am I here for? Why do rainy days make me happy? Where are my glasses?).

Read More

One more week, its little successes, etc.

It’s a father’s duty to take at least one long trip with each of his children, the two of you, nobody else along, and now that my daughter and I have traveled by rail, the old 20th Century Limited route from Chicago to New York, the trip Cary Grant took with Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest, we are ready to take another. Nineteen hours from Chicago’s magnificent Union Station to Manhattan’s wretched Penn Station, including a fast run along the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, and the bond between young woman and her old man is sealed solid.

Highly recommended, especially for us newspaper readers constantly fussed-up over national crises — from a train, you see the solidity of the country, its infrastructure, factories, warehouses, everything working remarkably well.

Read More

A great task lies before us, but first we sleep

Small sorrows speak; great sorrows are silent. My current small sorrow is a daily flood of junk e-mail — cheap insurance, health nostrums, hernia repair, free loans, travel discounts, an app to find out if your spouse is unfaithful — a stream of crap generated in Orlando. In tiny print at the bottom is “If you wish to unsubscribe, click here,” and I click there and the stuff keeps coming, an infestation of electronic cockroaches.

Read More

What happened Sunday, in case you missed it

Church was practically full last Sunday, with a few slight gaps for skinny fashion models but otherwise S.R.O., and everyone was in an amiable mood what with several babies present for baptism, and then the organ rang out the opening hymn, the one with “teach me some melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above” in it, an exciting line for us Episcopalians who rarely get into flaming stuff, and I sang out from the fifth pew near some babies and their handlers, some of whom weren’t familiar with this famous hymn of Christendom, though later, around the baptismal font, they would pledge to renounce the evil powers of this world and bring up the child in the Christian faith, but their ignorance of “Come thou fount of every blessing” suggested that they might bring up the child to play video games on Sunday morning, but what the hey, God accepts them as they be and though with some reluctance so must we, and I’m sorry this sentence got so long.

Read More

The old man repents of his materialism

Standard Time returned in a cold rain on Sunday but no matter. I’m an old man and every day is beautiful. My past is gone, my future is shrinking, and so when I open my eyes in the morning and don’t see angels bending over me, I’m grateful for another day on Earth. There will be no cold rain in Heaven and I will miss that and the chance to complain about it. I went in the bathroom when I awoke and closed the door so that if I fell down with a massive heart attack, I wouldn’t wake my wife, and I put my pants on, left leg first, then the right, not leaning against the wall, for the sheer excitement of it. Some mornings it’s like mounting a bucking horse. And then downstairs to the coffeepot and back to work on my memoir.

Read More

The old man is learning to dance

I went to a fundraiser for my daughter’s school Saturday and wandered out in search of relief and found myself trapped on the dance floor among demented teens writhing and jerking to the throb of a DJ’s explosive sound unit and there was my girl, in a circle of girls holding hands, bouncing around in a tribal ceremony unknown to me, an old man from the Era of Dance Partners. One more reminder, as if I needed it, that soon I must take the Long Walk out onto the ice pack and not return.

Read More

One more beautiful wasted day

Last Wednesday I was walking briskly toward Penn Station in New York and I tripped and took a nosedive, made a three-point landing, rolled onto my side, and within three seconds, three passersby stopped and asked, “Are you okay?” I said, “Just embarrassed,” and when I started to get up and fell again, a fourth joined them. An old lady my age, a young black guy, a construction worker in an orange helmet, and a teenage girl. I limped east on 34th Street, and turned, and the guy in the helmet was watching me. I waved. He waved back.

Read More

It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

Read More

Standing around, watching people suffer

The annual marathon ran by our house in St. Paul Sunday morning, a phalanx of flashing lights of police motorcycles, followed by Elisha Barno of Kenya and other African runners, and later the women’s winner, Sinke Biyadgilgn, and a stream of thousands of others, runners, joggers, walkers, limpers. For the sedentary writer standing on the curb, it’s a vision of hard work I am very grateful not to have undertaken. In the time I’d spend training to run 26 miles and 385 yards, I could write a book. When you finish a marathon, all you have to show for it is a pile of damp smelly clothes.

Read More

Two options for staying in touch:

  • Subscribe to the “Garrison Keillor” list to receive a weekly email including his latest column, excerpts from Garrison’s books, news about upcoming shows and projects, plus links to performances, TWA & APHC merchandise, and poetry features.
  • Subscribe to “The Writer’s Almanac” list to receive a DAILY email that includes the classic “on this day in history” section, a poem, and a link to listen to that day’s episode.

Prairie Home Productions News


Get In Touch
Send Message