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Why I Love the State Fair

Some go for the rides, others go for the food. Some love the people-watching, others come for the grandstand music or the talent-shows. Rural folk participate in the animal-judging and people from all over the state compete with one another in cooking and craft activities. I suppose some fair-goers take a genuine interest in the tractors, silos, and water-troughs that are spread out across Machinery Hill. Then we have the political booths, the penny arcades, the horse shows, the parades, the butterfly tent, the log-rolling contests, the fireworks....

I'm not terribly patriot, but it has occurred to me that the State Fair shows off America at its best. City people and country people, teens and old-timers, red-necks and aesthetes wander here and there, looking, learning, eating, and doing things, and everyone seems to be having a good time.

Hilary and I go to the fair every year, and we make an effort to try a few new things, though many aspects of our visit have become routine.

Here is this year's version of events:

We leave the house at 8:50, having slathered ourselves with suntan oil and checked to make sure there are a few big bills in the wallet. We drive down city streets through the aging and attractive industrial district on the north side of town, cross Highway 280 and continue along Larpenteur Avenue past the farm fields of the University's farm campus. The sight of a cornfield and I'm beginning to get in the mood.

We pay $9 and park. A few minute's walk brings us to the ticket-takers. We head over to a black woman on the left who is standing idle.

“You're not getting any business?” I say.

“I'm just so good a line never develops,” she quips.

Test Your Fastball

Once inside the fence I noticed immediately that things had changed. Last year an insurance company had set up an exhibit of mechanical animals in a trailer. The animals growled or squawked or at least turned their head at you as you walked by. A polar bear, an albatross, a rattle snake...It was all rather cool. In one of the cases they had a stripped down model of a gorilla that revealed how the robots worked. The point was to show you how sophisticated the prosethetic devices that replace missing limbs have become.

This year the trailer itself was missing. In its place they now had an exhibit sponsored by Major League Baseball, with glass cases housing the uniforms of Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams, among other ancient stars. While Hilary was studying the fairground map and the list of the days free programs I walked over to a cage where you could throw a hardball at a target. The cage was equipped with instruments to measure the velocity of your fastball. Which is something I have always wondered about. My fastball.

“Is this free?” I asked.

“No, it will cost you three dollars,” said the jock sitting in a chair with a galvanized bucket of hardballs on the ground beside him.

“I haven't thrown a hardball in twenty years,” I said. “Why don't you let me throw some for free, and that will draw other people over here?”

The guy looked at me for a minute and then he said, “I'll let you throw one.”

So I took a ball from him and stepped onto the mound, unsure which side of the rubber to put my foot on. Then I decided to take off my hat, but having done so, I could not find a convenient place to hang it, so I just dropped it into the gravelly dirt on the ground. I held the ball and loosened my shoulders by flapping my arms like a pair of chicken wings. Then I looked down at the strike zone painted as an orange box on the black netting at the far end of the cage. After dipping only very briefly into that pretentious “He gets the sign from the catcher” posture, I let it rip.

But with anything—skipping stones in a lake, hitting a tree with a snowball—you need a little practice to find the range, and establish that delicate point of release that will send the projectile on its way swiftly and accurately. Sometimes you get lucky on your first try...but I did not. The ball hit the ground five yards in front of the netting and bounced feebly up into the orange box.

For some reason I glanced up at the meter. The pitch registered at 3 miles per hour.

“Just let me have one more,” I pleaded, “now that I've got the range. Didn't you see it? That one bounced!”

“Sorry, that's all you get,” was the stolid reply. I thanked the gentleman and retreated past the uniforms of fellow-ballplayers Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson back out into the sunlight.

Ecology and Art

By this time Hilary had sized up the day's activities thoroughly. None of the free outdoor shows—Freeze Dried, Los Jefes, Sean Emery, U of M Alumni Band, and Glen Everhart—were exciting enough to make a special effort to seek out. It we happened to be in the neighborhood, we'd stop and listen.

Thus free of timetables, we walked through a display of 2008 Toyotas, and I commented to a salesman that the mileage numbers pasted on the windows had gone done from previous years.

“Well, they have a new method now that corresponds more closely to genuine driving practices,” he said.

“You mean, they're starting to tell the truth?” I replied. In any case, the numbers still looked pretty good. And so did the cars. (In fact we get 37 mpg out of our Corolla, though the sticker only said 36.)

Our next stop was at Giggles Backwoods Grill, where you'll find the best food at the fair. At any rate the walleye cakes they serve there are first rate. They're made of a mixture of delicate walleye meat and wild rice, lightly breaded and then deep-fried, and served in a little paper dish with a slice of lemon and a generous serving of an unusually-tasty mustard sauce. Though it was only 9:45, we knew we wouldn't be back and there wasn't a line so we placed our order with the winsome young woman behind the counter and settled down at a picnic table behind the cute log cabin for a mid-morning snack. The ground behind the cabin was covered with old tires that had been chopped into jagged one-inch pieces—very spongy and easy on the legs.

After passing by the large exhibit of $10,000 Jacuzzis we arrived at the Ecology Building, which is always worth a visit. We started up a discussion of wind power with a gentleman standing at a booth in front of a wind-power map. At one point I remarked,

“I've heard that there is as much wind energy potential on the Coteau du Prairie as there is in the entire state of California.”

“Where's the Coteau des Prairie? Iowa?” he asked.

“No, it's right here,” I said, pointing to the brown streak cutting diagonally across southwestern Minnesota on the map.”

“That's Buffalo Ridge,” he said.

“Well, the French who discovered it called in the Coteau des Prairie,” I said. “I think geologists still call it that.”

“In that case, then it's true. There is more energy potential there,” he said.

“But have you driven through the pass east of San Bernadino?” I asked. “The turbines are everywhere.”

“Well,” he relied,” the demand there is great and the distance from the source to the user is negligible, which makes it economical to set up wind turbines even if the yield is much less than we have here...which it is.”

So we talked about energy. And I asked him if individual farmers actually bought the turbine that were being erected on their property.

“Oh, yes. Though it's a big investment. It will cost them a million and a half, so they have to do some number-crunching to make sure thing will come out. But the power companies have realized that it would be cheaper for them to set up turbines of their own, and they're starting to do that more often.”

At another display I looked down a cylinder of dirty lake water at a white disc while I lowered it down into it with a rope, to test for clarity. Though the water didn't look that dirty, the disc disappeared at 1.5 feet, which rather astounded me, in light of the fact that in Lake Tahoe the disc disappears at 105 feet.

At one display we were told how to grow ferns on our roof. At another we were encouraged to ride our bikes to the grocery store, and I actually registered to receive a newsletter. We wandered through the interior of a “green” house, with all sorts of environmentally sophisticated features. And on the way out we picked up some brochures about composting.

All of this was a sort of preamble to the most interesting exhibit at the fair—the art show.

Finally the Art

The State Fair Art Show is always pretty good, and when it goes bad, it's invariably in the direction of populist art, rather than ersatz avant garde art.

But it's important to go to the art building early, when you've still got your legs. And there is a degree of artistry involved in simply devising a route through the building that will allow you to see everything with a minimum of backtracking. It's fun to wander through, and occasionally see a piece by someone you know or have heard about. Some artists are selected year after year, and you begin to recognize their names on that basis alone.

Early on in our recent visit I overhead a woman comment on her cell phone to a friend: “It's a little disappointing this year. I'm glad I didn't get in.”

I've never been disappointed by the State Fair Art show. It not that I'm undiscerning. I guess the question is, “What did you expect?!” I know of nothing remotely like it, in terms of the range of mediums, styles, and levels of expertise on exhibit, other than the Art Institute's “Foot-in-the Door” exhibit.. How many great works are you likely to see? Not many, perhaps. But there are quite a few very good ones, and the sheer variety presents a continuing challenge to the aesthetic faculties.

My favorite image last year was a black-and-white photograph of a man walking away from the camera along a portico with a wild turkey by his side. In my mind's eye I can still see the pattern on the bottom of his sandal. The various tones of white and gray along the walls of the hacienda and the stark silhouette of the turkey are riveted in my mind. The humor and mystery of the piece only added to the appeal.

Who took the photo? I have no idea. Where is it now? Who can say?

Though I was at the exhibit only a few hours ago, most of the works have vanished from memory. It's seems that there were quite a few photos of rotund Old World women standing in run-down kitchens this year. As usual, there was a long row of colorful watercolors showing flowers in a vase or fruit sitting on a table—none of them sharp of relaxed enough to win me over. As usual, there were more than a few pencil drawings of remarkable exactitude, all of which I suspect were drawn from photographs. Nothing wrong with that. My favorite showed three teen-aged girls lying on a beach. The biggest was at least four feet square, and it represented a few square feet of the forest floor. It may have taken months to complete, and as far as I could tell the execution was flawless...but I had no affection for it, whereas I love the forest floor. So much time and effort, and yet the spark of life is missing!

On the next wall over there was a somewhat smaller work, a color representation of thin squiggly pasta-like lines in orange and tan and light brown passing across one another to form a sort of light wooly rug. It too was expertly rendered, though it wasn't a representation of anything in particular. Yet it had a subtle tone, with faint shadows and shifts beneath the surface texture of the squiggles, and it also had a cheery spirit. In short, it had personality, and I number it among my favorite of this year's works.

Oil paintings are difficult to bring to life, but there was one winter scene with a low horizon that had subtle yellows in the clouds and blue amid the trees—it looked like a pre-Impressionist European landscape painting, and better than most.

The trouble with many works of State Fair art is that the effort shows. At the same time, the sincerity does too, so that we see what others have seen and noted and found to be worthy of making an effort to share. That in itself is worth praising. And quite a few of the works take us beyond that level.

I was impressed with a painting of a llama, which had a dull brown background, but also that spark of life in the eyes and fur and the turn of the neck. I don't care about llamas, but the piece had a gracefulness that appealed to me. I also liked a very large photo of the Brule River—it was larger than a king-sized bed—that was at first glance simply a field of dark shadowy blue, though you could see a few rocks dimly on the river-bottom. The horizon in the upper right-hand corner was hardly more than a half-inch from the edge of the frame. The entire piece was confident and daring and mysterious—like nature.

My sentimental side was struck by the painting of six kids sitting on a curb eating popsicles—an audience favorite, I'm sure. And a large photo of some industrial machinery in the Pillsbury A-Mill won me over with its luscious color. A white marble carving that looked like a two-foot-high pretzel was actually very well done, and I would have been happy to see it sitting on the desk behind my computer...

Education and Agriculture

Back out on the street, we purchased a chocolate malt from the Kiwanis—an annual treat—and continued south past a very nice landscaped garden with an attractive waterfall. In our efforts to try new things, we wandered up a grassy hill to a “Meditation Tent” that I'd never seen before. The tent was made of rubberized white canvas stretched around an aluminum frame, and it had the shape of a long Ojibwe wigwam. It looked like a good place to come in out of the rain, or change a baby's diaper, but I had a hard time envisioning anyone actually meditating in it, with the traffic of Snelling Avenue roaring back and forth less that fifty yards away.

In the Education Building I chatted with a woman in the Canada booth—well, she was looking rather forlorn—no one else seemed interested in international trade. Did you know that more trade crosses the Ambassador Bridge from Detroit to Windsor than is shipped to Japan by the entire U.S? Did you know that Manitoba is the bus manufacturing capital of North America? That Saskatchewan supplies 30% of the world's uranium? Wow!!

In an effort to contribute to the conversation, I asked the woman if she knew that a hundred and fifty years ago, Minnesota's territorial leaders fervently lobbied members of Congress to convince them to annex Prince Rupert's Land (i.e. western Canada) to the United States, in the same way that they'd snatched California. She hadn't been aware of that. “Well, I'm glad they didn't succeed,” I said. “We love Canada.”

The woman was from Flin Flon, which is quite a ways north, and you've got to admit, it's a thankless job, coming all this way to sit at a booth at the Minnesota State fair and shore up relations between the United States and Canada. I left the booth feeling a little sad, and also quite sure that I had not convinced her how much we in Minnesota love the North—which means Canada—even if we can't have it for ourselves.

At the booth of the Minnesota Geological Society we discussed the differences between glacial till and glacial outwash, and the roll played by limestone in the recent catastrophic floods in southeastern Minnesota. At another booth we got some tips about the best places to harvest wild rice in Northern Wisconsin.

As well passed the booths of the smaller Minnesota colleges one after another, from St. Scholastica to Concordia, I suddenly got the urge to go back to school. You know, take a few classes where they read novels, write a few analytic papers about Jane Austen or Henry James or even Pierre Reverdy. Ahhh, It's good for the soul. Or what the heck, study international trade at the Humphrey Institute!

Our next stop was the handicraft building. This is the building where the legs begin to get tired. I love the rugs. Beautiful fibers, beautiful patterns. The quilts can range from spectacular to ghastly. The sweaters—I'd like to have a few of them. The jewelry and handbags—really nice, in an Art Noveau sort of way. On the other hand, the carved birds seldom have the liveliness of birds, and the kayaks are far too showy. Who would crash down a rapids in that?? What one draws from these exhibits is a feeling of hands-on caring, hours of meditative attention to detail. Coziness. The Hardanger embroidery (or whatever it was) that won the Ingebretsen award was as beautiful as anything I'd seen at the fair thus far. Simple squares of creamy fabric, but so fine and delicate!

There is something a bit surreal about the cases that contain the nameless cookies that were judged a few days ago and are now getting stale behind the glass. And the exhibits of stamp collections! I saw one framed set of Argentinean stamps that seemed all to have blue images of Simon Bolivar on them. (But maybe it was some other military guy.)

Once we leave the handicraft building, I feel that the real work is done, and it's time to coast—maybe a foot-long hotdog or a pronto pup, then a stroll through the greasy atmosphere of the food building, seldom buying anything, and then on to the cool, shady confines of the agriculture building. Hilary was longing for a pronto pup, but the line was so long that she settled for some deep-fried corn fritters with honey-butter that weren't too bad.

The agriculture building is a tallish white building with eight wings. I don't know if you'd call it Art Deco, but it does have a few old-fashioned quasi-modernist flutes running up the sides of its many walls. Once you get inside, it's difficult to figure out where you came in, or what you'll meet up with when you venture out down a different hall.

We wandered in at the Minnesota wine-growers wing, and it was clear that things had changed. Where you used to see a few crusty bottles of unsavory red and white liquids with ribbons hanging off of them, we now found a marble-topped wine bar that would nor have been out of place in Florence. Men and women were dispensing wine in smallish plastic wine glasses...and people were buying it! At $6 a shot it seemed a little steep to me, but this is the State Fair, where an ice cream cone costs $4.50. All the same, it was only 11:30 and we needed to conserve our strength. And I was never much of a fan of Marshall Foch.

Our next stop was the crop art, which can be fascinating, especially from a distance. As you approach the portraits, fashioned out of dried sunflower seeds and soybeans and corn kernels, you ask yourself, “Is that Ronald Reagan or Wayne Newton? Is that George W. Bush or Johnny Carson? Is that Mozart as an adolescent or Princess Diana? Is that Richard Pryor or Prince?”

We later wandered into an air-conditioned screening room and watched a film produced by Monsanto in which farmers from the Philippines, Spain, South Africa, Chile, and other places sang the praised of genetically-modified crops. I was convinced. (And those chairs were really comfortable.) But one thing was bothering me. In the film it was reported that nine out of ten farmers planting these crops is not from the U. S. This didn't quite jibe with the chart I'd seen on the way in suggesting that 90% of the acreage devoted to GM crops was in the United States. I sort of knew the answer to this question, but the young man behind the counter helped me to fill in the blanks. The average farm in the United States is 3,000 acres. The average farm in China in 3 acres.

As we wandered around in the central hub of the building, we passed the man selling the plastic device that can dice a tomato in several directions with a single pass of the blade—as if such a thing were possible!—and I wondered once again why we have never bought one of those things. (The reason is that these men are hucksters. After all, if the product was so good, how come you can only get it at the State Fair? How come I don't know anyone who has one?)

I asked the man in the bee-hive display where all the bees have gone, and he told me that Penn State University is looking into it. He also said, “When you sit down to eat dinner, one out of every three bites you take is directly dependent on bees.” And this made me wonder why there weren't more universities looking into the problem. What if Penn State screws up?

We bought a honey-and-sunflower-seed ice cream cone on our way out and wandered along the perimeter of the building past the beer garden and into the triangular alcove formed by the crux of two of the eight hallways. Here is where they exhibit the most perfect Christmas trees in the world. They are all seven feet tall, perfectly conical, and without blemish. Scotch pine, balsam fir, white pine, Fraser fir. They are almost Platonic in their perfection, and you can't help pondering the theory of Forms as you sit there in the bench amid the aromatic trees eating your ice-cream.

“I think we should get a white pine this year,” I said. And suddenly, summer is over.

We skipped the International Bazaar this year—we love foreign countries, but it is all such cheap junk they have there!—and turned down the hill past the Haunted House toward the “All-you-can-drink” milk stand. As we passed the political booths I saw Senator Amy Klobuchar leaving hurriedly with her daughter, and I felt that I ought to let her know that Penn State was hot on the trail of bee maladies, with nicotine-based pesticides a prime suspect. She thanked me and hurried away.

We tarried only briefly at the fish pond, because it was crowded there and the day was getting hot.

We got our glasses of milk and wandered down to the Caribe Restaurant, which often has good music—steel drums or reggae. As it happened, a band from the Andes was heavy into a repetitive dance number, and soon we were wandering back to the milk booth, where we got our second cup of cool white milk, and went across the street into the rabbit barn. We passed rows ands rows of cages housing soft, floppy-eared rabbits, and we also passed a young girl with a pink rabbit-ear headdress and whiskers drawn onto her face. Hilary headed off to the bathroom when we reached the sheep barn, and while I was waiting I spied an old acquaintance whom I hadn't seen in years, but he and his wife somehow eluded me. Well, he's a banker now, and after fifteen years there isn't much you can talk about, anyway. He looks pretty much the same.

After examining the sheep perfunctorily, we decided to head back to the car.

The Sky Ride Back

Our great innovation of recent years has been to take to sky-ride back to the parking lot. This saves wear and tear on the legs—we'd been on our feet for five or six hours by that time—and the views are also very nice. As it happened, a parade was matching down the very street that we were passing above, so we got to hear a marching band from Amery play “On, Wisconsin” and watch a man skillfully maneuver a twenty-foot wrought-iron wheel that he propelled down the street merely by shifting his body weight within the rungs that held the two sides of it together. A very cute train made out of painted oil drums passed beneath us, pulled by a pint-sized tractor, followed by a giant Gedney's pickle with arms and legs and two young beauties walking on stilts. Then an old-fshioned cart passed by, pulled by what looked like miniature black horses. Ponies, I guess you would call them. Then came a car with the winners of some Miss Grandma beauty contest in chiffon dresses, waving rather anemically at the cheering crowd. The parade seemed to go on and on, and I was glad to be sitting there, looking down at the long line of floats. Looking in front of me at the next cable-car, I couldn't help noticing that it was not actually attached to the cable, but merely held in place by gravity.

They had just started up an antique tractor as we passed above Machinery Hill, and we could hear it sputtering. We passed experimental cornfields about ten feet square, and the roofs of pole-barns that were littered with pennies, plastic swords, and cheap golden necklaces inadvertently dropped by tired fairgoers. The magic was fading, but the green grass around the RVs and meat-smokers and chain-link fencing looked good. And it was all well worth the money. For one thing, there is probably no better way to see a parade than from above, moving in the opposite direction. You can see things lined up for a long ways, and don't have to wait for things to show up in front of you. And I was glad (though also slightly annoyed) that the band was playing Wisconsin's anthem.

Wisconsin is a fine state too—though I doubt if their state fair can match ours.

(editor's note: the first person to correctly identify all five of the breeds of cattle included in the graphic at the top of the page wins a free subscription to the print edition of Macaroni. Send your answers to jhtoren@comcast.net)

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