Here in Minnesota, where I live, the State Fair is the main thing going on. It upstages even the dreaded back-to-school days which are also dominant in hearts and minds.
In other places where I have lived, State Fairs are about as central to life as, say, roller coasters, or ferret ownership, or balloon rides. That is to say, some people like it enough to spend time seeking it out, most people don’t, and life goes on swimmingly. That’s not the way it is in Minnesota.
I don’t know why it is, but it would never occur to me, or anyone I know, to miss our state fair in Minnesota. Why? We spend too much money, eat too many calories, stand in too many lines. For those of us who are urban, we see animals that we have no interest in seeing the rest of the year, ogle farm machinery we will never in our lifetimes use, and stare at strange things ranging from seed art to butterheads—Princess Kay of the Milky Way, carved live out of butter as she shivers in a refrigerator in her dress and tiara.
And we get so excited about it! I’ve already been twice, and plan to go back at least once more, with friends who like to see and do different parts of the fair. I begin looking forward to it in early August, and begin to plot out trips, buying early tickets to save a few bucks. I like to go once when the fair is just opening in the morning, primarily to see the barns and animals. I go once during the afternoon, to go to the Midway and ride some rides, play a little whack-a-mole, try to win a useless prize with skeeball tickets. And then I like to go once at night to enjoy some kind of concert. This year it was Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples—pure heaven!
Truthfully, I think that looking forward to the fair is about as much fun as going. As the nights get colder and the sky is dark later in the morning, as the back to school sales crank up into full swing, the fair gives us something to think about besides the end of summer. How can you dread the end of August when you get to eat a pickle on a stick? How can September be a bad thing when it comes in with seed art?
This year, when I went with a friend on opening day, the two of us were so excited we could hardly concentrate enough to pick a starting place. Eventually we strode over to the horticulture building. The vegetables on display were no better looking than the ones I see every week at the farmers’ market, but seeing them with judges’ ribbons next to them enhanced their importance.This year, ‘the great get together’ has a sad shadow side. Elections loom. We have, in addition to the bitterly divisive Presidential election, two ballot initiatives introduced by the Republicans to crank up voter turnout in Minnesota: A constitutional amendment that limits marriage to opposite sex couples, and a voter suppression bill which disallows same day registration and demands government issued IDs—disproportionally disenfranchising the poor, people of color, transgender people, and other marginalized folks.
So at the fair, in addition to the universal experiences of food on a stick and gaping at farm animals, there was also an undercurrent of divisiveness. Plenty of people, like me, picked up bright orange fans that screamed “VOTE NO: Don’t Limit the Freedom to Marry” at the Minnesotans United for All Families booth. Meanwhile, I saw many people sporting “Protect My Vote” backpacks. I’m sure they felt as sad and helpless seeing my fan as I felt seeing their backpacks. Trying to figure out how to have a real conversation about it was an insurmountable challenge as we jostled one another in the crowded streets and competed against each other in Midway games.
Despite those differences, the fair was a good place to remember that we have more in common than what separates us. I pray that I will still feel like that the second week of November, when my stuffed animal prizes will have long since been turned into dog toys and cheese curds are but a distant memory.