Wednesday, August 27, 2008

State Fairs and Grace

I spent Monday afternoon and evening at the Minnesota State Fair. There is nothing like a State Fair. It is a parallel world that has no real point of contact with everyday suburban life. It is an exotic world of livestock, fried food, and bad wardrobes. I know this sounds like an elitist critique, but its offered in appreciation. Being at the State Fair makes me feel very much a part of the whole created order. It's a little like being an original human, seeing animals born, eating fried chocolate, viewing the dairy queen's face carved in a slab of butter.

Seriously, at the Minnesota State Fair they carve the faces of past and present fair royalty in big slabs of butter. They display them in a rotating, refrigerated case in the dairy exhibit building. They are there in all their yellow splendor next to the image of the young dairy queen in a full color picture. Now, I'm just assuming that butter is a very hard medium in which to work, since it was not always obvious that the person in the picture and the person in the butter slab were the same. I think butter must add 50 pounds. But I'm sure as butter sculpture goes, its pretty impressive.

I went to the Oregon State Fair as a kid. It was the first place I ever smoked a cigarette (don't tell my mom). I was there with the church youth group. How else are you going to learn to smoke? A girl in a halter top gave me my first taste of cancer. That's the thing you have to know about girls in halter tops. And at the state fair, that's pretty much all there is.

I've been reading Charles Taylor's book, A Secular Age, and there he talks about the careful equilibrium maintained in society in the late middle ages. There was ordinary life, which maintained a sense of human flourishing through a carefully ordered hierarchy that kept chaos at bay. Good magic keeping bad magic away. But routine has its limits, and over time crushes and drains the very power it is trying to protect. There has to be a reset button of sorts, a chance to let chaos have its day so that it can again be subsumed under a larger order. This happened in very deliberate ways in societal festivals. It's "as though the effort to maintain order against chaos could not but in the end weaken, tire, unless this order were replunged into the primal energies of chaos to emerge with renewed strength. Or something like that; it's hard to get entirely clear."

He is absolutely describing the state fair. It's a replunging of life into the primal energies of chaos, in this case girls with halter tops and cigarettes, dangerous guys with slicked back hair, fried food on a stick, and men in shorts and black socks. Equilibrium restored.

I went to the fair mainly to hear Brandi Carlile who played a free concert that night. (Unbelievable performance. Her cover of Folsom Prison Blues was a religious experience). To get a good seat, I sat through the semifinals of the State Fair talent show. Actually, I stood, because evidently Minnesotans take their talent shows very seriously. Beside the usual singers belting out country tunes to a background track, there were the kinds of acts you only see in parallel universes.

There were the two young ladies who fumbled through a synchronized tumbling act--a really tough thing to pull off only a day after the closing of the Olympics. The real thing is too fresh on our minds. There was an amazing young violinist, 14 years old, who stood on that very informal stage, just paces from fresh manure in any direction, in a full length pink, um, not sure the right description. It looked like kind of a crepe paper explosion. Under lights in a concert hall it would probably look elegant, but here it was, well, a whole buncha lotta pink.

You haven't lived until you've heard a stooped 70+ year old woman in a sequined gown play The Battle Hymn of the Republic on the mirimbas. She followed a group of testostorone driven young men roughly covering the great Aerosmith song Dream On. They followed three very well nourished young women in camoflaged miniskirts singing Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.

Seriously, I love events like this. It felt so real, so human, so filled with grace. People stood and applauded the Battle Hymn of the Republic on the mirimbas, and you could tell this was the event of this woman's life. Grace comes out of stuff like this. I was proud to be a Minnesotan.


Redlefty said...

Fascinating and excellent!

My graduate degree was from a much more prestigious school than my undergrad, and I remember being shocked how serious everyone on campus took their studies.

Then Halloween hit. The entire place turned into a party the likes of which I've never seen since. Several hours of complete insanity and cathartic unwinding.

Then back to class.

Cheryl Russell said...

Sooooo funny. You should have posted a pic of the butter sculptures though. State fairs are so fun, the first concert I ever went to was at a State Fair, Huey Lewis and the News, and it was free! I will say that Renaissance Fairs give State Fairs some competition. If you haven't been to one, imagine all that State Fair goodness, and add tons of costumes, giant turkey legs, foam sword competitions, and a ton of people obsessed with the Renaissance Period calling you a Wench!

Mark Love said...

Thanks, Cheryl. I had fun writing it. And I would do anything to be called a wench.