Thursday, July 16, 2009

In All Fairness

I went to the Ottertail County Fair last night with my youngest daughter, two sisters, our parents, and an assortment of nieces and nephews. Let me just state from the start that I think fairs are a ridiculous waste of money and total sensory overload. Every time I go, I vow, "Never again." Yet, every year, like some internally-driven migratory bird, I end up there anyway.

After shelling out some cash at the gate, I parked the car and we picked our way through the muddy lot to the horse barns. I love the smell of the horses and take my time admiring the various colors and sizes of the animals. The box stalls were open in years past enabling me to assuage a lifelong yearning for a horse of my own by stroking the noses of beasts belonging to others. But the recent addition of wire mesh has successfully blocked out the probing hands of the public. Now all I can do is look, not touch. Huge let-down.

Outside the horse barns, we walked through the food vender's alley. I took note of what they had to offer relative to the cash I carried on my person, fully aware that I couldn't possibly have one of everything I wanted.

Past the aroma of deep fried starch, we entered the midway. Children instantly began pulling on my hands to go this way and that. I looked at the price of the tickets and at how many each ride required, and opted for the Unlimited Ride Wristband for my eleven year-old. I sauntered after my child and her cousins as they raced from ride to ride, observing people as I went. There were families with strollers and babies in backpacks and gaggles of middle-schoolers looking pretty darn cool without any adults to boss them around. An elderly couple strolled along, holding hands and smiling at each other. I'm sure they weren't there for the rides any more than I was. I noted there was no carousel, and that made me feel disappointed. There was a Tilt-a-Whirl--my favorite ride as a youngster, and a small herd of ponies tethered to a wheel. The ponies wore tiny saddles and a sign offered rides to children for only four dollars. For another mere six dollars, you could purchase a grainy picture of your child taken by the owner of the ponies. The proprietor didn't allow people to take pictures with their own cameras as it "cut into" his profits. I'm sure. I put a quarter in a vending machine that spit 20 alfalfa pellets into my hand and offered them to a diminutive donkey in a visor that read, "Don't Touch My Hat" in bright letters. He looked weary of people touching him and his visor. I longed to steal him away for a nice vacation in the country.

After an hour or so, I succeeded in tearing the kids away from the rides long enough to go through the animal barns. We saw Lion-headed Rabbits, fancy speckled roosters who kept announcing sunrise, pools brimming with native Minnesota fish--further reinforcement of my disdain and mistrust of lake-swimming. The last building we toured was the Children's Barn and I was immediately smitten by a rotund pygmy goat in a pen with her week-old triplets. They were the size of bunnies and just as soft. I eyed a mama llama across the aisle with wariness. She had a beautiful blond baby standing beside her with lashes that were too magnificent for words. I never can quite approach any llama without hearing my late grandpa's voice in my head, "Watch out for llamas! They spit." Though I have never witnessed that phenomenon, I didn't want to test his wisdom tonight. I talked softly to her and she laid her ears back and regarded me without blinking. I am not fluent in Llama Body Language, but in Dog, Horse, and Cat this means nothing good so I kept moving.

Next we proceeded to the fair's version of the mall food court where everyone could have whatever kind of high carb/high fat food they wanted. Victoria and I split a foot-long corn dog (Meat/Veg/Grain Group) and I thought, as I do every year, that I have never tasted anything so good. Then we split a chocolate milk shake from The Shake Shack (Dairy Group). I ate one cheese curd from a friend's table, cotton candy from my baby nephew, and two french fries from my dad's tray for dessert. That was enough of a well-balanced diet for me.

More rides. More time waiting at the temporary fences, waving at my young relatives as they whizzed past, their hair blowing wildly around their heads in a blur. I remember how much I liked rides when I was little--in the days before all that spinning did strange things to my head and stomach and where the heights didn't make the bottoms of my feet itch. I hugged a few long lost friends, chatted amiably with complete stangers, and toted around $10 stuffed animals and inflatable plastic toys that were made in China for pennies.

The next break from the midway landed us next to a small corral where piglets were running a race to the blare of country music. Eee-haw! Afterwards, grown men mounted inflatable horses and bounced around the enclosure with all the seriousness of jockeys in the Kentucky Derby. A cowboy congratulated the winner and commenced chucking beaded Mardi Gras necklaces into the crowd. Not a big fan of bling, personally, I wanted one for my daughter. I waved at the cowboy and he flung one at my head. As I looked up, I was blinded by the sun and felt the necklace ricochet off my head and onto the grass behind me. I spun around and caught one end of it just as a little girl took hold of the other.

"It's mine," I informed her. "It bounced off my head."

"Okay," the eight year-old conceded sweetly, and returned to her place by the fence. I was instantly filled with remorse for my childish greed. I inched over and stood beside her.

"Do you already have one?" I ventured, wanting to be friends and hoping she'd forgive me.

"No, but that's okay," the child beamed up at me. The knife in my heart twisted.

"I'll help you get one," I offered, and spent the next five minutes bellowing, "HEY, COWBOY!" at the top of my lungs until he threw another necklace our way and the little girl was properly adorned.

Side Bar: When I confessed my sin to my daughter Amy this morning over the phone, she restated my misdeed for clarification, "So, you took a piece of plastic jewelry from a little kid?"

"That's right."

"Were you drinking?"

"No," I replied, annoyed that she even asked. She knows I can't stand the taste of alcohol and I'd be too cheap to buy it if I could.

"Because if you ever do, I don't want to miss it," she explained.

Ah...yes, is good to know one's limits, isn't it?

Back at the Fair: Dusk had fallen and I was completely penniliess, not to mention sticky of hand and hoarse of voice. I thought we were set to go home when, suddenly, all the lights on the rides went on at once and the kids needed to do the rides "just one more time."

All of them.

I probably won't go to the fair next year...

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