Saturday, August 31, 2013

A Non-Standard Childhood

Yesterday Tabitha and I got into a conversation about childhood.  Specifically her childhood, and how odd it has been. 

I’m not sure what triggered this train of thought in her, but our conversation started with her remembering a time when she was over at a friend’s house a few years ago and suddenly felt like drawing something.  “Where’s your paper and pens?” she asked.  Her friend stared at her blankly while she repeated this request a few times.  Eventually it occurred to Tabitha that perhaps not every household suffers from the sort of office-supply manifestations that are so common in a house full of academics.

There is, for example, a stack of scrap paper roughly two feet high by the side of my desk even as I type this, and everyone in the house knows that as long as they don’t mind writing on the other side of old lecture notes, assignments, or drafts of handouts, they can have as much of it as they want.

Don’t even get me started on the tide of pens that flows through the house, depositing random writing implements on – and occasionally under – every flat surface and within every hollow space.  Come the apocalypse, we will take notes.

But in many ways she is right – she has had a rather odd childhood so far. 

In an era where the average American reads less than four books a year and a disturbingly large percentage of Americans haven’t read a book since they fled high school in a panic, she has grown up in a house where the most numerically common items are probably books and has read a surprising percentage of them.  She’s had a library card since she was two.

She has traveled and seen how people who are not Americans live their lives.  It’s not like here.  She can count as friends people who live halfway across the globe, and all over the country as well.  She’s lived through a hurricane, an earthquake, and tornado season, all in the same year. 

She had a frequent flier card by the time she turned one.

She has read Vonnegut.  She knows who Mondrian was and what his paintings look like.  She can quote Doctor Who.

There are times when I would like to think that all of this amounts to something better than the usual childhood but when you get down to it, really, it’s just different rather than better.  Those are two independent variables.  And that is perhaps the lesson after all.

Familiar and normal are not the same things.  Different is interesting.  Having a perspective on life that isn’t the same as the people around you is worthwhile simply for the opportunities it creates, even if it’s just the opportunity to draw something on a moment’s notice. 

Welcome to our family.  We do odd things for odd reasons.  And we enjoy ourselves that way.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Rest Weary Traveler

Hotels are just depressing places when you’re the only one there.

I spent the last two days in meetings up at Not Quite So Far Away Campus.  I really ought to think of a better nickname for that campus, since I labeled it as such in comparison to another campus I had worked at not long beforehand that was, in fact, rather further away, but the truth is that NQSFAC is in fact a bit of a hike – enough so that when the pre-semester meetings end at 8pm one night and pick up again at 9am the next day it really isn’t worth driving home and back.

So I reserved a hotel room.

This, it has to be said, utterly mortified the kind people at NQSFAC.  They are an astonishingly friendly group there, and the fact that I was not staying with one of them really bothered them.  I promised I would not let this happen again, and they were happy about that.  It’s nice when you work with good people.

But the reservation was non-refundable, so at the conclusion of our meetings I toddled off to my room.

It was a perfectly serviceable room, really.  Bed.  Shower.  Dorm fridge.  Television.  A place to store your stuff and sleep for the night before moving on.  Clean and well kept if not especially homey or luxurious.  A bit run down at the heels, but aren't we all after a day of meetings.

I did get to talk to Kim and the girls when I got back, so I heard about their days and they mine.

And then it was just me.  I had my book.  I had random sporting events on television.  And eventually I just went to bed.

It’s good to be home.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

A Month to Be Moved Past Quickly

It’s been a long month. 

1. We’ve signed the contract for the new fence, the one that will block the sight lines between me and the neighbor.  I’m hoping that when he can’t see me anymore he will return to whatever quantum state he came from and cease to exist until some other unfortunate soul crosses his path and makes the mistake of looking at him.  And then he will be Someone Else's Problem, and thus invisible to me.

2. We’ve also had to put the rabbits under lock and key, as several times I had to gather them up from where they were hopping about my property.  At first I was concerned that it might be the neighbor, since he had explicitly threatened to harm the rabbits, but that seemed odd since the first rescue actually predated the neighbor issue.  It turned out to be the kids across the street.  Apparently nobody in their lives thought to tell them that riding their bikes up someone else’s driveway and turning their pets loose in a neighborhood full of dogs was perhaps not an acceptable form of behavior.  Fortunately each time we found the rabbits before any harm was done, and if the kids want to try again they can bring bolt cutters.

3. We are also in the process of switching banks.  We started this process in November, after the International Banking Conglomerate bought out our Big State Bank.  In fairness, we weren’t all that happy with BSB, since they had gone out of their way to show political support for Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) during the initial putsch that brought him to power, but things went swiftly downhill when IBC started imposing random fees and requirements for the privilege of accessing my own money.  Then, unfortunately, we got busy and we might have forgotten about the whole thing entirely had not another round of random fees and requirements taken place this month.  And so we move.  The new bank seems less ornery, which is nice, but it still means telling any number of commercial and employment institutions where the money is and has to go now, since all that is so connected anymore.

4. I’ve also come up on the Koch Brothers’ radar, apparently.  One of the fascinating things about Blogger is that it allows you to see who has been searching for your blog, and after the last post in which I mentioned Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) I noticed some traffic coming from a PR firm that was apparently investigating how the Koch Brothers are being portrayed online, with the goal of “restoring” their good name.  Good luck with that one, PR firm!  Remember to wash your hands when you’re done, and try not to deposit your 30 pieces of silver in any IBC with too many random fees and requirements.

5. Returning to the theme of telling people where the money is, we also have a new credit card this month since our old one was hacked.  There is nothing so entertaining as being woken up on a weekend morning by a call from your credit card fraud agency wondering why you spent so much money on overrated semi-Chinese food several states away and on a new cell phone with the same company that the last ID theft fiasco was centered upon.  Fortunately it all got straightened out with minimal fuss (thank you, credit card company!), but we’re still finding bills that aren’t being paid because they’re working with the old number.

6. I’ve spent much of this month trying to get my classes ready for the fall.  One will probably not get much of an updating – I had hoped to gut the class and start over with it, but perhaps next time.  A second is getting gutted and overhauled, though at least it is the one closest to my actual field so it’s interesting that way.  And a third is completely new to me.  The problem with that one is that much of it is based on the ideal of community service, but I am teaching it at Not Quite So Far Away Campus, which is not in the community in which I live.  This presents certain practical difficulties, not the least of which is the requirement for me to go out and essentially cold-call people to rope them into helping me.  This is not what this introvert regards as a good time.  It’s mostly getting done, but the process is just pulling teeth to me.

7.  We’re nearly through Series 6 of the rebooted Doctor Who.  On the one hand, we’re enjoying the shows very much, especially since Matt Smith’s Doctor has finally stopped being such a temperamental little twit and started to get more likeable (a process that took nearly all of Series 5).  On the other hand, Netflix runs out of episodes at the end of Series 6, which means that we will need to find Series 7 elsewhere.  Yes, this is a) hardly a problem and b) easily solved by throwing money at it, but still.

8. It’s the end of the summer, and those of you in academia know what that means!  Yes, wall-to-wall meetings!  Meetings about meetings!  Meetings to set up meetings to discuss the possible agendas of the meetings you’d be having if it weren’t for these other meetings!  Meetings to determine why so little progress is being made on actual work!   One of Kim’s former colleagues taught her a trick that I find myself using at all these meetings, which is simply to multiply the number of attendees by the average hourly salary of those attendees and then multiply that number by the length of the meeting.  You can then spend the rest of the meeting idly wondering what better uses you might have put that sum of money toward, such as potato chips.  Hey, you do what you have to in order to get through the day.

Yeah, I’m ready for fall.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Slopes of August

We went to a ski resort yesterday.

This is normally not the thing one does in August in the midwest, as both terrain and climate tend to be rather unfavorable for skiing.  But there are hills in the nation’s tender midsection if you look hard enough, and we weren’t there to ski.

This particular resort figured out that being open only three months a year was probably not a viable economic strategy, so in the summer time they set up two luge runs down one of the ski slopes.  You get onto these funky little blue sleds at the top of the hill and you hurtle down the chute at speeds approaching Mach 1 until you get to the bottom and hit the tires at the end of the chute.  And then you ride the ski lift back up to the top of the hill and do it again.

That’s the plan, anyway.

When you do it right, it looks like this:

The buzzards circling overhead were probably just coincidental.

Yes, there were buzzards overhead.  A whole flock of them.  Herd?  Pod?  What is the name for a large group of buzzards, anyway?  Law school?  Whatever – they were there, floating lazily overhead, always watching and waiting, don’t worry, nothing to see here citizen, move along.

It does make you a bit more careful in the turns than you might otherwise be.

We spent the entire afternoon zipping up and down the hill.  The dark blue sleds go faster than the light blue sleds, and a good pair of wrap-around sunglasses will give you at least some protection against slow-moving insects. 

The things you learn.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Structuring 101

The other day on my Facebook feed someone posted this map:

For those of you who can’t make out the tiny print, it’s a map of the major Native American linguistic groups, though at what point in history is not specified.  Presumably it is sometime after European contact, as I do not recall any such maps being worked out beforehand.  Comparative linguistics as a scholarly field is, to the best of my knowledge, not a Native American tradition.  I could be wrong.

The person who posted it to my feed just thought it was interesting – as indeed it is – but whoever had originally sent it along its way gave it a caption.  “Why isn’t this in our standard history books?” they asked.


Just to get one thing out of the way first, has this person actually read a standard history book recently?  Most American history survey textbooks devote a fair amount of space to the history of the Native American civilizations that eventually get displaced by what comes to be known as the United States.  It’s not like they’re any great secret.  They don’t perhaps get as much space as the original poster wanted them to have, but to imply that there is some massive conspiracy among American historians to deny that there were Native American civilizations here when the Europeans stumbled into the place is a bit rich.

But there is a larger point to the question asked, which is why the standard history class devotes that much space and no more to the Native Americans.  And the answer to that isn’t nearly the parade of ethnocentricity and cultural imperialism that the question implies.

I’m assuming that by “standard history,” they are talking about the usual US survey class – the “American History Prior to 1877” course that most universities in this country list as HIST101 in the catalogue.  Note that this is not an in-depth class, nor is it particularly focused or regulated.  The goal of this class is simply to cover the basic framework of American history up until the end of Reconstruction.  There's a lot of wiggle room there.

Whether this is a worthwhile endeavor is a matter of some debate.  On the one hand, that’s a lot of material to cover and by definition it will be fairly shallow.  On the other hand, it’s supposed to be a survey – to provide a basic framework of events and concepts for the student to use should they choose to go on in history.  It provides some context to the later, more in-depth explorations.

When I teach it, I don’t spend a whole lot of time on the Native Americans.

Why not?

Two reasons, mostly – one of them a rather prosaic sort of nuts-and-bolts thing, and the other a more historically reasoned thing.

For the first reason, you have to consider the mechanics of how these classes work.  This is itself broken down into two things – time and stories.

I start my HIST101 class in 1400 and then go backward about half a century to the Great Plague before beginning to move forward in time toward what will eventually become the United States.  I do this because one of the things that is self-evidently weird about the European colonization of America is that it happened at all.  In 1400 the smart money on building colonial empires over the next three centuries was clearly not on the Europeans but on the Chinese – by far the most sophisticated civilization in the world at the time – or the Islamic world.  We take for granted the fact that the American colonies were founded by Europeans, but that fact is one of the most singularly bizarre things in all of history.  Imagine how different things would be otherwise, after all.

Given that setup, this means I have fifteen weeks to cover roughly five hundred years of history.  Clearly some choices are going to have to be made.  I am not going to have enough classes to give to every subject the space that its partisans feel it deserves – hell, I don’t have enough classes to give to anything the space I think it deserves.  I could spend the entire fifteen weeks just on the 1790s, personally.  Thus: “survey class.”

But how do I make these choices?  How do I decide what to leave in and what to leave out?

One of the things you learn about teaching is that students need stories in order to remember what you say.  You have to construct narratives, tying the evidence together into a coherent structure that gives them something to hang it all from.  This, by definition, is limiting.  The world isn’t a story – or, rather, it is many stories, competing against one another for your attention.  So you have to choose one at a time, otherwise it’s just cacophony.  Different historians choose different stories.

I divide my class into three stories, the first of which – the relevant one here – is Colonization.*  It runs from the 1340s, at the onset of the Great Plague in Europe, to 1763.  The focus of this story is to explain how the Europeans who would set the political, economic, and cultural framework for what would become the United States managed to pull off that trick over a shade more than 400 years.  Not including the introductory class (“What Is History, Anyway?”) and the exam, I’ve got four weeks – 8 substantive class periods – to get through that material. 

No matter what I touch on, it’s going to get shortchanged.

I do spend about half a class on the Native American civilizations that were displaced when the Europeans arrived – just enough, really, to let the students know that a) there were a lot of people living here already when the Europeans stumbled into this place, b) those people had formed themselves into a bewildering variety of civilizations, many of which rivaled those of the colonizing Europeans for complexity and sophistication and some of which exceeded them, and c) those civilizations got the short end of the colonial stick.  I could spend the entire semester just on Native American civilizations and never scratch the surface, but my main focus in the class is on the United States – a successor nation to those Native American civilizations – so I end up giving most of my narrative space to that successor state rather than to those it displaced.

There is a more historical reason for this as well, beyond the sheer nuts and bolts aspects of it, one that makes sense when you are teaching a class on US history in a way that wouldn’t make sense in a class on Mexican history.

Most of what is now the US was colonized by the English.  Not all of it – that’s another complication to the Colonization story that takes about half a class to work through – but in that territory the colonial foundations laid by other European nations were either overwhelmed or obliterated.  This is not to say that English culture was the only one in the mix going forward – the vast continuing influence of African culture contradicts that right off the bat, even if you don’t pay any attention to the French, Swedes, Dutch, Spanish, or other European powers – but the dominant note in that chorus is, eventually, English.

English imperial policy was to drive the Native American back.  Unlike the Spanish, whose imperial policy was to send over a ruling elite to govern the local population (a move copied by the English in India, ironically enough), English policy in America was to send over an entire colonial society and push the Native Americans westward, away from English settlements entirely.  In other words, the people who created what would become the political, economic, and cultural entity of the United States treated the Native Americans as outside Others – something to be interacted with at the borders rather than to incorporate within their own civilization or to embed themselves within.

In a survey class, given the narrative I have constructed for the first unit of the course, I choose to follow their lead.  The Native Americans become an outside power – much like Mexico, really – and while the United States interacts with those outside powers and conquers their lands (about a third of Mexico ends up annexed into the US in the 1840s), they are in this context all foreign powers.

Yes, I get the irony of that.

It’s a lot to think about, just looking at a map.


*Since someone is going to ask: 

The second story, which runs from 1763 to about 1815, is The Revolutionary Era, in which the newly stabilized colonies of British North America (not including those that would eventually become Canada) first grow disenchanted with British rule, then launch and (improbably) win a revolution against that rule, and then spend the next several decades fighting over what exactly that revolution actually meant and who gets to claim the legacy of the Revolution for their own – a vicious struggle that ends with the collapse of one point of view in the aftermath of the War of 1812.

The third and final story of this class, which runs from about 1815 to 1877, is the Rise and Fall of the Slave Republic, in which the US moves away from seeing itself as part of a broader trans-Atlantic civilization and focuses on its own domestic issues – notably slavery.  I chart the power of slavery, how it distorted the economics, politics and culture of both North and South, and how the struggle over the expansion of slavery into the western territories ultimately led to the Civil War and its aftermath.

Now you know.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Go Ahead, Fence Me In

So it’s been a long week here at the Family Manse, and for reasons I will pass lightly over for the moment I now know exactly how much it costs to put up a fence along one side of my property, what the proper setbacks are here in Our Little Town, and how long you have to wait from the day you make the call to the day they can come and put it in.  It's longer than you'd think.  Apparently lots of people are doing this.

Fences!  They’re the new black!

I’m not used to having a fence of my own.

I grew up on a one-block long street where fenced-in yards were the exception rather than the rule.  There was a mafia of us kids who just ran from one end of the block to the other all day long, paying precious little heed to property lines or grass.  We did our best to go around anything that looked like a flower, which to this day is about as far as my ability to discern the fine gradations of plant life runs (grass/flowers/trees/other), since flowers did not occur naturally in that neighborhood.  Someone had to work on them, and you didn’t have to be on the receiving end of that lecture more than once to know to avoid any plant life that wasn’t pure green.  It was a pretty borderless existence, though.

The house we moved to in junior high, where my parents still live, did have some fencing, but most of it was way up the hill in the back so I didn’t pay it much attention either.  You have to be part billy goat to reach that fence, and the results never seemed to justify the effort as far as I could tell.  There’s not much up there other than a small shed with a missing window.

Since then I have mostly lived in apartments, dorms, and other assorted places where the outdoors really wasn’t mine to worry about.  And when we moved into our current house we found it bordered on two sides by fences, but none of them were technically ours.  And they were see-through – chain link, or rail – so you could ignore them if you wanted to.

The new one will be solid wood.  And it will be mine.

I’m not sure how I feel about this.

On the one hand, it is a self-evident necessity.  We wouldn’t be spending that kind of money on something that we could live comfortably without.

On the other hand, it is kind of sad that this is so.

Also, now I have to run the gauntlet of contractors, since putting it in myself would just be an invitation to disaster.  I’m okay doing small projects, in an “oh well, I suppose the world won’t end if I don’t do this right” kind of way, but anything that is supposed to last and be sturdy is a project that other people need to do.  What construction experience I have I acquired backstage, so if it has to look good from more than one angle for more than three weekends, I’m better off hiring someone else. 

So far the contractors have been nice, and we picked the one that seemed the most honest about what a nuisance the job would be.  I appreciate honesty.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Swatting at the Trolls

The other night we were sitting around the dinner table, randomly discussing things the way we do when there is food on the table and no particular reason to be hurrying off, when one particular statement caught everyone's attention.  "It's a good thing we're at home and not on the web," we all thought.  "That could have been ugly."

Because there are things you should never say on the Internet.  Things that will inevitably bring hordes of rabid typists to your virtual front door with pitchforks, torches, and long angry diatribes punctuated by the rampant misuse of the caps-lock key.  Things that you should only say if you really, really want to kick the trolls and watch them swarm.

Things like …

1. You know, Bohemian Rhapsody really sucks.  I mean, what’s the deal with all those words?  TL:DNR.

2. Your an idiot!  Their is no hope for you!

3. Libertarianism?  What kind of morally bankrupt self-serving twaddle are you trying to push on me?

4. No, I never saw Firefly.  What is it – some kind of nature documentary?

5. But I hate cats!

6. Use the Force, Mr. Spock!

7. Of course the Civil War was about slavery.  Why else would the South commit treason on that scale?

8. Random apostrophes and quote mark’s make the language more “interesting.”

9. You don’t have the same attitude toward religion that I do, and therefore you must be stupid.

One of these statements was the one from our dinner - one that was said very much in jest.  Two others I have actually said online and meant.   Live dangerously, I suppose.

Off to make popcorn…

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Hanging Out in the 1500s, More or Less

So yesterday we went back in time, sort of.

It’s always fun to go to the Renaissance Faire, not least because the sheer level of exuberant anachronism is enough to fry eggs.  I notice these things, as a historian.  A lot of people go to RenFaires dressed in things that would have gotten them burned at the stake during the actual Renaissance, for one thing (although the ladies wearing the chain mail shirts have started to wear bikini tops under them, which while mildly disappointing on my end is probably less chafing for them).  And for another, even those who are trying to maintain some kind of authenticity can’t agree on an era or region so you end up with medieval ladies-in-waiting flirting with Elizabethan lords while 17th-century samurai look on.

We’ll just skip lightly over the increasing number of folks from Westeros for now.

Personally, I love stuff like this, even if it does feel odd after having gone to actual medieval and Renaissance-era castles last summer.  It’s feeding time at the human zoo and the critters are on parade – what more could you ask of a day?

We got there a bit later than we had originally planned, since it was a weekend and there just isn’t that much reason to jack out of bed too early on a Saturday if you’re not getting paid to do so.  This ended up inconveniencing us not one bit, so let that be a lesson there.  We did have to park in the tall grass and ended up taking some of it home with us in the car door, but that counts as a souvenir.

If you’ve never been to one of these things, you really should go some day.  They are full of spectacle.  They are incredibly practiced at separating you from your cash.  And after a summer spent at the County Fair and the State Fair, they are blessedly quiet.  There is no piped in music.  There are hardly any microphones at all, in fact, even during performances where you might actually appreciate them (though in the way-over-the-top style that is the norm with performances at RenFaires, you really don’t need to catch the dialogue to get the jokes anyway).

We paid our admission and went inside.

One of the first things we did was find a show about mud.  There were three gentlemen who spent the about a half hour dividing the audience into two parts, convincing each side that they were on the superior part, and then doing joyously gross things in a mud pit to prove it.  Trust me, it made sense at the time.  It was fine lowbrow comedy, and we enjoyed it.

Lauren even got into one of the shows.  We had stopped to eat lunch – there is a long midway full of places selling things that nobody in the 16th century would have recognized as food but which were, nevertheless, tasty – and after she finished hers she wandered off and found a stage.  By the time we caught up with her she was starring in a play.

This tendency needs to be watched.  And applauded.

There were camels.  Did you know that there were camels all across Europe during the Renaissance?  I didn’t either.  But apparently there were, because otherwise you couldn’t ride them at these Fairs, now, could you?  And ride them we did.

Also hats.

Lots of hats.  It was like Minnie Pearl had gone time traveling and died happy.

There were in fact a lot of places where you could spend your money, on everything from books to steampunk clothing to candles.  There was a place where they would make you a kilt.  There were several that would sell you swords of convincing heft and design, and a few that would sell you other swords made out of wood.  You could buy a didgeridoo, since those were also allegedly common in Renaissance Europe.

It took us a couple of tries but we did actually get to see the jousting, which was done with a mixture of acting and actual combat.  They really do charge at each other and hit each other with blunted lances, though the swordplay afterward was scripted and they all got up for a bow afterward.  Every quarter of the crowd was assigned a knight.  We got the Bad Guy, who spent his time mugging and snarking admirably.  He has a future in pro wrestling if this gig ever goes stale for him.

Tabitha even got a photograph with one of the knights – the second Heel, after our guy (the Faces were both down at the other end).  He was very nice about it.

It was a long day, but a good one.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Stories and Birthdays

One of the things about scanning old family photos is that it makes you that much more aware of the lives your family members led before you came along. 

This is a difficult thing for most people to grasp.  For most people the universe began sometime around the time they got to kindergarten, since that’s about as far back as they can remember.  But the world was here before then, and many of the people you know were too.

Ask them about it sometime.  You’d be amazed at the tales you might hear.

The girl standing on the right, without the bathing cap, was my grandmother.  She was sixteen years old in this photo, and messing around with her friends on the beach the way that people do at that age.  The way that I did at that age, not all that far from where this was taken.  We tended to go to Ocean City, just up the coast, rather than Cape May for our summer vacations when I was sixteen (and Sea Isle City when I was a kid), though for much of this century we returned to Cape May.  Cape May is what my daughters think of when they think of the ocean.  It’s a lovely place.

There are photos of her that are in better condition from that same trip, but this one I like for some reason.  Perhaps it is because she looks happy.

Today would have been her 108th birthday.

She came to live with us after her mother died, when I was eight, and she lived with us for almost twelve years after that.  She was a lot of fun, in a “don’t let the child-services people know” kind of way.  I learned how to swear from her, for example, and she had a vast supply of stories when she was in the mood to tell them.

These two things were not unrelated.

You had to catch her late at night for the best stories.  Fortunately this was not hard to do – she lived on a twelve-hour day for most of the last few years of her life, up from 12-6, asleep from 6-12, am or pm, more or less.  This coincided with my high school and early college years, so when I’d come rolling in around midnight the light would be on in her room and I sometimes found myself up there. 

She was once dragged half a block by a trolley, and the worst part of it for her was that it ruined her new pantsuit.

She, like me, was somewhat resistant to anesthesia.  It took more than the usual dose and more than the usual time for it to work, and once she had to explain this at the top of her lungs to a doctor who started a bit of minor surgery on her without taking this into account.

I learned what “flitch” meant from her.

Happy birthday, Grandmom.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Aliens at the Fair

Abraham Lincoln was known as a storyteller, something you could get away with in the politics of 19th-century America, back before social media made it a liability.  Almost every one of the personal reminiscences of people who knew him comment on this trait one way or another.  It was one of the things that made him who he was. 

One of this favorite stories was that of a man being run out of town on a rail.  “If it weren’t for the honor of the thing,” the man says at the end, “I’d just as soon walk.”

I thought about this story a lot yesterday, as we walked around the Wisconsin State Fair.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Wisconsin State Fair, it is pretty much what you would expect to happen when you take far too many residents of a state famous for beer consumption and concentrate them into a square-mile plot of land full of carnival rides, fried food, and livestock.

Feeding time at the human zoo, in other words.

But it was an honor to be going, because this was the State Fair debut of our 4H Drama production from May.  And in the end, a good time was had by all. 

Even me.  Go figure!

When we won the Drama Festival in May it came with an invitation to perform at the State Fair.  On the one hand, this is in fact a nice honor and very exciting for the kids.  They worked very hard to achieve this and it is good to see them recognized for it.  On the other hand, it meant corralling nearly two-dozen kids and their families – by definition rather high-involvement people and therefore folks with limited time to spare – into several pick-up rehearsals (because who remembers lines from three months earlier?) and then the State Fair itself.  And since the tech stuff that was integral to the play could not be transferred to the stage at the State Fair, it also meant a certain amount of both re-writing the play and rejiggering what tech could be done.

So Addison and Jamie rewrote the play to accommodate the bits we couldn’t do, and Tabitha and Kim downloaded sound cues onto the iPod to take care of the bits we could, and it was good.

We showed up to the Fair at about 8:15 on Sunday morning, which is apparently what you have to do if you want to get a parking spot anywhere near the actual Fairgrounds.  They had given us an Access Pass so we could drop off our props and costumes at the Youth Center – they would be transported by golf cart to the stage later – but this didn’t come with parking privileges, so we eventually found a nice spot in the lot near the north entrance to the Fairgrounds.

We made our way onto the grounds and immediately saw this:

Whether this was a typo, as I thought, or a sign that the sugar had been caffeinated, as Lauren suggested, we never found out.

We found the stage fairly quickly and set about getting ready.  We worked out the sound cues with the crew there, did a quick read-through of lines, and then got into costume.

The kids actually performed three times, but for the sake of simplicity I’m going to lump the photos together here. 

Once the morning performance was over we pretty much had the day to run about the Fair.  Our first show was about midmorning and the last two weren’t until late afternoon, which gave us about five hours to wander about the place.

Sweet dancing monkeys on a stick, but it was packed with both people and stuff.

If an alien (ha!  I kill me…) were beamed down into the Wisconsin State Fair and told to report back to her superiors as to what the culture was like, the first word in the report would probably be “hungry.”  Followed shortly after by “deep-fried.”  If it can be dipped in batter, wrapped in bacon, skewered onto a stick, and then deep-fried, you can find it at the Fair.  And you can find it fairly easily – by my guess the longest you could walk in a straight line without running into a place trying to sell you food was about ten yards, not counting the livestock barns or the midway.  There were some really great things for sale and some really awful ones, and we spent much of the day grazing our way through both.

By the way – State Fair Creampuffs?  Not as good as the ones here in Our Little Town.  This is considered heresy here in Wisconsin, but so be it.  I’ve done the experiment.  Science!  It works!

Eventually Grandma and Grandpa joined us, along with our nephew and niece.  This took some doing, since the arrived pretty much at exactly the wrong time, play-performance-wise, and for some reason our cell phones would not actually make calls on the Fairgrounds despite having a plethora of those little bar things that supposedly tell you that you can make calls.  But we got it worked out after a while, and they got to see the last of the performances.

The other memorable thing we did there was watch the horse pulling contests. 

This is more interesting than you would think.

Basically about half the population of the Fairgrounds gathers into a building right near our stage, where they sit in the bleachers and are repeatedly admonished to be silent by an announcer speaking over a loudspeaker, an announcer who is apparently impervious to irony.  The crowd takes this very seriously, however.  You get the distinct impression that any yahoo who decides to whoop and holler during the pull would be folded into a small box and mailed home by the slowest available option.  Once you watch the event you understand why – spooking the horses would very likely lead to either horses or handlers getting seriously hurt – but it is a strange thing to see unfold before you.

There is a refurbished truck in the middle of the ring with a set of ponderously heavy weights attached to it.  And the job of the horses is to lift those weights and pull that truck backwards as far as they can.  If they get the truck to the magic line of 27’6”, they are done until the next round.  Where this number came from I do not know.

So you sit there.  Eventually out comes a man who would be the biggest living thing you have ever seen except for the fact that he is driving two horses who could throw him over the railing without even noticing.  The man and the rest of his team maneuver the team to the back of the truck and hook them onto the tow rig (a complicated and dicey process, since the horses are so eager to be pulling that they often bolt), and then off they go.  And then the process repeats for another man and another team of horses.

You’d be surprised at how absorbing this is.

Eventually our day came to an end and we drove home and went straight to bed.

It was a good day.