(Personal Update 4/27/08: I didn't go to the burlesque show last night, but today I'm feeling more stable and secure than I've felt in a month. Given my sense of emotional security and the usual tedium of my life, I'm going to write about a day last summer. I tend to be much more interested in writing about my experiences months or, better yet, years after I've had them. There must be a word for that phenomenon. "Nostalgia." That's it.)
Last summer my mom and I went to Iowa for a weekend. My motivation was the Iowa State Fair, long a pastoral fascination of mine, along with the state itself. We stayed at the Dunn family farm (Mom's side) in central Iowa, where my grandparents used to live and for which one of my uncles is now the caretaker. It was an hour drive to Des Moines late Saturday morning. Mom would drop me off at the fair and go visit some relatives in town.
It was a scorcher and the sun was in full effect, therefore it was a deadbolt lock that Mom would insist I thoroughly cover my exposed skin with sunblock. I sullenly obliged, in that adolescent way of knowing your parents are right but detesting the humiliation of having to admit it. The fact that I was on the cusp of 30 didn't help. But let me set the scene so you'll have a full appreciation of my state of mind: There I was, a 29-year-old girlfriend-less man-child with a soul-deadening data-entry job and no car, sitting in my mom's car in a gas station parking lot in Des Moines, IA, applying sunblock while she supervised, with such nuggets as "Did you get your neck?" and "How about your legs?" And it was about 90 degrees out.
After extricating myself from that Sartrean hell, I walked between the fenced-in, packed-to-the-gills parking lots to the gate and purchased my admission. The people-watching is usually the highlight of any fair, and this day was to be no exception. Unfortunately, this had more to do with the uninspiring entertainments than the fairgoers. It was a predictable mix of strollers and nuclear families with stereotypical Middle American bellies and straining t-shirts. (It can't be healthy when a culture develops stereotypes about itself.)
I wandered through the masses with no destination in mind. Pretty soon I found myself alone at the edge of the fairgrounds. It was smaller than I remembered, which was disappointing, but I turned around and went into the art building, the one place I went every time (about 5 times) I made it to the Iowa State Fair. There were some good watercolors and charcoal sketches made by Iowans young and old, although it wasn't enough to revive my old "fair joy."
The next stop was a first for me. It was an old house that served as the fair's museum, displaying the history of the event. There were yellowed newspaper clippings, artifacts and videos with black-and-white archival footage, just the kind of things that would normally make my heart all aflutter, but I just wasn't feelin' it. One exhibit that caught my eye was a contest they used to have to determine Iowa's healthiest baby. They probably stopped that when they noticed its similarity to the cattle- and zucchini-judging.
According to Iowa State Fair: Country Comes to Town by Thomas Leslie, "Human specimens were judged alongside their animal brethren throughout the 1930s, with prizes given for healthiest babies, boys, and girls. These contests' uncomfortable echo of eugenics led to their immediate cessation after World War II." So it was the Nazis! That's interesting, as I would encounter their legacy later in the day. By the way, that excerpt accompanies a photo of an extremely "healthy" (read: not too plump, not too skinny, but not that cute) teenage girl in a one-piece swimsuit being "inspected" by a middle-aged (male, obviously) doctor wearing one of those old-timey doctor headbands with the reflective metal disc. She's smiling, though, so we know she wasn't being exploited. She's also wearing a nice watch.
From the museum I headed to a barn filled with old-fashioned technology. A crowd watched the blacksmith work in quiet admiration, seemingly amazed by his mastery of a nearly-dead skill. There was an awkward silence around the smithy, as if they wanted to ask questions but were afraid of exposing their ignorance. Exhibits of old washing machines and other household appliances stood rusting behind ropes, with no identification of their purpose or age. Maybe the exhibits were for people who already knew about that stuff or for elders to explain them to their children or grandchildren. Didn't do me much good though.
In another barn was a stage and folding chairs half filled with spectators. The entertainment was provided by guitars and singers, but I can't remember the style. Maybe bluegrass. Along the right wall towered the tallest cornstalks in Iowa. Red, white or blue ribbons marked the winning entries. Vintage iron and wooden toys lined display counters. A concession stand was selling lemonade. It seemed like the old folks and the families with young children were trying to recapture their know-your-neighbors, homemade, folk-music past, if only for an afternoon. Or maybe that was just me.
The third barn held many delights, both cute and creepy. There were children's books, toys, board games (including "Love Boat: The Game"), flea-market memorabilia (Elvis and the Beatles had their own sections side-by-side) and recreations of WW1 and WW2 tents with rifles, helmets and comic books of the eras. I examined a 1953 Allie Reynolds baseball card with amused awe. The year Reynolds, a New York Yankee, won the Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in the American League, my dad was a Red Sox-loving, Yankee-hating kid from blue-collar Norwich, Connecticut visiting New York City with his dad for a Red Sox-Yankees game. They stopped by a hotel where the teams were staying and saw Reynolds. My grandfather asked my dad if he wanted the pitcher's autograph. My dad refused, because Reynolds was a Yankee, thereby thoroughly aggravating my well-intentioned grandfather.
I related this story to the vendor. He didn't seem too moved, so I moved on. The card was $60 anyway, out of my sentimental value price range. What I found next was somewhat disturbing. Arrayed across a large table were Nazi medals and armbands, a rare photo of Hitler bestowing a medal on a soldier and other Nazi mementoes for all your white-supremacist occasions. I know skinheads aren't the only ones interested in this stuff, but who in their right mind wants a souvenir of what might've been the most malevolent regime in world history? Why would you want a token of pure evil in your house? I just don't get it.
After I was done with the three barns I'd pretty much exhausted the intriguing possibilities of the fair. The video game tent was a dead end since I've had little practice on the recent generations of platforms. Even the sports titles I used to enjoy have evolved beyond my skill level, leaving me at the mercy of the teens and pre-teens who ruled the tent. The animal barns were monotonous, just rows and rows of animals standing in hay soaked with their own urine. The cow sculpted in butter was no big whoop, even with the mantequilla menagerie of Harry Potter and other current pop culture icons. As the afternoon wound down, I escaped the life-draining heat in an air-conditioned hall of living infomercials. There were whirlpools, never-dull knives and many more antidotes to modern life.
With the clock approaching five, I made my way toward the main entrance for the appointed rendezvous with Mom. En route I encountered the Iowa National Guard's collection of humvees and tanks, mixed in with the tractors and combines. Kids eagerly climbed inside the vehicles, captivated by these adult-sized toys. Throwing red paint on the war machines didn't even occur to me, which is surprising given my far left-wing politics. I was probably in the early stages of sun stroke.
After exiting through the understated main gate, I stood at the intersection and awaited the day's final indignity. The sun beat down on me for an hour as I watched my car-less compatriots get picked up or dropped off. When Mom finally showed up, she was anxiously apologetic. We had agreed to meet at "the main gate," but, for whatever reason, she assumed we'd reconnoiter at the gas station where she dropped me off. I bore some responsibility for the delay, because I'd let my cell phone battery die before she called me from the station.
I wearily waved off her apologies and asked to go "home," i.e. the farm. Despite my reddening sunburn and justifiably sour mood, she insisted on showing me a local marvel she'd just seen that day: a stone map of the U.S. laid out by the state capitol, in which each state was represented by a different-colored rock. I glanced out the window, acknowledged its existence and telepathically demanded we leave Des Moines immediately. She finally acquiesced and we began our journey home, although not until after a very long train forced us to make a detour on our way out of town.
We stopped at a nameless family restaurant in Ames for dinner. As I dismally tucked into a bland, Perkins-esque breakfast-for-dinner, the kind of meal that delighted me as a kid, Mom held up her end of a lopsided conversation. I sulked quietly, believing that virtually any other companion would've made the day salvageable. It was as if nothing had changed since I turned 13. I was still keeping silent guard over a king's ransom of resentment, and she was still trying to make polite conversation rather than acknowledge the 16-year-old wall between us. I should've known my ability to enjoy life wouldn't return until I grew out of this extended adolescence. But that knowledge still had a ways to go on the long journey from my head to my heart.