Yeah, my body finally gave out last week. At first I couldn’t figure it out. And it was plenty annoying. But since I couldn’t really move or think, I began remembering how much I’d been doing. This last semester was one of my most productive ever.
I wrote a 50,000 word book about teaching English in China.
I kept a 100,000 word journal to record just how my lesson plans all worked together.
I prepared over thirty PowerPoint presentations. I recycled quite a bit, but that’s still a lot of ppt. And then I prepared ten more new ones for movie nights.
So if anybody wants to know anything about teaching Chinese kids, just ask. My materials are prepared!!
But it was also one of my most stressful semesters ever. Lots of little things added up. And some stuff that’s not been appropriate for letters like this one. With all that going on, I guess I was lucky to have time to play music at church on occasion.
I didn’t notice the effects of that stress when I first got back because I had some house guests and some short trips to Pleasanton to distract me. But last week, everybody was gone, no need to be or go anywhere, it was safe to fall apart, so my body said, “Ok, I’m outta here.”
Well, I guess I needed that.
Meanwhile, I’m still enjoying my new camera so much. And I’ve got lots of pictures from this year’s county fair.
A portrait of the county fair at dusk!! Before there was Disneyland, there were county fairs. And county fairs survive amidst the onslaught of “professional entertainment” and audioanimatronics designed to make normal people feel like inadequate performers.
The county fair is real entertainment. It’s organic And I still remember the days when the county fair headliner was “Professor Backwards,” a guy whose entire act consisted of the audience lobbing words at him and him spelling them backwards. You can bet he was well prepared for antidisestablishmentarianism and supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
Anyway, this year I went twice!! Even more pictures than usual !!! And I hope that my Asian friends find them interesting. You’re not likely to experience things quite like this in Tianjin.
First of all, the County Fair features the least healthy, but oh so good tasting, food on the planet. Or on a stick. Yeah, that’s it. Food on a stick. Portability is essential. Walk and eat.
At the fair, you almost any food can come on a stick. Even Chinese food.
The prototype is the corn dog — a hot dog wrapped in corn flour, jammed on a stick and then deep fried. I ate mine before I could snap a picture, though.
But, then, almost as classic: The curly fries – a perforated brick of tangled potato strips wriggling and screaming en masse as they drop into the deep fryer. I’ve never seen them anywhere but the fair, thank goodness. Each year I give in to one standard helping, recorded for posterity by a snapshot.
Next up are the funnel cakes, kind of like flat gridirons of wheat dough — deep fried, like everything else, of course — smothered in powdered sugar, whipped cream, and processed fruit in syrup, guaranteed to run faster than melted ice cream.
The guy asked if I wanted one fork or two. I wanted one. But I should have taken two paper plates. An unnoticed flow of syrup, star-spangled in powdered sugar, projected itself over a fold in the plate and onto my new camera. The camera is waterproof. But a week later, I’m still removing spots of stickiness with rubbing alcohol.
Anyway, it’s the ultimate in decadence and empty calories, making fast-food hamburger joints look like Chez Panisse in comparison. I did draw the line, however, at deep-fried candy bars, not to mention the deep fried twinkie. And no, I’m not just making this up.
Yeah, where else but at the county fair are you ever going to get chicken teriyaki nachos?
Fairs are all about competition. Anything that competes (that’s legal) takes place at the fair somewhere. Weirdest pigeon? Check. Cutest rabbit? Check. Sturdiest steer? Double check. Best collection of snail memorabilia? Double check, with extra points for the giant plaster snail from an extermination company.
But, as fairs have roots in agriculture, the animal competitions take pride of place. And it’s the competitions between youngsters, members of 4-H, that draw the crowds, especially the parents, grandparents, and family friends.
4-H, by the way, is a kids club administered in America by the federal government, though it’s also spread worldwide. Events take place after school hours, and during the summer in camps. The H’s are: Head, Heart, Hands, and Health. According to Wikipedia, about a seventh of all American adults once took part in 4-H
At the fair, vast tracts of covered pens house hundreds of animals. If you’ve ever wanted to pet a sheep, a goat, a pig, or a cow, this is your opportunity. Most of them looked pretty bored otherwise.
Each animal would eventually get their moment of excitement, however– entering the judging ring with the kid who raised it.
We were on the lookout for steers. An acquaintance was showing hers that day, and we actually found them!! The picture shows them engaged in a pre-judging heart to heart discussion.
A steer, by the way, is a male cow who will never get to be a bull. The steers we saw that day were about a year old, maybe less. Most would never get to be full grown.
Actually, it was just a practice session for the real event to come. The judge did examine the steers, but mainly examined the handling. He was full of suggestions to help the youngsters show their animals to best advantage. I never realized how interesting the proper sizing and snout placement of a halter can be, nor its effect on an animal’s spirit.
Anyway, that’s the judge in the authentic cowboy hat, authentic jeans, and, well, the purple shirt. Didn’t they use to wear flannel? And where was the bolo tie?
And on the opposite side, a small crowd gathered to stare in rapt attention to applaud every bovine movement. Perhaps they’re deciding whether to bid on that animal at the big sale on the fair’s last day, and if so, whether they have freezer space for it.
Build it and they will judge
The fair’s web site proclaims “If you can make it, take it, grow it, or show it, you can enter it!” And it’s so true. And even Santa Claus, apparently, will come and admire it.
So many contests!! Everything from landscaping to flower arranging, to sock-monkey construction, to dinner place settings. Here’s a sampling.
At 156 years, the oldest mile-long horse track in the country belongs now to our fair. And six years ago, I even bought the souvenir plastic lemonade cup that proves it.
Are the palm trees also 156 years old? Nobody seemed to know.
We watched three races, and bet on one horse, not because we figured it would win, but from loyalty, since the jockey was Swedish. It was my most Scandinavian moment since last year’s ping pong competition in Tianjin, with a Swede on the home town team!
Anyway, that’s her on the white horse, being escorted to the starting gate. All the racers had escorts. It seems like a civilized custom.
She didn’t win. We lost two dollars. But it didn’t matter. She was Scandinavian. She was cool.
The day’s racing was sponsored by some Arabian horse stables. And a few faux-Arabian riders showed up to underscore the point. The men pointed to the sky and sped by so quickly that I didn’t get a picture, but the more stately women maintained a more measured pace. With horse and rider coordinated in costume, they seemed larger than life.
Last year’s souvenir calendar featured a picture of pig races, which I think mystified some of my friends in China, and maybe a few here, as well. Here’s the picture:
So this year I stood just about where that guy in the black shirt and camera was standing before, and took a short video of a race, which I uploaded to YouTube.
Those wishing to be demystified can look here for clarification: http://youtu.be/0Q96R3iADNM
Or just click on the embedded player:
Okay, not everything at the fair is a competition. There are plenty of free shows, musicians and dancers who come to the fair just to win an audience. This enthusiastic and patriotic group performed Appalachian Clog dances, which are like a cross between country line dancing and Celtic step dancing. The audience was captivated!
And here is the Festival Stage, the oldest, most classic stage at the fair. Probably half the kids in the county have performed on that stage at some time — everything from community bands to championship pizza throwing, dance studios, garage bands, skits, magicians, and more. They’ve all been there and done that.
The old uncomfortable rows of green wooden benches given way to picnic tables. And check it out. There’s even a mirror over the performers if you want a closer look at their hats.
That day I caught the Rock Bottom Boys, a perennial audience favorite.
And finally, where but in a county fair can you watch a guy, dressed as a penguin, climb about 25 meters off the ground, leap into the air within sight of the afternoon moon, and then jump-rope his way down to a three-meter-deep pool?
Yeah, I don’t know either.
Maybe the oldest continuing show at the fair is the model railroad exhibit, which the Alameda County Central Railroad Society has slowly constructed in the same room every weekend over the past 55 years. Two sizes of railroad are featured — O and HO.
I remember watching these trains as a kid. They plunge into tunnels but you never know which tunnel they’ll come out of. It was all very mysterious. Nowadays, video monitors that check for derailed trains in the caves have removed some of the mystery. But it’s still fabulous to watch.
The photo shows the overall layout — O scale on the left, and HO on the right. But you only really appreciate it when it moves, so I posted some video to YouTube again at http://youtu.be/u9_NcMEBdEc
Or click on this embedded video:
The tackiness of county fair food is matched only by the truly tasteless souvenirs available for sale. As someone who’s made a part-time career of collecting tacky postcards, believe me, I know tackiness. Or is it tackitude? tacknicity? Come to think of it, maybe I should enter my postcards in the fair next year.
Yeah, I can’t figure out why tacky kitchen utensils don’t come on a stick like all the other food items. And salesmen of tacky kitchen utensils represent an even longer tradition than the race track. As a child, I thrilled to presentations that sliced, diced, and blended every conceivable combination of fruit, vegetables, and spare ribs, rendering them somehow healthier in the process. When the summer fairs have ended, they migrate to late-night television for the winter.
The classic day’s end at the fair is the carnival midway. I don’t really take the rides much anymore, but it’s still nice to take in the atmosphere.
Like the model trains and the pig races, it’s movement that makes all the difference, so I again resorted to YouTube at: http://youtu.be/_tuGcxUJbI0
Or, click on the embedded version:
Games of skill complement the rides. As a boy I spent way more money than I should have to win a small horse figurine, which is probably still stabled in a drawer around here somewhere. It’s hard to throw things away when they cost you so much money.
When I taught sixth grade, we once took a “field trip” to “Great America,” which offered the same games of skill. One of the parent chaperones played all afternoon just to win a three-foot-tall stuffed vulture, which she awarded to me as thanks for being so patient with her daughter all year. It emerged from storage every year after that on “Stuffed Animal Day.” When I retired it went on to a brief career as a middle-school bathroom pass.
Come to think of it, that vulture also appeared in a recent calendar.
Well, I hope everyone enjoyed the pictures as much as I enjoyed taking them. This message has now exceeded 2000 words, much longer than it ever needed to be, probably. And I hope the many pictures haven’t exceeded your bandwidth. Here’s a parting shot of the midway. I hope that those of you on summer vacation get a chance to drop me a line sometime. Even if it’s 2000 words, I’ll still read it! Even if it’s 20 words, I’ll still read it.