Fifteen years ago, my work team decided that a summer outing was in order. After brainstorming a few ideas, our supervisor declared that we would all spend a day at the State Fair. I had never been to the state fair, so I happily agreed with the plan. (Not that I had much choice.) While I never actually voted to go to the fair, I was fine to visit it; after all, I’m usually willing to try a new experience.
My colleagues and I were instructed to arrive at the fairground at 8 am sharp. As soon as we passed through the main gates, we were handed a massive list of various inane tasks to complete (things like “Take your picture with three strangers,” and “Determine who can stuff the most mini donuts into their mouth,” etc. etc. etc.). We were required to complete our list amid massive crowds of people, surrounded by thoroughly oppressive smells (clue: frying oil + animal manure = Stef nausea), under quickly-intensifying summer sun and heat, and were allowed to rest only for lunch (which was a disgusting pulled pork/coleslaw/French fry ‘picnic’). At the end of the day I was sunburned, frustrated, angry, and hungry (I was so repulsed by the smells and total scene that I didn’t eat anything on the premise). In short, I did not have fun at the fair.
Five years after that day of fair perdition, a different work group suggested a summer outing – and again, the collective group decided a day at the state fair would be swell. (What the heck is it with these people and their damn fair?) I bit my tongue, forced a tight smile on my face, and as I told my peers that a day at the fair would certainly be something, I told myself that perhaps my first fair encounter was a fluke. Maybe this new work group would opt for a more leisurely, self-directed fair experience; perhaps the fair could be enjoyable (or at least tolerable).
While my second trip to the fair was slightly better than my first visit, the day was still not a pleasurable one for me. Again the crush of humanity, repugnant smells, nasty food, and summer heat left me feeling depleted, depressed, despondent, and dispirited. At that moment, I vowed that I would not return to the state fair. Not for family, for friends, or for the firm. I had given the fair two chances, and was burned each time (physically, emotionally, and psychologically). As a wise person once said, “Hurt me once, shame on you; hurt me twice, shame on me.” The state fair had abused me twice now; so the state fair and I were through.
Fast forward ten years. A month ago my current work team (whom I genuinely adore) started kicking around the idea of a day of team building away from the office; a chance for us all to spend some time together as people versus professionals. I nodded my head in agreement in the early stages of the conversation – until someone mentioned the word “fair”. As in, State Fair. I quickly chimed in about how I loathe the state fair – and was met with a glance and nod of acknowledgement. The conversation then moved to other topics. I felt heard – and relieved. I had dodged the state fair bullet.
Ha. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post. The very next day, my work group made plans for us all to take an afternoon away from the office so that we could experience the state fair together. As soon as the meeting hit my online calendar I balked, and re-iterated how much I genuinely loathe the state fair. A few of my colleagues lightly chided me (which I took in stride – gentle teasing is how we all show affection for one another [kind of like close siblings]), but then one chimed in with a different approach. She said, “Let’s play a game: Who Can Get Stef To Like The State Fair?”
In that moment, everything shifted. The state fair no longer became the devil’s playground, but instead transformed into a challenge. Could this clan of business colleagues create such a compelling case to cause me to countermand my current convictions about the calamitous carnival known as the state fair? Given how crafty and convincing these folks can be, I became genuinely curious….
Minutes later, I hung a large 2′ x 3′ piece of paper outside of my office, and invited people to write their most compelling reasons for why *I* should embrace the state fair. (I.e., knowing that I am an introverted vegan, suggestions like “eating cheese curds” and “talking with TV personalities” were not going to woo me.) Over the next two weeks, my team embraced the challenge fully – and by the day before the state fair, these enthusiastic individuals had generated a massive list!
Look at all of these suggestions! I gave 1 point to every idea I liked. (If you want to read the details, click on the image to make it larger.)
With my team so committed to me genuinely enjoying the state fair, I decided to go all in on this task and give the fair one more shot – with all of the gusto I could muster. I took my colleague’s list and documented all of the ideas that looked intriguing, interesting, and/or inspired. I researched the fair ahead of time and wrote down all of the “must try” vegan foods from a local blogger (whose website was located for me by one of my non-vegan colleagues!). I put on running shoes and stretchy pants, and threw schedules and caution to the wind. I was going to do/eat/experience whatever looked interesting when I arrived onsite, no matter how silly, crazy, or bizarre it seemed. I was going to do the fair like a native. Bring it.
Now of course, not every variable is within my control. Certainly Ma Nature could easily throw a wrench into the works. Fortunately, she was a kind woman on Fair Day:
Perfection. Thanks Ma.
Bus service to the fair started at 8 am. (Which is actually quite a deal: For $5, riders get direct transport to and from the fair, with buses leaving every 15 minutes. This option saved me $5 in parking expense, eliminated headaches associated with driving in rush-hour traffic, and helped the environment as well. Win-win-win.) I arrived at the passenger pick-up area at 8:10 am; as I walked to the specific State Fair stop, I wondered if many other people would be present at this relatively early hour. When I turned the corner, I saw this:
Clearly I was not alone. People here love the fair…
My stomach immediately (and reflexively) tightened. The crowds are starting already! Oh no!! However, I immediately caught myself, and forced a deep breath. “You’re fine, Stef,” I cooed internally. “Just relax.”
After four minutes of waiting, the next scheduled bus pulled up and opened its doors. I handed over my fare, climbed up the vehicle’s steps, and found a seat next to a nice woman. As the bus crossed the city the lady and I made pleasant but limited small talk, and about 20 minutes later the bus doors opened once more, and I found myself outside the fairground’s main gate.
My work colleagues had encouraged me to purchase my admission ticket in advance – and once I arrived onsite, I was grateful for their suggestion:
Buying a ticket in advance was *such* a smart idea – no waiting in this line for me! Thanks for the tip, team!
After handing my pre-purchased ticket to the gentleman at the gate, I crossed the threshold and saw the ‘official’ State Fair entrance:
This archway looks so innocent and calm. It gave me hope for the day ahead.
As I walked under the archway, I was at a loss for where to begin. Fortunately, immediately to my left I saw a place where I could get some assistance:
Information? Yes, please.
The pleasant woman staffing the information station handed me a map of the fair grounds. I tried to make some sense of the environment, but as I walked the streets while also trying to reference my place on the paper, I got disoriented. I decided to stuff the map in my purse, and just start exploring.
The very first things I experienced were:
- Food booths of every kind (giant pickles, tiny cookies, fried everything, and lots of food on a stick…)
- Multiple radio stations broadcasting live
- People eating ice cream and drinking beer (at 9 am).
I felt like I was in a very polite and family-friendly version of Las Vegas. Apparently, anything goes at the State Fair (as well as in Sin City)…
After about 20 minutes of walking around the site, I felt like I had a semi-’reasonable’ handle on my bearings. At this point I started to get a little hungry (I had eaten breakfast three hours earlier), so I figured, “When in Rome…” – and at 9:30 am, I consumed my first fair food item:
I’m not gonna lie – it was DELICIOUS.
This corn was hot, juicy, slightly salty and slightly sweet – and I found myself smiling as I ate bite after juicy bite.
Already my fair experience was trending in a different direction from years past. I felt increasingly hopeful about the day ahead…
After I finished my corn (and disposed of the remnants appropriately)
I made my way to one end of the fairgrounds. As I walked, I passed by several scenes that reminded me of local county fairs I attended as a child:
This was one of my favorite rides. I adore the feeling of flying.
I like anything that can provide a unique perspective.
Love the view. Perhaps I was a bird in a past life?
Watching old men lovingly care for their tractors made me smile. I have a big spot in my heart for old, hard-working, gruff-on-the-outside-but-tender-on-the-inside “everyday” folk.
The building at the edge of the fairground focused on pets. As I walked into the space, I saw what looked to be like a pop-up surgical room off to one side:
Looks like a doctor is scrubbing in… A new fair feature?
Indeed, it really was an operating theater. The man in the green scrubs was a vet who was about to neuter a dog – for all of us to watch.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about this. The scene felt both informative and exploitive. Since I felt conflicted, I decided to stay for the first little bit of the procedure and see if/how things shifted within me as the surgery went along.
Before the surgery, a second vet (who was going to explain the various surgical steps as they occurred in front of us) gave us lots of medical and behavioral benefits to spaying and neutering pets. We also learned that the dog being neutered in the surgery we were about to witness was available for adoption by the Humane Society. Aww…. I felt a lot better about the ‘exhibition’ after this introductory presentation; my sentiments definitely shifted more towards “informative” and away from “exploitive”.
I sat down on one of the observation seats, fully prepared to watch the surgery. As we waited for the vet to bring in the pup who was about to be neutered, I saw a video monitor that was showing the surgical steps from a previous operation. When the vet in the video lifted the dog’s testicles and moved a scalpel towards the animal’s skin, I reflexively jumped out of my chair and walked away. I think I can pass on this experience, thanks anyway.
I continued to walk around the Pet Barn, and had a chance to interact with a variety of local purebreds who had recently won various awards; all of them were absolutely awesome:
After walking through the Pet Barn, I made my way outside to a nearby ring where trainers were showcasing their very skilled animals. These dogs were light-years past the basic “sit/stay/come” commands; below is just one example of the incredibly impressive level of performance the animals mastered:
While many of the animals at the fair were highly skilled, some people on site were less so. One example was the Giant Sing Along:
The playlist. A nice mix of tunes.
The big ol’ field of microphones, with a huge karaoke-type monitor up front. Each one of these mics was ‘live’; unfortunately, the people who stood behind them were less so.
I really like the concept of a Giant Sing Along; but the citizen involvement in the interactive space left quite a bit to be desired. However, I imagine the experience would be better later in the day, when more people are present and singing.
After spending a few minutes taking in the sing-along site, I continued my walk amid the fair grounds, where I encountered my second food item:
Fried green tomatoes.
The only time I ever had these babies was in Atlanta, GA – and those green tomatoes were delicious! So I was really excited to see a vendor providing a sizable serving of this tasty (vegan!) food.
Unfortunately, the fried green tomatoes I experienced here were a poor substitute for the gems I had down south. I still ate every last one that was in my paper basket, but it just wasn’t the same… :)
As I licked the grease off my fingers and continued my site exploration, I walked past this building:
Oh, the irony.
I went inside, but did not get my weight, blood pressure, or cholesterol levels assessed. Instead, I strolled past a variety of booths – and paused at this scene:
As soon as I saw these kids pumping on Rescue Annie, the memory of my own CPR experience immediately surfaced in my brain – and without even realizing it, I started humming the tune “Stayin’ Alive”. I guess the training I completed two years ago really worked!
Leaving the health building, I continued my transition from animals to people, and walked through a space designed to support older adults (and their care givers):
Clever seating for this venue.
Interesting how the messages we share with the elderly are strikingly similar to the messages we try and impart in the young. Circle of life, I guess….
I then poked my head into the 4H building
but I didn’t stay there long. The space was (understandably) overrun with hyper pre-teen adolescents, and I just wasn’t in the mood to try to navigate among them or contend with them. So I continued on my journey – and quickly found a building that was more in line with my preferences:
Hooray for learning!
This building was one of the larger ones at the fair, and was set up as part creative exhibit, part vendor expo. I casually strolled through the creative section
All of these pieces were created by students in grades K-12 – and the vast majority were incredibly impressive. (Certainly far better than anything I have ever made!)
These are remote-controlled robots that will engage in “Battle Bot” style competitions. Cool.
and navigated through the vendor portion at a more brisk pace.
I promised one of my colleagues I would stop at the ‘gavel hat’ booth. M, this is for you!
I had never heard of an “Optimist Club” before. I love the concept!
(The Optimist Creed.)
Support local theater.
The exit from the Education Building flowed seamlessly into the entrance for the Creative Activities Building:
I didn’t do the walking tour. I really wanted to, but ran out of time. Maybe in a future visit?
As the sign states, this building was full of assorted entries from a wide variety of crafts:
We have quilting, woodworking, toy making…
…doll making, wood carving, painting, and musical instrument creation. And this was just the tip of the ice burg.
At this point in the day my work team arrived on site, and we all found some foods we could enjoy. It was 1 pm, and I was ready for some substantial food – so I dug into this bad boy:
Island noodle and veggie stir fry. A sizable portion that I polished off with no problem; it was SUPER tasty!
After enjoying our lunches, my colleagues and I visited the Agriculture Building (a must-see for any respectable Midwestern fair). While I was expecting to see the infamous crop art
I’ll admit that I was surprised by how classy the main atrium was.
This honestly reminds me of the Bellagio hotel. (A little bit, anyway.)
Of course, there were some surprises if one took a bit of time to look a little more closely at some of the details:
As my peers and I continued walking through the space, we entered the land of fruit and veg – a vegan delight! ;)
I enjoy a quality local apple…
…but I enjoy an apple cider popsicle even more! This frozen treat was super refreshing; I could have eaten these all day long. (Makes me think that I should make some on my own…)
Turning the corner from the apple stand, my work team maneuvered through the heart of the Ag Building: the ribbon-worthy crops.
Just before leaving the space, we got educated on the dominant local crops:
Corn is fun!
Apparently soybeans are boring. (They don’t even get their own kind displayed beneath their sign! Poor soybeans. So misunderstood…)
As we left the Agriculture Building, we just happened to run across the daily fair parade – what great timing!
(The parade was a lot larger than what these quick images reflect; if you want to see a [poor-quality] video of this year’s actual parade, check out this link.)
At this point in the day, it was time to head over to the Food Building (yes, there is a structure at the fair solely dedicated to food) and consume more fair goodies. This was when my team dug into a bucket of cheese curds; I opted for falafel with tahini.
My first food-on-a-stick! I shared this item with some of my colleagues, and they all agreed it was surprisingly tasty. (Well, THEY were surprised; I knew it would be awesome all along.) ;)
From here, I made my way to the other side of the fair grounds to explore the “Animal Agriculture” area of the space. I’ll admit that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to enter this area; I suspected I wouldn’t feel very good seeing all of the animals treated like commodities instead of like living beings. But I decided that even if I didn’t ‘want’ to visit the space, I probably needed to – so I did.
I love the irony of a stroller parking lot located immediately outside this animal barn.
As I walked around the “birth center”, I saw lots of children (and their parents) cooing at the various animal babies (some who had been born that very morning). It gave me hope that maybe the next time these people were in the grocery store buying eggs, they might think about the baby chick whose life was ended so that humans could eat an omelet.
Or that they might appreciate how the steak they were eyeing used to be a caring mama.
That maybe, people might begin to see animals as living beings that can experience love, joy, pain, and loneliness – just like we humans can.
As the afternoon winded down, I left the animal barn (bye babies) and entered one more exhibit building:
Department of Natural Resources: Providing information on birds, fish, and Smokey the Bear! :)
I will admit that at this point in the day, I was starting to get tired. I half-heartedly walked past outdoor fish ponds and indoor aquariums, skimmed over information about hawks and loons, and was about to call it quits when I saw this disgusting-yet-interesting display:
Take a minute and read the placard. Ew.
A sign on this side of the cart read, “For your own safety, DO NOT TOUCH” – but they didn’t say what would happen if a person came in direct contact with these zebra mussels. Anyone know the answer?
At this point in my state fair adventure, I was quite proud of myself for having given the event a very solid effort. I was about to leave the site when I remembered one ride that everyone said I needed to go on: the Giant Slide.
One of my colleagues told me a story about a woman he knows who visits the fair every year just to stand in front of the Giant Slide and watch the riders come down. She described it as “witnessing moments of pure joy.”
For $2.50, each rider selects a burlap rug, climbs a series of steps to the top of the slide, sits down on their piece of fabric, and enjoys a 15-second ride down the very slick, smooth, and surprisingly speedy slide. A rider can certainly go alone; but just as many people ride as a couple, a parent-child pair, or as a grandparent-grandchild duo.
Before I paid my money and made my way to the top of the ride, I spent a few minutes simply watching the scene. My colleague’s friend was spot on: watching people be so happy with such a simple experience absolutely filled my heart with joy. Observing the scene was almost like watching a moving meditation.
Yup, this is me.
After returning my burlap sack to the appropriate bin, I began walking toward the fairground exit. As I neared the main gate, I saw this:
I wouldn’t go THAT far; but the State Fair is no longer “My Personal Hell,” either.
I approached the bus headed for home just before it pulled away from the station. A lovely ending to an all-around good day.
During the ride home, I reflected on my state fair experience. Having no schedule and no agenda was a lot of fun, and felt very freeing. There were quite a few things I didn’t get to experience at the fair that I kind of wanted to, including:
- Completing the walking tour.
- Checking out the Eco Experience.
- Watching demonstrations at the X-Zone.
- Attending an amateur talent show.
- Riding the giant swing.
- Being flung into the sky via the big bungee spring.
- Tasting the Chickpea Roti, vegan scone, and fresh fruit and veg at the Produce Exchange.
But I also know that if I had stayed on site any longer, my newly-cultivated mostly-positive feelings towards the fair would have eroded rapidly. So I guess it’s good that I have a list of things I am still interested in exploring. I don’t know that I need to revisit the state fair any time soon – but should I find myself there again (at the behest of a friend, family member, or professional colleague), I can embrace the invitation instead of resist it. Talk about a transformation!