Meta-Judging at the County Fair

Once the boys’ wristbands were secured in a euvoluntary exchange at the ticket booth, I sat myself down in a sunny corner of the midway to do what I love most about going to the fair: judging.

The rabbits are particularly handsome this year, probably because of cooler weather. Lambs, goats, roosters, the same, but not the hens: they leave something to be desired. The pigs have a disease; the only ones here are to be auctioned off, and they cannot return to the farm. In the 4-H expo hall, someone has a strawberry-rhubarb jam that is out-of-this world. The County Fair is beautiful this way: so many blue ribbons heralding the arrival of the judging.

Judging isn’t easy; with each variety there are myriad criteria to good judging: tattoos, their placement, number, and artistic value; piercings, placement, number, and value; weight and muscle tone; t-shirt, advice and advertisement; children, harnessed, free, sugar-crazed, polite, excited, crying, laughing, bewildered, carried; facial expression, pleasant, unpleasant; teeth (one lovely Seneca Nation young lady was missing an incisor); skin color (the most magnificent African American man sauntered by, skin as black as India ink, tall, fat, the spitting image of Charles Mingus wearing whiskers in the style of a 17th Century Dutch pirate); hair, dyed, braided, combed, cut, dreadlocks, shaven, mohawk; clothing, tight, too tight, way too tight, loose-fitting, comfortable, too loose, whoa that’s awesome; comportment.


Now, comportment is a kind of sum-of-the-parts judgment, how a specimen might carry himself or herself. Audacious tattoos on the belly? Well, does she have the panache to pull it off while she licks cotton candy off her fingers, one-by-one? Lobes stretched? Indeed, but does his baby boy like to play with them while he argues with the carney about the circumference of the basketball rim?

As you can see, judging at the County Fair is not for the inexperienced or kind-hearted. We judge from experience, knowing that the deviation from appearance to lifestyle is minimal, almost background noise. Nevertheless, a good judge simplifies: I wonder if that person is happy? And, would I be happy as that person? The County Fair brings all kinds out into a common biosphere, surrounded by a fence and the bubble of the heavens. Here we all are. Are we eudaimoniac? I found myself envious of about a quarter of the specimens presenting themselves, and probably less happy than another quarter. That makes me as happy or happier than about half of the other specimens. Not a blue ribbon, but a respectable showing.

I was tired from judging after a while, and it is good for a judge, in order to recreate, to find the biggest, bestest, best-cooked bratwurst to be found east of Chicago, with a little hot mustard and (for this judge) a smidgen of ketchup, atop a healthy bed of sauerkraut within a sizable bun, with a pop. I’m not sure the exchange could be called euvoluntary because the price, at $7.50, was a steal. I settled into a bench under a shade, tucked into my bratwurst, and lifted my eyes, and behold! a judge.

It was too late for her: I had her espied, a half a league hence, from behind the mist of an exterior siding company’s expo booth, through a sea of people. She was not checking me out. Indeed, not, I was cramming my fat gob with a gigantic sausage. No, she was judging me. She wonders if I am happy. Could she be happy as me?

The boys were exhausted, and my tummy was full, so we departed the County Fair by way of the equestrian competition. Glorious creatures, horses and riders, and so I judge.

Dipping Your Toes Into the Irrational World

I keep my vinyl records on the opposite side of the room from my record player (or “turntable” for the more effete vinyl connoisseur), which is twenty-one feet away (I measured). I’m compelled to do so by something within, something which is out of reach of the rational self; there’s no sense to it. In every way it would be easier to put my collection right next to my stereo system. In fact, if someone from HGTV were to come by and blanch at the arrangement, I’d be highly offended, on camera even, at the suggestion to rearrange, for any reason, aesthetic or practical.

There is now attached to the arrangement a ritual; that’s right, a ritual. From my collection I pull several records–by the way, this is all predicated on whether I’m in a record-listening mood. If I’m not in the mood, then I don’t do the ritual: I click my mouse through iTunes until I find the playlist I desire to hear, or just click Pandora. See, that’s the point. What kind of ritual can develop organically from some easy scrolling and mouse-clicking? A ritual of frustration, I suppose, if you don’t know what you want to listen to.

Where was I? Oh, yes, kneeling before my collection on the bottom shelf: I pull several records to put them in a designated “on deck” spot so I don’t have to flip through my entire collection for the duration of the mood. I walk over to the turntable, turn on a special light which illuminates it (that’s so I can see the print on the record label; I’m getting old), lift the lid of the turntable, walk back to the On Deck Circle, pick a record, remove the actual record within its sleeve from the cardboard packaging, gaze at the artwork for a moment, walk all the way back to the record player, remove the vinyl from its sleeve, mount it onto the turntable, set the needle into the groove on the outer edge, close the lid of the turntable, place the sleeve atop the lid, turn off the special light, walk to my chair in the middle of the room, and from there I listen until the needle lifts itself from the groove on the inner edge. It’s an invocation and a benediction, with an entire liturgy between, complete with genuflection and pauses for silence for meditation.

Music, especially long play music fit for one side of a vinyl record (before progressive rock artists discovered the 74-minute compact disc), is a work of art whose purpose is largely to affect the emotions of the listener-participant.  Such art has a penchant for stirring the passions, not the least of which are love, hate, anger, happiness, and fear, along with the more subtle ones, such as longing, loss, sadness, and hope. All of these are buried deep within the breast, only tenuously associated with the intellect. For example, I am much moved by Rush’s 2112, which has no small amount of literary influence upon it, yet I am not moved to discourse about the music intellectually. That, of course, kills the experience, and creates an artifact out of living music. The same with Mozart’s piano concertos, and Beethoven’s late violin concertos, and Genesis with Peter Gabriel, and so on.


So, why the ritual? I know that I feel like performing this ritual, which grew organically, mind you, in order to prepare my body for the emotional encounter it is about to experience. The intellect, apparently, desires to have its body’s passions aroused, but also desires protection from them. A ritual sets boundaries, guides, and rules: “This far, anger, and no further!”

This far, love, and no further?

Futility Transcended, Out of the Mouth of a Babe

Jack, my across-the-street neighbor, died during the spring after a short illness. He had lived alone for about five years after his wife died of cancer. His eulogy is respectable, and, overall, he was an asset to our lives. He was a good neighbor. Today, Saturday morning, marks the day of the final disbursement of his estate: the house is sold and the stuff remaining in it has been piled, with some care, onto the lawn for a garage sale.

Consumerism annoys me, not least because of parking. For the next two days, my driveway will be the cul-de-sac for the vultures picking over poor Jack’s bones, looking for stuff amidst his stuff. It really is disgusting. I say this acutely aware of my own hypocrisy, the owner of a piece of undeveloped land not far from my house so I can make like Wilderness Man with no potable water, electricity, or any other accoutrements of home, all of which can be found in a two-minute drive down the road. There’s even a pizzeria which will deliver to my wilderness outpost within twenty minutes at the push of a button on my smart phone. Fie! Fie upon thee, consumerism!

What I really dislike, of course, is the notion that one day all too soon, my stuff will be piled onto the front lawn for the children of the same vultures to pick over, looking for stuff. I called to my younger son, whose name is Jack (8 years old), and I pointed across the street, saying to him, “There’s Jack’s stuff” (see what I did there?).

“Really?” he said, and he paused for a moment, surveying the swarm. “It doesn’t look like much.”

“No,” I said. “And one day, your stuff will be piled on the lawn, just like his.”

“That’s okay,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation. “I won’t need it anymore.” He looked for a moment more, then returned to his room, where his stuff is.

It is okay, the accumulation phase of life, isn’t it? After all, we need stuff. Jack-across-the-street’s stuff includes many blankets. They look comfortable.


It was weird going through someone else’s Christmas decorations; I demurred. The boys picked up a nice walkie-talkie set, with no charger, and two flashlights, batteries included. One of Jack’s daughters met me, saying, “And here it is, the entirety of Jack and Connie’s life, laid out.”

Whispering Sweet Nothings

Some conversations are distractions, whispers in the ear up here for the hand to make advances down there, toward the knee. Toward the knee, as we all know, is where the important stuff occurs, why fathers fetch firearms, since no amount of talking, sweet or otherwise, will convince the advancing army to stand fast. And at ease, to be sure.

The Sweet Talk blog is a nice place for sweet talking, but I sometimes wonder: am I being distracted from a life and death confrontation? To be honest, I, personally, wonder this during any civil conversation. Am I being seduced by something said into something I don’t want to do? What if I’m not that kind of girl? What if I am? Oh, no! What if I’m the seducer? When the talking is rude and uncivil, I have no doubts at all about what I believe and who I am.

On the other hand, sweet nothings are rarely nothing; they’re something to conceive the idea of conceiving. Those ideas whispered in the ear might not be a distraction at all, but a context for the advances going on toward the knee, to explain what’s happening and why it’s good, even when it’s bad. Or naughty, or whatever. Moral fortitude lets my no be a resolute no, even if I do not entirely understand the raison de négation. I mean, just what is being whispered into the ear?

Nevertheless, the real work is in talking to Daddy when his ire is up, and also the hammer of his Colt .45. Sweet talk might just save your life.

Little Weaknesses

I’m getting old. Older, I guess, as all the old folks might concede, with a twinkle in their eyes that says, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, buster.” But every now and again I find myself sitting on the floor of my closet, where my wife of eighteen years has “stored” my vinyl record collection, which is extensive. She cataloged it and organized it many years ago. I go to the very end of it to find a rare pressing of Led Zeppelin II. Get it? Z is for Mr. Zeppelin. She’s not a fan. Toward the middle are all my Pixies records, including the singles, the pride of my early adulthood. Those, along with my Pink Floyd pressings (1968 A Saucerful of Secrets, yes, indeed) were very important to me, and, in a way, they still are, but in the closet of the master bedroom, on the floor, behind the winter clothing. I think, somehow, more rooms have been added to my inner mansion, in one of which lives my eight-year old, who today declared that “punk band” is a funny word. When he said that, a particular Dead Kennedys concert I attended came to mind. “Punk band” is a funny word. Alas. I’m getting older.

I asked my doctor about some real pain in my back, very lower back, on top of my hips, really. After some diagnostics he said, “You’re getting older.”

“Really?” I said. “Forty, and I have excruciating back pain?”

“Welcome to the club,” he said, without a hint of irony in his voice. “Drop your shorts and bend over.” It wasn’t a dream. I’m older.

It’s my iliopsoas, a muscle system the thickness of your forearm, which, when you are woven together, trusses your spine, hips, and thigh bones. Mine is inflamed, a common enough malady for men of my age (did I mention I’m over forty?), of my build (average height, slight bone structure), and of my vocation (sitting and talking, standing and talking, slouching and reading), and I have discovered a stretch for it. It takes exactly two minutes to perform. That’s it: two minutes. I did the two-minute stretch several times a day for a few weeks, and my excruciating pain became slight discomfort. It was awesome. So I quit doing the stretch exercise.

Now look, I deal with people clinically all week long, and this particular behavior is pathological and frustrating. How many times have I said “Why did you stop doing it?” to hear the answer “Because I felt better.”

Sure enough, a few weeks later, my back began to hurt, this time worse than before. Moreover, I was surprised that it hurt. How? How could I be surprised? Finally, not two days ago, I thought to do the stretch again. I feel much better today.

Why? Why did I stop doing it? Because I felt better? That doesn’t make any sense! It’s pathological! Where is the cure? If only I were an automaton! Even a robot would know that, as it aged, certain sequences would alleviate, then prevent, malfunction, and it would execute those programs, but I, I do not. And the old folks smile, then wince because something hurts.

This is why AG despairs a little: a two-minute stretch–not even an exercise, a stretch–a two minute stretch which alleviates pain is too much for me to continue to do faithfully. What hope does he have that I discipline myself to do good in my community? Well, therein lies hope, a little. Those old folks are laughing at me, and I’m laughing at AG, and he laughs at someone near to him, and in so doing, we, the community, encourage one another. Sail on!