American Schizophrenia


Img00078A week ago, I took my kids to the Washington County Fair in my beloved Washington County, NY and was once again completely puzzled by it. Half of it is heavenly: shed after shed of prize-winning farm animals, most of them raised by children. If you catch it right, there are sheep obedience classes to watch. There is also the Ag Barn, where you can sample a local dairy’s chocolate milk, learn that cucumbers actually do contain a few vitamins, and discover something called “Rural Youth Loans” that would allow my ten year-old to expand his farm-stand empire. It’s not just clean and wholesome, it’s interesting. I mean, is there anything in life more fascinating than a Guinea hen viewed up close and personal?

Then, you cross over to the other side of the fair where the rides are, and it’s just an abrupt descent into Hades. There, amid the smell of food fried in not-so-fresh oil and eardrum-splitting music, you can buy tickets to some dreadful experience from a woman with no front teeth who won’t be nice to you when you ask her a question. The tickets are confusing and expensive. Fifteen dollars for three people for a 5-minute Ferris Wheel ride. The men running the rides do not inspire confidence. The rides themselves do not inspire confidence, grinding away menacingly. It’s all so ugly that I hate to take my beautiful children there even for a moment. But my phobias are not theirs, so I let them do a bumper car ride or two for as long as I can stand it.

This side of the fair is entirely artificial in its awfulness, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with Washington County’s agricultural heritage. It only has to do with the coarseness of our American culture. That it’s not enough to admire the pride of the county in terms of goats and ducks and ag-minded children. That we need cheap, loud, stomach-churning, and generic to make it a satisfying day out.

I was going on in these priggish terms to myself until this week, when I spent 18 hours driving to Maine and back listening to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on CD. Not only was I laughing myself silly, I was also feeling a certain shock of recognition. Many of the horrible aspects of American culture in the 19th century that Twain plays large are still horrible aspects of American culture in the 21st: the violence, the inability to recognize fellow-travelers as fully human, the piety and the hypocrisy, the willful ignorance. On the other hand, Huckleberry Finn is a book full of ranters: wild, crazy talkers, many of them irredeemable liars, almost all of them hilariously half-informed and inflamed with their own half-baked romantic ideas. That America is a pretty adventuresome and creative place, not to mention, funny.

Maybe the bad comes with the good here. Maybe next year, I’ll get my husband to take the kids to the fair. His stomach is stronger than mine.


  1. Just be happy that you still have the animals. After last year’s fair, our Ag society called it quits. My kids were just getting to the age that they would enter things, and it was pulled. Unhappily we still get the “amusements” coming to town once a year, but without the benefit of the real fair. Very sad. I know I should have volunteered for the Ag Society, the interest was waning, but with 2 young children, and being involved with 2 different Hort Societies I had to draw the line. Unfortunately other people did too and now it’s gone.

  2. Amazingly enough our local ag fair refuses to bring in rides. They definitely don’t need them as the fair is packed solid with people for the entire three days it runs.

  3. I share your opinion of the ugliness of carnivals. Every year they bring a horrible carnival to our spring festival. It has gotten so ugly in the last few years that nearby stores either close or lock the doors and selectively admit people.

  4. Our county, which considers itself at least half agricultural, has a piddling little fair. It has the ag part, in too-small barns and other dislays/contests like quilting and photography and cooking without adequate display space. It’s sad to see photographs stacked in boxes for “display.” It also has a few rides and carney things which are hideously expensive, although I didn’t notice them as being scary. We went once and then said enough. We’ll be going to the next county over this year – their ag space is at least 5 times what our county has, and I hear their displays and exhibits are really good. I’m sure the rides will be just as expensive, so we’ll give our son a chance to “manage his money” and he can either eat or ride, his choice. Either way, I get to see the animals, plants, photos, crafts and foods. And there’s always the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival – now THAT’s fun! And I don’t knit (or spin or do any of that yarn stuff).

  5. I haven’t gone to a state or county fair in years. I have fond childhood memories of them but I wonder if I’d look at them with such rosy tones now.

    The last time I attended our state and county fairs (same county, different state) it was pretty much as you described it, Michelle. However, I read our state fair is taking steps to become green, which is very cool.
    I like this newly emerging facet. I might even be tempted to go on a eco-friendly powered ride – as long as it’s a tame ride like bumper cars or the merry-go-round, though. I look at wild rides like roller coasters and tally how many chiro visits I’d need to recover from it.

  6. That’s just a lovely, wonderful post; a nice mini essay that encompasses the cultural dichotomy I feel every day, and like many of us, struggle with personally in my life. Thank you.

  7. I like your Twain comparisons – we Americans are both. I have blessed to marry a Minnesotain. If you want to experience all the pleasures of a State Fair – you must go to Minnesota.

    The MN State Fair is truly unbelievable. They have a huge Horticulture building, with massive pumpkins, beautiful honey, several Ag buildings with one day old nursing piglets, sheep competitions, a whole building of chickens, amazing art (yes, cool art!).

    One of my favorite things are the mosaics made of seeds and the larger than life heads sculpted out of butter of Princess Kay of the Milky Way and her council.

    Not to be missed, put it on your bucket list.

  8. I understand and completely relate to your post but I was a bit offended by the title. As someone who struggles with mental health issues, I found the title a bit off-putting.

  9. The last time I visited England, the owners of the B&B where I stayed took me to the Thames Fair. Like American county fairs, it had tents of animals (the wide variety of pigeons and rabbits stand out in my memory). The entertainment portion, however, was anchored a bit more in country life than the carnivals that usually accompany our fairs. It had dog agility contests and horse displays. It also had a commercial aspect with stalls of vendors selling shawls, wood products and so on. It was packed and obviously a major event in the community. Seems like a model that can keep our fairs alive in both financial and cultural terms.
    One thing I haven’t seen either here nor overseas are tents devoted to plant collections. Wouldn’t it be fun to peruse a huge variety of a single species in the same way we do sheep?

  10. I actually like both aspects of the fair. Although, I think the midway and sideshows are a relic of a time when people in largely rural areas had no access to that kind of excitement and exotica. These days you just have to watch TV for a few moments to get your fill, and large amusement parks are well less than a days drive for most Americans.

  11. We always avoid the carny rides and the awful food. There is too much to see even if we wanted to go do that stuff. My friend and I want to do an organic food booth at the fair. The only thing that was actually healthy to eat was a produce stand over in the Farm display section. Can’t eat fruit all day, ya know.

Comments are closed.