A 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.