When it comes to gardening, my green thumb is more of a shade of black.
My cooking skills, despite many good intentions, stop somewhere south of boiled eggs.
My history with a sewing needle mostly consists of finding one in my feet at inconvenient times. (Come to think of it, is there ever a convenient time?)
In fact, if you go down the list – livestock, shooting, dancing, model rocketry – I’m about as far from a 4-H kid as it’s possible to get.
And yet, I remain fascinated by county fairs.
After 16 years of newspaper journalism, I’ve covered a lot of them, along with the fair-like events that spring up here and there, such as the “Beef Empire Days” of Garden City, Kansas. I’ve been sunburned at the parades, deafened at the demolition derbies and confused terribly by the layout. (“Let me get this straight – the barns go C, A and then B?”)
But always, always, the memory that sticks in my mind is sheer admiration for the kids. This is their show and they make the most of it.
Raise a 290-pound market pig? Sure. Pull 300 pounds behind a pedal-powered tractor? No problem. Take on projects in photography, woodworking, rocketry and jewelry and still have time to raise rabbits? Ask for something hard, why don’t you?
These are, in short, some of the most capable people I’ve ever met. And that’s what truly makes the county fair, any county fair, exceptional.
It’s a place where we still celebrate capability.
I don’t mean excellence. We’ll cheer endlessly at people who excel, sometimes in very esoteric fields. There are pancake races, competitive sauna meets , cow chip throwing contests and the real head-scratcher – curling. However strange the event, there’s someone who wants to be the best at it and more often than not, we’ll sit down to watch the struggle.
But the celebration of practical skill is something else entirely.
The science fiction author Robert Heinlein once said contemptuously that “specialization is for insects,” rattling off a long list of (for him) basic competencies that he felt any human being should possess, from changing a diaper to planning an invasion. If anything, most of us have gotten narrower since, relying on Google and YouTube to fill in the gaps in our education. (The night that Heather and I had to use an online search to locate our main water shutoff while the kitchen ceiling was giving way was a memorable one, indeed.)
And then there’s the fair. Your hands. Your work. Your competency, in as many fields as you have time and desire to take on. It’s a reminder of something older and more essential, a world that may have become even more distant to us than the farm itself.
At its heart, it’s a reaffirmation that we are more than our tools. That we’re builders, not just watchers.
That’s a statement with a lot of implications.
When even the simplest things are challenges, it’s easy to feel like a helpless bystander. “Fix the country? I can’t even fix my sink.” Get used to competency and it’s addictive. If I can do this, why not that? Or that?
After a while, optimism becomes natural. Even hope. Why not? When you already know achievement is possible, the only thing left to get used to is the scale.
That may be a life’s work. But hey – got anything better to do?
So here’s to the kids of the fair and all those behind them. May there be many more like you and still more inspired by you.
Because let’s face it, you’re more than fair.