J and I took the kids to the Minnesota State Fair yesterday morning. This is a family tradition.
Now, the State Fair is held about two miles from my house. This makes the two-week span of the fair an . . . interesting driving experience. Streets all through my neighborhood are buggered up with traffic, especially with this year’s crop of Exciting Highway Construction projects. But that’s neither here nor there. The point of this post is that I am not the person I was 20 years ago.
My goodness, y’all. I was a jaded, cynical, wise-to-the-ways-of-the-world sixteen-year-old. In the first edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, there was a rule for aging your character and your stats. As you got older your Strength and Dexterity got lower, for instance. I thought this made sense. Old people are weaker and less flexible than young people, everybody knows that. But I thought the rule that said one’s Wisdom went up as one aged was utter nonsense. I knew, at age 16, that there was nothing else to learn about people. That I contained the knowledge of the world, at least as far as human nature went. Sure, there were always more facts to be gained — that was why it made sense that one’s Intelligence score went up with age. But as far as knowing how the world operated, the good and bad of people? I totally had that down. At sixteen, I was as wise and worldly as anybody else, more so than most.
Oh my. My, my, my, my, my. My goodness. I just want to pat my younger self on the head for being so precious.
But at sixteen, I was cynical. I hated things like fairs and parades and community celebrations, because they were fake and meaningless. Because as long as humanity was still doing the crappy things we did the rest of the time, these celebrations of togetherness and optimism were lies, lies, I tell you! Puerile bullshit to placate the masses. I was smart and I was wise and I wasn’t fooled or taken in by anything.
I didn’t get it.
I didn’t get, then, that fairs and parades and community celebrations are not a lie draped over the head of a sheep-like populace. Neither are they a denial of the harsher aspects of life. What I didn’t get then, and I do get now (look, after age thirty, characters gain +1 to Wisdom!) is that people and communities are complicated. That we as individuals and groups engage in acts of generousity and venality one right after the other, if not simultaneously. That we celebrate singular identity and diversity at the same moment. That the Fair encourages a mass culture of Caucasian farmers and farming and conspicuous consumption and eating, while inviting every immigrant who has moved here to partake and join and learn and contribute. That the Fair hosts every political party while lampooning every single one of them with visciously satirical crop art and crafts.
What I didn’t understand when I was sixteen is that group identity is built through shared experience. That understanding is built through exposure. That community is maintained through working together towards common goals. I didn’t understand that events like Fourth of July parades and the Aquatennial and the Fair are the, the large-scale antidote to the factionalism and divisiness that lead to crime against strangers, that lead to insularity and isolation. Events like the Fair lead to a recognition of the humanity of one’s fellow citizens. And recognizing that strangers are human like you is the first step to not harming them.
Anyway, it’s a family tradition. My kids ate crappy fried food, we all devoured garlic fires in a mutual garlic death pact, and the kids went on 462655426 Midway and Kidway rides. And we all participated in the genial, sincere, unironic creation of community that is the State Fair along with the tens of thousands of other people. And I’m really loving that extra point of Wisdom.