A Fistful of Donuts: The Great Minnesota Get-Together

Contrary, perhaps, to our nature, Minnesotans are not shy about our love for our home state. I thought this feeling was pretty much ubiquitous to all people of the union, but after meeting more and more folks from other places, it seems like some of us see our states as less perfect than others. Look, I’m not Gallup and this is not my poll, but I don’t think you’ll find a lot of that sentiment in the American Midwest. Especially in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes, the Gopher State, the North Star State, the state I love most: Minnesota.

There is so much to love about Minnesota, that I could bore you for something like eight or nine full-length posts. Instead, I will limit my poetic waxing to the succinctest sentence I can muster: if a good home is safe, is supportive of you when you declare that you want to become better than you are, is filled with traditions even if they’re outdated or dorky or ridiculous, is full of people with a lot of different ideas on things who can still get along, is full of pleases and thank yous, is filled with a lot of love and even more food, then Minnesota is a good home.

And our great Open House, spanning the last dozen days of summertime, is the heart of all that magnified ten thousand times.

I have loved the Minnesota State Fair for my whole life. That’s not figurative or an exaggeration: I was born into a 4-H dynasty, and if you know anything about 4-H you know which direction we face when we take a reverent moment to reflect on our projects, our heads for clearer thinking, our hearts for greater loyalty, our hands to large service and our health to better living. We face the fairgrounds. My family has made the pilgrimage often; we are State Fair People.

If you’ve read even a couple words of any other posts from this year-long blog about love, you might have picked up that nostalgia is my greatest flaw and greatest strength simultaneously, so when you marble a fun, delicious, ridiculous celebration with holy childhood memories what do you expect me to do? Not lose my mind over it? Come on.

State Fair

Not pictured: any semblance of a bad mood.

I can say happily that I’m not alone if my feelings here. I mean, every day of the fair something like a hundred thousand people walk about and get bloated and happy and then tired and kind of crabby and then happy again. (It’s the State Fair lifecycle, and it’s backed up by years of scientific research, trust me.) Among those hundred thousand fairgoers yesterday was a small pack of six friends, including your humble narrator.

Let me say again how lucky I feel to have found my tribe of people—though not all of them could make it (I’m looking at you, Bill and Corey and Amber) I can’t thank the higher powers enough for bringing us all together again in the same summer. The dance of traveling in a group can get tricky and is delicate—people sometimes want to suddenly veer off to do something quick, or get tired out and need to just be quiet for a minute, or have their heart so set on seeing a particular thing that everyone else agrees to see it to. I think this little tribe is pretty good at that dance, and if you average all our characters and temperaments I think you’d get a fun, open, friendly, positive, adventurous spirit who will buy you a corndog and Coke if you’re blood sugar is not yet tall enough to ride the fun, too.

We didn’t hit up the rides, though, because we’re a cozy distance from teenagehood and spinny rides now make most of us want to yak. Still on my list of life goals, however, is the extremely unsafe-looking Ejector Seat ride that slingshots you and a friend into space for a second. Someday.

Corn Dogs

Because they don’t yet serve them on yardsticks you have to buy two foot-and-a-half corn dogs and just imagine that they are connected.

We did eat, however. This is my best guess at the pile of edible carnage we unleashed in the span of a few hours: cheese curds (four helpings); pronto pups (three); a full meal of food court style Chinese food; one Chicago style hotdog; two blue Icees; Swedish egg coffee; Kiwanis chocolate malt (two); a blooming onion with both atomic orange cheese sauce and Ranch Dressing, the Official Sauce of the Midwest; a deep fried Milky Way; a package of Tom Thumb Mini Donuts (in memoriam: Mike Lukens, the world champion mini donut eater, which is a story for another time); souvenir bucket of Sweet Martha’s Chocolate Chip Cookies (containing four dozen cookies, give or take) (see also: they round that number down, because Leslie had to ask they dude to stop poling cookies in the bucket); cup of milk to help (one).

Glorious. And I will soon be dead, I am sure. (For clarity: I didn’t eat all of that myself. Or did I?)

My more personal highlights took place in the crown jewel of the fairgrounds—the tower that glows at night like the great city of Oz, and contains the fruit of countless laborious hours spent by kids learning how to make the best better.

The 4-H building. Obvi.

Late in the afternoon, about mid food coma, we hit up the stage in the middle of the building for one of the daily performances of Arts-In. This is a group for highs school age 4-Hers who get together to create and rehearse a short musical review with a loose plot that’s always about discovering and celebrating who you are and how you can make the world a greater place. And these kids are spectacular. Which is to say, so many of them radiate so hard for those few minutes that there can be no doubt that they know they are heading to Broadway someday. For some, who might be shy and awkward and unsure, they might believe they have already arrived at their Broadway.

I know kind of how they might feel. I was eighteen; I once had enormous dreams of theatre. I am not eighteen any more. I am afraid my time of as an actor might be over. But there was no fear in the faces of these young adults. There was only room for enthusiasm, smiles, overacting in all the best ways because it needs to be too big before it can be harnessed and refined in some theatre program somewhere or on some stage of some community playhouse.

I owe all the years I spent on stages to 4-H, when my dad noticed how much I came alive during one of our annual club skits. I believe in these kids. I hope they make it to whatever Broadway they are hoping for, and that they do indeed make the best better—the sacred 4-H oath.

4-H Building

The Great Green Way.

The 4-H building in general is sacred to me. For all of us in the 4-H club (Carlton County Woodlanders forever), this was Broadway—a place to display a project that had enough merit to pick up a purple ribbon at the county fair. Even a white ribbon (sort of a “thanks for trying” award) meant that your work was still exceptional. And though the amount of projects had once swelled enormously, they waned for several years as 4-H maybe started to contemplate its death. There were a lot of things to look at along those walls this year. 4-H is alive, and I think it’s remembering its strength.

Thank God.

Being in that building feels like being with my family. And my heart swelled a little as we stood in it again after sundown right before we left for the day. So sue me.

On our way back to the buses, Leslie and I walked though the midway, which is the best place in the universe once the neon lights spring to life. It’s the perfect answer to the order within the 4-H building—a temple to chaos and abandon and sacrificed quarters and dollars. I love them both and I need them both. Perfection.

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