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On old-fashioned hymns, traveling sales artists, and why fairs still occupy a vital space in public life
On the surface, the main attraction at an event like the Iowa State Fair is what's served up for consumption: Food, prizes, and performances, to pick the most obvious categories. But just beneath that surface is something a little more abstract and a lot more interesting.
■ Most of the really interesting things that happen in life aren't pure expressions of any one subject or talent or discipline. The really interesting things happen at the margins, where different fields intersect with one another -- often unexpectedly.
■ And a great fair is no different. In Iowa's legendary case, it's a thoroughly and unapologetically agricultural event, but it is held in the state's largest city, within blocks of heavy industry and within the line of sight of the state capitol building.
■ Around 100,000 people attend the fair each day, with agendas ranging from the "old-fashioned hymn sing" at the small church on the grounds to free concert tributes to 80s metal bands to strolling a building packed with 19 pages' worth of commercial and political vendors.
■ We are drawn to lifestyle choices that increasingly homogenize life experience -- from entertainment outlets to religious affiliations to neighborhood sorting along political lines. In a sense, that's good, inasmuch as it represents greater ranges of free choice and people getting more of what they individually want.
■ But the intersections, especially when unexpected, are what make the fair so interesting and often memorable. People who might otherwise have nothing to do with one another in daily life are smushed together in great crowds for eleven days, where they see one another, stand in line together, and take interest in the same things (often for wholly different reasons). The intersections are the root of the greatness.