The smell of the carnival

dscn2319

Much of human learning about social interactions apparently occurs fairly early in life. In keeping with the concept that what you read in “The Weekly Packet” will be old news, I would like to propose a little time-travel back to northeast Ohio in the early 1950s.

I’m a kid around 11 years old, wearing jeans and plaid shirts. In the summer, I wear Converse hi-tops. (We will deal with footwear at another time, but you just don’t wear sneakers under galoshes. Period.) I’ve recently come to realize that the circus, the carnival, and the county fair are three very different kinds of events, and I’m working on getting them sorted out.

I have pretty firm ideas about the circus because I saw one pull in on a train, set up the “big top,” and perform. In the tent, the circus has rings, and the performers, human and animal, actually put on a show. While you watch one ring, the next act is setting up in a different ring. Basically, you pay money to get into the tent and they entertain you; it’s a value exchange. You get money for working, like delivering papers, and you give some of that money to them for their work. At the end of the show, you file out feeling happy about the spectacle. This goes in the OK category.

Carnivals, as they were in rural Ohio anyway, were not such a good deal. They were set up to provide a one way street where your money left you and went to the carny people. I took a pocketful of my hard-earned newspaper money and handed it over to throw baseballs with off-center weights at wooden milk bottles, or to shoot pellets at ducks immortal as the Furies. Sometimes someone, probably a shill, might win a stuffed toy from China, but not often. Worse yet were the “shows,” where you walked through in the gloom to gaze briefly at the unfortunate folks or critters “on exhibit.” At the end, you headed home feeling vaguely cheated; you spent your money of your own free will and got nothing of value in return except the realization that you were no smarter than the other yokels. Carnivals went in the not-OK category.

County fairs were the Mulligan stew that comes when you mix some circus with a lot of carnival, and add in 4-H Club competitions and harness racing. Among their great virtues is exposing large numbers of farm kids to non-toxic doses of a carnival. My Dad liked them.

Some sixty years later, all three of these great American institutions are fading away, and we are losing something. I’m not going to mourn the demise of the traveling circus, since that’s an economic problem. And there are still state fairs that you can drive to in as little time on the Interstate as we used to spend going east from Alliance through Damascus and Salem, up to the Canfield Fairgrounds. No, I’m missing the carnival. I miss it not because it was fun, but because of what I learned there. The smell of the circus and the fair was the smell of honest manure, the droppings of working animals. The smell of the carnival was the rank, raw scent of snake oil.

The carnival was institutionalized self-deception.

With the loss of the carnival, have we lost our communal nose for snake oil, that magical incense with the smell that makes us believe that we CAN knock down the bottles, decimate the ducks, and go home with the giant panda when we know that it isn’t so?

11/9. Stranger in a Strange Land

travel
Chaos in Athens
20120610-dscn1891
Istanbul market

The Morning After…

When I decided to call these efforts at writing “The Weekly Packet,” I wanted to capture the idea that a general slowing of communication would be desirable. The name indicated that a piece of writing should have some time to mellow, while it was transported by sail for a few hundred miles from its origin to its readers. I wish this post could have that time.

When the imaginary packet left port on the afternoon tide yesterday, I left a familiar country for the land of Nod after a couple of glasses of a nice California red wine. (I admit to a fondness for Mendocino wines). On Tuesday morning, The New York Times polls had blessed Mrs. Clinton as overwhelmingly likely to become the next chief executive of our country; the stock market was comfortable with the prediction, and all the stars for navigation into the next four years seemed to be aligned.

When rosy-fingered dawn pulled back the curtains of the night this very morning, we had arrived in a different country. This is always the shock of travelling: the earth remains under one’s feet and the sky over one’s head, but the stars by which we find our way have played a game of musical chairs. Despite being in a different country, creatures and things follow their same basic rules. Water runs downhill. A dropped pencil falls to the floor. Trees remain rooted; they do not shake off their roots and walk about. But as a traveler, I can’t understand the clamor, the din of daily life. Is there a fire truck coming, or are we all hurrying to see a parade?

How does one cope? It will take time to learn the language, the values, and the customs of this new land. I may be too old, too inflexible. I remember having similar thoughts when we visited Istanbul. Then, one morning, our guide arranged a very special trip for a limited number of interested individuals. We would go to one of the academic archives in the city to see some very old medical books. As a fellow, I had loved the stacks of the Countway at Harvard, and just the sight of the yellowing texts, in illegible fonts and an unfamiliar language, sounded a common chord that re-oriented me. This city had included people who studied medicine and wrote down their ideas, and they had done it long before Peter Bent Brigham sold fish in Boston, or Benjamin Rush bled the Philadelphia elite.

So this morning, in this strange land where I woke up, I hear the words of the Londoner Thomas Tryon from 1689; “The world has become a great Bedlam, where those who are more mad lock up those who are less.” But Thomas, these are my neighbors. I had an English professor at Amherst, Theodore Baird, who insisted that we memorize at least a few lines of Shakespeare and few lines of Frost, so I say to myself, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.”

We are not in Istanbul, nor are we in Bedlam. We are all at home, and we need to find some common threads, as fragile as yellowed pages in books we cannot read, and try to meet the strangers who we thought we knew.