Monday, August 18, 2014

Fair People: A Confession

A bit over a week ago, while visiting my relatives in Buffalo, I took a trip to the Erie County fair. After eating some unhealthy food (and bypassing some really unhealthy food, such as deep fried Oreos and fried dough), we headed to one of the display buildings to see my sister's award-winning flower displays.

Unfortunately, food and drink weren't allowed in the building, and my kids weren't ready to relinquish their lemonades--so my wife and I took turns guarding the lemonades outside while the others took in the floral arrangements and used the restrooms.

That's how I found myself standing there, waiting, a sweating lemonade in each hand. And I did the only thing that made sense under the circumstances: I started people-watching.

I saw tattooed people who (apparently) were trying to expose every fold and flap of skin on which a favorite work of art had been inked.

I saw walking skeletons in Wrangler jeans and blue eye shadow.

I saw men of enormous girth whose mouths were greasy with the oils from the fried-whatever-on-a-stick they were clutching in their fists.

And I thought to myself, "Dear Lord, I may actually be one of the pretty people."

It was something of a jolting thought, and it made me laugh. You see, the week before that, my wife and I were in Boulder, CO, getting ready for her bid to complete a second Iron-distance triathlon (her bid was sadly derailed when she got swimming-induced pulmonary edema the moment she hit the water--but that's another story). While there, I spent a lot of time standing around waiting--and people-watching--while my wife got registered and otherwise ready for the race.

Waiting around in an Ironman Village, while triathletes trot by on every side, is a rather humbling experience. Even vigorously healthy people can start to feel, well, kind of dumpy.

But people-watching at the fair was a decidedly different experience. Glancing at my reflection in the glass doors, I found myself tempted to preen, cock my head, and say, "Hey there, me. You look mighty fine."

Well, not really. But you get the idea.

When I got home, I scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed to discover that a friend had posted a link to an article, "Deep-Fried America on a Stick." It featured portraits of some rather interesting fair-goers and an interview with the photographer, Bruce Gilden. Here's one of his portraits (click the link to see them all):

I stared at the photos. And then I promptly commented on my friend's post with the same glib thought that had entered my head as I was standing there guarding lemonade: I may actually be one of the pretty people.

Then I went to bed. But a day or so later, I found myself remembering something from Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. I don't recall much about the book (I read it a long time ago), but this bit stuck with me.

Valentine Michael Smith, the protagonist of the novel, was raised on Mars by Martians--and one of the more engaging features of the book is Smith's outsider view of human culture. Something that perplexes him is the human concept of beauty. Those that we find beautiful strike Smith as simply boring. In contrast, he is drawn to interesting faces: weathered, wrinkled ones, faces that say something about the character of the person within.

And as that tidbit from the novel drifted to the surface, I felt ashamed. Ashamed of how I'd been looking at the people at the fair.

I returned to the Deep-Fried America article. I looked anew at Bruce Gilden's portraits. I looked at them as Valentine Michael Smith might have looked at them. Or at least in a way that was nudged by his fictional spirit. And I imagined that Bruce Gilden, in his choice of models, was nudged by that spirit as well.

I saw interesting faces, faces full of personality. Most of all, they were faces that told stories.

I wondered what stories I would have seen walking past me at the fair if I hadn't been possessed by my glib little thought. I wondered why we are so prone to see beauty in the superficial way that so puzzled Valentine Smith. I wondered just how much we miss.

When I look at faces like the ones Bruce Gilden photographed and I laugh at them (even if only to myself), these other human beings becomes nothing but a way for me to see myself--a kind of foil. I'm not looking at them. I'm blind to the stories in their faces. Delight, empathy, and fascination are sacrificed to a moment of smug superficiality.

Fortunately, I have a chance to redeem myself. The Oklahoma State Fair is coming up in about a month. I plan to be there, and to do some people-watching. But when I do, I'll be thinking about Valentine Smith.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for being honest about your moment of hubris. One of the things that I am often dismayed about is our culture's nefarious influence parading surface beauty as the defining measure of worth and value. Hence a "physically unattractive" person is less desirable then someone with culturally approved "beauty" or suave. I choose to rebel against that but find it an endless battle to keep that influence at bay within my own immediate sensory reactions. So the media's endless bombardment of chic, slick super-models and studs to endorse their products has indeed been quite successful but at a high cost, I am afraid, to developing more authentic ways to gauge true human beauty and value. I think Valentine Michael Smith is right on!