Facebook is the airline food of the 20-teens. It’s the run up to a stand-up comedy bit. Don’t believe me? Just go watch a stand-up routine and wait for them to say “So the other day I was on Facebook …” Right there! You’re proto-smiling! I can see it from here. You’re getting ready to laugh. You know it’s going to be funny. Why?
I don’t know, myself. There’s just something about saying “so what’s the deal with Farmville?” that sort of preps that same response. Perhaps it’s the ubiquity, like we all identify with that medium. After all, social media is a universal experience in our culture, like traffic, or rain in Juneau. Which is one of the reasons I love perennial gatherings like Folk Fest and state fairs so much — they’re a refreshingly different kind of social agency that predates profile pictures.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to make some sort of false equivalency where I compare the vices of Facebook versus the virtues of a state fair. That’s apples and kumquats. But perhaps, with all the attention social media (the newest ways to relate) gets, it’s good to give a lot of attention to the sociality of one of the oldest ways to relate, which is the yearly gatherings at which we celebrate.
It’s always struck me as funny that Alaska has two state fairs, the State Fair and the Southeast Alaska State Fair (which is coming up at the end of this month). Do any other states do that? County fairs, sure, but having two state fairs kind of makes me wonder if it’s a competition. Like I just imagine someone out there, brooding over a dim candle and a map of state fairs. “Feed them both,” he grumbles, “and when they are old enough let them fight and one shall devour the other. Then we shall know who the true state fair is.” He blows out the candle dramatically. End scene.
But for me, the Haines state fair will always be the champ. Aside from its specific virtues, it benefits from that particular kind of nostalgia only afforded to scenes of a certain size. One can never feel as nostalgic about San Francisco as one can about, say, Haight Street, or the little cafes and Queen Anne style homes all along it. And that is the charm of a small-medium fair like the Haines State Fair. It’s small enough that it never feels too empty, but it’s big enough to stay interesting!
And there is so much at the Haines fair that lends itself to that nostalgic urge: The waves of buttered corn, fry bread, and barbecued chicken, and the hodgepodge aesthetic of an open-air stage, a barn, a carousel, and a Wild West main street all mixed together. And that’s not even mentioning the gloriously practical, tie-dyed or t-shirted Alaskans, often seen with a beer or a fish story, or mobbing the stage at a rowdy Newgrass show. If there’s anything true about gatherings like this, it’s that it is so rich for the senses. Think the spectrum that runs from barn dance to Bonnaroo — it’s always so visceral.
There’s another world that’s an important part of the Southeast Alaska Fair: the ferry. Nothing beats camping out on the solarium, snacking on bugles around a bunch of strangers in various positions: sleeping under the yellow glass, knitting, reading John McPhee, or practicing mandolin while the porpoises play in the wake.
I feel like these whole “state fair” and “ferry” worlds, which obviously aren’t unique to Alaska, are a great contrast to the relatively isolated world of social media. I’m not saying they’re not great canvases for shareable adventuregram pictures, but rather that they have a whole different approach to socialization.
Where social media is like building a platform out of many individual experiences shared simultaneously, where if you’re not sharing you’re not involved, being stuck on a big boat together for days on end is like a platform naturally formed out of one big shared experience. The foundation is already there, and your choice to interact, to go sit by yourself, or to make new friends isn’t a question of involvement versus non-involvement; you’re already a part of it all — you’re already on the boat!
I think that this barn-dance/potlatch/festival kind of mentality you see at the Southeast Alaska State Fair is so healthy to a semi-rural region like Southeast, in that it keeps us balanced in the various ways we connect and view ourselves in a community. And besides, there’s live music and grilled corn, and who could beat that?
• Guy About Town appears the first and third Sunday of every month and includes seasonal musings on what changes and what doesn’t in a small town. Guy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.