Set the Table!

Stepford wives, hair shellac and gingham, oh my!

I talked my best friend into entering photography at the state fair with me.  In a fit of inspiration and ambition, she went online the day registration opened and saw all the many, many other competitions at the fair.  One category said it had limited space, first come first serve and only 8 entries would be accepted. She grabbed a spot for us in the ‘Fanciful, Adult’ category.   For table setting.  Ok, why not?  I’m in.

I grew up going to county and state fairs, and I have vague memories of beautiful tables covered with vibrant table cloths, stacks of dishes, rows of sparkling crystal and elaborate centerpieces of dried flowers.  I remember the tables being the brightest, shiniest things in the enormous hall that all competitions are displayed in.  Every memory has the the top of the tables right at eye level for me, so I must have been 6 or 7 years old the last time I looked at those entries.  Based on my fuzzy memories, I thought we’d be setting a pretty table for 4-6 people and that it was a whimsical fun sort of thing to do.  The experience was so much stranger than we expected.  Putting fancy dresses and bowler hats on your pet lizard and thinking it’s serious business kind of strange.

First there are the rules to the table setting. You must supply a table no more than 3ft square and the table must be set for 2-4 people.  That’s a tiny table to put 2 people at much less 4.  But fine, we measured all the tables in both our houses and found one that qualified.  Next, you must construct a detailed menu for the meal.  Mind you, you won’t ever have to make any of the food or drinks on that menu.  Absolutely no food is allowed on any of the table settings.  So we decided on a princess’ tea theme and BF came up with a mouth watering menu complete with wine pairings supplied by Google.  Thankfully there’s no oral portion to the competition, because we still don’t know how to pronounce on of the wines.  It comes from Spain, and I think they export it to get rid of all the X’s in their language in one shipment.

The imaginary menu has to be displayed as part of the setting and it must be legible to the public from several feet away.  So we picked a fancy swirly font that was still easy to read, put a tiara on top and printed it out on irridescent gold paper.  It looked swanky and whimsical all in one go, so I thought we’d done pretty well.

Next came the settings. All the dishes that would be necessary for the menu you created need to be on the table.  I’d been at an estate sale a few weeks before and found a box of pink rose dishes for $5.  If we sort of shuggled things around, we could use those as the dishes, complete with tea cups and saucers.  We spent an evening trying out loads of combinations, and settled on something so over the top girly, I was sure we couldn’t have been the ones who made it.  Looking through the rules for what order wine glasses get set in, we found a layout of proper table setting for the formal category and decided we were quite happy not being in it.  There is (no kidding) an international standard for plate, silverware and glass placement that the formal entries are judged by.  We can’t agree across national borders on anything important, but we totally have international agreement on which fork goes where on a well set table.  When everything looked good, we took some pictures so we could do it again, and packed it all up into boxes for transporting.

A week before the fair, there are two 4 hour spots available for entrants to set up their tables in Salem.  Since I was camping that weekend, I raced off site at 8am, met BF and her husband at a parking lot halfway and we all raced down to the fairgrounds.

We walked into the cavernous hall and up to the volunteers doing sign in.  They checked BF in, but because their online form didn’t allow multiple names, they didn’t have my name.   They directed us to where our table would be and we headed back out to the car to get the boxes and table.  With all three of us laden with stuff, the volunteer led us over to our spot and gave us the admonition that only BF could set up.  Her husband and I could only supervise.  A little startled, we explained to her that we’d done it as a 2 person team which the posted rules allowed.  She tried to assure us that only one person could enter, but arguing rules with BF, BFs husband and me is maybe the most futile thing anyone on the planet could do.  BF had a copy of the rules in the box with all our gear that we handed over to the volunteer.  She reviewed the rules, checked in with someone else, then came back and told us we were right, we could have 2 people on the team, but the third person absolutely could not touch anything.  So BFs husband stood about 15 feet away watching us with some bemusement.  I have to give the volunteer credit, she was cheerful and working hard at being helpful the whole time.  Faced with the three of us early on a Saturday morning, that’s noteworthy.

We set up our pretty table next to the others that were taking shape.  I felt pretty good about it right up until a woman and her daughter came over to lend us their ruler.  They were setting up the little girl’s entry when they (I think it was the little girl) noticed that we’d forgotten our ruler and were very generously offering to lend theirs to us.  Because without a ruler, the plates and silverware can’t be exactly an inch from the edge of the table.  I had one of those grown up moments where I smiled at the kid and said “thank you” when what I wanted to say was: “What the hell kind of competition is this?! I didn’t forget a ruler!  Why would I need a ruler to set a table!  Who makes rules like that?”  

The kid and mom were awesome for noticing we’d “Forgotten” something and offering to help. But the feminist in my head keeps squinting through the aether at the mom and wondering whose idea it was to teach a little girl crazy formal table setting rules.  Why isn’t she in a science club on a Saturday morning?  And the rational part of my brain responds: “Kids are weird and maybe it really is what makes her happy.  God knows I did weirder things as a kid and none of those got me shiny ribbons”.  We finished adjusting the table, gave the ruler back and headed out through the smoke haze covering the Willamette Valley.

A week later, we came back to the fairgrounds to see how we’d done.   The rain and wind were so strong tents were being blown over, which made the population of the fair deliciously low.  We headed straight for the table settings and were disappointed there were no shiny ribbons on our pretty table.  I was irritated that someone had propped the menu up and knocked over the salt & pepper in the process, then I noticed our judging card and my eye started to twitch.

Every other competition at the fair has a plain, tiny white card next to the entries with the entrants name, the category and maybe the name of their entry.  Any feedback the judges choose to give the entrants is concealed behind the item.  Most of the time, there isn’t any feedback, but after talking with a friend of mine who’s a judge at a different fair, they’re careful to make the feedback encouraging and supportive because they genuinely want people to enter next year.

Table setting is whole different beast.  It’s so different, it may be a three headed marsupial from another planet.  In front of every table was a museum style display podium with an 8½ x 11” sheet in it.  Generally when I see podiums like these, they’re displaying a page that says something like “Leather coat worn by Flight Commander Yevgeniya Zhigulenko.   On loan from the Hermitage Museum”.  This time, however,  it had BFs name in bold pink script at the top, followed by a bulleted list of errors we’d made.  Honestly, I could hear the woman who made sheet saying ‘Bless your heart’ after every statement.  It was somehow worse that she’d taken hours to beautify the judging cards.  Every single corner of paper had a butterfly hand punched out and another butterfly glued somewhere on the center page as an accent.    

judging

I came back a few minutes later and looked at the entries that had won.  Which left me conflicted – were they actually as ugly as I thought or was I just mad I hadn’t won?  First place, well, it was weird and unappealing, but ok, I can see that everything was very precise and with a really simple menu, there’s fewer pieces to put on the table.  Second place just baffled and irritated me though.  For highlights: There was a hand stitched quilt as the tablecloth, the menu was mostly stew and the centerpiece was a cast resin pheasant.  The kind of statue people put in their west hills garden to make it look rustic.  After a little more forensics at the other tables, I’ve come to a few conclusions about the judge

  1. Disapproves of purple.  It’s a bad color.  Maybe a naughty color depending on how you read the comments.
  2. Approves of dusty blues and thin line plaids.  
  3. Approves of anything that looks like it would fit into a swanky forest lodge that’s been decorated to be “rustic”.  I’m pretty sure their version of rustic comes from Perry Mason reruns.
  4. Took the time to put category signs with more butterfly cutouts over every single table.  In addition to the judging sheets.
  5. Wears starched blue gingham dresses and high heels at 5pm every night while sipping a martini garnished with olives on chilled silver toothpicks.   On further thought, I think this is true regardless of the judges gender.  
  6. Loves table settings in a way that may require an intervention from friends and family.  Step away from the Martha Stewart books.
  7. Probably throws epic dinner parties when it’s not fair season.

We’re entering again next year of course.  It was just too weird to not do it again.  And I’ll take table setting over quilting any day – those people are crazy!

 

County Fair Oddities

Entering into county fair competitions can lead to some very strange places. On a whim I checked out the website for our county fair on a Thursday morning.  I thought it might be fun to go that weekend, so I clicked around to see what was interesting.   After the usual pictures of rides, midway games and farm animals, there was a list of competitions with links to their entry books.  I clicked a few of them out of idle curiosity.  

There at the top of each category booklet was the date the entries for all the competitions had to be turned in  and it was that same day by 7pm at the county fairgrounds.  For Multnomah county, that means Oaks Amusement Park, 8 minutes from my house.   Naturally, I spent my lunch break that day at the local MegaMart printing out my favorite photographs and buying card-stock to mount them on.   I spent 20 minutes in the hot midday sun using the back of my car as a craft table picking out flattering colors of card-stock and taping pictures on them to ‘mount’ my pictures. It looked… weird and amateurish, but it met the criteria in the Official Officious Fair Photography Booklet.  I made it back to my desk after my lunch break with 2 minutes to spare.  The second I finished work at 5pm I jetted across town to pick up a beach bag as my second entry.

You may be wondering why I had a beach bag waiting at home to enter in a county fair.  It’s because I wanted something completely insane again and making it was the least infuriating option.  Last fall I went to Hawaii for a week and I wanted a beach bag.   Nothing elaborate, just something cheery that would do what *I* thought a beach bag should do: hold my swimsuit, towel, wallet, sunblock, iPod, book and a water bottle in a reasonable manner.  You know where this is going right?   I want my wet swimsuit and towel to go in the bag without ruining my book.  I want my phone, wallet and iPod to be easily accessible instead of sliding inevitably  under every other damn thing.  I don’t enjoy looking like a harebrained idiot fishing for gold in the bottom of my bag when I try to pay for something.  Also, if I get my bottle of water out of my bag, I don’t want it to catch on the leg of my spare underwear and slingshot it across the tour bus to land on the tour guides ex-Army-Ranger head.  What?! It’s hot and muggy in Hawaii, sweat happens and I am not putting sweaty underwear back on after I go swimming.  

Anyway, you absolutely can buy a bag that does all the ridiculously unreasonable things I wanted, but they cost between $400 and $1,000.  If I had that much money laying around, I’d be spending a second week in Hawaii.  So I designed a bag that did what I wanted and got all the fabric from garage sales and goodwill bins.  It was a fun quest to find materials that were both pretty and not so icky I couldn’t bear to touch them.  No, I’m not being squeamish, the Goodwill bins can be a biological adventure requiring gloves.  I spent about $15 on supplies and even scored a batch of heavy duty zippers from goodwill.  The bag worked great on my trip, but that’s another story.

Off I rushed to the fairgrounds through the remains of rush hour with my pictures and beach bag.  I pulled into the creepy empty parking lot and considered driving directly back home.  There’s nothing quite like sitting in the only car in a vast lot and looking into an empty, silent amusement park at twilight.  Well, there’s nothing quite like it outside of the opening minutes of a horror movie.  I kept hearing Sam’s’ voice from Supernatural saying “And Clowns can Kill!” as I wandered around the empty amusement park.  Eventually, I saw a folding wooden sign with “Entries” blazoned on it and an arrow pointing to the main hall.   Hoping it was, in fact, the county fair competition entries instead of the lure to the gory first death scene in the movie writing itself in my head, I went up the stairs into the hall. Inside was stiflingly hot.  It felt like hitting a heat wall going through the front door – there was no air conditioning, or event fans.  the only air movement was from people walking around.  Perfectly normal, alive, not-zombie people were doing frantic setting-up things all over the place.  I stood there sweating and reading the 2 dozen signs posted, hung or draped around the building trying to figure out where I was supposed to be.

All around the giant hall, there were volunteers sitting at paper covered tables surrounded by oddly organized piles of handmade goods.  Each volunteer looked like some kind of feudal lord surveying their crafted competition fief – complete with a cardboard sign hanging vaguely overhead showing the name of their particular estate: “Preserved Foods”, “Quilts”, “Textiles”, “Unknown organic items that took 80+ hours of work to do something unrecognizable as art”, etc.  With every second, it looked less like a killer clown movie and more like Green Acres.  Queue new mental soundtrack.

I approached the lady of the Textiles domain and after hearing my petition to enter my beach bag, she told me my entry would go better with sewing.  I rambled around the hall until I found a trio of women surrounded by piles of cheerful, but unidentifiable, fabric items.  They sounded like they were having a fabulous golden girls reunion and asked what I was entering.  When I described it, they popped open their newspaper print fair manual and huddled around as the shortest one ran her finger down the columns until they found the categories my bag was closest to; hand sewn bags or a reclaimed fabric category.  There was also a reclaimed yarn category…which i didn’t know was a thing and I’m intrigued by.  The merry trio decided I should enter the reclaimed fabric section and filled out the paperwork for me.   

When they were done, the golden girls sent me to the photography table in the center of the hall.  Four big tables with one frantic volunteer in a green 4-H shirt in the center muttering and trying to figure out where her predecessor had put all the paper work.  I told her I had photographs to enter and without ever looking up from the piles of papers she was shuffling, she handed me a form with a big 4-H symbol on the top.  I asked if she had any not-4-H forms and her voice got even more vague and confused.  We had a strange circular conversation about whether I’d filled out paperwork which started and ended with me saying ‘If you tell me where the form is, I’ll fill it out’.   She finally looked directly at me and in an annoyed voice said ‘are you a member of 4-H?’  Since I’m closer to 40 than 14,  I told her no.  After a thoughtful pause I told her the women at the sewing area had sent me directly to her.

With that flash of irritation that happens at every volunteer run event anywhere in the world she rolled her eyes and pointed to where the grown ups are supposed to enter their photographs.  Remember the vaguely hung signs?  For photography it was behind a constructed backdrop where no one could ever see it.  Because photographers are supposed to be psychic – I didn’t know until that moment, but I’ll do my best to fake it.

Inside the hidden photography section was a volunteer sitting quietly at a table looking tolerant.  It’s the look people get when they’re embarrassed by their family, but saying anything at all would just make the situation so much worse.  There were 3 women trying to put entry labels on their photographs.  One woman was sitting just a smidge too close to the volunteer – shared arm-hair-space too close.  Two giant tables, lots of chairs and she needed to sit that close.  He was frozen in place with his arms locked to the paper tablecloth while carefully answering all her questions about the photo tags.  The photo tags, mind you, get your name in the space labeled bafflingly ‘name’, a 3-5 word description of the photo on another line and a standard code for the category you’re entering.  Then you fold it in half and use that modern marvel cellophane tape to attach it to your photograph.  They’re just not complicated and she was working soooo hard at asking him questions.

The other two women were at a different table and trying very hard to be brave: terrified of trying something new and babbling in fear sort of brave.  Neither of them had ever entered a photography contest and were egging each other on to get all the tags filled out correctly.  They tried to get me to help, but their fright at getting something wrong started infecting me and I resorted to telling them to ask the volunteer.  I’d never bloody entered a picture before either and I wasn’t nervous about being judged until I listened to the two of them.  I’d have felt bad about redirecting them, but I figure the two frantic women were probably still better company than the too-close woman.

I got my entries tagged and turned in and escaped to the much cooler breeze outside.   Back through the empty amusement park to my lone car in it’s giant parking lot.  Either everyone else in that building rode their bike, or there’s a parking lot on the other side of that park that I never did find.  Or I did walk in and out of a horror movie and no one in the building was real.  Probably not though.

We came back that weekend to play at the fair and I felt like a little kid hunting for my entries all over the main hall to see how I’d done.  Past the dozen handmade aprons, after the biggest zucchini competition and opposite the chocolate cake display I found my beach bag and it had a big blue ribbon it!  There might have been a little dancing around while my husband laughed.  Then I wound around the temporary wall maze covered with all the photography entries looking for my pictures.  There they were among all those other lovely pictures with a red ribbon on one and a white ribbon on another!  It’s amazing how those little ribbons can make an adult giggle and dance like a 4 year that’s just been handed a giant lollipop.  We spent several hours playing around the fair afterwards, riding rides, eating terrible food and maybe once, sneaking back in to admire my ribbons when no one was looking.  

There’s a 4 hour window on Sunday right after the fair closes when all the entries have to be picked up.  I raced away from a lovely BBQ with friends to pick up my entries before they shut down for the night.  The volunteers were trying to be polite, but they needed a sign at the door that just said: “We’re exhausted, we don’t care anymore, please take your crap and go so we can get home and sleep”.  When I collected my photos after it was all over, that same tolerant volunteer guy was there.  He made sure to let me know that my pictures probably would have done better if I’d matted them properly.  I explained about the cardboard and the rule book and he sighed that volunteer sigh and said he knew.  He’d already fixed the rule book for next year.  I wondered how long he’d had to be polite to too-close lady on entry day, but I couldn’t think of any way to ask that would have him laughing instead of tiredly flinching.  

Off I headed home with my $10 prize money, 3 ribbons and an odd mini cross stitch kit.  I’m hooked on using fairs as deadlines to get craft projects done now.  I get shiny ribbons for doing things I already want to do.  Why didn’t anyone tell my inner magpie about this before?  I think I’ll try the State fair while I wait for them to mail me next years competitors handbook for the county fair.

Creative Killer

Cynicism is a gleeful, gore splashed serial killer of creativity. Like Dexter, but with less of a sense of humor. I’m a programmer, obligated by a contract with the Tech gods to consume levels of caffeine non-tech people can only shudder at the thought of. We sign the contract with ink made from pure white caffeine and rage, making a murky magenta ink on the contract. So pursuant to my contractual obligations, this morning, I walked over to Starbucks to get some coffee. Don’t judge. The people are nice and I can get a coffee for $.50. I always take my own mug with me so I don’t have to listen to the voice in my head telling me I’m going to hell for creating unnecessary fodder for the landfill monsters. Ok, not always, but enough to keep the screaming environmentalist in my head at bay.
I actually think that particular voice isn’t me, it’s the disembodied consciousness born from the unwashed thousands in the Northwest forests wearing tie dye, communing with nature, lighting up and trying to cover the smell with rancid patchouli. If you’ve lived here long enough, regardless of what you do with your days, you will start to hear that voice. I was born here, I never had a chance.
I am a very forgetful person at work. I get totally caught up in what I’m working on and will literally bump into walls because I’m still re-coding web apps in my head when I take a bathroom break. We don’t really need to discuss what that looks like. I used to bring cool mugs to work for my drinks because they’re fun and can make a bad day a little better. But I’ve lost, forgotten, or misplaced all of them. For a while I downgraded to totally generic mugs so it didn’t matter if I lost them, and those disappeared even more quickly in conference rooms because everyone thought they must be their mugs.
It doesn’t escape me that this could be prevented by putting our names on our mugs like we did on our clothes in first grade. But I’m not doing it. Because how awesome would I look bumping into walls WHILE holding a mug with my name on it. No. Just, No. As a side note, it has occurred to me to carry a mug with someone else’s name on it and see who calls me by that name because they can’t remember mine…
In a perfect world, my coffee mug would be inexpensive to replace, easily replaceable, unique enough that I won’t forget it, but not so unique that anyone else wants it. You didn’t know coffee cups were so complicated did you? Solution: a travel mug that has a paper insert space. People usually put pictures of their kids in them – then we all watch as their kids faces slowly yellow and dissolve over the course of years from the daily exposure to coffee. No matter how cute the kid was, they look like a picture from a depression era side show in 6 months. Instead of a picture, I made mine a lunchtime craft project. I spent about 2 hours picking my favorite movie quotes and writing them all over the paper in different fonts. Geeky, distinctively mine, and as a bonus, it acts as a sci-fi nerd detector. I think it’s neat, but if it disappeared tomorrow, I’d happily make another one and not miss it.
So today, I go over to Starbucks and hand over my mug for a fill up. While they waited for my brew the two overly chipper baristas behind the counter started reading my mug. Do you think they’re required to drink 2 espressos an hour to maintain that almost psychotic level of cheer? They were smiling and pointing out quotes they liked and asked if I’d made it. I said yes and they smiled and said it was cool looking. And I felt briefly awesome, because I’d made something that other people admired.
Then that nasty cynical voice that’s always hanging around just out of sight hissed forth: “Of course they’re admiring it, it’s good business to make your customers want to come back. Personal compliments are an easy way to do that. It’s probably part of the corporate culture to require them to make positive comments about customers.” And for a second, I looked away from the creativity I’d enjoyed and cynicism murdered it. So quickly and so quietly, that no one would ever know, and even I almost didn’t notice.
For just a moment, there in the corner of the coffee shop, I could see a dissolving corpse: splashed with fading vitality, dusted with tarnished pieces of joy still clutching colored pens. I wonder how many times today he shanked other people’s creativity with whichever implement was nearby. A cutting remark from a passing pedestrian, a confused look from a friend, or just directing attention elsewhere so wonderful things go unnoticed.
Well F**K THAT. Today, I’m writing and keeping an eye out for people to encourage. Tonight, I’ll cook something without the recipe and afterwards, I’ll make a piece of jewelry with whatever supplies inspire me. I may not be able to kill him, but maybe I can starve him into submission. Gotta go, I need to get a pie crust, copper wire and a piece of rebar on my way home.