On the other side of the table – Iowa State Fair

With every presentation I made as a 4-H member, getting to the Iowa State Fair was my goal. Each year, I did my best, yet it was never enough to go beyond the county level. The judges always chose someone else, and I was always disappointed. I spent some time railing against the unfairness of the judges, let me tell you.

Seventeen peanut brittle entries waiting for the judges.

Seventeen peanut brittle entries waiting for the judges.

As an adult living only four miles from the fairgrounds, the allure of the State Fair remains strong. I’m always eager to attend. A couple of years ago, I entered a quilt and earned a third place ribbon. For once, I was delighted.

It didn’t occur to join the judging ranks myself until this year when Des Moines Register columnist Kyle Munson announced on FaceBook that he was looking for judges to join him for the new peanut brittle competition.

Peanut brittle is one of my favorite candies. I make it every year. Seemed like those were qualifications enough to judge. I signed up.

When the day rolled around, I was ready. And excited. And hungry.

Seventeen entries greeted us. A respectable number for the first year, and a number we figured two judges could get through in the hour allotted. Volunteers supplied plates, napkins, and damp clothes, along with crackers and water to cleanse our palates. A writer sat beside each judge, to record our comments, tally scores, and keep things moving.

Spectators filled the chairs, leaning forward in anticipation, straining to hear our words, watching our faces as we sampled from each plate. Some hoping, no doubt, to be judged the winner. With their eyes on me, I felt the weight of responsibility.

The task was more challenging than I imagined it would be. Judging is a subjective task, maybe more so when it comes to food. The score sheet with it’s weighted percentages for Taste, Texture, and the nebulous Other Considerations gave some structure to the process. But even with that, there were so many reasons to have different opinions.

  • Was the best peanut brittle the one that was most like the recipe I make and love dearly?
  • Was it one of those with unexpected ingredients, like dried Kalamata olives or cayenne pepper and mustard or the perennial State Fair favorite bacon?
  • Or one of those stretched so thin with forks you could almost see through the brittle?
Judging at the State Fair level is serious business.

Judging at the State Fair level is serious business.

As it turns out, 17 entries is a lot to judge in only one hour. One little taste of an entry, savor the flavor, consider the texture, note whether it stuck to my teeth, take into account how it was presented. Make comments. Assign scores. Eat a soda cracker. Drink water. On to the next entry.

After we evaluated each salty/sweet brittle individually, Kyle and I went behind the curtain to discuss and decide on the final winners. We emerged with three ribbon winners and an honorable mention. The crowd applauded the results. The blue ribbon winners cheered.

Judging peanut brittle taught me a lot. Being a judge is tough. You want to be fair, you want to reward the best, but best is relative. I can be more empathetic with the judges that kept me out of the State Fair all those years ago. I still don’t like it, but I empathize with their challenge. And I empathize with those who entered full of anticipation and didn’t win. Judging can be as bitter sweet as entering.

In case you’re wondering, we awarded the blue ribbon to a wonderful peanut brittle that included a hint of coconut and was served up in a little red bucket with tissue paper. I’ll be trying that secret ingredient myself come the holidays.

Going deep inside – Perspective 3

Carlsbad Caverns - "Curtains"

These “drapery” formations evoke a whale’s mouth.

Recently, I’ve considered perspective from high up in a hot air balloon and up close at Cadillac Ranch. I also had a chance to go deep with a visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.

I’ve been in caves before, but always in the company of others. I toured the massive spaces of Carlsbad Caverns on my own.

I walked to the Big Room (rather than take the elevator) via the Natural Entrance Trail, a steep descent of 1 1/4 mile that takes approximately an hour. I’d never been so deep under the earth’s surface. What would it smell like? Feel like? Sound like? Would I be afraid to be nearly 800 feet under the earth’s surface?

Carlsbad Caverns - Stelagtites

Stalactites connect to stalagmites and eventually form pillars.

With conscious dawdling, I let other visitors overtake and pass me on the trail, leaving me to soak in the experience alone.

The trail was dimly lit and impressive formations enjoyed greater lighting, but there were points where the space was darker. I found those places, stood still, closed my eyes and waited, exploring sensory input as it reached me.

Underground, no traffic, wind, or animal sounds penetrate. Would I be able to hear anything? I stilled the noise in my head and waited. Eventually, there it was, the sound of a water drop plinking into a pool. Not often, not regularly, but there.

Eyes closed, I soaked in total blackness. No street lights, no car lights, no sun, no moon. Impenetrable black. After a few minutes, still turned toward the darkest place in the cave, I opened my eyes. I could barely make out the black pool where the water drops fell. That was with the faintest trail light bleeding in. I wonder what else there was in the darkest places my eyes could not reach?

"Popcorn" created fairy villages and Oriental shrines.

“Popcorn” forms fairy villages and Oriental shrines.

Temperatures in the cave are a constant 56 degrees year around. At one point, I turned to look back up the trail and felt a breeze against my face. As I considered why they might be ventilating the cave, I happened upon a trail sign. As it turns out I’d come upon the one spot in the cave where a natural draft from the surface finds its way deep underground. I chuckled.

After an hour and a quarter on the trail, when I finally reached the Big Room, I had a passing thought that I’d seen all I needed to see. Could there really be enough to hold my interest? Oh, my, yes. The name ‘Big Room’ understates the treasures of a cavern the size of six football fields – a cavern large enough to house Notre Dame Cathedral.

Carlsbad Caverns - Pillars

Pillars as tall as Notre Dame Cathedral reached the top of the Big Room.

Walking the trails that wound through the Big Room took another hour. Along the way, I saw formations that were whimsical, naughty, majestic. reminiscent of Broadway shows and Biblical stories.

Rather than fear, I felt awe. These caves have been forming for hundreds of thousands of years. Some of the formations are still growing. Long before people existed. Long after people are gone. These caverns were, are, and will be.

Touring Carlsbad Caverns reminded me of the work memoir writers do as we dig deep in the experiences of our lives and try to make sense of it all. Memoir writers who do the hard work go into the dark places and discover unexpected treasures. The experience may make them laugh or cry. It may be irreverent or holy. But in doing so, the writer learns some of the truth of her life. With luck, she then writes a story that conveys that truth to the reader.

From high above – Perspective

It's a whole different perspective from the ground.

It’s a whole different perspective from the ground.

Hot air balloons float over my house in Des Moines with some regularity in the summer. I’ve watched from the ground and wondered what it would be like to go up in one. What would it feel like? What would I hear? What would I see? How would it be differing than looking at the ground from an airplane seat?

The soft arms of a saguaro reach toward us.

The soft arms of a saguaro reach toward us.

Being up in a balloon would provide an entirely different perspective. Of that I was certain. When I visited my sister in Tucson, we agreed it was time. A first-ever opportunity for both of us.

I’ll cut to the chase. The entire experience was magnificent.

Early morning light painted a soft fringe on the saguaro cacti. Were it not for this flight, I’d never have thought to describe a saguaro as “soft.”

Our shadow preceded us as we flew toward Sombrero Peak.

Our shadow preceded us as we flew toward Sombrero Peak.

Floating along at 400 feet, we spotted javelinas, coyotes, deer, and rabbits threading through the cacti, skirting around buildings, traveling close, but not too close, to each other. From this perspective, we saw them all exist in the same territory, aware of each other perhaps, but for the moment in a live-and-let-live mode.

I felt child-like delight watching the shadow of our balloon against the mountains as we drifted along.

Right over the top of Sombrero Peak.

Right over the top of Sombrero Peak.

With blasts of heat from the burner – the only sound disturbing the morning silence – we rose to 2,000+ feet and crested Sombrero Peak in the Tucson Mountains. Our pilot who’d been flying for 30 years had never flown directly over this peak. His delight made me think how wonderful it is to discover new pleasure in something you do all the time.

Light and dark shadows on the mountain range.

Light and dark shadows on the mountain range.

From greater heights, we enjoyed the patterns of fields, a quarry, and the mountain range – designs we could never take in with our feet on the ground.

Recently, I wrote about Cadillac Ranch and the importance of taking a closer look. There’s equal value to getting the “30,000-ft” view.

In life and in writing, it helps to step back (or in this case, ‘up’) every once in a while. To get away from the minutiae. To see how the larger pieces fit together. To gain new perspectives on what I thought I knew.

Thanks for joining me on this flight of fancy. How do you step away from the details and gain bigger picture perspective? Please share.