Our next guest post comes courtesy of one of my favorite contributors from last year: father, teacher, and writer Nicholas Stirling. I couldn’t help but be ecstatic when he agreed to contribute again, and that he wrote TWO pieces for my maternity-blogging-leave.
In this first piece, he writes about an experience that required the strongest and very best from him…among a group of elderly, blue-haired ladies! Read on to find out what the competition was about!
It’s probably part of the genetic code, a result of evolution’s need to perpetuate the swift and the strong over the weak and nerdy. It is why professional sports exist, why kids wrestle on the playground, and why family games of Monopoly frequently dissolve into screaming matches and tears. It is the shiver that runs down your spine when Rocky (Rocky I Rocky, not stupid Rocky VI “Revenge of the Old Man: Rocky) gets up from his stool for one more round. It is the echo of the words, “I’ll race you for it,” in your ears.
Competition is why, on a Wednesday evening, when I should have been prepping for my role as “the new guy” at Meet the Teacher Night, I was instead parking my car at the Ancaster Fairgrounds.
Sitting next to me in the passenger seat were two Ziploc bags and an inch-thick yellow file folder. Before me stood Marritt Hall, my battleground. Taking a deep breath, I went in.
I found myself in a building buzzing with activity. The foyer was filled with cut and live plants, their owners preening and arranging them with exquisite care. People slipped past me carrying their own packages and folders, some with dollies and carts and — in one case — a wheelbarrow. I sized them all up with what I hoped would be interpreted as the eye of the tiger. But I quickly noticed something about my fellow competitors.
They were all women.
To be more specific, they were all elderly women.
I would say the median age was about 68.
Yes, the competition was stiff at the Ancaster Fall Fair this year. These were the grizzled veterans of the regional home-craft circuit, the blue-haired professionals that had seen scores of young men like me walk in with heads high and walk out with dreams dashed on the polished concrete floor. They barely spared a look in my direction as I carried in my photographs and set them in the appropriate piles.
“Category 56A #11, Song Title: Named,” I muttered to myself, dropping off my first photographic entry from my yellow file folder. “Category 56A #3, Wild Grape Vine. Category 56A #7, Fallen Trees. Category 56A #20, Like Father Like Son / Like Mother Like Daughter (people only).” (I’m not sure what the organizers worried might appear had they not specified this category as “people only.” Adopted monkey children? Cardboard cutouts? Old men with wooden puppet-boys that they had carved for company?)
But let’s be honest here: photography at the Fall Fair is bush-league. Any goof with a camera can take a picture of a caterpillar (Category 56A #16, Creepy Crawlers) and glue it to the regulation black Bristol board (one inch on all sides, hole-punched top centre, exhibitor tag stapled top right corner). With my pictures handed in, I was ready to enter into the top-level categories, the main events, the championship matches of the Fair.
The retired women there were a whole different breed. Their hands were knotted into arthritic, dough-kneading claws. Gold Medal flour had settled into the lines on their faces. Some still smelled vaguely of the sourdough cultures that had been passed down to them from 18th century batches first grown in the old countries. Chocolate smeared their aprons like the blood of fallen enemies.
They bustled to and fro, setting down their carefully arranged paper plates piled high with tarts (Category 50 #14, Butter Tarts — 3 — with raisins — no nuts), fudge (Category 50 #36, Chocolate Fudge — 6 pieces), or squares (Category 50 #35 Squares — 3 — Exhibitor’s Choice — named).
And there I stood amidst them, holding my three squat cookies (Category 50 #28, Chocolate Chip Cookies — 3) and my lumpy, misshapen loaf of whole wheat bread (Category 50 #2, Loaf — Whole Wheat Bread), towering over them physically but feeling suddenly very, very small. One old biddy sneered up at me as she went by, muttering something under her breath about “falling standards.”
I held out no hope as I found the cookie display. There were scores of other plates there, chocolate chip cookies packed three by three (as per regulations) onto the shelves. And while I was there, not a one was dropped off by another thirty-year-old man. Blue-haired ladies, all of them.
The bread section was no better. Piled high with loaves that looked like they had been plucked from a Parisian bakery’s display window, I was even more ashamed of my bread entry. I placed it next to the least perfect entry I could find, avoided meeting the eyes of any of the old ladies, and slinked away.
We went to the fair a few days later, when the judging was over and the verdicts rendered. My in-laws came for moral support.
“Should we save Marritt Hall for the end,” they asked me, “or should we go there first?”
I told them that we might just as well get the suspense over with.
I steered clear of the baking and went straight for the photos. I had hoped to pick up at least a few third places finishes ($4 prize), but was pleasantly surprised to see that I had not one, but two first place finishes (Category 56A #4, Winter Wonderland, and Category 56A #21, Pretty in Pink (Breast Cancer Awareness))!
I swelled with pride, victorious over a field of amateur photographers that represented the best that my town of 32 000 people could offer. I was, however, slightly crestfallen that I had not won in Category 56A #10, Trick or Treat, and briefly considered filing a grievance as per Fair regulations.
I was distracted from this line of thought by a cheer from across the hall. I rushed over to see what my wife was yelling about, and saw this:
That’s right. That is a fifth place ribbon. I bet you didn’t even think that they had those, but we here in Ancaster like to spread out our winnings.
More excitingly, a few cases over, my in-laws were standing in front of this:
The winner of this category also won the “Best Bread in the Show” award; it came with an absurdly large red ribbon and a free pass to the Western Fair bread competition, which I guess is like the Super Bowl of baking events. As such, I felt that that second place was no small achievement.
I’ll see you next year, blue-haired ladies. And you’d better bring your A-game, cause this time I’m coming after that Fleischmann’s Yeast Special Prize (Category 50 #4, White Bread — Proof of Purchase Required — Half Loaf).
Nicholas Stirling wants to be a writer. However, he also wants to be an educational theorist, a stand-up comedian, a university professor, the first man to successfully net the Loch Ness monster, and Batman. In the meantime, he enjoys being a teacher and raising his little girl, Abby, while frequently baking chocolate chip cookies with his wife. He has been published on Cracked.com and in Morpheus Tales, has a 2nd degree Black Belt, and once ate an entire package of bacon as a meal. He blogs regularly on Exercising Monsters, a site that he originally started to stave off cabin fever while he was unemployed and desperate to be a novelist.