January 8: Sunday, 4:00 PM. Susan is next to me on the couch, sleeping. Tommy (the cat) is sitting next to her, eyes closed, content. Roz (the other cat) is in the recliner, sound asleep. Sophie is in the next room, separated from us by a half wall, a large open window between the rooms. She’s not sleeping—she’s drawing—which is only one step above sleeping on the relaxing-activity-scale.
Eli is away at the Y playing in the pool with a friend, so he doesn’t fit into this part of the story.
Susan and I are in our sunroom. It was the selling point of the house. Once the original patio, it was finished into a living space two owners prior to us. Two of the walls are floor to ceiling windows. Thirty linear feet. It’s like sitting outdoors, but it’s warm. Twenty degrees outside, but our heat is cranking. I can see the steam escaping from our furnace through one of the glass walls.
The sun is setting, bathing me in its weak light, filtered by the leafless woods behind my house, filtered by its early January angle to our hemisphere. An Asian noodle soup simmers on the stove, the exotic aroma fills the house. Everything is quiet, peaceful.
Everyone is in a shit-mood.
This morning, we visited the Pennsylvania Farm Show. Think of a summer 4-H fair, but it’s 100% indoors. Twenty-four sprawling acres. Show arenas, rodeo arenas, vendors, competitions, a fourteen-pound potato, a twelve by fourteen-foot butter sculpture. We go every year. Literally. In the twelve years we’ve lived in Pennsylvania, we’ve been to the Farm Show twelve times.
Harrisburg, the state capital, is only a fifty-minute drive from home. Parking is easy, and because we arrive early, the shuttle-bus service is uncluttered and quick. We’ve made the Farm Show into a routine. Arrive; grab a potato-donut (that’s a Pennsylvania thing) in the food court; stroll through the animal pens; gape at the butter sculpture, check out the best-in-show pumpkins, cookies, breads, wines, photographs, Christmas trees, asparagus bundles, jarred peaches, quilts, etc, etc, etc; mosey through the rabbit and chicken room and marvel at the dozens of species.
Every year, we end in the farm machinery section which abuts the food court. For years, this was the highlight, because, well, little kids love big machines. But as our kids have aged, we’re all much more interested in the pre-fab hunting cabins they show in the same area. Susan’s dream is to live in a tiny-house, and seeing full living spaces no larger than a butter sculpture is enticing to her.
We buy our maple candy, and get back on the bus. Three hours—not long enough to get bored, and we’ve seen everything we came to see. An easy, enjoyable morning. Usually.
Last year, after the rabbit room, we got sucked into an arena; we watched a rodeo pre-qualifying event. An educational hour—for us—we know nothing about rodeos. A relaxing hour. But still an hour of disruption to our tight routine. And that was our mistake. We left the arena into the densest crowd I’ve ever experienced.
A wide hallway, maybe thirty-yards long with a staircase on either end to act as a funneling barrier. A sea of people pressed together flowing like lava. Susan and I protectively positioned around Eli, still small enough to get crushed under the wave. Shuffling, inches at a time. Half the crowd pressing its way in, half the crowd trying to leave. Twenty minutes to pass through the hall. Every second waiting for disaster. A terrorist attack, a stampede, a fight. My mind replaying newscasts of Muslims being trampled and crushed to death on their annual pilgrimage to Mecca.
I don’t like crowds. Actually, my normal mantra is “I don’t like people.” At least in person: I have a hard time conversing. When writing, things are different. Witty email exchanges are one of my favorite activities. But crowds, I never like crowds. In the Farm Show hallway, I simmered on the edge of an anxiety attack. Racing pulse, shallow breath, my mind flashing through catastrophic scenarios. A meditative focus on reason and breath got me through the hallway. But the damage was done. The fear lingered, apparently for a year.
Some lessons cannot be learned. This morning when we arrived at the Farm Show, we again broke from routine. We immediately entered an arena to watch a demonstration of the techniques police on horseback use to disburse angry, unruly mobs. Susan and the kids enjoyed the riding, the horses, the environment in the arena. Me? I took notes. Certain that one day soon, I’ll be part of an unruly mob being manipulated by mounted cops. The program lasted an hour.
We left the arena to begin our Farm Show routine. The animal pens, the baked-goods displays, the produce competition, the butter sculpture. Throughout it all, the crowd was much thicker than usual. By stopping in the arena, we disrupted our carefully honed schedule. We missed the early morning emptiness. By the time we reached the chickens and rabbits, we were snapping at each other.
It’s amazing what impact one person can have on a group. As we browsed the displays, a vision of navigating that crowded hallway lingered in the back of my mind. This Farm Show experience was shaping up to be a repeat of last year. My body language, my silence, my clipped responses all pointed to stress. In my family, stress is a contagious disease. And in my family, when we’re stressed, we argue. We argued about food, we argued about money, we argued about what to see next, and ultimately, we just got the hell out.
The hallway was crowded, but not packed. My fear was irrational, unfounded. I unnecessarily ruined the morning with my anxiety. The bus ride back to our car was awkward. The drive home to Gettysburg was silent. When we got home, we each mumbled something of an apology; then we each went off to find a way to relax. Eli swimming; Sophie drawing; Susan sleeping; I wrote this.