The Unexpected Anxiety of Fall Festival Season

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You know it’s coming. For some of you, it might already be here. Or maybe, wherever it is you live, perhaps it’s already passed. If so, congratulations. Here in Florida, though, it’s just about to start. Fall festival season. Also known as the time of year when my anxiety about disappointing carnival workers and going broke buying 25-cent stuffed animals for five dollars really starts to ramp up.

Can you feel that hint of autumn freshness in the air? I can’t. Partly because it’s still 90 degrees here most days and partly because I’m worried about happening upon a carnival I didn’t know about when the kids are with me in the car.

This happened last year. I make a point of keeping a mental map of where the festivals are in our area and a rough calendar of when they arrive and depart. That way, I can avoid driving past any of those locations during carnival dates.

Last year, though, I failed. One afternoon, we were driving to the park, just minding our own business, when suddenly an involuntary groan emanated from the very core of my beleaguered soul and escaped out of my mouth. I had seen it first. The hint of a Ferris wheel just beyond the stand of trees on the right. I rested my elbow on the steering wheel so that the palm of my hand could support the weight of my stupid head that had clearly not been doing its most important job.

About five seconds later, the shrieking from the backseat began.

Needless to say, we didn’t make it to the park that day.

Rather, we pulled into the large empty field that seems to hold no purpose other than hosting this small carnival each fall. There is a rutted dirt path that picks up where the asphalt from the street leaves off that is guarded by a swinging metal gate you might see on a cattle pen. There is no fence anywhere, just the lonely gate and a sagging oak tree standing watch.

Because it was around 3:30 on a Thursday afternoon, there were no more than five cars scattered about the field of matted grass.

“Well, at least it’s not too crowded,” I thought, stupidly.

The fair was set up like an alley with rides on both sides and game booths down the middle. There was only one way in and out. Once we bought our ride tickets (like 20 for $30 or something similarly ridiculous), we were trapped.

At each game booth and little kids’ ride we were besieged by bored carnival workers.

“Hey dad! Fishing game right here,” they said. “I’ll let them keep playing until they win.”

That sounded good until you realized winning meant that in return for five dollars each, they got to pull plastic fish out of the water with toy fishing rods, which took about fifteen seconds, so that they could receive a genuine stuffed animal (retail price: approximately fifty cents).

“Umm, maybe on our way out,” I stammered with my most awkward smile plastered on my face.

“Ok. I’ll be here!”

Crap. He was right. He would be there. And I couldn’t count on the crowd of seven total fair goers to help me blend in. This was turning into my worst nightmare.

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As we made our way along the festival alleyway, I was accosted by literally every game attendant. I didn’t have much cash on me, but I seriously considered finding an ATM so as not to disappoint any of them. Sure, finances are tight with three kids, but when the choice is stick to a budget or personally disappoint people, I’m genetically predisposed to spending with reckless abandon.

“Maybe next time,” I tried to say at a few of the games.

“OK. We’ll be here,” they replied.

Crap. They were really good at this.

To simplify matters, I emptied the contents of my wallet onto the ground and started tossing dollar bills, five-dollar Target gift cards, Dunkin Donuts game pieces, and a membership card to the science center in the direction of every festival worker I could find.

Eventually, I hit upon an alternative strategy. The ride attendants were typically less aggressive than the game attendants, so I instructed the boys to walk with me as close to the rides as possible. When the attendant at the ring toss turned her back, we darted past, hugging close to the haunted house.

This strategy worked very poorly. Primarily because my kids are terrible at following directions and are even worse at subterfuge. Instead, they zig zagged back and forth, admiring the cheaply-made plush monkeys hanging from a string in front of the water gun shooting booth.

“Want to give it a shot, dad? See what kind of aim you have?” the attendant asked.

“HAHAHA,” I responded for some reason as I herded the kids back toward the festival entrance/exit.

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We stopped on the way out to ride this little train thing that just slowly drives around an oval for about one minute. The boys loved it more than I’ve ever loved anything. We rode it twice, which pretty much exhausted all our ride tickets. Thirty dollars well spent.

All that was left to do was escape to the car, which was easier said than done because we had to pass by the fishing guy. And yes, he was there as promised.

Short story shorter, the boys fished out plastic fish from a kiddie pool, which pleased them inordinately. As promised, they received their prizes: miniature stuffed sharks. They loved the sharks so much that they carried them around for a couple days and then deposited them in our heap of stuffed animals that lives either on the shelf in the playroom or on the floor.

It took a bit of cajoling and promises to return soon to get them to the car, but we finally made it. As we drove away, I took a few deep breaths to calm my raging anxiety and promised myself never again. But, now that I’m writing this and thinking about the boys’ exuberant faces, I can already feel myself caving.

I’m sure it will be fine. I mean, what could go wrong? Remember how I laughed for some reason when the water gun game guy talked to me and then we ran away? It can’t get much worse than that and I survived! Sure, I think about it most nights when I’m lying in bed, but, really, I’m totally cool with it now.

And this time, I’ll be better prepared. When the game attendants start hassling me by asking politely if I’d like to play their game, I will confidently say, “No thank you. Not this time…maybe next time around. We’ll be back in five minutes…I’m out of money. What is a game? Where is the bathroom? Is that a falling star up there?”

That should do it.


For more from Explorations of Ambiguity by Andrew Knott, like us on Facebook and sign up here to get the latest updates right in your inbox! My book, Fatherhood: Dispatches From the Early Years, is available at Amazon.