Caucuses… what’s the point?

Tonight I participated in my first ever caucus. I had always been intimidated by them because, well, I had no idea what really went on at them, and I didn’t know anyone who ever went. But reading about them on Barack Obama‘s website, I realized that like a flu shot it’s quick and painless, so I went.

I suppose if I were really active in party politics, it might have been worthwhile. There were lots of people sitting in rows of chairs listening to an amiable guy fumbling his way through whatever he was supposed to be doing. (At one point, someone in the crowd spoke up that no one had seen the agenda, and asked if he could quickly go over it, which prompted him to yell over to someone else at the registration table and ask if anyone had the agenda. This was shortly after he had asked if anyone might volunteer to be secretary for the night’s meeting.)

But most of us were just there to say who we want to be the next president, or at least the person the Democrats put forth to potentially become the next president, so we queued up, “voted” (such as it was) and walked out.

I did actually linger for a few minutes after voting, but mainly because my son was already comfortable in a chair watching the proceedings, not that he even realized — or cared — why we were there. (I’m sure he was just thinking about Super Metroid.) I also wanted to chat with a neighbor who had shown up a few minutes after us.

Although the general experience was about how I had envisioned it (albeit more “church basement”-like, which should not have been surprising, given it was being held in a church basement), I was thoroughly surprised by the voting process itself. I already expected it not to be secret, but I was taken aback at just how informal it was. After signing in, I was handed a small, cut piece of yellow paper (reused from something — it appeared to be part of a flyer) and told it was my ballot. I was instructed to write the name of my candidate on the paper, and then I handed it to someone else holding a large envelope stuffed with similar slips of yellow paper.

And that’s it. About as low-tech and unofficial as can be. Yet somehow I’m supposed to believe, minutes after the caucuses closed at 8 PM, that CNN, MSNBC and the rest had reports from precincts that might, in any way, resemble the tallies of the contents of similar stuffed envelopes from around the state.

I realize that primaries and caucuses are organized by the state branches of the political parties and, what with the whole delegate system, are even more tenuously connected to the party’s nomination process than individual votes are in the Electoral College of the general election. So I suppose in some way this patently ludicrous voting process in the caucus is at least more transparent than the superficial formality of primary elections held in other states.

I guess if I’d stuck around I might have gotten more insight into how my little yellow slip of recycled takeout menu translates into the delegates the party sends to the convention this summer to vote for a candidate on my behalf. I might even have become one of those delegates if I had wanted to. But… whatever. It looks like my candidate is on track to win the state handily anyway, so I’m free to go back to my self-absorbed complacency on the matter, just like any other red-blooded American.

Have we learned nothing?

Before I was even in elementary school, I learned from Mr. Rogers to “take my time and do it right.” In short, it’s better to take a bit longer to do something, and do it well, than to rush through just to get it done.

And yet, based on this Washington Post article, MnDOT seems not to have learned a similar lesson.

Teams of designers and builders are racing to meet a dawn Wednesday deadline for showing they are qualified to bid on the bridge replacement project, which the state has put on a fast track.

I can understand putting the project on the “fast track,” but to me that simply means giving it priority over other projects, not adding undue haste to the project itself.

State transportation officials hope to award contracts next month, with the goal of having a new bridge standing at the end of 2008….

Erecting such a bridge would ordinarily take about three years, even if the design and building phases were overlapped to save time, said Bill Cox, owner of Corman Construction Inc. in Annapolis Junction, Md., a road and bridge construction firm.

So not only are we moving so fast as to have a “dawn” deadline, less than a week after the collapse, to get initial proposals in, but we plan to have the bridge up and operational in less than half the time an accelerated schedule would normally require. (Oh, and correct me if I’m wrong, but wouldn’t overlapping the design and build phases necessarily mean that they’d start building it before it was completely designed?)

I hate to say it, but I’m already reluctant to drive on that new bridge.

Stick on a Stick

I recently attended the Minnesota State Fair. Thrice in a fortnight, no less! OK, it was actually thrice in a week, and the fair only lasts for 12 days anyway, but if you’re going to use a word like “thrice,” it feels necessary to complement it with another like “fortnight.”

There are many (potentially) appealing things about the fair: the midway rides, the sheep barn, machinery hill, the swarming throngs, the concert performances by musicians whose popularity peaked during the Carter administration. But I think the defining element of the fair, the thing that makes the fair The Fair, is the astonishingly vast array of foodstuffs available in a singular form: impaled on a stick, doused in corn batter, and deep fried.

Yes, you can get just about anything on a stick. Corn dogs — a.k.a. pronto pups, although apparently there is a distinction (which I happen to know, genius that I am, but I’ll leave it to you to research that matter on your own) — started it all, innocently enough. And in retrospect, the corn dog seems an almost obvious invention. At least, that is, when compared to the things you can find on a stick these days.

Along the road leading to machinery hill, just across from the obnoxiously expensive Rainbow Play Systems (although I suppose if you’re buying a large prefab structure for your kids to play on in the back yard, you want to know from the price tag that it’s well-constructed), you’ll find a little place called “J.D.’s Eating Establishment,” which proudly announces the availability of “Definitely nothin’ on a stick!” But J.D.’s is decisively in the minority.

Last year I was simultaneously impressed and frightened by the sight of a “Spaghetti and Meatballs Dinner on a Stick.” This year, it was a Swedish booth (although I think “Swedish-American” is more accurate, as this is a purely Scandisotan [a word, incidentally and double-parenthetically, that Google confirms I did not coin] concoction) selling “Hotdish [sic… it is one word, you know] on a Stick.” I was tempted to try it, but as with most items whose names end in “…on a stick,” it was dipped in corn batter and, from the outside, indistinguishable from the sickeningly large corn dog I had just consumed.

Getting in on the “on a stick” gag, we have Tim Pawlenty’s Governor on a Stick, which is a hand fan emblazoned with a photo of the governor. Seems a bit self-defeating, however, given the conceptual similarity of “Governor on a Stick” to “Governor’s Head on a Pike.” (Hey, I’m just sayin’….)

Of course, the granddaddy of them all, the item that put the Minnesota State Fair on the map for those seeking instant coronary distress, is the “Deep Fried Candy Bar.” Apparently the concept was invented in Scotland, and I seem to recall seeing it on an episode of A Cook’s Tour on Food Network; it was the same episode where Tony Bourdain boldly ventured into the world of haggis… and made it seem almost palatable.

But there’s one thing that was always missing from the Scottish delight (the deep fried candy bar, that is… although I’m sure haggis could find a comfortable home at a grease-drenched food booth at the Minnesota State Fair): the stick.

Never fear, though. Where Scotland fails, Minnesota succeeds. (Don’t quote me on that. When World War III starts, I want Sean Connery and Groundskeeper Willie on my side.)

I saw the deep fried candy bars being made at the fair. I saw someone eating one. I even walked through the dense cloud of grease vapor hanging in the air surrounding the booth. But nothing… nothing could make me try one. Even if it is the highest-calorie food item at the entire fair. Which it is, although I think that’s relative. Maybe as an individual item it’s the most calories, but I think the available (to use that word in the car commercial sense) 64-ounce buckets of either french fries or Sweet Martha’s chocolate chip cookies, if consumed by one person, must contain more.

All of this stuff-on-a-stick gave me an idea though. It seems you really could sell just about anything as a food item at the Minnesota State Fair as long as it’s on a stick, dipped in batter, and deep fried. My wife and I joked about a “Stick on a Stick” concept. But understanding the true nature of fair food as only a native of this great state can, I think one slight modification may be necessary. And with that, I present to you the final concept for the ultimate fair food item. I encourage any would-be entrepreneurs to take this idea and run with it; just give me a little recognition when you make your first million (which, apparently, is not unheard of for a successful food booth in the 12 days of the fair):

Stick of Butter on a Stick.

Mmmmmmm… stick.