There are certain things in this world that you could never publicly admit to hating. Babies, for example. Or Frank Sinatra. Or sunshine, or grandmothers. Or dogs and history. We've all been socially programmed to love dogs--or to at least act like we love them in front of their owners. If you're not crying at the end of Old Yeller, you might as well have "sociopath" tattooed across your forehead. And whose most despised school subject was history? Biology, maybe; math, sure; but not history: Every sitcom ever made has an episode in which the protagonists magically travel through time to experience life in another era.
Dog Day Afternoon, the four-year-old canine carnival held in Loring Park, has gone from fledgling fundraiser to national tour, courtesy of cutesy advertising geniuses Pets.com. The Web site's sock-puppet spokesmodel is notably absent on this warm and sunny Sunday, though a few imitators occasionally surface in the crowd. My canine escort, a Springer spaniel named Sarah, graciously accepts her free nametag and cardboard pooper-scooper from the incredibly patient woman at the gate and leads me into the crowd--a few hundred of the friendliest people I've seen this side of the Scientology offices and their four-legged friends. Baseball caps, fanny packs, and nice sneakers seem to be the most common human accessories, giving the place a sort of working-class-meets-urban-casual vibe.
The notable exceptions to the informal dress code are gathered around a small stage and--pardon the expression--catwalk for the Canine Couture fashion show. A young man in tight black trousers speaks petulantly into his cell phone while keeping a watchful eye on his impeccably groomed counterpart, a smug-looking creature barely larger than a football. Puppy stage moms herd their pets into the shady backstage area, prepping them for the show, giving them water from sippy-cups, comparing stats with fellow owners. ("Is that a Weimaraner?" "How old is little Plato?" "He's not going to get any bigger, is he?" "Hmmmm...Well, I think I might have heard of that obedience school, but we take Annie to...."
Chitchat is cut short when a woman rushes backstage, arms full of pet-size tutus, coats, and headdresses. Sarah and I tour the various booths, tents, and attractions and begin to understand that old adage about dogs looking like their owners. A lazy golden retriever lounges in one of the community water bowls, attached by leash to a frat-boy type in a beer T-shirt. A thin woman with unruly auburn hair consults with the pet psychic while her similarly endowed mutt paces skittishly. Inside the tennis courts, canines are allowed off leash to participate in a massive game of catch: Green fuzzy balls sail through the air as enraptured pointers and hounds contort their wiry torsos over the heads of their buff masters.
As we head toward the Doggie Day Spa, Sarah nearly knocks over a small Asian woman. Before either of us can apologize, the beaming woman gives my companion a treat from a large jar of free samples. "What a cute dog!" exclaims a pretty, overalls-clad woman next to me, handing me a flyer for her grooming service. I stop to watch a poodle get her nails painted while her sixtyish owner chats with another "mommy." Attractive young women, men with expensive watches, and perfectly coifed suburban matrons all stop to say hello and pet Sarah, introducing their pets, offering humorous dog anecdotes. Wearing fur may be passé, but in this town dogs-as-accessories are obviously the ticket to social success.
THE RIVER RENDEZVOUS is a living history festival held at Pond Dakota Mission Park, a wooded plot of Bloomington nestled among vinyl-sided ramblers and Lutheran churches. The main objectives of such events are: to educate, to entertain, and to give military-memorabilia collectors something to do besides form separatist militia groups.
I follow a man and a woman wearing fedoras and Indian blankets up a secluded dirt trail, hoping their garb represents living history and not a cult of colorful transients. The River Rendezvous itself appears to be a series of white tents surrounded by railroad-tie fences, rows of outdoor toilets, a trailer selling fajitas and cocoa, and a Bloomington Police Department RV. A peeved mother drags her son, a disgruntled tyke in Stone Cold Steve Austin fatigues, past some unchaperoned boys hurling dirt at the porta-potties. "I want to see the Historical Pond House, don't you?" she asks him, her menacing tone implying the answer.
A woman in a bonnet and apron, and her companion, who is chatting away on a cell phone, lead the way to the main arena, where a half-dozen men and women with bells tied to their ankles are performing some kind of Scottish dance that involves large sticks. For the most part the historically correct tent occupants manage to remain remarkably in character as rebellious sons and goody-goody daughters are dragged past. When I catch two frontier women discussing a recent fender bender, they immediately snap back into character, bidding me "good day" and throwing themselves into their needlepoint.
The parents of one wiry youngster chastise the boy for ringing the large dinner bell near the fajita trailer, prompting another chubby little brat to scurry over and ring it repeatedly, the better to taunt his cohort. A harried mom turns from the cocoa vendor to see her bored son dragging an eight-foot tree branch out of the woods, apparently for use as a weapon. Perhaps the true living history is in those doomed to repeat it--the ones who find a cool fall day ideal for tossing off the Oedipus complex, assembling a makeshift arsenal, and celebrating youthful irreverence.