The Alameda County Fair is opening in Pleasanton on Friday, offering its familiar array of carnival rides, horse races, fireworks and concerts.
But in addition to these well-known attractions and amusements, the fair hosts a multitude of intriguing annual contests that span diverse interests, unusual hobbies and extraordinary talents.
There are contests that children and adults alike can enter and that provide an opportunity to not only compete for ribbons, but perhaps more importantly, to share passions, hobbies, talents and interests with the entire community.
Each competition is judged by fair-appointed experts, and the judges' decisions are final. Winning entrants, along with other submissions, from each competition are displayed in exhibition halls during the fair, which runs until July 9 at the Pleasanton fairgrounds.
Here's just a taste of the dozens of competitions at this year's fair:
Home Brew Contest
A primary contender every year in this category is Jack Weldon, a certified building, home and welding inspector. He's also president of the Northern California Draught Board Homebrew Club and an award-winning brewer who has received multiple ribbons over the course of several years.
This year, Weldon won Blue Ribbons in the categories of Sweet Stout and English Cider -- like many of the other contests, the official judging of the Sweet Stout and English Cider occurred immediately prior to opening day.
Weldon said he developed an interest in craft brews in his 20s.
"I was poor but had expensive taste in beer," he recalled. "My boss gave me a $100 bill in my Christmas card (in 1990) and I found a home brewing supply store in Pismo Beach where a guy told me I could make my favorite style of beer for about $35 for five gallons rather than $15 for a single bottle."
Weldon said he soon began brewing a few different kinds of beers each year. Over time, he has developed his hobby to the point where he creates close to 30 batches of craft beers each year.
When making his home brew, Weldon said he enjoys experimenting with "all kinds of weird ingredients," such as green tea, breakfast cereals, orange peel and ginger. One of his primary reasons for entering the Home Brew Contest each year is to encourage other members of the Draught Board Homebrew Club to participate, and thereby get the club's name "out there."
Pleasanton's Rob Campbell is a professional geologist who owns an environmental, geological and hydrogeological consulting firm that specializes in bio-remediation of toxic substances in soil and groundwater.
He enjoys writing poetry in his free time and submitted several of his original poems into the fair's Poetry Contest this year.
Campbell, who has a lifelong stuttering condition, said that by writing poetry, he can "communicate freely and easily, without any obstacles." So, he finds writing to be not only enjoyable, but "very liberating, therapeutic, and cathartic as well."
It was in 2010 that Campbell began submitting his work to the fair in Pleasanton. Almost every year, he has placed among the top competitors. He keeps his Blue Ribbons on display in his office along with his many professional awards and acknowledgments.
A popular draw for the exhibition halls each year, the Collections Contest offers a range of displays featuring anything and everything from the world of collectibles, such as Howdy Doody merchandise, Christmas ornaments, Samuel Adams beers, Mr. Potato Heads and even small Eastman Brownie cameras from the early 1900s.
Pleasanton's Nancy Lewis, a partner in a law firm that specializes in commercial insurance coverage litigation, is showing off her elaborate display of SuperBalls, which she's been collecting since she was a child.
As a child, her collection was about the SuperBalls themselves, but now as an adult, the balls are all about the memories associated with them, according to Lewis.
"Regardless of how sophisticated technology becomes, there will never be an app that can replace the ability to keenly preserve cherished memories of a person, event or experience, than by having a tactile, tangible connection to them," said Lewis, who also prepares the Weekly's Streetwise column with her daughter Jenny Lyness.
For Lewis, the SuperBalls were an excellent educational tool for her children when they were young because as they played with the SuperBalls, they developed hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills as well as learned basic concepts such as colors, counting, sorting and sequences.
"I remember getting a call from my oldest daughter Kate's preschool teacher many years ago, wanting to know why she was so insistent that a piece of blue construction paper was 'Cewuwian' -- cerulean, an obscure shade of blue," she recalled with a laugh.
Doug Weiss, a Livermore resident who works in security, pursues photography as a hobby he picked up on a whim during what he describes as a "bit of a dark time" when he needed something to keep him distracted, and to allow him to "get away from all of the chaos of our society and find peace."
He said the camera he bought during that time reignited his passion to travel the world, and to photograph it for others to see.
Weiss said his favorite things to photograph are, "without a doubt natural landscapes as well as astrophotography." He has traveled to Peru with his camera and hopes to continue venturing off to his other "bucket list" locations such as Denmark, Sweden, Estonia, Finland, Norway, Russia and Iceland.
Weiss, who maintains he is not competitive by nature, entered the fair this year, as well as over the past several years, "as a personal challenge more than anything else" -- and he enjoys seeing whether he can "best" his own personal best results.
Joyce Senechal, a professional chef, is also someone who has been competing in county fair contests for several years.
Competing this year in the Place-Setting Contest, Senechal said she believes an ornate, beautifully set table is part of the experience of fine dining, and she enjoys creating a warm and inviting dining environment for her clients, as well as for her own family and friends.
She added that a major reason she enters contests each year is to learn about all of the other categories that people compete in.
When people enter the contests, it is because they are passionate about the subject matter of their category, according to Senechal. She finds that anything people are excited about and want to share with others, is by its very nature, absolutely fascinating.
For Senechal, entering the fair competitions is not really about trying to win a Blue Ribbon, but instead, is about developing an understanding of and appreciation for, "what makes other people tick."
To see what makes all the competitors tick, check out all the displays at this year's Alameda County Fair. For a list of every contest, visit the fair website here.