Storytime!

 

Once upon a time (because all the best stories begin with “once upon a time,” O Best Beloved), there was a tradition.  It was present in any number of carnivals and fairs.  Without doing significant research (so I am thoroughly willing to have my information corrected, if I am wrong), I would be so bold as to say that it was present in almost every traveling carnival, fair, sideshow, or other entertainment that featured a carousel or calliope.  That tradition involved a brass ring.  Theoretically, any rider could see the ring, and risk anything from minor embarrassment to actual injury in order to reach up at the appropriate moment and grab it, thus winning some kind of prize.  The prize would range anywhere from a free ride ticket to an evening’s hospitality by the carnival in question to actual cash to any number of other, less predictable, more unique offerings.

 

I liked that tradition, and I am sorry to see it falling out of use.  It is to the point now that carousels are very often permanent installations in permanent buildings – and I have never seen a brass ring on any of those installations.  Even traveling fairs often feature it only as a decoration, if at all.  Some of them have gone so far as to permanently attach the ring to the ride – even if one were to grab it, one would end up holding on to it, dangling in the air, no one understanding that it was meant to come off.

 

Why does this matter?  In the larger scheme of things, losing the brass ring is a small thing, nothing worth worrying about.  Take it as an example of a larger trend, however, it becomes something that is not just worth worrying about – it’s also something that is worth fighting for and over, because it means everything.  If I look at the symbol instead of the object, it makes me very, very angry.

 

Give me back my brass ring.  I want there to be something to strive for, even in a passing entertainment.  Give me back the opportunity to go above and beyond, and have there be something worth the effort at the end of it.  Give me back the idea that everyone is expected to want to go further, because there’s always something waiting for people who do.

 

Go even further out into the land of the conceptual, and it becomes both more disturbing and more banal.  “Grabbing the brass ring” is still a figure of speech in our language.  It’s less common now than it once was, but it still exists.  How many people know what it means anymore – that once upon a time there was a real, tangible, achievable brass ring that was worth the effort to seize?  How many people will know that 10 or 20 or 50 years from now?

 

Obviously, language changes.  Traditions change – some fall out of favor, new ones arise, and our language changes accordingly.  Slang, vernacular, and figures of speech are some of the most mutable parts of language, because they are strongly rooted in the popular culture and understanding of their time.  They change almost from season to season in some cases, and that is not a bad thing overall.  But what do we have that replaces the brass ring?  That is a genuine question, because I don’t know.  I’m sure there is something, and I’m sure it’s much more relevant to modern post-industrial culture than the brass ring is.  At the same time, I mourn the loss of that particular turn of phrase, because I don’t think that anything that replaces it will please me as much.  (Yeah, yeah, things were better in the old days, in the snow uphill both ways, get off my lawn.)

 

I wonder if, by losing the brass ring, we are showing that we are losing something more important, more critical, more crucial to the cultural perspective that has made modern Americans what they are.  (I do not speak to the cultures of other countries, because I am not familiar enough with the subject to speak intelligently.)  Are we losing the idea that in every moment, no matter how otherwise passive, there is an opportunity that we can seize?  Are we losing the view that opportunities are worth seizing, even unexpectedly and at some (lesser or greater) risk?  Are we losing the brass ring in our minds, as we are losing the brass ring in our world?

 

Questions, questions, questions – how does language reflect reality reflecting language?  This is what I’m thinking about today: the changes in our thoughts leaking into our words, and how much we can see about ourselves by remembering the things we don’t use anymore.  Give me back my brass ring – I’d rather leap and seize and risk than be left hanging out in the middle of empty space, clinging to a false promise, a lost ideal.