The Brass Ring

The Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, RI used to have a Merry-Go-Round equipped with a ring-grabbing game. Affixed to a post near the edge of the Merry-Go-Round was a slender rectangular box loaded with metal rings. The box fed one ring at a time from a kind of lip, so that children riding the outer-most horses could lean out and, if they timed it right, snatch the ring with a crooked finger. Most of the rings were black, but sometimes the box fed a brass-colored ring. If you were lucky enough to snatch this ring, you got a free ride. I always believed this was where the term “grab the brass ring” was derived. I enjoyed this game. I found Merry-Go-Rounds interesting for about two rotations, at which point I was done waving to my mother as she whirled past, and then there were the lions again, and there was the ice cream vendor again. But this little game brought purpose to going around in circles. I liked the feeling of leaning out from my horse, one hand tethering me to the pole, the other stretched and waiting, timing the rise and fall of my mount as the ring approached. Even if I got a black ring I felt a sense of accomplishment, for if nothing else I was practicing for the big one.

And when it happened that I came around and the kid four horses in front of me snatched a black ring and out popped a brass, I thought, “Now’s my time.” I felt as if all eyes were on me, as if the whole park were pulling for me. Now I gathered myself, gathered all my attention to that ring and my waiting finger—and I had it! I’d done it! Which meant . . . which meant getting back on the Merry-Go-Round, and there was my mother waving, and there were the lions, and there was the ice cream vendor.

I have always been susceptible to reaching for brass rings. Oh, the thrill of winning, of being singled out, of acquiring specialness through achievement. It was a deceiving game, because I cared nothing for the ring or the ride but everything for the grabbing—and not even the grabbing, but the trying to grab, the fundamental pleasure of harnessing my energy and attention. I would go looking for brass rings my whole life until I understood I was never supposed to grab it but to share it.

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