B to Y

By Michelle Railey

Barn Again

June 2016

The Mystery of the Universe = Sandy Koufax

There’s a thing that happens when I see Ferris wheels in the daytime. It happens with carousel horses, too. They’re not lit. They’re not operating. They’re still and fiberglas and unlit. They were meant to be filled with laughing people, surrounded by night, illuminated in neon and fluorescence. They were intended to be more than the sum of their parts. But that only comes at nighttime. And nighttime only happens once a day.

So there’s something about Ferris wheels in the daytime, against the sun. Smelling of carneys and excess, glinting like factory-production and axle grease; intended to be special and magnificent but stark in the daylight. And there’s a beauty there: in the same stripped way of dinosaur skeletons and Erector sets, a geometric perfection which is almost enough but not quite.

I’m not sure why: the Ferris wheel in the daytime leaves me bereft, thinking of the lost and the loved and the past and the unfulfilled.

Solve for x. “Why” equals “x.”

Or rather, to me, the answer to every unanswered question (and there are so very many) is “Sandy Koufax.” The original Trivial Pursuit game has a thousand-y questions. A superfluity of the orange answers are “Sandy Koufax.” Hence, to me, any unknown question (I am terrible at Sports and Recreation) is “Sandy Koufax.” Statistically, you have a better chance there than answering “shuttlecock” or “ninepins.” Or NFL anything. Just answer Sandy Koufax. If you’re flipping through the (original, mind you, 1980s edition) deck, the answer is either something else or Sandy Koufax. It’s like 50-50.

So: Solve for “x?” X equals Sandy Koufax.

Why do Ferris wheels in the morning make me sad? Sandy Koufax.

Why do fools fall in love? Sandy Koufax.

Why do people die or suffer? Why do they starve? Why do people hurt when they don’t need to?

No answer? Sandy Koufax. Sandy Koufax is the only answer I have.

Why does that ferris wheel make me so sad? What is an hour of a man’s life worth? Sandy Koufax? “x?”

It’s not helpful, of course. Sandy Koufax was born Sanford Braun in Brooklyn. He died in 1998. God rest his soul. And when I’m searching for something, there he always is: Sandy Koufax is the unhelpful answer. Solve for x? Sandy Koufax. A prime number, an unprime number, the most common orange card. It’s not the right answer, necessarily, but he’s the best we’ve got.

Answers, like pitchers, are difficult to come by. Thank god there’s occasionally a card that is not orange.

Perishable. Keep Cold.

It’s winter. It’s a mood. It’s a season. It’s a keening, yearning, frosty something that lives both within and without.

You’ve known it too, I’m sure. Maybe you’ve been passing by a winter city park at night, looking for stars and answers to inexpressible questions, longing for something you can’t even name, regretting things you can’t put your finger on having ever done. Instead you find solace staring at frosty halos surrounding streetlights. Or you would if you noticed them but you notice more that the park is deserted. It’s quiet and peaceful but stark. It would almost be satisfying— it matches that numb and nameless whatever it is you’ve got blacking out your vision. So you’re bereft and alone. And cold.

Or maybe you’ve been sitting on porches, on any number of sleepless spring and summer nights, again looking at skies you don’t actually see: looking for meaning, waiting for something that will never come, but might. And maybe, sighing – of course you are occasionally sighing – you wrap a blanket around you, summer night be damned, because you need to be covered against a chill that is less temperature than temperament. And you don’t know why or how long you’ve been sitting there. But there it is, that sky you’re not seeing, that mild desperation that can’t be expressed in prose and generally doesn’t show up when you’re trying to actually live your daily life. It’s a phenomenon that in the moment is miserable, interminable. It lives in the corners of your life, leaking out when least expected, something you have to shake yourself out of. A dark daydreaming, a wistful and wretched form of wool-gathering. Winter.

Nostalgia, but not. Sadness, but not. Wistful, but not. Rueful, regretful, bereft, forlorn, lost, searching, hopeful, longing — but not. It’s contradictory and elusive, difficult to describe: you sit immobile but with a restless, electric energy; you’re practically divorced from your physical body, seeing with eyes that register nearly nothing. It can barely find expression in words, let alone mundane prose or ordinary life. And yet, all things in moderation, despite the need for these moments to end when you’re in them, I’ve come to believe these moments are a beautiful poignancy, a necessary melancholy. Without them, life would be less rich, less meaningful. Your mind would be less flexible, your compassion a brittle and unused, ugly thing. You would be less tender. Less alive.

It’s a wry and funny thing: these bittersweet and painful, searching, formless moments you sometimes fall into eventually become moments to be themselves missed in other, future nameless melancholy and thoughtless, lost hours. We need them. They feed and repair us. We can’t quantify or define them, or at least maybe not with any precision. We wish they would end. But it’s good, at times, to be kept in a cool and dry place. It preserves the best of us.

We’re perishable. Keep cold.

Spelling Bees Bring Out the Best in Kids. The Adults? Not So Much.

Dateline: Greenwood, Indiana. June 1, 2017.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee is playing on the TV. It’s a bunch of really hard-working, studious, intelligent kids. And the middle-aged men in the next room can’t deal with the fact that some of them aren’t white as the new-driven snow.

They’re shouting at the TV. They’re shouting at kids to “go back” to wherever it is “they came from.” They’re, in all honesty, quite pissed when a white kid misspells a word. They’re more pissed when a less-white kid gets it right.

They don’t bother spelling the words themselves, of course. You can’t spell well by counting your toes and fingers.

They also don’t bother considering that these are kids. Really smart kids. But still, just kids.

I’m not very proud of Greenwood, Indiana right now.

What kind of person roots against, harangues, and disparages a 12-year-old on TV? And so blatantly because of skin color?

You say a noose was— twice— found on the National Mall this week?

If Greenwood, Indiana has any say at all, well, that’s just not surprising.

They’re kids. They’re our kids. And these adults? I don’t know who the hell they think they are.

Tiny Floral Sunset

June 6, 2016

I love the evenings, passionless and fair, I love the evens…In numerous leafage bosomed close / Whether the mist in reefs of fire extend its reaches sheer, / Or a hundred sunbeams splinter in an azure atmosphere / On cloudy archipelagos.”

— “A Sunset,” Victor Hugo

The Value of Field Trips in Elementary Education

Field Trips in Early Elementary Education:

1.) The Orchard: Lessons learned: a.) The air in autumn smells better than any air anywhere at any other time. (b.) Apples with both green and red in them are the prettiest, followed narrowly by the ones which are yellow and the ones which are yellow-green. This is not subjective. (c.) When visiting an orchard on a field trip in October, each pupil will receive a free pumpkin. This is awesome. (d.) Size and appearance matters; the free pumpkin will result in early introductions to comparative studies on the bus ride home. This will involve tears and disappointment for pupils who choose poorly. Their misshapen, flat-sided, and/or otherwise inferior pumpkins will elicit conversation/derision on the bus ride back to the school. (e.) Decision-making.

2.) Kroger: Lessons learned: a.) Each pupil visiting a Kroger grocery store will receive a free donut. The donut shall be glazed; it shall be yeast. (b.) The students will be taken upstairs to look out at the store behind the one-way glass mirror. (c.) Kroger has an upstairs. (d.) There is no privacy in a Kroger.

3.) McDonald’s: Lessons learned: a.) McDonald’s does not give free food to pupils. (b.) Birthday parties at McDonald’s include party favors, unlimited orange drink, and one box of McDonaldland cookies per child. (c.) Parents who truly love their children give them birthday parties at McDonald’s. (d.) Even young children are not fooled by McDonald’s, even though the French fries are good.

4.) The Fire Station: Lessons learned: a.) Dalmatians are optional at fire stations. Do not ask to see one; you will be embarrassed. (b.) There really is a pole in the firehouse. Yes, firemen will occasionally use it but they prefer the stairs. (c.) Firemen don’t fight fires every day. (d.) The grass in front of a fire station is greener than grass anywhere else. The grass in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day in the fulsome mists of spring wishes to be fire station grass when it grows up.

Are field trips in early elementary education worthwhile? Yes.

Your Daily Dose of Americana, July 4, 2013

Lilly Martin Spencer (American, born England, 1822-1902). Kiss Me and You’ll Kiss the ‘Lasses, 1856. Oil on canvas, 29 15/16 x 24 15/16 in. (76 x 63.3 cm). Brooklyn Museum, A. Augustus Healy Fund, 70.26 (Photo: Brooklyn Museum)

In general, I find myself fascinated by the idea of American identity. I’m an American, after all, so engaging in the casual exercise of national navel-gazing is, if a little vain, at least not surprising. It inspires me that there are a minimum of 310 million ways to be an American (and that’s just right now) but they all fit together as “American.” Who we are, who we think we are, and how we relate to one another and redefine one another is a study that’s not totally unhelpful. And today, on the Fourth, it’s something to celebrate.

So, in celebration of one version of our identity, I give you this dose of Americana, this reflection of collective self: Lilly Martin Spencer’s 1856 work, Kiss Me and You’ll Kiss the ‘lasses. Today, I’m celebrating our saucy independence, our frankness, our fulsome super-abundance. (I’ll pause so you can appreciate “saucy independence” while referring to a painting in which a pot of molasses has a starring role.)

I could have chosen almost any American artwork: something from the Ashcan School or the obligatory Washington Crossing the Delaware or the Signing of the Declaration. I could have used one of the ubiquitous encaustic flags of Jasper Johns. I could have courted spambots and being flagged as “mature content” by focusing on Tom Wesselmann’s Great American Nude series. I could have gone with an Ansel Adams photograph, or Georgia O’Keefe’s magnificent Radiator Building at Night. All of these say something about us, too.

There was a part of me that wanted to write about the Battle of Gettysburg, which ended 150 years ago yesterday, leaving 7,000 Americans dead in the fields of Pennsylvania, a sobering reminder of the cruel price of unity. The art historian would here compare Spencer’s image of the feminine antebellum North with Matthew Brady’s photographs of the war and then finish with Winslow Homer’s subtle 1865 masterpiece The Veteran in a New Field. (“If it could be put into words, there would be no reason to paint.”)

The other direction I could have gone is important, but perhaps too easy: look at Egypt yesterday, where the Arab Spring has become an overripe perma-Arab Summer and the revolution continues. President Morsi removed from power by the will of the people and the might of the military. Look at Syria. Look at the change, the uncertainty, the growing pains as a people try to discover who they will be and how they will chart their course and how they will be governed. Aspiration and violence and revolution and all the things we Americans once were but now are not.

We are independent and we are thankfully, sometimes miraculously, past that revlolutionary episode, past our American Spring. (A spring I wish we would more often remember as we look and judge what is “happening over there” with “those people.”) For all our profane and ridiculous, vitriolic politics; for all our disagreements, our inequities, our commercialism, our vanities, and our errors, we are independent.

Saucily independent, frequently surrounded by overripe abundance. Prone to a flirtatious self-confidence and a basically good-natured sense of humor. Kiss me and you’ll kiss the ‘lasses.

It’s an identity I’ll take, happily and with pride. It’s not the only identity we have, certainly, but that doesn’t diminish our ownership of it: it is ours. We, the people, in our more-and-less perfect union, our more-and-less perfect identity.


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