I suppose all of us have some personal race memory of carousels. I always called them merry-go-rounds. I seem to see myself riding gravely around and around on a golden ostrich in a forest, my father standing beside me.

That would be Paris, of course, the Bois de Boulogne. We lived there awhile when I was 4. There are other distant, clear moments -- watching a punch-and-judy, riding in a little car on neat convex gravel paths under an archway of trees -- which might be dreams but are probably Paris. I must go back sometime and see.

We scorned merry-go-rounds when I was a kid. They were much too babyish. I didn't ride one again until I was a father, and I drifted with my small daughter toward the big bemirrored one in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. She was a little nervous (that same year she had balked at going on the Disneyland Moon Ride. "I don't want to go to the Moon," she said. A sensible person), but there is something about merry-go-rounds that dispels fear. They are clearly not going anywhere. After a moment's observation even the most timid child can see that they will not buck you off or whirl you around or do something terrible to you.

We stepped aboard. She rejected the swan boat, a bench dressed up with giant swans, as too tame, and mounted a plaster pony. I think I climbed onto a camel, whatever was next to it. She clung to the brass pole, not taking a chance on the reins, staring straight into the future with courage and apprehension.

The music started, and we were off. Within moments, she realized that it was, in fact, a cinch. Around and around we went, not speaking, waiting with rising impatience for the ride to end. It was rather like a treat by an elderly maiden aunt: you have to let it happen at her pace, finish when she says it's finished.

merry-go-rounds (merrys-go-round?) attract filmmakers. The most celebrated was Alfred Hitchcock, who managed to use one for a chase in "Strangers on a Train." This is a violation of merry-go-round nature, which is perhaps why it was such a scary scene. The runaway merry-go-round is a basic nightmare.

The reason, of course, is that when you disrupt a merry-go-round you disrupt a certain sense of another world, a gracious, rhythmical world of solemn dancers circling forever in their mechanized minuet, slightly melancholy, slightly obsessive, orderly and sure.Even when we are very small, I think we sense that the rest of life isn't going to run so smoothly.