You Can Go Your Own Way

February 22, 2013

Every once in a while I walk to a nearby park with a pond and feed the ducks. I always feel a little odd doing this because I’m pretty sure the only people who regularly feed ducks are either at least forty years older than I am or forty years younger. It’s one of life’s beautiful symmetries that the same things that give us pleasure when we’re really young can do the same when we’re really old, and also that we come into the world bald, wrinkled, and toothless and, in many cases, depart the same way. It’s only in between that most of us look different, except Wallace Shawn. Anyway I don’t think my age matters. I like feeding the ducks.

Even though I do occasionally worry about being “normal” for the most part I’m a non-conformist, a guy who goes his own way, marches to the beat of his own drummer, and thins the herd. And the ducks seem to like being fed, at least most of the time. Mitch Hedburg said that he noticed that a duck’s opinion of him depended greatly on whether he had bread. That may seem odd since Hedburg would care what ducks thought of him because he was also a guy who marched to a different drummer, but the only people who really don’t care what other people think of them are the people who should care what other people think of them: sociopaths and people who should use deodorant. And as far as life coaches go a person could do worse than a duck. In my experience, though, Hedburg wasn’t exactly correct. I’ve noticed that ducks are only interested in the bread I bring them when it’s cold. In the summer months—which, in Tennessee, is March through November—they’re usually not interested in bread. Also I’ve also noticed that, at least where I go, it only seems to be small children who feed the ducks. I don’t see older people. Maybe they’re off feeding the pigeons, something I’ll never do. It’s not that I’ve got anything against pigeons, but they can get around while ducks seem to need to stick to fairly large bodies of water.

I was once in a train station. A train pulled up, the doors opened, and a couple of pigeons got out. I’m pretty sure they didn’t even have tickets, so clearly they get around. I feel the same way about Canada geese. If they’re able to come here all the way from Canada they should be able to find their own food, although Canada geese have a high opinion of me, or at least my bread, no matter the time of year. And they hiss and when they rear up are seventeen feet tall, so I give them the bread the ducks don’t want. Still when it’s cold I give preferential treatment to the ducks. For one thing Canada geese should be used to cold weather. For another ducks just seem friendlier and more personable. One year when I was in college there was a house a few blocks from the campus that had a pond the size of a dinner table where, for some reason, about two thousand ducks lived. One night, not long before Christmas, a group of people decided to go around the neighborhood singing carols. I went along with them because, even though I prefer to go my own way, I can’t carry a tune, so joining a group of singers and not singing seemed to be what my drummer was telling me to do, even though he has no sense of rhythm.

Anyway we went to the house with the duck pond and, maybe because they knew me as a guy who’d come by and feed them sometimes, or maybe just because they were curious, all the ducks came waddling and quacking out of the darkness toward us. So I led them off a little way and sang “Good King Wenceslas” to them, which the ducks seemed to appreciate because they can’t carry a tune either, but that’s another story. Recently, though, when I went to the park the ducks and Canada geese and pigeons had been joined by seagulls. Tennessee is pretty far from the ocean, and the pond in the middle of the park is slightly smaller than a football field. It’s big, but not big enough to be mistaken for any sea or even a large lake. What were seagulls doing there? According to my wife they’re just gulls, but that’s ridiculous. The Canada geese are still Canada geese, even though they seem to have taken up a permanent residence, and the ducks are still Mallards even though no one knows where Mallard is. The birds that I saw looked like seagulls, sounded like seagulls, and were just as interested in bread as seagulls. How could they be anything but seagulls when they so clearly fit the bill? Maybe over time the Canada geese will become Tennessee geese, and maybe the seagulls will eventually become just gulls, but for now I’m pretty sure they’re seagulls. They’re seagulls who’ve either been blown way off course, or maybe they’re just non-conformists.

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