Friday, March 20, 2009


Basically, the American experience can be described by the phenomenon of feeding ducks.

When I was a child I liked to go to the ponds in Golden Gate Park and feed the ducks pieces of bread. When I grew up I learned that it is bad for the ducks to feed them.

Look those two sentences over again. Concerning the first sentence, did you ever ask yourself why? Why do families take their children to feed the duck? Our excursions were not unique - many young children can be seen throwing pieces of bread to ducks. But why?

Those two sentences tell you quite a lot about our society, or at least the society I grew up in. Many people never fed the ducks since, of course, their town had no ducks. I have counseling slots open for these people after work.

Yet the need for counseling merely underscores the 'why?'. Kids enjoy this. Why? I would look forward to it. I would take a bus across town for an hour to get to the park where my sister and I would dutifully bring bread for the ducks.

Did we think the ducks were dependant on us? They apparently got on fine without us the other days of the year. Did I have a particular vendetta against bread?

Maybe we just liked playing God, controlling these stupid, silly creatures. If the ducks were in one area you'd throw the bread into another and watch the quackers rush over.

There was always a hero and a villain. The hero never got any crumbs, he was a tragic hero, and the villain was the gluttonous successful one.

Already at this young age my liberal sensibilities were forming.

Recall the initial sentences: "When I was a child I liked to go to the ponds in Golden Gate Park and feed the ducks pieces of bread. When I grew up I learned that it is bad for the ducks to feed them." We've addressed, if not solved, the 'like' factor. A savvy reader would have picked up on my upbringing from other clues, as well. The fact that I have to go to a park relates my urban setting, as did the bus reference. There's a goldmine of inferences about being raised in an urban setting and the retreat, the urge, to escape to a patch of wilderness in the big city.

The fact that I wasted bread on lower orders is also a powerful testament to the affluence which I was granted. Such behavior would be inconceivable, even criminal, elsewhere.

Let's look at the second half now. Bread, it seems, is not healthy for ducks. They eat it, I suppose because it tastes good, or is easier to catch when thrown at their heads than hunting for insects and fish. (Do ducks eat insects? Do they eat fish?) At a certain age I went from enjoying feeding the ducks, which were also apparently a nuisance in the park, to silently shunning and thinking scornful thoughts about those harmful imbeciles who fattened and promoted an unhealthy pestilent duck population.

Greatest testimony of all, is how often this happens to us. Not ducks necessarily, although ducks work for me, you may have your own, but something that was innocent fun or enjoyable as a child which you learn is actually bad.

This is not a tremendously new discovery. Many people for a long time have said that growing up is a loss of innocence. But it's not. Growing up is a loss of innocence in America. The more I consider it the more I realize how this affects our national character, if we still claim to have such a thing.

Of course the 'loss of innocence' is true for many parts of the growing up experience. But increasingly pain, suffering, and sexual activity are all familiar to people before their adolescence, the traditional age for loss of innocence. (Which, in and of itself is a distinctly American myth, propagated by one Anna Freud. But the sturm und drang of the American adolescent is not here or there. Except in the sense that it is everywhere: another successful American global export.) These losses are especially common for those who live in the second and third world (remember them?). Feeding ducks is wasteful, consumerist, childish, irresponsible, and a number of other synonyms that people equate from the past eight years with 'American'. It is an extravagance that only the middle class and upper class can afford.

Moving on from this self-flagellation, I am more concerned with the second element, that of discovery. More specifically I think we can take these ducks and apply them to school. When we are children in first grade we put on Pilgrim plays and meet the nice Indians. Note: the indians are a monolithic peoples, the Pilgrims are British, and the two get along. Ten years later you have to relearn the whole scenario, and from a different point of view, namely that of slaughter and extortion and tension of colonialism and settler's wants conflicting with a variety of people's needs.

Each semester I cover Columbus with my students they are surprised to learn the realities of a cruel, morally reprehensible individual who is going to Hell if there ever was one.

Couldn't Columbus be a bad guy from the start? Why don't the first graders learn about the sorrows of imperialism? I mean, they can handle sorrow, loss and develop their ethics at this time. You need not provide graphically scarring details, but it would make my life easier.

So much what we learn as a child is overturned when we get older. Maybe this way we could ease some of the hormonal storms and stress of adolescence, as well as that horrific distrust of preteens, who are slowly realizing that everything they've been told is lies.

Just a thought in consideration for unhealthy ducks.

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