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My Mentor Is A Quack

I like ducks. I don’t know much about them, but as animals go, they’re among my favorites. There’s just something about them; an interesting animal humility with a bit of comedy thrown in that makes them fun to watch. When I’m around ducks, I always think a playful music soundtrack should be playing in the background.

Sunday morning, I was walking, an activity I took up in the spring of 2020 as “something to do” as the pandemic limited my social options, and more recently, as a nagging knee injury has put a kibosh on more strenuous endeavors.

Thirty minutes in, I reached a pond in a local park, and there, I came upon two Mallard ducks, a male and a female swimming along the shore. (They appeared to be a couple, but that’s none of my business; maybe they were just friends or co-workers. However, they definitely had a connection, I could tell.)

Swimming in the same direction and a little faster than I was walking, as they passed, I remembered that famous adage about how ducks always look calm on the surface, but under the water they’re paddling like all get out.

The gist of the saying, from what I gather and from how I’ve seen and heard it used throughout the years, is that we don’t know what others are going through. They may look calm and “together” on the outside (or in a duck’s case, above the water), but on the inside, they’re working like hell just to keep everything together.

With that in mind, I intentionally watched the feet of the ducks as the swam past, and what I saw surprised me. In spite of how quickly they moved across the water, they didn’t seem to be putting forth much effort at all under the surface. Yes, their feet were moving at a decent rate, but certainly nothing close to what I would consider panicky or even exertive. On the contrary, these two appeared to be putting forth less effort cutting across that pond than I was walking on land.

In other words, they appeared perfectly content, both above and below the surface.

That spurred two thoughts in my head. First, it made me feel like all this time I’d been lied to about ducks, and that swimming, one of at least two things they can do better than I (the other is flying), is some sort of chore, and somewhere along the line, someone decided to turn them into these poster “ducklings” for working hard, or for tamping down your anxiety or dealing with runaway emotions without letting anyone see you sweat, suffer or break down.

It seemed to me, at least Sunday in that pond, that nothing could be further from the truth. These two ducks not only appeared relaxed, content and fully under control, they were. And I’m sure if they’d been under some sort of stress or threat, I’d have known about it, but that information certainly wouldn’t come from looking at their feet.

The second thing that popped into my head was this: When ducks are overtaken by a threat or under some other sense of urgency, they don’t just kick they’re feet a little faster. That would be stupid for two reasons. First, no matter how quickly a duck paddles, they definitely have a speed limit, and it’s not one that will outpace too many predators.

Second, why would they swim faster in a time of urgency when they have a much more effective solution? Fly away, which is exactly what the female duck did (for reasons that remain unknown to this observer), leaving me alone to contemplate life with my new Mallard friend. After a few moments together – just the two of us -- he turned to swim to the middle of the pond, which left me to walk and think about that adage on my own.

Coincidentally, not five minutes later, a woman rode past me on a bike. It was nothing special -- no fancy racing tires or components, nothing aerodynamic -- just a normal, everyday bike. After we exchanged greetings (she nodded and said “G’morning,” I opted for a “Hi” and casually threw her a “peace” sign), I noticed something. Above the “water” (i.e., waist up), her body was still, and she had a look of contentment on her face. Below, her legs moved quickly (it was apparent she was riding in a low gear). Yet like the ducks, it didn’t appear as though she was putting forth excessive effort or that she had any sense of urgency. To the contrary, she seemed – again, like the ducks – fully in control and relaxed, top to bottom.

And like the ducks, she too eventually peeled off, her route diverting from mine, and we went our separate ways.

Once again unaccompanied, I thought about that 10-minute stretch I had just experienced, and along with it, those ducks and that bicyclist. And then I thought about walking, how I’ve never liked it, always opting for something with more effort, something “sweatier” like running or road cycling that requires maximum exertion or at least, the ability to go fast.

That made me think about my current situation and how those options (sweating, going fast, etc.) aren’t available to me right now. At first, it bummed me out because I like to work hard when I exercise. It makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, my sweat and tired muscles bearing witness to my effort and commitment to staying fit.

But the more I thought about my situation, and the injury that has caused me to take the slower, steadier route, the more I was inspired by those ducks and that bicyclist.

All these years, I’ve equated health and fitness – and to some degree, satisfaction -- with sheer exertion, the will to make it so (whatever “it” is). Now, thanks to an injury, a couple of ducks and person I’ll likely never see again, I’ve not only changed my perspective on that old duck adage, but I’m starting to change my perspective on what it means to be happy, healthy, fit and satisfied, both above and below the “water.”

And with that, I’ve decided I not only like ducks, but I also think I want to be like ducks.

© 2021 David R. Haznaw

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