When I was a teenager in Donegal back in the 1980’s my father decided, the way people do, that it would be fun to keep some ducks. We certainly had the land for it, and he had — he had decided — the right duck-keeping temperament.
You have to have the right duck keeping temperament. Ducks are not for the faint of heart.
For one thing, ducks are massively willful contrarians. I’ve never seen another living thing, including Metropolitan Opera singers, who can throw a five-alarm temper tantrum like a duck.
Among their notable shortcomings: ducks are creatures of habit, ducks absolutely detest change. Any kind of change, in their meals, the weather, in the hour when the postman passes — if it’s one minute off it’s usual rhythm expect to hear about it.
Our ducks had a little path they took to the water every morning, regular as clockwork. First they raced out off the duck house, looked around cautiously, stretched a cautious wing, and then commenced that God awful thunderous quacking.
This was part of the soundtrack of my adolescence. It seems very eccentric to me now but I shrugged at it then.
One morning, I recall, a twig had fallen across their path to the water. It had fallen the night before from the overhead tree. It was just a little twig, perhaps eight inches from end to end.
The females arrived at it first, followed by the drakes. They peered at it. They froze. A huge silence descended. I marveled that the morning had come to a complete standstill.
They established — God knows how — that the twig had not been there yesterday. The smallest one, a caustic little brown female, became their spokesperson. She let out such a caterwaul, such a supernatural blast, you could have heard her in Warsaw. Then the others joined her too.
After that, their protest lodged, they all marched back to the duck house, and waited in silence, far away from the massively offending twig that had not been there yesterday. The morning had begun in error. It was up to someone else to fix it.
So some people are ducks, I discovered. They live their whole lives within a reassuring framework. They wake up anticipating bother, even though it may never actually arrive. And even their bodies, crouched and turned inward, can be shaped by the anticipation of trouble.
Anxiety, if it goes on too long, can give your life its character. In Ireland the bitter experience of history has often made us watchful and reflexively conservative. But being cautious, if it goes on too long, can prevent you from taking a worthwhile risk anywhere with anyone.
Because I was raised in the kind of offbeat Irish family where my father had somehow retained his sense of fun, I had access to a world of possibility and potential that many of my friends often felt cut off from. It gave me an opportunity to make some mistakes and not feel like my life had ended. It gave me a little room to grow.
“It is tragic how few people ever ‘possess their souls’ before they die,” wrote Oscar Wilde in a letter that impressed me when I was 15.
“Nothing is more rare in any man says Emerson than an act of his own. It is quite true. Most people are other people. Their thoughts are some one else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”
I was a teenager when I read that but I immediately knew it was correct. Now in middle age, I appreciate how much he had armed me for the road ahead.
Wilde said he put his talent into his work and reserved his genius for living. That was the best advice a writer has ever offered the world, I think.
So I suppose it’s probably not very nice of me to compare some people to ducks but I’ve often found it unavoidable. The mistrust, the red-faced temper tantrums, the Sturm und Drang, are exactly the same.
Of course they grew old and got fat, my father’s ducks. They lived reassuring little lives without incident.
Each day was a repetition of the day that preceded it. I’m still surprised they didn’t die of the boredom.