Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Moscow Does Not Believe in Ducks: A CM Fable by The Tuba Playing Prof.

Here’s the story of a little ring-necked duck that works in a small anatidae lake very far from its home.

When the duck was young, just learning to swim, dive, and fly—this was back decades ago when small ducks had a chance to nest in small lakes—he dreamt that one day he might find himself in a certain type of small lake. Every one who cared about him warned him not to expect to find himself in such a lake, for ducks like him rarely had such good fortune—only swans and maybe snow geese do. All told him he was going to find a lake but not that kind of lake. He came to hope yet not expect—as ducks must do.

To every one’s great surprise, in a stroke of luck, the young duck asked to come to the small anatidae lake at the best time for him to do so. The lake-keepers found that the lake had room for another waterfowl. They surely wanted a swan or a snow goose for the lake or at the very least another Pekin duck (so white that they at least resemble swans and geese). As most lake-keepers, they thought too highly of their all of their lakes—it is still a nice group of lakes but nothing really more. Yet not truly understanding waterfowl, the lake-keepers asked the Pekin ducks and snow geese to find a new bird only after most waterfowl had found nesting for the season. While the Pekin ducks and snow geese pleaded with the lake-keepers to wait, they soon settled on the ring-necked duck that true to his breed was a diving duck when two geese nested elsewhere.

Every one who cared about him told him he was a lucky duck. And the snow geese and Pekin ducks told him often how he came to be in the lake to impress upon him that indeed that he was a very lucky duck.

So, being a lucky duck but still just a duck, the ring-necked duck knew he had to swim longer and harder than anyone else, as much as or even more that the female geese, and he had to dive more and farther than all the other fowl. He did so happily, for he came to like the small lake so far from home. The ducklings that came to the lake liked the little duck—because most saw something in the little duck that reminded them of themselves. And the duck dove and swam as hard as he could.

So getting use to having a ring-necked duck around, the geese and Pekin ducks and then even the lake-keepers had no reason not to ask the hard-working duck to stay in the nice lake so very far from home; they couldn’t ask him to leave really, for his diving, swimming, and even flying were acceptable, and once they hired a duck, they really couldn’t ask him to leave for being a duck, so they asked him to say, reminding him of his good fortune. And again, every one who cared about the duck told him he was a lucky duck. Aware of his good luck, the little duck dove, swam, and flew with the same effort as before but then with glee. And he was a happy little duck.

Eventually, in the just way all waterfowl must do, the aged Pekin ducks that devoted their time to the lake were ready to move on, and so the snow geese and the lake-keepers needed to find new birds to dive and swim. The geese found a swan that wanted to leave desperately a lake much smaller and very far away from her home. To most, swans are the best birds—for any type of lake—and the lake-keepers were very pleased with the geese for finding “someone good.”

The swan admitted that this new lake was better than the first lake but it wasn’t a “swan lake;” in other words, the lake was better yet still not good enough. Not content to be the only swan in a small lake, the swan made sure that every time the lake needed to nest a new bird that only swans were considered—even those that weren’t as ready to dive and swim as geese and ducks might be. Even geese and ducks that worked for the lake but could not nest there were overlooked, for the swan seemed to believe ardently that swans transforms any lake to a swan lake merely by being there. And she so pleased the lake-keepers when swan after swan desperate for any lake flew in.

And now the lake has more swans than geese, and to everyone’s thinking, it is a better lake, for swans seem better; even though the swans might not admit it, nowadays most of the real work in the lake is done by the ducks and young geese who temporarily dive in the lake on the contingent whim of the lake-keepers who love swans—that undeniably do what they do with cygnine grace, suggesting that the small anatidae lake is something more than it is.

Being swans, gliding with an ease that seems to come without effort, the swans command the middle of the lake and the gaze of the lake-keepers who think too much of their lakes, and the lake-keepers are pleased. And the swans choose when and how often they dive, where they swim, what they control or ignore, leaving the hard diving to the ducks and geese that toil with no promise of anything more.

And yet not all is well. Even with all these swans however, the small lake remains essentially, fundamentally unchanged—except it has more swans. And no birds know that clearer than the swans.

The swans—when they find the time for the ducklings that come to the lake—trumpet all they know: how to be a swan. And the only lesson that they seem to teach: this is how to fly like a swan. Dazzled by the swans, most of the ducklings work hard, and some fail, but a few come to think that they might fly and live the life of a swan or at least a goose. Then the swans have no choice but to point out to the ducklings that ducklings only grow up to be ducks, nothing more. “And these days the lake-keepers only look for swans,” they say. So the swans here train all the ducklings to do what only a few ducks want to do but are told they cannot do.

Now an old duck, frail, gaunt, and small, lonely and quiet, the little ring-neck duck still remembers he’s the lucky duck. Befuddled, he knows that in this small lake—the type he dared dreamt to know—his anatine work is too duck-like. He awaits that day he flies off, sad sometimes that the young ducklings eager to dive and swim have no one in whom they might see themselves. And he fights off as best as he can the misery of the swans who long still to land in some other lakes, for the swans being swans set the mood for the entire lake. Measured by fellow swans that landed in bigger lakes, these swans have no choice but to be miserable being in the small lake.

And each fall the old duck watches bewilderedly the new swans lately come to the lake—there for a short while, they promise—to swim and dive for a short time, all to nest somewhere else, somewhere better, some bigger lake suited for swans. No swan has yet flown away from the small lake; all the same, they remained convinced they are to be the first. Performing for anyone who will watch “La Danse des petits cygenes,” they try to show that they are ready to fly away. By January however, they fall, plummeting in the lake they seek to flee, diving once again when they long to fly.

The harsh lesson they learn is that swan lakes have nesting room for but a few lucky swans.

Like the older swans, who teach the young swans the misery of being in the small lake, some blame the lake, the lake-keepers who love them but demand their attention, some the diving, some the ducklings that need so much of the swans’ time. Yet swans do not blame themselves for being unlucky swans, because swans do not perceive themselves as anything but swans that should and must enjoy so much more.


  1. Another harsh lesson is that your pedigree matters.

  2. I'm not sure I understand all the analogies, but this is moving.

  3. Wow. This could be the academic version of 'Go the fuck to sleep.' If there were illustrations to go with this, I'd buy the book. I'd buy multiple copies, and then send them anonymously to all the higher admin at my uni. And if I was feeling particularly ornery that day I'd include a little card that said "Here's some bedtime reading for you, fuckers!"

  4. Hmmmm.... I'm trying to take umbrage, but I may have mistaken the metaphor.

    If "being a swan" means STEM then I'm annoyed in one way, and if "being a swan" means research then I'm annoyed in another, because I think some elementary facts about lake ecosystems are being left out which might make things clearer to the ducks, if the ducks chose to take those facts in. :) If it doesn't mean either of those things then I guess I no read gud.

  5. Sometimes a swan is merely a hamster masquerading as a swan. But the first rule of hamster lake is that there is no hamster lake.