Ducks are a Gateway Drug: Another Sketching Trip to Como Zoo

August 4, 2010

More sketches as I rework my hand-eye-brain connection, and what was going on at the zoo between parents and children.

100726APuffins Left: Journal card of puffin sketches with a violet Faber-Castel Albrecht Dürer Watersoluble Colored Pencil, used dry. This card, and the ones that follow were all Stonehenge paper. 

On July 26, 2010 I made another trip to Como Zoo to prepare for sketching the dogs at Paws on Grand. What I'm about to tell you actually happened.

We've been having hot and humid days this summer—the kind of weather that keeps me inside. (I'd rather deal with cold and snow.) But I needed to get over to Como Zoo for some more live animal sketching in preparation for drawing dogs at the Paws on Grand Wet Paint dog portrait sketching event (more on this event in tomorrow's post). I was still struggling to get back into my drawing groove after being conked on the head by a falling light fixture. The veil had not lifted on my drawing process or on my hand-eye coordination.

I was running late and didn't arrive at the zoo until about 10:30. I thought at first I would sketch some flamingos in the pond but it was already over 85 degrees and sunny. The muggy air made it all feel even hotter. The birds were wading casually through their pond—they were made for weather like this.

Ducks and geese of different breeds also make their home at the flamingo pond at Como. They paddled and glided by in the shallow clear water. There was a total lack of urgency in their actions. When I can breathe the air I actually enjoy watching these birds for long sessions. On this day as I stood next to the retaining wall, with heat coming off it as well, I picked out the excited voices of parents pointing out the sights to their children (the flamingo pond is right at the entrance to Como). "Look at the ducks," said one parent after the other, until I started laughing and actually counted the number of times parents pointed out the ducks. No one pointed out the flamingos (which were actually closer and present in greater numbers). After I counted ten references to ducks I decided to move along.

Punchy from the heat I headed off to the Aquatic building. Sure it might smell fishy, and if the mold-a-penguin or mold-a-seal machines are working the plastic fumes will send me out into the fresh air, but it's dark, and cool, and of course—there are puffins and penguins there.

I started sketching immediately. My goal was to push for as many views as I could fit on a card. I wanted to capture some gestures. I hoped to reconnect with some sense of line and flow, but I was continuing to have a problem with a shaky hand, so all I expected was volume.

As I stood and watched the puffins, picking one to focus on and sketch in various positions, a crowd of visitors streamed by. Every 60 seconds a new family group would arrive. There would be one or two adults and one or more children. Sometimes a larger combined group would appear, with up to 6 adults and many children who were draped off the arms, hips and shoulders of the adults, or pushed in strollers.

100726BOstrich Right: Ostrich sketch made later that morning. The ostrich was hanging out at the edge of its enclosure picking at grass that was fence height, about 2 feet away from me. The humidity had cleared and a couple of clouds came through, blocking the sun, making it pleasant for me to stand and sketch this head study and notice beak details.

After a few moments my concentration broke and I noticed someone at my left shoulder. "Look at the ducks," came a loud, booming male voice. In my peripheral vision I could see a 6-foot tall man with a toddler on his shoulders. The man was pointing to the puffins I was sketching. "Don't look at him," I told myself, "the last time you gave someone helpful identification advice she spit at you." I kept drawing.

Within 60 seconds, the words came again, "Look at the ducks." 

"This has got to be a joke," I told myself, looking up at a 30-something female who came to a stop at my side. She bent down towards her fussing 5-year-old who had ice cream smeared all over his face and was enjoying playing with the sticky sensation with his free hand. He was totally uninterested in the "ducks."

I shot a glance of disbelief in the female's direction. She glared at me, daring me to correct her. I returned to my sketch. "Just look down, just look at the bird, bird pencil paper bird pencil paper," I kept repeating, willing back my ninja cloak of invisibility that the conk on my head had stripped from me.

The barrage of misidentification continued, picking up the pace. After the seventh statement I looked up to find an adult male eagerly pointing out the "ducks" to his seven-year-old son.

I felt as if I'd fallen into a Twilight Zone episode where everyone had agreed something was one thing when it clearly wasn't. Perhaps I was breathing too many fumes from the mold-a-toys. I looked up at the signage that hung just above my head. I looked at the birds preening just in front of me. I looked down at the child who was staring at his father (uncle, whatever). I looked into the man's face, back to the signage, and back to the man's face, willing him to read the labels; pleading with him. He dug in his heals and stared at me, placing his hands on his hips. "Look at the DUCKS, Jimmy," he enunciated loudly to the child, his stare boring into me.

The child looked up at me with intelligent eyes and a wrinkled brow. I offered a sympathetic smile, the type that mixes in a bit of sadness and resignation, while at the same time contains a healthy dose of recognition: "I see you."

I looked back up at the sign, I looked back at the boy, I looked back at the birds. I sure as hell didn't want to get spit on, but I couldn't resist looking back at the man, who was not backing down.

"What are they?" asked the child, his head tilted towards his father, but his eyes glued to my face.

"Ducks," said his dad.

The child looked crushed.

I've made a life out of being lippy. Sometimes you just have to lay it all out there on the line and risk getting spit at.

I looked at the birds before me and kept sketching. "Puffins," I said in a loud stage whisper to no one at all, but to someone in particular indeed.

In my peripheral vision I saw the child flash me a brilliant smile. He let go of his father's hand and lent up against the cool glass of the puffin enclosure, following the jerky skidding of the underwater puffin that was at his eye level. He inched closer to me and standing next to me looked up at the signs above my head, and back at the birds. As I sketched I saw him look up once more before walking off, ahead of his father, without holding his father's proffered hand.

This kid is going to be OK. He might even grow up to be lippy. He knows that reading matters. That signs hold information. That information is powerful. That powerful and useful information is made up of specific details which delineate the world around us. And that his father is not reliable.

That's not the message you want to send to your children. You don't want them to know that you are incurious, lazy, or plain stupid. And you really don't want to tell your children that you think they are those things—you don't want to condescend to them.

Children know that a duck is a duck is a duck, and that a puffin is nothing like a duck. Frankly if a puffin were a duck then wouldn't we be having a conversation about why these ducks are kept inside and the others are left loose outside? (And there might be many reasons for doing just that in the world of Ducks.)

Even very young children know this, yet parents seem content to fob their queries off with obvious, insincere, and unconvincing condescending neglect of their legitimate questions.

Children would much rather hear honest confusion in their attending adult—"Gee I don't know. Let's see what the sign says," than hear someone bluff it out. I know. I've spent hours at the zoo seeing the happy children who run from sign to sign with parents equally engaged in discovery.

I know that about 20 minutes after this incident when Jimmy wanted a sno-cone or needed help in the restroom, he'd take his father's hand again. But I also know things are never going to be the same.

Years from now if Jimmy decides to try drugs (either out of curiosity or by yielding to peer pressure), or he wants to start a rock band, or he announces his desire for ballet lessons though his dad wants him to go out for Little League instead, or he wants to join the Army or avoid the Draft (which we'll probably have by then)—whatever his father disagrees with, then his father will shake his head and say something like, "Kids these days" or "Teenagers," (depending on Jimmy's age) dripping with frustration, sarcasm, and deeply confused regret. He may even lie awake briefly in bed at night wondering how he lost contact with his son.

I can tell you the exact moment. It was a hot and humid July 26, 2010, at 11:05 a.m. Fumes from the mold-a-toy filled the refrigerated air of the Aquatic building. A middle-aged woman with a long-billed hat and braided hair was standing at the puffin window sketching, talking to herself and looking as if she might pass out. Jimmy's dad chose pride and laziness over honesty with his son. Jimmy dropped his father's hand and never quite trusted the reliability of his information again.


100726CMonkey Left: Monkey sketches made just before I left the zoo. Both monkeys sat still, moving only their hands, for long moments, allowing me to take some time to work out shapes.

Like I said, I'm not worried about Jimmy. But I am worried about that dad. And all parents who condescend to children. It's the swiftest way to loose connection with your child, after just plain meanness.

When the twelfth adult of the day brushed past me instructing his or her child to look at the "ducks" and really meant puffins, I walked over to the penguins to sketch. There two pre-teen boys, who idolized their 19-year-old male babysitter, listened as he postulated that maybe the one penguin had patchy feathers because they had been fighting. They could hear the wink in his voice and followed him when he said, "Let's go ask this zookeeper over here."

  1. Reply

    Hooray for PUFFINS !! and children who know better

  2. Reply

    Great essay Roz.

    • Deb Dugan
    • August 4, 2010

    Thanks for this Roz. I recently spent time drawing penguins at the New England Aquarium and while I was pleased that no one really paid much attention to me drawing, I was little surprised that no one noticed (or if they did notice, they didn’t seem to care much). It also reminds me of being at the Stone Zoo in Massachusetts years ago and cringing as I heard father telling his children that the terns in the aviary were “turnpikes”. Really.

  3. Reply

    Thank you Melly and Alissa. (Yes, hurray for Puffins indeed.)

    Deb, I had to laugh, “turnpikes.” As for drawing out in public, I have found all my life that people pretty much ignore me, unless I’m injured, and so I have come to suspect that when I am whole I project an energy that is protective. While I don’t have that at present and this isn’t a recollection about that, I have to say that when I am whole children are the only ones who approach me, and it’s a wonderful thing.

    Velma, thank goodness for all those ducks! Seriously I’m glad you’re surrounded by ravens and crows (we just have crows here).

    • karen
    • August 4, 2010

    So, really, not a single parent walked up and
    said to their kid, “Wow! See the PUFFINS!”?

    Since only about 30% of the population reads to understand and the rest get their info in other ways, it’s good that you said “puffins.”

  4. Reply

    Karen, nope, in the 45 minutes I was sketching puffins not one parent/adult pointed out that these were puffins to their children in tow. And it was, for the most part (with some moments of clearing as people made their way out to the bears), standing room only around the windows and 3 rows of people deep.

    One woman did tell her child that these were a “type of Penguin.”

    • kathy/michigan
    • August 4, 2010

    OK, I knew I liked you…but now I think I love you! Ducks, indeed. As you pointed out, these are the moments that let a child know that the parent may not be trustworthy. Thank you for being the adult who honored that little boy’s intelligence and curiosity. I would have done the same.

    • Deb Dugan
    • August 5, 2010

    Hi again Roz, I just wanted to thank you for your thoughts about being “whole” while drawing. I have felt that way more and more as I venture out to draw in public (something I never ever thought I’d be able to do!). I couldn’t quite articulate what was happening as each time I went out to draw and I felt more comfortable and less visible. So thank you thank you thank you! Also love your dog drawings for Paws on Grand. I hope you recover very soon from your awful injury. Best, Deb D.

    • Roz
    • August 5, 2010

    Kathy/michigan, kids have to grow up so fast today it’s the least we can do to make it a little more fun and a little less crushing! Glad you’re out there working for it too.

  5. Reply

    Deb, thanks for your kind thoughts. I’m working on it. But I sure miss being “whole.” I’m glad my comments helped give you a way to think of what’s happening to you and I’m glad that this is happening to you, because I think it’s a good thing. We still are visible, but in the best of ways. As role models of something really positive.

  6. Reply

    This is a particularly fine essay, Roz, and your writing is always good to read! Yay for puffins, indeed!

    As a mother of three (two now grown, one teenager), I want to thank you for taking that little guy seriously and telling him what he wanted to know when he noticed that what he was told didn’t match what he already knew–those birds are not ducks. I was often criticized by other–including other parents–for being straight with my kids, giving them real information about real things, taking their questions seriously and never putting any subject off limits. If they’re old enough to ask, they’re ready to learn, I figured. I know I was right. I can see it in my children today. They’re bright, curious, thoughtful and reflective. They’re also unlikely to accept something just because someone said it was so. Question authority!

    Parenting is the hardest job there is, but it’s also one of the most wonderful. No one can get it right 100% of the time, but 55%, 60% is a win!

    Art is all about seeing. Learning to see requires learning to let go of a lot of preconceptions. Puffins are not ducks–wow!

    • Linda
    • August 6, 2010

    GoodMorning Roz,hows youre day going? Hope all is well. All I can say is you go girl. I have been know to open my mouth when maybe there should of been tape over it. all my life I’ve seen parents do some strange things and I have the type of face that you sure know I”m not agreeing with your statment with the look I have. I’m 63 now and have to hold myself back cause I’m not as fisty as I once ways but I still can not hold back the looks I get when stupity comes to pay along with meanness to others and animals.
    Have a great day,

  7. Reply

    Linda, you keep speaking up!

  8. Reply

    Thanks Ann, and I’m glad that you gave your kids real information. I think you had the right guideline—if they are old enough to as they are ready to learn! Sadly many adults don’t want to take the time.

    Learning to see does require letting go of a lot of preconceptions—I like the way you put that.

  9. Reply

    God, this is a fabulous post! I, too, am lippy (usually call it mouthy) and often get shushed by my husband when about to speak up, but it mostly doesn’t stop me. Just can’t abide willful stupidity. There’s so much to know and I have a tough time understanding clueless people. Open your eyes and pay attention!!!

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