Lasker Pool

Lasker Pool
Central Park, summer 2011

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Penguins' Tragic March

We watched March of the Penguins the other night, after much argument, er, discussion. Seth wanted to watch the old Steve McQueen movie Bullitt, Kyle was more interested in building a contraption out of PVC pipe and duct tape than any of the choices and Jesse argued passionately for the penguin documentary.

Penguins, after all, are his favorite animals, the subject of numerous books on his bookshelf and almost all his non-fiction reports at school—and represented by at least a dozen and a half of the stuffies that inhabit his bed. His three favorites travel with him back and forth to school via backpack: Pengy, Penguiy, and Penguiy Jr.

But cartoon, toy and even zoo-bred penguins are a whole other breed than those that strive to survive in the wild, though my nine-year-old—enchanted by their sleek faces and waddly walk—would have no way of knowing that. And since March of the Penguins focuses on the long, arduous hike that Emperor penguins make across the searingly cold Antarctic, from the ocean to their traditional breeding ground inland, I knew there would be at least a sprinkling of "Nature, red in tooth and claw" scenes.

And there was. While Seth proclaimed the lameness of the movie—driving home his annoyance at losing out on a night of cool-guy Steve McQueen—both Kyle and Jesse were wide-eyed throughout. And as the penguins' challenges mounted (standing stock still for months to keep their precious eggs from cracking, battling unimaginable storms, starvation claiming the lives of older, weaker birds, chicks snatched by predators) the boys tried to make sense of the alternately adorable and tragic scenes.

"Get up!Get up! You have to keep moving!" Kyle yelped as an exhausted, elderly penguin drifted off to sleep (probably permanently) in the middle a snowstorm. "Why do they have to live where it's so cold and awful?"

"Oh,that is just wrong!" Kyle added as a couple of grownup penguins ushered a group of downy chicks away from a predatory duck as it attacked another young penguin. "They're behaving like cowards! Why don't they save that baby penguin?"

From Jesse: "Why don't they just have their babies near the water instead of marching so far in the cold? Then they'd have food all the time. This is a dumb way for penguins to do things."

Afterward, I explained that the penguins' grueling march in the frigid cold might seem strange, but that there are often factors and forces we can't see or understand behind animal behavior. "I don't care. I hate this movie," Kyle said. Jesse was oddly silent, but downcast, curling up on my lap with his head on my shoulder.

"Are you sad?" I asked Jess. He nodded. "For the penguins," he said. "I didn't know their lives were so bad. They always look happy in my books."

It was a little bit of a watershed moment, the millisecond in which Jesse was forced to control the universe's natural,random and often uncontrollable cruelty.(Kyle had already been witness to news reports a few years back about Vilma, a polar bear who had devoured two of her babies, so he was all-too familiar with nature's nastiness).

The living room was quiet for about 30 seconds. I pondered: How to explain this? What kind of productive, illuminating conversation could we have?

Then Jesse piped up. "There's something I don't understand. The penguins in the movie, Mom? Were they real? Or were they actors?"

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