Duck Billed Platitudes

Ogden Nash wrote:
I like the duck-billed platypus
Because it is anomalous.
I like the way it raises its family
Partly birdly, partly mammaly.
I like its independent attitude.
Let no one call it a duck-billed platitude.

I was thinking this morning about platitudes and ended up thinking about platypuses, because (a) they are more interesting and (b) I have written about them before.

One of my earliest works, now lost to the ravages of time, was a “Just-So” style story written (and illustrated!) by me in eighth grade. It was a partnership with John, a classmate and pal (wonder whatever happened to him?) but as I remember it, John, though an all around good egg, did not come through in the clutch on this one and I took on most of the writing and illustrating responsibilities. Either that or I was full of inspiration and rode rough-shod over John’s interest in the project, I don’t really recall. Suffice to say that I wrote and illustrated this story about how the platypus became a platypus. It was an amorphous shmoo-like animal in the beginning and wandered about the forest envying other animals. It envied the duck’s bill, and the beaver’s tail, and the bear’s claws. Well, the creator caught wind of the platypus’s complaints and bestowed him with all of those gifts, and the platypus was so horrified that it had been turned into a monster that it slinked off to Australia and hid in the mud.

I think I could tell pretty much the same story about a platitude, being a rather featureless sentence that wanders about the forest of rhetorical devices, envying this one for its humor and that one for its sharpness and a third one for its bluntness. It ends up a rather sorry amalgam of good intentions gone horribly awry, and is fit for nothing but the muck down under.

I’m not a big fan of platitudes, and they abound in writing (or any creative endeavor): that you should follow your dreams, that persistence will be rewarded, that you have to believe in yourself, etc. My main opposition to such platitudes is that they are untrue. Which is not to say they are false, just that they just don’t have enough substance to have a factual status. I think people become preoccupied with the platitudes, thinking of themselves as that storied ant with the rubber tree plant as they query an eighth round of agents, rather than taking stock of the situation after the seventh round of rejections. The truth is that the secret to success at anything meaningful is impossible to condense into a memorizable principle.

However, many years later, I feel bad for having maligned the misunderstood metronome. Platypuses are perfectly put together for the lives they live, and serve a purpose on the planet. Maybe you can say the same of platitudes, but I’m not so sure.

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