“What’s your favorite shark?”
Questions like that one, coming from an eight-year-old boy I’ll call Simon, at 6:00 in the morning, b.c. (before coffee) were part of why I loved working aboard a sailing charter boat. Other benefits of the job were: rum, snorkeling and swimming every day (sometimes with a semi-tame dolphin who would pop by now and then), rum, sailing, terrific food eaten al fresco, rum, the scent of sea air mixed with sunshine and sunscreen and also with rum. Plus fruit juice! For the rum. Over and over though, what stood out for Brian and me at the end of a week’s charter were the guests we had aboard.
The charter guests favored by yacht crews tend to be appreciative of the efforts at making sure they have a once-in-a-lifetime experience, even if they take a trip like it every year. The best guests recognize the crews’ desire for a bit of private time (prized like the rare jewel it is); they also tip well (crews always talk about that with their compatriots at the bar after charter). But the guests who live long in our memories are those who enjoy life and are not afraid to show it. Simon was one of those guests for me. It’s been 20 years since he asked me that question on the first morning of his family’s vacation, but I can still picture Simon as if it were yesterday. I’m fuzzier on his parents, who did not make a similar impression.
Simon had been instructed by his mom, on pain of near-death, not to get out of his bunk in the morning until an adult was awake to supervise. As the chef, I was always the first person up so that I could start breakfast. I am an early riser by nature and waking before daybreak to sit out on deck in the peace of those first moments with nobody around was often my favorite part of the day. Picture a newborn sun peeping over the horizon, reflecting on unruffled water in a bay ringed by palm trees and sea grapes and you will understand why I got up before everyone else. Stretching into a few yoga poses (harder than you might think when doing it on the deck of a 45-foot sailboat); breathing my way into meditation; watching sea turtles break the water’s surface to sip the air before diving again to munch on their own breakfast. Those moments of time were mine to steal. Except the week Simon spent with us. Every morning I would creep silently into the galley to start the coffee, trying not to wake our guests. And every morning, I would find Simon waiting for me, lying fully dressed in his bunk, poised to leap out as soon as my first bare foot touched the companionway steps to the galley. Instantly ready to dive into whatever topic that was whirling in his mind. Like what’s your favorite shark?
People like Simon have a natural curiosity that cannot be tamped down, even if they tried, which they don’t because what would be the point of that? Life is endlessly interesting and puzzling and if we ask enough questions and look a bit closer at those puzzles we just might be rewarded with some cool stuff. Stuff like facts and ideas that might not generate a bazillion dollars for our bank account, but for certain make us excellent teammates in a barroom trivia contest or simply fascinating conversationalists. Stuff that enriches our lives.
That first morning I did not have a good answer for Simon. I did not have a favorite shark. In response to my answer that wasn’t an answer at all, what I got back from Simon was a dramatic eye-roll and a sarcastic, “Well, it’s a good thing you’re not planning to be a marine biologist.” Fair enough. So I took a risk: I chose the Nurse shark as my new favorite shark. Simon says? “That’s a pretty good choice. They are night hunters and sleep during the day.” I said I preferred Nurse sharks because they hang out on the sandy bottom of the ocean, so are easy to spot when we snorkel. That made them a cinch to keep an eye on. Because who likes being creeped on by sharks when you’re wearing a swimsuit?
Once my shark favorite was sorted out, the rest of my morning conversation with Simon went swimmingly and mostly involved him lecturing me about the various sharks and their habits. He was well-prepared for his sailing vacation if any shark-based arguments needed to be settled. He had strong opinions about sharks and was partial to the Hammerhead. Another good choice. Every few minutes he scooched his sliding eyeglasses back up the bridge of his nose by wriggling his mouth from side to side. My role in the conversation was to nod and say stuff like, “Holy Moly!” and “That’s cool. Tell me more about that.” Simon’s boundless curiosity kept him fully engaged. Powerful stuff.
It was hard for me to guess what each morning’s topic might be. I swiftly learned to go with Simon’s flow and looked forward to our time alone together. Yoga was abandoned for awhile and the turtles could get along without me.
Curiosity isn’t just for kids. Sure, they are hyper-inquisitive beings and often begin sentences with Why or What or How come? At what point do those inquiring minds grow less enthusiastic? At puberty? In high school? When do some people think they have learned everything there is to learn? And isn’t just the idea of thinking you already know what you are ever going to know a pretty awful way to approach life? Curiosity and creativity work hand in hand with science and art and farming and basket-weaving. Together they are what got us to the moon and back; they eradicated smallpox and will someday find cures for HIV and breast cancer; they write the books and sing the songs we love. When I am feeling dull-witted, which happens when life takes a hectic path, and lately that seems to be most of the time for me, I take a moment to remember Simon and his fabulous questions. That helps me remember that having an abundance of curiosity is vital for a life lived to the fullest. The act of being curious gives me energy. It’s better than an afternoon nap. I think as adults, we can choose to exercise that somewhat atrophied trait of ours and reignite our spirit of inquiry. Curiosity kills cats, not smart people.
Now then, what’s your favorite shark?