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Stafford: Blunder during island trip provides time to reflect


Most of my mistakes either turn out badly or make me laugh at myself.

But every often, I have blunder I’m really proud of.

And last week, in this space, I may have made — thank you very much — my Best Blunder of 2017.

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The column was about my walks around the block with our grandson Finnegan and how, in the intense focus of his fresh 3-month-old eyes, what seem to the rest of us the most commonplace sights are like wonders of a world he’s just now discovering.

The mistake involved my friends Doug and Margaret, whose remarks about their travels within a couple of weeks this summer to the Grand Canyon and the Galapagos Islands I had planned to use to give voice to Finnegan’s sense of wonder.

Because I emailed them too late, then, in an antsy moment, compounded the error by turning my column in early, their responses didn’t make last week’s column.

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When they did arrive, I bought a pair of steel toe shoes with which to kick myself.

Nothing could have fit that column better.

“One of the things I like most about traveling with Margaret,” Doug began, “is that she has a way of retaining that child-like way of encountering the world. I had been losing that before I met her, and since then I’ve been getting it back. But I see the world afresh vicariously through her, much as I imagine you’re seeing it through Finnegan.”

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I couldn’t have written a better response if I’d tried.

After saying that, “everywhere you look (in the Grand Canyon) looks like a postcard,” Doug wrote just the kind of lines that are breathlessly scrawled on the card after a hike there.

“One of my favorite parts was starting out in the dark at 4 a.m. in a 31-degree chill, knowing that it would be about 80 degrees warmer 10 hours later. And 10 hours later I was lying in the Colorado River, which was really really really cold, and it felt really really really good, because it was really really really hot.”

For a moment, I was really, really with him, floating and chilling in the Colorado.

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In the Galapagos, although he saw plants and animals and ate fruits he’d never eaten and still can’t name, Doug said one of strangest sights was spotting the sun where he’d never seen it before – in the northern portion of the sky.

Then came a passage of the sort that would fit on a post card showing a collection creatures on the Galapagos shore.

“We were snorkeling, seeing fish and rays and turtles and sea lions (when) I thought Margaret was trying to get my attention by tugging on one of my fins. I turned my head around to see a sea lion with my fin in its mouth …. (The sea lion) was making full eye contact with me as (it) was shaking my fin, as if to say ‘Hi. I’m messing with you.’”

Margaret’s note came the day after Doug’s, with an apology for writing “even more belatedly,” and “a bit disjointedly.”

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After reading her description of the hike into the Grand Canyon, I was wishing I could be so disjointed and admiring her for using the present tense in a way that made me feel more present.

“In the dark before dawn as we start a rim to rim hike in a canyon that never fits inside the camera, we walk down into its bigness. There’s a giant spiky yellow flower, reminding me of a century plant. The hikers who crossed the canyon at night tell us that it’s phosphorescent (then). As we hike down, down, down, the flowers move from just blooming to forming seeds. As we hike back up, we get to Indian Gardens and the mule deer glance up from browsing and move a bit, but clearly accept us as part of their world.”

In the Galapagos, she was struck, too, by the way “the sea lions welcomed us as playmates” and “turtles and eagle rays circled round and just let us be part of the ocean.”

Another pleasure was “seeing all the critters from the Darwin tales, the finches and tortoises and marine iguanas … that revolutionized how we think about speciation and prompted his formulation of the theory of natural selection.”

Her choice of the word “critters” brought to mind a children’s book in which critters of the Galapagos might cavort around like the title characters in Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” roaring their terrible roars, showing their terrible teeth but dance around with Darwin instead of Max.

Then Margaret got out her dagger.

“Apologies if it’s too late but thanks for the chance to carry the memories into dreams tonight.”

It was a dagger because it was perfectly childlike and touched on something I often wonder about: What goes on in Finnegan’s dreams?

Doug and Margaret reminded me that magical dreams belong not only to children that are carried around the block but to adults those who pack a child-like spirit in their gear when they travel around the world.

My Best Blunder of 2017 allowed me to think about all this for two weeks instead of just one.



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