Giants, wizards and dwarfs was the game to play.

Being left in charge of about eighty children seven to ten years old, while their parents were off doing parenty things, I mustered my troops in the church social hall and explained the game.  It’s a large-scale version of Rock, Paper, and Scissors, and involves some intellectual decision making.  But the real purpose of the game is to make a lot of noise and run around chasing people until nobody knows which side you are on or who won.

Organizing a roomful of wired-up gradeschoolers into two teams, explaining the rudiments of the game, achieving consensus on group identity–all this is no mean accomplishment, but we did it with a right good will and were ready to go.

The excitement of the chase had reached a critical mass.  I yelled out:  “You have to decide now which you are–a GIANT, a WIZARD, or a DWARF!”

While the groups huddled in frenzied, whispered consultation, a tug came at my pants leg.  A small child stands there looking up, and asks in a small, concerned voice, “Where do the Mermaids stand?”

Where do the Mermaids stand?

A long pause.  A very long pause.  “Where do the Mermaids stand?” says I.

“Yes.  You see, I am a Mermaid.”

“There are no such thing as Mermaids.”

“Oh, yes, I am one!”

She did not relate to being a Giant, a Wizard, or a Dwarf.  She knew her category.  Mermaid.  And was not about to leave the game and go over and stand against the wall where a loser would stand.  She intended to participate, wherever Mermaids fit into the scheme of things.  Without giving up dignity or identity.  She took it for granted that there was a place for Mermaids and that I would know just where.

Well, where DO the Mermaids stand?  All the “Mermaids”–all those who are different, who do not fit the norm and who do not accept the available boxes and pigeonholes?

Answer that question and you can build a school, a nation, or a world on it.

What was my answer at the moment?  Every once in a while I say the right thing.  “The Mermaid stands right here by the King of the Sea!” says I.  (Yes, right here by the King’s Fool, I thought to myself.)

So we stood there hand in hand, reviewing the troops of Wizards and Giants and Dwarfs as they roiled by in wild disarray.

It is not true, by the way, that Mermaids do not exist.  I know at least one personally.  I have held her hand.”

© 1986, 1988 by Robert L. Fulghum

It doesn’t always have to be a big book to convey a powerful message. This special little story is among the gems in Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. The essay upon which the title is based appeared in last year’s back to school post.  Happy day to mermaids everywhere!

The beloved and prolific author Alexander McCall Smith ( The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series along with many more series and stories) is in my opinion one of the most entertaining interviewees you’ll ever hear.  His dry humour is delightful and I guarantee you’ll be laughing out loud in short order when you hear him on air. He is particularly hilarious when he is speaking of the musical orchestra to which he belongs: The Really Terrible Orchestra or RTO for short. A few phrases here from an article he wrote in The New York Times:

AMS: ” My own playing set the standard. I play the bassoon, even if not quite the whole bassoon. I have never quite mastered C-sharp, and I am weak on the notes above the high D. In general, I leave these out if they crop up, and I find that the effect is not unpleasant. I am not entirely untutored, of course, having had a course of lessons in the instrument from a music student who looked quietly appalled while I played. … Another (member), a cellist, was unfortunately very hard of hearing and was also hazy on the tuning of the strings. As an aide-mémoire, he had very sensibly written the names of the notes in pencil on the bridge. This did not appear to help.”

The RTO has a wonderful time together and has even toured. They are met with great enthusiasm wherever they go.

AMS: ” We debated whether to charge for admission, but wisely decided against this. That would be going too far. So should we go to the other extreme and pay people to come? There was some support for this, but we decided against it. Instead, we would give the audience several free glasses of wine before the concert. That, it transpired, helped a great deal.”

View the RTO feature on ABC news by clicking link to Youtube.

Other writers too, apparently embrace alter egos with musical inclinations. The Rock Bottom Remainders is a rock band made up solely of writers and well known, successful ones at that. Writer and musician Kathi Kamen Goldmark had the idea to gather some of her music loving author friends and play together – they had such fun they’ve kept up with it for some 18 years. Besides Kathi, present and one-time members have included: Dave Barry, Barbara Kingsolver, Mitch Albom, Stephen King, Amy Tan, Scott Turow, Greg Iles, Ridley Pearson, Robert Fulghum, Matt Groening, Frank McCourt and Roy Blount Jr.  The group travels annually with their “Wordstock” tour and has raised almost $2 million for various charities. “We will not be playing our ‘music’ for money, because if we did, people would throw shoes at us. Rather, we will be playing to raise money for some good causes.”

Here some of the members (Dave Barry, Stephen King, Ridley Pearson) are joined by another writer and banjo player extraordinaire, Steve Martin.  (A little “bookish” trivia … Ridley Pearson has two daughters: Paige and Storey. Honest to goodness!)

Back to School

September 6, 2010

The return to school feels as fresh as the crisp autumn air to me; September feels more like new beginnings than January ever will. While pondering a post for today I felt a little bit of back-to-school wisdom might suit us all and that classic Robert Fulghum essay from  1988’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned In Kindergarten came to mind. Here’s a refresher:

All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand pile at school.

These are the things I learned:

  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don’t hit people.
  • Put things back where you found them.
  • Clean up your own mess.
  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
  • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
  • Wash your hands before you eat.
  • Flush.
  • Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
  • Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
  • Take a nap every afternoon.
  • When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.
  • Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
  • Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.
  • And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.

Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.

Take any one of those items and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work or government or your world and it holds true and clear and firm. Think what a better world it would be if we all – the whole world – had cookies and milk at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess.

And it is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out in the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together. (Robert Fulghum)

Wishing you all “bouquets of freshly sharpened pencils” and a happy first day of school!

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