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January 13, 2010

Chatting with Uncommon Thinker and Best-Selling Author, Robert Fulghum, Part Three

By Joan Brunwasser

The band that got all the press was the Rock Bottom Remainders, which was a group of writers -" Stephen King, Amy Tan, Barbara Kingsolver, Dave Barry, Ridley Pearson, people like that. And a publishers' rep in San Francisco found out that we were musicians. It was her idea that we should put this band together and we would raise money for good causes and,in the meantime, have a lot of fun. I can tell you outrageous stories.


Welcome back for the third installment of my conversation with Robert Fulghum. Your love affair with Crete also goes back many years, Robert. You're very attracted to the rootedness of their culture. What else knocks your socks off besides for that wonderfully tyrannical woman who takes care of your house and lets you live in it?

Well, I keep having amazing experiences there. Where I live in Seattle, no house was ever there before my house was built and 200 years ago, only Native Americans were there. And we don't know too much about their past because they didn't have a written history. [But] we have a written record for what went on in Greece and Crete for 6,000 years. So, it's a very different environment. And they've seen an awful lot come and go so they don't get flapped at the most recent thing that's going on because it's happened before.

Maybe ten years [ago], I wanted to take up Greek dancing. I've always loved dancing. I went to a wedding. And everybody's up and what they do with their feet is really kind of amazing and all in long lines. And I thought, "There's no way I'm going to get in this." And this older lady comes over and sits down beside me and asked if I speak English. "Yes." "So, you're feeling like an idiot and a fool." "Yes." And she said, "You feel like if you get up and dance with us you're going to feel like an idiot and a fool." And I said "yes." And she said, "As long as you're going to feel like an idiot and a fool, why not dance? Because if you just sit there, we're going to know that you're an idiot and a fool." And so I got up and got in the dance.

I thought about that several years later, the first time I ever saw tango dancing and thought, "Oh man, I can't get in this. This is way over my head." And I thought about the Greek lady. And I thought, "Well, if I'm going to be an idiot, I might as well be an idiot dancing than sitting." And that got me into tango dancing. That kind of deeper, longer thought of wisdom I run into all the time in Crete. People have been thinking about being human in a fleshy, deep way for a long, long time there. And it's worked its way into the culture. Ordinary people have Socrates and Euripides and Aristotle somewhere in their minds. So, one of the reasons I like being there is because people think a lot.

And they take the long view. Tell about the older gentleman who checks you out, this rich American, and starts giving you the third degree.

In Greece, they ask the deep questions. They want to know what's important. When that old man asked me, since Americans have everything, how many grapevines I have, and how many sheep, and how many goats? Every time I said "No, I don't have any" and he looked at me and asked, "Do you have any chickens?" "No. " "Not even any chickens?" and he said, "It's bullshit that Americans have everything. You have nothing, not even chickens." And I was dismissed as irrelevant because I had nothing. He touched a nerve there, that's for sure.

He made you think.

Yeah. So, Crete" I don't want to blow it out of proportion. I think there are a lot of intelligent people where I am now. But I find the simple ability, the desire to talk about deep, serious and meaningful things there that I don't run into here. I'll be back in Crete in March and I'm really looking forward to it. I always look forward to leaving it too because it's crazy and the same thing is happening there. It's changing so much and in many ways, Athens looks like Seattle; it's not that different: same clothes, same cars, same food, same TV. We really have become so universal as a culture that it's hard to get away from it all because it's all there when you get there.

I love that you don't take yourself too seriously. You find wonder in the ordinary and poke fun with genuine affection. When you're in the mood for a book, what do you pick up?

My reading is extraordinarily eclectic. I keep the local bookstores in business sometimes because of the breadth of what I read. I'm interested in everything and I'd rather read than anything else. I don't have a TV and don't watch it, not because I think it's evil but because I'd rather read.

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Me, too!

And the same thing with movies I like movies but don't go very much because I still would rather read. Right now I'm reading a book on the Mormon Temples of America. I'm not a Mormon but I've always been curious about that architecture. So, I've got this big, thick new book. I've got a book on astronomy. I've got a book on handguns, pistols and rifles. Not because I'm a NRA member or have ever shot a pistol in my life. But a few people in my valley, one of them is a retired law enforcement officer, and they were talking about pistols the other day. And I thought, "I don't know anything except prejudicial things about pistols, so I'm reading about pistols. And, then I've got a book on theater; I'm looking through Carl Sandberg's poems looking for something. I've got a book If Ignorance is Bliss, Why Aren't More People Happy? Here's a book I'm reading: Dona Flor and her Two Husbands by Jorge Amado. I usually have got six or eight books in four or five piles going on at any one time. Reading is my passion and pleasure.

Do you want to know everything?

What's lovely is that knowledge is infinite. And I'm just terribly curious. I should be very honest and say that just because I'm not hooked up to the Web, that doesn't mean that my two assistants and my companion are not. So, if I really want to know something that would be on Wikipedia or whatnot, I can tell them, "Take a look at this and give me the interesting stuff." So, it's not that I don't use it. [But] I'd rather read a book about it than to look it up.

That's the beauty of delegating.

Yeah, staff - that's the secret. That's how cats look at the world. They are creatures with staff.

How right you are. You're also a painter, sculptor and musician. Let's talk about the music first. You've been part of a band;are you still?

Rock Bottom Remainders

I've played in two or three bands in my life. But the one that got all the press was the Rock Bottom Remainders, which was a group of writers Stephen King, Amy Tan, Barbara Kingsolver, Dave Barry, Ridley Pearson, people like that. And a publishers' representative escort in San Francisco found out that we were musicians and it was her idea that we should put this band together and we would raise money for good causes and, in the meantime, have a lot of fun. And so we did it and it was like the fact that a number of people who could ride horseback decided that they'd get together and have a polo team for an afternoon. It was a lot of fun but it was a misapprehension to think that we were qualified to play polo. Nevertheless, everybody played well enough. I was in it for four or five concerts. And I can tell you outrageous stories.

And then, I didn't want to put the time that was required into it. I don't play that well; I play mandocello, that's not big in rock and roll. Stephen was in a terrible automobile accident and dropped out. But over time, other people have cycled through it. Matt Groening sang backup in the thing for a while. So it was a really special sort of thing. I no longer play with them because I don't like all the travel that's involved. It still has a life of its own. It goes on. There's a recording and a book made out of it. Not a small amount of money went to charity.

I drew and painted all of my life, taught drawing and painting for 20 years. I'm not successful enough in that to want to make a career out of it but I have an art studio and paint and give it away. My companion, on the other hand, is a very, very serious, very successful artist who paints almost entirely in the world of dance - tango, that whole world - and so she's kind of crowded me out of my studio. It's nice to have that ongoing and successful and be around it. If you can't be successful, it's nice being there where success is happening. So, that's fun. And sculpting is something I do, a lot of small things. This again is not a career deal; it's what I enjoy doing. It just satisfies a need; it's like a hobby. It's what pleases you and it keeps me off the streets and working.


Well, keeping you off the streets is definitely a lofty goal. Let's see: writing, playing music, painting and sculpting. It's a big bonus that besides for the writing, you don't have to do any of them for a living. Let's take a break. When we come back for the final portion of our interview, Robert will read from his essay "Meanwhile" from What on Earth Have I done?


cross-posted at and OpEdNews

Part One of my interview with Robert

Part Two of my interview with Robert

Authors Website:

Authors Bio:
Joan has been the Election Integrity Editor for OpEdNews since December 2005. She writes on a large range of subjects and does many interviews and reviews.