Rinah S. called me to say that she had just remembered that my kibbutz was near Rehovot - and she was invited to tell at a benefit to be held in the Deshalit school, for a woman who had organized, together with her husband, to get donations of suitable books from America for English classes. They had brought one million books and sorted them out to classes which could make the best use of them. Now the woman had cancer, and some of her friends and admirers were arranging a benefit to get some money for the family, and to bring a little joy into their lives. Rinah asked if I could get there that evening.
Yes,. Well then - she wasn't in charge, but she'd ask if I could tell something, too. What did she think I should tell, if they wanted me? Something not too long (I tend to add to the original stories) and encouraging to the couple.
Well, the most suitable story that popped into my mind was Starfish.
But! Isn't it too well known, if this is a "story" kind of audience? No, Rinah thought not.
Now my main objection was really different. When I first read the story I was delighted. Shaort, easy to remember, impossible to forget. light. I told it to a string of classes and adults. I heard it told by a string of tellers. Oy!
The last tellings I'd heard were so 'smarmy' (is there such a word?) - so unctious, so "Aren't I wonderful to have told you this spiritual story that you would never have known otherwise" - you get the point. It put me off~! I'd taken it out of my files. But the other stories I offered to Rinah all had serious flaws, and Starfish was perfect.
On the short bus ridde from Kibbutz Naan to Rehovot, I began to play around with the story. And I suddenly realized that some things were left out of the story - and the way it really happened was- - - but the bus ride was too short.
The wait for things to get set up was fairly long- I'd arrived early. And by the time the program started I'd got the new facts fairly integrated into the beginning of the story, If worst came to worst, at least it wouldn't have the overtones which had put me off.
I was the last teller. I popped up feeling pretty high, and let go. I felt good! and then about halfway through, I bumped into the mike and almost knocked it over. Not quite. But I knocked myself out of the story. My rule is if you are lost in your text, keep talking. So I did. The audience laughed. I got the story back. New ideas came to me out of the library walls, seemingly -- and the story finished as it should, not as "Look, Ma, I'm so spiritual" but as simply -- Yes! one big affirmation - and laugh.
So I call it Starfish - the way it really happened.
I'm sendong the complete text, including what happened when I lost my way in the text- and how I got back home free. This is an introduction, the story follows - fairly long. Enjoy - and let me know what you think.
Lois T Kibbutz Naan Israel
2) Starfish - the way it really happened
There's a story that's very popular among storytellers called "The Starfish." Or "The Star Thrower." I've heard it told by QUITE a FEW tellers, and probably you have, too. But this is the way I tell it these days. Here's MY starfish story, and is the way things really happened.
Mr. Hammond was a criminal lawyer, intelligent, highly thought of - by criminals and lawyers alike, very successful – and therefore very busy.
He was also a grump. He would lose his temper in a split second many times a day over many different things, but in effect they were all the same thing: He had no patience with stupidity. Errors of any kind – errors in spelling, in grammar, in legal procedure - all drew from him a scathing response, but most especially mistakes caused by illogical thinking or by lazy thinking, or just plain wishful thinking.
To his credit, however, let it be said that he knew he was a grump, and tried to control himself. Since crowds and noise aggravated his grumpiness he arranged his time so that he would have as much peace and quiet as possible. The one item in his busy schedule that was almost completely in his control was vacation time, so he and his wife took ample and frequent vacations. (He could afford them,) They had purchased a house on a long and beautiful beach that was relatively unknown and undeveloped. Off-season it was practically perfect, and even at the height of the summer season it was bearable - if he got up quite early. After a long stroll along the beautiful deserted beach - with his wife sometimes, but mostly alone - he could manage to ignore - or at least tolerate – follies which might otherwise drive him crazy.
But as I hinted, during the hottest summer days it was almost impossible to avoid people on any beach. So he got up earlier and earlier, while it was still dark, and mostly managed to protect his privacy and keep his temper.
One morning, however, though he got up well before dawn, he realized that someone had been ahead of him There were footprints – and body prints as well, as if someone was doing acrobatics or digging down into the damp sand for something. But he kept on walking until he saw in the distance someone else walking – and bending and twisting and making wild movements as if … what? Signalling? Throwing something? Performing some kind of weird religious ceremony?
He couldn't even tell if it was a man or a woman gyrating there in front of him, which annoyed him. The - ?person? had long hair – but that's no sign these days. And was wearing a brightly colored floral print robe – which also told him nothing. And he? She? would bend over, kneel on the sand, then stand up and toss something out into the ocean. The person threw the thing - whatever it was - with a strong muscular movement, far out into the water – but that didn't mean it was a man, not these days.
[At this point I bumped into the microphone, and almost knocked it over: I DID totally knock my self from the story. Now I have always told pupils and other tellers, when you lose your place, or forget, don't worry, the audience doesn't know what you planned to tell, just what you have told. Keep talking, don't embarrass them or yourself by a long silence! Better to admit to forgetting than to give them the silent treatment. (See Note at the end of the story for what I USED TO BRIDG E THE GAP.]
Mr. Hammond started to turn back, before he got himself into a confrontation with the person, something which he knew would make him lose his temper. But his curiosity got the better of him. (It was his curiosity, in good measure, which made him such a good lawyer.) He went on until he was close enough to ask a question of the man –yes, at least THAT much was now clear..
"Would you mind telling me what you're digging up and throwing into the ocean?" he asked politely.
The man kept on searching for something, but he glanced up and answered. "You see, it's a hot day today. And there's a hot wind And the tide is ebbing. It's low tide today. So the beach is drying out. And there are lots of starfish caught on the sand after the tide goes out. And they'll just shrivel up and die if they don't get water. So I'm looking for starfish, and when I find one, I throw it back into the ocean. I'm saving the starfish, you see." He said. "I'm saving the starfish."
Well, Mr. Hammond lost his temper even more than he'd feared he would. This was an gregarious example of the worst kind of sloppy pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking he had heard in years, and believe me. he'd heard plenty in the courts,! He erupted like a volcano, and poued a lava of ed burning words
On his hapless victim.
"Young man," he said, speaking in his best court-room voice, "How long is this beach?"
"I don't know – miles, I guess. Thirty miles at least."
"And how wide is the sandy part of the beach?"
"OH, forty yards, say – average."
"Yes, and how many starfish do you find in ten square yards?"
"Not many – they're hard to spot. Say two still alive, and one almost surely dead. Or vice cersa," the young man said.
"And now tell me, how many people are out on this immense beach hunting for dying starfish and throwing them back into the ocean? How many?"
"Well – offhand – one," he admitted.
""Exactly: One. Saving the starfish? You're not saving starfish! You're playing god! You're getting sunstroke~ You're twisting your shoulder muscles. Saving starfish? What you're doing is nonsense. Be logical. Don't you see that in the long run you're not making a damn bit of difference to the starfish, are you? Are you? Tell me."
The young man didn't answer, just looked down at the sand, reached down and pulled out one starfish, still alive. He gave a little run, and tossed it out past the tide line, into the water. Then he turned to Mr. Hammond.
"Well, yes sir, you're probably right: in the long run, what I'm doing won't make any difference. I can't save the starfish. But in the short run, . . you've got to admit. . . I saved THAT one, didn't I?" He looked Mr. Hammond straight in the eyes. After a minute's silence that young man turned and walked on.
Mr Hammond muttered to his retreating back, "You did, I guess." And then louder, "You saved THAT one. yes."
And after a minute's silence he started to turn back home. But his eye was caught by something on the drying sand. A starfish? Yes, definitely a starfish! He picked it up, and because he knew he couldn't throw as well as the young man, he ran halfway to the water, and threw it into the ocean from there. Then he went along the beach, nearer the water, following the young man. Ten minutes passed in silence, and the young man stood up, and stretched, , "Hey, Mister."
Mr Hammond stood up. "Yes?"
"Now there are two!"
"I said now there are two. You know…"
"Oh! … throwing starfish into the water. Yes, I guess you're right – now there ARE two- - - that's double! But it's still a damned long beach! "
And after a few more minutes, the young man called out joyfully, "Hey, Mister .. Are you married?"
"Married? Yes, I am. Why?"
"So tomorrow bring your wife, and there will be three, won't there?"
"Right - - I'll do that. Tomorrow there'll be three. But the beach is VERY damned long. . . . So you bring YOUR wife, so then there'll be four!"
"No, still three. I'm not married, you see.!"
"Not married? Well what on earth are you waiting for, young man? Go out and find yourself a wife, and hurry up about it! OR how the hell else are we EVER GOING TO SAVE - ALL THE STARFISH!"
And I took off from the business of the confusion of masculine and feminine, which is more important in Hebrew language because you must adapt the verb to the sex of the person addressed. The story is more or less true, and it is one I have told when talking about my troubles in adapting to a new country. When I reached a point where I could re-connect with the story, I did. I don't know whether the audience realized what had happened, but they enjoyed the anecdote. So I now add to my answer to people who want to know what you do when you lose the story line: "Go on talking – make a joke – tell them what has happened – just don't let them suffer the tortures of long silence. Or yourself, either for that matter!
Here's what I said, more or less:
(He has my sympathy there! I remember when I first came to Israel in the 50's, the little kids all dressed in t-shirts and shorts – no difference between boys and girls – not even colors. And they wore brown sandals. And all had short haircuts, and after a week or so the boys' haircuts looked just like the girls.
Now at that time, in America there were still clear cut differences in color and cut between kids' clothes and shoes between girls and boys – in color if not style.
Add to this the fact that there were many Hebrew names which I could not identify for sure as men's names or women's. This was still before many masculine names went bi-sexual, though.
I was living at a kibbutz then, and had to work with kids up to first grade. They would tell me the names, but for many names I couldn't tell if I should use masculine of feminine form. Unless we were at the swimming pool when they went around naked. True, I gave my daughter a bi-sexual name, but that was because I didn't know at the time that it could also be a man's name.)
And by this time, I could go on with the original story, and a god time was had by all!
Lois T. Israel 2/5/06
Response: I -love- your version of the starfish thrower! It's just wonderful.
Lee-Ellen M. 2/5/ 06
Response: You have no idea what Lois does with the starfish. She told it to us at our monthly meeting with her "hero" the lawyer, then afterwards told how she put a part in the middle about the lawyer looking out and seeing someone but couldn't figure out male or female and why and how that got into the story. Which is another story!
Dvora S. Israel 2/5/06
Response: The "man throwing a sea star into the ocean" story-- the original source is naturalist Loren Eisley, from his book The Star Thrower.
Jackie Anderson has a web site that tracks how the story has been borrowed, stolen, and adapted for various purposes:
Read the original Eisley. It's worth it.
Tim E. 1/31/06
web page updated 8/10/03; 2/7/06; 2/13/06)