There’s a scene in Alan Alda’s new memoir, Things I Overhear While Talking to Myself, that’s hard to forget: Hawkeye, age eleven, shooting terminally ill rabbits to a bloody, dusty death. Some ten years later Alda would take aim at people while serving as an officer in the Army Reserves in Georgia. Fifty years later, on a mountaintop in Chile, obstructed intestines attacked his own. Now the actor and two-time author (of 2005’s Never Have Your Dog Stuffed) accepts intimidating invitations to talk at Monticello, Caltech, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Turns out that’s how Alda scares himself.
Over a fuzzy phone connection, Alda discussed his second book, an unusual combination of memoir and think piece, culled from years of giving speeches. Because Alda isn’t just a “nice guy” but a genuinely wise one, he can tell scholars something they didn’t know about Thomas Jefferson. Or talk about science to a smattering of Nobel Prize winners. And when he writes about living a meaningful life? It really is inspiring.
The first chapter of Never Have Your Dog Stuffed is “Don’t Notice Anything.” The message of this book seems to be “notice everything.”
I hadn’t thought of that. That’s an example of the unconscious knowing more than you do. It always amazes me, all of these vivid memories that have taste and smell and character. You don’t come across them everyday, they’re just down there like one of those tumors that has hair and teeth in it. And it just needs to be called up by something associative. You ask yourself a serious question, one that puzzles you and makes you nervous and dizzy.
What questions did you ask?
Was I living a life of meaning? I was going through the talks I’d given, the things I’d said to my kids. That started calling up a lot of stories. I always remembered sitting on the running board with the little girl when I was three. I realized I had probably been saying things I picked up in the burlesque theaters, because I was always trying to be funny. So I said something either rude or I said something normal rudely. And she slapped me and her mother said “slap him again!” If I hadn’t been digging I wouldn’t have realized I wasn’t just slapped by the little girl. It was an indication to me that I spoke a different language. I came from a different tribe.
Was there a point when you realized you didn’t have to conform to the language everybody else was speaking?
I learned their language, but kept a private language. Show business speaks its own language. It’s a combination of joking and confrontation. In the business world they do a little bit of that, but they just plain don’t have a sense of humor. They don’t have the ability to make each other really laugh.
You seem interested in bridging chasms ― between science and the rest of the world, between celebrities and people who aren’t famous.
I am interested in that. The can opener that got into each of those chasms was exploring the different ways people had for looking for some kind of lasting satisfaction. I did explore that chasm between celebrity and non-celebrity.