Read Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself Online

Authors: Alan Alda

Tags: #Actors - United States, #Actors, #United States, #Biography, #Alda; Alan, #Biography & Autobiography, #General, #Entertainment & Performing Arts, #Personal Memoirs

Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself (3 page)

BOOK: Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself
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Let me go back to when I was in college. There were ideas that had power for me then—maybe they will for you now. I’d almost forgotten how much one of those ideas meant to me—how much I wrote about it and thought about it. It was the essence of a philosophy that was very popular at the time, and it’s one of the most helpful and cheerful ideas I’ve ever heard.

It’s this: Life is absurd and meaningless and full of nothingness. Possibly this doesn’t strike you as helpful and cheerful, but I think it is—because it’s honest and because it goads you on.

I had a teacher in those days who saw me with a book by Jean-Paul Sartre under my arm, and he said, “Be careful. If you read too much of that, you’ll start walking around dressed in black, looking wan, doing nothing for the rest of your life.” Well, I did read the book, and as it turned out, I’m tanned and lovely, I’m rich and productive, and I’m happy like nobody’s business.

Maybe it was my natural optimism at work, but what I saw and warmed to in the existentialist’s writings was that life is meaningless unless you bring meaning to it; it’s up to us to create our own existence. Unless you
do
something, unless you
make
something, it’s as though you aren’t there. Existentialism was supposed to be the philosophy of despair. But not to me. To me, it was the essence of hope—because it touched the cold, hard stone at rock bottom and saw it as a way to push off it and bounce back up again.

Back when I was reading the existentialists, we heard the news that God was dead, but now Sartre is dead, too, and so is Camus—and, in a way, so is the optimism at the heart of their pessimism. The distressing reality is that twenty-five years ago when I was in college, we all talked about nothingness but moved into a world of effort and endeavor. And now no one much talks about nothingness, but the world itself, the one you will move into, is filled with it. If you want, there’s plenty you can do to turn that nothing into something. You can dig into the world and push it into better shape.

For one thing, you can clean the air and water. Some people have said that lead poisoning was a major cause of the fall of the Roman Empire, because the ruling class had their food cooked in expensive pots that were lined with lead. They didn’t know any better, but we don’t have that excuse. Now, almost two thousand years later, we’ve hit upon the incredibly clever idea of getting rid of our industrial waste by putting it into our food. Not directly, of course; that would be too expensive. First they put it in the ground—then it goes into the water, and the next thing you know, you’re eating a sludgeburger. If you want, you can do something about that.

Or you can try to make the justice system work. You can bring the day a little closer when the rich and privileged have to live by the same standards as the poor and the outcast.

Or you can try to keep the tiger of war away from our gates for a while longer. You can do what you can to keep old men from sending children away to die. They’re tuning up for the song of war again. They’re making preparations and trial excursions. They’re tickling our anger. They’re asking us if we’re ready to pour the cream of our youth out onto the ground, where it will seep into the earth and disappear forever. You can tell them we’re not. The time to stop the next war is now—before it starts.

If you want to take absurdity by the neck and shake it till its brains rattle, you can try to find out how it is that people can see one another as less than human. How can people be capable of both nurture and torture? How we can worry and fret about a little girl caught in a mine shaft, spending days and nights getting her out, but then burn a village to the ground and destroy all its people without blinking? If you’re interested, you can question that, too, and you can try to find out why people all over the world, of every country, of every class, of every religion, have at one time or another found it so easy to use other people like farm animals, to make them suffer, and to just plain do away with them.

And while you’re at it, there’s something else you can do. You can pass on the torch that’s been carried from Seneca Falls. Remember that every right you have as a woman was won for you by women fighting hard. Everything else you have is a privilege, not a right. A privilege is given and taken away at the pleasure of those in power. There are little girls being born right now who may not have the same rights you do when they grow up unless you do something to maintain and extend the range of equality for women. The soup of civilized life is a nourishing stew, but it doesn’t keep stocked on its own. Put something back in the pot as you leave for the people in line behind you.

There are, of course, hundreds of things you can work on, and they’re all fairly impossible to achieve, so there’s plenty to keep you busy for the rest of your life. I can’t promise you this will ever completely reduce that sense of absurdity, but it may get it down to a manageable level. It will allow you once in a while to take a glorious vacation from nothingness and bask in the feeling that all in all, things do seem to be moving forward.

I want you to be potent; to do good when you can and to hold your wit and your intelligence like a shield against other people’s wantonness. I want you to be strong and aggressive and tough and resilient and full of feeling.

I want you to have chutzpah.

Nothing important was ever accomplished without chutzpah. Columbus had chutzpah. The signers of the Declaration of Independence had chutzpah. Do you wonder if you’re strong enough? Sure you are. Get a little perspective. Look up at the stars swirling in the heavens and see how tiny and puny they look. They’re gigantic explosions, but from where we are, they’re just these insignificant little dots. If you step back from things far enough, you realize how important and powerful you are. Be bold. Let the strength of your desire give force and moment to your every step. They may laugh at you if you don’t discover India. Let them laugh. India’s already there. You’ll come back with a brand-new America. Move with all of yourself. When you embark for strange places, don’t leave any of yourself safely on shore. Have the nerve to go into unexplored territory. Be brave enough to live life creatively. The creative is the place where no one else has ever been. It is not the previously known. You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. You can’t get there by bus, only by hard work and risk and by not quite knowing what you’re doing, but what you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover will be yourself.

Those are my parting words as today’s door closes softly between us. There will be other partings and other last words in our lives, so if today’s lingering at the threshold didn’t quite speak the unspeakable, maybe the next one will.

I’ll let you go now.

So long, be happy.

Oh, by the way, I love you.

They awarded me a Connecticut College chair that day. An actual chair. I kept it by the front door for years to remind me of the afternoon I’d been able to open my heart to our first child. But as the years went on and I passed the chair in my comings and goings, I noticed that almost every problem I’d mentioned to her that day, almost everything I’d said she could work on fixing, had got worse. As our lives went on, the hopes I had for her grew even higher, but everything I’d mentioned about the world had sunk below sea level.

Eve went on to become a social worker, and she ran for office in her town and won. She did dig into the world; and if she couldn’t make it better, it wasn’t for lack of trying. But now for her, as it has been for me, there
will
be one sure way of finding purpose in her life. Now she has children.

And now I see, and so does she, that our job is not to shape them and badger them, but to love them.

Simply love them.

Love them.

Love them.

Chapter 3

Playing in the Street

We were playing on a trash heap down by the East River. We were four years old, and the three of us had spent the afternoon climbing over rusty shards of iron and steel. After a while, bored with scrambling across the debris, one of the other boys started taunting his brother, as brothers will do, and they began hurling insults at each other. Before long, they were hurling bits of scrap metal. I was between them, watching. One of them picked up a tin can and cocked his arm, threatening to throw it. The lid had been cut with an old-fashioned can opener and bent back. Its burred edge was like a sharp, circular saw.

I held up my hand and said, “Stop!” I wanted him to stop, but I also meant to be funny. I was imitating the comics I had watched from the wings of the burlesque theaters where my father worked as a singer and straight man. In burlesque, people threw things and doused one another with seltzer. The straight men even took the comics by the neck and threw them across the stage, but no one ever got hurt. My “Stop!” was more like a line in a comedy sketch than a real-life command.

It would have been smarter to get out of the way. The jagged top of the tin can came toward me end over end and sliced open an inch-long patch of skin on my head. Within seconds, my scalp was gushing and my body was covered with blood.

The boys quickly sobered and walked me back to the brownstone where we lived and handed me over to my mother. For years I had a scar where the slice intersected the part in my hair. This gave me my first lesson in public speaking: Say what you mean and mean what you say—and don’t expect to get a laugh when they’re hurling metal at you.

I stepped up to the microphone at Emerson College in Boston on a day in May, hoping to say what I meant and not have to duck. I was forty now, and
M*A*S*H
had been on the air for five years. Emerson, a communications college, had asked me to speak to the graduating class, who, I was sure, would be sitting there, hoping the commencement speaker wouldn’t trash their day. I thought for a long time about what I’d say to them.

It was 1977, and the Vietnam War had ended four years earlier, with some wounds that had not yet hardened into scars. Watergate had forced Nixon out of office, and the shock of it was still with us. We were not that far removed from the years of assassination and unrest. The deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and the riots at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, and the protests at Kent State in 1970 in which four students had been shot and killed had stunned us, and we had not fully recovered. Little yellow smiley-face buttons began showing up everywhere not long after Kent State, and soon fifty million of them had been sold. It was as if the country were signaling itself that it had suffered enough.

Our recent history had been tumultuous, yet I’d be speaking to a generation that was changing. They had turned away from boisterous demonstrations and were beginning to think more about their own careers.

I wanted to say something that wouldn’t just bounce off them, something they could take in and connect to. I took off my mortarboard, looked into their faces, and dove in.

I hope I can say something that will have some meaning for you. I hope I can say something that will set you so on fire, you’ll never forget it. Because twenty-one years ago when I was on your side of the academic footlights and I was graduating from college, we were addressed by several distinguished people who gave us encouragement and wisdom and wit, and I can’t remember a damn thing anybody said.

Well, I’m going to tell you something you’ll remember. You may not believe this as you sit here now, but at some point in your lives a lot of you are going to look up from your work and wonder: “What’s the point of it all?” You’ll wonder how much you’re really getting accomplished and how much it all means. I think it’s safe to say that most of you will experience this.

The sentence “What’s the purpose of all this?” is written in big letters over the door of the Midlife Crisis Butcher Shop. You can’t miss it as you lug the carcass of your worldly success through the door to have it dressed and trimmed and placed in little plastic packages so you can dazzle people with it in your showcase. “What’s the purpose of all this?” You may ask yourself that question next year or twenty years from now. But when you do, you’ll remember what I’m going to tell you now.

Well, that was a little brash. I don’t know why I thought anything I said would be remembered. This is how you remember things:

A few weeks after I got my head split open on the trash heap at the age of four, I let myself be inspired by the comics again and got another lesson I wasn’t expecting. I was outside our brownstone apartment on Thirty-second Street, sitting on the running board of a car, chatting with a girl my age. I liked her, and I decided to make her laugh. Who knows what I said. There were all kinds of rude words and rough humor that passed between the comics and strippers out on the road. I didn’t know what most of it meant, but I knew it made people laugh, and I tried some of it out on the running-board girl. She pulled back her hand and whacked me across the face. My cheek stung, and my eyes teared instantly. She looked over at her mother, who was sitting across the sidewalk on the stoop, watching us. Her mother said, “Hit him again.” She hit me again. What had I said? I never found out.

But the sting of the slap remained on my face as a reminder that I was an outsider; our language wasn’t spoken here. Jim McGaugh, the memory researcher, told me that centuries ago, when a village wanted the memory of an important event to pass down to the next generation, the villagers would take a seven-year-old who had witnessed the event and throw him in the river. They would rescue him before he drowned, but the shock of the experience registered the day in his memory for the rest of his life. The little girl’s slap did the same for me. For a long time, I remembered that I was not one of these people. I never abandoned the comic end of the running board, but the slap was one of the signals I got from the civilian world that I’d have to learn to modify my sense of humor to fit the company I was in.

So there was no chance the graduates would remember what I said that day, unless I took them over to the Charles River and threw them in. But I did get their attention. Now there was the little thing of what I was going to tell them. It was going to be something personal. I had gone for the personal the first time I spoke in public, and I never veered from it, even though the results that first time were nearly as memorable as the slap in the face had been.

I was dry at the back of my throat that day. I wanted to make a good impression, but I didn’t stand much of a chance. I was in a citywide speech competition, and the topic was “Tolerance: How Can We Promote It in Burbank?” Not that tough in itself, but I was fourteen and up against my school’s football hero, who was three years older than me. He was a tall, good-looking quarterback with a smooth style. He had the authority of someone who called the plays and knew his calls would be followed. Pretty much all
I
had was sincerity, which kind of paled against Strong and Handsome.

We were giving our talks in a large room above a catering hall, with the mayor and his staff judging us. The afternoon sun spilled across the bare wooden floor, and the judges looked at us from the other end of the room with polite neutrality. Tony, the football hero, was up first. He made his way effortlessly, and I thought glibly, down a list of public service announcements and essay contests that could inspire support for tolerance in the town of Burbank. I could see the judges nodding. The quarterback sat down, confident that he had scored.

I rose and called a smile up to my face. They smiled back, politely. I wasn’t going to try to use humor, but the only other tool I had was a kind of passionate naïveté. I looked at the mayor and his aides, and I said, “The people who can do something about tolerance in this town are right here in this room.” I could see their smiles tighten just a little. This was probably not what they were expecting.

Then I got personal. “When you walk down the street and someone approaches in the other direction, do you play a game, wondering what their ethnic background is, or their religion? Does that matter? Couldn’t we, each one of us, see people for who they are? Wouldn’t that be the real beginning of tolerance in Burbank?”

I was suggesting that, generally, people should look inward, but as I talked, I was getting a vague feeling of doom. The mayor and his aides were beginning to look uncomfortable, as if I were questioning their own sense of tolerance. I saw the danger, but pluck rose in me like fetid floodwaters and I couldn’t stop. When it was over, they awarded me second prize, which wasn’t all that bad, even though there were only two of us in the contest.

I decided to leave public speaking for a while. Instead, I joined the school chorus because I had a crush on the nun who conducted the singing group and also because it got me out of study hall, where they actually expected you to study. Spending an hour watching Sister Mary Alice waving her arms at us seemed much more productive. The only thing I didn’t like was that she had seated me next to Tony, the football hero. And he was even more self-assured about singing than he was about public speaking. As we practiced, I was surprised to find out that harmonizing required you to sing a completely different tune from what other people were singing. You had your part and they had theirs, and there were little marks on a musical staff in the songbook that you were supposed to be able to read. I had thought singing was just something you did, but this seemed a lot like study hall. My father sang for the half-naked chorus girls in burlesque without agonizing over it. Why couldn’t
I
?

I opened my mouth and sang what sounded to me close enough to what the people in my section were singing. But I kept drifting halfway between what they were doing and the melody. I was singing, as they say, in the cracks.

The football player listened to me struggling and deftly put me away. He never said I stank; he just launched into a conspiratorial account of how some people in the chorus had no idea how to read music. “This is what they think a half-tone interval is,” he said, and sang a couple of notes. “And this is a whole tone to them.” He sang another two notes, which sounded to me exactly like the first two. I nodded my head, only vaguely aware I was being mocked.

A couple of weeks later, the ax fell. Sister Mary Alice made us sing a passage over and over. “Somebody’s flat,” she said. “Who is it?”

There were no volunteers, so she asked only the left side of the room to sing, then the right side. Then the top half of the right side, then the bottom half. She was zeroing in. I knew it must be me, but I couldn’t stand the thought that I was letting her down. I had a crush on her. I dreamed about her. I couldn’t be the one who sang flat.

But I was. She asked me into her office, where she explained gently that different people have different skills, while I ignored the tears in the back of my throat. As I left the chorus for good, the football player winked at me. He managed to get more derision into that one little wink than I thought was possible.

My revenge was going back to class and getting into politics. I was beginning to be noticed in school because I could get even more laughs than the official class clown. He was Tom, an admirable boy who knew how to look surprised while he fell over backward in a chair and tumbled out of it. He taught me how to fall backward in a straight-backed chair, and I felt we were part of the brotherhood of pratfall artists. We amused the class so much, they elected us both president of our respective homerooms.

The election taught me one of the great uses for politics: You could transform the slights dished out by one or two people in your life into the comforting praise of a large number of others who, in voting for you, were saying they liked you. At fourteen, I didn’t know much more than that about the real world of politics. On the other hand, there may not
be
much more than that.

By the time I got to college and was about the same age as the kids I’d be speaking to at Emerson, I had only a hazy understanding of what was going on in Washington. I’d heard of Senator Joe McCarthy, who was in full flower during my college days at Fordham, and I wasn’t immune to the seductive perfume of his tirades. I remember walking with a friend along a campus path. He talked with real feeling about how McCarthy was attacking the country’s fundamental values. I didn’t read the newspapers much in those days, but I knew from headlines in the
Daily News
that McCarthy was accusing a lot of people of being Communists. McCarthy had a certain appeal for me. This was a time in my life when I was looking for refuge from a childhood of uncertainty. Since I was a baby, I hadn’t been able to count on my mother, who was schizophrenic, paranoid, and alcoholic. She loved me, certainly, but her version of reality shifted from hour to hour. I was looking for a rational universe, and one that included layers of authority that would be consistent from top to bottom. The church had it all figured out with a formula that was tightly reasoned, once you accepted its first premises on faith. So when my friend agonized over Joe McCarthy, it didn’t seem like a difficult question.

As we strolled down the path in the late afternoon sun, I said I didn’t think McCarthy was so bad. It seemed to me that a country had the right to defend itself against its enemies. My friend was silent for a while, but I could see his crestfallen face. Finally, he spoke softly. “These people aren’t its enemies. They’re its citizens.”

The quiet pain in my friend’s voice registered with me. It was one of a number of small moments that made me wonder how useful prepackaged answers were. I started asking questions; and that led, as it often does, to questioning the people in charge.

I was becoming convinced that the world wasn’t running the way it ought to and that I probably ought to fix it. When you’re an only child, brought up in the spotlight of show business, you think like that.

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