Cathy Chester | An Empowered Spirit

The Zen of Alan Alda

It would be easy to write about Alan Alda by only recounting stories that everyone already knows, such as his tremendous successes in television, movies and theatre. I could also discuss his well-known talents as a gifted writer of books and screenplays, or his lifelong passion of science that led him to not only host PBS’s “Scientific American Frontiers” for 14 years but to challenge young minds and inspire the creation of The Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.

Alan Alda

But Alan Alda is much more than that, and writing about only those achievements, as incredible as they are, would be a disservice to him. He has always been like a cauldron packed tight with ingredients of passion, ideas and deep thought that would burst wide open if he couldn’t keep moving forward.

As I listened to him speaking recently at The New Jersey Speaker Series it occurred to me how Zen-like Mr. Alda is. He sees his life experiences with great clarity and, after examining them like a true scientist, he challenges and questions himself, then draws his own conclusions.

Alan Alda

I can best illustrate the Zen of Alan Alda by using three stories from his words and life experiences.

Story One: There was one night that forever changed his life, and he uses that near tragedy to contemplate how he became the man he is today.

“I’d like to tell you about a night that changed my life. I was up on top of a mountain in Chile, in an observatory because I was with astronomers doing a science show, and I got this tickle in my gut, and within a few minutes it was the worst pain I had ever felt in my life. They had a medic up there. I don’t think he’d done anything medical before. I’m all doubled up and he comes over and says, ‘How are you?’

“They had an ambulance, a big old boxy thing. It looked like the ambulances we had on M*A*S*H. They slide me into the ambulance and I’m groaning and screaming and they take me for an hour and a half down this rocky mountain down to this little town to a hospital with a dimly lit ER.

“But there was this brilliant doctor there that night who was an expert in what was wrong with me. It turned out I had a bit of my intestine that lost its blood supply and if it burst a couple hours later I’d be dead. But he knew exactly what the problem was and he figured it out in a few minutes. He leaned into me to tell me they have to cut out part of the bad intestine and sew two good ends together.

“And I said, ‘Oh, you’re going to do an end-to-end anastomosis?’ He said, ‘How do you know that?” and I said, ‘Oh I did many of those on M*A*S*H.’

“And I lived.

“And when it was over I felt I’d been given a whole new life. The world was so fresh, the colors were so free, just the feeling of being alive. I wasn’t supposed to eat anything solid, and the first piece of cheese I had was the most delicious meal I’d had in my life. I was like a newborn baby tasting everything fresh.

“So I thought I don’t want this to end. I’ve met people who had near death experiences and they kept that feeling for a while but then it went away. I didn’t want it to go away. How can I make this last?

“Maybe if I think about how I got to be how I am, and who I am, and the lessons I’ve learned, maybe there’s something in that. So I started making notes about my earliest childhood memories.”

Alan Alda

Story Two: When Mr. Alda was seven years old he contracted polio, a horrible deadly disease and an epidemic among children at that time. He remembers his father administering painful treatments that included placing hot woolen blankets on his limbs and painful massages on his muscles.

While recovering, Robert Alda brought home a beautiful black cocker spaniel to cheer up his son. The dog was so sweet and loving that they immediately fell in love with each other. When the puppy tragically died his father, in a loving but perhaps misguided effort, had the dog stuffed for posterity so he’d “always have him.” But the dog had a “hideous expression with glass eyes that followed you wherever you walked” and after placing it next to the fireplace, “when guests entered the room they’d stop dead.”

I realized years later that this was a tremendous lesson for me. You can’t have your dog stuffed. I know that sounds trivial but it’s true. You love the dog, he goes away, and you move on. The stuffed dog is a counterfeit; a hollow imitation.”

Story Three: Someone from the audience asked what he thought Hawkeye Pierce would be doing today. Alda answered that he never thought about it. As much as he loved the character and was proud of the part he played in creating eleven seasons of M*A*S*H, when it was over, it was over. And he moved on.

Beyond the Zen of Alan Alda is the love everyone feels for him. I have never met anyone with an unkind word about him.

As a devoted fan I’ve written about him before. About my schoolgirl crush that turned into deep respect for a man completely devoted to his family and friends, one who always seemed genuine and self-effacing whenever I’d hear him speak.

I was more than thrilled when my husband and I were invited to attend a post-event cocktail party to meet Alan Alda in person. I was admittedly a bit nervous. I’ve met celebrities before, but for me this was different.

I didn’t want to sound like a gushing teenager or a typical fan. I wanted him to know how important the work he is doing at Stony Book University is to the disability community and me. So I practiced my elevator speech. Several times. Okay, more than several.

When it came time for us to meet him one-on-one, my instincts were right. It was as if my husband and I were alone in the room with a dear friend. He listened intently as I thanked him not only for his funny and fascinating talk, but also for the contributions he’s making by teaching future scientists how to communicate more effectively with the public, and what that will mean to the future of medicine.

Although our conversation lasted only a few minutes it will leave an indelible impression on my heart.

Alan Alda

END NOTE: I also introduced myself to Arlene Alda, who is an accomplished musician, photographer and writer. Her latest book “Just Kids from the Bronx” is an oral history about what it was like growing up in the Bronx, a place that “bred the influencers in just about every field of endeavor today.” It will be coming out March 2015. I wanted to tell Mrs. Alda how excited my Bronx born mother is about reading her upcoming book. Mrs. Alda was lovely, and it was a pleasure to briefly speak with her.

The New Jersey Speaker Series is an inaugural series of talks produced by Fairleigh Dickinson University. The impressive list of speakers are Madeleine Albright, Alan Alda, Steve Wozniak, Olympia Snowe, David Gergen, David McCullough and Dan Rather, each influential voices in our world today.

Photo Credits: Courtesy of Fairleigh Dickinson University/New Jersey Speaker Series

61 thoughts on “The Zen of Alan Alda

    1. Post author

      Thank you for your kind words, Lisa. Having polio was another of his life-changing events. Quite something for him to have so many scares in his life, and still achieve so many successes despite having them. He is a strong and passionate man. We are blessed to have him among us.

    1. Post author

      You are so right, Margaret. Sometimes I think about that, because who do young people have to look up to? Sports heroes? Not very often. Alan Alda is making a difference in young people’s lives, and that endears him to everyone that much more.

  1. Kelly Connor

    I have ALWAYS admired Alan Alda, too! First, I guess because when I was a young girl (lets face it, he looked GREAT in MASH and played a great character) and as I got older, I respected his morals and stances and and family ways-he just seems like an all-around great guy to know!

    You are so lucky to have met him and heard him speak, I would love to know when/where he is speaking again- or do you have to have an actual invitation?

    I enjoyed reading your article and knowing that I am not the only person with a “soft spot” for Alan Alda!-I read about his science, books, etc. all the time!


    Kelly Connor

    1. Post author

      Thanks, Kelly. I am so glad you enjoyed my post! I don’t know where else he is speaking. Perhaps you can google it or see if he has a website. I’m not sure.

      I feel blessed to be able to cover this series, but the one speaker who is near and dear to my heart is (of course) Alan Alda.

    1. Post author

      I’m so glad you enjoyed my post, Lois. And, yes, it’s so nice to know that some people are truly genuine despite the great success they achieve. I feel blessed to have listened to him speak and then meet him in person. Very blessed.

  2. Emily

    How great that you were able to hear him speak and meet him. From afar, I can tell he’s an intelligent and kind man. On a separate note, my mom was born and raised in the Bronx too – I can’t recall if we ever discussed that. Anyway, if my mom were still alive, I’d buy her Arlene’s book because I know she would have loved to read it.
    Emily recently posted…When Losing Is Also FunMy Profile

    1. Post author

      Oh, Emily, no! You never mentioned that about your mom. What year was she born? My mom was a little older than Arlene Alda (she asked me) and I bet your mom would have loved this book. Perhaps you should read it anyway to get a feel for the place she grew up.

  3. Transitioning Mom

    Oh, Cathy, one of the most wonderful gifts I get from participating in NaBloPoMo is the recommitment I make to reading the posts of others, and this was the perfect launch for me in that journey. You write so beautifully and I really love how you made Alan Alda so approachable in this piece. What a wonderful tribute!
    Transitioning Mom recently posted…Let’s do this!My Profile

    1. Post author

      I am so happy, Mary, that you enjoyed my piece. Your lovely words mean a lot to me, as a writer and a friend.

      I look forward to being part of this month’s writing challenge, which will be just that – a CHALLENGE!

    1. Post author

      I am sure it’ll be a wonderful read, Roz. I told Arlene Alda that since my father escaped Nazi Germany no one in the family really paid attention to my mom’s stories about being born in the Bronx! She laughed.

      I saw some good reviews about the book, and she’s a wonderful writer and photographer, so I’m sure it will be a fascinating read.

  4. Donna Highfill

    Cathy – you did Mr. Alda a beautiful justice with this piece. His stories say everything about him. Your willingness to simply relay his story says everything about you. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Post author

      Thank you, Donna. Coming from you that means a lot. I thought a lot about you that night. He is like a dear friend, and I am sure everyone who meets him feels the same way. His wife was also very dear. A magical evening!

  5. Ruth Curran

    It is so wonderful when someone you admire, turns out to be exactly who you thought he would be…. I am so thrilled for you that you got this opportunity and savored the moments!!! And thank you for sharing those stories – ones we might not have gotten without you :)!

    1. Post author

      I am so glad you enjoyed my post, Ruth. Yes, today I wonder who our young people’s heroes are. With the problems of the world such as drugs, violence, etc, it’s nice to know there are some people who are so authentic and as wonderful as they seem.

    1. Post author

      I am so glad you enjoyed reading the stories of Alan Alda. They are extraordinary, about taking life experiences and turning them into not only a positive outlook, but creating new horizons and giving back to others.

    1. Post author

      I am so glad you liked my post, Mary. We own all 11 episodes of MASH. That way we can watch it whenever we want. My son loves it as well, and over the years he’s so enjoyed being able to watch it whenever he wanted to! I’m so glad you are now enjoying it.

      Yes, Alan Alda is, as you say, a great man!

  6. Helene Cohen Bludman

    I love reading these stories, Cathy. They really give me a glimpse into this wonderful man. I am so thrilled for you that you had the opportunity to meet him and his lovely wife.

    1. Post author

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Helene. It was so lovely to meet both of them, and to share this magical evening with my husband. It will be a memory I will never forget. Thanks again for all of your support.

    1. Post author

      Oh, my, thank you Pam! In our area (and perhaps everywhere) we wear a lot of black. Black, black, black. In the winter I miss vibrant colors, so I went to Macy’s with all of my coupons and set out to find a vibrant colored top to go with my black pants. Something simple and hopefully timeless. Bingo!

      Since there was no sales clerk in sight, I saw a nicely dressed woman and asked her what her opinion was for what I was going to attend. She asked me where I was going, and when I told her I was going to “meet” Alan Alda, she got all flustered.

      It’s really something special for one person to make a positive impression like that on people everywhere. And it’s certainly more than well deserved, Pam.

  7. Rena McDaniel-The Diary of an Alzheimer's Caregiver

    Great job Cathy! I have always looked up to Alan Alda and also had the school girl crush I’m afraid. At least we picked a great guy. I love the stories that he shared and the one about the stuffed dog was such a great metaphor. He is an amazing man and he has always carried himself with humor and more importantly dignity.
    Rena McDaniel-The Diary of an Alzheimer’s Caregiver recently posted…THIS IS A NEW ERA IN ALZHEIMER’S/DEMENTIA RESEARCH!My Profile

  8. Linda Anderson

    Awesome post Cathy! I wanted to read it here on your blog in light of the scraping troubles you’ve been having lately. Thank you for admitting you practiced what you’d say to Mr. Alda before the actual moment. Good advice to all of us when and if we someday have the amazing experience that you’ve had!

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