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.
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.
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.”
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.
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