“I was so glad not to have died that day that I made it my new birthday” writes Alan Alda is the opening of his memoir Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself. The day in reference took place in the early 2000s atop a Chilean mountain; Alda was suddenly struck with excruciating abdominal pain caused by an intestinal blockage. (“This pain is more intense than childbirth, as I was told later by a woman who had enjoyed both,” he wrote.) A potential death sentence, Alda was saved by a deft surgeon in a dreary South American emergency room.
More than just adopting it as a day of celebration, Alda’s near death experience also prompted him to explore esoteric aspects of life: What is the definition of a good life? How does one squeeze the most of out living? What is the meaning out of our time on Earth?
One could argue that Alda’s accomplishments to that point already proved he was preternaturally imbued with curiosity and creativity. He is a television icon, a stage actor, playwright, a best-selling author, an award-winning director and writer, and has a unbridled passion for science that has seen him collaborate with PBS’s Scientific America Frontiers as well as create the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York. But there was more, Alda felt, that needed investigating and he does so in his books Things I Overheard and Never Have Your Dog Stuffed. In anticipation of his Santa Barbara appearance, Alda spoke to The Independent via phone from New York.
You are going to be in Santa Barbara and you are going to discuss your last memoir? Well [my talk] is kind of based on both memoirs. I tell the story of how I tried to make my life count after I nearly lost it.
It seems to me that you were making it count a lot before you nearly died. Yeah, I know. [Laughs] What’s funny is that you can think you really value your life until you almost lose it. Almost everybody I’ve talked to who has gone through this said they got another layer of understanding of how precious it is and that you only have that one chance. So pretty much every day has a little more importance to it. Meanwhile I search my life looking for clues—from standing in the wings as a child watching burlesque, taking on impossible challenges, thinking that will do it. People seem to find all that funny. I’m trying to find meaning in my life and they are laughing.
Do you think it’s possible to get to that other layer without experiencing a near death situation. I think it’s just the volume gets turned up, that’s all. You get more aware of it. And it’s not a thing I would recommend [laughs]. People shouldn’t go out and try to lose their lives so that they can enjoy life more. But it does have that affect on you and you get really curious about how you can do something about it. At least that’s my reaction, and most of the people I’ve talked to have had a similar reaction. At the least, they are very aware of how glad they are to be alive. You see things differently. I mean I see colors…I pass by a bunch of trees in Central Park and to me it’s a painting. Well, that’s kind of dumb, that’s like saying it’s as pretty as a painting [laughs].
I think I know what your mean. I see it organized in a beautiful way.
And you didn’t have that prior to this experience? Not to this intensity, I don’t think.
It sounds like a terrible experience and then a gift. Yeah, but it’s hard medicine.
I can’t even imagine, fortunately. Or maybe not fortunately.… [Laughs] Go climb a mountain.
And get some stomach pains and then I’ll be good to go.
Can you pinpoint anything in particular that you did to change how you started living your life with more meaning? Well, it’s funny. In one of the books I finally concluded don’t bother looking for meaning. The meaning of life is life.
I like that.
And if you just notice it, that’s already something. Because too much of our lives we don’t notice. I have a brain series that just ran last night on PBS, it’s just a two part series—it’s on trial—and one of the amazing things that I understood more deeply from talking to the brain scientists is mostly what’s going on in our brains we are not at all conscious of. So that includes stuff coming in from the outside and not just how we process it. You can’t be aware of everything. You’d fall down the stairs if you were aware of every intricate thing involved in going down stairs. So a lot of it is automated and has to be. But the things that you are conscious of experiencing, they are probably better if you can be tuned into them. Might as well, that’s all you know of life is what you see.
It seems like a spiritual approach. I don’t think of it as spiritual, it might be. To me it’s very practical. It’s happening, I’m here. I need to pay more attention to it. I’ll get more out of it if I pay attention. It’s more like what acting is. You are there in the moment, you aren’t thinking how should I do this, you are just responding to what’s happening around you. It’s the basis of the best kind of acting and probably the best kind of living. I think that because of that, I came to other conclusions, other than the book, in which I talk about where I finally found some meaning outside of just noticing life.
Do you have another book in the works or do you feel you are done now? Well I have two books about nearly dying….Maybe I’ll write one about nearly living [laughs]
One reason I admire you is it seems to me in your roles—and in everything—you have a playful, life-affirming way about you. Maybe that has to do with your character Hawkeye from M*A*S*H*. He was passionate; I’ve extrapolated that to being how you are? Is there any truth to that at all? I guess what you’ve described in thinking of the character also describes me. There are other things about the character that aren’t like me. I don’t think I’m as much of a smart Alec as he was.
Well, he had to get the big laughs every minute. Yeah, and nobody talked back to him, you could write it that way.
But his intensity is so compelling and that’s what I loved. That’s great
Do you still get asked a lot about M*A*S*H*? It’s funny, almost every conversation for the public turns back a little bit to it and that’s fine with me, I don’t mind that.
You did a lot of writing and directing on that show. Do you ever think about doing that again? Not on a television show, but I just wrote a play. For six years I’ve been working on a play about Marie Curie. We did it in Los Angeles and it was a really lovely production. Anna Gunn [“Breaking Bad” and “Deadwood”] was Marie.
When did you get interested science? Or was it always a love? I’ve always been interested in it; that interest intensified when I did Scientific America Frontiers because I got a chance to spend whole days with scientists, talking about their experiments, taking part in their experiments. But before then, it is mostly what I’d read for pleasure.
It’s nice you’ve had the opportunity to delve into it in such depth. Yeah, it’s great. And now I’ve started a center for communicating science at Stony Brook University. We do workshops all over the country at universities, giving them a taste of what we do in the hopes that they’ll start their own centers.
What does the center focus on? One of the things we do is teach improvising classes. The scientists learn through improvisation how to relate to other people in a more personal way.
How does that help them? One thing it does that is critical is it helps their writing because it makes them aware that the person listening to them or reading what they have to say. It’s not an imaginary person. It’s a real person and they have to be aware of what’s happening in that person’s mind as they communicate with them. So they don’t spray jargon at them and facts and figures, they relate to them in a personal way, and tell stories and use language that they can follow.
That’s great. I love reading books about the brain, for example, and am pleased that there are quite a few books written for the layperson. So you get the scientific stuff, but it’s in a package you can digest. Is that something the center tries to accomplish? Yeah, on Scientific America Frontiers I didn’t have conventional interviews with the scientists, I didn’t have a set of questions to ask them, I just had a conversation with them. And when I didn’t understand what they were telling me I just kept after them until they made me understand it. You don’t get that in an ordinary interview. In an ordinary interview, the interviewer is just and excuse for the scientist to give a lecture, which is not personal, usually.
Is there any particular genre of science that interests you? No, it all interests me. I was even interested the time I had to go to a dog food factory [laughs] where they made biscuits that made dog breath smell better. I thought to myself, “What the hell am I doing?” But it turned out to be interesting.
I’ll bet. How do they work? When the dogs bite into the biscuit, it’s abrasive and it cleans their teeth.
I’ll have to get some of those for my dogs. I’ve used them myself [Laughs].
Yeah, I should probably hand them out to a few people as well. What did you go to the dog food factory for? That was part of Scientific America. Perhaps the most trivial thing we did.
Well, sometimes the most trivial things are the most fun. Yeah, but going to where they were trying to catch neutrinos was fascinating.
So, where are you headed now in your career and life? I look over offers when they come in and when something looks interesting I do. No matter how big the audience is going to be. I’m interested in doing things that are fun.
Did you have fun on 30 Rock? Yeah I did…They are very talented people. I’m sorry that they ended their show.
I love the scene with Alec Baldwin where you two are playing catch. I was worried though that one of you was going to drop the ball.
A couple of times I threw it too hard at him.
Do you have any other television appearances coming up? I think what I did with Laura Linney on the “Big C” has been on already.
I haven’t seen that show, but hear it’s very good. Yeah, it got better and better at the end when she finally dies of cancer, the scripts got even stronger.
That must be difficult to portray a character like that. I don’t know, at least you know you are actually alive.
But when you get in those intense scenes with so much emotion, is it easy to recover from them in the real world? Yeah, yeah, I think so, although I have seen actors who have had breakdowns after becoming emotional. It kind of depends on the person.
See Alan Alda Tuesday, October 1, 7 p.m., at the Granada Theatre, 1214 State Street. Tickets: $20 (students), $33-58 (general). Call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu for more info.