Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself

October 26, 2007 Categories: Books , Commonplace Book , Reviews | 14 Comments  


Alan Alda on acting in live theater (I miss it!):

“Sometimes, standing on the stage, I have an experience of unusual awareness. I know I’m in a theater and that an audience is watching, and I know that the woman across from me is not really who she’s claiming to be. And in spite of knowing we’re in front of other people, I know we’re alone in this room. I’m also aware of something much weirder than that. I’m aware that the two of us are other people, someplace else, arguing over something. We are so completely involved with this struggle, we could say almost anything at this moment. But we say the same thing we said last night. And I’m aware that this is because we’re acting. It’s like an endless arc of images in paired mirrors curving off into infinity. And when this moment is at its most intense, it’s at its lightest. There is no strain, in fact, there’s a feeling of floating. But, of course, I’m aware that, far from floating, I’m standing on a stage that’s raked for the audience to see us better, and I have to be careful where I plant my feet or I’ll lose my balance.

This multiple awareness is for me the ecstasy of acting. When this happens, there doesn’t seem to be any part of my brain that isn’t working on something. The clock stops, and an intricate pas de deux takes place in slow motion. You choke with emotion, yet you feel nothing. You know everything and nothing at once. You walk a narrow beam a hundred stories high, but your steps are as sure as on a sidewalk. Failure can’t happen. Death is remote. There is no way to know what you’ll say next, and then you say it. And you notice that you’re saying it slightly differently from the last time you said it at exactly this moment.”

~p. 79-80

On September 11th:

“They were buildings so tall, they had thrown out television signals across all of New York City and beyond, so simple and staunch that one glimpse of them, in a movie or on a souvenir plate, instantly said, This is New York. One by one, they descended to the ground, billowing an ugly, toxic cloud while disbelief and confusion rose in each of us from a place in our chest where once we had felt safety and comfort.

The towers came down, carrying with them the lives of people who had left us not at the end of their time, or even in an unexpected accident, but in an act of ignorant, malicious hatred. When that happened, a little patch of meaning seemed to come loose from us, like a layer of skin gone dead. Remember how after the disbelief came a desperate urge to do something? We all felt it. It was intolerable to think there was no action you could take. Out in the countryside where we lived, I went with three of my granddaughters to a shoe store. The girls were four, seven, and nine years old, and we gravely picked out a dozen pairs of heavy work boots for the rescue workers. We brought them to a truck parked across from the village commons, where two women on the back of the truck were hoisting up contributions meant for Ground Zero. In the days that followed ths attack, so many people sent truckloads of boots, blankets, and work clothes that trucks piled up along the Hudson and many tons of supplies never made it across the river from a warehouse in New Jersey. But it hadn’t been wasted effort, because we all needed to take some kind of action. The satirical website The Onion published a fake news article that, while it may have been meant to be funny, captured with poignancy our desperation. It told of a woman in Topeka, Kansas, who felt so helpless, so in need of doing something, that she baked a cake. Then she covered it with strawberries and food coloring in the shape of an American flag. Like her, and like millions of others, I made American flags, too. I went to a website and printed out flags that I taped to the rear windows of the family cars. I nailed a pole to the fence at the end of our driveway and tied a hardware-store flag to it.

As you walked the city in the days following the attack, you would see dozens of flags thirty stories high in the windows of apartment buildings. People had pasted the flags to their windows on the chance that someone would look up and know that someone else was pulling for them. During those weeks, the flag had stopped being an expression of particular political leanings; it belonged to all of us again.”

~p. 91-92

Advice for living:

“1. Make someone happy. Learn how to laugh and how to make someone else laugh. Take pleasure in who they are, as they are. In other words, love someone. Surrender to the person you love. I don’t mean give in. I mean surrender. Put down the arms of war and open the other kind. You don’t need to debate and compromise with someone you love. Just make them happy.

2. Find out how you can be helpful. It didn’t occur to me at first that being helpful was better than being the center of attention. That’s not an idea that would tend to occur to an actor. But it turns out that if you can really find a way to be helpful, more satisfaction and praise than you know what to do with will come your way. Being helpful assumes that the people you help actually want your help. And that you know enough to actually be of help and not make life worse for them than it already is. This means getting as smart as you can. But getting smart is a tricky business. The smartest people I’ve ever met are the ones who knew exactly what they were ignorant of. If you don’t know much about something, assuming that what little you know is all there is to know is not the way to find out more. And try not to assume you can just take a stab at complex things. Complex things bite. So be wary of simple answers to complex questions.

3. If you keep score, keep score your way. Don’t let the world tell you success is a big house if you think sucess is a happy home. If you meet a bully who says, “I’m stronger and richer than you, and you’re nothing if you’re not richer or stronger than I am,” and if he’s richer and stronger than you’ll ever be, wouldn’t it be stupid to get into a pissing contest with this guy?”

~p. 206-207

I’ve had a little bit of a crush on Alan Alda since I was in sixth grade and would sneak downstairs after everyone was asleep to watch M*A*S*H reruns at 11:30 p.m. I would hunch real close to the TV, the volume down almost so low I couldn’t hear it, so as not to get caught.

Of course, I guess you could say, I’ve had a crush on Hawkeye. He was smart, funny, loved the ladies – and was an all-around nice guy. I know that Alan Alda is not Hawkeye, but after reading Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, and Other Things I’ve Learned two years ago, and now having just finished Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself, I do know that the smartness and humor are present in the actor, not just the character. Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself, his second memoir, takes up where the first one left off, but is more than just a list of experiences. It is Alda’s attempt to make sense of life. What does it all mean? I may not agree with some of his conclusions, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading about how he came to them.

5 out of 5 stars


  1. Kev

    I may have to read this. I’ve heard several interviews with Alan Alda, mostly on NPR, and he always seemed very personable, humble, and down to earth.

  2. Ron

    Whenever I think of Mash, the first person that comes to mind is always Alan Alda. He is, no doubt, my favourite from the show.

  3. CarrieF

    I love him! He is such a gentle wonderful man!!! Can’t wait to read this one!!

  4. Meg

    Oh boy, did I have a serious crush on Hawkeye!

    Hubby was an extra on a film while we were living in San Jose. The film starred Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta, and so he got to see them every day for a couple of weeks. Then, Alda showed up to do a small part.

    Hubby got chosen to be the only other person in the scene with Alda. I just about died! But I hadn’t signed up to be an extra because I was home dealing with 2 little kids! Talk about kicking yourself for missed opportunities!

  5. Veronica Mitchell

    I listened to his Never Have Your Dog Stuffed as an audiobook once. It was pleasant, but I came away feeling that he had not mastered the medium of prose as well as he has screenwriting.

  6. Lawanda

    I know I don’t agree with him, but he IS lovable, regardless! I love M*A*S*H! I bet I would love his memoirs. Will have to check them out! :)

  7. Jennfer, Snapshot

    I’ve wanted to read Never Have Your Dog Stuffed. I was actually looking at the audiobook, because he reads it himself. Glad to read a positive review.

  8. carrie

    Kev – that’s exactly how he comes across in his books, too.

    Ron- me, too! I watched the movie M*A*S*H once, and I didn’t like it because I just couldn’t get Donald Sutherland as Hawkeye after watching Alda in the role.

    CarrieF – you’ll enjoy it.

    Meg – oh, man! What movie is it? Is it out on DVD so I could see it?

    Veronica – I actually really like his prose style.

    Lawanda – Yeah, I didn’t agree with some of his ideas about faith, but it was still a very enjoyable read.

    Jennifer – I’d definitely read the Dog Stuffed first.

  9. Meg

    Mad City and it’s been out for a few years. We left San Jose in ’99

  10. Mom

    So, darlin’ – I find something else about my wonderful daughter – sneaking down to watch MASH reruns! What a harmless pursuit! Glad you enjoyed them.

    Love ya,


  11. Carol in Oregon

    I’m copying some of these quotes. I especially like the one about being helpful.

    Thank you so much for sharing this.


  12. carrie

    Meg – Oh, I remember that one!

    Mom – oops, every once in a while I forget you read here. ;)

    Carol – You’re welcome!

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