Alan Alda: Truths in Life and M*A*S*H

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Text by K. Cecchini @tonightatdawn

Alan Alda is much more than the sum of his acting, writing and directing on the internationally syndicated television show M*A*S*H, but it was through reruns of that show that I became familiar him. Althoughhe at first had difficulty assuming the role of Hawkeye Pierce because his traits were so divergent from his own- Hawkeye is a “womanizer, drank too much, a smart aleck-more than I think I am”, I would argue that, from what I know, the character and the actor share a petulance for living life and seeking truths.

At the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark a little over a week ago, Alda shared some of his own truths as the second speaker in the Farleigh Dickinson University Series. With humor, the actor charmed the audience with reflections on his unusual childhood, storied career and personal experiences.

Intestines, Taxidermy & a Cockroach

Alda began the night by recounting the time he had a medical emergency at an elevation of 8 thousand feet in Chile. He was to conduct an interview for Scientific American Frontiers when he was attacked by the worst pain of his life. Although it took over an hour for the ambulance to ‘rush’ him to the small, local hospital, he was fortunate enough to be treated by a specialist. The doctor quickly recognized that a piece of his intestines had been devoid of blood and might fatally burst.

In response, the surgeon would need to “cut out the bad part and sew the good ends together”; he was taken aback when his patient identified the procedure as an “end-to-end anastomosis”. Having frequently ‘performed’ it as Captain Pierce, Alda was familiar with it,  “while I was learning to do that operation on TV in Beverly Hills, (the doctor) was watching it in Chile in high school so we both came to this operation from a fictional background”.

“I can’t tell that (story) with any suspense; I’m standing here,” Alda chuckled and then imparted the fresh, euphoric appreciation of life he discovered after surviving. And he was determined to keep chasing this high. He also recognized it was yet another lesson in living in the moment for him.

Without pronouncing it, Alan Alda was imparting lessons of mindfulness.

Alda’s first lesson came 6 weeks after his dog died when he was a young boy. To help him deal with it, his father had his pet stuffed. Reflecting on it later, he realized that the dog was “just a hollow counterfeit imitation of the dog” and that you just have to let things go.

The next lesson was during his first professional theater gig; nervously he dug his hand in the old costume pocket – and pulled out a cockroach. The creature snapped him back into the scene.

Having learned from brains scientists that we live the present moment in 5 second intervals and therefore the past is always already 5 seconds behind us, he has been trying to remain in that 5 second window whenever possible since he woke up from surgery in Chile. Whenever he says to himself, “‘do the present moment thing,’ the colors get brighter, people became more interesting – (he) was really there with them”.

Fortunately, Alda learned he didn’t need a cockroach or an end-to-end anastomosis to savor life. But, Alda cautions, “it’s not a formula, it’s more like an improvisation”.

Truths in War and Science

Although Alda is not Hawkeye, the role was a kind of vessel for “telling truths” about war. For instance, in the last episode every character was wounded in a physical or emotional way, which is the great takeaway from war that Alda and the M*A*S*H producers wanted to portray.  Before he signed up, “I didn’t want to say yes until I was sure it wasn’t going to just be ‘hi-jinx at the front’, that we were going to show war for what war is”.

Now Alda has been using his talents to help scientists tell truths about Science in a media landscape that is fraught with misinformation. The movie star has been satiating his curiosities by interviewing renowned scientists on camera for years now as host of PBS science programs, Scientific American Frontiers and The Human Spark. In answering a submission by yours truly during the Q&A, Alda shared that it was these interviews that served as his inspiration for his namesake Center for Communicating Science at Stonybrook University on Long Island (New York state).

To emphasize the Center’s goal, Alda spoke about a conversation he had with a scientist during filming. Despite her approachable demeanor, she kept slipping into “lecture mode”; her voice changed and her sentences were riddled with jargon rendering the information incomprehensible. It was at this point that Alda recognized the need for scientists to develop ways to more successfully communicate their discoveries. He hopes this endeavor will enhance understanding from our citizenry to the folks in Congress; “Nobody will give money to something they don’t understand”.

What are the methods taught at Stonybrook? Improv and storytelling, of course.

To illustrate the draw of storytelling, Alda directed an audience member to walk across the stage with a water glass. After she completed the mundane task, he filled her glass up to the very top. “Very carefully, walk over there,” he directed the woman to retrace her steps, “and put it on the table. Don’t spill a drop or your entire village will die”.

We applauded the woman’s ability to transport the glass without spilling a drop, and therefore, she saved her village. Yes, what was at stake only lived in our imagination, but it was so much more engaging than when the woman just walked across the stage.

Essentially, this is what Alda is teaching scientists and teaching assistants at Stonybrook to bring life to scientific truths. In this track, you can hear Alda responding to my question and sharing an anecdote of a teaching assistant bring this approach to life in a lecture on variables in experiments.

On a surprising note, the actor who exudes a contagious charisma, says that interviewing and using these skills he has actually helped him to move past his own social anxiety at cocktail parties. Who knew?

All I can say is that I have no problem living within each 5 second window when Alan Alda shares a story.

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