Excerpt: 'Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself'

Acclaimed actor and author Alan Alda recalls his greatest life lessons in his new book, "Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself."

Chapter 2: Lingering at the Door

I fell deeply in love with her. When we brought her home from the hospital, I carried her up the narrow stairs to our second-floor apartment as Arlene walked ahead of me, climbing slowly against the pull of her stitches. We were in Ohio, where I was making $60 a week at the Cleveland Playhouse. With local commercials, I could sometimes bring it up to $80 a week, and we had four sunny rooms and a couch we'd bought for $5 at the Salvation Army that was comfortable, if lumpy, and equipped with a set of fleas.

Very soon, our freshly born girl looked us in the eye and smiled toothlessly. They said in those days that babies didn't smile, that it was just gas. But we knew that in spite of science and all of nature, she was smiling at us. It wasn't gas; it was love beyond the limits of anatomy.

We called her Eve. For us, she was the first woman ever born.

During the day, while I was at rehearsal, Arlene would walk down the empty streets of our neighborhood with Eve in her carriage, partly to get some air but mainly in the hope that someone would pass by and stop to look at our amazing baby. At night, when I wasn't onstage, I would read Sholom Aleichem stories aloud to Arlene while she cooked dinner and Eve slept in her crib.

As the soup simmered, Tevye delivered his milk and our girl slept quietly until she woke and called for her late-night meal. There was no doubt in that moment what our purpose in life was. Arlene would make her own milk delivery, and then I would walk barefoot on the midnight linoleum, our daughter slung over my shoulder, urging up a burp. There was no question that she, with her gummy smile, was all the reason we needed to be alive.

When she was six months old, we moved back to New York, where I took part-time jobs while trying to find work on Broadway. After three months as a doorman outside a ritzy restaurant near Rockefeller Center, I auditioned for a part that consisted of five lines of dialogue. I got the job and was completely thrilled. It was my first Broadway show. I gave back my elaborate doorman's costume and began a month of rehearsals, during which time I must have said my five lines 500 ways. Herman Shumlin was directing the show, a thin comedy called "Only in America." Shumlin was a tall man in his sixties, as thin as the play, but with a sense of humor he had apparently picked up watching Gestapo officers in war movies of the '40s. Every time I read one of my lines, he turned his bald head in my direction and looked as if he were going to ask me for my papers. He never smiled. Instead, he would hold his forehead and wince. After a few days, I realized he was constantly in the middle of a migraine attack, and I could see that the whole process of rehearsal was torture for him. It wasn't all that great for anyone else, either.

In those days, plays went out of town to get the kinks out of a show. Ours was composed almost entirely of kinks, so they had to pick and choose which ones to drop. I was hoping they weren't going to drop the five that made up my whole part. Arlene and I packed up Eve and her carriage and got on the train for Philadelphia, where we rented the cheapest room we could find. It seemed to me that the show wouldn't run more than a week or two when we got back to New York, so we wanted to save as much cash as we could while we were on the road. We found a charming hovel that was almost a replica of the rooms I had stayed in as a child, traveling with my mother and father on the burlesque circuit. The walls were covered with wooden slats painted a shade of green that must have been a high point in the history of bile.

After a couple of days in this cheerful place, Arlene caught the flu. She was unable to get out of bed and needed to sleep from morning until night. We were rehearsing onstage for the first time on the full set, and I had to be there, so I put Eve in her carriage and took her to the theater. I kept her backstage, out of the sight of Shumlin, who I felt pretty sure would see her and start clutching at his head. But then I heard my cue coming up, and I had to run onstage. I asked the other actors to watch Eve for me. They were thrilled. Actors love babies. They're a perfect audience. As I looked over my shoulder, I saw Eve in her carriage surrounded by six actors cooing and making faces. She looked a little bewildered.

I was playing a telephone lineman, and my part went like this: I came onstage, said a line intended to make the audience laugh, then climbed up a telephone pole, where I said two or three lines whose main purpose was to call attention to the fact that the producer had paid for a real telephone pole; then I hung there for 20 minutes while the play went on before I climbed down, said another funny line, and left. At this rehearsal, I got up to the top of the pole and spent my time hoping Eve was all right in the middle of the crush of actors. After only a minute or two, though, a loud wail rose from behind the scenery. It spread across the stage and hit the back wall. Then another wail. This one made it all the way to the box office in the lobby. Everyone stood completely still. Shumlin turned his bald head and looked up at me. I tried to look apologetic.

"I imagine that would be your child," he said.

"Uh, yes. I'm sorry."

Then the unbelievable happened. A gentle smile spread over Shumlin's face, possibly the first in his life. "Why don't you go look after her? We'll work on something else." I shimmied down the pole and ran to Eve. Her lower lip was up, and the corners of her mouth were down. She reached out her arms for me. I hugged her, and in a few minutes she was contented again, but that scene came back to me many times as Eve grew up. The actors had tried to entertain her, because entertaining is what we do. But she hadn't needed entertainment, she'd needed safety. Years later, I wondered if I had given in too many times to that same actor's impulse. I'd certainly entertained my children, probably to the point of being their playmate. Once, when Eve was four, we were standing in the basement having one of those endless arguments.

"You have to clean up this mess you made."

"No, I don't have to clean it up."

"Yes, you do."

"No, I don't."

"You do."

"I don't."

Finally, I called upstairs. "Arlene, will you come down here and tell her I'm the boss?" It kind of took the authority out of the exchange.

I had always been moved by Alan Jay Lerner's lyric from Camelot's "How to Handle a Woman." The way to handle a woman, he said, was to love her, simply love her. Love her. Love her. It took me a while to figure out that that's probably the best way to handle a child, too. But I really liked trying to teach them and stimulate their minds.

From the time they were able to talk, I was always starting dinner conversations with them about world events, but our three girls only stared at me, thinking it was one of my actorish riffs that just wasn't that amusing. If they waited long enough, I'd change the channel. I was flummoxed. I wondered: How did the Kennedys accomplish all the dinner conversations we always read about? How did they get their children to talk?

When Eve was ready to graduate from college, I was asked to speak at her commencement, and I said, "Yes, of course I'll talk." I was more than touched. I would finally be able to talk about anything I wanted and she'd have to listen.

But what would I talk about? As the day came closer, I sat and wrote on the porch of our room on a Caribbean island, where I was directing my first movie. I had all the worries of a first-time director, plus a rainy season that had put us behind schedule. But in every spare moment, I sat on the porch and tried to figure out what I'd say. There was plenty going on in the world, if I'd wanted to start another of my dinner conversations. The past 10 years had been hard to take. It was 1980, and there was already a frightening amount of terrorism in the world. I recently looked it up on the Internet. In those 10 years, there had been over 6,000 terrorist events, bombings mostly, that had killed 3,500 people and wounded 7,600. This was supposed to make the world a better place. The Equal Rights Amendment was about to run out its time limit. Eve knew I had worked hard for 10 years trying to help get it ratified and that I had traveled to state after state, lobbying state legislators. Eve knew how much it had meant to Arlene and me, and now, three states short of ratification, it was becoming clear it would not become part of the Constitution.

I had plenty to talk about, but what I most wanted to say to her were things that were hard to put into words. They were things I'd wanted to say all along, but somehow they didn't come out early on.

Eve graduated from college on a hot day in May. I walked out onto the sun-washed green, dotted with white folding chairs and people fanning themselves in the late spring heat. I knew I wouldn't be able to tell Eve what I wanted her to hear by talking to her as part of her whole class. She'd get lost in the crowd. So, instead, I spoke directly to her. I called her by name and poured out my heart and hoped that the other graduates would see that, through her, I was talking to them, too.

Deep in our hearts we know that the best things said come last. People will talk for hours, saying nothing much, and then linger at the door with words that come with a rush from the heart. We're all gathered at a doorway today. It's the end of something and the beginning of something else.

We linger with our hand on the knob, searching for words, but the best things said slip out unheralded and often preceded by the words, "Oh, by the way." Patients can talk to their therapists for an hour, hardly saying anything, but just as they're leaving, they'll turn at the door and say, "Oh, by the way," and in one sentence reveal everything they've been avoiding for 50 minutes. Doorways are where the truth is told.

As we stand in one today, these are my parting words to my daughter Eve. They'll come in a rush, because there are so many things I want to tell you, Eve. And the first one is: Don't be scared. My guess is you're feeling a little uncertain today. That's okay; I'm uncertain, too. You're an adult when the leaders of the world are behaving like children. The tune of the day is the song of the terrorist: humane concerns inhumanely expressed.

And you're facing this sooner than I thought you would. Suddenly, you're a grown woman. The day before yesterday, you were a baby I was afraid to hold because you seemed so fragile. Yesterday, you broke your small eight-year-old arm. Only this morning, you were a teenager.

As we get older, the only thing that speeds up is time. But as much as time is a thief, it also leaves something in exchange. With time comes experience -- and however uncertain you may be about the rest of the world, you have the chance to keep getting better at the things you work at.

And that's something else I want to tell you as we stand in this doorway today. Love your work. If you always put your heart into everything you do, you can't lose. Whether or not you wind up making a lot of money, you will have had a wonderful time, and no one will ever be able to take that away from you.

I want to squeeze things great and small into this lingering goodbye. I want to tell you to keep laughing. I used to be afraid that writing and acting in comedies might be a frivolous occupation, but when I think of all the good that laughing does people, I get the feeling that making people laugh can be noble work. You have a wonderful laugh. You gurgle when you laugh. Keep gurgling. There are people who think that the only thing that separates humans from the rest of the animals is their ability to laugh. I'm not so sure anything separates us from the rest of the animals except our extreme egotism that leads us to think that they're the animals and we're not. But I notice that when people are laughing, they're generally not killing one another. So keep laughing, and if you can, get other people to join you in laughter.

I have this helpless urge to pass on maxims to you. But we live in new times. Strange times. Even the Golden Rule doesn't seem adequate to pass on to a daughter. There should be something added to it. You know how I love amendments. You knew I wanted to amend the Constitution, but you probably didn't know I wanted to amend the Golden Rule as well. Here's my Golden Rule for a tarnished age: Be fair with others; then keep after them until they're fair with you.

It's a complex world. I hope you'll learn to make distinctions. You know how much I love logic. I always felt that the most important parts of my education were learning to reason and to use language. That's why when you were a very little girl I started trying to give you lessons in logic. I smile when I think that to this day, you can still remember what I taught you as a child -- the first rule of logic: A thing cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect. (In your head, you're saying that along with me right now, aren't you?) I hope you'll always make distinctions. A peach is not its fuzz, a toad is not its warts, a person is not his or her crankiness. If we can make distinctions, we can be tolerant, and we can get to the heart of our problems instead of wrestling endlessly with their gross exteriors. And once you make a habit of making distinctions, you'll begin challenging your own assumptions. Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while or the light won't come in. If you challenge your own, you won't be so quick to accept the unchallenged assumptions of others. You'll be a lot less likely to be caught up in bias or prejudice or be influenced by people who ask you to hand over your brains, your soul, or your money because they have everything all figured out for you.

I want you to be as smart as you can, but remember: It's always better to be wise than to be smart. And don't be upset that it takes a long, long time to find wisdom, because nobody knows where wisdom can be found. It tends to break out at unexpected times, like a rare virus to which mostly people with compassion and understanding are susceptible.

The door is inching a little closer toward the latch, and I still haven't said it. You'll be gone, and I won't have found the words. Let me dig a little deeper.

Let me go back to when I was in college. There were ideas that had power for me then -- maybe they will for you now. I'd almost forgotten how much one of those ideas meant to me -- how much I wrote about it and thought about it. It was the essence of a philosophy that was very popular at the time, and it's one of the most helpful and cheerful ideas I've ever heard.

It's this: Life is absurd and meaningless and full of nothingness. Possibly this doesn't strike you as helpful and cheerful, but I think it is -- because it's honest and because it goads you on.

I had a teacher in those days who saw me with a book by Jean-Paul Sartre under my arm, and he said, "Be careful. If you read too much of that, you'll start walking around dressed in black, looking wan, doing nothing for the rest of your life." Well, I did read the book, and as it turned out, I'm tanned and lovely, I'm rich and productive, and I'm happy like nobody's business.

Maybe it was my natural optimism at work, but what I saw and warmed to in the existentialist's writings was that life is meaningless unless you bring meaning to it; it's up to us to create our own existence. Unless you do something, unless you make something, it's as though you aren't there. Existentialism was supposed to be the philosophy of despair. But not to me. To me, it was the essence of hope -- because it touched the cold, hard stone at rock bottom and saw it as a way to push off it and bounce back up again.

Back when I was reading the existentialists, we heard the news that God was dead, but now Sartre is dead, too, and so is Camus -- and, in a way, so is the optimism at the heart of their pessimism. The distressing reality is that 25 years ago when I was in college, we all talked about nothingness but moved into a world of effort and endeavor. And now no one much talks about nothingness, but the world itself, the one you will move into, is filled with it. If you want, there's plenty you can do to turn that nothing into something. You can dig into the world and push it into better shape.

For one thing, you can clean the air and water. Some people have said that lead poisoning was a major cause of the fall of the Roman Empire, because the ruling class had their food cooked in expensive pots that were lined with lead. They didn't know any better, but we don't have that excuse. Now, almost 2,000 years later, we've hit upon the incredibly clever idea of getting rid of our industrial waste by putting it into our food. Not directly, of course; that would be too expensive. First they put it in the ground -- then it goes into the water, and the next thing you know, you're eating a sludgeburger. If you want, you can do something about that.

Or you can try to make the justice system work. You can bring the day a little closer when the rich and privileged have to live by the same standards as the poor and the outcast.

Or you can try to keep the tiger of war away from our gates for a while longer. You can do what you can to keep old men from sending children away to die. They're tuning up for the song of war again. They're making preparations and trial excursions. They're tickling our anger. They're asking us if we're ready to pour the cream of our youth out onto the ground, where it will seep into the earth and disappear forever. You can tell them we're not. The time to stop the next war is now -- before it starts.

If you want to take absurdity by the neck and shake it till its brains rattle, you can try to find out how it is that people can see one another as less than human. How can people be capable of both nurture and torture? How we can worry and fret about a little girl caught in a mine shaft, spending days and nights getting her out, but then burn a village to the ground and destroy all its people without blinking? If you're interested, you can question that, too, and you can try to find out why people all over the world, of every country, of every class, of every religion, have at one time or another found it so easy to use other people like farm animals, to make them suffer, and to just plain do away with them.

And while you're at it, there's something else you can do. You can pass on the torch that's been carried from Seneca Falls. Remember that every right you have as a woman was won for you by women fighting hard. Everything else you have is a privilege, not a right. A privilege is given and taken away at the pleasure of those in power. There are little girls being born right now who may not have the same rights you do when they grow up unless you do something to maintain and extend the range of equality for women. The soup of civilized life is a nourishing stew, but it doesn't keep stocked on its own. Put something back in the pot as you leave for the people in line behind you. There are, of course, hundreds of things you can work on, and they're all fairly impossible to achieve, so there's plenty to keep you busy for the rest of your life. I can't promise you this will ever completely reduce that sense of absurdity, but it may get it down to a manageable level. It will allow you once in a while to take a glorious vacation from nothingness and bask in the feeling that all in all, things do seem to be moving forward.

I want you to be potent; to do good when you can and to hold your wit and your intelligence like a shield against other people's wantonness. I want you to be strong and aggressive and tough and resilient and full of feeling.

I want you to have chutzpah.

Nothing important was ever accomplished without chutzpah. Columbus had chutzpah. The signers of the Declaration of Independence had chutzpah. Do you wonder if you're strong enough? Sure you are. Get a little perspective. Look up at the stars swirling in the heavens and see how tiny and puny they look. They're gigantic explosions, but from where we are, they're just these insignificant little dots. If you step back from things far enough, you realize how important and powerful you are. Be bold. Let the strength of your desire give force and moment to your every step. They may laugh at you if you don't discover India. Let them laugh. India's already there. You'll come back with a brand-new America. Move with all of yourself. When you embark for strange places, don't leave any of yourself safely on shore. Have the nerve to go into unexplored territory. Be brave enough to live life creatively. The creative is the place where no one else has ever been. It is not the previously known. You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. You can't get there by bus, only by hard work and risk and by not quite knowing what you're doing, but what you'll discover will be wonderful. What you'll discover will be yourself.

Those are my parting words as today's door closes softly between us. There will be other partings and other last words in our lives, so if today's lingering at the threshold didn't quite speak the unspeakable, maybe the next one will.

I'll let you go now.

So long, be happy.

Oh, by the way, I love you.

They awarded me a Connecticut College chair that day. An actual chair. I kept it by the front door for years to remind me of the afternoon I'd been able to open my heart to our first child. But as the years went on and I passed the chair in my comings and goings, I noticed that almost every problem I'd mentioned to her that day, almost everything I'd said she could work on fixing, had got worse. As our lives went on, the hopes I had for her grew even higher, but everything I'd mentioned about the world had sunk below sea level.

Eve went on to become a social worker, and she ran for office in her town and won. She did dig into the world; and if she couldn't make it better, it wasn't for lack of trying. But now for her, as it has been for me, there will be one sure way of finding purpose in her life. Now she has children.

And now I see, and so does she, that our job is not to shape them and badger them, but to love them. Simply love them. Love them. Love them.