Never Have Your Dog Stuffed is a collection of Alan Alda’s very humorous memories. The title, is based on the experience he had as a boy when his family suggested he stuff his dead pet dog. The dog came back with an ugly scowl on his face that obliterated all other memories of his dog, which Alda claims is proof that memories can be easily damaged.
I’ve always liked Alan Alda and this book just made me like the guy more. I didn’t realize he’d been married to the same woman all of these years. That’s always somewhat of an amazing feat for actors. They’ve been together over 40 years.
It seems his ability to be true to himself started at a very young age. He grew up Roman Catholic. During a service when he was 14, he was supposed to stand and recite the Oath of the Legion of Decency (a rating system for determing whether it was sinful to attend particular movies). He refuesed to stand – just couldn’t move. And he had no idea where he got the nerve to refuse to stand. He believed everything he was taught about obedience to the church authority, but he just couldn’t see how going to a movie would send him to Hell.
I love stories like that. Reminds me of a friend’s story of being at a tent revival with her Methodist Church when she was about the same age. All of the teens were supposed to get up and recite some sort of pledge or oath about Jesus and received a beautiful white Bible for doing so. She wanted the white Bible so bad and everyone was doing it. But something in her just wouldn’t let her go forward. She was the only teen who ended up holding her ground and not doing what the adults expected of her.
I think most of us have some sort of story like that to tell about our adolescence. We either find ourselves then or get swept into the “shoulds” surrounding us.
Back to Alan Alda. He married a nice Jewish girl, but continued to go to mass every Sunday. But at the same time, he envied his wife and her father because they didn’t need to believe what other people told them they had to believe. (I can so relate to that sort of envy!)
He claims to have been fascinated by the Book of Job from the Bible. “I was taken by the theme of a man challenging God and the wry recognition that the guilty are not always punished in this life but often live out their lives in comfort, surrounded by their families, while the widows of their victims go hungry.”
I love that about Alan Alda. He didn’t write this in his book, but one of the things I remember him for besides being in MASH was that a man would call himself a feminist. And not only that, Alan Alda was the first (and only) guy I ever heard say that he envied a woman because she could give birth – that if he could figure out how to somehow make it possible, he’d want to experience it.
Somewhere along the way, he gave up his religious beliefs and came to the conclusion that “life itself was an improvisation in which I was going to have to deal with what came to me and not think about what should have come.”
And with a few more years behind him, he discovers compassion. He writes, “I didn’t consciously want to become compassionate. Who in his right mind would give up his place at the center of the universe? Compassion is scary. If you open up too much to people, they have power over you and make you do things for them. Better to keep them at a distance, keep them on the otherside of the footlights. Learn to juggle – learn to fall down in funnyways. Keep them as an audience where you can be in control. Keep the curtain up, keep the play going. It holds off judgment. Seem up here? You love me, right? I’m the best, right? But if I wanted really to act, I was going to have to find the doorway to compassion, and that would ben even harder one to walk than the door of the shed.”
A few more years and he discovers something about listening: “Real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you. When I’m willing to let them change me, something happens between us that’s more interesting than a pair of dueling monologues. Like so much of what I learned in theater, this turned out to be how life works, too.”
At 70 years of age, he learns how simple it all is – but that it can’t be put into words. It’s imagination that brings life back. It’s play that let’s it breathe again. Freud says that life is all about being able to love and work. Alda agrees, but it’s also about play, because play can bring back the past because play is now.
If you must have advice, then the advice he has to offer? Never Have Your Dog Stuffed.
I didn’t want this book to end. Very fun, witty , honest and wise.