Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


Never Have Your Dog Stuffed by Alan Alda




(Mildly Recommended)




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Readers looking for a sentimental, family-focused memoir will enjoy reading Alan Alda’s Never Have Your Dog Stuffed. A departure from a typical Hollywood ego-maniacal autobiography, this short memoir tells a few family stories well, and places the work of acting in context. Never Have Your Dog Stuffed is as enjoyable for what’s omitted as for what’s included. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 5, “THE BULLY PULPIT,” pp. 45-52:


A hulking figure in black, she carried a yardstick and looked like she wasn’t afraid to use it. Sister Mary Frederick taught geometry and stood over me in the front row while she glared at the people behind me. I would look up into her nose with fascination because she had three nostrils. I often wondered if this was what attracted her to geometry or if, possibly, too much geometry could triangulate your nose.

I was twelve and I had come down out of the mountains of Tujunga to go to a Catholic school in Burbank, where the people were presum­ably more civilized. But there was something at this school that carried bullying to a higher level, and it caught me off guard. It was the casual but confidently reassuring suggestion that if you didn’t follow the nun’s orders, you would not simply be punished—your flesh would burn in hell for all of eternity God, it seemed, was capable of both infinite love and holding a really long grudge. This was a novel suggestion for some­one with my background. The wings of Gabriel had replaced the wings of burlesque, and now the women in my life wore black, not silk and satin; they smelled of wool instead of sweat and perfume—and they didn’t know the odds on eight the hard way because for them there weren’t any odds. Heaven and hell were sure things.

But, still, I needed to belong. So I adapted by becoming part of the system. We were asked one day to take turns giving a talk before the class, and I realized I could use my performer’s instincts for this. In­stead of just a talk, I gave a full-out sermon. I combined pathos, saint­liness, spontaneous jokes, and animated gestures in a passionate mix. While I spoke, I could hear the nun behind me stifling a laugh, and I knew I was in. If you can make a nun laugh, can God frown? I became an enthusiastic convert to the religion I had been born into. When we went to mass, I went all the way and took Communion. I knelt at the altar and opened my mouth as the priest put the large flat wafer on my tongue. This would be the first food in my stomach since dinner the night before. My stomach would be growling, yet the taste of the thin disk made of flour and water had a special terror for me. This was, after all, not bread, but Jesus. Not a symbol of Jesus, but Jesus himself. I shut my eyes, and talked myself through it.

Don’t chew on it. Don’t even let it touch your teeth. Above all, don’t let it stick to the roof of your mouth. oh, God, you did it. You let it happen. God is stuck to the roof of your mouth. How are you going to get Him off? You have to get this off and swallow it. what if it just gets hard and stays there? You can’t walk around for the rest of the day with God in your mouth. oh, God. Melt, melt.

Taking Communion also meant going to confession the day before, on Saturday And that meant coming up with a string of sins that in­cluded every conceivable transgression, including some that weren’t technically sins but showed my goodwill.

I didn’t realize I was working my way into a corner. Along with the praise from the nuns came a catch. The catch was that if you didn’t do exactly what they said, you would burn forever. If you didn’t go to mass every week, you would burn. If you ate meat on Friday you would burn.

If you didn’t believe that the priest could turn bread into God, you’d burn. And if you didn’t actually believe what you believed you believed, there was probably a way for you to burn longer than forever. It put you in a kind of desperate bind, which was not good, because the ultimate sin, the unforgivable sin, they said, was despair.

Who would choose despair? I wondered. And why would an all-knowing God pick on you for falling into a bottomless pit that you would have avoided if you could? My curiosity was making me ask dan­gerous questions, even as I was working on belonging.

And I did want to belong. The school slanted toward the quirky in a way that I found appealing. The monsignor who founded it had named it Bellarmine-Jefferson High School in honor of Thomas Jef­ferson and Saint Robert Bellarmine, whose writings, he said, were in Jefferson’s library. We wore uniforms, and the patch on our shoulders showed both a crucifix and a Star of David, in recognition of Christian­ity’s Jewish roots. As young as I was, I could appreciate the nod both to Jefferson’s secularism and to Judaism. In 1948, this had a refreshing air of tolerance to it.

And I liked the monsignor. He seemed smart and decent. He was always talking to the students about tolerance, when we would fall in early in the morning to salute the flag. But the monsignor’s nonconfor­mity had its limits. My parents and I went to mass every week at his church, and one week he devoted his entire sermon to a movie playing then in theaters. It was a light comedy adapted from a Broadway play. A group of Catholic watchdogs, called the Legion of Decency, had de­cided that seeing this movie would corrupt everyone, including adults, because it dealt with an unmarried woman who was pregnant. To prove how disgraceful the film was, the monsignor told us one of the lines from the film. He read gravely from a sheet of paper: “‘You’re preg­nant?’ one character says. ‘A drugstore on every corner in New York, and you’re pregnant?’”

The monsignor looked up from the page. “And they think that’s funny” he said scornfully. It sounded to me like a well-constructed joke.

I wondered why he didn’t think it was funny It didn’t get a laugh, of course, because he gave it a terrible reading, but that was no reason to knock the writing.

My thoughts were interrupted when I realized he was asking the congregation to stand and take the oath of the Legion of Decency. We were supposed to swear that we would never see this film or any film banned by the legion, under pain of mortal sin. The entire congrega­tion stood. I don’t know why, but I wouldn’t stand. I was fourteen by now. I still wanted to fit in, but something in me wouldn’t let me stand. Along with everyone else in the packed church, my father stood. I still wouldn’t budge. He seemed embarrassed and gave me a nudge with his knee. I didn’t move. He looked down at me and gave a jerk with his head, as if to say, “Come on. This doesn’t look good.”

But I wouldn’t move. I shook my head from side to side. I was not going to stand. Where did I get the nerve to do this? And what princi­ple had I heard of somewhere that I was upholding? I believed every­thing they told me about obedience and the teaching authority of the Church, but somehow, going to a movie didn’t seem like something that should send me to hell, and I wasn’t going to pretend by standing that I thought it would. I don’t know exactly what that fourteen-year-old boy was thinking, sitting there on the hard pew, but as I look back, I like him.

A couple of years later, as it can in show business, our lives changed in a flash. My father’s seven-year contract with Warners had run its course, and he was being offered a starring part in a Broadway musical. He couldn’t leave the studio until three days before the first rehearsal, when he packed us up in the car and drove ninety miles an hour across the country. This seemed like fun, and as the nation flew by my window, I sat in the backseat reading a book about flying saucers. This was good because when we got to New York, it was like landing on another planet. I was enrolled in a Catholic high school in White Plains. Again, I was the new kid who was a little too unguarded, a little too eager to entertain, with a laugh that was a little too loud, and most afternoons several boys in the class offered to beat me up. Unlike the school in Burbank in which we were taught by nuns and half the students were girls, this one had no women at all. The teachers were priests and brothers, and the student body was male and pimply. We were ankle deep in testosterone.

One day, I opened my desk and saw a note informing me that five of my classmates would be waiting for me in the bushes after school to beat the crap out of me. I thought it might be good to find an alterna­tive to this.

As we jostled down the hall between classes, I noticed that next to the principal’s office was a door with a sign that read, DEAN OF DISCI­PLINE. I looked in and saw a tough-looking priest behind a desk. He looked like a boxer, or at least a marine. Maybe this guy can help me, I thought, and I made an appointment to see him.

He listened intently while I explained that five boys were planning to jump out of the bushes at me. I was hoping he wouldn’t call them into the office and make me confront them face-to-face. Finally he said, “Well, that’s not good   It certainly isn’t, I thought. Thank God I’ve got some­body who can save me from a beating. But then I saw he had only been pausing for effect. He went on: “. . . but, if you had to, you’d defend yourself like a man, wouldn’t you?”

I realized with a sinking feeling that it was no accident he looked like a boxer. Yes, sure, I said. I would definitely defend myself—one of the first in a series of lies I made to priests.

As it does so often, this threat to my physical well-being ended in a climactic confrontation in which I punched the biggest bully in the nose and the others scattered like cowards. I love this story. Unfortu­nately in my case it took place only in my head. Eventually I won out, but I did it using my brains. My fists stayed in my pockets.

I kept watching the bushes, waiting for them to jump out, but they kept postponing it. Meanwhile, I kept looking for people I could talk to. The place looked like a prison to me, with raw red bricks on the outside and shiny white subway tiles on the inside. I saw a notice taped to a wall one day announcing that the photography club was having a competition. I loved photography. When I was eleven I had gone in once a week to a camera store in Roscoe to hand over fifty cents until enough weeks had gone by to pay for the used Rolleicord they had laid away for me. And then I had spent hundreds of hours in the dark­room, developing film, making prints, until my hands smelled like a tray of hypo.

I went home from school and worked for a week on a picture. A lit­tle nervously, I brought it to the camera club and entered it, hoping I could find a place in the group. A week later I was in the hall again, and at the other end I saw Brother Jacob, the teacher who mentored the club. His face lit up, and he opened his arms and said, “You won!” My picture had won the competition. I felt flattered and excited. Then Brother Jacob was hugging me, his muscular arms wrapped around me, almost crushing me, his bony body clamped to mine, his genitals pressed against me through the thin cloth of his cassock.

This was suddenly not flattering anymore. I unlocked myself from his iron embrace and got away as soon as I could. Later, at lunch, other boys who had seen the hug in the hall laughed about it. “That’s the way he operates,” they said. “He’s always getting guys in the darkroom and feeling them up.” All the way home on the bus, I felt deflated. It was a double betrayal. It wasn’t just the creepy physical advance he’d made; it was also the disregard for the work I’d done. He’d let me win just so he could get me into the darkroom. I never went back, even though he’d stop me from time to time in the hall and tell me how talented I was.

I began to think there was slightly more attention paid to sex here than there had been in the burlesque theaters. All of us were adolescent boys who were, of course, besotted with our newfound sexuality Bat­talions of us were cranking away through the night, searching for salva­tion in pungent imaginary encounters with the goddesses found in cigarette ads. Teachers would devote hours to the subject of our hobby Once or twice a year, we would have a three-day retreat, the first two days of which were devoted largely to what was known as “self-abuse.”

They never fully explained what exactly was abusive about it, except for references to our bodies as temples. In religion class, Father Quinn told us one morning, “You know, the average adult doesn’t think about sex all the time. Not at all. The normal adult thinks about sex maybe ten minutes a day” Well, I thought, I don’t believe this, but okay. I’ll be normal. I’ll get my ten minutes in right now” I always did what they said, and if at all pos­sible, I took them literally.

Finally I made a few friends who were smart and, like me, were more interested in writing than fighting. We were taught English by a bright young priest named Father McMahon. My friend Joe and I had begun writing a humor column in the school paper, and Father McMa­hon said that if we’d write a comedy sketch for the Thanksgiving as­sembly, he’d let us skip a book report. This was clever of him, because I thought I was avoiding work, but I actually worked harder and learned more than if I had written a slapdash book report. Our little sketch got laughs from our classmates, and we had that feeling of immense power that comes from writing words on paper that can make other people feel something.

We got ambitious. During the summer between eleventh and twelfth grades, Joe and I and our friend Bob wrote a musical comedy— book, words, and music. The show, of course, had extremely large parts for all three of us.

As I worked on it, I sat every day at a little table, writing in long­hand. Every few days, someone put a small vase of lilacs on the table. I don’t remember who put the buds there, but for me the smell of cre­ativity that summer was lilac. Day by day, I saw a play taking shape, and it was intoxicating.

When school started up again, we asked Father McMahon to read our script, and he didn’t flinch; he offered to produce the play on the school stage. This meant he’d have to pay for musical arrangements, scenery, and costumes. I didn’t find out until much later how much he Was risking by encouraging us. He had gone into personal debt to get the play on.

The musical was called Love’s the Ticket! and when we began re­hearsals, I suddenly realized I had a solution to the bully problem. It seemed that everybody wanted to be in it: basketball players, football players, even the guys who had wanted to beat me up. Pretty soon, the bullies were up on the stage. And I had them dancing in a chorus line.

These were guys who had left me little welcome notes in my desk that said simply “fruit” or “you faggot.” Now they were working on their dance steps and hoping their makeup wouldn’t run. This was very close to the perfect revenge.

Our little play was a hit. It raised money for the school, Father McMahon got his savings back, and I was no longer a fruit. I was re­lieved that the bully days were over.

Not quite.


Never Have Your Dog Stuffed is a gentle story about a funny man whose humor about himself and his life makes for pleasant reading.


Steve Hopkins, March 23, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the April 2006 issue of Executive Times


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