Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews



Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself by Alan Alda








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Alan Alda’s new book, Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself, uses the structure of speeches that Alda has given to help explore what brings meaning to life. In one way or another, Alda shows how he has tried to answer the hard questions of life: why am I here; what is important to me; what will make my life meaningful? The writing style is conversational, many of the anecdotes are funny, and there’s lots of wisdom to absorb. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 6, “A Passion for Reason,” pp. 62-65:


Thomas Jefferson and I might not have become friends if we hadn't been brought together by Julann Griffin.

Julann had stuck a pin in a map, and it landed on a town in Virginia, so she sold her house, bought a farm, and moved to Palmyra, not far from Jefferson's Monticello. I always admired her courage for picking up and moving; her willingness to step out into randomness and take a walk. Past the age of sixty, she wanted to set out on a new life, to leave California, where she lived then, and she decided to stick a pin in a map. Julann is open to unconventional ideas, and she felt, I think, that her uncon­scious, or the spirit world, or some unseen power, would guide the pin. Whatever power it was, it didn't do too badly, because within a few months, she had an old house on a thousand acres, a pond full of fish, an old graveyard, some chickens, and a huge pig named Nancy. She loved the place and invited us to stay with her for a few days.

When we got there, Arlene and I both had bad colds. Julann went to a closet, opened a large case in which she kept homeo­pathic medicine, and gave us two glass vials. When we got upstairs to our room, we regarded each other with what you could call a questioning look. As I understand it, the theory behind homeo­pathic medicine is that you ingest a highly diluted dose of a sub­stance that will induce the same symptoms you're suffering from, with the hope that the body will fight off all similar symptoms.

But the substance is so diluted that there isn't even a molecule of it left in the solution, just some supposed molecular memory. So what good can it do? On the other hand, how could it hurt? So we took it.

An hour later, we were dumbfounded. My cold was gone, and so was Arlene's. We told Julann with amazement that we actually felt better, but she took its efficacy so for granted that we avoided using the word placebo. Julann liked to experiment and invent. She once concocted an antimosquito lotion made of herbs and vodka that worked so well, we urged her to market it. She said she would, but she couldn't remember what herbs she'd used. And the vodka made the stuff too expensive. But her bent for invention made Thomas Jefferson's house, which was a few miles from her farm, one of her favorite places.

She drove us there and introduced us to Dan Jordan, who runs the place. He took us on a tour of the ingenious gimmicks in Mon­ticello: the giant clock Jefferson had designed for the hallway, with weights that went all the way down through a hole in the floor to the basement; the cabinet that servants would fill with dishes of food in the kitchen and then swung on a hinge so they would ap­pear magically in the dining room. Dan let me sit in a leather chair with large wings that had been designed by Jefferson. I was sure that Jefferson, who was partly deaf, had formed the wings of the chair into a parabola in order to hear conversation better. Dan said I had a pretty creative thought, which was a gracious way of saying s just the other side of unlikely. But I clung to the idea—even after I sat in it and felt no improvement in my own poor hearing. ilways been a little more creative than necessary.

. couple of years later, Dan called and invited me to give a at Monticello. I certainly like hearing myself talk, but I had lea what I'd say. "Thanks," I said, "I'm fascinated with Jeffer­but I don't think I know enough about him to give a talk." Tinted that I could just speak for a few minutes about how h I admired Jefferson. People would be glad to hear whatever .d to say. Who would these people be? I wondered. Who 1d be listening to me? "Oh," he said, "the board of trustees some Jefferson scholars. A few historians."

[ froze.

He was asking me to talk about Jefferson in front of histori­' Wouldn't that be sort of insane?

"Sure," I said. "That sounds like fun."

I put down the phone and started making notes on what I w about Jefferson. After a few minutes, I had a mostly blank ~. But I had five months to get ready. I went to a bookstore bought everything with Jefferson's name on the cover. I es-ally liked one book by Silvio Bedini that concentrated on Jef­on as a scientist. I was having a great time reading about him, after a while, a thought crept over me like a cat's paws on your ;s just before it squeezes the life out of you. These people have not read this stuff, they probably wrote some of it. How could I say any­ig they hadn't heard before? How could I make it worth their le to sit there while I opened and closed my mouth? This was ig to be impossible. There was no way I could come up with Lething new or interesting.

And that was when I understood why I had agreed to talk: Atly because it terrified me.

Terrifying myself, it turns out, is one of the ways I have of feeling alive. It gives a sense of accomplishment to my life.

Nothing feels as good to me as doing something I know how to do. But if I do it too many times, it feels easy and a little slick; it loses some of its pleasure. So I have to keep looking for things that are just a little harder. This produces a feeling that's very close to accomplishment—if I can actually do it, of course. And this time, as the months went on, the pages stayed white.

I wanted to say something new, but not so new that it wasn't true. I didn't want to get overly creative, as when I sat in Jeffer­son's wingback chair, inventing things for him he hadn't invented himself. A few months on, I got a call from Dan, gently checking up on me. "How's it going? Can we give you any help with back­ground material?"

"Well, I've got a lot of stuff here."

"What are you reading?"

"A lot. I like the Bedini book."

"Bedini is good. You're safe with Bedini."

His tone was cheerful, but it was becoming clear that, al­though the invitation was to say anything I liked about Jefferson, I wasn't supposed to say something stupid. That seemed like a good idea to me, too.


It’s easy to feel good after reading Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself. An added bonus is thinking about life’s questions thanks to the easy way in which Alan Alda talks about life. As the title indicates, the speeches ended up having as much to say to Alda himself as he tried to say to audiences.


Steve Hopkins, November 20, 2007



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 in the December 2007 issue of Executive Times


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