Reviews

Never Have Your Dog Stuffed and Other Things I've Learned by Alan Alda

Nikki Tranter

The book, with Alda's full life as its case study, presents new ways of looking at old problems; new approaches to long-standing lessons.


Never Have Your Dog Stuffed and Other Things I've Learned

Publisher: Random House
Length: 224
Price: $24.95
Author: Alan Alda
US publication date: 2005-09
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In a way, 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.
-- Alan Alda

Alan Alda's memoir is about lessons. Far from a typical Hollywood tell-all, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed approaches philosophical treatise on regrets, living in the moment, and recognizing the speed of life. Alda spends much of the book considering his adolescence, from his childhood in burlesque theater, to his misguided school years spent dreaming of becoming an actor. The dream consumes him; little else matters. Married with a young family in his early 20s, Alda accepts and rejects job after regular job, until, at 35, he lands the role that would change his life -- Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H. He learns, obviously, that perseverance works. It turned him into one of the world's most recognized people, and set him on a path that would lead him through two decades of awards, achievements, and other such recognition.

The book, with Alda's full life as its case study, presents new ways of looking at old problems; new approaches to long-standing lessons. The stuff we know, the stuff we've had bred into us whether by parents or via academia, and the stuff life has had us figure out on our own -- Alda's point is to reiterate the simplicity of it all. Life only seems difficult. Alda's view of life suggests mistakes are inevitable -- no matter what, though, we get where we need to in the end. Now 70, Alda reveals there's little he'd do over.

What can be learned from Alda's tale? Here's just a sampling:

1. Fear is an expert motivator.

So much of Alda's decision making as a young actor came from something bordering addiction to performing. How else do you account for his accepting a leading part in a revival of Guys and Dolls, set to open in a matter of days, without knowing a single words of the production? Alda explains:

"I had watched [Guys and Dolls] from the wings [seven years earlier], but I'd never leaned it. And I didn't know the songs. Even if I did know the songs, I couldn't sing in tune. What was the matter with me? Was I insane? I was an actor."

Fear of landing on his ass helps him through. Something clicks and he manages to pull a reasonable performance from somewhere inside his actor-brain. A similar situation occurs 50-odd years later when Alda steps up to play Shelly "The Machine" Levine in the recent Glengarry Glen Ross Broadway revival -- this time, he has three weeks to master whip-quick Mamet dialogue in a play renowned for being some otherworldly sort of topsy-turvy linguistic ballet. How does a veteran stage performer get himself into these messes? On purpose. Because the fear is part of the fun. Seeing out the challenge only boosts the accomplishment.

2. It's okay to fail.

Even if anticipation and anxiety can bring you success, failures can occur no matter how prepared you are. To wit:

I tried to throw myself into everything I did, but my aim wasn't always that good. There was too much I needed to learn. I was still on that knife edge between talent and skill, between a willingness to take chances and an ability to make the chance pay off. Sometimes the chances I took were bizarre.

Some of those bizarre chances include taking a role in The Extraordinary Seamen (1969) simply to work alongside David Niven and Faye Dunaway (and for the paycheck, of course). The experience will result in Alda being trapped in a shaky rowboat somewhere along the Gulf of Mexico with a bewildered Mickey Rooney doing his best to hail a cab. To Kill a Clown (1972) would be another Alda-failure. The lesson: "You're an actor," Alda says. "You've got to act".

Such failures, we learn, don't have to be considered blights on our public record, but as stepping-stones to better things. He writes about these experiences exactly as simply as moments lived. He very nearly recalls them with pride. (The best of these pre-fame stories has a chapter devoted to it -- Alda spends some time in a Utah prison for The Glass House (1972) -- this one's not a bad movie, but the hostage attempt that occurred there, no doubt, ranks up there as one of those "bizarre chances".)

3. Our parents are important even if they're somewhat crazy.

From the outset, its clear Alda has a steady relationship with his movie star dad, Robert. Though entirely more civil than his relationship with his mother, who he spends much of his early adulthood trying to avoid, Alda still resists complete closeness with his dad. He realizes a competitive streak with Robert, always trying to one-up his dad in terms of talent and intelligence.

It's sad to think it took Robert's death for Alda to realize just how much his father inspired him. We, as readers, learn it early. Alda studies his father on stage; the man is full of advice and caring, he assists his son in the struggles with his mother, he essentially hands his son an affinity for the theater. Only at Robert's funeral, does Alan finally get it -- years of inspiration and encouragement culminate in a eulogy delivered with Alda mimicking his father's grand stage style. "I could accept," Alda says, "how much of him was in me."

Alda is less comfortable at his mother's funeral:

I was only dimly aware at the time of how strangely theatrical the gesture was, indication emotion without really feeling it ... the words were meant to express feeling and they didn't. They just expressed ambivalence.

Alda can't be faulted for feeling this way. His mother, as he notes several times throughout the book, made it hard for anyone to get close to her. She torments his friends and future wife with paranoid statements on their intentions toward her. At one point, she forces Alda to accompany her from Europe to the United States only to accuse him of trying to kill her during the plane ride. Though told with the sort of humor hindsight allows, these stories are bitterly sad. Still, as always, there's a lesson to be learned. It's not about regret -- Alda, when discovering the contents of his mother's safety deposit box, simply opens up to the part of his mother that loved and desired love.

4. Compassion is the key to all things.

As quickly as our goals change, so do our motivations. At 35, on the M*A*S*H set, Alda learns the key to acting that serves him the remainder of his career (so far). At first, he struggles to find the smart-alecky Hawkeye within himself. He eventually finds him, but he needs more -- how to make a show like M*A*S*H work when the actor's main goal is to be the best he can be?

How can I be so captured by my own imagination that I can truly connect both to the person I'm playing and to the person I'm playing with? I didn't know it but what I was really looking for was compassion.

This is Alda's version of the old acting adage that acting is reacting. Alda breaks away from needing to be center stage, to be, as he calls it, "the center of his own universe". He opens up, he finds compassion, and he wins about five thousand Emmys. Good lesson.

5. Memory is a funny thing.

There's a moment in the book when Alda, deep into his stint on Scientific American Frontiers, begins to ponder just how much of his remembered life story is accurate. He undergoes a memory experiment -- to remember a scene in his mind and, when presented with images from the scene later on, to pick out which images he did see and which he didn't. The experiment works with a series of photographs -- some of actual events the subject witnessed, others staged. Alda fails the test. He remembers images he didn't see, though is convinced he saw them. He suddenly questions why he sees himself in his memories, rather than seeing the world as one long POV shot. He recalls waking on a train with wicker criss-crosses on his face -- how does he know they were there?

Alda doesn't dwell on this point, except to note that the science show was forcing him to question key moments in his life -- including his relationship with his mother. Perhaps because so many of us see ourselves in our memories; similarly, probably, to how we see ourselves in our dreams. It's up to the reader then, to conclude, that an actor's life is a performance, much as our own lives are. We move and shift around the stage, taking direction at times, at other times allowing the compassion of others or the acquiring of knowledge lead us in directions we couldn't have selected on our own. Our creators, then, give us life as much as our experiences and our imaginations do.

6. Never have your dog stuffed.

This one is simple and yet somehow utterly profound. To never have one's dog stuffed, is to never assume we can get back that which has passed. Moreover, we shouldn't want to. Alda writes: "Memory can be a kind of mental taxidermy, trying to hold on to the present after it's become the past."

This is the key to Alda's book -- discovering the importance of the past on the present and the future, but to realize that past is indeed just that. Alda's recollections come from a place of peace -- the dog has been buried, but, man, was he ever a pal.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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