Keeping it clear and vivid for as long as possible l Chuck's World

By Chuck Sigars | Sep 05, 2019

I’d like to state for the record that I consider Alan Alda to be a national treasure. I’m going to write a bit about Alda, so I wanted to be up front about my personal feelings.

I should probably also mention that I consider both “National Treasure” movies to be national treasures, too. I’ve got a bunch of opinions.

I don’t need to tell you about Alan Alda. He’s been a fixture of American culture for nearly 50 years, since he took on the role of Hawkeye Pierce in “M*A*S*H” in 1972 and kept it for 11 seasons.

When “M*A*S*H” finally went off the air in 1983, Alda was 47 and very much aware that he’d peaked as an actor. He’d been given the part of a lifetime early, but he had some lifetime left.

Now 83, in recent years Alan Alda has been hosting a podcast, called “Clear + Vivid,” under the auspices of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, an organization inspired by his passion for science and his years hosting the PBS show “Scientific American Frontiers.”

The podcasts are one-on-one conversations with a variety of people from interesting professions, all discussing ways to communicate more clearly in an increasingly complex world. These are often people from scientific and technical backgrounds, although Alda’s star power attracts other, more well-known guests occasionally.

Anything that promotes better communication skills is going to probably get my attention. I could use some skills. I’m sort of in the communication business and a lot of the time, I’m really bad at it. You should read some of my mail.

They’re entertaining and interesting shows, easy to drop in on and listen for an episode or two. Recently, I heard Alda’s conversations with a couple of women I admire, and something struck a nerve.

These were two of the more famous guests on his podcast, and the first was someone his own age. Carol Burnett is now 86, still a wonderful storyteller and warm presence, and it was a fun conversation to eavesdrop in on. Alda’s long career has to take the runner-up position compared with Carol Burnett, who’s been a force in our popular culture for my entire life.

It was a stray comment that got my attention, though. Burnett was describing how she’ll sometimes get fan mail from children, and how on occasion she’ll call them to answer a particular question. It’s a sweet idea and a wonderful gesture from a big star, but she slipped a little commentary in at the end.

“Have you noticed that nobody talks on the phone anymore?” she murmured, almost as an aside.

Well, yes. We’ve all noticed that, Carol. We have more ways to communicate these days, and text messaging and other forms of digital communication have made phone calls just another option.

But there was a plaintive tone I recognized, having heard it before. It suggested to me that Carol wasn’t just making an observation, but also a judgment. Life was better when people talked on the phone more, she seemed to be suggesting.

I don’t know if Carol does her own shopping these days. I could take her with me to the grocery store. She’d find out that people still like to talk on the phone, you betcha.

If she was looking for support from her contemporary, she was disappointed. Alda immediately jumped in, commenting that phone calls always made him nervous, and he much preferred communicating in written form, email or other ways. It made him a better communicator, he noted.

Another conversation involved journalist Katie Couric, who is my contemporary. Now 62, Couric seems to have never stopped moving, and the digital landscape has become her playing field. Communication is her area, too, and as the discussion progressed, they began talking about emojis.

Those little smiley faces have become important, she noted, in this era of text messages. Both of them observed that they also use exclamation marks more often now, for the same reason – short messages, composed spontaneously and quickly, sometimes have unintended connotations without a little help.

If I text you that I’ve made reservations for our symphony tickets, and you text back “Thanks,” it can feel terse and cold. “Thanks!” makes it clearer, even if it sometimes feels like we’re all writing in high school yearbooks. Have a great summer!

My point is, all of these people are older Americans, two in their 80s and one a generation behind, and all have seen some life. Couric seems actively engaged in our world, embracing change and working with it. Burnett appeared wistful, seeing change as binary, either good or bad. Fewer phone calls are bad, maybe.

And maybe I’m reading too much into this; I’m certainly speculating. It just felt important to note.

I’m not picking on Carol Burnett. I completely understand her feelings. It’s still a red flag, for me. I don’t mind getting older; I’m trying to avoid being old, covering my worldview with concrete and suspicious of any dissenting opinions.

I’m with Katie on this one; I’d like to find the potential in change.

I want to remain curious and engaged. I want to communicate better, and in a variety of ways. I don’t want to be wistful, not yet. I still want to be able to change my mind, and welcome the change.

I want to be Alan Alda when I grow up, in other words.

There’s still hope! See you next fall!

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