I did stand up comedy for many years, but I feel like I’m a teacher at heart.
I always wanted to do comedy, through that I'm trying to stay connected to cool ideas, interesting people and help educators to connect to students in a better way.
I grew up in a relatively small Midwestern town, two hours west of Chicago - Rochelle, IL. I worked in a food processing factory to pay myself out of college, I’m very proud of that. I shoveled carrots out of a refrigerated box car and raked cans for 13 hours, went to local community college in the summer to make up for the classes I wasn’t doing well within my undergrad.
What is philosophy for you?
Way to live better. I would say, a way to think that hopefully leads to a better way to live. I feel ideas have this kinetic energy and they build up until they actually create an action. The same idea can repeat itself and keep talking to you and telling you “move to that direction, you idiot”, or even equally positive “move away!”. If you are not connected to the energy of ideas, then I think your life will be more challenging.
What are some ideas that are forming your way of life?
I really believe, and I have learned that through trial and error, I believe there are walls that are set up in front of us that are FALSE. people say “no” reflexively, but they don’t always mean no, they mean maybe. That is how I proceeded in life, to challenge people that their first response may not be something they truly agree with.
Where do they come from?
Fear. They come from fear. They come from worry. They come from doubt and uncertainty.
And these are just walls people put in front of us, or these are also walls we put to ourselves?
Both. Everything that I have has to do or is based on fear, uncertainty, the unknown, doubt, and then a nice little mix of self-sabotage.
That’s an interesting thought, though, which walls are real and which walls are virtual, and how to distinguish the difference.
As a dyslexic and someone whose primary way of learning is through people, when I was in college, I remember the psych 101 class, it was a 300 person lecture hall, and every time the teacher would say something I didn’t understand I would raise my hand. I raised my hand so often people booed! Can you imagine being a freshman in college and being booed? And you know what? I kept my hand up, I paid for my seat, I know how I learn. I got an A in that class. Raise your hand and don’t be afraid of the boos.
What do you think are the inner resources we can use that help us overcome these walls?
It’s funny, when you first said what kind of resources within us can we use to knock down or conquer these walls, I thought “well no, I used the help of others, the energy of others…”
In what way?
Well, I have a good Geiger counter of people. My philosophy is like an aggregated truth of people I love and honor and almost sniff out. My best friend in 3rd grade who taught me how to play chess, how to get through math, helped me get to school in time all through high school, I chose him. I would not have graduated college, without 3-4 individuals I could cite, that if I would have not barnacled my energy, and I use that word intentionally, the barnacle is that creature that attaches itself to the larger more directed energy, and uses that energy in a functional way, it’s a successful collaboration. Sometimes barnacle has a negative connotation, not in this case, a positive ecosystem. Another woman Tracy Henderson, who got me through my masters, and then my mentor Frank Toragio, who brought me to the college of DuPage and gave me an office, and then I was teaching what I most needed to learn.
When you say positive ecosystem what do you mean?
One that the energy is free-flowing, welcomed, like a fish breathing in water. You have to be very sensitive to when these collaborations are coming to an end, and they do end. I think that’s important to recognize. And it’s something I got better at over time. I have overstayed my welcome. I think we all have, it happened to all of us. That’s paying attention to that kind of natural time, something is birthed, whether it’s real or metaphorical. I think the hardest part, the most difficult part is knowing when it ends. The other stuff kind of happens synergistically, it free flows with forces coming together in a natural way. The hardest part is to recognize it is time to move on.
I’m always in search for stronger inner influences, I have so few that stick. Those repetitive pillars in you that give you the strength to meet really difficult challenges, I don’t think you really know them until they have been stress tested. I have few of these, but the few that I have I lean on heavily.
For example - move towards good energy stay away from bad energy, move towards people that say 'yes', more than people who say 'no'. I just call them 'yes' people.
But some 'no’s are useful in life, and some 'yes' are not useful in life. What is a good 'no' and a bad 'yes'?
A good 'no' is when something is moving you away from a passion, play or purpose. Taking you off track. Not that we shouldn’t allow tangents, I truly believe that tributaries sometimes lead to fortifying a new river, or a new pathway, sometimes they end up being somewhat destructive, and entering into places where we don’t want them, we try to control them. I live on the concept of wiggle room, wiggle room to think, to make mistakes, to reinvent, to think dangerously, to think tangentially.
What if I want to shoplift and experience what’s that like. It is a crime, but maybe I feel it is something important for me to experience. That’s a level of civil disobedience, that I would not judge anyone too highly on - that would be a dangerous thought.
You could be a dangerous thinker just saying “what if I chose to do nothing today and step off the grid?” For me that would be a dangerous thought because I will lose money.
I would say a dangerous thought can be categorized as anything that has an inherent risk that and that people may turn their heads at: “why would you do that? That’s crazy?”, because I need to understand that, I need to grapple with that.
And what’s a 'bad yes'?
I’m not trying to cheat here, but it’s the same answer to what a 'good no' is. I believe that it’s the same thing. A 'yes' that takes you down onto a path that doesn’t lead back to a passion, play and purpose, a 'yes' that is only there to fulfill you as opposed to a collaboration, a 'yes' that’s selfish.
What is the purpose of a human being?
I think you can find a way to be kind. A kindness for yourself, and a kindness that will lead to others. I can’t think of a better purpose. I think it sounds deceptively simple. It’s not just “I’ll open the car door for you”, I’m talking about a deeper kindness… to not respond to our worst reflexes.
To offer a genuine hand to someone, based on the fact that you know that the practice of kindness will enrich… I believe there’s no stronger energy that can link itself to other people than the energy of kindness.
Do you see that as a struggle, a battle?
Oh, it’s a war. To act kind to yourself authentically and to let that lead you.
I see people that embody that and I envy them. I want to be more of that, and for that day, and even for a week, I do a pretty good job, because I saw it happen and that reminds me. I need more of that to bring me to a better place and space, and thinking, and living, and doing. I speak with a forked tongue, cause I’m amazingly selfish, in many ways, but I try to balance that one.
You come from the field of education, do you think that seeing a person giving you an example of kindness and wanting to be like that person, is that related somehow to education?
Oh yes. There are two types of educators. There are educators who like to measure, and there are educators who like to teach. And I find that a very clear divide. Kindness is not measuring. Why do we want children to compete against each other and why are we measuring them? I find it to be a great enemy of free thinking, an enemy of kindness, of mentorship, of coaching, I find it an enemy of love. This incessant need to only measure as a way to define someone’s capability, that is a box, a trap, that is a cage around a young mind that has yet to experiment, fail, flourish, and conquer and fail again and conquer again, and that is a crime against minds. That is deeply unkind.
So you’re not a fan of the present education system?
No, the post-industrial educational complex is a prison, it puts children minds into limits, and it makes them jump through hoops of fire, like chihuahuas at the circus.
You use humor a lot in your profession and your everyday life. What do you think is the place of humor in living a full life?
Sharing, observing and self-awareness.
Laughter is the ultimate act of sharing, it depends on two people. I suppose there are moments we laugh to ourselves, but very few and far between, to think of something so hilarious that you burst out laughing is not so common. It is an act of community. When someone laughs it is a 'yes', it is an agreement, it’s the highest level of 'yes'. There’s no higher plane of 'yes' than laughter. Because you cracked open something in their mind that’s deeper than just like “I agree with that”, no. I bear witness to that, I believe in that, I know what you’re saying because you presented it in a way that is so true, it is inescapable to me not to think about it.
Laughter can be used poorly as a form of seduction in the wrong direction. People who are really good at it can create false suppositions and theories and use humor as a way to reduce deep thinking. There’s a community that brilliantly dismantles the AA movement, which is not a perfect movement and it’s flawed, but to pretend that the whole entire entity that has saved millions of people and brought them together to talk about an addiction, to act as if it’s just a fool’s journey, in one comedic act, that is a way humor is used deceptively.
You mentioned self-awareness?
It’s the root of it, comedy comes from struggle and doubt and the seeking of clarity and definition because if I can get you to laugh about my debt, that means I have clarity now, oh you have experienced this too, you are ok with this too, you had the same dangerous thought I had when I joke in a way and when I tell people I figured out how to get out of debt: not pay it back… yes you can, because I tried to pay it back, and guess what I got? more debt. And then people laugh, because there is truth to that, unavoidable, immutable truth. You have to scour the ugly parts of yourself, if you are afraid to scour those parts, more than likely comedy will not reveal itself to you, will not flow from you very easily. That’s a comedian’s perspective, but as a teacher I always looked to connect through laughter and shared experiences first. I don’t look at my students as friends, but I do look at them as bonded partners in thought. If I want to be a mentor or a coach to them, in this case in the art of communicating, how to compose a presentation, or a simple thought that you’d like to share at your friend’s wedding... I think: how do I do that in a way that will live with them throughout their lives? rather than a semester, or an A, which I think is the cancer of education. I have to become their friend, I have to become a trusted person, and there’s no better and quicker way to do that than through humor, if you have a better way please tell me cause I will use that too. I want that knowledge.
What is a book that changed your life?
Richard Bach’s “Illusions”. I’m a very slow reader. Back in college when I read textbooks to get grades, I didn't have much time to read just a random book. I physically couldn’t do it. And yet this book came to me in a very difficult time… I entrusted my parents into a legal battle because this man promised me that I would get a $100 if I gave him $6000, I took $6000 out of my banking account, which was essentially my parents' banking account, gutting my funds for that semester, all because I would get a $100 out of it. To do that to my mom and dad, who gave me everything and sacrificed everything, there could be no darker moment. Then a friend of mine said you should read this book, and I did. It is called “The adventures of a reluctant messiah”, and in that book I then knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life, or I should say, I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I had a philosophy that would guide me as I would move through these random and undefined portals.
You don’t become a “humorous motivational educational speaker” by taking a class, there’s no class for that. You don’t become a comedian by taking a class, and I would argue that you don’t become a great teacher by taking a class. You take many classes, but you also live a life that has some challenge to it. I think Stephen Hawkins is a brilliant physicist probably in part not just because of his mind but because of his struggles as well. I don’t think you can separate those two. And the quote in the book that struck me the most, and I wrote it on my syllabus, it’s written in my computer: “we teach what we most need to learn”. We teach what we most need to learn.
If you would have to give one advice to a younger self, or a young person starting his life?
I think those are two different questions, if I would have to give an advice to a younger self, I think it would be very different than an advice to a younger person. Can I answer both?
What I would say to my younger self is try not to listen to your worry. Pay attention to the other and move in that direction. I believe that worry and fear are the greatest chasms we feel we cannot leap, the greatest traps or holes, whatever metaphor you want. That sticky floor you cannot lift your legs from. The hamster, the guinea pig that is just circling on the same wheel. I think that worry, that metronome of worry, will I do this, will I be funny, will I be able to be smart as someone else... Margaret Meade said we’re all unique, every single one of us. Everybody is somebody else’s weirdo. I will tell that to a young man or woman, don’t worry, be weird, it’s ok. Don’t worry it will be Ok and don’t worry about trying to find yourself, you’re not yourself yet. I worry about kids today - “what are you gonna be? I wanna be a hairdresser, I wanna be a scientist”... what do you mean what you’re going to be? that’s just a thing that pays you money. Don’t worry about what you’re going to be to make money, worry about your being.