Sunday, December 20, 2015

Viva Sankalpa!


As 2015 lurches its way towards the finish line, I must say I’m relieved it’s almost over.

I haven’t written much here this year. I have kept myself busy with other writing projects, but I’ve had little to say in this forum because although 2015 was a year I was free of depression, a good part of it I would file under “Sandpaper To My Soul”.

2015 was filled with medical problems, nothing serious, thankfully, just chronic and annoying. Let’s just say Chicago’s physical therapy community and I have spent a seemingly endless amount of quality time together. Combined with friends also experiencing medical problems (#funtobeold), and friends who ceased to be friends, most of 2015 felt like an uphill trudge. I had some significant friendships come to an end this year; some were my decision, some were by mutual decision, some simply faded away without much comment. It all added up to an overwhelming feeling of loss, a theme of failure combined with a calendar full of doctors’ appointments really gave my freshly minted joie de vivre a swift kick in the ass.

Spoiler alert: It all turns out fine!

I’ve been thinking about when I first moved to Chicago in 2009 with zero plan except to “find myself”, whatever the fuck that means. I was lost, to be sure, but the cosmic Lost and Found can be a real bitch to navigate, particularly with faulty tools. I was filled with anxiety and sleeping poorly, so I turned to doing yoga nidra for awhile in an attempt to chill out. Yoga nidra, for those of you who don’t dabble in groovy crystal deodorant scented self improvement, is a state of consciousness where you are nestled between being awake and sleeping. Your focus is on being present and aware of the world inside you by following a set of audio instructions. Yoga nidra is translated as “yogic sleep”, the goal is to be deeply relaxed but still alert in a state of super alpha calm. In all honesty I would typically fall asleep halfway through the practice, which was perfectly fine with me as I needed sleep more than I needed to be a zen master of the universe.

Part of the practice is to focus on your “sankalpa”, which is a singular goal, an intention, a resolution that you repeat three times. When initially deciding on a sankalpa, I went back and forth on whether to focus on finding another romantic relationship or pushing myself as a writer. Both seemed imperative to my happiness, but I chose to concentrate on the writing as it seemed like an area I had more control over. My sankalpa was to put my energy towards being the best writer that I could be, not to be rich or famous or published or anything quantitative, but to be committed to always be striving to improve.

Even as a majority of 2015 proved itself to be a big helping of THE STRUGGLE IS REAL AND BOY DOES IT SUCK, I did make earnest efforts to fulfill that intention to the best of my ability. I feel content that I wrote and performed some of my most challenging material this year and that in turn brought me unprecedented connection with the rest of the world. I am forever in awe that I am surrounded and supported by people who believe I can do anything. I still marvel at what was seemingly impossible to hope for a few years ago is now happening. I did a TEDx talk in November which will be available to be viewed soon, and it was some bucket list business. (eternal snaps for Jill Howe for including me)  I had to admit in the last few months that even in the face of crushing loss and medical drudgery and a general haze as far as feeling emotionally healthy just to have life continue to kick sand in my face on the regular that I made my sankalpa a reality and THAT IS SOME GLORIOUS SHIT, Y’ALL. I can honestly say that I am truly happy in a highly sustainable way for the first time ever. EVER.

Thanks to all who have loved and supported me thus far. Without you, I’d be nowhere. I am eagerly awaiting 2016; I already have 3 shows booked and it will be the year that I get to pursue my other sankalpa, because I don’t have to choose between romantic love and creative success as a singular focus anymore.


My other promise for 2016 is to minimize my time with technology and just use my eyes and my brain to capture experiences.

Enjoy your holidays. Let us go forth and make 2016 our best year ever. I'm in such good spirits these days, I'm almost excited to turn FIFTY in August. 

Let the record reflect I said almost.

Peace out until our paths collide.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Something Better

The following is a brief excerpt from a story I wrote a few years ago about making peace with my father's memory while dating a guy who was not involved in his son's life at the time. I experienced through his lens, and through his heartache, that it is possible for a parent to truly care about a child even if they are incapable of showing it. Relationships are complicated and forgiveness can be a powerful act of kindness not only for the other person, but for yourself.

I'm opting to publish this snippet for Father's Day as it is the emotional center of the story, a tribute to those who show up to do the work. It's also a gift for Joanna, who recently gave birth to her fourth baby, Charlotte.

I decided I needed a break from my regularly scheduled life, so I headed to suburbia. I always love to drop in on Joanna’s family parties as they are exuberant celebrations full of perogies and sausage and pastries, free-flowing vodka, and oldies blasting from the stereo.

Joanna is a Polish immigrant; she came to Chicago as a teenager in the early 90’s. My worries faded as I stepped into Joanna’s world, her house full of children’s toys, the starchy smells of comfort food, and people talking enthusiastically with their hands. 

Joanna’s father, Grzegorz, had been in and out of the hospital struggling with liver cancer for a good part of the year, and I was pleased to see him well enough to attend the party. Grzegorz’ arms bore scars from all of his recent medical procedures and he looked pale and tired, but his face beamed with contentment. He gestured for me to bring my wine glass and come sit with him, and I was pleased to oblige.  

He asked, “How is your work?

I told him airline life was treating me well.  

He pointed to Alex, his grandson, and said, “I like to take Alex to O’Hare. We watch planes take off. Sometimes we do only that for the whole day.”   

“That sounds like a wonderful adventure,” I replied.  

His smile took a more serious turn when he faced me, gesturing out into the lawn at his blond grandchildren running in circles. To the living room, to his sons and their wives, and to Joanna, who he calls by her Polish name, Asia. 

He said, “Here is what I know. When I grew up, when I was bad, I was beaten. When I was good, I got nothing. To see my children treating their children with such love and kindness, this is my joy. This means that they are made of something better.”

I smiled. “Yes,” I said, “something better.”   

We basked quietly in the moment. Smokey Robinson’s falsetto playing in the background, everyone swaying to the music, talking, laughing, the screams of the children without a care on a warm summer night.

His family was his proof that even though he had come from darkness, he had made his own light. It was the last gathering Grzegorz was well enough to take part in before he passed away.

Fond wishes to all my friends who are wonderful fathers. Enjoy your day.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Five Weeks of Funny Business

I recently completed Feminine Comique, an all female five week course in stand up comedy. The course was created by Cameron Esposito, and she turned it over to local comedic super heroine Kelsie Huff when she moved to LA to go all big time. Kelsie also hosts an all lady comedy show called the Kates, which is more fun than should be allowed by law. (check it!

I’ve been a lover of stand up since I was old enough to watch television. I grew up watching Joan Rivers guest host the Tonight Show, loving Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live, crushing on Freddie Prinze (not the junior version, people. THE ORIGINAL). I spent my allowance on Robin Williams and George Carlin records, listening to them over and over until I could repeat all the jokes by heart. I'm currently consuming a steady diet of Tig Notaro, Amy Schumer, and Aziz Ansari. I’ve always felt a connection with those who used their comedic abilities to get people to listen more closely, to discuss life’s absurdities, to express their concerns and often, divulge their pain.

But I recognize there is a huge difference between appreciating something and actually doing it. It never occurred to me to try stand up until I was looking for a writing challenge recently and I saw Kelsie post a link to her Feminine Comique classes. I know Kelsie from the storytelling scene around town. Not only is she always fucking hilarious, she’s also a damn nice person and I had big faith she would run a great class. Plus it struck me as a completely terrifying idea, and I was in the market to be scared shitless.

Kelsie Huff, comedic shero.

Yeah, sure, I tell stories to sizeable groups of people on a fairly regular basis, so what’s the big deal? The big deal is that I always tell stories that I read off paper. I spend bazillions of hours laboring over every word choice, choosing every spot to pause, crafting the experience. I AM IN NO WAY EXTEMPORANEOUS. The only time I told a story without paper I froze in the middle as I blanked out on my careful memorization. I recovered and kept going after an awkward pause, but in my mind I felt like I was falling down twenty flights of stairs.  So stand up seemed like a pretty big step outside my comfort zone.

Every Tuesday night from 7 pm to 9 pm, we met at Sheil Park, a local community center to learn about the art of joke making. A joke, as defined by Cameron Esposito, is “a shared cultural reference, backed by opinion and comparison.” Kelsie laid down a few rules for us from the get go: that we would go super crazy applauding and cheering each other on during class, even though the real world would not guarantee us that, and that we would not apologize at any time for any reason. Women are conditioned to be apologetic in so many arenas; asking for other people’s time, taking up physical space, daring to find themselves worthy of time and space. So there would be no starting with “I’m sorry if this isn’t funny…” nope. Just do your thing and own that shit.

She also told us at the first class that being successful at stand up involves “failing miserably, in public, without apology, until it’s not a big deal.” Failing miserably? In public? I mean, it makes total sense, you can’t test jokes out on yourself, you need an audience. But this philosophy was a pretty hard right turn from the soft and fluffy storytelling world of “Every one has a story, and they’re all important and valuable!”  Okay, now officially terrified.

The cheering and support part came naturally as all the ladies in the class were really funny. Each of us brought a different energy, different eccentricities, different styles, which made the class continually surprising and fresh and endlessly amusing. Kelsie told us she couldn’t teach us to be funny, as no one can really teach that, but she could teach us joke structure and how to SELL THE SHIT out of our material, which is a major component of stand up success. We learned about rants, and “punching up”, the idea that you should aim your punch lines at perpetrators instead of victims, particularly with edgier material. That kicking someone when they’re down is a cheap shot, and therefore not really funny. We watched a lot of stand up between classes, we talked about jokes that stood out for us and why. We discussed different comedians' body language, also part of making the package work. We learned that making jokes work involves cutting out unnecessary info, which can be a challenge when you’re speaking on the fly. The editing part was a real eye opener for me, stripping down the material to the bare minimum helps the jokes retain more punch. I tend to gravitate towards MORE examples, expanding things in hopes of gaining more understanding with the audience, but more is not more in comedy. It’s reminiscent of Elmore Leonard’s advice to “try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” If it’s not necessary, CUT THAT SHIT.

Also counterintuitive to my usual writing process, I found out quickly that the more I worked on the jokes, THE LESS THEY WORKED. The jokes where I tried really hard to be clever fell flat, the stuff I wrote at the last minute and didn’t overthink landed bigger laughs more often than not. So much for my routine of laboring over my wordplay, this was an exercise in making peace with winging it.

Every week when I did the homework I heard the same voice in my head.

Why are you doing this it will never work you can’t work without your carefully chosen words and your paper crutch you are not fucking funny you will suck you are too old to have this much homework holy shit why are you wasting your time why did you think you could pull this off it’s official, you have totally lost your fucking mind. AGAIN.

Ladies and gentlemen, the voice of the saboteur! It had been awhile, probably since I first started to tell stories. Welcome back, uninvited visitor.

I listened to it and believed it to some degree, but I figured giving that voice too much time or mental real estate was not going to help me to actually get the homework done. FUCK OFF SABOTEUR, I have eight more jokes to write before I can pass out watching House of Cards with a bowl of pasta. And I trusted that the saboteur only shows up when there’s actually something at stake. I’ve lived long enough to know that all of my experiences that involved real growth made me feel less like the star of a motivational poster and more like I was drowning in a fetid sea of WTF HAVE YOU GOTTEN YOURSELF INTO NOW, IDIOT.

But going to class was such a blast, I didn’t worry so much about the graduation show, even though I was unsure how all these random notebook scribbles were going to equate to five minutes worth of jokes that were performance worthy. Kelsie was always immensely supportive, telling us that the grad show always went well, that everyone was able to pull it off and that our objective was to HAVE FUN above all else. I was skeptical, but figured I could always hide under my bed and tell everyone I was exposed to monkeypox at work or something. For sure I was not inviting people. Failing in public would be fine, as long as I didn’t know anyone.

When I went to put together my set for the last class, I only had about two minutes worth of material. TWO MINUTES? When I write stories, I have trouble keeping them to ten minutes or so. But I didn’t panic, I just kept throwing stuff together until I had three minutes, then a little over four minutes.

I took it to class and although I hammered through it in a little over three minutes, it went better than I expected. I worked on it before the show until I didn’t need to look at my notes at all. I invited a handful of close friends, figuring that I should have some people there after all. HOLY SHIT, what if the saboteur was totally WRONG? Let's do this thing.

The night of the show I was scheduled to go first. I felt relatively confident until the house lights went down and then I was struck with a wave of panic. I turned to Kelsie, who was still passing out programs at the front of the house. I said, “Kelsie! I’m really nervous now!” She gestured to the crowd and said, “Who gives a shit what these assholes think about anything?”

Indeed. Instantly I was fine. Genius advice that I will keep in my pocket and use again.

My set went well. I got tongue tied a few times and I had to consult my notes, but none of that stopped me from the main objective, I HAD FUN. Equally satisfying was standing in the back of the theater after, sipping a bourbon rocks out of a jelly jar, watching all of my classmates take the stage and CRUSH IT. They were all SO good, and I was thrilled to hear them get loads of well deserved laughs and cheers.

I have to say that I don’t think I have the drive or the discipline to be constantly crafting jokes and taking them to open mics. That would seriously cut into my pajama jams. I’ll stick to my introverted process of writing my weird stories, sharing them with close friends after laboring over the wordplay. But I am so glad I took the stand up class as I learned so much in five weeks and I was so proud to be involved in the final product and most importantly, I HAD SO MUCH FUN. 

If you’re a lady interested in stand up in Chicago, I highly recommend you check out  If you’re not a lady or would prefer a co-ed stand up experience, check out Or do whatever sounds super scary for you, maybe it’s tango dancing or zip lining or singing acapella or staying up past 11. Any time you can drown out the voice of the saboteur with a loud chorus of I GOT THIS SHIT, I say go for it.

Photo credits - show photos: Chuck Sudo
Kelsie Huff photo: