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Documentary Looks at the Pursuit of Happiness

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Aired 8/27/09

Following Dreams is a documentary that looks at the lives of people whose pursuit of happiness has led them down unconventional paths. We speak with the director of the film and a "dreamer" who says he's the "luckiest man alive."

Following Dreams airs on KPBS TV September 27th at 10 PM.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. What would you really love to do if you didn't have to worry about money, or success, or how old you were or what other people thought? And what would you do with your life, if you were willing to risk everything on your heart's desire? A documentary airing tonight on KPBS Television tells the story of a handful of people who have answered that question in very different ways. In doing so, they've turned conventional notions of what it means to be a success upside down. They have walked away from great careers, or lived in poverty, or endured ridicule, in order to find their own personal brand of happiness. The documentary is called "Following Dreams." And I'd like to welcome my guests. Susan Polis Schutz, the director and producer of the documentary "Following Dreams." Susan, welcome to These Days.

SUSAN POLIS SCHUTZ (Director/Producer): Hi, thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: And David Ipplito is a guitarist from New York City, one of the people featured in the film. David, welcome.

DAVID IPPOLITO: Thanks. It's good to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And I'd like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Have you thought about changing your life in order to follow a dream? Do you have a story about pursuing a lifelong passion? Give us a call to share your story. The number is 1-888-895-5727. Now, Susan, this documentary is sure to get a lot of people thinking about their lives and I'm wondering, is that one of the reasons why you made the film?

SCHUTZ: I did. It's about finding a passion in life and being happy. And when I met David, he was the first person I met. He was so inspirational and I thought that I'd find a lot of other people with the same type of stories and that I think people could really benefit from them.

CAVANAUGH: Why do you think it's so difficult for people to follow their passions in life?

SCHUTZ: Well, it's very difficult because you have to give up whatever you're doing and often your passion doesn't make much money so you have to be willing to live at a much lesser level. It's just hard. You have to go against what the wise wisdom in society says.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, yeah. And I wonder, you say you met David. Is that where the idea for the film came from?

SCHUTZ: It is. My husband and I were in Central Park, New York, and we heard somebody singing a beautiful song. In fact, it was called "View of the Moon," which—this is a tangent—but it's if all bad things happen and your house burns up, you have a better view of the moon. And that was such a perfect – perfect words for this guy singing in Central Park with no shirt and there was about 500 people around him and we were one – we were two of them. And I went up to him afterwards and I said to him, how do you make a living? Because he had a little guitar case. What do you do besides this? And he said, no, this is what I do, and I'm the luckiest guy in the world. I don't make much money but I love doing what I do. So that was so inspirational, it inspired me to seek other people and to make a film on this.

CAVANAUGH: Well, David Ippolito, we do meet you in the film "Following Dreams." And, you know, you tell us that your heart was telling you that singing and playing for people was what you were meant to do. But were you still afraid to get started?

IPPOLITO: Well, you know, it's funny. It's nice to hear. By the way, Susan, how are you? It's good to see you. Or not to see you but to talk to you again.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

IPPOLITO: Because I'm over here in New York. But it's nice to hear such nice things but the truth of the matter is, really, I got my ass kicked up the stairs.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

IPPOLITO: In other words, if there were people listening to this right now who have – who cling to things that, like Susan said, that society thinks we're supposed to cling to, that we're supposed to hang onto, that measure us as human beings, stop that. It's – I recommend – Seriously, I didn't do it by choice. I didn't wake up one day and say, hey, you know what, I think I'll do exactly what I'm meant to do. I think I'll be true to myself and I'll be – I really got my ass kicked there. I was a failure as a human being in every way you could possibly be and lost everything. I recommend it because the really truly, truly important things, the real self-worth that I've discovered over the last 18 years is beyond description.

CAVANAUGH: Well, David, let me make it clear. Tell us exactly what it is that you do do now in Central Park.

IPPOLITO: You know, I'm not sure. No, actually, what I do is – You cannot live the life that I live in the 21st century. I write songs and I sing them for people. And I go to Central Park one day a week and that – that's actually a separate movie, how that all came to be. But I go to Central Park one day a week. I leave an open guitar case about 25 feet away from me for a reason and in 18 years, I've never said a word about it.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

IPPOLITO: It's a distance away from me. And I just sing – I write songs and sing them for people. And what's happened – Truthfully, Maureen, if somebody described to me what I do in Central Park, I probably wouldn't go. It sounds like, well, there's a guy singing his songs and he's, you know, singing James Taylor tunes and Beatle tunes. But it turns into something where I know that my job is – through music is just to let people know that they're okay and they're not alone and we're all afraid of the same things. And we laugh and we cry and we – It's just – That's what I do. I'm a storyteller, I'm a trou – I guess a 21st century…

IPPOLITO/CAVANAUGH: …troubadour…

CAVANAUGH: …yeah. Yeah. Now I'm assuming that with that open guitar case, you don't make an awful lot of money singing in Central Park. So how do you get by, David?

IPPOLITO: You know, right now – And I actually mean this. When I – What I said to Susan was the absolute truth. I am the luckiest man alive. I am also right now I think you're talking to the least religious person you will ever meet so…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

IPPOLITO: But I think you would have to walk a very far distance to find a man who lives on more faith than I do, if that makes any sense.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, well, yeah.

IPPOLITO: So I actually don't know what's coming up. One day in my life very, very rarely resembles the day before. I don't know what's coming up next. And I'm never worried about it because I live in the greatest city on earth in a nice apartment on Central Park West, and I have enough to feed myself and take care of my friends and do the things I love and -- and, you know, I just don't know.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let me ask you, Susan, David is one of the dreamers that you feature in your documentary, one of those people who is living a life they were meant to live.

SCHUTZ: Right.

CAVANAUGH: So tell me about some of the others. What about the couple who wanted to be cheesemakers? Now, I mean, that's just…

SCHUTZ: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Never even heard of anybody…

SCHUTZ: Yeah, so…

CAVANAUGH: …who wanted to be a cheesemaker.

SCHUTZ: John Putnam was a very successful lawyer and he looked around and he said, you know, I don't think this is what I want to do the rest of my life. And so they bought a farm in Vermont and they become organic cheesemakers and they just won the first place American Cheese Society Award. And they're so happy but yet they work from five in the morning until ten at night. We followed them and it was unbelieveable be – you know, milking the cows and making the cheese and they're – they're just so happy.

CAVANAUGH: And another woman fulfilled her dream of becoming a band singer late in life.

SCHUTZ: That's right. She was an 82 year old woman that always wanted to become a big band singer and, in fact, in her yearbook, her high school yearbook, it said her dream is to be a swing band leader. And so when her kids left college – for college and she finally was in one place, I guess they moved around a lot, she was around 70-something and she answered ads to become a big band singer and that's what she did. And she said if you love what you're doing, you have to do it and that was – that is what she said.

CAVANAUGH: We're talking about the new documentary "Following Dreams," by Susan Polis Schutz. And David Ippolito is a guitarist in New York. He's one of the people featured in the film. We're taking your calls about pursuing your dreams at 1-888-895-5727. And Andrew has called us from University Heights. Good morning, Andrew. Welcome to These Days.

ANDREW (Caller, University Heights): Hi.

CAVANAUGH: Hi.

ANDREW: I've decided a while ago to leave pursuit of corporate America and work my way up the ladder by getting into acting instead of – kind of fell into it but I was – it's an interesting thing to hear this story.

CAVANAUGH: Right, well, what kind of situation in corporate America did you leave?

ANDREW: I was just a bottom rung. I was working in a cell phone store selling for a company and trying to work my way up out of college and just wasn't getting any progress so…

CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering, is this a scary time for you then, Andrew, or do you really feel you're on the right track?

ANDREW: Well, no, I started working part time as an extra on TV shows here in town and then just kind of worked my way into the industry that way and then was able to quit my job and not have to worry about it.

CAVANAUGH: Wow. So what advice do you have for other people who might find themselves stuck in a place they shouldn't be?

ANDREW: Don't – don't sell yourself short and don't wait for things to come to you, you kind of have to just go out and take it because too many people are sitting around waiting for their big break or waiting for lightning to flash and it doesn't really happen that way.

CAVANAUGH: Thanks for the call. I really appreciate it. Susan, do you find that there's a common thread that runs through the stories of people who are following their passions?

SCHUTZ: Absolutely. The one common ingredient is that they love what they're doing and that's the most important thing. Each person finds success in their own way. For instance, Ivan Gaylor, the real estate developer who stopped being a real estate developer, wanted to help people. So he discovered the meaning and wonder of life by saving rainforests in Ecuador and Peru. So it's very important just to love what you want to do and then that's what your passion is and you can't do it for the wrong reasons. The wrong reasons would be money, fame, that kind of thing. You have to do it because you love it.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, there – Among all the apparently happy people in the documentary "Following Dreams," there's also one man's story. He's struggling. He – Tell us about the man who wants to be the magician.

SCHUTZ: Yeah he was a Harvard graduate and he was in – he was working for a corporation but he loved magic so he decided just to give up his job and become a magician, a professional magician. He went to Hong Kong. But underneath it all, the reason he wanted to become magician was for fame and money. He wanted to make it big and as opposed to just loving magic and not caring where you do it or how you do it. And, unfortunately, he failed and went back to corporate life.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take some more phone calls. There are other people who want to get involved in our conversation here. Let's hear from Peter in Oceanside. Good morning, Peter. Welcome to These Days.

PETER (Caller, Oceanside): Good morning. How are you?

CAVANAUGH: Just fine.

PETER: Good. Yeah, I used to be v.p. sales in corporate America and at the end of the eighties, beginning of the nineties, I got involved in the men's movement and really learned that there was a lot more to life than just earning money and, you know, becoming sort of greed oriented. Anyway, I'm now a school bus driver. I take all the summers off. I get two weeks off at Christmas, two weeks of spring break. And that allows me to follow my bliss which is wilderness exploring and camping and hiking, which I do all the time. And I just finished the best summer I've ever had in my life.

SCHUTZ: Hmm.

CAVANAUGH: Have you had to explain to people why you made the choices that you did, Peter?

PETER: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: And what is their reaction?

PETER: And I think lots of people secretly admire what I'm doing and wish they could come to the same conclusions themselves.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for sharing your story. We appreciate it. And let's hear from Dave in Tierrasanta. Good morning, Dave. Welcome to These Days.

DAVE (Caller, Tierrasanta): Thanks. It's a very interesting program. Something that I'm sure a lot of people think about and, like you said, the reason people are apprehensive is because how much money are they going to make if they pursue their dreams that may not, you know, necessarily make a lot of money.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

DAVE: And my question is, the first person that sings in Central Park and the other lady that sings in a big band…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

DAVE: …we never really heard if they're really making their money from their craft or do they have other sources of income? I just needed a clearer answer on that.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, well, David Ippolito, do you make your money from singing in the park?

IPPOLITO: Yeah, that's what I do. And, of course, I have eight – I've recorded now eight CDs. Six of them are pretty good. You know, one – one of them was a mistake. But I just released a brand new CD. Actually, you know what, to answer the question really the clearest way, if somebody went to thatguitarman.com there's – it's – I'm surrounded by such an amazing circle of creative artists and friends and we all hold each other up and, yeah, I actually make a living doing what I do, just writing songs and singing for people, getting the music out there. The beautiful thing is, there's no – there's no record business, there's no agent, there's no record industry, there's nobody – When I sell a CD, that money is mine…

CAVANAUGH: I see.

IPPOLITO: …because I produced the album. So it's a beautiful thing.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Susan, you know, you told us a little while ago that you have to be pursuing your passion in life for the right reasons.

SCHUTZ: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us again, what are those right reasons? And what are the wrong reasons?

SCHUTZ: Well, the right reasons would be because you want to do something. You have a passion to do something. The wrong reason is for material success or fame. Those are superficial. If you do what you love, that's the most important thing.

CAVANAUGH: Well, something that struck me, Susan, in seeing the documentary "Following Dreams," is the woman who designed the special kind of outfit for dogs.

SCHUTZ: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Doggie Delights, I think was the name.

SCHUTZ: Yeah. Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: She went after that with her whole heart and soul. She sold her home.

SCHUTZ: That's right.

CAVANAUGH: And when you spoke with her, although she was still doing what she wanted to do, she'd lost all that money. It looked like perhaps this wasn't going to take off for her.

SCHUTZ: She was all set to quit. She lost her house. But she loved doing what – She loved making little dog clothes and so she just kept at it and that's what you have – you have to pursue your dreams no matter what. And, excuse me, now she says how much better can it get doing what I want to do when I want to do it? And she's actually very successful.

CAVANAUGH: Right, that's the postscript on the film, her business has basically doubled and tripled and she's really doing quite well now.

SCHUTZ: That's right, and she even has a little outfit in one of the movies out now.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Let's take another call. Janelle is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Janelle, and welcome to These Days.

JANELLE (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. Thank you guys for doing the movie and for doing this show. It is so timely for me to turn on the radio and hear people talk about being able to pursue their dreams and pursue their passions because the economy kind of pushed me into that spot, you know, only just recently.

CAVANAUGH: And how have you changed your life?

JANELLE: Well, I was recently laid off from a nonprofit executive position and the economy makes it very difficult to find a new position right now. And for months and months and months my friends have been saying, Janelle, you make wonderful jewelry. You should sell your jewelry, you know, you should pursue that. And I've never had the time but this recent turn of events kind of created that time for me to be able to just wake up in the morning, start making jewelry, look into setting up a website to sell it, and it's scary and freeing at the same time to be able to pursue something like that.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you so much, Janelle, for calling in and sharing your story with us. We appreciate it. You know, David, you must see people every day in Central Park who, well, society considers a lot more successful than you but who look miserable. What do you think about them?

IPPOLITO: I – You know, it's – it only comes in the one-person size, Maureen. I was just kind of laughing, the last caller said it's scary and exciting at the same time.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

IPPOLITO: That's why the rollercoaster is a ten-ticket ride.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

IPPOLITO: You know? The safe ones – the safe ones, you know, are three-tickets. The rollercoaster's a ten-ticket ride. It's – If – I always say to people, if you don't wake up – Some people might love banking. They're great in math. They love money. I don't know. But if you wake up in the morning and you're not really excited about what you do for a living, it's not a judgment thing, it's just – you're just doing the wrong thing. If you do what you love, and I – Listen, I'm – Again, I don't know why. I don't know why it works this way. I just know how it works. If you do what you love first, the money will come. If you do what you do, like Susan says, for the right reasons and you know it—there's a little voice inside you that just doesn't lie to you—and so you're doing the right thing, the money comes. The only difference between the first caller who's acting, you know, in extra roles or in community theatre and somebody who's acting on Broadway, truthfully, is the address.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

IPPOLITO: That’s the only difference.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, David, you know, you've gotten a lot of attention from the media, from this film, from local media in New York City which, of course, is very big media. Would things change if you became like a huge success? Would you want that in your life?

IPPOLITO: You know, that's the thing, is that I already am a huge success in my own eyes. But the – No, you know, nothing – You know, the only thing that would honestly change, which wouldn't be a bad thing, would be an absolutely nonjudgmental thing, would be the zeros after the one.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

IPPOLITO: You know, some people talk about hitting Lotto and they say, well, then I would, you know, travel the world, I would do nothing, I would quit my job. And if – At times when I'm selling a lot of CDs or I've got a national TV commercial running or something like that and the money is there, that's when I'd put my – rub my hands together and say now it's time to get to work.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

IPPOLITO: Because there are so many more things I want to do, so that's the only thing that would change. There are so many projects that I would love to do to let people know they're not alone, to touch somebody's heart, to make somebody think, maybe to make a political point with music. But there are so many things I'd love to do, that's the only thing would change if, financially, I was a tremendous success in the eyes of society but that's about it.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, Susan, what advice would you give to those who are inspired by your film to follow their dreams? Are there any words of caution that you would – would give to people?

SCHUTZ: Yeah, absolutely. First of all, like I wanted – they should make sure that they're pursuing their dream for the right reason, that's very important. Then, of course, do what you love, as I said before. You have to be willing to work very, very hard and do tasks that you may not want to do. There's drudgery in every field. You can't listen to naysayers and there'll be a lot of them. They'll tell you you're crazy. You just have to listen to yourself and make your own path.

CAVANAUGH: Now you, yourself, have changed your lifestyle. Is it as a result of this documentary?

SCHUTZ: No, no. In 1970 – My husband was a physicist and I was a freelance writer, and we made some posters of my poems and Steve's illustrations and we put them on consignment in a store and then they sold right out so we decided – We wanted to travel around the country, so we loaded up our pickup truck and we lived out of our pickup truck and sold the posters to greeting card stores and gift stores and bookstores all around the country and that led to Blue Mountain Arts, which we founded…

CAVANAUGH: Ah.

SCHUTZ: …at that point.

CAVANAUGH: So you were way ahead of the curve. Hey, I want – we want to go out on one of David's songs, so I want to thank you both, Susan Polis Schutz, the director and producer of the documentary "Following Dreams." And David Ippolito, guitarist from New York City. Thank you both so much for speaking with us today.

SCHUTZ: Thanks so much.

IPPOLITO: Thank you so much.

CAVANAUGH: "Following Dreams" airs on KPBS-TV tonight at 10:00 p.m. And we'd like to go out on one of David Ippolito's songs. It's called "Any Other Way," from his album "Wouldn't Want It Any Other Way."

(audio clip of "Any Other Way by David Ippolito)

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