May 6, 2015

“Yes, And…”

Photo by Douglas Wills

For the past year, Lyra and I have been happily struggling through improv classes at the renowned Second City Improv Training Center in Chicago. It has been great fun. The camaraderie within my ensemble is priceless.

The first thing we were taught was to say “Yes, and…” to everything your scene partner proposes and figure it out afterward. You treat everything your scene partner says or does as a gift that you build upon.

For example, you may initiate a scene by saying, “Honey, I really think we should take that trip to Fiji.” Your scene partner should agree and build on that... For example, “Yes! And I feel it would be great for our relationship if we took midnight strolls along the moonlit Fiji beach and listened to the waves crash into the shore.” They you might say, “Yes! And we can build a bonfire...and drink wine until the sun comes up! Let’s put our scuba gear on and practice right now!” End scene...

Photo by Lyra Jakabhazy

Then other members of your ensemble can jump in and create a new scene, building on the Fiji idea, where maybe the couple is on the beach and a pirate named Jack Sparrow crashes the party! ...and things start to get crazy! …you can fill in the blanks. The objective is that everyone in the ensemble builds on the gifts that each member brings to a scene.

If you respond to your scene partner by saying, “Yea, but…” or “No, we can’t afford to travel…” nothing is added to the scene and often, it throws your novice scene partner into a panic…it might be funny to watch a novice improviser panic on stage, but it usually makes the audience to feel uncomfortable.

Check out the Liam Neeson improv sketch with Ricky Gervais on how NOT to do improvisational comedy!

Photo by Joshay Ferguson

Second City proclaims that the foundation of improv is the ensemble. The ensemble is there to back up the scene’s partners. When the scene is ready to be refreshed, or has run its course, or is slowing, the ensemble is there to relieve the current improvisers and keep the energy flowing.

Most importantly, all the members in the ensemble are there to build on whatever is created by saying, “Yes, and…” to each other.  The sense that they actually have your back is comforting and encourages all ensemble members to take greater risks when initiating scenes.

It is widely known that creativity thrives best within boundaries. In improv, the boundaries are set by a “Get” from the audience. The “Get” given by the audience could be a “place that people often gather” such as a wedding or “a period in time” such as the Victorian Age or “clique in high school” such as the Mean Girls or “a never before seen musical” such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer Opera…the imaginary back story behind the scene.

And always remember, creativity also thrives on permission…that is, permission to push THE boundaries set by the audience. Ultimately, by saying “Yes, and…”, you are giving your scene partner(s), and yourself, permission to create something new and playful that pushes the boundaries of normalcy.

Finally, as novices, we are told, “don’t try to be funny!” If you try to be funny, it usually means that you are thinking ahead and are not FULLY PRESENT in the NOW. You should be FOCUSING on and reacting to your partner…not premeditating what you are going to say or do. Trying to be funny in improv does not work well because it often comes off as rehearsed or cliché.

Of course, improv should be funny or people would stop coming to the shows! But humor flows better when it is organic, arising from the human relationships that the improvisers recreate on stage.

Photo by Lyra Jakabhazy
So, will I ever make it to the “Main Stage” at The Second City? I highly doubt it...there is way too much competition to be the next Bill Murray or Tina Fey...But I can easily apply the lessons I learned from improvising to many aspects of my personal and professional life. Now, more than ever, I actively look for friendships as well as professional engagements that say: “Yes and…” to me, build on my contributions and give me the permission to innovate.

I am especially thankful to Lyra, my ensemble members Brian, Hanna, Josip, Kelly, Kimber, Mac, Randy, Richard, Stass, The Second City teachers Tim Sozsko, Janna Sobel, Mark Czoske, Jay Steigmann, Jay Sukow and Ryan Bernier who all have been “Yes, And”-ing me the past year.

Edited by Marina Kiskovich

December 8, 2014

Innovating Disaster Relief: Sharon Fe Pfleider

Photo: Mirs Napoles Carel
I am always inspired by the humanity I find in people...especially, their selflessness for others who are in great need. This archetypal role model was ingrained in me by my parents at an early age. My mother and father were always helping others and giving of themselves...either through their nursing service...United Nursing Inc, organizing charity, cultural or church events...or bringing home a stray person for dinner who needed a helping hand.

I was taught to admire charity in others and have always seen it as a strength, not a weakness.

Professionally, I have tried to emulate this by taking on positions that somehow help others. Either by empowering the people or teams I am working with or somehow satisfying the needs of the customers they serve. If I ever stray from this, I inevitably run into a dissonance, which affects the passion I have for my work.

These days, I am involved with a start up called BigHuman, whose mission it is to tackle the real and difficult challenges of disaster relief and preparedness. Being part of this effort, I often ask myself, “How can I really make a difference in such a monumental challenge? How can I contribute?”

At this point, stories are what I have to offer...stories that I hope can inspire others to act.

The recent typhoon Hagupit in the Philippines reminded me of a friend of mine whose acts of selflessness and community giving must be shared. I believe her story can shed light on how we might approach natural disasters in the years to come...please share this post where appropriate.

So, let me tell you about a remarkable woman...someone with limited resources, no NGO support, no experience or connections with the philanthropic world. None the less, she made a difference...a big difference in the lives of many people in need. I hope her story will be a valuable contribution to a broader discussion on how the world prepares for the future natural disasters.

Meet Sharon Fe Pfleider, pictured above in the opening photo of this blog post. Sharon lives in Makati City, a thriving business and residential sector in Manila, Philippines.

Tragically, in November 2013, Sharon’s home village of Leyte was struck by the devastating forces of Typhoon Yolanda...where many of her family members still lived. Leyte is a small village on the Eastern Visayan island of Leyte of the same name.

Leyte was a beautiful village full of beautiful people. Everyone there loves and takes pride in their children, just as we all do.

Photo: Douglas Wills, Leyte Elementary School (before Yolanda)
Above, is the Leyte Elementary School to share what I hope is a glimpse of how beautiful and idyllic Leyte was.

I hope for people to see that Leyte and, by extension, the Philippines, is filled with loving intelligent people just like you and me. Nothing more and nothing less.

Photo: Douglas Wills, Leyte (before Yolanda)
Above, a Leyte street on a typically gorgeous day...the kids are on their way home after school.

Photo: Alex Ariza Dagandan

On November 7, 2013, Yolanda dropped a massive hammer on the beautiful life in Leyte...along with many others on the Eastern Visayan island of Leyte...over 10,000 people were killed...forever scarring the surviving children of this beautifully dangerously land.

Photo: Alex Ariza Dagandan
Above, the community Church of Leyte. You can view this beautiful church before Yolanda, here.

Photo: Sharon Pfleider

Above, what was left of Sharon’s sister Donna’s family home. I have no words...  :(

Photo: Sharon Pfleider

Above, the remnants of Sharon’s father’s home. How do you pick up the pieces of your life from this?

The aftermath of devastation in Tacloban, the largest city neighboring Leyte, was on a much larger scale, but keep in mind that there were many villages like Leyte scattered throughout the island that were hit just as hard. (see the Tindog Tacloban video below)

Courageously, Sharon made it her mission to respond…and employ the limited resources and capabilities within her grasp: her social network, her drive and her leadership skills. What she did was simply brilliant. Rather than wait for the usual NGO’s to come to the aid of her small village, Sharon reached out to the global diaspora of Leyte and others within her social network...

Sharon did not just solicit money for the purpose of forwarding it to an NGO...she instead decided to garner donations to procure and distribute the relief on her own....bypassing the traditional aid organizations and expediting the overall response effort.

Innovation at its finest...when people focus on how they can help others.

First, Sharon set up a Facebook Page, called Leyte-Leyte Tulong Operation (it is still need to be logged into Facebook to view it) and transparently laid out her plan for relief. Sharon did her best describing what was needed and how she would execute the relief plan. She then crowdsourced donations, leveraging PayPal and other payment services since donations would be pouring in from around the globe. Remember, Sharon is a Filipina with limited resources and no capital of her own...but she is very savvy and passionate.

Because Sharon reached out to her own social network...the donors where already familiar with donating was a more personal act than sending money to the Red Cross. Donors knew exactly how, when, and to whom their contributions would be deployed.

Each step of the way, Sharon transparently published the donors names and their donations on the Facebook page...along with her warm appreciation on behalf of the victims.

Photo: Sharon Pfleider
Sharon posted events, in my humble opinion, with professional grade photo journalism and candid commentary. Doing so, not only kept everyone informed, but it increased her credibility and trust within the "pop-up" relief community.

Photo: Sharon Pfleider

Needless to say, the supporters for Leyte-Leyte Tulong Operation grew and grew until there was an army.

Photo: Sharon Pfleider 

As soon as Sharon had enough donations, she procured the needed food, water and supplies. She even documented the staging process of the relief effort as she prepared for the distribution of supplies.

Sharon and others in the community also posted local news and the current progress of the relief efforts.

Photo: Sharon Pfleider
At every phase, the Leyte-Leyte Tulong Operation community could follow the progress and maintain communication with Sharon and others in the community.

Photo: Sharon Pfleider 
Then Sharon took the show on the road. Again, she documented in real time, the relief distribution through photo-journalistic entries on the Facebook page. We could all travel with her as she traversed to Leyte and help those in need.

Not only did Sharon continue to post relevant news and information, but the community was also able to express their emotion...

Remember, this is a human relief effort. The houses and structures were not what needed help, it was the people and their families that needed comfort.

Photo: Mirs Napoles Carel

Photo: Mirs Napoles Carel

Photo: Mirs Napoles Carel

Photo: Mirs Napoles Carel xxxxx

Photo: Mirs Napoles Carel
Here, Sharon is passing out food and supplies...she is the one on the back of the truck with the blue bag.

We should all learn from Sharon...that no matter who we think we little we think we have...or insignificant we think our position is...we can make a difference. We just have to give ourselves permission and leverage our God given talents and the tools we have at our disposal.

Photo: Elvira Mateo Pfleider, Sharon with her father

I believe empowering passionate and intelligent people to act by giving them the tools to develop compelling solutions is the key to unlocking the creativity and wisdom of the crowd. This is what future innovation efforts will be focused on, whether it is for disaster preparedness or any other human need...the solutions and people who can best solve our problems are in our midst...they are just not evenly distributed...society’s aim should be to connect to and empower them.

Well done, Sharon!

A note from Sharon
“Its only by God’s grace that I am able to do all those things. So, to God be the glory. I am not worthy of such accolade. It is through Him, and only in Him that I have this heart to help others.  Nonetheless, thank you very much.” — Sharon Fe Pfleider

An interesting side note

The White House recently held an “Innovation Demo” for Disaster Response on August 14, 2014. I hope they included lots of people who have endured a disaster and its aftermath. It’s too bad they did not invite Sharon...she would have been a show stopper...and added invaluable insights to the conversation...

Photo: DHS Science and Technology
The above photo is a brainstorming session aimed at how and where technology can improve disaster response and recovery. You can download the talking points and fact sheet from the White House workshop recap here.


September 21, 2014

Go Austin! Go!

I have always struggled to give my kids the best opportunities in life. Often, I am severely constrained by time, money and location. As a result, I will take big risks to put them in learning situations beyond all of our comfort zones...I can not afford high end private schools. I am sure they will need therapy in their adult life to compensate for some of my risk taking with their learning.

But...there has rarely been a dull moment. Especially, for Austin and baseball.

In 2007...due to career repositioning...I found myself in Seoul, Korea. I told myself I would only be staying 4 months...but deep inside I saw this as a huge opportunity.

Because I am deeply passionate about my family as well as my career, I dragged them all to also take part in the opportunity. To advance their education, I found art schools for my daughters and a high level baseball team for Adam and Austin...the Dongbu Eagles. It was actually a feeder team that puts boys on track to the Korean professional leagues and beyond.

This was not going to be easy...for any of us.

The Dongbu Eagles and their coach were a hard driving baseball club. They practiced 7 days a week from morning until sundown. This amount of practice and intensity gave the boys a solid foundation in the fundamentals of baseball...but at great sacrifice. 

BTW: at least one of Dongbu alumni made it to the American MLB...Jae Kuk Ryu...and actually played for a brief time with the Chicago Cubs...

In 2008, the Dongbu Eagles were ranked 4 in the nation (Korea). So, Austin had some serious competition to adjust to...if he was going to play. At first, the coach was quite skeptical and felt that both boys would sit the bench. However, Austin rose to the occasion and won a spot in the starting line up. Awesome! Unfortunately, at least one Korean player was not happy about this. There were grumblings on the team. It was quite difficult for Austin...on many levels.

Eventually, Austin won over the hearts and minds of his team he always does.

The pressure was immense for a kid that age. Austin soon found him self attracting attention. Being one of only 2 Americans (Adam was the other American) in all of Korea to ever play little league baseball, Austin was often in the spot light. This climaxed during an ESPN broadcast of the national championships in 2008.

To my relief, Austin composed himself gracefully...even though Dongbu got killed and he struck out.

The coach even let him pitch a few innings during the championship game. I would have peed my pants! Overall, I believe Dongbu ended up 4th in the nation that year.

Each year the team traveled to the south of Korea for a tournament in Pohang. Often, we found ourselves in some picturesque settings. In the background of the school yard (above) is the sacred Seoroksan National Park mountain range.

In 2009 Austin continued to be a crowd pleaser. That year, Austin is received the most improved player award.

We were all proud of him...especially his younger brother Adam who has always looked up to Austin. These were very formative years for both boys.

Coach Jung Kyung-ha is a very dedicated man of baseball. He has been coaching Dongbu since 1984 and has been totally focused on the team and the boys ever since. I do not believe he has a family other than the team. He is a baseball monk in my opinion. And I mean that in the best sense.

Though I did not know it at the time, he was the only coach in the Korean little league association to extend an offer for Adam and Austin to play. We will always be grateful for this.

However, Korea was not the end of Austin’s baseball story. Soon he was back in the US playing for his high school team, the Portage Central Mustangs...honing the skills that he acquired in Korea.

Austin did great!

In Portage, Austin was a great all around player...from the outfield, to the infield and to the mound...but as I am often fond of doing, I did not let him stay in the comfort zone of a suburban high school baseball team for long...

So, in Chicago, I dragged him to Morgan Park High School to try out for the Cubs RBI team program. Once again, Austin was out of his comfort zone..and up against some serious well as kids from a completely different culture.
Austin made it through the awkwardness of the tryouts on that hot summer day and made the Cubs RBI 16 year old travel team.

During the week, Austin played in Hyde Park with his RBI training team.

During the weekends, we traveled all over the state of Illinois as Austin played on the Cubs RBI travel team coached. The team was coached by a tough Chicago Police officer, Dave Diaz. He was also the coach for Roberto Clemente High School baseball team at the of the best baseball teams in Chicagoland.

Austin was a solid player and a starter for the Cubs RBI, but for some reason did not get to travel down to St. Louis for the championship game. Just as well, we were all traveled out by that weekend. One thing in the US...traveling for baseball is brutal. Expensive and your weekends are owned by the tournaments...same as Korea.

BTW...The Cubs RBI program is headed by Ernest Radcliffe, who happens to the (great?) grandson of one of the greatest baseball players of all time: Double Duty Radcliffe. Coach Radcliffe an ex-ball-player himself is a great motivator and positive force to a lot troubled kids in the south side of Chicago.

After this experience, Austin was soon he was back in Portage on his high school team, the Mustangs.

Austin is now developing physical strength that is enabling his hitting and running game to prosper.

His on base average usually lands him a top spot in the line up...on any team.

The Mustangs also like him to pitch from time to time, though he feels he will be an outfielder in college.

One of Austin’s Portage Central High School coaches got him hooked up with an awesome team in Chicago, the Norwood Blues. They are a high level club that is a stepping stone to the collegiate leagues and above.

The Blues are a step up in competition where Austin would find himself playing with kids as old as college freshman...once again...out of his comfort zone.

Coached by Richard Pildes of Taft High School in Chicago...who I can confidently say that he is one of the best high school coaches in the US...the Norwood Blues are a class act. And Pildes has one thing in mind...winning. However, he is more of a transformational coach than a transactional coach. He helps boys find their strengths and ways they can contribute to the team. By understanding your core competencies, you are better able to make a difference to your team when it is needed.

Coach Pildes has recruited a group of talented kids that are serious about the game of baseball. They will undoubtedly benefit from his teachings where ever they end up in life...the MLB or not.

It is not surprising that Coach Pildes has a disproportionate amount of Blues and Taft alumni at the college level and in the MLB. But I bet this is the first time he has coached someone like Austin... ;)

While not the most outstanding my humble opinion, Austin is the most outstanding person on the team.

All in has offered great experiences for Austin on his journey of self discovery...and we are are all proud of his accomplishments.

However...Austin’s interests go beyond his baseball endeavors. He spent the latter part of the 2014 summer at the Second City Improve Camp for Teens. Here he seemed to enjoy the stage...his comedy, not surprisingly, is more physical at this phase. And...this fall...Austin won a lead in the Portage Central comedy play, Midusmmer Jersey where he’ll be playing Lyle.

He is still playing baseball on a fall team in Portage...I am sure the Blues miss him...we all do.

Go Austin! Go!

May 26, 2014

“Remember Me to All...” A Memorial Day Tribute to Peter Maxwell

Peter Maxwell
Peter Maxwell, Company F, 20th Michigan
My great-great grandfather, Peter Maxwell, enlisted into Company F of the 20th Michigan Infantry in the Union Army during the Civil War. He was one of the oldest enlisted men at age 34. The majority of Company F were just boys in their late teens and early 20’s...most of them died. Peter survived, but with a crippled hand.

The reason I know of Peter’s story is due, in part, to my grandmother, Eulah Maxwell Wills who told me stories of Peter’s tribulations. She actually knew her grandfather, Peter, since she was in her early teens while Peter was still alive. Often, Eulah would recount to me how she had caressed his crippled hand and recited the story of how his company had been reviewed by President Lincoln and described the grand horse Lincoln rode that day. She also told me the terrible story of how all his children had perished from sickness while he was away at war. Fortunately for me, Peter started over after the end of the war. Peter’s life always intrigued me as a boy. However, his sacrifices were not apparent to me until I was much older. I still can not imagine what his family endured while he was gone.

I can only admire Peter’s dedication to God, country and family. After reading many of his Civil War letters, it is clear to me he lived life with purpose. So, as a tribute to Peter on this Memorial Day, I am sharing one of his letters to his wife Elizabeth from May 16th, 1864. Please scroll to the end of this post to see my transcription of the letter. I have created footnotes for the words I felt needed further explanation...

In closing his letter, Peter asks his wife to “...remember me to all...”

We do remember you, Peter.

Elizabeth & Peter Maxwell (circa 1912)
The beautiful USA envelope...

Letter No 15 
Spotssylvania Vir.
May 16th - 1864

Dear Elizabeth,
I thought I would write a few lines to day although I do not know as there will be a chance to send it yesterday there was a chance to send letters to Fredericksburg by the Ambulance train that was carrying the wounded there. We have had two severe battles since we have been in Virginia one at Mine run or the Wilderness as some call it and the other about one mile from here which is not finished yet. 

Our regiment as well as all the others engaged have lost heavily, before this reaches you, you will see the Official report perhaps of the killed and wounded of our army, but I will state as near as we know the killed and wounded of our Co. I feel bad to write that so many of our brave boys have fallen Sergeant Townsend, Corporal Oldenhage, M. Gowen, Andrew Smith (of Grass Lake), Geogre Cefle, was killed, H Gardener, James Cooper, Couch Dorr, Irwin Fields, Lewis Brower, Cornelius Hudler, Jacob Layers, Charles McDole, William Notton, Nelson Burkhardt, was wounded, Fred, Frimuth, and John Notton, is among the missing & Hudler, had his limb amputated yesterday just below the knee he is quite cheerfull and bore it well he is not far from here in the Hospital but I have had time to go and see him yet. 

We have boil Beef every night and make Coffee twice a day and carry it to the Co. which is over a mile from here and it makes pretty hard work for us, but we feel as though we were favored, that it so happened that we were not in the ranks when Our men was so badly cut down. The reason of Our reg't being so badly cut up with principally caused by the 14th NY which was on our left and they fell back before they fired a half dozen of their guns and let the rebs in Our rear which gave them a cross fire on our boys. Our regiment was called on the best in the Corps but the Officers now are nearly all killed. 

I have had the Ague(1) several times since we left the junction where I wrote you last, but I feel thankfull that my life spared when so many have fallen. Although we have lost so many men we feel confident of success the rebels have lost heavily as well as us. We have captured several thousand prisoners and a good many pieces of Artillery some the the horses hitched on. It is thought the rebels have nearly all their force here and we have a large Army here too, the 2nd, 5th, 6th, 9th, and 8th Corps are here. 

Dear wife, you must be verry lonesome without our little boy(2) but let us look to Him who has promised to comfort those that mourne. I still crave an interest in your prayers, pray too that the Lord may save our beloved country, for vain is the help of man(3). I must close hoping that I may have a chance to send this. It is just a year ago to-day since I started on a furlough home I do hope the time will soon come when we can go home to stay. We have got no mail since we left the junction, but as soon as this fight is over I think we will get some. 

Write as often as you can for I am anxious to hear from you, remember me to all from your husband,
Peter Maxwell

  1. A fever (as malaria) that is marked by paroxysms of chills, fever, and sweating that recur at regular intervals.
  2. Peter’s young son Frankie had just died. His daughter Francis died earlier during the War. 
  3. Peter is quoting the bible: “[Give us help from trouble:] for vain is the help of man.” Psalm 108:12 (King James Bible). If you really want to dig into the importance of this reference during the Civil War, see Rt. Rev. Stephen Elliot’s “Vain Is the Help of Man” sermon. It was preached in Christ Church, Savannah, Georgia on Thursday, September 15, 1864. “We cry unto man and no help comes; we labor and fight and there is no fruit of our labor, and no permanent success to our arms. We have nothing left but to follow the example of the Psalmist and crying unto God to ‘give us help from trouble,’ to acknowledge that ‘vain is the help of man.’”