May 6, 2015

“Yes, And…” Improv @ Second City Chicago

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.


February 25, 2014

Here’s Looking at You...From the Middle East

Photo: Douglas Wills

I was perusing through the hundreds of photos from our journey through the Middle East that took us from Egypt through Jordan to Syria and finally Turkey when I realized I needed to express and share how we felt during that epic journey.

I figured looking into the eyes of the beholder might best convey the feelings the Middle East evoked in us during the journey. 

So, I am hoping you will see the journey reflected in Lyra...

Photo: Douglas Wills

From day one, we were out of our element...and constantly being eyed.

Above, Lyra is in an restricted tomb under the Great Pyramids that is “off limits” to tourists...However, the guard eyed us and with a little backsheesh we were in. Not sure this wasn’t a scam, but what the hell...we were traveling off the beaten path.

Photo: Douglas Wills

Lyra, resting at the base of one of the Great Pyramids.

Photo: Douglas Wills

Lyra is a great subject, but she is an even better photographer...this must have been a great shot!

Photo: Douglas Wills

Often, people just watched us from afar. Were we friend or foe? Were we weak or strong? Did we have something to hide or take? Were we willing to risk opening up or were we afraid? Were we Americans or Europeans; Jews or Christians?

Back in Cairo, we never got used to being on display. In Seoul, we seldom felt like outsiders as we did in Egypt, even though the roots of our own culture come from the Middle East. You would think we would feel a little more at home.

I figure that the Middle East has had so many invaders throughout the ages, that everyone here must be descended from outsiders...

Photo: Douglas Wills

Later, we took some time to relax at the El Fishawy Café (shisha bar).

At the time, Cairo was a city that was on edge...Especially in the hot mid day sun during Ramadan...And I can not fathom being without food or water since previous night, covered from head to toe in a black berka, baking in the desert sun while haggling for life’s necessities in the local bazaar...

...Like clock work, squabbles broke out each day around 3:00 pm between cranky merchants and hungry housewives. I was cranky too in that heat! And I was well fed and watered.

Photo: Douglas Wills

Soon, we escaped the city heat and found ourselves in Wadi Rum, which was simply “spectacumous”! Wadi Rum gave rise to epic landscapes with warm blue skis that I struggle to find words to express.

Photo: Douglas Wills

Maybe Lyra can...

Photo: Douglas Wills

On our way through Jordan, we stayed in Petra. Carved out of sandstone, the ruins of Petra are astonishingly beautiful and more ancient than I imagined with the earliest inhabitants dating back to 7,000 BC.

Photo: Douglas Wills

After gliding through Jordan, crossing the Syrian border was a much bigger challenge than we expected. Even though we had all of our paper work and visas in order, it took over 4 hours of standing in lines to pass the first checkpoint. That’s because nefarious individuals kept cutting in line and paying off the clerk. I started to get a little irritated since there where only a few people front of us! We just waited and waited as the line never moved, but somehow others got instant service.  >:(

Then, once we got through the first check point, we had to drive to a second check point a few miles down the road. There, we were promptly stopped and sent back to the first check point because one of our party members had gotten the wrong date stamp from the first corrupt clerk! Argh!

But eventually, we straightened it out and we were on our way to Palmyra...

Photo: Douglas Wills

Palmyra is ancient Roman ruin trapped by the blowing sands of time. You can almost hear the voices of Roman Antiquity on the breezy desert winds as they whisper through the classical archways and timeless Corinthian columns of the ruined city.

Photo: Douglas Wills

Even though Palmyra is deserted, the related tourism supports a nearby community of local Syrian Arabs who sell tons of tasty dates to unsuspecting tourists who just can’t resist the sugary delights!

Photo: Douglas Wills

Yes! Dates are definitely the happy fruit and in a land so harsh and violent, anything so sweet is a welcomed comfort food.

Photo: Douglas Wills

After Palmyra, we were on to Damascus...quite a contrast to the ruins we had been touring along the journey. Damascus was ancient, but very much alive! Just like most of Syria...what a delight.

Built upon layers and layers of history...Greek, Roman, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Modern, Medieval, Ancient, Etc. all crammed together, Damascus was a melting pot of humanity...maybe more like a boiling cauldron...depending on your perspective.

Photo: Douglas Wills

A beautifully dangerous patchwork of people, culture and religion all competing for the city’s love and resources: Damascus.

Photo: Douglas Wills

Aleppo did not disappoint either. Like Damascus, Aleppo hid a beauty behind the walls of the city. Something we never expected could exist while looking at the crumbling walls of Aleppo’s exterior.

Photo: Douglas Wills

BTW...The above hammer scene with Lyra and the blacksmith created a huge traffic jam as men coming from all directions slammed on their brakes and pulled out their cell phones to record the risque, hot iron demo.

Photo: Douglas Wills

The people of Aleppo, just like the rest of Syria are truly an enigma of genius mixed with brute force that underscore the ability of humanity to thrive in the face of calamity. I wonder what would happen to its people if they ever got out of this environment...

Oh...BTW...Steve Jobs’ biological father is from Homs, Syria.

Photo: Douglas Wills

Like I said, we were constantly being eyed. Here, by Bashar Al Assad’s decal proxy on the back window of a pick-up truck.

If you like digging into enigmas, have a look at the Charlie Rose interview with Bashar Al Assad.  You definitely have to be cunning to survive in a land such as Syria.

Photo: Douglas Wills

If the tension in Syria is too much for you, the alternative is knocking back a few shots of Arak. Then everything will be just fine...

As we said our good-byes to Syria, we left the Arab culture behind and found ourselves being watched by a different set of eyes...the Turks.

Photo: Douglas Wills

Above: Jesus looked on from a previous era as he stands in the walls of the Hagia Sophia. Originally, a cathedral, Ottoman Muslims retrofitted this magnificent church into a mosque upon their invasion in 1453. It’s now a museum...

Photo: Douglas Wills

Being at the cross roads of civilization, Istanbul was even more layered with successive civilizations than Damascus, Aleppo or the other cities we journeyed through.

Above, the head of Medusa stairs coldly into the distance while holding up a marble column in the great Basilica Cistern below the streets of Istanbul. There are two Medusa heads in the Basilica Cistern that were once part of an ancient Roman temple...once a god to the Greeks and a slave to the Islamic streets above her.

Photo: Douglas Wills

But, it is those very layers of history, culture, religion and humanity packed together in a tangled mess that make Istanbul so wonderful. Just like the layers of history throughout the Middle East, the mess can never be untangled.

And why would you try? It is well proven that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

And if you have intentions of gaining the upper hand by feeding the hatred found between layers of cultures and civilizations...Well...that too my friend, will lead to darkness and despair while creating more enemies for you.

I would humbly suggest, that contrary to the popular opinion of killing our way to peace, embracing the tangled mess and reveling in its glory will give us the next fertile layers of civilization we can build on...

...And apparently, the clashing of cultures makes for really great food...Enjoy!...

February 5, 2014

Creativity Never Fades

Photo: Lyra Jakabházy 

Lyra and I recently had a chance to visit our good friends Jane Gittings Robert and François Robert in Tucson, Arizona. They are true rock stars of design who never lose their passion for finding, creating and sharing that which is beautiful and moving. It is quite a contrast to go from people who communicate through words to people who communicate through their visual creations.

Jane and François communicate through their work:

Image: François Robert
From his series Stop the Violence, the bones speak for François.

Image: François Robert cover of his book Faces with Jean Robert
François loves to find the illusion of faces in everyday and not so everyday objects. You may be familiar with his book Faces that he created with his talented brother, Jean.

Images: Jane Gittings Robert Book 7, Man of the Century from her koobcube project
Jane’s koobcube project is a backwards book and design adventure. Jane reads a cube of books from her library, one at a time. After she finishes each book, Jane redesigns the book jacket and posts the original and redesigned cover. Jane redesigns the cover to challenge herself, but I would say it’s a graphic designer's version of a book review...only better. Inspiring!

Jane and François are a dynamic duo who collaborate together on many creative endeavors from commercial photography to children's books...such as “Find a Face” that you can find on Amazon.

So...our travels with Jane and François took us from Sabino Canyon to “The Boneyard” to Mt. Lemmon Observatory. It was a non-stop roller coaster of compelling image hunting and gathering.

Photo: Sabino Canyon, Jane Gittings Robert
Hiking through Sabino Canyon was breathtaking, but stay away from the cholla plants!

 Photo: Lyra Jakabházy

The 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group of the US military, otherwise known as “The Boneyard”, was colossal!

Image: Google Earth 
These are just the a few of the aircraft...

Photo: Douglas Wills
...and François never misses a pretty face!

In addition to the thousands of dormant military aircraft inside “The Boneyard”, there was an extra visual treat...

Photo: Jane Gittings Robert
...The Boneyard Projects, conceived in 2010 by Eric Firestone and organized by curator Carlo McCormick, resurrects the forgotten airplanes from “The Boneyard” by turning them into three dimensional airplane canvasses...a compelling use of military assets.

But the fun didn't stop there...

Photo: Douglas Wills
As I was saying...our travels with Jane and François were an image hunting and gathering extravaganza...

Photo: Mt. Lemmon Observatory, Douglas Wills
One night, we ended up at the Mt. Lemmon Observatory. I got to see Jupiter with my own eyes and could actually see its gaseous surface and orbiting moons. Another first for me...quite cool!

Photo: Biosphere2, Lyra Jakabházy
Biosphere 2 was something else. However, the story behind it is too lengthy for this post. You can get that from Jane Poynter from her TED talk, who is also friends with Jane and François.

However, I think the real treat came at the end of our trip when we got to meet and chat with Irving Olson. He is a self-made man who created his fortune back in the day as a pioneer in electronics, despite describing himself as a simple “peddler”.

Photo: Lyra Jakabházy
You can look up Olson Electronics on your own, but suffice it to say Radio Shack and Best Buy copied Irving’s business model.

Image: 1968 Olson Electronics Catalog eBay
Irving will be the last person that I ever meet who was older than I am today when I was born. Get it? Irving just turned 100 years old! He actually retired before I was born. You do the math! You might guess he is in his 70’s if you met him, but that is not the point. Irving is not a man defined by his age, he is defined by his humanity, creativity and love for life.

Photo: Lyra Jakabházy
Since his retirement in the 1960’s, Irving has been traveling the world...150+ countries...and nurturing his creativity through his passion for photography. Of course, he and François hit it off immediately.

Photo: Lyra Jakabházy
François came bearing a few gifts, including his book Faces, which Irving loved and prompted him to show off his own latest guilty pleasure. Recently, Irving has been taking photos of people eating or rather “stuffing their faces.”...maybe a creative reaction to the increase in American obesity as seen through the lens of his camera.

I believe creativity and humor are linked. Irving’s innate sense of humor was boundless as he told all sorts of jokes and bantered with François. In my opinion, his playful nature fueled his creativity. When you play, you are not afraid to make mistakes. Irving did not seem to be afraid of making mistakes. 

Photo: Lyra Jakabházy
His “face stuffing” photos are both humorous and tell it like it is...but I’ll leave it to Irving to publish those later.

However, even more stunning are his water droplet images...

Photo: Irving Olson
In his kitchen, Irving has engineered a unique technique of photographing colored water droplets. Through hours and hours of trial and error, Irving comes up with stunning results.

Photo: Irving Olson
Irving never finished college, but he never finished learning either.

Photo: Irving Olson
He does lament that the people in his retirement community do not share most of his interests or passions. According to Irving, most do nothing at all and just fade away into a “cocktail of medications” that are too liberally prescribed to them.While not practical for everyone, Irving is medication free.

Photo: Lyra Jakabházy
Irving is definitely a man of action with many admirable qualities. His photography is just the tip of the iceberg.

Photo: Irving Olson

Photo: Irving Olson

Like many self-made people, Irving feels education numbs perfectly good people. He had enough of formal education after a couple semesters at the University of Akron, but he never had enough of learning. 

Another self-made creative comes to mind, Frank Lloyd Wright, who also ended up in Arizona, felt the same and was quoted: “Harvard takes perfectly good plums as students, and turns them into prunes.”

Irving is definitely not a prune.

FYI...The University of Akron awarded Irving an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters upon his 100th birthday...I believe a formal apology would have been better.

Photo: Lyra Jakabházy
So, hats off to Jane and François who are always finding compelling aesthetics and creative people. Because of their mission in life, we were able to meet such an extraordinary person and share in his love of life and revel with him in the beauty that surrounds us all.

Thank you, Jane and François. We left truly inspired.