1 January - Final Reflection

It is difficult to believe it has been 365 days since my first endeavor – the Polar Bear Plunge. Jumping into Lake Michigan on a crisp and overcast 10 degree morning was not something I was necessarily interested in doing. And it was only January 1st. But this attitude would be the antithesis of my goal this past year: experiencing new things with the hopes of learning and expanding my knowledge base. How could I judge an experience or reasons why people do “silly” things if I myself have not participated? Attitude adjustment.

So one year later, I did the jump again. This time, I was inspired by friends who wanted to do it for their first time. (We started with 10, and yielded four. And I completely understand why - another Noon plunge in 13 degree weather.) Now that it is one year later, do I feel any different? Have I accomplished what I set out to do? The answer is yes and yes.

This journey has brought me much understanding, compassion, stress, gratification, pushed my creativity and helped build upon my courage.

Best of all, I gained some incredible friendships. This is pure reward, as nothing in life lasts but the relationships we have built and the impact we leave behind. I listened to the stories of a felon, a homeless family, to Broadway leads. I met reality show producers, plated with Top Chef winners and collaborated with award-winning musicians. From energy healers to photographers and designers. To servicemen and women to the elderly who have no visitors. I’ve mourned with some, listened to others’ struggles with raising children with special needs. All intertwined was the story of empowerment. Everyone finds ways to get by and overcome.

What have I learned?

It's never too late - for anything...to start something completely new, to say sorry, to evolve into a different form of self, to pursue a small or herculean feat. The only obstacle is you.

Listen. I enjoy conversation because of its engaging and collaborative nature that can span all emotions in one sitting. It’s the building of an idea. Conversation sometimes helps us hear and strengthen our own convictions. Chatter is quite another thing. Those who pontificate for the sake of hearing themselves talk expand not their knowledge, but only their ego. So listen. And we will learn more.

I relearned a lesson: don’t judge -- people or experiences. It not only invites judgment upon oneself, but how arrogant to think one can assume what another is going through. There are so many variables that define a person at a specific moment in time or certain stage in one’s life. It’s not about you, so let them go through it. And if we prejudge a situation, we stunt our own growth.

Don’t give up on convictions or ideas. Others’ approval does not matter. It may be a wrong time or formula for them. Their own 15 minutes may be up tomorrow. No one is more qualified than ourselves if our gut tells us so. Keep on going. Positive begets positive. We never know what is around the corner.

Inspire. This was my greatest joy. I am grateful for emails, phone calls and incredible deep and personal conversations where one was inspired to overcome a fear, to try something new or who saw life in a different way… one entry inspired someone pay for a stranger's dinner; another to leave work early to spend time with his family; to become a producer for a show; to write a book; to try something as crazy as pole dancing; and visit with a homeless man. To help someone realize a goal and succeed is an honor.

Declutter. Life’s short but very wide, so clean life of what bogs us down. This includes people.
Most of all, Enjoy. Mom always said, "This is life. But it's only life." This is to say, take what life throws your way, AND don't take life too seriously. So enjoy every moment of what we set out to do, and what comes our way.

Lastly, Appreciate. We already have all we need. It's in us. Sure, expand our circle, but keep sacred who and what we love, and who and what loves us. These people remind us where we came from and believe in where we are headed. They keep us grounded, humbled to build and give the hope to continue.

Life is continuing education. The experiences – blissful and hurtful, meaningful and useless – are the tests. How we fare on the outset are our grades. The beauty is, we always have a choice to do better. We cannot erase the previous results, but we use that to mold us. And do better.

My friend David reminds me tomorrow is just another day. "January 1st does NOT own the rights for reinvention announcements." This calms me, as many ask, "So what will you do now that 2009 is over?" My answer is I will continue.

The goal will be to continue to learn but through other people...could be an interview, could be a collaborative project and no weekly deadline. Thus, the same path, but evolved... Just like how we are as humans. We may have a core that is set, the road may be defined, but we evolve into who we are to become from different experiences. And still have the power to change. Please join me in my new blog, TheRoadEvolves.blogspot.com. I will write early February, when I return from a surgical mission trip to the Philippines.

Write me, as I would like to write about YOU.

Find your outlet. Pour and build.

Ichigo Ichie.

28 December - Video Blog thru Learning Final Cut Pro, Professional Video Editing Software

My favorite part of my journalism classes in college was broadcast photojournalism – taking the shots and editing them into a story. In shooting b-roll footage, I could visualize how I would build the story come edit time. Sitting at the edit bays, selecting footage and transitions, writing the intro and out, then filling in the interview bytes…. The finished product, something tangible of a story, was my greatest joy.

I was excited to resurrect the art of building a story visually through a video blog and learning Final Cut Pro, a professional high-end video editing software. The same dreamy ease of putting a story together would come back like riding a bike (which does not come easy for me, btw.) What was I thinking? I ask. Truly, what was I thinking? Learning iMovie on the Mac was doable within in an hour. This…not so much. So completely over my head.

My dear friends, husband and wife Mel and Joel helped me with this goal. I’m sorry, saved me. Mel, my joyful gem of a woman, friend since I was a teenager. Mel is an resident artist at RedLine in Milwaukee, jeweler and heads an environmental grassroots organization, “Healthy Communities Projects.” She spent the day filming the Hunger Task Force food drive at La Merenda (see July 27 entry) so I would have workable footage. I followed Executive Chef Peter Sandroni for the day. What a patient sweetheart.

Joel creates extraordinary photo montages and wedding documentaries that are incredibly moving. There is no wonder why people in Europe recommend his services; why he leads seminars on software and technique; why Hollywood celebrities have sought him out; and why I sobbed uncontrollably watching a random bridal couple’s video. True talent. And heart. I don’t know where this couple came from, as in love as the first day and as kind and unjaded as children.

I didn’t realize how difficult it is to start with a clean canvas. Mine was too clean. I didn’t even know where to begin. It took me weeks of camping out at their home to even pare the footage down from a 12-hour day into 20 minutes. Then building a story. There was so much to include, not cut. I had to constantly remind myself to stick to the bare bones objective - the schedule of the day, not Peter's plethora of "can't do without" utensils, not how he got into the business, not how Peter met and proposed to his wife.

I’ve always respected Joel, but to work side-by-side and understand how he thinks, his process and the elements he considers, jumping into a project he was not involved in shooting...he is a master. And to think he does Same-Day Films for brides to show at their reception. WHAT?! Watching him quick key and maneuver audio, trim the clips, organize and re-organize footage, using title cards to break up long footage...all in a mere 15 minutes. He showed me little techniques to keep the story moving visually and audibly when shots or bytes are unavailable. Subtle audio and visual cues for the viewer and miniscule details that could ruin the viewing moment. I gladly handed this over to him to work his mojo. In between the 30 other video projects he had to complete.

Here is the summation of the day, but understand there were so many shots on the “edit floor” that could have captured the backstory or details. I wanted them all in...Peter's sense of humor, respect and camaraderie with his staff; his background at the famous "Lettuce Entertain You", "KDK" restaurant groups and Rambutan, a Filipino restaurant; his integrity and how he supports so many local farms, but does not promote this to avoid sounding elitist or self-promoting. I will create another video stream of outtakes to add to this post.

"Our Craving, Their Hunger” started as a simple task of learning about an executive chef's day at my favorite tapas restaurant. Then Peter suggested I come up with a menu of Filipino signature dishes, since food is a meaningful part of the culture. From there, we added the food drive for Hunger Task Force.

It feels good to push a bit, hit a roadblock, research and figure a way around by learning more. It also felt great for my husband and me to look back five months ago, at an event filled with our friends from all walks of life...under one roof. Very blessed. Very grateful.

For more information on Joel, please visit www.weddingfilms.com.
For more information on Mel, please visit www.healthycommunitiesproject.org.
For amazing global tapas, please see Peter at www.lamerenda125.com.

14 December - Good Cheer & Ice Skating at Millennium Park

Evening setting in, a bottle of a lovely red varietal, the anticipation, biting fresh cool air that wakes me up when I open the door. Tells me my friend Holly from Madison is back for our annual visit. She and her husband Dan arrive at 9 in the evening greeted by the hors d’oeuvres de l’annee, which this year included gyoza and homemade dipping sauce, hummus and olive tapenade. Late night talks with such cherished friends provide a piece of home that centers me.

The awaited weekend includes a train ride into the Windy City. We pick up our hot toddy and walk up Michigan Avenue with the goal of doing a bit of shopping, but moreso, to soak in the vibe of good cheer and holiday spirit. There is always a stop at the Nordstrom building and Water Tower Place with quite a few pauses along the way.

But first, I of course was running late to even catch the 11:10 train. How did that happen? Was it our Facebooking or Googling random Tubes while still in my comfies at 10:50? Perhaps. I therefore left the house in my sweater, jeans, cabby hat; grabbed the black vest and riding boots. No coat. No scarf. Yes gloves. And sure enough, we pull into the parking lot at 11:10 with the horn sounding its arrival. Ahhh...yes, just in time.

The train ride propelled us towards the holiday spirit. A child was playing Duran Duran and Bon Jovi on his iPhone, not necessarily Christmas carols, but certainly merry. I so wanted to stay in conversation but the curtains of black slowly closed their shades. Too much cocktail and talk the eve before. I awoke to the slowing of the train into Union Station. The reality of what I wore, or lack thereof, bit me as the doors opened. Since this was a dedicated day by the lake, I had to mentally prepare and tell myself to endure, as we were walking out of Union Station. And ... what is that? Mist? Or sleet? The chards of mid-ice flakes pelted gently across my face. No complaints, though. Mind over matter cuz it’s all a state of mind. And since everything is a choice, then in my mind, I was on a beach in Boracay.

We started at the old Marshall Field’s Building to look at the narrative holiday window scenes and extravagant clinquant Christmas decorations. The Salvation Army bellringers all brought their own source of music, from a trumpet player in full uniform at one corner, to two Dutch women with tambourines on the next. From a rapper singing and dancing the next whimsical thought that comes to mind, to a kicking clarinetist who I'm sure could "play so outside that he's inside," as my husband would say. West High High School Choir was singing classical music and carols to passersby; the usual random but expected drum quartet jammed on their upside down garbage cans. Grandmas looking in the ginormous decorative windows with their grandchildren. Loving the vibe of this warm-hearted city. People were in good moods. Osmosis effect.

To change it up this year, dear friend BeeBee suggested we go ice skating at Millennium Park. “Our little salute to Rockefeller Plaza.” Grand idea. What better way to capture that warmth of a holiday scene like in "Elf"? As we approached the Bean, it was a happy site to see strangers gathered with the hope of skating with one another. Onlookers and antsy skaters waited for the Zamboni to finish refreshing the ice. How fun! Until we arrived at the rink and saw the sign “60 Minute Wait for Skate Rental.” Perfect. Just enough time to freeze right before I step onto the foreign ice that plans to conveyor belt under my feet once I make contact. We watched for a while, observing people laughing and taking photos with skating Santa. But I think I decided the sight was enough for me. I was cold. Matter over mind was starting to set in. No blog material. And no matter.

On to Nordstrom's! We forged ahead to our usual stops and found the good cheer warmed me up yet again. We ended the trek with exquisite comfort food. What provides more holiday spirit than a wonderful Mexican fiesta and some tequila cocktails? Feliz Navidad, I say.

The next morning, I could hear Holly outside my room, "So you want to head back down and go ice skating?" Huh. Let me put my eyes in and a cup of coffee in me, then revisit the question. I was thinking the same exact thing. The deflated balloon from our anti-climactic skating expedition was beginning to inflate. Why not? Just a matter of making it happen.

We headed back to the city for another attempt at fun on the ice and a swig of good cheer. Everything flowed with ease - the drive, the parking, the friendly attitudes were still there to welcome us. Grabbed some hot cocoa and some nice chat with strangers to pass the time. Spent some time with the workers who recognized us from yesterday. I will say their system of crowd control and monitoring the number of people allowed in the rental area and restrooms kept it quite enjoyable for everyone. Right before we got on the ice, I panicked. I forgot that I don't skate. Typical me to walk into a situation without much forethought of my possible personal discomfort. But, hey, I'm in a good mood; I always figure it out. Harold, one of the kind employees, skated backwards with me and told me "soft knees. Just relax." And somehow the lessons I took at Wilson Park 25 years ago resurrected.

It felt great to be out in the sun, amidst beginners and seasoned skaters, families, new lovers, grandparents, little kids. We were all out together laughing, going around in circles, looking out for one another. So THIS is what I look forward to each year...the comfort of dear friends who are family and to feel what this holiday season is about – connection, warmth and spreadin' the love to our neighbor, a stranger, family and those dear Streetwise vendors.

For more information on ice skating in Chicago, please visit http://www.millenniumpark.org/.

7 December - Bikram, Ashtanga, Vinyasa Yoga

Years ago, during an enlightening conversation of our steps through life, my friend Irene spoke of "chakras." Meaning "wheel" in Sanskrit, the chakra system is comprised of seven energy centers, from root to crown. Each correlates to a specific aspect of human nature and together form our energy into the universe. When these are not open, the effects manifest in our daily and spiritual life, how we act as human beings and to one another. I explored this further through a Reiki session with Patricia Heenan (see July 13 entry). As well, I explored into yoga. My intermittent trials of yoga in the past resulted in nausea from contorting my body upside down on one cup of coffee in my bloodstream. Or I found the instructor spoke so much that I could not concentrate on the movement. Or self-deprecating giggling. I finally found some classes that I was able to move through comfortably and enjoyed the challenge of the multiple levels.

I have always wanted to try Bikram yoga, which is practiced in a humid 105-degree heated room. Dear friend Jemme joined me, as she too was always curious to try. The 26-posture series and two breathing exercises are practiced to push our bodies to its furthest extent; the heat helps loosen the muscles. We were drenched in sweat within the first 15 minutes...detoxifying. Our instructor Chris talked quickly, helping us through each move. My first impression was I thought I was at an auction buying steer. But what I found is the instruction is given in this manner to provide mental cues while we focus on ourselves and each movement, reminding us to push certain muscles and stances further. It did not matter that Jemme and I were neophytes nor anyone's varying degree or level. It was easy to quickly catch on with the beginning breathing exercise to moving into the side stretches of half-moon pose and other poses (triangle, tree, cobra, locust, tortoise, rabbit, etc.) that work on specific parts of the body. This includes hamstrings and back, while also focusing on elongating, balance, strength, flexibility and circulation. It also helped to follow another Yogi in front of me, who I learned afterwards was my dear friend Christine from 20 years ago.

Prior to this class, I have never been able to touch my toes while locking my knees. The originator, Yogiraj Bikram Choudhury, says his copyrighted series is a torture chamber - antithetical to the relaxing meditational yoga thought of here in the States. Bikram thanks Nixon for inviting him to live and teach in the US back in 1972, which has lent to the growth of 1200+ franchised studios worldwide. Proprietor Bron Gacki of Bikram Yoga Milwaukee says the rules to opening a certified school is stringent. The owner must be a certified instructor and cannot teach other practices of yoga in the same studio. Bron himself comes from a line of Bikram Yogis, as his brother, sister and parents all teach as well.

An instructor who has opened me to a new perspective on yoga is Sarah Will. Sarah is an instructor of Ashtanga, Vinyasa and Yin in the Chicago area. Her instruction allows students of any level to feel comfortable as she reaffirms "there is no ego in this class." In the dark studio, with a soft and encouraging voice, she reminds us to focus on our own level, then offers extra challenges. "The difference between Ashtanga and Vinyasa Flow Yoga is Ashtanga (the 8-limbed path of yoga) is a set series of progressive postures. Each series is taught in the exact same order every time, and the practice in itself becomes a moving meditation. Vinyasa yoga is a flowing series of postures -- there is no set series. Both formats synchronize breath (ujayyi) and movement, and both technically are progressive. However, Vinyasa can be practiced at any speed and at any level; Ashtanga moves very quickly.... Yin yoga works to stretch the connective tissues; the other formats stretch and tone muscle."

After suffering several injuries, Sarah decided to turn to yoga in healing her body nine years ago. She had forewent recommended surgeries and physical therapy. Her decision deemed successful within only a few months, thus beginning her teaching. Sarah draws from her experience in dance, instruction under many different teachers as far as New Zealand, attending training programs and workshops. "I try to emphasize that we are all built differently, have different ranges of motion and have been practicing for different periods of time. We may not even be using the same muscle groups to get into the same posture as the person next to us! I have seen, and experienced, overzealous teachers adjust students into the "appropriate alignment" of a posture, and the student ends up injuring, or re-injuring himself. That is not what yoga is about."

Practicing these forms of yoga have also changed her character. "As far as the mental changes (which in my case I believe were a side effect, as I was very focused on the physical), I have become a much calmer and patient person." In her spare time, Sarah operates a dog rescue and serves on the board of directors for Breakbone Dance Company. I always wondered what a yoga instructor does to find balance. Namaste.

For more information on Bron at Bikram Yoga in Milwaukee, please visit http://www.bikramyoga-milwaukee.com/.

For more information on Bikram, please visit http://www.bikramyoga.com/.

For more information on Sarah, her classes at The Yoga Boutique and X-Sports Fitness, please email her at gothyogi@hotmail.com.

30 November - Write an Original Song. En francais

For as much as I have been surrounded by music since I was a child, I have never had the courage to write a song. I would try my hand at poetry, but would become a bit uptight in letting my ideas flow when I knew the goal was to set words to a melody. I alone prevented any seed that may have had the chance to grow, to even be planted.

A few weeks ago, the sun was out, transforming my spirit and attitude. It served as my morning cup of joe. As I was driving, I was visually aware of gorgeous candids around me that should have been captured on film. And I heard a melody in my head that accompanied what I saw.

Fortunately with iPhone's "Voice Memo" application, I held onto that melody and started to hear more. Inspired by a period film featuring Edward Norton which I had recently seen, I wrote lyrics to match a somber tone. I could hear it in 3/4 time with a beautiful flamenco guitar accompaniment, a la Sting's "La Belle Dame Sans Regret." This is one of my husband's and my favorite songs. The last element that would complete my vision was if it were sung in French.

I visited my friend Patrick, who moved here from Nice, to help me translate the lyrics. I have a Minor Degree in French and had the fortune to resurrect and practice in Paris a few years ago. But I quickly forgot and the vernacular became quite rusty. Patrick spoke the words first, then I followed. (Apologies in advance for the gum.)

I then contacted an old friend, incredible flamenco guitarist Peter Baime. Peter studied in Spain with legendary gypsy guitarists Diego del Gastor and his nephew Paco del Gastor. Peter won an Emmy Award for one of his original documentary scores for PBS. He has toured all over the U.S., Puerto Rico, Europe, Canada and Mexico, and currently is a faculty member at two universities as well as the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. He continues to work on special projects. It was my fortune and honor to collaborate with him on this project.

To document this collaboration, friend Shanel referred me to Amelia Coffaro. When I visited her site, viewed her candids and listened to her philosophy on capturing artists in their element, I knew I wanted her involved as well.

Lastly, as always, I phoned my trusted friend Jim Reith to engineer and produce. Peter suggested we record simultaneously and not on separate tracks to complement the nuances in the moment. This means we record the song in full each time and choose from the different takes. Anytime we made a mistake, we had to start over. We did change the ending from what I initially intended. Hesitations are noted in my delivery, but I will keep these imperfections in the recording as it holds authenticity of the moment.

What started as a relatively simple but fearful task of writing an original song, grew into a wonderful collaboration. In rehearsing with Peter, he added such interesting melodic changes just by suggesting I sing one half-step higher or lower in certain areas. His additional intricacies evoked emotion as I sang. And in working with Amelia, I gained a new friend. She added quite a personal element to the process. I typically only use one static photo, but in looking through what she captured, it behooved us all to use as many as we could. In this process, I also had to learn Mac's iMovie software. An unexpected piece in the puzzle, but a necessary and rewarding effort.

The progression of the project felt very natural. It always helps to have trusted talent as partners. Thank you to all involved.

For more information on Peter, please visit http://www.wcmusic.org/.

For more information on Amelia, please visit http://www.ameliacoffaro.com/.

For more information on Jim, please visit http://www.beathousemusic.com/.

23 November - Back to the Classics

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I noticed my brother-in-law Bill had dropped Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead by the front door. We had been emailing each other over the past few months about his leisure reading as of late, not pertaining to newspapers nor trade publications on the auto industry. "This summer I took a departure from my typical business and leadership book binge and have gone back to the classics. I have read Hemmingway, Salinger, London, Huxley, Fitzgerald, and am currently mowing through Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Even returning to some old things can help you grow."

So very true. Bill is an incredibly intelligent and philanthropic person. To say he is a gem and that we are lucky to have him in our family is an understatement. The first time Bill really made an impression was the morning of my father's passing. We traveled as a family to take care of the funeral obligations. We were still in shock and were trying to order floral arrangements. For some reason, I recall confusion and frustration escalating in dealing with the clerk. Bill stepped in and took control. He was the only one among us who could. In seeing his command and nipping through nonsense at a very difficult time, I could tell he would be a good partner for my sister - a rock to find comfort in and build a foundation.

He heads the manufacturing division for a major auto manufacturer. He is well-traveled and knows metropolises like the back of his hand. In fact, it was crazy to see him in Tokyo several years ago, of all weekends and of all people. He was our guide. And behind the graduate degrees, family man and success, I was surprised to have learned of his quiet charity. When we would exchange names at Christmas, he would ask his Secret Santa to make a donation in his name. When we visited their home years ago, he was busy with a Junior Achievement group that he mentored through curriculum and business projects. He also built homes for Habitat for Humanity and served at the local church. These are things family members are probably still unaware of to this day. True humility looks for no applause. These little things I would hear about our quick-witted brother-in-law held him more dear to our family.

In our most recent corresponding, he inspired me to follow his lead. To read a classic. In going to the library, I was a bit sheepish to ask who some classic authors indeed were. But to my surprise, the two ladies as well had to consult files and lists to offer suggestions. The only one available was Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. I was excited to begin. So much so, that I became mesmerized with even the Introduction by some Diane Johnson, the Biographical Note from Emily's sister Charlotte, then the Editor's Preface -- all parts I normally skip. I am not a very patient reader. The tale must grip me enough in the first chapter to hold me through the rest. So I was amused that I learned more about the author than I anticipated.

Emily was one of six children who moved to a village in Haworth, England in 1820. Her father was a reverend and their new parish home, Haworth Parsonage still stands to this day. The hills and moors of the land behind them is the backdrop of Wuthering Heights, a fictional gloomy estate. Emily's mother and two older sisters passed on due to illnesses. The remaining four children, Emily, Branwell, Charlotte and Anne all lived only until their early 30s, dying from alcoholism, tuberculosis and complications during pregnancy.

I did not realize Emily's sisters Charlotte and Anne were authors as well, penning Jayne Eyre and Agnes Grey under the names of Ellis and Acton Bell. Emily was the third brother, Currer. They were "brothers" for fear of judgment and stripped credibility simply because they were female. Unfortunately, Emily died a year after Wuthering Heights was published and was met with poor reviews.

In reading the book, I found myself confused at first knowing the author was a woman, penning under a male alias but with feminine insights. Was it believable at that time? Critics said no. Some of the thoughts were also controversial and a bit edgy. I kept a flowchart to keep the characters, respective ancestries and roles in order. The style of writing compelled and engaged the reader, though staying engaged was necessary in order to understand everything in context. I also noticed interesting details like the overuse of colons within one sentence. As a lover of grammar, I did not know this was "legal." I enjoyed Bronte's way of capturing little nuances in the relationship dynamics as well. The storyline itself was a bit challenging to follow. The love that developed between the orphan Heathcliff and Catherine, the daughter of the family who raised him, was rich and complicated. Catherine married another, Edgar Linton, for advancement in society, though she loved Heathcliff. When she passed away, Heathcliff went mad. His growing vindictiveness for all who wronged him juxtaposed with his love for Catherine was...complicated, e.g. locking up Catherine's daughter to force her to marry his son in order to acquire the wealth of his arch enemy, Catherine's father. Oy.

It was interesting to imagine what life might have been like at that time -- everyday speak was proper; the writings were complicated, Shakespearian and poetic - all based on simple living and a finite amount of knowledge for that timeframe. Limited knowledge in what existed - travel, other cultures, medicine and technology that would have prolonged lives. But back then, death was just an accepted turn of events. Women's subservience in treatment, to the point of having to alias under a male counterpart in order to receive due judgment. The opposite of these are all privileges and freedoms we enjoy now. I contemplated on what were epic accomplishments for that time period versus what we take for granted. Truly times have changed; I wonder if we appreciate how far we have come. I, for one, need to be reminded of that.

Indeed, Bill, going back to old things can help us grow. Thank you.

16 November - Improv at Second City

My friend Jean speaks in a thousand different accents, impersonations and affectations. My favorite may very well be the articulate and hostile Puerto Rican. Jean is not shy to have a full conversation with me -- with accent and attitude -- in the middle of a salon, grocery store, car....
The first time I met her was working on friend Shanel Regier's fashion show years ago. I could tell she had an impeccable work ethic, not above any menial task, nor below any strategizing. She seemed serious. And humble. Dead ringer for Rachel Weisz, if you ask me. She articulates well her ideas but is not a "theorist." She rolls up her sleeves, gets down to the nitty gritty and accomplishes what she sets out to do. She does not talk about the talk about the talk, like most; she is a do-er. And it's rarely about her.

A straight shooter, Jean keeps her balance by singing her heart out at karaoke, and takes inventory by cleansing and spending a few days in solitude. An interior designer by day; an unabashed character and smart wit otherwise. She shared with me that acting was one of the possible directions on her list when choosing what to pursue for her college career. I thought Jean might be the perfect contender to join me at Second City's Improv class.

Her spontaneity in saying 'yes' took us to my old stomping grounds - Old Town, Chicago. When I worked here many moons ago, I remember watching Kamehachi move in across the street. It took the place of the former Blue Room, where my would-be husband and I would play in a trio upstairs. I would order my edamame and unagi roll, then eat my lunch at the school I volunteered at around the corner during my lunch hour. Driving around North and Wells resurrected forgotten and priceless memories...an unexpected gift that evening.

When my husband and buddy Chris suggested we take this drop-in class, I of course thought with an amenable ease, "Improv? Hysterical. Why not?" But driving down and now a few blocks away, Jean and I started to get anxious. We parked across the street at Treasure Island and walked to Second City's Training Center in Piper's Alley. Headed to class on the 4th floor, we met up with 15 other students from all different levels in acting. Our teacher Joe had us stand in a circle for our first warmup. It was called "Shootout." We learned everyone's names. As one name was called, that person ducked. The two people on either side had to be the first to shoot the other person out of the circle. Then the gap was closed.

We did three-line exercises between two people which focused on the starts of scenes and dialogue guidelines. And everyone had to do these exercises. We formed two lines, performed our scene, then switch to the opposite line so we had turns starting and reacting to the dialogues. The rules were to avoid questions and avoid focusing on the actual activity. One person started dialogue with any topic, the second person answered, the first finished the idea, the second person closed the scene with a nonverbal reaction.

Joe then added components to develop comfort level, reacting to environment, using emotion and reacting to your partner in a follow-up exercise called "Exploring the Silence." We continued with the formula of three-line exercises but were given an environment...bank, Starbucks, zoo, etc. We acted in silence for 30 seconds, being aware of our partner's actions and expressions. We found that we fed off each other to help shape the scene before any dialogue was inserted. We then added depth to the spoken story line - all in three-lines.

Another exercise was called "What Are You Doing?" This was quick-paced and gave us practice in being physical and speaking without worrying if we made sense. First person would start with an activity -- taking a shower, sweeping, roller skating, etc. The second person would ask at any time, "What Are You Doing?" First person would call out any activity OTHER than what s/he is doing, and the partner had to act it out. The next component added was that the activity had to start with the letters of the people next in line. For example, behind me were Terry and Mike, so my partner and I would call out tasks such as, "Training Monks!" These mini skits were hilarious, as one who had S and A yelled, "Selling Armpits!" leaving his partner perplexed but comedically carrying out the scene. Another added component was the receiver had to deliver a line of dialogue to accompany the random task.

In debriefing with this room of strangers who quickly became friends, we learned that silence is golden. If we sat and listened, watched, fed off one another's energy, it can affect our reactions, thought and expression. We learned to follow our instincts, as well as step out of our comfort zone. We found people to be funny without being funny, or having a sense of humor when they are naturally serious.

Jean and I did our own debriefing afterwards, over a nice late meal at Flo. In the aftermath, Jean shared, "As we were in one of the circle formations, I felt this pit in my stomach. For me the feeling was not of nausea but of anxious excitement – the urge to be involved and to perform. I began to shift my weight from one leg to the next until I was in an all out sway. I remember catching myself doing this and thought, 'I must look like an idiot.' Then I looked around the circle and about 10 others were making similar moves. This is a feeling that I have not sensed since I was performing on stage in High School and it was great to have that feeling back again. I forgot how much I love that adrenaline rush. I think the love of performance comes from within certain people and is a difficult thing to truly teach."

Couldn't have asked for a better partner to experience this with. Thanks, Jean.

Joe teaches at Second City and Columbia College. He is currently working on a project - writing a sketch every day for one year. This is based on his belief that there is no such thing as writer's block or not enough time to write. All 365 sketches will be produced June 3 thru June 10 at Strawdog Theater, Chicago. For more information, please visit, http://www.biteandsmile.blogspot.com/.

For more information on the class, please visit http://www.secondcity.com/.