Teri Orr: The conference unlike the others
March 28, 2014
The drive to Whistler just might be one of the most spectacular anywhere. Old growth, forested mountains, sharply ending in the sea. The eagles, the dolphins, sparkling water at the base of snow-capped mountains. Otherworldly, it set the tone for the week to come. Last Sunday I was fortunate to attend the TED conference and the gathering of the tribe of crazy global folks I communicate and commiserate with all year long. We showed up ready to re-connect and talk about ways the world is changing and how we can help make those changes. Or fix the less good ones.
My adventure started right as I walked on the plane. There, in First Class, on a flight started in the Bay Area, was my buddy Leigh, former private chef now marketing guru… or was it the other around? We squealed — he persuaded my seatmate to give up her place in coach — to take his seat. We never stopped talking the entire flight to Vancouver. We met another TEDster coming from St. Louis as we three made our way off the plane. Leigh suggested we part ways until we were through immigration. "There was a little incident in Canada years ago," he confessed, "when I was managing a rock band." Leigh made it through fine. My friend Jill, who is a performer, also a TED attendee, was stopped at immigration. "It was a bong. It was the ’80’s. Why would they still care?" she told me later at Whistler.
I picked up my rental car (I was the only one going on to TEDActive — the guys were staying at Big TED in Vancouver) and we kept talking all the way to the waterfront. I realized I was on the wrong side of the road from their hotel. I started to pull a U-turn. The sweet man from St. Louis was concerned. "Can you do that in a foreign country?" he asked. Leigh looked at him/me, "Do you think some guy in a bad hat on horse is gonna come chase her down?" There was then a whole comedy bit about an entire police force named Mounties. ‘Nuff said.
During the week we would text each other messages about the speakers we were witnessing. NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden rolled out on stage via tele-robot with a kinda iPad face thingy and an upright vacuum style body, direct from Russia. It was surreal. He was eloquent and fearless. "I didn’t do this to be safe ," he said when asked if he was worried about all the death threats he had received. "I did this to be right." And though the NSA had been invited to be part of the conversation, they declined…. until the roar on the Internet from Snowden’s appearance brought them out two days later. And they put on a screen, from some undisclosed location, a puffy-faced blue-blazered Richard Ledgett, Deputy Director. He had an American flag so close to his face he could barely move in the screen shot. It was entirely the wrong guy to play to this crowd. Which became apparent when international hacking expert Keren Z took to the stage and explained how Ledgett’s boss had appeared recently at Def Con, an international hacker’s conference, trying to recruit hackers to work for the U.S. government. She showed a photo of him-wearing torn jeans and faded T-shirt, appropriately dressed down. That was surreal.
But so was having Sting talk about his writer’s block that went past days and weeks and months into years. He talked about going back to his childhood and remembering all the characters, who shaped his character, in the shadow of the shipyard where he grew up. He became some of those folks and sang their songs, which will be part of his musical, "The Last Ship," slated to open on Broadway, maybe this fall? He was urged to sing one final song. He chose "Message in a Bottle," and soon we were all "sending out an SOS"…
The supermodel who chose the TED stage to come out as a transgendered woman, who had been "identified as a boy" at birth, was brave and eloquent and elegant. The astronaut Chris Hatfield talked about going blind outside the space station and then sang the Bowie classic, "Major Tom to Ground Control," he had recorded on the shuttle (it has over 21 million online views) — he brought down the house. Listening to Bill and Melinda Gates talk about their need to "return" all the money they had made in their lifetimes back to the world. (No, they said, their children will not inherit billions of dollars from their billionaires parents, "that wouldn’t be healthy.") Laughing at the scientist who explained the sex life of bugs in such comic detail, listening to composer Blood Orange create music from how sounds layered in his head… there was no single favorite talk.
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Amanda Palmer as the surprise performer at the closing night party after taking the gondola up to the top of the mountain — amazing. But when Amanda brought her talented husband, author Neil Gaiman, to the stage to read us a kind of ghost story, it was a "pinch me" moment.
Which brings us to my current condition, coined by someone a few years back — the time you return home and try to fit in again, to day-to-day life, you suffer a TEDache. Sharing what I have learned will be the work of my next year. Blessed to have had my adventure and feel the bubble of shared wows and pows and nows. I will have to make do, with some global texts and postings and emails and accept they are being read by spying eyes, this very Sunday, back in the Park….
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.