The rhythm of the words
I just returned from a week at the TED conference, which is a wild kind of rodeo for the mind. We try to hang on ’til the bell, but honestly, getting bucked and thrown is kinda fun. For a full week there are talks from experts in the fields of technology, entertainment and design who mess with your mind.
They challenge your conventional thinking about … everything. They urge you to make a difference in the world. And our world for that week is filled with folks from dozens and dozens of different countries.
It is my favorite geek week of the year.
But this year something happened to my hearing. It became quite selective. It might have been altered by the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys, or Amanda Palmer’s in-your-face ukulele song, but those were just part of the not-so same not-so norm.
What I heard was a kind of cadence, falling somewhere between a gospel preacher and a slam poet. But more lyrical, musical, ethereal.
The shock value of having a surprise guest take the stage who turns out to be Ben Affleck, fresh from his Oscar win, to talk about his work in Congo, as he introduced the orchestra from Congo, created a kind of gasp and "wow" and a disbelief that has to be experienced, live. Like any good performance. And then those musicians gave us their gifts and we cried at the beauty of their music.
So with the understanding something might be lost in the translation, I want to try, just the same, to share some of the words in their music with you…
Phil Hansen, an artist who developed an incurable tremor in his hands and went on to use that to explore and develop new works, talked about "limitation versus liberation."
Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, said his grandmother always asked him, when he was young, not what he learned at school but rather, "Did you ask a good question today?"
Meg Jag, whose research says 30 is NOT the new 20, told the 20-somethings, "Be as intentional with your love as you are with your work."
Lawrence Lessig, a lawyer and activist, spoke of how broken our political election system is and he said it can no longer be "Left or Right…it must be Left AND Right" to fix it.
Award-winning choreographers Rich and Tone Talauega said watching dance should move you until it is "felt in your DNA, involuntarily."
The beautiful violinist, who shared with us her struggles with depression and her confusion about whether to continue her promising career, told us all to "play your life." And then she played hers with unbridled joy and passion and a hint of melancholy.
Then, sung as part of a wild rant of joy from Amanda Palmer, came this gem: "Even if your grades are bad, it doesn’t mean you’re failing!" I want that T-shirt.
Someone – my notes are reduced to scribbles in a tiny field journal at this point – suggested to try something and predicted, "Life will start to dance with you in the most amazing way."
A gangsta gardener from South Central L.A. said the "shovel is my weapon of choice" and he urged us all to "disrupt some sh&*t ! and plant some sh#$%t!" And he made planting in unclaimed urban spaces seem like the most radical and charitable act possible.
Then there was scientist Kees Moeliker who received the Ig Nobel prize for his work on – wait for it – homosexual necrophilia in ducks. I’d say who knew, but clearly he did. There is a Dead Duck Day, June 5 to be exact, celebrated, at least within his circle in Rotterdam, by dining out on a six-course, yes, duck dinner.
From Lesley Perkes, an urban artist in Johannesburg, we heard to invest "in art instead of adversity." She suggested we "find the points of maximum pessimism and invest there." She is convinced we are facing a "crisis of imagination."
Bono came on stage and didn’t sing to us but rather talked about using his celebrity to promote his passion of social justice within the context of extreme (global) poverty. He reminded us, "The power of the people is so much stronger than the people in power."
On the last day, a provocateur, author and former fundraiser, Dan Pallotta who raised $582 million in nine years for AIDS and breast cancer, spoke about our broken model of nonprofits and philanthropy. "Who cares what the overhead is, if problems are getting solved."… "Ask instead about the scale of their dreams."… "Don’t get stuck in morality versus frugality." … "Invest in idea capital."…and so many other nuggets I stopped writing and just listened.
Every TED I have attended has been a great TED, but this year, especially so. The quality of the campers among us, mixed with the warm desert days and nights, blended with the eclectic, eccentric, exotic speakers and performers pushed us all to reconsider, recalibrate and recalculate how we see our world. And most importantly, how and what exactly, can we do, are we willing to do, to change it.
It is a lot to consider, to be certain, but there is no better place to reflect than right here, this very Sunday 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.