I spent the better part of Saturday at the second installment of TEDxSMU, which was — as you may have sussed out from the headline I wrote — held at the Wyly Theatre this year. I will begin talking more specifically about it as soon as you click-thru.
I, and my fellow attendees, were at the the Wyly from a little before 10 until a bit after 6. I mentioned that to someone this morning and his eyes shot up in surprise — the bad kind, the “whoa” of “jeez, sorry.” But here’s the thing: other than, yes, being a bit uncomfortable in the theater’s chairs, at no point during the day’s three sessions did I ever look forward to the next break. The structure — short talks, some under 10 minutes, all under 20 — means that you are pretty much constantly wanting more.
The first presenter of the day was probably the best example of that idea. Nature photographer Frans Lanting gave a talk about what he’s working on, which is — and I may be reducing it a bit — essentially showing the roots of evolution through modern-day photos. (There is a great snap of a man riding a T-Rex like a pony. Kidding.) Lanting works with scientists and finds things that still exist in our world, and then tries to shoot them in such a way that is representative of their beginnings.
For instance: stromatolites. The only place these algae-based structures can still be found is a lagoon in Australia. But he couldn’t shoot them under a blue sky. Why? Because these are the very things that made the sky blue, pushing so much oxygen into the developing world they changed the atmosphere. The shot Lanting eventually got at dusk, when the sky was a ghostly white, was/is amazing. But not long after, he was done. I could have listened an hour more.
And so it went with most of the presenters. Most, as in: Canadian rapper Baba Brinkman’s hip-hop take on evolution (he changed the words to Mobb Deep’s “Survival of the Fittest” to reflect Freakonomics-like stats on how age, among other things, correlates to murder rate) could have been half as long. And Steven Potter’s talk about the Gattaca future we’re possibly/probably headed for was thought-provoking, even though it was mildly horrifying (my take: designer genes is the first step to the machines taking over).
But then there was Omar Jahwar, who works in gang intervention, talking about the extreme highs and lows that come with getting up every day and doing what he does. Sounds gut-wrenching — and it was at times — but it was also really funny. “True story,” Jahwar would promise, then, say, go into the tale of how he (and I still don’t know exactly how this happened) got separated from two inmates on a furlough in NYC, freaked out, but had enough influence on them that they wound up flying home alone and taking a cab from Love Field back to jail.
And there was Stephen Mills, the artistic director and choreographer of Ballet Austin, talking about how 9/11 led to him creating a ballet about the Holocaust, and how that decision ended up impacting and educating people (including him) in ways he couldn’t have imagined. There was Mick Ebeling talking about how he helped his friend and graffiti artist Tempt draw again, after ALS left him paralyzed, mostly because he refused to believe what he eventually came up with (The Eyewriter) was impossible. There was Bill Lively, who, yeah, everyone knows and probably everyone has heard speak at some point, absolutely destroying a speech about the power of art, especially on his own life. (If you ever see Lively at the back of the Nasher, staring out at the city, you know he’s struggling with something; leave him be.)
And there was Rabbi David Stern, who got the day’s only standing ovation with his absolutely spellbinding talk about “round-trip spirituality,” which I fear I will completely screw up if I try to recount it here. That he is here in Dallas, as senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, is something we should all take advantage of at some point.
And … I’ve left out so much: crazy runner Ray Zahab on adventure learning’s impact on kids; Salah Boukadoum on his Good Returns initiative; rock climber Majka Burhardt’s finding the middle ground in her work in Ethiopia; “magazine god” Roger Black on his private West Texas camp (made of shipping containers) and how to live light; Jim LeDuc on how they’re fighting ebola and other class 4 viruses at the Galveston National Laboratory; Creative Time’s Anne Pasternak on art; a presentation from SMU’s Innovation Gym; Joshua Prince-Ramus on building the Wyly (when he opened the curtains and the light poured in was kind of amazing); the sort of intense Cari Guittard on being better global citizens; and more, and more.
It sort of left me breathless, but also ready to punch a hole in the world at the same time. It was fun to just geek out on earnestness and possibility and all the other things you try to sort of put up your shield against, so no one sees you being vulnerable — the kind of setting where you can do something really dorky, and know you’re okay, because everyone else is doing it, too. Anyway. I guess I’ll go back to taking potshots at defenseless people now.
Finally: a big round of applause to TEDxSMU director Sharon Lyle and her partner Natalie Stalmach. What they did was worthy of its own TED talk.