The TEDx Effect
The speakers for 2015’s TEDxCharleston have about seven more days to get their talks down pat, without sounding rehearsed. But one person has fifteen talks to prepare for: the emcee. Last year that job was mine, and it was terrifying. I had to write and deliver an introduction for each amazing speaker and performer — somehow linking each one of them to the theme: Ripple Effect.
Here was one of my favorites – the introduction to renowned National Geographic wildlife photographer Vince Musi.
His talk was one of the highlights of the show, so the curators decided to make it a tradition of sorts and invite Vince to be the emcee of this year’s TEDX Charleston. The theme is “Embrace Chaos” and if you’re one of the smart people who bought your tickets before they sold out (in a day) you’re in for a treat. Not only are the speakers intriguing (I know because I wrote the teases for their talks. Spoiler alert — ombudsman John Zinsser is one you won’t want to miss) – so is the charismatic man who’ll be introducing you to them this year. Vince is such a compelling storyteller it will make you wonder if even his pictures could really equal a thousand of his words.
The Mother of Reinvention
For a few years now, I’ve been blogging about Other Mothers. The title of my blog — Womenisms — was a word I invented to describe the spoken wisdoms of my own Other Mother: Byrne Miller. She was a champion of reinvention, something I passed on in my TEDx talk before the book launch. So I think she’d love the fact that I’ve renamed the blog “TeresaBruceBooks” and made it simpler to find on the web. Now all you have to google is teresabruce.me.
Me — my latest reinvention. By way of Halloween and Frida Kahlo.
I’m not alone in long admiring Frida — as much for her fierce spirit as her art — and I always make a pilgrimage to her house in Mexico City whenever we pass through. So when I stumbled upon a stack of vintage, velvet-and-beaded tops in an antique store in Oaxaca I couldn’t resist. It was torture waiting for Halloween, to add the faux jewels I picked up in Milwaukee Goodwill stores and Byrne’s antique poison pendant.
As Frida impersonators go, I’m a white girl without enough hair. But then reinvention isn’t about copying and it’s never permanent. My homage to Frida was a chance to open my mind, to more fully imagine her life and look at mine through her lens.
It wasn’t until I penciled in the unibrow that the transformation, however temporary, began. I, like most self-critical American women, fastidiously shave and occasionally pluck to fit the norms of our society. But flaunting the unibrow was more than liberating. It felt beautiful and defiant — unapologetically earthy.
The costume party I attended as Frida-light was a spectacle of reinvention. Watching all my friends in their creative alter-egos made me realize we all crave reinvention. Hiding behind a mask is actually a chance to parade the inner self. It took a trip to Mexico to make me want to stomp my feet and join in.
Since my new, reinvented blog allows me to insert videos — take a look at this one. Byrne would have loved these dancers — ordinary villagers who reinvent themselves every chance they get. Viva la transformacion!
That scandalous TED(x)
I’ve just been asked to emcee the 2014 TEDx Charleston – I’m allowed to go public with the news today because the women who run it have just released the names of this year’s speakers. Up until today only the theme was public information: Ripple Effect.
If it all sounds rather clandestine, it’s because it is. Being involved with TEDx is a little like an affair. Press embargoes, trips to the most romantic city on earth: Charleston, late nights meetings about with a mysterious “TED.”
Somewhere Byrne Miller is winking with approval. It was at the inaugural TEDx Charleston in 2013 that I had the chance to introduce her, in spirit, to a world of You-Tube viewers. My talk was called “The Wisdom of Quitting: Lessons from my Other Mother.” Back then I agonized over whether the sophisticated, well-mannered Charleston audience would be shocked by Byrne’s most outrageous womenism.
I needn’t have worried. The audience saw past Byrne’s cheek to her wisdom and have become enthusiastic supporters of “The Other Mother: a rememoir.” But the organizers of TEDx Charleston all looked at each other with knowing smiles. This team of dedicated and well-connected women, led by the indomitable Edith Howle, run an entirely independent event. There is no TED headquarters handling all the logistics. These women have to plan everything from speaker selection to ticket sales, catering, media coverage and after-party venues.
So why the smiles at Byrne’s affair advice? It turns out all of them joke that “TED” is their shared, demanding, artistic, maddening lover.
My TED talk — “The Wisdom in Quitting: Lessons from my Other Mother.”
A tiny microphone floated on a wire curved around my face to rest an inch from my lips – like a little moon orbiting my planet. The tag inside my new dress scratched against my sweaty skin and I wondered how long the coat of mascara expertly lacquered to my eyelashes would stay dry and put. I paced behind a slit in a heavy black curtain for a charismatic emcee to finish his introduction of me.
I haven’t been “on-deck,” ready to go out and perform a routine since I was an 18-year-old rhythmic gymnast trying for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team. I quit competing a lifetime ago when I broke my back and yet there I was, as nervous as if I was about to take the floor in front of a panel of judges. That was when I laughed – and thought of my “other mother:” Byrne Miller.
This TEDx talk wasn’t about me trying to score a perfect 10 – it was a chance to share her story with people who didn’t have the luck of knowing her in person. I could practically feel Byrne’s presence – not like a guardian angel hovering protectively, but in the front row, reveling in the attention and beaming. She once told me her secret dream was to rent out Lincoln Center and have her favorite modern dance company perform just for her but I couldn’t help thinking she would have loved this even more.
The TEDx 2013 Charleston theme was reinvention, and I was the kickoff speaker. There’s something about the story of a burlesque dancer who believes that, to build confidence, all women should have at least one affair that wakes up an audience. I talked about how I’d always been afraid to quit anything before I met her. I was afraid because I equated quitting with failing and I was raised to be a perfect daughter: an Olympic gymnast. Never mind that I hated competing and loved to dance more than anything. Quitting, especially when I was ranked 4th in the U.S. and the top 3 were going to the Olympics, was out of the question. It took breaking my back before I felt like I could quit without being a quitter and I was still trying to be the person my parents expected me to be when I met Byrne Miller.
I was drawn to Byrne because she seemed the opposite of a quitter. But in the course of researching her life for the memoir I realized she just called quitting something different: walking into another room. She reinvented herself continually and she wanted all of her collected daughters to have the confidence to do the same.
All of that, and so much more, is about to be published in the book. But I’ve never spoken to any group of strangers about this part of my life, and how it intersected with hers. I wondered if the message would resonate with a TED crowd. I wasn’t talking about a cure for cancer, or how to change the world. But it turns out that my very personal experience is actually universal.
Men came up to shake my hand and say how they tweeted Byrne’s “womenisms” throughout my talk. One dad told me he was going to talk to his kids that night and make sure they understood that even though he’s proud of them that they have the right to determine their own identity. A woman in her late 50s said she’s quitting her six-figure career of 30 years and my story gave her the reassurance that it’s okay – not crazy – to redefine herself. I gave her a card with a snapshot of Byrne and one of her favorite sayings: “Love is more disarming than logic.”
I would have been dancing on air if those were the only three people who talked to me throughout the day. But my favorite new sister-by-Byrne was a woman whose husband just got a job at the Citadel. She towered above me, as gloriously tall as Byrne once was, and said that she always thought she was too big to be a dancer. Now she leads a weekend dance “church” open to all women and children who just want to move.
At the reception I met a woman my age who had also been an elite gymnast and trapeze artist. She broke her back not once but twice before she listened to her own heart and became a clothing designer. I met not one but three daughters of immigrant parents who knew exactly how hard it is to quit anything when you’re supposed to be perfect.
I felt like everyone in that audience was already dancing with Byrne. Being a quitter never felt so victorious.
Public Speaking Butterflies
Georgia Southern professor Tiffany Russell was nervous yesterday. Really nervous. It was the first run-through for speakers at the first-ever TED Talks in Charleston, SC and we were being graded by volunteers with clipboards and score sheets. And filmed.
Tiffany’s run-through was right after mine and we had a chance to whisper, in the front row, about nerves. Specifically why, even when you speak publically all the time, they don’t go away. She talks to college students everyday; I used to be on TV every night and I talk about Byrne Miller every chance I get. You’d think this would be a breeze for people like us but it isn’t.
My method of coping with nerves has always been to rehearse so much that my worry switches to whether my presentation still feels natural. Once I’ve got my talk memorized, about half of my nerves disappear. It’s not a theory I claim to have invented. It was drilled into me in my previous life as a U.S. Rhythmic Gymnastics team member. I trained six hours a day, six days a week. The music my routines were set to became worse than earworms; I heard my ball, hoop, clubs and ribbon music in my dreams.
But practicing in a gym isn’t the same as walking out onto the mat in a huge stadium, with television cameras, a live audience, a panel of judges and your Olympic career on the line. All you can hope for is that muscle memory kicks in and you can lose yourself in that music.
Which is exactly what happened yesterday. I didn’t have to use my notes but I got lost in the story I was telling. So until I see the tape I have no idea if I left anything important out. Tiffany was certain that she did leave some parts out. And it made her even more nervous.
But it occurred to me, as we commiserated, that there is a flip side to being nervous. I told her that if we ever get so blasé about our topics that we aren’t nervous, then we have a problem. Being nervous just means we care so much about the content that we want to get it right. We want the audience to lean forward, light up and remember.
Probably because my TED talk is about my “Other Mother,” I’ve been thinking about all the mothers I know. How they never stop being nervous about their kids. Whether they’re giving them the right advice, how much they should push or hold back, when to intervene in life’s everyday little battles. Much more is at stake than a TED talk for them. There is no script to memorize. There will very likely be no applause, even if they get it perfectly right. They are nervous because they care so much. It’s a sign of how much they love their kids. It puts it all in perspective for me.
So bring on the butterflies – I’m fine with a few dancing in my stomach.