The TED Conference

The phone rang and a man's voice told me that he wanted The Raspyni Brothers to appear at his conference. It echoed the hundreds of calls that had come before it, and laid the path for hundreds more that I hoped would follow it. Then he said something that drastically veered from the normal script. It caught me off guard and I asked him to repeat himself.

"We don't pay presenters at TED," he said.

... "We don't pay presenters at TED," he said.

That was what I thought he said. I asked him if it was a benefit for some organization and he said that it wasn't. I told him that we weren't interested and thanked him for the call.

"Let me send you some literature about it and see if you still feel that way," was his reply. Two points for persistence.

The literature arrived via Federal Express the next morning. I called him back that afternoon and asked him if his offer was still on.

TEDX (acronym for the 10th Technology, Entertainment, and Design Conference) took place on February 23 - 26 this year in scenic Monterey, CA. Touted as a gathering of "unfailingly interesting presenters" and "...750 enriched minds in a highly charged energy state", TEDx lived up to its reputation and hype.

Now, trust me, this isn't the kind of conference you see in the local newspaper and decide to pop into for the day. For one thing, it's expensive! A pass that gets you into the auditorium so you can hear the presenters, including The Raspyni Brothers, will set you back three thousand dollars! And then there is the issue of availability. Sign up while you're there for the following year's conference and if luck is on your side, you won't get stuck with a blue tag. That one costs the same as the red tag but it will only admit you to the overflow room where you'll have to absorb the wisdom in two dimensions - on big screen TV.

My First Day at TED

Walking down the hallway I pass Tom Brokaw. He looks just like he does on television and I say, "Hello" to him in a tone that makes it sound like I see people like him everyday. I don't. He takes a glance at me, then at my name badge, and says, "Hello" in a voice that makes it sound like he sees people like me everyday. He does.

Drew Mason, the publisher of WIRED magazine, is enjoying a chilled frappachino while talking to Norman Lear. I wonder if I could buy a transcript of that conversation?

Michael Milkin enters the room and looks like a man who came to a 4-way intersection and can't decide whether to go, or wait for someone else to make a move. He sees Art Buchwald and walks in the opposite direction. Art must have been an old client, I assume.

Sitting at a high-tech barstool (nothing is average at this place), I see Dean Kamen. I hadn't heard of him until yesterday when he introduced a wheel chair he invented that can climb stairs, lift its passenger to reach an item on the top shelf in a market, and remind a double amputee how nice a solo stroll on the beach at sunset can be. He's on his laptop writing an email that, for all I know, contains another brilliant idea that will make the world a better place.

I walk into the Break Out room and see a gathering of about 300 people imbibing the many varieties of Starbuck's Coffee being offered - gratis. Michael Eisner, Noah Wyley, Arienna Huffington, and a gaggle of young Dot Com millionaires are deep in conversations with lots of people whom I don't recognize -- surely a shortcoming of mine, as opposed to a lack of earned notoriety on their part.

I start to laugh because eight months ago I was one sentence away from blowing off the invitation to be here.

New rule #1: Don't ever turn down an opportunity just because it doesn't pay.

In the corner of the room, I see a portly knight holding court. He is wearing a dark brown scarf - the heavy woven type - wrapped around his neck and both ends of it hang down his chest over a light gray sweater. I move closer and recognize the bright eyes that dart wildly across the faces of those surrounding him. His smile is contagious, like the flu in February, and I feel the corners of my lips turn north. He is bigger than I thought he would be. Granted, I had only seen pictures of him in magazine articles, but he didn't fit into the mental box I had reserved for him.

Richard Saul Wurman - the guy who invited my partner and me to be here. He paid our transportation, food, and hotel bills in exchange for 25 minutes of our time. He saw a tape of ours last year and felt that we had something to offer his affluent group of followers. Flattering? Yes. Believable? Only because I was standing there looking at him.

RSW, as he is often referred to, is an architect by trade. Twelve years ago he began noticing a symbiotic merger taking place in the fields of Technology, Entertainment, and Design and conceived TED. His intention was to bring leaders in these fields together to share new ideas, discoveries, and theories with like-minded individuals. Today, his invitations to present are considered a rite of passage by those who receive them. He encourages speakers to, "tell a story you haven't told before, without notes, without a lectern -- and to be vulnerable."

None other than the conference's patriarchal leader emceed each of the four daily sessions. He set the tone for each day's proceedings with what seemed to be a completely improvised monologue that wasn't aimed at any particular target. At some point during the homily, the wet concrete began to cure and it was obvious that it wasn't a stream-of-consciousness babble. He was indeed pouring a runway from which each speaker could safely takeoff. To have a single ring master for a four-day conference is a bold decision to make. To have the audience look forward to that person's next appearance on stage was a remarkable sight.

Richard does not believe in long introductions at TED. Every presenter is highlighted in the beautifully designed book that is given to each attendee. A photograph and biography let's you know who the next speaker is, and by the end of the 1st sentence of their biography, it is obvious why they were chosen to present:

"As President and CEO of Adobe"

"At the age of 12 she was granted her first patent"

"After the 5th edition of her book entitled The Annual Report of America"

It dawned on me that I was in a room full of people who don't spend Monday through Friday in anticipation of the weekend. These people were self-starters and highly motivated doers that were elated to be there. These were individuals who were 100% tapped into the fact that this is an exciting time to be alive. More accurately - many of these people MAKE this an exciting time to be alive.

I've seen more professional speakers preaching to the audience that they must go to bat for "the team" than I could ever remember. An experienced orator can usually fan the dust off of my skepticism long enough for their efforts to be rewarded with a hearty ovation. The speakers at TED are so inspirational because most had long ago found that the team couldn't keep up so they went on to create their own leagues.

On Stage at TED

It didn't make any sense. My mind to tried to negotiate with what my eyes were seeing.

I was holding the wooden handle but the sharp and dangerous part of the garden weasel was flying through the air. I watched, but it seemed to be happening in slow motion. The head of an implement made for removing weeds flew forward, away from the $350,000 computerized piano behind me, past a quarter million dollars worth of hand-blown glass that lined the front of the stage, and landed just short of a guy who invented a clock that will run for 10,000 years.

Tragedy diverted to comedy due to fact that no one, or nothing, had been hit by a flying garden weasel.

Improvisational zingers abound about the errant weasel since, by the time the audience realized what happened, the danger was over. I could tell that a portion of the audience had concluded that it was a part of the act. Unfortunately, there isn't enough technology in the world (and, certainly not in that room) to blueprint where a ball of pointy spikes that has been poorly attached to a handle will land when it finally releases.

New rule #2: In most instances, an extra gob of glue is a prudent investment.

"There is something wonderful about being in a group this large and being the only two that still fly coach." It was our opening line and it was a good one. The crowd exploded. Two things you can do to put an audience at ease: Let them know that you are one of them, or, better yet, that they are better than you are.

So were we vulnerable? We were probably the only two people to walk onto the stage at TEDx without one or more of the following: a patented invention, a college degree, a major publishing deal, a Grammy, a group of on-site friends or colleagues, a Power Point Presentation, a biography that absolutely had to be more than three paragraphs, or a bunker full of low-priced stock options.

But humor is the great equalizer and when we left the stage 25-minutes later to the conferences' first standing ovation, none of those things mattered.

A TED conference is about bringing what you have to the table and letting it mingle. It is a place to give your thoughts permission to roam - sans judgment or ridicule - so that they might meet, shake hands, or even dance the night away with the ideas you never even dreamt about.

Not a bad environment in which to find yourself surrounded.

Indeed a place where no one would dispute that rules are made to be broken.

More Than Meets the Eye

Watching a hand remain motionless while a ball falls towards it is a new experience for me. After 25 years of juggling, I have developed an autonomic response that stops objects in my vicinity from hitting the ground. So it was with growing discontent that I watched my student Damian's left hand let the bright orange bean bag pick up speed en route to the floor.

It landed with a thud and only I was surprised.

It was 20 years ago that I first tried to teach a blind person to juggle. In those days I had the attention span of a housefly and when I realized it was going to take longer than 10 minutes, the challenge lost its appeal. But if a quarter century of juggling does nothing else to the spirit, it teaches patience. And it seems that the mountains we hike but never conquer still stand waiting for a more mature and able climber.

How do I articulate the movements to a person who has never seen anything I might use for analogy? What words or examples could I offer to aid someone in catching a ball they can't see? How could I map out the complex patterns without a visual demonstration?

After only three sessions, Damian Pickering has taught me that there is much more to juggling than meets the eye.

The first time we spoke on the phone I knew that I had found my subject. As the 35-year old Director of Public Affairs for the Rose Resnick LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco, Damian is an accomplished professional who has not let his disability interfere with a rich life. He's married, articulate, motivated, and extremely efficient.

"Where do you want to meet? What should I bring? Let me check my schedule and write down your number." His questions were rapid fire and specific.

While my direct experience with the blind is limited: a Stevie Wonder concert in the late '80s and a big fan of Mr. Magoo, Damian appeared more organized than just about anyone I know. I thought that if he could juggle his life this well, three balls was going to be doable.

I carefully considered how I would approach our initial meeting. After all, the first sentence in any good juggling lesson is, "Watch the ball as it arcs from your right hand to your left hand." I developed a few plans of attack for teaching Damian, as well as some special props to hopefully help us overcome our obstacles.

I bought some balls that make noise, brought plastic shopping bags that fall slowly and make noise, and made a stick with bells on the end in case he wanted to try to flip something from hand-to-hand. I covered the end of the stick with bubble pack so he wouldn't hit himself in the head. My fear was that he would show up at work the next day, stand up at a meeting and explain to a group of subordinates that the bump on his head is from a juggling mishap.

Driving to his Berkeley home, I tried to put myself into the mind set of a blind man. I shut my eyes at a stoplight and imagined a life with this view. I flashed on all that I see throughout the day: the white hairs that have slowly crept onto my dog's snout, the ever-expanding green patches of growth on brown hills, and the friendly end of a juggling machete making its way to my hand. I admitted that I take that vision for granted. I thought about how brave Damian was to agree to this meeting and silently wondered what in my life would represent a proportionally difficult challenge. I came up blank, opened my eyes, and drove on.

His wife opened the door and Damian gave me a bear of a hug. His collapsible cane was folded up in his front pocket and its red tip poked me in the belly. I told him that if he wanted to do that again he was going to have to buy me a drink. His delicate laugh came in stark contrast to his strong facial features. He had long black hair and a pair of dark brown glass eyes. He spoke slowly and used his hands as extensions of his words, touching his chest, forming objects, and applying eye drops at lightning fast speed. He was excited to get started so one at a time I placed all the things I brought with me into his hands. He started to laugh maniacally and I thought that was a particularly good sign.

It was an hour before dusk and we stepped out into his courtyard to begin. I asked him if he ever saw a juggler because, in my naiv e te. I thought it might help if he had. He told me that he had been blind since age three and the only thing he ever remembers seeing is the Golden Gate Bridge. How perfect. I had him visualize the cables of that bridge and told him they arc on the same path that I want his hands travel. With that one tip we went from zero to a perfect toss. How lucky that the only thing he remembered seeing offered an ideal schematic for juggling.

I had him stand behind me and hold my wrists while I juggled so he could feel the motions I wanted him to emulate. We talked about what the balls do in flight. In his own way, he was able to see anything if given enough detail.

It was at this point that I realized, much to my surprise, that I knew little about what a ball does as it travels from hand to hand.

While watching Damian patiently visualize the whereabouts of an object in space, I realized that the way a ball rolls off the fingertips determines where and how it will land. I noticed exactly where on the hand that first contact is made when catching. I saw how much faster a ball goes up than it comes down. My jaw dropped at the fact that balls rotate as they move through the air and how the catching hand compensates for that rotation. And there it was - the bet I would have lost for sure. If his right hand threw the ball a bit forward or backward, the left hand adjusted for the catch; I would have sworn that would not have happened.

Twenty-five years of juggling redefined as my blind student dropped ball after ball.

An hour had passed and the sun was well on its way to Japan. At the risk of sounding like the world's biggest sissy, I had suggested we move indoors.

"I'm having a hard time seeing the balls," I said.

"Tell me about it," he laughed.

It was time to get him catching. We were both determined to get those balls to land in his waiting and outstretched hand when all of the sudden he stumbled onto the answer.

A ball thrown out of his right hand banged him in the chest and bounced into his left hand. Voila - the bank shot! A technique used by basketball legends for decades has finally found its place in juggling. By tossing balls from his right hand into his left breast bone and vice versa, he was able to feel the timing and identify the whereabouts of the incoming ball. At the end of the 90-minute lesson, he was easily doing ten throws with one ball and got 30 in a row one time. Planting a seed for the next meeting, I wanted him to feel what it was like to juggle two balls. After a few tries off the backboard of his chest they both landed in perfect rhythm. I forgot that he couldn't see me coming and I hugged him so hard that I think I scared him.

On my drive home the streets looked cleaner, people walking by seemed to be more expressive, and the sunset over Mt. Tamalpais looked like something produced by a special effects team.

So how far can this go? I let my imagination run wild and I see him juggling clubs in a precise and predictable pattern. He is on stage cracking jokes to an appreciative crowd while the balls are dancing effortlessly from hand to hand. He is seeing another impossible dream realized.

Our weekly lessons have continued and Damian can juggle - not to the level that I saw in my imagination, but far beyond. The threadbare balls that were brand new six weeks earlier bounce off his chest with an endearing thump. His way of seeing requires sound and that is pure, splendid ingenuity. When he bends to pick up a ball his hands delicately survey the area and, like dependable hunting dogs, find the fallen treasure.

Occasionally he holds the balls out in front of his body and squeezes them tightly. The veins in his arms come to the surface and he taps his hands slowly onto an imaginary drum. I see him just being with the situation, visualizing what he is about to do.

The silent pauses that come in working with Damian offer a refreshing conversational cadence. Taking sight out of a relationship seems to lessen the need for aimless small talk. Damian typically breaks the silence with a funny or insightful snippet and then proceeds on to a good ten throws of juggling.

"There is such a conflict between thinking what to do and not being able to do it, or not thinking about it and just doing it," he blurts out.

"Damian, are we talking about juggling?," I want to make sure.

He relaxes his shoulders and laughs. "It feels like I am so close to being able to do this when I don't think about it. When I just start tossing them and let it happen naturally it seems like there should be a Pink Floyd album playing and the pattern should go all night."

"Tell me more about that," I query.

"If juggling is sex then I feel like I have my zipper half way down. But when I drop, it's like a premature" --

"OK Damian, we're going to put the metaphors away for a while," I insist.

I know why this whole idea didn't work out 20 years ago. Typical of a 19-year-old kid, I wanted it to be about me. And while I doubt I've matured all of that out of myself, this project is at least about us. For every minute I spend juggling with Damian I am rewarded in ways that continually surprise me.

I have gained a deeper level of understanding in my own juggling because of this experience. For the first time in my life I see my throws and catches as equal partners in an artistic creation. By helping Damian to visualize the flight of the balls through space, I more clearly defined that path for myself.

And I realized that one of the greatest rewards of teaching is - learning.


So strange to be here tonight with the American banking industry in a state of panic.

Our show was for Wells Fargo and it was business as usual. We actually went on stage right when the debates were starting. Kind of ironic.

Our good friend Paul Bachman came and hung around with us during the day and stayed for the show. Great to have an old friend like him here in the audience.

The crowd tonight just absolutely rocked! I didn’t want the show to end but the hour ended and they had a band waiting in another ballroom. This company knows how to reward their best employees!

Great crew that we have worked with a few other times. The stage manager said there was so much laughing on the intercom that she had a hard time knowing if anyone needed anything. Great comments.

Raspyni Brothers have a long history with Chicago. Many fine memories as well as our fist road gig together just about an hour from here. Of course, that was in 1982 when I had a full head of hair, Dan wore tights and bloomers, and we had no idea what was still to come. It’s always great to be here.

Heading out early tomorrow and home by 1:30. Something very wonderful and close to my heart is happening in my small town tonight, but I am here sharing laughs with 750 new friends… almost as good. A new round of brothers going through the weekend of ManKind Project just a few minutes from my house. I’ll be up there with them tomorrow night and that’ll make being home twice as nice.

Watching post-debate coverage right now… depending on what channel I flip to either McCain or Obama definitely won. Well, that’s not too helpful. I’ll catch the replay on the internet.

Praying for good things in our world so we can all keep doing what we love to do.



Our Night in the JFK Presidential Library

We did a show tonight in Boston for the International Society for the Study of Vascular Anomalies. While the show was certainly a blast (in the round – that doesn’t happen too often!), the venue was the real star of this night.

We were left alone to roam the museum and read, watch, listen to, and surround ourselves with all things JFK. It was a spectacular time and it inspired me to visit more Presidential libraries around the country.

The most interesting part for me was that so much of JFK’s defining moments happened just before or soon after I was born. Interesting perspective on the state of our country at that time. He had dinner at the White House with the Shaw of Iran 3 days before I was born. The dress Jackie wore to the dinner was right there.

Kind of cool!

ING in Naples, FL

Sitting at the gate in Ft. Myers, FL waiting to go back home and reflecting on what a blast we had yesterday with the Honor Club of ING Financial Services. These people know how to party.

We did our show at 8:30 AM and it was a rocking good time. Always nice to see that a room full of people can have that much fun sans alcohol. The organizers put on quite an event for the best-of-the-best club – great acts over the course of 3 days on this rewards trip. Durwood Fincher is such a hoot. This guy makes these videos with the attendees that will have you falling on the floor laughing. He’s made a great career (and a boatload of money) by being sort of a bumbling nomad in a suit.

The night before our show they had Papa Doo Run Run. I was dead tired after flying all day and didn’t see the show but people were still buzzing from it the next morning. Can’t beat that review. Oh, and this review from their website says something:

“They sound more like the Beach Boys than the Beach Boys do!”
~ Don Bleu, Syndicated radio DJ and TV personality.

I love that one.

Saturday was Raspyni Brothers, you know about us so I won’t go into detail. Suffice it to say (and I’m quoting Kenny Banyan from Seinfeld here), We Killed.

Following us they had Mike Abershoff who we’ve worked with a number of times and as if being good looking, funny, nice and very personable isn’t enough, his speech packs quite a punch of actual content. If I were a lesser man I’d hate him!

Saturday night was a concert by Bruce Hornsby. I walked by and saw his sound check in the afternoon and he looked good, smiled a lot, and sounded exactly like Bruce Hornsby. I skipped the evening show because it was a black tie event and I wanted to take a short run on the beach after dark, followed by a nice long swimming workout in an empty lap pool. With a whole day of flying ahead, that sounded better than an hour of music.

Dan was back in business after a long and painful lower-back issue. The guy was a trooper on stage but every other time I saw him in the last 24 hours he’s had a post-pain, pre-pain, or present-pain grimace on his face. I remember from my accident last year how much it sucks to be less than whole. And I remember how great it felt to get back on the horse and do what I do best. I think this trip was good for him.

With crude oil selling for over $100/barrel I don’t know how much longer we’ll all be jetting around the world. But right now it’s time to assume the position. See ya.