Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Princess and the Tower

For Pamela

Once upon a time there was a young princess who was locked in a tall stone tower.

Each day she would spend hours gazing out the windows. From her high perch she could see for miles around. She could see the tops of forests on green hills and tiny people leading tiny horses on roads that were a thin ribbon of brown. She imagined running down the green hills and playing with the horses and people on the road. She wanted very badly to visit the land outside her tower.

She didn’t remember how she had gotten there, or why she had been locked up. The truth is that a person of royal blood is a dangerous thing, even if they are small. So people seeking power sometimes lock them in towers.

Her room was large and mostly round, taking up almost the entire top floor of the tower. On one side there was a flat wall with a tall wooden door. It was thick and she knew from trying that it could not be opened from the inside. Next to the door was a wooden slot above a stone shelf. Each morning, she would find a bowl of food and one of water on the shelf. Sometimes she tried to stay up and see who put the bowl through the slot, but it never came until she fell asleep.

Time passed and the princess grew older. A bird couple built a nest outside her window. In the springtime their eggs hatched and three baby birds were born. The mother and father took turns watching the nest while the other went to find food for the baby birds.

She gave them all names. She named the daddy and mommy Walter and Sarah, with kids Nathaniel, Jean, and Mary. In the morning she would sing to them and at night she would tell them a bedtime story.

There was a bookshelf on one side of the room. She learned how to read bigger and bigger books as time went on. She ripped out the pages of the ones she didn’t like and drew on them with pieces of charcoal. Some days she spent hours looking at the clouds in the skies and drawing their shapes. Up high, the shape of the clouds in the sky are strange and beautiful because there is nothing to block your view for miles and miles. She could see them make shadows on the ground as they moved across the land.

Other days she folded pages of books into fantastic costumes. She made herself into a sailor, a bird, or a dragon and staged elaborate plays for the family of birds.

Gradually she lost her desire to go down to the ground. She got used to her life of making beautiful drawings, talking to birds, and watching the clouds come and go. If someone were watching her, they would say that she was happy and without a care.

One day she was in middle of drawing a portrait of her bird friends when there was a loud bang on the door. Some of the wood splintered and cracked. A deep voice yelled “Princess, don’t worry, I have come to save you!”. She backed away to the other side of the room, cowering at the noises. There was another bang, loud as thunder, and another. Finally a thick steel battle-axe came through the door, followed by a sweaty man in dented and dirty armor. He had tired eyes and a face full of brown stubble. He kneeled down and offered his hand, saying “Princess, come here, we are to leave”.

“I don’t want to go. Who are you?”, she said.

“Princess, I am sorry for scaring you. I am to take you to your brother, the King.” he said.

The word “brother” caught her interest. She didn’t know she had a brother. She would like to meet him. Anyways, she knew she didn’t have a choice. She couldn’t well say “no” to a big man with a sword and battle armor.

“Ok, I will go with you”, she said taking his hand.

“It’s easier if I carry you, it’s a long way down”, he replied.

She nodded her assent and he whisked her onto his big shoulders, piggy-back style. His shoulders were thickly muscled like a horse. She gave one final look back at the nest outside her window. It was empty, the birds were scared off by the noise. She felt a pang of regret that she would not see them one more time.

As they walked through the doorway she gasped and looked back again. She saw her room from the other side for the first time. She kept her eyes on it as they began to climb down a long spiral staircase, and the last sliver of her room disappeared from sight. The princess fell asleep on top of the big soldier.

In the next few days she learned the story of the life she had been living for the past ten years. When her father, the king, had died, her uncle had kidnapped her. His plan was to kill her brother and marry her when she was of age, so the kingdom would pass to his own family. However, one of her uncle’s men were still loyal to her brother, and he had helped hide the young boy and smuggle him out of the country. Her uncle ruled as regent for 10 years while her brother in exile grew into a mighty king. He came back with an army to defeat their uncle and take back the throne.

Life was strange in her brother’s castle. She got a new room with big windows and a fancy bed. She liked it. But everybody thought her very quiet and odd. She thought them noisy and busy. She spent a lot of time drawing in her room.

She enjoyed the beautiful clothes she got to wear. They reminded her of her bird family. She wished she could show them how colorful she was now.

It was a strange experience to meet her brother. She was allowed to eat dinner at his table one day with his advisers. He seemed to care about her well-being and she liked that. But he spent most of the time talking about the affairs of the kingdom with his advisers. He seemed to be a very busy man. After that, she did not see him often. She guessed she admired him, but she did not like him.

He encouraged her to marry and that made her nervous. But one day she met a quiet young Duke who preferred writing poetry to fighting and they became fast friends.

They married and had children. She was a good mother and a wise princess.

Eventually her brother died in a war and her husband became King and she became Queen. The people were happy to have such kindly monarchs. Their wisdom and gentleness was celebrated throughout the land.

She had a good life. But when she had a spare moment from the tasks of running a kingdom and raising a family, she would think back wistfully to her time in the tower. The paintings on the walls of the castle were pretty, but they were never quite as beautiful as the clouds she remembered. And the professional court musicians were very good, but she missed the honest song of the birds.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A Blessing for the New Year

(Remarks as prepared for the Ritual of the New Year, January 3, 2015. Dedicated in memory of Dan Ha)

The most important part of any gathering is the guests. Not the music, not the location, not the food. So thank you for coming here.

The year is young. Like all young things it has great potential to surprise those who give it life, with disappointment or delight. How the events of the year will unfold is not under our complete control, but we can give to it a good beginning. We can start the year with goodness and love, put forward our best intentions, and pray that our actions today will echo forward through time, to guide us for one more trip around the sun.

On Christmas Eve I received a blessing from a Jesuit priest. He said “Bless you and all you care for, in the name of the father, son, and holy ghost”. It struck me that this was a very big blessing, I wonder if it was bigger than he realized. It was both a blessing and a challenge in disguise, because the responsibility lay on me to determine its size. All whom I care for could be limited to only myself, or it could be limitless.

Know that its circumference extends to you.

People think of the New Year as an occasion of rejuvenation or rebirth. But that doesn't sound quite right to me. Both of those words imply going back to some previous state, and we can’t go back. Instead, I see each year as a process of evolution and discovery. In that spirit I have prepared a blessing for tonight.

A Blessing for a New Year
by Jacob Lyles

In this new year I bless you.
May you grow and unfold with the passage of time
according to your nature
and share with others the gifts given only to you
knowing that to hoard gifts is to squander them
(worse than never receiving them at all)

May you know the bigness of a caring heart
May you know the perception of a still mind
May you know the joy of a purposeful being
May you know the comfort of knowledge and maturity

Time never stops. All things change into other things. Even the most heavenly joy does not last forever upon this Earth.
But with each passing comes new life
and by that we know that god is fundamentally kind.

We are all older now. The gifts we have are fading, like wilting flowers in a vase. May we have the wisdom to recognize the new gifts time brings to us, as fresh as the gifts that we first took pride in.

When you are afraid, may you feel loved
When you are full of love, may you be moved to act
And may this new year bring you closer to what you are meant to be


Monday, December 8, 2014

The Silicon Jedi

There are many warriors, they are not priests.

There are many priests, they are not warriors.

The Jedi mix these two ancient castes in a powerful combination. Unusual for priests, they are active in the world, serving a vision of the Good through feats of grit, daring, and sacrifice. Unusual for warriors, they are in touch with a deep well of spiritual energy. This gives them access to mystical forces that makes each one worth a thousand ordinary soldiers. 

Among the legions of startup infantry battling for success in Silicon Valley the Jedi still live today. 

Steve Jobs was a Jedi - a hippie and a spiritual pilgrim before becoming a businessman. This was key to his power. As a young man he prioritized feeding his soul, thereby awakening a thirst for beauty that drove his professional career. I imagine Steve would be happy that so many people were inspired by him to listen to the inner voice of their souls, but regret that so many others imitate his. Merely copying his business methods won’t lead to his success, that's only a little less silly than copying his method of dress. The spiritual journey is difficult and it is not optional. 

Jobs was a high profile Silicon Jedi but he was neither the first not the last of the kind. There are a few active today (the Jedi never exist in large numbers - quality over quantity is their way). If you have the privilege to encounter one, you will find it a delightful experience, but also a challenging one. They have a way of seeing through the lies we wrap around ourselves to hide from difficult facts. The Jedi way of life is raw, rejecting false comforts.

You can sometimes tell a Jedi by his strangeness. The rich inner life that a Jedi experiences makes him less in need of external social validation. His soul shines through in his style - his way of acting, thinking, and talking. He will read the Tao Te Ching in the office. He will walk barefoot in downtown Mountain View. He will build a user interface that looks like it comes from a more enlightened galaxy far, far away.

Actually, Jedi are not particularly strange compared to normal people. Everybody is strange on the inside compared to the standardized world of mass culture. Fear of the perception of others causes us to hide our inner world. In the startup realm, letting your freak flag fly risks that you will offend a member of the click-hungry tech press, a potential boss, or a future investor. 

Being a real human being seems dangerous. So in the valley of innovation a uniform develops - the uniform of maximum risk aversion. The appearance of the last breakout success is widely counterfeited. But it is folly to clutch for safety in the midst of the risky business of entrepreneurship. It is not really safe - like driving half speed on a busy highway. And it isn't fun.

The majority of startups die before they get off the ground. It is probably better to have a distinct taste that some people love and some people hate than to blend in. It is probably more profitable and fulfilling to have a great time and let the haters hate. Yes, when you find yourself CEO of a billion-dollar company your risk-averse corporate board might fire you. But life is not a one act play. 

The best place to look for modern Jedi is Burning Man. US coastal professionals are spiritually starved. Burning Man feeds that hunger. At Burning Man, CEOs and engineers mingle with artists and shamans - sometimes all four are found in one body. It’s a bridge from the default world to the spirit realm, a necessary source of inspiration, connection, and catharsis.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Favorite things

If you would like to be in love with being alive, then this post is for you.

A friend turned me on to the On Being podcast, which has since become my constant companion as I work through the backlog. If you're going to listen to one show, check out this magical conversation with former Irish priest John O'Donohue. His gratitude for the beauty of the human experience is contagious. The piece of traditional Irish music embedded above is linked from the On Being website as a companion to the conversation.

Other powerful episodes include interviews with Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh and French priest Jean Varnier. Conversations with Paulo Coelho and Ekhart Tolle are also worth your time.

Over Thanksgiving I read G.K. Chesterton's novel Manalive, about a remarkable man who goes to great lengths to stay in love with life, confounding everybody else around him.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Hay there

While I defragment my life/mind enough to get back to writing, enjoy some of the things that I have enjoyed lately (source at Szabo's blog):

"The technologies which have had the most profound effects on human life are usually simple. A good example of a simple technology with profound historical consequences is hay. Nobody knows who invented hay, the idea of cutting grass in the autumn and storing it in large enough quantities to keep horses and cows alive through the winter. All we know is that the technology of hay was unknown to the Roman Empire but was known to every village of medieval Europe. Like many other crucially important technologies, hay emerged anonymously during the so-called Dark Ages. According to the Hay Theory of History, the invention of hay was the decisive event which moved the center of gravity of urban civilization from the Mediterranean basin to Northern and Western Europe. The Roman Empire did not need hay because in a Mediterranean climate the grass grows well enough in winter for animals to graze. North of the Alps, great cities dependent on horses and oxen for motive power could not exist without hay. So it was hay that allowed populations to grow and civilizations to flourish among the forests of Northern Europe. Hay moved the greatness of Rome to Paris and London, and later to Berlin and Moscow and New York."
- Freeman Dyson 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Aphorisms 2

A worry is a wasted thought

A man is remembered, not for the pleasures he enjoyed, but for the responsibilities he carried

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Aphorism 1

The present lasts for a moment. The future is forever. So build with an eye on eternity.