Diamond Body Friday

I live in the countryside 30km east of Cologne – it takes 45 minutes to drive into the city. This Friday I managed to squeeze four very different Cologne appointments into one day which was good … it saved some driving time. So the day brought me an interesting and quite pleasurable mixture of computer programming topics, music related meetings, and something deeply spiritual – all in one package. Plus a nice walk, some interesting buildings, a number of lo-res photos (see below), and a piece of cake.

Date One – ColdFusion 9 Upgrade Workshop

Version 9 of Adobe ColdFusion has just been released, and I was invited to a presentation at the Cologne Adobe offices. My programming colleague Horst Becker was also participating, plus 20 or so other ColdFusion programmers from the larger Cologne area.

It was good to see again that ColdFusion is in pretty good health (even though many programmers who feel attached to other programming languages often doubt this, and look down on CF because they think it is not a real programming/script language). CF9 is the first version that was entirely prepared by Adobe (it used to belong to other companies before), and there are quite a large number of useful developments and new features, such as extensive methods to communicate with Microsoft Office products, and a new Hibernate-based Object Relational Mapping methodology (a persistence layer, or abstract access method, replacing the familiar SQL database access syntax).

Exciting as these technologies are, I find myself more and more bored, not by ColdFusion which is a wonderful tool, but by this kind of work in general. I don’t belong to the programmers who are completely identified with their work and their tools and take it all oh so seriously. But as I don’t have an alternative way to earn money, it seems I will stay with it for a while. Unfortunately, it seems to me that programming, instead of getting easier and easier as technology advances, gets more and more complex, requiring more and more energy to keep up with the latest developments.

I took a walk with Horst along the Rhine towards the chocolate museum where we had a coffee and a cake, overlooking the Rhine. We spent an hour discussing technology, current projects, and his art exhibition that opened later that evening. (Horst was not amused when his iPhone told him about the latest stock market developments following doubts about the solvency of Dubai.)

That part of the Cologne Rhine west river – stretching for a mile south of the city center – used to be a no man’s land full of old defunct factory, storage, and silo buildings. Everything has changed now – there are many gleaming new office buildings, among them the new German Microsoft center, and the three spectacular crane buildings, two of which are already in use. I felt slightly uneasy to walk below them, with I don’t know how many tons hovering above me, just leaning on one thin looking central column. For some reason I had to think about the huge Cologne subway project that led to the collapse of the archive building, not far away from here.

Date Two – A Talk About Music

I walked half a mile from here to the Severinstor, the heart of the old southern part of Cologne, where I met Christian Schaal, a singer and bass player who I knew from concerts with singer-songwriter-composer Markus Apitius. Christian had recently asked me to join his new band project that he is thinking about. We had hot chocolate and tea and talked music for an hour. We found that we have some ideas in common, and that we will probably meet again at the beginning of the year for a session, to see how we harmonize musically.

I find that my musical activities are expanding rapidly, with the various loop festivals, other concerts, and various free improvisation collaborations. I’m enjoying this immensely of course, and not being a professional musician (Robert Fripp told me that I’d be much better off if I didn’t try this ­čÖé ) I don’t have any expectations, and I don’t even think about commercial success, so these musical explorations can be completely open. I have no idea where I will be in a year or two, musically.


Date Three – A Strange Instrument

After my meeting with Christian, I drove to Mr. Viertmann’s beautiful guitar shop to pick up the C├╝mb├╝s I had recently bought for cheap. This strange Turkish fretless 12-string banjo was in bad shape but I got it back repaired, and ready for new strings. I can’t play it yet but it is such a strange instrument with such a strong sound, and I sense so many exciting musical possibilities here … I look forward to learning to play it … at least a little bit.

Date Four – Remembering Presence

My last appointment led me to Rani Willems, a wonderful spiritual teacher who I met only a couple of months ago. Her work complements the many things that I learned and experienced at the Ridhwan school – following many years of Zen and Meditative Inquiry with Toni Packer, who taught me more important things about life and the human mind than anyone else.

I hesitate to write about what this is all about – too large a topic for a little blog such as this, too prone to misunderstandings. Strange how many myths exist about spirituality, meditation, enlightenment, and everybody seems to be an expert anyway.

To me, this thing has nothing at all to do with religion or beliefs or philosophy, it is certainly nothing esoteric and actually not even spiritual, whatever that means. In 2001, after more than 25 years of grappling with Zen, it began to dawn on me what it is about, and I found it to be natural and utterly simple – too simple for the mind to grasp.

It appears to me now that all that was needed was
1. a good knowledge (thanks to Toni) about the countless ways that we constantly fool ourselves (by clinging to personality, opinions, beliefs, self-images, etc.) so I could learn to quickly recognize this in myself, and to drop it;
2. I eventually lost interest (to a limited extent) in my own compulsive, conditioned, and repetitive thinking; and
3. I found that by ignoring the oh-so-important blah-blah of my own mind, instead staying simply awake for a while, completely conscious in the present moment, something entirely unexpected and powerful could begin to shine – something that had been here all the time, totally covered up by the internal noise that I believed to be. This new thing is closer to me than my personality, it has nothing at all to do with Michael, and it was just a matter of recognizing it – somewhat difficult because in the midst of all the turbulence of my life, this was a quiet constant, easily overlooked.

There is some kind of oscillation now, the old Michael structure appears to pull me back into oblivion most of the time, but there is another force that pulls me into remembering again, very subtle and soft, but it is there, sometimes very strongly and clearly like today while looking at it together with Rani, and burning like a flame afterwards through the evening. We are incredible beings! Yes, stardust, as Joni Mitchell put it, but much more than that.

Wise Old Men

Who remembers Catweazle? When Daevid Allen entered stage yesterday where his band Gong was already playing, he was clad in his skull covered suit, a long glittering cloak, and a pointed hat. I thought of Catweazle at first, that crazy sorcerer from the middle ages who time travelled into contemporary England by accident.

What on earth does this guy (who will turn 72 soon) do to be so obviously healthy, full of positive energy, and so much power and stamina at this age? he jumped and danced around on stage all night long, he played electric guitar and sang as energetically as ever, laughing often and having the time of his life. I looked into his old wise eyes from quite near the stage and found that there was a considerable amount of presence and charisma around him. Remarkable.

Gong and their guitarist Steve Hillage were heroes of my youth. Here’s a photograph of my table in a room in a Cambridge college where I spent a week or two back in 1975 to work on my English. The Camembert Electrique LP by Gong (“holy cheese!”) was one of the items that I bought there, completing my early Gong record collection that already contained the “Radio Gnome Invisible” trilogy – a mythology about a planet called Gong, inhabited by the peaceful and spiritually evolved Pot Head Pixies that visit Earth in their green flying teapots. (I learned yesterday that the flying teapot theme was inspired by an analogy by philosopher Bertrand Russell.)

I was delighted to finally see the reunion lineup of this band that has been together since 2006 – Mike Howlett was not with them yesterday but at least there were Gilli Smyth (still doing her psychedelic witch singing at 76, maybe more convincing than ever), Canterbury scene guitar hero Steve Hillage, and his longtime partner, synth wizard Miquette Giraudy, along with a wonderful backing band (drums, bass, and sax/flute – I knew none of them before but they were all technically outstanding).

The Steve Hillage band played as openers before Gong, warming us up with Hillage’s psychedelic old songs – even some of the complex pieces of his Fish Rising album. They played quite energetically, less playful than I remember them – “less bubbles” as Michael Frank commented. I liked them a lot. Where would I be as a guitar player if I hadn’t been inspired by his echo guitar and his ethereal screwdriver glissando technique? (The technique was invented by Syd Barrett but I learned it from Steve Hillage who also used it extensively.)

The Pot Head Pixies that visited Earth 35 years ago are still alive and more active than ever, it seems. I bought their new album “2032” yesterday. It says that 2032 will be the year when “the existence of Planet Gong will be officially recognized by astronomers on Earth and will signal the first public arrival of these space visitors”. Something to look forward to!