Grief. Parental. German. Shakespearean. Classical.

Hans Mittelmaier - March 2016
Hans Mittelmaier – March 2016

Exactly 5 months ago, sometime around 2am German time, my father tried to sit up in his home-version of a hospital bed, supported by his wife of many decades, tried to clear his throat, failed, sank back, and never breathed again.

He finished a life of 78 years, a remarkable feat considering his many health problems, worsened, if not caused by his voracious consumption of ethanol in various forms. He began this habit with ever increasing passion after his GP encouraged him in his thirties, post-kidney-stone, to down a regular measure of beer to somehow help with the flow of things.

He was born in 1940, lost his father before the war was over through an execution ordered by court martial in Poland, and then lost his mother to cancer less than 15 years later.

It doubtlessly was not an easy childhood, he and my mother provided me with a seemingly infinitely more protected one, even though closer inspection would show you significant fractures in that, too.

His passing, as expected as it was after a steady and yet rapid decline of six months, started a very sudden series of utterly unexpected familial developments and discoveries, and I will possibly never fully understand how much these were responsible for a turmoil and confusion, and bitterly deep sense of grief I have been feeling since then.

Grief over parental loss feels like being a member of an exclusive club, similar to other “special experiences” in life like parenting, taking ballet class, renal colics, moving to a foreign country: You feel that you can really only talk to people in a meaningful way, who have made similar experiences.

One of my most precious moments in the weeks after my father’s death was an unexpected conversation over lunch with a friend in London, who had also lost her father, even though it was already quite a number of years ago.

The pain never stops, she said. And so far, she seems proven right. It was comforting to speak to someone who knew instinctively, who felt what I felt, whose expression of condolence seemed so very much more powerful than those well-intended ones from friends and others, who had not yet lost a parent.

And still.

Every experience is unique.

And yet.

It is reassuring to hear that there are common things, that connect us.

Very importantly, too, I am far from saying that losing a parent in the middle of your life is the worst that can happen to you. It really is not. Losing a child surely must be on a whole other level of grief, another dimension.

Grief makes us realise the complexity of the relationship we had with the person we have lost. Invariably, this newly discovered complexity falls into the vacuum created by the death of the person we had this relationship with.

No meaningful adjustments are possible anymore. Or are they?

Yes, death is final. It is a brutal cut between being and not being. Or, if you believe in an afterlife, between being here and being there. No, I have no inclination to complicate the matter further by blurring this line with ghosts or other ideas of communication between these two states.

However, like so many other things that were not of much use to me before, I now really relate to the idea of “he lives on in you”.

Nature and nurture. We inherit our parents genes, but they also shape us in so very many ways. As Philip Larkin phrased it so beautifully, “They fill you with the faults they had and add some extra, just for you.” But they also give you great gifts of passions, interests, insights.

My father loved England. He loved Shakespeare. He loved classical music. Anyone who knows me, will instantly recognise these three characteristics as essential to who I am.

My mother loves people. She has a never-ending passion for kindness.

I consider myself very lucky to have had such parents, even though they did come with their own faults, of course.

Hans Mittelmaier, he was a very intelligent, hard working man. He had a gift of being able to talk to anyone regardless of background and education. However, he failed to treat those closest to him with the love and respect that he so very much demanded from them. Love and respect, dad, they can never be one-way streets. It breaks my heart that you never were able to fully understand that and adjust. It made you so very, very lonely.

And yet, he was and is an inspiration to me. One of the last intellectual efforts he indulged in, was to learn Hebrew and Arabic. I never asked him why. I do remember that he told me with deep sorrow about having forgotten it all again once his dementia started to eat away at what had always been so very important to him, his brain.

Dad, the value of a person cannot be measured in how clever they are. Our value, I believe this deeply, comes from how we treat others. Thank you, mum.

You are dead now. I do not need to argue with you anymore. I do not need to justify myself, I do not need to try to help you heal wounds that you never had a chance to heal. What I can do is honour the riches you have given me, develop them further, and stay wary of the weaknesses that troubled you so much.

Our parents live on in us, it is up to us, how we accommodate them. We can strengthen the good in our memories, without forgetting the bad.

It is not in our stars, dear Brutus, it is in ourselves that we are underlings. My father aptly quoted Shakespeare in his score of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony. It now is one of my dearest possessions, while it made me angry in my turbulent youth.

I will try to honour his memory in an honest, but heartfelt way. He strived and struggled. I will try to find strength in the knowledge that his was an eager, curious, powerful brain, and I will try to always heed the warning that the loneliness of his life put into a nutshell: Be good to those who are good to you and you will never be truly alone.

He lives on in me. I will create him a comfortable and peaceful study in my heart, where he can rest in peace and yet have his eyes on what goes on in my world, not troubled any longer by those puzzles he found impossible to solve.

Requiem aeternam dona eis.
الله يرحمه
ינוח על משכבו בשלום
May the flying spaghetti monster provide him with eternal tomato sauce.

Shakespeare - Julius Caesar I/2
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings

Use the pretty one!

When did you last use your task list? Was it fun? Or at least pleasant? Do you like your task list or do you consider it a necessary evil and ignore its ugliness?

For a long while, I could not decide between OmniFocus and Things as task managers on my Apple gear. I loved OmniFocus for its obvious depth of functionality, the ability to have tasks only show up at certain times of the day, but most of all nested projects. But I never managed to get myself to use it consistently. I just find it really, really unattractive.

omnifocus

Things, though, is one of the prettiest applications on the Mac and the iPhone (not as much on the iPad, especially the project view that does not fit the look of the rest of the application). However, due to its seeming limits of fine tuning, I felt really guilty about preferring it to OmniFocus.

So I went to my coaching guru and told her about my predicament. Her answer was simple and spoken with complete confidence: “Use the one you like better. You are much more likely to keep using it.”

A task management software is only as useful as you are consistent in using it. Good-bye OmniFocus, long live Things.

David Sparks wrote a piece on Macworld yesterday that reminded me of that decision process. It all happened for me about half a year ago and it has really worked for me.

P.S. Turns out (copyright Merlin Mann 2014) that Things offers a lot more complexity and customisation options once you keep looking under the hood.

Josefowicz plays Salonen at the Barbican

Contemporary classical music is a very mixed bag indeed. Some of it, even I would consider noise. With the disclaimer, of course, that there may still be gold hidden inside, and I just can’t see, er, hear it.

Salonen, for me, is full of gold. Full of all kinds of colours and textures, actually. Gold, grass, a light summer breeze, the heavy doughy, deeply aromatic texture of a grilled cheese, a light-footed race of a bollywood dance group, the sombre concentration of a funeral moment, sarcastic laughter – in short, a whole universe.

Salonen

I am talking about his violin concerto. I first came across Salonen as a composer in Leila Josefowicz’ recital album with his “Lachen verlernt.” In line with its topic (the holocaust), it is more one-dimensional. But of harrowing elegance.

Leila Josefowicz - John Novacek - 2CD recital

But the violin concerto is not easy listening. You are unlikely to walk out of the concert hall whistling many of its tunes. Give it a chance, and parts of it will not even need time to grow on you, but grip you instantly. The other parts will indeed grow on you with time.

I had not paid attention to the Barbcian and its classical music programme for a while, and I almost missed this concert. Luckily, due to its not-so-conservative programme, it was not sold out and I got a very decent ticket the night before. Since you are reading this after the fact, all you can do is buy the CD. But do it, if your vocabulary and interest transcend Beethoven and Mahler, you may well enjoy it.

(c) Henry Fair DG - Deutsche Grammophon - Salonen - Out of Nowhere
(c) Henry Fair DG – Deutsche Grammophon – Salonen – Out of Nowhere

And Josefowicz? Well, I would give anything a try that she feels worthy of performing. She certainly is a unique performer: She seems to immerse herself so much into her music that she apparently could not care less what impact her impassioned grimaces might have on the listener. But there is no such distraction on the CD, of course. She is a technically impeccable artist and happily pairs that with an emotional range second to none. Her history spans another universe in itself from child prodigy to favourite at the BBC PROMS (including one last-night performance), but most importantly Jeanne d’Arc of ground breaking new composition.

If I were anything like her, I would be exceedingly happy by the fact alone that I had been a focal point of the kind of contribution to human culture that enriches our lives. She is a champion of contemporary classical music not unlike the older Anne-Sophie Mutter. Music would be so much poorer without brave personalities like these. You can occasionally get Leila to play you some Mendelssohn. But she does it mainly so you can be tricked into following her on to a much more exciting path. When you place that order for the Salonen, add another violin concerto written for her, one by the Scottish literal and metaphorical giant Oliver Knussen.

Oliver Knussen - violin concerto

Expand your horizons. You know you want to.

the rubbish wizard

Phil is my rubbish wizard. I like to think that I have a reasonably strong conscience as far as our environment is concerned, so I don’t need Phil often. I prefer to re-cycle, free-cycle and ebay things that I don’t need anymore. But on two occasions, I needed a wizard. And you will find no better than Phil and his wizard assistants.

I called Phil twice to empty a house in North London that needed to be refurbished and later sold. Once in 2007 and once now in 2013. And on both occasions we was friendly, efficient and thorough.

I love small businesses that make the extra effort to look after their clients. They know it is the key to success or in the current climate maybe the key to sheer survival. Consequently, I love recommending them when I find them.

Phil runs such a business. If you need a magic wand to make all that rubbish go away, and the council is too complicated, not available at short notice or generally unwilling, Phil has the perfect solution. His fees are surprisingly reasonable – give him a call.

info@anyrubbish.co.uk
243 Hither Green Lane
London SE13 6TH
020 8318 4240
www.anyrubbish.co.uk

before:

messy room
one of the rooms before the rubbish wizard did his work

after:

empty room
result of sheer wizardry

First time encounter with acupuncture

While I am generally sceptical of anything that does not smell of Western medicine, I am also quite a curious person, happy to try new things.

I had been keen to try acupuncture for years, but never found the right opportunity.

Enter Nina Smith, the kiwi acupuncturist who just started offering her services at Topnotch Healthclub Blackfriars, the original and main home of my clinic.

The tightly concentrated vs. the wider focus

It seems that you could separate acupuncture into two variants:

1. There is the clinical, laser-guided release of tension and/or pain in one particular muscle or a muscle group. Or the release of pain and stiffness in a joint.

2. And then there is the slightly esoteric sounding but much more ambitious and comprehensive effort to “make your Chi flow better”, which claims to address all kinds of ailments, from anxiety to digestive disorders, to high blood pressure, to addictions.

I went for no.2. I did mention my addiction to milk chocolate to her. Will the friendly, petite acupuncture fairy wave her wand and make it disappear?

The interview

It all starts with a rather comprehensive interview where Nina moves sleuth-like from topic to topic to find out which things bother me most in life. For a moment, I forget my suspicions about the all-encompassing approach: Talking exclusively about the challenges in my life makes me look forward to switching to the needle part.

acupuncture

The attack

Nina is what you want your therapist to be: She makes you feel at ease by exuding competence, and by being calm, confident and friendly.

She uses a tapping technique on your skin to mask the moment when she sticks a needle in you, so any apprehension I may have had about that was completely unnecessary. Having said that, I am reasonably good with needles, I have no obsession to watching people stabbing me, but I will definitely not faint if I do.

This is where it turns into one of the more amazing experiences in my life. The 10-20 seconds after the needle is placed bring a completely unknown but pleasant sensation: Just as Nina suggested, a warmth starts spreading out from the point of entry, as if she had injected me with a pleasantly warm liquid that spreads out evenly like a cloth soaking up a spillage.

The sensation gets repeated every time, even though once a bit of wriggling is required to get it going. I get stabbed with very thin but long needles in my big toes close to the joint, in my thumbs close to the hand, in my elbows and once in my forehead between the eyebrows.

The assailant leaves me for about 10 mintues, briefly comes back in to wriggle needles about to re-start the liquid-injection effect and after another 10 minutes she comes back in to remove the needles.

The aftermath

I don’t feel as if my life has suddenly become heaps easier, but I am impressed by having had a very unique new physical experience and I am much more open to its potential effects.

Based on what I hear from friends and clients who have had acupuncture, the challenge with these kind of therapies is that sometimes it will take a good few sessions before you get a lasting improvement.

So far, I have had two and I did feel full of energy after the second one, even though I am always sceptical as to how much that may have been due to the treatment, but I am looking forward to having a few more and see where it takes me.

Call Topnotch Healthclub Blackfriars on 020 7867 1222 to book a session with Nina (initial consultation and treatment is 1.5 hours at £70, further treatments are 1 hour at £60) or email her at acupuncture@ec4physio.co.uk

London mourns Steve Jobs

OK, maybe not all of London. But a good few people have made their way to the Apple Shop in Regent Street to express their feelings about the recent passing of one of the greatest inventors of our time.
He may have had his dark side and Apple is – surprise, surprise – a profit-oriented commercial enterprise, but all things considered the world is better off having had Steve Jobs stubbornly pursue his vision.

Memorial to Steve Jobs at Apple Shop in Regent Street, London, UK
Flowers, posters and apples (!) in memory of Steve Jobs.

Walter Isaacson’s book about Steve Jobs (to be released 24th October) should prove an interesting read.

Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography

Zend_Tool – Wolfgang’s crib sheet

Zend_Tool is a command line utility which comes with Zend Framework. It does not write your application code, but it creates the basic directory structure and skeleton files. Mastering its basic use will save you a lot of time.

I have put together a selection of the commands that I use regularly. For comprehensive lists and more in-depth information, please check out the links at the end of this page.

Installation

Download the latest Zend Framework from framework.zend.com.

Edit your .bashrc file and add a line for an alias which allows you to enter the Zend_Tool commands without specifying the directory of the respective zf.sh file.

alias zf='/home/yourusername/Downloads/Zend/bin/zf.sh'

Usage

Zend_Tool is a handy way to test whether a Zend Framework installation is working properly. Open a terminal and enter:
zf show version

Create the whole directory structure of a new project together with a skeleton of the configuration file application.ini:
zf create project MyProjectName

Create modules. I am far from understanding how they work… 🙁
zf create module Mysterymodule

Create controllers. Big timesaver: View files and directories are created automatically.
zf create controller Auth

There are lots of parameters that I have not yet got a clue about. In its default, the controller file will be populated with empty actions and the view scripts with sample/demo code.

For database use, the following example will create a model file that makes the table User available:
zf create dbtable User user

Forms like to sit in their own directory:
zf create form Auth

Create a layout.phtml file and modify application.ini accordingly:
zf enable layout

TO DOs

  • check out parameters to commands
  • learn about modules (and maybe write a page)
  • add more helpful links
  • write a page on application.ini and Zend_Config
  • write a page on database interaction with ZF

Helpful links

A concise overview in the ZF reference:
Using Zend_Tool On The Command Line

An online book about ZF by a programmer:
Zend Framework: Surviving The Deep End

Royal Opera House: Yummy mummy gets into trouble while honest bird finds happiness (Niobe, Regina di Tebe)

It takes a lot to get me to enjoy a baroque opera. It helped that my good friend Christine Busch, a violinist from Stuttgart, Germany, got me a ticket for the dress rehearsal of Niobe, Regina di Tebe at the Royal Opera House in London. You can’t enjoy it if you don’t get to go.

However, tickets for the public performances will be easier to get hold of: not many people get terribly excited about the prospect of watching ancient Greek folk over three solid hours getting into trouble while singing lots of coloratura. And that’s not counting the almost half-hour break after the first of the three acts. I had never managed to listen to a baroque opera from start to finish before.

But this is different. Thanks to ingenious, witty, modern set design and direction, and thanks very much to the surtitles that allow you to follow the story every step of the way, this opera by Italian diplomat and composer Agostino Steffani becomes an almost suspenseful session.

French soprano Véronique Gens (who by the way is quite a celebrity in baroque music circles) seems the perfect singer for the role of posh yummy mummy Niobe who gets to reign over Thebe when hubby Anfione feels like retiring. American Amanda Forsythe brings a Reese Witherspoon charme (Vanity Fair) to the role of the young honest bird Manto, daughter to rightfully grumpy blind seer Tiresia. Quite early on, she gets rescued (disappointingly off-stage) from a wild animal by cool regal muscle man Tiberino, portrayed with the requisite oomph and passion by German tenor Lothar Odinius.

The set and lighting designs are by German designer Raimund Bauer. In themselves they create a daunting and increasingly dark atmosphere that in its simple grandeur of big, clear lines becomes an opera house like the Royal Opera House. There is only one moment, where a huge disco ball time-warped (and enlarged) from the Seventies descends from above where I thought maybe that was an error in judgement. But the smart, witty, and sometimes simply gorgeous set design would be nothing without the lively, believable and often pleasantly humorous direction by German Lukas Hemleb.

The production would not exist, were it not for multi-talented German conductor Thomas Hengelbrock, who founded the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble, an orchestra that specialises on historical performances with original instruments. However, when I throw a quick glance at what the man’s been up to in his life already, it’s probably more his thirst for innovation that made him bring such state-of-the-art people to this production.

Buy a ticket. It is all stark and very German, so don’t say you have not been warned. I claim no expertise on baroque opera at all, so maybe they all are done in sexy, funny, cool, smart and fascinating ways nowadays. More likely though this is one of the best you can get.