PictureAlchemist Shop, Prague
Final part of a fictionalized account of my first trip to Prague and discussions there around some themes from the End of Belief.

The next day I showed up at M's shop with the same odd, unidentifiable feeling of the previous day. Had I any New-Age-Woo-Woo bones in my body, I'd be tempted to say that place had strange energy. Instead I wondered which scene from which Hollywood movie classic my brain was randomly processing through an already punch drunk limbic system. The only thing I was pretty sure of was that it was a scene that didn't end very well for the protagonist. 

As soon as M saw me, she grabbed her bag, the shop keys and my arm in a single seamless motion that lead us wordlessly out the door. Her anxiousness was palpable and I already started to fear the worst - without having the faintest clue about what the worst would even be. The hard click of the shop's lock was still ringing in my head when she turned to me, gathered herself and solemnly spoke four of the most beautiful words in the English language: I need a beer. It took a superhuman effort not to kiss her on the spot.  

M ordered řezané pivo, a popular mixture of light and dark beer. That also seemed to be the mix of moods in her expression, and for that matter, a good metaphor for the third Tetralemma position (both yes and no). I kept the metaphors to myself, though, and just ordered dark beer. Somehow that better fit my own mood. Well, no, not really - I just love dark beer. 

She had had a fight that morning with her fiance, she said before half-emptying her glass in one sustained gulp. No details offered, and none asked. I just figured I had better not fall behind for whatever was coming next, so half-emptied mine as well. Does happiness always have to be this elusive? she finally huffed in the direction of the window.


Yes. Na zdraví. I said and clinked my glass to hers. 

You mean happiness is always something you have to work for...  she said with a groan and roll of her eyes.

No, not at all, I shook my head and finished my glass. 

I started to explain myself, but had to first stop to savor the mixture of expressions that now danced across her face: intrigued; analyzing; radiant; playful; inviting. It was a kaleidoscope of so much that is wonderful about the human mind. When I finally recovered and opened my mouth again, though, she suddenly reached across the table to place two fingers over my lips. Her eyes locked onto mine, and I could feel and smell the beer on her fingers. My superhuman-effort-reserves were running critically low. 


Mercifully, M broke the tension by ordering us two more of the same before leaning back in her chair. Not taking her eyes off mine, she nodded that I could now explain what I meant. With some effort I recovered my train of thought but was sure I had left my wits far behind me. The pursuit of happiness as such is actually relatively new on the scene of human history, I finally began. It seems to be an invention of the Iron Age - or more precisely, the Axial Age. Interestingly, it's the same age that gave us all of our current religious, spiritual and scientific belief structures. All that mediating on mountain tops I suppose. After 0.5 liter of strong dark beer in two gulps I was on more of a roll than I needed to be. M, as far as I could tell, was impressively unfazed so I resolved to slow my ramblings down. Did she know that in every Indo-European language, the word for 'happiness' derives from the word for 'luck'? I asked.  

Your random universe again, she smiled. Hhmm... yes, interesting... in Czech it's actually exactly the same word: štěstí. So what are you saying? Everything is just lottery? 

Huh... I like that metaphor! I beamed. Yeah... we all certainly play the lottery. You know... buy our tickets, choose our numbers as best we can, and then hope. And lose. Then play again. Maybe win a little now and then. And we just keep playing.

... Until we run out of time to play... she sighed and wordlessly paid the bill as our beers came. Ah... so she's now pressed for time after all, I thought. That's OK, this is her show, I nodded to myself. 

My point is, I said - still wanting to get one last point in before the second round made my incoherence manifest - that we shouldn't focus on playing the lottery. We do the best we can in life. But in the end, chasing happiness is a fool's errand. Trying to help other's chase their happiness is a fool's errand.  If we have any biological mandate, it's not for happiness. It's to create meaning in our live
s. Happiness is just the damn carrot the brain holds out to us - it really wants meaning in the end. That's what the grey goo in our skulls is computationally designed for; nothing else. Same reason it makes us miserable at times. That's the stick it beats us with to make us go out and create meaning. I was rambling again and thought I had lost her when she started drinking her second beer as fast as the first. Suddenly she set her glass down and leaned in toward me.

So tell me how I am supposed to know which meaning. She deadpanned. How I am supposed to know what it means that we met? Or do you want to say because there is no meaning from the universe, I can freely choose my own meaning? Or is that also just lottery?

No, no I didn't mean it like that. I said and had to grin at just how convoluted my meaning actually was. But don't get me started on free-will, or we'll be drinking all night! I continued. It's just that I mean there is no forward-looking meaning to anything. Meaning is only given in hindsight... that's how we can change it over time. Beats the hell out of me how that helps, I shrugged, except in one respect. If we know that little fact, we can always have hope, no matter how awful life seems to be at the time... 

My dear, you are physicist, not priest! And a half-drunk one! She half-laughed and half-sighed in exasperation as she got up to leave. Can't you just give me a damn quantum machine - so that I can have all meanings? That I can both marry and not marry tomorrow? 

Tomorrow? I thought she had three days left to figure it out... I murmured to myself and followed her out. 

That's what the fight this morning was about, she said softly as we walked outside into the street. He said either I am sure about marrying or I am not. If I am sure, then tomorrow is a good day to marry. So... so... I will marry. Tomorrow.

I didn't ask if she was really that sure. Life usually forces binary decisions from us, regardless. Or at least we believe that they're forced on us. For such exquisitely sophisticated and complex creatures, we are still driven by a remarkably simple flight or fight mechanism. We then tell ourselves heroic stories about making courageous right-or-left decisions.... really just to make ourselves feel good about the fact that we're obeying the brain architecture of a lizard. But what is a decision anyway? It's only a state of mind; just another part of the Cloud. A simple thought experiment shows this quite easily: imagine everything happening in the world just as it does now. People doing what they do. Now take away the label 'decision' from people's actions; let them simply act as they act. Is anything really missing other than the label? 

The context of our thinking and feeling is everything. If our context is too narrow, we think we have no alternatives. But as Star Trek's Spock was fond of saying: there are always alternatives. And although he didn't say it, as a good Vulcan scientist I'm sure he knew: that is the power offered to us by a random universe - as long as we know how to pay attention to context. In that metaphorical sense of having endless possibilities, then, we all carry the quantum machines within us that M wished for. But I didn't tell her that; didn't share any of these convoluted points with her. In the state I was in I had lost track of them myself actually. Instead I just stood silently, and waited. Then I watched as she approached me, looked down and  slowly took my hands into hers. 

When her large azure eyes finally met mine they were shimmering in moisture. In that moment I caught a glimpse of the vast deep blue ocean in front of me, and realized I was only standing on the shoreline. She then leaned forward and carefully molded her lips to the left half of my mouth. And I wondered if this very moment might not be the best possible time to die. For some weird reason, though, I lived, and we parted without a word between us. As I watched her disappear into the Metro, I realized instead this was actually the best possible time to get gloriously drunk. 

It's just as well I don't remember much between that moment and the next day when the late morning sun came crashing into my room.  But Černé pivo - black beer - had clearly been my metaphorically appropriate companion. Several beer coasters from Fleků Kocoura and a few other places were strewn between me and the crumpled bed covers. I rolled over to the night stand, clicked my phone to check the time and saw that I had a handful of emails, texts and two missed calls. When I tapped to have a look, the low battery warning showed. That's OK I thought; I was hardly up for squinting at a bright screen anyway. After wishing dearly for several minutes that I had not just moved my head, I finally fumbled for the charger, plugged the phone in and managed a half-crawl to the shower. That helped, but not as much as it needed to. A different black drink in large quantities was needed as soon as possible. The hotel breakfast bar was already closed but the kitchen took pity on me with a cup to go. I wandered across the street towards the river. 

With several caffeinated pit stops along the way, I eventually made it all the way across the Charles Bridge and up the hill to Prague Castle. No idea how my legs managed to carry me that far in my state; apparently they just weren't in the mood for sitting still. For the second time that week I circled the castle grounds, looking in vain for the famous window where the Thirty Years War began in 1618. Wikipedia says it's at the castle; two locals I asked insisted it's across the river in the old town hall. I had planned on asking a tour guide there if I hadn't found it by then, but my mood at the moment wasn't really up for conversation. So I wandered the castle grounds again, wondering if being thrown from a window is really as bad as it sounds. Finally I gave up, leaned over the perimeter stone wall and took in the city and river view below. I don't know how long I stayed.

It was early evening when I made it back to my hotel. I had put off being back in my room for as long as possible, but by now was too exhausted to do anything but crash. For sheer distraction I picked my phone off the nightstand and checked for messages. A few emails and Whatsapps from scattered friends; calendar reminders from the previous day. 

A missed call at 7:24 am that morning. From M. No voice message. A text at 7:25 am. From M. Please call me!

Another missed call at 7:52 am, followed by text at 7:54 am Sean please call me!!

It was now 6:15 pm. Her voice mail came on immediately. I had no clue what to say and hung up. I took a deep breath, called again, mumbled something incoherent and hung up. I texted her: Just got your message! Can't reach you, call me anytime, have phone with me! Calling two more times then holding my phone the whole night didn't change anything. The next morning I texted her as I was leaving from the main train station. Live well, be happy. I knew I wouldn't hear from her again. 

Since my dreamy teenage years I had wanted to see Prague at least once in my life. The first city that understood Mozart must be a wise and magical place, I knew. Now, only a week after my first trip there, I was driving back there on the E50, my books, devices and guitar loaded in the back. I felt energized, curious, but also perplexed and humble. I felt strangely between the cracks of an old life and a new one. Then I remembered an old physics buddy of mine used to say that all the interesting stuff in life happens between the cracks. That was his shorthand for what Isaac Asimov once wrote in longer form: that real revolutions begin not with a Eureka-like cry of self-assurance and certainty - but with a perplexed, humble and curious murmur; with a strange feeling. I think they both meant that the end of our believing, the end of certainty, the moment it dawns on us that things are profoundly different than we thought, is when our real stories begin. 

 


Comments

06/18/2014 6:59pm

Beautiful concluding sentence.

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