It hasn’t been so long since I talked to Daniel on the phone. We’ve known each other since primary school. In the eighties I remember us in his room, playing “Winter Games” on his Commodore 64 until our fingers bled. And I remember after graduating, sitting together on his parents’ roof drinking whiskey straight from the bottle. We both took our time getting married – because we wanted to enjoy the single life as long as possible. We always had a similar sense of time; we’re alike in many ways.
Daniel called me on the phone and asked if I would like to become godfather to his first-born, Kurt, in July. I was in the living room, lying on our sofa, wearing my faded green Boston Celtics T-shirt. It was a Sunday, just after two. I’m certain of the time because I was watching Lewis Hamilton on TV, about to set off from pole position in Monza, as my phone rang. “Perfect timing,” I muttered. For a moment I considered not answering it and calling him back later so as not to ruin the most exciting moment of a Formula 1 race. But instinctively I touched the green spot to take the call, and was glad to hear my friend’s voice. I felt goosebumps travel up my arm, past my elbows and shoulders, through my neck and – it felt like – straight into my brain, as I heard myself tell him that it would be an honour to be his son’s godfather.
Some of the biggest waves in the world can be found off the coast of Portugal, near Nazaré. You can see them form by jet ski in the Atlantic.
Big-wave surfers dream of these massive waves and the crashing surf, everyone else watches in awe at the display of untamed nature before them.
Friendships culminate in those special moments that last years, if not decades. It wasn’t even two minutes that we were on the phone. He was watching the race too. Hamilton drove a great race and won, and I was looking forward to a relaxing Sunday.
Ever since Kurt’s birth, Daniel and his wife Tatjana had slept in separate beds – she slept in the baby’s room and he slept in the bedroom. The first number that Tatjana called after the medics was mine. It was 4:48 in the morning and she was crying. So was Kurt. I only understood one word: dead. My heart raced, caught fire, burned. Daniel was born with a seemingly benign cardiac defect. The doctors said it was harmless. Only hours after we had talked, early Monday morning, he died of a heart attack. He was 41.
When I was asked to write about the essence of time for “Race of Life”, I began to think. Brand ambassadors of Mercedes-Benz had gathered, athletes, designers, entrepreneurs, artists. They had all travelled to Portugal to take part in something that we could all find more space in our lives for: adventure that gets adrenaline flowing through your veins. The rugged coastline of Nazaré and the dark-blue waves of the Atlantic gaining mass as they tumble in from the horizon: there are few places in the world where the waves form such massive walls of water – reaching up to 30 metres high. They roar, they foam, they crash, as a breathtaking natural phenomenon is wrought before your very eyes. Those who dare to venture into this seething, chaotic turbulence on jet skis become engulfed in the sensory experience while simultaneously being completely dazed by it.
An elementary experience. When untamed nature is at play, it’s the individual moment that counts: that fraction of a second that sticks with you forever, unforgettably unique. On the racetrack of Estoril an engine roars to life. And then another. And another. The air seems to vibrate. One driver has disengaged his assistance systems and is doing doughnuts on the asphalt, smoke enveloping his tyres. Brand: Mercedes-AMG. On the racetrack it’s about fractions of a second again, about those special moments. But once we come to a rest we ask ourselves: If a fraction of a second bursts with life why do we waste so much time?
Where is our path headed? Which obstacles are in the way and how will we overcome them? Only time will tell.
I thought about the essence of time. About Sir Isaac Newton, who viewed time as a constant, fully independent of all physical context. His concept of absolute time – along with absolute space – set the stage for all physical events in the universe. A Formula 1 race, for example. Start, finish, best time. The results were irrefutable: Lewis Hamilton won. Basta. Newton’s theory of absolute time endured for 200 years, when Albert Einstein debunked it with the notion that time is relative. Now we know that moving clocks tick slower. For Einstein, space and time are just projections of a more complex object known as space–time.
In contrast to Newton’s world view, Einstein said that simultaneity is relative. Whether or not two events occur simultaneously or subsequently lies in the eye of the observer. In other words: it’s a matter of perspective. In Einstein’s universe, it’s not certain whether Lewis Hamilton won the Formula 1 World Championship title this year, last year or 100 years ago.
Daniel was a big fan of Einstein’s concept of time. Time didn’t play a limiting role in his life. Nor did the concepts of space and time. He was known to show up a good half hour after we had planned to meet in a café. Sometimes we would sit across from one another and not say a single word for an hour. He would occasionally lose track of time and work into the early hours of the morning, then immediately handwrite a letter to me, outlining his idea for a company he wanted to found, designing and developing computer games for schools. The games would contain everything there was to know about the world, accessible at any time. Of course he was a nerd. But he was also a free spirit, an artist, a digitally thinking humanist. He knew that time was of the essence. That time is money and that both – in abundance or scarcity – are relative. That the moment decides whether you’re in the right place. His idea was a terrific failure because of a lack of investors (and the sheer size of the task), but not for want of trying.
He did end up founding a company eventually, developing other computer games, and teaching as a professor. He wrote me another letter at some point during these years. He had been struck by the urge to reread Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” for the umpteenth time – in two days and two nights – and write a letter entitled “The Triumph of Time”. He wrote: “Time is an unalterable, ever-present protagonist in the background of The Magic Mountain. Hungry for knowledge, the young Hans Castorp is completely consumed by time. He marches into it like an eternal snow storm. He forgets what day it is, can no longer tell the seasons apart, doesn’t know his age, his birthday. And in losing track of time, time has long since conquered him.”
“Did you know,” Daniel wrote, “that another book about time was published in another country just one year after The Magic Mountain, in 1925, The Great Gatsby? A weary society – feeble, rudderless, hedonistic and depraved like the guests at the Davos sanatorium attends the indifferent parties of a rich and mysterious man. Time stands still for them. Only Gatsby, this one man, in his implausibly luxurious villa, has the goal of conquering time, of ushering the past into the eternal present. This is the moment Gatsby lived for, the moment when time stands still forever. He leans against the mantelpiece, his head so far back that it rests upon the face of an old, broken clock. He leans back further, and so does the clock, on the point of tumbling to the ground. With trembling fingers, Gatsby manages to save it in the nick of time. It remains whole and intact to symbolically display the eternal, ever-constant time in the future. – By the way, Castorp’s pocket watch doesn’t manage to survive the seven years that pass in the novel either. It falls off of the nightstand, and the young man neglects to get it repaired. Why? ‘To be free,’ Thomas Mann writes. But all of the broken clocks in the world won’t help our protagonists. One perishes at war, another in his swimming pool. The triumph of time. The triumph of eternity.”
Daniel’s sudden death and reading his letters have taught me that I can’t observe the essence of time from a single perspective. Of course time is relative. Of course time is absolute. Anyone who has ever lost a loved one feels, experiences, knows that. You perceive the time together as relative, and the hole that’s left when they’re gone as absolute. Forever. It doesn’t matter how much of a fight you put up: time always wins. This July I will baptise Daniel’s son Kurt. He’s only 21 months old, but I’ve already bought him a copy of The Magic Mountain. He should carry it with him throughout his journey, his Race of Life.
Author Alexandros Stefanidis.