(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

Archive for umm ali

The Theory of Relativity — النظرية النسبية

Those buildings are really old, the water’s freezing, and that pumpkin pie is delicious. Well… relatively.

The word “relative” comes from something in Latin that I believe has to do with how weird an uncle seems given the comportment of his extended family. The weirder the relatives, the more normal the uncle… relatively. Near the Dubai Palm, forty year-old buildings endure like stewards of a forgotten age. In Abu Dhabi, the 80 degree bay water that tastes like it has been liberally salted by a gefilte fish factory feels nippy — to some. In the palm of my hand, an iPhone app tells me I’m now finally one of the best (read: most addicted) 100,000 players in the world — a perfect measure of my relative skill/lameness/free time. And in a local hotel serving a sumptuous Thanksgiving buffet, pumpkin pie still the right color after a spicing accident tastes more like home than Umm Ali ever will.

The fourth Thursday in November has this rare power — to make every American living abroad realize his or her place in that “scheme of things” everyone is always talking about. Not everyone has jumped on the Americana bandwagon, not everyone knows what it’s all about. Really, except for the Canadians who celebrated Thanksgiving the first Monday in October (for other reasons, I believe — something about the repeal of a syrup tax), not a soul understands why something that looks like strawberry jam is served next to pulverized potatoes. Out here, I have thanksgiving with the kind of Indians Columbus had been trying to find. Lucky for him, had he caught they right wind, he’d have had a turkey day spread of daal and tandoori that would’ve made the English stomach double over at the Queen’s mercy.

Give thanks, America, that we still have our individual quirks, that not all of our traditions befit the world’s adoption. Free speech, equality — these ideals we can strive to make absolute, but a day of fowl-based gourmandizing and near-footless football — that can be our thing.

It’s a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, and in shorts, wrinkled T-shirt, aviators and flip-flops, I’m the weird one. It would be normal somewhere else, though, I told myself beneath the shades. This is what it feels like to feel totally fine, normal, not anxious, when everyone else thinks you’re nuts. I knew I wasn’t fitting the norm — that less than a hundred miles north I could get arrested for showing that much leg — but that where I came from I was guilty of nothing more than bedhead and lazy dressing. I felt the glares and they didn’t faze me; had my relatives shot me the same pointed stares, I’d’ve felt much more nervous.

I wonder if New York “crazies” have the same effect on each other. Is it embarrassing for the naked schizophrenic unicyclist to get called a nutjob by a man dressed as the Watergate complex? If we wrap ourselves in a blanket of relativity, we’re vulnerable only to those wrapped up with us. If you only think of yourself as relative to your country, there’s no need to worry about what them foreigners think. If you’re only relative to yourself, what difference does it make if no one else likes your one-man rendition of Cats?

Popped collarers, too, don’t feel the heat when everyone’s eyes scream you’re a douche. Yes, everyone feels cooler with a popped collar — hell, it even makes sense in the desert sun — but we don’t all think as relatively. Sometimes it’s helpful to put yourself in a smaller bubble, to relate only to those genetically immune to comments about extreme WASPiness. Other times, it’s better to throw ourselves in with the whole world, if only to realize in how many ways we’re weird, if only to briefly quantify ourselves in more objective terms.

High Noon: Reloaded is the perfect example of our Excel spreadsheeted world in which categories can be drawn and redrawn at the click of a button. In tiny letters at the top of my iPhone, the game nonchalantly offers alternatives for how I conceive of my place in the universe: “Worldwide,” I am the 99,685th most talented gunslinger; “Nearby,” I am 108th. And among my group of online friends — my “Shitlist” — I’m number one.

Relativity can make us do crazy things. Relative to what mothers have been doing since time immemorial, ironing, for example, is no extreme pastime. In absolute terms, however, ironing clothes is the most illogical thrill seeking behavior anywhere in the world. Worst case: maimed for life just by knocking over a little plastic thing. Best case: a flat shirt. But hey, my relatives have been doing this for generations. Fuck wrinkles — I’m in.

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