The other day a colleague of mine pulled me out of my office to watch one of his students play badminton. Apparently, I just had to see this kid dominate his classmates who were having a hard time scoring a single point. I reluctantly left what I was doing and watched, unimpressed, for ten or fifteen minutes, politely said, “Not bad”, returned to my office, secretly cursing him for busting my spare and interrupting my lesson planning, and contemplated the Theory of Relativity. According to the website www.dummies.com, Einstein’s theory was based on two principles: The Principle of relativity which states that the laws of physics don’t change, even for objects moving in inertial frames of reference, and The principle of the speed of light which states that the speed of light is the same for all observers, regardless of their motion relative to the light source.
Now I know you’re probably thinking, “that’s some pretty fancy thinking for a gym teacher”, which is what I was initially saying to myself, mainly because Einstein’s words weren’t painting a clear enough picture, so I thought about it some more. Basically, it all means that there are constants in the world which, as their name suggests, do not change. But, there are things out there that act on or perceive those constants from varying points of reference which, as their name suggests, are variable and thus different. These variances permit a different take on the same constant. Allow me to give you two examples to clarify what I mean.
Several years ago, my girlfriend and I decided that instead of giving each other gifts for Christmas, we would hop in my tiny Kia Rio with our eleven-year-old son, 100-pound German Shepherd, and a weeks-worth of luggage and beach supplies to drive 27 hours from our home near Montreal to Jupiter Beach, Florida. Christmas Day was also my late mother’s birthday, so we figured it would be best to wait until after Christmas Dinner was done, all the gifts were opened, birthday candles were blown out, and wishes were made before we hit the road. By the time all the festivities had wrapped up, it was around 9PM…and it was snowing…heavily…sideways. Our plan was to wait the hour and a half it would take to get over the Canada/US border before we would stop for gas, coffee, and perhaps a couple simple snacks. Because of the storm, it took a little longer than expected, but we finally made it across and took the exit from I-87 for Keene, NY where we hoped to locate a gas station with a decent-sized convenience store attached. There weren’t any, so I pulled into a small, fuel-only, self-serve Sunoco station to fill up, hoping the person working the cash register inside could give me directions to a place where coffee was available. Once the tank was full, I made my way inside the station, which, by the way, was hot enough to melt titanium. I took the twelve seconds required to scan the inside of the tiny space and found nothing worthy of ingesting. To my right were a few shelves half-filled with various grades of engine oil, some defunct sparkplugs, what I assume was a 25-year-old fanbelt that was full of cracks from lack of use, and several empty boxes of Christmas-tree car fresheners. No snacks, however; not a Hot-Rod, Eat-More, not even a single packet of stale Milk Duds. Nothing. When I finished scanning the main part of the room, I turned my attention to my left and in the direction of a booth made of inch-thick, bullet-proof plexiglass about 8 feet X 8 feet X 8 feet where I had expected to find the attendant but that appeared, at least initially, to be empty. I turned left and began walking towards the booth hoping there would be a bell or some device I could use to get some assistance. As I got closer to the plexiglass, an image began to slowly appear and take shape from behind the glass. It turns out there was a man in there, only he was so morbidly obese that I needed to be very near him to notice his existence. It was like the opposite of a Chuck Close painting whereby the image only comes into proper focus the further from it you are. I mean this dude was enormous. Like Jabba the Hutt enormous. He was so big that he didn’t quite occupy the bullet-proof cubicle so much as he wore it. Let’s just say he was no stranger to an all-you-can-eat buffet and he surely never in his life skipped a meal. I was initially taken aback by his sheer bulk, trying not to stare, but became immediately content to see him because I was certain that a man of his size would surely be able to guide me to a place where I could procure coffee and snacks. His appearance suggested he would be an expert in that field. He may not be able to tell me the capital of Kyrgyzstan (Bishkek, by the way. I Googled it), or conjure up the sum atomic mass of Tellerium and Nitrogen (141.6 u. Also Google), but there was very little chance that this man could not lead me to the location of every snack shop/fast-food restaurant within a fifty mile radius. I would have bet a month’s salary on it. Upon making it to the booth and paying for the gas, just before wishing the gentleman a ‘Happy Holiday’, I lowered my head slightly so I could get my mouth close to the perforated metal opening in the glass designed to allow communication between the attendant and customer, and I asked him the following question while getting my mind ready to remember what might end up being a set of complex directions: “Excuse me Beau (his name-tag, which was damn near pressed up against the glass like a hostage, said ‘BEAU’, so I assumed that was the man’s name), you wouldn’t happen to know where the nearest Dunkin Donuts is, would you?” His response will go with me to my grave, and this is the ‘Relativity’ part: “Sorry Dude, I only know where the junk food places are”. Now let that sink in for a minute: A man weighing approximately the same as a Ford Festiva, thinks that Dunkin Donuts, a restaurant chain for which he could easily act as living mascot and poster…well, maybe billboard…child, and that serves deep-fried dough covered in sugar and filled with custard and jelly, is basically Whole Foods with a different colour neon sign out front. You see, ‘junk food’ is, more or less, a definable constant in this equation. In fact, it is so constant that it has its own entry in the dictionary. According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of ‘junk food’ is food that is high in calories but low in nutritional content; and something that is appealing or enjoyable but of little or no real nutritional value. The term ‘junk food’, however, has a different meaning depending on the perspective of the person perceiving it; in this case depending on which side of the plexiglass cubicle one may be on. These differing perspectives are the result of a myriad of cultural, educational, and geographical variables. For me, ‘junk food’ is synonymous with a word like ‘donut’, but for Beau ‘donut’ is synonymous with the word ‘kale’.
The second example is experienced pretty much daily in the life of an Ironman athlete and it manifests itself in the form of a question followed by shock which, in a matter of minutes, fades into glazed-over eyes and the appearance of a combination of disbelief and utter confusion on the face of the questioner. An iron-distance triathlon, or Ironman, is a standard, fixed distance (3.9km Swim, 180km Bike, 42.2km Run). It is a constant that, for the most part, never changes. What does change are the reactions that non-triathletes and triathletes have to that constant. A triathlete, especially one who has completed a full Ironman, will nod in slight reverence to the mention of the distance. They will have empathetic appreciation for the difficulty in covering the distance in a race, but will understand that, though exhausting, painful, and ultimately unhealthy it may be, it is doable. The non-athlete initially pretends to get it until they do the math and relate the numbers to distances they understand as only having been covered in some form of motorized vehicle. Also, the triathlete will easily grasp the concept of WHY someone would attempt to complete the distance, whereas the non-athlete is entirely baffled by the notion. They ask questions like: Was somebody chasing you? How much did you get paid? How many days does it take to complete? The thought of doing it all in one go, paying thousands of dollars for the privilege, and doing it more than once in a lifetime does not compute in a way that brings them closer to comprehension. In order to do such a thing more than once, there must have been some mysterious, perhaps masochistic, level of enjoyment experienced the first time. They understand the term ‘Ironman’ and they also understand the term ‘Enjoyment’. Placing the two together results, however, in gibberish.
Einstein was not wrong; there is no ‘absolute’ frame of reference. Every time an object or concept is measured, it is always done in relation to something else. In other words, though concepts remain constant, the manner in which they are perceived, because they are done so from varying vantage points, are contrasting. What does this all mean? Simply put, the student who dominated the badminton lesson in my colleague’s class, and whom everyone thought was so ‘awesome’, was, in the end, far from it. After leaving my office a second time, I beat him 21-3, and I am far from ‘awesome’.
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