Iowa Writes

SUSAN GIBBONS
Emotional Physics


Maybe it was because I couldn't remember things like I used to. Maybe it was to prove that I could. Maybe I just needed a new challenge. I don't remember what prompted me to go register for a physics class at the local college, but I did. I got my student ID card. An AARP card arrived in the mail later that same week. I knew right then and there that I was going to stand out. I was going to be "special."

As I walked to class on the first day, I felt myself slowing down. I was soon to learn that I was not decelerating; I was negatively accelerating. Like most things at my age, my gait was slowing. I was getting older and past middle age now. I was negatively growing.

Going back to college after 30 years was such a change. Like an increasing velocity, it took over my comfortable and sedate life of producing little work that wasn't required of me. Remaining still. Newton's First Law.

I sat down in the front row next to a man who looked to be in his thirties and noticed the four students over thirty were all lined up. Poor vision, poor hearing. I wondered if that was why they were seated there, too, or if they also wanted to make sure they didn't miss anything. That they learned. I looked up into the crowd see lovely, young, energetic faces looking past me. Perfect vision, but not seeing this opportunity that was before them. Much like myself at their age, they seemed as if the only thing holding many of them in their seats was gravity.

Maybe it was because I couldn't remember things like I used to. Maybe it was to prove that I could. Maybe I just needed a new challenge. I don't remember what prompted me to go register for a physics class at the local college, but I did. I got my student ID card. An AARP card arrived in the mail later that same week. I knew right then and there that I was going to stand out. I was going to be "special."

As I walked to class on the first day, I felt myself slowing down. I was soon to learn that I was not decelerating; I was negatively accelerating. Like most things at my age, my gait was slowing. I was getting older and past middle age now. I was negatively growing.

Going back to college after 30 years was such a change. Like an increasing velocity, it took over my comfortable and sedate life of producing little work that wasn't required of me. Remaining still. Newton's First Law.

I sat down in the front row next to a man who looked to be in his thirties and noticed the four students over thirty were all lined up. Poor vision, poor hearing. I wondered if that was why they were seated there, too, or if they also wanted to make sure they didn't miss anything. That they learned. I looked up into the crowd see lovely, young, energetic faces looking past me. Perfect vision, but not seeing this opportunity that was before them. Much like myself at their age, they seemed as if the only thing holding many of them in their seats was gravity.

I traveled to a world I had lived in every day, but had never comprehended. Never understood how it all happened. Just experienced it. Felt it. Watched it. Touched it. But never thought to make sense of it. I just walked right through it. Whether it be laminar or tumultuous, I moved in and out of the narrowing and widening passages of my days as if being pushed by a great flood of water. Water that was holding me up as much as it was pushing me down.

The professor spoke of "mass" and "weight." There was no obsessing about it, like on the talk shows. Just a definition. An explanation of how they differed, how they were connected.

The lecture brought me back in time to a ski trip I had taken to the mountains of Colorado when I was in my twenties. I was the only person in our group without a doctorate in engineering. This literal group of thinkers could discuss such laws of nature for hours on end, acknowledging the beauty of the slopes while explaining the kinetic friction the skis themselves experienced when slipping past the snow. "How much was lost to heat?" they pondered.

"If a fly is in a spaceship in zero gravity and it lands on an object on the interior of a spaceship, does the mass change? Does the weight change? Both? Neither?" they asked each other one night. I found myself fascinated with their enthusiasm in coming to some kind of common conclusion, until I finally tired of their pontification.

"Must we always learn?" I said mockingly, in my best Alistair Cooke impersonation.

"When you look out the window and see the mountains against the sky and the evergreen trees melting into the snow, how can you not learn?" my friend replied. Memory is like a collision that can happen again and again. Precisely. Momentarily.

I was taken back to this moment as I sat in class and it made me smile sadly. I summoned the professor aside during a break and asked him this very question that had been put before me some twenty-five years earlier. "The weight and mass remain the same," he answered.

I emailed my old friend, who had returned to England long ago, and told him about my recent memory and of the energy and the inquisitive discussions we had shared in the mountains. I could finally give him an answer.

There was no longer any heat between us. He was displaced and held fast to his island. I would have preferred a handwritten note, but it seemed too personal after so many years, so we sent our messages out into the universe and hoped they would find their way to our homes through magical waves.

He wrote back and said he had often told people he had once lived and studied in the United States, on the prairie. How he had gone to the mountains to ski every year. How it sounded so romantic when he said it.

I guess it's just a normal force that keeps us connected. Nothing unusual, or out of the ordinary. A memory that can't be let go of, like an inelastic collision. Stuck in time, if only for a moment in physics class.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


SUSAN GIBBONS

Susan Gibbons Jordan grew up in Des Moines and attended the University of Iowa, graduating in 1978. She has had a couple books published and has had writings featured on A Prairie Home Companion, The Late Show with David Letterman, and Car Talk.

This page was first displayed
on November 29, 2007

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