How gravity upsets me

Coming back and forth through rabbit holes is a lot like real life, as an artist friend said. He often spoke of the tunnel at the end of the light, which we tend to forget that it invariably accompanies the light at the end of the tunnels. There is always the reverse, the reverse, the reverse.

Gravity pulls over time as well as space, and memory rabbit holes overturn cherished narratives. A pivotal moment in my personal history occurred in 1969, as I watched Americans land on the moon with a group of sympathetic Russians glued to an old television in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. Or so I remember it. A month ago, I found a journal from that fateful year. Yes, I was in Kharkov on July 17th (local date). No, the Americans and the Russians did not celebrate together. “I heard we landed on the moon,” I wrote. “But you wouldn’t know it on local television, which only airs old news shows.”

Even more frightening, my memory of a happy evening drinking vodka shots with cute Russian guys was even more perverse. “They said they loved me as a girl,” my diary reported, “but as an American they would have no problem killing me.”

It is upside down. It encourages reversals of perspective, revisits, and necessary corrective measures. I have oscillated several times between being a writer and an editor, alone and with a partner, a dog and a cat, an East Coaster and a left coaster. I hope I am wiser about it; I know my world is bigger for it.

Besides, we always miss things the first time. A popular pastime that spun right next to me was (OK, that’s silly) line dancing. These days, twice a week, I strut with a large group of all ages in a college parking lot, doing Korean trotting, Cuban cha-cha, country classics. We dance on Elvis. It’s now or never.

Throughout it all gravity is at work relentlessly – crushing my vertebrae, curving my spine, reshaping my midpoint. The last time I stood in a crowd, tiptoed to see, I realized in horror that my view was blocked by a wall of normal people’s shoulders.

Of course, we don’t “see” the curvature of spacetime, at least not in the usual sense. Yet a copy editor once insisted that I put the term “presumed” before “curved space-time.” It always amuses me. I mean, we can’t see the air either, although a strong enough blow can knock a building down. Moving air (wind), just like gravity, is a kind of pseudo-force, because it depends on relative motion. A car (or boat) moving in calm air can cause a fairly brisk breeze. Apparent wind, the sailors call it.

But then we perceive almost everything indirectly. We hear the rustling of leaves and we deduce the wind at work, that is to say the presence of moving air. We measure the motions of galaxies and deduce the gravitational forces needed to hold clusters together – it turns out that too much gravity is due to visible stars. Hence “dark” matter – now considered to represent most of the matter in the universe.

Gravity reveals itself to us through what it does to things, including me. But it is not a force, like magnetism. It is simply the landscape of local space-time. And we know landscapes matter a lot, not just in physics. If a supposedly “flat” landscape (playground) tends to keep some people at the top, others at the bottom, you know that not-so-invisible forces twist things.

Invisible influencers daily distort our world, mainly those we prefer not to think about: mutating viruses, fragile power grids, nuclear bombs, plastic oceans. Right under our feet, tectonic tensions threaten to literally pull the ground beneath our feet, especially if you live in the Pacific Northwest, which sits on top of the looming disaster of the Cascadia Subduction Zone. Then there’s the ubiquitous AI. Despite the red flags raised early by Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and Elon Musk, it’s only now that some people are alarmed at its power to warp just about anything, now that it’s ubiquitous and inevitable, much like gravity.

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