Posts tagged ‘earthquakes’...
May 7, 2012 @ 11:31 PM
In California, the ground moves.
After nearly two years of living here, this thought still enters my mind at least once per day.
It is interesting how, following a change of circumstance, an idea that was not present in any previous capacity can abruptly become a fixture in one’s brain. Before I came to California I lived in New York, where the tenor of my recurring thoughts was entirely different. How crowded the sidewalks were, which subway line to take, how I would possibly endure another humid, miserable summer — these were some of my New York preoccupations. As far as I knew then, the ground beneath Manhattan did not move, so I didn’t have to worry about it moving. For eight and a half years I walked on seemingly stable earth and worried about other things.
When I arrived in the West I no longer thought about how crowded everything was (the West is spacious), or subways (there aren’t any), or humidity (here the air is dry). I did, however, begin to think about earthquakes. My east coast upbringing had spared me the experience of terrestrial motion, and even in California it would be more than a year before the ground would shake perceptibly for the first time. During this interstitial period I lived in a cozy state of denial, and my impression of earthquakes mimicked my impression of parenthood or death or having relations with a woman: I was cognitively aware that such a state of reality existed in my world but I had not empirically understood it.
Then during an early October afternoon, while in a meeting on the top floor of the Phelan Building in downtown San Francisco, I transitioned from this category of individuals:
to this one:
At that moment I was eating a slice of red velvet cake (a colleague had had a birthday that day) and reviewing some edits on a document, and suddenly it was as if a giant pair of invisible hands gave the building a brisk shove. Immediately the color drained from my face, and my legs became gelatinous, and I stopped eating my red velvet cake. It’s important to note, I think, that there are only two things that will stand between me and red velvet cake, and one is nuclear war.
If you’re a stranger to earthquakes, it’s best not to experience your initiation in a room filled mostly with native Californians. After that initial jolt, all activity in our busy office ceased and we braced for residual movement. Luckily there was none, and the Phelan Building did not crumble that day. Within minutes, though, my coworkers had gone back to their lives as if nothing happened, and I was left to wonder why we weren’t forming focus groups to appropriately process the situation at hand. The Earth had moved and I desperately needed to talk to somebody about what that meant, but to my chagrin sympathetic ears were few and far between. Like a colicky baby, I was left to self-soothe, and by the time the first aftershock hit later that evening I had imbibed enough tequila to make earthquakes seem bearable, perhaps even fun.
The truth, of course, is that they are anything but. People who were raised in California certainly don’t relish the idea of a natural disaster, but when it comes to earthquakes there are those who accept this geological phenomenon as part of their reality and those who do not. Despite my best efforts at fully adhering to the western spirit, I remain a staunch member of the latter camp. As far as I’m concerned, the ground is not, under any circumstances, supposed to move. Even in the midst of utter chaos, the ground is intended to be the steady point, the place where we plant our feet, the surface on which we build cities and land airplanes and spread picnic blankets. When the ground moves, it throws this natural order into a state of malfunction, and all that remains is a renewed understanding of our precarious — and rather insignificant — human condition.
I now live in Los Angeles, which compared to San Francisco has better weather, worse pollution and about the same probability of a major earthquake striking at any given moment. My apartment is in east LA, and my job is in west LA, so my morning commute has rather poetically come to resemble the larger migration that put me on these freeways in the first place. Inevitably I hit traffic, but it rarely bothers me. I listen to music or news radio, and I think periodically that everything I see around me — overpasses, homes, skyscrapers, rows of tall palm trees — may, without warning, collapse into a heap of rubble. As I negotiate this uncertain terrain, I negotiate with Mother Nature herself. I’ve actually adopted a practice of requesting aloud in my car, “No earthquakes, please!” while driving through tunnels or under large sections of concrete road.
So far, so good.
During the course of these morbid reflections, though, a basic question emerges: Why do we bother to create anything on an Earth that moves? Many of the world’s largest and most populous urban areas — Tokyo, Vancouver, Mexico City, Istanbul, to name a few — lie on sections of land that have a high propensity for seismic events. Is this hubris or just plain foolishness? Didn’t anybody stop to consider the millions of lives in jeopardy, or the fact that we were creating a civilization on foundations that cannot be trusted to stay still?
Probably, and yet we pressed on. Disasters did occur, and they will occur again, but in the end we rebuilt what we could, dusted ourselves off and moved forward. The inherently mundane moral we may derive from the parable of the earthquake is that our terra firma is, in fact, terra incerta, regardless of how or where we choose to make our lives. Not so mundane, however, is humanity’s willingness to coexist with the world’s many dangers, and to thrive in their midst. The ground, as it turns out, is not at all reliable, but it’s nice to know that at least we are.