Tuesday, April 26, 2005

the trouble with earthquakes

Earthquake damage - bridge
earthquakes are just God's way of turning the world into an amusement park. [Photo credit: martinluff]

last tuesday, i discovered that should another major earthquake strike california, i am woefully unprepared, and there’s no excuse for that kind of smug ignorance. earthquakes are to californians as white tigers are to roy horn, and we like to forget their lethal potential.

my first real experience with the devastating power of earthquakes was the loma prieta quake of 1989, which struck at roughly 5 pm and registered somewhere between a 6.9 and a 7.1 on the richter scale. when the ground started shaking, i was in bed, doing homework; i was learning that homework would be all i ever really did in a bed. my first thought was that an earthmover from the construction site up the street must have somehow wound up with its plow in the side of our house, but when things didn’t stop shuddering i realized it was worse than that. i hopped off of my comforter, unsure of what to do next. dive under the bed? no, the cartoons on tv said not to do that. the desk, get under the desk! something far easier to think than it was to do, since the crawl space beneath my desk was intended to house one’s legs, rather than the entirety of one’s corpus; but as i was deathly afraid of being downgraded to corpse, i jammed myself under there like a bonsai kitten and made do with short, shallow breaths as i felt souvenirs from my childhood flit past my head and audibly crack against the floor. once the ground stopped rolling and i could make my egress, i walked downstairs and saw the remnants of many ceramic and glass figurines i was never allowed to touch now scattered in more directions and abused in more ways than were ever within my power. i take a certain satisfaction in that.

up until then, earthquakes were mainly fun because you knew what to expect from them. the ground would move a little bit, you would hide under your (spacious) desk, the ground would stop moving, you would go back to letting some electronic device read a book for you, or maybe you would go outside and eat some tanbark. i’m sorry if your junior high wasn’t like that.

and then there were the earthquake preparedness drills my family did when i was a kid. i would slink down the dark hallway, grab my sister and father by their ankles, and shake them vigorously while proclaiming, “i’m an earthquake!” then my mother would race out of the kitchen and beat me with a wooden spoon, at which point i would start sobbing and eat the rations out of the emergency kit. i think these drills would have been more helpful if, a, someone had warned my mother that we were doing them, b, they weren’t actually some silly game i liked to play to irritate my family, and c, the “rations” in the “kit” weren’t actually the “ding dongs” in the “cupboard.”

after experiencing an earthquake of such magnitude, however, you worry that every one after it will carry with it similar force. for instance, the day after the loma prieta quake, i was standing at my friend’s door and we were sharing our experiences from the day before. it had been a rough night, not so much because of the aftershocks and the fear of returning to my own bed, but because we had a portable tv and we had spent most of the night watching simon and simon reruns since, obviously, it didn’t get cable. suddenly, an aftershock rolls through, and faster than gerald mcraney could scream for his royalties i was in my friend’s doorway, effectively preventing him from finding any shelter. i do feel bad about this, but looking back, chances are, had the quake been powerful enough, we both would have died, as i’ve learned that you can’t actually trust a doorway to protect you in an earthquake. people claim that in other places leveled by earthquakes, you would see houses reduced to rubble with doorways protuding skyward, and maybe they’re telling the truth, but it seems to me that houses don’t fall straight down, they lean, and there’s nothing to keep a doorway from doing likewise. so he would have died hating me, thinking i had lived, and i would have died thinking, fucking shoddy workmanship on this doorway. and somewhere, a contractor would have said to the families of the deceased, they obviously were standing under the doorways wrong.

the truth is, however, we really don’t know much about how to predict or how to protect ourselves from earthquakes, though we do know what causes them, and the answer to that question is, kittens. they’re so cute, when they purr, the earth purrs back. so remember: every time a kitten purrs, we lose several thousand turkish or chinese villagers. it was a great day for science when we could finally replace the aristotelian “wind” thesis with this far more believable explanation of seismic activity.

for a while, people believed they could use animals as a predictor for earthquakes. for instance, before a massive earthquake struck the chinese city of haicheng in february of 1975, the state evacuated its population, citing, among other harbingers, the strange behavior of animals in the city. the earthquake struck soon after the evacuation and hit 7.5 on the richter scale, destroying the city but resulting in few deaths. by comparison, another earthquake struck china several months later and killed 60,000 people. unfortunately, no credible link has ever been established between animal behavior and earthquakes, nor has anyone been able to dream up any other reliable method for determining where and when an earthquake will strike, and that leaves us with the task of trying to protect ourselves.

not that anyone’s really come up with anything reliable on that front, either. the most popular piece of advice is, duck, cover, and hold, and as it turns out, it's the recommended course of action in many situations, for instance: earthquakes, nuclear or biochemical attacks (though, in the case of an actual biochemical attack, you should also wrap your head tightly in saran wrap, to protect yourself from inhaling anything), assaults from angry ex-lover, or elderly uprisings. the stated objective here is to protect yourself from falling debris, but i think the intention is actually to subdue school children and to make sure that none of them sees the piece of the roof that finally does him or her in. the unfortunate reality is, people have rolled out of bed, onto the floor, and been found alive, while others have ducked, covered, held, and ended up painted across a few square yards of concrete. but if putting your hand across your spine makes you feel better, go right ahead.

the only thing that’s going to really improve your odds of survival is not being anywhere near china. in the loma prieta earthquake, a 7.1, 62 people died. in the northridge quake of 1992, measuring 6.9, 57 people died. whereas, in bachu, china, a 6.4 earthquake killed 261 people in 2003, and a 7.4 earthquake near izmit, turkey killed 18,000 people in 1999. you want to protect yourself from an earthquake? be in the united states when it happens.

unfortunately, the danger isn’t over once the ground stops moving. according to the usgs website, in order to meet the challenges of the days ahead, one should “[l]earn to fight fires, to rescue people trapped under debris, to provide first aid, to find help for dire emergencies, and to assist others, especially the elderly, immobile, or handicapped.” first, i doubt telling untrained civilians to fight fires is such a great idea. and besides, in some parts of this country, you tell people to fight fires, the next thing you know, they’re putting books on them. besides, it sounds like a lot of work. so does assisting the immobile, unless you’re my father. my father’s brand of assistance would be to tell them that if they were hungry enough, they’d move just fine, and he’d be content in the knowledge that he’d helped them by ignoring them far more than he could of by getting them out from underneath the family room.

isn’t there a disaster for lazy people? something like an ambush by puppies or a sudden pie overage?

“where did they all come from?”
“i don’t know, jane, but if there’s one thing i do know, it’s this: if we can’t eat all of these pies in the next 24 hours, well, god help us all, jane, god help us all.”
“floyd, look out! under the pies! it’s an ambush!
“oh god, they’re all over me!”
“aww, look how cute you look! it’s just darling! shoot, was the camera underneath the strawberry-rhubarb or the pineapple cream?”
“honey, they’re subduing me with their jovial affection and unquestioning loyalty!

get the shotgun!

last tuesday, a minor earthquake struck san diego, rousing many from slumber and providing me with the perfect opportunity to put my earthquake preparedness to the test, and i failed miserably. becoming aware of the rolling earth, i flung the covers off and leapt from bed in one fluid motion, landing square on my feet and dropping into a fighting stance, laughable because not only can you not beat up an earthquake, but also because i wouldn’t be able to fight my way out of a daycare center. i’ve seen amputees who look more threatening, though, to be fair, they were pirate captains.

once the shaking stopped, i left my room and tiptoed down the hall to check on the dog. since our dog is afraid of, in no particular order, rain, loud noises, gardeners, partially opened doors, the heater, the dryer, the ironing board, hoses, gingerale, and backpacks on children, i guess i expected him to be in hiding, or, failing that, i figured that he, mimicking those animals that escaped harm from the tsunami last december, would be working on a small water craft and packing essential survival tools such as a flashlight and matches along with enough food for him to reach the central united states (i wasn’t going to tell him that he couldn’t get there by boat; that seemed to me to be pointlessly cruel). neither turned out to be the case. he was resting comfortably on a throw rug, looking at me as if to say, “did you feel that? that was my stomach rumbling, bitch! now get me some food!”

i put my hand out to him, mainly to show him i had nothing to eat, when suddenly my mother burst out from the kitchen with a box of ho hos in her hand, saw the dog, and, confused, asked, “where’s your father?” but before i, panicked, could ask, “where’s the ding dongs?” my father emerged from the darkness of the hallway, broadsided me with a wooden spoon, crammed a ho ho in his mouth, and, spewing black flakes of cake from his lips, exclaimed, “i’ll show you an earthquake!”

left with no recourse, i ran back to my room, cheeks wet and ruddy with tears, and tried in vain for an hour to find simon and simon rerurns on tv.

i settled for major dad.

it was a long two hours before work.

Monday, April 11, 2005

why i don't run

i’ve been experiencing an unusual desire to get outdoors lately, and if you know me, you know how unusual this is. if i go outdoors, it’s only because i’m trying to get indoors again. i go outside to get into the car, to get into another building, and i hole up there until i need to get somewhere else. i don’t “hike,” an activity that has a lot in common with walking outdoors, so as to be, in fact, perfectly indistinguishable from it, save that it sounds a lot better to say “i went for a hike” than to say “i walked to vons.” though i think, in order for walking to become hiking, it must be done on a dirt trail, so that you can walk from your car to the trail, at which point, the hike officially commences; the hike officially ends when you realize you’re going to be looking at the same trees for the next three miles and, according to the sign, the rattlesnakes are out in force.

that’s when it becomes a sprint.

i blame the weather for my sudden interested in the natural world. though the past two weekends have been beautiful, the month of weekends before that were rainy and cold, and, in general, it has been a wet winter for those of us living in “america’s finest city.” not that i’m complaining; we only saw 20 inches of rainfall this year, and though that’s twice what we normally get, it’s nothing compared to other places in the country. by contrast, yakutat, arkansas receives, on average, 151 inches of rainfall each year. i had to do a double take when i saw that statistic; i thought numbers that high were only used to demarcate rum. and, keep in mind, this is a 30-year average, which means a good year in yakutat is when the river only floods twice. when your town gets that much rain, you’ve got to wonder what your ancestors did to piss off god, because even biblical plagues didn’t last that long; seven years, at the most, and that wasn’t really a plague, one, and two, it was preceded by seven years of plenty. i doubt yakutat had pleasant, sunny weather for 30 years. so my message to yakutat is: please move off that sacred indian burial ground before your children start making that “open open open” pose against a snowy tv screen and the ghost of craig t nelson’s career makes you watch "coach" reruns. it’s only a matter of time.

but i digress. several rainy weekends came and went, the grey rolling out just in time for us to go to work on monday morning, until, about two weeks ago, the sun stayed with us all the way through saturday and sunday, and i decided i wanted to enjoy it, because it’s probably only going to be around for another 200, 250 days, tops. and is there any better way to enjoy the sunshine than by getting out and going for a good run?

yes, yes there is. lots of ways, in fact, so i don’t know why i stuck with that one. it isn’t like running has ever been kind to me, not even when i was a young kid in elementary school. do you remember how your teacher would pair you off and make you all go down to the “track,” usually a gravel ellipsoid so haphazardly laid out that it looked like something stephen hawking made by hand? and you would run, and every time you crossed the starting line, your partner would hand you a popsicle stick to help you remember which lap you were on? what a cruel thing to do to a fat kid. instead of focusing on the run, all i could think about was, where did all these popsicle sticks come from? and who ate the popsicles? and why wasn’t i invited to help eat the popsicles? so from an early age i learned to associate running with frozen treats, which hasn’t helped me in the least.

and i’ve never gotten any better at running since i was a little kid, either, not that there’s any reason to. i suppose if i were an orthodox jew, it was saturday, and i was late for something, maybe then i would run, but that’s about it. i suppose i would run from danger, but if i did that, it would only be to amuse my pursuer, since lord knows the only situation in which running would help me evade capture would be if i stole the wheelchair from a paraplegic, and even then, why would i run when i could roll? not that i would steal a wheelchair when i could just go out and buy a pair of rollerskates, which are just like small wheelchairs for my feet.

there’s an artificial lake a few miles away from my house, and i decided i would run there, and in all seriousness, it’s a beautiful spot for a run. the lake, thanks to the recent rains, is full and blue. the parks and rec people have stocked it with fish, and people from all over san diego go there with their boats, kayaks, and fishing gear. moms and dads bring sons and daughters out for a family bike ride, or they bring the dog out for a walk, and when the breeze kicks up, little white-capped licks lift off the surface of the lake. since i run slowly, i have plenty of time to soak it all in. which gets old after about one mile, which is okay, since after one mile, i’m in so much agony i can’t focus on the scenery any more. at that point, it’s all about pain management; i.e., being managed by the pain.

i went at about two in the afternoon, an ideal time to run if you wish to increase your chances of heat stroke or blistering sunburn. i decided to improve my odds by not drinking any water all day, but i did take a pitiful 16 ounces of water with me to remind my body of what it felt like to be hydrated without actually doing so.

despite the pain, the run gave me a chance to be alone with my thoughts, to get away from the distractions of work and home and try to learn something about myself. i learned, for instance, that if you tell me to watch out for rattlesnakes, i will. and while i’m at it, i will also watch out for random sounds in the brush, for dried out twigs in the road, for things hanging from branches (even though i know that rattlesnakes do not hang, anaconda-like, from trees), and, for good measure, clowns, since i don’t trust clowns enough to assume that they are not in cahoots with poisonous reptiles. i’m no fool. i saw it.

i also learned that the ice cream man is a wily foe; apparently, he knows that i associate frozen treats with running, and he makes stops at the lake. you are a tactical genius, ice cream man, and i salute you as a worthy adversary. and the way you got those teachers in your pocket? smooth, ice cream man, smooth, much like the very confections you peddle from your mobile den of temptation.

and, apparently, if i run far enough without stopping, say, six, seven miles or so, i begin to quietly sob, in a pathetic, blubbering way that is entirely undignified. i’m not sure if this is because of the pain or because of the heat.

finally, i learned that even in the most idyllic of settings, people can still be assholes.

so i’m on mile seven, and i can actually see the end of the trail, and i’m behind some older woman walking in a blue sweatsuit. why people feel the need to coat themselves in 50 square yards of dark, heat-absorbing cotton in the middle of a baking afternoon in order to exercise is beyond me; perhaps she was trying to bring on the heat stroke early so as to have an excuse to stop. then again, i suppose i prefer it to the opposite, where people choose to wear far too little to cover their excessive amounts of flesh. perhaps they’re trying to be ironic? all i ask is that you be sensitive. while you do have every right to dress how you wish, when i’m running, i’m suffering enough.

so, on mile seven, weeping, fatigued, in terror because of the rattlesnakes and the possibility of a vicious clown attack, doing what could only loosely be described as running. i decide i need to pass this person in front of me, because were i to move any slower i would, in fact, be walking. excuse me. hiking. i can’t move left, because there’s an intermittent stream of luxury s.u.v.’s with high, dark windows and, i imagine, air-conditioned interiors, housing, i’m convinced, the wealthy and their ungrateful clutches of children, who no doubt stared down at me as i twitched and sputtered my way along the pavement like michael j fox without his meds, all the while thinking, “why doesn’t he get those shoes with the wheels in the heels? they’re like rollerskates, but for half your feet.” luckily, on my right, a small dirt shoulder opened up, so i took my opportunity. i’m not moving quickly, granted, but i’m making progress. slowly, ever so slowly, i edge alongside of her. detecting my hatred for the majority of the geriatric set (mainly because they make it impossible to navigate the vons parking lot between the hours of 2 and 4 pm weekdays), and fearing that i might be after her social security, she sees me and decides she’s going to try to walk faster so that i can’t pass her before the dirt path i’m “running” on is occluded by brush and banks sharply downward into the lake! and the thing is, i’m so tired, she’s actually doing it! she’s outwalking me! i had to push her out the way just to avoid drowning in an artificial lake—a lake that shouldn’t have even been there in the first place! it's one thing to drown in a naturally occurring body of water--but a lake we put there? that's like walking into a sliding glass door.

of course i didn’t push her. do you think i'd be sitting here reporting this to you if i pushed an old woman into the path of an oncoming vehicle, causing it to nick her as it swerved to the left, striking and killing an unsuspecting clown who, it turns out, was studying to be a mime? think about it: making pretend animals out of balloons is not that far from making pretend wind out of nothing. my point is, had i done that, the series of consecutive parties held in my honor wouldn't even be halfway over yet. no; weeping, tired, frightened, i sprinted and slipped back onto the pavement just as my lane ended. once again, a crisis at the hands of the elderly avoided by a younger yet equally stubborn and bitter person who just happens to have quicker reflexes, though not by much, especially at that point. once again demonstrating to me that people over the age of 65 should be under house arrest.

oh, i was writing about running. if i took anything away from this whole experience, besides a healthy distrust for the elderly, it would be ice cream. you win again, bewheeled vendor of joy, all-seeing navigator of your glistening lactic chariot!

that, and that if you are attacked by a mountain lion, do not crouch down. apparently, to a mountain lion, crouching food=delicious. and moving, crouching food? a delicacy. so if you are chuck berry, watch out.