pWdumaNjA-6CEEBhRoD5euxNETs When All This Actual Life Played Out: Of the full moon, Santa Anas and earthquakes

16 January 2014

Of the full moon, Santa Anas and earthquakes

Early morning
16 January 2014

Two nights ago, I was dreaming that I was pushing or on some small wheeled contraption, like a room service trolley. Suddenly, I hit a full, jarring stop. The abrupt slam to a halt was violent enough to wake me.


Just a small one. But enough to wake me.

While much of northern and eastern North America digs out of snow and ice, we are into our seventh or eighth day of hot dry winds since the year began. Our air conditioning came on last night. It was 72F when I took this photo at 6:25 this morning, standing in the middle of the road in shorts and a t-shirt. Unbeknownst to me, up the road in Glendora a fast-moving fire had consumed its first 30 acres.

There are so many jokes for this sort of weather. Shake and Bake. The Four Seasons of California: Fire, Flood, Earthquake and I'll skip the popular fourth because we aren't having that problem at the moment.

Earthquake weather.

Scientists swear there is no correlation between this hellish weather and earthquakes. Maybe we notice the quakes more because we're already at our wits end from the weather. People go a little crazy when the wind blows like this. I just know that there have been plenty of earthquakes when we've already been unseasonably hot.

Like 20 years ago. I was wearing summer pajamas in January.

I was 8+ months pregnant. A Monday, January 17, the first morning of my maternity leave. It was 4:15 am. I had to get up for the reason all hugely pregnant women get up at 4 am. Doodle, my cat, stretched happily and followed me. She loved the fact of my pregnancy because she could talk me into giving her breakfast very early in the morning. After I did the necessary, I went down the hall to the kitchen, small calico cat preceding me, bouncing and happily talking about her breakfast. I fed her and looked out the kitchen window to the lights in the valley below. It was still dark, utterly dark, and quiet.
I waddled back up the hall, and carefully climbed back into bed, preparing to try to talk myself back to sleep. It was hard not to think about all the things that I needed to do, like finish painting the baby's room, put away little clothes, pack that hospital bag.

I might have dozed. But if I did, it was for seconds.

At 4:31 am, what felt like a giant hand smacked our queen-sized bed straight up into the air. That is an image that has stayed with me for two decades. In my mind's eye, I saw a giant blue hand like that of Robin Williams' genie from Aladdin come up out of the ground and smack us into the air.

And then the shaking began. The cat was gone, and outside our bedroom window, through the closed shutters, I saw huge flashes of light as the powerlines across the street arced and sparked, a terrifying display of lightning of which I'd never seen the like. I was screaming, God knows what I was screaming, I was just screaming, and flailing, trying to shift my enormous pregnant self out of the bed because every nerve ending was telling me to run.

No fight. Just flight. On this scale, you don't fight Mother Nature. You just run like hell.

The spouse was struggling to disentangle himself from the lamp that had fallen on him, while simultaneously trying to wake up and hold me down on the bed. Truth was, though, that even had I managed to lever myself out of the tossing bed, I wouldn't have been able to stand, let alone run. The ground was shaking that hard.

I've read about earthquakes that lasted minutes. I can't begin to imagine that. The Northridge quake lasted 15-20 seconds. Doesn't sound like long, does it? But try this: get a stopwatch. Watch the seconds tick away. Count the breaths. Imagine being in a room shaking so hard that you can't stand.

It's much, much too long.

The shaking is a terrifying thing, trust me, and seeing the ground actually move is unutterably creepy, but to my mind, the worst thing about a big earthquake is the sound. It's not just the sound of your house trying to tear itself apart around you, but you can hear the ground. During one of the larger aftershocks, we were outdoors walking the dog. It sounded like 1,000 garage doors slamming shut simultaneously.

So, the shaking did stop, and I stopped screaming (we put it down to pregnancy hormones because I'd never reacted to anything--including bigger earthquakes--like that in my life, and I certainly haven't behaved like that since), and the spouse woke up, and we checked for gas leakage, made coffee, and cleaned up.

I've had so much stuff fall down in earthquakes that I can't actually remember which quake claimed what item. I think the only thing that's ever broken irreparably is a vase that I didn't like anyway, but I've got any number of dented candlesticks (one of which was heavy enough to take out part of the fireplace brick when it fell and that was Northridge) and broken-backed books. You live, you learn and heavy candlesticks have been packed away for two decades.

We turned on the TV to watch the news, and the spouse was pacing. At the time, he was working on a new museum being built on the Westside, and as he was geologist of record for a very important part of it, he was having kittens. He was not the least interested when I told him that we needed to start timing contractions, because I, unsurprisingly, was having contractions. He was fretting over the startling news that Santa Monica seemed to have sustained as much damage as Northridge.

Even though it was still dark, the devastation was clear. I lived in Sherman Oaks in the years between college and grad school. As I watched, the news crew showed the strip mall near my old apartment in flames. The roof of the grocery where I shopped had collapsed.

As the sun rose, the spouse got a call from his boss with instructions to do damage assessment in the area since we were nearest the epicenter. I wasn't going to be left home alone, and I told him I could take photos while he drove.

It was a long and not very pleasant day. The air was thick with dust and smoke. At a park in Simi Valley, I watched fascinated and repulsed as the grass seemed to ripple and crawl toward me during an aftershock. Years later, I heard a scientist say you can't see the ground actually move during an earthquake, and while he may not have ever seen it, I most assuredly have.

Although I continued to have astonishing contractions that day, I never went into labor. Ever. The son was safely delivered by emergency C-section a couple of weeks later. Two large aftershocks rocked the hospital while I waited for the Pitocin to do something, but to no avail.

Funny thing about aftershocks. When you've been through a big earthquake (Northridge was M6.7), a mere 4 or 5 feels like a carnival ride.

The spouse's project came through the earthquake with flying colors. He works for a different company now, and instead of building stuff, he studies how things fall apart.

It was January. It was so hot, I wore my summer pajamas.

And I've never forgotten that.

Tech stuff: Taken with my iPhone4. I still think of those who were lost that day. Because the number was relatively small, because eventually the area was rebuilt, some discount the tragedy. But I think of them. Some of their stories resonated very strongly with me, and I don't forget.

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