Tuesday, August 23, 2011

I feel the earth move under my feet



Or not. Although it is unusual to experience a magnitude 5.9 earthquake in Richmond, Virginia, it is apparently not unheard of, since that's what just happened.

I was sitting at my desk when the shaking started, and my first thought was that the kids were horsing around in the playroom next door. I was about to yell, "What's going on in there?" when I remembered that they were playing outside. Then I thought it was the spin cycle on the washer, because it had that rhythmic sort of chugga-chugga-CHUGGA quality to it, and I was trying to remember if I had put anything heavy (like a comforter) in that last load. THEN, finally, it dawned on me that it was an earthquake and I was like, 'Holy shit!' and ran outside to see if the kids were okay.

And they were. They are. We're all fine.

This was, by my count, my fifth earthquake. Or fifth that was big enough to really count for something, I guess. I lived in Southern California for seven years, and during that time there were countless little ones, little trembles that made you sort of cock your head like a dog listening for a whistle and go, "Was that...?" before you moved on with your day.

But the ones that I distinctly remember as Events are as follows:

1) Rawlins, Wyoming - I was in fifth grade, so it would have been 1984 or so. My reading group and I are all sitting around the half-moon shaped table, with our teacher sitting in the little cut-out on the flat side. She accuses us all, in turn, of being the naughty kid who is kicking the table hard enough to make it shake. This is tough for us, because in my reading group we are the nerds, the well-behaved Lisa Simpsons of our day, and to be accused of acting out is highly unusual for us. And then we all realize that it's actually an earthquake. (Which is highly unusual for Wyoming.) One of the walls of the school cracked, I remember, making a neat zig-zag right along the fault lines of the mortar between the bricks. Other seismic events that year include my parents' divorce, which I found out about from one of my teachers, when she asked me if I was okay, and I was like, "Yeah. Why?" and she told me. Gotta love a small town. (Or not.)

2) Los Angeles, California - The first of my three L.A. quakes (1999?) comes in the middle of the night, approximately 2 a.m. I wake up disoriented, wondering why my bed is moving one direction and I am moving the other. A couple pictures on my desk fall over and I realize what is going on. I rush out into the hallway where my grad-school roommate has just emerged from her bedroom. We smile goofily at each other and she yells, "Earthquake!" like a soccer announcer yelling, "Goal!" We are strangely giddy, as it's the first one for both of us since moving to Southern California, and it somehow doesn't seem like it's serious enough to warrant panic. A couple small aftershocks keep us awake the rest of the night, but other than that, nothing else really happened.

3) Los Angeles, California - The second quake comes in 2000, during the day, while I am at work at HBO in one of the twin towers of Century City. The entire development team is sitting around the big table in the conference room having a meeting. The NYC branch of HBO has recently merged with the LA branch and all the NY execs have moved out to LA within the last couple months. When the quake hits, every single LA exec is sitting calmly at the table waiting to see how bad it will be, and every single NY exec is underneath the table, freaking out. The building is on rollers and is built to withstand quakes (the tower is triangle-shaped, which apparently helps in quakes because every wall has a stabilizing vertical beam exactly opposite it, whereas a square or rectangular building shakes more), but because we are on the 36th floor, there is a queasy sort of time-delayed swaying sensation happening. Like, the bottom of the building is moving one way, and 30 seconds later the movement ripples up to the top of the building and we sway in the opposite direction. That one went on for a LONG time, but again, it never really seemed like we were in terrible danger. After it stopped, the NY execs took the rest of the day off. The HR department instituted regular earthquake-preparedness drills after that and we all had the chance to purchase an earthquake "kit" at a special discounted price.

4) Los Angeles, California - The final big quake I experienced in L.A. was also the most severe. I had just recently found out that I was invited to the Emmys, and was in the mall shopping for a strapless bra to wear with my fancy dress. I had just come out of the dressing room in Victoria's Secret and gotten in line to buy my bra when the shaking started. There was a big fancy crystal chandelier directly above my head, and I remember staring at it and being amazed at how far horizontally it was swinging during the shaking. The suspending chain seemed to be almost parallel to the floor at one point. Bras and panties were falling off of the shelves, people were screaming, some dust started to come down from the ceiling, and I remember being like, 'Great. This is where I'm going to die? In a Victoria's Secret? Suffocated in a giant pile of lingerie?' That was the only quake strong enough to make me doubt that we would be okay. But then, the shaking subsided, everybody picked themselves up, offered each other some shaky smiles and just went on with their day. Other seismic events that year included 9/11, which postponed and then downgraded the Emmys from Black Tie to Business Casual, so I didn't end up wearing the bra, or the dress, at all. (I don't mean to be flippant or blase about September 11th, but I figure there's nothing I can tell you about that day that you don't already know.)

5) Richmond, Virginia - 2011. Ten years since my last quake, I almost don't recognize what it is. Now I kind of feel like I do when I see a couple or three highway patrolmen on the interstate in a short space of road, pulling people over for speeding. Does that make it more likely that I will see another one? Are they out in force, handing out tickets galore? Should I be extra careful to obey the speed limit so I don't get nabbed? Or is it less likely that I'll see another one, since I've just seen a few in a row? Is the probability of another one lower, because there are only so many highway patrolmen out there? Hard to say. Should I be relieved that my family has safely experienced a "major" quake here in VA and from here on out it will be even more unlikely that we'll get another one? I mean, this one happening at all was pretty fucking unlikely, right? Or does having one big one mean another one is now more likely to occur? (I mean, aside from aftershocks and all that.) Hard to say.

Maybe I'll dig out that old earthquake-preparedness kit.

Thanks for reading.