We’re All Waiting For The Big One
On Dr. Lucy Jones, canned corn, slow rollers, and fast catastrophes
“I thought a truck was going by,” someone says later. And someone else says, “I thought it was the upstairs neighbors.”
I was at a hair salon in Los Angeles when the first of the big Ridgecrest, California earthquakes struck on July 4, 2019. When the large, crystal chandeliers started swaying, my first thought was that it must be the wind. The phenomenon of the earth shifting beneath our feet is so contrary to expectation that it feels less probable than indoor wind.
It was not the wind. There was no one in the salon but my hair dresser, her assistant, and me, and the three of us stood braced in three different doorways, giddily confirming and reconfirming to one another that yes, this was an earthquake, and yes, it seemed to be a big one, and yes, it seemed to be a long one. (I later learned from my husband, Zac, that you aren’t supposed to stand in the doorway anymore. I am outraged. This is my New Math.) Anyway, it was fun and exciting in the manner of disasters that are not really disasters, at least not for you at the hair salon (although possibly for other people somewhere else). When it was over, I went back to getting my hair dyed again.
By the time the second big earthquake hit, I was braced for it, metaphorically if not literally. This, too, was one of the long, slow, rolling ones, with plenty of time to debate about whether or not this was an earthquake. Was it just a little one or a real one? Was it big enough to get off the sofa and feel a little silly crouching your big body under the dining room table? And then there was time to confirm that yes, okay, this one really was big enough for crouching after all.
(My older children were in the Bay Area with their dad and they missed the earthquakes. Margaret was in her crib napping peacefully; later, I would do some research on infant safety during an earthquake and feel assured that “an earthquake will probably not frighten a baby as they are used to being carried here and there, and lifted up and jostled, often without warning.”)
I have waited all my life for The Big One, since my elementary school first augmented regular safety drills with lurid video enactments of downtown office towers crumbling onto the freeways as leafy suburban neighborhoods burst suddenly into flames.
I’ve written before about the climate of antisocial and irrational fear in the 1980s, and about everything from Satanic preschools to killer bees. Every one of these fad panics was nothing: No one was putting hypodermic needles in pay phones or flashing their headlights as part of a gang initiation. Even the real threats never materialized: The Russians never dropped the bomb, Y2K didn’t jam air traffic controls, and the hole in the ozone healed itself. (Although apparently closing the hole in the ozone layer may also increase global warming, so that’s a bummer.)
Some of these threats were never going to happen; others were prevented or ameliorated by focused, intelligent human effort we at home never saw. Pandemics like Ebola were terribly real in other countries but never in ours. Apocalyptic events happened during those years. (To give only one example: The AIDS crisis, abetted by our government, was the end of the world for millions of people.) And yet, at least for those fortunate enough to survive that era, the message became: “Things always work out somehow. The really bad things never happen.” From there it was only a small step to thinking: “Only hysterical people believe the world is going to end.” What’s a more iconic image of a crazy person than someone standing on a street corner shouting about the end of the world?
But during this time, when the bees were not swarming and the planes were not falling out of the sky, The Big One was still coming.
As a child watching those reenactments of Santa Monica drowned by tidal waves, I could not understand why people weren’t doing anything. All the adults in my life, and especially the ones who had the power, agreed that a massive earthquake was going to come kill us all. But still we stayed, riding elevators to the tops of office towers and rolling out beach blankets on unstable shores.
It seemed perfectly clear to me at age seven that if you lived in a place where you had a very real chance of dying in a terrible natural disaster, you would move. After all, if I told you, “There will be a 9.0 earthquake next week that will level Los Angeles,” you’d surely leave. So why not leave when you know there will be a 9.0 earthquake that will level Los Angeles sometime in the next 30 years?
Instead, the adults bought wireless radios but forgot to change the batteries. They picked up four extra cans of corn but then gave them away in the office food drive. They meant to anchor the bookshelves but they couldn’t find the little white tab things. These were symbolic gestures, small sacrifices to the Big One, but the Big One wanted more.
What kind of disaster can you survive with no less and no more than a gallon of water and four cans of corn?
To the impressionable child watching school-sanctioned videos of her crumbled city washing away into the sea, the adults were incomprehensible. What possible good would it do to anchor your bookcases to the wall when the entire house was coming down? Why wasn’t everyone at Caltech working on this nonstop and not just that one lady on the news? (Then, Dr. Lucy Jones seemed to me to be The Only Good Adult. Dr. Lucy Jones is one of the patron saints of Los Angeles.) What kind of disaster can you survive with no less and no more than a gallon of water and four cans of corn?
Today, I still feel like I am shouting at the adults, though I am an adult now, too.
Something terrible is coming, someday, and you do the small things you can, and you keep on living all the same.
Human-made climate catastrophe is not remotely equivalent to natural disaster in culpability or in scope, but the day-to-day experience is much the same. Something terrible is coming, someday, and you do the small things you can, and you keep on living all the same.
Though we know the problem is bigger than any individual gesture, individual gestures are what we have. So I’ve stopped eating meat, Zac bikes to work, and we still fly but we feel bad about it. Zac has been waging a one-man war on plastic such that when I went to fly to Vegas last month, I couldn’t find a single clear plastic bag in which to pack my toiletries because they’d all been replaced by these waxed bits of rags that are homey, virtuous, and not at all TSA-compliant. We know some of this is silly and maybe even wrong (like how long we spent weighing the sins of cloth versus disposable diapers). But we have to do something.
(My friend Dorothy has compared individual lifestyle choices versus mass political action to faith versus works.)
There are two kinds of earthquakes: the slow rollers and the sudden jolts. Close to the epicenter, an earthquake will feel like a sudden jolt. Farther away, it will feel like a slow roll. The rolling waves move more slowly but over far greater distances, and their ripples are so widely and diversely felt that they are often mistaken for a passing truck or a passing breeze right up until the moment they cannot be mistaken anymore.
The world is ending, but slowly, and we need something to do in the meantime. The dream of survivalism, zombie apocalypse, and extraterrestrial invasion is a big, fast catastrophe that catapults you instantly from everyday life to the after-days of hoarding food, sheltering in old shopping malls, and riding around with shotguns being the hero who lives. If the world had ended with Ebola, malfunctioning computers, or killer bees, it might have gone quickly. But instead, we watch it melt slowly while we try to remember to use fewer straws.
Three decades ago I couldn’t fathom why my parents stayed in L.A. But I am here now with five gallons of water in my garage and two jars of unopened museum wax in the cabinet. I could leave, but L.A. is my home.
When I was deciding where to live, I applied what I have since dubbed The Independence Day Test. I have lived in a dozen cities all over the world and liked almost all of them. But when I imagine a cinematic catastrophe — the glistening alien hover and the ordinary citizens gathered nobly in the streets under a black smoke sky — and when I think “where is the city I would stand to defend?” it is always only Los Angeles.
The world is my home and I believe I would stand in the streets to defend it if I could, trembling, doomed, and beautiful. But all I can do now is feel for the slow rolling, write checks, call Congress, and hope the adults are listening.