Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Where Were You . . .

An old unfinished meme I found in my files, and remarkably suitable for a year-end look into personal and public history.

1. When John F. Kennedy was shot (11/22/1963)

Sitting about 18 inches in front of the TV. I was 4, and I had a serious crush on him. I remember it vividly.

2. When Mt. St. Helens blew (5/18/1980)

Living in a commune in Bryn Mawr, PA, and working doing market surveys over the telephone. We couldn't get a line west of the Mississippi for days -- the ash cloud knocked out all the satellite signals. Five years to the day later, I was getting married to the scientist who calculated what percentage of the mountain blew up.

3. Reagan's shooting (3/1981)

Working the 6AM to noon shift in a Dunkin' Donuts in Bryn Mawr, PA. The consensus among the customers was that Reagan's shooting was a normal political hazard, whereas the assassination of John Lennon was deeply unfair and wrong. It was pouring down rain, I remember that.

4. When the space shuttle Challenger exploded (1/28/1986)

Working as a production editor in Westport, CT. I was in total shock. I grew up watching the space program, and I always loved it. I also remember where I was when the first Apollo space capsule burned on the ground -- it was my older sister's ninth birthday.

5. When the 7.1 earthquake hit San Francisco (10/7/1989)

Watching the World Series pregame show on TV. (I'm a baseball fan.) My husband and I were living outside Philadelphia. He had to fly out to Silicon Valley the next week, and he brought me back an earthquake survivor T-shirt.

6. When the Gulf War began (1/15/1991)

Married, in grad school, and living outside Philadelphia—about 3 miles as the crow flies from the Navy Yard. My husband was doing something mysterious that took him to Washington, DC, for three days a week. He warned me that if he ever called and asked if I'd seen my mother lately, that I should grab the silverware and the cats and flee to her place in the mountains, because it was a warning that Iraq was nuking us. Now in those days, we didn't have call waiting. That evening I was on the phone with my friend Gillian, whose birthday it was, when I realized that Jeopardy wasn't on the TV. Instead I watched the tracery of Cruise missiles. The war had started. I got off the phone and saw the whole sky turn white. Then there was a series of brilliant flashes, and then vast booming.

"That's it," I thought. "They're dropping the bomb." So I went out on the front porch to watch the world end.

Unfortunately, at least for my dignity, it was an unseasonal thunderstorm, not the apocalypse. When I told Billy about it, his reaction was amazement at my stupidity. Why hadn't I fled to the basement? I could have taken shelter there and survived. It hadn't even occurred to me.

This is one of the most typical stories about me.

7. When OJ Simpson was chased in his White Bronco (6/17/1994)

Still living outside Philly in that grand old brick house. We'd gone to a twilight matinee of Speed, which was opening that weekend, and when we came out we heard the low-speed chase on KYW, the local news radio station. Kafkaesque.

8. When the Branch Davidian compound burned in Waco (4/19/1993)

Out shopping at the Strawbridge and Clothier in Springfield, Delaware County, PA. I happened to be next to the electronics section, looked up, and saw the blaze on fifty or sixty TV screens at once.

9. When the building in Oklahoma City was bombed (4/19/1995)

Still outside Philly. Specifically, I was working in my office in the western front corner of the house, second floor, listening to the radio as I worked.

10. When Princess Di was killed (8/31/1997)

By then we'd moved upstate, back to the county where I grew up. I first heard about it when I stopped for gas and practically tripped over a stack of Sunday newspapers. Again, an eerie moment of horror: "Diana Killed in Accident" looked so much like a headline about my niece's death not 7 months before.

11. When Bush was first announced President (?)

I can't remember when, exactly, it was announced, but by then I had left my husband, was living in Binghamton, NY, and working at a job I loved.

12. When the 6.8 earthquake hit Nisqually, WA (2/28/2001)

Still in beautiful Binghamton. In the next month, it snowed five feet there. Beautiful snowy Binghamton.

13. When terrorists knocked over the World Trade Center (9/11/2001)

Back in Binghamton. I'd moved out here to California, but I needed to return to wrap things up. The story is here.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Happy Holidays!

To all my friends I wish the joy of the season. May the year ahead of us be filled with joy, wisdom, peace, and love.

For me, the light comes back with Christmas.

The Guest: A Christmas Prayer

Tall, cool, and gentle, you are here
To turn the water into wine.
Now, at the ebbing of the year,
Be you the sun we need to shine.

It is the birthday of your Word
And we are gathered. Will you come?
Let not your spirit be a sword
O luminous delightful lord.

--Harold Monro

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

News from the Epicenter

Email from my friend Doug Gordon:

Things are ok here, but it was definitely the largest quake I've felt, having missed the Loma Prieta and Northridge parties by living elsewhere at the times. Was asleep when it hit, and have to say that riding a sixer on a waterbed is an interesting experience. The wave peaks threatened to launch me out of bed. Not having my glasses on, it was hard to see specifically, but the trees out the windows seemed beset by a tempest. Actually, I recommend being asleep, because I didn't seem to get quite the fear response I might have had if I been fully conscious, though consciousness comes fairly quickly at such a time.

Nothing major broke here. Two book cases fell over in the guest room (guess I'm gonna have to do something about that feature before I have someone else sleep in that bed), and various knick knacks took headers from various high places. (I'm happy to report that the Iron Giant missed the hearth on the way down from the mantle, so is intact, as are his companions, the cast from Yellow Submarine - sorry about that Paul, John!) Had very little leapage from the kitchen, though a quick examination of the cabinets revealed that had it gone on for another five seconds or so, I'd have started to lose stuff, as many glasses and other objects had their toes over the edge of the springboard. Power was out only for about five minutes or so, and never lost the phones, satellite, and internet, so figured out pretty quickly that I was more or less on top of the thing - there's always the thought that you've just caught the edge of something that's just wiped LA or something. Took slightly longer to figure out where the cats had gone to ground.

So, spent a large fraction of the day repacking the bookshelves while listening to the earth grumble occasionally. Having an earthquake of this size means you'll be putting up with a great many minor aftershocks, each of which does little other than grabbing your attention in that “wait for it” moment it takes to decide if we'll be having a sequel or not. The damage seems to be worse in the next town up the road, Paso Robles, as I'm sure every one is seeing on the news. Less newsworthy (as it doesn't make much of a visual for their fancy helicopters) is that there is some significant damage around. A friend's in-laws west of Paso have pretty extensive damage to their place--it sheared a toilet off its mountings!--and made landscape boulders well set in the soil roll to new spots. Other friends have some more cosmetic damage to deal with in their abode. I'm lucky in that my house is a simple, one-story box, the style least affected by such shakings.

Anyway, I'm off to my parents’ house for the holidays tomorrow (Tuesday), so I'll probably escape the bulk of the aftershock clusters. All is well here, though I did use up a good deal of my adrenalin reserves.

Monday, December 22, 2003

The Usual Bump and Grind

I didn’t even notice it at first. I was concentrating on work In any case, I have learned to filter out minor motions, since quakeproof buildings are designed to rock gently under the slightest pressure. (This includes people walking heavily through the office.) Then Michele called; her office is on the edge of her building, and she could see the trees swaying and feel the shaking fairly sharply.

Then the second wave hit—long, gentle rolling motions that lasted a long time. The overhead lights swayed.

Then it subsided, and we went back to work.

I checked over lunch, and it seems to have been a 6.5—a big quake—centered on Cambria. That’s down by San Luis Obispo, where I went to the writers’ conference in September 2002. I have friends in that area, so I may be able to provide a firsthand report.

Why am I willing to live in a place where the ground may start moving at any time?

Well, I always liked Philadelphia. And yes, Philly is seismically active, just on a smaller scale. (So far.) I went through several minor quakes there, including the 4.6 centered on Reading. Manhattan has its own fault under the Hudson River. There have been destructive earthquakes in Boston, Charleston, even the peaceful midwest. And given that earthquakes are possible almost anywhere, I’d rather be where the buildings are designed to withstand big shocks.

Then there are the unconsidered hazards of life in the Northeast. I have personally gone through uncountable snow storms (ranging from flurries to full-fledged blizzards), ice storms, hail, sleet, and violent thunderstorms with high winds and downed trees. Plenty of those routine storms were accompanied by a death or two: car accidents, freezing, someone struck by lightning, a heart attack from shoveling, fallen trees crushing cars or houses. I’ve taped windows against hurricanes. I’ve driven roads that were under a couple of feet of water and seen the damage the big floods caused, and I’ve bailed water in a flooded basement. One particularly stormy day, I raced a series of tornadoes down the Northeast Extension of the PA Turnpike. When I was living in Forest City, we had to take shelter in the cellar from a tornado, and the next day we drove through the devastation at Lake Carey and along 107. Two people died. I’ve survived 105-degree heat waves in city apartments with no air conditioning, although plenty of old people died in the heat. In New Jersey, we watched the local forest-fire risk gauge and hoped the woods wouldn’t burn.

I am not minimizing the shock and horror of those deaths. I am not saying that ice storms are easy or safe. They’re not; they’re among the few things that scare me, and I still remember the fear I felt one winter, when we had two ice storms a week for three months straight. But I know how to handle myself in those situations: how to protect myself from lightning or tornadoes, how to drive in snow or rain, and not to drive in ice.

Here in California, everyone takes certain precautions. No bookcases over the bed, for example. In fact, our bookcases are mostly bolted to the walls. Houses and offices are built to earthquake code. Bridges are retrofitted to handle the shaking.

Do I feel safe? Not absolutely safe, but then I didn’t feel absolutely safe back home, either. Maybe my feelings are warped by having such severe and life-threatening allergies. I could be killed by a stalk of celery, a bee sting, a dish of soba noodles or buckwheat pancakes. Those are all considerably more common than lethal earthquakes.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Gay Marriage: Make Your Voice Heard

From my email:

The American Family Association has a poll on their website for people to give their opinion on gay marriage. They intend to present the results of this poll to the United States Congress in an attempt to instate a federal law against gay marriage.

I ask you all to please visit and let your opinion be heard. It takes about 45 seconds, and it is such an important topic. Whether you are gay or straight, conservative or liberal, your opinion matters, and you need to vote here.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

Rambling on Roads

After the post of a few days ago, I wanted to offer a translation for my non-Californian readers: El Camino is the road where the car died, but it's much more than that. El Camino is El Camino Real, the old Spanish mission trail that runs from the Mexican border all the way to Sonoma County. It links the original missions: San Diego del Alcala (established 1769), San Juan Capistrano, San Gabriel de Arcangel, Nuestra Señora de los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Nuestra Señora de Soledad, San Juan Bautista, San Jose(established 1775), Santa Clara, San Francisco de Asis, San Francisco de Solano in Sonoma County (established 1823). That’s not an exhaustive list, but you might recognize some of the shortened names: San Diego, LA, Soledad (home of the maximum security prison), San Francisco, named for St. Francis of Assissi.

El Camino is the equivalent of Lancaster Pike, AKA Route 30, AKA the Pike west of Philadelphia, both in history and in current use. They’re both more or less Main Street for most of the towns they pass through, and they’re lined with strip malls, car dealerships, fast-food places, and other memorials to American culture. Yet both also run through some beautiful country between the urban areas.

The Pike was incorporated into the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental highway, which ran or runs from Atlantic City to San Francisco. Much of the Lincoln Highway has been swallowed by Route 80. From the George Washington Bridge to the Bay Bridge, 80 is a great road. (Well, at least on the eastern end, it always seems to be under construction, but I love it anyway.) Annals of the Former World, John McPhee's classic of popular geology, follows 80 from end to end, looking at the rock outcrops and discussing millions of years of geologic events, plus some history of the science and of the people along the way.

Route 80 links my old home and my new. Directions to my hometown from out here are easy: go north to the Bay Bridge, hang a right, and drive several thousand miles. I was born just north of 80; I remember it and 81 being constructed in the early and mid-1960s, when we were living in Columbia County. If you want to see Jackson, where I was a teenager, just take Route 81 North. Get off at Lenox, have an ice-cream cone, and then on to Jackson: twelve miles.

The old Lincoln Highway, of course, leads through and past other parts of my past. I went to college just off the Lancaster Pike. When I lived in Ardmore from third through sixth grades, we walked up and down the Pike. The Pike is also the Main Line -- the site of one of the greatest of all romantic comedies, The Philadelphia Story.” I lived in St. Davids, Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Ardmore, in venues ranging from a dorm on the exquisitely beautiful Eastern College campus to a commune in a row house.

Sometime I need to write about Southeast Pennsylvania. I need to write about the passion I have for Philadelphia, and the life I lived there. Not tonight, though. Tonight I am just amazed that all the roads converge here, in California.
A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant's tail,
but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider --
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give -- yes or no, or maybe --
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

--William Stafford, 1968

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Lost and Found

Someone in our house left a door open to the Bermuda Triangle. These items have all mysteriously disappeared or reappeared since Thanksgiving:

LostFoundTime Gone
My PDAUnder a cushion on a love seat where I rarely sitsix nights, seven days
Michele’s PDAat a Wendy’sovernight
A Fossil watch belonging to a Thanksgiving guestin a backpacka couple of weeks
A laptop belonging to an employerin the garageover a weekend (and giving us heart attacks most of Monday)
Several overdue library bookslet’s just say the fines are adding upstill missing
My headphonesunder the futon, where Little Bit was wrestling themall day yesterday
The transmission of Michele’s carin pieceseternity

Yes, Michele’s car died for good Wednesday night, as we were driving home from work. I was at the wheel, and I am grateful to God that the transmission collapsed where it did: just as I was making a left turn onto El Camino. I was able to get the car through the turn and into the parking lot of a tire place. Ordinarily we would have been on 85 by then, driving 70 mph in the car-pool lane, but we had errands on the way home, and I decided to take back streets rather than suffer through the traffic on 101.

We were lucky. It was rush hour, but nobody hit the crippled car. We were on side roads (locally known as “surface streets,” as opposed to freeways). It even had the decency to expire within half a mile of an Oldsmobile dealership. They’ve pronounced the car dead, and now we need to scavenge the books and other goodies from its interior, figure out how to get rid of it, and start looking for a new one. Thank God we’re at full employment now.

Monday, December 08, 2003

Your Name in Lights, Your School in Flames

Back when I was working at my former employer, I used to carpool with Ed. Ed was a native Californian (“I don’t want to live anywhere that there’s weather”) but even if he had come from Maine or Minnesota he would have been a classic Silicon Valley Supergeek, subvariant Clean and Wholesome. The short haircut and guileless blue eyes of an astronaut. Eagle Scout. EMT. Got his degree from UC Santa Cruz, a college best known for its mascot: a banana slug. Professionally he was a systems architect and a brilliant one. (He was hired back in the days when my company hired only geniuses.) He kept a Devil Duckie on his computer at work.

In his free time, he was a professional DJ and a technical expert for several high-school theatre programs. Several times a year our usual ride-home routine would change for a week or so, as he put the finishing touches on the light and sound systems for a school play. When Pioneer High School started its own small radio station, Ed set up the playlists and the computer system.

So I thought of him first when I heard that the million-dollar Performing Arts Center had burned Thanksgiving weekend in a five-alarm blaze that brought out more than a hundred firefighters.

It was arson, but accidental arson. Kids being stupid, basically. Unfortunately, the consequences are serious.

The San Jose School District is already facing a $10 million budget deficit. The district supports a magnet school for performing arts, so Pioneer’s drama program is mainly supported by the work and contributions of parents and friends. The parents even get into the act by performing in benefit shows. They call themselves the Glue Factory.

Some words from Steve Dini, the veteran drama director at Pioneer High School:
After the devastating fire at the performing arts complex last Sunday, I thought I had literally been burned alive. Sets were destroyed. Lights and microphones melted with memories of past shows. A decade's worth of work went up in flame.

And, then it started. A trickle at first, with an e-mail here, a phone message there. Now, a torrent. Dozens of calls. Hundreds of e-mails. Several personal visits. Each from a person wanting to help Pioneer with money, time, love and prayers. . . .

There is a sadness and a sense of loss, yes. But, at the same time, there is an overwhelming feeling of gratitude that we live in a such a giving, caring selfless community. My heart rejoices in your generosity, love and almost fanatical desire to see this department rise again. It will. That is a promise.

Some of my most cherished high school memories are of doing theatre. I was a geeky kid, but I found a place in the excitement and hard work of stagecraft. The pleasure went on through college, where I had several good roles as well as doing almost every other backstage job. I learned practical skills, made lifelong friends, and had a wonderful time in a safe atmosphere—exactly what teenagers need.

So you can see why the volunteers—not to mention the students—are deeply invested in this program.

And you can be, too. Donations may be sent to the San Jose Unified Educational Foundation, 855 Lenzen Ave., San Jose 95126. Write Pioneer Fund on the memo line.
Some Lines from a Poem by Robert Hass

An extraordinarily beautiful poem. Please go forth and buy his book.

Faint Music

Maybe you need to write a poem about grace.

When everything broken is broken,

and everything dead is dead,

and the hero has looked into the mirror with complete contempt,

and the heroine has studied her face and its defects

remorselessly, and the pain they thought might,

as a token of their earnestness, release them from themselves

has lost its novelty and not released them,

and they have begun to think, kindly and distantly,

watching the others go about their days--

likes and dislikes, reasons, habits, fears--

that self-love is the one weedy stalk

of every human blossoming, and understood,

therefore, why they had been, all their lives,

in such a fury to defend it, and that no one--

except some almost inconceivable saint in his pool

of poverty and silence--can escape this violent, automatic

life's companion ever, maybe then, ordinary light,

faint music under things, a hovering like grace appears.


It's not the story though, not the friend

leaning toward you, saying "And then I realized--,"

which is the part of stories one never quite believes.

I had the idea that the world's so full of pain

it must sometimes make a kind of singing.

And that the sequence helps, as much as order helps--

First an ego, and then pain, and then the singing.

--Robert Hass