Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Easter Quake

The foreshock came at 5:12 AM on Easter Sunday. About 25 seconds later, the full earthquake struck. The rumbling and shaking lasted 45 seconds to a minute. Immense forces ripped the landscape apart; in some places the ground moved as much as 20 feet.

No, this didn’t happen two days ago. It happened one hundred years ago today, and for the past three weeks, Bay Area residents have been enjoying saturation coverage of the centennial of the Great Quake that struck at 5:12 AM April 18, 1906, and devastated the city. Curators, cartographers, even choreographers have all paid tribute. A dozen or so survivors of the quake have been repeatedly interviewed, and they’re an astonishing bunch: quick-witted, energetic, and feisty. Some are still working.

You can watch the quake propagate—the viewpoint is from the west, showing how the central rupture spread north and south along the San Andreas. You can look at pictures of San Francisco then and now. And Tim Walton, an experienced news cameraman for NBC, points out that the quake signaled the beginning of citizen photojournalism. (He and his wife Kathy, a sound tech who often works with him, are friends of mine. Together, they've covered everything from Columbine to the Michael Jackson trial; Tim has also spent several tours in Iraq while Kathy stayed home with their children.)

The USGS, probably my all-time favorite government agency, offers a stunning exhibit on the quake, with photographs of the devastation, plus maps, and clear discussions of the science of the earthquake.

The real threat to the San Francisco Bay region over the next 30 years comes not from a 1906-type earthquake, but from smaller (magnitude about 7) earthquakes occurring on the Hayward fault, the Peninsula segment of the San Andreas fault, or the Rodgers Creek fault.

There’s an irony to this; many of the earthquake survivors fled to the perceived safety of the East Bay, which is where the next big threat is located. There’s a 27% chance of a magnitude 6.7 or larger quake on the Hayward by 2032. (There was a quake of that magnitude here in 1868; the ground moved three feet in some places.) You can see evidence that the fault is constantly moving.

Today it’s slowly creeping. Someday it will rupture, devastating the East Bay from San Pablo through Oakland and south to Fremont. Throughout the fault zone, the coastal plains near the bay are densely populated with homes and businesses, but in some places the hills are still grazing land for cattle. In other places, the hills are occupied by beautiful houses and at least one great university. Yes, Berkeley is on the Hayward fault. In fact, the fault runs between the goalposts of Berkeley’s football field. The East Bay is a ticking time bomb.

It’s also where I live.

Every single day I drive along the Hayward fault; it runs under Mission Street, which in my area is a strip of car dealerships, body shops, and transmission-repair places. I admit to slowing down whenever I pass the local expert on British luxury vehicles: I have to check out the classic 1930s Rolls-Royces, the Bentleys, and the Jaguar convertibles that are parked there, awaiting service. When the Hayward fault breaks, I hope it’s on a weekend, when those lovely cars are not directly in the line of destruction.

My workplace is constructed to withstand almost any quake, so despite its proximity to the fault I never worry about one when I’m here. We also have earthquake supplies: not just the usual ones mandated by law, but long-term survival supplies, because part of our job is disaster recovery.

My house is on bedrock, which should minimize shaking, and it’s at the peak of a hill with panoramic views. (On clear days we can see San Francisco and the Marin headlands beyond, plus the Bay and the Santa Cruz mountains on the other side) Specifically, it’s on the fault escarpment, the bluff that rose through the millennia as the Hayward fault broke and broke again. Yes, that’s right: I live perched like a ski-jumper above the most dangerous active local fault. Should it rupture again soon, I’ll have a front-row view of the devastation.

We who live on the fault are not helpless. Coming from a less seismically aware region of the country, I was astonished when I heard Californians matter-of-factly discussing the quake preparations they’d made. (Bolting bookcases to the wall, for example, or making sure the bed is not in falling distance of anything potentially lethal.)It’s possible to quakeproof your home. This won’t actually prevent any earthquakes, or even prevent your house from total destruction if the rupture happens in your front yard, but it’s useful advice. You can also learn to check for danger in a house you buy or rent.

Why stay? I was talking with Michele this morning. She pointed out, quite correctly, that the people who had fled the East Bay were jumping from the frying pan into the fire. “Didn’t anybody remember the 1868 quake?”

“That had been almost 40 years before, when there were a lot fewer people. Many people were new immigrants who didn’t know.”

“If I were looking for someplace safe, I’d have gone to South Dakota.”

“Where you have blizzards, tornadoes, heat waves, and droughts. And the Eastern seaboard is no better. There have been huge quakes in Boston and Charleston, and the Hudson River is on a fault. Someday New York City will get hit hard.”

She said, “I know—that’s why I picked South Dakota.”

“Why not Wyoming? There the biggest risk is that you’ll be beaten, set on fire, and tied to a fence to die.”

And that is one reason people stay here. It’s not just the spectacular climate. It sure as hell isn’t the real estate prices. Here at the edge of the continent, geeks and queers—both terms that have been reclaimed with pride—live in peace with people who would be average in Peoria. They’re used to us. We’re safe—as safe as we can ever be, anywhere.

So today, I celebrate the spirit of a city that survived the destruction of more than half its buildings. I celebrate the drive to rebuild more intelligently; every disaster has taught us more about how to live with our faults. I celebrate the San Francisco Bay Area. My home.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

“I'm Not Saying We Wouldn't Get Our Hair Mussed”

Recent snatch of telephone dialogue:

Lynn: You know why Bush wants to nuke Iran? Because he thinks saving Iran will be his legacy.

Alan: What, bankrupting the country and destroying our military isn’t enough?

Lynn: Not to mention pissing off the whole world. He’s managed to make everyone hate us.

If you would prefer that we not nuke Iran, MoveOn has an online petition. You can add your own notes to your Congresscritter. This is what I had to say:

This administration's idea of how to win friends and influence people is straight from the schoolyard bully, who resolves every dispute and assuages every frustration by beating up a smaller, weaker kid. The small-scale bully bloodies noses and makes a few kids' lives wretched, which is bad enough; bullying can leave scars for life.

Now extrapolate that effect to whole nations. Imagine the agonizing scars, physical and emotional, generations of Iranians would suffer if the United States, flaunting the flag of democracy, pre-emptively attacked them with nuclear weapons. Imagine the level of hatred and desperation they would feel. When people have nothing to lose and Paradise to gain, becoming a suicide bomber makes sense. Using a nuclear strike against Iran would make life in the US far more dangerous.

If you want to protect American lives, make Iran a friendly nation. Helping their economy and giving their young people hope for a better life on earth is likely to be a far more successful tactic than mass murder. Compare Germany after the Versailles treaty with Germany under the Marshall Plan. Which group was being punished by the international community? Which group lashed out at their own minorities and the rest of the world? Which group was peaceful, prosperous, free, and democratic?

We have become a rogue state under the leadership of an irresponsible president. Use your Congressional powers while you still have them. Now if ever is the time for checks and balances to halt the excesses of the loose-cannon executive branch. The Bush Administration is gutting the Constitution at home and promoting the Apocalypse abroad. Stop President Bush--or bear the guilt of thousands of deaths, now and in the future. Stop this bombing--and be proud to be an American again.

To quote General Buck Turgidson: “Perhaps it might be better, Mr. President, if you were more concerned with the American people, than with your image in the history books.”

Friday, April 07, 2006

Books that Built My World

Some people are raised by wolves. I was raised by books. This list of essential books is incomplete, of course, but it's a good start; it goes up to about 1980. I’ve chosen books that were turning points—that led me into new worlds, clarified or altered my vision, changed the ways I thought and wrote, or spoke for me when I could not yet find my own words. Not just books I loved; you’ll find no Faulkner here, for example, nor Willa Cather.

The King James Bible. In the beginning was the KJV. I learned to read from it. No book has shaped me more profoundly than that one. I know all the arguments against it, scholarly and otherwise. But still my sense of the Divine is shaped by the stubborn grandeur and simplicity of its language.

Geography, a Little Golden Book. Call it 1963; I was 3 or 4. My mother bought me this 29-cent book at the grocery store. Its picture of an erupting volcano sparked my lifelong interest in geology.

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott. When I was about 6, my mother gave me this book, saying, “This is a book about four little girls just like you and your sisters.” (Yes, I was the second of the four, and I already wanted to be a writer.) It’s also both truthful and well-written. I can still see traces of Louisa in my writing style.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte. That pale, plain girl’s resolute integrity through abuse, hunger, and temptation was an early model for me. And her passion—her avowal of love to Rochester, her courage, her strong feelings for nature and other people—oh, these were an example and a role-model for me.

Out of the Silent Planet, C.S. Lewis. My sister Lisa gave it to me for my seventh birthday. The first Lewis I ever read, and the direct link to my reading such formative books as The Screwtape Letters, which is one of the great structural books of my life.

Poems for Young People, Edna St. Vincent Millay. A gift from my mother when I was about ten. Started my lifelong interest in Millay.

Modern British and American Poetry, ed. Louis Untermeyer. I found this book, scrounging around in the attic of a house we rented. I still have it. It opened so many doors for me. So many names—Pound, Graves, Sassoon, Chesterton—became familiar to me from that anthology, and when I saw them elsewhere I pounced on them.

Ammie, Come Home, Barbara Michaels. First read around Easter of 1968 at my paternal grandparents’ house in Chevy Chase, not far from where the book is set. They had the Reader’s Digest condensed version. (Most of the condensing was done by eliminating profanity.) This elegant, terrifying ghost story expressed one facet of the pain I was going through.

Moreover, the book introduced me to Barbara Michaels, who in turn sent me on to read Dorothy L. Sayers and Josephine Tey. I was and am deeply grateful that she referenced other books. So much of my reading was random; I chose books that looked interesting or authors mentioned by someone else I liked. I didn't have anyone to help me choose my reading. I scrambled and scrounged and searched for connections. Was there anybody else like me out there? Maybe the next book would hold a clue.

Collected Poems, Dylan Thomas. I picked this up in my school library in the spring of 1972. I drank it straight, and the effect was very much like chugging a bottle of straight whiskey.

The Dyer’s Hand, W.H. Auden. A book of essays I discovered in my school library when I was 13 or so. Auden was as passionately, playfully addicted to categorization as I am, and I still enjoy his lucid perceptions on poetry, society, psychology.

“When It Changed,” Joanna Russ, in Again, Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison. In the summer of 1973, I was about to turn 14 and about to get braces. After a preliminary examination at my orthodontist’s office in Scranton, I went across the street to a combination gun/junk store, which had a few books for sale on a back shelf. I’ve told the story in this space before—how I found the anthology and knelt there to read the whole story, tears pouring down my face. The book cost a quarter; I still have it. From then on, I read anything I could find by Joanna Russ; The Female Man in particular became a touchstone, a book I reread, annotated, quoted, absorbed—a book that structured my thinking.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen. I didn’t read Austen until I was 16, and then I realized that being a great writer required only that you see clearly and speak honestly. I’m still working on them both.

The Great Shark Hunt, Hunter Thompson. Probably in my sophomore year of college (1977), I was taking the Greyhound back from visiting my family. The bus was crowded that day, and we got stuck behind two funerals and a wedding. But my seatmate was a Penn student reading this, and he kept laughing aloud—and soon he was reading bits of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” out loud to me. I loved—and love—Thompson’s outrage, his politics, his crazily inflated language rigorously tied to precise, telling detail.

Small Changes, Marge Piercy. Look, people who were living the way I was living! These days I grow easily frustrated with Piercy, who can be mean-spirited and predictable, but in 1979 there weren’t many books that reflected my kind of life.

Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen. She spoke of grief and exile when I was new to them both. I still reread this book in times of loss, and her short stories are always a delight to me. I marvel at the clarity of her prose.

Malafrena, Ursula K. Le Guin. I’d read Earthsea and felt cheated; the writing was good, but the world felt sexist to me. Somehow Malafrena worked for me, bringing together my lifelong fascinations with revolutions and with Eastern Europe (an unsurprising one, given where I grew up). I confess I fell in love with Itale Sorde. I went on to read all the rest of Le Guin, to find great power in her work, and to marry someone of Eastern European extraction, partly because he reminded me of Itale.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Plaaaaaaaayyyyyy Ballllll!

And the Phillies lose 13-5, in their worst opening day since 1935.

It's going to be a long season.