Shaking (It) Out

Susan Estrich

As I write this, some 8.5 million of my fellow Californians have just finished practicing what to do in the likely event of a major earthquake. October 20th at 10:20 a.m. was designated the Great California ShakeOut earthquake drill, the moment when you "Drop, Cover and Hold On."

Luckily, my building didn't participate. Last week's fire drill was enough.

There was a time when I didn't feel this way. When I first moved here, I was somewhat terrified of earthquakes — and utterly perplexed. The somewhat terrified part should be easy to understand. Some would say it is the rational response to a real threat of devastating consequence. That is especially true if you take that fear and channel it into preparation: Ensure that your house is bolted, your chimney not cracked, your supply of food and water adequate and not expired, and your trunk always packed with a pair of thick-soled sneakers (in case you have to walk over glass) and a blanket, — or better yet, an earthquake kit.

I already knew about ducking and covering and holding on. The big danger of an earthquake is that something will fall on you, so you get under the desk and hold on, or go to the most stable place, which is a doorway. You keep slippers by your bed so you won't have to step on glass. And then you stay where you are so things won't fall on you, and you count to keep yourself calm.

I knew all this, but the minute the house started shaking during the 1994 Northridge quake, I was out of bed, barefoot, running down the glass-strewn hall to check on my sleeping 1- and 4-year-olds.

Those were the days when I was really somewhat terrified. For nursery school, you had to pack a little bag for your child with a favorite toy or comfort object and a picture of the family to have with them if an earthquake made it impossible for them to get home or be picked up. You had to provide an out-of-state contact number the school could call. You had to think, or I did, every day when you dropped your child off, or when I found myself hours away, how I would get to my children if there were a sudden quake. I'd look up every time I was stuck in traffic under an underpass (which in Los Angeles is a lot) and think about what I would do if it suddenly started shaking.

And what perplexed me, really mystified me, was how everyone around me didn't seem terrified at all. Parents who grew up here were nonchalant about dropping off the bags. I'd throw a bag into the trunk of a friend's car and find a long lost pair of sneakers in the corner, if that.

"Another beautiful day in Pompeii," I would say, and people would just laugh. Don't you even know where your gas turn-off is, I would ask people, shocked. They would look at me like I was from another planet, even if the answer was mostly yes. Was I really standing there thinking about earthquakes? Yes.

And then it happened to me. I just stopped worrying about it. Whether it's denial or acceptance, I'm not sure. It's probably some of both. But I joined the crowd that shrugs their shoulders and tallies up all those weather-related death statistics from the rest of the country, which provide a sad but nonetheless effective way of diminishing your fear of earthquakes — rationally, no less. I might have the stuff in my trunk, but I don't think so. Of course, I mean to, but as for thinking about it, why worry about what you can't control?

I'm not moving to Austin. (I actually thought about it after Northridge.)

I can't be with my children every minute. And they're grown now and don't need a comfort object. I'm bolting my house to the foundation. What you can't predict, you shouldn't worry about.

I sometimes wonder why I can't apply my earthquake strategy to the other constant fears in my life, such as cancer, and find peace in reasonable steps like the sneakers and regular exercise. It doesn't seem to work. But earthquakes?

I showed up at work today at 10:30 so I wouldn't have to crawl under my desk. Why worry? The clouds are clearing, and it's going to be another beautiful day here in Pompeii.

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