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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Mr. Edison, I may not need you after all.

There is a road up to the foothills that surround the place I live. That road curves gently up, up to a small city park where a stage and shell turn a small, natural amphitheater into a bowl seating about 2000 people. This bowl is active during the summer. Concerts, fireworks on the 4th of July, the local high school graduation all take place here, in the open, under skies no longer as starry as they were before civilization and it's accompanying electricity washed out the inky blackness of the night and the stars and planets and occasional comet became dim place holders to the naked eye, some of them fading out all together.

I am reminded of this every time the tectonic plates defining the Ring of Fire, the place on the planet where I make my home, decide to settle in for a few more decades. The current shifting and settling of Mother Earth has me wary, and remembering other quakes, for, as a native Southern Californian, I've been through one or two. Or five. Those would be the big ones, btw, anything over 6 points.

Not quite 20 years ago, in the wee, small hours, during an unseasonably oppressive and hot January night, the Pacific Coast decided to yawn, stretch, and turn over it's pillow until it found a more comfortable position. Those of us occupying ground zero were, apparently, in her way. We were picked up and tossed like sacks of feathers, landing in heaps and in hallways.

Midway through this thrill ride you can count on the power going out. So there you are, barefoot, ankle deep in the shards of glass that used to be the contents of your dish cupboard and you can't see your hand in front of your face. You brace yourself and hang on to your ass. And, if you've done this before, when the shaking stops you stay put. Because the first aftershock will hit in about 15 seconds. When that one is done, you move.

So, way back when, there I was, braced in the hallway, yelling above the roar of the earth and the house and the items breaking as they hit the floor so my toddlers could hear me, "It's an earthquake. It will stop." And then, silence. Blessed silence.

Gradually adjusting to the dark, you pick your way through the mess, find some shoes and clothes and, if your lucky, the flashlight. And you big was it? WHERE was it? Well, okay. It's 4:30 in the morning and it's already hot. If you have an earthquake kit, you can't find it, because it's dark and it's somewhere under the potatoes and canned goods that just rattled out of your pantry. Such was our position in those pre dawn hours. The dining room, however, was arranged in such a way that it moved with the quake instead of against it. There was my purse, and the car keys, still on the table. The car had gas. And the car had a radio. Out the door trooped my little band of merry men. And stopped dead in our tracks.

Every few seconds there was a small burst of light as a transformer blew up. Towards the west was a faint, orange glow, which, it turned out, was NOT the sun (yeah, I know, it rises in the east but we'd just been through a major earthquake, cut me some slack) but the fires in the northwest, started by broken gas lines. But there, above us, around us, everywhere, the sky was white, every star in our solar system in our half of the earth's sky was blazing, not the yellow, candle like twinkle here and there we saw night after night but a white hot mass of light. It was the sky my grandmother saw as a girl, the sky sailors on night watch see from the middle of the ocean.

The news crews descended on us from the east. And, after the news was disseminated and the facts were sorted out they made their way over to the area west of us, the area hardest hit. And they took their cameras down streets where people were living in tents on their front lawns, in their trailers and motor homes as their homes weren't yet safe to occupy. They had emptied the food out of their powerless refrigerators and dragged the grills out from the back. During the day they drove into less damaged areas looking for ice and fresh milk. They started cleaning up their homes and property. They talked to their neighbors. And as the sun set, they barbecued the thawing chickens and roasts and they got their lawn chairs out and listened to battery powered radios. And they watched the stars.

Back to the bowl. On that lazy curve leading to the aforementioned bowl there is a wide spot with room to park without blocking the street. It faces due west. And during the times of the year when people aren't using the bowl you will find, in the late, late afternoon, a small gathering of cars. The drivers (and passengers if any) get out and lean against their cars and wait for the sunset. And when the last streaks of orange and pink fade into the indigo of twilight they get in their cars and go on about their daily business. The occasional young man on a motorcycle wearing gang colors, businesswomen, day laborers, a high school kid or two, the audience changes. But for those 10 minutes there are no boundaries, no class distinctions, seldom anything more than a smile exchanged and they're off.

Progress, I fear, isn't always everything it's cracked up to be.

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