Don't be nervous, don't be flustered, don't be scared. Be prepared.
LAST SPRING, MY husband and I went to a meeting conducted by the Earthquake Preparedness Soci ety. The purpose of the talk was to terrify us: into believing that a major earthquake will happen here soon; into getting prepared.
Listening to the lecture made me so panicked that many of the details are a blur. I remember that the speakers, two firemen, proved historically and scientifically that a catastrophic shock was overdue. They showed us a map of Los Angeles so riddled with fault lines that it looked like the face of a 180-year-old man. They passed around pictures of houses that looked absolutely normal after they had been jolted by a shock of 8.0 magnitude and then of the same houses flattened, mere piles of sticks, after a less violent aftershock. They mentioned that one nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, happens to be built directly on a fault, and another, San Onofre, is built right next to one. They also said that UCLA science laboratories are filled with dangerous, unsecured chemicals and that if, after the quake, we see coming toward us a blue (or did they say green?) cloud, the toxic waste of a chemical fire, we should move cross-wind to the cloud.
My husband and I responded to the lecture by buying everything they were selling (not for profit, of course): four fire extinguishers; a 50-gallon vat for water; four cases of Sparkletts water in handy half-gallon amounts so that even the kids can easily carry one when we have to walk to an evacuation center; special wrenches to turn off the gas; an earthquake kit containing flashlights, dehydrated food, a good first-aid kit. We drew the line at having the windows in our home replaced with quake-proof plastic.
When the earthquake came, I was asleep. My husband says that I jerked up and said, "OH, oh, oh, it's here, it's here." I have absolutely no memory of this, but I do remember that I realized very quickly that "it" was not here. This was not the big one, at least for us. We don't live in Whittier. (In fact, one of the strangest things about living in Los Angeles is that the city is so spread out that part of it can collapse or burn, and the rest of us can go about our business as though the catastrophe were in Jakarta.) At our house in Beverlywood, not even a glass fell off a shelf. We were calm. After all, we had the comforting illusion that we were prepared.
Two days later, however, I felt different. The heat wave hit and managed to do to me what the quake had not: freak me out. It was so suffocating, so inappropriately hot for October, that I felt as though I were living at the edge of the world. My stepson and I went to the movies to escape the heat, and this escape to watch a fantasy was also an escape from my own fantasies.
We sat down in the theater and I asked for some of Adam's M&Ms. He poured a few into my hand and said, "Oh, you didn't get any red ones." It's just as well, he added, because there's supposed to be a poison dye in the red ones. "Red Dye 2?" I asked. "I think so," said Adam. Afterward, on the way out of the parking lot, Adam said, "You know, the reason we have this heat is because of Chernobyl." "Chernobyl! I don't think so," I said, figuring that Adam is as bad as I am at keeping the facts straight on things that terrify him. I told him that I was under the impression that Chernobyl blew east, and we are west of it.
Then we stopped at the market, where, in the meat department, a man was barbecuing snacks of what he described as "finally a beef as healthy as chicken." I took this dubious honor to mean that they have force-fed an amazing combination of food and hormones to a poor steer so he can produce low-cholesterol meat. "What's wrong with regular beef?" asked Adam, who for the past two days had been wearing his clothes to bed just in case the big one comes when he's asleep. And I thought, there's poison in his candy, radiation in his air. He goes to the supermarket and finds out that steak, which he loves, is bad for him. And the ground, literally, may disappear under his feet. I felt almost embarrassed for all the conversations I have had with his father about the insecurity that his parents' divorce may have caused him. How depressing that, at this moment, his parents' divorce seems like "the little one."
Three days after Black Monday, I was watching Dr. Sonya Friedman on CNN's "Sonya Live." On this day, the Dow had dropped only 77.4 points--what one broadcaster described as a mere tremor after "the big one." Friedman was interviewing James Baker, secretary of the Treasury. He was urging us to stay calm. I would have been calmer if, two weeks earlier, I had not persuaded my husband to buy stocks. Persuaded is not exactly the right word. Hounded, I think, is more accurate. I had been confident that this was the right thing to do. No trepidation--I was worried that my house might collapse, not the market.