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In a Quake, Cats and Presidents Say Squat

January 27, 1994|Jim Washburn | Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition. T. Jefferson Parker's column resumes in this spot next week. and

Maybe it's folk hokum, but I've always heard that animals are attuned to pending seismic discourtesies, that their keen animal senses feel the earth in flux long before we humans do. So you might expect that after years of one feeding, housing, medicating and cleaning gum off a pet, the very least it could do in return is share this information when an earthquake is about to pummel us.

My cat thinks nothing of waking me when he wants some Smelly Morsels at 3 a.m., but on Big Monday he was content to instead let me wake to the sound of my 1920s Hawaiian koa wood Weisenborn guitar shattering on the floor while my house shook like the jewel in a belly dancer's navel. His cat thoughts, as I was best able to discern from retracing his footsteps later, were: "Earthquake coming: Better eat."

That's the problem with leaving food out for your pet. If he'd needed me to get up and open a can--and I've been feeding him Sheba too, the fur slug!--I wouldn't have been lying in bed when Satan snored at 4:31 a.m.

By the way, did you happen to see the bit on the news where they interviewed the mother of the baby born during the quake? After noting it was a 6.6 shaker and that the infant's birth weight was 6 pounds, 6.6 ounces, the reporter asked the mom what they were naming the baby. Beelzebub or Little Moloch (they could always shorten it to Moe later) came to my mind, but the mom passed on her chance to further creep-out the Southland.

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Have you noticed these tectonic utterances almost always occur in the early morning when we're in bed? Scientists claim that's not the case, and that there's no scientific reason for it to be, but when's the last time you went through an earthquake without pillow creases on your face?

I have an explanation: Suppose reality was a consensual thing, that all this matter around us was only bonded together by our common belief in it. We believe green paper has value, and it is so. We believe Regis Philbin is a celebrity, and it is so. It's not that big a jump from there to think that we also group-imagine the rest of what we hold to be firm and true.

But at 4:30 in the morning most of us are sleeping, and, left untended, reality might just start to break apart in big heaving chunks. Then we wake up, and order does its best to scamper back into place, like a pet you've caught on the kitchen counter, except mine would just hiss.

At the extreme end of this theory, the world would simply cease to exist if everyone on the planet fell asleep at the same time. Sorta makes you glad C-Span isn't carried globally, doesn't it?

I don't actually subscribe to this theory, though I do subscribe to The Times, which, like most papers, ran a splendid photo from a quake site last week of the President of the United States looking at a hole. He was hunkered down so as to get a better look at the thing, which to the un-Presidential eye looked like any other hole in the ground, except it had the President a-hunkered next to it.

It had dirt. It had depth. "It's a hole , all right," he seemed to be earnestly concluding, conscious of the cameras and setting the nation at ease that he does indeed know Les Aspin from a hole in the ground.

The photo caption read, in part, "President Clinton examines a crater. . ." which just reads nicer than, "The leader of the most powerful nation on Earth--which he flew across at great taxpayer expense--looks at a dang hole."

OK, it was more than a look. It was a concerned, compassionate gaze. But unless the President is possessed of the sort of Superman-like laser vision that can fuse water mains shut, he really isn't going to do much good in this situation. I like Bill Clinton, but I was hoping he'd be the first public leader to say, "I don't know squat about holes, though I'm sure you have a fine one. Why don't I stay put in Washington, and save you a boodle of money?"

The experts are estimating it's going to take mega-boodles to repair the damage here. Then there's the sagging property values, the expected drop-off in tourism and all that to factor in. It can look mighty grim.

But the geographical region that invented the frozen banana isn't going to take this lying down, is it? You bet it isn't!

The first thing we do is we stop treating these fault lines with such respect.

Sure they're inconceivably powerful forces with the life-shaking indifference of primal gods. But they're also holes in the ground! Anyone noticed the hue and cry in recent years over the shortage of landfill space? Put the garbage in the faults! Just dump it on in there and then let the tectonic plates even try anything sudden with all our mushy leftovers and Pampers in the way.

Maybe it'll work, maybe it won't. At least it's another place to hide our garbage for a few weeks.

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