Q is for quake, because for me, that which stood still was a reason to run.

Where would you actually go, in the middle of an earthquake? I’ve always wondered during quakes when people’s first instinct is to run.

I was an apartment manager for a 14-story building and my office was on the first floor. Mid-afternoon on a sunny day, as I pored over work orders and delinquencies, a loud rumbling began. My immediate vision was of the second floor tenants above my head stampeding across their apartment for kicks. But it turned out that the rumbling wasn’t people getting party-wild.

When a real stampede ensued down the stairs next to my office, the faces of blanched, terror-stricken residents peered into my doorway one by one, and I realized it had been an earthquake. It was already done and gone, but the building residents were looking to me for…comfort? Reassurance? Some secret “in” they thought I had with the earth’s crust because I was building manager?

Yes, there might be aftershocks.

No, the building won’t collapse on you.

See how there are thirteen floors on top of me and I’m not worried?

Ten years in California, I was already an old hand when it came to this bizarre shaking of the earth. I always stayed put and each time, it ended under half a minute, and still, there were people who tried to run.

Where in the world would you go?

The way I see it, during a bad earthquake, you’d be in danger of objects coming loose inside or outside and striking you, and most likely, on the way between the two. If you’re not surrounded by open fields, there would be no place to run.

Even if it were a minor quiver, it would be over by the time one would reach the door. So why bother?

When I moved to Los Angeles from New York, I eagerly awaited my first earthquake the same way I searched the Kansas skies for tornadoes the summer I was there to shoot a movie. My tornado never came, but the California earthquake did not disappoint.

It was a time during which I thought of my own existence as analogous to a split at the core. I was trying my hand at bicoastality, since my family was on the right coast and my supposed career-to-be was on the left. Going to New York so often divided my reality. It was unsettling, but left no room for complacency. My world was always upside down, and this was good.

A few weeks after my move, I was reading on the couch when my eyes caught the turquoise vase across the room. It had hopped microscopically. I commended my eyes for their humor. (This vase has a long history with motion and peril, and is deeply entangled with my heartstrings.) Right then, I perceived the rumble through the house and I figured my neighbor’s washer was on spin.

But when the couch jerked me side to side, I squealed in delight: I was in the middle of my first earthquake!

There wasn’t a real shaking to it, more a disruption in everything’s equilibrium as if it were all straining to keep together. The violence was in the unnaturalness of objects appearing to work to keep whole, rather than any splitting of the earth. When it was over, I leapt off the couch and emailed my “exciting” news to everyone back in New York. Los Angeles had lived up to its reputation, smog, active faults and all.

Through the years, the forces that yanked me to and fro eased up gradually and bicoastal me gave into monocoastal peace. My visits to New York whittled down to a couple of times a year. But still, there was both a tragedy and joy to my visits that made me strain to keep myself intact like the furniture in an earthquake.

When I was there, I longed to be here, and when I was back, I planned my next trip out. Perhaps I was the earthquake and going back and forth was a version of running.

After my first earthquake, every tremor I felt had a different characteristic, and each time without fail, I mistook it for something else. One high on the Richter scale took place around 3 a.m. while I was in a deep sleep. In my dream state, I thought a band of thieves—okay, rapists—were rushing my bed. When I fully woke up with a loud gasp and pounding heart, the quake was still going.

The earth seemed particularly fond of shaking the slumbering.

On one occasion, I was in Mammoth and asleep next to the Snow Boy in the nearly-condemend house he shared with a bunch of beanie-wearing stoners. The Pirate House, they called the rotting wood eyesore.

When the earthquake hit, I vaguely thought “explosion,” or the eruption of the live Mammoth volcano (not widely advertised around the resort).

Before I had a chance to stir, the Snow Boy had me by the hand and across the room, both of us in a state of total undress.

“But where are you going?” I asked him, though with that derelict structure, it made more sense than usual to attempt escape. He didn’t have an answer, and naturally, the quake ended before we reached any exit from which to flee—naked—into the street.

To this day, I don’t understand the instinct to run in an earthquake.

But I do understand that choosing five years of back and forth between Mammoth and Los Angeles was once again, my version of running.

I had designed my life to be a permanent quake. For me, that which stood still was a reason to run.

Finding myself more still now makes me wonder if it’s my natural progression or a rest period until the next spiritual quake overtakes me.

In the meantime, I have Los Angeles to perform a shake for me now and then.

Nowadays, to confirm that it was indeed a tremor I felt and not a gazelle galloping in the hallway, I turn to the most reliable source—social media. Just last week when my body vibrated like a bowling pin, I immediately logged on to see sure enough, all reports concurred:



“Did you feel that?”

Turns out social reportage on seismic phenomena is actually useful, in contrast to people’s obvious meteorological statements clogging feeds when the weather is too hot or too cold. Since we don’t mistake weather for something else the way we might an earthquake, the compulsion to announce it to those experiencing the same exact climate baffles me as much as the choice to run in an earthquake.


~ Part of the A to Z Challenge ~
A post a day except Sunday for the month of April to cover topics beginning with each letter of the alphabet. Events always real, names always changed.

Cathartic Monkeyism returns in May.

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  1. Do you hide under a desk? Stay away from your china cabinet and windows? I guess people run because they don’t want to be stuck inside a collapsed building. A grassy field does sound safer as long as a hole doesn’t open up to swallow you.

    1. So far I’ve just stayed wherever I was, usually in a chair or bed, and waited it out. I haven’t been in a bad earthquake. I’m sure that would change my reaction.

  2. Paul · · Reply

    Ha! This is so true GG. Being from Northeastern Canada, I have seldom experienced earth quakes and most are so small that someone has to point them out to be noticeable. We sit on a granite “shield” that has no fracture lines so this makes earthquakes very rare – however, it also means that when we have an earth quake it travels a long, long ways virtually unabated. The first substantial earthquake that I ever felt was about 5 years ago at work in the office one bright sunny summer afternoon. It was about a 6 and the epi-enter was only about 10- miles away. The office was only a single floor commercial building and the walls shook so hard that the pictures fell off. We all ran outside, automatically, as you said. We were away from our desks about 10 minutes. As a dispatch office, it quickly became obvious to those calling in that no one was there. When all had settled, our head office dispatcher called and gave us all shit because she couldn’t get hold of us by phone or computer or fax or satellite for 10 minutes. We explained that we had had an earthquake and she just went ” Yeah, Yeah, whatever.” She was 300 miles away and about 15 minutes later the phone ran and it was Brenda (the HO dispatch)- she was hysterical screaming into the phone “Earthquake, Earthquake!” Our response was “Told you so.”

    To me earthquakes are one of those “You had to be there” situations. They are hard to appreciate until you’ve been on one – there seems to be an instinctive reaction to run.

    Fun post GG Great descriptions of your career compared to earthquakes.

  3. Maybe they aren’t ready to die, and that’s the fear.

  4. Jana · · Reply

    I grew up in earthquake country and it always surprised me that each and every time I never thought an earthquake was an earthquake when it first started. I think our brains go immediately to the familiar instead of the rare – so I would always think it was the washing machine on an uneven spin cycle, or people running upstairs, or construction work. We were always taught in school to duck and cover (under a table or desk) or to stand in a doorway – but getting outside was better. I think it is just a self-preservation technique – you don’t want the ceiling to come down on you while you are unprotected.

  5. I’ve never run during one. I barely woke for the Northridge and Landers quakes. And I’ve moved to a doorway when I was already standing for some of the other larger ones I’ve been around for. But, yeah, they are over too quickly for any sort of flight instinct to kick in.

    1. Did you feel the Northridge?! I hadn’t move to CA yet, but my ex-boyfriend kept an office there and has outrageous descriptions!

      1. Yeah. I was pretty young then, but I remember it fairly vividly. Felt like my bed had become a rollercoaster.

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