What, me worry? The author in front of a burning building in the Marina, on October 17, 1989.
Editor's Note: This is one of many stories about earthquakes past and future that San Francisco is publishing over the next month, all part of our October cover package, "Cracks in the Earth." To see the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.
There are many things I don't know. But as surely as the sun rises in the east, I know this: When the Big One hits, I will be completely unprepared.
In flagrant disregard of the expert advice I've been exposed to, and with a complete lack of foresight and responsibility, when the walls crack I will not know whether to drop and cover, find a “triangle of life,” or run. When I go desperately looking for a jug of water, a flashlight, a knife, duct tape, aspirin, and a first edition of Lord of the Flies, I won’t be able to find any of them. I will not know how to purify my water, forage for edible plants, or stay warm if all my clothes are stolen by the pillaging post-earthquake mobs that I will not know do not exist.
In short, I can guarantee that when the next earthquake strikes, I will be incapable of taking any rational and constructive steps whatsoever. I will sit there with the same expression I’ve had during every earthquake I’ve ever experienced—a look of utter dumb-assed befuddlement.
Before you begin penning an outraged letter to my editor, let me make it clear that I don’t advise the public to adopt my strategy. Being prepared is wise and better for society as a whole. So I speak for myself alone when I extol the virtues of head-up-one’s-ass ignorance. If this piece were a car ad, a fine-print disclaimer would appear at the end: “Professional ostrich on a closed course. Do not attempt.”
The case against earthquake preparation rests on four shaky, non–seismically upgraded pillars—a kind of rhetorical Cypress structure, if you will. None of them make any sense, but they’re my arguments and I’m sticking with them.
First, earthquake preparation violates the principle of consistency in living. Most of us never really plan for anything in our lives: We stumble haplessly from one shapeless decade to the next, rejoicing if we can pay the rent, get our kids to school on time, and find the remote control. Suddenly trying to prepare for an apocalyptic event, when the closest you’ve come to pondering such matters is reading a Cormac McCarthy novel, is likely to be seriously injurious to your mental and physical health—like trying to run a marathon after spending a decade lying on a chaise longue with a martini.
Second, not to put too fine a point on it, but earthquake preparation is a drag. Thinking about the instability of the earth forces us to confront a terrifying, Pascalian world of unknowable forces. This is depressing and to be avoided at all costs.
Third, worrying about earthquakes is un–San Franciscan. Let neurotic New Yorkers and perfumed Parisians make their post-disaster plans—we Bay Areans will carry heedlessly on, ignoring the loaded geological gun pointing at us. A carpe diem approach to life has epitomized San Francisco since it was a collection of drunks and adventurers at the end of the world. This live-fast-die-young-and-leave-a-beautiful-corpse attitude is not commensurate with collecting bungee cords and memorizing exits. Far better to emulate John Muir, who ran from his Yosemite cabin when a quake struck, shouting, “A noble earthquake!”
Finally, preparing for an earthquake is heretical. An earthquake is something beyond our ken or control, like death. By trying to plan for it, you are falling prey to the “ye shall be as gods” seduction that lured Adam and Eve to eat the apple of knowledge (which, in case you have been too busy rounding up plastic jugs of potable water to remember, brought death into the world and all our woe). Not only is this a mortal sin, but it sets you up for serious psychological trauma. Trying to prepare for the unthinkable gives the illusion of control, and when that illusion vanishes, the letdown will be unbearable. When you do everything the experts advise, and a two-by-six still drops on your head, your faith in a just universe and a benevolent deity will be shattered along with your skull.
So when the Big One hits, look for me. I’ll be the guy sitting on a chaise longue in a pile of debris, having miraculously fallen four stories to emerge unscathed and holding a martini—shaken, not stirred. Or not. Either way, I won’t be ready.
Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco