Category: Memoir


The recent 8.9 Japanese quake awoke memories of the 6.7 Northridge quake I lived through. Here is my story. It is as vivid to me as if 17 years had not passed at all.

I woke up in shock a few inches above my bed, slamming back down with a thump. My darkened bedroom was rocking back and forth and up and down like a toy in a giant bull terrier’s mouth. The din was formidable; breaking glass and shrieking metal, the wooden casement windows rattling like mad, and a deep, primal, rumbling roar. It felt like the groaning, two-story house was going to tip forward, collapse, and the roof would pancake all the floors together and crush me to death.

Some detached corner of my brain thought this is IT. I’m going to die. Various car wrecks, close calls, bad choices and wide-ranging adventures had never, never brought me to that point of absolute certainty.  Perhaps that is why a deeply buried corner of my subconscious kicked in and I made the sign of the cross; forehead, sternum, left shoulder, right. Part of me watched in disbelief that I did this without thinking, an automatic result of a catholic upbringing. If you had asked me before what the first thing was that I’d do if I thought I was going to die it wouldn’t have been that. Later I marveled at how deeply we absorb early indoctrination, but right then I curled up in a fetal position and covered my head with a pillow, riding out the longest minute of what I thought was the end of my life.

The shaking and racket slowed and stilled. There were car alarms going off, giving voice to the terror caused by the earthquake and proof that it wasn’t just a turbo-charged nightmare. I had an overwhelming need to get out of the house at all costs. It’s actually safer indoors but try telling that to your lizard brain because that’s who’s in charge when the known world goes schitzo. Out, it wildly signals, OUT!

Run away!

My futon was on the floor and I had trouble rolling out because the now shattered bedside lamp had fallen on me and strewn sharp shards on the floor. I pushed it off and fished in the gloom for my slippers so I wouldn’t slice myself to shreds. Grabbing my sweater, I was about to move across the room when an aftershock hit and animated everything in a macabre mambo. It was of a lesser magnitude but still full of force and enough to spike my already searing adrenaline.

When it stopped I tried to high tail it out of there but debris and scattered books slowed me in the dark. I heard one of my two housemates call out to see if I was okay. I said I thought so. Another tremor shivered the house and when I tried to open my door I realized the hall closet had spilled its contents in the way and I was trapped. Beginning to panic, I cried out for my housemate to help me get out, but there was no reply. Cursing her for not sticking around to make sure I could get out, I gave two great heaves and shoved the barrier aside enough to squeeze out. On my way down the stairs a fourth tremor hit and I clung to the banister. When the usually reliable earth gets the shakes you just have to hang on to something or crumple to the ground. So I hung on. I had already tried to keep going every time the shaking started but it was impossible, like trying to walk across a swimming pool on skimpy sunbathing rafts.

The Northridge Quake was unusual because it was a shaker and a roller. Rollers on their own are kind of cool. You know they are coming by hearing and seeing the buildings next to you move before it gets to you. It then lifts you some and rolls away just like an ocean breaker. Quake surfing. But because my house was nestled in a old creek bed, it sat on sand and that was one reason walking was so difficult. The pre-dawn quake had turned the ex-creek’s sand to liquid, cracking our foundation, and making the refrigerator dance out into the middle of the kitchen. Or maybe it was the neighbor’s chimney falling onto our roof, furthering the damage and causing a completely full, four-drawer metal filing cabinet to fall over. Not sideways on it’s longer side like you’d think, but forward, the violent momentum lifting the back end up and flipping it forward. Yet there were pockets of calm where a delicate antique goblet stayed perched on the piano.

The fear turned my knees to jelly but the dense urge to flee propped me up.  I finally oozed down the stairs and wobbled outside and into the street trying to get as far away from the house as possible. A good idea as there were chimney bricks crashing periodically, but a stupid idea if one is caught when a live power line comes down. That’s why experts say to stay inside I guess. But many of my neighbors had the same idea. The woman who lived across the street whom I had never met, came out and we raced toward each other and embraced like long lost sisters.  She was frantic that her kid was okay as he was staying with her ex-husband. She said the phone lines were dead as was all the electricity. I suggested trying her cell phone and she dove into her car to try and call. Miraculously it looked like she got through.

I reunited with my two housemates and we all calmed down as the aftershocks were much less frequent and considerably weaker. Someone checked on an older lady neighbor since no one had seen her come out. She was frightened but all right. No one wanted to go back inside quite yet. Even the radio was dead and there was no way to tell what the rest of the city was dealing with. The world shrunk to right here, right now. We spoke in low voices sharing our experiences and relief. It was a humbling force that united us. A great leveler that blew away the masks and posturings all society assumes. We were all just humans dealing with a common disaster.

artist - riistan

It was then I noticed the stars. For the first time in over a hundred years it was possible to see the heavens in Los Angeles. The sky was still dark, as it was only about 5 am in winter. Although I was in a bit of a canyon I could tell that the usual orange glow of streetlights were no longer drowning out the night sky. The electricity must have been out everywhere.  I began to feel euphoric. I was alive. A survivor, and now something as rare and glorious as seeing the Milky Way in 1994 L.A. meant that destruction can have serene results.

People began to go back in to assess the damage and resume their lives. But I stayed a while longer standing in the middle of my now quiet street, savoring the stars.

Recent (2000-2008) activity. Clicking on photo will let you zoom in.

Are you in the zone?

Click here to learn how to secure your stuff from becoming earthquake toys.

Click here to go to the United States Geological Survey’s groovy website page for all things earthquake (including worldwide info.)

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The Alley

I had gone back to Dallas for a visit. Lounging by my parent’s pool in the backyard I noticed the scent of honeysuckle and hot cement sashaying by.  It took me back to being ten years old again and in the alley behind the only home I knew growing up. It meant hot Texas summers and freedom from school, free to be me, my day my own to roam freely until sunset and dinner-time curfew set in.

Many neighbors had honeysuckle blooming on their fences backing on to the alley. I loved to pick the yellow flowers off and gently tease out the pistil until a tiny drop of pure sweetness ballooned out and I was allowed a small burst of flavor. If you could bottle the divine essence of fragrant petals into a dessert, this was it.

My Shangri-la was mostly a shady place and the shade had a smell too, of leafy coolness and damp rock, similar to being under the bridge down by the creek, forever untouched by the sun. Moldy leaves and invisible walls of kitchen garbage stink added to the mix. The empty bins a faint sweet-sour with stuck tissues and dried chicken bones, the full ones bursting with an acrid chrysalis. Those you hurried by. Before the city paved it, the mud churned up by the garbage collectors would dry in tire track valleys with spiked edges. You had to pay attention where you walked. Danger lurked in other ways, too.

The alley was where the horrible dog lived. I learned from the other kids that it was a Doberman Pinscher, but I thought they meant pincher, which made it sound even more scary. Back then some of the houses backing onto the alley had 4-foot high chain-link fences you could see through. The simple act of walking down the alley was enough to send the dog snarling and streaking across his lawn and hurling himself at the somewhat flexible fence. It was an act of bravery to endure the panic that this act incurred in anyone, let alone a child. I would sidle by cautiously on the far side of the space but his ready teeth, glistening slobber and frenzied barks would hold me in thrall until well out of range, hoping he never figured out how to jump the fence. However we were not always cursed with his presence and the alley was calm most days.

My best friend, Donna, lived off the alley down where it curved in an ell shape. I would walk down it to her house and collect her. Sometimes we swam in her pool or jumped on our neighbor’s trampoline but mostly we headed out to the alley. Since cars parked out front in our ranch-house style suburban sprawl, the rarely used alley was a kid’s secret passageway, a safe haven from  busy streets and adults. It was a province that drew all the kids who lived off it into a natural clan. A tribe of place. We raced our bikes down the length of this leafy furlong, careening around the corner dog-leg and into the blazing sunshine and hot pavement then launched ourselves up and off homemade ramps the boys had built before coming to a screeching halt just shy of spilling on to the street. Flush with excitement we would then watch the other riders come into sight around the corner at a slight tilt, hit the ramp, earnestly straining for maximum distance, gripping the handlebars intently and then easing back for a graceful landing or more hopefully, a spectacular, pebble-strewing, sliding stop.

Our motor-cross finish-line end of the alley was pungent with ozone, passing car fumes and dried grass. A slight frisson of discomfort tinged the air as well. There were scabby wipeouts with potential parental retribution, and there was always the subtle jostling for preeminence, for the unspoken king of the hill. Between the boys definitely, but between boys and girls, too. The boys considered girls okay for hide and seek, but the bike ramp was their game. We ever-present girls were tolerated but divided into two groups, the tomboys who could try to keep up and the younger sisters and sissies who were the perfect adoring audience for the boys to show off for. I was a tomboy and thoroughly enjoyed keeping up. Once when we all were playing hide-and-seek involving an elaborate variation of having to drag found kids to the safe tree, I was standing on an air conditioner compressor in the alley and was found. Holding the fence railing, I planted my legs firmly and concentrated all my strength and weight down them to my feet in an attempt to stay put.  To my joyous surprise, the much stronger, older boy could not budge me, even when he gripped one leg and tried to yank me off. I will always remember the look of surprise and dawning of begrudging respect in his eyes. He said I was stronger than I looked and I was then filled with an empowering sense of my own strength and purpose of will.

I learned so much in that glorious alley. I was lucky starting out by being given the gift of a normal childhood and allowed to develop it within a safe neighborhood. In the alley I communed with nature, decay, animals, people and solitude. Experienced a sensory palette from dreamy to fear to exhilaration. A small and inconsequential place is all it took to teach me and give me sweet memories. Sweet as that honeysuckle vine.

***

Where was your Shangri-la when you were a kid? Please feel free to share your memories in the comments.

Here I Am on Planet Scleroderma

I am disabled. It sounds funny to me even though I’ve had years to get used to it. It’s not who I am, really. Yet new people I encounter judge and define me instantly when they see me gaunt and somewhat frail, a bit hunched over, in a wheelchair, maybe having some difficulty breathing. To most, that is who I am now. No longer are the wild and wooly stories from my life the stuff of party chatter. No one asks about the past much, or think I have a life now outside the disease that rendered me to this state. It ‘s like every experience that accumulated and formed me was on another planet.   Now I’m here on Planet Scleroderma.  The atmosphere is life-threatening and I’ve been modified to make the Sclerodermans feel at ease with me. I don’t recognize myself in their mirrors. Inside my head I am still a strong, wild Texan twirling around the earth traveling into story after story; a mad film industry worker; a prowling party girl dancing and flirting my way through romantic interludes and some long-term relationships (still friends.) At least I still have old friends who knew me when and can tease me about having to find some dreadful disease to slow me down. “How typical!”

Ha! No, it's not me.

Most people I meet nowadays ask about my health as a number one topic. It kind of bores and depresses me, but I understand their need to know, and if I keep it short, it stays interesting. I know that it’s good to share information too, as many know of someone who has my disease, and there are some similarities to all medical situations. It’s too bad that consciousness-raising groups faded out in the 70’s because sharing experiences collectively rocks! Vital info and empowering support just can’t be beat. I belonged to a support group for life-threatening illnesses once and we laughed way more than we sorrowed. I remember braying when we declared that M.D. did NOT stand for Medical Divinity! We all became better versed so I really don’t mind talking about my situation to people.  I actually like hearing more about others. It takes me out of my head and realm of the disability. Yet it’s uncanny how many non-disabled refuse to speak about their own issues around me. If they start to relax and explain their woes, they will stop themselves and say, ‘oh, but my troubles are so little compared to yours, I don’t know why I’m bothering you.’ As if it was a competition or something! It’s not, at least for me. I get it and that makes me a valuable resource of understanding. Plus it makes me feel needed, and that’s important in a society that puts so much emphasis on valuing ourselves through accomplishment and others.
Most people are very kind. I smile a lot, so that puts them at their ease. It’s okay to look – I’m different – just find my eyes if you want to see me. Other disabled may not feel the same way (please don’t judge the handi-grumps. I am lucky in the fact that I am not in pain. That curdles even the sweetest tempers.) When I  go a distance on city streets or tooling around stores, I am usually in my scooter. The kids are a riot. Their open-faced stares are unspoken wonderings of  “what’s that, Mommy?” The younger ones in strollers feel a camaraderie. They look at me a bit differently, as if judging make and model, and perhaps a wee race at the next disabled ramp.  Actually, for racing, the supermarket electric carts populated by the elderly are the best. I like to flirt with old folks, so we joke about drag racing in frozen foods or jousting in dairy.
I’m mostly in a wheelchair now, but when I was first dealing with this I used to imagine I got dirty looks because I was relatively young (mid-30’s) and only had the cane as a badge of office to protect me. I have low stamina and breathing which is hard for the populace to see right off the bat. But they needed to know that I was frail and needed special consideration and the cane was my magic wand. Older people seem to shy away from using a cane, perhaps seeing it as a symbol of their fading strength and independence. I  joke that I skipped middle age and went strait to retired. Hell, I’ve got the Medicare Card to prove it. I would not wish the hell it took me to get one on anyone, either. I went through my SSI/SSA Disability process in Los Angeles and that was a nightmare. They do everything they can to keep you off the rolls by discouraging you every step of the way. And there are a lot of steps. I was even lucky that my disease is one of a very short list of pre-approved conditions that almost always goes through. I never had to hire a lawyer like many do. I had savings to tide me over somewhat and I wasn’t cranking out too many medical bills yet. Lucky, because it took a year to get benefits and then another year to get Medicare.
The Americans With Disabilities Act has also been wonderful. Many street corners have at least one ramp, and doors have been widened and elevators installed. New buildings have the codes built in. Very cool. There is something I call the handicap advantage (at least there are some perks for being disabled!) These include access to the head of the line such as at airports and rock concerts (for you and your companion attendant.   And I am THE ONE to take to Disneyland.) And of course, the handicapped placard. What a savior! May I pass on some handi-spot parking etiquette? Some spaces are easier for vans to download. They make it easy for you by posting a “van accessible” sign. Watch for it if you have a choice. And for you people who have gotten a placard for some mild ailment and use up the spots when you could just park a few spaces down, may your karma come back at you buddy. Watch out. Twanda is out there.
Disability isn’t so mysterious once you get over society’s conditioning to draw a blank or feel uncomfortable with sickness or death. We just don’t address those topics much in the media, and we don’t see it at home. The nuclear family, daycare and nursing homes saw to that. That’s a whole other article! A word of encouragement to people with illness or other disablers. You can learn heaps from sharing your experiences with others in the same boat. Insider stuff about social services, hospitals, procedures, doctors and insurance. And you’ll find understanding souls ready to listen, bitch, nurture and lift. Start your own group if you can’t find one or get online.  Get your caregiver/spouse to find a group to vent to as well. Studies show that they don’t feel they can burden you with their stress, so they tend to implode which redefines the relationship, or they leave all together. They need some outlet. Just keep on communicating my friends! Contact is good. So is a plan for the future. I can’t say enough about Advance Care Directives (aka Living Wills.)  And everyone should become a donor if you can!!  Most important? Don’t let someone tell you you’ve got “x” amount of time to live. They don’t know that for sure! Make appropriate plans of course, then plan something for YOUR future. I was given 6-12 months to live back in ’95. And just who is writing this now in 2011? Me!