Friday, April 18, 2008

people say you move to these small towns for the peaceful lifestyle, and i'll admit, yes, the closest we get to traffic is when a train happens by, and we can never make it across town on schedule, because we always run into someone we know. so in general we live at a different pace, slower, gentler, and i certainly felt that when i went to new york, and got to the busy canyon intersections at midtown where our conference was.

but, our lives here in this small town are plenty busy, with kids, and tearing around, and 50- or 60- hour workweeks all crammed into about 45 hours. it's enough to make some people drive too fast, since they see the same stuff over and over again, but i drive slow (ly), because it's one of the few restful times i have, and, the sameness of the houses, though dreadfully boring over a long stretch, fades into the background sometimes as the natural changes- the different colors of the grasses, the new flowers, the new colors- show up, sometimes different every day.

so, yeah, middle of the night, about 4:30 am, i'm wide awake, and the ground beneath me is shaking. my wife asks groggily if the baby fell out of bed. i listened- if he did, i'd soon hear him walking, or crying, or coming in to join us. actually he's three now, so i shouldn't be calling him a baby. but it wasn't him. then i thought, maybe it's the construction guys- but then, it was only 4:30. my wife fell back asleep, fairly quickly. it was the quake, 5.2, read all about it if you want. there was another one at 10:30- by this time i was esconced in my class, chatting with my students on computers in a downstairs lab- and i didn't feel that one, which was 4.2. apparently, there were maybe five more, all around 2. didn't feel those either. but i was there for the one at 4:30 am. first one i ever experienced.

they say that in the new madrid quake of 1811, the mississippi flowed backwards for three days, and i like to retell that as if it's the wisdom passed down the ages, but actually only indians and french trappers lived in the area at the time, and i'm not a direct descendant of any of them, it certainly wasn't passed down by my relatives. in the course of looking this one up we found out that that probably wasn't true, that it more likely appeared to be going backwards, but, hey, the people who wrote that weren't there either. i also have gotten to tell one of my favorite jokes, which involves a farmer who, when asked if he wants earthquake insurance, says, "why? i don't know how to start an earthquake," which, when told right, expresses exactly a true farmer's reluctance to buy any of the mystical and ambiguously-valued hedge investments of modern society. nevertheless i enjoy checking in with local people about a day's events, such a thing hasn't happened, as i've said, for almost two hundred years, though apparently they had a decent-size one in 1968. it was general consensus that animals are, yes, aware of these things before they happen, and make quite a stir, though i can testify that our poor old dog is deaf and unaware of such things, and slept right through it. it was also generally agreed that quite a few things shook, and, the further out in the country you were, or, the more responsible you were for house, family, outbuildings, etc., the more likely you were to be still there, wide awake, at 5:00 am & later.

in contrast, i remember back hardly two weeks, deep in the heart of midtown manhattan, there i was, walking around thinking, i've only got a couple of days here, and going to a convention is probably the least of what i could be doing. then i find out that, miraculously enough, moma is free for convention-goers. moma, with everything but the o capitalized, is the big art museum, i knew right away, and was surprised to see it right down the street from the convention, barely two blocks away, with a quick step i hotfooted it down there. i thought of a relative of mine, an artist, single at one time, who said that he wouldn't go out with a girl if she didn't know where the art museum was. i myself go to a big one maybe every ten years or so, though i go to our town's small one occasionally, and consider myself lucky for the opportunity. this was evening; it had only an hour or two left to be open, and i spent some of that time at the folk-museum part of it, listening to a guy named matt jones, who i really liked. so i had but a half hour or so to do the museum, and ran smack into andrew wyeth's famous painting of the poor woman out in Kansas or wherever, having trouble getting back through the grasses to her little cabin. a little disturbing and unsettling. after that i had trouble settling my eyes on paintings, partly because the steady stream of people, new yorkers, interesting, my age, people who could have been me, if i hadn't done what i did. a steady stream....on the stairs, on the escalators, in front of every famous painting. god's art, etched into their faces, in their conversation, in the textures of their clothes. later my sister said she was down on the moma, since they had raised prices, even made getting a snack out of reach of the average person, but i guess my view of that was, the whole town seemed that way, five bucks for a coffee at the hotel, no place to park, etc. and, it was free for me...but, as i walked around, dazed, getting caught in a maze of different rooms, this one impressionist, this one abstract, this one an escalator with lots of bizarre people on it, finally i got off a little to the side, in an exhibit about books. this one turned books into a kind of museum piece, glazed over with bright paint, museumish, quaint, decorative. this one reached me somehow.

back home, 4:30 am, i'm wide awake. i know it was an earthquake. if it was the kid, i would have heard him by now. if it was the workers, they would still be at it. but now, it was just silence. and the house, still only one story, still standing. native californians, it turns out, as several of my friends are, teach each other, through generations, to go stand in the doorway, which will protect you when the house falls. i hadn't known that, of course, and even if i did, i might not have done it- i was only vaguely aware, even after a good shake, what i'd felt. in my daze, i looked at the clock, looked at my wife, gone back to sleep, and outside, very quiet. quietest i'd experienced in a long time. then, after a while, i fell back asleep.


Anonymous bruce said...

The last time we visited Margot we saw the East River flowing backwards. Actually it was just the tide coming in. But it sure was a shock. Well, if you see it flowing up into the faucet you'll know you've got a real quake on your hands.

3:31 PM  

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