August 09, 2007

Shaking In Fear

Sometimes I feel like I have nine lives. I'm that lucky. There have been so many close calls over the years, it's a miracle I've made it this far in life. Between the car accidents, biking over the side of a cliff, blindly running into the middle of the road, skidding uncontrollably in drunk-driven cars - the thoughts alone make the bejesus in me scramble out in fear and run from the room screaming like Daffy Duck after a dreadful day with Bugs.

The sad thing is that I'm not sure exactly how many lives I've already used. I lost count.

Granted, whatever I've got left, I'm happy to be able to keep breathing for another day. I fully recognize the divine something-or-other that allows me to weave my way through life without having to wear a full set of body pads and helmets to protect my sorry ass from falling unknowingly into another near-death scenario.

No matter what happens, I always seem to land on my feet. As I said, I'm that lucky. Sure I've got my fair share of scrapes, scars and bruises. In fact, I've probably got your fair share too. But I still consider myself lucky. The fact is that I'm experiencing life head-on. Sometimes I'm experiencing life so close I bonk my head right into it.

I don't consider the 1994 Northridge earthquake to have sucked up one of my nine lives, but the fact of the matter is that when you live in Southern California, any discussion about the fragility of life has to include earthquakes. If the 1994 shuttering didn't take one of my lives, I'm guessing that a future earthquake will swallow up one of the precious few I have left.

Regardless, the Northridge quake shook a lot more than just the upper crust of the earth's layer. On that morning, at exactly the same time my apartment felt like it was being tornadoed from the ground in a Wizard of Oz moment, I also felt the fear of uncontrollable death being ripped from the inner recess of my mind. I started shaking inside that night and I'm not quite sure it's stopped.

For some reason, I couldn't get to sleep the night that became the Northridge quake. I got home late with a load on my mind. I climbed into bed but did nothing but toss and turn for a few hours, drifting and dozing in and out of quasi-sleep. And then somewhere around 3:16am - BAMMM!!! - it felt like a Mac truck just drove into my living room without using a turning signal or issuing any warning.

It was quite a traumatic experience for somebody like me and makes me hug on to my life a little more closely. As I said earlier, I'm not sure how many of my nine lives I actually have left on this earth, but I know it's inching closer and closer to nil.

I definitely have to be a little more careful with myself these days. When I visit the Grand Canyon, I don't creep up as close for the view. I check the date on the milk carton before I eat my post-toasties. I've even stopped wearing my biking shoes when I walk down stairs.... that's just a head trauma waiting to happen.

I'm living in constant expectation of the next big quake to tear a gaping hole in my existence. It's coming, I know it is. It's been 13 years since the last one, we're long overdue.

So when I read in the paper that there's been a big shaker in Indonesia, I can't help but picture those shockwaves traveling through the core of the earth, careening towards Los Angeles only to stick their prickly little paws up through the ground and tickle my tussy while I sleep, right before it jolts the living hell out of Los Angeles.

Yes, I've got a lot of fear of earthquakes. I'm not ashamed of that. But I've learned to live with this fear. Like all mammals, I've adapted. After that Northridge quake, I realized that there is a pretty simple trick for properly predicting earthquakes: watch the animals.

I don't know if they're overly sensitive or have ESP, but dogs and cats tend to get all wiggy when something bad is going to happen. So as I walk through my days here in Los Angeles, I pay special close attention to the dogs on the street. Are they doing backflips when they should be fetching sticks? Are they speaking in tongues when they should be woof-ing? Are they walking by fire hydrants with nary a sniff or a pee?

Since Catherine and her cat have been living with me, I've been lucky enough to have my very own in-house earthquake barometer. When the cat acts funny, I know something's afoot. Either that or he's become wacked over his catnip-filled mouse (which seems to always be the case these days).

Last night I couldn't sleep. My mind was jumping back and forth from this to that and back to this again. As I lay in bed tossing and turning, I knew I was really annoying Catherine. I'm a restless sleeper. She's an anti-restless sleeper. The two don't sleep well together.

An hour into the discomfort, I decided to head out to the couch. Maybe that would help my agitation and I'm sure it would help Catherine's potential aggravation with me.

As I walked out, I saw the cat. He was sleeping soundly. He sleeps a lot. Maybe he's depressed. Maybe he's just a cat though - that's what they do. So I quietly tip-toed to the couch, making sure I didn't step on his cute little face or interrupt his dainty little snores.

I tried to lay still on the couch but that didn't work any better than it had on the bed. So I turned on the TV and watched a rerun of The Wire. I kept the sound really low in order to not disturb Catherine, so I'm not quite sure what happened on the show cause I'm no good at reading lips. Either way, it didn't help me to fall asleep.

I tried breathing, meditating and counting sheep. It just got me hungry. My mind was racing and it didn't want my body to lag behind.

Then, just before 1am, - WWWWHHHAMMMO! - an earthquake hit. It wasn't one of those slow rollers that builds up over time. It was one of those smack you in the face type earthquakes that just hits all at once. One shot - THWACK! - and it's gone. The whole place was shaking. The CD rack was wobbling, the wine bottles were rattling and the entire wooden infrastructure of the building was creaking. Mostly, though, my heart was pounding.

EARTHQUAAAAAKKKKE!! I yelled really loudly in my own head to nobody in particular.

I was petrified. Wide awake. I sat up on the couch immediately. Eyes like saucers, I braced myself for the next hit. Where do I go? What do I do? I stood up, looked around. Sat back down. Stay. Wait.


I waited for Catherine to come out of the bedroom.

I waited for sirens, screaming, mayhem. But there was nothing.

I looked over at the cat. He had woken up. He lifted his head and stared at me. "Relax you moron" his eyes seemed to say. "Some of us are trying to sleep around here." Then he put his head back down, curled up into a ball and closed his eyes. I think he may have let out a sigh in the process, the little git.

You're a cat! I thought angrily. You're supposed to warn me of these things! You're supposed to jump up and down, and bounce off the walls and meow and scream and....and..... YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO HELP ME GODDAMMIT!!!!

The cat didn't look up at me or my volatile thoughts. He just laid there like a rock and slept.

After a few minutes, the pounding of my heart slowed to a strong ker-thump and I was able to lay back down on the couch again.

Within a few minutes I was able to fall asleep and slept fairly soundly through til the morning. When Catherine woke up I asked her about the earthquake.

Earthquake? she asked quizzically. What earthquake?

Like her cat, she slept right through it. She slept like a rock.

So I started thinking that maybe I have it all backwards. Maybe I am actually the cat. With my nine lives and pre-earthquake agitation, maybe it's the fear that is driving me in circles. I am my own earthquake warning.

And maybe the little shaker from last night did more than jolt the earth. Perhaps this time, it jolted in me a better understanding of fear. In that fear is not a bad thing. It keeps us alert, and in touch. Fear can help us achieve our best and push to our limits. Fear can lead us to engage with life in ways we didn't think possible, sometimes so closely that you bonk yourself in the head.

Fear can be good. And I suppose it is also helpful to have a good solid rock sleeping next to you at night, just in case.