To live in California is to make a wary peace with an existential dichotomy: breathtaking weather, astounding natural beauty, bounteous food and wine, stimulating multiculturalism and … the possibility of imminent, unpredictable disaster. Depending on where we live, Californians are just one spark, one mudslide, or, yes, one earthquake away from severe destruction—a reality that can be met with fatalism, fear, or some combination of both, but one that is omnipresent, if surprisingly easy to forget.
I can’t pretend it’s quite like living in Israel in the midst of an intifada, or in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, but there is nevertheless a low-grade febrile uncertainty amid the routines of daily life here. When your 100-year-old house shifts and groans with a sound like the straining timbers of a wooden vessel under sail—as ours did the other day—it’s hard not to feel a certain nauseated intimation of mortality.
Twenty years ago, when I first lived in Southern California as the Los Angeles bureau chief of The New York Times, I took the prospect of an earthquake very seriously indeed. The paper’s planning assumed that, in the event of “The Big One,” either the L.A. or San Francisco bureau might be leveled or incapacitated, so I had to be prepared to go to work on a moment’s notice, and perhaps a long way away. I’d been equipped with a satellite phone the size of a suitcase, which I was to power from a car battery using an electric inverter, and then aim skyward at just the right trajectory to establish communications with New York. (I was sure I’d never be able to make it work.) We were urged to keep rolls of quarters on hand because pay telephones would be the first restored to service. (Now, of course, finding a payphone would be next to impossible.)