• Barbarella
  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

We learn geology the morning after the earthquake. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

I felt the tremor in my feet before I heard the familiar groan in the walls — my home bracing itself for a shake. Pre-tremble creak usually means a major quake, so I steadied my stance. I heard something dinging below. I was pretty sure nothing had fallen. I dashed downstairs while the building wobbled around me. By the time ­I’d reached the kitchen and stretched my neck to locate the source of the clanging, the noise had stopped, and so had the ­shaking.

Jane called a moment later. “Did you feel ­that?”

“Yup, it was a long one — but taller buildings tend to sway for a while,” I ­said.

“Bella, ­it’s okay, come out from under the table,” Jane commanded, somehow managing to sound both patient and exasperated. I heard commotion in the background — two little girls talking at once, one in a bid to get her ­mother’s attention, the other balking at it. ­“Bella’s freaked out,” Jane said to me. The announcement induced an indignant howl from ­Bella.

“Why? ­There’s nothing to be worried about, just a little shake,” I ­said.

“Will you tell her that? Bella, ­I’ve got Aunt Barb on the phone. She wants to tell you something. ­It’s okay. Come out from under there and listen to Aunt Barb.” Jane makes sure the girls never miss my segment on the morning news; because ­they’re still young enough to believe anything they see on television is gospel, ­I’ve established a high level of ­cred.

“Hello?” The little voice was squeaky, nothing like the usual bellow of the brazen six-year-old.

“Hey, Bella Boo,” I said. “You’re completely safe, honey, ­it’s just a little shaking, nothing to worry ­about.”

“But — but my friend told me that an earthquake will make your house crumble to the ground and your whole house will be disappeared,” Bella whimpered. Her wavering words revealed the freshness of her fear — the dread of a child who realizes that what she loves can be lost, that not everything is ­forever.

I transitioned to my authoritative, news-narrating tone and said, “That does happen in some places, Bella, but it ­won’t happen where we live. The places where houses get swallowed up are on fault lines — San Diego is not on a fault line. So you have nothing to worry ­about.”

“Are you sure?” The little voice sounded ­sturdier.

“Yes, so you can tell your friend that you guys have nothing to worry about because ­we’re not on a fault ­line.”

Fortified with facts, Bella was back to her buoyant self when she thanked me, said goodbye, and handed the phone back to her mother. “Is that true?” Jane asked. She must have overheard my explanation. It ­hadn’t occurred to me until that moment that my niece was not the only one in need of ­reassurance.

“I’m pretty sure,” I said. “During that big one on Easter, the worst that happened was a bunch of stuff fell over — books on the floor of my office, glass candle-holders in the bathroom, little ­things.”

I saw no need to mention the larger objects that almost fell, like the tall vase in the kitchen or the 300-pound television that David had rushed to prevent from falling over and shattering. Despite the severity of the Easter earthquake, ­I’d found time to tweet, “Holy Shit,” before safeguarding the vase. At no point was I really ­worried.

To me, weather phenomena have always seemed more exciting than frightening. Of course, all of the storms and quakes ­I’ve experienced have been too mild to be destructive. The only kind of “natural disaster” ­I’ve lived through is a bad hair ­day.

When buildings ­aren’t being toppled and people ­aren’t dying, “acts of God” seem more like “natural entertainment.” Blizzards in Alaska meant a day off from school and tumbling through the snow before gathering around candles with the entire family for an in-home camping adventure. By the time Hurricane Gloria reached our Navy housing development in Rhode Island, the winds were just strong enough for the boys on the street to sail around the cul-de-sac using sheets and ­skateboards.

Now that I live in San Diego, the quakes are my only form of natural entertainment. ­There’s nothing fun about wildfires; they ­don’t affect me, anyway — ­I’m in the middle of a concrete jungle, far from the windblown canyons. Located well above the ocean at the height of Hillcrest, ­I’m also safe from the unlikely tsunami. As far as I know, there are no volcanoes around, so I ­needn’t worry about lava. And though earthquakes do rattle my walls from time to time, the risk of damage where I live is so slight that my insurance company ­doesn’t even recommend earthquake ­coverage.

David came home about an hour after my call with Jane. I knew ­he’d felt the earthquake because ­he’d texted, “Whoa!” while I was running down the stairs. Mid-dash, ­I’d managed to text back, “Still shaking now.” ­It’s amazing how much one can accomplish in the 15- to 45-second span of an ­earthquake.

I explained to him how ­I’d talked Bella and Jane down and then added, “A bunch of people on Facebook seemed really freaked out about the ­quake.”

“Were they from out of state?” David ­asked.

“Not sure. Does it make a ­difference?”

“People not from this area have only heard about the big quakes that are reported on the news, the ones with massive devastation,” David said. “They ­don’t tell you, ‘Today in California there was a mild earthquake that jiggled a little water and some people felt it, but not Heather, because she was driving at the time.’” I laughed. “Just like people in San Diego ­don’t understand tornadoes or hurricanes — they think every gust of wind is capable of carrying off a cow and dropping it on a ­car.”

“I think ­they’re kind of fun,” I said. “And cool, if you think about it. The earth is moving, like a gigantic old woman shifting in her seat to find a more comfortable ­position.”

“They are kind of fun,” David agreed. “We just have to make sure Jane and Bella ­don’t worry that the gigantic old woman is going to sit on their ­house.”

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader


Barbarella Fokos June 30, 2010 @ 2:21 p.m.

I'm hosting a writing workshop! Fewer than 5 spaces left, so email me soon if you'd like to attend. All the info can be found here:


Robert Hagen July 2, 2010 @ 2:52 a.m.

My mother grew up in Mendoza, Argentina, at the foot of the Andes mountains. There are earthquakes there where the earth splits open and scalding water spouts out- no BS. There are earthquakes there where enormous rocks roll down the mountains and into Mendoza. My mother could sense an earthquake before it occurred.

Here are the lyrics of a song called 'After the Earthquake has Passed' by Argentine band Soda Stereo, basically the Led Zeppelin of Argentina, translated from Spanish, and below the video of the song- enjoy:

'After the Earthquake has passed' I'll.... Walk between the rocks Until I feel the earthquake- Between my legs

Sometimes I feel fear

Sometimes I feel embarassment

I am, seated on a desert cart

I continue withstanding the pain

In my body......

Nobody lost, splitting- I don't know

Nobody waits for me

Theres an opening,

In my heart,

A regret

A planet with designation

I know - I'l find you in those care

And then we won't have to speak

Speak of me.....

I understand

I will desire in the temple

It will be a good moment

There is a shout, in my heart

A planet, with disillusion

The earthquake!

Wake up, after the earthquake

Wake up! After an earthquake

Wake up after the earthquake

Wake up.......Wake up...


Barbarella Fokos July 2, 2010 @ 10:34 a.m.

Diego, thank you for posting those lyrics. This is the first time I've encountered a song about earthquakes.


JohnnyJ July 5, 2010 @ 1:42 a.m.



SDaniels July 5, 2010 @ 5:10 a.m.

JohnnyJ, the point of your comment isn't totally clear, though your screaming capitals continue to prick the eyeballs. Join the rest of us with some lower caps mixed in? Promise we'll still read you. ;)

Right on, Barb! Enjoy the workshop. I took a minor in writing, which meant a lot of workshopping in forced, artificial, anxiety-ridden (for some) hours with a variety of folk in various stages of skill/experience. The low point was when a novelist with the best of intentions made us write a story together, in assigned groups. Eek.

Imagine the inevitable suicide story of the beginning writer, then add seven writers of different ideas on how to get the protag to his noble demise. I think ours read like whatever a schizophrenic attempts to mask with blaring earphones...;)

Naturally, the best writers took criticism well, whereas the beginners took every comment personally, and tended to snark back at the group, feeling cornered, or else moped; put upon and also feeling cornered. Those with a little knowledge and a smug, sophomoric attitude, tortured these individuals, while quavering in wait for the professor's remarks.

Workshopping can be wounding for anyone who has not yet learned the value of literary critique with good intentions for the betterment of the piece under discussion (even knowing it would likely never fly--maybe it could walk, or crawl).

I think that in many programs, the efficacy of workshopping is still thought of as dubious, though it is still done (as are doctoral programs in creative writing --can writing really be taught, as the question goes?) I have never found a satisfactory answer to that question, though I can say I will always trust the process of multiple revisions with intelligent feedback, for which one should certainly pay. ;) This is why a group of writers with a little blockage and the time to meet can be a lovely thing.

I and a few others continued to workshop and hold discussion groups for literary criticism, only with enthusiastic participants (friends and friends of...) of a certain understanding--and a trust in each other, which is obviously key. I'm sure your first order of business is to establish ground rules, and trust in yourself as the moderator/instructor, then start to develop it between participants. Hopefully, you get a good group! I would love to hear more about the experiences--write a column or more on them?


Robert Hagen July 5, 2010 @ 7:37 a.m.


Thank you for your very kind remark. As I've said before, your writing style has influenced me a great deal.

You're the woman:)

Heres a song and dance:


CuddleFish July 5, 2010 @ 9:51 a.m.

skipping right by JohnnyJ on my way to Happytown

Daniels, quite right about beginning writers. Their natural tendency is to defend the work, to pout that no one understands what they are trying to do, to seek praise and not listen to criticism. But enough about my past sins. :)

Once a writer gets past that thinking that everything they write is perfect and needs no revision, can lay his or her work on the table and not expect to hear only praise, when they can actually hear what others have to say about it, there is no way the writer can not improve.

I do believe you can teach people to write if they want to be taught. Some writers are more naturally talented than others as storytellers, and storytelling is something that can also be taught to a lesser degree. The thing that can't be taught, or hardly, is creativity. That's inborn, IMHO, combine all three and that's where the great writers have it all over the rest of us.


Barbarella Fokos July 5, 2010 @ 9:56 a.m.

Thanks for the insight, SD! This is more of a lecture than traditional "workshop." When the group meets, I will be presenting tips and techniques I've picked up from a variety of sources (books, editors, fellow writers, etc.). Then I will be taking work home so I can tailor my feedback to each participant individually. I'm looking forward to it!


CuddleFish July 5, 2010 @ 10:03 a.m.

Back to critique: In all fairness, it is a very hard journey to learn how to accept critiqueing of your work, or maybe it was harder for me because at the time I started to write, my life was in the pits and this was all I had. Putting it out there and having it mauled and chopped and dissected and mangled was horrifying and hurtful. But I'm a stubborn cuss -- I kept on writing, and eventually learned to hear what my critics had to say. I learned it this way: EVEN THOUGH I DIDN'T AGREE WITH THEM, I would change the work. And gradually, grudgingly, I saw that yes, the work was better.

Perfect example. I had workshopped a particular poem with a teacher, accepted all her suggestions except one. That poem went on to be published, and do you know, when I saw that poem in print, and to this day, I still regret not making that one change she suggested. Lesson here is, people reading your work can read objectively what you the writer see subjectively. What you love about the way you write may be the worst thing about your writing. You ignore your critics at your peril.


Barbarella Fokos July 5, 2010 @ 10:15 a.m.

Was it Stephen King who said, "Sometimes you have to kill your darlings?" It's the same with being attached to a word/phrase that just doesn't work in the grand scheme of things. Thanks for the additional insight, Cuddle!


Matthew Lickona July 5, 2010 @ 10:47 a.m.

Barb, I think it was Faulkner who said that. m


Barbarella Fokos July 5, 2010 @ 11:24 a.m.

Stephen King, Faulkner, same same. ;) Actually, now that you've enlightened me, Matt, I remember that Stephen King was quoting another author. Thank you for the source! :)


Barbarella Fokos July 5, 2010 @ 12:39 p.m.

Wow, THANK YOU! I'm going to look into all of these guys for further inspiration!


a2zresource July 5, 2010 @ 1:50 p.m.

When I was a student body president at City College in the late 80s, the San Diego Community College District had some seismic drillings done, down around what is now the Seville Theater on campus. Sure enough, the Rose Canyon fault line runs right underneath... and I'm not all that sure that Hillcrest is immune to its effects, should it decide to open up and swallow anything between the F Street bookstore on University and the Vons bordering Dove Street...


Barbarella Fokos July 6, 2010 @ 10:09 a.m.

18 Yes, I know about Rose Canyon, but my understanding is that our little line is more like a capillary than an artery, I remain unconcerned. ;)


Joe Poutous July 6, 2010 @ 11:33 a.m.

Barb. I clicked on your website to see the info on your writing class. The Internet filter here at work blocks the site and lists you as a pornographer! Ha!!

I can get around it, I'm a sysadmin, I just thought you would think that it was funny.

I grew up here... when the earth shakes it's always "Cool! An Earthquake!"

  • Joe

Barbarella Fokos July 6, 2010 @ 1:41 p.m.

Joe, I guess my words can have a salacious edge to them on occasion. ;) Let me know if you need me to send you the information directly, I still have a few slots left.


Joe Poutous July 6, 2010 @ 2:56 p.m.

While I'm betting that a class taught by you would be an f-ing riot, I really don't have time.

I'm in the middle of week 5 of p90X, I'm trying to get my car done, I work at least 50 hours a week, I do all the cooking at home, I need to spend time with my sons and sometimes I sleep! (I know, run-on sentence). Plus, I try to find time to paint, drink and take photographs.

  • Joe

Barbarella Fokos July 7, 2010 @ 12:20 p.m.

You're a busy man, Joe! I know what that's like, sans the cooking or kids, or car stuff. The busy part -- that's what I can relate to. ;)


Joe Poutous July 7, 2010 @ 4:57 p.m.

Did you feel that one Barb? about 6 min ago...

  • Joe

Barbarella Fokos July 7, 2010 @ 5:14 p.m.

DID I? I tweeted it as it was happening. 5.4 in Borrego Springs. I'm on top of my quakes. ;)


a2zresource July 8, 2010 @ 2:10 p.m.

I heard yesterday's quake was on one of those "capillaries"...

I think I'm gonna build me an anti-earthquake hot air balloon in the back yard as my preferred escape route. I seem to have access to a lot of hot air lately.


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!