I used to tell myself I had lived through a major earthquake. The Loma Prieta quake certainly was the largest local temblor in recent memory. It paled in comparison to the big one in 1906, but 1906 was a long time ago.
On October 17, 1989, I was about halfway through my noon-to-eleven shift as computer operator in the corporate office of Bay Area retail chain. I was just sitting down in front of one of the terminals in the machine room when the ground began to shake. My coworker let out an “Oh my God,” and then went to go stand under a doorway. I was feeling pretty macho that day, at least enough so I felt no need to take cover just because of a minor tremor. And it was a minor tremor, at least it felt that way at first, but after a few seconds, it got a lot more lively.
As the room rocked back and forth, I hurried over to the doorway next to my coworker. The tiles in the false floor bounced around in their settings and tape racks began to fall over. Shortly before the shaking stopped, the power cut out. We stood there in close to total darkness for about 30 seconds until the emergency lights kicked in and the emergency siren began to wail.
There wasn’t much of the building that required the emergency lights. When we walked down the short hallway and turned the corner, we saw the cubicles in the one-story office drenched in light from the afternoon sun. Outside in the parking lot, many of the other employees stood around in the parking lot wondering what to do next while some went to their cars to listen for any news on the radio.
There were reports of damage and deaths. Houses in SF’s Marina district were on fire. A section of the Bay Bridge gave way like a trap door. In Oakland, part of the 880 freeways collapsed onto its lower level, smooshing an untold number of commuters.
While the news trickled in, one person pointed at a crack in the sidewalk and swore that it wasn’t there that morning. A number of us gathered around and pondered the newness of the fissure in the concrete. I don’t think any of us attributed any great significance to the crack, but compared to the guesswork and hearsay that was coming in from the radio, it was at least something tangible.
In the days that followed, aftershocks came through with decreasing frequency, electrical power was restored, and the final death toll stayed in double digits. For most, the aftermath was more of an inconvenience than anything else. The Bay Bridge was closed for a month, which necessitated a using the San Mateo Bridge as a detour. That was about it. You weren’t likely to be homeless and starving unless you were that way to begin with.
After I was promoted to junior programmer/analyst some months later, I got to be good friends with another programmer there. In the summer of 1999, he vacationed in Japan with his then girlfriend and upon his return told me he planned on moving there. By November he packed his bags and left, only returning for a few short visits in the past decade.
When I woke up on the morning of March 11, I did my bleary-eyed ritual of grabbing my iPhone from the bedside table and checking the latest on Facebook. My friends were commenting about Japan. Due to an earthquake in the Pacific, a tsunami had hit the northwestern coast of Honshu. Hundreds were reported dead. Compared to what happened to Indonesia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka in 2004, it seemed like small potatoes at the time.
My thoughts turned to Tidal Wave, a really bad Japanese disaster movie from the 70’s. The American release, taking a cue from the presence of Raymond Burr in Godzilla, had scenes with Lorne Greene spliced in to give it gaijin
star power. I decided to email my friend an assessment of the disaster in his adopted home in the form of a link to Roger Ebert’s scathing review
of the film.’
Of course, jokes of this nature are a risky business. Though my friend lives in Tokyo, his girlfriend lives way up north in Morioka. I checked to make sure that city was situated safely inland before sending the email. I also posted the link with to my Facebook page.
I quickly regretted doing both. After I showered, I deleted the link from my Facebook page. I figure it was up there all of fifteen minutes. The email could not be unsent, but I hope my friend realized that I sort of mean well even if tact is not my strong suit. Those who know me have learned that I am no stranger to humor in bad taste. After the earthquake in Haiti, for example, I mused about how an entrepreneur might build a sex-tourism resort atop the rubble called “Port au Bints.”
What possesses me to go for cheap laughs from tragedies on this scale. Well, I have been called an asshole more than once, but I think that’s only part of the explanation. When something occurs that is too large for the brain to take in all at once, there is a very human tendency to trivialize the event into something more maneagable. There is an equally human tendency to get cute about it so we can share whatever joy can be gotten from a tragedy with those who are equally bewildered. The trick is to avoid telling these jokes to those who have lost loved ones or have otherwise directly affected. They don’t see incomprehensible magnitude. They see a dead friend or family member.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe any topics are off limits. Some of the most hilarious material out there is incredibly transgressive at its core. The only requirement is that joke needs to be genuinely funny. Mine wasn’t, or at least not funny enough. Instead, I posted some quip about how Pat Roberston and Fred Phelps were going to attribute the disaster to God’s wrath, thereby pointing out that there are bigger assholes than myself.
And let’s be honest. They are bigger assholes. A lot of us have a hard time looking at a Japanese city in ruins without thinking of one or more residents of Monster Island paying a visit, but we neither take that seriously nor expect anyone else to. After our flight of fancy about tiny model tanks in a losing battle against Godzilla and Rodan, we then go give some money to the Red Cross because that’s the right thing to do. Those who try impose some contrived reason, or worse, justification of why this tragedy happened, are another matter entirely.
It came as no surprise when Glenn Beck, a man so loathsome he is beginning to make his fellow reactionary nutters cringe, opined that God decided to off thousands of Japanese die because folks aren’t taking the Ten Commandments seriously enough. I’m puzzled why he’d target a people who are overwhelmingly non Judeo-Christian in their beliefs. I’m an atheist so I can’t profess to be an expert on imaginary divine beings, but it seems to me that even the most abusive father chooses to beat his own kids rather than those who live down the street.
Unfortunately, he’s not alone. There are those, like some idiot named Cappie Pondexter who plays in the WNBA, who thinks God is getting back at Japan for Pearl Harbor. Gee, don’t you think he’s a little late? There is no denying that the Japanese Empire did some very bad things in that war. However, pretty much everyone who had a hand in that is dead by now and Japan has become a nation that has left its militarist past behind and has enjoyed over 65 years without war.. To harbor that sort of grudge against modern-day Japan, one has to be a very unforgiving God, or a whale.
If there is any lesson here, it will be from watching and learning how Japan recovers from this disaster. And they will recover. They came back from far worse in 1945, and they’ll do it regardless of the fire-and-brimstone whack jobs like Beck or Pondexter or wisecracking jerk offs like me.