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Protective Detachment

Brush Fire About Five Miles from My Front Door

There I was, siting and reading the essays in Joan Didion’s After Henry, when I suddenly found a perfect phrase to summarize the sang-froid Californians feel about earthquakes and wildfires:

The notion that land will be worth more tomorrow than it is worth today has been a real part of the California experience, and remains deeply embedded in the California mentality, but this seemed extreme, and it occurred to me that the buying and selling of houses was perhaps one more area in which the local capacity for protective detachment had come into play, that people capable of compartmentalizing the Big One [that is, earthquake] might be less inclined than others to worry about getting their money out of [a real estate investment].

People in other parts of the country have told me scores of times that California is going to “fall into the ocean,” as if we were all living on a thin shelf of unsteady earth stretched out over the Pacific Ocean. In actuality, our part of the state will, instead of falling into the ocean, slowly head north to Alaska—over a period of millions of years. No matter, I won’t be around to have to buy heavy parkas.

When growing up in Cleveland, I had a deathly fear of tornadoes. They frequently featured in my nightmares. Finally, on June 8, 1953, a large tornado tore through the West Side. As an eight-year-old, we visited a family friend whose two-story house was half a block from utter devastation. At the time, we lived on the East Side and suffered no damage; but that didn’t help my dreams any.

Freeway Damage from the Northridge Quake of 1994

Because I live on a large heavily populated plain just south of the Santa Monica Mountains, I have no reason to fear wildfires. But earthquakes are a different matter. The Sylmar Quake of 1971 scared the Bejeezus out of me, and the Northridge Quake of 1994 didn’t help matters. Perhaps I don’t feel Didion’s protective detachment because I wasn’t born in California as she was.