Monday, June 13, 2005

Did the earth move for you?

According to my girlfriend and to the media, an earthquake struck Southern California yesterday morning. Apparently it was a magnitude 5.6 with an epicenter near Palm Springs, which, being only 100 miles or so from where I was at the time, seems like it would be something I would have noticed. I tend to be sensitive to seismic activity, or at least sometimes I perceive a shaking sensation when sitting still. (In fact, it has happened three times just while typing this paragraph. I suppose it could be an inner ear problem, but I don't think it's just in my mind; having lived my entire life in this area, I know what it feels like when the ground shakes.)

Despite the reports, I felt nothing at the specified time. I was outdoors, and standing on sand, so that makes it easy to dismiss my normal abilities as keen enough to pick up on it.

However, when I got back home later in the day, I started to be suspicious of the news stories. Caltech may have advanced instruments for gauging these things, but I have my own method for determining building-jolting events: On a shelf in my bedroom there's well over 25 Simpsons toy figures (I shan't refer to them as "action figures" to play on the obvious irony, nor call them "dolls" because I have never held a tea party with them), most of which are free-standing on the oak wood, just waiting for some vibration to disrupt tentative dance with gravity. (Some are anchored in playsets; those are purely ornamental, like the hot dogs at the Quickie Mart. They serve little scientific purpose.) I have witnessed, for example, Otto, with that plastic guitar around his neck, take a header (as though he were "blotto") from me merely walking too stridently across the bedroom. Because I don't dust often enough, when some of the figures topple there's always the less dusty footprints left behind even when they are stood back up. And not one of the figures had so much as even shifted slightly in position. I must believe that a quake of any significance would send Vacation Smithers (in Hawaiian shirt and holding a brown plastic suitcase) on a trip for which he hadn't packed.

I don't mean to suggest that my beloved girlfriend had hallucinated the whole thing. I mean, she is gracious enough to love a grown man with toys displayed in his bedroom (although not crazy enough to allow said toys to be displayed in the living room); I am not stupid enough to refute anything she says with such conviction. I am not incredulous regarding the scientists' claims that something happened. And from a conspiracy standpoint, the government might have faked the moon landing decades ago, but I doubted they had any hand in making a bunch of Southern Californians… well, not terribly concerned, but believing something occurred that didn't. Still, the evidence failed to support the declaration that there had been an earthquake.

I seemed to be experiencing something of a dilemma. Well, for the thirty seconds or so before I moved on to thinking about something else. Then today I realized what reconciled the claims with the evidence. I recalled my girlfriend noted the event felt like the building swayed back and forth. Therein lied the answer.

"Quake" means to shake or tremble. It brings to mind a certain violence, or at least panic-causing motion. That does not fit with the "swaying" description. Ergo, the problem is with the ubiquity of applying the term "earthquake" to any activity resulting from the shifting of tectonic plates; the event was something, but if it didn't put Professor Frink and his beaker on his back, it wasn't an "earthquake."

What was it then? Here I must acknowledge my lack of scientific background and, more important, my general laziness, and not tread into areas I don't belong. I shall leave that up to the geologists and, ultimately, to the marketing folks (no doubt involving focus groups at some point) to come up with a new designation for such seismic activities. I think, however, that if it involves "dance" in some way it will score well in the coveted 18 – 34 demographic. "Mother Earth Slow Jam" may do well in the urban market. Just throwing those out there; as I said, it's not my bailiwick.

I'm not sure what my bailiwick is, exactly, but thus far in my life it has not involved creating trendy names for natural non-disasters.

Here's where the obvious wrap-up would be: "That would test the bounds of my girlfriend's love just a little too much." However, in reality, she'd probably be happy if I explored such a path; anything to get me out of my dead-end job. So if anyone needs a consultant for unnecessary terminology, let me know. And if anyone in the media needs verification of whether a seismic event was really an "earthquake" or just the ground asking us to get our collective groove on, feel free to contact me. Groundskeeper Willy and Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel wait in my facilities—er, bedroom—ever-vigilant.


  1. As someone who has lived in the sensitive zone all his life agrees with you. Now living near Yellow Stone Park, and the ever growing Teton Range, and the previous years of living in Long Beach, unless items are not thrown off shelves and my car does not move into the next stall, I do not feel it, most of all the rolling kind.
    As for your feeling the earth move when there are no reports of earth quakes. Well…… It is not your imagination, between last week and the last hour, California has had 725 bowel movements. It is as if California has eaten too much Taco Bell and is squatting over a Russian Public Toilet. Go to: Most earthquakes in California are deep in the earth and for most people, do not feel the movement.
    Neither earthquakes nor the idea of living two hours from a Volcano that can take out the whole west coast scares me. What does scare me is, the fact that people now days think that the style of the 1970’s and early 80’s is cool, and the Republican Socialist Party is in control. Soon there will be an extra S in USA (USSA) God help us all.

  2. No, I did not feel the "quake" either. I was playing a video game at the time so I may have been distracted. My wife Erin did jump out of bed claiming she was feeling an earthquake. Sure enough, my fishtank's water was sloshing around and the the hanging light fixtures were swinging back and forth, yet I felt nothing. I have lived in California all my life and have only felt one temblor--I didn't even feel the Northridge quake. I suppose I might notice when they pull me out of the pile of rubble that was once my condo complex.

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So, what do you think?