Deep into my morning routine, it’s a minute before 8 a.m., Fri., Aug., 16, 2019. As always at this time of day, I’m pretty chill, in that going-through-the-motions-until-the-caffeine-kicks-in sort of way. Plopped in the southeast corner of my living room, feet on the ottoman, scanning headlines in the online grey lady.
“Economic Trouble Signs Hang Over Trump’s Trade War.”
“Many Democrats Love Elizabeth Warren. They Also Worry About Her.”
“Migrant Children Are Entitled to Toothbrushes and Soap, Federal Court Rules.”
I sip my freshly brewed Strong Enough to Walk, set the mug on a Powercat coaster and feel a vibration. Slight, but noticeable. Seems to start on the left, reverberate through me and end on my right. Momentary concentric circles in my coffee, then a return to normalcy. The whole episode lasts three or four seconds. Five, tops.
I say to myself, “Self, that was an earthquake.”
Punch up social media, since that’s where we go these days for immediate news. The content I expect to find will be a roll of the dice with respect to accuracy, but good judgment tempered by experience will allow me to gather at least a sense. Enough to determine whether my earthquake suspicions are correct, or if we all just collectively experienced a Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch “Good Vibration.”
Judging from the impacted social media chimers-in, the clear consensus is earthquake. Magnitude 4.2, I was to later learn, this time from the experts. Tiny, as tsunami-causing, tectonic plate-uplifting, San Andreas Fault-shifting earthquakes go. No casualties, some minor damage in South Hutchinson and environs. This far north, mere southwest-to-northeast ripples in the coffee.
Earthquakes tend to occur when underground rock breaks along a fault line. By definition, a fault line is a fracture. Something is broken. When two chunks of rock rub against each other, they don’t slide, they push against each other with severe friction and eventually break apart. Waves of seismic energy are released and the morning coffee-drinking, grey lady headline-reading reverie of certain upper west side Manhattanites is interrupted.
In conducting an inventory of naturally occurring catastrophic personal experiences, I suspect my spreadsheet stacks up with many lifelong Kansans. I’ve dodged my share of tornadoes; my wife and I once departed a Gulf Coast wedding reception ahead of a hurricane and I have long wondered what it would be like to experience an earthquake.
Wonder no more.
We can see hurricanes coming for days. Tornadoes bring a similar, albeit time-compressed warning infrastructure, aimed at keeping us safe. We know when atmospheric conditions are present to spawn them, but we cannot predict when, where or even if they’ll touch down.
We know that over the centuries, tectonic plates shift, descend or uplift, and fault lines give way, but the vibe I get since my earthquake experience is the pros can’t get much more specific than, “sometime between right now … and the end of time.”
So, we’ll do our best in that ill-defined space between warning of danger and actual danger.
When I read, “economic trouble,” I tend to pay attention. Like tornado sirens, economic warnings exist for a reason. I try not to get too exercised over presidential politics until election year, but I’ve seen enough of them to know there’s a horse race to cover the year before. I cannot help but believe, however, that if it takes a federal judge to rule that migrant children are entitled to toothpaste and soap, there’s a serious fault line somewhere in the system. Something is broken.
It seems like we live in a moment when the forces impacting us are tectonic. The trouble signs are there, should we muster the will and wherewithal to understand and react to them. I can drive inland, away from a hurricane. I can go to the basement to escape harm when the tornado sirens blare. I can shake and vibrate as the earthquakes rumble beneath my home state.
As a Kansan, I’m fluent on tornadoes. Warm air rises and meets cold air aloft. Cumulonimbus clouds turn grey-green and rotate. Massive destructive power looms. When they pass over, they do, in fact, sound like a freight train.
Earthquakes are new to me. When the very place I go for safety from the natural disaster I know best actually begins to move around, deep below me, my headlines and my cup of coffee, it seems like a good time to check in on our fault lines.
Matson’s column appears every other Sunday in The Mercury. Follow his blog at mikematson.com