The first five minutes

Sturdy-leather-work-boots2In researching personal accounts of the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake for my novel THE VOLUME OF WATER, one of the things that stood out to me was the amount of damage that occurred in the first few minutes of the quake.

Fortunately, the quake, a 9.2 megathrust which was the largest ever recorded in the Northern Hemisphere, occurred during the day – at about 5:30 pm. It happened just after people had vacated office buildings in the busy Downtown Anchorage area; experts have stated if it had happened an hour earlier, hundreds more may have been killed.

I cannot imagine how much worse the devastation would have been if the initial quake had occurred at night. At least in the daytime, people can see debris falling toward them, they can see the earth literally coming open under their feet. In the daylight, we can find and hold onto our loved ones. If we have to, we can see to grab out coats and boots before we run out of a collapsing building or home.

Anyone living in the area of the Pacific Northwest known as the Rim of Fire knows that another “big one” could be just around the corner. Most prepare to some degree for such an event. However, since disaster can strike anywhere at anytime; it is important to be able to react quickly in those first few minutes. How many of us are prepared to do that?

Last year, to commemorate the anniversary of a local fire, I did an article for the Frontiersman Newspaper in which I interviewed the spokeswoman for our borough’s emergency preparedness department . What I expected was the same information everybody gives out – have canned food on hand, stash some candles and blankets, lots of water, etc. Instead, the first thing that came up was … tennis shoes.

“Say you’re sleeping, and a quake happens,” she said. “Maybe the power goes out. Maybe it’s the middle of winter. Would you even be able to find your shoes? Your house keys? Your front door?”

Um … no. Probably not. One likes to hope, if disaster must strike, that it doesn’t happen when it’s dark or 20 below outside, but then, I live in Alaska – what are the odds? That thought haunted me.

We are a large, homeschooling family. That’s code for “our entry way is usually a hot mess of random shoes, socks, mittens, hats, projects, books of all shapes and sizes and the occasional sharp Lego toy.” If I had to get my family out of the house in a hurry, especially in winter, we’d all be in deep trouble.

The preparedness spokeswoman pointed out that if a large quake occurs, it’s possible – even likely – the floor will be covered in broken glass (and, of course, Legos). So it’s a good idea to stow a pair of tennis shoes (sturdy shoes that can be slipped on easily) under each bed. Some people keep a large ziplock bag under the bed with their shoes, a light jacket, flashlight, maybe a whistle, and other must-have items (like an inhaler if you have family members with asthma, which we do). You can even secure the bags to the frame of the bed so they don’t get pushed back out of reach.

I am working toward the goal of going to bed at night with an entry at least organized enough that everyone could find their own coat and boots with a flashlight. We’ve designated specific places in the house for those flashlights, too. I now sleep with a pair of shoes or boots next to my bed that I can slip on in an instant. I keep my iPhone charged at night, and I have an app for it that provides a quick flashlight. I keep it and my keys on my nightstand, an arm’s reach away. My older kids know how to open the garage door if the power goes out, so if the house becomes unsafe and it’s too cold to remain outside (which it is much of the year), we can pull the car out and at least be out of the elements.

I read enough first-hands accounts of the devastation that occurred after the 1964 quake, and the tsunamis that hit the coastal regions afterward, to believe that those first five minutes can be key to survival. Maybe you don’t have earthquakes in your neck of the woods, but I bet you have fires, or tornadoes, or riots, or something else equally dangerous and unpredictable. Having a pair of shoes and a plan to survive the first few minutes of an emergency is easy and inexpensive, and it might make all the difference to you and your loved ones.

Do you have a “5-minute bag?” Is there anything I’ve forgotten? If you have any tips or advice, please let me know in the comments section! Thanks!

It’s all in your mind (well, actually it is)

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One of the best teachers I ever had was professor Ron Spatz at University of Alaska Anchorage, who was then the head of the Creative Writing Department and also the editor of the prestigious Alaska Quarterly Review literary journal.

Ron Spatz was one of those people with the unusual gift of bringing out the best in people. He didn’t settle for second-best from anyone, and had an uncanny way of knowing when someone was handing in something less than they were capable of. I could fill a book, I suppose, with great Ron Spatz-isms. But there is one lesson he taught us eager would-be writers that has really stayed with me, even 15+ years later. It’s a simple idea, really, but it’s influenced every piece I’ve ever written since, and even the way I deal with people in “real life.”

It’s this:

People act according to the way they see themselves, not according to who they really are.

Told you it was a simple idea. At least, it seems so on the surface. In reality, it’s profound, and remembering this can help us understand how people (characters) behave, both on the printed page and off.

For example, suicide is epidemic among young people – especially in Alaska, where I live.  Say a character loses his job, laid off with a bunch of other guys. If my character sees himself as unredeemable, a hopeless failure, that this is just further confirmation that he can’t do anything right, he might consider suicide. Whereas most people would consider being laid off just temporarily bad circumstances and never consider such a drastic response.  It’s that self perception, whether accurate or not, that makes the difference.

A woman who’s been told she’s “loose” or “immoral?” Odds are she’ll act that way, dress that way. If she’s sexually assaulted, she might even think she deserved it. A teenager who’s always been treated like a thug will probably act like one. A man who thinks he’s not very smart will probably never try for a mentally-demanding job – even if he’s actually got an IQ of 130.

Of course, our self-perception isn’t always formed by the opinions of those around us. That jobless, thirty-something loser living at home? He would never date anyone with less than supermodel good looks because inside, for whatever reason, he believes he’s worth it. On the flip side, we’ve all seen brilliant, beautiful people engage in self-destructive behavior (the supermodel in an abusive relationship, the amazingly talented singer who refuses to audition for a musical, and so on) because they don’t think they’re “good enough” in spite of the opinions of those around them.

mr rooney   “I did not achieve this position in life by having some snot-nosed punk leave my cheese out in the wind.”

 The funny thing is, we all have our blind spots – those instances in which the way we perceive ourselves doesn’t *quite* sync with the rest of the world. This can make for great character development too. Remember Mr. Rooney in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off? He thought of himself as a man on a mission – a rather righteous one at that; his students thought he was a nutcase. Or take Mr. Darcy, for example. Until the venerable Elizabeth Bennet set him straight, he had no idea what a stuck-up, priggish jerk he really was. One of the best ways I’ve ever seen this pulled off was with the Addams Family movies – Gomez and Morticia actually think it’s everyone else that’s strange, not them.

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“Weirdos.”

So tell me what you think. Have you found this to be true? Do you know anyone with a blindspot like Mr. Rooney? Has there ever been a teacher in your life whose advice stuck with you years later? Let me know in the comments!