Category Archives: Castle Willett

Another Problem Demoted

Yesterday it was a problem threatening to be a crisis.

It had started out as an annoyance, but they can expand into catastrophes in the blink of an eye, so it was being looked at. The expectation was that the solution was almost trivial, something that even I could have done. That was proven wrong quickly as one thing led to another. More parts were needed, bigger tools. By the time large power equipment started being used to cut holes in the exterior walls the innocent chants of “that will be simple!” were but fond memories from long ago times almost two hours earlier.

Today it’s a problem that has almost been demoted to inconvenience. The side effects are still a pain and there’s still a chance for it to get well out of hand, but for the moment we’re stable and pressing onward with our normal routine. Let us pray that it’s not a saddle point.

It does make me glad that I’m renting.


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Twenty-Five Years Ago Tonight – Beyond The Aftermath

Two nights ago I described how we lived through the Northridge earthquake twenty-five years ago. We were less than five miles from the epicenter of a 6.7M quake, the largest in the Los Angeles area in over 160 years. 57 people died, over 8,700 people were injured, and the damage estimates range all the way up to $50B. We survived the initial shaking, everyone safe but full of adrenaline, and then checked the house for damage.

Last night I talked about the first few days after the earthquake, dealing with all of the utilities being out for days and starting to pick up the pieces. (Literally.)

The weeks and months after the earthquake were a different sort of hell from the first five minutes and the first five days. The first five minutes was a sprint through terror and adrenaline. The first five days was a couple of laps through a whole new world, finally ending in a modicum of normalcy returning as the utilities returned. The weeks and months afterward were an ultramarathon through that new world, realizing in many ways that it wouldn’t ever quite be the same.

There were aftershocks. Damn, I hate aftershocks. Just about the time your subconscious had forgotten to be terrified and on the edge of your seat 24/7, usually right about the time you dared to actually think, “Hey, it’s been a few days since we had a really good aftershock,” then that of course was when one would hit. Even the little ones could do that – it’s amazing how little shaking you need to get triggered while suffering through that particular form of PTSD.

Beyond that were the simple but omnipresent, pain in the ass, nagging inconveniences. It just wore you down.

There was debris everywhere. Almost everyone for miles and miles had some damage to their house or a cinder block wall that was down. An entire county, an area the size of a mid-sized state, all at once started piling tons of brick, wood, insulation, dirt, drywall, toilets, water heaters, and every other sort of construction material out on the curb. There were piles of debris for months, and as soon as the city swept through the neighborhood and picked it all up then new piles started.

On top of that, you couldn’t get there from here. The 10 Freeway through the heart of town from Santa Monica to Downtown had dozens of bridges that had collapsed or were unsafe. The original estimates were that it was going to take decades to get them all fixed. (To the credit of the mayor, governor, and everyone else involved, they did it in something on the order of a year – it was an amazing accomplishment.) A major overpass on the 118 Freeway had collapsed, blocking both the 118 and the 5 Freeways. Trying to get into the Antelope Valley was a nightmare for years afterward. The 5 Freeway, which is THE major artery between Los Angeles and Northern California, was blocked for weeks.

And yet…

Time moves on. Bridges and houses and schools and hospitals and office buildings do finally get repaired. Debris gets hauled off.

And people forget. They stop thinking of preparation for the next time. They are too busy to keep in mind that as bad as this was, it wasn’t “the Big One.” So preparation and preparedness becomes lax again.

We keep our bugout bags. Just in case.

We keep water and dry food stocked. Just in case.

I keep clothes and shoes and flashlights by my bed where I can find them. Just in case.

But it won’t be enough.

When “the Big One” hits, the power and water and gas and won’t be out for four or five days. It will be out for four or five months, if not longer.

The gas stations won’t be dark and dry for a week. They’ll be empty and useless for months.

The ATMs won’t be out of order for a few days. The grocery stores won’t be shuttered for a few days. The schools and offices won’t be closed for a week.

There won’t be 57 dead – there will be 5,000+ dead. Or 25,000+. Or 50,000+.

There won’t be 8,700 injured, there will be 100,000+. With very few hospitals, doctors, nurses, or other facilities left standing for a hundred miles.

There won’t be a dozen fires and buildings burning as they’re still shaking and collapsing. There will be thousands. (Look at the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.)

It might happen tonight. It might happen in 100 years. There’s no way to predict, no way to know, no way to warn.

But they’re working on warning. The City of Los Angeles just released a free phone app that has the potential to give a few seconds of warning. It’s technology that’s used in Japan and other places, based on the fact that different types of energy released by an earthquake travels at different speeds through the earth. Before the major shaking arrives, low-frequency sound waves have traveled much faster and give an opportunity to sound the warning that the shaking is coming.

If you’re sitting on top of the epicenter, you don’t get any warning. It all happens at once. But if the San Andreas Fault cuts loose out by Palmdale, people in the San Fernando Valley might have ten seconds of warning, those in Downtown or Santa Monica get fifteen seconds, those in Long Beach and Orange County get thirty or forty seconds. (Don’t quote me on the times – I’m discussing the concept as I understand it, not the math as CalTech calculates it.)

Fifteen seconds might not sound like much, until you think about where you might be and what you might be doing. Elevators can be programmed to respond to an alert by stopping at the nearest floor and opening up. Surgeons can be alerted to stop cutting and brace for the quake. People in offices and homes have precious seconds to shut off the stove, or get away from the big, breakable windows, or get under the big, solid desk. Drivers have a chance to slow down or stop and to get out from underneath that overpass that might collapse on them, or off that bridge that might collapse out from under them.

When “the Big One” comes, we won’t be inconvenienced for a few days or a couple of weeks or months like we were twenty-five years ago. We’ll be facing the possibility of being refugees, the only option for many of us being to move to another part of the country and start over. But for many of us, with the use of some better technology, we’ll live to be refugees instead of being casualties. And if we all take responsibility for being better prepared and doing those little things that we usually ignore, we’ll not only survive but be able to recover far more quickly when (not if) the Big One hits.

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Filed under Castle Willett, Disasters, Los Angeles

Twenty-Five Years Ago Tonight – The Aftermath

The aftermath to me can be summed up in one word – “aftershocks.”

Last night I described how we lived through the Northridge earthquake twenty-five years ago. We were less than five miles from the epicenter of a 6.7M quake, the largest in the Los Angeles area in over 160 years. 57 people died, over 8,700 people were injured, and the damage estimates range all the way up to $50B. We survived the initial shaking, everyone safe but full of adrenaline, and then checked the house for damage.

The aftershocks started almost immediately. There was a 6.0M aftershock less than a minute later, while I was with Janet and the kids in the relative safety of the hallway that connected all of the bedrooms in that end of the house. Another came later that same day in the early afternoon.

The size and magnitude of the aftershocks faded with time, but there were still aftershocks big enough to be felt (and startling) several years later. The first day there were dozens and dozens of M5 aftershocks, a week later there were M5 aftershocks every couple of days, a year later they occurred every couple of months. But they still kept occurring.

Immediately after the quake, when we inspected the house and got in touch with our neighbors, it was really dark. We’re used to being in a city that’s light polluted so that even in a “dark” neighborhood you’re lucky to see Orion in the sky at that time of year. But that’s the thing about light pollution. If you pull the big plug and shut off every light in an area roughly the size of Iowa, that light pollution leaves the area at 286,000 miles per second. (Remember, it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law!)

There’s a story that says some people who later reached the police, 9-1-1, and CalTech asked about the weird, bizarre lights in the sky, thinking they were some kind of side effect of the earthquake. Some people think it apocryphal – I think it’s true. I think that in the midst of this disaster at 04:31 in the morning, twenty million Angelenos went outside and for the first time in their entire lives SAW THE STARS IN A DARK SKY.

There’s a tiny bit of wonderful in a giant, economy sized, gargantuan pile of This Sucks!

All utilities were out. For days.

I don’t remember exactly, but I think it was about three to four days (it might have been five) before the electricity came back on. I remember it coming back on in the middle of the night because the lights came on and woke me up. We were all sleeping in that hallway still, due to the aftershocks.

I think the water came back on in three or four days as well. I realized somewhere along the line that we wouldn’t really know when the water came back on, so I turned on the tap in the kitchen. When the water came back, we heard it running in there.

The gas was also off for several days. We just checked the stove periodically after resetting the earthquake valve on the gas meter, which had worked like a champ.

Oddly enough, I remember the phones (land line – I don’t remember if I had a cell phone yet at that point) were back on inside of a day. That was good since it let us contact family and reassure them that we were safe.

We spent the first day just cleaning up. There were broken dishes, spoiled food, etc. We had a barbecue that still worked just fine, so we cooked up what frozen hamburgers and stuff that we had for the first day. We were pretty well off so far as having a decent supply of water, soda, and so on, as well as dry cereal, crackers, nuts, and so on.

School was out for a week or more.

I don’t remember if I went back to my office that week (remember, the quake was in the early hours of Monday) or the following week, but it was a mess. My office at the time was in Encino, about 15 miles from the epicenter, but it was up on the 4th floor of a huge six story office complex, so it had swayed and bounced quite a bit. We couldn’t get into my office at all due to the large bookcases inside that had tipped over, smashed the desk, and blocked the door. We ended up having to pop up the suspended ceiling tiles and climb up and over into the office in order to clear the door.

It also made clear why you duck and cover and get under something heavy (like that desk) in a quake. If I had been there during the quake and not able to get under the desk in time I would have experienced serious injuries or worse.

But the fun was just starting.


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Filed under Castle Willett, Disasters, Los Angeles

Twenty-Five Years Ago Tonight

January 16, 1994.

I don’t remember a lot of details about the evening, but no doubt it was very similar to tonight. The kids were all in grade school, none yet over the age of ten. It was a Sunday night, but Monday would have been Martin Luther King Jr Day, so it was probably a school holiday. (To be honest, I would have to go look to see if MLK Day was a LA Unified School District holiday then. That’s a weird thought.)

At that age the kids would have all been in bed by 8:00 or 8:30. For all I know I might have been watching the Australian Open, much like I am tonight. I don’t remember what we had for dinner, or if I did the dishes and loaded the dishwasher, if I was doing laundry that evening, or any other details.

There was no reason to remember any of them. It was just another Sunday night in mid-January.

Until 4:31 AM on Monday morning, January 17, 1994.

I remember jolting awake with the first strong shock. If you’ve lived in earthquake country for any length of time and felt one of the “little” ones we get, you learn to react, even if you’re asleep. I woke up to the shock, immediately knew it was an earthquake, adrenaline pumping, and waited for half a second.

It’s that half second that makes the difference. The majority of the time it’s filled with the sleep-blurred memory of the first shock, but the rest of the quake is just a few seconds of fading jolts. Maybe one or two more decent shakes. Then it’s over, seeming like a minute or two but really only five or six seconds.

That didn’t happen this time.

The shaking didn’t go away, it intensified. Within about five seconds it was like riding a bucking bronco. The floor was bouncing. Books and computer disks and papers and boxes and all sorts of junk was falling onto me from the bookshelves in the room. It was pitch dark as the electricity had gone out within seconds. The noise was incredible, like I was lying just inches from a freight train going by at hundred miles an hour.

I didn’t have time to be scared, I just reacted. I had to get to the kids and Janet.

I was sleeping in the fifth bedroom at the far end of the house. The kids were each in their rooms on the other side of the dining room, kitchen, and front foyer from me. In the pitch blackness I started screaming at the top of my lungs, “GET INTO THE HALLWAY! GET INTO THE HALLWAY! GET INTO THE HALLWAY!” I had no idea if the kids or Janet could hear me, but I was hoping they would remember what to do.

I manged to get out of the bedroom and had a decision to make. They say to get into a doorway, but the bedroom doorway was a bad place to be because there were a couple of file cabinets there and I was afraid those drawers would open up and either block the door, clock me in the head, or both. I managed to get out by feel and then had a choice to go through the kitchen (the shorter, more direct route) or through the dining room.

I could hear things smashing and flying in the kitchen. I remember some training that the local PBS station had done and a warning that was quite clear was to stay out of the kitchen. Drawers would fly open and many sharp objects might be flying about. Lots of glass things would be coming out of cupboards and breaking. Kitchen + earthquake = dangerous. I picked the dining room.

I couldn’t stand to save my life. The floor was bouncing and rippling. The chandelier was swinging and threatening to break loose. Dining table chairs were dancing around. And always, the noise. Partly from the house trying to tear itself apart, partly from me still screaming.

I crawled through the dining room, finally making it onto the carpet in the front foyer. I think I was about halfway across that area, maybe eight feet or so, when the shaking finally stopped. Or at least subsided. I was able to get to my feet, open the hallway door, and get to the kids.

Everyone was safe. Two of the kids were out in the hallway and Janet was coming out of her bedroom. If I remember correctly, one of the girls slept right through it and I had to go wake her up and bring her into the hallway.

The central hallway was the safest, most structurally sound place in the house. I got everyone bedded down there for the moment, then went to grab some clothes, shoes, and a flashlight.

I took a quick tour of the house and yard, looking for gas leaks, critical damage, broken glass, and so on. As I was wandering around outside, neighbors were doing the same and we did a quick comparison of notes. Everyone made sure that we were all okay.

Our neighborhood was lucky. Even though we were less than five miles from the epicenter, I don’t think anyone on our block got “red tagged,” i.e., had their house condemned as unsafe to occupy. There were plenty who were “yellow tagged,” but we escaped even that.

We had a couple of cinder block walls separating our yard from the neighbors that were down. Our water heater had cracked and dumped its hot contents all over the laundry room next to the bedroom where I had been, but only after I had crawled by. That would have been fifty gallons of super hot water that would have been another obstacle to overcome to get out of that room.

We had plenty of stuff dumped off of shelves and out of drawers. The kitchen was a mess and most everything in the refrigerator and freezer was out on the floor, but with the electricity out it was going to spoil quickly anyway.

Of course, electricity, gas, and water were all out. But we didn’t have any gas or water leaks other than the water heater. There was no broken glass. There were plenty of cracks in plaster and brick walls, but no structural damage that would prevent doors or windows from opening or closing.

After a quick survey I went back to Janet and the kids, who of course were scared. They were all great though, never panicked, never got freaked out. The kids wanted to go see what was going on, so after they got dressed I took them around to see what was happening.

Most importantly, we had survived. That PBS documentary on surviving “the big one” pointed out that at this point, assuming you weren’t hurt or had some other critical problem like a fire, you could take a deep breath and relax a bit. For the average person, you had survived what was statistically likely to be the most terrifying, dangerous natural disaster event of your life.

Now you just had to deal with the aftermath.

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The Squirrelpocalypse

Signs and portents, folks. Signs. AND portents.

Heading down the hill yesterday morning after a night when the power had been off for a couple of hours and it had been raining and cold, I came upon the most bizarre scene.

The street is windy, so I was blind as I came around a curve. In the street before me were probably a dozen squirrels, all intent on something they were eating. I braked (of course) and expected them to scatter but they did nothing of the sort. A couple of them looked up, but most of them ignored the two tons of steel Mom-mobile death about to plow them over. And NONE of them moved.

I started to inch closer figuring they would get the hint.

They didn’t.

The nearest one just sat there, even as my wheel got to within a couple of feet. I was pulled way off to the right, practically scraping the curb on that side, and couldn’t go left because there were more squirrels over on that side.

This first little bastard finally moved about six inches so that I could get by and slowly the others on that side of the road did as well as I approached, although I could swear that one or two just ducked down enough to pass under the van as it rolled over them.

After the initial dismay over what I was seeing I was too far into the group to back out. It did occur to me that this is the way Hitchcock movies and King novels start. There was no freakin’ way I was getting out of that car to try to shoo away any of the little rodents.

I kept waiting for one to leap onto the hood and press its frenzied, rabid, furry face against the windshield, like the mynocks that Han & Leia and Chewie ran into.

I don’t know if it was related to the heavy rains. Or to the power outage. Or if someone just spilled a bag of pot out on the street and the squirrels were high as a kite on some epic wacky tabaccky.

But I do know that in the new house (unlike the old place a mile away where they littered the trees and yard) I’ve rarely seen any squirrels at all, and never more than two at a time.

So where did a dozen-plus of the little monsters come from all at once?

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Filed under Castle Willett, Critters

2018 – The Year Without Christmas

In what I will almost certainly always remember as one of the most bizarre and chaotic years of my life, above all 2018 for me will be The Year Without Christmas.

I understand that there are whole cultures on the planet which include billions of people to whom “Christmas” is only an abstract idea and commercial construct from a distant Western culture, something that gets rammed down their throats as they make their living in June making cheap toys for under our trees in December.

But I’m not a member of any of those cultures. And while I may have rejected the religious basis for the holiday when I rejected the religion, and while I may be incredibly cynical about the commercial aspects of the holiday, there’s still plenty left to “Christmas” that is warm and comforting and familiar. (And, no, I’m not talking about the damn Hallmark Christmas movies.)

Childhood memories of Christmas are happy ones. (Not all other childhood memories can say the same.) Even as a young, single, college student, going home to my parents’ house at Christmas was something to look forward to. When I got married and had kids, making Christmas special for the kids made it special for me. And for decades as my kids grew up, a significant family tradition of putting up enough Christmas lights to become a hazard to local air traffic.

In 2018…

After everything else that went on in that God-forsaken year, we had the opportunity to go away for almost two weeks, to Seattle and Kansas Cityto see some football and a whole slew of museums and other sights. The kids are grown. The pets are gone. The office is closed. Why not? Wasn’t this exactly the sort of opportunity we’ve been waiting for all these years?

The trip was a lot of fun and I don’t regret a moment of it. But there was a tiny side effect, which wasn’t completely unexpected, but I misjudged the magnitude of it.

There was no “Christmas.”

We were flying from Seattle to Kansas City on Christmas Day. As expected we found KC to be pretty much shut down on Christmas Day, not a fast-food joint to be found open and most of the regular restaurants shut down as well. We ended up scrambling just to find a place to have dinner.

The hotel was festive and decorated to the nines with a huge Christmas tree in the lobby – but it wasn’t home. We had put up our tree before we left, but in all of the chaos and being gone, this is the first year in several decades that I don’t have a picture of it.

There was never a single gift put under the tree – the trip was our gift to ourselves. And since we were gone, the gifts for the kids and others were just gift cards delivered by email and FedEx and UPS.

Mostly as a result of the new, smaller house, but also as the result of 2018’s time pressure on me and the chaos that seemed to fill the year, the number of lights put up was less than 20% of what we normally put up.

New Year’s didn’t do much better than Christmas. We were flying back home on New Year’s Eve and our big “celebration” for the evening was finding an open grocery store and getting enough staples to make it through New Year’s Eve and Day without needing to go find an open McDonalds. With the jet lag and the early wake up call to make our return flight, staying up to midnight wasn’t quite the thrill that you see on TV.

Overlaying it all was the “trip mentality” where I was completely unanchored from my usual routine, leaving me constantly trying to remember what day of the week it was and what the date was. On Christmas Day I literally forgot a dozen times that it was Christmas Day, leaving me wondering where everyone was on the freeways in KC and why there weren’t any stores open. If you want to feel stupid, have that dazed and confused “what planet are you from?” look on your face when you say to some Hertz rental car clerk, “Wait, you mean TODAY is Christmas??!”

Now we’re already a week into 2019 and the routine is being re-established. But there’s a hole in the end of 2018. Where normally there would be memories of presents and family celebrations and college football bowl games and a big turkey dinner, we now have memories of museums, BBQ, and freezing our butts off at Arrowhead.

The new memories aren’t bad in any way. For the most part they’re all wonderful. But they’re not “Christmas.”

So where do we go next year for “Christmas?” London? Hawaii? Rome?

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Filed under Castle Willett, Family, Travel

Fiat Lux Two

More Christmas lights have gone up at the new house.

Most of the new stuff has gone up by the garage, and on that tall, tall bank of cedar trees that line the north side of the driveway. I was hoping that the “wall” made by the cedar trees would be easier to hand lights on, but those branches are much more flimsy and less structurally able to hold the light strings that I had hoped. And the last thing I want to do is start damaging the trees.

The lights first started going up after Thanksgiving and it’s obvious that I’ll never have as many lights here as I did at the old house. (Who knew in 2016 when I wrote that, thinking it was the last year at that house, that we had one more to go – but now we’re out.) There’s just not as much surface area to the house, and there are far, far fewer trees and bushes and foliage to drape lights on. But this isn’t bad for what I’ve got.

I also fixed the “bag of electricity and water” issues and put some really nice digital timers on to replace the clunky and only marginally useful analog “clock-style” timers I had.

So now the four sets of outside lights as well as the Christmas tree in the big front window all turn on and off within a minute of each other.

I like it!


Filed under Castle Willett, Christmas Lights, Photography