Quakes and Ale: Comparing Cultures in Catastrophe

On My Mind” by Christopher David Ryan, via This Isn’t Happiness

Bracing for disaster in 1990, St. Louisans’ knew that to single out their town for divine wrath would be to invite ridicule. They binge-drank and “pigged out,” secure in the geographical, geopolitical — indeed, cosmic — insignificance apparent to them every day. 

In the opening pages of his 1960 book The Method of Zen, Eugen Herrigel recounts an experience he had during his travels in the East. “Soon after I arrived in Japan, a meeting took place with some Japanese colleagues in Tokyo,” Herrigel writes. “We were having tea together in a restaurant on the fifth floor of the hotel.” He goes on to describe how he heard “a low rumbling” and felt “a gentle heaving under [his] feet.” “The swaying and creaking, and the crash of objects, became more and more pronounced,” he continues. “Alarm and excitement mounted. The numerous guests, Europeans mostly, rushed into the corridor to the stairs and elevators.”

It was, of course, an earthquake. Herrigel writes that “I too had jumped up in order to get out into the open.” He recalls wanting “to tell the colleague with whom I had been talking to hurry up.” But this colleague of his “was sitting there unmoved, hands folded, eyes nearly closed, as though none of it concerned him. Not like someone who hangs back irresolutely, or who has not made up his mind, but like someone who, without fuss, was doing something — or not-doing something — perfectly naturally.” Herrigel’s colleague continued doing this not-doing until the earthquake subsided, at which time, to Herrigel’s astonishment, he resumed the conversation “at the exact point where he had broken off.” When Herrigel later discovered that the colleague was a Zen adept, he surmised “that he must have put himself into a state of extreme concentration and thus become ‘unassailable.’ ”

On December 3, 1990, having turned 19 only weeks before, I prepared to meet my doom in a much different state of mind. Unorthodox geologist Iben Browning had predicted that on that day the mother of all earthquakes would shake, rattle, and roll Missouri and parts of southern Illinois. These two states, with the mighty Mississipp’ between them, stand athwart the New Madrid fault, which, I remember being informed at the time, dwarfs its more famous cousin, the San Andreas fault, in size and destructive capability. The New Madrid fault (“Madrid,” as uttered by a Missourian, is trochaic, not iambic, with the stress on “Mad”) suffers from its unglamorous environs. Deep in Huck Finn territory, it garners none of the exposure of its sexier, shallower, more antic cousin, which shivers the timbers of Hollywood. The New Madrid must content itself with manhandling … well, St. Louis.

Not to knock St. Louis. The city where T.S. Eliot, Tennessee Williams, and Chuck Berry all spent their formative years wasn’t the worst place to have grown up. For all its purported geological instability, socially and culturally it’s as stable a place as you’re likely to find. Only Amazonian tribes resist change more tenaciously than do St. Louisans. The wider world matters as little to it as it does to the wider world. Nestled in the heart of the heartland, St. Louis has a ferociously autochthonous culture; nonnatives risk suffocation. Many St. Louisans never leave the metro area. So insular are they, in fact, that they couldn’t even be stirred to action to salvage the hub status of the local airport, Lambert International. (The latter word has since become merely honorific.)

Considering the intransience of St. Louisans, you would think the region would have developed a crabbed idiosyncrasy such as one finds in remote Appalachia, aterroir bearing hints of Busch beer, Provel cheese, and toasted ravioli. But Missouri identity remains seemingly elusive. “One of the problems of being a Missourian is that you know who you are, but no one else does,” author William Least Heat Moon explained in an interview. “If you go East and tell someone you’re from Missouri, they take you for a cowboy. If you go West and tell someone you’re from Missouri, they take you for an effete Easterner. You go South, you’re a Yankee; you go North, you’re a cracker.”

This indeterminacy, however, is what gives the Gateway City and the Show-Me State their distinction. In the middle of the middle of it all, and thus being effectively nowhere, the Missourian is, in the parlance of Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze, a subject always already dispersed (his reluctance to travel notwithstanding) — a nomad, an absent presence, atopic and constantly in flight, deterritorializing regional distinctions even as he manifests them.

The characterless character of Missourians perhaps explains why we reacted as we did to the prospect of annihilation on December 3, 1990. The possibility of a quake was taken seriously enough to serve as an excuse for many to stay home from work and school. That day’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch captures the carnival atmosphere attending the imminent Big One and the mighty muddy backflow of the Mississippi it was expected to cause — a tsunami for the landlocked: “The party-goers at the ‘Pig Out Before We Dig Out’ affair Saturday night compared earthquake-readiness stories,” wrote Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan. “A good number had braced water heaters to walls. Some had stocked a couple of days’ worth of canned goods. Some had bought flashlights. ‘Have you had a tremor yet?’ asked the host. Oh yes, a tremor. Jello and vodka. Hold it in your hand, watch it tremble and then swallow it like you would an oyster.” If you’re fated to meet your maker, you could do worse than offer him a Jello shot as he ushers you through the pearly gates. It’s always Happy Hour in Heaven.

As it turned out, December 3, 1990 passed like any other late-autumn day. The only thing damaged in Missouri was productivity. I can’t say I was entirely sorry to have missed out on becoming a geophysically martyred Adonais; for me, that year largely consisted of such decidedly unromantic pursuits as doing bong hits, playing Sega Genesis, faking IDs, chasing cornfed tail, and being put on academic probation. Were events to “roll me under New Madrid,” as St. Louis native Jeff Tweedy of Uncle Tupelo sang, it would’ve come as mercy. Instead, my fellow St. Louisans and I spent the day deriding Dr. Iben Browning as a quack even as we hoisted aloft another round of “tremors” to toast him for the impromptu holiday he bequeathed us.

Later we stumbled home, fearful more of bed spins than of earthquakes, though some, I’m sure, had to confront traumatic DWI stops or whiskey-dick incidents and others may have found themselves beseeching the porcelain god to have Atlas shrug already and end their misery. A sadder fate awaited Dr. Browning: disgraced and discredited, he died some eight months after the quake he famously predicted failed to materialize.

Such decadence in the face of dire emergency seems a species of madness, especially in light of what is happening in Japan now. I’m sure many Japanese wish right now that March 11, 2011 had passed like December 3, 1990. I can’t help but think that St. Louisans’ bacchic response to looming destruction owed to the fact they seldom disappoint when it comes to remaining true to their state’s nickname. They knew that to single out their town for divine wrath would be to invite ridicule. They binge-drank and “pigged out,” secure in the geographical, geopolitical — indeed, cosmic — insignificance apparent to them every day. Offer to show a Missourian fear in a handful of dust, and he’ll ask for a dust inspection.

Comparing Herrigel’s experience with my own, the lesson is this: There are two ways to meet catastrophe: shitfaced or in samadhi. I’m not terribly familiar with the latter state and all too intimately acquainted with the former, so you know how you’ll find me when the Big One truly hits: not in full-lotus but flat on my back. For this is how a true St. Louisan renders himself “unassailable.” After all, you can’t fall off the floor.

* * *

Steinpilz holds a doctorate in English literature and is an editor of Generation Bubble, an online journal that explores cultural and psychic landscapes in an age of deregulation.