Today's Story by Benjamin Wachs

People don’t get it, how easily the world gives way, how little firm ground there is to stand on.

Natural Reactions

In a Chinese chat room, a dozen young men are telling one another that it serves Japan right:  perhaps this earthquake will help them see how arrogant they have been, how they have to apologize for their mistakes.

“They build giant buildings everywhere,” says one, “where they have no business being.”

“They should expect the world’s condemnation after they try to seize the Diaoyu islands,” says another.

“They have never apologized for what their soldiers did in Taiwan,” says a third, who always brings up Taiwan.

Another, who hasn’t spoken up yet, says “An 8.9 earthquake in China would kill millions more people.”

Someone else, who claims to be a woman, says “I lost my only son in the Sichuan earthquake.”

For a while, no one types.  Then someone says, “The buildings in Sichuan were not so tall.”

In San Francisco a young man is woken up by his cell phone, which rings again, and again, and again.  He’s trying to sleep off a hangover.  It’s light outside.  He picks it up.  “Hello?” he croaks.

“Are you alright?”


“It’s me.  Are you all right?  I’ve heard there’s been a tsunami on the West Coast …”

“What are you talking about?”

“So you’re all right?”

He looks around.  The sun is shining through his window.  Birds are singing.  It’s like summer in the middle of March.  “Fine,” he says.

Eventually he gets her off the phone, and then sees there are emails waiting.  Three of them are from friends in the East Coast, two from family in the Midwest, asking if he needs help.  He gets up, walks out into his kitchen, and puts on a pot of coffee.  “When did it get so easy to panic?” he asks out loud.

In Oklahoma, Theresa watches the videos of Japanese buildings falling over and over again until she has to turn away.  She was in the Murrow Federal Building when Timothy McVeigh pushed the button.  She remembers a roar and a thunderclap, and the floor giving way.  She shakes her head and absently eats cashews.  People don’t get it, how easily the world gives way, how little firm ground there is to stand on.  She goes to the Red Cross’ home page and makes a donation, her little ritual whenever tragedy strikes. Her way of reminding the earth what team she’s on.  It’s easy, it makes her feel better.  Going in to work every day for the first year after the blast, that was hard.

In India, Dhwanni tosses a soccer ball in to the crowd of orphans and watches them cluster around it, then scatter into makeshift teams.  The ball, and the orphanage, and his salary were all paid for by rich Americans after the 2005 tsunami killed all the fishermen in the village, leaving an entire populace of widows and orphans.  Well, the Americans weren’t rich by American standards … Dhwanni studied in the states for a few years, he knows.  These were retirees, shopkeepers and school principals who wanted to spend their last years doing some good.  Orphans make a great project.  He’s cynical about it, but not bitter.  When the World Trade Center fell, it wasn’t as though his parents thought to donate blood or send money to relief organizations.  It wasn’t as though his parents, or anyone important, ever came to this village.  The Americans are like a wave, unstoppable;  like water, they end up everywhere, sometimes throwing people out of their homes, sometimes decimating villages and cities … but sometimes building orphanages and sending soccer balls.

The kids … these kids are traumatized, Dhwanni knows.  They have nightmares and howl every time an adult they like leaves the room.  They never go near the ocean.  But all it takes is a soccer ball to make them smile and laugh and jump.

It’s just the way the world is.


Benjamin Wachs has written for Village Voice Media,, and NPR among other venues.  He archives his work at


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