Opinion: Everyday earthquake anxiety

BOSTON — I'd wondered why they lived there, like cliff dwellers perched in high rises along hillsides, people who lived along the Pacific Ring of Fire or tectonic plates.

Why stay? How often would you think about it? Would you calculate which was better: Living on a lower floor where it's easier to flee at the first sign of a tremor? Or on a higher floor that once collapsed, would be at the top of the heap and easier to be pulled from?

There were lots of reasons I didn't want to move to Tokyo: It was expensive, crowded, I would never think quickly enough to wrap my tongue around their language. But earthquakes failed to register when my husband and I were offered jobs too good to decline.

Even after I fell in love with the food, the technology, the sweetness of Japanese people and public bathing in hot-spring baths, the specter of being crushed or buried alive made me check my watch somewhat obsessively for four years and ask: Is it time to leave yet?

A few weeks after moving there, in my bathroom in central Tokyo, it occurred to me how lucky we Americans are geologically. A tremor grabbed our wood-frame house by the shoulders and shook it like crazy.

The first beats start as the door bangs against its stop. Seconds later, the rubbing of the wood joists rises like a string section, sounding a bit like how I imagine the quartet on the doomed Titanic. Occasionally, something would fall off a counter or a shelf in a crescendo. You learn to use museum glue under vases and breakables to stick them to the shelf.

When the tremors would rhythmically tap out their greeting and my heartbeat would increase with the sway of the house, I'd manage my fear intellectually. Don't make a fool of yourself. In a few seconds it will stop. Don't scare the children. Then slack-jawed by terror, I'd wonder if the joists would split apart and allow the house to collapse around us.

We learned to put our shoes under the bed where we could find them easily in the dark. Lying in bed and staring out the window as dark turned to dawn, I'd watch Tokyo's famed crows line up on the power lines. I'd imagine the trajectory of downed electrical wires and how we would tip-toe past broken glass and fallen timbers to ... where?

We kept two emergency preparedness kits ready: One in our car and the other in a closet near the front door. The carport roof would probably collapse atop the car, and the closet would be forever blocked by the skewed door jamb, but we stored water, a first-aid kit, flashlights with batteries, batteries to replace those batteries, diapers that probably wouldn't fit by the time we needed them, even feminine protection.

We braced our bookshelves against the ceilings to keep them from falling on anyone. Once the floor starts jumping, you can't simply move out of the way. It moves you. Doors were typically hooked open so no one would be trapped when the door frame leaned like the sides of a
parallelogram, sealing the room shut.

My children learned earthquake emergency responses in their Japanese preschool. The ever-organized Japanese issued plans. They also issued hats to the children that looked like pot holders, quilted hoods of yellow that were supposed to protect against falling debris. We
laughed and laughed at the sight of those hoods that are now somewhere in the attic. Funny. Or nervous. Or desperate that there is so little we could do once the earth took over.

While the 5-year-olds practiced assembling in an open grassy area on a university campus in the neighborhood, I calculated the height and depth of the rubble likely produced by the destruction of the mid-rise apartments surrounding the meeting place.

Seismic activity carries on fairly regularly in volcanic regions. When a volcano became annoyingly active on an island south of Tokyo, we felt tremors week after week after week. A dozen each day. You feel faint at first, your legs buckle and give way to a dizzying rolling
motion that's a lot more fun in a controlled environment like Disney World.

Eventually, it was the deadly sulfuric acid from the island volcano spewing into the air that drove the islanders from their homes. Until it was safe to return, 500 or so children were sent to boarding schools throughout Japan for months, nearly a year. Without their parents.

I wouldn't send my children to the vaunted American school an hour-long bus ride away on one of Tokyo's notoriously crowded highways. I have experienced a Japanese seven-hour traffic jam, and when the big one hit, I wanted to be close enough to walk, run or climb to their rescue. I wasn't the only neurotic parent; I'd heard others murmur the same thing.

Unparalleled is the quality of food and cooking in Japan and Asia. Unparalleled is the orderly crossing of thousands of people at the same time at an intersection named Shibuya-bashi, with four or five state-of-the-art mammoth video screens lighting the air above. Unparalleled is the relief of leaving Narita Airport by air and later touching down at National Airport, and letting one's breath and pulse rate return to normal.

M.K. Guzda is an editor and writer who has lived in and reported on the Middle East, Asia and North America for various major newspapers. At GlobalPost, where she is the Study Abroad editor, she is known as Kathleen Struck.