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Opinion: Everyday earthquake anxiety

A firsthand account of what it's like to live in a place that any minute could be torn apart.

Japanese children in protective head covering crawl under a table during an earthquake drill in Tokyo, Sept. 1, 2004. (Eriko Sugita/Reuters)

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.