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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.

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.