Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How to Stay Alive

Liz Falco and Cathy Cushla, my dead friends.

While grocery shopping, and old college friend popped into my mind suddenly. A fiery, outspoken gal named Liz Falco. Kind, cute as hell, with wild curly hair. The type who could speak her mind without ever offending anybody.

I'm going to look her up, I said to myself. I hope she's still alive. A strange thought, considering our relatively young age. After some research, I found out that she had been murdered years ago in Philadelphia.

Cathy Cushla was another early goner. I went to high school with her. She was a warm, vibrant and kind soul with a near constant smile and bubbly, eruptive laughter. She liked butterflies. She resembled one somehow. Cathy was also murdered several years ago, during a drug deal gone wrong.

The details of these cases don’t really matter. What does matter is that if you're a woman, you're vulnerable.

So how do you stay alive?

Staying alive as a woman requires a heightened sense of alertness. It’s not just the seeming unlikelihood of a serial killer snatching you up in a van. It could be your ex-boyfriend. Or a date gone wrong. Or a drunken friend with an explosive temper. Or a strung-out dude walking behind you on the street while you’re chatting on your phone.

I studied martial arts after getting mugged years ago. But not everyone has to study self-defense (though it’s one of the best ways to protect yourself so why wouldn’t you?). Self-defense requires taking a look a realistic look at the way you exist in the world on a daily basis.

1. How aware are you?

Self-defense starts with a high level of awareness. Always. Even in a state of rest. (Think cats.) When you're on your cell phone or have headphones on, your awareness is lessened and you’re at a greater risk. When you're zoned out in front of the TV, you’re less aware of a strange sound in your backyard.

Let’s take an example:

You go to a bar. Do you take note of the exits? Do you notice when someone is standing just a little too close to you and reposition? Would you pick up on erratic behavior nearby? Do you have your back to the crowd or are you facing out? What kind of weapon do you have nearby if needed?

Some might call this kind of inventory paranoid. Kathy or Liz would probably differ with you. Kathy was killed in a friend’s basement and Liz was abducted on a bike ride home. I’m sure neither of them thought even remotely they were in harm’s way.

2. What's your body like?

No, this isn’t a lecture on fitness but if you’re overweight (or underweight) or don't work out, you’re more susceptible. You may not be able to run quickly or your reflexes slower. That fighter in you is underworked and flabby. So the answer is easy: work out. Strengthen your body. Prepare yourself for self-defense.

If you have physical issues, compensate in other ways, such as increasing your awareness to prevent situations from occurring in the first place. Or learn the use of weapons. Or take self-defense classes where you learn a few basic defensive moves.

3. Do you startle easily?

An easily spooked individual doesn't tend to react well in dangerous situations. They blank out. Think of a martial artist like Bruce Lee. Centered, calm, focused and dangerous.

In my years of sparring, I tended to get my ass kicked when I got upset or angry. If you're always on edge, work on techniques such as meditation to ground yourself. Being grounded is half the battle; it naturally increases awareness as well as your likelihood to respond correctly in a dangerous situation.

4. Can you take/throw a punch?

Women often think they’ll knee a man “where it hurts” in a crisis. But that’s not a dependable technique. You may not have access to a crippling crotch shot. Mace is also difficult because you need to be within shooting range of his or her eyes—not easy if someone comes up behind you.

As human, we’re built to take some punches. But if you’re a woman, a punch can be so startling, we slip into shock. I “play” spar with a few male friends occasionally. It’s a safe ways to get into the habit of knowing what it's like to fight a man.

What about your ability to throw a punch? Do you punch like a girl? Do you (wrongly) put your thumb inside your folded fingers? Do you know how to throw your whole body into a punch then follow up with another one? When did you last practice punching? It’s easy enough to try on your own.

Some may argue that generally women will lose to men in a physical altercation, no matter what. That's not entirely true. Many factors come into play such as size, age, agility, mental state, speed, weapons. Maybe he is stronger but if you can manage one maneuver, it could save your life.

If learning to punch seems beyond you then practice smashing someone in the nose with the palm of your hand in an upward motion. That can cause a blinding, searing pain that will stop most people in their tracks. Your elbow can also do some serious damage. A good kick to the shins can drop someone. And while gross, eye gouging has also been known to work.

5. Can you spot danger?

If a car is pulling up behind me slowly on the street, I get out of the way (of course) and sometimes, turn around to face them. If there’s a gang of young guys walking down the street, I naturally move to the other side. Do they mean me harm? Maybe not. But why risk it?

I pick up a large stick when going for a walk in the woods, just in case. I'm extra aware when I open a car or my house door (vulnerable locations).

When I was mugged, there were tons of warning signs but I didn’t know them at the time. I was walking down a dark street (external disadvantage), weighed down with bags (physical disadvantage), distracted because I had lost my keys (lack of awareness) and it was icy (another external disadvantage).

I walked by a man slamming his body into a brick wall repeatedly (erratic behavior). After I passed him, I turned around and saw him running toward me. Get this: I didn't want to appear rude and cross the street. So I kept my back to him. He clotheslined me with his forearm, punched me and took my pocketbook. It took about 5 seconds.

Bottom line: I'd notice all of those signs now. Years after my martial arts training, a man attempted to mug me during the day (in Park Slope, an affluent area of Brooklyn). This time, I saw his erratic behavior when I walked by him. I looked behind me and he was heading toward me--quickly. I started running. That scary part? So did he. But he stopped after a half block. Bottom line: he didn’t want to bother chasing me down.

6. Can you run away?

Running away from a dangerous situation ensures you don’t have to test your abilities of self-defense. It’s generally the smartest move in just about any scary situation.

I don’t often wear shoes I can't run in because it makes me feel vulnerable. (I wear chunky heels when I get dressed up because I can move quickly in them.) How fast and far can you run? If you’re not much of a runner, then focus on a strong, focused walk that tells the world you are in charge.

7. Do you pick your battles?

Most altercations are not worth it. Don't get in them in the first place and you're better off. Walk away. Ignore the comment. Go home.

With that said, you need to be able to read a situation, weigh it, then decide.

There are times you have to stand tough to make sure someone takes you seriously. There are times when acting a little crazy and unpredictable can give an attacker pause. (No one wants to mess with a nutcase, not even another nutcase.) There are times to look someone directly in the eye so they know you're not afraid. There are times not to make eye contact.

Every situation requires a specific response. The more you increase your awareness, the better you can adapt quickly.

8. Where's your weapon?

Are you aware of the ways you might defend yourself at this very moment? If someone is in attack mode, they’ve already chosen their weapons. Be on par with them. Not a fan of guns but I have a billy club under my bed. I have a knife in my car. But it can be anything. A beer mug. An ashtray. A frying pan. All weapons.

These questions are laid out before you so you can review the way you interact with the world and increase your power and awareness. Don't think it can't happen to you. (I’m sure my friends never dreamed of it happening to them.) But with that said, the idea isn't to live in a constant state of fear. Knowing how to defend yourself ultimately makes you feel like the protector and the protected.

                                  Be safe. Be aware. Stay alive.

One of the fiercest women I know, Angela Tiene, my martial arts mentor.

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