On Guard

Every single time something strange and/or potentially dangerous happens at a particular variety store I swear never to go back. The trouble is that store has very nearly all the brands of foodstuff we like at better prices than anywhere else. For decades I’ve been in the habit of grocery shopping once per week and I grumble if I have to make extra trips. I can’t afford delivery and I like to pick out produce (a huge chunk of my diet) myself. Even if money were no object it’s still the only place where I can find X, Y, and Z. So I shop there but I do keep an eye out and never go when it’s dark. I’ve tried various days and times and it seems the crazies are there all the time. Today I tried early morning.

The store was pretty quiet and I do believe the employees stocking the shelves outnumbered the customers. That made it super easy to keep track of who was around me. In the dairy section I noticed a big guy right away. He was making strange noises. I had to turn my back on him to fetch my soy milk. Right then he made a pretty good imitation of Ms. Piggy shouting, “Haiiiiiiiiiyaaaa!”

I tensed, then almost reflexively forced myself to relax. I thought to myself, “Relax, relax, it’s just a coincidence, he can’t possibly know that I study karate. He’s higher than a kite. Relax. It’s just a coincidence. Relax. There’s no WAY he could know and at this moment he’s not a physical threat. Relax.”

As I turned around to put my soy milk into my cart I sneaked a glance up. Big Guy was still making strange noises and motions and he was staring straight at me. He was wearing a mask with fangs printed on it, which ordinarily I’d laugh at but this time it was menacing. I was suddenly very glad my cart was between us. The wild look in his eyes told me everything I needed to know. I have an autistic adult daughter, I know what autism is, what that can look like in various people. My gut told me that Big Guy was on something, out of his skull with crazy poison. There was no telling what he’d do and because of whatever was running through is veins he probably wouldn’t feel pain.

As I moved around to grab the cart handle I kept a covert eye and ear on Big Guy. I pushed my grocery cart onward quickly, keeping an ear out while I turned a corner. The store was so quiet I could tell Big Guy was staying put. After grabbing a few items I groaned. I had forgotten something back in the section where Big Guy had parked himself. I didn’t hear him so I casually went back, breathing deeply to calm myself, forcing my shoulders to relax. Big Guy was nowhere in sight. I grabbed my items quickly then headed to the nice, open produce area where I would be able to see him coming.

I finished my shopping and headed towards the checkout stand. I had too many groceries to go through self checkout (besides, those things hate me). There was only one check stand open and guess who was in line before me. I made it a point to appear to be idly scanning the impulse-buy items and the tabloids. Big Guy kept up his weird noises and motions, rearranged the things on the racks, and from time to time he stared at me. I kept peripheral awareness on him even when another cashier opened up another check stand and motioned me over.

Big Guy finished his transaction long before I finished mine. He picked a spot and parked himself there, still gibbering, still staring at me from time to time. By the time my enormous pile of groceries was bagged and back in my cart Big Guy still hadn’t moved. In order to take the most direct route back to my car I’d have to walk past him. I decided right then and there that wasn’t going to happen. I went out the other door instead. I didn’t hear the sound of a cart making a U-turn as I left so I knew he wasn’t following me. I kept an ear out just in case.

The parking lot was mostly empty so I was able to push the cart in a more-or-less straight line diagonally across the lot to my car. I kept an ear and an eye out. After I had put about half of my groceries into the trunk of my car I heard Big Guy’s strange noises. He came out the door that I would have come out of. I was hidden from him. I had parked my car right next to a cart return that had a big sign attached to it. Even though what I heard indicated that Big Guy was loitering near the store I picked up the pace of unloading my groceries. I was very nearly done when I heard Big Guy coming closer. Crap. At least he was moving slowly and still couldn’t see me because of the big sign.

As I put my cart into the return corral Big Guy was very nearly at my car. I took a deep breath, calming myself for quick action. I ran the motions through in my mind, rehearsing what I would do, visualizing speed and smooth performance. I’ve done these motions hundreds of thousands of times over thirty some-odd years. I can perform the sequence of motions without thinking, but never before had I done them at speed and never when there was so much at stake.

While taking the three steps to my car door I used the remote to unlock only the driver’s door. In one fluid motion I opened the door, leaped into the driver’s seat and shut the door. An instant before Big Guy came close to my vehicle I used the door button to lock all doors, completing the movement. I don’t think I’ve ever entered a car more rapidly or fluidly. I fastened my seat belt and as I slid my key into the ignition I gave Big Guy a look that let him know I was prepared to use my car as a weapon if need be. He laughed, made a weird noise, performed some strange body movements, and then got distracted by the open hood of another car. I drove off vowing never to return to the store again, a vow I probably won’t keep.

WHAT?!? I didn’t use karate?

Why, yes I did.

I used karate to control myself and to control the situation as much as possible. Nobody was harmed. Given everything that happened there was no actual need for me to fight – and I’m sure any police officer or judge would agree with my assessment. I think there’s a two percent chance that I was wrong, that Big Guy was autistic, not on drugs. If so then I would’ve been devastated to find that out after sending him to the hospital. I am grateful that I have learned to keep a calm head, to be aware of what’s going on, and to think strategically all in the face of pressure.

Self control is one of the many gifts of studying a martial art. Yes, I study violence, I know loads of devastating techniques, but what good is all that if I do not also know when to abstain from fighting? What good would it do for me to be rotting away in a jail cell when I could be teaching someone something that could potentially save their life? I haven’t earned teaching credentials yet (black belt) but I still have a responsibility to my future students. I need to be the best person I can be so that they in turn can learn good budo (the way of the warrior). I also have a responsibility to those who have invested time and effort into building my skills. I have no wish to dishonor them. Most importantly, if I can avoid harming someone I will avoid doing so.

Even if they’re high as a kite and scaring me.

Instant Decision

Draw attention to yourself. Sabotage your kidnapper’s vehicle if you can safely do so. Everything I’ve read about abduction, every video I’ve shown my children about kidnapping teaches this. One afternoon while stopped at a red light I was quite surprised to see a car’s passenger-side front door open. A pair of adult legs popped out but no person followed. The legs kicked a little. Something was wrong. I pulled my car over to the shoulder of the road beside the vehicle.

As I opened my car door I could hear yelling. My husband and I got out of my car. I cautiously turned towards the open door of the other vehicle. No weapons were evident – I’d have run away if there had been a gun. The driver had the passenger in a choke hold. Fortunately the driver didn’t have much strength, and the thickness of the passenger’s neck was a blessing. The passenger’s color was good, breathing was unimpaired.

I drew a deep breath and stared the two people down with my best “Mommy look.” With all the authority I could muster, I asked, “Can I help you?”

The driver yelled out their interpretation of what was going down. The passenger, still in a choke hold, asked me to call 911. I nodded by way of acknowledging both persons and backed off. I told my husband to call 911. I knew it wasn’t up to me to sort out their conflict – at least as long as nobody was in any immediate danger of losing life and limb.

I had already assessed my options and resources. Nobody got out of their vehicles to help me. Nobody so much as even positioned their cars to trap the assailant’s vehicle. Obviously I couldn’t count on anyone but my husband. Fortunately, the passenger was doing OK for the moment and the situation was not escalating. I distanced myself by going to the far side of my own vehicle and called 911 myself, keeping an eye on the two inside the other vehicle.

If I’d had help or if there had been a knife, I’d have tried de-escalation. If the victim’s breathing had actually been obstructed by the choke hold, I’d have intervened physically, backing off if a hidden gun or knife appeared. But one thing I really didn’t like about that situation was the prospect of a vehicle turning into a weapon. Any physical intervention on my part could have resulted in me being injured or killed by movement of the car. That said, I’d have intervened in a heartbeat if I’d thought the victim was in immediate danger. But as it was both parties calmed down. After a couple of minutes the passenger shut the door. They drove off.

I have no idea how their story ended. Hopefully they got to their home or homes all right. Hopefully they learned that their actions will get attention.

“I didn’t know what to do,” my husband admitted later.

“It’s OK. You did what was needed,” I assured him.

How did I know what my options were? I think I can credit Rory Miller’s book Conflict Communication: A New Paradigm in Conscious Communication. Heck, even my years in a customer-service job have to count for something. I’ve also had, to date, four other close calls in which I successfully avoided fighting. So I’m kinda getting used to that gig. But I give the most credit to – you guessed it – karate training.

Tournaments. Belt tests. Heck, even just an ordinary class when you’re sparring that one karateka who scares the bejeebers out of you (before you learn that he won’t intentionally harm you). The dojo (karate school) is a place where we can explore our capacity to deal with pressure in a mostly safe environment (injuries do occasionally happen). One learns to get control of that adrenaline rush, to instantly assess and decide, and to adapt on the fly. We learn what our limits are and to adjust accordingly.

I can’t fight a car. That’s one of my obvious limits. But is that limit so obvious to me if I’m half-drunk on adrenaline? Is the possibility of getting dragged, run over, crippled, or killed by a car obvious when I’ve got tunnel vision and that pounding in my ears? We’ve all been there, you know the answer is “No.” Many people recognize the onset of an adrenaline rush and they know what to do about it. Soldiers, police, firefighters, medics, and, you guessed it, martial artists all have their methods.

Then there’s the aftermath. This is when one’s body and emotions kinda crash for awhile. Even a minor incident like this… Whew. Yeah. I needed to process it. You guessed it – writing is very much a medium that works for me. The nice thing about writing is maybe someone else will benefit from the lessons I’ve learned and the mistakes I’ve made.

Drive Away

My little dog loves it when I take him in the car to go walk someplace. One morning I pulled over at a public park. I stopped the engine, undid my seat belt and then saw a guy purposefully approaching my car. He was looking straight at me. Yeah, I know I’m more likely to be the victim of someone I know, but still, us women can’t afford to take chances. Maybe the guy was completely harmless, maybe he needed help. But I got a bad vibe from the way he was walking towards my car. I put my seat belt back on, started the engine, and drove on to another destination.

Some of you might have noticed I didn’t give a description of the guy. Maybe one or two of you are thinking that race was a factor in my decision to drive off. Well, it was. Let me just say this: after I graduated from high school, every single time I have felt like I might need to fight and every single time I’ve chosen to get outta Dodge it was because of a white man. Every. Single. Time. The one time when someone touched me inappropriately? He was a white man. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m white – even down to my surname. That’s not to say that I will never be touched, assaulted or verbally abused by anyone else. And no, I don’t hate white men. I’ve got plenty of ’em as friends and one of ’em for keeps (my husband), so there!

Back to our regularly scheduled programming.

YES, I “know Karate.” It’s not magic, folks. Even though my training gives me a better chance of survival, I could be disfigured, crippled, raped, and/or fatally wounded anyway. Karate doesn’t stop bullets and knife wounds are nasty. NO, I do NOT want to prove myself in the streets (that is to say the rational part of me doesn’t want to). Us karateka are not trained to pick fights. We are trained to respect others – and picking a fight is disrespectful. Driving away is the opposite of picking a fight. So… I guess in a twisted way I showed respect to the guy.

Wait… Whaaaat? I showed respect to some guy who gave me the heebie jeebies? Some jerk who’s up to no good isn’t worthy of respect, right? Well, so what if I showed him a bit of respect? It didn’t cost me anything but a bit more gas to drive to another park five minutes away. Frankly, it was the best I could do for him.

Let’s say I was wrong about that guy. I know myself. I would have entered that situation with adrenaline pumping, suspicious to the core. Sure, I’d have listened to whatever request he made. But no matter how reasonable the request or how easy it would have been to grant it, more than likely I would’ve snapped, “Nope, sorry. Can’t help you. Good luck.” I’d have been edging away from him the whole time. I would have let my silly little dog yap away (there are times when I do NOT tell my dog to shut the heck up). How would any of that have been respectful?

What about my right to receive respect? What about my right to walk my dog in a public park? Yes, I have those rights, but I choose my battles. If someone threatens my family member all bets are off. That’s worth fighting for. But let’s say that I put exactly that high value on my right to go to the park of my choice.

Let’s say I got out of my car. Let’s say that guy attacked me. Let’s say I sent him to the hospital or the morgue. There’s a good chance I’d have to explain my actions in court.

What would the judge ask?

“Why didn’t you just drive away? There are other parks within five minute’s drive of where you were.”

I’d be in trouble. Big time. You see, there’s such a thing as accountability. If you’re carrying a gun you can’t just discharge it anytime you want. Same goes for fighting skills. “Self defense” wouldn’t have held water in this case. Self defense was me avoiding the situation altogether. All anyone can truly say is I was rude. I’ll own that but I won’t feel guilty for it.

Maybe it was rude of me to spray a bit of dust and gravel over the guy’s trousers. That’s how close he was when I pulled out. But I’d have been pretty rude to him anyway even if I’d talked to him. Something I’ve heard in almost every self defense class I’ve attended is us women want to be polite and there are people who will take advantage of that. The part of me that wanted to be polite did yammer a bit as I drove to the next park. At the same time, the dark part of me, the part of me that would love to prove myself in battle, grumbled and growled. Folks, I’m human. This is why we have areas of our brains that are dedicated to being reasonable and rational. Karate is one way of training those reasonable and rational parts of our psyche. As a bonus, you get a good workout 🙂

Update: Two weeks after I wrote the draft for this post, I saw the guy again, two miles away from where I’d seen him last. He was shirtless (good thing the weather was nice) and waving his arms around, discussing something very animatedly with absolutely no one. I pity him and hope he gets the help he needs.

P. S. – if you think avoiding a totally unnecessary fight is cowardly, you need help. Seriously. Get counseling before you get thrown in jail.

Taking the Heat

Usually the thrift store is a pleasant place to shop. Most of us shoppers are in the same boat – we are, to varying degrees, just trying to make ends meet. Sometimes my fellow shoppers and I will even exclaim something like, “Oh my gosh that vest is perfect for you,” if we see someone waffling over an obvious bargain. In all the years I’ve been shopping at a thrift store that is located in a “bad neighborhood,” I’ve never been in any danger until just the other day. But then again, I rather put my foot in it.

A man in line in front of me was in the middle of his purchase when it was revealed that the sale price did not apply to one of his items. The cashier explained the store’s system of labeling, and the man began to argue.  He didn’t have a sound argument, but that didn’t matter to him. Everyone knows that nobody is so stupid as to not understand how that store’s price tags work, or to get angry because a sign “implied that everything in the bin was on sale,” when clearly it was one of many similar signs scattered throughout the store.  I’ve long since known that adult bullies will say anything and it doesn’t matter if they don’t have a leg to stand on. As long as they stay away from certain words they can later say that they didn’t actually say anything threatening.

Any bully’s words are merely a noise – the real communication is in the tone and in the body language.  The threat was there. The guy wanted the sale price, he wasn’t getting it, so he used his voice and size to intimidate the petite young cashier. The counter between them didn’t offer much protection for her. Timidly the cashier asked if she could process my transaction while they waited for the manager. I only had four items so the bully reluctantly agreed. But he used the extra time to harangue the cashier.

Here’s where I put my foot in. I wanted to give this cashier some breathing room. My intent was to deflect the heat from her while she waited for backup to arrive. I chirped pleasantly at the man, “Did you know that the green tag discount is store wide?” It wouldn’t have made one bit of difference to that guy if I’d said exactly what I said or if I’d called him a filthy name or if I’d said, “I smelled fried fish when I drove past the restaurant.” He turned his wrath on me. He knew my game as well as I knew his. He knew I wasn’t going to allow him to bully the girl. I was getting in between him and what he wanted.  At this point he showed his true colors to all the world. As I went through the motions of purchasing my items I kept watch out of the corner of my eye as he vented his rage at me, and not the petite cashier.

It’s said that women are better at multitasking than men. I don’t know if that’s true, but I am thankful for the ability. Part of me was automatically doing a familiar task – paying for a purchase. Part of me was monitoring the gentleman’s position and body language. Part of me was scanning for other threats – perhaps the gentleman had a friend nearby. Part of me was taming my dark desire to lash out verbally and physically. I controlled my breathing, let go of tension in my body, and repeated the mantra, “Always be the better person. Let him dig his own grave.”

As my transaction was processed, any time that man’s attention turned back to the cashier I drew it away again. A sympathetic, “Hmm, yeah, I can see your point,” and letting him rage at me again. A sigh of aggravation when he dug his own grave even deeper. Everyone nearby had his number by the time the cashier handed me my bag and receipt.

I backed out of the door – no way was I going to turn my back on him. The manager arrived as I crossed the threshold, and I presume security was on its way as well. I took precautions to “disappear” once I was out the door – I sidled along the brick facade away from the glass doors. I then took a roundabout route to my car, keeping other vehicles between me and the glass doors. Pickup trucks, vans, and SUVs blocked me from view perfectly. I breathed a sigh of relief as I slid behind the wheel of my car and locked the doors.

Some of you are thinking to yourselves, “Oh I would have totally let him have it,” and I’ll bet you wouldn’t really, but what you mean is that you understand how I felt. Some of you are scared for my safety and don’t want me to ever put myself in the line of fire again, even if it does help someone else. I understand that. But some of you are appalled at my admission that part of me was hoping that gentleman would try something physical. To you I say: until you’ve been in that situation yourself, you will never know what you will feel. If I denied that emotion, that dark hope, I would be denying that I am a human being. I am not a robot or a Vulcan. In my defense, I kept control over that darkness. I didn’t let it determine what happened. I’m not a scumbag for having that feeling but I would be a scumbag if I let that darkness erupt for no good reason.

So what about this dark hope that the gentleman would try something physical? Where does the desire to crush him come from? Could it stem from times in my life when I was powerless? Maybe it’s because my parents spanked me (I’m rolling my eyes at this)? How about all those years that I was verbally abused in school? Does this darkness stem from long ago having to end ongoing physical abuse by fighting back because absolutely no one else helped me? Is it something left over from evolution, or, if you prefer, sin nature? Improper potty training? A frustrated desire to have, um, relations with the gentleman? Apologies to the late Dr. Sigmund Freud, but I’m howling with laughter now. Ahem. To continue. Does that darkness stem from all of the above? None of the above? Does the origin of this darkness really matter?

Yeah, it does matter – at least insofar as I know where NOT to lay the blame. Sadly, some people would lay the blame squarely on my training.

That dark hope doesn’t come from my Karate training. Training in how to mete out violence does not automatically mean a person will turn evil. That dark glee that can arise at the prospect of fighting someone “for real” is not taught by any of my sensei. It’s something deep within all of us. It can surface during the course of training, particularly when one is being pushed hard during kumite (sparring). But here’s the thing – we are taught self control. We have a safe space, a controlled setting where we sometimes come face to face with the darkness within us. We learn how to conquer it without harm coming to anyone. How can we learn self control if we never are pushed so hard that we feel that darkness rising within us?

I guarantee you that darkness will come out to play when you are confronted with a real situation that has the potential to escalate, even if you’re not capable of taking someone down.  If I had no training whatsoever, I’d still want to destroy that person.  If I’d had no training I wouldn’t have had much self control.  I’d have fought back not by manipulating the guy, but by screaming and posturing.  The encounter would not have ended well.  But because I’ve faced my dark side in a safe setting, that dark hope is not unknown. It doesn’t scare me or control me. I know I can choose not to escalate.

Yes I escalated the situation in the thrift store a bit but that was to take the heat away from someone who was not equipped to handle it. Keeping the bully’s interest without making the situation worse was a fine line to walk.  That man was most definitely doing what author Rory Miller refers to as “The Monkey Dance,” so I knew I was playing with fire.  The outcome was good, fortunately.  Even so, I paid the price. I had a doctor appointment shortly after I left the store and the evidence of the encounter was very obvious. I was shaking from the adrenaline and my blood pressure was up a little. Fortunately it went down by the end of the visit. I saw a new doctor who doesn’t know me from Adam, and the clinic didn’t have my records yet, so just to be on the safe side I have to go back another day to have my blood pressure taken yet again.

The darkness whispers that it’d be fun to try out some of those cool joint-shattering techniques, but the aftermath of even the whisper of darkness is anything but fun. I don’t like it. I also had to process some other emotions when I got home. Self doubt. A desire to never go back to that store again. Just plain exhaustion – mental and physical. Yeah, I cried. I didn’t sleep well that night. Could’ve, would’ve, and should’ve haunted me. But it was worth it to help that cashier get a bit of breathing room.

As for the bully… I actually do hope that someday we could sit down over a beer and discuss how peace and harmony is better for one’s health. Go ahead and call me a naïve, starry-eyed dreamer. I can’t even begin to imagine the toll such rage takes on that man’s body and I truly hope that he doesn’t have a heart attack. That’s exactly where he’s headed. I feel sorry for him and for those who care about him (hopefully someone does). I hold nothing against him save that he intimidated that young girl. But I’ll still keep a wary eye out for him around town. Forgiveness, after all, doesn’t mean one should become stupid and blind!

Unwittingly this gentleman furnished me with a blog post at a time when I was facing a bit of “writer’s block.” Ironically, perhaps I owe him one.

For further reading:  Conflict Communication: A New Paradigm in Conscious Communication by Rory Miller.


The Dreaded Question

FootRThat question.  “Have you ever used Karate on someone?”  Groan.  Whoever asks it might want a tale of how you beat up six bikers who were bothering a girl in a bar.  Maybe they’re even wondering if they can get you to tell some tall tale and then they’ll try to goad you into proving you’re as good as you say you are.  I don’t really like “that question” even when someone is merely curious.

I’ve written about “that question”  here .  People don’t ask it often because, well, let’s face it, I’m a middle aged matron.  I’m not exactly a hot little cutie who would capture the interest of a rapist.  I don’t hang around dark alleys, and I certainly don’t go into biker bars to pick fights for funsies.

In spite of all that, though, I did get asked “that question” again recently.  And I finally have a story that I’m comfortable telling.

My two co-workers, both ladies, really didn’t like going down to another department.  It’s isolated in a basement, and lurking down there was a bully.  They sent the new girl (me) down.

The guy was big.  And loud.  And grumpy.  I’ve dealt with adult bullies before.  When called to task, they say their motivation is something entirely different than what you “imagined” it to be.  This guy probably said to HR, “I was just blowing off steam about the workload her department was causing me.”  His words were all about the extra work but his hostility wasn’t directed at what I brought to him.  Oh no.  That day, it was all about putting the new girl in her place.  It’s not my imagination – my co-workers agree that’s how this guy rolls.

Have I mentioned the guy is big and the office is very, very isolated in a basement?  Not good.  I kept an eye on his position relative to me and on my position relative to both exits.

So the bully was there yelling at me and then next thing I knew he threw a wicked haymaker.  I caught his wrist and with a move modified from Bassai Dai kata I yanked his arm (dislocating shoulder, elbow, and wrist) and then completely shattered his elbow.  I stomped his knee and threw him to the ground.  I stomped and re-stomped his groin.  Then I used zip-ties to truss him up and I threw him into the FedEx bin with a shipping label to our least-favorite “study abroad” student agent somewhere overseas.

Nope, that’s not how it really went down.  I didn’t even lay a finger on the guy.  I never even so much as made a fist.  I kept up a cheerful attitude and responded with politeness and even good humor.  He slowly deflated like a beach ball when you open the valve.  I left him with a cheerful farewell.  But later I reported him to HR >:)  My co-workers and I don’t have to put up with that crap.

Yes, I did use Karate on that guy.  I controlled myself and in so doing I controlled him.  The next time I encountered him his boss was watching, and he was polite.  I sincerely hope that politeness lasts.  I’m not itching for a fight.  But it sure is good to know that I can take command of the situation by taking charge of my own responses.