Awareness” is a key component of self-defense, yet as a practice it is ill-defined. For many of my students, the line between color-coded anxiety and recognition of real risks is blurry at best. This is exacerbated by our media environment (where violence sells anxiety, and anxiety sells airtime, and airtime sells . . . ).

Examples from my feline friends proffer useful guidance.

Know where you are vulnerable.

For example, I often shlep lots of stuff to my car. Hey, I teach self-defense classes, so I’m hauling kicking shields and handouts and mats and other bulky, unwieldy stuff. This is a vulnerable point for 2 reasons. One, my arms are usually full. Second, and more importantly, my mind is already occupied with how the heck I’m going to fit all this junk in my car (I can always drop stuff to free my hands, but it is takes more effort to drop stuff out of my head when surprised).

Sokol, ever watchful, at repose.

Enter Sokol, my cat.  

Sokol (also known as “stealth kitty”) was brought into our home as a 14 month old feral. While she’s adapted well to life as an indoor kitty, even after 7 years she hasn’t lost her feral edge. She does not like being picked up or even petted (until she solicits attention). Lap cat? No way. Ever at rest, she’s also alert to any and all new sounds. If I enter the room, she’ll keep an eye on me until she’s convinced that I’m not about to try to (gasp!) pick her up. If I’m in the room she wants to nap in, she’ll keep an eye on me as she settles in.

The key here is awareness at key points. Going back to loading my car, I know I have to leave Point A (my house, or the building where the class is held) and approach my car. I make it a point as I am leaving the building to scan the area. I’m looking for anyone who is paying attention to my activities. I get to my car. Before I unlock my car and open the trunk, I again scan the area.  And if it takes more than a second or so to rearrange my baggage, I pause to scan again. And, if necessary, again.

I have to say I’ve yet to encounter a scary person. However, I have encountered the first spring blooms on the wild roses, the emergence of the fall crocuses, and a hummingbird almost within arms’ reach. These little happenstances round out life, and are constant reminders on why you want to stay safe. To be able to enjoy daily special moments, sans the trauma of a distressing surprise.

This security expert did, and boy it was a whopper. 
Security expert Michiel Oakes admitted killing Mark Stover. Oakes said that Stover was stalking his girlfriend and she was very afraid of Stover. This girlfriend, Linda Opdycke, was Stover’s ex-wife.  Oakes said he did it in self-defense. The jury wasn’t convinced, and convicted Oakes of first-degree premeditated murder.
For more backstory see this article on NPR, and this from The Seattle Times.
For those of you who may be stalked in the future, here are 3 mistakes to avoid:
No Documentation. According to this story, Oakes never reported any threats by Stover to the police. If you believe you’re being stalked, get an evidence trail going, including what you’ve reported to police. A history that others can refer to really helps your believability. And maybe you can get some help!
Going to Stalker’s Home, Armed. If you go to your stalker’s house wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying weapons, it will be hard to convince anyone except your mother that you acted in self-defense. (In fact, if I did that, my mother would probably be the first to turn me in for stupidity.)
And Then Hiding the Body. Nothing screams guilt like a cover-up (whether or not that’s accurate). Really, this is the stuff of bad TV and movies. 
Stalking is serious.  I’ve had students in my self-defense classes who’ve been stalked, and even years later many have never regained their full peace of mind. If you are being stalked, or someone you know is being stalked, do report and report and report, keep documents and a diary and any phone messages, and let everyone in your circle know. Before you end up, losing, on center stage in a bad drama.
Today’s news resurrects a two decade-old sore, and NPR’s Nina Totenberg called this incident “stranger than fiction.”

Virginia Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, confirmed that yes she did leave a message on Anita Hill’s answering machine. In that message she asked Ms. Hill to consider offering an apology and full explanation for her testimony during Justice Thomas’ confirmation hearings in 1991. In a subsequent statement to CNN, Ms. Thomas purported that her message was intended to offer an olive branch, and no offense was intended.

Ms. Hill has reported that no apology will be offered any time soon.

Read this CNN article for the backstory and current update.

When you offer an “olive branch,” the implication is that you want to make peace. If you want to make peace, there’s been some conflict that you wish to resolve or at least mitigate. We can call that process “de-escalation.”
Now there are several general principles of de-escalation. One is that you do not insist that the other person is wrong. That would not serve to mitigate conflict, would it? In fact, it usually pisses the other party off. So much for striving for peace.
So when Ms. Thomas then asked for an apology, she was not really offering an olive branch. Granted, and I’m going out on a limb here, it looks like Ms. Thomas believes that an injustice was done. Maybe she is looking for redress. Frankly, history may remember Justice Thomas more for Anita Hill’s testimony than for any scholarly and enlightened opinions he’s written from the bench, and maybe she’s feeling aggrieved about it. Maybe she’s fishing for political points (Ms. Thomas is the founder of Liberty Central, a conservative nonprofit lobbying group linked with the tea party).
Whatever her reasoning, she should at least honestly name what she’s doing as confrontation. (In my 5 week self-defense course we go over these, and other verbal skills, in lesson 4.) Even though it’s almost Halloween, this is not the time (and it is NEVER the time) to disguise a a wolf in an olive branch’s clothing.

When I arrived at Bellevue College last Saturday, I felt something amiss. The staff, usually calm and friendly, seemed just a tad frazzled as we exchanged greetings.  I went to set up my room for the five-week self-defense course I’d be teaching that afternoon, then returned to the front for my roster.  As  passed the front desk manager, he said, “We really could’ve used you this morning! We had one woman stab another in class.  It was an anger management class.”

That’s generally not what I’d expect in a continuing education facility known more for high tech than high crime. Goes to show you never can tell for sure what can happen even in safe spaces.  And why the first rule of self defense is to be aware and open to possibilities.

Read the story here.

I was not a musician. I can’t carry a tune in a paper bag. I’ve never learned to read music or play an instrument. I’ve only enjoyed music as a fan and listener. A consumer.

I donated self-defense classes to a girls’ summer camp this July. This was not just any summer camp, this was Girls Rock! Camp, where in one week girls ages 8 – 16 learn to play an instrument, form a band, write a song, practice, and play to a raving audience. They also learn about the herstory of women in rock music, media and female body image, electronic music, DJing, zine making, song-writing . . . and self-defense.

AWESOME!!! I was thrilled to work with these girls, as well as also a tad envious. Where was this camp when I was that age?

Then one of the organizers just happened to mention Ladies Rock! Camp. My ears perked up. “Oh, there’s another event?” Yes, a long weekend where women (ages 19+) learn to play an instrument, form a band, write a song, practice, and play to a raving audience. No experience necessary.

I signed up. I didn’t think twice, and that was alright.

I picked drums as my instrument. As a self-defense and karate instructor I already know how to hit things, so I figured this would be a natural extension. Playing drums was still a stretch and a challenge, and it was one of the most outstanding weekends I’ve ever had. I learned a lot, and found there’s common points between learning to play rock music and self-defense.

First, both are DIY. Do It Yourself, really. Sure if you want adulation and admiration from throngs of adoring fans you’ll have to practice a lot and get super-good, and that’s just the beginning. But if you just want to hang and jam with your friends, you don’t need the chops of Ringo Starr. Similarly, for self-defense you don’t need the chops of Jackie Chan, you just need awareness, some evasion strategies, and a few basic moves which will get you out of 99.5% of the badness you’re likely to encounter.

Second, both happen in the moment. Practiced musicians often create impromptu lyrics and melody lines. They improvise. And if you should find yourself in a threatening situation you too will have to improvise. You have to be continuously paying attention and adjusting your tactics. And it will help that you’ve taken a self-defense class and have the basic skills.

Third, you get out what you put in. That means participation, really getting into it. Few things fall flatter than music played without feeling. In learning self-defense, you train like it’s for real. So, if it ever does get real, you are ready.

Finally — and if you’ve been reading this e-newsletter for a while, you could probably guess this one — both are LOUD. Rock musicians, even “soft” ones, WANT to be heard! They DO have something to say! And guess what: so do you!

Okay, so maybe Ringo Starr needn’t worry about me. And maybe you don’t want to put in the time and work to learn how to become a ninja assassin. But, with a little help from your friends, you too can discover your inner rock star self-defender.


Fall self-defense classes are now open for enrollment.  Visit for more information and registration on the 5 week Self-Defense 101 courses, for one-day seminars, or for the November weekend workshop.


Author Ellen Snortland has often been in the media advocating for making personal safety and self defense a required class in high schools. Her article One Too Many in the Pasadena Weekly as well as her spotlight on National Public Radio points to the murder of Chelsea King as yet another reason too many to teach kids how to defend themselves.

Yet there’s a great reluctance to widely add self defense skills to young people’s toolboxes. More emphasis and resources are given over to services once they’ve become victims, or to enacting laws intended to prosecute and punish offenders (but which sometimes result in unwanted consequences, but that’s another post). Both these approaches are critical, but that third leg of prevention is keeping real safety from becoming a reality.

We are the only creatures on this planet that actively strives to dis-empower large segments of our population by not only not teaching basic personal safety, but often by lying about its efficacy.  Once upon a time (about 3 decades ago) conventional wisdom held that women should not fight back lest they get hurt worse.  Studies now show that’s not true at all, and in fact over 75% of women who even begin to resist assault chase off their assailant.

Unfortunately, most women don’t know that.  And that is truly a crime.