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Summer Reading

Just updated one of my articles, titled Good Books. Why not pick one book from that list and get it read before summer’s over?


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Strength and Weakness

On Facebook, one of my friends linked to Larry Correia’s blog post about the Miss Nevada controversy. As you might recall, Miss Nevada (now Miss USA) is the beauty pageant contestant who suggested that women might want to learn self-defense as she replied to a question about college sexual assault.

Apparently, the idea that adults should be prepared to defend themselves from violence still causes controversy in some corners of the internet, and so it was here; the twitterverse woke up with shrill calls-to-action, and that, in turn, woke the dozing Correia. In his usual Hulk-SMASH! style, Larry Correia wrote:

Let’s take two potential victims, Miss Nevada versus any of the morons yelling at her on Twitter. Both are violently assaulted. Which one do you think has a better chance of surviving the encounter in one piece? The lady who reacts with capable, directed force, or the wishful thinking wuss who demands that this shouldn’t be happening at all? My money is on the woman groin kicking and throat punching the rapist. If criminals wanted to work for a living they’d go get a job.

Now me personally, I’m a fan of guns, because groin kicking and throat punching is hard work, especially when the defender is usually giving up a bunch of weight, muscle mass, and bone density against her assailant.

Can’t really argue with Larry’s sentiment, though my own conversational style tends to be (I hope!) a bit more restrained. Anyway, in the way that Facebook conversations tend to go, someone’s friend of a friend took exception to this. She was upset by it because, she believed, Larry had just said that women are weak and unable to protect themselves without guns. She thought Larry’s words would take away a potential victim’s hope, and sap her will to defend herself. 1 She thought that Larry had just said that women should not even try to fight back unarmed, because men are bigger and stronger than we are.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, because the objector did in fact have a point. And it’s an important one. Here’s what I told her.

I understand what you’re saying in a lot of ways. For self defense instructors (which Larry was, and I am), there’s a very delicate balance as we work with students. The balance is between the student’s confidence and the student’s accurate grasp of the reality of the situation. (See my blog post titled Confidence and False Confidence for more about this. It’s too long to put here, but maybe an interesting side note.)

The physical reality is that women are at a physical disadvantage when fighting against men using only bare hands. On average (with many exceptions!), adult females in the United States are 4% shorter and 8% lighter than the average adult male. On average, women have roughly 40-60% the upper body strength than men do, with proportionately more strength in the lower body – approximately 75% that of the male average. With size, weight, and physical strength all working against us, we do in actual fact have to work harder to achieve the same result. (Charlotte Whitton had it half right, apparently. Where she erred was in assessing the difficulty of the endeavor.) 2

Does that mean we give up, quit and die? Just lie back and enjoy it? OH HELL NO.

It means that we understand the physical reality of the situation for what it is and is likely to be, and work to overcome the difficulties stacked against us. It means that – because humans are tool users – we use tools wherever possible. Yes, including guns if that’s an option for us. It means that we avoid physical fighting wherever possible. 3 And it means that if we have to fight, we’re going to fight like a cornered cat.

Fighting like a cornered cat means fighting all out, ignoring the odds stacked against you and any size disparities you might face. (Ever tried to pick up a feral kitten with your bare hands? I have, and don’t recommend it…. no matter how much bigger and stronger you are than the sweet little kitty, you’re going to draw back a bloody stump where your hand used to be, and probably decide that grabbing that kitty is Not Worth It.) It also means that you’re going to fight with a very specific goal in mind: not “winning”, not “beating the bad guy,” not “teaching him a lesson.” Nope. Your goal is simple and single minded: GET TO SAFETY. That kitty is dangerous because it’s not fighting you. It’s simply doing whatever it takes to get away from you.

Does all of that take away your hope? Tough patooties if so, because that’s the world as it is. In the real world, you’re not bigger, badder, or meaner than the male criminal seeking to dominate and control you. You’re not physically tougher than the rapist, and you will very likely be fighting at an extreme disadvantage – due to surprise, he picks the time and place, due to your relative strength issues, due to any number of very critical social variables. So freaking WHAT?? Do what it takes to get away, get home safe to your family. Avoid, deter, de-escalate, lie, trick, cheat … and if you have to fight, fight like a cornered cat.

Stay safe.


  1. Never mind what Larry actually said, which is not that; but I think it’s safe to say that Larry is quite capable of fighting his own battles about such things!
  2. “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.” ~ Charlotte Whitton
  3. “Fighting is essentially a masculine idea; a woman’s weapon is her tongue.” ~ Hermione Gingold
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You’re wrong about stress

When students prepare to measure their shooting skills against Massad Ayoob’s LFI Standards, Mas usually starts the day with a little pep talk that includes some startling information: trembling hands, dry mouth, and a quivering feeling in your gut are all good things. That stressed-out feeling isn’t your enemy. It’s how you know that your body has prepared to fight hard and survive. And when you welcome stress as the friend it is, it can even be good for your shooting skill. “When my hands start to tremble,” Mas says, “I know the adrenalin has arrived. That means I can work harder, run faster, and do better than I otherwise would.”

But do we get the same benefit from daily stress, the chronic kind we all live with? We’ve heard for years that stress is bad for us, that it increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes, that it increases the risk of many long-term illnesses. But it turns out that many of the things we thought we knew about chronic stress aren’t true at all. Just as the stress response helps our survival in extreme circumstances, it also helps us navigate the shoals of less outrageous danger and make human connections that see us through the tough times.

Watch the TED Talk below with an open mind. It’s a fascinating look at what we know about stress.



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Niven’s Law #17

17) No technique works if it isn’t used.  

If that sounds simplistic, look at some specifics: Telling friends about your diet won’t make you thin. Buying a diet cookbook won’t either. Even reading the recipes doesn’t help. Knowing about Alcoholics Anonymous, looking up the phone number, or even jotting it down won’t make you sober. Buying weights doesn’t get you muscles. Signing a piece of paper doesn’t cause a cease-fire, even if you make lots of copies and tell every anchorperson on Earth. Endlessly studying designs for spacecraft won’t put anything in orbit.   

~ Larry Niven’s Laws, 2002 Edition         

It’s amazing how many people think that buying a gun will enable them to protect their own lives at the moment they need it. But it won’t, not if …

  • the gun is locked up at home and you’re 30 miles away from it when you need it most.
  • you never saw danger coming, because you put all your trust in the presence of the gun and never bothered to learn when and where violent crimes happen most often in your environment.
  • you freeze, because you never really expected danger and hadn’t ever really pictured what fighting back might look like.
  • you don’t have the internal resolve to fight back in any case.
  • you can’t bring yourself to pull the trigger when pulling the trigger is what’s needed.
  • you haven’t practiced drawing the gun enough to do so quickly, smoothly, and without any hesitation even when you’re scared and fumbly.
  • you haven’t handled the gun so many times, and in so many different situations, that you can focus all of your attention on solving the problem in front of you, and instead must devote your full attention to remembering how to make the gun work.
  • you don’t have the physical skill to hit what you intend to hit.
  • … and on, and on, and on.

Sitting in front of a computer screen reading an article about self defense might help you figure out your own internal dynamics well enough to solve some of these problems – if you follow up your reading with careful, personal thought about how it applies to you.

Watching someone else do the skills on a video might sometimes help you figure out ways to do the things you want to do – but only if you follow up by making the effort to teach your hands how to do the things your eyes just saw. Watching someone else play the piano on YouTube does not make you a piano player.

In the end, the only way to get up to speed with your gun-handling is to, you know, actually handle a gun. Load and unload your gun often enough that loading the gun doesn’t take all your thought, or even most of it. Practice a smart, safe drawstroke often enough that lazy holstering habits won’t bite you in the leg after they blow a hole in your holster. Practice fast, accurate shooting at realistic targets. Shoot from various distances, from various positions, while moving or kneeling or standing or crouching, while your targets are moving or partly obscured or dimly lit. Practice your skills intelligently enough that you build efficient responses to danger, responses that you can call on even when you’re tired, frightened, overwhelmed, and taken by surprise.

You want the gun to save your life? It won’t. It can’t. It’s just an inanimate object.

Watching other people use guns on YouTube won’t save you, either. Your favorite shooting celebrity isn’t going to be there to save your life when you need it. You will.

Ultimately, it all comes down to you and your skills. Not the skills you’ve read about somewhere. Not the skills you’ve seen others demonstrate. Not even the things you were able to do once, on a lucky day at the range a few years ago. The only skills you can rely on are the ones you’ve practiced often enough that you can do them in your sleep without half trying.

Get to the range on a regular basis. Practice solid, reliable techniques that hold up well under stress. Practice them often enough that you can free your mind to think about other things while you’re shooting, so that your brain can solve the survival problem while your hands do what they know must be done. Practice the right things, often and well.

And every so often, learn something new, and practice that.

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Permission and Normalcy Bias

In almost every class I teach, there’s one lecture portion that’s — well, it’s a little touchy-feely. It’s a segment I have a hard time doing without tearing up a little, and sometimes it gets to my students too. But the emotions are almost beside the point. Believe it or not, there’s a scientific and rational reason I do this emotional thing. And it’s not what you might think.

Before I tell you more about that, let me draw your attention to an excellent article my friend Jeff Meek pointed to a few weeks ago: The Frozen Calm of Normalcy Bias.  The article talks about the way groups of people behave in a crisis, and it’s really a very useful read if you have time. If you don’t, here’s the excerpt I wanted to talk about today. Pay special attention to the final sentence.

This information — that the present disaster will harm you, yes you, so take action — is the hardest to accurately disseminate. People mill, asking for opinions, because they want to be told that everything is fine. They will keep asking, and delaying, until they get the answer they want. In a completely alien emergency situation — such as a downed, flaming plane — people think of the likelihood that they’re mistaken about the nature of the emergency, and the consequences for screwing up if they take personal action. Although early warning systems, alarms, and alerts proliferate, very few things manage to get through to specific people that they are in personal danger, that they are on their own, and that they need to take steps to save themselves.

In my classes, I refer to this human tendency to mill around and ask questions as “asking permission to save your own life.” The tragedy is, not everyone faces a danger that gives them time to do that.

That’s one of many reasons it’s important to think about survival issues ahead of time.

  • How important is it, to you, that you avoid being embarrassed?
  • Are you willing to step outside social norms to get away from danger?
  • How willing are you to speak up and take the lead when a group of people around you seem to be ignoring a danger you believe is real?
  • Are willing to do whatever it takes to save your own life — even if no one else tells you that you can?

It’s that last point that gets me. Remember the story of Sarah McKinley, the young mother who defended herself from a home invasion in Oklahoma in 2012. McKinley, then 18 years old, was home alone with her 3-month-old baby when she heard someone trying to break down her front door. Terrified, she armed herself with a pistol and a shotgun, then called 911. She would be on the phone with the dispatcher for over 20 minutes while she waited for officers to arrive. During that time, she and the dispatcher had the following exchange.

McKinley: “… is it okay to shoot him if he comes in this door?”

Dispatcher: “I can’t tell you that you can do that, but you do what you have to do to protect your baby.”

Yup. With her life in danger, her child threatened, criminals trying to break into her home and no sign that the police would arrive in time, McKinley asked someone else to give her permission to save her own life. And she was amazingly fortunate. Because she had time to ask the question. And because the person she asked was willing to put her own job on the line to tell McKinley what she most needed to hear.

That human tendency to ask permission from others — we all have it. It’s normal. Not weird, not weak, not stupid. Just … human. If we’re going to do something outside the social norm, we want someone else to tell us it’s okay, that it’s the right thing to do, that they approve. We want permission.

Without that permission, some people freeze and many people delay responding to situations they know are dangerous. With it, they’re free to solve the problem for themselves.

Stored Ammunition — Dangerous?

Every so often, someone asks me about the dangers of storing ammunition in the home. Here’s the best resource I know on that subject. It’ll take around 30 minutes to watch, and it’s worth watching all of it.

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Beauty is everywhere

One thing I’ve loved about my life the past few years: I’ve had the tremendous blessing of seeing so much of America. And just like the song says, America really is beautiful.

A few weeks ago, on a very early flight out of Portland, Oregon, I was treated to a spectacular fast-forward sunrise over Mt. Hood, with the deep valley of the Columbia River shining in the foreground. In the distance, I could see the sharp glacier fields of Mt. Bachelor and the beautiful rolling forests all along the Cascade Range. Lovely!

Some time before that, I found myself in the desert Southwest while the wildflowers were in bloom. Purple, blue, yellow, and red flowers lined the roadways, and the bare bones of the earth stuck up in the distance. At sunset, the rocks along the spectacular cliffs and canyons seemed almost to glow with their own inner light. Amazing.

Walking barefoot though the white, pure sand of a barrier island in the coastal Southeast last fall, I watched a funny little ghost crab scurry away from me to hide under a piece of grey driftwood. Stopped and stood still for a moment, and out he came — waving his claws at me to say, “Don’t you try to grab me!” The sky was blue and creamy-white, puffy clouds drifted lazily overhead on this surprisingly hot afternoon. What a beautiful day and what a beautiful place to be.

In the heart of the urban East a few months ago, I walked through Arlington National Cemetery in silence and respect for the honored dead. It’s a beautiful place, with rolling hills of neatly-mown grass and mournful headstones lined up in thoughtful rows. Elegantly oversized trees provide deep shady spots to sit and reflect. The monuments at the cemetery and elsewhere are built of white or grey marble, and they show the mark of long decades of hard work and dedication from those who keep them in good repair. At the Tomb of the Unknowns, I watched the Old Guards’ attention to every detail and the beautiful ceremony they make of honoring the sacrifice paid by brave young men who never made it home.

Walking through a city on the East Coast, I looked up at massive skyscrapers and marveled. Did you ever think about all the hard work that goes into making just one of those things? The hours someone spent bent over a drafting board, sketching out ideas, the hours of working out the math of time and materials and structural strength, the human labor of digging the foundations and laying the girders in place. And we take all that for granted, but it’s beautiful… and so is the scenery that it builds.

In the upper Midwest, I flew over miles and miles of lakes. Big lakes, little lakes, tiny lakes, giant lakes that hold 21% of the world’s fresh water. Beautiful!

In Sioux Falls, I walked past the busy downtown area and out to the well-manicured city park where I could look at the waterfall that gives the town its name. Here, the bedrock of the continent shakes off its covers and peers out at us — solid, yellow-gold-brown rock that alternately flows underground and then juts in sharp edges all along the course of the Big Sioux River. The falls were gorgeous. But you know what I found most spectacular? There’s a conduit, a pipe, running across the water a few hundred feet below the falls. It makes a kind of bridge that touches down on both sides of the river, and at each end there’s a sign telling people to stay off the conduit. No giant ugly cage around each end, just … a sign. Telling people to stay off. And there’s no graffiti on that conduit, nor any other indication that people ignore that sign. How wonderful to live in a place where the people are so civilized.

Every area I’ve traveled has its own type of beauty: barren desert with the whistling wind and the lonesome buzzard circling overhead. Northern rainforest, drizzling wet with slickery mosses clinging to every tree. Golden-tan waves of wheat and corn, spread in a patchwork quilt to feed a continent. Busy city street with office buildings stretching to the sky…

How sad would it be, if these scenic vistas could talk, and we found out that every single one of them thought they themselves were ugly, but believed some other place was “really” pretty?

… If the amazing cascade of waters flowing over Multnomah Falls actually thought themselves unruly and undisciplined, and longed to be “as pretty as” the ornately-carved marble statues that line the streets of our nation’s capitol?

… Or if the stately redwood trees of the California coast scorned themselves, complained that they were overly tall, stocky and ungainly — and thus both hated and envied the tiny, delicate beauty of a wood violet?

… Or if the spectacular red-rainbow rocks surrounding the Grand Canyon thought themselves horrid and bare, and wished to hide themselves under thick layers of green moss like the black basalts of the Columbia Gorge?

Would the world be as beautiful, if it weren’t so varied?

And wouldn’t it be awful if every beautiful place you’d ever loved, actually hated its looks and wished to look like some other place?


What does all this have to do with self defense? I’ll tell you: a big part of my job involves watching body language while people learn to shoot. I watch body language to help people stay safe, so I can anticipate what they’re going to do next, so I can figure out what questions they might be about to ask, or whether part of my message to them didn’t make it through.

You can’t make a study of body language without becoming aware of bodies. How many different shapes and sizes and colors they come in. And how utterly beautiful most people are, when they let themselves relax and just be.

Because I try to be a good teacher, I’m usually watching what people say with their bodies when I tell them that they are worth it. That their lives are beautiful, valuable, worth defending. And it breaks my heart, every time, when I see a beautiful woman who wishes she had another woman’s type of beauty, or who thinks herself ugly because she doesn’t meet someone else’s standard for what pretty “should” look like. It breaks my heart when I see someone shake her head in denial (“Not me!”) when I tell the class that every one of them deserves to live, deserves to stay safe, deserves to go home to the people who love her.

But it’s still true.

You are beautiful, just the way you are.

Your life is worth defending.

He didn’t deserve that

My local news has a story about a (probable) self defense case that happened a few miles from my house. Comments on the story include: “Calling him a lunatic…did you know him? He also didn’t get what he deserved!! He deserved to live his life with his family and friends…”

The thing that gets me about that — it’s such a common thing for people to say, that a violent attacker doesn’t “deserve” to be killed — is that it betrays a very fundamental lack of understanding about what self defense really is.

We want it to be about justice. About fairness. About taking out a less-than-human monster who “has it coming to them.” We want it to be about someone who “needed killing.”

And it’s not.

It’s just about staying alive. It’s about staying on your feet and able to breathe until the guardians of our civilization can get there to take the offender into custody and (eventually) into court where calmer people can decide what to do about his criminal offense against you.

If you do everything it takes to stay alive when someone attacks you, that might sometimes include using deadly force to stop him from killing you. When you use every ounce of force you have available, just to stay alive, you are not deciding what the attacker “deserves.” Staying alive does not make you the judge of the other person’s actions.

It simply makes you the survivor.