Bullies, Bystanders, or Bravehearts?: Questions of Civic Participation

There is an argument I consistently have with myself regarding civil discourse. In theory, I believe in civility. I believe in thoughtful discussion. Whatever vulgarity or cuss words I’ve used here, have always been of my own volition, albeit I have taken more opportunities of late to use them. I am an angry person. I believe in justice and I loathe deliberate ignorance.

canstockphoto11106690For all the understanding and tolerance we are supposed to extend to people who tell us liberalism is a mental disease and that they’re giddy about these current circumstances, we get very little in return. The message is that we are to fall in line and adore their great leader or else what? They’ll call us names? Vote in spite? Threaten us with violence?

Reading comments from people who seem to adore the president and his mafia, I am completely baffled by the appeal. But I’ve never understood celebrity worship or the idea that being unfiltered is somehow preferable to being thoughtful. I’ve never invested my sense of self in strangers on TV or politicians bloviating over donuts. I don’t get my news from Facebook or Twitter. I know that reality TV is curated bullshit. I’m not going to wear clothes with people’s names on it, whether it be Tommy Hilfiger or Trump. I am no one’s standard bearer or billboard.

And that’s what I find so baffling. I grew up in a poor working class family. I learned several skills or beliefs in this environment: 1) That nobody is going to fix my life 2) How to spot a bullshitter a mile away 3) Television is fake and politicians lie. I met people all along the way with the same beliefs. Those are the people who progressed, got out of poverty, worked hard to get an education and most, if not all, are solidly middle class now.

Whcanstockphoto3529451en I saw the chanting crowds in Minnesota yesterday during another feed-his-ego rally, it made me feel ill. There were so many people at the church of Trump. So many people slavishly cheering and grinning and repeating tired mantras. So many people worshiping at his feet. It must have been very gratifying for him, that he could say or do anything with impunity and people would still hold him up as a false idol, clap and cheer and act like glorifying him would somehow raise them up. It was grotesque.

Does it make a difference that there were protesters, yelling, carrying signs? Not to the Trump supporters. Those protesters are for people like me – letting me know that I am not alone in my disgust with this administration, encouraging me to wage protest in my own way. Protesters are important to those of us who eschew crowds, but feel isolated in the face of authoritarianism. It’s a public message – we’re not laying down for the jackboots to march all over us.

But it does bring us back to the issue of public discourse. I’ve been having a come to Jesus moment with myself (which is a really funny thing for an atheist to say). I keep thinking of that Martin Luther King quote:

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.

Reverend Martin Luther King, Letter from the Birmingham Jail, 1963

canstockphoto32473828The idea of negative peace and being devoted more to order than justice is something that plagues moderate middle class white people. We’re not all inherently cruel or uncaring, but we mistake the lack of violence or strong language or raised voices to mean that things are quietly being worked through and that if something really bad is going to happen, the government will prevent it. We were raised to believe in Big Daddy and that there would be things that wouldn’t happen in our beloved America.

But that is not the case. Most people of color, women, chronically ill, vulnerable children and the elderly know that the system turns a blind eye to systematic abuse, gaps in care, and cries for help. That power and wealth corrupts absolutely and disconnects people from their humanity. That leaders, those who can truly maintain a balance between personal ambition and that amorphous concept, the common good, are far and few between.

What we don’t get is that we are the stopgap, the brakes, the safety net, the protection against authoritarianism. We have to choose not to be bystanders, not snapping selfies in front of tent cities on U.S. soil, chatting up the ICE agent while fearing the bogeyman foreigner. What does our country need from us now?

canstockphoto6397204Many of the words I read from Trump supporters are no longer part of any rationale. They’re mainly spewing cutesy insulting names, parroting lies with no underlying facts, sending links to un-sourced, biased news stories, using the polemics of either-or for every single argument. Gun control = no guns. Pro-choice = drive-through abortions. Civil liberties for all = war on religion. Free speech = no consequences for said speech. Political correctness = silence, not civility. They’re digging in, not listening, not thinking.

Does it make a difference if I call the president a bastard? Have I, too, come to mistake strong words for strength? Have I adopted a bully’s approach to discourse? Or will I be the moderate white person – choosing peace over justice, order over resistance? And am I succumbing to the unthinking, blind rhetoric of both sides, falling prey to the false equivalencies equating those who fight for justice and those who just fight?

These are tough questions that have been unraveling in my brain over the last week, because I am trying to find a better way forward. Not for peace, but for integrity and progress and so that someday, I can look back, and know that I didn’t just let it happen.

What do you think of the public discourse?

Is fighting fire with fire necessary or is there a better way?

What truly makes a difference?

Claiming Public Space: The Power of Posture

This is the 2nd in a series of essays on the importance of self-defense and physical power. I am not an expert on self-defense, nor a physical fitness guru. I do not condone violence, but advocate taking whatever action or inaction is needed to survive potentially dangerous situations. Not every situation is defensible through physical force.

Introductory Post:   A Blogger for Self-Defense


The most common piece of introductory advice given for self-defense is to “be aware of your surroundings”. I’d step back from that and say first and foremost be aware of yourself.  By the time I came upon this advice, I’d finished my Army tour, taken several self-defense courses (the R.A.D. system) at college and as a single woman who lived alone, was painfully aware of my surroundings – on the bus, in deserted college hallways, on the dark walk home from the bus stop, in the parking lots of restaurants and malls, in my apartment stairwell. I was as paranoid and jumpy as I could possibly be – and likely not prepared for any of the scenarios I’d imagined.

How you carry yourself in public spaces is the very first line of defense. It’s about preventing an attack before it occurs. It’s about making yourself a risky target for a would-be attacker. In an ideal world, the responsibility for the commission of a crime lies with the criminal. I want to be absolutely clear that victims are not responsible for the crimes committed against them. When we judge a victim – “well, if he or she hadn’t been there or worn that or drank too much” – we are finding a way to tell ourselves that it could never happen to us. We want to know we can prevent it, but the reality is that anyone, anywhere at anytime can be targeted for a crime.

The Walking Bullseye

For years, I was acutely self-conscious in public. My shoulders would slump forward, I wouldn’t make eye contact, I avoided crowded areas, I would not look around me. I was often carrying bags – a backpack of textbooks, groceries, possibly a purse. I rode the bus a lot. I would sit in the back as far away from other people and if I had to sit next to someone, I’d pull myself in as tightly as I could. I wanted to be invisible. I looked passive. I looked like an easy target.

Strangers would strike up creepy and inappropriate conversations with me. Panhandlers never failed to see their mark. On occasion, I’d have to get off the bus a few stops early so that an invasive passenger wouldn’t see where I lived or worked or went to school. These were defensive maneuvers, because I was already on the potential criminal’s radar. The key is not to even register as a possible target.

Climbing Out of the Shell

For women, some of us survived puberty by sinking into ourselves, hiding our busts, curving our shoulders forward. As adults, we carry tension in the neck and shoulder area until we become turtles. Pull your shoulders back and then let your shoulder blades lower down into a relaxed position. Inhale and exhale deeply. Straighten your neck, lift your head and actively use your eyes to see your surroundings. Use your peripheral vision. Practice walking with that posture.

If your muscles have elongated or shortened from poor posture, seek out strengthening and mobility exercises. There are a lot of good resources focused on improving posture. I was lucky to catch a great community course by Janice Novak, but there are other excellent resources as well. Look at yourself in the mirror (my least favorite thing to do!).  Where are your shoulders? Try different positions. What makes you taller? Imagined you are defending someone you love. How do you stand then? What is your posture of power?

I am still a self-conscious person, so if I’m not having a confident day, I hear “Stayin’ Alive” playing in my head. Nothing weirder than a middle-aged woman doing a John Travolta strut down the street. Better yet, I paraphrase Robert DeNiro in my head. “You lookin’ at me?” I look like I’m cruising for a brawl. Still, what I don’t look like is someone who is giving anything up very easily, including the ability to defend myself.

I recently watched an interesting TED video: Amy Cuddy: Your body language shapes who you are. The takeaway for me was twofold: 1) The marked difference between weak and powerful body language is about space. 2) Faking power and confidence can physiologically change you and how you carry yourself.

Claim Your Space

While public space should be governed by civility and courtesy for others, it is also about personal boundaries. When I worked downtown years ago, I boarded a full bus with one seat left. I understood immediately why the seat was open. A man in his twenties was sprawled out, legs spread wide in front of him, taking up his seat and half of the one next to him, while staring insolently ahead.

I could feel eyes on me and looked up, noticing that several people were standing, having chosen to avoid a potential confrontation. I immediately thought, because I am nothing, if not completely vulgar, Unless his nuts are the size of basketballs, I’m sitting there. I sat down, scooted over until he moved, and said loudly and clearly “EXCUSE ME”. He muttered under his breath, but the numbnuts moved his body over. I just made myself a risky target for any potential attacker on that bus – publicly demonstrating lack of intimidation and assertiveness. And when a situation presents itself for me to both use my ass and be one too, I’m all in.

Criminals are actively seeking out the vulnerable, the isolated, the passive – the easy mark. Start with the simplest steps to look unappealing to them.

Stand up tall.

Be confident (or fake it until you are).

Claim your space. 

Observational Practice: Look at people when you’re out and about – how much space do they claim? Imagine that you are a criminal. Which people would you pick for targets? Why would you pick them?

Tune in Friday

“OMG I’m getting mugged NLMAO”: Moving Mindfully

A Blogger for Self-Defense

This is the introduction to a series of essays on the importance of self-defense and physical power. I am not an expert on self-defense, nor a physical fitness guru. I do not condone violence, but advocate taking whatever action or inaction is needed to survive potentially dangerous situations. Not every situation is defensible through physical force. canstockphoto6758958Last month, I stopped participating in Bloggers for Peace. It is a great concept, but I felt like a hypocrite. I’ve not been feeling peaceful for a long time. The unfortunate side affect of reading blog posts and the news, is that the world starts to become a very ugly place, especially in regards to issues related to being a woman. Disproportionate attention gets paid to the negative and the horrifying, so we read about the Steubenville rape, the murder of a paid escort in Texas, the abuse that many women have received at the hands of a “loved one”, a constant stream of politically and religiously motivated moralizing gone awry, based on the premise that our bodies are the collective property of the state.

I cannot, at this moment in time, advocate peace in the face of all of this. Being a conscientious person, I recognize that I live and feel a strange sort of dichotomy. At what point do I take action and NOT use my words? So, I’m writing about violence this week, in the form of self-defense.

Much of this is going to apply to women, simply because that is my perspective, but I hope male readers find something of value or can contribute their own perspective.

My hesitation on writing about this subject evaporated yesterday. I watched a YouTube video of a Taekwondo spin hook kick. A commenter had written “this would be a good kick to use on a woman who is yapping”. The star of the video, a skilled martial artist, responded “Yeah, that’s true.” Now I know, in my rational mind, that douchebags populate these sites, but most martial arts training advocates respect and discipline. It was disheartening to see, once again, something positive tainted by wankers with no sense of honor.

To clarify, for those who haven’t read this blog before, I’m a 45 year old woman. I spent 4 years of active duty in the US Army, in a military intelligence unit attached to an infantry division, which meant a lot of time out in the field. I am a practicing martial artist, just a short step from my 1st degree black belt in Taekwondo. I run, weight train and do a variety of workouts that support speed, flexibility and strength. I’ve gone through labor and delivery of a child. I’ve had ripped corneas, more bruises than I can count, torn and pulled ligaments and muscles. Last night I dropped a 250lb man in a self-defense move and the night before that, I sparred intensely with a teenager a foot taller than I, taking a kick to the jaw.

This is all to say, I’m not afraid of the pain and I am not afraid to use my power. As a woman in this society, it is considered wholly unnatural to be an advocate of putting the hurt on someone else. We’re encouraged to do flutter kicks to flatten our abs and leg lifts to tighten our butts.  Every time I see the covers of women’s magazines, I cringe. Even the so-called fitness magazines are focused on appearance and not capabilities. I would love to see the title “How to make No mean No: Giving a Beat Down He Won’t Forget” or “Self-Defense for Parking Lots: Keys are for Eyeballs, Knees are for Groins” or “50 Ways to Leave Your Abuser”. Instead we’re told how to organize a shoe closet or how to make ourselves look “hotter” (there’s a word that deserves to be beaten to death).

I’m an average woman who was never particularly coordinated or athletic. My education about violence and physical force started at a young age. Pushes, shoves, punches, slaps, ear twists, hair pulls, belt whippings, threats from behind a gun sight – all from people older and bigger than I, people who I should have been able to trust with my well-being. When I was a four-eyed, awkward, puny and shy 4th grader, a group of girls pushed me off my bike and took it. I did not react, except to cry. My crying matured into a quiet, stony stare when I was attacked, either physically or verbally. I dreamed of being a vigilante, of defending kids like myself, of taking down the bullies. I seethed with rage that had nowhere to go, except inward.

My Army drill sergeant had nothing on me. He could get in my face, scream at me, force me through unceasing pushups, flip my bunk – I did what I was told and stared stonily into the distance (hence being called into the senior drill sergeant’s office for an “attitude problem”). I knew he was a drinker – his eyes had that same red, watery look that my stepfather had the morning after a bender. Been there, done that, dude. I stared him down. 100 pushups later, I still stared him down. He gave up, winded from all the yelling. Probably needing an aspirin.

These days, I’m an advocate of peaceful existence. But becoming a mother to a daughter forced me to re-examine what that means to me and what I want it to mean for her. I began to train, to learn a martial art, to become as strong on the outside as I am on the inside. I’m prepared to defend myself. And not with flutter kicks (unless they’re to the head).  I have begun to believe the world would be a more peaceful place, especially for women, if we each knew our personal power, could walk confidently out into the world, could know what we were capable of and that we have choices.

Tune in Tuesday    

Claiming Public Space: The Power of Posture

The Nature of Doves


I stand for life in the face of death.

I stand for peace in the face of war.

Pablo Picasso

I love the doves we hear and see in our yard when the weather is nice enough to have the windows open. Their gentle cooing speaks to cool spring mornings, when a slight breeze blows across my face – the smell foretelling of rain. Their presence is familiar and comforting. Those mornings seem far off now. There is snow, covered in frozen rain, that is crunchy and the days are cold and blustery. I cannot yet hear the doves calling to one another.

I saw the stories from Boston and felt bone-weary. We’ve been here before – the random unfocused fear, the tip of the iceberg of grief – we touch it with our minds briefly and pull back in discomfort. To feel so much at a distance only gives a hint of what people at its vortex must be suffering. We retreat into our own fears, our daily lives that pull us along, past bomb wreckage and bullet casings. We turn off the TV and turn our attention to the minutiae, momentary distractions from a trip to the mall that might go wrong, a family event destroyed, a bus ride disrupted. Wrong place. Wrong time.

Our intellectual selves run through all the editorials, the spins, the need for comprehension and we come up empty-handed. All these years and we know little and understand even less. We forget and push aside the randomness of our existence. We don’t think about the anger and discontent that swirls around us. We can’t. We’re not experts. Or superheroes. Or even all that observant at times. Some turn inward to prayer or meditation. Some coil up with fear or spring forward in rage. It’s all just the pointless flapping of wings. Until we wear ourselves out and settle down.

I don’t think I’ll flap my wings. Maybe I will skip all of that and start from a place of calm. Knowing my limitations, maybe I’ll donate to the Red Cross in Boston. Maybe I’ll hold my own 8 year old a few moments longer tonight, letting the soft skin of her cheek brush against the middle-aged, winter dried of my own. Maybe I’ll drift off into a dreamless sleep, knowing that each moment is borrowed time. And tomorrow, the comfortable, familiar presence of friends and family will remind me of the curious willingness to embrace renewal and life – no matter how many times predators strike.

The Paradox of Voice

canstockphoto7524142Over the last few weeks, a couple of subjects have come up that I thought I might like to write about and then decided against it.  One is gun control and the other is the ban being lifted on women in combat. These are heady, complicated and complex subjects. I am a woman, a parent and a veteran of the U.S. Army.

Last week, I became quite disheartened when reading comments on articles on both subjects, which prompted an entirely different post. I tried a couple more times, unsuccessfully, to write about these subjects and discovered that holding a multitude of beliefs, some of which are quite contradictory, means that it is nearly impossible to write a convincing argument about anything.

I carried an M-16 as a soldier for four years. I knew how to disassemble, clean and reassemble it. I knew how to “lock and load”. I fired various other weapons over the years, as required for training. When I was 19, I thought that weapons were very cool. I was an average shot. I was left-handed, and the chamber guards provided did not prevent hot shell casings from rolling down the sleeve of my BDU shirt, leaving burn streaks down my arm. My aim started to become the least of my concerns.

I understand the appeal, the adrenaline rush of firing, the drive to train to expert levels, the sense of power felt, carrying this weapon of death. But I grew up. I thought about the kind of world in which I’d like to live. I realized that no amount of training or mechanical machine would ever prepare me for the moment I’d have to defend my life or the lives of my family. But that gun would always be there, this piece of hardware designed to take the life of another living creature. So I made a conscious choice to do without and despite comment boards, I don’t feel like I am a big liberal weenie because of it.

The lifting of the ban on women in combat didn’t make me do a little dance of joy last week. I worked in military intelligence as a Russian linguist. My unit was attached to an infantry division in Europe. We spent six months out of the year in the field and the other six doing important work, like picking up cigarette butts on base, working on our vehicles in the motor pool and doing dog and pony shows for high ranking officers. I served at a time when militarily, not much was happening. It was near the end of the Cold War. The year I finished my tour, the Berlin Wall came down.

Myself and the many women I served with, were already in combat positions, working close to what used to be the front line dividing us and the Soviets. That we were not classified as being in those positions was irrelevant. We just were. There are, and have been for years, thousands of women in combat positions. 146 women have died in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, even while a ban on them being in combat positions was in place.

All that being said, the arguments against it rile me because they’re so nonsensical. I can address a few commonly cited reasons. Physical abilities: Test. That’s all you need to do. A person is either qualified or they are not. Sexual Assaults and POW conditions for women: Stop assaulting your fellow soldiers. And I’m guessing being a POW is not a party for men or women. Unit Cohesiveness: Good leaders at every level determine this, gender does not. And my least favorite argument is concern about the lady parts. There are 15 million things that can go wrong with the human body in combat conditions, afflicting men and women equally. There is no vaginal predisposition for chronic infection, old white men.

I was proud of how hard I worked. I was proud that I trained, carried heavy equipment, knew my vehicle inside and out. I carried my own weight, didn’t ask for special treatment, didn’t have sexual orgies with my all male field team and didn’t have magical lady part infections.  There are, like any segment of the population, women I would not want to serve with, but there were an equal number of men who were unreliable, didn’t carry their own weight, complained and whined and wouldn’t know their ass from a hole in the ground. Being a jackass is an equal opportunity, military or not.

All that being said, this is the part that gets me stuck: War is horrible. The idea that it is inevitable is so embedded in our hearts and minds that we can’t imagine what real peace looks like. I don’t want men and women to die, killing each other relentlessly on the battlefield or from the sky. I don’t want to casually allow our Congress and President to send thousands off to war. I don’t want orphaned children or civilian casualties – on either side. If I should become a vocal advocate for any position – have I just become part of the machine?

It’s okay to still believe in an ideal world. It doesn’t make us fools or softies or lefties or commies or all the other names anonymous trolls like to leave in their shit-laden trail of mediocrity on comment boards. It makes us the defense against complacency and acceptance of violence. We are one of many voices of reason in a world that seems destined for self-destruction. In the face of a million options for killing and hate and violence and destruction, I choose peace – in my life, in my desire for others, in my hope for my child. If someone wants to stand there, empowered with their arsenal and call me a coward, so be it.

I would like to thank Bespectacledape for his post, The Weakness Stereotype. It inspired me to follow through on the thoughts that have been nagging at me this last week.

Waging Peace, One Thought at a Time


This post is my monthly contribution to Bloggers for Peace.

Sometimes you read something and it never goes away. It’s a nagging thought, a bur under the saddle, something that whispers in the background. This is my bur: Thoughts as acts of aggression. When I first read Practicing Peace in a Time of War by Pema Chödrön, I had a knee jerk reaction when she suggested that peace, on a grand scale, starts in our heads. I saw thoughts as generally harmless, internal, a way of coping with stress. I humor my irritations, my opinions, my stubbornness, never realizing that my kind of thinking starts wars.

We live in a time when digging in and shouting and taking retribution reigns over the softer voice, “wait, breathe, think”. I consider myself a reasonable person, until I start to think about parenting choices, conservatism, women’s issues and racism. Then I know, I am an aggressive, angry thinker. I have hard edges resistant to the other side. I am not listening. I am not waiting for reasoned dialogue. I have trained my brain to shut up tight, protecting its opinions to the detriment of my own enlightenment.

Many years ago, when I was in a management position, I said something unflattering about another employee. I was overheard and subsequently called to the mat for it. I was angry at the person, who overheard, for reporting me and angry at my employers. I worked quickly to rationalize my behavior by saying things to myself like  “It was true – it wasn’t that awful of a thing to say. Why did she have to be so sensitive? She’s a jerk. I loathe her. I can’t believe that I worked for my employers for so long and they immediately took her side.”

The incident would have passed had it not been for the aggression I felt. That thought cycle churned in me until I felt I had no choice but to resign from my job.  It took several months after leaving the job for me to soften. I wasn’t angry at other people. I was disappointed with myself for being so unprofessional and unkind. I was sad that I had upended many years of good service by not maintaining appropriate boundaries. I allowed my shame and embarrassment to become anger and resentment because I did not want to deal with the pain. I would rather quit than feel that pain.

Aggression, whether on the battlefield or in your head, becomes a self-feeding cycle, solidifying more intransigent and bitter thoughts with each shot fired. We teach ourselves to hate so that we can continue the fight. If we stop for a moment, patiently waiting for our true thoughts to emerge, we soften. We feel our own vulnerabilities, our pain. We begin to see that our opponents really want the same things – safe homes for their families, healthy and happy children, the opportunity to work and create and feel needed, education, food, all the basic human needs and wants. The heat of war becomes untenable. They are no longer the enemy.

Most of us don’t deal with life and death issues in our everyday life, but all of us experience thoughts of aggression. There is that cliché Would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy? When I first heard that, I shrugged it off. It sounded like being conciliatory for the sake of peace, as if one has no principles or opinions. I see it differently now. Being right means being closed. It means hardening yourself to the point that no amount of negotiating or explaining will help you see the other side. It means waging war, instead of listening and having dialogue.

I struggle with thoughts of aggression everyday. When anger arises, I ask myself, What is this about? Even taking that moment softens me, prevents my thoughts from solidifying into armor. Stay open. Wait. Breathe. Think.

More Bloggers for Peace:

The Mirror That is You at KM Huber’s Blog

Road Peace at This is My Corn

A Split Second to Peace at everyday gurus