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Home: The Toast

In Krav Maga, you learn the correct fighting stance first. It is imperative to have a strong base. Tuck your chin, space out your hands in front of your face, close but not too close to your cheeks or to each other, your wrists and fingers loose, relaxed but prepared to clench at any moment. Place your feet on the ground about shoulder-width apart, gently but firmly, one foot forward and one back; stay on the balls of your feet, knees slightly bent, able to glide forward or back, able to pounce. Are you ready? From now on, this is how you will face the world.

We often forget, or try to, that there is an ever-shifting line separating us from chaos. As likely as not, we don’t know where exactly that line rests or how it moves. It’s difficult and uncomfortable to conduct daily life while thinking about it, so we tend to push it aside. If we are lucky, we can continue doing this for most of our lives without confronting just how often the damage can engulf us. If we aren’t lucky, at some point we come nose-to-nose with this fact.

In the spring of 2008, my cousin Stefan was stabbed seventeen times before he died. The “friend” who killed him was high and enraged over some imagined romance between his ex-wife and my cousin. He went home and confessed the crime to his brother, who immediately took him to the police, but it wasn’t fast enough to save Stefan. He had already bled out on the side of the quiet, wooded road where he had been left.

Two years later, at his own front door, my sister’s fiancé, Jeff, was shot in the chest by a sixteen-year-old with a criminal record who was there to rob him. His lung collapsed, and he choked to death before the ambulance reached the hospital where my sister, a nurse, happened to be working that night; she saw him but was too late to say goodbye. It was several days before his killer was arrested.

Both of these murderers are now in prison, for what it’s worth, which some days isn’t much. Stefan and Jeff are the not the only people my family knows who have been murdered, but they are the ones closest to us. They are the ones whose losses will always ripple outward, resolutely spreading across our lives.

A kick is often your strongest combative. The groin kick is particularly effective when you throw it properly, aiming to hit your opponent’s soft, vulnerable tissue with your shin. Get into your fighting stance, and with your weight on your front leg, throw the kick from your back leg, straight up the middle of the body facing you. Derive your power from the ground, from engaging your hips in the thrust of the kick, from giving your lower leg a little extra flick as it connects. Remember to keep your arms up to protect your face, and always draw your leg back quickly into your fighting stance so you don’t get entangled as your attacker doubles over.

“Krav Maga” means contact combat in Hebrew, and it is the intimate body language of violence broken down into neat little steps. Created by Imi Lichtenfeld in the 1930s and adapted for civilian use in the ‘60s, it is the official self-defense and hand-to-hand combat style of the Israeli Defense League, the Israeli National Police, and countless other law enforcement agencies worldwide. Lichtenfeld, a gifted athlete and fighter, developed the techniques of Krav Maga through trial and error because he often found himself the target of anti-Semitic groups in his home of Bratislava. Through his many street fights and his victories and defeats, he built a system that takes natural movements and turns them into methods of protection and weapons of self-defense. The physical training is accompanied by mental training, preparing the practitioner to be aggressive, to finish the fight.

I personally feel comfortable with Krav Maga because it focuses on taking charge of yourself, of your movements and reactions, which are frequently the only elements of a situation you have the power to affect. But there is no acceptance taught with it, no search for some type of zen through a fighting form. It is about doing whatever you have to do to make it home. It is about channeling the violence that comes at you, redirecting it in a way that doesn’t destroy you. Ultimately, it’s about living.

Maybe that’s why I cried when my physical therapist told me, after my second son was born, that I couldn’t return to Krav Maga for six months. (I have been studying Krav for five years, minus a year off for pregnancy.) Her face froze at my reaction; I think she was a little afraid that I might have a total breakdown in her office over my abs, which had turned as useless and quivering as pudding. I couldn’t explain, because I didn’t know how without spilling the entire story, the tangle of fear and rage and confusion and helplessness that led me to Krav in the first place. Even most of the people in my class, the men and women who hold the pads for me while I pummel them and who then hit me back, don’t know why I am there. I don’t know why most of them are there either; I’ve never felt it was appropriate to ask, which is probably just a projection of my own anxieties and desire for privacy. I don’t want to discuss the neverending aftermath of murder with someone who is about to grab me in a choke hold and shove me against a wall, or sit on my hips, restraining me while I struggle to throw him off. I work through these scenarios with some comforting sense of anonymity based on the assumption that no one in the class means me any harm, nor do they expect me to talk about anything other than the technicalities of the attack and defense, the pleasantries of work and the weather.

The first punch you learn in Krav Maga is the straight punch. Get into your fighting stance, and push all of the energy in your body out through one fist, going into your attacker. From your shoulder straight to the target, you must be fast, fierce, furious. Don’t forget to recoil your fist, to hold it ready to hit again. In multiple situations, this is your first line of defense, your opening move. It should stun or drop your attacker immediately. If it doesn’t and he keeps going, so do you.

Sometimes, I wonder whether Stefan tried to fight back when he was stabbed. Everyone talks about the fight-or-flight response, but freezing is the third option evolution has provided to us. In many situations but especially if they think they are being punched instead of stabbed, people often react by staying still, curling into themselves, waiting for it to be over. That may work in some attacks but rarely turns out well when a knife is involved. You can’t blame the untrained person who freezes though; it’s hard to outwit instinct. I know this firsthand because it’s basically what I did the first time I was hit in a kung fu class. I put my arms up by my face, and I laughed, which embarrasses me now. It was my honest first reaction though, because wasn’t it absurd that this person, who didn’t even know me, could be mad enough to punch me? How could he just hit me like that?

As kids, we imagine bad deeds and bad guys as monsters under the bed or in the closet, sometimes bumbling around and sometimes slithering out to make your heart skip a beat, but always clearly announcing themselves as evil. That is poor preparation for how violence happens in life though. If it showed itself so obviously, no one would ever be tricked into sticking around long enough to get hurt. Instead, it often appears in a way as mundane as opening your own front door or taking a ride with a friend; it sneaks in through something as ordinary as a phone call. The day is bright and normal until, irrevocably, it isn’t.

It is up to you to decide what to do about it. Do you know how not to freeze? Do you know what to do when you cannot run? Do you throw a defensive front kick, knee your attacker in the chest or in the face? Do you headbutt the soft, flexible parts of his head, gouge at the nose, the eyes?

I have learned when to use multiple different combatives in theory but never put any of it into practice. Luckily, I haven’t had the need. No one has ever hit me outside of the context of a martial arts class, and I have only once hit someone in my own defense. Honestly, I didn’t really need to do it, but I was twelve and angry; he was my classmate, and that day he just wouldn’t stop teasing me, poking at me, grabbing my notebook and pens. Hitting him felt good at the time. I didn’t take up martial arts until over ten years after that incident when I studied kung fu for several years; instead, I tried to train myself not to get upset about what I couldn’t control, not to get emotional about what has happened or might happen, but only to deal with what is happening or about to happen. When people talk about possibilities, the endless what-ifs enrage me. Why expend energy on an asteroid that might decimate the earth someday or a superstorm that might wipe out the East Coast? Why consider the statistically unlikely scenario of a violent home invasion? There are more imminent dangers floating in the atmosphere and out in the open.

And then there have been actual near misses that my family must face. First, there was the time my mother reported to jury duty mere minutes after a shooting started in the court house; instead of going inside, she ran away with everyone else as police converged on the building. There was the time my cousin’s deadbeat boyfriend obliquely threatened my grandmother for telling him he wasn’t welcome in her home, suggesting that he knew how to bypass her alarm system. Most recently, there was the time my sister’s (now ex-) boyfriend fell off the wagon and off the deep end, threatening her with a knife that she was able to talk out of his hands before he attacked her, pinning her down, injuring her wrist and back and screaming at her. Finally she managed to break away and call the police.

So I don’t deal in what-ifs. Imagining what could-have-been in my family is falling down a rabbit hole that is always one side-step from tragedy. If I’m feeling superstitious, it seems dangerous even to consider other outcomes than the ones we got. It’s so easy for that line to move, for your luck to turn.

In Krav Maga, you are taught how to disarm an attacker with a handgun. Where to grab the barrel if it’s up against your temple, hand snaking up your side with as little movement as possible, palm out, pushing the line of fire forward and pulling your head back. Turning into the attacker, driving the gun away from you and down, a combination of punches and kicks and whatever it takes until you can reach your other hand around to grasp the back of the gun above the butt, to yank it free, so that you become the threat and not the threatened.

Although it isn’t exactly calming, I read obsessively about violence in the news. I go through scenarios in Krav that mimic active shooter situations or require fending off multiple attackers or defending yourself on a flight of stairs. I watch movies like The House of the Devil in which someone is abruptly shot in the head in the midst of what seems to be a regular conversation. These things are not possibilities, they are reality. My brain nags at me to try to understand what is, on some level, incomprehensible because that doesn’t feel like an acceptable answer. There has to be something at the root of all of this that I can grasp, something that explains what has happened to my family, how we can have known and loved multiple people who have left the world in such a pitiless way. It is a strange, disorienting thing to see all of this violence taking place from a distance, unable to alter the outcomes of any of the situations, unable to help anyone else with their grief, wondering if you really have a right to feel it so deeply yourself. And there is still, always the fear you carefully keep in check: you have a lot left to lose. Who will be coming to try to take it? Will your knowledge and your anger be enough to hold him off?

To be truly prepared to use self-defense, I know now that it is necessary to accept that nowhere is completely safe, that no weapon is foolproof, that tragedy has no saturation point. With that comes a strange sense of freedom because you can stop trying to anticipate everything that might happen and begin the real business of learning to protect yourself and your loved ones. You have the peace of knowing that if the time ever comes, you know how to do everything you possibly can, even though what you can do is undeniably and unfortunately limited. But instead of relying on luck to evade the lurking chaos, you learn the fighting stance. Then you can make your own moves and choose your best defense.

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Katie DePasquale loves telling a good story and making sure it’s correctly punctuated. You can find her blogging on 5cities6women.com or read her latest fiction and essays in Wilderness House Literary Review, Broad!, and Literary Mothers.

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