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I just came upon an interesting article from the BBC about how men and women respond differently to danger. Nothing new here, women are more emotional than men, and that’s fine. Like we say in France, “vive la diffĂ©rence.” Our physical differences are obvious, and most martial arts consider them in training, more as precautions to be taken for either gender than anything else. Styles too rigid in their form unfortunately most likely cater to men. As a rule, women are not as physically strong as men. Training that relies on force only serves a small group of people, excluding women, children and elders. I can only think of Aikido and Systema as not relying on force but momentum and body mechanics. Force helps, but you can’t count on it. The strongest fighter can be injured or sick, thus losing most of his abilities if trained to win by force only.

The emotional response difference is what in my opinion constitutes a good argument in favor of a slightly different training approach, which actually can also benefit men. The Polish study I mention above found that a different area of the brain is triggered for men and women when they encounter danger; the left thalamus for women, the left insula for men.

Researcher Dr Andrzej Urbanik said: “This might signal that when confronted with dangerous situations, men are more likely than women to take action.”

The Biography channel has a great show called “I survived,” where people tell their stories of survival. The accounts are incredible. The men and women who make it through those horrendous life-and-death situations have a strong will to survive. You can however see a different pattern between sexes. A woman’s first response is more emotional while a men’s is immediate action. A man will not wonder why something is happening to him or if he is somewhat to blame. After a few seconds or minutes, it all comes down to survival and fighting. This emotional delay however can cost women precious seconds that might make a difference. Note that this can happen to men too, and that women do not ponder and waste time when it comes to defending their children. Training should take this difference into account. I have been a “bad guy” in a couple of women’s self-defense seminars, and we had to charge them yelling obscenities, which was hard enough for me to do! None of them could at first handle the pressure. They could take a man down if he just attacked them, but start yelling and be aggressive, and they could not. The motion was the same, but the emotional assault was too much. Eventually, they all got over it and performed well. This is where I believe training for the physical part of the assault is as important as getting used to the emotional one. This can be important for men too, as the “fight or flight” symptoms can be quite overwhelming. Rapid heart rate, shaking knees, tension, tunnel vision, the effects of adrenalin might be good in general for the survival of a specie, but not for the individual in our modern settings.

Another thing to consider is women’s reticence to hurt people. In training, I always have a hard time getting women to hit me hard enough. It takes a good amount of coaching to convince them that, no, it doesn’t hurt that bad, if at all. Most men without training can not strike hard enough to cause any significant injury, practically no women can do so. No offense intended here, it is simply a fact. It takes a lot to injure someone if you don’t know how. I heard so many times things like “Oh, I would just hit him in the nuts.” Sorry to disappoint, but first, what makes you think you will be able to strike that area? Assaults are not agreed-upon events. Most often than not, they will happen from the back. Kicking a man in the groin is certainly extremely painful, but it will not cause injury that can physically stop someone, like a broken knee. And boy, will that guy be pissed-off. Moreover, alcohol and drugs can dull the pain quite a bit. Real self-defense training should get women used to the idea of causing injury to their attackers, not only “hurt them.”

Men, while they have no problem hitting each-other, have a hard time hitting women. That is, the men I know anyway. Domestic abuse statistics prove that there are too many exceptions. I have a very hard time doing so myself in training. It is kind of going against a hard-wired directive. I have heard a few women complain about not getting a good enough training because the men in their classes barely hit them. I am not suggesting men to hit the women in their class as hard as their 200Lbs male buddies.. However, one has to be realistic to make training effective. The Yale University School of Medicine and Veterans Affairs Connecticut Health Care System have a study reported in the New York Times suggesting that women can take pain better than men. I am not surprised, as I can’t imagine going through the pain of giving birth, and wanting to do it a second time!

I will conclude by saying that the specific areas that women should assess in training would probably benefit men as well. I believe that it is important to consider the emotional part of violence when preparing for it, not only the mechanical aspects. Any real-life combat system should.

I just stumbled on this article: Half Singapore children suffer from allergies: study. I had never heard about allergies before 1993, when I moved to the United States. The only ones I knew of were serious, and potentially fatal, like my mother being allergic to penicillin. Seasonal allergies or other common types seen today simply did not exist.

Call me a dirty Frenchman if you want, but the cause seems obvious to me: The modern obsession with cleanliness. Singapore doesn’t surprise me, because it is one of the cleanest cities in the world. Not that I have anything against that, I like cleanliness too. However, when the practice goes too far, it poses a threat to all of us. I think that our immune system, if not challenged once in a while, will not be able to defend us when we really need it. I am not asking you to go lick your toilet bowl or the next stray dog you see on the street! If I didn’t live in Florida, I probably would shower every other day. I don’t use hand sanitizers. I don’t mind getting dirty working outside, eat fruits and vegetables I just pulled from a tree or the ground.. We need to get exposed to germs, the benign ones anyway.

When I was a kid, I spent all day playing outside, getting scrapes on my knees, cutting myself, eating things that should have been cooked or cleaned, and coming back home covered with dirt. My parents didn’t seem to mind. It was just what children do. These days, a child won’t be admitted to school with the sniffles. Let them all catch that cold or chicken pox, and be done with it.

The media has us all in a panic about swine flu. Before, it was bird flu, and before that, Spanish flu.. What is it going to be next, fish flu? We get flu every year. Some people die from it, mostly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions; nothing new here. It’s just the flu. You don’t need to sanitize your hands twenty times a day or stay home because of it.

Allergy medicines are big business. Schering-Plough made billions with Claritin. Doctors will push allergy medicine as much as they can. Are the possible long term effects of those drugs better than the discomfort they treat? For some maybe, but overall, I doubt it.

If you want to stay in good health, have a good personal hygiene, but don’t be obsessive. Let go of the bleach a little, and don’t sterilize everything you eat or touch. If you get sick, well, you’re just exercising your immune system. If you have kids, protect and watch over them, but let them be kids and get dirty playing outside. You will make them stronger adults. Avoid loading yourself up with over-the-counter anti-allergy medicine. If you have a problem, see your doctor, but remember that he wants you to buy the stuff.. Eat healthy and exercise, that is probably the best way to a healthy body and mind.

I have been interested in martial arts since probably around age twelve. There wasn’t many classes available in my home town of Comines (France), only traditional Judo and Karate. I tried a few Judo classes, but it wasn’t what I had in mind when thinking about martial arts. Judo would actually have given me a good base, but I chose karate, because let’s face it, it was flashier, more like what I saw on television! Progress however was slow. Not only did we have to repeat precise movements over and over, but we also had to remember their names, in Japanese. I didn’t question their methods. There was an older (I just say that to make myself feel better) girl in class who had a brown belt and could kick my ass. I thought that eventually, I would get there.. Four years later, I wasn’t much better, but I didn’t know it. My training, or so I thought, would have been sufficient to prevail in most violent encounters. I am rolling my eyes here thinking about how naive I was and how little I knew. Fortunately, I didn’t find out after waking up on a hospital bed, like so many “martial artists” who encounter real violence. No, I got punched by my little brother! The worst part is, I told him to do it. But I told him to hit me with a right to show him a cool move. He used the left… Wham! I said “no, you can’t hit me like that.” That’s when reality set in.. What I learned worked, only in the dojo…

I wasn’t about to give up. I later found a Kung-Fu class in Villeneuve d’Ascq, 45 minutes away on my 50cc motorcycle (a glorified moped actually). Most of the time, that meant 45 minutes in the cold, or rain, or both. What we trained in was a sort of stylish Karate. The teaching methods were about the same. I did last six months in that class, just because the techniques were more refined, more clever. In the end, it wasn’t any more effective. Unfortunately, I regained that false confidence that comes so easily when among peers, unchallenged. When a Tae-Kwon-Do class opened right across the border, on the Belgian side of the town, I gave it a try. This time, it was sort of an aerobatic karate. Fortunately we also did full contact, and that was somewhat better. Ground fighting back then was not popular like it is now. That experience didn’t last long. One of the students ended-up sleeping with the teacher’s wife (now, that’s what I call having some balls). The class closed shortly after that. So, I had trained for years in different styles and was pretty confident of my abilities. But confidence isn’t a bad thing, right? Well, only if it isn’t misplaced…

Not far from my house was a “maison de la jeuness” of sort, a youth house, with a bar, ping-pong tables and whatnot. I don’t think the bar was supposed to serve alcohol, but it wasn’t like anyone would card you in France if you looked old enough to ride a bicycle. I was wearing a black leather jacket, which I set on the back of a chair to play ping-pong. After a while I heard a ruckus behind me, some drunk guy jumping on tables, wearing a jacket too big for him… Mine! I decided to finish the game before leaving. He would get tired of it and leave it somewhere around, I figured. I just kept a eye on him to make sure he didn’t leave. Ten minutes later, it was time for me to go home, and I asked him to give me my jacket back. “Come a get it!” he screamed.. That moron was going to waste my time. I ran after him. He couldn’t run straight, so it wasn’t long before I caught him. He tried to swing at me, but I was holding him by his collar, actually, my collar. Now, I have long arms, and he was smaller than me. He tried to swing at my face repeatedly, but wasn’t making contact. I thought that was pretty funny and laughed. His face turned red, he violently shook himself free and pulled a knife out of his pocket. By that time, we were outside, with about two dozen witnesses around. I heard someone yell “cut him!” (went to see the guy afterwards. He apologized profusely). This is when false confidence can get you killed. I stood my ground, in a classic karate stance. Today, I would simply leave, I don’t care. At eighteen years old, you don’t think conservatively. In a way I am glad I didn’t turn around. I don’t know if that would have been better or not. He may have decided to attack if I hesitated. I made one step forward. He hesitated for a couple seconds, then suddenly put the knife back in his pocket, and threw my jacket on the ground. The incident was over. Lucky or not, I can’t help but think about the consequences, had he attacked. We had a photo in our Systema class of someone’s back after been sliced. You can see it here, with other gruesome photos (NOT FOR KIDS!) That always turned “knife fighting” from “cool” to “get me out of here” in two seconds flat, for most people, me included. The others never stayed more than for a few lessons.

I gave up martial arts as soon as I could buy a gun. I trained regularly for ten years. I would go to Arras, when the only IPSC (International Practical Shooting Confederation) club was. I became pretty proficient with pistols and sub-machine-gun (Owned a Mini-Uzi for three years). I kept on shooting until I moved to Florida in 1993. Five years ago, riding a Honda 600 on a dark rainy night in Sarasota, a driver cut me off in front of Marina Jack. I hit the car head-on at 40mph. I saw the car below me, then the sky, then the pavement, crashed on my face on the wet asphalt. I remained conscious the whole time, got a helicopter ride to Tampa where they put my shoulder back in it’s socket and inserted a titanium rod inside my broken femur. I had no insurance, so they let me out after only eight days, without reeducation or anything else for that matter. I can’t blame them, I didn’t have the money. I knew however that I needed to do my own reeducation if I wanted to walk properly again.

When I was well enough to run around with a cane, I started to go out again. One night I met my friend Milos at Jacks (now Esca). I knew he was into some Russian martial art, and started asking him a few questions. Was it some sort of Russian Judo? I had heard of Sambo before. He assured me it was quite different, and invited me to the class. I made my way to Orange Avenue on my new GSXR1100 (I know, I never say I was quite sane). I could barely climb the stairs to the class. They had a couch there. The room was small, without mats, just a thin office carpet over concrete. The students were wearing normal clothes, some camo pants, jeans, sweat pants, whatever. Some wore shoes, some didn’t. They had no rank belts.

The class started with warm-up exercises, hard ones. Then a ten-minute static push-up, which not everyone finished. The instructor, Sonny, ex Spetsnaz soldier, looked like a though guy who knew what he was doing. The real work started. That’s how we call it, “work.” I guess because Systema used to be only for “professionals.” Sonny had one of his best students Blake attack him any way he wanted. I have seen many martial arts demonstration when I was younger, and I always had the same reaction: “Waoh!” Not this time. This time, it was: “Oh shit…” I knew what I saw was real, and it was the first time I saw it.

Systema doesn’t teach much techniques, it teaches principles. You don’t have to remember any names of moves in Russian, any more than you have to remember the moves themselves. How is that possible you may ask? Without going into every principle, the four main ones being: Breathing, movement, form and relaxation, I will try to explain. There is an infinite number of ways an opponent can attack you, with or without weapons. Preparing to defend against every possible attack, even against every possible kind of attack is a fantasy.

One of the first thing you learn is to move aside. It sounds simple, but it isn’t so easy. Many arts teach blocking. That’s may be fine in some cases, but what if the blow this time comes from a baseball bat? Want to block it? I think not. However, if you have been practicing blocks for years, you may just do that. If you have never trained in martial arts, you probably will. Some people just freeze, an old evolutionary reflex, and get hit in the head without moving an inch. So, you learn to relax and step aside. Not too much, because you want to be close enough to inflict damage to your attacker. You move just enough to let the fist (or whatever else) graze you. That’s where we do our “work,” intimately close, where it will be most uncomfortable and devastating to your attacker. By stepping aside, you can exploit your opponent’s momentum. By not learning techniques, your mind is free to invent it’s next move on the fly, because your brain has learned body mechanics through training, not moves set in stone.

Learning was fast. After three months, I could ask any friend to attack me any way they wanted. Something would come out.. At least, I was avoiding the strikes or kicks, or anything weird my most creative friends would come up with. I learned something I now repeat often to new students: “Move your feet first.” It’s not quite as simple, but it helps them like it helped me.

Next comes the relaxation. Relax in a fight? You can take much harder blows without damage when you’re relaxed. Drunk drivers seldom get killed in the accidents they cause, because they are loose. I don’t even get that many bruises anymore, because I am pretty relaxed when sparring. I am still learning to relax, and more specifically, relax different parts of my body. Good Systema practitioners can use selective tension and relaxation to confuse or hurt an opponent. I am only beginning to explore that realm after more than four years of training.

Good movement is a prerequisite of survival. We learn to move constantly. Our strikes and movements are more circular than linear. This way, you don’t stop moving and become a sitting duck. With good movement, you need good form. Simply stated, keep your back straight. If you need to go down, bend your knees, not your back. Simple in theory, difficult in practice. When a fist flies at your face, your natural reflex is to bend backwards while raising your hands, leaving your feet right where they were. The problem is, you’re still in the line of attack, and now a slight push will make you topple over. Not to mention that you could trip on something behind you. Again, those are principles, not techniques. Once you can reasonably move in a relaxed manner, a flurry of opportunities “magically” appear for you to take advantage of. Actually, your brain, free of unreasonable fear, has learned to recognize those opportunities and make your body move as to steal your opponent’s movement and make it yours, to his demise.

Breathing might sound simple enough. Everyone breathes, we have been since we were born. I remember learning to play the guitar. I would be so tense and concentrated that I would forget to breathe! The same happens in a fight. I still forget sometimes, fighting on the ground. Our strength comes from both the food we ingest and oxygen. There isn’t any time to eat a power bar when someone puts a knife to your throat, so oxygen is your next best choice. Forget to breathe for a few seconds, and you will be in a world of trouble fifteen or twenty seconds later, even after resuming it. I used to find 2-minute full contact rounds exhausting. Now I can last easily ten minutes or more, just by breathing properly and relax. I was sixteen then, I am forty two now. Breathing is also essential to absorb blows, and avoid panic in some situations.

The teaching methods of Systema were developed for the Russian elite special forces. Training elite soldiers is expensive. The faster they learn the better. Systema is fast to learn, even though prospective students find the training awfully slow at first. The reason is that you can’t learn something well by starting to do it fast. No music teacher will try to tech you to play guitar by having you try to play like buckethead (Google him!). Your start slow, your brain learns. As time goes, you slowly learn to replace the flinch response by more appropriate movements.

Strikes are an art in itself within Systema. All parts of the body are used to strike. Blows are loose and heavy, like hitting with a sledge hammer on a string. I often strike with my shoulders, elbows, forearm.. unlike most martial arts, strike are multi-directional, and used to affect an opponent’s form and balance. We learn to take punches too, and getting hit in the body by an experienced instructor can be a sobering experience. A good instructor will find out what your comfort level is, and hit you slightly above it. After a few months, you really just don’t care much anymore.. There are not set techniques here either, and the same general principles apply. Emphasis is on avoiding injury. The only goal of Systema is survival.

Systema is not the only combat system teaching principles versus techniques. I mentioned it here because that’s what I know. Other such systems are mostly military in nature and reserved for special forces. Nobody else, aside from some law enforcement agencies need that level of efficiency in hand-to-hand combat. I say combat here, not fighting. Fighting is a sport, or an agreed upon duel. Combat is when someone tries to kill you, without warning. Most “general public” martial art practitioners fortunately will never have to use their skills. Those who will probably will face unexperienced attackers, and the techniques they know might be enough, with a bit of luck. Our instructor used to tell us about a fictitious character named Todd, or whatever his name was at the time:

Todd is an angry man. He just finished his second tour in Iraq and saw things that really desensitized him to violence and death. He himself killed a few people at close range. He started to go a little crazy, so the Army had to let him go. Back home, Todd didn’t fare too well, started using meth, couldn’t keep a job. He blamed it on everyone else but himself. Todd spent all his time at the gym, getting stronger. He is 6’2”, 250Lbs of muscles. Todd trains five times a week in various martial arts, practices knife fighting. On week-ends, he goes to the range and shoots a thousand rounds, pistol and assault rifle in realistic situations, moving targets while on the move. His wife has had enough of his physical and verbal abuse, and just left him. He is furious! He needs to take it on someone, and goes out, fuming, looking for a victim. That night, that someone turns out to be you…

That is when techniques won’t be enough to save you. Only a good physical condition, with good sound principles of combat will give you a chance. Whatever your art or discipline is, you can always incorporate those principle in your system. Free yourself of limitations imposed by tradition and dogma, and let your mind show you what it can do. If you never trained in martial arts or self defense, then make sure the style you get into isn’t too strict and limited in it’s teachings. Most styles labeled as “traditional” are outdated. You should probably visit quite a few schools before signing-up.. If there is a Systema group near you, give them a chance, go to a few sessions. Training should be fun. Keep an open mind, that is the best way to learn.

I had never been interested in boats until a few years ago. Not that I didn’t have the opportunity to sail, but the North Sea isn’t a friendly body of water, not to mention the weather.. My first day on a boat was out of Dunkerque (WWII buffs know the town) in a heavy chop and rain. We didn’t even hoist the sail. I used to think of sailing in terms of wetness and hypothermia. That and the fact that I didn’t know anyone else who owned a boat kept me away from marinas for many years. Moreover, owning a decent boat in France is for the rich, thanks to socialism.. You could also encircle the globe with the red tape associated with boating, in France that is..

Fast forward about seventeen years.. An older gentleman, friend of mine whom I met at the airport (he was a P-51 pilot in WWII) invited me to sail around Sarasota. I had the feeling that it was going to be a whole different experience than Dunkerque.. We didn’t go very far, but when the old Atomic 4 engine was shut-off, I was in heaven. We were moving at a decent speed it seemed, even though the scenery wasn’t quite flashing by. Time slowed. If you ever sat in front of a fire in the woods and watched it, the feeling is somewhat similar. There is a sort of fascination about being driven by the wind. The wine and cheese helped quite a bit too.

These days, we fall under the control of many. It isn’t something you really notice until you start wondering about what freedom really is. Politicians love the word, but they never seem to define it. After the advent of the industial age, big money and large goverments, freedom’s definition became a bit fuzzy.

Take your house for instance. You really only own it after it’s paid off, and only if you pay your property taxes. Even after you die, your kids will have to pay an inheritance tax. Which by the way is the biggest racket I ever heard of. You can’t leave and take your house with you. That’s fine if the city or country you live in is heaven on earth, forever, but things change. Many people have been reminded of it in our present economy. You can’t find a buyer in a down market. Boats don’t have that problem. Sure, they lose value every day spent on the water, but a well kept boat can last a lifetime. You get waterfront property for free and pay no property taxes. If things get iffy, you can sail away in the sunset. You’ll never be bothered by Jeovah’s Witnesses either! Those who say that a boat is too small have never seen the inside of a fifty footer. A well ajusted family of six could live well on such a large boat. I would own a house, don’t misunderstand me, but I would also own a boat, be it a small one if that is all I could afford. My Dagny is 32ft on deck, enough for probably four for extended periods of time. I plan on building a bigger one if I can.

Traveling in a post-911 world is more of a hassle, to say the least. You get patted down, scanned, IDed, and arrested for carrying so much as a pocket knife. Hell, you’ll get arrested and jailed for raising your voice in a plane. Don’t shrugg, it has happened. God may have mercy on you if your name happens to be on the terrorist watch list, as this eight-year-old found out. If there ever was a large scale evacuation, or some sort of country-wide lock down, you might not even be able to leave. A sailboat gives you that option.

The first time I lost sight of land while at the helm was in a plane, flying to the Bahamas. It lasted all but ten minutes before I spotted West-End. I wasn’t concerned, but found myself checking my oil temperature and pressure guages a bit more often. I imagine that being away from land for days or weeks in a boat is not for the faint of heart. You can get used to almost anything though.. You are after all traveling in your own house. There is plenty to do on a boat, and you can always load-up on books, musical instruments, DVDs, video games and fishing tackle. How else could you travel around the world for a reasonable amount of money?

Sailboats are not just toys to sail around the ICW. They give you global mobility if you ever need it. Once you get into international waters, you are your own master. A boat can take you and your family out of a bad area to safety. More than powerboats, sailboats can become a lifestyle that might be the only way to truly be free in this world. And of course, it is always nice to go out for a day, drink wine and eat cheese while anchored near a local uninhabited tropical island..