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Review | Smile at Strangers By Susan Schorn

Posted by Rebecca G. Aguilar, M.Ed. on June 14, 2013

Smile at Strangers by Susan Schorn

ISBN-13: 9780547774336
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 5/28/13
Pages: 304

Learning how to stand, how to walk and how to acknowledge others are salient lessons for a woman training in martial arts. Making eye contact with perfect strangers… incongruous advice or the worst self-defense tip ever?

Susan Schorn insists that perfecting kata under a dedicated sensei can be quite life transforming. The author of a new memoir Smile at Strangers: And Other Lessons in the Art of Living Fearlessly, Schorn pens funny, but sage observations training in karate at Sun Dragon Martial Arts for Women and Children in Austin, Texas.

Prefaced by traditional Zen proverbs, the chapters slice “each messy, inexact lesson into a single note; a precise tone.” Some of Schorn’s writing levels some hackneyed looks at suburban living as well as an occasional womb-knitting magick shop clerk. The sharpest observations come from the dojo where she engages with her sensei and sparring partners in an aggressive form of Kyokushin fighting.

There is no fancy circling or dancing in Kyokushin, which was used by Cobra Kai to fight Daniel in The Karate Kid. Blocking happens only when a Kyokushinkai is clearing a path for a barrage of fierce, relentless strikes. According to Schorn, this form of karate delivers immediate results and makes a superb fighting style for women.

“The last thing people expect a woman to do when threatened is to close the distance while throwing a jab to the face, follow with a reverse hammerfist to the temple and finish things off by kicking her fallen opponent in the groin.”

“Of course, if people did expect that, women probably wouldn’t get threatened as often.”

Checking wrong-headed assumptions that women invite violence when they make crucial errors about their safety, Schorn tears apart standard claims and less than expert advice for thwarting attacks.

In the chapter of the same kowa, Schorn writes “If you want to feel safe, be prepared to feel uncomfortable.Consider the off-balance stance we take to appear lady-like: leaning most of the weight on one foot with the other foot in front.

“In it, you’re easy to knock over or push around. Next, try putting your feet shoulder-width apart with your weight divided fifty-fifty. Bend your knees just the slightest bit. Straighten your back. This stance is balanced and stable and gives you a lot options for moving or maintaining your position. It also looks stronger to an observer. It makes you a less inviting target.”

Comparing the two stances in front of a mirror while wearing a skirt, she asks readers, “Which one makes you look like John Madden in a dress?” According to Schorn, this is precisely the look that will make you more fearless.

She enrolled in the dojo yearning to punch and yell and by the time Sun Dragon experienced a reorg and refurbishing, she had dialed back her need for complete control. In the spirit of budo—“the way to stop the spear”—Schorn and Sun Dragon would turn to Seido, a more evolved form of karate and self-mastery.

As for the reasons to make eye contact with strangers, Schorn shares the wisdom she learned from scrutinizing her own set of limiting beliefs and fears.

  1. When you ignore someone, you aren’t really setting a boundary. You’re pretending there’s no need for one.
  2. People who feel ignored tend to get louder and more persistent.
  3. Any moment of communication, however brief, is an opportunity for assessing behavior and threat potential.
  4. Ignoring people denies them their basic human dignity.

Smile at Strangers by Susan Schorn is a highly worthwhile read for the sharp, honest and funny life meditations of a senpai black belt driven by real or imagined attackers in the dark.

Category: Nonfiction, Memoir

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