A few years ago I decided somewhat impulsively to sign up for some training in personal defense. Specifically, I chose a gym nearby that taught a discipline called Krav Maga and took a few months of training.  I did not last very long, as my chronic back and arthritic shoulder quickly rose up and convinced me these workouts were not sustainable. It is a discipline that draws from various forms of martial arts, but its’ focus is on real-world self-defense situations you might find yourself in. Krav Maga teaches you how to defend yourself against a person with a knife or a gun, for example. It’s not the kind of thing you sign your 8-year-old kid up to do so they will have another after-school activity to go to. However, if you have a teenager, particularly a daughter, you should probably look into it. While Krav Maga certainly does emphasize the need to commit to violence by any means necessary (fingers in the eyes, punch to the throat, kick to the testicles, when your life is in danger, nothing is off the table) I found that there was another more valuable takeaway from the few months I spent with it. What has stayed with me was the teaching that the best way to defend yourself is to avoid being in a confrontation or a dangerous situation in the first place, and the primary way to accomplish that was by learning and practicing situational awareness. This is my story about how situational awareness would have helped me out one Thanksgiving.

I had never really thought about situational awareness before this. I believe the root of it, awareness, being present to what is around in the current moment, is a useful idea. This kind of awareness and presence is no different than the mindful awareness that is taught by meditation practitioners. Situational awareness teaches you to be prepared to respond to actual real-life situations that occur when you are present enough to notice them. The levels of situational awareness the mind exists in can be roughly categorized into five levels. The best analogy and application of them I have seen relates and applies to driving. The first and lowest level of awareness can be considered “Tuned Out”, this is where you are lost completely in your thoughts and are not focused at all on what is around you. Meditation and yoga practitioners refer to this as “monkey mind”, when your brain is overwhelmed with thoughts and you are detached from the present moment and situation. This is the level you are also in when you are absorbed fully by reading a book or watching a movie. In the second level, “Relaxed Awareness” you are paying attention to your surroundings more. Think of driving defensively. You are aware of other cars on the road, and you are paying attention to what they are doing. If a car in the lane next to you starts drifting towards you, your foot covers the brake pedal in anticipation. This level of awareness is not particularly demanding or consuming, you can maintain this level for long periods. You can also be at this level and still have conversations, and listen to music. The third level of awareness, “Focused Awareness” is required when the situation you are in becomes more dangerous or threatening and requires total focus.  If you are driving along in relaxed awareness but then find yourself in a sudden thunderstorm, the kind where you can barely see the cars in front of you, and you find yourself turning off the music and are no longer talking to people, you are in focused awareness. At this level of awareness, there is not an imminent hazard or response required, but you are constantly ready for it. This level of awareness is stressful and exhausting and cannot be maintained for long periods. The fourth level of awareness is “High Alert”, this is the situation where there is actual imminent danger, and you need to respond. You are driving in that thunderstorm and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, there is an accident directly in front of you blocking your lane. This is a fight or flight moment and immediate action needs to be taken. If you have been in focused or even relaxed awareness before this occurred, you were better prepared to respond to this need for action. The last and highest level of situational awareness can be considered “Frozen” or “Comatose”. This is the situation where an immediate danger or threat has suddenly emerged, but your brain is unable to formulate a response, you are overwhelmed and you simply freeze. Have you ever been so surprised in a conversation by something you were caught genuinely shocked and speechless? This is a mild variety of this. In the worst case, a crime or natural disaster is unfolding around you, and you are unable to muster a response of any kind. The key to avoiding becoming “Frozen” then, is to move up and down the ladder of awareness in steps rather than jumping straight up from “Tuned Out”. In my daily life now, I practice this discipline. However, in the fall of 2017, at the Cary Farmers Market in Cary, NC, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, I did not have the knowledge of situational awareness I do today, and it proved costly.

It was a sunny, pleasant fall day in Cary. My wife and I had made the two-hour drive there from our home in Charlotte to pick up our daughter, who was attending N.C. State University, for the Thanksgiving holiday. We were hosting a large family Thanksgiving, and we were going to our favorite bakery (LaFarm, which makes the best bread) to buy bread for the meal as part of the trip. After our bakery stop, on our way to our daughters’ apartment, we were driving through downtown Cary. It is a nice small town center, which is always comforting to see considering how many of these similar town centers were abandoned, first in favor of shopping malls, and then online shopping. We decided to stop when we saw a sign by a small parking lot indicating there was a farmers market. We were about to prepare several meals for a large family, maybe there was something we could pick up there. Walking a short distance to the market after parking, there were fallen leaves on the ground, the fall air was cool and crisp, and there was a slight breeze, it was a perfect fall day. All that and we were going to be seeing our daughter soon, it was wonderful. 

We walked around the small market for a few minutes, but with it being very late in the fall, there was not much available in the way of produce, this was to be expected. Going over what we still needed to buy and cook, we stopped at a stall that had fresh eggs advertised for sale. We always needed those. The gentleman behind the table looked like a farmer. He was older, dressed in flannel and work boots that looked like they had put in a shift. I asked for two dozen eggs if they could spare them, they could. No problem. Great. He then mentioned to me that they still had some turkeys left. Some turkeys (frozen) that they had raised themselves, were not, as he put it “spoken for”. The phrase “spoken for” added an air of exclusivity to the poultry. With that, he gestured to his right, where I could see a neat row of large cardboard boxes lined up next to a parked pickup truck. I initially was not very interested, nor was even paying that much attention, in my mind I was done and my brain was moving on already to the next stop on our trip. But my wife reminded me we had not bought a turkey yet, so why not get one here? Without any real thought or consideration, I said sure, I will take one. At that point, he went over to turkey row and grabbed me a box with what he said had a 21 lb frozen turkey in it. It certainly was a large box, seemingly the right size for such a monster. Sure, that’s great, let’s pay up and go. I had already pulled out my wallet when he started totaling up the bill. I think initially I was looking up at the trees, some of them still had fall leaves on them.  We were at a farmers market stall of course, where the bill typically is figured out on a piece of paper or an old-school calculator. Now, I had my credit card out, in my right hand, arm extended forward towards the farmer in the act of purchasing, when I saw the number on the display of the old school calculator. The display read $142. I was staring at the number, too overwhelmed to move or speak, My mouth was hanging wide open. It all happened so fast. Just then, he said “Oh, wait, sorry I’ve made a mistake.” with a concerned look staring down at his calculator. At that moment, I exhaled. It felt like I was holding my breath for two minutes. It was a long deep exhale of relief. I thought surely, that digit in the hundreds place I was staring at was the mistake, and that it would shortly disappear. Just then, after another few seconds of fiddling, he had sorted out the correct total for me. “That’s better.” The new total was on the display. $148. “I forgot the two dozen eggs the first time.” I was plunged back into shock, it was like jumping into icy water. My mind swirled. I am certain my credit card was still in my hand, at the end of my frozen outstretched arm, as it had been a moment ago. I couldn’t move, I was unable to process a thought, much less a question. The whole episode, the calculation, the recalculation, probably took no more than 10 or 15 seconds but in my memory now it occurs all in slow motion. With that, he took the card from me, swiped it through a card reader on his cell phone, and we were done.

My wife carried the eggs away, and I, with my large cardboard box containing my very heavy and expensive new turkey, walked back to the car in silence. For the first few minutes, I couldn’t speak. It was only after some time had passed on the drive home that I was able to formulate a thought. And that thought wasn’t a very coherent or productive one. “What the f*** just happened back there?” was about all I could muster. This was the denial that people who find themselves confronted with a situation feel when they go directly from “Tuned Out”  into the “Frozen” state, they freeze, and there is a belief that it can’t be real. That is exactly what happened to me.

With the passing of time, I was able to gain perspective on the disaster that had befallen me. I felt good about helping a small farmer by giving him some business. Eventually, after I learned about the discipline of situational awareness, I was better prepared for potentially dangerous situations like that farmer’s market. I told my guests repeatedly that Thanksgiving that they were eating a very special turkey, easily the most expensive any of them had ever seen, and they should feel fortunate for the privilege. Some quick math after the fact tells me that turkey was $6.99 a pound, an unheard-of cost. After four hours in the oven, it ended up tasting like every other turkey I had ever had in my life. But more importantly, I had an anecdote.


  1. “A Practical Guide to Situational Awareness.” Stratfor. Accessed January 19, 2023. https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/practical-guide-situational-awareness. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.