Concussion: Out Cold but Now I See

I woke up with Maple the golden lab licking my cheek. I blinked, squinted, and he drew back a little with his sad, brown eyes appearing to ask, “Are you OK?” I wasn’t. I started to get up but sank back onto the long soft grass. I have no idea how long I was out cold but there was no doubt that I had been out and even less that I needed to gather myself before standing.

My granddaughter wanted a fort and like a good grandfather I purchased the wood, gathered the tools, and got to work. I was proud of the thing as it came together. I built two levels inside linked with a secure ladder. There are window openings with shutter-doors that latch from the outside and one allowing a view of the house.

Nearing the end of construction, I was kneeling over the last piece of particle board needed to complete the back wall when I stood to double check a measurement and wham. My forehead struck the two-by-four roof truss. Like in a Road Runner cartoon I saw stars. I felt myself crumble and fall backward. After Maple had done his recovery work and I had finally struggled to my feet, I marvelled at my luck. One foot to the left of where I fell was a tangle of sharp cedar branches I had trimmed to make room for the fort. One foot to the left of where I fell was a pile of concrete sidewalk slabs. It was as if a higher being or maybe sheer dumb luck had gently laid me on the sweet spot between where I would have been impaled or suffered a skull fracture.

When I was beginning to feel somewhat like myself again, I cleaned up the site and carefully drove the five-minutes home. I went to bed quite early that night and except for a few shuffles to the bathroom, I slept for 36 hours. The doctor examined me thoroughly the next day and declared that I had suffered a concussion, but that my body had done the best thing possible in shutting off my injured brain. After being knocked out it had knocked me out. She advised me to avoid screens of any kind, rest, and allow my brain time to heal.

It’s been three weeks and the doctor was right about everything. I felt nauseous, fatigued, and unable to focus. While my vision was not blurred, I found reading for even short periods of time quite difficult. The symptoms slowly subsided although my dear wife might say that during my recovery I was about narcoleptic and unfocussed as before I hit my head.

The experience made me consider more seriously the recent initiatives to have sports organizations take concussions more seriously. Most hockey fans recall when Eric Lindros was touted as the next generation’s Wayne Gretsky and the series of concussions that ended it all. Now 43, Mr. Lindros recently appeared at a press conference organized by Governor-General David Johnston, another former hockey player. Mr. Lindros confessed to having little faith that professional sports leagues will do anything substantive to reduce the risk of player concussions or help those who suffer them.

The event’s keynote speaker was Hall of Fame NHL goalie and former federal cabinet minister Ken Dryden. He equated doing something about concussions to doing something about climate change in that we all know the problem is real and must be addressed but we must somehow summon the will to do so. Like with climate change, he said, “It’s time for the decision-makers to catch up to the scientists.”

Some of the former athletes among the 80 guests spoke of hiding their injuries due to a fear of losing their jobs. But they also spoke of the long-term effects of multiple concussions such as memory loss, mood swings, loss of balance, and chronic pain. Everyone knew that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has taken the climate change denier stance of stating that the science on concussions is “nascent” and so there is nothing the league should do. Canadian Football League commissioner, Jeffrey Orridge, has taken a similar stand and recently seemed to miss the sad irony of appearing pleased that last season’s number of reported concussions had dipped from 50 to a still unacceptable 40. No one, of course, has any idea how many were unreported.

Too many professional athletes are suffering permanent damage to their brains despite the protective headgear they wear. Too many of our children and grandchildren are also suffering permanent damage to their brains as they traverse through our fascinating insistence on always having them signed up and suited up to play organized sports rather than simply going outside to play.

Something must be done. With professional leagues stuck in the dinosaur-thinking that has them worried more about their bottom lines than player safety, Mr. Lindros is right in saying we should begin with a national concussion strategy focusing first on children. Governor-General Johnston used a sports metaphor to explain: “When it comes to concussions, let’s skate to where the puck is going.”

Let us take a serious matter seriously and do something about, if for nothing else, for the good of our children. And by the way, my grandchildren love their fort.

out-cold-but-now-i-see

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The Gordie Howe I Remember

Hockey filled my eight-year-old mind with wonder and possibility. Pictures of NHL players filled my bedroom walls. They posed as gladiators, armed and with the power of savage youth just behind their eyes. While there were many among them, one had a shrine – my hero – Gordie Howe.

Every winter my Dad flooded our backyard. It was the best rink the world, my little world anyway. It boasted boards and nets and benches and even lights for skating past bedtime. The neighbourhood kids gathered every afternoon after school and all weekend to become the players on our walls. I was always Gordie Howe. I had a number 9 Red Wings jersey, red pants and red socks. It was Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater; a generation later and a province over.

me as Gordie Howe

(the author on his rink)

Gordie Howe was MVP 6 times and on the All Star team an astounding 22 times. He was a top 5-goal scorer for 20 consecutive seasons and amassed 801 goals. He was his own enforcer. A Gordie Howe hat trick remains a game with a goal, assist, and a fight. Off the ice, however, he was a gentle, shy, ambassador for the game and epitome of how one should wear celebrity. He often took sticks and pucks to hospitals where he visited children to sign autographs and pose for pictures. He never told the media. He did not do it because it would look good; he did it because it was good.

One day my Dad took me to an NHL charity golf tournament. We wandered a little until, oh my goodness there he was, and then, well, after that I really don’t remember. Mr. Howe rubbed my head and asked, “Do you play hockey?” I apparently looked up but could say nothing. Not a word. Mr. Howe asked, “What position do you play son?” I swallowed hard and I guess my lips moved but again not a word. I grinned for a picture with the clenched-fist excitement of an eight-year-old who, for him, had just met the equivalent of God, the Son, and Holy Ghost.

Gordie Howe has died. He’s gone. But for those of my generation he will always be young and strong: a giant of a player and honourable man. And a part of me will always be that skinny kid skating alone on a frigid night and begging Mom for just a little while longer; just a few more minutes to imagine himself bigger and better; just a few more minutes to be Gordie Howe.

Gordie Howe and I

(the author and Gordie Howe)

This article appeared in the Globe and Mail on June 14, 2016. RIP Mr. Howe.

 

Hockey, Trump & Happy in the Hurricane’s Eye

Sometimes I feel a need to apologize. Like everyone, I harbour a few regrets, wish some things were a little different and others a trifle easier. Mostly though, I feel like I’m in a hurricane’s eye. Things are calm here, they’re nice, and yet all around me seems awhirl in furious thunder. While so many are so angry, I’m happy. Sorry.

Am I missing something? I’ve recently seen two sources of curious anger that gave me pause.

Hockey

Hockey is a great sport. Unlike football and baseball, offense and defence flip with no time for pauses or plans. Its beauty is the patterns in the chaos. Hockey culture, on the other hand, is another thing altogether. I’m not talking about the billionaire’s business posing as sport, but children’s hockey.

Hockey, Trump, Happy & the Eye of the Hurricane

It’s not the kids’ fault. Nearly all of them are there for the fun but too many parents see games as invitations to display their character’s worst colours. They yell at referees, coaches, their kids and other peoples’, and sometimes even each other. Those yelling loudest are always those who understand the game least.

How many of those shouting for their kids to do this or that or about someone denying their kid opportunity are revealing personal rage regarding chances they didn’t take or doors slammed on their ambitions? How many parents are pushing kids and attacking others in blatant attempts to chase unrequited dreams through imposing them on their children?

My seven-year-old granddaughter plays on two hockey teams and I love to watch her. The score is kept on the big board but tallying stops whenever the spread grows to more than three goals. Teams shake hands after every game. Afterwards, we ask only if she had fun. She never knows who won and never cares. Parents and grandparents laugh and cheer and shout nothing but encouragement. It’s great.

Folks at other games are apparently different because the arena found it necessary to erect the sign below. I hope it helps those unable to park their regrets, fears, and vicarious dreams that manifest as ugly anger. I wonder, though, if those who need the sign ever read it, heed it, or even understand it’s for them.

Why I'm Not Angry Enough

Trump

Last week I also watched a Donald Trump speech on YouTube. Trump is fascinating but it’s not the first time we’ve seen his ilk. In 1968, Alabama Governor George Wallace ran for president and attracted much the same people. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that he attracted the same emotion.

In the late 1960s, like today, a great many people were afraid that their world was changing in ways they didn’t like or understand. They were mad. Women and African Americans were demanding equality, the economy was shifting from its long post-war prosperity, and America was losing a war in Vietnam. Now, gays, lesbians, and transgendered people are demanding equality, the industrial revolution is over with nothing to replace avenues for middle-class prosperity and working-class mobility, and America seems to be losing the war on terror.

Why I Love Donald Trump and the Rhinoceros

What can be done? One could delve into nuanced and complex causes and effects and accept that economic and social shifts take time and demand concessions from all sides. Forget that! There is no time for that nonsense when one’s life is happening now, children need their futures to start now, and a living must be made and debts paid right now.

It is much easier to get mad at those deemed responsible for the disconnect between how life is and how it was expected to be. Wallace knew it then and Trump knows it now. Therefore, blame the desegregationists or the immigrants. Blame the other, whether it’s the other race, religion, ethnicity, lifestyle, region, party, and, of course, blame the government. Get mad at those who are causing the changes or not stopping them or refusing to acknowledge that the way things were before was better.

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George Wallace, February 1968.  (www.eurweb.com)

Trump rides the difference between nostalgia and history. It’s why facts don’t matter and lies are accepted. His followers, like Wallace’s, yearn for a misty-eyed past that never really existed; when rules were certain, dreams assured, and everyone knew their place.

It’s a fretful yearning that fuels anger, fills stadiums, makes signs, and fills lungs with desperate rage. It’s the same yearning that sparks screaming at little hockey loving kids.

Decision

I don’t yell at hockey games. I don’t support Mr. Trump. I just can’t muster the necessary anger. This makes me neither better nor smarter than anyone – far from it. But I choose to be informed rather than bamboozled. I choose to be calm around children, knowing that they’re watching and learning how to behave and how to be an adult.

Emotions are decisions. I choose to go outside, run, be with family, enjoy friends, play music, be childlike but not childish with children, set and celebrate achievable measurable goals, enjoy goofiness, and when I encounter one, to say right out loud, “This is a good moment.” In short, I choose not to be angry but happy.

Happy is not a surrender of personal sovereignty, a rejection of values, or naive. Anger, on the other hand, is all three. Anger’s adrenaline is cheap tequila while happy’s endorphins is a fine wine. No one’s happiness led them to become a bully in the stands or to follow one behind a lectern. I’ll leave those yelling at Mr. Trump’s rallies and in hockey arenas to their rage.

For me, happy is a better decision and the eye of the hurricane is a pretty nice place. I think I’ll stay.

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Love Letter to a Nation – Winter

Dear Canada,

Summer is easy. What’s not to love about you in summer? Character, however, is only built and revealed in adversity. So anyone wanting to know you, anyone wanting to know us, has to know winter.

The leaves and temperature fall and everyone knows it’s on its way. Summer stuff gets stored, the outside water is shut off, and the sky goes purple-gray and silent as the last of the cowardly birds betray us and go. And then comes the day, snow’s first day, when we stand at the window and watch with a child’s eyes; as for the first time. We marvel as snow too white to be real sparkles diamonds in the sun. It blankets leafless trees standing defiantly brittle amid sagging spruce and pines. And the yard becomes art.

Winter slows us down. There is no such thing as rushing out when having to first don boots and coat and hat and scarf and mitts. Thank goodness for Velcro, but a child’s snow suit still demands patience and time and then more of both when disassembled for the pee that is somehow, again, forgotten. And then there is the path to be shovelled to the car that then needs to be unburied, de-iced, and warmed.

Speed limits are for summer. All but main roads are snow-packed for months and the occasional melts turn them to pock-marked Passchendaele. Streets scoff at the oceans of salt and Sierras of sand so we bounce and creep, especially around corners with their paint-smeared telephone poles reminding us to be patient. The days shrivel. We make our way to and from work in inky darkness smudged with ghostly plumes of exhaust. Snowflakes that would be pretty were we home with a fire and a glass of hearty red are instead headlight-engorged rockets that fire mercilessly into windshields with a hideous hypnosis.

Things do not speed up upon arrival. Three feet inside every public doorway stands a momentary community holding fogged-up glasses and exchanging knowing, blurry glances. Then it’s the slow, walking strip-tease, because everywhere inside in winter is warmer than outside in summer. Work places resemble used shoe stores with wet boots on soppy mats. Everyone’s hair is the shape of their hats. We approach door knobs with dread and sometimes actually see sparks. After a while, every place smells the same – wet wool and cough drops. It isn’t exactly bad and it doesn’t really matter because with the cold we’ve all been fighting for weeks it’s hard to smell anything anyway.

Winter can sometimes stop you altogether. What is more glorious than a snow day? We hear it on the radio and we’re suddenly all children. The radio also brings reports from the city’s “Thank God it’s Monday” crowd who slide and smash into one another to get to the vertical ice cube trays where they are apparently indispensable; unaware that no one’s keeping score. The wind howls hurricanes down concrete canyons that are empty of all of but the intrepid as the city-below-the-city bustles in its high-heeled obviousness. Just a few miles away it’s all quite different.

Township and county plows tend to the main roads but it’s always a long while before they get to most streets, so there’s time for another coffee. Kids who usually fight to stay under covers burst outside with wide smiles and bright eyes and without a screen in sight. Folks are soon in driveways, leaning on shovels and speaking with neighbours who lean on theirs. Why not? Everyone knows the game. We scrape and shovel and throw it high onto piles that seem taller than last year. The plow waits until it senses we’re done and then, only then, it thunders by with three feet of plowcrete. The shovelling army mobilizes again; there’s nothing like a good minus ten-degree sweat.

Climate change’s thaws and freezes have euchred all but the most dedicated backyard rink masters, but the little bay still goes stiff. Nothing’s ever organized but somehow it always gets scraped and there is skating for all. Windswept days between snowfalls sometimes provide the magic of pick-up hockey with nets a ridiculous distance apart. It seems fittingly patriotic to finish a hundred yard breakaway on a frigid sunny afternoon in the world’s only country with a hockey player on its Bill of Rights.

Gravity games rule. What’s not to love about skiing, tobogganing, and sledding. Kids love the snow-mountains that grow beside the school parking lot. Look up every big or little hill and see somebody in a primary-coloured snowsuit sliding down. Evening walks offer the joy of the crisp boot-fall crunch and the smell of woodstoves that stir a deep and primal yearning that’s lovely in its mystery. The stars seem closer and clearer. Lungs burn, breath freezes, cheeks redden, and there is nothing more romantic than holding hands through down-filled mitts.

Muddy April is marvelous but brings fixing and raking and cleaning. The gifts left by months-worth of wandering dogs present themselves along with the recycle stuff that cycloned from blue boxes Tuesday after Tuesday. Purple crocuses pierce the last bits of crystalline snow. The magical, riotous tulips remind us that the world is not black and white after all. There is always that one last storm with snow as pretty as the first but we damn it this time and steal its power by steadfastly refusing to shovel it; there, that will teach it. We convince ourselves that it will melt soon enough, and sure enough, it does. And then there is green, oh green, glorious green.

Winter defines. Winter slows, and winter stops. Winter reminds us that we are not the boss. It ignites a humble admiration for the power and majestic beauty of the true boss. It invites community. Winter says that work can wait and time with family is the only wealth, recognition, or reward we need; everything else is by the by. Winter reminds us that, like those dark nights with gently falling snow or those bold, defiant tulips, nothing lasts forever – nothing. But it’s all good right now, and right now, that’s good enough.

Sincerely,

A friend.

Song For A Winter’s Night ©by Gordon Lightfoot

The lamp is burning low upon my table top
The snow is softly falling
The air is still in the silence of my room
I hear your voice softly calling
If I could only have you near
To breathe a sigh or two
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
On this winter night with you

The smoke is rising in the shadows overhead
My glass is almost empty
I read again between the lines upon the page
The words of love you sent me
If I could know within my heart
That you were lonely too
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
On this winter night with you

The fire is dying now, my lamp is growing dim
The shades of night are lifting
The morning light steals across my window pane
Where webs of snow are drifting
If I could only have you near
To breathe a sigh or two
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
And to be once again with you
To be once again with you

The Difference Between a Father and a Dad

My father is a good Dad. Every winter he created the world’s best backyard hockey rink. Well, it was the best rink in my nine-year-old world and that’s all that really mattered. It filled our large yard. It had boards and nets and benches and even lights for night games.

One frigid night my Dad was out on the rink waving the hose with that long, slow sweep that I liked to watch from my bedroom window, when suddenly, he experienced an epiphany. He went to the basement and dug out the lawn sprinkler. He carefully placed it and delicately adjusted the direction and volume of the spray. With a smile he went in to bed and slept with the satisfaction that by morning the rink would thicker and smoother than ever before.

I awoke the next morning to an odd banging. I stood in my pajamas with my Mom and brothers gazing out our kitchen window with wide-eyed amazement. It was like nothing we’d ever seen. You know, it’s the little things that always get you in the end. It’s the tiny overlooked detail. It’s the ordinary and usual that you have just stopped noticing. It’s like the clothesline that had been there forever and stretched the length of the yard and diagonally across the rink. It was the clothesline that with each cascading spray, all night long, relentlessly, had dripped and dripped and as each drip froze along it’s twenty-foot length, dripped and froze some more.

My Dad had woken up and turned the water off downstairs, walked up the basement steps, and stopped dead. Reflecting the dawn’s brilliant sun was a wall of ice, eight inches thick, seven feet tall, and twenty feet long. It was beautiful. It was horrible.

My brothers and I begged to go outside but my Mom was wise and held us close. We watched as my Dad wielded a shovel. At first tentatively, and then more aggressively, he attacked the wall’s base. He banged and chipped and chopped until with a mighty swing intended to crumble the thing he smacked its centre.

It started slowly at first; almost majestically. The entire wall swung back and forth and so he hit it again. It then became magical. It slowly swang up and then over and then up and over again. It swung clockwise over the top and around three times and each time quicker than the last. Long ice shards began rocketing off in every direction. Not knowing whether it was funny or terrifying we watched my Dad throw the shovel, cover his head, and run with ice missiles soaring over and around him.

It took a long while to cut up and remove the wall and even longer to get the rink back into shape. But that very night, to his ever-lasting credit, my Dad was back out there braving the cold and waving the hose with that long, slow sweep. We agreed that despite everything, the sprinkler had been a good idea. Even better, though, was the idea that when he could have been warm inside, he instead devoted hours alone in the frigid dark, night after night, trading his time and toil for his kid’s fun. That’s the difference between a father and a Dad.

me as Gordie Howe

The author, a Gordie Howe fan, on his rink.

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