April 22, 2011

Off your head

No Kidding.There has been a lot of news recently about concussion in sports. Here in the hockey-religious country of Canada, every other day some talentless goon clobbers a star like Sidney Crosby, potentially ending his career with a concussion. Research on repeated concussions causing dementia and brain atrophy and premature death has rattled the National Football League to the point where its very ability to continue may eventually come into question.

I got a pretty bad concussion in 2002. It was a freak accident. I work with a public relations agency, and at the time the PR firms and a few news agencies from around Toronto formed a softball league. Each team had to have a set number of male and female players, and “guest” players had to be somehow connected with the people on the team.

My team made it to the final, and the championship game was against the fine people of Reuters Canada. Reuters had a bunch of ringers on board, one of whom was at shortstop. This guy was taking the game – supposedly an all-fun, schlubby affair – far too seriously. He had an impressive arm, even though the girl playing first-base clearly had trouble catching his laser-beam throws. She actually would cower out of the way rather than try to catch it.

Of course I came up to bat in the first inning and grounded to the macho shortstop, who whipped the ball to the useless first-base-woman, who opted to protect her head instead of using her leather. As I was crossing the bag, the not-soft ball got me square on the head, just above my left ear. There were no helmets in our little fun league.

It was like a cannon going off in my ear. Momentum carried me forward, my legs buckled beneath me and I crashed to the ground. I was unconscious for only a few seconds, they told me, but there was blood coming from my ear and the whole left side of me was one giant scrape.

My teammates helped me up and we staggered to the side, where a bunch of us sat. Eventually Julie arrived and took me to the nearest hospital where – eventually – they did a CT scan, diagnosed concussion and told Julie to make sure I kept breathing in my sleep.

All of this was only a few days before I was to fly to Scotland to compete at the Northern Meeting. I was a complete mess. I could hardly walk, let alone practice, but somehow I drove myself to get on that plane. Missing Inverness, what with their draconian unwritten policy of chucking competitors out if they dare not turn up, was out of the question.

The flight was brutal. I remember forcing myself to stay awake for the overnight seven hours for fear of the air pressure doing me in. I even rented a car and drove the four hours from Edinburgh to Inverness.

I got through all of that and the day of the Gold Medal my scraped and bandaged knees were exposed, and I remember steadying myself on and off the stage at Eden Court. The weird thing was, I think it was the best tune I ever managed to play. It was “Nameless – Hiharin odin, hiharin dro,” which was set that year and, the best part was, people were coming up to me saying it was good, and there seemed to be that peer-buzz that all contestants hope for. When they say nothing, you generally get nothing. I remember Malcolm McRae – a hard piobaireachd man to please, if there ever were one – remarking to me, “Very good for a concussed piper,” which of course I clung to throughout the day (and still, evidently), even though perhaps what he really meant, in that backhanded way that pipers sometimes speak to one another, was, “For a non-concussed piper, that sucked.”

As seems so often the case when competitors get their hopes up, when the prizes were announced I got sweet FA. I departed the cursed place even more confused and fuzzy-headed than when I arrived. (One of the judges, who never actually ever competed himself, told me weeks later, only after I contacted him, that he had a problem with a few taorluaths. Oh. How informative.)

Comparisons of our competitive art with sport are frequent. There are many similarities, but perhaps the most striking is our mutual all-out drive to compete. After being conked on the head, hockey and football players force themselves back onto the ice or field for both the desire to be seen by their peers as a “gamer,” or for fear of losing their spot on the team. The mind wins over the body.

Despite common sense or doctors advising otherwise, we pipers and drummers also go to such extremes that it can be positively unhealthy. We’ve all seen competitors and ourselves let competition get the best of us.

Sometimes we just need to give our head a shake.


  1. I hope you are all right now Andrew. I have carpal tunnel surgery in both hands last year. It was from practing too much. I would begin at 5 am and finish about 11 pm

  2. You just THINK that was the best tune that you played…after all, you had a concussion…….are you sure you were even there?…..I wasn’t, so how would I know?……anyhoo…
    This does, however, outline this business of people taking things too seriously, or getting too intense. It really can spoil a good day out..or ruin a band experience, since suddenly it is just not fun anymore.
    The main thing to remember is that you don’t HAVE to associate with people like that. You can leave…or avoid those pelople.
    Life is too short. Don’t waste yours in the company of A holes.

  3. Good post m8. I also quit rugby in favour of my piping, after a juggernaut of a fly-half treaded on my hand after an attempted tackle, damaging the joint between the metacarpus and the proximal phalanx of the pinky finger. En route to have my hand x-rayed, all I could think of was, ‘I won’t be able to play a good birl ever again’… Until I realised the bruise was on my top [left] hand! I sighed deeply in relief, and with the realisation in mind that it could’ve been my other hand, I gave up rugby and resumed fitbaw, which ultimately ruined both my knees. Now I’m a limping piper with a sound mind… and clear birls.

  4. My Highland Granny Annie once confided to me that my father fell off a tram as a child, landed on his head, and had peculiar ideas ever since – actually, she used the “q” word, as was the British wont. That to explain the outspoken, idealistic eco-warrior crusades as one of the last of the country doctors – I laughed. I have enjoyed the change in direction and maturing of your own writings these past few years (since 2002?) and thought of the influence of your own historian, authoring father. But are you saying talentless goons knocked down your lucky star? However, I do think taorluaths are pretty critical for those at the ‘ top of their tree’ reeling upside down at Eden Court.
    You are correct, Andrew – at Playoff time we do play injured and I had my own Waterloo when one of John Elliott’s fresh reeds (MacAllisters in those day and I still play it on occasion instead of a Capt MacLellan dubbed piccolo sort) ko’d an intercostal rib muscle at the Irish Club we played for after a 3 hour blow of a practice on St Paddy’s Day, followed with a long tune up and blaw at the Club. 6 weeks of physio and no bagpipes until well after Georgetown. As I looked around the Band I mentioned to Michael Grey that no-one over 40 in the pipe corps was without some overuse syndrome requiring anything from ice on rotator cuffs to laying off John Burgess type crunluaths – however dystonia-d. That shortstop must have really baubled the ball if his howitzer shot took that long to get to first base – good hit? I agree we need to keep our hobbies in perspective, but these are ‘doer’ Scots from the land of hard Knox doing their type A golf like pursuit with the inevitable frustrations of such self improvement. Ask Tiger – pulling back off the pedal ain’t easy. Dour die, I guess.
    – cheers – robin



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