One minute I was running toward the soccer ball. The next, I was lying face up on the grass. What happened between those two moments has been erased from my memory.
Slowly, my awareness of the world came back, fading in like an old TV set that had just been turned on. I got up and saw the other kid also on the ground, holding his head. Somehow, as we were both going for the ball, we collided and hit our heads together. I didn’t know it yet, but we both had concussions.
Back in 1980, when I was 13, I had only a vague sense of what a concussion was. It sounded more serious than just two kids knocking heads, so I dismissed my injury and continued playing the game. I told the referee I was fine, and we got on with it.
My coach wasn’t much more informed, since he didn’t take me out of the game. My mom was concerned on the sidelines but she didn’t insist I see a doctor after the match. Taking cues from the adults in my life, I figured it was no big deal.
Concussions, though, have become a very big deal, especially those occurring during organized sports.
Former players in the National Football League have filed a major lawsuit claiming the league failed to effectively inform them of the risks of repeated concussions on the field. The NFL has recently begun to take this situation seriously, finding that retired players have a higher incidence of memory problems, depression, and dementia. The league now, in a settlement, has agreed to pay whatever is necessary to compensate retired players who suffer from these long-term neurological effects.
And recently, a new campaign has been launched to change the rules in youth soccer leagues to restrict kids younger than 14 from being able to head the ball, recognizing that jarring blows can affect brain development. The campaign is lead not by overly-cautious couch potatoes, but by former U.S. women’s soccer players. This increased attention to sports-related concussions would have been helpful back in 1980.
You see it all the time in movies and on TV: someone gets hit in the head with a heavy object and is out cold. Later, they wake up, shake it off, and go on their merry way. Reality is much different. In spite of how commonplace the term “concussion” seems to be, it is a form of brain injury and should be taken seriously.
The definition of concussion seems to be elusive. “Mild traumatic brain injury” is what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls it. It can happen either with or without an impact. It is mostly identified by its signs and symptoms, including:
- changes in balance or coordination,
- nausea, or
- loss of consciousness or a “blackout.”
The worst part is that symptoms don’t always appear right away, and repeated injuries have a cumulative effect. Children younger than high school age are especially vulnerable.
I support all of this new focus on concussions and how they affect the brain. I question, though, why it has taken this long. Why were we so uninformed in 1980? Is it because there were more vexing public health issues–like polio or measles or AIDS?
I also wonder what percentage of the population has been walking around with undiagnosed brain injury. Are there correlations between youthful concussions and failed potential or criminal behavior? Have the mentally impaired been running the show all these years? Are the memory problems that so many elderly people face really just a result of too many blows to the head from a rough-and-tumble childhood?
Additionally, while I’m in favor of efforts to make sports less damaging, I think that the the proposed ban on heading the ball in youth leagues is only a band-aid on a much larger issue. The serious concussions in soccer are not from performing headers but rather–as I can attest–from collisions with other players.
The day of my soccer concussion, I had a massive headache on the brink of nausea. Somebody (my coach?) told me that if I fell asleep, that was a bad sign, so I spent the rest of that Saturday lying on the couch to nurse my headache but never quite relaxing for fear I would doze off.
As for my memory of the incident itself, it never had a chance to form. Between the moment where I am running to the ball and the moment where I’m coming around on the field, there is nothing–retrograde amnesia, it’s called. My mind blipped from one point to the next, like when you skip forward on a digital recording, the discontinuity a sign that something was omitted.
By the next morning, I was feeling better. I don’t recall talking to a doctor about it, or really anyone. By that point in my life, I had been hit in the head or face or mouth so many times that it just seemed like normal part of growing up. I can recall having had at least two other concussions prior to this one.
On Monday, the guys at school asked how I was feeling.
“Fine, I guess,” I said nonchalantly.
“Really?” one friend said. “Because you gave the other guy a concussion.” Only then did it occur to me that maybe I had one too.
I wonder now about the long term effects. Am I depressed more than average? Do I have cognitive impairments that I would not have had otherwise? Am I vulnerable to mental aging more than is typical? I’ve managed to turn out okay, but would things have been different?
I’m not sure where this leaves me. I love soccer just the way it is, in all its free-form, democratic madness. And I was just a boy being a typical boy.
But occasionally, when I think of reasons for my struggles in life, thoughts frequently bring me back to my childhood concussions.
[Random Scribbles are my occasional posts of half-formed thoughts, half-baked ideas, and off-the-cuff observations.]
Sheryl Sandberg is at it again. Unless you’ve been living off-world for the last month, you likely may have heard about her new “Ban Bossy” campaign. The gist is this: in order to encourage girls and women to be leaders, we need to make using the word “bossy” taboo.
I won’t argue that language doesn’t have power, because it does. It can bring order and meaning to the otherwise chaotic. It can give something weight and substance, culturally speaking, that it might not have if we didn’t give it a name.
I’m also completely in favor of empowering girls and women. But ceasing to use the word “bossy” will not change the underlying behavior that Sandberg is trying to address.
Children (boys or girls) who want to impose their will on others will continue to do so whether we have a name for it or not. Think of the kid who “took charge” of the games on the playground in sixth grade using force, aggression, and/or subtle forms of blackmail. Adults who (rightly) perceive that this is going on will counsel these children to stop.
There’s a difference between bossiness and true leadership. As any parent knows, leadership is more than just saying “because I said so.”
More importantly, banning “bossy” will not correct some deeply-seated biases that exist against women’s achievement, including some in Sandberg’s own back yard: the tech industry. A recent study has shown that venture capitalists are more likely to support a project proposed by a man than by a women, even when the projects being proposed are exactly the same.
Sandberg’s first major attempt at cultural influence, her (ghost-written) book Lean In (2013) left a lot of women cold, even as it claimed to speak for all women. (Some feel that Susan Cain’s is better.) I think banning bossy will also be less successful than she’d like it to be, for many of the same reasons. Until Sandberg can find more common ground with the majority of women and the problems they face, she’ll continue to lob more duds.
Come back Mom and Dad
You’re growing apart; you know that I’m growing up sad
I need some attention
I shoot into the light.
– Peter Gabriel, “Family Snapshot”
Purposeless boys are dangerous.
Michael Gurian, in his book The Purpose of Boys (2010), lists some of the effects of the growing population of boys without purpose.
- For every 100 girls in public schools, 335 boys are expelled.
- For every 100 girls ages 15-19 who commit suicide, 549 boys in the same age range kill themselves.
- For every 100 women ages 18-21 in correctional facilities, there are 1,430 men behind bars.
- For every 100 American women who earn a bachelor’s degree, 73 American men earn the same degree.
The key, Gurian points out, is that all boys intuitively crave being a part of, and contributing to, something that gives them status, respect, and purpose. Without a proper path to purpose, they are at risk of becoming dangerous to themselves and others.
In addition, recent studies have suggested that without culturally-based institutions where successful adults can guide their development, boys will fill the void with adolescent tokens of status. According to a recent article in New York magazine, “Absent established hierarchies and power structures…kids create them on their own.” Think Lord of the Flies.
Only the most self-motivated can find their without help. The rest need guidance from without and respectable male role models in their lives. Many boys need an honest shove to get them moving in the right direction. “They are hungry for others, including older peer boys and adult men,” Gurian says, who can mentor them and bring them to “where they can feel themselves to be a purposeful part of society.”
I am in no position to say what Adam Lanza’s family dynamics were. All I know is that he was being raised by a single mother and that he had impaired social skills. Both of these indicate to me a lack of adult male guidance and support. If we add to that mental illness (no reported proof of that) and access to guns (clear proof of that), we have a toxic mixture that was ready to explode.
Purposeless boys are dangerous. But every boy deserves to find in his life some meaning, what Gurian calls “the clarities of male purpose.” There isn’t a finite supply, some predetermined limit. The avenues for finding purpose are as multiple and various as the boys are themselves. But the social structure that once provided a path to purpose for most boys has, in recent years, fallen into disrepair. Under the theory that you can be whatever you want to be, boys have been set adrift on an open sea that does not provide a clear path to the status and meaning that they crave.
Very few institutions remain today where a boy can find a path to being a man. Professional sports and the military are possibly the only two viable ones left. It has been reported that Lanza wanted to join the Marines. It probably would have been the best thing for him.
Beyond these institutions, everything else is a crapshoot. It’s sink or swim, every man for himself. Some boys make it and some don’t, and some disastrously fall through the cracks.
One thing that may be a cause or symptom of all of this is the diminished status of fathers in this country. These days, fathers are frequently ridiculed in the media for being inept morons. Worse, they are often portrayed as being inconsequential.
Case in point: In a burst of self-important egotism, writer Lori Gottlieb published an article in The Atlantic about her decision to have a baby using a sperm donor. The subtext of the article was that if women could reduce men to being nothing more than a sperm vending machine, they would. Fathers, she seemed to say, are unimportant. (She famously revised her position some years later.)
But fathers and boys are important, and we must reverse the current trend that is treating them as otherwise. Because sooner or later, another boy pushed to the margins and made to feel insignificant will get his hands on a gun, and the carnage will start again.
Next week: The Roots of Newtown, Part III: Where the NRA has it wrong
When I was 15 years old, I brought a gun to school. I knew then, and I’ll admit now, that it was a desperate cry for attention.
Just to be clear, it wasn’t loaded. Actually, it didn’t take bullets at all, at least not in a modern sense. It was a black powder, cap-and-ball pistol that belonged to my father, and I had it with his permission. That year in school, I was taking a speech class, and the assignment was to give a speech to explain or demonstrate something. My speech was how to disassemble and clean the pistol. I thought it would be a way to elevate my cool factor.
High school, however, was not a great time for me. I was smart and got good grades, but I was socially awkward and not terribly popular. Girls were a complete mystery to me, and since I didn’t know much about cars or sports (or girls), I had little on which to relate to most other guys. On top of that, my parents’ deteriorating marriage made me question much of what I thought I knew.
Frankly, I didn’t know what I wanted, and no clear path presented itself.
So like many boys who are lonely, unfocused, and confused, I found solace in music, TV and movies, and video games. And I looked for ways to be more cool. Hence, the speech about the gun.
It didn’t work, though. Public speaking, to this day, is not one of my strengths, and adding to that teenage social awkwardness made it doubly unpleasant. I was nervous and sweaty. The speech was disorganized and ran too long. It more likely elevated my weirdo factor.
Looking back with the benefit of time and distance, I’m astounded that my dad let me bring the gun to school. And I’m astonished that my teachers were okay with the idea and the school administrators didn’t do anything. Since it was obvious to me, even then, that this was a transparent ploy for getting noticed, I’m surprised that nobody in authority saw it that way. Which makes me doubtful that the next Adam Lanza will ever be stopped.
The old joke is that God didn’t make men equal; Samuel Colt did. A gun makes up for the disparities that God and genetics inevitably provide. The small, the underprivileged, the outcasts and the dispossessed, they seek a means to even what appears to them as an uneven playing field.
In addition, boys naturally gravitate toward guns. There is something seductively potent about that small piece of machinery that contains so much power. You can demand respect with it. You can even the score, in a flash and a bang.
So it does not surprise me at all that Adam Lanza and so many severely troubled boys like him reach to firearms to make the supreme statement.
But it’s not an inevitable outcome.
I grew up shooting guns, playing video games, and watching a lot of TV and violent movies. Today, I am a fairly average, productive individual with a steady job, a wife and children, and a home. I am not a homicidal maniac. I’ve never committed a crime. What makes the difference?
Many things, actually, all working together in unpredictable ways. But key to it all is finding purpose—especially, for boys, finding a male-focused purpose. By purpose, I mean a sense of contributing to the community, the giving of your skills and your knowledge, and the gaining of respect in return.
Adam Lanza clearly lacked purpose. And if he felt his own life was worthless, it’s no wonder he felt other lives were worthless too.
Next week: The Roots of Newtown, Part II: Purposeless boys