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Right Ear, Right Now

5 July 2011 No Comment

“When you were born the nurse said you had the most beautiful ears, now I’ve seen buttons sewed on them – look at them, they’re gross.” – Mom

I like my ears, though they do present a couple of problems. For example, should they remain unattended to for several days, dirt and gunk can collect in the creases and folds causing a mildly foul stench. I also can’t wear normal earplugs on planes and have to buy the special in-ear units from Sony. Olfactory and financial nuisances aside, now that my work is specifically oriented to being readily identifiable as a wrestler, these cauliflower ears have been a boon to my communication with like-minded foreigners. Just yesterday I hoofed it over to the MobiCom office in Tsetserleg to have my phone unlocked. I brought along a translator so my job was simply to stand by and look clueless as she explained that the idiot American goofed his 4-digit pin enough times to lock the device (it’s a theft deterrent which apparently is pretty effective). The employee and I glared at each other until he flicked his head left to input my information in his computer and revealed a nice knotted orb of cartilage. When he looked back my way I turned my head to the left and showed him my prized, though rank, ear. He shot me a very large, very toothless smile. Cauliflower ear brings people together.

The mangled ear of a wrestler is also not very attractive. I remember watching something on Discovery Channel about attraction being based on symmetry and therefore mis-matched ears make a man/woman less traditionally attractive (further digression: this particular television series noted that Denzel Washington had one of the most symmetrical faces in the world …). I have former teammates with horribly offensive ears that are likely impenetrable to the full bite pressure of a rabid pit bull. But my friends don’t wear earmuffs and most accept that their scar came with the risk of committing their lives to wrestling. When they were young it might have been a slight embarrassment, but now they carry their lugs around with pride.

They should. Cauliflower ear is not  a serious medical condition. Yes, it hurts to have three cc’s of fluid swishing in your ear, and yes, it feels equally awful to have a medic stick a needle into your soft cartilage. I’ve endured the furthest reaches of cauliflower surgical procedures when I had the bowl of my ear scraped out to allow for better auditory function (I was getting an echo when I spoke). But procedures like that are extremely rare and pose a relatively small risk to most wrestlers. Cauliflower ear is a naturally occurring effect from participating in wrestling, like arthritic elbows for tennis pros, or spiked hair for soccer players.

So why do Americans insist on their wrestlers wearing headgears and mock those who’ve earned their cauliflower ear?

According to Intermat’s Mark Palmer the first headgears were mandated across high school and colleges in the 1960′s and early 1970′s – with the 1963 NCAA rulebook making a strong recommendation that wrestlers wear headgears in competition. It was stated that headgears are important to protecting athletes from head injuries, which we now know through football’s concussion debate is absolute malarkey. Headgears can help protect ears that are already enflamed, but would there be as many cauliflower ears if wrestlers weren’t wearing headgears? There aren’t studies on this topic, only anecdotes – I know that myself and many of my teammates earned our first cauliflower ears while wearing headgears that were torn from our heads. Headgears aren’t an issue of health, they’re an issue of vanity.

America became wealthier and more image conscious in the 1960′s and parents wanted to reduce the risk of injury in sports. In football it was the face mask, in baseball it was the helmet and in wrestling it was the headgear. Add the power of a litigious society behind parents involved in the decision-making at the school level and voila! the traditional American style of wrestling becomes the only one worldwide which demands the use of a headgear in competition.

We are totally alone on this one. The Mongolians certainly don’t parade themselves into the middle of Naadam with their Tornados and Four-Straps affixed to their massive domes. But Americans do at every youth, high school and college tournament. And that choice – the one to cover our ears and protect them from the scars of dedication – I think tells us a lot about what Americans value.

The Mongolian I met had no idea that we wear headgears, he’s a man whose probably never left his beautiful mountain town. I later thought about how shocked he’d be if I sat him down in front of an American television show with women paying thousands of dollars to buy fake body parts, and then told him that as a society we shunned the idea of cauliflower ears because  people thought that was “gross.”

My nurse was wrong; thirty years ago I had ears that were extremely normal. The ears I have now are perfect, because they represent a part of my personal history and Americans should take heed, because I think we are approaching a time when we will start respecting the scars of commitment more than we do the scars of vanity.

(Note: Mom has gotten use to my ears, though she still insists they were the prettiest anyone’s ever seen.)

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