Tag Archives: Things That Comfort Me When Every Fucking Thing Goes Wrong

Finish What You Start.

I finished a sprint tri in Republic, MO.

“Courage can solve in 30 seconds what timidity can’t solve in 30 days.” — Steve Pavlina

 
Back in May, I started looking for a race. I knew that with Stry.us happening, I had plenty of business goals for the summer. What I didn’t have was an athletic goal to work toward.

So I started looking for a race. The 5Ks all seemed to fall on weekends when I’d be traveling for business. There were a few half marathons or marathons around the Ozarks, but there was no way I was doing one of those.

Then I found one that could work: The Republic Tiger Tri, taking place just around the block from Stry.us HQ. The race seemed straightforward: 300 yard swim, 12 mile bike, 5K run.

I signed up before I had a chance to convince myself that it was too crazy to do.

I spent the summer training. I did lots of running, lots of biking, and a weekly swim at the Republic pool. I did stuff I’d never done before: Kickboxing, intense weightlifting. Starting in July, I cut out beer and most sweets.

On Friday, when I picked up my race packet, I’ll admit that I was a little scared. Then I drove the bike course.

And I was a lot scared. Who knew the Ozarks had hills like these?

But I kept telling myself: You finish what you start, Dan. You signed up for a sprint triathlon. You thought this was gonna be easy?

I woke up at 5 on Saturday morning. I had everything packed in advance. I drove up to the race course. I got everything laid out in the transition area. The PA announcer called everyone to the pool.

And then I looked at my stuff, and I realized I was missing something:

A bike helmet.

There were 400 people competing in this thing, and I was the only one dumb enough to forget a bike helmet.

But I didn’t panic. Hell, I’m the guy who’s written a blog series called “The Things I Think About When Every Fucking Thing Goes Wrong.” I called Sarah, one of my reporters. I talked to the volunteer in the parking lot and one of the volunteers at the finish line. We coordinated a plan. Sarah would bring the bike helmet up to the course, and the volunteers would get it to my bike. It would be there waiting for me when I got out of the water.

Problem solved.

I grabbed my goggles and started to run up to the pool. They’d be putting in swimmers one at a time, and I’d be in the middle of the pack. I had a bit of time before I started the swim.

And then my goggles exploded.

Maybe exploded isn’t the right word. Disintegrated might be more appropriate.

I was running up to the pool, holding my goggles in my right hand, and the strap just snapped.

I was left holding the lenses and nothing else.

Oh, hell.

But that’s alright, I told myself. You finish what you start. And I’m the guy who believes that the harder the journey, the better the reward.

I found a volunteer, and she found the head lifeguard at the pool. I just need something functional to swim in, I told him. I’ll swim in a snorkel mask if I have to.

He did me one better: He found an extra pair of goggles from another lifeguard.

Second problem solved.

I got myself in line, right in the middle of a group that expected to swim the 300 yards in 6:30. I started talking to the guy in front of me. He was telling me about how he’d run a marathon last year in Fayetteville, Ark. — at an 8:20 pace!

I was blown away. I wish I could run like that, I told him. Of course, I said, you’re a bit lighter than me.

He weighed about 140 pounds.

That’s not quite true, he told me. Two years ago this month, he weighed 255 pounds. He went to the fair in Springfield with his daughter, and the fair wouldn’t let him on the rides. He was too fat.

He’d had enough, he said.

So one step at a time, one day at a time, he started working it off. He gave himself big goals. Hit 200 and he’d buy a pickup truck. Go lower and he’d try a big race.

He’s now the owner of a new truck. He’s run a marathon. They let him on the rides at the fair. He doesn’t have to worry about being the “fat dad” at school anymore.

Suddenly, listening to his story, all the chaos of my morning got a lot less complicated. His story put everything in perspective for me.

He’d had to change his life to get here. I’d put in the work this summer — but nothing quite like that.

I had no excuses. I just had to finish what I’d started four months earlier.

I finished my sprint tri on Saturday in 1:26:56 — and I brought it home with a 27:10 5K. I nailed the swim. I conquered the bike, and all those hills I was terrified of the day before.

And when I hit that run, everything hurt. I started feeling muscles in my legs that I didn’t know I had.

For the run, I turned to one final source of inspiration. I thought about what my sister had told me on Friday. She’s run a couple of half marathons. She’s one of the toughest people I know.

A race like this is 90 percent mental, she’d told me. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Eventually, all those little steps will take you somewhere.

So I took her advice. I pushed hard through the run. I kept my head up and my feet moving.

And damn if it didn’t feel good when I crossed that finish line and had the race official hand me my time. Damn if it didn’t feel good to see Sarah running up to give me a giant hug, her yelling out, “I can’t believe you just did that! I can’t believe you just did that!”

Damn if it doesn’t feel good to be able to say now: I finished what I started.

Things That Comfort Me When Every Fucking Thing Goes Wrong: Explosions in the Sky.

Things tend to go wrong. This is a series of blog posts about the things I think about during those moments when the wrong things happen.

I went to the Super Bowl once. It was fourth grade, and Dad got tickets. The Chargers played the 49ers in Miami. The halftime show was a combination of Indiana Jones and the Miami Sound Machine. There was a 99-yard kickoff return by the Chargers, and Jerry Rice scored the first touchdown for the Niners, and Natrone Means didn’t have a very good game, and I don’t remember anything else. The 49ers won big, and we got to take our official Super Bowl XXIX seat cushions home. That’s what I remember about the game.

But I also remember that we left the game early. Dad never leaves games early — never. We stay the full nine; we play the full 60 minutes. Always. That night was an aberration. We were driving my grandpa’s car, and we didn’t really know our way around Miami, so Dad wanted to leave before the crowds starting filing out.

On the way in, we’d found ourselves an easy target to help us find our car: A 20-foot tall inflatable Lombardi Trophy. We parked right next to it, and we figured that it wouldn’t be too hard to find the giant silver football on the way out.

Except that they’d moved the trophy.

During the pregame show, we’d actually seen it, down on the field. They’d brought it inside the stadium for the fireworks and the flyover and the anthem and all that. Dad had pointed it out; we just didn’t know that the NFL only had one giant inflatable Lombardi Trophy at the Super Bowl that night.

So we walk out of the stadium, and the parking lot is almost completely unlit. The only light’s the one coming out of the stadium, and the light and noise is flooding out of there. But out in the parking lot, it’s dark. And we’re looking around, and we can’t find our giant Lombardi Trophy, and we’re realizing that it’s long since been deflated and is somewhere underneath Joe Robbie Stadium.

Joe Robbie seats 75,000 fans, and there are 60,000 cars out in the parking lot, and we’re looking for a late 80s Mercedes station wagon, and we can’t see anything, because it’s pitch black, and any minute, 75,000 fans are going to walk out of Joe Robbie, and we’re going to be stuck in the parking lot forever.

This was fourth grade, when the keyless entry — or as my mother still calls it, the Boop-Boop — was just becoming a thing. Grandpa’s car didn’t have it. So we couldn’t even just walk around pressing the button on the keys, hoping the car might honk at us. We were really, really lost.

I remember dad saying that maybe our best option was just to wait for all the cars to empty out of the parking lot. Once all the rest of the cars were gone, it probably wouldn’t be that hard to find ours — theoretically speaking.

Dad wasn’t all that enthused about the prospect of us spending the night wandering around a Miami parking lot, just a a dad and a 10-year-old, two seat cushions, one wallet and a whole lot of dark. We were leaving a sporting event that was attended by plenty of rich people, and here we were, carrying around the keys to a Mercedes. We were eminently robbable.

We kept walking around.

I don’t remember when we found the car, only that we did. I don’t remember how long we walked around the parking lot — 15 or 20 minutes, at the least. It seemed longer. When you’re unhappy and lost, time always seems to stretch.

Now for a happier thought: High up on the list of things that comfort me when everything goes wrong, there’s Explosions in the Sky. They’re this amazing instrumental band from Austin, and they have this way of turning little moments in life into something worthy of Technicolor. I love one of their songs most of all: “Your Hand in Mine.” There’s a moment in the song, about two minutes in, where the song just breaks, and out of it comes this simple, soaring set of chords. No matter how fucked I am, no matter how bad things seem, that little melody reminds me of how things will pass. I listen to them, and good things always seem to come this way.

Things That Comfort Me When Every Fucking Thing Goes Wrong: The Monastery That Kept Us Dry.

Things tend to go wrong. This is a series of blog posts about the things I think about during those moments when the wrong things happen.

In 2008, I studied abroad in Spain. It wasn’t necessarily the most challenging academic experience of my life. The school where I took classes had palm trees on campus. I got a month off for spring break. I lived a block away from the beach.

But most damning of all: That semester, I got 4000-level honors credit for walking.

There’s this famous walk in Spain, called the Camino de Santiago. I was given the option of walking four days of the Camino, about 100 miles in all. Complete that, and write a five-page paper — in English, mind you — and I’d get honors credit.

So along with 20 or 30 of my fellow students, I walked.

One of our professors, Armando, was our guide. We’d start the morning in a Camino hostel. He’d tell us where to stop for lunch. We’d have lunch as a group, and he’d tell us where to stop for the night. It was a nice routine: Wake up, eat, walk, eat, hydrate, walk, eat, take shots of strange green liquid by the side of the road, eat, sleep, repeat.

The third day, I was walking with two of my friends, CG and Jamie. We’d stopped for lunch in a field somewhere, and Armando told us we had about 3 or 4 hours of walking to the next town. We started walking. Maybe 90 minutes later, we came to a roundabout in a small town. We kept walking. It started to rain. CG and Jamie wore trashbags as raincoats. We walked through fields, and up and down hills. We walked for a very long time, waiting for our evening destination to appear.

And then: A town. We walked around, looking for the hostel. There was a woman walking outside her home, and we asked her how much further we had to walk until we’d get to the town Armando had talked about.

She told us we’d already passed it. It was six or seven miles the other way. It was the town with the roundabout that we’d just breezed through.

Oh, fuck.

We started trying to call Armando on our cell phones, but it wasn’t easy getting cell phone reception in middle-of-nowhere Spain. CG got a bar, and Armando picked up. We were unhappy and wet. Armando was happy and full and drinking strange green liquid out of shot glasses.

He suggested we walk back, but there was no way we were walking six miles in reverse just to walk it forward again the next day. We told Armando we wanted to go onto the next town.

Okay, he said. There’s a monastery a mile up the road. Keep walking, stay there, and we’ll see you at lunchtime tomorrow.

So we walked, through the fields, through the rain. The monastery appeared. We walked to the front door. It looked like the front door for a dungeon. We knocked.

There was no one there. It was 6 or 7 p.m. by now, and it was almost completely dark, and we were very wet, and there was no one there to show us how to get inside.

So we walked around the building. There was a light in one window. The monastery, it turns out, had a gift shop. We knocked and knocked on the gift shop door. This woman came out, annoyed. We told her we were walking the Camino. We asked where the beds were.

She pointed us toward the front door we’d already seen, and walked back inside. We started to bang on the door again. We pleaded with her. We were tired, and we were wearing trashbags. Please, ma’am, show us where to stay.

And seeing that we weren’t going to leave her alone, she stepped out and pointed the way. She guided us to a small doorway, and opened it up. Inside: A giant room, ceilings 50 or 60 feet high. Several bunk beds. No heat. No hot water.

But for a night: Home. Better than sleeping on the wet grass outside. Better than walking back to the town we’d already missed.

We were cold, but thankful. When I think about how lucky we were to have messed up and still found our way to a bed, it comforts me. I don’t know how we screwed up and found our way to that monastery, but we did. We were dry, and that was comfort enough.

Things That Comfort Me When Every Fucking Thing Goes Wrong: Heartbroken Iowa Fans.

Smith & Nephew Journey Deuce Bi-compartmental unit) 3 of 3 Michael L. Baird's right knee as shown in x-ray 11 June 2008

Things tend to go wrong. This is a series of blog posts about the things I think about during those moments when the wrong things happen.

Two years ago, I was pretty sure I’d just torn something in my knee. I’d gotten these new running shoes that were supposed to encourage me to run on the balls of my feet. They were supposed to change my running motion and turn me into some sort of super-runner. I was going to run like I’d spent my youth in the sub-Sahara.

Except that I didn’t follow the instructions quite right. I was told to start slow. Run a half-mile at first. Then a mile. Then maybe 1.5, and keep at that pace for a few days. Add up the milage slowly.

But I got impatient. I only run two or three times a week, max, and it felt stupid to run for four minutes and then stop. And then come back the next day, run seven minutes, and stop.

So I did the mile run. Then the two. Then the next day, I ran like Jenny was yelling at me. Four, maybe five miles. I felt great.

The next day, I woke up, and I couldn’t move. I was a 22-year-old with a geriatric’s knees.

I went to yoga and talked to my teacher. She tried some stuff. I iced the knee. I heated the knee. I stretched the knee.

For four months.

It got a little better.

I’d long since put away the special shoes, so I’m not sure what made me do it. Maybe I was cocky. Maybe I was dumb.

But I decided to try out the shoes again. I liked them. Or, rather — I wanted to like them. I thought I was supposed to like them.

I went for a short run, maybe two miles. This was in June 2010. I felt alright.

I woke up in the morning, and my knee was worse than ever. And this time, no amount of ice, no amount of yoga could make it better.

I had to get it fixed immediately. I had just made a big decision: I was going to give this news syndicate, Stry, a chance. I was leaving for Biloxi, Miss., in two weeks. I was leaving my job, my paycheck — and my health care situation wasn’t exactly figured out.

I found the doctors in San Antonio who worked on the Spurs. If anybody could figure out my knees, it was going to be these guys.

They tested it out. The doc put some pressure on my knee. My eyes went screwy.

“Hurts, doesn’t it?” the doc said. “Probably a torn meniscus. Maybe an ACL. We’ll take an MRI.”

They did. I went home and tried to cry, but I was too busy worrying to even make that happen. I had torn up my knee, and I was moving away from my job, and a paycheck, and health care. I was going to Biloxi for three months, and I wasn’t sure I could walk.

The MRI took a few days to process. I worried constantly. What if it was a torn ACL? What if they had to operate? What if I had to walk around Biloxi on crutches? How the hell was I going to interview people on crutches?

I worried myself into that state where I could hardly move, save for going to work and ordering breakfast tacos through a drive-thru window. I waited for the call. I feared the call.

Then the call came, and it turned out I had massive swelling in the knee. No damage. No tear. Put it on ice, and it’ll be fine, son.

So, onto the happy thought for the moment: There’s this video I edited freshman year. It was the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. My friend, Tyler, was shooting some video for a journalism class. He’d gone down to a local bar to get footage of fans watching the early games. The bar was full of Iowa fans, and that day, Iowa — the no. 3 seed — lost to Northwestern State on a buzzer beater.

And Tyler got the most amazing footage of a group of middle-aged white guys, their Hawkeye hearts absolutely breaking in real time.

I like to watch that clip, sometimes, and think about how easy it is to get caught up in the unimportant things. I think about how easy it is to take a tiny thing and magnify it beyond any sort of reasonable scale. I think about how I get mad over things I can’t control.

I did it with my knee, and I’ve done it since. But something about seeing what I actually look like in those lousy moments — and the guys in that YouTube video look exactly like I look when every fucking thing goes wrong — typically reminds me of how I need to get a grip and get over it.

Here’s to you, Hawkeye fans, for helping me get there.

Things That Comfort Me When Every Fucking Thing Goes Wrong: Carl Sagan’s Blue Dot.

Things tend to go wrong. This is a series of blog posts about the things I think about during those moments when the wrong things happen.

I had Mrs. Buckingham for 10th grade English. I don’t remember that much about her anymore; I do seem to recall that she had white hair, and she was slightly plump, but I’m not quite sure about anything beyond that; in my mind, I’ve kind of replaced her with Mrs. Doubtfire.

But I do remember that in the spring semester, she assigned each student something grammar-related and asked us to give a presentation about it. Some students were assigned punctuation marks, or something relating to syntax.

I was assigned the anecdote.

And then I did what 10th graders do on semi-meaningless presentations: I stalled. For a month, I did nothing. I watched other students give five-minute mini-lectures on the exclamation point and the semi-colon. But I knew I didn’t have to present for a few weeks.

So I did nothing.

A week passed. Then two. Then three. The weekend before my presentation — I remember I was presenting on a Monday — I decided I had to start on my big anecdote presentation.

Except that I didn’t. I watched some football on Saturday. Went out with some friends that night. And then it was Sunday — the last day. I was all set to figure out how to explain the mystery that is the anecdote to my peers.

And then my friend, Sam, called, and asked if I wanted to go play golf with our friend, Brett. I did. I had a red Oldsmobile 88 that had been handed down from my grandpa. It had these cloth seats that you just sunk into, and the front seat was actually a bench seat, so the thing seated three in both the front and the back. The 88 was as wide as a Suburban and nearly as long; parallel parking it felt a little like parking a small cruise ship. The 88 had a trunk that sunk down almost to the pavement, and it was plenty big enough for three sets of golf clubs. So we took my car.

I don’t remember much about the round we played. What I do remember is the drive back down I-270. I was in the left lane, and the 88 had a way of lulling me to sleep in those big, cloth seats. I looked up at the dash at one point and realized that I was doing 90+ in a 55. The 88 was deceptively fast like that, but it also wasn’t much designed for high speeds. I’m not sure Grandpa ever put the thing above 35 in all the years he drove it.

So the car started to rattle a little bit, but nothing too frightening. We pulled off the highway to drop off Sam. Sam lived down Seven Locks, a windy, up-and-down-and-up-again of a street, and when we got to Sam’s house, I remember going over this bump, and then I remember hearing a noise that sounded distinctly like a 777 flying by at low altitude.

I thought nothing of it, but when Sam was walking with his clubs into his garage, he looked back and noticed that part of the underside of my car was falling off.

Turns out that somewhere between the high speeds and the bumpity-bump of Seven Locks, the splash guard for my engine — basically, this piece of plastic that kept water from getting into parts of the engine that weren’t supposed to get wet — had lost a screw or two, and had started dragging on the ground.

But the three of us didn’t know this. We weren’t car experts. We were 16. My car knowledge was limited to whatever I’d heard on “Car Talk.” I was unaware that the splash guard is kind of like the human appendix; it has a purpose, but not much of one.

I saw this thing dangling underneath my car and assumed that it was the part of the engine that kept the rest of the engine from, you know, just falling out onto the street. I saw this part and assumed that it was, in the most meaningful sense of the word, essential to the working ability of my motor vehicle.

So we did what any 16-year-olds would do in a situation where our mode of transportation was on the verge of collapse: We went into Sam’s garage, grabbed a roll of duct tape and turned the underside and front of my car into a rolling 3M ad.

And then I drove off for Brett’s house at about 25 miles an hour.

Somewhere along the way, I started to fear that my 88 was basically turning into the sled from “Cool Runnings,” and that my carburetor or something equally important-sounding was just going to plop out and land on River Road, and my parents were going to kill me.

And then I realized that I was going to have to explain this whole thing — the whole, Uh, I think my engine is dangling by a thread and some duct tape situation — to my mother.

But then, while slowing down traffic and doing 25 in a 45, I realized what I had to do: When I saw my mother, I had to lighten the mood. I had to walk into the house and tell her something that would distract her from the disaster that was my car. I had to tell her something that would simultaneously make her laugh and help her understand the situation.

What I needed was an anecdote. Only an anecdote would do.

And suddenly, I knew just what I’d be talking about in Mrs. Buckingham’s class the next day.

Which brings me back to this:

When I’m convinced that every fucking thing is going wrong, what I find is that it usually helps to think about how absurdly tiny my problems are. This fantastic little narrative by Carl Sagan is especially helpful. It is the very definition of perspective.

In it, he points to a photo of Earth as taken from millions of miles away. The earth is just a tiny blue dot in the photo. And Sagan says:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.”

And holy mother of Buddha does that make every mistake seem a little less epic.

Things That Comfort Me When Every Fucking Thing Goes Wrong: My Membership in The Lucky Sperm Club.

Yes We DidThings tend to go wrong. This is a series of blog posts about the things I think about during those moments when the wrong things happen.

It’s my senior year at school. I’m in a photography class that I need to pass for graduation. The prof hands us a final assignment: A portfolio of seven photos. We’ve got a month to shoot it. These seven photos are worth half of our final grade.

I have a roommate working for the Obama campaign in mid-Missouri. The day after the election, I go with him to the office. They’re shutting everything down, and everyone’s saying their goodbyes. I spend the day there with my camera, shooting portraits, shooting the office. I get my seven photos. I’m happy.

About a week before the assignment is due, I pull out the grading rubric. I’ve got all the details down. I’ve got my seven photos. I’ve got a range of subjects and photographic styles.

Then I see this little sentence about halfway down the page:

“Please photograph only one person.”

Uh-oh.

I’ve got a lot of photos. And they’re of lots of different people.

I probably should have read the rubric a bit more closely before starting the project.

But this is no time to panic. I open up the laptop, tab over to Wikipedia and begin hammering out a 1,500 word essay on Albert Camus’ “The Stranger.” My essay is titled, “An Overly Complex Explanation of Why I Am Unable to Obey Rules and Instead Choose to Fight Unnecessary Existential Battles.” In it, I argue that I am presenting a portfolio of photos about Barack Obama in which Barack Obama does not appear. Instead, he appears through the faces of his campaign workers and volunteers — the people who fought for him, who worked for him, who took his beliefs and ideals and made them their own.

I write:

So I see this final project as a photo essay about the faces of one man: Barack Obama. Each of the people I’ve photographed was so involved with the campaign that on election day, they viewed the Obama victory as a clear validation of their own efforts and their own beliefs….

What I’m arguing is that existentially, every single Obama volunteer ceased to exist as an individual for a few months and took on the personality and belief system of Barack Obama. They believed in him to the point where they could feasibly understand Obama and understand the emotions that he went through during the election. I am arguing, ridiculous as it sounds, that a person is not defined by the physical body but by the ability for rational, independent thought. And as every single Obama volunteer acted as a representative of Barack Obama, working for his thoughts/ideas/beliefs, these volunteers were merely an extension of Obama.

So what follows is my photo essay about Barack Obama, the day after the election. The catch is that the physical presence of Barack Obama does not appear.

I attach the essay to my portfolio. It is a historic piece of bullshit, and I am convinced that my teacher — who I have already pissed off a few times this semester — will call me out on it.

She does not. I am, instead, given an A- for my work, and my teacher commends me for my creativity.

I have gone from “Oh, fuck!” to “Fuck, yeah!”

Which brings me around to something my dad likes to say. I grew up an amazingly lucky kid. I grew up in a nice suburb, and I went to a great school. My elementary school had a planetarium — not the Hayden or anything, but still, a big dome on which you could trace the structure of Milky Way — and I didn’t think much of it. For the longest time, I assumed every school had a planetarium. I got to go on vacations to the beach and to the mountains. Before I graduated high school, I’d been to four continents.

This all seemed ordinary.

Dad likes to refer to me and my two siblings as The Lucky Sperm Club, and he’s absolutely right. I was born into a world that was far too good to me. My world was safe. My parents were — still are, actually — happily married. I had my own car, my own room, and all the Girl Scout cookies I could eat. Today, I’m not saddled by college-related debt because my family had the money to put me through school.

I was born into this Wonder Years of a life, and into a world that nurtured me and let me focus on just growing up.

The deck was absolutely stacked in my favor.

So when I end up in a situation where I’m convinced that everything’s going wrong, it’s not hard for me to remind myself to stop making excuses. I didn’t grow up in a world that threw roadblocks at me. My world was one where people got fast-tracked to opportunity.

I try to remind myself: Shut up and deal with adversity, Dan. It’s about time you had some in your life.

Things That Comfort Me When Every Fucking Thing Goes Wrong: Townes.

Things tend to go wrong. This is a series of blog posts about the things I think about during those moments when the wrong things happen.

So it’s January 2008. My alma mater, in their infinite wisdom, has decided to allow me to attend a semester of classes in Alicante, Spain, a little town on the Mediterranean coast. Let that sink in: I am getting college credit for going to school by the beach. I’m flying out there before they can change their minds.

My grandma insists on helping me out with the travel arrangements. She’s got a travel agent down in Boca that she uses for international travel. Call her, she says.

So I do. The travel agent turns what should be a two legged trip — DC to Madrid to Alicante — into three. I pack my bags. I fly to Atlanta mid-afternoon. I take the overnight flight to Madrid. We get off the plane in Madrid and onto the jetway. Then off the jetway and into one of those special international terminal hallways that shuttles you straight to customs.

We stop moving.

But I’m feeling alright. Tired, but alright. It’s 6 a.m. in Spain, midnight back home. I’ve got Jack Johnson strumming in the earbuds, so I don’t even mind when an airline rep comes to the front of the pack and tells us: The door to let us into customs is locked. And the guy with the key to unlock the doors won’t be here for 45 minutes.

Still, I’m in no rush. It’s 6 a.m. My flight to Alicante isn’t until 11. I didn’t really sleep last night, so I’m a bit too tired to be mad. I just chill. Enjoy the surf music. Try to nap while standing upright. Ignore the crying children and annoyed parents and harried businessmen. I put myself in the zone, and I feel alright.

The keymaster shows up, and the door opens, and I wait in customs for a while, and then I’m through. Grab my bags, get on a shuttle and head over to the domestic terminal for the last leg of my trip.

My flight’s already on the board when I get there: 11 a.m. to Alicante. The line for Iberia, Spain’s national airline, moves kinda slow, but I’m in no rush. I get to the front. I throw my two massive bags on the scale. I hand the rep my confirmation number. She is a very pretty airline check-in lady sitting in a row of very pretty airline check-in ladies. It is hard not to feel at ease.

I try to start the conversation in Spanish, even though my travel Spanish is pretty much limited to, “Hi, here’s my photo ID.” The check-in lady starts typing my information into the computer. She types with the same fury that American gate agents tend to use while typing; she types as though hoping to inflict pain upon her keyboard. I try to wonder what this keyboard has done to wrong her.

The check-in lady stops typing, and looks up at me. And then she says something in rapid-fire Spanish.

I gaze blankly. I am far too tired to actually put together the energy to stare.

She switches to English. “Your 11 a.m. flight to Alicante has been cancelled,” she says.

I point to the board. “But what about that 11 a.m. flight to Alicante?” I ask.

“There is an 11 a.m. flight to Alicante,” she says. “You are not on it.”

So this is the kind of moment I am in: It is 9 a.m. in Spain and 3 a.m. in America. I have 70 lbs. of luggage with me. I do not have a cell phone. I am booked on an 11 a.m. flight that does not exist. I have not really slept in quite some time, and each moment I go without sleeping is making the lack of sleep more evident.

Things are not going well.

Of course, things get fixed. The check-in lady explains that my initial flight was cancelled, and then a different 11 a.m. flight was scheduled. She does not know why I was not re-booked. She mentions that I should have been notified of this weeks ago, and I start to wonder whether or not my grandma’s travel agent knew about my non-flight flight. The check-in lady says she cannot put me on the 11 a.m. flight, even though the flight is not full. She puts me on the 1 p.m. flight instead.

This is how it will be.

So it takes a while, and I’m not entirely alive by the time I land, but I do get there, and when I get there, I am immediately taken to a hotel on the beach. It is January, and it is 65 degrees.

This is comfort enough.

But I like to think of two songs by Townes Van Zandt at such moments. There are days like the one I had at Madrid Int’l, days that seem to confirm that whatever gods exist spend most of their existence seeking to make my life as difficult as possible.

Townes’ “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold” is a song about those very gods.

But it’s also got this magic bit of wisdom at the end. The song is about two men, Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold, and a game of poker. Mr. Gold’s getting all the right cards. He’s winning hand after hand. And just when it looks bleak, the gods change their minds, and Mr. Mudd gets an unbeatable hand. Mr. Gold gets confident. Bets it all. Loses it all.

And the final verse goes:

Now here’s what this story’s told
If you feel like Mudd you’ll end up Gold
If you feel like lost, you’ll end up found
So amigo, lay them raises down

That’s always a nice reminder on the worst days. Stick with it. Be patient. Luck always evens out.

The other Townes song that helps is called “Rex’s Blues.” It’s one of his best. And this is the part that crushes me:

There ain’t no dark till something shines
I’m bound to leave this dark behind

Make of that what you will, but for me, it’s always said: We can’t really understand the lows until we’ve experienced the highs. I mean, really: How can we know what is good until we’ve known that which is not?

But once we understand it, we can always hope for something better. We can always hope for a little bit of sunshine.

Or in the case of my study abroad experience, six months of topless beaches and sunshine.

(How I got college credit for it all, I’ll never know.)

Things That Comfort Me When Every Fucking Thing Goes Wrong: Donut-Related Wisdom.

Things tend to go wrong. This is a series of blog posts about the things I think about during those moments when the wrong things happen.

My sophomore year of college, I loaded up the Ford Explorer and headed to St. Louis to go watch a football game. I had a giant cooler filled with ice, beer and semi-refrigerated meats. I was wearing a yellow, pinstriped blazer. I left around rush hour.

And 10 minutes into the drive, I heard a noise under the hood that sounded distinctly like a small reserve of Roman candles going off all at once.

I pulled over in Kingdom City, this little town east of Columbia, Mo., that’s most famous for trying to secede from the Union back when that was still in fashion. They’ve got a few garages there, and I pulled into one where they serviced 18-wheelers. I kept the car running while the mechanics took a look under the hood. They didn’t look long before delivering a verdict:

My engine was about to explode.

So I won’t be driving this thing to St. Louis, I asked?

Not if you want to live, they said.

And suddenly, I found myself very much stranded in Kingdom City, Mo., population 128.

But then I started to think about contingency plans. Could I get a ride in the morning? Did I know anyone else driving through to St. Louis that night? Should I just cancel the whole trip?

And then I remembered: There’s this van company that shuttles travelers from Columbia, Mo., to the St. Louis airport. They make a few trips a day. Sometimes, they make a stop in Kingdom City at the local McDonald’s.

I didn’t have a smartphone, but I did happen to have the shuttle company’s number stored on my phone. I called and asked when the next shuttle might be coming through Kingdom City.

It was coming in seven minutes, they said. I asked if I could pay with credit card over the phone. They told me: Forget about the credit card. Start running towards the van.

So I started running, the yellow jacket on one arm, the cooler of beer and meats and ice wheeling behind me. The lid was duct taped shut.

I beat the shuttle to the McDonald’s parking lot by a minute or two, but I was still sucking air when they pulled up. I asked the driver if I could pay by credit card. He said no. Cash only.

The exact cost of the trip is lost to memory, but I do remember that it wasn’t an even number. I think it was $42.

I opened my wallet. I had exactly $42 inside.

So that’s how I got to St. Louis that weekend.

Was I lucky? Absolutely. Everything was going wrong. My car was dying. I was screwed. But there just happened to be a garage that could help me when I needed help. There just happened to be a St. Louis-bound shuttle coming through town when I needed it. I just happened to have the to-the-decimal-point amount of cash I needed to pay for the shuttle.

But there’s more to this story than that. I’m thinking now about this breakfast place I love. They’ve got these words inscribed on the top of their menu, and I’m rather fond of them:

Keep your eye on the donut, and not on the hole.

I love that. When things go wrong, we lose focus on what’s important. We focus on what we don’t have instead of what we do have.

I didn’t have a working car at that moment, but I did have all the tools to get me to St. Louis that weekend. That was the goal: Get to St. Louis.

I kept my eye on the donut, even as everything was going wrong. I made it to St. Louis that night.

Things That Comfort Me When Every Fucking Thing Goes Wrong: John Prine.

John Prine

Things tend to go wrong. This is the first in a series of blog posts about the things that I think about during those moments when the wrong things happen.

I remember the very first time that everything went wrong for me. I think I was in first or second grade. My family was up in Pennsylvania at Sesame Place, a Sesame Street-themed water park. My dad and sister and I were going down a water slide. I went down first, and waited for them to come down after me. But they never came. So I waited and waited, and then I got upset, and then first-or-second grade me started to cry, and then I got hysterical, and then I started to think I’d lost my family forever, and then dad found me and everything was fine. The whole scene — from me thinking my family had abandoned me to me finding my dad, going back on a water slide and completely forgetting about it — took five or 10 minutes in real time, and several hours in elementary school time. In the moment, it was terribly scarring, and it seemed to take forever to find my dad, and then I was over it before I’d even gotten all the way down the next slide.

Since then, I’ve been through more a few more situations where Every. Fucking. Thing went wrong. There was the time I almost got deported by the Chinese. The time I did a mile-long sprint through Houston Intercontinental in sandals. The time my mother nearly dropped the Torah during my Bar Mitzvah.

You get the idea.

But not everything is a full-on disaster. What I’m learning is, when everything goes wrong, it’s usually never as terrible as it seems in the moment. I’m learning how to put things into perspective.

This one song by John Prine helps. It’s one of my favorites, called, “That’s The Way The World Goes Round.” And the chorus goes:

That’s the way that the world goes ’round
You’re up one day and the next you’re down
It’s half an inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown
That’s the way that the world goes ’round

It’s that third line that I love the most: “It’s half an inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown.” Isn’t it almost always? I find that the worst mistakes, the biggest fuck-ups… well, they’re really not that bad at all.

It’s just that in the moment, every other thing in my mind gets blocked out, and all I can think of is how everything is going wrong. I lose all perspective.

And then I remind myself that it’s just a half an inch of water, and the moment tends to pass.