Not Fair Day (remix)
Jun 06 2:27 AM

Not Fair Day (remix)

Jun 06 2:27 AM
Jun 06 2:27 AM

“I would like to address your general attitude of hopeless negativism. Consider the lilies of the gosh-darned field or…hell, take a look at Delmar here as your paradigm of hope.”

Everett McGill


“Yeah, look at me.”

Delmar O’Donnell


Those are a couple of lines from my favorite movie of all time, O Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s a really funny movie that’s packed with wisdom for me as well. What kind of wisdom? Well, over the past few months, I’ve been dealing with a pinched nerve in my neck that threatened to put a serious hold on my biking career, and at times, it felt like all my dominoes had been knocked over. But, things have changed, and I’ve learned a bit of a lesson from O Brother, Where Art Thou? that I thought I had already learned: Not Fair Day.

(Original blog post SparkNotes: I used to tell my kids, whenever they were excessively complaining,  that the Texas State Fair Day only came once a year. All other days are Not Fair Day. Turns out, it’s a great reminder for kids and adults alike that life isn’t always fair, and that a whiny attitude never helped anyone.)

So here goes.

Now, if you’ve never seen the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, it’s essentially a retelling of Homer’s epic, The Odyssey through the lovable Everett, Delmar, and Pete — three escaped convicts on the run and searching for treasure. And it has a pretty killer soundtrack. What follows is a series of ups and downs, which had me oscillating between incredibly optimistic and hopelessly negative.

What a pain in the neck

On March 2 of this year, I woke up a little before 2:00 a.m. for what appeared to be no apparent reason. As a CPA, it’s not uncommon for me to wake up in the middle of the night during tax season. Many times, I’ll go to be with a tax problem on my mind, wake up with a solution, jot it down, and then go back to sleep. However, on March 2, nothing came to mind.

I decided to use the bathroom and got out of bed. But I only made it a few steps before a sharp pain shot through my shoulder blade and down my right arm. I doubled over and tried to straighten out my arm to stop the spasming, but it went completely numb. I was pretty sure I wasn’t having a heart attack, but since my specialty is 1040 forms and not cardiology, my wife rushed me to the ER. 4 hours of tests and beeping machines later, I was told that I had pinched a nerve in my neck (between the c6 and c7 vertebrae). So, no heart attack. But I’d probably need some kind of therapy. Which is good, right?

Kind of.

For the next month of tax season, my right arm was killing me and my hand was almost completely numb. I would literally sit at my desk with a laser pointer, telling our intern where to click and type because I physically couldn’t do much else.

So this was obviously a low point. Riding my bike was going to be impossible, and I was bouncing around from chiropractors to doctors to sports masseuses. Working at my desk became incredibly painful, and the more I tried to adjust things, the worse it got. But, then, I discovered something interesting.

Out of a combination of sheer frustration and determination, I started to ride my bike again. If nothing was going to help the pain, I might as well do something I love, right? Oddly enough, it helped a lot. My pain subsided and I actually felt better on the bike than off of it. I don’t claim to know all the answers, I just know it worked.

I immediately started training for the MS150 ride (which supports finding a cure for Multiple Sclerosis), and was seeing good results. One weekend, I rode 60 miles with a group, then turned around and did 46 miles the very next day, at an 18 mph pace. Without a group. For those keeping score at home, those are pretty good numbers. As long as I kept up with my pain medication and rode every single day, things were fine.

Hopeless Negativism

But, of course, they didn’t stay that way. Just a few weeks ago, I found out that my nerve wasn’t just “pinched” but was completely crushed. The doctors told me that I’d need some invasive surgery that would have up to a 6-month recovery period. That means no outdoor riding, and no MS150 or any other ride I had planned out.  

I also figured that, at age 53, I probably have a maximum of 10-15 summers of outdoor cycling left at this kind of pace. Losing one at this point, especially when things were looking so great?

Well, that’s just plain tough. That’s not fair.

I mean, am I really supposed to just sit this season out, watching the Rangers chase the Astros in my garage while spinning on my stationary bike. Nope. Not for me.

Not Fair Day

Like I said before, Not Fair Day comes from a story I would tell my kids when they complained. Every parent hates to hear their children rate their current experiences as “not fair,” it grates on you. So, as a parent, I came up with an antidote.

I told my kids that life is, in fact, not fair. “As it happens,” I would say, “Life is so unfair that once a year, they have a special day called Fair Day. They close down the schools and everyone gets to go downtown, ride rollercoasters, and eat corny dogs & cotton candy — but today is not that day. Today is not Fair Day and there is nothing I can do about it, my hands are tied.”

I love that story. My kids hate that story because I loved telling it. Frequently. I also loved that story because it worked with my kids; their disdain for my Not Fair Day diatribe eventually eliminated “not fair” from their vocabulary.

It also eliminated the phrase from my vocabulary,  but did I really understand that life is not fair? I would have to say, “No.”

I’ve been very generous to myself in this blog post, but the truth is that when I was dealing with all the pain and negative medical prognoses above, my reaction was a bit more like a kid in a grocery store, who is absolutely positive that one of life's great injustices is that their mom won’t buy the, a bag of M&Ms. I was oscillating from being excited about life to being hopelessly pessimistic and depressed because, well, it just wasn’t fair that a stupid pinched nerve was going to sideline me after I’ve worked so hard to lose weight and get my life on track.

So if life is not fair (and this really sucks), how do I keep it from shooting my wheels off? How do I stop a tiny setback from being a throwback Thursday with me heading north of 300 lbs instead of south of 200 lbs? I guess that’s what I am trying to figure out in this post.

Look at the lilies of the field

“I would like to address your general attitude of hopeless negativism. Consider the lilies of the gosh-darned field or…hell, take a look at Delmar here as your paradigm of hope.”

Everett McGill

There’s that quote from O Brother, Where Art Thou? again, given by George Clooney’s character. Everett was saying that looking at the lilies of the field was actually a pretty simple task. Quit focusing on the negative things in life and look around you, see the beauty and blessings that make this life worth living.

I was taught to make a gratitude list, and a list can’t be made without writing it down, so I put it here to remind myself of all the things in my life for which I can be thankful. I’d encourage you to try it as well, and I’m sure you’ll find yourself overwhelmed by all the good things in your life, and underwhelmed by your response to them. I know I was. Just this past week I can list:

  • The precious gift of a brand new granddaughter, Grace
  • A bike ride with my grandson Asher in his AshMobile
  • An incredible wife, who puts up with me despite my propensity to act like a 3 year old without M&Ms
  • A daughter who shows me that you can be funny without sacrificing wisdom
  • A son who shows me what authentic looks like
  • A son-in-law who will stand up for my daughter, every time
  • The enthusiasm Asher brings to every new discovery
  • Asher's constant laughter at whatever he is saying
  • Watching Gram engage with her grandkids
  • My health (other than 2 renegade discs pinching a nerve)
  • Finally figuring out work
  • Finally figuring out play
  • A group of coworkers who are also figuring out work
  • A career choice that made it possible to have a lot of work out there and get to be picky about it

I could go on and on. I have so much to be thankful for, but when things in one area go wrong, it’s as if my whole life has been nothing but problems and I have never been blessed with a thing. And I’m blessed by at least 3 things on the above list every single day. “Why does this happen to me all the time?” ought to be replaced with, “Why doesn’t this happen more?”

Why did God give me longer to figure out fitness than he did others? Can’t I use the same tools to recuperate? What makes me think I have any reason to ask why?

A gratitude list always helps.

“Yeah, look at me”

Tim Blake Nelson’s character, Delmar O’Donnell, is a saint in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Even though he’s a convict, he is a saint because his only crime was robbing a Piggly Wiggly so he could buy back the family farm that was being foreclosed on. He’s a simple man who wants his dad to be proud of him, and who always sees the good in everything.

If Delmar was a real person, his gratitude list would probably be half as long as mine, but I bet he’d be twice as happy with it. How could a penniless convict on the run be happier than me, with all my blessings? Well, have you ever seen missionaries in a third-world country deliver running water to a family for the first time? The indescribable joy in their faces at getting what you & I consider a basic amenity gives you a little perspective, doesn’t it?

That’s what Delmar’s response, “Yeah, look at me” means. Someone who is thankful despite their circumstances.

But let’s not stop at being thankful during tough times. It’s fairly easy to make a gratitude list and put pinched nerve into perspective, but what about not complaining when you have a lot to complain about? In other words, does my thankfulness work both ways?

For me, my paradigm of hope is already on the gratitude list I shared. She’s my daughter, Katie Lynne Babb. Even her name sounds happy, but Katie has been living with Type 1 diabetes for nearly 15 years. When I think about a pinched nerve compared to giving yourself insulin shots in in Junior High, it’s nothing.

What’s remarkable is that my daughter has dealt with her diabetes and I’ve never heard her complain about it. I know you might not believe that, but it really is true — not one time. I’m sure she dreams of a cure, but she isn’t in despair from the lack of one.

Neck surgery, according to my doctor, will solve my condition and provide relief 97% of the time with a 3-to-6 month recovery. Nothing has been found yet that will wake up Katie’s pancreas, yet she doesn’t complain about an insulin pump, shots, pricked fingers, hardships in pregnancies, mounting medical costs, repeated trips to doctors, and the list goes on. The only thing I have ever heard her complain about is when people try to limit what she can or can’t do because of her condition. That makes her mad because she knows that God created her to be able to deal with what she has. I actually tend to think that Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 4:13 (often printed on the back of T-shirts) isn’t a self-help tip, but rather a wonderful declaration that Christ gives strength to overcome hardships. Remember, the first part of “I can do all things…” starts with, “I’ve learned the secret of being content.” Paul was actually living in prison at the time, and knew what it was like to have plenty and to have nothing. Katie would love it if He took this burden from her but until then, she’s going to rock diabetes like a champ.

Yeah, look at me. In stereo.


So then, on to the good news. Where do things stand with my pinched nerve and impending surgery? That’s the best part.

As time went on, I found a sense of contentment around the seemingly inevitable surgery. It was going to happen, so I started to accept the situation and start to move forward with life. Sort of like the kid in the grocery store who stops fussing and eventually follows his mother over to the bread aisle. Things were actually going smoothly. We planned a vacation, postponed some commitments until after the surgery, and even started talking with our church about partnering with Today I Can to teach a class.

And, of course, I was looking into ways that I could cycle & exercise without hurting my recovery time. Those recumbent bikes are probably pretty crash-safe. Ok, so maybe I was a little bit like the kid in the grocery store who accepted his M&M-free future, but still had his eye on the Skittles. A boy can dream. I am, after all, still subject to the old man, as a friend of mine has reminded me several times. But, ultimately, if the doctors nixed cycling altogether, I wasn’t going to throw a fit.

Then, something very unexpected happened.

In the course of preparation for the surgery and what have you, I got a second opinion from another surgeon after a nerve study was conducted. You know, to be extra cautious. Well, it turns out that nerve study showed my condition had actually improved quite dramatically. In fact, not only do I not need the surgery immediately, but I wasn’t dreaming when I said that cycling actually helped my shoulder & arm pain! Cycling is actually a great way to relieve pressure on my pinched nerve, even though the surgeon wasn't sure how that worked out, when we talked about what else I could do, he said keep riding. So now I’m not only able to ride, but I have to ride, doctor's orders. What a blessing! And I think I have something to add to my gratitude list.

We really don’t know what this life has in store for us, and sometimes what we think is bad news is just not an immediate delivery of good news. Maybe it is bad news, but 9 times out of 10, it isn’t anything I can control. Bad decisions I made yesterday may have consequences tomorrow, but because I tried to correct that decision doesn’t eliminate the consequences.

Society has really demonstrated lately that we really are a bunch of 3-year olds being denied M&Ms. And I do mean all of us. Millennials and Hollywood had a tough time with last November’s election results, and are still having a tough time with it. But even though I didn’t start browsing the Canadian housing market after lost elections in years past, I was still pretty upset when someone told me I couldn’t ride my bike today and which one of those looks more like a 3-year old?


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