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Words of Wisdom from Jimmy Dougan

Our family watched A League of Their Own the other night (still a good movie, by the way) and there’s this moment where Tom Hanks tells Geena Davis that baseball is “supposed to be hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it. The ‘hard’ is what makes it great.”

At the end of every Christmas tour we all sit around and play “Highs and Lows,” naming the high points and low points of the month. The highs are easy to come up with; the lows are tricky because the real lows (for me, anyway) aren’t the sorts of things you can just blab about in a group of people. But in 2014, everybody had the same low.

About halfway through the tour, you see, the bus broke down. In Texas. If you’ve never done a tour on a bus, you should know that it’s the one piece of equipment that everyone on the tour relies on heavily not just for their comfort or their transportation, but for their one semblance of continuity in a constantly changing situation. Having the bus break down is sort of like getting a bad leak in your roof on the day that all your family arrives for Christmas; it’s not the end of the world, but it’s a huge pain in the rear. The only way for that many people to do that many shows that many miles apart in that many days is on a twelve-bunk bus. We finish the show, load the trailer, get on the bus, and sleep while the driver (who has been sleeping all day) gets us to the next city. It’s a luxury, yes, but it’s also a necessity. We rely on the bus driver. And the bus.

So that night we went to bed in our bunks after a show without knowing if the mechanic could fix the problem in time to get us on the road. I woke up the next morning, staggered out of my bunk, and looked out the bus window to see not the church where we were supposed to be but the same hotel parking lot where we were the night before. That meant the bus was dead in the water. It also meant that we were about to enter a logistical nightmare. Harold, Stu, and Todd (sound engineer, lighting director, and tour manager, respectively) bore the brunt of the nightmare, because it became their job to figure out how to get 11 musicians and a whole mess of gear to the next show. I’ll spare you the details, but I can tell you it involved a U-Haul truck, two church vans, a six-hour drive, and us setting up, sound checking, and starting the concert in about a 45 minute window. It was intense, and this is me giving a virtual high-five to Harold, Stu, and Todd for making it happen.

That night after the concert we were waiting for our repaired tour bus, our home-on-wheels, to arrive and carry our weary selves to the next show (another six hours away, since we were in Texas and everything in Texas is six hours away), when we got the news that the bus hadn’t been repaired. Not only that, a new bus wouldn’t get to Texas until the next day. To make matters even worse, the next show was a double-header—a show at 4:00 and another at 7:00. What did that mean, you ask? It meant that we couldn’t sleep that night. We squeezed into another church van like clowns at a circus and drove through the dark highways of Texas to Dallas, where we had to set everything up and play not one but two concerts. This is your friendly reminder that we aren’t spring chickens. Most of us are moms and dads in their late thirties and early forties, not college kids on their first road trip.

Here’s the point: we did it. We played both shows, the crowds were effusive, and when the bus finally arrived and we climbed on late that night we were more of a band than we had ever been. At the end of the tour when we named our highs and lows, guess what everybody’s low was? “Those days in Texas when the bus broke down,” we all said. “That was miserable.” Then it came time for the highs. After a few moments someone said, “My favorite memory was when we were driving through the night and we sat up front in the van and sang country songs to stay awake.” “Playing Catch Phrase in the back of the church van.” “When we finished that second show on no sleep and we walked backstage to the sound of the crowd singing the doxology, and we cried.” Those few days tightened our bond like nothing else had in years. It would have been easy to write off the bus breakdown as the ultimate low and move on, but upon reflection we all realized that the high and the low were the same memory.

The hard is what makes it great.

I sat down a few days ago to record my memories of 2015. My initial impulse was to write down all the good stuff, the successes and the happy surprises. Then I started writing down the bad stuff, and I felt a pang of guilt because I was, more or less, complaining. Then I began to see all the ways the bad memories had shaped me and my family, the way they had given birth to redemptive moments. Remembering the good is important, but you can too easily paint a false picture. Remembering the bad can turn into a litany of complaints. The trick is to remember it all, and to remember the hard stuff in the right way, because sometimes the bad is where the great is hiding.


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