[Note: I spent much of the weekend thinking and writing about the bond Mark and I shared around writing. We certainly bonded around sports and simply from spending time together when he was in his formative stage. But that doesn’t always guarantee a closeness later in life.
The driver who hit and killed Mark robbed his parents of many things. She robbed me of my only son, and a relationship I’ll never replace. She also took the brightest of personalities, one with passion (and compassion) from a world sorely in need of people like him.
As difficult as 2017 has been, one of the things that keep us going is knowing that Mark had a passion for Earth, other people (and bringing them together), and of course, writing. We founded the Mark Baumer Sustainability Fund earlier this year. We’re happy to announce that we are now a 501(c)3 nonprofit. We also have a brand new website that just went live. Check it out. Also, today would be a great day to remember Mark by making a contribution to the fund. It’s now tax-deductible and a great end-of-year gift to give for a cause that will support causes and organizations that cultivate traits that were part of Mark’s philosophy of life—love, kindness, and working towards building a better and more equitable world for all people.-jb]
Birthday Blog, Thirty-four (34)
Developing any craft requires diligence, attention to it, and maybe more than anything else—a dogged determination in cultivating it—regardless of how many people flock to your doorstep. I think this an apt application for both writing and music, too.
I’m not a musician, but I’ve had a passion for various kinds of rock-rooted musicology dating back nearly 50 years. I know a thing or two about it, and what I don’t know experientially, I’ve gleaned from a longstanding tradition of reading what once was known as “rock journalism.” While no longer as prevalent as it once was given the demise of print, there are still outlets where this genre of writing resides.
Since we’re on the topic of writing, I think I can weigh-in on this with definite ink stains on my hands, or perhaps better, a worn keyboard on my laptop. It was 2001—I had read Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Afterwards, I decided not to be some occasional dabbler. I set a goal—I wanted to get published. Following King’s prescription, I got up early before work and wrote something every day. After a year of doing this, I got an essay published in Casco Bay Weekly just like King said would happen. I’d really become a writer.
My approach to writing and Mark’s had similarities, but our styles were very different. Yet, we talked a lot about craft and working at it. We also both knew that there were writers that didn’t share the same working man’s commitment to being a writer. Mark didn’t care at all about this. Once he showed up at Brown in 2009, he was on a mission to hit his own personal writing goals, and the rest of the world be damned! Like me, he believed that writers don’t talk about writing—writers write.
If you’ve been following the story thus far, you know that Mark’s writing journey, his commitment to activism and the way he brought a certain physicality to his craft—in a way that few writers have done—ended on January 21, 2017. One can only speculate where he would have taken all of it if the woman driving an SUV east on U.S. 90 had managed to stay in her lane and avoided killing him. But what’s done is done.
Since October 13, a Friday, exactly one year to the day when Mark commenced walking west with the target being, once again, a crossing of America on foot, I’ve been watching a daily video and re-reading that day’s blog post. This has become a regular ritual: a priority in my life. I’m not serving as a stenographer, transcribing the videos or simply rehashing content.
Maybe a better way of explaining this is that it’s like I’m living in a time machine of sorts, working at finding the space where Mark was walking in exactly one year ago. The problem with this is that on days like today, I’m twisted around and it makes me feel disoriented. Without getting too technical for the reader, I am writing these daily entries exactly a year into the future from when Mark posted his video and blog post. If you look at the calendar of 2016 and 2017, side-by-side, you’ll see that Mark’s birthday in 2016 was on Monday. The date of his birthday, as always, was December 19. The 2017 calendar for the third Monday in the month shows December 18. We’ll “celebrate” Mark’s 34th birthday today, except he won’t be around. But I watched the video yesterday (and read the blog post) where he was talking about walking on his birthday.
All this to say that this practice serves as a prompt for writing into his life and sorting through grief. I am capturing a trip cut short, through the eyes of a father who also happens to be a writer. And it hurts every day to do this.
I think many writers embrace writing for one reason and one only—because they have a notion about writing. A romantic ideal that they’ll write “The Great American Novel” or some version of a bestseller. Then, life will be champagne and private jets thereafter. This might also be why guys (and some girls) pick up a guitar, a bass, or some drumsticks and start “kicking out the jams.”
But for every writer and musician who finds fame and fortune, the metaphorical sides of the highway are strewn with the remains of those who never realized anything close to financial success. To endeavor to create with this as your endgame is akin to believing that buying a ticket will result in your winning the lottery.
So, why write? That’s a question I’ve asked myself over and over for 15 years. If fame and fortune is such a crapshoot, then what’s the purpose? Maybe writing for writing’s sake. I think if you call yourself a “writer” and truly are one, then a characteristic quality (or curse?) is that you are compelled to write. If you don’t, you simply can’t live, or live in a way that imbues your life with a shred of meaning. And yet, while offering some reason for living, creativity also exacts a psychological cost from those who stay with their art or craft.
I think if you got into writing or playing music because you had to—because if you didn’t, you probably wouldn’t be able to live or at least live with your soul left intact—then you’re likely to just keep keeping on, regardless of whether your book project gets picked up by a publisher, or your band gets signed to a major record deal.
It’s interesting how little definitive material is available to peg what “success” means for a writer. There is the number floating around that “the average book sells less than 500 copies,” that according to Publisher’s Weekly, in 2006.
Having published four books, three of them selling above that threshold—one blowing way past that—and one falling below it, I can tell you that selling 500 books (or even 5,000) won’t put you in anything close to the penthouse. No, it leaves you scrambling around looking for side gigs that allow you to keep writing. You’ll also likely have to learn to live with the walls of doubt pressing inward and pressuring you to turn aside.
Selling music (like selling books) these days is a risky proposition. An article I read this fall about a favorite musician of mine, Ted Leo, details this well. As articulate and talented as Leo is, the past few years have been a struggle. But struggle or not, he perseveres.
Patterson Hood, of another favorite band of mine, the Drive-By Truckers, offers a thoughtful assessment of the music side of things, documenting his early struggles pre-DBT in this interview with Chuck Reece of The Bitter Southerner. Yet, he (and longtime bandmate, Mike Cooley) have stayed at it for more than three decades, now (with 20-plus of those years slogging along with DBT). Both the Leo piece in Stereogum and Hood’s interview are standards for what remains of true musical journalism.
Birthdays with Mark tended to be understated affairs, especially later in his life. When he was a pre-teen, however, Mary always made a big deal of the day.
One of my best remembrances of these celebrations from the past was the one that happened when he was seven. Because his birthday occurred the week before Christmas and could get lost in the madness leading up to the days prior to the holiday, Mary began having a “1/2-year birthday” for Mark, usually in July.
In 1990, we had just moved into our house in Durham the prior fall. The lawn was still coming in, and there are details in the old photos that remind me of what it felt to be experiencing home ownership for the first time.
Mark and his buddies whooped, hollered, and shot at each other with cap guns. The bedlam was much-too-much for our overly-sensitive sheltie, Bernie. He disappeared, and we got a call from Mary’s parents who lived just down the road from us. Apparently, our dog had made his way through the woods (or down the side of busy Route 9), and ended up waiting for them to find him on their front steps.
But back to the present.
When Mark struck off on yet another one of his walks last October, never in my wildest dreams (or struggles to keep irrational fear at bay) did I imagine it would end as it did, with his hopes and dreams crushed like his body was, along the side of a lonely stretch of highway in rural Florida.
As his father, I’ve tried to place myself in a space just prior to the crash. What was he thinking of, who was he longing for, and did he know what was about to happen just prior to his death? We’ll never know, and if there are ways to piece together fragments of his last minutes on earth, they disappeared along with his cell phone. We never got it back.
Last December, on his 33rd birthday, Mary and I shed tears most of the day knowing he was out on the road, all alone. We wanted to be there, celebrating with him. I’d have given anything to have found a place on the map up ahead of him and a place to cook him a vegan feast to share with him after a long day of slogging along the highway.
We spoke to him on the phone and shared some of our sadness, but not all of it. We didn’t want to bring him down. We also wanted to let him know that we were sorry not to be there with him on the day. The weariness following moving 26 years of our life from the house we sold in November to a new place alongside a beautiful tidal cove left us exhausted in the days leading up to December 19.
I sent him the following email, with the subject line consisting simply of the numbers signifying his age, “33”:
Today is your birthday. Where did 33 years go? I know you’ve heard me say it more than you probably care hearing, but it does seem like yesterday (or maybe a few years ago) that your Mom and me were heading to St. Margaret’s in Hammond, Indiana, knowing we were going to be having a baby.
It’s a scary feeling knowing that you are going to be a father. How will I measure up? And, I hope the baby is healthy. That and all kinds of other uncertainties that come with being young and a parent.
Fast forward to the present, I’m proud of the adult you’ve become. I’m sure I’ve had some role in all of this, but you’ve obviously been cognizant of things that have shaped and molded you into the adult Mark that we have at the moment.
I’m not sure birthdays are that big of a deal once you reach a certain age. Often, it’s just a reminder that you are a year older and closer to that final hour of life. Not to sound morbid, but I think most people rarely think that the things that they spend the most time on in this life, rarely are things that they’ll feel excited about when they know their days are coming to a close.
I’m glad that you are doing something that matters to you. Having a thing that gets us up in the morning and motivates us to the next stop is important. I’m not sure I have that at the moment, but I’m sure I’ll figure something out that’s new and better than before (or maybe not).
I don’t want to simply ramble for rambling’s sake, however.
I love you. I wish I could see you today, but you have miles to walk and a place on the horizon that you’re moving towards.
Know that I love you in that special way that fathers love their sons (or should love them), and I wish you a great day filled with positive energy.
Mark’s response, like so many from the road back to me was simple, minimal, but spoke volumes. While Mark had always been stoic in nature, there were regular indications of his heart and he shared it from the road with those he loved and cared about regularly, while chewing up the miles, as well as the bottom of his feet.
Thank you for being so supportive. It would mean more than anything to see you and mom today but I feel fortunate to be doing what I’m doing. I’m happy just knowing you’re thinking about me.
I thought about him every day, at all hours of each day, and often at night. During the walk, I’d often wake up from a deep sleep with a start. “Is Mark okay?” I’d immediately think.
Downstairs I’d go, turn on my laptop, and check his GPS link he’d provided us to keep track of where he was. Every single time this happened, I’d be okay once I saw that he was some place along his route and I’d often go into Google Maps and look at images available to make an assessment about the geography where he was probably sleeping during those early morning sessions, worrying about my son.
January 21 changed all that. My life (and life of Mark’s mom, Mary) will never be the same. No more birthday wishes to send his way on yet another Zodiac spinning around, no more thoughts about what to get him for a present. Mark didn’t want much for his birthday (or Christmas), but there were always things we could do for him. Many years, once he was ensconced in Providence, we simply charged his buying card at Fertile Underground, where he liked to shop when he lived on the city’s west side.
Last year, it was a contribution made to FANG to show him we supported him in more than words. I know it meant a lot to him. He truly appreciated having parents that allowed him to be who he was meant to be, and showed that support as tangibly as we could.
Now, he’s gone, we’re still reeling, and today is just the shittiest of days imaginable.
We’ve tried to put on as brave a face as possible. We both want to honor his life because we think his life mattered. That’s why we launched the Mark Baumer Sustainability Fund.
If you got our latest email via TinyLetter, then you know how tough this time of year is. You’d also know that we’ve incorporated and are now a Section 501(c)(3) nonprofit. We’ve been working diligently here at the end of the worst year of our lives to make that happen because we recognize that being a nonprofit allows us greater opportunities for partnership, as well as growing the scope of what we want to do in keeping Mark’s memory and vision alive.
None of this is easy. Simply grieving his death and what that loss means to us as parents ought to be enough. For some parents, it probably would be, but we don’t want to be the “normal” kind of parents. Heck, we’re the parents (and always will be) of a true vegan superhero, so we’ll do our best Mark to live up to the standards you set for us, as a son.
You could honor Mark today on his birthday by heading over to the brand new website and making a donation in his honor and memory. We think Mark was worthy of that kind of remembrance today, a year out from leaving his work incomplete on the side of the highway.
We promise you that we’ll be the best stewards we can be of that support, always transparent about what we’re up to.
Happy Birthday, Mark!