Pain in the Gut

For weeks after Mark died, my stomach hurt. Searing pain, centered in my gut.

Then, winter turned to spring. We made a pilgrimage of sorts to California. Upon returning, I was thrust into the school umpiring season and then, it was summer and more baseball games to arbitrate.

Mary decided to embark on training to get ready for the Tri for a Cure. She returned to work. I got dumped from one of my jobs. Life continued, without Mark.

How does one normalize that which isn’t normal? Life missing a portion of your heart, a family unit in mourning, and now, it’s tourist season and everyone’s life is filled with the seasonal things we all know and love. Except it’s hard to find joy when your life is turned upside-down and you continue reeling.

Our gut is part of the nervous system, known as the “brain-gut axis.” According to an older issue of the Harvard Mental Health Letter detailing the effects of stress and abdominal pain,

“our brain interacts with the rest of the body through the nervous system, which has several major components. One of them is the enteric nervous system, which helps regulate digestion. In life-or-death situations, the brain triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response. It slows digestion, or even stops it completely, so the body can focus all of its internal energy to facing the threat. But less severe types of stress, such as an argument, public speaking, or driving in traffic, also can slow or disrupt the digestive process, causing abdominal pain and other gastrointestinal symptoms.”

Stress causes disruption of the digestive process. Since Mary and I have been on stress overload continuing to deal with the details of a life sans its guiding force here during summer’s height, I guess I know why my stomach is hurting again.

Stress can cause pain in the gut.

One thing we both have attempted to do is manage our stress to some degree. We don’t always succeed, but our goal is to take care of ourselves as well as possible given the shitty hand we’ve been dealt.

Last week, during a stretch characterized by a lack of sleep, I gave up any guise of productivity on Thursday and headed out on my bike. I set an achievable goal of cranking the pedals like my life depended on it. Riding across beautiful back roads nearby, I remembered a ride that Mark and I took together years ago, when he came home for one of his visits when we were still living in Durham.

Mark had been running and was in good shape, but at that time, hadn’t done much cycling. He borrowed Mary’s bike, which was probably a bit small for him. No problem for Mark. I had to ride like a madman just to keep him in my sights. He kept urging me to ride faster. Mark was always encouraging me onward, beyond my self-imposed limits. During last week’s ride, I imagined I was chasing Mark. When I made it back home after about 90 minutes of riding, my stomach no longer hurt. I’d pushed stressful thoughts out of my head, or maybe Mark had.

Having some true-blue, tried-and-true friends has been a gift that keeps on giving for us. One of those friends met me after work Monday night. We hit tennis balls back and forth before retiring for a few beers downtown. It’s hard to hold onto the cares of the world when you’re trying to get across the court to a ball skittering down the baseline.

Later, sitting with Mary before heading off to bed and my usual habit of reading ‘til I can’t keep my eyes open, we counted ourselves lucky for those time-tested friends. We also reminded one another that we don’t owe anyone anything. We’ve given enough and still; we continue being asked to give more, taking care of the ongoing administrative details of Mark’s life, nearly seven months later.

Current events taking place in Charlottesville over the weekend were hard to hear about, especially learning about a young woman—a hopeful, committed millennial who makes me think of Mark—run down by a driver, using his car as a lethal weapon. Remember two weeks ago when I referenced the Treehugger article indicating that “cars are like guns”? Maybe better, tools of terrorism.

Do you still have doubts?

Faking the News

I was born into a Catholic family. The Catholicism of my formative years was a totally different brand than the Catholic Worker-style practice of one’s faith (and life lived in accordance with the gospels) advocated by co-founder, Dorothy Day.

When I tried to capture (in an essay in my last book) some of the oddness of growing up Catholic in the house where I was born, it was met with considerable familial disapproval. I obviously failed in my attempt at being a poor man’s David Sedaris and mining family matters for writing material.

Today’s purpose isn’t revisiting family dysfunction, however.

Two Des Moines-based Catholic Workers, Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya were arrested last week, having admitted to sabotaging the Dakota Access Pipeline section crossing the middle of the country and Iowa. Reznicek has a history of this type of activism, modeled after the Plowshares anti-nuclear activists of the 1980s. Both also are carrying on in the spirit of the organization co-founded by Day and Peter Maurin.

Dorothy Day, one of the 20th century’s activist giants.

Continue reading

Hope in the Dark

It’s easy to grow discouraged in this life. Adversity—whether it’s an illness or failing health, economic stress, loneliness or isolation—or in Mary and my case, losing Mark suddenly and tragically: elements like these can grind even the strongest person down, and make them want to give up.

The case can also be made forcefully that the charge that many of us were given when we were young that life in America would be better for us than previous generations is no longer a reality for most. We’ve just elected a president who is at best, a boorish and self-centered man unlike anyone who has sat in the oval office prior. Some believe however, that our current president is an authoritarian with designs on dismantling what remains of our nation’s functionality and crumbling civic and physical infrastructure.

Peggy Noonan, someone with legitimate Republican bona fides calls Mr. Trump, “Woody Allen without the humor” in an op-ed written for and published in the Wall Street Journal. She paints him as a pathetic and weak little man. She’s probably right, although don’t understimate the damage possible by “weak little men.” It’s also far too easy to locate our reasons for despair in one man or a devastating life event.

In the midst of walking a personal path buffeted by discouragement and sadness, I’ve noted how many others are dealing with their own dark journey. In my own grief, I’ve recognized this collective sense of loss all around.  So fellow travelers, why so sad?

Rebecca Solnit is an American writer and activist. She’s been engaged in environmental and human rights campaigns since the 1980s. Her writing is informed by a life lived with boots firmly planted in real life and direct action work, not academic posturing. Maybe that’s why her book, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, has made such a strong impression on me over the past two weeks as I made my way through it. Continue reading

Keeping Both Hands on the Wheel

I’m no fan of our governor, Paul LePage. I guess most of you knew that. My dislike of our perpetually-angry governor is less about his politics (I find them abhorrent), and more about his lack of evolution as a human being.

I can’t recall if I ever shared my “three personal experiences” with Paul LePage story. Here’s one of them.

Back in the day when I was still rolling up my sleeves and doing yeoman’s duty in Maine’s workforce development community, I tried to reach out to the governor (back before he was the governor). He was at Marden’s and I was hoping the company might step-up and support our efforts to improve the skills of Maine’s workforce at the time by lending something tangible to the WorkReady program I was tasked to shepherd along.

Like he’s done countless times since becoming governor, he attacked me (on the phone), literally ranting and raving like a mad man, accusing me of not returning his phone calls. Actually, this was my first phone call to him on the matter at hand—inquiring about getting some Marden’s management and hiring decision-makers to come out and help with mock interviews. Instead, he continued his tirade, with me attempting to get a word in edgewise. Finally, I’d had enough and I said, “will you just shut up for a minute!” That stopped him in his tracks. Word to the wise, when dealing with a bully, you have to mirror their behavior to get noticed. Continue reading

Waiting and Listening

Mark was wise beyond his 33 years. Since he was killed in January, I’ve often reflected on his wisdom—where he gathered it from—and maybe more important, his ongoing commitment to cultivate it.

He reminded me time and time again of the efficacy of stepping back from something that I lacked perspective on. Often, this “thing” would be (at the time) a source of dissonance and more often than not, causing me to get tangled up in anger, frustration, and anxiety.

I believe that Mark’s daily discipline of meditation was teaching him the need (and importance) of creating space from those things that create emotional “white noise” in our lives. Sadly, I no longer get to bounce things his way. Maybe that’s why I’ve been finding myself getting “stuck” in spaces that I should know intellectually are not worth occupying.

Last week, I spent far too much of my time fixated on a moneymaking proposition that I recognize (now) isn’t a good fit. Not a get-rich-quick scheme—but a career maneuver that had me twisting towards something that I’m probably not really invested in. Instead of trusting my instincts, I rushed foolishly ahead and ran into a wall. After a couple of days given to beating myself up about it, I am now able to see some humor in it. I’m also reminded of the scene in Animal House, the one where Stork (played by Douglas Kenney) knocks down the drum major and leads the marching band off the parade route and down a dead-end alley. Continue reading

Finding the Bridge

Sleep and sleep patterns have always intrigued (and affected) me. As in, I don’t always sleep as soundly as some. Basically, I wake up in the middle of the night more often, than not. This has been especially true since Mark’s death.

Several years ago, new information about the history of sleep came across my desk and it helped me recognize that eight hours of uninterrupted sleep wasn’t necessarily the norm, at least until marketers seized upon another way to deepen their pockets—by pushing the idea, along with a host of sleep aids and other pharmaceuticals.

According to Roger Ekirch, a history professor at Virginia Tech, people slept in “shifts,” basically, or twice per night.

His research conducted over 16 years found that we didn’t always sleep in one eight-hour chunk, but instead, sleep came in two shorter periods, but over a longer range of night, with the range being about 12 hours long. He later wrote a book about it.

When I wake up and can’t fall back asleep, I get up, go downstairs and attend to some task for about an hour. Then, I get drowsy and often, go back to bed and sleep for 45 to 90 minutes. I generally wake up refreshed and ready for my day.

These nocturnal interludes between sleep shifts are when I discover interesting things, or do some quick research on something I’ve jotted down the previous day or prior week. Continue reading

On Tuesday, I Hit Some Tennis Balls

The last time I played tennis, Mark was three. That was 30 years ago. We were living in Chesterton, Indiana. One Saturday morning, Mary and I drove down to the public courts and hit the ball around for an hour or so.

Our brand of tennis back then was less about developing our games and more about finding a family activity that offered the adults some entertainment, while affording Mark the chance to romp around. The fenced-in nature of our venue wasn’t lost on us.

Like so many activities that drop away, life, parenthood, and moving back to Maine pushed tennis out of our lives. I’d eventually dust off my baseball glove and find out I could still pitch competitively. We sold our racquets. Continue reading

I Fell Off My Paddleboard

According to this website, Stand up paddle boards (SUP) offer a fun, relaxing way to play on the water. With a minimum of gear, you can paddle ocean surf or placid lakes and rivers.

Paddle boarding delivers a full-body workout and thus has become a popular cross-training activity. And since you stand at your full height, you can enjoy unique views of everything from sea creatures to what’s on the horizon.

That might be the case. However, five minutes into the on-the-water portion of my Sunday foray into the sport, I was in the water, I’d lost my Solar Shield sunglasses, and thinking, “what the hell had I allowed Mrs. B. to talk me into?”

Stand Up Paddleboarding looks easy–it’s not!

We’d both discussed trying to get out and “do some new things” this summer. Like summers past, umpiring and once Mary returned to work—Saturday’s and Sundays often were “catch up around the house days.” Not too much new happening with the Baumers.

I’m not complaining about umpiring. Save for some reservations during my first week back on the field, baseball has been an adequate tonic for dealing with the loss of Mark. I say “adequate” because nothing—not even learning to walk on water if that was possible—will take away the deep emotional pain that we’re both feeling and will continue dealing with for a long, long time. Continue reading

Saturday and Moxie

In a land built on “the pitch,” not the baseball kind, but the one that marketing is known for, having your elevator speech ready to go is essential. Given that this is Moxie weekend in Lisbon Falls, the epicenter of Moxie’s universe, feel free to use some of these tips to frame your parade-viewing and other conversations while taking in the town’s sights and sounds. Before long, people will start coming to you as their resident “Moxie expert.”

Be on the lookout for the Moxie Horsemobile.

What is Moxie?
Moxie is an iconic soft drink. Invented by Augustin Thompson, a Maine native, who was living in Lowell, Mass. at the time, Moxie is the oldest, commercially-bottled soft drink in the U.S., being marketed and sold since 1884.

I’ve written two books about Moxie. There are a host of stories, some true, and some somewhat apocryphal.

For instance, back in 1982, the late Frank Anicetti, owner of Kennebec Fruit Co. (aka, the Moxie Store) sent out 13 post cards for a book signing he was hosting for Frank Potter. Potter, who at that time had written some of the quintessential books about Moxie, including The Moxie Mystique, managed to draw a a crowd that Anicetti claims (in an interview I did with him in 2008) was close to 500 people. While the actual number’s never been confirmed, it was a sizable turnout. The next year, Lisbon’s summer festival, Frontier Days, became the Moxie Festival and we’ve been at it in Lisbon Falls now for 35 years.

Where does Moxie get its distincty-different taste?
Moxie’s distinctive taste comes from Gentian Root, a medicinal herb.

Prior to the Food and Drug Act, which limited claims made about products, Moxie, then marketed as a “nerve food” was said to cure anything from blindness and paralysis, to the “loss of manhood,” making it America’s first Viagra.

Back to the marketing of Moxie, the brand’s chief spokesman during the 1950s was Red Sox star and Hall of Famer, Ted Williams, a huge fan of the soft drink. Maybe It was Moxie that helped Williams hit .406 in 1941, making him the last MLB hitter to bat over .400. That was 76 years ago!

I believe that Moxie’s staying power is first and foremost the result of one Frank Archer, a marketing genius. There are a host of items that collector’s treasure, developed by Archer, to market Moxie. Things like thermometers, a Moxie board game, the various signs featuring the “Moxie Boy,” and others.

While some of Moxie’s 20th century ambassadors like Archer, Williams, Potter, and Anicetti have passed from the stage, Moxie continues to confound critics. The brand, now back in New England where it belongs, has taken to social media and the digital landscape in marketing its magic to a whole new generation. You’ll see plenty of the younger set in Lisbon Falls today, interspersed with those of us who have known about Moxie’s magic for decades.

Enjoy the festival and parade!!