Another Day, One Year Removed

According to this website, Martin Luther King Day is a federal holiday held on the third Monday of January. It celebrates the life and achievements of Martin Luther King Jr., an influential American civil rights leader. He is most well-known for his campaigns to end racial segregation on public transport and for racial equality in the United States.

On MLK Day a year ago, Mark was watching a parade in Chipley, Florida. He had six more days of walking ahead of him before he’d be hit and killed walking westward, along U.S. 90.

I started watching Mark’s videos back in October. This was just prior the beautiful event that Brown (Mark’s library co-workers and members of the school’s literary arts department) held on a perfect fall day that also happened to be Josiah Carberry Day.

Each day I watched and wrote through the fall, as I was navigating Medicare’s Annual Enrollment Period as an insurance rep, trying to supplement my income, selling Medicare Advantage insurance. I made several trips down the coast and back, working on a story about Bucksport and the closing of its mill. I began tutoring in September at Hyde School, a private boarding school nearby where Cher’s son attended, as well as Michael McDonald’s (of The Doobie Brothers) son. Continue reading

A Year of Books (about grief)

An annual habit of mine since I’ve been blogging has been to compile an end-of-year reading recap. Each year I’ve done it differently: some years I got really involved with my reading recap blog post. Other times, like last year (2016), I simply “dialed it in” because I wasn’t really feeling much enthusiasm for that writing “assignment.” My reading recap in 2014 still stands as “the bomb” in terms of detail, depth, and length.

Keeping a reading list is another lesson I learned from Mark Baumer. He thought it was important to keep track of the books he read and he encouraged his parents to do the same. Like him, I had a website, so I incorporated my annual reading compendium into my blog/website. Like son—like father. Mary kept her list in a journal/notebook, as well as noting it on the Goodreads site.

When Mark was killed in January, I couldn’t read for most of the next month following his death. Grief affects you in a host of ways, and I experienced a sort of cognitive dulling that made following a narrative difficult, if not impossible. This concerned me, especially if it meant that something essential in my life like reading would get snatched away from me, just like Mark had.

I was grasping (and gasping) for understanding without much success in the days and weeks following Mark’s death. This was when I picked up a book written by a friend and someone I had worked with (as had Mark) in helping her publish that book. Linda Andrews wrote a beautifully-honest book about coping with the death of her husband, Jim. Her own experiences with many people’s inability to cope with what you are going through was oddly comforting. Coming back to Please Bring Soup To Comfort Me While I Grieve offered me a much richer appreciation for what she accomplished in writing that book. It also offered me the ability to make my way back to an important practice of reading.

Grief and an existential sadness have become daily companions during 2017, the year I’d soon like to forget (Mark was killed on January 21), or perhaps be offered some kind of do-over. I spent the final 11 months looking for other books that might offer solace and support. My experience became one where books offering insight and understanding of my new landscape of grief and loss and a world turned upside-down weren’t as readily available as I would have thought they would be. Maybe a better way of articulating that is to say that the kinds of books that spoke to me, personally, weren’t something I could just look up online or pick off the bookshelf at the local library. Finding them necessitated work and investigation. I’m still not sure why. Maybe it’s that the books that dot the self-help section dealing with grief and loss simply aren’t addressing the kinds of things I’m living through. Also, as much as we try to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to “healing” the grieving, everyone grieves differently. I’m not looking to simply compartmentalize my feelings, or to make others more comfortable in my presence, which is often how it seems like we’re expected to process death in America. At times, feeling like I had to measure up to this unrealistic expectation made me angry. Continue reading

No More Turkey

America thrives on the superficial. Nothing screams “superficial” like the holidays. Never a fan of this particular season and its excess, my tolerance this year is at its lowest ebb.

Last fall at this time, Mark was out walking and was more than a month into his final trek. As Thanksgiving approached, we were sad that Mark wouldn’t be with us. We were also stressed knowing that in less than a week, we would be moving 26 years of stuff to a new house, having just closed on our house in Durham.

It’s only Tuesday, yet I’ve already heard three separate media outlets doing a version of “how to cook a turkey.” Are there no cooks left? Just this morning, NPR had Bon Appétit’s Adam Rapoport in to talk about getting through the next few days “fueled by anxiety,” as you choreograph the perfect family gathering around the bird. My suggestion for the person from Rhode Island hosting 27 people at her house—dump the anxiety and order out for pizza or Chinese.

One big, happy family.

If you’re not  invested in maintaining the facade, then in my way of thinking, the holidays are likely a time of dissonance and even angst. The most noble attempts at down-sizing and disconnecting from “the Christmas machine,” or something like daring to eat differently only deepens this sense of alienation from friends and family. Mark’s death has done nothing to dull the usual holiday malaise creeping in pre-Turkey Day. In fact, his being killed has only heightened it. Continue reading

The Day After The Election

Last fall on the day following the election of Donald Trump as president, Mark woke up in a hotel that didn’t have power in some of the rooms. The night before, he went to his room with his room key and flicked on the light switch. Nothing.

The hotel, an odd little place on the side of Old U.S. 22 in Shartlesville, PA, placed their room key envelopes fastened together with an elastic and sitting in an old coffee can. Mark merely had to go back to the front desk and pick another room key.

Sitting along what had once been a major east/west corridor, the interstate usurped this road’s importance. Like many similar roadways that once were important overland routes for travelers dating from the time of covered wagons up through the earliest days of Happy Motoring in America, most have fallen into disuse like much in a nation built around planned obsolescence. Mom and Pop lodging matching the place where Mark spent the night last fall struggle to remain solvent. Perhaps the owners had simply taken a page from the austerity playbook, implementing measures like asking guests to forgo electricity. Mark also noted that there were signs indicating to boil the water prior to drinking.

On his blog, following the election of the worst candidate we’ve ever called president (thus far), he made a connection between the new POTUS and what MAGA might actually mean when he wrote, “I hope the motel where I stayed isn’t an omen for the future of America. Some of the rooms didn’t have power and you couldn’t drink the water.” 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!!

Finishing the Walk

I haven’t thought a lot about Mark’s walk for a few months. That’s not to say that I haven’t thought about Mark. A day, nary an hour passes when I don’t think of him, especially when I see a picture of him somewhere in the house.

On Sunday, I was working the bases during a Twilight League game and I looked up and saw the moon, pre-dusk. I thought of a tune I’ve heard countless times by Xian rockers, The Violent Burning. The chorus line, “if you ever reach the moon before I do, wave goodbye.” I imagined Mark waving to me planted on the grass of a baseball infield. It was hard not to tear-up and hold it together. I had to because that’s just life—plus, “there’s no crying in baseball,” at least according to Tom Hanks.

Holidays without Mark are tough. Monday and Tuesday were rough days for Mary and me. They always will be.

Today, after completing my tasks for the day around noon and dreading waiting around ‘til tonight’s umpiring assignment, I dug out my 2017 Rand McNally Road Atlas. For some reason, I take comfort looking at the map of where Mark walked and then, projecting the potential route he would have taken west from where he was killed. Continue reading

Remembering Others

I’ve written tributes about people in my life who were special to me. I think it’s important to discharge our debts of gratitude personally, and in some cases, publicly. I’ve tried to walk that out in my own life.

Having written two books about Moxie, the distinctly-different regional soft drink that has developed a cult following in parts of my native New England, I know a bit about the elixir’s history. I also recognize that there have been figures in that history that were essential in keeping Moxie’s brand alive.

If your curiosity about Moxie’s been piqued, I’d point you to a couple of blog posts. This one about Sue Conroy is one I’d highly recommend. Sue got me excited about Moxie and forced me to dig into the drink’s past. And then if you think you are good at math, there’s nothing quite like a little Moxie math. Continue reading

Memorializing Mark

Our Memorial Day weekend centered on burying the remains of our son, Mark Baumer. In case you may have stumbled across this blog and lack context, Mark was hit and killed by an inattentive driver in Fort Walton County, Florida on January 21. He was an award-winning poet and writer, and was engaged in his second crossing of America on foot. He walked across the U.S. in 81 days in 2010.

Because of the newsworthy nature of Mark’s walk, his cause (raising awareness) about climate change, while also walking America’s highways and byways barefoot, the story of his death received widespread media coverage. In my opinion, this article in The New Yorker was the best of them, written about Mark by a writer, Anna Heyward, who made an effort in understanding the arc of the story, and “got” Mark, as a creative genius and activist, also.

Mark’s been gone for four months. For Mary and me, his parents, our lives continue to be affected each and every day by the grief associated with this loss.

Losing an adult child that you loved more than life itself isn’t something that you simply get over in four days, four months, or four years. Yet, there are people at work and elsewhere with unrealistic expectations who don’t seem to understand the devastation associated with an event like the one visited upon us.

Here are remarks that I delivered at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Saco, on Saturday morning, prior to interring Mark’s remains:

For the past four months, I’ve been trying to locate meaning for why Mark was killed. I’ve been unsuccessful on that front. How does one imbue an event with any meaning, like the one that robbed our families of Mark, a loving, vibrant 33-year-old?

Mark loved baseball for a time in his life. In fact, baseball is where we may have ultimately forged our bond as father and son. In baseball terms, a 33-year-old is in the prime of his baseball abilities and acumen. In a creative sense, I believe Mark was just hitting his stride as a writer, poet, and digital gadfly.

Why would someone who worked so diligently and was ever at their craft, cruelly taken away before they ever got to the zenith of their creative capabilities? Perhaps you now see why finding meaning has been so difficult a task for me since the end of January. Continue reading

On the Beach

In 2007, we rented a camp sight-unseen in Steuben, Maine. The tiny village west of Bar Harbor, was just far enough from touristy Mount Desert Island that it remained stuck in a state that felt more like 1955 than the first decade of the 21st century we were living in.

Mark and his girlfriend-at-the-time, Gabi, drove up from Boston in her Jeep and spent the week with us. Bernie, our beloved Sheltie was still alive and seemed to have recovered from a stroke suffered in January. Our little unit of three (plus one and a dog) was back together, gathered under one roof.

It would not be stretching the truth at all to say that the week in late July was one of the most memorable ones of our married lives. We hiked, biked, played cards, and enjoyed the old house abutting a National Wildlife Refuge on a picture postcard-like portion of Maine’s coastline. “Idyllic” is another well-worn word that wouldn’t be inappropriate in framing this snapshot in time.

We never judged or compared Mark’s three “serious” girlfriends that we’ve known. However, we adored Gabi. Maybe because she was Mark’s first long-term romantic relationship—or perhaps it’s because she was so easy to like and “got” our family and the special place it occupied in Mark’s life. She also spent the most time with us and we knew her the best. When they broke up in 2009, we were sad. We wondered if we’d keep in touch.

When Mark was killed, Gabi called us that Sunday less than 24 hours after the horrible news. She was devastated. Crying on the phone, we shared an emotional 30 minutes catching up and hearing her share with us that Mark was “her best friend” and that she was so sorry for what we’d just suffered in losing him.

She continued calling us nearly every week. In February she sent a package that included photos.

Gabi was also who Mark referred to in his blog about walking across America in 2010 when he wrote,

I am on my way to a friend’s house in West Hollywood. I drank a coffee. It is my first caffeine of the trip. After I drop some weight from my pack at my friend’s apartment we will walk to ocean. We will march to an end. Continue reading

Come on, be a friend

I’ve mentioned numerous times in my recent posts that grief isn’t linear. Loss means you jump back and forth across the continuum and experience a full palette of emotions; that’s at least how I’ve been processing the death of Mark.

Two weeks ago, I felt a bit of creative intensity returning. I’ve been able to blog, mainly personal reflections about losing a son. However, I’ve been short on new ideas. Grief affects our cognitive abilities, just one of the “gifts” that grief delivers.

I remembered a friend of Mark’s that I met at his celebration of life. He had offered his eye as an editor for anything—taking a look at Mark’s work, or even ideas I might have.

Hesitant about sending something I’d put together—an idea for an essay related to Mark and my experience as his father processing death, grief, and some of the bitter/hateful reactions from some corners of the internet. I used an essay written by David Foster Wallace as my jumping off point, and the reaction that his subject had when Wallace later committed suicide.

At the very least, his reaction was disappointing. I’m fine with being offered a critique, and even some suggestions about how best to pitch something like this. Instead, he chose to be dismissive at best, offering little in the way of encouragement.

My mood over the past few weeks has been alternating between deep sadness and red-hot anger, with several outbursts of frustration. As disorienting as this up-and-down yo-yoing looks and feels, the counselor we’ve been visiting for two months assures me (and Mary) that all this is quite normal.

Someone I’ve never met, but who had been following Mark’s journey, initiated an online conversation shortly after he was killed. It’s obvious from his public profile and body of work that this person is immensely talented. He also knows compassion and how to extend it to those suffering loss. He recommended Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking as a place to find some solace and a book on mourning that was worthy of my time and effort. I’m grateful he did. Continue reading