SEO, Googlebots, and Still Missing Mark

I don’t really know what to write this morning. I’ve been spending time each day, writing about Mark, using his videos from a year ago as writing prompts. This process of “writing into grief” is never easy.

Sometimes when I look at my blog stats, I want to stop blogging. Then, I’d become just another vacant and boarded-up storefront on the interwebs.

Mark would tell me, “don’t pay attention to your stats, dad.” He gave me lots of advice. Most of it was spot-on.

The other day I stumbled across a blog post from a local marketing firm that calls itself a brand collective. Not sure what the hell a collective of brands does. Well I do, but it doesn’t really jive with my own vision of what a collective should be about.

Given that my blog stats have returned to the paltry level they once were before Mark was killed, I decided to read one of their posts titled, “What is SEO?” for shits and giggles. According to the blogger, I’d fallen down in cultivating a warm relationship with the friends of SEO, the GoogleBots. I guess if I want people crawling all over my content, then I need to get cracking on my keywords. Keywords are the key to capturing eyeballs. Or something like that, I think.

I kind of got fixated on this for a bit longer than I intended. Let me share just a bit more, something that this collective of brands doesn’t really deserve here on my own personal site that I created as the antithesis to this kind of SEO-craven way of writing, blogging, and branding.

According to Little Miss SEO:

Once you’ve got your site in order, create some killer content. Content your viewers will actually love. Is it useful to them? Does it make them laugh, cry, or even better, give you their money? Content doesn’t always mean words in a blog, it can include video tutorials, pretty visuals, and free tools/help. Just make sure your content is wow-worthy.

Perhaps I should apologize that my content since last January 21 has been centered on Mark and his death. I guess I haven’t been doing enough in posting honest content straight from a heart that feels like it’s been ripped from my chest to make people “laugh, cry, or even better, give me their money” in the way that she means.

Contemplating grief and loss and honestly sharing my experiences relative to losing my only adult child has certainly made me cry. But perhaps I should be more sensitive to the need that people need to laugh, and to reach into their pockets and send me their money.

*****

This morning, I returned home from swimming at the Bath Y. I drove into the garage and realized today is Brunswick’s curbside pick-up day. I wheeled the trash can down to the end of the driveway and put out the recycling.

Walking back towards the house silhouetted against the early December morning sky, my thoughts traveled back a year. We’d just moved to this new house and would have been a week into a new place to call home. For a moment, I was in a space where it was December, 2016, and Mark was still alive.

“Was it one year ago?” I thought. Then, it hit me like a baseball bat to my midsection and I almost wanted to double over. I’ll never be able to consider him alive again. Tears welled up and I was wracked with grief.

In the house, our cat, Lucy, was there to greet me. She’s a good friend and she senses our hurt, I think.

There was a morning music show on WMPG and the music was a mix that I enjoy and isn’t always the type played during the early AM shows on the station. More electric guitars, rather than the hammered dulcimers of folk and bluegrass. Not crazy electric music, but American-tinged rock and post-rock. And then, Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me In Your Heart Again” came on and I lost it. I was wrecked and crying while fixing my breakfast.

This was Zevon’s parting gift to his family and fans just prior to his own death, from cancer. It’s a powerful song and I’ve heard it now twice in the morning on ‘MPG since Mark’s death and each time, it hits close to home.

In his Day 057 video from last year, Mark walked 30 miles, mainly on dirt back roads. He talks to the cows and sheep he passes along the way. He got lost. He had to walk through snow and sub-freezing cold. He arrived at the motel after 3:00 in the morning.

Mark gave me lots of advice about blogging, writing in general, but better, how to live. I doubt the collective of brands’ posers can bottle and pass it off as their own the kind of content that emanated from the soul of someone like Mark. His mission in life wasn’t about SEO, posting keywords for Googlebots, or getting people to buy the latest gadget of his that will end up clogging some landfill somewhere.

Here are two poems Mark wrote while walking and posted on his blog from Cambridge, Ohio.

sheep death

The earth / died / a little / today / it dies / a little / every day / because / I think / there are too many / ways / for people / to make / death / without / realizing / they’re making death / yesterday / I saw / a sign / next to a pasture / of / sheep / it said / be careful / there’s a gas pipeline / in the dirt / the sheep / didn’t/ seem to understand / they just looked / at the sign / and/ waited for whatever / form / of / death / was next

a man

A man / asked me / where I was going / I pointed / he didn’t understand / I looked / at / the / thing / I pointed / at / it was / a mirror / a few seconds / passed / the man said / ohhhh / I get it / then he said / “deep” / part of me / wished / someone would / break down the door / and / save / this / poem / but / even if someone / did / break down the door / they probably / wouldn’t be able / to save this / poem / maybe / they would / whisper / no / I / can’t / sorry

I will keep you in my heart forever, dear boy.

Positively Podcasting

Are you into podcasts? I know a lot of people are.

I worked on an article this week that I was assigned by the editor at the auto trade magazine I’ve been writing for since 2015. She wanted me to gather some podcasts for their end-of-the-year “best of” issue.

Mark was a big fan of podcasts. When he’d email me from the road last fall and winter, he regularly shared something he learned from one of the rotating podcasts he was listening to. Sometimes he’d tell me about a topic covered by Rich Roll, one of his favorites. Do you remember on Day 009 how excited he was when Roll tweeted about him? He also liked Malcolm Gladwell’s  Revisionist History. Because of his enthusiasm for these podcasts, I started listening.

Over the past year, I’ve gotten out of the habit of listening to Roll and Gladwell. The past few days, I immersed myself in the world filled with innumerable people broadcasting and streaming outstanding and maybe more important to me—uplifting content. I don’t want to let the “cat out of the bag” in terms of my future article, but I will share a few things I learned by simply taking time to fill-up with something more positive than the latest angry tweets from our president.

I’ve been a fan of Gladwell’s for a long time. He’s such an outstanding writer. I fell in love with his writing after reading several of his long-form pieces he wrote for The New Yorker. He had a talent for taking a topic that you thought you knew something about and turning it on its head. I then read The Tipping Point, How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. I still can’t believe that book is more than 15-years-old. Continue reading

On Friday I Went for a Walk

A year ago at this time, Mark had been walking for a week (actually, he was on Day 008), and had been posting videos that we were all watching, as his following grew larger. He was in New Haven, CT, and had just stayed with friends. The day was rainy, but per usual, this didn’t bring Mark down. He’d later walking into a Taco Bell and yell, “I’ve got the hook-up,” hoping to win 100 bean tacos. He didn’t.

As I’ve been watching his daily videos a year out from when they were made, it feels similar to last fall. I’m still learning things (as we all were) and his life and actions make me want to be a better person.

Last Friday, we were at Brown, as colleagues from the library and the school’s literary arts department remembered Mark and touched on his legacy at the school. One of the speakers (I don’t recall which one) talked about Mark and his walk and I jotted down a note to myself, “start walking every week.” What I was telling myself is that I needed to do a walk weekly where I left my house and walked out a certain distance. My intention was to think about Mark and his own walking practice during my own walks. Continue reading

Walking and Remembering

I’ve been thinking about walking. Admittedly, thoughts like these have their origins in reflections backward to this time one year ago. Mark said “goodbye” to his house at 38 Pleasant Street, and walked down the hill on his one-way street commencing yet another cross-country journey into the unknown. He’d done a similar one in 2010, but this one was different in a host of ways.

He let readers know some of the reasons why he was making this trek. I knew the road had been calling out to him across the expanse of the previous six years since he stepped into the Pacific after wearily making his way across the sands of Santa Monica Beach at the end of that epic march.

Mark wasn’t the first writer who’d been drawn to the realm of walking. Perhaps the obvious name that crops up when talking about writers who valued the walking experience would be Thoreau. There have been a host of others. There seems to have been some deeper, intuitive connection between walking, thinking, and then, writing. We of course have by-and-large lost this. I’m sure part of this stems from being immersed completely in our American version of Happy Motoring.

I found an older article in The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik. He details how at one point in the mid-19th century, walking was actually “the dominant spectator sport in America.” Could be that if enough fervently patriotic football fans abandon the NFL, then walking might make a comeback? That would be a shame because if there was a figure who could captivate fans of professional walking, it would have been Mark. Continue reading

The Kindness of Strangers

I met Richard one morning early in 2016 at the Bath Y. He was a regular and I’d see him per my routine early swims, usually Tuesdays and Fridays (or sometimes Thursday, if I couldn’t swim on Friday).

The Y is similar to other places where I’ve worked out in the past (like Auburn’s Planet Fitness)—the early AM workout crowd tend to be creatures of habit and generally, a little older. We’re there to get our reps/laps/miles done and then, it’s off to whatever the day throws at us. Across the context of two strangers’ paths crossing, a bond sometimes develops. You see the same person week after week. Unless you’re a misanthrope, you’ll have a conversation or two. Before long, seeing that person becomes part of the routine.

Richard’s 14 years older than me. That means he fought in Vietnam, is nearing retirement, and has accumulated a bit more life experience translating into wisdom. He’s solidly middle-class, probably a tad more conservative than I am, but I know he didn’t vote for Trump, either based the accumulation of our AM conversations.

There was something inherently likable about him. He was a no BS type of guy, and I have always had an affinity for males of that stripe. As the months passed, I found out he was working part-time at The Home Depot in Topsham. He’s “retired,” but like many seniors, retirement now means holding a job to supplement retirement savings—Americans are living longer and longer and staying topside costs slightly more than chump-change. Continue reading

Cycle of Life

Last November we sold our house in Durham where we’d lived for 26 years. This felt like the start of a new chapter. It was, but the narrative soon turned dark.

Landing in Brunswick on a beautiful tidal cove was exciting at the time. Being new to town, I envisioned capturing elements of our new home with a series of post based on weekend forays about the place. Then tragedy intervened. Life along the cove became framed by abundant morning light that simply permitted holding on.

A mile and a half from our house there is an older cemetery. I knew nothing about it until passing while running one morning in December. My new route took me westward from our new place, out Coombs Road. I immediately knew the road to be an ideal alternative providing a side loop away from busy Route 24, where I could enjoy my surroundings and not worry about dodging cars and trucks roaring along at highway speeds.

Purington Road, which abuts the cemetery, also dead ends at a gate on the east side of the former Brunswick Naval Air Station. The road, like much of this area, is bordered by chain link fence and warning signs left behind when the town answered the military’s every beck and call.

From RootsWeb, I found this description of the cemetery, known as New Meadows Cemetery:

New Meadows Cemetery is located on Purinton Road and borders the Naval Air Station. This part of Brunswick was farming country known as New Meadows before the Naval Air Station occupied the area. Old records describe it as located on the North side of the road to Great Island, about three miles from Brunswick village. This road is now part of the Naval Air Station.

Doing a minimal amount of digging revealed that the area around Purington and Coombs Roads was once a thousand-acre town commons that was once the New Meadows neighborhood. There are historical records that show there were four homesteads dating back to 1739. What locals know about the area if they know anything is that it’s framed by the recent past following the Navy’s encroachment (and significant contamination) of 90 percent of this section of the community that formerly consisted of farms, grist mills, and brick and carriage makers.

Father and son, forever.

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When Disaster Strikes

When loss hits you, your world is turned upside down. Whether the loss involves death, or in places hit by hurricanes and other kinds of disasters where people are displaced from their homes, stress and the subsequent emotional and physical effects target the victims.

A key element in ensuring health and harboring the hope for longevity requires learning to manage and mitigate stress. That’s easier said when you are observing stress from a distance. When you are in the midst of swirling waters either literally or figuratively, remaining detached and free from roiling emotions and a knot (or pain) in your gut is nearly impossible.

Disasters bring out the best and worst in humans. While now personally acquainted with the personal variety, natural (and national) ones are often magnified by the media. They serve an important function for programmers—ready-made stories that fill hours of air time, with advertisers happy to fork out marketing capital to capture fixated eyeballs.

Speaking of capitalizing on disaster, our sitting president is someone who has done well capitalizing and exploiting the misfortunes of others. I’ve mentioned Sarah Kendzior before. She nails it in this article by Nancy LeTourneau on our Exploiter in Chief being our “ultimate disaster capitalist,” a master at reveling (and profiting, handsomely) when others are in the midst of chaos and suffering. Make sure you click on the links provided in the quoted snippet, too. This isn’t false (or “fake”) propaganda, but a telling measure of the man we elected as our 45th president. He’ll surely find a way to profit from the fates of those in Houston like he has throughout his business career. That’s the Trump MO.

Trump spent his business career eagerly anticipating both social and economic disasters. “I sort of hope that happens because then people like me would go in and buy,” Trump said of the housing crash in 2006. Before that, Trump spent decades exploiting the damaged economies of towns like Gary, Indiana and Atlantic City, leaving them as bad or worse off than when he arrived.

America’s 4th largest city, underwater. [Aaron Cohan photo]

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Moving On

I was deeply affected by the events in Charlottesville. Many of the emotions I experienced in a visceral way, were flashbacks to Janaury, when Mark was killed. Another young person, with passion and concern for others, was senselessly killed by someone selfish and self-centered.

While there were a host of stories about Heather Heyer, an activist described in one as “a passionate advocate for the disenfranchised,” there was a sameness and quality to these that all made them read similarly after awhile. Her story deserved more. Too often, Heyer became an afterthought, as once again, media made it about “All Donald, all the time.”

Foolishly, I thought I could add a different context, one that was unique and personal, based upon our own journey over the past seven months since Mark’s death. Continue reading

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.

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