Michael Willard, writer, painter, columnist, entrepreneur
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Chapter Thirteen

A Walk in the Park

The late philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote, with both silliness and seriousness, that when men gather in London's Trafalgar Square to talk of making war, they would not do so if they had walked 20 miles that day.

The eccentric Bertie lived a long life, but one that did not stretch into the 21st Century where any number of would be terrorists would walk, run or crawl through hell to reach a detonator and blow innocents to bits. So, the peace context is not why I walk, though it is an admirable thought. And I certainly don't walk 20 miles, more like two (3 km). Moreover, I actually don't walk for exercise. The physical evidence is testament of this. While thinking about Russell's grand assumption, one recalls that the U.S. President George Bush hardly misses a day of walking fast, or jogging as it is called, and he rattles the sabers most days. So did Napoleon, who was known to take an evening stroll and do bloody battle early the next morning.

I walk because a park, in this case St. Michael's, is the closest thing to a chapel a not-so-very-religious guy can have. I walk for the shear joy of putting one foot in front of the other, going some place, but in reality, no place at all. I walk each day because it becomes an extenuation of my office. Rarely do I fail to return without new thoughts, an assignment written and completed in my head. Numbers that befuddle me without a calculator, become neat columns on a jaunt.

We read that Jean-Jacques Rousseau often rambled down a dusty road from Paris to Vincennes, and this is when he would have his most revolutionary thoughts. "Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains," he blustered in black India ink. Such a declaration seems rather heavy-handed these days, but it fit the mood of pre-revolutionary France. Otherwise, Rousseau was devoid of most social contracts-- for many times he knocked up his long-time mistress, willy-nilly giving the kiddies away.

My thinking on the premise of walking, though, is more mundane, perhaps because my life is obviously simpler. Where Rousseau wrote a whole book called confessions, my own admissions would only fill a pamphlet no more sensational than a tabloid's account of Winona Ryder's shoplifting charge.

While walking, cartoons, sometimes three or more, pop into my head; and, with the help of an illustrator, find their way into the pages of the magazine I publish, The Ukrainian Observer. Some are minor-league funny, others obtuse and miss the mark. The Ukrainian illustrator, who rarely understands the thoughts, is a good sport about it. And my monthly columns, sometimes sermonizing and pompous, are penned in the breeze, a thought or two etched into my mind, later converted to computer screen. Some people agree with them; many don't. But most often I get, "You certainly managed to come down on both sides of that." I'm comfortable with this. Both sides often need airing, even if one corner incorporates that oft used phrase about first novels: Lacking a suspension of disbelief.

Often, I have to look at my watch, because I forget whether I am on my second or third lap around my personal track. I am that strange man in the park, mumbling to himself. New mothers wonder, and glance protectively at their young. Young ladies furtively look my way, and upon seeing something other than a "Falcon Crest" mature age, more a Yellow Leaf ancient, their eyes quickly find the ground. My ego is not bruised, for I am domestically happy, and happily domesticated, at the moment.

A pesky personal problem? A 50-minute walk traverses dead-ends until happening upon a super highway, no toll booths, and an eventual denouement, even if not a definitive solution. There are always options, I figure.

Often, however, my run-away thoughts jump from topic to topic like a gazelle dodging a cheetah on a National Geographic special. They are often frothy thoughts, episodic and trivial. Comic, sometimes.

Why, I ask myself, are old women in blue jackets raking up leaves in neat little piles, but leaving the dog poop that represents the real hazard. Both are biodegradable for sure, but rust and gold colored leaves are no more harmful than a rain shower and puddles. Why, I ask myself, do some movies have happy endings? The love relationships are surely over in real life before the final credits and the screen goes black. The popular flick of a few years back, "Sleepless in Seattle", comes to mind. Do we really believe Hank and Meg stayed together after that cute first-time rendezvous on Valentine's Day atop the Empire State Building? And the smooch the same sudsy duo did at the end of "You've Got Mail" was bubblegum for the gullible. Forget it. Hank had driven the bookstore lady out of business.

These are the none-too-serious ghost thoughts that ramble around in the old attic, upending boxes carefully packed away. Memories are famously stirred. Regrets; well, he crooned, I've certainly have had a few. Mostly, however, it's just your basic walk in the park.

The 24-hour Day Revisited

The walk in the park is merely one segment of my 24-hour workday, divided if you will between what we have called paid time and everything else. It is my custom-tailored work regimen, one that also calls for a nap in the middle of the afternoon, and catching a news program on television at 6 a.m.

It was not especially easy to put myself on a 24-hour clock, for, in some cases, I had to adjust to others--work colleagues and family members--and they had to make some accommodation for me. After so many years, my 24-hour schedule fits like a glove, and it is what I need for both a fulfilled work and home life. Monday through Friday I set the alarm for 6:00 but my internal clock awakes me 15 minutes earlier. I immediately check my e-mails from overnight while the coffee is percolating and a breakfast morsel is in the microwave. By 6:30, I am watching CNN. At 7:00, I am thinking about tackling the stationary running/walking machine and a Universal machine, torture contraptions on which I try to spend 20 minutes a day. Having worked up a sweat, I grab an iced tea, and cool off in front of my computer as I put together my morning notes for the staff, usually sent out by 7. A quick shower and dressing and I'm back in front of the television; a little VH1 or MTV is not out of the question. I am at work by 7:55 and spend the next hour studying Russian with my Pimsler tapes.

The important point above is that I consider this two-hour morning time as important as any time during the day. It is part recreational, part work-related, part functionary, such as the 20 or so minutes to shave, shower and dress.

My driver comes for me at 7:40. This sounds more important than it is, sort of like having a full-time butler or a pool boy. Living in Eastern Europe, it can be expedient in negotiating not just the byways, but the bureaucracy. There are also minor security issues. Ten minutes later, I am at my desk.

My office day generally ends around 7:30 p.m., but during the intervening period I will have accomplished a number of personal tasks that have nothing to do with moving the business forward. They are home tasks done at work, including, I confess, setting the lineup in my Fantasy Baseball League. There are certain other daily matters dealing with personal finances and friendly correspondence, not to mention those curious thoughts I have that might send me scurrying to the Internet to confirm a silly hypothesis. The actual work portion of my "at work" routine-the meetings, the writing assignments, the managing duties, and the new business development-varies wildly, depending on the day.

In addition, other assignments I give myself are debatable whether they are work related. Take, for example, the current book I am writing and you are reading. This is my fifth "work-related" book, and I generally manage to pound out a solid 500 words a day, though when I am really in book-mode it is a 1,200 word per day forced march to the conclusion. However, the benefits of these endeavors are more difficult to measure, as opposed to picking up the telephone and calling a new business contact.

Then there are those totally unrelated daytime activities, such as my walk in the park as described above, and my 30-minute catnaps that give me the energy to plow through until evening. Once home, I tend to tune out the office for several hours, though I do answer my work related mail at 10 p.m. While it might seem obscenely early to many, I head off to bed with a good book at 10:30, finally calling it a day shortly before midnight. It is a smorgasbord of a day, to put it mildly.

However, there are three elements that, if missed, would make my life incomplete, and perhaps they conjure a rather lazy, maybe class C type individual. Certainly napping in the middle the day would be frowned on by some business cultures, though I note here that the first John D. Rockefeller, of Standard Oil fame, also had a couch in his office and caught some portion of those 40 winks. Walking out in the mid-afternoon for a jaunt - and letting few business situations interrupt this schedule - would suggest to many that I was anything other than a hard charger. Then there is the short workout I insist on prior to dressing for work, which some would suggest is an unnecessary strain for someone in his sixth decade. Finally, reading is fuel for the imagination, and I take it seriously, attempting, depending on size, to finish a variety of books throughout a year.
The fact is all four of those supposedly non-work related activities are vital to my surviving an active workday. They are like chlorophyll and water for a plant. Without them, I would be more sluggish, less imaginative, and probably have the enthusiasm of a rock. I would, in fact, be a rock.

I realize I have bored you with my regimen. It was probably like watching someone brush their teeth, and then having them describe the technique. However, I feel that the Silverback manager on the 24-hour clock needs a careful balance between work activities, work-related activities, and relaxation, which, one could call work-nourishing activities.

Showing Up M

ost of us would concede that showing up for work - whether it is within that office of spongy gray matter called the cerebellum or whether it is the more tangible desk with appropriate Rolodex and computer--is relatively important.

This Silverback manager doesn't pretend to be touchy feely when it comes to such things as excessive absence due to sickness, unless it is, indeed, something life threatening. Additionally, vacations, in my view, are not entitlements but are rewards for putting in a solid year. However, vacations have long since been institutionalized, and rolling back the clock - even if it is more a theoretical exercise--is probably impossible. In any event, we had a brief discussion of vacations in a previous chapter, and my view has not changed over the last 110 or so pages. My preference is for short and more frequent breaks. Four weeks is a sabbatical.

But, On Sickness

It could very well be that I am the worse boss on the planet, or at least that portion of the globe not peopled by tyrants who wear old fashion hats and fire shotguns into the air to demonstrate their manliness. I am actually comfortable with this designation, though admittedly have used up my F-word allocations through 2010, maybe even a lifetime. We all suffer fools, whether lightly or otherwise, knowing that many think we are of this species.

My approach to sickness stems entirely from what I see as a cultural conundrum, the fact (I use the word more as an opinion than with scientific certitude) that men, by and large, are institutionally unhealthy. They are the weaker half for sure. This comes after a decade of observation and after one of my male employees suffered a cold, a sore throat, and what has been described to me as a high fever, as if any of those conditions were life threatening and should last a predictable whole week.

I explained my thoughts in a note to my staff, contained in my morning memo, Willard Notes, in which my mood is transported throughout the warrens of our office without me having to open my mouth. "Let's consider sickness," I wrote.

"Generally, I'm against it. If, however, one is to be sick a week or longer, the picture I would prefer in my mind is of a body with tubes coming out of it. And next to the body is a machine with green lines and a tone going beep, beep, beep, beep. Next to the bed are sad faced relatives and even sadder faced creditors. Somewhere I see a priest in black garb. This I understand."

You see, I grew with television doctors Ben Casey and Marcus Welby, among others. From Doc Casey I learned to tell the difference between a Glioblastoma multiforme and a hangnail. From Doc Welby, I learned everything else. For some reason, it seems that nine out of 10 television shows growing up were about doctors, from neurosurgeons, sort of the jet pilots of the group, to general practitioners, the older ones who primarily dispense folksy advice along with two aspirin.

You get the picture. No one can pull anything over on me.

My note to staff continued: "I am being facetious. However, if someone says they have a sore throat and fever on Monday, and predict they are going to be away all week, I believe such prophesies are self-fulfilling and therefore lack credibility.

"I ask you, dear readers, how does someone know with 100 per cent certainty that they are not going to wake up feeling simply perky the next day. On the other hand, they might wake up dead, and, in such a case, would not be required to come to work. Perhaps the most common illness in Eastern Europe -- after the commonest of colds -- is that of "heart problems". In the West, if someone hints they have a heart problem, the men in white jackets and electrodes are yelling to people to "STAND BACK."

In Russia and Ukraine, a heart problem --assuming we are not talking indigestion or the euphemistic heartburn, or the Hank Williams' lovesick variety heartache or heartbreak -- is merely cause for an extended rest. The heart illnesses are often blamed on the Chernobyl meltdown, just over 22 years ago, by folks who are obviously smarter than the World Health Organization that, to my knowledge, hasn't as yet connected those dots. Chernobyl is also a catchall for a myriad of other diseases.

The other day my administrative assistant, a young lady, was standing beside me talking about the day's activities. She was clutching her side, grimacing, but otherwise carrying on a topical conversation as if she wasn't experiencing pain.

"What's the matter", I asked, concerned. It was a busy day.

"Oh, hardly anything. The doctor said kidney stones," she replied, smiling weakly.

I have never enjoyed this particular malady, but I am told by those who know that there is no pain worse this side of childbirth. She continued through her list of activities until it became obvious it was excruciating. A half hour later medical help came. As I write this, she is not in the office, and I am rather helpless.

What about the gentleman out for the week with the sniffles? I don't know. I've already forgotten his name.

While the Silverback- with all this talk of 24-hour activity days - might seem as cuddly as your Harrington Teddy Bear, the fact remains that this liberalism is tempered by a very old world attitude lodged firmly in a solid worth ethic.

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