The Loneliness of A Long Distance Runner
By Michael Willard
Memory lane is often cluttered with tree branches and bramble bushes. This is why I seldom venture back. I prefer being planted in the here and now.
In fact, I am hounded by a song I wrote two years ago with the lines:
“I don’t want anyone to say he was someone back in the day. I’d rather they say, he’d never been anyone, then to think of me that way.”
This is, I believe, a healthy philosophy of the aged, long-distance runner.
I am acutely aware of the image of the older brand, whether referring to a prosaic soap powder or a PR executive, a tribe to which I nominally belong.
That’s not exactly correct. I am firmly rooted in the dark art of the craft, though I confess I have limited reverence for most of its rules.
I believe what I do should mostly be governed by the gods of commonsense. Much of everything else is the equivalent of fried air.
In baseball parlance, folks my age are overlooked by those with a limerence eye. They feast on the southpaw youngster with the rifle arm, the phenom coming up to the Big Leagues from the Toledo Mud Hens. This I not only understand but also endorse.
But I am, maybe you as well, a fellow with liver spots the size of gumdrops. I brush over hair to hide the expanding baldness creeping like global warming, defoliating once choice real estate.
We are the experienced veterans whose savvy comes from having been there, done that — many times. Often succeeding. Sometimes failing. Miserably.
The bemused but benign suggestion from the gallery — whether such skepticism in an upraised eye or an awkward utterance — is this:
“Pops, you should be out chasing a decent golf handicap not suiting up each day.”
I am as familiar with a fencing foil as I am with a nine-iron, meaning I don’t know beans about either sport, having only an ambivalent interest.
However, I do shoot pool, and a long-ago friend was the late Minnesota Fats who I used in an company ad. But to claim dead-eye proficiency with the stick would be romancing the product.
I have encountered a certain puzzled-look many times since returning from an Odyssean, two decade gamble running PR and ad businesses in Eastern Europe’s riskiest markets.
My family decamped to sunny Florida after weathering two revolutions in Ukraine. We found our business in Russia shrinking for political reasons.
We worked for Vladimir Putin’s main opposition in Moscow, cheered mightily the revolutions in Ukraine, and wielded a pen in opposition to an authoritarian government in Kyiv.
Today we remained thoroughly enraged at Putin for shooting at us in Ukraine’s east and the deaths of 10,000 plus brave Ukrainian men and women.
But, sadly I find, this elicits a gigantic yawn in the land of Mickey Mouse. I understand. It’s simply not in this backyard; and, by the way, it’s hurricane season, and the urgency is stocking up on bottled water.
My naive, initial thought was that my experience successfully navigating complicated economies and business crises might have some use in a class room.
It seemed a fitting, even serene, cap to a high-wire career. I was wrong.
While I have lectured in four prestigious Moscow Universities, a dozen universities across Ukraine and, through Skype and in person, many more in the US (including two in Florida), I am apparently, utterly unqualified to appear in a classroom in any other capacity than snapshot guest appearances.
There is a reason for this.
A half century ago I left the University of Florida, hardly looking over my shoulder as I latched on to a newspaper job in Tampa. I neglected to hang around for onion skin with the words Masters degree.
My exit from the classroom back then led to a career covering civil rights disturbances, early unmanned lunar lift-offs, and hundreds of interviews ranging from country legend Dolly Parton to John Thomas Scopes, the central figure in the famous Scopes Monkey Trial.
The journey was to advance to a fascinating eight years working in DC at the side of the US Senate Majority Leader. I followed him abroad to meeting with historic personage such as Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, the Shah of Iran (just months before he was overthrown), having tea with the Prime Minister at 10 Downing, and conversing with the Soviet leadership in Moscow, as well as the top honchos in Beijing.
Not to overstate the case, I merely carried a clipboard and game-planned with the boss before meetings. I attended them as an observer, keeping mouse-like as befitted my station.
However, I did have a ringside seat to events of the time: Normalization of relations with China, the Panama Canal Treaties, the Middle East peace process and discussions on nuclear disarmament with Soviet Leaders.
I did not — at the time — regret not spending two more years in a classroom. I was too busy living life’s lessons up close and personal.
Later I built businesses, working with CEOs of Fortune 500 companies on strategy and personally coaching two prime ministers and two men who later became prime ministers.
But, here I go again, telling musty war stories from my foxhole in a gated community in Florida. However, make no mistake, I do not fault the bureaucracies of universities.
It is, as they say, what it is. Rules are rules, even when intellectually vacuous.
As for me, I segued into continuing to write novels and business books, and expanding geographically to representation of European clients. At the same time, we work — my wife Olga and I — promoting authors, entertainers and business leaders across the US
It’s not a bad gig, though it is not where I thought I would be.
However, the necessity of putting cornbread on the table reigns supreme. We wear responsibilities like a favorite sweater with patches on the elbows.