Thursday, June 20, 2013

30th Year Reflections/49: Walks

“Ben’s Place was the back room of a dark hotel in Knightsbridge and the three men had met there an hour ago. A notice on the door said ‘MANAGEMENT STRICTLY PRIVATE’ and inside was an ante-room for coats and hats and privacy, and beyond it lay this oak-panelled sanctum full of books and musk, which in turn gave on to its own rectangle of walled garden stolen from the park, with a fish-pond and a marble angel and a path for contemplative walks.” — John le Carré, Smiley’s People

Walking is an important part of my daily work (and life). I don’t have a “Ben’s Place” for secretive meetings like George Smiley (I also don’t have a lot of secretive meetings), but I do have a very large campus—complete with the Mississippi River and adjacent parkland—at my disposal for such contemplative walks.

My day starts with a walk, albeit short, to the bus stop. I use this time to help order my work. Sometime near midday—on a “normal” day—I’ll take another walk to clear cobwebs, stretch legs, let my mind wander, think on some specific item, exercise, or any combination thereof. In the early evening my workday concludes with short walks to and from various buses, home, and a review of the day. All together in the course of a regular day I may walk an hour or more.

And then there are the irregular days, when meetings draw me to the other side of campus; or when a particularly knotty problem or troubling event launches me from my chair into the external regions. I just finished one such walk in the middle of working on this post. It was occasioned by sense of discontent, ill-at-ease and worried for the well-being of two colleagues. It was a short walk, no more than fifteen minutes, but it did a world of good. I told my office companion that I was “heading out for a walk around the block.” (I try to give her a heads-up when leaving for a campus meander. Now that we’ve worked together for a while she usually has a pretty good take on why I’m taking a walk, but not always; I don’t want her to worry.) Along the way my path crossed a parked ice cream truck. Nearby, a small group sat in the shade, enjoying their frosty treats. I avoided the temptation and kept moving. Farther on I bumped into another colleague. She was out walking for much the same reason as I, letting loose a safety valve and saving herself from a stressful meeting aftermath. In those short minutes I thought of four or five more things to write about. It was a productive and healthy break.

My institution encourages us to walk. They provide a way of adding this activity to our wellness portfolio and the means, through provision of a pedometer, of measuring our success. Our individual daily goal, once up to speed, is 10,000 steps a day (the equivalent of about five miles). At the moment I’m not wearing my pedometer. I got out of the habit during the long and nasty winter. Now that warmer weather has arrived I need to make it a daily discipline of strapping on the pedometer and getting in my steps.

Walking, for me, is mostly a solo affair. Rarely do I engage a colleague in a tandem stroll through the campus. When such occasions do arise it is usually coming to or going from a meeting. And in those cases the talk seems to center on work, or the meeting to come (or just past). I use my solitary walks to get away from work, or to come at work from a different perspective. I walk too fast for some, too slow for others. We each have our own pace, our own stride. There are times for marching together and times for private rambles. This is how it should be.

Most likely, I will never match my brother’s feat of hiking the Appalachian Trail. His was an entirely different adventure. Yet both his cross-country trek and my daily jaunts share something in common: they are both voyages of discovery.

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