“Had you followed Captain Ahab down into his cabin… you would have seen him go to a locker in the transom, and bringing out a large wrinkled roll of yellowish sea charts, spread them before him on his screwed-down table. Then seating himself before it, you would have seen him intently study the various lines and shadings which there met his eye; and with slow but steady pencil trace additional courses over spaces that before were blank. At intervals, he would refer to piles of old log-books beside him, wherein were set down the seasons and places in which, on various former voyages of various ships, sperm whales had been captured or seen.”
For me—and I’m sure for many others—this description from Melville’s Moby Dick feels a lot like my first encounter with Mike Russo. Minus, of course, a whale and one man’s maniacal obsession.
It was 1995 and I was interviewing for an open planner position at Plus Mark, a division of American Greetings, Inc, maker of holiday gift wraps, bows and ribbons and such, and here was this tall, bearded guy wearing a friendly smile, he had these kind, compassionate eyes, and spread all about him on his desk were three-ring binders of papers, one stacked atop the other—spreadsheets, schedules, calendars, notes, hell, there might’ve even been a map of historical whale sightings for all I knew. And tucked behind one ear, a stubby Number 2 pencil.
Mike invited me to sit and then began to ask questions. I don’t remember about what specifically—I assume some were work related, but not necessarily all of them. He had a very inquisitive nature and it seemed he could talk about anything. I had recently left the Army, so maybe we talked about that—but I’m sure at some point, my future boss leaned back in his chair and with a steadfast look and to the beat of his index finger exclaimed: “Well, Gilbert, I’m here to tell you.”
And he would. Both his interest and reflection were genuine, not some pointless filler of time, and it wasn’t because time was immaterial to him. Quite the opposite. From the moment I met Mike, those precise binders notwithstanding, he made it abundantly clear: Time was everything.
When Mike’s brother texted me two weeks ago informing me of his death, I was mid-way through a book I would’ve eventually shared with him, Four Thousand Weeks, Time Management for Mortals. In it, the author, Oliver Burkeman, highlights the “absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly” brief number of weeks, assuming you live to be eighty, that comes with the average human lifespan.
4,000 weeks doesn’t feel like much. Maybe when you were a kid, it did, but in mid-life? Not hardly. Especially when you consider all the things family, work and a host of others are asking of your time. Confronting what Burkeman calls this “radical finitude” is imperative to living a fulfilling, productive life. Here he is in his own words:
We live in an age of impossible demands, infinite choice, relentless distraction and spiraling global crises. Yet most productivity advice, like other modern messages about time, makes things worse. It encourages the fantasy that we might one day “get everything done”, becoming the fully optimized, emotionally invincible masters of our time. The pursuit of this limit-denying delusion systematically leaves us more busy, distracted, and isolated from each other – while postponing the truly important parts of life to some point in the future that never quite seems to arrive.
It is a frustration we all face, again and again. Indeed, much of our days seem spent leaning into the future, bidding our time until we can finally do whatever it is we want to do. Spend time with the kids. A picnic in the great outdoors. Or just not involved in some dreary dull chore or errand. That that moment never arrives is not taken as a sign of its impossibility, but due to our lack of trying. So we do try harder, do more, get up earlier, commit to scheduling our time more efficiently.
Productivity, Burkeman writes, is a trap. “Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again. No one in the history of humanity has ever achieved work-life balance…Let’s start by admitting defeat: none of this is ever going to happen.”
The Guardian calls the book “a midlife inquiry into how we might most meaningfully approach those days…perfectly pitched somewhere between practical self-help book and philosophical quest.” And while I think of it in those terms, too, for sure, I also couldn’t help thinking about Mike Russo, all 4,166 weeks of him.
Mike taught me everything I know about scheduling. About time and labor and how to apply the cost of both to outcomes. I make appointments for coffee breaks in my calendar because of him. In detailed spreadsheets, I plan and keep logs of the future essays I’ll write for this newsletter, track investments, create packing lists and build detailed vacation itineraries because of him.
But Mike seemed to know that things, especially time, had limits. He could as easily drift into what was taking place in any immediate moment as talk about the plans for tomorrow. Gardening. Reading. A walk he was on or a hike he’d recently taken. Everything seemed to come to Mike in patient, steady stride. And the kids, he adored. Once during a visit to our home in North Carolina, he and I took them to a baseball game and when the girls, having spent most of seven innings playing on a bouncy house near the outfield, were asked if maybe they wanted to take a break and watch some of the game, one of them replied, What game?
It was the moment that mattered to Mike and my god, how I will miss spending a few of mine with him. He was a splash of good fortune when good fortune seemed hard to come by. Like when I butted heads with the company over their lack of compliance with the Family Medical Leave Act. Or when my father died a decade later, or when our youngest was diagnosed with a chronic disease. There was this one time even when Franca and I had bitten off too much of a backpacking trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains and running low on water we called Mike to see if he could pick us up a day early. He did, with several bottles of ice cold water, but also a cooler of beer.
Mike taught me that there is no such thing as a perfect plan. There is now and the now to soon follow. A lesson I seemed to have forgotten as last year we packed up our belongings in preparation for moving to Sicily and while making our rounds to see family, did not make time to stop and see him and Pat. There is always another day, we tell ourselves.
Since moving we’ve stayed in touch, of course. A text here, an email there. We made plans to get together this Fall when we return to the US for a few weeks. Mike was an avid reader of The Revelate and just this past June he wrote me about one of the stories and shared that he was dealing with some health issues again. My response was a longer version of the usual: Be well, my friend. See you soon.
I think of the countless other possibilities of how Mike could have spent his time but he chose to spend it with us, all of us, anyone who knew him and shared in the smallest of occasions, that hardly seemed worth anyone’s time at the moment, but now in looking back, meant everything.
When in 2017 Franca and I made our first trip to Sicily, it had only been a few years earlier that we’d discovered the Mike’s family was actually from the same tiny little town in the heart of the island, Villarosa. There, on a visit to the cemetery, I thought of him and took pictures of every headstone with the name Russo on it. Later I shared them him, to which he responded: Well, Gilbert, I’m here to tell you, I guess I failed to mention, my Sicilian roots are on my mother’s side, De Bella, not Russo.
I would like to end with that, but there’s another, more touching memory I have in this moment for this amazing, intelligent, warmhearted man, someone I was fortunate to know these past thirty years. I honestly don’t know why I had thought of him after I read Cold Mountain, I guess I thought it was a beautiful read and that maybe he’d enjoy it, too. After Mike read it too he called me and singled out this one paragraph—and don’t worry if you haven’t read it, I think Mike actually would prefer it that way:
“An observer situated up on the brow of the ridge would have looked down on a still, distant tableau in the winter woods. A creek, remnants of snow. A wooded glade, secluded from the generality of mankind. A pair of lovers. The man reclined with his head in the woman's lap. She, looking down into his eyes, smoothing back the hair from his brow. He, reaching an arm awkwardly around to hold her at the soft part of her hip. Both touching each other with great intimacy. A scene of such quiet and peace that the observer on the ridge could avouch to it later in such a way as might lead those of glad temperaments to imagine some conceivable history where long decades of happy union stretched before the two on the ground.”