Work on TV: Cop dramas

I love good cop dramas on TV, not only for their entertainment value, but also because they do a great job of portraying the ups and downs of working for a living.  Here are some of the underlying themes that are prominent in many these shows:

1. Pursuing one’s passion (the bad and good of it)

2. Career advancement (triumph and disappointment)

3. Diversity and inclusion (often not a lot of it)

4. Work-life balance (mainly lack thereof)

5. Incivility and bullying (often lots of both)

6. Politics (both in-house and electoral)

7. Ethics (good cop, bad cop)

8. Dispute resolution (from informal chats to murder)

My favorites (alphabetical order)

I’ve written about two of these shows before (The Wire and Prime Suspect), but here’s a longer list of my favorite police dramas:

Blue Bloods — A brand new weekly, it’s among a minority of cop shows built around a non-dysfunctional family. Tom Selleck is excellent as the New York City police commissioner.

Foyle’s War — A treat from PBS, this ongoing series is set in small town England during World War Two, featuring Michael Kitchen as Inspector Christopher Foyle.

Hill Street Blues (*) — Pathbreaking 80s classic set in an unspecified American big city. Hey, let’s be careful out there.

Homicide: Life on the Street (*) — David Simon’s earthy Baltimore, Take 1. Addictive.

Prime Suspect (*) — A gift from across the pond, Helen Mirren is astoundingly good as British police inspector Jane Tennison. Start with Prime Suspect 1 and follow her career and life. Brilliant stuff.

The Shield (*) — You’ll feel guilty for hoping that LA cop Vic Mackey doesn’t get caught.

The Wire (*) — David Simon’s earthier Baltimore, Take 2. Widely acclaimed for its portrayal of life in inner city urban America.

(*) = has completed series run; episodes available on DVD.

But where’s the union?

Even the best cop dramas miss on the realities of being in unionized work settings. Most rank-and-file police officers and detectives are unionized, and collective bargaining negotiations over salaries and benefits have a significant impact on their lives. In most cop shows, however, the union presence is practically invisible, usually limited to calling in a union rep when an officer gets in trouble.

Are electronic gadgets promoting or undercutting work-life balance?

This is a question that keeps me going ’round in circles: Are electronic gadgets such as laptops, netbooks, iPhones, Blackberries, and Skype promoting or undercutting a healthy sense of work-life balance?


Electronic gadgets can be a godsend for those who jobs require time on the road, whether it’s a business person hosting a conference call or a contractor working with customers across a state. They can render distance largely immaterial in terms of communications.

For those with family responsibilities or health & mobility impairments, all this gee whiz technology makes telecommuting a genuine option. With a relatively modest investment in space and equipment, a wired home office can be a reality.


But there are real disadvantages too. Mickey Meece, writing for the New York Times, captures the downsides of technology that allows us to work anywhere and anytime (link here):

GIVEN the widespread adoption of smartphones, text messaging, video calling and social media, today’s professionals mean it when they brag about staying connected to work 24/7.

…But all of this amped-up productivity comes with a growing sense of unease. Too often, people find themselves with little time to concentrate and reflect on their work. Or to be truly present with their friends and family.

With the right toys, work can go wherever we go, and that’s not always a healthy thing.

A toss-up

I call it a toss-up, with the most important consideration being, as many have noted, whether we’re using the technology to facilitate more balanced lives and make work more convenient, or whether the technology is making it nearly impossible to separate ourselves from our work.

What’s your legacy work? (And how can you de-clutter your way to it?)

What is your legacy work? In other words, how do you want to make your mark on the world?

This potentially life-changing inquiry is a core idea of a book I’ve recommended in recent posts (here and here), Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World (2010).

Two key questions

Guillebeau poses two simple questions:

  • “What do you really want to get out of life?”
  • “What can you offer the world that no one else can?”

The answers may take a while to articulate — especially if you’ve never asked yourself these questions. And don’t apologize if this is the case. Guillebeau’s overarching theme of non-conformity recognizes that many folks have jumped through hoops defined by others.

It’s up to you

Ultimately, only you can define your legacy work. When we start thinking for ourselves, the possibilities are endless, and surely not limited to paid employment:

  • Building a business
  • Raising a family
  • Organizing for a cause
  • Writing a book
  • Leading a community group
  • Teaching kids
  • Starting a band
  • Caring for animals
  • Creating a charity
  • Inventing a new product
  • Helping the sick
  • and many, MANY more

Too much junk? Then de-clutter

Once you get to a certain age, life may have served up enough baggage — material and emotional — to eat up precious time and energy. This can impede your quest to identify and do legacy work. If that’s your situation, then you may need to de-clutter.

The Art of Non-Conformity has a very good chapter on how to clear away the junk for stuff that matters. It’s especially helpful in getting us to do triage on the tasks and commitments that may suck up a lot of time but provide very little payoff in terms of real accomplishment and satisfaction.

In addition, I highly recommend Brooks Palmer’s Clutter Busting: Letting Go of What’s Holding You Back (2009), which I also mentioned in a recent post. Palmer nails the psychology of how our material clutter frustrates our ability to live in the present and for the future. He employs a humane version of tough love to get us to ask important questions about why we hold onto belongings that have little or no positive value to us.

Individual power in tough times

Especially during these tough times, I believe that individual initiative and creativity will be the key to lifting some people into a better place in their lives. Identifying one’s legacy work and clearing away the clutter are two vital steps toward moving in that direction.


Additional resources

Go here to access Chris Guillebeau’s website.

Go here to access Brooks Palmer’s blog.

A better way to live, work, and prosper?

In closing out my blog posts for this year, I’d once again like to share a vision for a truly kinder and gentler society, offered in 1981 by John Ohliger (1926-2004), a pioneering, iconoclastic adult educator, community activist, and writer (not to mention dear friend):

My picture is of a future where we live more relaxed and more modest lives with an abundance of unmeasurable and infinitely available non-material (or better, trans-material) resources. All the travail and pressure we’re going through right now may be paving the way for that future. This future could be one where we will have a choice of “goodies”; not ones requiring scarce energy, minerals, or dollars; or ones permitting some people to get rich while others go hungry, but choices that we create with our own hearts and heads and hands among people we know and care for.

Although John’s political views placed him squarely to the left of center, he was not one for ideological browbeating. Even his frequent use of the term “radical” suggested more a general distancing from mainstream technocratic and consumer culture than a rigid sociopolitical and economic worldview.

Now more than ever?

The society John envisioned becomes ever more compelling in the wake of this economic meltdown.  It is likely that many of us will have to moderate our buying and owning of “stuff” during the years to come. As the obscene term “jobless recovery” is shaping into a reality, we are knocking on the door of a long-term period of a difficult job market and lower pay and benefits.  Retirement, where possible for those in their later years, will require judicious spending.

In sum, the years ahead may require us to think about what makes for a good and fulfilling life.  John’s vision invites us to consider a potentially healthier and more satisfying way of living, even if material goods are in shorter supply.


For more about John Ohliger, go here.

Let’s focus on the “largeness of our lives”

Tara Lohan, in a piece for Alternet (link here) searches for a silver lining in the wreckage of the economic meltdown and envisions a society where less is more:

As we pick up the pieces of our shattered economy, perhaps we can rebuild with a more enlightened idea of how much is enough and a more holistic view of wealth — one that does not merely reflect the size of our homes, but instead the largeness of our lives.

Lohan quotes E.F. Schumacher, humanistic economist and author of Small is Beautiful (1973), in envisioning an America less caught up with work, material goods, and McMansions: “The less toil there is, the more time and strength is left for artistic creativity.”

Yes, we need more jobs to get people back to work and help them rebuild their battered finances. But we also should turn this into an opportunity to think about what kind of recovery we want. The Great Recession was fueled by decades of over-extended credit and consumer excess. Let’s not make the same mistakes. We have a chance to think about and create better ways to work and live.


Barring important news developments, I’ll be devoting the remainder of my posts this year to pieces envisioning a healthier society.

APA’s latest on healthy workplaces and toxic managers

The current issue of Good Company, the e-newsletter of the American Psychological Association’s Psychology Healthy Workplace Program (phew, that’s a mouthful), includes several features of interest to readers of this blog.

Fact Sheet (It’s a keeper)

Folks, this is worth saving and printing out. It’s an updated Fact Sheet on psychologically healthy workplaces, loaded with bullet point summaries and sources on the following topics:

  • Workplace stress
  • Work demands
  • Work-life balance & flexibility
  • Employee health & healthcare costs
  • Mental health issues
  • Employee and organizational outcomes
  • The recession

Toxic Bosses

In a piece linking healthy workplaces with how managers relate to workers, Wally Bock writes:

Bosses make a difference in individual well-being. Early in my career, I worked with a manager named Cliff who defined the phrase, “hard-nosed.” He was also rude and hard-charging. The day was not complete without him stomping around the office in a rage.

Once, during one of his tantrums, a colleague suggested he calm down. “You’ll have a heart attack,” he said.

“I don’t get heart attacks,” Cliff growled. “I give ‘em.”


In his article, Bock expounds upon this short cluster of recommendations toward improving organizational leadership:

  • Improve your Boss Selection
  • Improve your Training and Support for Bosses
  • Train for and Evaluate Specific Stress-Reducing Behaviors


Work, Stress, and Health Conference 2011

In addition, it’s worth flagging the dates for the next Work, Stress, and Health Conference, which the APA co-sponsors with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Society for Occupational Health Psychology:

May 19-22, 2011 — Orlando, Florida — Doubletree Hotel

This is one of the best multidisciplinary conferences around, with presenters drawn from a wide variety of fields in addition to psychology. I have a learned a ton from the programs at this conference and recommend it highly to researchers, practitioners, and students in disciplines related to employment relations.

Will our avocations save us?

I am beginning to believe that our avocations will save us, personally in terms of enriching our lives, and publicly in terms of contributing to the greater community.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines an avocation as “a subordinate occupation pursued in addition to one’s vocation especially for enjoyment.”  That’s a good start, but I want to add a few other qualities that separate avocation from a pure hobby, such as a sense of accomplishment and contribution to the broader community.

For example…

In 2008 I wrote about professional storm chasers who lead groups of weather enthusiasts around America’s heartland in search of tornadoes and other severe storms.  Tour guests are the beneficiaries of this shared expertise, exploring places and experiencing vistas that would be hard to discover on their own.

Recently I wrote about two long-time friends who have nurtured their creative passions for writing and music.  Their work not only provides personal artistic rewards, but also enriches those who are enjoying the fruits of their labors.

For many years I have taken a weekly singing class at a local adult education center.  The instructor is a Juilliard-trained vocalist who created the class for adult students who wanted to learn how to sing better, regardless of previous music experience.  Her “day job” is working in a university library.

Civic activism is a very satisfying way to contribute to the well being of our communities.  The causes fueling that activism are often grounded in personal experience.  For example, many of the folks who are advocating for legal protections against workplace bullying found this cause after personally dealing with abusive treatment on the job.

More than a hobby…

Hobbies are great.  They allow us to engage in an enjoyable pastime that captures our attention.

But avocations can be even better.  Like hobbies, they are satisfying and engaging, but often they also provide a deeper sense of accomplishment and contribution.

After all, there’s a difference between writing poetry solely for one’s personal journals and, say, sharing that work by publishing it and participating in readings.  The latter gives us a chance to interact with others and enrich the culture of our communities.

Compared to work…

In the best of worlds, our jobs would provide us with the best qualities of our avocations, topped off with a livable income.  Indeed, one of the goals of this blog is to explore how we can create better work and workplaces that move us closer toward that ideal.

But transforming the experience of work is a long, hard slog.  For many, work is largely a means to an end.  Especially in the midst of this recession, higher aspirations for work may have to go on the shelf, at least temporarily.

Likewise, the work of raising a family or caring for loved ones is demanding and sometimes thankless, even if the underlying devotions are the stuff of strong bonds.  Many other forms of personal expression may be sacrificed to the demands of caregiving.

Avocations, however, free us from some of those inherent limitations and obligations.  They can be remarkably liberating, a chance to pursue dreams and passions even within the inevitable confines of everyday life.

Let’s stoke this idea…

So why don’t avocations get more attention in our society?  Why aren’t we thinking more creatively about that third place between work and leisure?

No answers here.  I went to the Amazon website and did a search for “avocation.”  I was surprised by how the topic has been so neglected by observers of the human condition.

Nevertheless, we don’t need scholarly studies to teach us how avocations can make a difference in our lives and those of others.  In seeking to discover and create meaning in our lives, we can take it upon ourselves to put the idea of avocation high on our lists.

The good vacation and why it matters

What makes for a terrific vacation?  How can we maximize our use of precious vacation time?  Are long sojourns better than short trips?

Many of us have personal responses to those questions, likely based on our own experiences.  One especially memorable vacation (good or bad) can fix our opinion about the ideal break. And if money and/or time happen to be in short supply, any vacation may look like paradise.

Researchers weigh in

Drake Bennett, writing for the Boston Globe, assembled advice from psychologists and economists about what makes for a good vacation:

For example, how long we take off probably counts for less than we think, and in the aggregate, taking more short trips leaves us happier than taking a few long ones. We’re often happier planning a trip than actually taking it. And interrupting a vacation — far from being a nuisance — can make us enjoy it more. How a trip ends matters more than how it begins, who you’re with matters as much as where you go, and if you want to remember a vacation vividly, do something during it that you’ve never done before.

Anticipation and memory

For many, the best parts of a vacation may be in anticipating and remembering it, while the vacation itself poses frustrations and glitches.  Bennett reported on a study of vacationers who were asked to record “emotional inventories” of their trips:

…(T)he respondents were least happy about the vacation while they were taking it. Beforehand, they looked forward to it with eager anticipation, and within a few days of returning, they remembered it fondly. But while on it, they found themselves bogged down by the disappointments and logistical headaches of actually going somewhere and doing something, and the pressure they felt to be enjoying themselves.

Americans and vacations

Should we be taking the topic of vacations this, well, seriously?  At least for Americans, the answer is yes.  We take much less vacation time than our counterparts in Europe and other parts of the world.  In some nations, paid vacation time is a legal right.  Our workaholic culture is regarded by many as unhealthy and misguided.  It’s the less attractive flipside of our willingness to dig into work and get the job done.  Google the phrase Americans vacation time and you’ll get countless hits to surveys, studies, and analyses on this phenomenon.

Recession effects

The Great Recession has only made things worse.  Obviously for those who have lost their jobs, “free” time may be in greater supply, but accompanied by the stress of unemployment and much less disposable cash.  For those fortunate to have jobs, the pressures to do more with less and to demonstrate one’s value to the organization are making it harder to get away.  (For a related observation, see my post, “The Masochism Tango” at Work.)

Bigger picture

Overall, Americans are not too good at the work-life balance thing.  Economist Juliet Schor’s seminal work, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (1991) documented and analyzed how Americans are spending a lot of time at work. It triggered a wave of research and commentary that continues to this day.

Embracing Creative Dreams at Midlife

Avocation — a subordinate occupation pursued in addition to one’s vocation especially for enjoyment
-from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary

Dreams die hard is something of an old chestnut, but having entered the heart of midlife, I am thankful that this often is true.  I think especially of creative energies waiting to be tapped and unleashed, perhaps after some of life’s other priorities and responsibilities have been addressed, and pursued with the benefit of experience and maturity.

Two long-time friends come to mind when I ponder this.  Hilda Demuth-Lutze is a friend from college days at Valparaiso University (Indiana) who is the author of historical novels for young adults.  Mark Mybeck is a friend going back to grade school in Hammond, Indiana, whose band, Nomad Planets, is creating a niche for itself in the Greater Chicagoland indie rock scene.

Hilda Demuth-Lutze, Novelist

Hilda’s desire to write novels was evident in college, but getting married, raising a family in Valparaiso, and becoming a high school English teacher would come first.  However, she never let go of the idea of a writing life, and over the years she would exchange ideas, essays, and chapter drafts with assorted friends and family.

Her dreams of authorship started to become a reality when she and her sister Emily secured a grant to do historical research for a novel they conceptualized about two Wisconsin girls during the 1850s whose lives would intersect with the Underground Railroad.  Their collaboration led to the publication of their 2009 novel for young readers, Plank Road Summer.

Hilda then set out to write a second novel — also for young readers — featuring a village boy in 14th century Germany who is summoned away for a year of service at Wartburg Castle.  Kingdom of the Birds, published this year, interweaves encounters with Martin Luther and the history of Reformation Germany.

Pursuing creative aspirations in midlife sometimes requires superhuman stamina and juggling.  This interview with Hilda in an online literary magazine sheds some light on how a busy parent and educator makes time to write.

Mark Mybeck, Nomad Planets rock band, vocalist, guitarist, song writer

Mark has been into music for as long as I can remember — and those memories go back to the 3rd grade!  When we were kids, he had a great record collection and knew what radio stations were playing the best music.  (Thanks to Mark, his nerdy friend Dave was introduced to rock music and FM radio.)  Though details have faded, I also recall that he put together a group that played at our high school battle of the band nights.

Mark went to college, got married, and took jobs in the graphic arts and (currently) real estate fields.  Throughout this time, he never lost his desire to write and perform music.

Eventually Mark helped to put together Nomad Planets,  a 4-person band, which has evolved into the vehicle for his musical expression.  Nomad Planets have released three albums, the latest of which, You’re Never Lost Until You Panic, also happens to have an awesome cover!  After several years of plugging away at their craft, their perseverance is paying off: Nomad Planets are getting more gigs, earning some love from reviewers of the Chicagoland music scene, and building a core of devoted fans.

Check out Nomad Planets at their website, as well as visit their MySpace and Facebook pages, where you can sample their music.

Dreams Maturing

I’ve never formally interviewed my two friends about their creative avocations, but watching them pursue these aspirations later in life has been a joy.

My long-held homespun theory has been that many of us who belong to the “Tweener generation,” i.e., tail-end Baby Boomers who came along too late to experience the heart of the 1960s, are taking a bit longer to find ourselves and realize the full meanings of our lives.  (I can’t fully explain the reasoning behind this belief, but I trace some of it back to the weirdness and lack of definition of the 1970s, our formative years!)

In any event, seeing folks like Mark and Hilda do some of their most creative work in the heart of midlife not only allows me to validate my own theory (hey, I’m a professor…), but also sends a message to all of us that maybe, just maybe, some of life’s best stuff is waiting for us to embrace.

By contrast

We’re seeing a lot of self-help books for maturing Boomers in search of fulfillment on bookstore shelves these days.  One example is Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50 (New York: Sarah Crichton, 2009).  Lawrence-Lightfoot is a Harvard sociologist who collected stories of people in their 50s and beyond who made dramatic life changes.

The Third Chapter features stories of people who reached a point in their lives where they felt the need for a major transformation.  Their stories are interesting, but frankly, many of them are in, uh, privileged positions.  They’re well-placed subjects of a well-placed author.  They may have quit their jobs and chased their dreams, seemingly throwing caution to the wind, but in reality many had abundant connections and back-up options in case the fairy tale crashed and burned.

By contrast, the stories of my friends are more typical, realistic, and accessible, embracing determination and pushing beyond one’s comfort zone.  But make no mistake: They also are stories about life’s adventure, and in that sense they are inspiring tales for the rest of us.

What are some of your creative aspirations?  Might they be the stuff of a new hobby, an avocation, or perhaps a later-in-life career shift?  Here’s to their discovery and realization!

APA announces 2010 Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards

From a recent post by Dr. David Ballard at the American Psychological Association:

2010 Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award Program Winners

The APA has announced the winners of its 2010 Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award Program, recognizing North American employers who excel in these five categories:

  • “Employee involvement”
  • “Work-life balance”
  • “Employee growth & development”
  • “Health & safety”
  • “Employee recognition”

The winners are:

American Cast Iron Pipe Company (ACIPCO), Alabama
Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare (TMH), Florida
Advanced Solutions (HP Company), British Columbia
Toronto Police Service (TPS), Ontario
Leaders Bank, Illinois

2010 Best Practices Awards

The APA also has recognized 10 companies “for a single workplace program or policy that stands out for its facilitation of a psychologically healthy workplace.”

For complete information and links, see the APA’s Good Company blog.


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