Star Trek: To boldly embrace passions…or to obliterate work-life balance?

Star Trek made the cover of the May 4 edition of Newsweek, with the headline reading “To Boldly Go…How ‘Star Trek’ Taught Us To Dream Big.”  Inside, there’s an extended preview essay about the upcoming “Star Trek” motion picture (http://www.newsweek.com/id/195082).  Writer Steve Daly gives his approval of the new big screen release:

A movie built to celebrate diversity, understanding and hope is definitely audacious. It’s enough to make anyone feel that right now, here on earth and out in the final frontier, we have liftoff.

I’ll leave it to others to determine how the new Star Trek movie may speak to our current political and social milieu.  Instead, let’s briefly consider how the Star Trek phenomenon validates the quest for work that matters to us, while affirming the kind of work-life imbalance that is the scourge of many a personal “mission.”

Between the original Star Trek, its inspired sequel Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the motion pictures emanating from both, the ideal life is portrayed as passionate adventure, full of risk and peril, but always with a zest for discovery and an affirmation of the intellect.  There are no homes or shopping centers, few kids or pets, and very little of the everyday humdrum and detail that make for so much of middle class life.  Instead, the individuals of the starship Enterprise are on a mission, which they pursue with an almost single-minded devotion.

With Star Trek and its heirs, life on a starship is all encompassing.  The officers and crew live where they work.  There rarely is such a thing as a “vacation,” unless beaming down to a planet that may serve up life-threatening beings or diseases counts as Club Med or the French Riviera.  Alas, to my knowledge, none of the Star Trek incarnations feature an employee assistance program or union shop steward to address issues of overwork or chronic stress.

Perhaps I can identify with Star Trek’s depiction of life and work because even though academe is quite the opposite of a bold mission to other galaxies, both realms share an immersive state that allows one to pursue passions at the frequent expense of meaningful separation between home and office.  Plenty of other vocations foster the same dynamic.

The chance to do work that brings deeper personal meaning along with a decent paycheck is indeed a blessing, but there are downsides for those of us who get too caught up in it.  Indeed, a more true-to-life version of Star Trek might feature a long line at the office of the starship’s therapist and a lot of Star Fleet personnel fantasizing about retiring to tend to a vegetable garden, read novels, or watch Monday Night Football.

Is Simon Cowell a Workplace Bully?

If you’ve ever watched the popular FOX network singing competition “American Idol,” you know what I’m asking about.  British music executive Simon Cowell is one of four judges who deliver short, snappy critiques following the live performance of every “American Idol” contestant.

Of the judges (Paula Abdul, Kara DioGuardi, and Randy Jackson being the others), Simon is easily the most caustic and brutally frank, regularly serving up feedback such as “You sounded terrible,” “That was simply awful,” and “I think you may have blown your chance in this competition.”  While the other judges often couch their criticisms with positives, Simon doesn’t hesitate to rip into what he believes was a sub-par performance.  The young performer has no choice but to absorb the criticism in front of millions of viewers.

Because Simon is the toughest judge, contestants often appear apprehensive when it’s his turn to comment.  If Simon praises the performance, the contestant breathes a sigh of relief and beams with delight.  If he pans the performance, the poor contestant tries to take it in stride.

All of this is against the background of a competition in which relative unknowns are striving to become the next American Idol.  The judges have the most power early in the competition, when they are screening out thousands of wannabe performers.  By the time the dozens or so finalists are competing, votes from viewers — surely influenced by the judges’ reviews — are what largely determine the contestants’ fates.

OK, so Simon can be arrogant and insulting, and he wields real power over the futures of these performers.  But is he a “workplace bully”?

Here’s my read on it: If we define bullying as repeated, malicious, health-endangering behavior, Simon may be guilty of committing high misdemeanors, but he’s not a hardcore felon in the pantheon of workplace jerks.

Simon no doubt has been the source of tears and hurt feelings over the years, and many of his comments are downright mean-spirited.  I’m sure there are past Idol contestants who bear the scars of his gratuitously harsh criticisms.  However, he tends not to play favorites — he calls ’em like he hears ’em, albeit in needlessly insulting terms.  At least he is consistently obnoxious, in contrast to workplace bullies who are masters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde unpredictability.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not endorsing or defending Simon’s style or practice.  He’s a bonafide jerk, and he sometimes abuses the power his role confers upon him.  His Idol fame makes him a workplace bullying poster boy.  But as some readers can certainly attest, there are many, many bosses out there much worse than Simon Cowell.

Labors of Love: Chasing Tornadoes

In May I went on a seven-day storm chase through the heart of “Tornado Alley,” hosted by Tempest Tours, a company of professional storm chasers who organize group tours for weather enthusiasts.  It was a remarkable experience, made so in large part by the guides who took us on a 3,000 mile journey through parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska in search of turbulent weather.                                                                                                                       

Our lead tour guide was Bill Reid, a veteran storm chaser who plans his year around the peak chase months.  Holder of a master’s degree in climatology, Bill spends his “off-season” in California, working as an airport weather observer and as a grocery store clerk – jobs offering sufficient flexibility to allow him to spend May and June in America’s heartland.

 

The driver and guide for my van was Brian Morganti, a retired business owner who began chasing storms a decade ago and now works for Tempest.  When the chase season is over, he returns to his home in Pennsylvania.

 

These guys don’t make a lot of money working this gig.  I gather that most of them pay for their adventures by leading tours.  What they do get is the gift of seeing nature in an awe-inspiring and powerful state.  Having gotten one taste of it, I can understand what draws them back again and again.

 

Of course, to new storm chasers like me, the measure of a successful chase tour is whether we intercepted a tornado (or two, or more).  And that we did: Our tour group hit the jackpot within hours of our orientation meeting, intercepting a storm that produced multiple tornadoes in northern Oklahoma.  Here is one of the first tornadoes we saw:

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[Photo: David Yamada]

But what truly surprised me was how taken I was by the vistas we encountered throughout our week – the roiling super cells, cloud formations that seemed to stretch on forever, beautiful sunsets unobstructed by high-rise buildings, and nighttime lightning storms flashing on and off in the distance.

 

Even when the tornado intercepts are few and far between, these guys (and yes, they’re mostly guys, with exceptions such as “Twister Sisters” Melanie Metz and Peggy Willenberg) get to see this stuff throughout their stay in Tornado Alley.  And over meals at roadside diners and fast food joints, they talk about their adventures with attention to detail and gusto.  They discovered storm chasing in different ways, but they are united by a fascination with tornadoes, ongoing study of the weather conditions that produce them, and the thrill of the chase.  They are among a small number of people who have managed to turn storm chasing into a job.

Indeed, in terms of passion for one’s work, this ranks among the Gold Standard.

 

Tempest Tours: http://www.tempesttours.com/

Bill Reid’s website:  http://www.stormbruiser.com/

Brian Morganti’s website: http://www.stormeffects.com/

 

And visit the website of writer Jenna Blum, whose 2007 feature on storm chasing in the Boston Globe travel section led to my signing up, and whose next novel builds on her passion for stormy weather: http://www.jennablum.com/.

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