My job was safe and secure – but it did not satisfy my soul

Ken Piper, June 29, 2016

I quit my government job – retired early, actually – for a couple of reasons. I was very good at what I did – so much so, that I was asked to do too many things. I was always feeling pulled in twenty different directions at once, and that was stressful. I didn’t want it to affect my health. This was illustrated to me graphically when someone came across several studies that compared retirement age to age of death. Each extra year of work after a certain age resulted in a two-year shorter average lifespan. And we could see that the crossover point was too close for comfort.

A more important reason was that the job had no meaning to me. I was working very hard on things that nobody cared about. My main task at that time was to assess and report on the undiscovered hydrocarbon resources of the Pacific Coast offshore. I was the expert. Sounds impressive, maybe. But nobody has really cared about that for the last 30 years – ever since they stopped having offshore leases on the west coast. The only use was as a political football for members of Congress or high-ups in the Executive Branch. I was a world-class authority on a useless topic.

I wrote about this at the time in “Writing my story.” I excerpted from it in my farewell email to my fellow employees. Most people didn’t get it; some thought I meant an autobiography. One woman said, “Yes, I’d like to write a story too.” But that wasn’t the point. I was helping others – politicians and high government officials – to write their story. I wanted to write mine.

In the years since, I have realized that there was more to it. I have always loved Robert Frost poetry, and particularly “The Road Not Taken.” I always wanted to be one who took the road less traveled. But I did not. I didn’t actually take the road most traveled; most geologists work for oil and gas companies. Instead, I took another safe road. I originally wanted to teach. But the government job I got to tide me over until I finished my dissertation became easier than the job search at various colleges. Besides, it allowed me to stay in southern California.

My job was safe, secure, and allowed me to raise a family. But it did not satisfy my soul. I want to make a difference in the world, and regardless how well I did my job, it didn’t matter. So I quit. In the intervening years I have kept busy, as retirees do. And, I have written articles, hoping to effect policy changes, albeit with little success. My friends say I am crazy to think I can make a difference. Even my family doesn’t read what I have written. But I feel driven to try, just the same. And so, I write – and hope.

Image: Robert Frost


Ken Piper, July 5, 2015

I saw the movie Tomorrowland yesterday, even though I had seen and heard that it was preachy, overly optimistic and unrealistic. Well, it is science fiction, after all. There is very little science and lots of fiction, such as going to the moon and back in minutes in a multistage rocket that was built 130 years ago, strapped into wooden chairs with no life support, and a broken window, or launching in a bathtub and landing in a pond with no injuries. Such is the norm with modern science fiction. But, I liked the movie because of a couple of messages that were not mentioned in the various critiques that I saw.

At the beginning of the film, Frank (a main character) goes to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, and he passes by a building on which is the quote (attributed to Einstein) “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” This is something that some of us have known for a long time, and we have complained that our schools are lately in the business of stuffing our kids with knowledge, to the detriment of creativity. Now my daughter, the schoolteacher, disputes this, but the emphasis is certainly on technical proficiency, with the aim of competing with other countries that have been providing us with mathematicians and engineers. Anyway, the message of the movie is that we need more people who are imaginative and creative, rather than those who know how to take a test. I like that message.

The other takeaway is the idea that we are being scared by the spectre of the destruction of Earth by what we are doing to it. In the movie, this idea is supposedly being planted in us by transmissions from another dimension. Also in the movie, the Earth will die in 55 days, yet somehow can be turned around and saved in just a few days, but that is another of the ridiculous fictions of the genre. We hardly need to have this idea come from afar. Politicians, policy makers and scientists all use scare tactics to try to affect our behavior. (I am reminded of Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear, which would be an excellent movie, but doesn’t match the political views of most of Hollywood.) Some may have altruistic motives, thinking that they can use scare tactics to get us to do something that would be good in the long term, but not to our immediate economic benefit. Others use scare tactics to get us to vote for them or perhaps to obtain funding for their research. The movie doesn’t say this, but rather says that people are unmoved by the scare messages because those messages are just being turned around as entertainment, as in disaster movies and video games. I guess the Hollywood approach is to blame big business rather than liberal politicians and scientists. (This is not to say conservative politicians don’t use scare tactics themselves, albeit different ones.)

At the end of the movie, scare tactics are replaced with a bunch of eternal optimists that are going to change the world with their enthusiasm. Yes, not realistic, but somehow satisfying for the romantic in us. Next, I want to see San Andreas, hailed as the most spectacular disaster movie yet. Yes, I know, no science and all fiction, but pure entertainment with none other than “The Rock.”