Ditch old gripes, get new life

Many Pensacolians apparently grew up in log cabins, doing their homework by the light of a smoky fireplace and milking the cows before walking uphill through the snow three miles to school while fighting off wild Bengal tigers.

At least, that’s the impression I get from listening to some not-so-old old-timers mythologizing their pasts, as they harrumph about young people these days and exaggerate the vicissitudes of their own youth.

Ask a few questions and you find that they usually came from a home with two involved parents, a steady if not large income, and the expectation that they could and would get an affordable education or specialized training that would lead to their own version of the American dream. I’m guessing the floors in their “log cabins” were linoleum, not dirt.

Many people don’t have such advantages now, something the grumps overlook.

I don’t mean to bash my fellow seniors; they’re hardly the only negative Nellies. Some of society’s biggest whiners are young people who seem to thrive on unnecessary melodrama: “I’m fabulous because I’m young,” “Mary won’t tell me the secret handshake for being a Pensacola Young Professional.”

And while sociologists tell us that today’s younger generation is the least sexist and most color-blind ever, they still have the young’s ability to stereotype older people and ignore them.

But that’s the way it has been ever since Adam and Eve were complaining about Cain and Abel. Generation gaps are inevitable, a part of one group coming into power and their elders moving to the sidelines.

But we don’t have to be constant critics, saying, “You should have done this” and “I told you not to do that.” We had our turn; let them have theirs.

We also need to remember that we did stupid things, too.

That’s why I keep on my desk a photo of myself at age 29, with my brown-and-plaid sports coat, a textured brown tie and a pile of hair artfully placed into an early but ill-fated combover. It was a fashion faux pas even then, although I thought I was da man, a groovin’ dude indeed!

The photo reminds me that I too have committed lapses in taste, judgment and common sense.

It also reminds me to keep my comments to myself except when asked. I made a conscious vow a few years ago to offer advice only when asked, and the experience has been humbling. No one asks!

Oh, occasionally a daughter may ask my thoughts on car tires or auto insurance, but I think she’s humoring me.

There are major advantages to not being asked for advice. When people talk, they assume you must be in agreement with them because you don’t say stuff like, “Whoa, you idiot, that’s not what you should do!”

So, since you’re quiet and smiling, they like you more. Just don’t let them read your mind.

If you make a suggestion and it goes badly, they will blame you. If it goes well, they will forget you suggested it and take credit for themselves.

What’s the advantage in that?

It’s curiously liberating to not give unsolicited guidance. Now you’re just two people talking, and there’s no burden or expectation.

Instead of grumbling about the old life, use this chance to get yourself a new life.

Splash! magazine, September 2014

Do the math: you can’t live on minimum wage

Opponents of raising the minimum wage should try living on that paltry $7.25 an hour.

The experience might change their minds, or at least make them a little less willing to consign people to living on $290 a week. Do the math; you can’t live on $290 a week (before taxes).

I had a close call with minimum wage last year, and I didn’t like it. Not one bit.

The experience only reinforced my support for raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10, the current proposal. Employers will cut some jobs, primarily for teenagers, but “lower-income workers as a whole (will) end up considerably better off,” as the Brookings Institute projected.

This was my first exposure to minimum wage in almost 50 years, since I was a high school junior making $1 an hour selling cigars, cigarettes and newspapers at a pharmacy in Massachusetts.

Back then, in teenage boy world, $1 an hour was good money. Cigarettes cost 28 cents a pack and gas cost 29 cents a gallon, taking care of two of my three adolescent passions. (Teenage girls were my top choice, but the passion was not mutual.)

I soon left minimum wage behind — until last year, when my writing business suddenly just stopped. No phone calls, no email, no clients. No single reason; it just happened.

After nervously twiddling my thumbs for two weeks, I got a job at $7.79 an hour, considerably better than the $7.25 minimum wage that has been in effect since 2009. It hasn’t been adjusted for inflation since then, even though the government dutifully includes cost-of-living raises for Social Security recipients and other pensioners.

Making $7.79 an hour is pretty grim, so I really balk at the thought of $7.25 an hour, which today buys barely one pack of cigarettes and two gallons of gas — not that I have those vices anymore.

No one should weep for me. The house is paid for, the children are grown and successful, and my wife is remarkably mellow and resourceful. Without all these advantages, I couldn’t have afforded to work for such low pay.

When I got my first check, I did a double take. The amount was very small — tiny, almost. It was hard to believe that it took 40 hours of my life to earn this pittance. I kept looking for an extra zero before the decimal, but no such luck.

Oh, and did I mention that this job, like much low-paying employment, required working nights and Saturdays?

Nor does the average low-paid salaried employee get such business-owner perks as getting tax breaks for his telephone, health insurance, computer and other work-related expenses.

Truth to tell, I was lucky to get the job; you seldom see employers rushing to hire 60-somethings. I was especially fortunate to get a full-time job; many employers limit workers to 20 or 30 hours. I cannot tell a lie: I got the job because the owner of the business is a friend.

Fortunately, my own business soon returned to life, and within five weeks I went back to work for myself full-time.

But first, I thanked the owner for hiring me, and then I thanked Lady Luck that I don’t have to live week to week like my co-workers did.

Mark O’Brien is a writer in Pensacola, where he has lived since 1978. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

If you think Congress is tough, try serving on a condo board

It’s political season and candidates are telling us about their valuable education and experience in the military, business and government, all reasons we should make them our leaders.

But I want someone who was part of a homeowners association.

Not one of those suburban homeowner associations where they gather once a year to sip wine and congratulate each other on having above-average children and the same political philosophies.

No, I want someone who has been in the trenches, doing battle in a condo association where people with competing values duke it out on a regular basis.

“Raise the monthly fee; invest in the building!” “Cut fees, cut costs!” “Let dogs live here!” “Ban animals!” “No children, no noise after 8 p.m. No satellite antennas!” “Live and let live!” “We should recycle.” “This ain’t Woodstock. Go back where you came from!”

Yes, I’m talking about someone who has endured the condo wars of Florida, great training for honing political skills because the nice little old lady in Unit 955 actually is meaner and sneakier than your average terrorist. Also, that polite young man in Unit 1142 apparently is selling heroin and meth, to judge from the quality of people visiting him at 3 a.m.

Serving on a homeowner association board is tough duty. A congressman can hide behind his aides, but life isn’t so sheltered for the person who is elected or chosen to set rules and establish finances for buildings full of people.

Get a tough skin or get used to sneaking out of your condo at odd hours to escape the neighbors — constituents — who want to complain about a visitor parking his car in the wrong spot or the tattooed woman who doesn’t make eye contact in the hallway.

Then you have the people who won’t clean up after their dog or who insist they should be able to bring glass to the pool or keep the sauna party going until all hours.

A Senate filibuster by Ted Cruz is nothing compared to the monologues of angry residents at condo board meetings, and there are no special interest groups to line your pockets at feel-good cocktail parties.

Make a wrong vote at a condo board meeting and you won’t just be voted out of office. You may have to move elsewhere to escape critics with long memories.

Get a few years experience resolving issues like these and then you will be ready to whip Congress into shape.

Mark O’Brien is a writer in Pensacola. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Old movie has great lessons for modern dads

My father seldom took my brothers and me to movies.

A child of the Depression, my father hated spending money on entertainment. A schoolteacher, he preferred to spend his free time outdoors working on the house and his wooden sailboat – and that’s what he thought children should do, too.

But he did take us to one movie that, 50-plus years later, still teaches us what a good man and a good father should be.

That’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the film set in 1932 in a town that looked much like Monroeville, Ala., where the book’s author, Harper Lee, was raised.

I watched it again the other day and was reminded of the greatness of a quiet man, Atticus Finch, who tended to his children and his business, knowing when to pick his fights and when to stand up for his family and do what was right even when it wasn’t popular.

It’s a good movie to see if you’re a guy who wants to brush up on Dad 101 and get some good parenting tips.

When a cranky old lady snarled at his children, Finch, played by Gregory Peck, didn’t snap back. Instead, he showed empathy and chatted up the woman, complimenting her on her fine garden.

He told his children, Scout and Jem, to stop spying on reclusive neighbors, the Radleys, and let them live in peace. And even though it was the Depression and he was poor, Finch, a lawyer, was quick to remind his kids that farmers had it much tougher than town folks like them.


Finch, a widower, could have shipped his children off to relatives, as was the custom for many widowers in those days. Instead, he came home to have lunch with them every day and he read stories to them at night. And he didn’t get worked up about typical children’s stunts like Jem’s refusal to come down from a tree unless his father agreed to play football for a church team.

At the same time, he killed a menacing rabid dog with a single shot; his kids were amazed to hear another man say their father was the best shot in the county. And he took a controversial case, defending a black man accused of raping a white woman. He even stood guard single-handedly outside the jail to protect his client from a would-be lynch mob.

Finch’s character is an excellent role model for fathers young and old, especially in this era when so many people say parents abdicate their responsibilities and fail to raise their children properly.

Most men don’t set out to be lousy fathers. Maybe some of them had poor models when they were kids – absentee fathers, drunken dads, potheads, workaholics or worse.

It’s hard to be a good father – not as hard as it is to be a good mother, perhaps, but still it’s hard. There are careers and divorces, troublesome in-laws, unrealistic expectations, and all sorts of temptations, such as the mistake of trying to keep up with the Joneses in a materialistic community.

But good dads don’t have to be lawyers with a dead eye for shooting rabid dogs.

They just have to stick around, spend time with their children and try to set good examples.

Doing these jobs doesn’t make just the children better. They make the man better, too.

August 2014 Splash! 

Same names play old games

In sports, the numbers tell us each day how an athlete is doing. The hitter’s batting average, the quarterback’s passing percentage, these numbers tell us in black and white whether a player is up or down.

It’s similar in show business and its cousin, politics; there are Nielsen rating services and political polls.

But we also can tell from our own observations.

Talk-show host Jon Stewart isn’t as funny as he used to be. See how he curses more on air, as if shouting the F word on Comedy Central makes up for the fact that he’s running low on jokes. (Maybe his best writers went to work for Stephen Colbert or Jon Oliver.) Stewart’s cuss words are filler, just as Bill Cosby’s once-wonderful TV show ran low on humor in later years and injected longer and longer scenes of Dr. Huxtable dancing with his wife, Claire.

Now we have the downward trend of veteran politicians Hillary Clinton and Charlie Crist. To use sports analogies, they’re making unforced errors, they’ve lost a step, they don’t have their eyes on the ball.

Here’s Crist, who wants to be governor of Florida again, this time as a Democrat. First he’s going to Cuba. Then he’s not going to Cuba.

Why is he even thinking about Cuba? Cubans vote only for politicians named Castro. It’s crucial to their quality of life.

Crist should be traveling the Sunshine State every day, using his trademark charm to win over every individual he meets. Instead, he’s ducking a debate with a legitimate rival. Nan Rich lacks his money and his name recognition, but she’s been a Democrat much longer than Crist.

He’s not convincing us with his claim that he must gird himself for the November election against Gov. Rick Scott, who has blanketed Florida with anti-Crist commercials.

Even pro baseball players have spring training before they make plans for the World Series. Let Crist consider a debate with Rich as his version of spring training, and hope he can still outperform the challenger.

Then we have the Clintons. Hillary says she was “broke” after husband Bill stepped down as president, but her version of “broke” doesn’t compute with average folks. The last several ex-presidents have had many opportunities to cash in if they want, so Hillary really didn’t have to worry about making ends meet.

The Clinton cash-grab apparently is hereditary. Daughter Chelsea Clinton is pulling in as much as $75,000 per speech at the ripe old age of 34.

Also, NBC News paid Chelsea Clinton a reported $600,000 a year to be a “special correspondent.” So the Clintons do draw the big bucks. Hmmm, perhaps she’s working on a special report on Benghazi.

Voters might not care about these matters by the time elections roll around — November perhaps for Crist; 2016 for Hillary — but neither Hillary nor Charlie is making people eager to vote for them. It’s the same old same old that we have come to expect from Crist and Clinton.

To borrow another sports saying, “Throw the bums out.”

Mark O’Brien is a writer in Pensacola, where he has lived since 1978. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

America’s sad new motto: Yes, we can’t

Driving across Alabama the other day, I heard a political candidate on the car radio proudly declaring that, if elected, he will oppose Obamacare.

Really, Alabama?

You’re a state that’s above average in only two ways – college football and payments from Uncle Sam.

Alabama is No. 11 when it comes to total federal spending on the 50 states — salaries, contracts, Social Security, Medicare and numerous other direct payments to individuals and institutions, according to a 2012 report by al.com, the state’s largest news site.

Alabama averaged $11,819 per capita, well above the national average of $10,459. “The federal government sent almost $56.5 billion to the state, which was about evenly divided among four broad categories: defense, healthcare, Social Security and all other agencies combined,” al.com said.

Alabama is consistent in one way — getting money from the federal government that so many of its citizens denounce.

“Ten years ago, the spending in Alabama was about $29.2 billion, or about $6,570 per person. Back then the national average was $5,739 per capita,” al. com reported.

Of course, this isn’t just an Alabama thang.

Much of the nation is caught up in convulsions about the Affordable Health Care Act and other programs that offer help to anyone deemed undesirable, morally bankrupt or not part of the chosen groups that get their subsidies the old-fashioned way — through exemptions, loopholes and lobbying in Washington.

We see it in Florida where Gov. Rick Scott and others spurn Medicaid millions that would not only help sick people but also support jobs to people who work in health care.

We used to be a nation that bragged about our plans to put a man on the moon, and we did it! We tamed diseases, improved the quality of life significantly and made numerous great strides forward.

But now the country is caught up in its petty little warfare on matters big and small.

Fast-food operators say they will close their restaurants in military bases if President Obama goes ahead with his call for a minimum wage of $10.10 per hour for people doing business on government property. I suspect the generals and the military contractors and just about everyone else working on a military base already is making much more than $10.10 an hour, so it wouldn’t pain them too much to pay an extra nickel for their Whopper and fries.

We always seem to be finding a way to say something can’t be done – health care, education, environment, gay people in the military. Some sociologists say that our spirit of togetherness waned after World War II, suburbanization, the decline of churches and other social changes in the past 50 years.

Now it’s every, man, woman and child for himself, and instead of America pulling together, it’s American pulling apart.

Mark O’Brien is a writer in Pensacola. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

In Florida summer it’s all about ‘meh’

A great little three-letter word sums up most of my feelings these days.

It’s “meh,” a word made famous by “The Simpsons” to describe indifference, apathy, the I-don’t-give-a-hoot feeling that often descends on us as we are blanketed by Florida’s summer heat and just yearn to cuddle up to a frosty air-conditioner and sip a frosty drink.

If it’s meh, it elicits neither a frown nor a smile, just a shrug of the shoulders. No empathy, no antipathy, just a “meh.” Among the many things that now leave me feeling meh, ho-hum, whatever these days:

•Marco Rubio. I want to care about a bright, young son of refugees who has energy and ideas, but Rubio’s flip-flopping and lack of knowledge make me yearn for Charlie Crist, the original Gumby of Florida politics. When I see Rubio, I think of those signs that say, “You must be this tall to ride this ride.” He needs a sign to encourage him to raise his stature before he tries the merry-go-round of big-league politics.

•Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election campaign. My mind is made up and no amount of advertising will change it.

•The gas mileage you get on your SUV. If you cared less about status, you would drive a van, almost always roomier, less expensive and more fuel-efficient than an SUV.

•Airline travel. Yes, it’s complicated, expensive and unpleasant. That’s life. Move along, and please don’t rhapsodize about “the good old days of air travel” in the 1960s — when the food was the equivalent of a TV dinner, the flight attendants had to be female, young and thin, and Uncle Sam subsidized routes,

•Haters. Either side. There’s a lot of gray in the world, boys and girls and talk show hosts. Grow up and look at the other side before you spew venom.

•Your zucchini crop this year. Zucchini is the kudzu of fruits and vegetables, the spam of gardening, the filler of summer dinners. When you force some on me, I will smile and quietly feed it to the dog.

•Realty television. There are so many “reality” TV shows now that their formulas and their facades are showing. However, I do check an occasional “Real Housewives of… ” and instantly appreciate my wife more.

•The personal lives of Alec Baldwin, Justin Bieber, Kim and Kanye, and a whole host of other celebrities who will never darken the door at my house.

•The travails of the 2014 Boston Red Sox.  My team is so bad this year that they’re lagging below the .500 mark, but that’s OK.

The Sox won the World Series in 2013, the third time since 2004. That’s three more championships than my father and grandfather saw in their lifetimes as Red Sox fans. Let the little people in New York or or Tampa Bay win one for a change.

Until the heat lets up, just color me blah, agnostic, meh.


Mark O’Brien is a writer who has lived In Pensacola since 1978.

Florida: Give us your tired, your poor, your service workers

Small communities have always faced “brain drain,” as many of their most educated young people leave for big cities, bright lights and the promise of bigger paychecks.

But the shift could be getting more extreme. A new study indicates that highly educated and skilled people are focusing on a relatively few large cities while people who lack education are drawn to communities heavily dependent on tourism and the service industry.

In Florida’s case, this means that Miami’s base of educated people is growing while those with only a high school degree or not even that credential are bound for Tampa, Fort Myers, Sarasota and Daytona Beach.

These findings come from Richard Florida, head of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto. His research team found that Miami’s population, for example, saw its rank of educated people grow and less educated residents shrink.

“Lower-paid workers are being priced out, and the jobs than can attract new residents are reserved for the most educated,” he wrote on citylab.com — incidentally, a great site if you want to see snapshots of what’s happening in cities around the world. “These very different migration patterns reinforce the ongoing economic and social bifurcation of the United States.”

His research on this topic is limited to only one year, so it’s far from omniscient, but Florida says his data “effectively track the current net flow of people — that is, the ability of metros to both attract and retain American workers.”

Florida’s study includes a look at people with professional and graduate degrees, those with potential for the most growth. “There have been significant net inflows of educated people to the true meccas of knowledge work: Seattle, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Denver, San Jose, Austin and Portland, as well as the banking hub of Charlotte.”

Did you notice that no city in the Sunshine State made this list?

Floridians have another problem: We may be working again, but many of us aren’t making the money we once did.

Independent economist Elliot Eisenberg notes that the total number of working Americans recently began to exceed the number of workers before the recession began, but “the quality of the new jobs is not great.

“While food service, social assistance and home healthcare have seen the largest increases in employment — 3.1 million jobs collectively — high-paying sectors like manufacturing, construction and government are collectively employing 3.6 million fewer persons than before the start of the Great Recession,” he wrote.

Tourism still brings money and people to Florida, but those service jobs don’t pay the money and benefits once delivered by the construction and government jobs that have vanished.

Consider this one more reason why Florida doesn’t make the grade with bright young people.

Mark O’Brien is a writer in Pensacola. Column courtesy of Context Florida. June 23, 2014

Standard parental warnings apply to GM, Obama and the Blue Angels, too

Frustrated parents often ask their misbehaving children this question, “When are you going to learn your lesson?”

It’s the lesson that philosopher George Santayana phrased so eloquently, “People who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Let’s start with General Motors, where apparently no one ever learned the lessons of Watergate, which include the adage, “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up,” which dooms you to public contempt.

GM executives knew about a fatal problem with an ignition switch on the Cobalt. But instead of correcting it, they kicked the problem around various echelons of the manufacturing giant without addressing it in public and perhaps averting some of the deaths.

Then we have Barack Obama, who seems to have taken his eye off the ball for his second term. Amidst much manufactured fanfare, Obama traded five terrorists in Guantanamo for Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier who left his post as a sentry in Afghanistan.

I have no problem rescuing Bergdahl. He’s one of ours, even if he proves to be damaged goods; we Americans try to never leave one of our own behind enemy lines. And remember President Ronald Reagan trading arms to Iran for hostages 30 years ago? Ransom deals seldom are pretty. I’ll let the military and others sort fact from fiction and then make a judgment about Bergdahl. I also will wait to see what, if anything, the freed terrorists do in the future.

Still, Obama had no sensible reason to hype the situation. Doesn’t he remember the irony of the “Mission Accomplished” banner in the background when President George W. Bush erroneously claimed an end to fighting in Iraq?

Closer to my home, Pensacola, a former head of the fabled Blue Angels was reprimanded recently for promoting an unprofessional atmosphere full of sexual innuendo in the Navy’s flight demonstration team.

Has no one heard of Tailhook, the scandalous 1991 Las Vegas gathering of Navy and Marine aviators, when dozens of women were pawed, leading to the end of many offenders’ military careers?

Apparently not Capt. Greg McWherter — until recently the president of the Tailhook Association, no less. McWherter let Blue Angel pilots keep pornography in their taxpayer-bought, $19-million aircraft and allowed a homophobic, lecherous atmosphere at work, investigators alleged.

These blunders — GM, hostages, Blue Angels — were perpetrated not by rash teenagers but by people in their 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond.

This brings to mind another saying that parents often shout at their children: “You’re old enough to know better!”

Mark O’Brien is a writer who lives in Pensacola. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Fun in ‘store’ for girl-less guys, guy-less girls

Just in time for summer, several new stores and services have opened to help residents and tourists alike enjoy Pensacola to the fullest. Check out these imaginative—and imaginary—offerings:

•”He’s got game” — This service helps men who are unable to meet women on their own. The agency lets men rent dogs, always a conversation starter with women. For a small upcharge, the dog can be equipped with a scarf, although no other clothing will be allowed. (Real men don’t make dogs wear stupid clothes.)

Or sign up for the deluxe plan and rent a cute toddler (toilet trained) who will call you “Uncle” Bill so the woman realizes you are single. Simply point to a woman and the trained toddler will smile winningly at her. Call ahead to reserve a child who already has had his nap for the day.

Get special maps for “target-rich environments” where you’re most likely to meet single women—dog parks, shoe stores, wine and ice cream sections in a grocery store near you, and much, much more.

•”Wedding Bell Blues”—Poor single ladies, June is the month for weddings, and all your single friends are walking down the aisle except you. We have a solution. Book a month-long tour anywhere in the world— anywhere but your friends’ weddings.

The out-of-town trip gives you a legitimate reason to skip the wedding season and all those inconsiderate biddies clucking their tongues and saying, “Don’t worry, honey, you’ll get a man someday.”

Bless their hearts, while they snicker at the brides maid’s ugly dress, you will be relaxing under a Cancun umbrella, sipping margaritas and writing snippy remarks on the Facebook wedding posts.

•”No, No, Noah”: This valuable business program will teach you how to succeed in local real estate and politics.


Learn key phrases like, “Flood of 2014? Never heard of it.”

“We don’t need no stinkin’ infrastructure, you liberal tree-hugger.”

“The retention ponds were built to state specifications, and we don’t care if the State of Florida is a wholly owned subsidiary of Cheap Construction R’ Us.”

Take this class and you will soon speak the lingo of the Tea Party and good ol’ boys everywhere.

• “Loud and Proud”: Here’s a store that sells bullhorns so you can vent at your fellow motorists who drive you crazy.

Put down your window, put the bullhorn to your lips, and roar: “Don’t throw that cigarette out the window!”

“Hey, use your directional signals!”

“Yo, a yellow light means slow!” Really want to get their attention? Buy the roof-mounted amplified system to point out the many driving flaws seen daily on the streets of Pensacola. Maybe you will even get the attention of cops who see this stuff and just look the other way.

Special: Armored plating and bulletproof windshields can be provided for your vehicle.

•”Old Man Drivel”: Tired of hearing cranky old codgers complaining about kids these days?

This firm will find examples of these very same guys being lazy, stupid and moronic when they were young. It will equip you with all the facts you need to remind the ROMEOS (Retired Old Men Eating Out) that as young men they too weren’t exactly hard-working rocket scientists either.

The only difference is that they did dumb stuff before the Internet captured their capers forever. Simply give their buddies a couple beers and they will spill the dirt on their pals, and then you can remind Calvin Curmudgeon that he too did stupid stuff.


“Splash!” magazine, June 2014