How my writing will help your business

You must tell the story of your business quickly, clearly and in an appealing way.

Many business people can do this verbally; after all, they know their business and feel a passion for it.

But many of these same folks don’t do so well when it comes to expressing their story in print, which is where most business is conducted in these days of the Internet.

Here’s where my 30-plus years of experience can help you, whether it’s making your website more appealing to potential customers, crafting an effective brochure or contacting people vie email and other media.

I will make it simple yet enticing by focusing on the value in your products and services.

I will tell the story of your business, and you will see results — in sales, in website visits and in your bottom line.

Let’s talk.

I’m markobrienusa@gmail.com, and I have 30-plus years in writing. For my clients, I have written everything from postcards to books to get their messages to the audiences they wanted to reach.

 

Kids keep us driving straight

 

The truck was traveling more slowly than the rest of traffic in the erratic way of a distracted motorist. “Proud of my Eagle Scout,” the truck’s bumper sticker said.

I passed the truck and saw a man eating a sandwich while he drove.

A few minutes later, I saw the truck again. This time the driver was talking on a phone in one hand while using the other hand to pick something from his mouth, perhaps the sandwich he had been eating.

“Hmmm,” I thought, “he’s proud of his Eagle Scout, but would his Eagle Scout be proud of him at this moment of bad driving and poor manners?”

That’s one of the things about children. The driver probably would have been much more attentive if the Eagle Scout had been in the truck. He’d have been conscious of the need to set a good example, all the better to inspire those parental lectures that we so easily dispense, even if they make us sound just like our parents sounded to us.

Children often make us better people.

They come home from school talking about the value of safety belts and good diet, the dangers of tobacco, and information on other sensible stuff, not to mention juicy gossip about the neighbors.

Smart parents heed their children’s warnings. Once you’re responsible for a child, you need to dial back the partying, work hard to provide a good home and just generally act more wisely than you did B.C. — Before Children.

It feels virtuous, all this good, clean living. You’re a hero, putting Bandaids on boo-boos, buying the newest toy and making the kids laugh with your silly jokes. When they’re little, you’re their hero because you can fix almost any problem — or change the subject when they ask you a tough question.

Eventually, however, you fall from the pedestal. The kids get older and realize you can’t solve every problem, sometimes you’re just flat wrong, and you duck tough questions by changing the subject or dispensing those aforementioned lectures. At that point, there’s no chance they will ever put a “Proud of My Parent” bumper sticker on any vehicle.

But you soldier on and things get better over time. Your kids grow up and realize you did the best you could, and the statute of limitations on old complaints hopefully falls by the wayside. Then they become parents and get a taste of Fatherhood and Motherhood 101, and maybe they appreciate what you endured. Vindication is nice, but here’s what you really enjoy: the grandchildren.

This is a chance to have real fun with kids. You tickle them and help them learn to walk. You take them to zoos and buy them treats and take them home jazzed on a sugar high, giddy and fatigued. When you babysit, you’re supposed to put them to bed at 8 p.m., but you let them stay up until 9:30 because you’re having so much fun.

But you still must set a good example, even if you’re more relaxed now that the mortgage and the career are in the rear-view mirror.

So you eat vegetables and get your exercise to stay healthy, you worry about the schools, you take every opportunity to see the grandkids while you can. After all, they’re human smile-dispensers with their questions, jokes and observations.

And you drive more attentively than the guy with the “Proud of My Eagle Scout” bumper stickers. Grandparents want to make the good times last.

Medicaid opposition is all wet

Eventually Floridians will look back at today’s politicians and say, “What were they thinking? What were they smoking?”

I’m talking about Florida’s refusal to accept millions of dollars in federal Medicaid money that would have improved life for thousands of people.

Forget about the way the Rabid Republicans spurned the money because Uncle Sam would eventually stop reimbursing the state at 100 percent and drop the reimbursements all the way to … 90 percent!

Forget about the access to health care and insurance for thousands of people, just so the Republicans could say “Nyah nyah” to Barack Obama.

Forget about the bitter irony of Floridians now paying for Medicaid for people in New York, New Jersey, Illinois and other states that took the money.

Forget about the lost job opportunities in a state where “Do you want fries with that?” is a question too many workers ask.

Just look at what it has done to the future of hospitals, which are like mini-cities with their need for infrastructure and technology.

The loss of the Medicaid money means hospitals must scrap ideas for improvements that would lead to lower costs, better service and long-term improvements.

It’s not just the latest whiz-bang medical device. Take a mundane example like laundry, for example.

It’s a significant factor at hospitals and other large health care institutions — an estimated 2 to 3 percent of a hospital’s budget.

Modern new laundries can reduce labor and water costs, reducing overhead, improving the environment, increasing sustainability and helping hospitals function more efficiently.

But hospitals may have to cancel or delay plans for major functional upgrades that would improve life for their patients, employees and owners. It’s similar to the refusal to maintain highways and schools, always pushing off long-range improvements just to make a short-term political point today.

No need to be sensible and make the best of a deal we question. It’s smarter politics today to thumb our noses at Obama and his health care program than to make the best of a situation we might not like.

This is because the Republicans have a better plan, right? It’s uh, what is the Republican plan for health care?

Put this example of blindness on the list of errors by fearful conservatives, who have been wrong on all the big issues of this era, opposing women’s rights, gay rights, minorities and pretty much anything else.

They can’t see beyond the end of their noses, which they’re biting off to spite their faces — and Florida’s future.

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

Hooker sting shows tricks to governing

A little controversy in my town shows how government is tugged in different directions.

Transpose it to your community and you can see the forces at odds in so many Florida cities as people disagree about what should be government priorities.

It was a fairly routine prostitution sting in Pensacola. An undercover police officer approaches an apparent streetwalker, they talk, she offers her services for a fee, and he arrests her. Or a woman is approached by a man who makes a proposition, only to learn that she’s wearing a badge and probably a tape recorder under her clothes. Busted!

Those arrested included nine alleged wannabe customers; the gossip quotient rose when the media published the names and mug shots and the town discovered that one of those arrested was a 72-year-old surgeon who has operated on half the residents.

Officers also arrested six people for soliciting for prostitution — five women and a man with long, wavy blond hair. (Warning: Don’t judge a hooker by his or her cover.)

This crackdown has been a periodic law-enforcement practice in Pensacola for more than 40 years, with mixed results. After a sting, illicit activity dwindles for a while, but then resumes, and the sheriff’s department makes another sting and catches more people, or the same people again. (Incidentally, despite our many churches, Pensacola is not a prudish place. Until the Navy cracked down for health reasons during World War II, brothels operated openly, old-timers say.)

Some critics say prostitution should be legalized, licensed and taxed. That’s a simplistic solution for a complex problem. Do we want to encourage this activity, as government has tempted people to gamble via state lotteries?

“Yes, honey, in America any little girl can work hard and grow up to be President, a physicist or a prostitute.”

Legalization wouldn’t be a cure-all, either. Some people will prefer the time-tested method of cruising dark streets and lurking on street corners because they will be unable or unwilling to follow the rules about licensing, health tests and taxes. The only difference is the legal prostitutes will be demanding the cops do more about their competitors, the illegal prostitutes.

The hooker sting also was criticized because it took a week to conduct. Critics said the cops’ time would have been better spent on more serious crime.

That may be true unless you live or work in the neighborhood where the prostitutes and their customers meet. Alcohol and drugs also are often involved.

Just because people live or work in a downtrodden area doesn’t mean they forfeit the right to a decent quality of life and stable property values.

So that’s the dilemma, not so easily solved. Government feels the heat either way.

It’s one more reason prostitution seems sure to forever hold its title as the world’s oldest profession.

Mark O’Brien is a writer in Pensacola. Column courtesy of Context Florida. Sept. 2, 2014

 

 

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.