I love the cure for this disease

The disease strikes suddenly. One minute you’re rolling along content with your life, and then you’re overwhelmed by a craving to be outside, enjoying fresh air, breezes, blue skies, far from work, chores, blahs.

The disease often strikes in April, one of the prettiest months on the Gulf Coast. Fortunately, there’s a cure for this spring fever, and it’s called going to the beach.

In my case, it’s Pensacola Beach, where troubles fall by the wayside, assuming the cops don’t catch me speeding over the bridge to the toll booth.

Hang a right and I’m bound for Fort Pickens, a great Exhibit A when my conservative buddies complain that government can’t do anything right. Yeah, sure, boys, we should have listened to all the Chamber of Commerce types who opposed the Gulf Islands National Seashore in the 1970s and wanted to develop more and more of Santa Rosa Island. Let’s tear down a sand dune and put up a parking lot.

It was at Fort Pickens that I got a lesson in how to experience life. I always enjoy the water and the dunes, but on a visit to Fort Pickens last year, a friend insisted I stop every 50 feet or so and look around. There was an amazing amount of life I had never noticed before—birds here, flowers there.

After a foray into nature at Fort Pickens, it’s time to switch gears and check out Pensacola Beach’s commercial core. It’s a mix of glitz and grit, upscale condos and hotels mingled with down-home bars, shops and restaurants. The up-and-down variety is nice; it gives a “People’s Republic of Pensacola Beach” feel to the island, which is indeed owned by the people.

I like most of the new condos and hotels. They make the beach accessible to more people and they add swag to the area, yet there aren’t so many tall buildings that they block a huge chunk of the view. The beach still has plenty of neighborhood feel, which you can get by rolling along streets like Panferio and Maldonado. They keep alive the aura of yesteryear, before hurricanes, flood insurance and high rollers changed much of the waterfront.

In the early 1980s, when my kids were little, we rented a cinder block cottage at 112 Ariola Drive for summer vacations. It cost $500 a week, about a week’s pay for me back then. This was your basic squat, two-bedroom, one-bath block house with a screened-in porch, but it was right smack-dab on the gulf, and it was heaven.

Then storms came along, the house was razed and the lot has been vacant for decades.

Now it’s time for the best ride in town: the trip from Pensacola Beach to Navarre Beach. The ideal vehicle is a motorcycle or a top-down convertible, but any car will do when you’re looking at the gulf and dunes on one side and rolling, sometimes spooky-looking terrain on the sound side.

Best of all, you get to turn around and do it all again, only in reverse.

I already feel better just thinking about it.

Published April 2014 Splash! magazine

Feeling green, gray, red, white and blue

It’s March, the time to prepare for warm weather on the Gulf Coast and to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, a lucrative holiday for bars, breweries, and lawyers who defend people arrested for DUI.

Somehow, I don’t think St. Patrick was thinking of babes in green bikinis when he converted the heathens of Ireland to Christianity, but commercialism is louder than Catholicism and now St. Paddy’s Day is a major money-maker for savvy marketers.

So let’s have fun March 17, but only after Monsignor Hunt celebrates Mass at Paddy O’Leary’s on Pensacola Beach, my starting point for the day, which also happens to be my birthday.

It’s a big one, too: Number 65.

That means I’m so old that I remember when motorcyclists were bad boys and people feared lean, long-haired bikers.

Today’s bikers tend to be pot-bellied geezers piloting electric-start machines loaded with saddle bags, windshields and other modern conveniences. They’re hardly the dare-devil Hell’s Angels of yore. They’re more likely to be retired accountants than tattooed guys with names like “Mongo” and “Killer.”

But that’s OK, except maybe to their children, who see Dad squandering their inheritance on a motorcycle he can barely straddle. Forty years from now, those kids will be senior citizens going through their own strange rites of aging, and it will be their turn to squander their children’s inheritance.

One of the joys of longevity is that you get to see things change, usually for the better: A kind, cheerful Pope. A president who is black. Downtown Pensacola once again alive and thriving.


Who knew? It’s all good stuff in my book.

It reminds me of my Uncle Jimmy, who snorted when the Beatles first arrived in America via “The Ed Sullivan Show” 50 years ago last month.

“That music will never last,” crewcut Uncle Jimmy declared. Uncle Jimmy taught me how to catch a fly ball, drop down a bunt and hit the cut-off man in baseball — stuff he knew well — but his ignorance of the Beatles’ appeal taught me something else: Don’t make sweeping pronouncements about things you don’t understand.

Uncle Jimmy is still with us, so I’ll raise a drink in his honor on St. Patrick’s Day.

And I will have a double toast for a Patrick who means more to me than St. Patrick.

That would be my grandfather, Patrick O’Brien, who came to this country as a young man because America was the land of opportunity and there was no way for him to make a living on the family’s two-acre farm near Galway, Ireland.

For years he sent money home to family in Ireland, just as so many immigrants in America do today.

But he never went back to Ireland, because America would be his home for the rest of his life. It’s a very fine home, too, where people can put poverty in the rear-view mirror and build better lives for themselves and their children.

So what if they get to be grandpas and decide they want to ride motorcycles?

Just as long as they have a designated driver to get them home safe and sound on St. Patrick’s Day.


This column appeared in the March 2014 issue of Splash!

Republicans can learn from the pope

The Republican Party needs a Pope Francis.

You know, an old white guy who is tolerant. Kind, not grumpy. Open to more than only people who have millions of dollars or an extra-large chip on their shoulder.

Notice that Pope Francis hasn’t changed any fundamental beliefs of the Catholic Church. He’s just made it more likable, more relevant, more involved with the world by urging Catholics to remember the core values of compassion, mercy and tenderness and to be less shrill when opposing homosexuality, abortion and contraception.

It’s about time.

Both the Republican Party and the Catholic Church took a harsh right turn about 40 years ago, ignoring the work that had made them great and demanding that everyone be just like them.

As a former altar boy who has been a lapsed Catholic since my first year of college, I’m not about to rejoin a church that treats women as second-class citizens and clings to the rule that priests must be celibate and male. And I hope Francis works harder to open the church’s eyes to the harm done by so many years of looking the other way while priests abused children.

But I am more likely to listen now when he speaks.

The pope walks the walk. His style is down to earth, and he is taking a page out of the Bible by ousting the Vatican’s inbred bureaucracy. Talk about kicking the money-changers out of the temple! If only politicians would do that with big-bucks lobbyists.

The Republicans seem bereft of likable, innovative leaders. (The Democrats are very weak, too. Harry Reid, Hillary Clinton and Maxine Waters all need to make way for new blood and new approaches.)

The Republicans have high-profile newcomers in the Senate, but they’re not leaders. They’re guys like Marco Rubio, who seems lost outside of Tallahassee. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are self-aggrandizing vote-mongers who never learned the lessons of Newt Gingrich and other kamikaze politicos. And while bully-boy Chris Christie may be secure as governor of New Jersey, he polls very poorly among women.

For decades the Republicans have been wrong on the big issues, opposing women, minorities, education, the environment and just about any positive change for America. They’ve excommunicated themselves from most independent voters.

Maybe the Republicans should lock themselves up somewhere and not emerge until they find someone who can lead them back to mainstream America.

Let us pray.

Mark O’Brien is a writer who lives in Pensacola.

(This column appeared on www.contextflorida.com on Feb. 18-19.)


Can’t pull the plug on this relationship

Our television set is old enough to vote.

It passed the 18-year mark a few months ago, this old, outdated but still-functioning TV bought in 1995. Even then it was far from the cream of the crop of TVs—just a 24-inch General Electric in Model T basic black— yet it has persevered through season after season of ESPN, HGTV, “American Idol” and far too many episodes of reality shows to admit.

It’s stock except for a DVR added last year to skip through some of the many mind-numbing commercials that blight television.

I know I should be happy with this faithful servant that brightens whenever I touch its buttons, and usually I am.

But I’m a man, and even the happiest of men sometimes is tempted to look elsewhere for some fun. I admit, I have occasionally strayed into Best Buy and H.H. Gregg and lusted after a fancier, prettier set than what I have at home. Today’s televisions have such big, clear, inviting pictures that a man could imagine stepping inside the screen and spitting with the boys from “Duck Dynasty,” cutting deals on “Shark Tank” or pacing the sidelines with the coaches at the Super Bowl.

Oh, those fancy new TVs reach out to a man like high-tech temptresses, flaunting their 55-inch, 64-inch, even 75-inch screens.

“Hey, big boy,” they seem to say, boasting of their LED 1080p–240HZ. Oh, and listen to the sound bar with wireless woofer; it’s calling my name. All this electronic sweet talk could make a modern fella woozy.

As if that’s not enough, the salesman starts touting the Jelly Bean operating system, the dual core processor and the 3.0MP rear-facing camera.


Sure, any man’s heart would race at such sights and sounds, but I’m an old-fashioned guy. I made a commitment to my television, until death do us part. I’m not trading in Old Faithful for some super-fancy television, even if most of my buddies are on their second or third trophy TV by now and maybe have even experimented with a home theater system.

So I’m sticking with this TV that has been tried and true, following me from “The Colbert Report” to “Big Bang Theory” to “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” and never once questioning my taste.

It’s not that I’m too cheap to buy a fancy new set, although I am.

As any married man knows, a couple can’t simply buy a television set. Think of the domino effect of any major home purchase.

The new TV would be too big and too modern for the current entertainment center, and then the new set-up would require new paint on the living-room walls and maybe carpeting, too. But the new colors wouldn’t blend well with the backsplash in the kitchen—installed just last year!— and the kitchen would have to be redone again. And if we’re going to all this trouble, let’s do the bedrooms over. By then we’ll be so broke the new TV will be repossessed.

So I’m staying with my little ol’ TV forever, or at least until it’s old enough to be of drinking age.

This is from the February 2014 issue of Splash!

Mark’s manual for modern men

Move along, ladies, nothing to see here. This column is for men only.

Attention, guys, a new year has arrived. Now is the time to change some of your tactics with the ladies, the fairer sex, your better half, your honey, sweet’ums, the old ball and chain, or whatever you call the beloved female in your life.

First, join her in watching so-called “chick flicks,” which aren’t half as painful if you know how to watch them. Chick flicks almost always feature several good-looking women; smile to yourself as you sit by your sweetheart and ogle other women, all in the line of husbandly/boyfriend duty.

Watching a movie with her also works well as a mood-enhancer, if you get my drift. Two hours holding hands at the theater often pays better results than dinner and a bouquet of roses, and costs much less.

Chick flicks also reveal how women think.

These clues can come in handy, especially when she mentions the c-word — “communicate.”

Don’t flinch when she says something womanly like, “Communication is the key.” Now that you have seen chick flicks, your manly memory will snap into gear and you can make an on-target yet generic response like, “Yes, it reminds me of the movie we saw last week.”

Then she will be off to the races with communication chatter and you can sink back into male torpor, wondering what’s on the next episode of “Duck Dynasty.”

• Another tip: There’s much wisdom in the saying, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

I saw just such an example the other day while meeting with some of my fellow philosophers at the cigar store.

One of our buddies mentioned, apropos of nothing, “I spend $10,000 a year on cigars.”

We were startled, but he was right: Three $10 cigars a day, 365 days a year.

We nodded silently, for men don’t comment on another man’s spending choices. Besides, we were busy calculating how much we spent on cigars and then praising ourselves for not spending $10,000 a year on cigars.

But then he really got our attention.

“I told my girlfriend I spend $10,000 a year on cigars and she got mad. She said I don’t spend $10,000 a year on her.”

“You what?” we roared in unison. “You don’t tell a woman stuff like that!”

A little secrecy — and separate bank accounts —  go a long way in oiling a relationship. Don’t ask her how much she spends on shoes; you don’t tell her what you spend on your  hobby.

• Technology is helping us improve in women’s eyes. They used to complain that we never would stop to ask for directions, but this problem has been solved by the global positioning system every man must have, right next to the smart phone that supplies sport scores 24/7. Problem solved.

Next: Let’s hope technology soon eliminates the constant debate about toilet seats, up or down?

• Face it, fellow man, you’re going to get old, so you want a woman who is a keeper. It seems like just yesterday when you were a kid trading baseball cards with your buddies. But soon enough you will be showing your buddies pictures of your grandkids.

Find a good woman for these days. And remember, until technology improves, you can be a hero and put down the toilet seat.

Published in Splash! January 2014

A hair-raising metaphor for progress

These days you hardly ever see a balding man trying to hide under a comb-over, and we should consider this to be progress.

It’s not on the scale of world peace, but still, it’s a step forward for society, certainly better than those hideous hair twists and turns so common among middle-aged men not so long ago. (And standard coiffure for Donald Trump even today.)

The vanishing comb-over is a reminder that the world is getting better in many ways.

It’s also a reminder that progress is incremental, a forward march that shouldn’t be overlooked even as the pessimists scream daily that all is wrong with the world today. Remember your individual forward steps and hope for more optimism, less fear.

Maybe you smoked cigarettes but finally quit years ago. Today, you suddenly remember, “Hey, I smoked for years,” and then you do the math and realize you saved several thousand dollars — and extended your life expectancy — by quitting. See, more progress.

Or you recall how you talked yourself into thinking that Herman Cain would be the ideal presidential candidate in 2012, taken as you were with his simplistic “9 9 9” chant of an economic policy.

Thank goodness that woman came forward with her claims of sexual harassment and Cain’s goofy campaign slid south faster than the fast food he used to sell. Wow, there’s a disaster averted.

Speaking of disasters, the comb-over was standard for many male Baby Boomers as they fought off any signs of resembling their elders.

Confession: I was one of those guys, thin strands of hair plastered across an increasingly wide space of pink head. I had to act like a sailboat and tack back and forth across the street to cope with wind that threatened to bare my chrome dome.

Eventually I admitted my baldness, gave up the comb-over and found myself actually feeling better about myself.

Life was so freeing without the crutch of a comb-over, just as ex-smokers find themselves liberated from the need to carry cigarettes, a lighter and a hangdog attitude with them wherever they go. And even conservatives must feel better that Cain’s ludicrous campaign bit the dust and they still have Barack Obama to kick around.

Maybe it’s too soon for Millennials to start going bald, but I hope they skip the comb-over.

Rather than repeat Baby Boomer mistakes and bad habits, let them find new ones — and new solutions.


Jan. 2, 2014 contextflorida.com




Libraries lend a hand up, as well as books, movies and job advice

Let’s give a shout out to some good news, but do it quietly lest a librarian shush us.

It’s refreshing in this anti-education, Tea Party era to see that so many people say that they support public libraries, those hotbeds of learning, entertainment and advancement.

A new study by Pew Research Foundation found plenty of support for libraries, with 63 percent of respondents saying that closing a library would have a “major impact” on a community. Maybe it’s because 54 percent of the respondents reported using a library in the past 12 months, underscoring a library’s value to people.

And people get more than books at a library. Many rely on their library for computer access — not everyone has a PC and high-speed Internet access at home. A library is extra-handy if you’re looking for a job and you lack a computer; there’s precious little advertising for help-wanted in newspapers anymore.

The library can also be a great resource for parents trying to keep their kids entertained at low cost and a handy place for senior citizens to spend some time picking out movies, large-print books and books on tape.

In my town, Pensacola, we have some of the most poorly funded libraries in the whole State of Florida. We also have terrible statistics for illiteracy, obesity, cigarette smoking and babies born at low birth weight. Odd how those things seem to run together.

And we’re full of cynics who say libraries aren’t needed. Let everyone get a computer, they say. Or go to Barnes & Noble, they say, as if everyone in the community has lots of folding money.

Actually, the cynics should visit a library, which may be one of the few public institutions to be integrated by age, race and income. Old guys read “The Drudge Report” on line while younger people e-mail job applications. Homeless people get out of the weather and can stay inside as long as they behave. Families spread out to a library’s various rooms, especially on school vacations, and search for videos and books.

The Pew Foundation survey found that the strongest pockets of support for libraries were among women, African-Americans, Hispanics, and white men with relatively little education or income.

This makes sense; they’re the people who use libraries the most.

But they’re hardly the only ones. When I was a kid, it was a library that showed me that a whole wide world existed outside my little Irish-Catholic neighborhood in Boston. The library’s books, way back in pre-Internet days, showed me about sports and history, civil rights and economics, foreign countries, literature and how to be an independent person.

I’ve been partial to libraries ever since.


(published www.contextflorida.com, Dec. 23, 2013)


Turtles get pre-dawn help against steep odds

I’ve seen full-grown sea turtles in the open water. They’re massive, 200–300 pounds. Their heads are man-sized, making you think from a distance that a person is swimming far from shore.

Sea turtles have been around for thousands of years, but I had no idea how badly the odds are stacked against them.

Until I met Limarie Rodriguez-Stevenson, who has been volunteering for 12 years to guard turtle nests on Pensacola Beach and to make sure the hatchlings get into the Gulf of Mexico. Even then, a baby turtle faces odds of up to 1,000–1 against reaching adulthood.

By day, Rodriguez-Stevenson is a veterinarian, caring for dogs, cats and other domestic creatures. She began turtle-tending because she wanted to be involved with a more exotic species as well. Her fervor is contagious; when she got married four years ago, her husband became a volunteer, too.

Nest sitters

On Pensacola Beach, the nesting season runs from May to October. Florida has five species of sea turtle, and three come here: The loggerhead—the most common sea turtle on Santa Rosa Island—got its name for its large head; it is occasionally joined by the green turtle and the Kemp’s ridley, the smallest and rarest of sea turtles.

During nesting season, the female turtle digs a hole maybe two feet deep, where she deposits dozens of eggs the size of Ping-Pong balls. Then she departs.

Volunteers cruise the beach at sunrise to find new nests. Then they “nest sit” to make sure the eggs aren’t disturbed.

“They hide where they put the eggs,” says Rodriguez-Stevenson.

“But they tend to nest a little too close to the water,” she says. “We have to move a lot of nests.”

After 60 days the eggs hatch, usually at night. As the 60th day approaches, volunteers literally put an ear to the ground to detect sounds from the nest.

“I cheat,” Rodriguez-Stevenson says, smiling. “I use my stethoscope. You can hear sand falling in the nest as the hatchlings scramble to the surface.”

The tumult of dozens of eggs hatching almost simultaneously causes the nest to collapse, sending the newborns scattering to the surface.

Then their next test takes place. On a good night, the newborns will head for the gulf. On shore, they’re vulnerable to predators.

“Ghost crabs are the worst. They’ll literally grab the hatchlings and drag them into a crab hole,” she says.

Light pollution

Baby turtles face a life-or-death decision as soon as they bustle out of the nest. They must get into the gulf to survive. But while they have great eyesight underwater, turtles have poor vision on land.

They’re drawn to the light. Ideally this means the moon over the gulf, but other times the turtles head for lights from homes, businesses and roads around Pensacola Beach, which dramatically increases their chances of dying.

The volunteers and bio-technicians often put the babies into coolers and move them to the gulf. The hatchlings are lumpy and squirmy and about as warm as the sand where they were born.

“They usually swim out until they find a patch of seaweed,” Rodriguez-Stevenson says.

Life at sea is perilous—predators, fishermen and storms. Males don’t return, but after decades at sea females somehow find their way back to their land of birth to hatch a new generation.

“They’re very interesting animals,” says Rodriguez-Stevenson.

Interesting enough for her to get up before sunrise twice a week to patrol beaches and to spend nights caring for tiny creatures with little chance of survival?

“We have to be good stewards,” she says. “We’re taking over their beaches.”

Next time I spot an adult sea turtle, I’ll appreciate it a lot more. And I’ll also appreciate the role of scientists, volunteers and luck in helping that turtle survive.

Visit the Footprints in the Sand Eco Trail to learn more about the efforts to protect sea turtles on Pensacola Beach. You’ll also find year-round conservation efforts to protect this amazing ecosystem.

Florida is Medicaid Santa for other states

It’s the proverbial cutting off your nose to spite your face: Florida Republicans reject more Medicaid money even as Florida taxpayers subsidize Medicaid in other states. That’ll learn ‘em.

My column:


Ghostwriting: It works for celebrities — and it can work for you

Here’s a good rundown on the history of ghostwriting and a reminder that it’s all around us.

Do you think Billy Graham writes those seven Pensacola News Journal columns a week himself? Did Sarah Palin spend much time laboring over the prose in her books? Michael Jordan — did he spend his time writing or golfing?

I can ghostwrite a book for you so you can establish yourself as an authority on a subject, or tell your side of a story, or express yourself on a variety of topics. I do a high-quality job capturing your voice and your experiences, and you are free to do other things while I dot the i’s and cross the t’s for you.