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

Mark Cuban’s comments about hoodies is revealing

I’ve been wearing the clothes of a scary thug for 40 years and I didn’t even know it.

I’m talking about the hoodie, the low-cost hooded jacket that intimidates both neighborhood vigilante George Zimmerman and business tycoon Mark Cuban alike.

It all depends on where you get your fashion sense, I guess.

My first hoodie dates back to 1974, when I was making $130 a week in northern New Hampshire, where winter temperatures often hover around zero.

My car was a 1966 Chrysler convertible with a broken rear window, so you can imagine my delight when I found my first hooded sweatshirt at the local Army-Navy store. Finally I could protect my neck from frostbite when I drove the leaky Chrysler. Indeed, hoodies are standard apparel for construction workers and other folks who spend a lot of time outdoors in Northern winters.

Since 1978 I have been living in balmy Florida, but I always keep a couple of lightweight hoodies handy. In Florida a bald guy needs all the protection he can get from UV rays. And even in Pensacola the winter temperature occasionally dips into the 20s.

So I was stunned when Zimmerman said that one reason he became suspicious of Trayvon Martin is that the black teenager was wearing a hoodie as he walked through Zimmerman’s neighborhood.

I know only one scary person who wears a hoodie, and that’s a white guy — the evil football genius Bill Belichick, coach of my beloved New England Patriots.

I dismissed Zimmerman’s hoodie phobia as some wacky hang-up until Cuban recently announced that he would cross the street if he were approached by a black youth wearing a hoodie.

Let’s get real: Is it the hoodie, or is it the color of the person’s skin?

To be fair, Cuban also said he would cross the street if he was approached by a “white guy, bald head, tattoos everywhere,” he told Inc. magazine last week.

Fortunately for me, a certified bald white guy, my only tattoos are on my arms – hidden by my hoodie, perhaps – so presumably Mr. Cuban would be willing to share the same sidewalk with me.

It’s tempting to dwell on the irony that Cuban, the multimillionaire proprietor of the Dallas Mavericks, is such a sissy when it comes to hoodies and tattoos – especially since some of his employees may favor tattoos and hoodies. For a guy who noisily struts around courtside at games in a snug T-shirt, Cuban suddenly doesn’t look so manly.

But let’s give Cuban credit for trying to have a dialogue about how many people are full of fear often caused by stereotypes and fear.

He’s on especially perilous turf; Americans’ discussions about race are mined with all sorts of gotchas, and Cuban, as a highly visible person, is brave to address the subject. Many American business leaders have done just the opposite, preferring to hunker down and let the conversation be steered by extremists.

The rest of the nation should join the conversation that Cuban has generated; it’s long overdue. Just one last suggestion: Yes, clothes make the man, but a hoodie shouldn’t make the man so scared he crosses the street.

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

There’s a nursing home in your future

There are no fancy brochures for this nursing home, no limousines to ferry the residents to malls and concerts, no menus offering an array of choices.

It’s not a bad nursing home. It’s old but it’s clean, and the halls are full of staffers who mostly seem cheerful and helpful and attentive even though the patients are low-income folks with all sorts of problems. The residents have plenty of activities in the nursing home cafeteria and they usually can get a ride to Wal-Mart or the bingo game and sometimes even to the casinos in Biloxi, Miss.

In this nursing home, there are no single-bed separate rooms, no private nurses.

There are two, three, sometimes four patients to a room. That means two, three or four televisions making noise; two, three or four sets of smells and sounds; and two, three or four minds facing – or ignoring — the approach of death.

This is how it might be if you’re unable or unwilling to save enough money during your working days to afford a better sunset.

It’s a bit like Robert Frost’s description of home in The Death of The Hired Man, which teaches a lot about the value of kindness:

“Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

Sharing a room at this nursing home is like a lottery. Maybe your roommate and you get along well, or maybe he sleeps all day, making strange, guttural noises. Or maybe he tells the same stories again and again. Or maybe your roommate is much younger, but he has a closed-head injury and can’t speak and there was no other place to put him.

Some residents get frequent visits from friends and relatives. Others, not so much.

That’s a reminder about the need to make lasting friendships and family relationships. Ask yourself, “Would this guy visit me in a nursing home? And how often? Would it be once a year to salve his conscience or often enough to take me for a ride and a meal that’s something besides nursing home food?”

I visit some people in this nursing home every week. Some might live for years, others for only a few weeks or months.

Every visit reminds me of the days when I and so many Baby Boomers scoffed at visions of nursing homes when we were younger. No, we assured ourselves, we’ll die of something else long before we get too old to take care of ourselves. Besides, who wants to think about aging and death when we’re young and invincible?

But life has a way of not working out the way we thought.

And now a whole generation of Baby Boomers is edging toward a slope of nursing homes, extended care, assisted living facilities and all the other diminishment that comes with getting old and sick.


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