Archive for October, 2012

This layoff leads to fine new life

Big-time executives get golden parachutes when they’re pushed from their offices. Large amounts of money help them land sure-footed on the rocky terrain of the current economy.
I was a newspaper columnist, so my parachute wasn’t gold or even silver. It was more a mix of two shades of beige, kind of wrinkled and mildewed, with some little pinholes covered by old, faded duct tape.
Still, that was just fine by me. I was ready for a major change in my career, and I was even more ready for the free life that came, sort of, with my layoff.
I got 23 weeks pay because I had worked 23 years for the Pensacola News Journal. I had completed just a tad over 23 years of service when Gannett, the company’s owner, cut me and 700 other employees loose on June 21, 2011 — not because we were poor workers nor because the company was losing money. On the contrary, the company was making money, just not enough, so Gannett decided to shed 2 percent of its employees and boost the bottom line that way.
Again, no beef from me. I’m a capitalist; I learned long ago that he who has the gold rules. And spare me the crocodile tears about the death of the old family newspaper. Too many family newspapers were narrow-minded little fiefdoms that served only the owners well.
Oddly enough, I was eager to escape the job I always dreamed of having — newspaper columnist free to comfort the afflicted and afflict the fat cats.
 I loved the job for years, but the final several months had been a death march. The news business is changing and better days may be ahead, but that’s far off. For now, it’s a regimen of frozen pensions, crummy buildings, inadequate technology and added workloads. Gannett stock was a shadow of its old self, and pay raises had been pretty much non-existent for three years.
The business of writing a column was still fun, but I was eager to try other things and to relax more, not trudge yet another day into a windowless cavern in a half-empty building where people worried constantly about their jobs.
If someone must be laid off, I was the man.
  My kids are grown, my wife is great, and my mortgage is small. And here’s an advantage to being 62: If nothing else panned out, I could always file for Social Security and enjoy a life of genteel poverty.
So when the publisher sent out an email at 11 a.m. announcing that some layoffs were about to be made, I thought this might be my day. At 11:10 a.m., I got another hint: The newsroom administrator called to say, “Mark, they want to see you in H.R.”
In 23 years as a low-maintenance employee, I had never been summoned to Human Resources.
Sure enough, after some formal chitchat and my decision to not take an $8,000 pay cut and a job as a reporter, I signed some papers, grabbed a few things from my desk and headed for the door.
It’s understandable but sad that the bosses insist you leave immediately rather than let you go around the newsroom and say goodbye. Maybe they thought I was going to fling some dangling participles and split infinitives at my co-workers.
In fact, I nearly danced out the door because I was so happy to be leaving. Sure, I liked almost everyone in the building and I had enjoyed my job for many years, but it was time to go, and I was eager to go, although as you will see that I had absolutely no idea where I was going.
   —
The first couple weeks were a blast. Readers and friends rallied ’round Facebook, denouncing the newspaper gods and praising me.
Some were stunned when I appeared on the local TV news, sitting in my easy chair at home and telling the reporter that I had no hard feelings.
On the contrary, I felt wonderful at having completed one career, taking a long vacation and starting a new career.
As I said, it was a great run, and maybe only in America: A Yankee from Boston comes to the South, finds his dream job and gets to verbally assault the good ol’ boys and other yahoos for 23 years. It was time to declare victory and withdraw from the nutty stuff.
      —
      In cold, hard Corporateland, when you’re cut, you’re cut.
   I was laid off on a Tuesday but naively assumed they would pay me through the rest of the week. No, not according to my final check. Tuesday was the last day, and not an extra day’s pay for me.
    Then I got a call from a man who very apologetically said, “I drew the short straw and I have to call you because you no longer have life insurance from your employer, and now I would like to see if you want to buy some life insurance from my company.”
   Say what?
   Yep, my life insurance had been eliminated, and the health insurance would go up nearly $300 a month.
   Still, I did get one break of a sort. When I eventually realized that the company was no longer paying into my 401(k), I decided to move it all into an IRA at my credit union. Just by luck, I did it a few days before the stock market took a big August splat.
         The down side is I was losing that 3 percent matching pay for the 401(k), but unemployment time is not a time for dwelling on the past. I had to think about the future.
 —
   Taking advice from other guys who had been laid off, I tried to maximize my free time by exercising, reading, doing volunteer work and crossing some items off my bucket list.
   Visiting Seattle, Nashville, Toronto and Cape Cod, becoming a grandfather, and other activities kept me busy and happy, yet amazed at how relaxed I was compared to my old self. Small stuff didn’t bug me any more, and I tuned out most of the big stuff, like the Tea Party’s blindly righteous effort to take down the economy.
       For the first time in years, I goofed off for hours at a time, laughing more than ever, and looking into all sorts of things I had always been too busy to pursue — cigar-smoking, cheap detective novels, ESPN sports shows. I did, however, worry that I had gone too far when I realized that I had seen all the “Storage War” episodes and wanted still more episodes about Barry, Brandi and the gang.
   The one sour note came from guys who, unsolicited, asked me for my phone number and said they wanted to call me. They weren’t close friends of mine, nor were they in businesses I wanted to enter, but I was flattered that they reached out to me when I happened to see them at restaurants or clubs. Except they never called, making me feel like a girl at a bar, besieged by guys full of promises to call.
   No harm, no foul, but a lesson learned: Don’t say it unless you mean it. And now I know several guys who are proven BSers.
    —
    I made a point of looking crisp and clean when I went to restaurants or offices or any gathering where I might run across a lead for a job. I kept the hair short and I shaved daily; gray can add a lot of years to your appearance.
   Still, casual clothing is one of the perks of being unemployed — long pants and socks in summer should warrant an extra $5,000 a month. I learned to make as many appointments and business opportunities on one day, so I could have other days free to enjoy myself in shorts and a T-shirt.
         —-
   In time, I made progress on the job front, winning a spot on the on-call list for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Reserve. This unit gets called to disaster scenes; my assignment would be to help with the news media and public information activities. It sounds like interesting, worthwhile work, with two big downsides: You never know when or if FEMA will call, and you’re gone from home for 30 days at a time.
            I had been doing the Internet searches, crafting modern-looking resumes and paying attention to SEO and other high-tech stuff, but I always felt personal contacts would pay off. And that’s what happened — a friend told me about FEMA and gave me the address of a person to contact.
    I had two other long-term projects in the works, things I’d been planning even before I was laid off, so the extra time was a blessing. One, obriensopinions.com, would be a web site full of new columns about Pensacola, blog posts on politics, and my take on books, movies, music and other stuff. The other, markobrienwritingservices.com, will promote me to people who want a writer or ghostwriter for anything from blogs to books.
      While FEMA and the web site ideas didn’t pan out January — ultimately, I got better offers — they gave me peace of mind, assurances that I could make a living.
   Here’s a tip if you ever get unemployed: They usually withhold only about 10 percent of your payment for income taxes, which means you may feel flush at first, only to face painful consequences on April 15. Be smart and put aside a chunk each week to cover the rest of the taxes that inevitably will come due.
           —
            I get a kick out of these people who snuffle and say, “Anyone can get a job if they look hard enough.”
   Yeah, maybe, but try living on it. The help-wanted ads tend to extremes — the National Guard wants a surgeon here and an infantryman there, while private industry wants sales people to work on commission only or it offers peanuts for pay and don’t even dare to ask for benefits. Just as housing prices have plunged, so have wages for many people. Option C: Some skills are very much in demand, but few people have the training or the ability needed to get it — nurse, computer whiz, refrigeration technician.
   I feel bad for the sincere people I see looking for jobs at the unemployment office. They hunker over computers, sending resumes off into never-never land and trying to master the search engine optimization language that might get their resumes read by a human being actually interested in hiring them. Truck drivers wonder if they should be on linkedin.com; middle-aged women hope for the security of a bank teller job at $9 an hour.
   Even then, not all will be well with the world unless you develop new skills and downsize your hopes for the future. An exec at the unemployment office quotes chilling statistics: Your next job will pay two-thirds of what you were making and may require long commutes, maybe even relocation.
      I go back to what I said at the beginning. I was lucky.
I got my last pay check from Gannet on Dec. 3, a Friday, and started work the following Monday as a freelancer. I had a couple contacts waiting and I looked for more.
I ghostwrote three books — two for a businessman who wanted to be an author, one for an old-timer whose stories were great but whose children kiboshed the idea of publication because he named names and they feared they would be defending libel suits long after he dies.
I wrote for several advertising agencies — four chapters of a book about the University of South Alabama’s history, website content, magazine articles for their clients.
Over time I did so much work for one agency — Ideaworks, a great firm — that I was asked to work there three days a week. This is a lot of fun, and a good source of steady income. That’s Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday each week. On Monday and Friday, I write for other people — newspaper columns, website content, whatever comes up. And, if nothing comes up, I’m able to kick back and enjoy an extra day off.
For me, a layoff was a wonderful thing, but I am very grateful because I know I am a rare exception.

No excuses, write that book now

Many people are forever saying, “I could write a book about …” but they never do.

It’s really not hard, especially in this age when you can have it printed very cheaply and distributed for whatever you wish — marketing purposes, family memories or just plain ego.

I’ve helped others write, edit and publish books, and I may be able to help you with yours, but here’s a primer on how to do it yourself with a minimum of stress and a maximum of enjoyment.

www.copyblogger.com/ebook-in-30-day/

No remorse over vote for McGovern

We all remember our first crush, our first kiss, our first car.

How about your first vote for president of the United States?
It was a big deal for me, a memory that comes back now with news that George McGovern died Sunday.
Despite my enthusiastic vote for him, McGovern didn’t win. In fact, he was blown out of the water by Richard M. Nixon. But I’m still happy with my vote for McGovern, who was a standup guy not afraid to take on the powers-that-be with his early and well-spoken opposition to the war in Vietnam.
Critics liked to describe McGovern as a pointy-headed intellectual because he was a history professor and a traditional liberal when Democrats were proud to be called liberal.
But long before he became a professor, McGovern was in World War II, a kid piloting a B-24 on 35 combat missions over Nazi-controlled France. Unlike Jabber-Jaws John Kerry, he didn’t brag about his military service; he just did it.
McGovern’s military service and his history expertise gave him strong credentials for critics of a war that seemed to make no sense. Although truth be told, some of us would have taken anyone over Nixon, the personification of evil to many college-age people in 1972.
I was one of those angry college kids in Boston then, when the country was split by protests and counter-protests which denounced war opponents as traitors and worse.
People think of Massachusetts as all liberal all the time, but in 1972 it had many people angry and perplexed by the protests over war — a first for the post World-War II country. Yet the body bags kept rolling across the TV screens on the nightly news and young people kept marching off to war unless they had connections or the money and smarts to go to college.
This war lacked the rightness of the two world wars we all knew about, and the draft meant military service for many teen-agers and young adults who saw no need for fighting people in faraway Asia. Other Americans, however, believed in “my country right or wrong,” or just wanted to trust the president, whoever he was. In those days, maybe people trusted government more.
While McGovern, a U.S. Senator from South Dakota, spoke against the war as early as 1963, he picked up momentum a few years later as the war went on and the numbers of KIAs (killed in action) kept rising.
It wasn’t just McGovern’s courage in speaking against a war when more powerful establishment Democrats like Hubert Humphrey dithered. McGovern also spoke for civil rights for minorities and for better treatment of women, two other groups which wouldn’t be where they are today if not for liberals.
Nixon was a huge favorite in the race even though he seemed to exude trickery with every pore. And McGovern bumbled  early and often. Unable to find a big-name running mate, he chose Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri without checking his background. Sound like John McCain and Sarah Palin?
It soon came out that Eagleton had been treated for depression, one of those illnesses not mentioned in polite society in  the 1970s. At first, McGovern said he was “1,000 percent” behind Eagleton, but those ill-chosen words bit him in the backside and Eagleton stepped aside amidst the controversy.
Still, McGovern soldiered on, a man of conscience earning credit for trying. He took a tremendous licking, winning only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia as Nixon took the race 61 percent to 37 percent.
Less than two years later, people realized, “Hey, maybe McGovern would have been better.”
That’s because Nixon was fleeing the White House, his sleazy win-at-all-costs attitude exposed with the Pentagon Papers, the Watergate coverup and so many more scandals.
It was too late for the country, but people in Boston had a bumper sticker for the ages: “Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts.”

Some super-rich are super whiners

I have no beef with the super-rich. Some of my best friends are super-rich, but they’re not like the whiners I write about in this column in today’s floridavoices.com

www.floridavoices.com/columns/mark-obrien/super-rich-should-put-sock-it

October O’pinions mostly sunny and bright

Here’s a column I wrote for the October issue of Splash!, a publication of the Gulf Breeze News

Now we’re in October, one of the most glorious months on the Gulf Coast.

It’s a time when breezes keep the house temperature just right and the Gulf Power meter stops drilling into your disposable income.

It’s a time of football, the World Series and the Pensacola Interstate Fair, which offers peoplewatching more fascinating than any reality TV show.

It’s a time to put the TV on mute whenever you see a politician, Mariah Carey or a Kardashian darken the screen. Instead, enjoy the weather, the traffic-free beaches and the new Halloween candy. Soon enough, darkness will come at 5 p.m. and Christmas will threaten to break your bank. For now, enjoy the 60-degree nights and 70-degree days and pray that Jim Cantore and hurricanes stay far, far away.

O’pinions, mostly sunny with some clouds:

Day brighteners Things I like: The way Pensacola Beach restaurants and clubs have grown to make it into such a popular destination day and night… Cordova Mall finally resurfacing its parking lot, which had more craters than the moon … Chances that University Mall will get new life and add some business to Davis Highway.

Talking politics blues With so many haters on both sides of the presidential campaign, it may be wise to vote early just to remove yourself from the venom and lies in the buildup to the Nov. 6 election. If you cast your vote, you can tell both sides to harass someone else and you can go on about your life, your civic duty completed … The incessant TV commercials are a reminder that Florida is a key swing state, but people in less pivotal states get flooded with far fewer political messages … Yes, Charlie Crist, you’re a likeable guy, now do something else besides try a political comeback by running for governor of Florida as a Democrat. Your time is over.

Just askin’

 

Why are there so many grumpy old men? Provided you’re not ill or broke, this is the best time in history for older men, with all sorts of medications to heal one’s hurts and lift one’s spirits… In many restaurants, stores and gyms, why doesn’t the music match the demographics of the customers? Maybe the employees are picking the music they want to hear rather than what’s good for business … If the parents of Romeo and Juliet had just kept their mouths shut and played along, wouldn’t those kids have broken up within six months and eventually married someone their families liked better?

Furthermore It’s always fun to see the reaction of people who moved away from Pensacola years ago, only to return and be amazed to see how much progress has been made downtown. We have a city as well as beaches, with more to offer tourists than our rivals in the hospitality industry … Now, let’s find something that works on the 18-acre site of the old Main Street Wastewater Treatment Plant … And don’t be afraid to try something daring and new. Remember how people predicted the end of the world when South Palafox Street was converted to two-way traffic, and yet the area functions better than ever. And they denounced recycling and were afraid to spend money to reduce pollution in Bayou Texar? Those projects have done well, too.

Debates not the only turn-off

 

Netflix, not presidential debates, will be on the screen at my house Wednesday night. I explain why in this column:

www.floridavoices.com/columns/mark-obrien/panhandle-watching-race-play-out