Archive for December, 2013

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:

contextflorida.com/mark-obrien-florida-is-a-medicaid-santa-for-other-states/

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.

 

 

 

People on welfare? We have states on welfare

Here’s one I wrote for contextflorida.com, a political website. It was posted Dec. 4.

contextflorida.com/mark-obrien-its-time-to-downsize-the-united-states/

I get a kick out of these periodic threats by states or regions to secede from the United States.

Sometimes they’re boastful efforts by the likes of Texas, which has a great business economy, low taxes and dismal results to show for it — horrible on education, health care and the environment, so bad it might qualify for foreign aid from the United States if it were a separate country.

Other times the threats are more tongue-in-cheek, like Northwest Florida wondering why it can’t separate from the rest of the state and its wacky ways.  Although we Pensacolians aren’t as sophisticated as Miami’s South Beach set, we don’t want to be lumped in with the high crime, chad-reading, early-bird-special image that the rest of Florida projects to the world.

But instead of letting states threaten to secede, let’s start reviewing states and deciding if they should be allowed to remain members of these United States.

After all, we’re getting kind of old to be such a sprawling republic, so maybe the U.S. of A. should do some downsizing and cut our overhead.

We already know that Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana are major drags on the nation’s bottom line, taking far more in federal aid than they deliver to Uncle Sam.

It’s not just in education, health care and other obvious ways, either. They’re even into us for huge subsidies for federal flood insurance. Mississippi got $5 in payments for flood damage for every $1 of premium its residents paid, according to a National Flood Insurance Program report on spending from 1978-2008. Louisiana got $3.33 for every $1 premium; Alabama pulled in $2.50.

That’s a sweet deal for states where people build on low-lying land, and then rebuild on the same site after it floods. Government shouldn’t mess with their property rights, they say. Government should just pay for their mistakes.

Floridians, incidentally, shelled out $3.60 for every $1 collected in flood claims, according to a Wharton Center study cited by Florida Tax Watch.

It’s not just Southern states that need to be kicked out of the union.

How about Iowa? What does that state do but hold us hostage to corn ethanol and huge subsidies which all presidential wannabes must endorse if they want to win Iowa’s early-bird primary voting? (Hey, Floridians, if fuel must include ethanol, we can make a much better case for sugar ethanol. Let’s move our presidential candidate-picking season ahead of Iowa and then we can cash in.)

Sure, I can hear critics denouncing me now. “You can’t kick a state out of the union just because it’s a poor cousin.” “It’s un-American to reject a state because it’s poor. We’re all in this together.”

But we’re already doing these things on an individual basis.

Right here in Florida, we’re reducing aid to low-income people and their children. And too many Floridians seem happy that we’re cutting food stamps and Medicaid, even if a large chunk of the recipients are too young, too old or too sick to get by, or they don’t make enough money at their low-paying jobs.

If a tough line is good enough for kids and the working poor, it’s good enough for states that don’t pull their weight.

 

O’pinions to make you mad, sad or glad

 

(Here’s a column I wrote for the December 2013 issue of Splash! magazine)

Santa Claus is busy preparing to deliver Christmas gifts, but he’s bringing nothing to the Republicans. They got all the ammunition they needed when President Barack Obama served up the Affordable Care Act, a great idea doomed by horrible execution.

 

Meanwhile, I’m dishing out O’pinions, and only some are bubbling with holiday good cheer.

Sorry, ladies, but the leopard skin look doesn’t get better as the fashion fad fades. Please burn all leopard skin attire as soon as possible. Something about leopard skin makes you look like cougars.

People in the service industries must be feeling more secure in their jobs. How else to explain a growing rash of incompetent and surly service, which seemed extinct just a few years ago when the economy tanked and we were grateful to have a job, any job?

About 25 percent of children in Florida live below the poverty line, yet many people are happy that we’re cutting back on food stamps and Medicaid funding.

Speaking of grinches, it’s refreshing to no longer have “Pensacola Speaks” on the air with its daily diatribes against any and all semblance of progress.

I recently kayaked in Santa Rosa Sound for two hours on a sunny Saturday and the amazing thing was not just the nature — birds, fish, blue skies — but the fact that hardly anyone else was on the water. Yet people elsewhere pay big bucks and travel many miles to enjoy what so many of us, me included, take for granted.

The median wage for workers at fast-food restaurants is less than $9 an hour. Do the math: How can people rent a house, buy insurance and live on that kind of pay? And dispense with the notion that only teens work at fast-food restaurants. Look at how many of those employees are your age or older and scraping to get by. You may be saving on the cost of French fries, but you’re paying extra taxes for Medicaid to subsidize the employers who offer little or no affordable health insurance.

I love how people revere “the good old days” when folks believed that a man could become gay if his mother babied him, that migraine headaches were caused by boredom, and that cigarettes were good for calming nerves. I’d like to be here in 50 years when people mock ideas we hold to be true today.

The business person I admire the most is not the richest or the smartest, but the one who decides who he will work for and who fires employers or customers who waste his time.

Miley Cyrus is laughing all the way to the bank, so let’s admit that twerking is working for her. Next time one of the young peeps does something stupid and tacky, just roll your eyes, Gramps, and stop grumbling. It only makes other young peeps flock to the offender. Remember, the only reason you had a ducktail haircut when you were a kid was that your dad was horrified by someone else’s ducktail.

A serious suggestion: Lots of us don’t need yet another necktie or purse for Christmas. Let’s pick good charities or deserving people and give them the money instead.