Archive for August, 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!