My Dirty Little Secret

Author’s Note: The following story is mostly true. Some of the details have been changed because there were no adults around to tell me I couldn’t change them. If you’re not sure of the veracity of any of the details, please feel free to ask.

The year, 2004, was a big one for me.

My business was in its first year. Having landed two sizable accounts, we were successful beyond our wildest dreams. And in the midst of that year, we were invited by the New England Water Environment Association (NEWEA) to create a specialty publication for its 75th anniversary. Flush with our success, we were bold (arrogant) enough to say in our first meeting with the Executive Committee, “We’ll do the book — on two conditions: (1) We want complete creative sign-off. (2) We won’t let you turn it into an ordinary yearbook.”

As we got up to run out of the room before being tarred, feathered, pelted with rotten eggs, and otherwise lambasted for our audacity, we heard everyone in the room say, “Okay.”

Sheepishly returning to the table, we sat down. As I recall, these were my first words. But I got a grip of my knickers. We re-grouped. And we told them we’d have a concept for them within the next two weeks.

Our concept was Origin/Destination. The cover we created is right here. We presented the concept and the cover at the next meeting with the Executive Committee. At that meeting, I read the introduction I’d written. Here it is:

When you drink the water, remember the spring. (Chinese Proverb)

This book is about a journey. It is about the journey of water from source to destination, from ground and sky to fountain and faucet, from well to waste and back. It is about the journey of the New England Water Environment Association from idea to institution. It is the same journey.

The journey of water is one of contradictions. It traverses the divergent yet cyclical paths of creation and destruction, of evaporation and rain, of beginning and ending, of birth and death, of the physical and the metaphysical. The journey of water, like the journey of each of us, passes through rites of cleansing, initiation, purification. Even as water symbolizes our salvation, it must be saved.

The journey of NEWEA, too, is one of contradictions. It traverses the divergent yet cyclical paths from contamination to clarification, from refuse to re-use, from commerce to clean-up, from run-off to reclamation. The journey of NEWEA, like the journey of each of us, passes through rites of recognition, responsibility, rectification. NEWEA symbolizes our power to save. It must save.

This journey also is our journey. It traverses the divergent paths between youth and old age, between work and family, between awareness and ignorance, between activism and complacency. Our journey, like the journey of NEWEA, comprises rites of passage — maturation, realization, participation. We can see and do nothing, or we can contribute. We can wait to be saved, or we can save. We may not be able to fully determine our journey. But we can influence it along the way. We may not be able to discern the importance of our journey; but like NEWEA, we can recognize ourselves as parts of a greater whole. We may not be able to comprehend the condition of the environment in which we journey, but we can count the cost and the consequences of ignoring it.

Because of our human nature, it seems we must attach numbers to the things that are of value to us before we begin to protect them. We often have to quantify before we can qualify. And so, we shall. The world is a collection of watersheds, lakes, rivers, and aquifers. Given the cyclical nature of water’s journey, the world’s supply of freshwater remains constant — approximately two-and-a-half percent of all water — and finite. Almost two-thirds of that water is inaccessible, comprising ice caps and glaciers. The use of that water is expanding to meet the needs of industry, agriculture, and a global population that is projected to be nine billion by the year 2050. In March of 2000, at an international water conference in The Hague, water ministers from 115 countries declined to agree on how to address the problem of water scarcity. Do the math. Our journey hangs in the equation.

On this shared journey of contradictions — in our contemplation of the origins and destinations of water, of NEWEA, and of ourselves — our relationship with water is intimate, complex, and primal. As we consider origin/destination, we also must consider cause/effect: Deplete aquifers/the land above subsides. Remove trees from the watershed/the river floods. Pollute or obstruct the river/the effects flow — and affect the journey of everything in the river’s course — all the way to the sea.

This book is about a journey. It is, indeed, our journey. Its origin lies in the mysteries of nature and creation. Its destination lies with us. If we are to have adequate water for our journey, that water must be saved. If the water must be saved, we must save it. If we are to save our environment, we cannot afford to do nothing.

When we drink the water, we must remember the spring. When we choose to care for our water, we must remember The New England Water Environment Association.

The room was silent. The concept was approved. The green light was on.

The Show Must Go On

It took almost a full year to complete the book. It was printed in January of 2005 to coincide with NEWEA’s Annual Convention, which was held at the Boston Marriott Copley Place on January 22 of that year. The Executive Committee was so pleased and impressed with the book, they asked me to be their Keynote Speaker. Because I’m awkwardly shy, demurely retiring, and an incorrigible wall flower, I said, “Yes.”

As it turned out, the Convention took place during the Blizzard of 2005. But word of the book had spread so far and so fast, along with the news that I’d be the Keynote Speaker, that people had camped out for days on Boylston Street in hopes of getting in. In fact, they were lined up so far, for so long, that the Conference turned into a latter-day Woodstock. NEWEA stopped charging entrance fees, packed a standing-room-only crowd into the venue’s 61,085 square feet, fed a closed-circuit broadcast to every bar in Boston, and recorded the event on video. The event was so huge that NEWEA sold the recording, which became an HBO Special called A Jackass in Beantown. It was HBO’s highest-rated program for the next 10 years.

After my remarks, people swarmed the stage, asking me to sign copies of their books, which had been stacked on pallets by a fleet of forklifts before my speech. I felt like a combination of a celebrity and someone who had the vaguest idea in the world what the hell he was doing. I didn’t.

One gentleman approached me and said, “Thank you. I’m so glad they asked you to speak today. We usually have to listen to some f##king engineer.”

I said, “But you’re a whole association of f##king engineers.”

“I know,” he said. “But we don’t want to hear that bullshit.” (More on this in a moment.)

We laughed and shook hands. But the biggest honor of all was yet to come.

My Secret

At the Annual Society Luncheon that followed my speech, I was inducted into an international organization: the Select Society of Sanitary Sludge Shovelers, or 5S. During the induction ceremony, the organization was referred to as the Secret Society of Sanitary Shit Shovelers. But I can’t write that here because you’re not allowed to write shit on the Internet.

I was awarded this shovel, along with this documentation. I took an oath in which I swore to never take more shit (oops) than I could shovel. The presiding Sludge Shoveler then proposed a toast, and I happily raised my glass in the company of my hale and hearty new organizational peers.

That’s right. My dirty little secret is a seven-inch shovel. And the lifelong lesson imparted to me on that January day in 2005 is that neither the snow nor the shit (dang!) ever gets too deep if you dig fast enough.


Mark O'Brien
Mark O'Brien
I’m a business owner. My company — O’Brien Communications Group (OCG) — is a B2B brand-management and marketing-communication firm that helps companies position their brands effectively and persuasively in industries as diverse as: Insurance, Financial Services, Senior Living, Manufacturing, Construction, and Nonprofit. We do our work so well that seven of the companies (brands) we’ve represented have been acquired by other companies. OCG is different because our business model is different. We don’t bill by the hour or the project. We don’t bill by time or materials. We don’t mark anything up. We don’t take media commissions. We pass through every expense incurred on behalf of our clients at net. We scope the work, price the work, put beginning and end dates on our engagements, and charge flat, consistent fees every month for the terms of the engagements. I’m also a writer by calling and an Irish storyteller by nature. In addition to writing posts for my company’s blog, I’m a frequent publisher on LinkedIn and Medium. And I’ve published three books for children, numerous short stories, and other works, all of which are available on Amazon under my full name, Mark Nelson O’Brien.

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