When I reflect on 2013, I think about the amazing number of new experiences I had: traveling to China, going to both a U.S. Davis Cup match and the Daytona 500, running a 15K (yes, that’s 9.3 miles) for the first time ever, going hunting for the first time, and doing so in a state I’ve never been in before: Arkansas! But those are just a few highlights of an action packed year for me and the rest of the world.
Florida turns 500, is soon to pass New York, as economy rebounds
My year in review would not be complete without first starting with the status of the best place in all the land. 2013 was a monumental year for my beloved home state of Florida: It was the 500th Anniversary of the landing of Ponce de Leon on our shores. The census figures released on December 30 show we are just 98,000 people short of passing New York to be the 3rd largest state in the Union. We should claim that title in 2014.
Florida’s economy has seemed to rebound too: our unemployment rate has dropped to 6.4% (the lowest it has been in more than five years). While many of Florida’s sports teams struggled, my Miami Heat won a back-to-back championship for the first time ever and the Florida State Seminoles put a beating on my Miami Hurricanes right in front of my eyes (and everyone else for that matter) and are headed to the national title game next week. The University of Central Florida’s football team is ranked in the top 15 and will be making their first ever appearance in a BCS bowl game.
More Government, More Problems
2013 was a year we lost even more faith in big government. We learned that the NSA is spying on citizens; the White House is spying on journalists and using the IRS to target political opposition groups (namely, tea party and other grassroots conservative groups); Congress and the President can’t decide on a reasonable budget for America and their standoff resulted in a government shutdown; even when the federal government was open, it continued to spend like there was no tomorrow; our national debt is now at $17.3 trillion and this figure does not include the unfunded liabilities, which estimates put at a total national debt of $127 trillion.
And not to help matters, the government intervened further into the health care market, and the implementation of “Obamacare” has been an utter disaster. They can’t even get the website to work – but that’s the least of the problems of this new health care law. Politifact’s Lie of the Year for 2013 Obama’s claim that if you like your health insurance plan you can keep it under the new law. We all found out that wasn’t true as millions of people who already had health insurance lost their coverage and others (like me) were told we will be having to change our plans. As Thomas Jefferson once said: “A government big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take away everything you have.” This was all too true in 2013. Hopefully more Americans will wake up before it’s too late.
The new Pope is Person of the Year
At this time last year, it would have been hard to believe that Pope Benedict XVI would voluntarily step down. That isn’t something a Pope has done in more than 500 years. (Just think: the last time a Pope stepped down, Florida wasn’t even on the map!) Benedict said he felt he was too old and weary to continue a job that requires a more fast-paced lifestyle (See what happens when you start tweeting?)
The man who replaced him, an Argentine and the first Pope from South America, became Pope Francis. Surprisingly enough, this was the first time a Pope has chosen the name Francis. When it happened, I got so many texts and messages from friends saying “Pope Francisco!” I had to let them down: it wasn’t me. But choosing the name “Francis” was interesting – as it derives from Francis of Assisi, who is known for living in poverty to serve others. And this Pope has humbled himself more than any Pope in recent history, or perhaps ever. He doesn’t do things the usual way.
He also has created headlines by saying “Who am I to judge?” in reference to those practicing homosexuality or taking pro-choice positions. This isn’t to say the Pope was endorsing those living those lifestyles. He was merely saying that we are all sinners and we shouldn’t be so focused on condemning others, rather we should be focused on bringing others closer to Christ. By the end of 2013, TIME magazine named Pope Francis the “Person of the Year.” It appears that the Catholic Church remains the most important and most relevant institution in the world.
My Travels in 2013
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you couldn’t have escaped the fact that in June, I traveled to China with my brother Tony on a 12-day trip of a lifetime! We visited Shanghai, Hangzhou, Guilin, Yangshuo, Beijing, and the Great Wall of China. It was the first time either of us had ever visited Asia. Seeing one of the world’s oldest civilizations was an incredible experience. From the mountains of Guilin, the skyscrapers of Shanghai, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square in Beijing, to the amazing feeling of standing on the 2,300-year old Great Wall of China and taking it all in. I blogged extensively in China and afterwards and won’t rehash it all here again. For more, scroll back and read some of the nearly 20 blog posts I wrote from China or this one about how we made it to the Great Wall of China.I have to really thank our friend Gianni Breuer for hosting us during our first four days in China at his apartment in Shanghai. And I have to say it was so great to be able to spend two quality weeks with my brother Tony. We travel very well together and I’ve been fortunate enough to see so many different cities (and countries) with him.
My other travels were all domestic and fun as well.
In January, my friend and fellow tennis player Russ Munson and I went over to Jacksonville for the weekend to see a U.S. Davis Cup match versus Brazil. We watched John Isner, Sam Querry, and the Bryan Brothers. They pulled out the win over Brazil 3-2. While I have been to three Grand Slam tournaments, this was my first time seeing a Davis Cup match in person. Bucket list. Check.
In February, I visited my friend Jesse Dyer and his family in Daytona Beach. We went to the Daytona 500 – my first ever NASCAR race. I could not believe how fast (and how loud) those cars are as they race around the track. It was exciting and I recommend this experience to everyone. Bucket list. Check.
In December, my friend Ben Lillie and I went out to Eudora, Arkansas to go duck hunting. Ben and some of his friends rent a house for the season and have a duck-hunting club. He invited me on one of his weekend trips there. This was my first time duck hunting – and hunting period. (Bucket list. Check.) It was also my first time shooting a shotgun. (Buck list. Check.) On the first morning, I landed two ducks! (Bucket list. Check.) I had also never been to Arkansas before, making it my 43rd state! (Bucket list. Check.)
For those keeping score, the seven states I have remaining to visit include: Alaska, Hawaii, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Iowa. I’m always game for checking any of these remaining states off the bucket list. Please feel free to help me!
In October, I visited Auburn, Alabama for the first time too. (Bucket list. Check.) However, I wasn’t there on a football weekend. I was traveling through there for a conference in Atlanta that weekend. But “on the way,” I detoured to Auburn to see one of my favorite bands, Green River Ordinance. They are from Fort Worth, Texas and were playing there on a Thursday night. Lucky for me they also played in Atlanta on that Friday night so I was able to see them perform live two nights in a row. I also wrote a little blog about my weekend seeing GRO and attending the Philadelphia Society meeting in Atlanta.
Speaking of Atlanta, it was a city I have really grown to love. Being just four and a half hours from Tallahassee, I get there about as often as I get to many Florida cities. This year, I was there for two different weekends and I passed through there on another week as I headed to a conference retreat in northern Georgia. The Philadelphia Society meeting was in October, the weekend retreat in Northern Georgia was in November, and then we held our fourth annual Rock by the Sea Christmas show in Atlanta in December. So, for the last three months of 2013, I was in Atlanta at least once per month. I am grateful to have many friends in the Atlanta area and was especially thankful to be able to stay with my friends Seth and Esther Weathers when I was there in December. And I got to see my friend (and former roommate) Jean-Yves Aubone while in Atlanta as he is now training there since jumping back on the professional tennis tour.
In October I also attended the Magnolia Fest at the Suwannee River Music Park. It is one of my favorite festivals and this year I had an especially nice day topped off by seeing music legend Willie Nelson perform. Other acts I saw included Stephen Kellogg, Donna the Buffalo, Tornado Rider, and Seth Walker. There are few better places to be in the world on a fall day than listening to some groovy tunes in the middle of one of the most beautiful parts of the South.
In 2013, I traveled out of town for four different weddings. In June, I went to Washington, D.C. to see my friend Brendan Steinhauser marry his bride Randan. In July, I went to Jupiter, FL to the wedding of my friend Steve Muscatello. Also in July, I visited Ormond Beach, FL to see my friends Ben Gibson and Jordan Dyer get married. And in November, I was in Fort Lauderdale to see my brother’s best friend and longtime family friend Corey Andrews get married. All four of these weddings were joyous occasions and I was happy to be with my friends to see them on their special day.
The James Madison Institute Hits 25 Years
2013 was a monumental year for The James Madison Institute. We celebrated our 25th Anniversary in style. More than 400 people attended our 25th Anniversary Dinner on March 13, 2013 and we had an amazing lineup of speakers including: former U.S. Senator Jim DeMint, Ed Feulner, the outgoing and longtime President of the Heritage Foundation, Governor Rick Scott, Speaker of the Florida House Will Weatherford, Florida CFO Jeff Atwater, and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. We put together a really neat 25th Anniversary Impact Video and I led an effort to put together a 25-year report dubbed “25 Moments, 25 Years.” It was really neat to learn about all of the accomplishments the Institute has had over 25 years and to share those with our supporters and friends across Florida.
As usual, I traveled all over the state of Florida multiple times this year, meeting with supporters and attending events. Our other big event for the year included a Naples luncheon we hosted in November, featuring Stephen Hayes of Fox News and The Weekly Standard as our keynote speaker.
One of the other memorable moments this year was meeting Willow Tufano, a 16-year old Florida Virtual School student who bought her first home and became a landlord at the age of 14. We documented her story in a 4-minute video. Willow received JMI’s first ever Preston A. Wells, Jr. Award, which is part of our new Preston A. Wells, Jr. Center for American Ideals. This center now makes JMI’s civics education programs for young people a permanent presence within the organization, an accomplishment that makes me especially proud. I continue to be very moved by our tremendous supporters and by the many people across our state that are getting involved in trying to steer our nation in the right direction, getting us focused back on the principles that made us great. With Florida about to be the third largest state in the Union, it makes the work of JMI even more important!
As part of my duties, I attended the State Policy Network Annual Meeting for the sixth year in a row. This year it was held in Oklahoma City. It was a surprisingly great city to visit and it was really nice to be able to meet up with my friend Jessica Salmans (who used to live here in Tallahassee before moving back to her home state). I also always enjoy catching up with all my fellow freedom fighters from the other 49 states. We have such a competitive federalism among us. But we know which state is the best.
Another Breakthrough for Project Veritas
I continue to serve on the board of directors for Project Veritas, an organization started a few years ago by my friend James O’Keefe. This year, James published his first book, Breakthrough: Our Guerilla War to Expose Fraud and Save Democracy. It was a New York Times best seller! It was also a real thrill to read. I have experienced some of these stories with James, but also there were other ones I was pleased to learn more about. It was also neat to be named in the acknowledgements!
Project Veritas itself had a great year. In the latter part of 2013, it made national news again with some cutting edge investigations of the Obamacare navigators. It still amazes me how much fraud and abuse there are with our tax dollars. (I don’t know why this continues to surprise me). Perhaps I am more surprised at how James and his team are able to go undercover and successfully catch these hucksters time after time.
I was able to meet up with James in November at the Restoration Weekend conference in Palm Beach, where he was a keynote speaker. It still amazes me to see so many people treat him as a mini-celebrity. But rightfully so. Dollar-for-dollar, Project Veritas is having more impact on public policy than perhaps any conservative or libertarian organization in the country.
Rock by the Sea Charities
I am also happy to continue serving on the board for Rock by the Sea Charities. This was the seventh year for Rock by the Sea, which officially changed its name to Rock by the Sea Charities, in order to place emphasis on the fact that we don’t just hold music events; we hold music events to raise money for deserving charities. In 2013, we were able to donate $40,000 to some great organizations including: the Pediatric Brain Tumor program at Arnold Palmer Hospital in Orlando, Camp Sunshine in Atlanta, and the Anchorage Children’s Home in Panama City.
Our big event was held once again in May at Spinnaker Beach Club in Panama City Beach. We had many amazing musicians and bands perform throughout the weekend and it was an all-around success. You can read about Jackson Rohm’s Farewell, about the band Melodime serving as role models at a home for at-risk and abused and neglected kids, and also about how Rock by the Sea is a growing family where you’re bound to make new friends and find new music.
In September, we held our “Rock by the Tee” event, featuring a charity golf tournament at St. James Bay golf course in Carabelle and music at Harry A’s on St. George Island. I love the island I am pleased we are going back for our big event there in May. It is a much more intimate experience, the lodging is much better with everyone finding good deals on beach house rentals, and the secluded feel of beautiful St. George Island just can’t be beat.
Rock by the Sea Charities released our Rock by the Sea Christmas Volume 4. It was excellent! As noted earlier, we held our fourth annual Christmas CD release show in Atlanta this year, once again at Club Vinyl. It’s becoming an annual tradition for me to celebrate early December in Atlanta. It’s a great excuse to get to this fun city where many of our participating musicians hail from.
While I have had a tradition of year in review blog posts for a number of years now, I am starting a new element within this tradition. I’ll be naming some of my favorite things from 2013. So here goes:
Favorite new band: Melodime. Even though they are “from a farm outside Washington, D.C.,” I first saw these guys at the Rock by the Sea event in Panama City Beach in May. I thought they rocked and I picked up their first album. But they really grew on me when they played our event in St. George Island in September. I got to hang out with them a bit there and they are a stellar group of guys. Shortly after that I also picked up their new album Where the Sinners and the Saints Collide, which released in October. I can’t get enough of that album (cool name too, isn’t it?). I was happy to see them perform again in December at the Rock by the Sea Christmas show – where, as emcee, I was able to introduce them. (Damn my life is cool.) They’ve now become a favorite of many of us and I am really excited to see them play on the Rock Boat in February 2014 and perhaps even some other Florida shows. We’ve already booked them for Rock by the Sea 2014 – so get down to St. George Island May 15-18 and perhaps they’ll be one of your new favorites of 2014!
Best Book I read: This is a difficult choice. But since I already named my friend James O’Keefe’s book above, I’ll go with a different one: Miracle on Luckie Street: From Homeless Drug Addict to Multimillionaire: His Personal Turnaround by Bob Williamson. I have met Bob and heard him speak a few times. It’s almost hard to believe that such a gentle soul as he once was living a hardened life of crime on the streets. Many prayers (from others) and a tragic event became the miracle that turned his life around. This is one truly epic adventure that we can all learn from. It is one of those books I couldn’t put down. I read it with amazing speed and attention. Bob is also the owner of Honey Lake Plantation, which is situated just 40 minutes from Tallahassee. I was able to visit there in March (before I read the book) when the JMI Board of Directors held a board meeting retreat there following our 25th Anniversary Dinner.
Best new TV show: Dexter. Yea, it’s not a new show (in fact, the series finale was this year) but it’s new to me. I started watching it on Netflix thanks to the recommendation of my brother Tony and some other friends. Most of you know what it’s about: a serial killer who secretly kills other serial killers. This show brings us into his mind, his conscience, and the secret life he lives as he tries to deal with the person who he is. In some way, we all relate on some level (hopefully not on the serial killer level). I finished two seasons over the past few months and I’m looking forward to more. It’s intense.
My favorite new place: Guilin. It was one of the most unique places I’ve ever been. Until this time last year, I had never heard of it. It was perhaps the highlight of my visit to China. When my brother Tony and I were floating down the river on the 4-hour cruise, surrounded by many funky-shaped mountains, I remarked to him: “I can’t believe this place even exists.” What other amazing places are there in the world that I’ve never heard of? We live on such an amazing planet. It makes me hunger to see what else God has created for us to appreciate.
Best movie I saw: The Way. Again, it’s not new. It was released in 2010, but I saw it earlier this year on Netflix, how I watch almost all my movies these days. Martin Sheen plays a father who has just lost his son, who was hiking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in the Pyrenees. While grieving, Sheen’s character has to go to France to claim the remains. While looking for insights into his estranged child’s life, he decides to complete the 500-mile trek to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. He meets some interesting other travelers along the way. This movie was all about the journey we all take in life. And it really makes me want to travel the Camino de Santiago in Spain someday. Any takers?
Bucket Lists, Buckets of Rain
Despite the great year I had, it seems like it has rained everywhere I went. Seriously. I can’t seem to escape the rain. It even poured on us for a full day in Hangzhou while in China. It poured on me in Miami, in Atlanta, in Orlando, in Delray Beach. We even drove through some hard rain getting to Arkansas. And, during the month of July, it rained every single day in Tallahassee. And the rain we got this year wasn’t just your typical afternoon thunderstorm. We had some all day rains. Many of them. While I was checking off my bucket list, the rain was filling up the buckets too.
Other firsts this year included running the 15K in the Tallahassee Turkey Trot in November. I had run the 10K the previous three years and I’ve done plenty of 5K’s in my lifetime. But it was nice to run a distance of 9.3 miles I had never done so before (not even in practice). My first goal was to finish. My second goal was to come in under 1 hour, 20 minutes. My time was: 1 hour, 19 minutes, 49 seconds. Not bad! I’m still enjoying life on the tennis courts and working out as much as I can. Trying to stay in shape isn’t easy when you’re getting old! However, I think the best two weeks of fitness may have been all that walking we did in China.
I’d like to take some more good times into 2014 and continue to check off the bucket list. But I would be happy to leave the buckets of rain behind. So goes the life of a Floridian: as unpredictable as the Florida weather. But I should say, as we are checking off the bucket lists and enduring the unpredictable things that come our way in life, we shouldn’t just check the lists. We should take in each and every part of our daily experiences. Some say don’t live in the past. But we should remind ourselves not to live in the future either. Live for today. Live for the moment you are experiencing right now. And be thankful for them all.
2013 went by way too fast, but I did try my best to have some great experiences and enjoy all of those precious moments. I have some big ideas for 2014 and I’m looking forward to making the most of the year ahead and of every moment God gives us to live our lives the fullest in each of those moments. Rain or shine.