Saturday, October 25, 2014

ROI

I have a screen capture from my email inbox with a what can only be described as a ridiculous amount of pleas for my money. Not that I have given much to political campaigns over the years, but it seems once they have you in a database, it's like winning the Lottery. However, the pleas are not from relatives or every person with a hard luck story, they come from politicians, and politicians are much worse than relatives. 

Thankfully, the campaigns I have given to have been Independent or Republican, therefore their technical prowess seems to be at least one election cycle behind the Democrats. Hey at least I'm not getting emails from Shotgun Joe Biden, and Michelle Obama. The ham handed, fear inducing cries for my money have become a bit ridiculous. 

Here is my problem with the GOP right now. Telling me that unless I empty my IRA and give to the RNC, the RCCC, or the NRSC, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi will be running the show, is not a big motivating factor to me right now. Why? Because the Republican party has become the Democrat Light party. Sure they talk a big game about freedom, small government, and strong defense, but that is just when they have one hand around my shoulder and the other one in my wallet trying to get more money from me. When they get back to Washington, they must sit in their Georgetown homes, sipping on a bottle of Cognac that cost as much as my truck payment and chuckle at how they keep duping us into keeping them in the lifestyles they have become accustom to. 

There are some real conservatives in congress, a few, but the establishment GOP would rather go along, and keep their powerful friends and future lucrative lobbying jobs. Read This Town if you want to see the Washington onion peeled back, it's a great read. 

Massive amounts of debt, fewer people working since the 1970s, a president who seems to think that he can change any law at any time he likes without going through congress, not to mention the most corrupt executive branch in history? No worries, just send us your hard earned money and we will fix it all.  

Look, most of the real battles today are won or lost in court, that is the sad fact. Congress can pass a law, the president can sign it, the people can pass a proposition, but if one judge somewhere thinks his personal views should trump the law of the land, Bam! We are screwed. 

I would like to make a suggestion as the election draws closer. Save your money for people and organizations who are really moving the ball forward. If you are a supporter of the Second Amendment, and if you live in California, there are a few organizations that doing tremendous work in this field, and getting results. Calguns Foundation is one of them. They are fighting and winning court cases where County Sheriffs are refusing to issue concealed weapons permits to law abiding citizens. Protecting gun owners from illegal confiscations and generally standing up for our rights as law abiding citizens. 
The Pacific Legal Foundation is another one. They are suing and winning important private property and personal freedom cases. 

I hope Republicans win the Senate in November, I do. Passing a budget, passing laws to curtail the abuses of the EPA, IRS and so forth will be great for optics as we head into 2016 and the next presidential election. President Obama will be forced to veto these laws and then have to explain his veto, along with every Democrat running for President. This will be a good thing. However, I am under no illusion that changing the names in the offices will do much to change the direction of our nation. Having the GOP in charge may only make one truly important difference; Supreme Court justices. No matter who is at the  wheel of this behemoth government, we won't stop sinking until we we start chucking the dead weight overboard. That means shrinking the size and reach of the federal government. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Tactical vs Traditional; Can I love both?


For quite some time I have had an internal battle going on inside me. A struggle if you will. Yes, it seems my very soul has been bisected and if I do not get behind one side or the other, the tumult and chaos will soon lead to my demise. The war must stop, but the outcome is far from decided. (How is that for faux dramatic effect?)

The struggle I face may be something that you battle as well. The battle between my love for my traditional firearms, and the new (to me anyway) word of tactical arms.

To give a little background, I grew up in the country, on a cattle ranch. My first firearm was my father's 1966 Canadian Centennial Ruger 10/22. 



Not that he was collector; it was probably just what they had on the shelf when he bought it. From the time my hands first embraced the walnut stock of that rifle, I was hooked. I will never forget the words he said as he handed me that rifle at the ripe old age of 10. As he sent me out the door he gave me a 50 round box of Winchester Wildcats and said, "Don't kill yourself."

Luckily for the world, I did not kill myself, or anyone else, but I did have to learn a lot of safety lessons the hard way. This method of firearms training by osmosis is one I would not recommend to anyone. I think the main reason I became a firearms instructor was the lack of instruction I received as a young shooter. I love teaching young and new shooters how to be safe, and how to have fun.

My first center fire rifle was a Marlin 94 in 30-30. My dad kept his Winchester 94 in 32 Special in the closet away from my grubby little fingers. As for my Marlin, many a muskrat met their demise at the front end of that lever action rifle. Eventually, when I was 13 or so, my father gave me his Remington 700 in .243 Winchester. I loved that rifle. I took my very first deer with it, and about a dozen more until I bought my own Model 700 in .270.

Growing up, I thought guns should be made of blued steel and a nice piece of wood. My first pistol was a blued, six inch Colt Trooper in .357 and I shot that pistol for years until I saved up enough money to buy a real, honest to goodness, Colt Series 70 1911. I still own that Series 70 and it is one of the guns I would run back into my burning house to save. The dark blued slide with the rampant colt logo, the sweeping curved lines of the Ed Brown beavertail safety, and the checkered walnut grips; it’s a beautiful thing to behold. I digress.

After buying, selling and trading a few dozen firearms, (yes you could once do that here in California) I had a nice little collection. The folks at the local gun shows would lick their chops every time I came through the doors. I am not a good trader. The Native Americans who traded Manhattan for a basket of beads where wheeler-dealers compared to me. I'm surprised I didn't trade that Trooper for some magic beans and a Stevens single shot .410.

I eventually came to love Smith & Wesson revolvers, along with my fondness of Colt 1911s, Remington rifles and Browning shotguns. Like most men, I like to tinker with stuff.  Before long I started to refinish guns and do a little customizing.  Through some twist and turns I found my way into the world of sporterized Mausers. This is not an inexpensive hobby. I have a few VZ-24s that I have turned into nice little hunting rifles. I also had a friend transform an $80 VZ-24 from Big-5 sporting goods into a beautiful elk rifle in 338-06. It is the finest looking firearm I own. 

Somewhere in the early '90s, a small hiccup hit my world of warm wood tones, color case hardening, and rich bluing. A tremor in The Force if you will. It was a rather unattractive, blocky, flat black pistol made of plastic. Well, the majority of the slide was polymer; the rest was made of steel. It was a first generation Glock 23.

What had just happened? Why did I have this sinister, black, boxy looking thing in my safe along side my lovely guns? Well, I guess the reason was one of my friends had a Glock, and thing seemed to work every time you pulled the trigger. My Glock was no different; it just worked. Factory ammo, reloads, full metal jackets, hollow points, hard cast lead bullets, it didn't matter, it would go bang every time.

Glocks, in case you didn't know, are the gateway gun to the tactical world. Damn you Gaston Glock, damn you and your ugly plastic pistols that work!

Soon, most police departments were trading in their Smith & Wesson revolvers for these new fangled wonder guns. The Glock Safe Action system, with its three passive mechanical safeties, gave people the high capacity, semi-auto action they wanted, along with the 'pull the trigger and shoot' simplicity of a revolver. 

I now had one toe over the line, into the dark side, the tactical dark side that is.

Many of my friends are police officers and military veterans; many of them work or had lived in the tactical world. After a bit of resistance, I finally gave in to peer pressure, and bought an AR-15 lower. 

Well, peer pressure and the fact that the government in all its infinite wisdom decided that I didn't 'need' one, so I bought one. This stripped lower receiver was relatively inexpensive, just over $160 with all the paper work and fees. I now had a new tactical 'firearm' even though the lower is just an aluminum paperweight by itself. It sat on my desk, mocking me. I could not take it any longer.

The expenses started to add up fast. A lower parts kit, a complete upper receiver, magazines, sights, etc. My $160 had turned into something north of $800, but I now had a fully functional AR-15 in .223. I though that would be the end, I had an AR-15. It was fun to shoot, but it was not 'my kind of gun'. The matte black anodized finish, the sharp lines of the rails, the click and clack of aluminum and plastic, my AR did not seem to be alive, it didn't seem to have a soul. Maybe that is the point. After a while, I heard the not so quiet call from the dark side.

Every time I had some extra fun money come in, the dark side would call to me. "You know you don't need to buy another complete AR, you could just get another upper, maybe a bull barrel varmint upper, or one in a different caliber!" 

In a few years my safe was full of upper receivers, for my AR-15. I can now put together a lower receiver kit in my sleep. I am always customizing my tactical guns, free floating hand guards, match triggers, etc. I also broke down and bought another lower receiver so I could take the family out shooting. This is where the lure of the dark side started to reach out to my children. 

Not my children! Have you no shame! They are far too young to be turned from the world of English walnut stocks and double-action revolvers to your corrupt, cold, matte black world! 

In the end, the dark side won. My 13-year-old daughter loves nothing more than to send me to the poor house by endlessly emptying magazine after magazine of .223 at the orange self-healing targets she shoots at. My wife is a bit of a purist and will only shoot the AR with iron sights, as she says, "Scopes are cheating." Every person I take shooting wants to shoot the 'black guns.' I am now getting all the gear I need to start Defensive 3-Gun shooting this year. I even bought a tactical shotgun. I had been turned. I was now fully involved in the tactical world. 

As a side note, I have never been one of the "tactical range warriors" you see in all the gun shops and at the range. If you work behind the counter of you local gun shop, why you feel the need to wear a plate carrier adorned with patches with your 'tactical name" on them is beyond me. If you are going out to the hill shooting squirrels, or punching holes in paper targets, a molle chest rig, a tactical thigh holster, and your concealed cary pants are a bit much if you ask me. Even with my all my 'black' arms, I refuse to give in. I am proudly un-tactical. 

As the years have passed, I have noticed a distinct change in the way I view firearms. Much of it was driven by the appeal of tactical shooting. However, to be honest, with all the talk of banning this type of pistol or that type of rifle, I did buy a few firearms for fear I would be unable to buy them in the future. The last few years of gun bans, magazine bans, and calls for registration have driven up gun sales like no other time I can remember. 

It seems all the major firearms manufacturers are bringing out new tactical lines of pistols, rifles and shotguns. While I do enjoy shooting and customizing my tactical arms, I do miss the craftsmanship of a finely made wood and steel bolt-action rifle, or a single action pistol. 

I stopped Cowboy Action Shooting years ago. I cannot remember the last time I took my 1866 Navy lever action out to the range. My set of Ruger Vaqueros in .45 Long Colt get a gentle wipe down from a silicone cloth every so often, but that is about it. I have a reproduction 1886 Winchester takedown in 45-70 that is loads of fun to shoot with hard cast bullets. I never seem to reach for those guns any more. They have worked their way to the back of my gun safe. Along with my M1 Garand, and my fathers 32 Special. 

The other day I was thinking about putting some money aside for a new pistol, maybe an ultra compact 40S&W or 9mm. Then for some reason I started thinking about a pistol that I have always wanted. A Colt Combat Commander. The beauty of that pistol, with a four-inch barrel, blued steel, and walnut grips speaks to me in a way that the more practical and tactical pistol does not. It is more than a tool, more than a purpose driven piece of functionality, it is a piece of art. 

If function wins the day, the modern tactical arms are the clear winners. Much as a new, smaller, modern four cylinder, fuel injected sports car would beat a 1969 Corvette Stingray with a 400 horse power L86 engine in a race, the new tactical pistols and rifles are technological wonders. However, given my choice, I would take the primitive, old-fashioned Corvette any day. 

Why? Well if you don’t understand, you probably don’t have any lever action rifles in your safe.


Saturday, December 22, 2012

18, 24, and 15. Three numbers you must know.

So, let me lay out the ground rules here. I'm going to gore some oxes on both sides of the isle. I hope you can keep your mind open for a few minutes, and not start running the endless loop of talking points in your head. Okay, ready? Here we go.

America is has become that dysfunctional family everyone knows. The couple who spends way more than they should, to the point where they are in danger of losing everything. I'm going to stop you right here, and go back to the ground rules. Conservatives; stop yelling "That's right, all the money we spend on welfare, food stamps and big government is killing us." Liberals; stop yelling "That's right, all the money we spend on wars, defense and corporate bailouts is killing us." We need to get past these talking points to understand where we are, and where we must go to save our nation for the next generation.

If we go back to that dysfunctional couple, we see they recently had their hours cut back at work, they used to get a lot of overtime pay, but that isn't coming in any longer, so they really need to make some changes to their spending. They may need to find some part time work also. However, being dysfunctional, this is what happens.

The wife really wants to go on that weekend getaway with her girlfriends to the Napa Valley, so she puts it on the credit card. When the husband sees this, he goes out and buys that new set of golf clubs he had been wanting. When the Visa bill comes, they point fingers at each other and yell about who is spending all the money. The wife wants the husband to get a second job, but the husband says he likes the extra time off.

The next month, the wife trades in her three year old Honda Accord for a new Lexus, after all, the payment is only two hundred dollars more per month, for 72 months that is. The husband goes out and remodels the garage with new cabinets, a work bench, and that granite-looking floor finish stuff they use in NASCAR shops.They also upgrade the kids phones to the new iPhone 5 because they just 'had to have them'. Meanwhile, when they max out their credit cards, they apply for new ones with higher limits and use them to pay off the first ones. I mean, why not? They have good credit right? After all, they just paid off their credit cards. And so it goes for a few years until they finally get the foreclosure notice, and they have to sit down in their beautiful home, surrounded by all their wonderfully expensive stuff, and sign the bankruptcy papers.

Now, the conservatives will say, "That's right, that is just what the Democrats are doing, they are going to spend us right into bankruptcy." Meanwhile, the liberals will say, "That's right, the Republicans won't go out and get a second job to get more money." Back to the ground rules again, calm down and listen for a minute, you need to know this, and more importantly, you need to understand this.

I will now invoke the name of William Jefferson Clinton so we can really have some fun. All I heard from my friends back in the 2000's was Clinton had a surplus and now Bush is giving us deficits. I heard all about the Bush tax cuts helping only the rich, and the poor and middle class people were now getting screwed. Let's look closely at what happened the last few years of President Clinton's second term to see what really happened.

President Clinton had raised taxes back in 1993, lost control of congress in 1994, and now had to find some middle ground with the American people and Republicans. He did.

In his second inaugural address he said, "We will meet these challenges, not through big government. The era of big government is over, but we can't go back to a time when our citizens were just left to fend for themselves" Both the House and the Senate were controlled by Republicans, but they did not have a super majority in Senate, so they still had to work with the Democrats to get anything done.

This was also special time in America. Maybe a once in a lifetime set of circumstances.The cold war had been won, we were the lone super power, and America was going into the dot-com boom period. I was working in the high tech field in the late '90s and it was like the gold rush. Millionaires were popping up all over like gophers after a spring rain.

Clinton worked out a deal with Republicans together they cut spending, yes you heard that right, they cut spending and reformed welfare. While the deal they reached called for a balanced budget within seven years, with all the profits and extra taxes rolling in from the new tech industries and dot-com millionaires, the budget was balanced in just three years. Not a bad plan. Cut spending, turn lose the private sector, and stay out of the way; good times.

Now here is the first number I want you to memorize; 18%.

In the year 2000, one of the last times we had a balanced budget, government spending was 18% of our gross domestic product or GDP (the size of our economy). With the roaring economy, our tax revenue was over 19 % of GDP. Hence, we even had a small surplus.  All my Democrat friends want to return to the Clinton tax rates, but what about the Clinton spending rates? The forty-year historical average for tax revenue is 18.1% of GDP. The forty year historical average for government spending 20.8% of GDP. If you look at these numbers, you can see why we have a national debt.

Historically, we spend about 12% more than we take in every year. Each year we have a deficit, it adds to our national debt. Our nation debt is now greater than the size of our entire economy. Did you hear that? Our 16 trillion dollar national debt is now larger than our GDP. If that doesn't frighten you, go back to watching Judge Judy and Dancing With The Stars, you will figure this out when the riots come.

Here is the second number I need you memorize; 24.1%
In 2011, President Obama's third year in office, federal spending had grown to 24.1 of GDP.

So what happened after Clinton? These numbers started moving in different directions. No one remembers, but the last year of President Clinton's term, the dot-com bubble burst. I know, I was there. All those crazy start-ups to buy gourmet cat food online or to have your refrigerator order food from the store as it scanned its own inventory went belly up, and so did the flood of tax revenue to the treasury. People also don't remember President Bush inherited a mild, little recession when he took office. A few months into his term was the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and that didn't help the economy at all. Tax revenue fell. At the same time, as we geared up for the invasion of Afghanistan, and ultimately Iraq, defense spending started to grow, up from almost sixteen percent of the federal budget in 1999, to twenty percent at the height of the surge in Iraq. In 2012, it is still at twenty percent.

However, as much as Democrats, and a few Republicans, love to say that defense spending (the two unpaid for wars, etc) is why we are in this mess; the numbers don't back that up. Not at all.

While defense spending did go up, so did all other spending, in a big way. Democrats are not alone in the rush to spend more. Republicans took a page from the Democrats and started to give away free stuff to woo voters. Remember Medicare Part D? Yea, those free prescription drugs are not "free", they are just unpaid for by the end user, so the government needs to borrow more money to pay for all these free programs. The Republicans under House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and later Bill Frist, grew spending as a percentage of GDP from that magic18% range to 19.85 in 2006, the last year Republicans had control of both houses of Congress and the presidency.

It doesn't seem like a lot, but we went from small surpluses in our budget from 1999-2001 to a deficit of 246 billion dollars in 2006. In no way do I want to diminish the fact that 246 billion is a lot of money, however in 2011, President Obama's third year in office, the budget deficit had grown to a mind boggling 1.48 Trilion dollars. That is One thousand, Four hundred, Eighty billion dollars. It makes a person long for the years with a pidlly 246 billion dollar deficit.

What about the Bush tax cuts? All those fat cats getting all the tax breaks, what about that?

Okay, here is where the Republicans backs get stiff. Our overall tax revenue is down. Down from the 19 -20% in the dot-com boom times of the late '90s and early 2000s, to just over to its historical average of 18.5 in 2006, the last year Republicans controlled the house, senate and the Presidency. In 2007, the Democrats took control of both houses of congress and the spending started to soar. Then came the housing bubble crash in late 2008, which led to the stock market crash, which led to a huge drop in tax revenue. In 2009, tax revenue was down to around 15% of GDP. Since the crash, it has stayed within a narrow range between 15-16%. Mostly because when you don't have a job, you don't pay much income tax. That and all the government spending for stimulas moves money out of the private sector. In my opinion, you simply cannot spend your way to prosperity, despite what President Obama and Paul Krugman from the New York says. (hey, they both have Nobel Prizes, and I don't, but I'm still right)

But didn't the Bush tax cuts go all to the rich? No, they didn't. I know you have been told for a decade by the media that the rich were the big beneficiaries of the Bush tax cuts, but look at the numbers for yourself. If you were a low income wage earner, the ten-twelve dollar an hour worker, your tax rate was cut from 15% to 10%. That is a 33% tax cut; not too shabby. What about the CEO of ACME Rocket Co. the guy who sells the rocket skates to Wile E. Coyote, he payed the top rate of 43.7% under Clinton. The 2003 Bush tax cuts brought his rate down to 39%. That's about a 10% tax cut. Everyone in the middle received about a 10-15% tax rate cut.

But what about Capital Gains taxes, the kind Warren Buffett and Mitt Romney pay? Ok, lets talk about those too. Now you Democrats had better sit down for this, I don't want you to get dizzy and faint. In 1997, President Bill Clinton cut the Capital Gains tax rate from 28% to 20%. Yep, you read that right, Clinton cut Capital Gains tax rates 8%, and you know what, tax revenue from Capital Gains income went up! Okay, take a deep breath, you were probably never told that, but it's true. So when Bush cut the Capital Gains rate from 20% to15%, he was treated as a crazy person. Well, if you say so.

With all that background, what do we do now?

First, we have to throw out all the rhetoric from both sides and focus on these numbers. Just to refresh, The latest numbers from the CBO I can find for fiscal 2011 are these.

Our spending was 24.1% of GDP.

The last number you need to remember is tax revenue was at 15.4% of GDP.

Those two numbers are way off their historical averages. At this point, you might say let's jack up the tax rates on the rich. Okay, but then what? If you raise the tax rates on everyone making over $250,000, you will move that revenue number up to, are you still sitting down, about 15.9% of GDP. Making the rich pay their "fair share" will bring in about 90 billion dollars a year. At this point you have to start asking yourself, is raising tax rates in a sputtering economy going to create jobs or make business owners less likely to hire new workers?

What about spending? The Democrats are always talking about cutting military spending, so lets just eliminate it.  Let's say that tomorrow morning President Obama finds a magic wand filled with fairy dust and waives it over the world. Everyone puts down all their weapons everywhere, and we no longer even need a military. Yep, let's push all the tanks, planes, trucks, guns, helmets and footlockers into a giant pile and make a climbing structure for disadvantaged youths. Let's sink all the ships, submarines, discharge every soldier, sailor, airman and marine, and turn the Pentagon into the world's largest Chuck E Cheese. If we eliminate the entire defense budget, we move the spending number down to 20.2% of GDP. That is still above the historical average and leaves us with nothing but strongly worded letters from the State Department for our defense. No thanks.

The spending cuts will have come from the fastest growing segment of the budget; Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. But not only those programs, but the entire size and scope of the federal government needs to be trimmed. Yes, even defense. Every program must be reduced to get back down towards that 18-19% of GDP. My first proposal would be to just freeze spending until that spending number gets down below 20%. That, and we need to grow the economy in a big way, and that will not happen by giving billions to subsidize "green energy" or any other stimulas. If spending did work to stimulate the economy, it would be roaring right now. It isn't.

With all the talk about the "fiscal cliff" the rhetoric is coming fast and furious.  Politicians are talking about raising 1.6 Trillion with tax increases or cutting 1.2 Trillion in spending, all these numbers mean nothing; zero. Most of the time when they want to make the number seem big, they use the "over ten years" number. When they want to make the number seem smaller, they use single year numbers. It's all a load of rubbish.

If we had a media in the country that really wanted to inform the nation about what is really going on, they would ask every politician this one question. "How does that move the spending number, and the tax revenue number for this upcoming fiscal year, not over ten years, but next year?"  Wouldn't it be refreshing if the media, and the public knew these numbers by heart? When President Obama says raising taxes on the rich will bring in almost a trillion dollars, what if a reporter asked him, "That is only 90 billion a year, Mr. President this year's deficit is 1.1 trillion, how are you going to close the rest of the 1 trillion dollar shortfall?" Or when the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner says he is going to sign a deal with 1 trillion dollars in spending cuts, what if a reporter asked, "That is over ten years Mr. Speaker, what about the other trillion dollars of deficit spending this year?" Oh how refreshing it would be.

What if every time someone threw out some tax increase number, or some spending cut number, a reporter or constituent asked, "How does that get us closer to 19% of GDP?" Yea, I know I said 18 was the historical average, but we do have to deal with the current number of baby boomers, and seniors are expensive, so I raised it to 19% of GDP.

This solution has to have two parts, spending cuts and revenue increases. The good news for Republicans is they only have to increase revenue to the tune of 3% of GDP. It can be done by eliminating deductions, raising tax rates just a percentage here or there, but it can be done. It can also be done by growing the economy; more people working, and paying taxes.  It won't be easy, every dollar in the budget is fought over tooth and nail by lobbyists and interest groups, but it can be done.

The bad news for Democrats is they have to cut spending by 6% of GDP. Again, every dollar has a voter behind it, so it's a harder row to hoe. Again, it is easier to do this with a vibrant economy, something we have not had in a while.

Will this be the approach the President and Republican take as they try to avert the fiscal cliff?
Nope, not even close.

My best guess is whatever happens January first, the deal they reach will have higher taxes on the wealthy and a promise of a spending cuts in three, four or five years that will never come to fruition.
The deal will look something like this; Tax revenue moves to the 17% range and spending will stay around 23-24% of GDP for the next ten years or so. That is not a plan to fix anything, and its not serious. Just wait until interest rates start to raise and all that debt starts costing us more and more to finance.

By the end of President Obama's next term, our national debt will be over 20 trillion dollars and the amount we spend on interest, not paying the debt down, but just the interest on that debt will soon be more than we spend on Medicaid. The more debt we rack up, the more of the budget will go to pay the interest on that debt, and leave less money for the actual programs people use.

It's like the dysfunctional family who pays for their family pizza dinners with their credit card and just makes the minimum payment. In a few years, each $25 dinner will have cost upwards of $100. Pretty soon, they can't pay the car insurance and the light bill, but they will have the satisfaction of remembering how tasty that pizza was a few years ago.

Bon app├ętit America.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Bits and pieces.

I consider myself a lifelong learner. Truly, if I discovered an oil well on my property tomorrow, I would go back to school and learn about subjects that interest me.

It seems to me there are three, maybe four types of activities you can do in your spare time. We will exclude working, unless you are fortunate enough to work in an activity that provides you joy. I would say that you could spend your time exercising your mind, your body, your creativity, or just simply being entertained. I believe Americans spend way too much time in the last category. If you doubt me, just look at the number of hours Americans spend watching television per week. We just want to sit passively, and be fed a constant stream of meaningless brain candy. If you don't know who Honey Boo Boo is, consider yourself lucky, and for heaven's sake don't go looking for her.

I must admit that I fall into this habit as well. I don't read as much as I once did. I have a stack of five or six books on my nightstand just waiting for their turn. Not that all my books are deep and meaningful, but most are nonfiction, and many of them deal with history of one sort or another. I do have my favorite historical authors; McCullough, Keegan, Ambrose, Hanson, and even on the fictional side of history, Steven Pressfield. I like these guys because they know two things, they know their subject, and they know how to communicate.

I have only run across a few people in my life who were this way. I had a political science teacher in college who just loved the subject, and wanted nothing more than to pass that passion on to his students. The other person gifted in this way was my pastor, John Withem.

John loved what he did. You could see it in every aspect of his life. You could almost feel it when he was talking about his relationship with God. John had those same two traits; He knew his subject, the Lord, and he knew how to communicate.

I was always in awe of how John could quote scripture for seemingly any situation. No matter what challenge, crisis, or achievement you were encountering, John could equate what you were feeling to a situation somewhere in scripture. Not that John was a one trick pony. There are plenty of people who know their scripture, it seems that some of them have just memorized the parts that make them feel good about themselves, or they use scripture to cover their faults.

John used the Bible not only to convey the good news, he used it a diagnostic tool for his own life and the life of his church. If there were problems or challenges in the church, or in his own life, John turned to scripture for the right path to follow. This principle was never more on display than in John's battle with cancer.

I won't try to tell the story of John's battle with pancreatic cancer, a battle that he certainly should have lost almost two decades ago, it is far too personal. I would however like to use it as John might have, as a teaching moment.

How many of us have been granted a second chance by God? You know the one I'm talking about. That time when you pleaded for that situation to change. That time when you promised to give your life to Him if He could get you out of these circumstances, yea, that's the one I'm talking about. Now, I want to point out that God isn't some cosmic game show host playing let's make a deal. However, I do think He would like us to make the most out of the situation we face. I have been through enough of these challenges now that I try to get past the 'why me?' phase, and go straight for the 'Lord, what do you want me to learn from this?' phase.

I know many of us were praying for John to be healed so we could keep him with us, but that is not what happened. With the help of some wonderful words from pastor Leonard, I am past the why, and I am now trying to figure out what God wants me to learn from this. Here is what I have gathered so far.

John was placed into each of our lives to be an example. Each of us will pull some deeper meaning from different parts of John's life, but one unique aspect of John's character will be the example God will use to make us a better people.

For me, it will be John's perfectly positive attitude. I can be a glass-half-full kind of guy. In fact, I have a tendency to try to find out what happened to the other half, and see if there is anyone who needs to be held accountable for its loss. John would put his arm around me and say with a smile, "Walt, isn't it great you have half a glass to drink? Imagine how good that is going to be when you are really thirsty? You know, I wonder if you could find someone who really needs a drink right now and share your half with them?"

That will always be John for me. No matter where you were in your life, on the top looking back down the hill you just climbed, or upside down at the bottom after a terrible wreck, John would ask, "Isn't it great that God is right here with you? Isn't it great how much He loves you, and that He wants the best for you? Let's get back up and start climbing again, c'mon, I'll climb with you."

Some of you will take John's strength. Some of you, his seemingly infinite compassion. For others, it will be John's love for his family, his church and most importantly, his Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Each of us will all take bits and pieces from John's life. If we infuse these into our lives, we will be better people for it.

I guess in the end, as we head off to celebrate John's life this afternoon, I do not look on John's passing as a sad or mournful time. Although I'm sure my eyes will fill with tears a few times today. I look upon John's passing as more of a challenge. What am I going to do with the second chance God has given me?

If I ever falter, or start to wonder what God wants my life to look like, all I have to do is remember my friend, my pastor, my example, John Withem.

God bless you my friend, I will see again one day.



Tuesday, October 30, 2012

John Withem

Being an outgoing person, I know quite a few people. I'm not sure how many friends I have, according to Facebook, it's somewhere around 300, but that number is not accurate. I actually have very few close friends. You know, the people you would call when you need advice or just to ask how they are, not that I call that all that often.  Don't get me wrong, if a friend calls and needs my help, I'm there. However, if they are waiting for me to call them to check in or talk about their problems, they may be waiting a while. Come to think of it, I am not a very good friend at all. 

On the other end of that scale is my friend John. If someone needs help, they call John. Remarkably, John calls people all the time just to see if they need any help or to check in and say hello. John knows everyone, and everyone knows John, or at least it seems that way. That may be because of his time at Woodland Christian School, and through the churches where he has served in one capacity or another for years. Yes, my friend John is quite a remarkable person. John is also my Pastor.

I have known John Withem for six or seven years now. I met him for the first time at Bayside Woodland as the service was ending. Like most Pastors, they head to the door to shake hands, to say hello, or answer a question, the everyday things that Pastors do. That day I was just another fresh face coming to a new church. Little did I know that my chance encounter with John would change the course of my life.

For many people, life changes come with huge swings and defining moments. For me, I am slow to change. In the way that a ship can turn its rudder all the way, and it takes a while for the bow to start moving. I am kind of like the Titanic, by the time I see the iceberg, it's way too late to steer out of the way. The changes John had on my life were like gentle nudges to the wheel he made in the right direction. Very subtle changes, that over the course of a long voyage, can take you in a completely different direction. That is the very essence of John.

If you know John, you know his absolutely effervescent personality. From the outside, it would be easy to assume that it is all an act, part of his job as Pastor. No one can be that cheerful, no one can by that full of positive energy all the time, John can. 

If you know John, you also know some of  his history. Terminal pancreatic cancer about twenty years ago, that was his situation. The 'get your affairs in order and say your goodbyes' type of cancer. One of the things that has always amazed me is how strong John is. Not only spiritually,and emotionally, but physically. John is a combination of the toughest, kindest, sweetest and most compassionate person I have ever met. John fought his cancer with a tenaciousness that came from wanting to see his two small children grow up with both a mom and a dad. He did. John is a fantastic father, if you need any proof, you can look at Jonathan and Criste. Nancy is proof that he is good husband, as well as proof that John is truly blessed.

Before I knew better, I thought the job of a Pastor was easy. Sitting around, thinking about God all week and then delivering a sermon on Sunday. After having just a small taste of the job, I know that it is a full time job and then some. If there is a downside to being a Pastor, at least to me, it's getting the call to visit people in the hospital. I hate it, I avoid it at all costs. Having spent so much time in hospitals himself, John is quite at ease talking about the medical side of things, as well as providing comfort and hope.

I remember when a member of my family was in the hospital with heart trouble, our whole clan was in the ER waiting room, and of course, John came right down. Knowing just the right thing to say, or to not say a word and just embrace someone who needs comfort; John is wonderful at this. After he spoke with all of us, we all joined him in a moment of prayer. Including the poor guy who wasn't part of our family, but who had a loved one in the ER and was sitting on the benches with us. When John found out he wasn't with our group, he sheepishly apologized for roping him into our prayer circle, and the man said that he didn't mind at all and  asked John to pray for his loved one. John was more than happy to.

John also has the best stories. Meeting really cool people, seeing God work in people's lives, and my favorites, music and sports stories. John plays violin, and in his younger years, he played very, very well. One of my favorite John memories is when he surprised our church and played violin at Christmas with his son Jonathan on drums. John was always so supportive of my son when he started playing guitar at church. When someone of John's musical chops tells you that you have talent, you listen. John is the ultimate encourager. He makes Tony Robbins look gloomy.

I even cut John some slack because of his deprived childhood in southern California; John is a Dodgers fan. He loves all sports, but he's a big baseball fan, and he knows his stats and players. John has also been the spiritual mentor to many of the Pioneer Patriots he met while working with the football team. I'm not sure how many young men he has helped with a gentle bump to the course they were on, but I'll bet it is a good number.

Like I said, I count myself in that number. John's influence on me came through serving on the leadership team of the church with a great group of people. As my friend Leonard says, John's fingerprints are all over this church. John's emphasis on community outreach is always a priority. Church isn't a club, it isn't about us, it's about others, and John always makes sure that is at the heart of everything Bayside does. How many Mayors call the Pastor of a church to see if they can make an event happen when it has lost its funding? How many churches actively support their city's and county's first responders? John is always looking for ways to make Woodland a better place.

On a more personal note, John is always encouraging me to step out of my comfort zone, to use whatever God has given me to make a difference for others. I am always embarrassed to say that John is my mentor. I don't ever want my shortcomings, which are too numerous and egregious to mention, to reflect negatively on John. However, I would have never started our little once a month church service in the Capay Valley without John's encouragement. There are so many little ways John's fingerprints have found their way onto my life. I don't think I am alone in being grateful for John's influence. I know I have a long, long way to go, but thanks to John's course corrections, I hope I keep heading in the right direction.

As I write this, my friend John Withem is still with us. I just came from his home tonight to say goodbye. After his long remission, the cancer that John fought long ago has come back. John fought hard again, but this time, his body just isn't strong enough. As I said, I am not good with hospitals and I hate seeing people suffer. However, for the first time since my father's death twenty-one years ago, I went to say goodbye to someone I love. John was resting comfortably at home, surrounded by family and friends. So, so many friends.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Celebrating, observing, and drinking

One week from today, two worlds will collide. The first Saturday in May is The Kentucky Derby, and it will fall on Cinco De Mayo.

On second thought, I don't think the two worlds will collide, they will be too busy drinking. Thanks to American beer and liquor companies, both events have been converted into drinking parties. Just as most of the younger crowd at Churchill Downs will have no idea about the horses running in the derby, most people "celebrating" Cinco De Mayo will have no idea what they are celebrating. Who won the race? Who cares, give me another mint julep with a Bud Light chaser. What Mexican military victory are we celebrating? No kidding, we beat the French? Get me another shot of tequila and a cerveza.

I swear, in ten years, the government will be so broke it will sell Anheuser-Busch the rights to the next war. "This drone strike brought to you by new Bud Light Lime" I have no ground to stand on here, I was as bad as anyone. In the past I have celebrated Tuesday by drinking with my friends because, well, it was Tuesday.

I'm not sure it has always been this way, but I suspect this phenomenon of turning a day of somber reflection into a drunken festival is a more recent trend. Memorial Day will soon be upon us and many young people, and not so young people, will head to the hills, the lake or their backyards to "celebrate" a three day weekend by getting hammered. Good job America, way to go.

 In 1968 the federal government moved four holidays from their traditional dates to a specific Monday to create three day weekends. Memorial day used to be May 30th, but now it's the last Monday in May. I believe the Veterans of Foreign Wars had it right when they said, "Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day."

Look, I guess I am casting stones here, and feel free to cast right back at me, but don't you think we should try to phase out the booze from our celebrations? I still enjoy an occasional cold Dos Equis with my dinner at Vince's, but when we starting "celebrating" at 9:00AM and are in the bag by 3:00PM, we as a nation, and as a culture, have a problem my friend.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

So, speaking of vice presidential choices....

Sorry, I have not posted in a long, long while, but since I am not paid to do this, you get what you pay for.

As I said long ago, Mitt Romney is going to be the Republican nominee, and there was little doubt about. So now the big question is, who will he pick for a running mate?

The obvious choice are out there. Senators Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey, Governors Chris Christie, Bob McDonnell, Mich Daniels, Rob Portman and Nikki Haley, of South Carolina, Congressman Paul Ryan, along with a host of others who would love to get the call to debate Joe Biden. I am not sure if Mitt Romney will go outside the box to pick a nominee, but I doubt it. Every fiber in Mitt's body says he will pick a safe, well thought out, and fully vetted choice with no surprises. Crazy things could happen, but Mitt Romney's idea of crazy may be putting mustard on his tater tots. My money is on one of the eight candidates I mentioned above.

Does he go for a battleground state connection, like Rubio, Portman, McDonnell, or pure talent like Christie or Ryan, or does he go after the women's vote and pick Haley? Smarter minds (I hope) are working the numbers on this, but I trust the final decision will be Romney's.

None of these would be a bad choice. Any one of them would wipe the floor with Slow Joe Biden, but in the end, the vice president can only give a little boost to the top of the ticket. A bad pick can lose you an election, and a good pick can get you over the top, but you have to be close. Like all things this election; time will tell.