Friday, April 22, 2011

History in the buff

I've always been a history buff. I've always been that way, preferring to spend time reading and studying the past over dealing with more contemporary subjects. In college, I took nearly as many history classes as I did classes in my declared minor. Frankly, history fascinated me more than marketing. But even I knew that high-paying jobs in history are mighty scarce. (Little did I realize that I naturally have an aversion to jobs that pay highly anyway!) So I took a different route, but still kept an eye on the past and what I could learn.

My eyes have especially been drawn to history over the past two weeks, as the nation remembered the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. The bombing of Fort Sumter in South Carolina was really kind of pathetic as far as battles go. The fort, located on a man-made island in the middle of the entrance to Charleston Harbor, was commanded by U.S. Major Robert Anderson, who tried his best to hold the island from Confederate forces demanding the evacuation of the garrison. The Union men were outgunned and outmanned and were severely low on supplies.

The firing by the rebels began at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861. After 34 hours, Anderson agreed to surrender. The number of casualties? Zero. Nine were wounded, four of those on the Confederate side. The bloodiest part of the battle was the surrender ceremonies when a gun exploded killing two Union soldiers. The first casualties of the American Civil War came not as the result of a battle, but a ceremony.

The characters always seem larger-than-life in history. That's probably because the same-size-as-life characters didn't make the history books while the volumes are full of George Washingtons and Teddy Roosevelts and Platos and Napoleons. And since history is written by the winners, we can probably assume that for every favorable story there is likely another tale told from the opposite camp. But that's what makes history fun.

I know a man in town who will have nothing to do with the Internet or computers, claiming proudly that he lives in the past. I've told him on more than one occasion that there is more history on the Internet than he will ever dig up in person. For instance, I found a site called simply, where copies of historic newspapers are viewable for free. The idea is that you can see how newspapers reported the famous events of history. I pulled up a copy of the New York Herald from April 13, 1861 to read the account of the bombing of Fort Sumter. Included are a map of the Charleston area, descriptions of the fort (”a modern truncated pentagonal fort, built upon an artificial island at the mouth of Charleston Harbor, three and three-eights miles from the city of Charleston”), and copies of letters sent between Maj. Anderson of the Union and Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard of the Confederates. Fascinating stuff.

There are advantages to being a history lover nowadays. Research is fast and easy with the Internet. Books on various subjects from the past are published seemingly every day. (There may be more books written on Lincoln's assassination than Stephen King has sold in his lifetime.) And there is a group of television channels supposedly dedicated to history. I say 'supposedly' because it seems the programmers define 'history' rather broadly. The Thursday night lineup on the History Channel consisted of a show where men hunt for alligators in a swamp, a program about a taxidermy shop in Alaska, and a reality show where contestants compete to determine the best shot using various firearms and weapons. I'm sure they're all wonderful shows, but that's not history.

The writer George Santayana is credited with penning the words, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If he's right and my memory holds up, I should be set for the rest of my life.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The April 15th holiday

It's April 15. Why am I not running around like an idiot trying to make sure my taxes are all figured, packaged, and stuffed into a postal worker's sack? Is it because I got around at the beginning of February and got the nonsense out of the way early? Sadly, no. Mostly it's because we procrastinating American taxpayers were blessed with an extra weekend to mop things up. This year (and this year only), taxes only need to be postmarked by Monday, April 18. We should probably celebrate, as that's the most mercy I've seen ever from the Internal Revenue Service.

I had to look up the reason for the delay, as nothing much seemed like a good excuse to push back the day when the I.R.S. agents all begin to salivate. It turns out that the District of Columbia is celebrating Emancipation Day today. The holiday commemorates the end of slavery and is usually observed on April 16. However as we all know, you can never correctly celebrate a holiday on a Saturday. So it's been moved to Friday, and we all get an extra weekend of trying to find more deductions. I'm assuming that the residents of D.C. are today proudly remembering the emancipation of slaves in some solemn way. I'm sure it's as classy as the way we remember the former chief executives of the country -- with a President's Day mattress sale.

Actually, I'm not in a panic because the taxes are done, thanks to a professional. I gave up long ago trying to do them for fear that I wasn't properly completing Schedule 666 or whatever needs to accompany all my W-2s, 1099s, 1040s, and Form E-I-E-I-Os that I have to stuff into those envelopes. It's just way too complicated unless you file the form with the EZ at the end of it. I think everyone seems to like it that way, and by everybody, I mean the I.R.S. and every accountant and tax service in the nation. The rest of us could stand a break from the complicated machinations of the tax code.

There are movements to replace the current system with a flat tax of say, 17 percent of all income. No deductions or exemptions. No complicated tax forms. Just three or four lines and a place for a signature. That sounds like a good idea on the surface. I'm sure there are catches I haven't thought of yet. What we sometimes forget is the tax code has become complicated because we as a nation have looked to reward certain behavior. Want to encourage charitable giving? Offer a tax deduction! Want everyone to learn the tango? Give a deduction for tango lessons. You get the idea.

Think of what a huge change that would be, though. Dismantling the current tax system would be almost like making gravity optional. Or even like celebrating holidays on Saturday -- we're talking massive change! I'm all for change, but I do want some kind of plan as to what the change is going to be. Change for change's sake is usually a stupid idea. Just when we start thinking things can't get any worse, we realize we were wrong and that we have no business trying to do the job of a psychic.

The government isn't good at change though, unless you count raising taxes. Cutting things isn't a strong point for those chaps. They can't stand to make people mad. (Something about wanting votes or some such nonsense.) Truthfully, most people are in favor of government cuts as long as the cuts have nothing to do with them. “Don't touch my pension!” or “Don't cut funds for my subsidy!” or “Don't you dare cut funding for my precious snail darters!” Some day we'll have to get over that or else we'll all have to learn the hard way. We're already $14 trillion in the hole. That's something that could stand changing.

And so, those of you who can't change the habit of waiting until the last minute to plaster a stamp on the envelope and sending Uncle Sam more money to play with, take a deep confident breath, knowing you have a couple of extra days. Happy Emancipation Day.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Candy-coated memories

In just over two weeks, we will be celebrating Easter Sunday, or Resurrection Sunday as some call it. During these last few days before the holiday, I seem to notice, more than other times, all the candy. It's in stores, at gas stations, in vending machines... it's everywhere. The holiday just makes it more prevalent with the chocolate rabbits and jellybeans and marshmallow critters, and candy eggs of all types. And this year my wife decided to give up sweets for Lent, so we haven't seen many of the goodies sitting around the house in bright anticipation of a colored basket filled with plastic grass.

I like candy. Always have. One look at my waist size should tell you that. But candy has changed over the years. Sure, the price has changed. I remember the ten-cent candy bars suddenly costing 15 cents. Now, I really don't know if there is a standard price. I haven't spotted a 50-cent bar in a few years, that I know.

But beyond that, it seems like we've lost a lot of the old candy and it's been replaced by, well, not a whole lot. However, candy makers seem to cling to their franchise names. Let's take the Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. Everyone is at least familiar with the standard two-per-pack round beauties with chocolate outside and peanut butter inside. At last count these gems were also made in miniature cups, in oversized cups, with dark chocolate, with white chocolate, a version with more peanut butter, a version with more chocolate, a version with the peanut butter on the outside and chocolate inside, a cup with caramel added, a cup with marshmallow added, a cup with honey roasted peanut butter, a cup with hazelnut cream, a thicker, darker chocolate cup, and the double crunch cup with a peanut and nougat filling. That doesn't count the special crunchy cookie cup which was a layered cup with crushed cookies and peanut butter that hasn't been made in a decade, or the Elvis-inspired peanut butter and banana creme from a few years ago. Oh, and the peanut butter and banana version was available in standard, miniature, and big cup size. Of course the big cups are also available with white chocolate, with peanuts, mixed nuts, and with a nut and caramel combination. And now, they've introduced the Minis, which are smaller than miniatures and unwrapped (which is good for folks like me who hate wasting time wrapping those little suckers).

Then, you have the other candy bars that the Reese's name has gone on. Certainly you've seen the Fast Break Bar or the Peanut Butter Squares or the Nutrageous or another dozen or so that have hit the shelves. And that doesn't even count the peanut butter eggs or rabbits at this time of year!

So instead of inventing a new candy bar, a familiar name goes on the wrapper every time they stuff something new into an M & M. And in the meantime, some candy bars go missing. As a middle schooler, I remember selling candy bars at a school concession stand. The big favorite among the kids was a Marathon bar. As I recall (I was not a fan of these), it was a thin, stretched-out bar which I believe was chocolate covering some sort of shoe leather. The kids who liked it claimed it was caramel. All I know is, we sold a ton of those at a quarter a pop. And now, the Marathon bar isn't even being sold by nostalgic candy makers who specialize in old candy bars.

And why is it that many of the flavors you get in those Valentine's Day boxes of chocolates don't come in bars? Ever have a candy bar with that orange cream inside? Me either. Even the vanilla creams and maple creams are hard to find. The closest I can get is a Bun candy bar with the maple cream and peanuts. Those used to be made in Fort Wayne, but now the brand belongs to another candy company. It's also about half the size it used to be. Or I'm twice as hungry. I can't be sure.

Once, the bunny drops his bundle of chocolatey goodness on the 24th, I'll see if this year's crop of candy is as good as it used to be. And if by chance my basket contains a Chunky or a Bounty or a Sugar Daddy, I'll let you know.