Sunday, February 27, 2011

Mardi Gras—Let The Good Times Roll

This year Mardi Gras falls on Tuesday, March 8. The date is tied to Easter which falls on the first Sunday after the full moon following the Spring Equinox. In the Catholic Church, it's Shrove Tuesday, also known as fat Tuesday.

In the most literal sense, the Mardi Gras celebration is the three days prior to Ash Wednesday which is the start of Lent. It's the last opportunity for partying and indulgence in food and drink. In practice, Mardi Gras…or Carnival, as it is called in many countries…is usually celebrated for a full week before the start of Lent.

Celebrations take place all over the world with the most famous modern day festivities being in New Orleans, Louisiana; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Nice, France; and Cologne, Germany.

Even though Mardi Gras is a Christian festival, it dates back to the pre-Christian spring fertility rites and embodies many of the traditions of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In the early Middle Ages, after converting pagan tribes to Christianity, the Catholic Church was still unable to abolish all the ancient traditions. To combat this, the Church ended up taking many ancient feasts and festivals originally celebrated in honor of pagan gods and adapted them to Christian beliefs. An example: today revelers on parade floats still dress as Bacchus, the Greek god of wine.

The first Mardi Gras celebration in the United States was near modern day New Orleans on March 3, 1699, but it was the mid 1800s before parade organizations, known as krewes, came into being. The official colors of Mardi Gras are purple, green, and gold, representing justice, faith, and power.

But what about that popular activity that has become a seemingly integral part of the New Orleans Mardi Gras, much to the chagrin of the festival purists? Women pulling up their shirts and flashing their bare breasts to procure some worthless plastic beads?

Exactly where did this tradition come from?

Well, first of all, it's not really a tradition. It's more along the lines of what has become a traditional activity in the same vein as getting stupid drunk and passing out now seems to fall into that same 'traditional' category. Over the years more and more media attention has been directed toward the drunken revelry that occurs on Bourbon Street which has helped in defining flashing as a traditional part of the Mardi Gras celebration.

Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your point-of-view, flashing in exchange for beads is mostly limited to the New Orleans' French Quarter. And even in the French Quarter, it's an illegal activity. Women flashing their bare breasts run the risk of being arrested.

Maybe flashing is not a true tradition, but you can't deny that it has become a custom. After all, the history of wild Mardi Gras behavior comes from celebrating the last day before Lent—Lent being a time of atonement. And this naturally lends itself to activities of excess and craziness.

And even flashing.

But there is one crazy excess even more daring than the momentary baring of the female breasts known as flashing. And what, you may ask, could that be? And the answer is having clothes painted on your bare skin. There are artists who specialize in this. It may have started as something simple and basic like face painting, but has grown to include full body artistic renderings. At a casual glance, it appears that the person is clothed. But on closer inspection, you discover that's far from the truth. Some of these examples shown below are basic and others are quite elaborate.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Outrageous New Taxes

It's not April 15 yet, but thoughts are definitely lingering on income tax. And thoughts of income tax time also bring thoughts of all the new taxes that seem to have popped up lately.

It took many years for the country to reach the economic problems we're battling today, a situation that can't possibly be corrected overnight. Local, state, and federal entities from coast to coast are scrambling to find additional revenue in these difficult economic times. Something to lessen the budget deficit while the economy is recovering. And to that end, some new taxes have been enacted on all levels. Many new taxes, especially at the state and local level, are referred to as "fees" in an attempt to lessen the sting of taxation. But a tax by any other name…

Some of these new taxes are already reality and others are still in the debate stage. But to be in the debate stage means someone thought it was a good idea.

Sin taxes have always been popular with lawmakers. Taxing items and activities that are considered vices—smoking, drinking, gambling—seems to be an easy way to raise revenue. But the definition of "sin" seems to be expanding to include new things.

Card Tax: In Alabama, anyone who purchases a deck of cards is charged a card tax of 10 cents. The law states that the tax only applies to a deck containing "no more than 54 cards" which is the standard 52 card deck plus the 2 jokers. So if the manufacturer makes a blunder and your deck contains 55 cards, apparently that gives you a free pass on the tax?

Nudity Tax: Any business in Utah where "nude or partially nude individuals perform any service" are required to pay a 10 percent sales and use tax. The tax is levied against all revenue including admission fees, merchandise, food, drink, and unspecified "services." I wonder what is considered "partially nude" under this law? What about a life guard? Is that a partially nude person providing a service?

Tanning Tax: And for those living in a winter climate who want to maintain that golden tan year round? You'll be paying a 10 percent excise tax on using a tanning salon. This tax is expected to raise a surprising $2.7 billion over 10 years.

Candy Tax: In Kentucky, having a sweet tooth can cost you more than it used to. They now have a new sales tax on any food considered to be candy. However, the definition of what is and what isn't candy is controversial (and confusing). For example, Kentucky's definition says a Reese's Peanut butter Cup is candy, but a Milky Way is not candy. And to add to the confusion, there are seemingly healthy foods that have been classified as candy. If a breakfast bar contains natural or artificial sweeteners along with fruits, nuts or other healthy ingredients, but does not have any flour and does not require refrigeration, it's considered candy and is taxed as such. However, breakfast cereals with the exact same ingredients are not considered candy and not taxed. And the difference between the two under the eyes of that law? I haven't the foggiest idea! In looking at my Nutri-Grain bar, I see that it says Nutri-Grain Cereal Bar rather than breakfast bar. I wonder if that makes a difference in Kentucky?

New York City has come up with some unusual things over the years, but in scrambling to increase revenues they've proposed some truly strange new taxes.

Crash Tax: In January, the New York City Fire Department proposed a new crash tax which stirred up some very heated debate. This proposal calls for a $500 fine for anyone in an accident that requires emergency response vehicles (paramedics, ambulance, fire truck, etc.) at the scene.

Haunted House Tax: If a haunted house attraction includes music and the admission is more than 10 cents, then sales tax is charged. Yet the same New York City with one of the greatest theater districts in the world does not charge tax on theater-goers who see a musical comedy, go to the opera, or attend a chamber music performance. Does taxing a 10 cent admission to a haunted house while ignoring a $100 theater ticket make any sense to you?

Bagel Tax: If you purchase a bagel and take it home to eat, it's tax free. But, if you eat that same bagel at the bagel shop, you have to pay sales tax.

And New York City isn't alone is what seems to be desperation moves to increase revenue.

Death Tax: As of January 2011, it costs extra money to die in King County (Seattle) Washington. The county has levied a $50 fee for reporting a death to the Medical Examiner's Office. If you choose not to report it? Simple…if you don't pay the fee, you don't get the permission and necessary paperwork in order to be buried.

Until the economy recovers and the huge deficit budgets at all levels of government are under control, you can probably expect to see more of these outrageous taxes.

Do you have any new taxes of the absurd variety in your city, county, or state?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Valentine's Day—The Good And The Bad

The Good:

Valentine's Day is that time of the year when cards, flowers, candy, jewelry, and other tokens of affection are given to loved ones in the name of St. Valentine. But who is St. Valentine and why do we celebrate his holiday every year?

One legend says Valentine was a priest in the third century in Rome. Emperor Claudius II decided single men made better soldiers so he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. Claudius ordered him put to death.

Another story has Valentine killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons where they were beaten and tortured.

And yet another story says Valentine was the one who sent the first 'Valentine Greeting' while he was in prison. He fell in love with a young girl, possibly the jailor's daughter, who visited him while he was imprisoned. Before his death, he wrote her a letter and signed it 'From your Valentine,' an expression that has transcended time to continue as a common expression for the holiday.

St. Valentine's Day, as we know it today, is a combination of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition. One theory says we celebrate Valentine's Day in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine's death or burial which probably occurred around 270A.D., while others believe that the Christian church may have decided to celebrate Valentine's feast day in the middle of February in an effort to 'Christianize' celebrations of the pagan Lupercalia festival.

According to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated one billion valentine cards are sent each year, making Valentine's Day the second largest card-sending holiday, surpassed only by the exchange of Christmas cards. Valentine's Day is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France, and Australia in addition to the United States.

The Bad:

The St. Valentine's Day massacre—the most spectacular gangland slaying in mob history.

Al Capone ('known' to be the mastermind, but never charged for the crime) had arranged for his chief rival, Chicago mobster George "Bugs" Moran and most of his North Side Gang, to be eliminated on February 14, 1929. The plan was simple and deviously clever, yet Capone's primary target escaped any injury. Capone distanced himself from the execution of the plan (and the execution of his rivals) by spending the time at his home in Florida.

A bootlegger loyal to Capone was to draw Moran and his gang to a warehouse to receive a shipment of smuggled whiskey, the delivery set for 10:30AM on Valentine's Day.

The morning of February 14 was cold and snowy. A group of Moran's men waited for Bugs at the red brick warehouse at 2122 North Clark Street. Moran was running late. When his car turned the corner onto Clark Street, he spotted a police wagon pulling up to the warehouse. Assuming it was a raid, he watched as five men, three of them dressed in police uniforms, entered the building. Moran and the two men with him, immediately left the area.

Inside the warehouse, Moran's men were confronted by the hit men disguised as police. Assuming it was a routine bust, they followed instructions when ordered to line up against the wall. The hit men opened fire with Thompson submachine guns, killing six of the seven men immediately. The seventh man, with twenty-two bullet wounds, survived the attack but died after arriving at the hospital.

The newspapers instantly picked up on the crime, dubbing it the "St. Valentine's Day Massacre." The story appeared on front pages around the country, making Capone a national celebrity. But to his dismay, this new found celebrity also brought a new level of attention from federal law enforcement culminating in his conviction for tax evasion and incarceration at Alcatraz.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Chocolate--The Food Of Love

Valentine's Day is just around the corner, the day the chocolate industry happily counts its profits. Certainly other items also come to mind such as cards, flowers, and jewelry. But chocolate reigns supreme for the holiday.

The history of chocolate goes back over two thousand years. Cocoa has long been associated with passion, romance, and love. It's a concept that goes back to the Aztecs with archaeological records indicating that the Mayans were consuming cocoa as long ago as 600 B.C., possibly even earlier than that.

The Aztecs believed it was a source of spiritual wisdom, energy, and sexual power. It was widely served at wedding ceremonies. The ancient civilizations of Central and South America did not know chocolate as we do today. They consumed cocoa as a drink, its naturally bitter taste possibly altered by adding chili peppers to the water and cocoa.

When the Spanish explorers first brought cocoa home with them in 1585, they experimented by mixing it with sugar and vanilla to make a sweeter tasting drink. The result was a type of hot chocolate popular among the upper classes who were the only ones who could afford it. Cocoa was also added to baked goods to give them added flavor. By the first half of the eighteenth century cocoa production had increased and the price fallen so that it became affordable to the general population of Europe and also the European colonies in the New World.

By the nineteenth century things were moving along nicely for those involved in the manufacture of chocolate. In 1828, Conrad van Houton of Holland invented a process to make a refined cocoa powder which increased the output of the usable powder from a given crop of cocoa beans which further lowered the price.

The first chocolate candies as we know them today were invented in the 1860s by Cadbury, a British candy maker, who was also the first to sell them in a heart-shaped box for Valentine's Day.

Another big advance came in 1878 when a Swiss chocolate seller, Daniel Peter, invented a process for making candy out of milk chocolate—a process picked up by Nestle. In 1913 Jules Sechaud, a Swiss chocolate maker, created the first chocolate candy with cream and other fillings and the modern soft centered chocolate candies were born.

And thus chocolate candies joined the ranks of flowers and jewelry in the courtship ritual.

Chocolate, including chocolate candy, is liked by most people, but women tend to have a somewhat greater affinity for it than men. Chocolate is more than food. It not only fills your stomach, it also makes you feel good. Many people believe that chocolate is an aphrodisiac. While it is true that chocolate does contain organic substances which have a physical feel good affect on the body, the amounts are not that great.

Critics claim the benefits of eating chocolate are small compared to the sugar and fat contained in a chocolate bar. However, the best chocolate—dark chocolate with high cocoa butter content rather than milk chocolate—has no added fat with a high percentage of cocoa solids and correspondingly less sugar. Chocolate will never be considered a health food based on its nutritional value, but it is still good for you. It's good for your heart, relieves stress, and makes you feel good. What more could you want?

Chocolate has long been associated with passion, romance, and love. This association goes all the way back to the Aztecs. Valentine's Day is a celebration of romance. Chocolate is both an everyday pleasure and a token of love. Valentine's Day and chocolate make a perfect match. Men have long known in dealing with women that chocolate is always a safe gift. Chocolate is given as a token of love and is equally viable as a peace offering when he has done something to anger his love.

Chocolate—the all purpose taste treat that's good any time of the year.