Monday, December 30, 2013

The Truth About Sandy Hook…Revealed?

According to author Matthew Lysiak, mainstream media accounts of the Newtown, Conn. Massacre may not tell the full story regarding one of the grimmest tragedies in U.S. history.

“Yet I think the demon’s target is not the possessed; it is us…the observers…every person in this house. And I think -- I think the point is to make us despair; to reject our own humanity, Damien: to see ourselves as ultimately bestial; as ultimately vile and putrescent; without dignity; ugly; unworthy. And there lies the heart of it perhaps: in unworthiness. For I think belief in God is not a matter of reason at all; I think it finally is a matter of love; of accepting the possibility that God could love us.”

-- William Peter Blatty, “The Exorcist” (1971)

“We are Sandy Hook. We choose love.”

I remain somewhat conflicted about Matthew Lysiak’s new book, “Newtown: An American Tragedy.” On one hand, it is a spectacularly written account of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, filled to the brim with (most likely reputable) information on one of the gravest mass shootings in the nation’s history. At the same time, however, I question whether the author’s claims that his work is “the definitive journalistic account” of the incident is truly a credible statement, especially when you consider that the “definitive journalistic account” of the Columbine massacre wasn’t released until a decade after the incident. Indeed, the full Connecticut state police write-up has only recently been released, and who knows whether full documentation regarding Adam Lanza’s education and medical histories will ever see the light of day. When Lysiak calls his own work -- a relatively scant 250 page read, at that -- the be-all, end-all write up on Sandy Hook, I can’t help but remain more than a little skeptical of his assertions.

Lysiak spent a year more or less living in Newtown, speaking to individuals impacted by the Dec. 14 massacre. Of course, a lot of the author’s contacts are quoted under pseudonyms, but since a majority of his details match up with the precious few details officials actually have revealed about Adam Lanza and the shooting itself, I’d venture to guess that Lysiak is a pretty credible source. Of course, it’s where Lysiak diverges from the “accepted narrative” regarding Sandy Hook that makes the book most intriguing.

The few “official” documents we’ve been given about the massacre and the Lanza household paint Adam’s mother as a deeply committed, if not ridiculously na├»ve, caregiver. Citing friends and family of Nancy Lanza, however, Lysiak said that she was more than aware of her youngest son’s weirder proclivities, telling her beer drinking buddies that she had snooped through Adam’s room and uncovered seriously disturbing drawings, and even confided in some that her kid was beyond the point of hopelessness shortly before he embarked upon his murderous spree. Really, the author’s portrait of Nancy is one of the more intriguing elements of the entire book, as he describes her as a super-obsessive, highly-combative country girl (financially buttressed by a $200,000 plus a year alimony) that may or may not have been in the first stages of developing multiple sclerosis prior to her execution. Really, it’s the small details that make the book so entrenching, like when the author cites Nancy’s street assault in the 1980s as a possible trigger for her gun fetish, and how Lysiak completely flips the script about her uber-protective image by describing how she took numerous cross-country trips in 2012, leaving Adam at home for days on end without even bothering to call him. Regarding Peter Lanza, there’s not a whole lot here, although the author feels fit to tell us that he was a workaholic Reaganite, however.

The portrait of Adam Lanza in the book is pretty much what we’d expect. Diagnosed with Asperger’s at age five, Lysiak also claims that he was diagnosed with the non-DSM-certified “illness” of sensory processing disorder, which explains the his highly-documented aversion to lights and hallway chatter. He is also described as having some sort of physical tactile disorder (unable to differentiate between hot and cold, yet highly irritated by certain fabrics and food textures), which several analysts later in the book posit as a root cause to Lanza’s future behavior, with one pundit going as far as to say that it was Lanza’s inability to properly communicate his dismay with others that ultimately led to his mass murder of 27 individuals.

The big turning point, the author suggests, was when Nancy took Adam out of Newtown High. As a member of the Tech Club, Lanza’s one-time mentor Robert Novia said that he was getting pretty close to adjusting to high school life, and that with a little bit more time and assistance from the faculty (who went as far as to giving the boy an escort every time he ventured out into the hallways), his interaction and communication skills were surely on the precipice of improving. With Novia leaving the school, however, the author said that Nancy lost the one school personnel figure she could trust, and as a result, decided to homeschool her kid and sign him up for community college classes instead. It was Nancy’s utter spite of the local school system, Lysiak seems to be stating, that perhaps represented the first toppled domino in a chain reaction that would eventually lead to the gruesome murders of 20 children and six educators…not to mention her own demise.

There’s really not much new in the book about Lanza himself at all. We hear about his video gaming and Internet addiction, and his obsession with military weaponry. Ultimately, the only new facts I learned from the book about Adam was that he was a vegan and he really, really wanted to join the Marines. One of the interesting points brought up by the book is that it very well could have been Nancy telling Adam that he wasn’t cut out for military duty that served as her son’s final breaking point -- according to Lysiak, that’s precisely what she told Adam, just days before the massacre.

Perhaps now is a good time to trudge up Lysiak’s most incendiary claim in the entire book -- that Lanza’s original destination that morning wasn’t the elementary school, but Newtown High. According to an unnamed source, Lanza’s vehicle was picked up on the school’s security cameras, and apparently, he floored it out of there upon seeing two cop cars in the parking lot. Needless to say, for those of you out there that feel as if the Sandy Hook Massacre could’ve have potentially been averted had school resource officers been on campus…well, feel free to put a feather in your cap anytime you’d like, I suppose.

The accounts of the Sandy Hook Elementary Massacre itself is one of the most gripping, disturbing, and horrifyingly mesmerizing slices of nonfiction that I’ve read in a long time. Lysiak’s graphic, highly-detailed account of the morning of the massacre -- and a bit later on in the book, the funerals for all 26 victims -- is reason enough to purchase the tome. The heroics of Jesse Lewis, Rick Thorne and Dawn Hochsprung described by the author provide an amazing counterbalance to the sheer horror of the morning’s bloodshed, which is painted in an almost unbearably visceral, detached style, sure to inspire nightmares for all but the most deadened readers. The classroom-by-classroom account of the morning is unforgettably tense and nerve-wracking, and without question the most intricate documentation of the incident out there. Prepare to feel nauseous when you read that some of the teachers in the building didn’t even have keys for their own classrooms -- meaning that, in spite of all of the politicking about gun control and mental health and other sociocultural influences, the one element most responsible for the deaths of two dozen innocent people was the school simply not giving its personnel the ability to lock their own goddamn doors.

The final fourth of Lysiak’s book is the most philosophical section of the book, in which he glosses over the shooting’s political and cultural impact. We hear your usual stuff about gun control (all you need to know there? After the massacre, five states intensified their gun laws, while 15 loosened them), mental health access (surprise, in the U.S., it’s not very good) and whether or not Adam Lanza was a bona-fide psychopath (which, considering the fact that the APA doesn’t recognize “psychopathy” as an actual mental illness, is something of a moot point.)

And then we get to perhaps the most fascinating part of the book, in which we hear comments from Monsignor Robert Weiss, who was also asked by the author to pen the book’s foreword. After hearing all of this standard rhetoric about autism and violent video games and bad parenting and psychiatric drugs and gun laws, Nicole Hockley -- whose son Dylan Hockley, was among the 26 killed in the rampage -- turns everything around and makes the following statement:

I’m not sure if the author really intended on making a central message to his book, but if I had to venture a guess, that would be my key takeaway. At the end of the day, could it have been that the Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre may have been prevented had others in the lives of Nancy and Adam Lanza simply talked to them? If anything, what “Newtown: An American Tragedy” screams loudest is the unmistakable power of community involvement. Half the book is about how a family, completely isolated from the world around them, spiraled into absolute madness, and the other half of the book is about how individuals broke away from their own self-induced seclusion and came together for one another in a time of unthinkable chaos. Pro-social bonds is what gave Newtown life after an unspeakable tragedy, and it appears that a lack of pro-social bonds is what -- more than guns, mental illness and violent media combined -- sparked the deranged thoughts of a total shut-in.

As stated earlier, I’m still a little on the fence about the work, as a journalistic offering. Yes, it is incredibly well written and definitely worth reading for the narrative alone, but at the same time, I can’t help but feel as if the total book is a bit empty and devoid of hard information. Clearly, there is a LOT of info about the incident and Adam Lanza that hasn’t been publicized yet, and that official information may indeed invalidate everything the author posits here. I feel as if Lysiak himself knew he was a bit light on material, as he trudges up several tidbits over and over again throughout the novel -- something tells me he was trying DESPERATELY to beef up his word count and get that thing out there for the holiday season. That, and there are some flat out bullshit miffs in the tome, including a passage in which he says the kids at Columbine shot up their school because their video game systems were taken away from them. The fact that Lysiak doesn’t cite ANY sources in the book is another point of contention; just remember that the information you read here, while very solid-sounding, may not be the utter and complete “truth” about the incident.

So all in all? “Newtown” is a very engaging book, with some downright masterful accounts of one of our nation’s darkest hours. And in some ways, it’s an interesting philosophical treatise on the human condition -- the incredibly complicated thing that it is, especially in today’s machine-assisted, highly impersonalized cyber-society. That said, I still believe it’s a far cry from being the “ultimate” book on the Sandy Hook slayings; it’s an excellent summary, no doubt, but it’s most certainly not the all-encompassing report that the author -- or his publishing company, at least -- claims it to be.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Double Review: 12 Years a Slave / Dallas Buyers Club

Because nothing rings of “the holiday season” quite like racial strife and AIDS!

Christmastime means many things: eggnog and going into credit card debt and having to pretend that you don’t hate everybody in your family at an incredibly awkward dinner gathering, among them. Christmastime also means something else, though: it means Oscar Bait season at the local Cineplex is in full swing, so for the first (and only, really) time during the calendar year, you can waltz into a NORMAL theater and see something that’s not remarkably stupid for a change.

Me being me, when it came time to churn through this year’s Academy Award hopefuls, I elected to pursue the most horrifically depressing material I could find. Yeah, movies about outer space and French lesbians and the startling high number of “Goodfellas” wannabes out there piqued my curiosity, but at the end of the day, did you really expect me to turn down movies about HIV positive cowboys and violent involuntary servitude? Of course, you knew I wouldn’t. You knew I wouldn’t…

12 Years a Slave
Director: Steve McQueen

If there’s one thing 2013 taught me, it’s that with the popularity of films like this and “The Butler,” American audiences sure do seem to love them some African-American misery. In that, “12 Years a Slave” is this weird reverse-racist pornography, the kind of on-the-nose anti-bigotry Oscar bait you’d expect it to be, but at the same time, an almost obsessive tribute to historical black suffering. Say what you will, but at the end of the day, “12 Years a Slave” is ultimately a lot more “Hostel” than it is “Sounder.”

For the uninitiated, “12 Years” is based upon the nonfiction work of the same name, not penned by Solomon Northup -- whose actual life pre-slavery seemed to be just a tad different than what the film conjectures, but what the hell ever, right?

So one day, Solomon -- played by Chiwetel Eijofor, in a performance that’s probably going to garner at least an Oscar nomination -- is hanging out in the park, when some carnival folks invite him for a night out. He ends up drinking some drugged mead, and he wakes up inside a D.C. prison, the unwilling victim of some convoluted Shanghai job that’s never really explored in-depth by the film’s narrative. And so, the classically trained violinist finds himself ported down South, where everybody has mutton chops and says racist things. Thankfully for Northup -- well, I guess thankfully, anyway -- his first “master” (played by Smaug himself) is a semi-humanitarian plantation owner that treats most of his slaves respectfully. However, Solomon’s waterway engineering feats earns him the scorn of Paul Dano, who plays the kind of one-dimensional, homicidally violent racist cracker that no quasi-historically accurate film about U.S. life between the years 1800 to 1970 would be complete without. Eventually, Northup and Dano’s character have a bout of the fisticuffs, and Dano responds by almost hanging him to death. Northup’s master, fearing that it’s only a matter of time until Dano finishes the job, decides to send Northup to another plantation -- this one under the eye of Michael Fassbender, who plays a bipolar, slave-raping paedo whose jungle fever for an almost assuredly under-the-age field worker (played by Lupita Nyong’o) really, really pisses off his wife.

As bad as Solomon’s treatment in the film is, it’s really the punishment absorbed by Nyong’o’s character Patsey that’s probably the hardest element of the film to witness. In one scene, she’s drilled in the face by a wine bottle, and another, Fassbender has his evil Southern-by-way-of-Germany way with her on a woodpile. The centerpiece of the film, however, is when Patsey pays for retrieving soap from a nearby plantation owner’s wife (who, peculiarly, happened to be black herself), by receiving one of the most gruesome beatings in the annals of cinema. Next to our lord and savior in “The Passion of the Christ” or that one girl in “MASD-004,” I don’t think ANYBODY has received such heinous per capita abuse in a single film as she does in “12 Years a Slave.”

Eventually, Northup meets up with Brad Pitt, a Canadian carpenter abolitionist who just sort of shows up one day, and he mails a letter that gets Northup’s business associate up north to hitch his wagons southward and free him for good. Of course, by doing so, Northup leaves behind all of the unfreed field workers -- among them, the slave girl that once asked him to drown her in a river -- but bullocks to that; we conclude with your expectedly saccharine ending, in which Northup is reunited with his family, who have all grown up and had kids of their own and whatnot. Too bad Northup’s actual fate post-freedom was nowhere near as cherry as the film leads you to believe, though.

As a feature film, “12 Years” is pretty damn great, though. Steve McQueen is a tremendous director with a keen eye for details, and the ensemble cast here is just fantastic. Eijofor and Fassbender are both Academy Awards bound for sure, but if you ask me, it was Nyong’o that put in the film’s strongest overall performance; whether or not she gets a best supporting actress nod -- especially in such a crowded field  of probable contenders -- however, is something we’ll just have to wait and see.

Rolling Stone recently called this film the best movie ever made about slavery. Well, I’m not so sure about that claim, but there’s no denying that this is an excellent cinematic foray, and where it flails in historical accuracy, it more than makes up for with sheer cinematic flair and gusto. It may not be the finest film on the subject, but it remains an outstanding film, nonetheless. Also, my screening of the film contained what is unquestionably the greatest movie going experience of my life, when during a whipping scene, some dude in the front row screamed “Get Django, motherfucker!


Three and a Half Tofu Dogs out of Four

Dallas Buyers Club
Director: Jean Marc Vallee

So way back in the eighth grade, I took a health education course. One week was dedicated to sexually transmitted diseases, culminating with a Friday lecture about AIDS. For whatever reason, that in-class discussion about HIV and shared needles and infection via sexual fluids positively traumatized me, to the point where I almost threw up on my desk. I actually had to run to the bathroom, because I felt like I was going to pass out if I heard anything more about thrush and Kaposi's sarcoma.

So, yeah, that’s one of those things that I’ve kinda’ forgotten about over the last fifteen years. And then, I sit down and start watching “Dallas Buyers Club,” and suddenly, all of that profound pre-teen horror comes roaring back.

I think it was the part where Matthew McConnaughey gets into a fistfight and HIV blood starts splashing around all over the place that I first got a little queasy. The scene after he’s first diagnosed -- in which he willingly infects a couple of ultra-trashy prostitutes in his trailer park home -- almost, ALMOST, lead me to exiting the theater. However, I was able to weather the storm, and I’m glad I did, because this is a really great movie, anchored around yet another almost-certain-to-be-Oscar-bound performance.

So, Matt M. plays a Rodeo cowboy electrician that sort of looks like Richard Petty, and he bribes this one dude at the hospital to score him some AZT. The only problem is, AZT don’t do a whole lot, so he starts doing research on international HIV treatments. Eventually, he winds up in Mexico, where he scores a whole stash of non FDA-approved vitamins and supplements from a disbarred doctor. Over time, Matt M. hooks up with Jared Leto -- who plays a transgender AIDS patient (chalk up another best supporting actor nod there) -- and the two decide to open up a “buyers club” in a scummy hotel, for HIV patients that want some non-regulated medications and stuff.

Before long, Matt is traveling the world over, shooting himself up with experimental Japanese drugs and nearly dying in airport bathrooms, all the while getting hassled by the DEA and FDA for all of that non-sanctioned (and later, flat out illegal) drug trafficking. He soon hooks up with a caring pharmacy rep (played by Elektra), and Matt moves out of the hotel and sets up a new business in the home of two of his top patients.

Well, this being a movie about AIDS and all, I guess you can predict that we ain’t having a happy ending with this one. The big finale involves Matt traveling to San Francisco and losing a big FDA suit, only to return home to Dallas and get a huge ovation from all of his purchasers. And then he dies, and the credits roll, and all you can really think about is, “you know, something honey? Fuck the Federal Drug Administration, and hard."

So yeah, this is a very well-directed film, and the ensemble cast is just terrific. I’m not sure if Matt or Jared are going to win any awards for this one, but they’ll definitely get nominated. As an overall film, I really can’t quibble with too much; it appears to be more historically accurate than most modern-day biopics, and I really liked the fact that they didn’t try to paint Matthew’s character as some sort of saint-like figure. At the beginning of the film, he’s a homophobic, womanizing prick, and at the end of the film, he’s still a homophobic, womanizing prick, albeit one that’s a little bit more empathetic. It’s a very, very strong film, powered by a trifecta of very strong performances; an all-time masterpiece, it may not be, but it’s definitely a satisfying -- if not surprisingly apolitical -- experience.


Three and Half Tofu Dogs out of Four

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Round-Up of the Seasonal Foodstuffs of Christmas 2013!

A recap of the most mirthful, limited-time only comestibles of the holiday season!

You know, if I learned one thing this holiday season, it's that if you see an opportunity to snatch up an esoteric snackcake you've never laid eyes on before, it's probably for the best if you picked that sumbitch up right then and there.

I can't tell you how many awesome novelty foods I encountered around early November that I thought about picking up, but hesitated to purchase. Little Debbie brownies shaped like Santa Claus faces, gingerbread Twix, even candy-cane flavored Oreos; all incredibly tempting treats that I waited way too long to pick up. By mid-December, such products were virtually removed from store shelves; in their place, a million billion "Duck Dynasty" chocolate bars and winter-themed (and non weird-ass tasting) Oreos that nobody in their right mind could ever give a shit about, sadly.

While this year's stash may not have been as awesome as last year's collection, there were still quite a few seasonal items of interest that graced our grocery stores in 2013. Here's my anything but thorough round-up of the gimmick foods that, this Yuletide season, ROCKED MY PROVERBIAL CHRISTMAS TREE...

Little Debbie Christmas Marshmallow Treats!

A great place to begin, obviously, is with Little Debby. In the past, I have chided the manufacturer for, essentially, repackaging the exact same item for Valentine's Day, Easter and Halloween, but you know what? Who cares, when the overall product is so delicious (and suspiciously interchangeable depending on the season, with absolutely NO variation in flavor or texture from holiday-to-holiday!)

Well, uh, I guess there isn't too much to say about these, I guess. They're marshmallowy, they're really gooey, and they taste just the same as the did on Feb. 14, Oct. 31, and whenever Jesus's resurrection is supposed to be. Over the holidays, I have to say these things have grown on me, though; at first a bit indifferent to them, I now consider them a staple of my holiday diet...which may also explain my recent acquisition of jaundice, apparently.

Pillsbury Holiday Funfetti RUDOLPH RED Frosting!

Pillsbury FUNFETTI frosting is quickly becoming my favorite things ever. Ever since I sucked down some of their patriotic goo last July, I've been a bonafide frosting-a-holic. I didn't really think anything could eclipse the brand's super-spooky orange vanilla frosting from Halloween, but you know what, folks! I was wrong...deliciously, deliciously wrong.

For one thing, there's the hue. Despite the blood red tincture, I assure you this thing tastes as vanilla as...well, something that's really vanilla. As always, you get an extra, vacuum-sealed tray filled with holiday-themed sprinkles, which this time around, is mostly a bunch of green, red an white trees and dots. But really, it's the namesake of this thing that automatically makes it a qualifier for the best thing ever: RUDOLPH RED frosting. Go ahead, say it a couple times. RUDOLPH RED, RUDOLPH RED, RUDOLPH RED. If anything felt any better rolling off your tongue, the FDA would probably have to regulate it.

Most folks will consider this the grossest thing this side of that part in "Robocop" where the dude got toxic wasted, but I've actually began using the frosting...sprinkles and something of a dessert dip. Yeah, it sounds disgusting as all hell at first, but after you dunk a few Oreos in there, you'll understand why I do it. Which brings me to the product's biggest fault: for those of you fond of NOT having menstrual fluid-hued marks all over the place, keep in mind that this stuff will stain your hands like a son of a Bumble.

Candy Cane Hershey's Bars!

Candy Cane-flavored Hershey's Bars...because why the hell not, I reckon! All in all, I can't say I've ever been a particularly huge fan of the brand (dark chocolate >>>> milk chocolate, and the whole guldarn world knows it), but who knows? This ain't your grandaddy's Hershey's...we're getting all different shades of peppermint with this shit, after all.

I really, really liked the packaging for this one. The  little peppermint stripes on the east and west coasts of the package remind me of those old school international envelopes, which I've only ever seen in old-ass movies and "Shenmue" on the Sega Dreamcast. The minimalist aesthetics actually kinda' work here, making the product a rare example of mostly blank space being a visual positive, from a marketing standpoint. 

Alas, my opinion of the candy bar itself is nowhere near as cheery...primarily because the product is, without hyperbole, the most disgusting-looking food I've ever seen. I mean, a good goddamn, look at that, ya'll -- it looks like a pound of human flesh, speckled with smallpox pustules. I literally gagged a little when I unwrapped my first package. That said, the candy bar itself isn't too horrific -- the peppermint/white chocolate combination actually works out quite well -- but again, THE CHICKENPOX SORES ALL OVER!

 Twix Santas!

Well, here's a product that employs the tried-and-true strategy of all lazy ass marketers who want to release something kinda' newish in time for the holidays, but without, you know, doing anything actually new.

STEP ONE: Take your standard product.

STEP TWO: Shape said product like Santa Claus.

STEP THREE: Sell, make money, use said money to make lavish purchases to fill the tremendous void in your own soul that no number of material riches can ever truly anesthetize.

But, uh, yeah, beyond that, it's an OK candy bar, I suppose. I can't say I'm necessarily a huge fan of Twix in General, but the combination here works out a little bit better than you'd probably expect. I also like the particular, chocolate-filled blankness in Santa's eyes. It's almost as if you can see the internal desolation residing within his cookie-stick filled corpuscles, really...

Gingerbread M&Ms!

At last estimate, there's only about four fa-fillion M&M variations out there, so I suppose it's not all that surprising that Mars decided to release variation four fa-fillion and one for Christmas 2013.

The first thing you'll notice about the products is the strong, burnt-coffee odor that assails your nostrils as soon as you rip open the bag. Before you even know what colors the candy bits are (red, green and brown, in case you are wondering), you'll start second-guessing whether or not you left the Keurig machine on all day. As a general rule, that's probably not the first impression you want your product to make.

Needless to say, your mileage will vary on how much you enjoy said M&Ms. I've talked to some folks that found them completely inedible, but I didn't think they were that bad. Yeah, just nibbling one or two at a time leaves a somewhat gross taste in your mouth, but if you eat these things they way they were intended to -- by jamming twenty or so at a time in your maw like a famished seaman -- you'll realize "hey, these things are actually kinda' decent." Because they are, in actuality. 

Little Debbie's Red Velvet Christmas Tree Cakes!

I couldn't find the Santa Brownies, so I had to settle for LD's "Red Velvet Christmas Tree Cakes" instead. I really like the packaging o this one, primarily because of its' somewhat subversive depiction of Jolly Ol' Saint Nick. Look at him up there, with his feet propped up, nibbling on what appears to be a mountain of Little Debby snackcakes. That's right, you fat exploiter of indigenous eat up real good.

The snack cakes themselves are fairly uncreative, but I can't slight them. I mean, how often is it that a thing-shaped dessert actually winds up actually LOOKING like the thing it's supposed to look like, anyway? Lest we forget the company's famed "Pumpkin Delights," which looked more like that giant clown robot ship Bowser rides in the last stage of "Super Mario Worlds" than Jack O' Lantens.

As for the taste of the products, they were all right. The packaging promises us a red velvet flavor, but I really couldn't tell the difference between this kind of filling and the general type of filling you find in every other Little Debby product. Aesthetically, it looks pretty cool though, and chewing the green things and revealing the red and white center kinda' makes me feel like I'm cutting a dinosaur in half.

Buck Bars!

What's a "Buck Bar," you may be asking? Well, I was just as curious as you were. By the looks of the packaging, I expected the internal contents to look like...well, a dollar bill of sorts, perhaps with a deer on it...

...only to find a generic, crap-tasting candy bar, segmented into squares that don't even break apart on the designated fault lines.

Yeah, this Buck Bar can go buck itself, all right. 

Little Debbie's Christmas Spice Cookie Wreaths!

And for our grand finale, one more Little Debbie offering, this time, something called a "Christmas Spice Cookie Wreath." As to what spices fundamentally make up "Christmas spice," I remain dumbfounded. Ginger and cinnamon, I'm guessing? 

The cookies sure do look pretty, though. I suppose they are supposed to resemble snow covered wreaths, but being a guy that's lived in the American Dirt Belt his entire life, I have no idea what such a sight would resemble. 

But yeah, it's an all right cookie. It's a bit cinnamon-esque, and a bit gingery; not my most beloved flavors, but the crunchiness and frosting helps things gel together rather well. It probably won't change your world, I guess, but if you need to eat something that's sugary, circular and a little bumpy...well, this is a much better option than dipping a Ritz cracker in Funfetti frosting, for sure.

All in all, I suppose I can't complain too much about this year's Holiday lode. Sure, it would've been nice to hop into some of the kookier and more elaborate products out there (apparently, novelty holiday food hoarders are one of the nation's largest growing populations), but what can I say? I got to be disappointed by milk chocolate candies, was grossed the hell out by a Hershey bar, and I dipped a whole bunch of already saccharine things into a creamy, sugary abyss named after a fictitious elk.

Sounds like quite the Yuletide cheer, don't it?

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Truth About “Rape Culture” in the U.S.

You’ve heard a lot of “facts” about the prevalence of sexual assault in American society…and most of what you’ve been told is brazenly false. 

Over the last few months, I’ve noticed the term “rape culture” coming up in more and more conversations among my acquaintances. I tended to ignore the term at first, thinking it was some sort of en vogue overstatement popularized by some media guru I’ve never heard of before. But recently, I realized that this whole “rape culture” shtick isn’t just considered legitimate by many, it’s actually reported as by-golly FACT by many organizations and outlets.

In theory (of the ultra-radical feminist variety, of course) a “rape culture” is allegedly a social philosophy of sorts in which sexual victimization of women is not only trivialized, but encouraged via media influences. So, in short, it’s more or less yet ANOTHER slight against “masculinity” as a concept, with neo-neo-feminists basically associating any and all “traditional” traits of manliness with characteristics of sexual violence.

Now, I’m no “men’s rights advocate,” but the rape culture construct to me, at least, seems incredibly alarmist and, to some degree, inherently prejudiced. Call me old-fashioned, but when I see The Christian Science Monitor publishing a story titled “How Can I Raise My Boy to Not Rape?”, I get just a wee bit flummoxed.

The “rape culture” theory is INHERENTLY offensive, because it hinges on a hypothesis that is not only wildly unrealistic, but dreadfully discriminatory: that being, the concept that all heterosexual MEN are, at heart, savage beasts that, at any moment, can do away with the social contract and go all Kobe Bryant in Colorado on any female he desires. For the “rape culture” theory to work, think about all of the astounding truths about human biology and society that have to serve as antecedents: number one, men, as biological beings, would have to be genetically driven to rape. Two, patriarchal society would have to find a way to make this genetic reality an accepted component of the social framework. And three, culture, as a whole, would have to find a way to ceaselessly re-transmit the second point as socially permissible.

The biggest slight to the “rape culture” theory is pretty obvious: if the male power hegemony was biologically driven to rape, and they have complete control over the political arena, then why is rape considered a crime in virtually every nation in the world that’s even REMOTELY developed? Maybe it’s just me, but isn’t the fact that mostly male LAWMAKERS came together and decided that the non-consensual sexual exploitation of women was something that deserved to be severely punished all the proof you need that “rape” is something NOT encouraged by culture as a whole?

Ah, but the second wave feminists have a fine retort to that one; you see, the “rape culture” isn’t a political matter, it’s an unstated, invisible, cultural one. Yeah, rape is illegal, but the alleged code among men is that rape itself isn’t bad, just getting caught doing it is.

And so, we find the entire “rape culture” debate, even now, resting on this one postulate: that, in spite of social laws, heterosexual men -- naturally -- are inclined to WANT to rape women, and the culture at large promotes and encourages sexual exploitation under the auspices that he that does the raping is never “caught” or brought before a judge for said raping.

The modern “rapist,” as such, is something of a cultural boogeyman, a composite reductionism that generally comes in two varieties: the much maligned “frat-boy” type (especially any athletic ones, who have been universally demonized by a now mainstream “nerd culture”) and the random weirdo stalker in the bushes. Of course, that last one is the one you hear the least about from “rape culture” propagators, because doing so would require them to admit that, perhaps, men that AREN’T white dude bros are also capable of committing sexual assault. Not only is the “rape culture” construct gloriously antagonistic against males as a collective, it’s ESPECIALLY antagonistic against Caucasian males, most of whom are guilty only of the unforgivable sin of having noticeable pigmentation absence.

Odds are, you’ve heard a lot of stuff spewed out of the gullets of “rape culture” agenda-setters and activists. Now, here’s a dose of something you’re unlikely to hear from a supporter of such an idea -- the truth.

More men are probably raped in the United States than women. 

According the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, there were an estimated 83,000 forcible rapes reported in the U.S. in 2011. About 20 percent of those, however, were eventually investigated as either assault or attempted rape cases, bringing down the national total of investigated forcible rapes (which does not include statutory cases, mind you) to about 69,000 incidents as a higher-end estimate. With only 41 percent of those cases being cleared by arrests or “exceptional means”  in 2011 -- the last year the FBI has published data on rape rates -- a grand total of just 12,000 individuals were actually arrested for forcible rape offenses. By the way, the Uniform Crime Report ONLY tabulates forcible rapes in which females are victimized, so if you want a good, national estimate for the total number of males in the nation that are sexually victimized…well, looks like you’re S.O.L.

Now, let’s turn to this thing called the 2011-2012 National Inmate Survey, which indicates that at least 72,000 men experienced either inmate-on-inmate or staff sexual assault while in U.S. jails or prisons -- a number that’s already a couple of thousand incidents higher than the investigated number of rapes among the U.S. female public as a whole. But we’re not finished yet: then you get to annex the total number of juvenile male offenders in the U.S. adult corrections system into the mix, which adds another 6,000 sexual assaults to the tally. So, among incarcerated males alone, we’re already seeing a number of reported rapes that surpass -- or at the absolute least, rival -- the total number of public female rapes in the U.S.

The U.S. is not even close to being the worldwide leader in rape. 

If you look at the “hard” data presented by the FBI, it looks like the United States is the single rape-iest place on the planet, and it’s not even close. Take a look at this handy-dandy Wikipedia entry, which makes it glaringly apparent; not only does the U.S. lead the world in rape, it manages to do so by a gargantuan margin.

The problem here is two-fold. As already stated, the actual number of rapes in the U.S., as admitted by the FBI Uniform Crime Report, is actually quite a bit lower (at least by 20,000) than what this totally fair and unbiased Wiki entry posits. Similarly, international measurements of sexual assaults are likely incomplete and even less reliable than the already-suspicious U.S. figures -- that means it’s an almost guarantee that the federal statisticians in Mozambique and China are low-balling their estimates to the point of  utmost incredulity. But even with those factors taken into consideration, the other truth here is all but unavoidable; not only is the U.S. NOT the global leader in rape, it’s actually a lot further down the global totem pole than you may imagine.

For a moment, let’s say the 2011 Uniform Crime Report rates ARE 100 percent reliable. That means that, on a given year, roughly 0.05 percent of the total U.S. female populace experiences rape. That estimate alone puts 10 other nations ahead of the U.S. in terms of annual rapes per 100,000 females, meaning that you’re ultimately likelier to be sexually attacked in places like Belgium, the U.K, Australia and Panama than here in the States. And for some real perspective: the per 100,000 rate is actually twice as high in Sweden than it is the U.S. -- and triple and FIVE TIMES higher in Botswana and South Africa!

Most of the statistics you hear about rape in the U.S. are complete B.S.

The problem with rape statistics in the U.S. rests largely in the fact that agency criteria fluctuates so wildly. The fact of the matter is, whatever statistics you hear about rape in the U.S. are almost surely inaccurate, and some of the estimates espoused by interests groups like RAINN -- in particular, their assertion that one out of six women in the U.S. will experience rape at some point in their lives -- are INCREDIBLY dubious.

We’ve already discussed the FBI’s criteria, which completely omits male victims and women in confinement. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has its own report, the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, which does include both male and females, but it clumps rape together with a whole host of other offenses, including domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. According to CDC data from 2010, the total lifetime victimization rates for heterosexual males and females are rather similar -- 29 percent for men, 35 percent for women -- while the intimate partner rates for LGBT subjects were noticeably higher (for females, more than 50 percent, and for males, about 30 percent.)

Now, compare the FBI numbers and the CDC numbers to the estimates bandied about by the organization One in Four, whom (by clumping rape and sexual assault together), claim that 15 percent -- which they somehow report as one-out-of-four, statistically -- of U.S. female college students experience rape before turning 14.

And contrast THAT with the official RAINN estimates, which posit that about 15 percent of all American women have been the victims of completed rape at some point in their lives. And contrast THAT with Bureau of Justice Statistics, and the National Victims Center’s estimates.

The common theme here is a lack of a common theme, apparently. Since each agency and organization is using different criteria and metrics -- not to mention varying definitions of actually what constitutes “rape” as a crime -- it’s perhaps not at all surprising that the numbers swing about so inconsistently from report to report.

Which brings us to the mother of ALL misleading rape statistics in the U.S. -- the much-parroted one-in-four estimate that originally stemmed from a highly, HIGHLY scientifically unreliable “Ms.” article from the mid 1980s. That catchy little number is actually a false claim by the initial researchers to begin with, since that 25 percent estimate combines actual rapes and attempted rapes together. Going by the report’s own results, the ACTUAL number of women raped in the U.S. on an annual basis is just 15 percent -- in short, the same exact figures still being echoed by RAINN and similar organizations today.

But there’s just a few problems with that one report, not even beginning with researcher’s insane biases -- not for nothing, but the lead author of that report once said “rape represents an extreme behavior but one that is on a continuum with normal male behavior within the culture.” Confirmation bias much?

For one thing, the report ONLY involved college women in the U.S -- a rather small, and not exactly generalizable, microcosm of the U.S. as a whole. Secondly, the researchers used very vague wordings for what constituted nonconsensual sexual activity. And the gigantic fly in the ointment here? Of the survey respondents the researchers considered victims of rape, nearly 75 percent of them said THEY DID NOT PERSONALLY CONSIDER WHAT HAPPENED TO THEM TO BE RAPE, BUT WERE COUNTED AS RAPE VICTIMS ANYWAY.

As reporters at the Toledo Blade discovered quite a few years back, once you eliminate the false positives from the survey, the actual ratio of respondents that confirmed being the victims of rape was the much lower estimate of one-out-of-33. And even though the one-in-four claim has been debunked by numerous outlets, the figure is STILL disseminated as “fact” by quite a few organizations. And hey, speaking of being oblivious to mathematical proofs…

A LOT of women in the U.S. admit to having “rape fantasies.”

With something as complicated as rape, I think it’s worthwhile to explore EVERY single possible angle of the matter. If we’re going to talk about a supposed “rape culture” in the U.S., then perhaps its only reasonable that we explore “rape culture” from the other side of the aisle…namely, the astonishingly high percentage of women in the nation that actually admit to having fantasies about being sexually ravaged.

This compendium took a look at no less than nine surveys about rape fantasies published over a 25 year-period, with the aggregate report finding that roughly four out of 10 women have, at some point in their lives, had fantasies about being "forced" into sexual activities (for the mathematically minded out there, the range from the studies extended from about 30 percent to almost 60 percent of the female populace.) A majority of the women, it is perhaps worth stating, also reported having fantasies of the like at least once a month.

Which brings us to this 2009 report from the Journal of Sex Research. According to the findings here, at least a third of respondents admitted having sexual fantasies about rape explicitly, while more than half the survey takers admitted to having fantasies about being "overpowered" by a man sexually.

In all, the University of North Texas report revealed that 62 percent of the sample had rape fantasies, with the average respondent reporting four such fantasies annually (while 14 percent of the population, you might want to consider, admitted to having rape fantasies WEEKLY.) And the kicker to all of it? Just nine percent of the respondents said the fantasies were aversive, while HALF the sample said the fantasies were completely erotic in nature. Making things more iffy, about 46 percent of the population said their fantasies were both aversive AND erotic, meaning that for about half the women in the report, there seems to exist an extraordinarily vague line between sexual stimulation and sexual victimization. With that little patch of grey zone on our mind, let's turn to our final talking point, shall we?

Fake allegations of rape are EXTREMELY common throughout the U.S. 

So, we’ve all heard that “one in four” U.S. women can plan on being raped in their lifetime. And a couple of paragraphs back, we took a long gander at why that claim is, in every sense of the term, a load of steaming horse shit.

Well, with that in mind, there’s another “one in four” ratio that may be a factor here: namely, the suggestion that perhaps 25 percent of all rape claims in the U.S. are…gasp…fabricated!

Here's a 1996 report from the United States National Institute of Justice, titled "Convicted by Juries: Exonerated by Science: Case Studies in the Use of DNA Evidence to Establish Innocence After Trial."
Their findings are unmistakable: since 1989, the goddamn DOJ itself believes that a good 25 percent of those in the nation's corrections systems for "sexual assault" are innocent.

So what should we do when we see decades-long studies like this one, which claim that 40 percent of forcible rape cases are fabricated? Or what about the ones that claim that 45, 47 and even 90 percent or rape allegations might just be made up?

Even the lower-end estimates for falsified accounts rest on a spectrum from 2 percent to 10 percent of all rape allegations. If you want to talk about sexual discrimination, then you need to look no further than the fates of hoaxers like Tawana Brawley and Crystal Mangum -- individuals whom completely wrecked the lives of innocent people, sans any formal judicial reprimand at all. Fun fact: Mangum, the woman at the heart of the 2006 Duke Lacrosse scandal, was convicted with second degree murder in 2013. Huh...I wonder why we never heard anything about that from the national news outfits?

The legal system in the U.S. appears to be HEAVILY titled towards females in this domain, for sure. How else can you explain Elizabeth Coast's paltry two-month prison stay (weekends only, of course) for falsifying rape claims, when the man she falsely accused spent FOUR YEARS behind bars for something he never did? Or what about Chaneya Kelly, who falsely accused her father -- who is STILL in jail -- of raping her when she was nine?

That's sort of the unspoken penumbra of America's "rape culture" -- its massive "false rape culture" shadow that is all but verboten from national discourse.

Pictured: Two of the most trustworthy people in American history.

And I’ll conclude this little tirade by saying something that really shouldn’t HAVE to be said: no, I don’t think rape is acceptable, in any way, shape or form. It’s a horrible crime, and whoever does it, to anyone regardless of gender, is detestable and SHOULD suffer some severe criminal penalties. That said, to combat such a social blight, it’s not really all that laudable to do things like manufacture artificial statistics, completely overlook entire populations (that being, the prison populace and rape in the homosexual male demographics) and especially disregard auxiliary statistical truths about female sexuality in order to prove a point that, at the end of the day, is not only unfounded, but utterly prejudicial and unscientific. Why do men rape, then? Well, it’s because a very small sliver of the male population (a VERY small sliver, I must reiterate), had experiences in his lifetime that altered his ability to neurologically process things. Look up the search terms “criminal behavior” and “prefrontal cortex,” and you’ll come to the same conclusion that everybody else in the real world has already determined: it’s individual mentalities (many of which were developed in adolescence and perhaps even reinforced by one’s OWN experiences of sexual abuse) that result in male on female instances of sexual assault, and not some make-believe cultural fixture that tells boys it’s “OK” to take advantage of females.

But then again, what do I know? I’m just a man, after all…

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Very ALDI Kind of Thanksgiving!

How long does $25 worth of ALDI goods last during the Thanksgiving season? As it turns out: until damn near Christmas.

For those of you unfamiliar with the ALDI chain of grocery stores, they're basically the Dollar Tree of supermarkets -- the aisles are lined with miscellaneous knockoff goods, everything is being sold at discounted prices and the people who work there are probably on some sort of work release program. It's also a business founded by Nazis, but we're probably all tired of hearing about that little chestnut by now, I'm assuming.

Even though the chain's spaghetti ingredients almost killed me last year, me and my better half decided to celebrate Thanksgiving this year by holding an all-ALDI  produce pre-Thanksgiving meal. Unfortunately, our schedules got all screwy, and we had to abandon our original plans for what, no doubt, would've been the greatest dinner since Jesus's last meal. [Sidenote: Do you ever wonder what Jesus actually ate at the Last Supper? I always meant to ask my Sunday School teacher, but after that time I asked her if Yeshua ever experienced diarrhea, I suppose it was the best if I remained mum from thereon out.]

Needless to say, I purchased a metric ton of food, easily filling up my shopping cart (which are all quarter-operated, by the way) with "Chef's Cupboard" and "Cheese Club" delicacies. Since ALDI don't believe in handing out free plastic bags, I had to take my collection of comestibles and just toss them in the back of my trunk like I was on my way to a Hooverville or something. That's really the best thing about going to ALDI, I believe; it always makes you feel quite a bit more destitute than you were the day before.

All in all, I spent a little under $25 on what was no doubt the largest assortment of groceries I have purchased...well, probably ever. With ALDI-Giving firmly on my mind, I made sure no item, no matter how trivial or minute, was left off my grocery list -- imitation butter, imitation soy milk, brown sugar (which was actually more grey looking than brown, but whatever.) Hell, I even picked up some extra aluminum foil, you know, just in case. This was going to be the feast of a lifetime, without question...or the last one of my lifetime. One or the other.

So, with the sudden cancellation of ALDI-Giving 2013, I found myself with a huge stockpile of foodstuffs. Ever the food-curious sort, I've spent the last couple of weeks trying to dream up the most interesting dishes I could with the ingredients at my disposal. Three weeks later, here are the ALDI meals that have kept me upright and carrying on, amigos and amigo-ettes:

Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes! 

Instant mashed potatoes are pretty much the easiest thing in the world to make. You rip open a pouch, pour your potato dust in a microwave safe bowl, add some milk (or in my instance, soy milk), and a chunk or two of butter, and after about five minutes being radioactively bombarded, VOILA: a fitting, mostly flavorless meal fit for the burliest of hobos.

Shockingly, these ALDI-branded potatoes weren't that bad. In fact, I'd say they wee quite delicious, and relatively filling  considering the price point. Bachelors of the world (as well as those with Bachelor's degrees,) take note: these things might just save your life some day. Or save you a dollar or two. One or the other, really.

Herbes de Provence Stuffing!

First off, I have no idea what the hell "Herbes de Provence" meant. According to the Internet, that's basically nothing more than a fancy way of saying "a bunch of random dried spices mixed together, like basil and thyme." I could've checked the ingredients on the back of the box, but who has time to KNOW WHAT THE HELL IT IS YOU ARE EATING WHEN YOU COULD IN FACT BE EATING IT INSTEAD.

Well, anyway, this stuff tasted pretty bad. The stuffing itself was way too mushy, and the spices were way too subtle. All in all, the dish kinda' tasted like cardboard, and not that good Pizza Hut box kind of cardboard, that has pieces of congealed cheese still matted onto it. Recommended for the malnourished and fans of the frustratingly bland only.

String Bean and Potato Casserole! 

The first two dishes were pretty by-the-numbers, so for ALDI meal number three, I decided to get a little inventive. Green beans and boiled potatoes are generally pretty good on their own, so why not mix 'em together with cranberry white cheese for a microwaved casserole?

...well, uh, I kinda' liked it, but as we all know by now, my tastes ain't exactly the most refined in the world either. Admittedly, the dish itself looks a bit putrid, and that first bite is a little startling, but as you continue to nom your way through, I think you'll come to appreciate the delightful intricacies of the meal nonetheless. It's like eating Ireland, if Ireland was blanketed in a thick sheet of suspiciously fruity-tasting milk curd.

Since we're at the halfway point of the menu, perhaps it's time we take a brief respite, no? Among the finer items you'll encounter at ALDI is their line of in-store colas, all of which appear to be modeled after much more famous soda brands."GT Cola" appears to be their "Coca-Cola" equivalent, and to be perfectly honest, it really isn't that bad of a beverage. The weird thing is, it's taste totally doesn't sync up with its scent at all; while the drink tastes like watered down Coke, the product itself actually smells more like wood varnish. I've never really bought into the anti-soda lobby's scare tactics before, but when something designed for human ingestion smells THAT MUCH like nail polish remover...well, perhaps my concerns aren't all that unwarranted, no?

Pesto Macaroni with Mozzarella Cheese! 

Macaroni and cheese is probably the ultimate comfort food, but I've never really been a fan of that pouch-protected orange dust that Kraft keeps telling us is "cheese," somehow. With that in mind, I decided to spice up this rather average boxed meal by pumping in some pesto and, a very special ingredient...

What you are looking it here is a product that, over the course of the year, has become my White Whale of sorts. Around Casa de Internet Is In America, the above-product is typically referred to as "Ingles Cheese," because a similar peppery and olive oil-enthused mozzarella chunk was marketed at the regional Ingles chains in my neck of the woods for quite some time. And then, right before I planned on purchasing a block, the damn things vanished from the international cheese section, and I've been fairly bitter ever since. Finding this eerily similar product at ALDI definitely made my heart skip a beat, and it's annexation to the macaroni dish certainly made the makeshift meal all the more exciting for me.

As an overall dish, it wasn't too bad. The combination of pouch dust and still-kinda-solid mozzarella didn't necessarily result in the best taste and texture in the world, but that cheese-on-cheese violence was nicely complimented by the ALDI-branded pesto sauce, which in my humble opinion, was actually legitimately delicious. It may not have been fine Italian cuisine, but if you ask me? This wasn't a bad little MacGyvered meal one iota.

Mixed Vegetables with Balsamic Vinaigrette Dressing!

And now we come to the vegetables. This frozen bag of somewhat Asian-styled veggies had a pretty hard-to-ignore selling point, which was the inclusion of same savory balsamic dressing.

Which, by the way, came in the form of a frozen, vacuum-sealed packet that I may or may not have accidentally punctured in my attempt to poke holes in the bag of vegetables. I guess there's not much I can tell you about how mildly thawed carrots and string beans taste, but the dressing was downright superb -- probably, because I am 98 percent convinced that the proprietary sauce was actually Heinz 57.

Pesto Potatoes O'Brien!

And for the grand finale? Pesto-soaked potatoes O'Brien, which was the only product I purchased that had to be legitimately cooked with fire and iron and shit instead of just being microwaved. 

Potatoes O'Brien, for the unlearned, are basically Tater Tots, only with some chunks of onion and pepper chunked in the bag. Yeah, it's basically a frozen container of glorified hash brown wedges, but since when was that a negative, exactly? The pesto, of course, added an unorthodox zing to the dish as a hell, and the overall final product wasn't half bad. Of course, I'm using my own standardized definition of what constitutes "half bad," so for most human beings out there, perhaps you should downgrade my praise to "merely edible" -- you snobby elitists. 

In case you are wondering (and you should), my upfront $25 investment in ALDI produce lasted me pretty close to a month, and I still have a ton of extra stuff left over. As quality foodstuffs go, you pretty much know what you're getting into here; the food is bland to decent, but pending you have a knack for mixing spices and proportioning out ingredients, you could probably make this stuff go a long way.

And if not, just remember these sage words of wisdom, which will probably be etched on my headstone someday: "Just put some pesto on it, and you'll probably be all right."