The Wolf of Wall Street – a review of reviews

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The Wolf of Wall Street stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort, a mercurial stock broker who rose in the 1990s to become a ridiculously wealthy, drug-addled mogul of Long Island.

Wolf lays it all out in one of the first scenes, when a younger Belfort is being schooled by a reptilian, almost goofball version of Satan played by Matthew McConaughey.  They’re sitting there, on top of the world, and McConaughy explains the rules of the game:  They don’t care about making their clients any money, they only care about making themselves money.  And there is a lack of culpability, because what they’re doing, what they do for a living, it’s not really real.

Stockbroking is about speculation; a realm of phantoms.  Projecting how well a business will do, hiking up shares for that company, this epitomizes a dark failure of our money-market system.  Empires are made, lives are shattered.  McConaughey says, “The stocks go up, the stocks go down,” and none of it comes from anything real, anything of value.  It’s taking from one person to give to someone else – in this case, yourself.

Like so much else in our modern world, reactions to the film have been polarized.  The Financial Times considers the film too late-in-the-game to be poignant, saying “Been there, done that, got the Enron prison shirts.”  Meanwhile, the UK’s Daily Telegraph hails it as “Scorsese’s Best Film in 20 Years.”

Some of the films detractors say that it doesn’t take time to show us the ruined lives of the victims.  Others cite that there is not enough punishment for Belfort – the denouement is too brief and he gets off too easy.  After a long, hyper-real ride through his sordid, spectacular life, he gets a slap on the wrist.

Yet this is faithful to the book adapted for the film, written by Belfort, and told from his perspective.  And it is faithful to the realities of white collar crimes.  We may boo and hiss at the CEOs who parachute away from danger when their fraudulent behavior cripples lives, but we remain either unwittingly trapped by or fiercely loyal to our financial system and the ideology of the free marketplace which created these men in the first place.

Without question, Wolf is one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen in years, full of everything that makes cinema great, and easily considerable as a master work for Scorsese.  There were a couple of times I felt a slight drag (perhaps one too many self-aggrandizing speeches from Belfort), but the editing, the cinematography, the score – just manna from Scorsese heaven.

The film does not paint its moral message across the sky.  As the Telegraph observes, Scorsese grants his audience the intelligence to draw their own conclusions: “…Glamorizing without endorsing, treating the audience like adults, trusting that our moral sense will compensate for his characters’ lack of one.”

Viewers unhappy with the film consider experiencing three hours of debauchery “for nothing.”  Perhaps the hyperactivity and decadence has left them feeling a bit as though they’d gone on one of Belfort’s benders themselves.  And perhaps this is the message, or, at least, the reaction Scorsese might be looking for: That this kind of shit is wild, it’s crazy, some parts are even attractive, but it’s like working for the devil – in the end, if it doesn’t kill you, it will leave you empty.

The movie is possibly harder to take for female viewers.  Women are relentlessly objectified in Wolf.  They’re either giving blow jobs, or stripping, or sweet and understanding (like Belfort’s first wife), then dumped for the newer, younger, more gold-plated model.  I watched it with my wife, and while I roared at the scenes like Belfort pantomiming that he’s physically “giving it” to a client while he suckers him in over the phone, her reaction was a bit more subdued.  It’s a real frat party, and while I can laugh at their antics from this safe distance, enjoy an actor’s performance and a filmmaker’s skills, in real life I would probably hate these stockbroker guys, or at least want to have nothing to with them.

Yet…I can’t…look…away…

In the riveting climactic scene where Belfort’s personal life finally comes crashing down around him, the blows he gives to his wife signal us that the party is over.  He’s no longer just riding out there on the edge, he’s past it now, he’s lost in the abyss, fully in the clutches of hell.  This ramification for his life of the devil’s work is deserved.  Yet beyond this, he does little-to-no penance, since his money stretches through the bars of the jail cell, and he goes on to write a book, and then, yeah, have a movie made about him.  In some ways, he doesn’t get the punishment we’d like to think he deserves – instead he’s cashing in.

Despite dissatisfaction with either the length of the film, the bombardment to the senses, or of justice ill-fitted to financial crimes, The Wolf of Wall Street is a powerhouse movie.  It’s a cinematic gem from Scorsese.  It’s why movies are made – to take us into another experience, to provide for us a collective dream, a spectacle, to strike a nerve within us.  Wolf is a breathtaking glimpse of the imperious, ultimately joyless and carnal side to the American dream.

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Why Dropping Your Kid Off at Day Care Sucks No Matter What

Whether they cry like crazy and cling to your leg and shout “No, no, no!” or they turn and run happily into the babysitter’s arms, dropping your kid of at day care sucks.  Or, like my daughter, they may just fix you with a look that says, “Yeah, okay, you can leave me with this veritable stranger, miles from home, out here in the arctic cold, go ahead, I’m little and innocent and can’t do anything about it, but I’m brave.  See me?  I’m brave.”

And you drive home with that image of the baby girl seared across your heart, and you tell yourself you are going to make the absolute most of the day, get it done, make the money, make a great piece of art, or literature, and five minutes later you’re playing Godfather: Five Families online.

But not for long, okay?  Not for long.  Because once you’ve gone and collected all the respect from your cityscapes in Five Families and made war on a couple of unsuspecting noobs, the phone rings and its an old buddy who says he’s thinking of starting to write these things called Kindle Singles, that he’s been talking to some guy who’s been having great success with it, selling these short pieces through Amazon for like a buck apiece and making thousands of dollars from them.

Maybe, you think, the thing to do is go and find this guy who’s making all this money and rob him.  Or, the thing to do is write singles about how dropping your kid off at day care sucks.  But you shake your head, no, you’re not going to get into either of those things, you tried something like that a couple years back, trying to roll a guy in the street and all you got was his first edition Kindle with a lousy 38 bitcoins in his Amazon account.  And you already wrote a series about a detective who’s a ghost hunter and you have away the first ten installments for free and charged a buck for the last one and sold about two.

Not that it couldn’t be better this time around, but you tell your buddy, nah, nor for me, I’m writing the follow up to my novel that was just published by Joffe Books.

Only thing is, today you can’t really work on the book because you’ve misplaced the charger for your Vaio laptop, and it’s the only thing you can really type on, because the other laptop, an old MacBook Pro, has a weird keyboard that makes you type like kjadnpfffsanthis and it’s too frustrating to try and turn out 2,000 words that way.

(Aside: These are what you might refer to as “Uptown Problems.”  Even though you live nowhere near uptown, and you do really need to make money off of your book and more books to follow because all of the other options for livelihood are dwindling down to nothing and the mortgage is due and the electric and phone and property taxes and more wood for the wood stove and fuel oil for the hot water and really, you want to get solar panels some day and live off of the land and grow your own food and keep some chickens and maybe a pig, depending.)

You ask your buddy how his day is going, and he’s good, he’s your age (when it starts to get not cool to say how old) and he basically exiles himself from the house where he crashes with his parents and goes to the library to sell his old Transformers on eBay to try and support himself while he works to bring success to an obscure filmmaker from Uganda.  Or, if he’s liquid that day, and has like three bucks, he might find a coffee shop and spend the afternoon there, editing subtitles into footage filmed in African slums filled with buoyant, incredibly innovative people, blowing things up with rudimentary computer graphics and roaring wooden guns.

alan.ssali.hofmanis_1388341893_53Those would make good Kindle Singles, stories about your buddy’s trips over there and how he became the mugundu, how he became Ssali, covered in cow’s blood and standing in raw sewage and grinning like a kid who just found the best friends and the best games and something that might approach the pure joy of creating entertainment, flying in the face of poverty and oppression.

Clearly, yes, ours are uptown problems.  We suffer our little sufferings, like having to skulk to the library in order to avoid the shaming looks in our parents’ eyes when we are far too old to still be at home, far too old to be playing with cow’s blood, or having to drop our daughters off at day care so we can ultimately come home and write blog posts appealing to people to buy our books.

Did I appeal yet?  Please buy my book.  For my daughter’s sake.  Because dropping your kid off at day care sucks no matter what, but at least with a book that is selling and the promise of more readers for the sequel, her bravery will not be in vain.

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Asparagus Schmaragus? Case Studies of Asparagus Curing Cancer

We learn as we grow older to be skeptical of anything presented as a panacea, or cure-all.  We become leery of get-rich-quick schemes, and magic bullets for success.  But we also have to remain skeptical of the laissez-faire capitalism which often puts profit above human needs.  We may lose certain truths, and even become jaded to their possibility, as we are conditioned to believe that there are no answers found in nature, only what man can create, and sell to us.

This was a mass email I was forwarded.  I don’t know who the original author was.  I have gone over it lightly with a blue pencil for some minor grammatical things I noticed (and added some images), but have not altered the core content.

I am not endorsing that I think this is true, only rich with the possibility.

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Asparagus — Who knew?

Several years ago I met a man seeking asparagus for a friend who had cancer. He gave me a copy of an article, entitled “Asparagus For Cancer” printed in the Cancer News Journal, December 1979.

I will share it here, just as it was shared with me: “I am a biochemist, and have specialized in the relation of diet to health for over 50 years. Several years ago, I learned of the discovery of Richard R. Vensal, D.D.S. that asparagus might cure cancer. Since then, I have worked with him on his project. We have accumulated a number of favorable case histories. Here are a few examples:

“Case No. 1, A man with an almost hopeless case of Hodgkin’s disease (cancer of the lymph glands) who was completely incapacitated. Within 1 year of starting the asparagus therapy, his doctors were unable to detect any signs of cancer, and he was back on a schedule of strenuous exercise

Illustration_Asparagus_officinalis0b“Case No. 2, A successful businessman, 68 years old, suffered from cancer of the bladder for 16 years.  After years of medical treatments, including radiation without improvement, he began taking asparagus. Within 3 months, examinations revealed that his bladder tumor had disappeared and that his kidneys were normal.

“Case No. 3, On March 5th 1971, a man who had lung cancer was put on the operating table where they found lung cancer so widely spread that it was inoperable.  The surgeon sewed him up and declared his case hopeless. On April 5th, he heard about the Asparagus therapy and immediately started taking it. By August, x-ray pictures revealed that all signs of the cancer had disappeared. He is now back at his regular business routine.

“Case No. 4, A woman had been troubled for a number of years with skin cancer. She developed different skin cancers which were diagnosed by the acting specialist as advanced. Within 3 months after beginning asparagus therapy, the skin specialist said her skin looked fine with no more skin lesions. This woman reported that the asparagus therapy also cured her kidney disease, which had started in 1949. She had over 10 operations for kidney stones, and was receiving government disability payments for an inoperable, terminal, kidney condition. She attributes the cure of this kidney trouble entirely to the asparagus treatment.

“I was not surprised at this result as `The Elements of Materia Medica’, edited in 1854 by a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania , stated that asparagus was used as a popular remedy for kidney stones. He even referred to experiments, in 1739, on the power of asparagus in dissolving stones. Note the dates!

asparagus-stalks-lo1“We would have other case histories but the medical establishment has interfered with our obtaining some of the records. I am therefore appealing to readers to spread this good news and help us to gather a large number of case histories that will overwhelm the medical skeptics about this unbelievably simple and natural remedy.

“For the treatment, asparagus should be cooked before using. Fresh or canned asparagus can be used. I have corresponded with the two leading canners of asparagus, Giant and Stokely, and I am satisfied that these brands contain no pesticides or preservatives.  Place the cooked asparagus in a blender and liquefy to make a puree. Store in the refrigerator. Give the patient 4 full tablespoons twice daily, morning and evening.  Patients usually show some improvement in 2-4 weeks.  It can be diluted with water and used as a cold or hot drink.  This suggested dosage is based on present experience, but certainly larger amounts can do no harm and may be needed in some cases.

“As a biochemist I am convinced of the old saying that `what cures can prevent.’ Based on this theory, my wife and I have been using asparagus puree as a beverage with our meals. We take 2 tablespoons diluted in water to suit our taste with breakfast and with dinner. I take mine hot and my wife prefers hers cold. For years we have made it a practice to have blood surveys taken as part of our regular checkups. The last blood survey, taken by a medical doctor who specializes in the nutritional approach to health, showed substantial improvements in all categories over the last one, and we can attribute these improvements to nothing but the asparagus drink. As a biochemist, I have made an extensive study of all aspects of cancer, and all of the proposed cures. As a result, I am convinced that asparagus fits in better with the latest theories about cancer.

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“Asparagus contains a good supply of protein called histones, which are believed to be active in controlling cell growth. For that reason, I believe asparagus can be said to contain a substance that I call cell growth normalizer. That accounts for its action on cancer and in acting as a general body tonic. In any event, regardless of theory, asparagus used as we suggest, is a harmless substance. The FDA cannot prevent you from using it and it may do you much good. It has been reported by the US National Cancer Institute, that asparagus is the highest tested food containing glutathione, which is considered one of the body’s most potent anticarcinogens and antioxidants.

Just a side note… In case you are wondering why this has not been made public, there is no profit in curing cancer!”

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My Mom had been taking the full-stalk canned style asparagus, pureed it and took 4 tablespoons in the morning and 4 tablespoons later in the day. She did this for over a month. She is on chemo pills for Stage 3 lung cancer in the pleural area and her cancer cell count went from 386 down to 125 as of this past week.  

Her oncologist said she will not need to see him for 3 months.

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New Book Released!

After nearly a decade of writing books and an often painful year of submissions, my crime novel, Habit, is out on Amazon.

The book is published by Joffe Books, an imprint of Not So Noble Publishing, based in London.

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Though I received contract offers from three other publishers, I went with Joffe, an all-digital publisher.  As much as I have wanted to see the book in print, this publisher had the best pitch.  While many of us still love holding a book in our hands (myself included), the e-book way continues to grow by leaps and bounds.  Plus, when sales reach a certain level, print will follow.

Anyway, enough shop talk.  On to the story.  Habit is what they call a hard-boiled detective story.  Brendan Healy is new to the job, and a troubled soul.  Investigating the murder of a young woman, his demons threaten to break him as he closes in on her killer.  And the deeper he gets into the case, a terrifying government conspiracy is revealed, putting Brendan, and the lives of many innocent people, in grave danger.

The book is only a click away!  Follow this link and get your copy.  The book is exclusive to Amazon, but anyone without a kindle can easily obtain a free kindle app from Amazon in order to read it on any other computer / phone / tablet / device.

sharing a good book with friendsPlease share with friends – whoever you know that likes a good mystery, crime fiction, and doesn’t want to see me or my family out on the street because being a writer for nearly ten years has us eating beans from a can and keeping dust bunnies for pets.  Finally, please write a review if you can.  In this early phase, reviews are critical.  Just a couple words will do it, both for Amazon in the U.S. and in the U.K. (which you can get to by using your same login details), or, if you prefer, on Goodreads.  This will boost sales tremendously and help get me closer to print copies of the book so that I’ll be fully on my way, able to keep writing and bringing you (I hope) good stories to keep you turning the pages.

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SeaWorld: Animal Prison or Nature Conservatory?

blackfishposterThere’s been a bit of hoopla lately about the amusement park SeaWorld, particularly since Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film, Blackfish, arrived on Netflix.  Blackfish is a documentary that assembles decades of captive killer whale attacks along with tearful testimonies from former trainers about the money and bureaucracy behind the park.

Without a doubt, SeaWorld pours millions of dollars into their state-of-the-art fish tanks, with skilled trainers who genuinely love the animals, and choreographed shows.   In various statements intended to defend its reputation, SeaWorld cites the positives of their aquatic endeavors – they claim that the existence of their park benefits the research and conservation of killer whales, and that they have rescued “ill, orphaned, and injured” animals in the wild.

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This is probably all true.  And there are doubtless hundreds of trainers and employees of SeaWorld who earnestly love what they do, believing that they are increasing awareness of the animal kingdom and the need to protect species like killer whales.  Moreover, there are scores of people who visit the park, come away enchanted, warmed, perhaps even educated.

But this is not SeaWorld’s main objective.  This may be the objective of certain individuals who work within the company and subscribe to an ideology about man’s place to help the animals of the planet, to provide enlightening entertainment to the masses, and so on, but for the company itself, the goal is to make money.

SeaWorld is a business.  It is not a non-profit research foundation or grant-funded group of marine biologists.  SeaWorld is incorporated, has shareholders, and is required by law to make money for those shareholders.  Formerly Busch Entertainment, a subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch (they make beer, among other things), SeaWorld Entertainment is now owned by the Blackstone Group, one of the world’s largest multinational, investment banking and private equity firms.  In December of 2012, SeaWorld filed for an initial public offering of stock, with a lion’s share of the proceeds going to the Blackstone, which retains a controlling interest.   (Trading on the New York Stock Exchange began in April, 2013.)

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Still, spotlighting the corporate interest behind the scenes doesn’t hold much water as an indictment of  SeaWorld; there are surely people who will say that capitalism is how things work – without it there would be no incentive.

So, calling attention to the money aspect of the controversy may seem immaterial, but perhaps it raises some important questions:  If there was no money being made, would SeaWorld exist?  Are animals like the killer whales truly better off in captivity?  Do the purported benefits of research and conservation outweigh any negative impacts?  Or, is it sort of six of one, half a dozen of the other?

Blackfish provides some statistical information, including the drastically shortened life span of captive whales.  However, SeaWorld maintains that the whales live a lifespan comparable to that in the wild.  Blackfish demonstrates some deplorable living conditions for many of the whales, but SeaWorld asserts that the animals are treated like royalty.  Like the animals in the pool, the argument goes around and around.

Fortunately, I can answer for myself, without needing an abundance of trivial data:  My thought is that in no way, shape, or form are animals better off in captivity.  Period.  Even if the water in the tank is filled with Goldschlager and sprinkled with cocaine purer than the driven snow, even if getting masturbated by a trainer feels twice as good as natural in-the-sea hootenanny, even if a captured whale is sick, or injured, or orphaned, it is never the case that an animal is better off in captivity – it is never better for the ecosystem; that is, the animals, their natural habitat, their relationship to one another and to all the other species they interact with.   This is just my unprofessional, armchair-scientist’s opinion.

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But let me better explain.  I may or may not be a “conservationist,” but I think the term that suits my thinking better might be “naturalist.”  Man has no dominion over the animals of the world.  I don’t feel it is our place to manage them or manipulate them for profit (animal husbandry) or for science (testing on animals for pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, etc.) or for entertainment (zoos, amusement parks).  I’m even skeptical of efforts to re-stabilize populations thwarted by industry and man’s overpopulation; I feel like we need to retract our meddling, busy-body hands and stop molesting the animal kingdom all together.

Woah, right?

Look, many well-meaning people with big hearts seem to get caught up in this idea that we can “make a difference” by removing an animal out of the bliss of its natural environment and putting it in a tank with other animals in order to study it, or provide some sort of educational entertainment for the masses.

But the argument that animals in captivity benefit marine biology research is tenuous.  On a purely biological level, scientists can poke around in the guts of the fish and learn better what goes where and how it all fits together.  But examining captive animals provides zero insight into the ways they exist in the wild.

Still of killer whales from the documentary Blackfish

The most compelling aspect about the documentary Blackfish, for me, was not about the trainer attacks, but when a marine biologist spoke about the complex language of killer whales in the wild, and the developing neuroscience that killer whales have a highly developed region of the brain thought to administer emotion – deep, profound emotion, beyond even human capacity.

These animals live in families.  They are matriarchal, with the mothers and their children remaining together throughout the duration of the mother’s life – which may be as much as eighty or a hundred years.  Each family is thought to have its own specific language, like a tribe.  They move through the ocean like nomads, or hunter-gathers.  They are sacred.  Not just because they are big animals, or whether they are endangered or not, but because they are of a design and realm of being far beyond our ability to fully grasp.

Let’s say that killer whales in the wild remain in what David Abram’s called “The Spell of the Sensuous.”  This realm is a place of instinct, emotion, bountiful sensory input; an unconscious romp through a perpetual present, a life in balance with nature.  Our own spell of the sensuous is probably beyond our reach now, shrunken in the rear view mirror to a homo heidelbergenis waving in the distance.  Perhaps this is something the eager, earnest, whale-loving trainers, the droves of amusement park visitors, are trying to recover, whether they know it or not.  Perhaps SeaWorld is an attempt to once again be a part of something, to be close to something that we lost along the way.

We all recognize the way in which a child is compelled to touch something, and how that touch can inadvertently lead to breakage.  There is a tendency within us to destroy what we love.  We are hardly different from children when we allow our compulsions to override a conscientious understanding – that we change what we observe.

Surely, the way to communion with nature is not to put it behind bars, or in a tank, to ogle at it when it is stripped of its natural context and institutionalized by its surrounding.  Even if it is “healthy” and appears to be functioning normally under the conditions of captivity, to witness such creatures in this environment is to experience a mere fraction of their complexity and grandeur, because we are missing the bigger picture.

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I may sound like a curmudgeon, telling my fellow humans to stop tapping on the glass like children.  I recognize and can understand the desire in other people to explore the world around them, to see something they would never get to see.  But there are less invasive ways to do this.  And, perhaps more importantly, there is a major missing component to the experience of animals when they are in captivity – or, if the component is there, it doesn’t mix well with the experience.  Empathy.

Empathy is not just a condition, or an emotion.  Empathy and compassion are tools with which we can explore the world around us.  Compassion, and perhaps a sense of romance, can extend us beyond our trappings to consider the depth of sensual experience in the wild life of a killer whale, and all other species.  We can observe, in a minimally invasive way, by bringing ourselves into the experience of animals.  Rather than shape the animals to our bidding, we can reach out, we can glimpse the glacial waters, we can hear the intricate language of a killer whale family, we can see them coursing through all of that darkness.

Recently I was invited to join “Boycott SeaWorld” on Facebook.  I didn’t join, because I don’t need to; I’ve never been to SeaWorld, and I never will.  And this is not because I have an agenda, as some detractors claim is behind the Blackfish film.  The reason I don’t go to SeaWorld because I feel I have no right to – I don’t feel the slightest bit entitled to watch an animal taken from the wild or born in captivity perform tricks for me.

I’d rather watch the movie Blackfish and then be an old stinkpot and write a blog like this.

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