Thursday, August 31, 2023


Tales of tenacity inspire us. Hearing how others endured terrible trauma and overcame hardship give us hope. We learn how potent determination can be when facing adversity.

A story of tenacity touched my life when I was young and I've carried it with me for half a century. There's a lesson in the story.

In 1980 I was in my second year of law school (BU). I took an elective course on Entertainment Law. The class was taught by a then-unknown local businessman; his name was Sumner Redstone.

Sumner was a visiting professor; this was the only class he taught. Sumner's business career began when he joined his father's company after serving with distinction in the military during World War II.

Sumner's father owned a small chain of movie theaters in Boston (National Amusement). During our class Sumner candidly explained the economic structure of the entertainment industry. Movie studios historically used their power -- in violation of antitrust law -- to dominate that industry. They profited unfairly by exploiting movie distributors and exhibitors. 

Unknown to most customers, movie theaters are owned by small businesses, not the studios. Because studios control whether to give or withhold popular films they can extract up to 90% of box-office revenue from exhibitors who have to settle for scraps. The only real income theater-owners make is from food concessions, which explains why theaters sell popcorn and soda at inflated prices and are strict about not letting in outside food.

In the 1940s the U.S. Dept. of Justice recognized this blatant violation of antitrust law and sued movie studios. It agreed to a Consent Order designed to re-structure the industry. Studios, however, retained their power and kept repeatedly violating the Consent Order. The Justice Department went back to court several times to enforce the Order but with little success.

Sumner Redstone realized he belonged to the weakest part of the entertainment industry. Famously declaring "Content is king," Sumner plotted a path to power. With strength and cunning Sumner acquired new businesses that enabled him to wrest control of several huge media companies. He ended up owning CBS (television), Paramount Pictures (movies), Blockbuster Video (video) and Viacom (distribution). As a result Sumner became a multi-billionaire with a net worth of $2,600,000,000.00. His extensive influence made him one of the biggest media magnates in the world. His business moves were chronicled in the press and lauded by industry observers.

This, however, is not the core of the story. It wasn't merely Sumner's rise from humble origin to big success that makes him notable. Sumner faced an earlier -- more tragic -- event that we should focus our attention upon.

We return to my personal involvement in this story. It was 1980, my second year in law school. Sumner was teaching his only course and I was rapt in it. Halfway through the seminar Sumner brought up a controversial subject about which I was uncommonly knowledgeable: i.e., pornography. 

Sumner offered the traditional view that confuses pornography with erotica and concludes obscenity law is unenforceable due to vagueness. Like innumerable speakers before him Sumner said we can't define pornography. He quoted Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who famously wrote, "I know it when I see it."

At the time I was active in radical feminist politics and supporting a new legal initiative on pornography devised by Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon. That effort specifically and importantly defined pornography, something Sumner said couldn't be done.

The lecture was held in a large auditorium. I sat in the back, far away from the teacher. After sparring with Sumner on this topic in classroom discussion I approached him after class to continue our debate. I wanted to inform him about new ideas of which he obviously hadn't heard.

When I reached the podium I was stunned. I noticed Sumner's hands and forearms were horribly disfigured; they looked like claws. I couldn't see his injury from my seat. I later learned the tale behind it.

A decade earlier Sumner had been in an upper-story hotel room at the Copley Hotel (Boston) when a fire broke out. The fire raged and he had no where to escape. Sumner retreated to a balcony and clung to its railing. Fire burned the flesh off his hands and arms while he hung on for dear life. Many people, suffering the intense pain, would have let go and dropped to their death. Sumner did not; he hung onto the railing until firefighters were able to rescue him. In his autobiography Sumner attributes his survival to his "sheer will to live."

After the fire Sumner faced more challenges. His injuries required 30 hours of extensive surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital. He was warned he would never be able to live a normal life. Eight years later, however, Sumner was fit enough to play tennis every day. He pursued a disciplined regimen of physical exercise. It was around then that Sumner began teaching at BU. Later he went on to become a billionaire and media mogul.

Sumner lived to 97 years old; he died in 2020. Sumner lived 50 years past a day when he could have easily fallen to his death. During that half-century he not only salvaged his health, he succeeded to an extraordinary degree. Few achieve heights as rarefied as the one he reached. 

I find inspiration in this story. Sumner, through strong determination and grit, survived trauma and overcame terrible injury. That day in class when I saw up close what Sumner was living with, I was truly shocked. I couldn't imagine going through life so handicapped. And he not only persevered, he prospered.

I've written here before that there are moments in life when we face only two options: struggle or surrender. Those capable of fighting deserve applause. Such effort is virtually superhuman. I know how indescribably hard it is.

In 2012 Sumner donated $18 million to Boston University School of Law, funding construction of a five-story classroom structure now called the Sumner M. Redstone Building. Future students will benefit from Sumner's struggle; some might even learn about it.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Fine Art

At the beginning of the year I had passions and plans. Then everything crashed. Now I'm picking up pieces and seeing what I can salvage of my dreams. The news is good and bad.

A few days ago I did a necessary but painful thing: I moved my motorcycle gear from our front-door closet to storage in the basement. My leather jackets, my riding boots, my helmets -- objects I know as intimately as my arms and legs. As I held them, a wave of grief rose up and overwhelmed me. My chest heaved and my lungs started to howl. HOWL. Loud and uncontrollably. I'm surprised nobody called the cops.

Memories of motorcycle adventures crossed my mind and I realized, with profound sadness, that there will be no more. That thought crushed me. It still depresses me.

On a positive note I am turning my attention to fine art. Art was a major source of joy for me in the past and something I'd planned to pursue in the future. Some might ask "How can a blind guy appreciate VISUAL art?" The answer is: I'm not totally blind, just visually impaired. I can look at something and see part of it. If there's time I can move my head around and take in the rest of the view. With static objects (like glass art) this is possible. With moving objects (like film) it isn't. Images on a screen flash by faster than I can comprehend them.

I returned to researching artists working in glass and spoke several times to my principal art advisor. I just discovered a new artist whom I admire, Anja Isphording. Born in Germany Anja now lives and works in Vancouver, Canada. She has decades of success mastering a difficult technical process called "lost wax." The process is laborious; it takes Anja up to two months to make a single artwork. 

I like how Anja's art explores shapes from nature without literally reproducing them. You sense her imaginatory leaps which are subject to individual interpretation.

Anja's exhibiting her latest work at a gallery in Manhattan. I'm going there next week to select a piece for my collection. With glass it's important to see work in person; two-dimensional pictures don't depict them accurately. 

The prospect of returning to art cheers me up. Sitting in a pile of broken dreams I need that emotional boost.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Movie DVDs


Netflix is ending its DVD-by-mail service next month. I'm sad to see it go. 

People used to ask me why I still had the service after streaming started. My answer was simple: Netflix's DVD library is huge and contains many films that aren't available elsewhere, especially older, artistic or foreign works.

I just looked at the stats in my account and they're very interesting. I began the service in 2003, twenty years ago. Since then I've watched 2,272 films. That averages to 113 movies a year -- or one movie every three days. And nine a month.

That's a lot of movies! How much do you watch on average?

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Pee-Wee Herman

I've got good news for those of you who aren't familiar with Pee-wee Herman's cinematic ouvre. There's a surprise in it.

Pee-wee hit the big time in 1985 with his masterpiece, "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure." Directed by Tim Burton, the film is an all-time classic. It has as many memorable lines as "Casablanca," as much humor as "The Big Lebowsky" and uniquely quirky characters. I've seen it two dozen times and watched it again this week. The film holds up.

Soon after that film Pee-wee released a movie so bad we don't speak of it. Ssshhh...

The surprise is that thirty years after his first two movies, Pee-wee made a final film, "Pee-Wee's Big Holiday." Almost as good as his masterpiece, "Big Holiday" is currently available on Netflix. The most remarkable thing about the film is that at the time it was made (2016) Pee-wee (Paul Reubens) was 64 years old. 64!! And he looks exactly the same as he did thirty years earlier. Makeup helped but you have to admire someone who can do physical comedy at that age rivaling work in his prime.

The theme of "Big Holiday" is Pee-wee's friendship with actor Joe Manganiello (playing himself). Joe rides into town on a loud motorcycle, befriends Pee-wee at the diner where Pee-wee works and then takes him for a ride. Joe later invites Pee-wee to his birthday party in New York City -- encouraging Pee-wee to experience life on open road as he travels there: 

Pee-wee Herman: I've never each been on an airplane.
Joe Manganiello: No! The only thing you're gonna learn about yourself on a plane is if you like the honey-roasted peanuts better than the plain salted. If you're really hungry, the open road is a smorgasbord of life experience. A few days on the open road is worth a lifetime in Fairville. Way I see it, Pee-wee Herman, you got a choice to make. Stick around here or live a little... [Joe revs his motorcycle engine]

Pee-wee takes Joe's advice, hits the road and has a series of amusing, impossible adventures. He's taken hostage by three female bank-robbers, sees the world's scariest snake, gets taken to the wedding chapel by a farmer with nine daughters and a shotgun, jumps out of a plunging airplane, etc. 

It's a real Pee-wee film!

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

The Journey Back

I'm working with half of one eye. Not a full eye, just half. My vision flows through a single, narrow tunnel. I see only what's at the center of that and nothing to either side. My eyesight is also permanently dark, like being trapped in a bad nightclub.

I recently learned how to compensate for peripheral impairment by continuously rotating my head side-to-side. That's how I become aware of surroundings I'm unable to see directly.

To maintain my physical and emotional health I go on long walks, usually along the busiest road on Long Island (Route 110). (I live adjacent to it.) During walks I'm regularly threatened by 3,000 lb. creatures with tiny brains. These fat insects don't obey traffic signals and fly through intersections without slowing down. To stay safe I deploy sophisticated strategies devised to combat brainless bugs.

I travel as a pedestrian the same way I used to ride motorcycles -- with guts and grit. Anything less is hazardous. You need to display courage to convince reckless bugs to back off. They sense confidence the same way they sense fear: if they see you hesitate for an instant they charge right into your path. They're emboldened by their large size.

Robin thinks I'm crazy to play in traffic with half an eye. I respond that this is a pre-existing condition. I've been doing it (safely) my whole life and fiercely crave independence. 

At this moment I'm sipping expresso in a Starbucks a mile away from my house. I walked here and will walk home. I'm steeped in euphoria no less than if I'd summited a mountain. Three months ago I laid in a nadir of despair, totally blind and unable to imagine the future. Since then I climbed out of that existential pit, examined my diminished circumstances, crafted practical solutions and pursued all opportunities with vigor. The psychological distance between that despair and my present elation is immense. As bugs pass by me on the road they don't notice my real journey but it happened. Seen or unseen.

Monday, August 7, 2023


I saw "Barbie" today in a theater. Well, "saw" isn't exactly accurate but you know what I mean.

The film is superb and deserves its critical acclaim. It has surprisingly smart content delivered with sharp writing for intellectuals in the audience and pretty actors in lavish song-and-dance routines for the rest of the crowd. The movie hits all bases with exceptional execution.

Many aspects of the film are unexpected such as cameos and philosophical digressions. It'd spoil things to describe them so you'll have to see for yourself. This is a film everyone will be talking about and a cultural reference point.

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Humphrey Bogart

Humphrey Bogart was one of the finest actors in cinematic history. He made dozeof films in varied genres. My favorite four are listed below. 

Unlike Bogart's famous gangster movies, the first three are romances and the fourth is a comedy. An unexpected comedy.

1. "Casablanca" (with Ingrid Bergman)

2. "The African Queen" (with Katherine Hepburn)

3. "To Have and Have Not" (with Lauren Bacall)

4. "We're No Angels" (Bogart leads a trio of escaped convicts)

Have you seen any of these? What's your favorite Bogart movie?

No, that's not Humphrey; it's me as his most famous character on Halloween (Rick).