Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas eve

Happy holidays from New Orleans. As I write this I'm sitting in the courtyard of Creole Gardens Guesthouse on Prytania Street in the lower (less fancy) Garden District. It's a funky, colorful and relaxed place that is dog friendly. For me this get away is all about relaxing, exploring and food. Here's a little snap shot of all three.

On Christmas eve day around noon we caught the St. Charles street car to the French Quarter. New Orleans street cars are dark green ornate restored electric cars that can be driven from either end with polished wooden seats that reverse so passengers are always looking forward. The day was warm. All the windows were open wide as we rumbled down the street. At one corner a well dressed older woman hailed the driver between stops. He let her on. A block further he stopped again, she kissed him on the cheek and got off. “My next door neighbor,” he explained.

We absorbed French Quarter atmosphere by walking down Royal St. past tee shirt, fake voodoo and antique shops. Just past the imposing old Supreme Court building the street is blocked off so street performers can take the stage, one group per block. In front of us was a human statue: a very tall black guy in immaculate red & white striped trousers, brand new sneakers, white shirt and American flag tie, frozen in a six foot stride. He had a tiny toy dog smoking a cigar on the end of a stiff leash that appeared to be towing his giant owner. I noticed we were standing in front of the entrance to The Court of Two Sisters restaurant. Jazz Brunch $28. We went in.

There is no storefront or imposing sign, just a French style iron gate covering a carriage way through the main building to a large courtyard with pergola and ancient wisteria. A jazz trio played a mix of dixieland and jazz carols from the corner. Our waiter described the food in mouthwatering detail. We feasted on an astounding buffet of every New Orleans signature food, hot and cold, all fresh and very well prepared. We sampled shrimp in spicy etouffee, crawfish Louise, creole jambalaya, cajun pasta, glazed sweet potato with andouille sausage, crawfish and spinach pasta and for dessert bread pudding with whiskey sauce and two helpings of heavenly bananas Foster with homemade french vanilla ice cream.

We stumbled into the street bloated and dizzy, and very satisfied.

Not much was open that evening, it being Christmas eve. The host at our B&B called around for us. She hesitantly suggested a neighborhood joint, open 24/7 everyday, the St. Charles Tavern, only two blocks away. “It's sort of a dive,” she warned, “but the food is good.”

We were not that hungry after the feast at lunch. The St. Charles Tavern sure looks like any neighborhood watering hole you've ever seen, except for the “Zagat Rated” sticker on the door. Only a few folks were eating and a few more were at the bar watching Notre Dame crush Hawaii. The bartender was also the waitress. Merry ordered a coke. “RC alright?”

The waitress put her hand on my shoulder, “What you havin' babe?”

I ordered the cajun sampler – gumbo, jambalaya and crawfish etouffee. The food came quickly and was very good. The gumbo had half a small crab floating among the spicy savory broth. A few minutes later the neighborhood cop came in and sat next to us to have a coffee and a snack. He told stories of how his squad policed the French Quarter for three weeks without a break after Katrina. Merry asked him about policing during Mardi Gras. “The drunks are no problem, really, it's just they are easy targets for the bad guys.” His partner came in to buy his lottery tickets and have an iced tea. They all wished us a Merry Christmas as we walked out the door into the humid foggy night.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Story tellers

Hello everyone. Merry and Joli left yesterday to drive to New Orleans where I will join them on Tuesday for Christmas in the Big Easy. For some time we have both wanted to get a look at New Orleans post-Katrina. We plan to explore the city and participate in at least one Revellon dinner, a unique New Orleans holiday tradition. I plan to write about that when we return.

Without fully realizing what I was doing I read two books during the past few weeks that struck me with such force I decided to break with my normal weekly travelogue and spend a little time describing their effect on me. Feel free to skip the convoluted book reviews that follow. You have been warned.

When we moved we decided as a general principle not to bring our library with us. There were some exceptions to this rule. I wanted to bring a few books to inspire me to write. After reflection I decided to bring all the books I own by Italo Calvino (13 thin volumes) as well as by Humberto Costantini (2) and Michael Ondaatje (2). I selected these books because I admire the skill displayed in the story telling by these three otherwise very different authors.

Costantini, a Buenos Aries veterinarian (1924 – 1987), deserves to be better known. I think only two of his novels have been translated into English and both seem to be out of print. If you can find it, I highly recommend his poetic and highly imaginative The Gods, the Little Guys and the Police.

The Sri Lankan - Canadian poet Michael Ondaatje is well known and in my humble opinion is perhaps the most talented living writer. His descriptive power is unmatched. I sometimes wake from a deep sleep thinking about the desert passages from The English Patient or the incredible “painting the Buddha's eyes” scene from Anil's Ghost.

Most of the books I brought for inspiration, however, are by Italo Calvino. Calvino (1923 – 1985) was born in Cuba but lived most of his life in San Remo, Italy.

At the very end of his life Calvino was preparing to give the Charles Eliot Norton lectures on literature at Harvard. He planned six lectures but only finished five – published in English as Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Each lecture focuses on one element of Calvino's writing process. The first lecture on “Lightness” is the key to what makes his writing so unique. He tells us “my working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight.” He wants his writing to escape the heaviness with which descriptions of things is freighted. To achieve this he uses only the most distilled language. The other four lectures “Quickness,” “Exactitude,”Visibility,” and “Multiplicity” contain further details and helpful examples of the struggle to escape language gravity. To my way of thinking Calvino truly achieves his goal in the stories that make up Invisible Cities in which Marco Polo describes unseen the wonders of the world to Kublai Khan, but it's there in all the books. As a consequence of this focus on lightness Calvino's story telling most resembles highly intellectual fantastic fairy tales.

As I was reading the Six Memos, Merry took a trip to the bookstore and brought me Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing. I took it to work to read on my lunch hour. Fortunately it's a quick read. Bradbury is for the most part a terrible, clumsy writer when compared to Calvino. He is full of himself, unquestioning in his praise for his own work and very impressed with the arc of his own life. In short, he's an American. Bradbury was born in 1920 in Waukegan, Il and still lives in LA.

Why did I read his self congratulatory book about how he became the best writer of his generation? Because of Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man. These were the best books I had ever read when I was 16. Even now I think of them as some of the most evocative stories I have ever read. I tried to re-read Fahrenheit 451 recently. In literary terms, the writing is pretty clunky, but the story is terrific. How did he do it?

He did it by writing every day for years and years. Pounding a typewriter and churning out what he admits was largely junk at the clip of 1000 to 2000 words a day. He sums up the “Zen” of his work in three words: WORK, RELAXATION and DON'T THINK (yes, he uses capital letters a lot). His point is that skill in story telling is achieved by finding a way to let your subconscious move the writing. To do this you have to be relaxed and not allow your intellect to get in the way of telling the tale. He says the only way to do this is to write and write every day until you can write while totally relaxed and without thinking. Surprisingly, this actually seems to capture one of the key insights of Zen practice.

So...lightness and Zen. What I take from these two books on writing stories is simple. The stories are already there in my subconscious. My job is to relax enough to find them, polish them and help them escape the gravity of everyday things. We'll see.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


When you come to visit us in St. Louis you will probably ask us to take you on a tour of the Anheuser-Busch brewery, home of the “King of Beers,” Budweiser. So as not to be caught unprepared we toured the place ourselves last Sunday. To my mind there are three things that make the A-B tour stand head and shoulders above all other brewery tours: (1) the eye-popping historic buildings, three of which are national historic landmarks, (2) the Clydesdales in residence, and (3) the mystery of Bevo.

The tour begins with the Clydesdales stables and wanders downhill through the massive factory complex to conclude at the Bevo Bottling Works where the A-B products made in St. Louis are packaged. As you approach this six story brick factory building that fills a city block the most remarkable thing you see is a large gargoyle perched midway up each corner. I initially thought it was a rat dressed in coat and boots playing a flute. Closer inspection revealed “Bevo, the Fox.” The lobby of the building is also beautifully decorated with handmade tiles featuring the same crafty fox.

We were told that the bottling works was built during Prohibition and named for the A-B's then new non-alcoholic “cereal beverage.” Anheuser-Busch started brewing Bevo in 1916 when the US armed forces prohibited use of all alcoholic beverages. That crafty fox Augustus Busch, Sr. knew the tide was running against him and that it would only get worse in the near future. He had backed anti-prohibition candidate Taft in the 1914 election but lost. Then the US went to war with his fatherland, and robber barons like him with close German ties were highly suspect. He worked tirelessly to try to prevent the coming of Prohibition even closing down scores of highly profitable but disreputable A-B owned saloons across the country. By 1916 he must have known his efforts were failing.

He decided to diversify. Not only did A-B start to brew Bevo well before national Prohibition took effect, he also developed a number of products for home brewers like brewers' yeast and malt syrup. He appears to have known Prohibition would not last forever, but he was determined to make the best of it. Production of Bevo rose greatly when Prohibition finally took effect in 1919, and Bevo was by far the most popular of the many "near beers" of the time. At the peak of its popularity in the early 1920s, more than five million cases of Bevo were sold annually. However by the late 1920s bootleg beer and liquor as well as home brew had cut Bevo's market share. With sales flattening to 100,000 cases by 1929, Anheuser-Busch stopped production.

But why did they call it “Bevo?” The only explanation I can find is that the name "Bevo" was coined from the English word "beverage" and the Slavic or Czech word for beer "pivo.” It would seem Busch wanted the name to subliminally suggest that beer was not long gone. The use of the Renard the Fox character to symbolize Bevo also suggest A-B is winking an eye at Prohibition saying, “Here, drink this. I promise that real beer will be back before too long.”

But there are more curious twists. Augustus did not like living at the family mansion on the brewery grounds so he moved out to the suburbs. In 1913 he purchased “Grant's Farm” from the heirs of the former President and civil war general and built a new home, “Baurenhof,” there on the banks of Gravois Creek. It was, however, a long trip home from the brewery. To break up the journey Augustus built himself a private dining room along the Gravois road exactly halfway home. For some reason he commanded that this building be an authentic replica of a Flemish windmill. Of course, he called the place the “Bevo Mill.”

In 1917 the Bevo Mill started serving meals to the general public. It still does. The neighborhood that grew up around the Mill came to be called “Bevo” and still is.

Augustus also loved parades. During the 1920s he started the tradition of putting A-B promotional vehicles into parades all over the country by designing and building “Bevo Boats.” Apparently he build as many as eight of these extravagant precursors to the Clydesdales and Rose Parade floats. The one surviving example of a Bevo Boat was built in 1930 after Bevo had ceased production, and thus was probably called a Budweiser Boat. Mounted on a 1930 Cadillac frame with a boat body finished in red with white stripes, it has a red leather interior. Some of its most unusual features include two large chrome anchors mounted to the bow, a propeller on the transom, Wig-Wag taillights with lanterns that swing from their mount, an Anheuser Busch eagle mounted on the front deck as well as two functional Winchester Arms 10 gauge cannons mounted on the rear fenders.

Augustus Busch did everything he could to assure the word Bevo became part of the popular culture of the time. His efforts paid off in ways he could not control. Irving Berlin included a song "You Can't Stay Up on Bevo", in his 1917 army revue, Yip Yip Yaphank. The popular references were not very complementary. The suggestion is that Bevo is not the real thing. Here's how Irving Berlin put it: “I used to own a vicious looking dog who wouldn't bite, I used to know a dangerous looking man who couldn't fight, My brother trained wild animals but they were really tame, And now I've tasted of a drink that strikes me just the same – [Refrain:] Bevo, oh, oh, oh, Bevo, You're the grandest imitation that we know, You're the only drink that a soldier can pick, You taste like lager but you haven't got the kick, oh!” Thereafter at least for a time “Bevo” became army slang for a young and inexperienced officer.

Decades later, Bevo is mentioned in a list of popular culture items that can corrupt children's morals in the song "Trouble" in The Music Man.

During the same time span the University of Texas football team acquired its mascot, a long-horn steer named “Bevo.” According to the official web site of UT Football, its mascot Is not named for the A-B near beer.

All of this is my way of explaining the thoughts running through my mind as I stared up at Bevo the Fox last Sunday. How does a made up name for a product that no longer exists and almost nobody remembers come to designate a large industrial building and a St. Louis neighborhood?

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Riding the bus

Last week we were in Syracuse for Thanksgiving and a belated three way birthday party with my dear friends Harmon Hoff and EveAnn Shwartz at their home, Maple Avenue Farm near Earlville. There was no blog entry last week but here's another glimpse of everyday life in St. Louis for your enjoyment.

During my first week on the job I learned that Social Security buys a bus pass on request for all employees. To my pleasant surprise your government is actually doing something concrete to slow global warming. Any US government employee can ride the bus or light rail for free, but there is no subsidy for those who drive. All the other judges drive to work and park in the building garage at the cost of $130 per month. I live only 2.5 miles from the office, on a bus line. I decided on the bus.

As in most big cities, learning the St. Louis bus routes and schedules was a real challenge at first. Eventually I settled into a fairly efficient pattern: leave the house no later than 6:15 am, walk two blocks to the #10 bus stop on Gravois, wait from 0 – 5 minutes, ride about 15 minutes, walk a block to the office and arrive at 6:35, give or take a few minutes. The homeward trip is about the same but takes about 25 minutes due to more frequent stops to pick up and discharge passengers.

Every day I anticipate the moment when the #10 bus rounds the corner onto Market St., the main drag downtown. Framed in the windshield is the Gateway Arch, the sunrise and the Old Courthouse centered between the gleaming stainless steel legs of the Arch. It's become my weathervane and inspiration.

The bus talks. As the doors open to admit passengers the bus says, in a pleasant female voice, “Good morning, #10 Gravois to downtown.” Every time someone pulls the cord she says, “Stop requested.” At key stops she announces the stop and lists the connecting buses. There is a certain squeaky sweetness in her voice as she chirps, “Market and Tenth Street.”

On winter mornings the passengers huddle wrapped in heavy coats and scarves, hoods up, listening to iPods. In the afternoon they talk. It's quite common for passengers to greet the driver and sincerely thank him or her on exiting the bus, a habit I've adopted. Many of the afternoon bus drivers are big talkers, razzing passers-by and riders. One of the first cool days a short heavy-set black woman climbed on wearing a brand new puffy pure white down coat. She looked like a marshmallow with legs. The driver kidded her, “Hey, woman, you looking way too warm.” She sat near the driver who kept asking her if she were warm enough. She refused to unzip the coat. Everyone else on the bus was in shirtsleeves or a light jacket. Finally he asked her why she didn't buy a matching down hat. “Can't eat no hat,” she shot back.

One warm fall day a guy in coveralls hooked his bike to the front of the bus and got on carrying a clear plastic bag full of clothes. “Man, you sure smell like fish,” the driver commented. “Yea, well, see I work at the fish meal factory on 4th and can't figure how to get the smell off. I put my work clothes in this here bag, but I still stink like fish guts.” His concern for the noses of his fellow riders sparked a bus wide discussion on how to defeat fish oil with bleach, lemon juice, baking soda, pine soap and more that lasted until he got off and wheeled away into the twilight.

Merry decided to ride the #10 one day but before paying her fare asked the driver if the bus went up GraVOIS with the accent on the second syllable. We did know the “ois” was pronounced “oy”. “What?” She said it again. “Where?” “Where are you going?” Merry was getting exasperated. “Up GRAVois, GRAVois” in a very gravely voice. For the rest of the short ride he occasionally growled, not quite under his breath, “GRAVois.” Merry laughed for days.

I've come to genuinely like the bus commute. Perhaps the best thing about riding the bus is the chance it gives me to observe the working people of St. Louis. They are janitors, factory workers, chambermaids, waitresses, office clerks, high school kids, homeless people and one ALJ. The bus riders are from all races. The vast majority on the #10 are black, but there is a wide variety of other races including hispanic, asian, near eastern and white. We ride together. I know that most commuters are still stuck in their cars, but it does me good to feel a part of the minority who rides the bus.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Gus' Pretzels

It's started to get cold here at last after a long fall. We had our first day where the temperature did not break freezing on Friday. Yesterday we paid a visit to the Soulard Market for the first time. Soulard is an older neighborhood between McKinnley Heights where we live and the Mississippi River. The river bank there is covered by the giant Anheuser Busch brewery. The market is in a large old brick building shaped like the letter “H” with the ends being long open sheds and the smaller center enclosed (and heated). The most of the vendors have permanent locations with signs and tables. Some have elaborate small stores that appear to have been there a very long time. A butcher shop, a pastry shop and, surprisingly, a pet store all appeared to be permanent. At this time of year fresh local produce was scarce – we did see one organic farmer with some nice root vegetables and a wild mushroom vendor with an amazing array of oyster mushrooms and chantrelles. There were several poultry vendors doing a brisk business, even live geese were on offer. We shared a warm flaky croissant and moved on.

St. Louis is rich in coffee shops, many of which roast their own beans. We had tried two nearby, Park Avenue Coffee and Mississippi Mud, the latter our favorite. Yesterday we tried the Benton Park Cafe for breakfast. It's a bit more polished and therefore a bit more sterile, but the coffee and food are very good. Where we sat looking out on Lemp Street, we had a good view of Gus' Pretzels directly opposite.

Now, I personally never have been a big fan of soft pretzels. I worked for two days in a pretzel factory in my home town back in the early 70s and have had an aversion to twisted dough ever since. As we watched, car after car pulled up to Gus'. A steady stream of customers emerged with small brown bags and sometimes a soda. Remember, this is 9:30 on a Saturday morning. Who were these pretzel fanatics? What is it about Gus'?

We had to find out. We finished breakfast and crossed the street.

Gus' is a plain brick rectangle on the corner of Lemp and Arsenal Streets with a black and white pretzel flag flying out front just below old glory. It's about 2 long blocks from the Budweiser plant. Inside there is a line at a counter with a menu board. $1.50 for three “twists or sticks.” Beside the line there are long windows into the pretzel making room. At one end a machine spits out little clumps of dough that are caught by rollers and emerge as raw pretzel sticks. A steaming water bath is bobbing with raw pretzels. There's a guy throwing salt onto trays of wet pretzels before they go into the oven. A giant mixer churns up a new batch of dough. About half a dozen workers tend this process. One guy is even hand rolling a really big speciality pretzel in the form of some letters. Another guy was making “pretzel sandwiches” which turns out to be a hot dog or bratwurst completely encased in pretzel dough.

There are old photographs, too. The original Gus holding a kid in front of the oven with a big pile of pretzels in the foreground is my favorite. Now, if you are a pretzel fan, or if you are of German heritage, do yourself a favor and check out Gus' website at

If, like me, you don't really like pretzels, just look at the pictures attached.

Wednesday we are heading back to CNY for Thanksgiving. We hope to see quite a few of our good friends then.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Rocket docket

Hello friends. This week I've written a sketch of recent courtroom activities for those of you that are interested in that sort of thing. If the minute details of social security procedure don't rivet you, just skip to the end where you will find a fun picture of the birthday cake made for me as a surprise by my court room hearing monitor (whose other business is cake baking). Otherwise, read on. You have been warned.

Yesterday five of the ten St. Louis Social Security judges conducted what we term a “rocket docket.” The idea was to schedule as many preliminary hearings for unrepresented claimants as possible on one Saturday morning. We would bring them in, advise them of their right to counsel, review their medical evidence briefly and order consultative examinations for those who needed them. Their cases would then be rescheduled in two or three months.

Gary Jewell, our Hearing Office Chief Administrative Law Judge (HOCALJ) is the brains behind our rocket docket. He realized that a significant part of the backlog of cases is created by unrepresented claimants who show up at their first hearing only to announce they now want to hire counsel. By law we must adjourn their case to give them time to find a lawyer. This means we set aside an hour for their hearing, but the hearing only lasts ten minutes. They later get another hour hearing. This may not seem like a big waste of time, but the true waste is behind the scenes. Each ALJ spends at least an hour reviewing medical evidence in preparation for each hearing. When hearings are adjourned or cancelled not only has the judge spent time needlessly preparing but the staff spent hours and hours obtaining medical evidence, preparing the files and sending notices for hearings that never happen.

About 30% of our claimants are unrepresented. An astounding 50% or more of unrepresented claimants simply never show up at their hearings. Of course, we don't know they are not coming, so we soldier on, spending hours preparing for hearings that never happen. The result is that court rooms often sit empty. Courtroom staff sit twiddling their thumbs. We prepare and wait for those who never come. Other claimants who need hearings are delayed while we process claims that never go anywhere. Enter the rocket docket.

Yesterday each of the five rocketeer judges had 20 – 25 unrepresented claimant cases scheduled for the morning from 8:00 – 11:30 at 10 minute intervals. In all 110 cases were scheduled. Since our office completes about 285 cases a month this is a pretty significant docket. Between the time notices went out and yesterday's hearings about 30 of these claimants hired counsel, so we adjourned their cases for a future hearing leaving 80 cases to hear. Of these, only 35 actually showed up so we only averaged 7 hearings apiece. We dismissed the other 45 cases. Of the 7 cases I heard only 1 decided not to hire a lawyer. We gave everybody a handout about how to contact lawyers. We scheduled independent consultative exams for about half of the people we saw. In all a very productive morning, 65 cases moved forward efficiently, 45 dismissed without a lot of wasted effort.

Going in I expected this process to be pretty easy. I imagined I would give a short talk on the right to counsel, glance over the medical records to see who could benefit from an exam, and done. My first case actually followed this pattern. But, as you all know, life has a tendency to be a little more complicated than that. My second hearing involved a claimant who only spoke Arabic. We had no access to a translation service on a Saturday. Fortunately he brought a friend who spoke English to translate. We began. I said a sentence. The friend turned to the claimant and whispered into his ear. “No, say it out loud, so I can hear,” I admonished. Things went pretty well after that until I asked the key question, “So, do you think you want to hire a lawyer?” This provoked an extended conversation in Arabic between the two friends. I stopped them and explained that the conversation had to be between me and the claimant. Many apologies later the claimant decided it would be best to hire a lawyer. Whew.

All the remaining cases were also fairly complicated. I struggled to help these folks understand their rights in Social Security's byzantine system, including a 23 year old woman with developmental disabilities and irritable bowel syndrome and a man with psychosis accompanied by his only somewhat less psychotic brother and sister.

The last case of the day for me involved a 35 year old man. Small and mild mannered he explained that he had hired a lawyer, but that they recently refused to keep representing him. I checked the file and sure enough found a withdrawal from representation. What happened? He didn't know; they didn't tell him. I looked at his records: blind in one eye, deep vein thrombosis in the left leg with chronic pain and anti-coagulant therapy, and HIV+. From the point of view of a claimant's lawyer a pretty good case on the face of it. So why had his lawyers fired him? After a few more questions I discovered that he had returned to work for a few months. Now he was out again. Work had proved too strenuous for him. His only work was as a day care provider. His employer does not know of his diagnosis, and he doesn't want to tell them. In fact, other than his doctor and the Social Security world no one knows of his diagnosis.

I explained his rights. He plans to get a new lawyer. I suggested he get some counseling to help him deal with his situation and directed him to some local HIV/AIDS resources. He thanked me and left.

As I stepped outside into a suddenly blustery day, I could not help but wonder about our so-called social safety net for citizens with disabilities of our county. Are we serving them well? Do we dare call ourselves a civilized country? Just a block down Broadway on the steps of the Old Courthouse where Dred Scott was tried about 300 gay rights activists were demonstrating in the cold.

We're a young and foolish country still, I mused, but the idea of civil rights for all is still warm, deep in our national consciousness. We will grow up some day and grant those rights freely to all. I turned my coat collar up and carried my surprise birthday cake back to my car.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Wild hickory nuts

Today is my sixtieth birthday. This momentous event has put me in mind of the many unique and interesting people with whom I have had the good fortune to have shared some time. Here's a short remembrance sparked by a recent event.

Merry and I made our first expedition into the Ozarks two weekends ago. We spent two sunny warm autumn days exploring and stayed overnight at Rock Eddy Bluff Farm near Dixon, Missouri. Our accommodation was an old-fashioned log cabin complete with luxury outhouse, gravity feed sink, gas stove and solar powered LED lights. The broad porch overlooks a deep hollow leading down to the Gasconade River. Sitting on the porch in the late afternoon sun we were surrounded by a forest of tan leaves of many hues from the various oak trees with a few hickories mixed in.

On our walk to the river I discovered a spot where freshly fallen hickory nuts covered the ground. Merry gathered some to take home. This put me in a mind of how I came to meet Euell Gibbons.

Back in the fall of 1967 I was attending Bucknell University as a sophomore history major. My roommate for that semester was Eric Jones. Where I grew up (Hanover, PA) there was no one like Eric. Eric was a full-fledged Quaker from Philadelphia. He had shaggy hair and wore handmade sandals with socks, all the time, everywhere, in all weather. He talked about the Philadelphia Folk Festival and coffee houses. He introduced me to what he termed “real folk music," in other words, something besides the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary. He had attended private Quaker schools in Philadelphia and invited me to the local Friends Meeting. I was not particularly interested.

Not interested until he casually mentioned that about once a month after Friends Meeting Euell Gibbons led a hike to gather wild foods followed by a “wild dinner.”

I knew about Euell Gibbons from my Boy Scout days. I had read and re-read his classic, Stalking the Wild Asparagus. I loved his folksy style and the way he expressed his clear affection for the outdoors. I did not know he lived in Central Pennsylvania. I jumped at the chance to meet him.

A few weeks later I went to a Quaker meeting for the first time with Eric. It was not what I expected. After a few minutes sitting quietly one person after the other stood to talk about their favorite Bible verse or their interpretation of their faith. I had thought Quakers just meditated until the spirit moved them These Quakers were downright talky.

I looked around the room but didn't see anyone that looked remotely like what I imagined Euell Gibbons to look like. After the service a tall, gaunt man stood and invited anyone who wanted to go along for a walk to meet him outside. It was a cool sunny late fall day. I remember we walked along a railroad track outside of town. Euell seemed to know the name of every plant. Every few feet he would stop, pick up a plant, explain what it was and how it could be eaten. We gathered what edible plants we could find and put them in buckets. At the end of the walk the buckets were taken back to Euell's farm where we all pitched in to make a big salad, soup and some roasted root vegetables.

I went on several of these walks during that year. I got to know Euell fairly well. It surprised me that he smoked cigarettes and that pizza was his favorite food. At that time he had just recently become a minor celebrity. Until his “Stalking” books became a success he led a pretty hard life. His wild food hobby had started as a real necessity during the dust bowl when his family lived in New Mexico. He claimed to have bummed around the country after leaving home as a hobo for years. He was a long time lefty in the Woody Guthrie vein. He and his wife were steadfast members of the Quakers and of the local peace movement. I remember him as a pretty humble man who never did much to make himself stand out.

A few years after I graduated I was pleasantly surprised to see that Euell had been invited to write a couple of articles for the National Geographic and that he appeared on television on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and on Sonny and Cher. I was a bit surprised to find him pitching Grape Nuts in a TV commercial in 1974 during which he uttered a phrase I never forgot. When describing the taste of Grape Nuts he said in his Will Rogers voice, “Reminds me of wild hickory nuts.” My friends and I laughed. Some moaned that Euell had “sold out.” Personally I knew he had lived a hard and principled life. I was happy he had achieved some small measure of fame and economic success.

Euell died in 1975 from an aneurysm secondary to his Marfan’s syndrome. Although it's been more than 40 years since I met him, I still hear his voice and feel his influence every time I take a walk in the woods.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Wise Ass Historian

This last Wednesday Merry and I attended a reading and book signing by Sarah Vowell at the Mad Art Gallery in St. Louis. To be honest I was only vaguely aware of Sarah Vowell and had never read anything she wrote, but Mer had seen her on John Stewart, and assured me I would enjoy the occasion.

What an evening of discovery. The Mad Art Gallery is located in the Soulard neighborhood, one of the oldest intact areas of the city next to the big Anheuser-Busch brewery, near the Mississippi. The Gallery was created out of a very classy 1930's art deco police station. As you walk in you see that the giant Sergent's desk, surrounded by tons of polished brass grillwork, has been transformed into a bar. The original terrazzo floors are in good shape as is the original lock-up, open for inspection. The main room held about 200 folding chairs and a “paint-by-numbers” exhibit of familiar masterpieces (Mona Lisa, Warhol's Marilyn, etc.). It filled up fast. Looking around we felt we must have a good deal in common with many of the people in the room.

The event started pretty much on time, apparently a mid-western trait. The nervous, fast talking owner of the gallery welcomed everybody. Then the “events coordinator” of Left Bank Books, a local independent book store and organizer of the Great River Writers events, took the stage to vent some of her incredible, bubbly energy. Finally, the director of the Honor's College of the University of Missouri, St. Louis, took the podium to introduce the writer. After patting himself on the back for five minutes, droning on and on about his program [Why doesn't someone tell too-full-of-themselves college professors that normal people are just not that interested in them? UMSTL, I mused, how do they pronounce that? I later learned the correct pronunciation is “ums-stil”] he finally yielded the stage to the honored guest.

Sarah Vowell is a short, pale woman with dark hair cut short and blunt. There is something of a goth look to her. She has a slight vocal tic and speaks in bursts. She read from her latest book, Wordy Shipmates. She is terrific from the first sentence. Now mind you, Wordy Shipmates is a retelling of the earliest history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Ms. Vowell not only likes and deeply understands these quintessential religious fanatics, she makes their story interesting, and at times funny.

During the question and answer section, I realized why I like her so much. She has taken the time to truly understand who these people were, how they lived, why they thought the way they did, then she successfully tells us why we should care about any of that. The message of this book, it seems (I have not read it, yet), is simple – we have inherited our deepest assumptions about democracy from those crazy Pilgrims. We owe it to ourselves to know something about how and why they managed to survive.

What sets Sarah Vowell apart from other historians and other writers in general is her desire to understand exactly how other people live, then to explain why she cares about what she has discovered. She does this in an easy going, irreverent way. To get a sense of what I'm trying to say here I recommend you take a look at this clip of John Stewart interviewing here recently about this book:

Near the end of the program a high school social studies teacher asked Ms. Vowell how to make teaching about early America interesting to 11th graders. In reply, she allowed that this may be a nearly impossible task, but suggested keeping the focus on the people, their oddities, their foibles, and their unique perspective. This perfect answer reminded me fondly of our friend, Kathy Sabino, who labors mightily in this field at Hamilton High. It is, in the end, the task of us all to understand why and how others have come to different conclusions about important human issues. To the extent each of us personally succeeds in such understanding, we make a civilization out of the ant heap. This wise ass historian is doing what she can to help.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Being Represented

Merry has been back in Syracuse this week getting 303 Summit ready to rent. I've been holding down the fort, walking the dog and deciding more cases. I think I'm starting to get the hang of it. Knowing how to effectively prepare for hearings is surely an art not a science. I've asked the lawyers who appear before me to send me briefs and medical records well in advance, but invariably I get them the day of the hearing. Actually that doesn't surprise me, I did the very same thing in my own practice.

When I review files for a hearing I find the cases can be divided fairly easily into three broad groups: (1) those that should obviously be paid, (2) those that should obviously be denied, and (3) hard cases.

I puzzle a short time about the small number of cases, maybe ten percent, that should obviously be paid. Why were they ever denied? Were they really that much less disabled just two years ago when they applied? I usually conclude that it is just very bad luck with the SSA bureaucracy.

About a quarter of the cases I review fall into the obvious denial category. I'm sure these folks think they are disabled. They are generally young, have no more than a high school education and have worked at unskilled, strenuous jobs. They are hurt enough not to be able to keep doing what they know how to do. Lighter work is hard to find. They are not motivated to get retrained for something they can physically manage. They have no savings and no back-up plan. Many are working for a temporary service or at odd jobs. When they come before me, I listen to their story, tell them about vocational rehabilitation and turn them down.

Because Social Security only pays attorney fees when a case is won, virtually none of these people are represented at their hearing. A few have tried to get legal assistance but were unsuccessful, presumably because the lawyer they consulted was smart enough to discover the case was going no where. Most have never even consulted a lawyer. They show up at their first hearing and are advised of their right to counsel. Their hearing is rescheduled, then they come back a second time without a lawyer and lose, or just never show up again. This pattern is so predictable that our office schedules an occasional special hearing day just for this type of case.

At least two thirds of the cases I review are quite difficult to decide. Most of these cases can probably be won with skillful representation. I'm fascinated by which of these claimants manage to hire competent counsel, which hire incompetent counsel, and which seem unable to find counsel even with significant effort. I've not heard enough cases yet to even form a theory about why this happens.

Let me give just one example of a case that looked like one I would deny when I reviewed it, but which was won easily by competent counsel. This week I held a hearing for a young (40) man who dropped out of school at age 12 (after sixth grade). He never worked at a real job, but sold drugs on the street. He spent nearly the entire rest of his life in and out of jail for petty offenses, mostly burglary. He has a congenital spine disorder that has gotten worse over the years, but is not now disabling. He has hepatitis C and is HIV+, but is not now symptomatic. His IQ was tested in school at 80, a low average. He is mentally ill, but his prison records did not show any loss of function. When I was reviewing the case all his medical care had been in prison and looked pretty routine. Now he was out of jail and applied for SSI benefits.

He tried a few times to get private lawyers to represent him, but failed. Fortunately, a legal aid lawyer took the case, got a competent psychological evaluation and easily won the case in my courtroom. Without representation he may well have lost. Being represented made all the difference.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Lemp Junque

When we moved into 2115 Ann one of the things we noticed was the hole in the living room wall where a heat register was missing. A matching register adorns the dining room. It's of an unusual design. The heat duct is a hole about a foot square at the base of the wall. This hole requires a register with a frame shaped like a narrow right triangle that sits on the floor and holds a decorative grate that covers the vent. We did not notice the one missing in the living room during our inspections of the house probably because it was covered by furniture. Not a real big deal, but where would we find such an object? Our helpful real estate agent, Chuck, told us we might be able to get a suitable replacement on Cherokee Street.

We already knew that Cherokee St. is a near-by small shopping district consisting of several blocks of antique stores. Merry seemed to welcome the opportunity to seek this obscure object. Over the next few weeks she made several forays to Cherokee St., but no luck. She did get a tantalizing lead, however. She was told at the east end of Cherokee St. a guy operates a shop specializing in antique fixtures out of the abandoned Lemp Brewery. He has occasional hours. You can only tell he's there if a bicycle with a sign is chained out front. Merry drove by, but no bicycle, then found out he is only there on weekends.

Last Sunday we decided to try again. The brewery complex is huge, covering several city blocks. On one corner, next to the Interstate, chained to a light post was a beaten-up green antique bicycle with a small sign - “Junque.” All the windows in that area of the brewery are boarded up, the doors secured with rusty chains. There appears to be no way in. We walked along one side of the complex and looked down the next street. Part way down the block is another old bike chained to a post.

There is a gated truck entrance next to the second bike. The gate is ajar. Inside a passageway leads under interconnected brick archways to a freight dock and an open courtyard. Old machinery, giant gears, lumber and assorted tools are spread around this area. The disused freight dock is littered with an impressive assortment of wood working tools. As we wander through we can hear a small engine roaring. I spot a go-cart looping around the dirt courtyard between the boarded up buildings. Three men in work clothes are deep in conversation behind the dock. As we approach a tall thin man welcomes us to go inside and take a look around. We climb steps behind the dock and step inside.

We are in a cluttered warehouse space. We see more construction equipment and work benches, then dozens and dozens of bins, shelves, cupboards, drawers, salvage. Amazingly, it's all very well organized. A bin of broken black marble here, white marble there, terra cotta roof tiles in the corner – on and on. The proprietor finds us before we wander too far.

Merry describes our missing heat grate. He puzzles for a second walking deeper into the room. He mutters something about frames, grates and Chicago, I think. We come to a shelf covered by heat grates. He reaches into the heap and pulls out the exact thing we are looking for. He shows us the other grates in the stack. There is only one that looks like what we want. $25 is the price. We take it.

He leaves us to wander the room. There is an incredible assortment of building material everywhere. Mantle pieces, picture frames, mirrors, fire screens, hooks, pipes, wooden nickels, you name it. A small sign proclaims a 10% discount for materials to be used as public art. We explore for awhile.

It's exciting. An organized resource of ancient treasure. I woman appears and enquires whether we need any help. It turns out she's a friend of the owner sent to make sure we were alright. She tells us about the restaurant she's just opened that crosses an ice cream parlor with a martini bar. We discuss where in upstate NY her daughter, who wants to be a writer, should go to college. A few more people wander in. It's a contractor leading his clients on an expedition. They live in our neighborhood and are rehabbing a house. We acquire the contractor's card. The owner returns and we pay.

Back on the street the place seems like a hallucination. At home, the grill is an exact match.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Paying attention

Recently a colleague asked me how, after more than 20 years of daily interaction with people with injuries or illnesses, I manage to avoid becoming hardened to the suffering I witness.

I believe this to be a cornerstone question for any work related to the suffering of others.

I understand how people become jaded to suffering. After working in this area for awhile, it's hard to keep the sad stories from running together. Instead of focusing on the unique details, it's just another case of low back pain with disc herniation at L4-5.

I think we become jaded toward suffering, not primarily because of monotony but to protect ourselves. In order to make sense of people's stories, you must possess empathy; it's necessary to the process of understanding. Exercising empathy takes a lot of energy. Mostly,it requires close attention to what the other person is saying.

But such attention necessarily opens a window into the other person's messy life. These details overlap the problem we are committed to solving. She cannot understand that we don't need to hear for the ten thousandth time that she is behind on her car payment, or that money problems are wrecking their marriage. We are impatient with his lack of concern for what we are trying to do for him. He doesn't say “Thank you” when we get him necessary medical care. We put ourselves out for them, listen to them rant, but they don't reciprocate. It's downright tiring. Worse, sometimes they are miserable, unhappy people who hurt so much they don't care how nasty they are to others.

As a judge I've become even more aware of the amount of energy it takes to adequately pay attention to people's problems. I spend hours reading hundreds of pages of medical reports, then an hour asking questions of each claimant about the details of their disability. At the end of the day I'm tired and emotionally worn out.

Over the years I have adopted some strategies for maintaining compassion and a healthy distance at once.

First, I remind myself daily that my role in other people's lives is quite limited. In this regard I try to implement some basic Buddhist concepts regarding humility. Every day for the past year I've read the “Eight Verses on Mind Training” in the morning before leaving for work. This practice helps me remember to keep my ego in check. [I've attached a copy of the verses for those of you unfamiliar with them.]

But I'm not a Buddhist. I don't subscribe to the most basic Buddhist beliefs. I know that the world and other sentient beings exist totally separate from my consciousness. The key insight for me is that I need each and every one of these others to bring me joy. I receive this joy at the moment of each conscious genuine interaction. When someone does something that takes me by surprise, even something distasteful, I feel this joy. The more I pay attention to the details, the more things take me by surprise. Paying close attention becomes its own reward, its own source of energy. In order to pay attention, I need to clear the noise of modern existence out of my mind. I do this by taking a little time to meditate and get focused before taking on my daily routine. I know if I fail to pay attention to the stories and lessons out there, my life will be governed by petty routine and become impoverished.

To the extent I can control my ego and open myself to what is outside of my limited consciousness, I can tap into the energy of existence. It's in nature and it's in other people. People with illnesses or disabilities carry this energy too. Partaking of their energy in this way does not reduce them; on the contrary, it affirms them.

Most days that's what keeps me going.

Saturday, October 4, 2008


This past week I heard a case where the disabling impairment was severe depression. After the preliminaries, I needed to ask a series of questions concerning activities of daily living (known, of course, as ADLs). It was hard going. The claimant was tearful and confused. Most questions elicited head shaking or blank stares. My questions seemed to be pushing the claimant ever closer to the brink of a complete break-down.

I turned to her attorney and asked him to carry on with the questioning in the hope that his familiarity with the client would calm her down and elicit helpful responses. It didn't. In fact, the more he questioned his client the more anxious and tearful she became. I took over the questioning again.

During his questions he did manage to extract two pieces of information I thought might form the basis for questioning – that the claimant had two dogs and that she watched TV virtually continuously. I decided to try questions about her dogs.

“So, you have two dogs. What kind are they?”

“Little dogs.”

“What breed are they?”

“I don't know. One's old and fat. I think it's a schnauzer.”

“What's the other one?”

“A chihuahua.”

“OK, do you take them for walks?”


“You said your older dog is fat, how much does it weigh?”

“I don't know, maybe twenty pounds.”

“Do you ever pick it up?”

“Oh no, I never pick them up.”

“What do you do all day with your dogs?”

“We just lay there. They like to lie down with me.”

Well, this line of questioning wasn't getting me much information, but at least the claimant had stopped crying. I decided to switch to TV shows.

“What TV shows do you like to watch?”

“I don't really watch shows, the TV is just on.”

“Don't you have any favorite shows?”

“I like Boston Legal.”

“Is that the one with William Shatner? Do you watch that a lot?”


“That's an hour program, isn't it? Can you follow the story for a whole program?”

“No, I don't watch the whole thing, I just like that William Shatner.”

“Why don't you watch the whole thing?”

“I can't follow the story. Can you?

I couldn't help myself. I just blurted out, “Of course I can, but I've got special training.”

I smiled a sly, broad smile. Around the court room I could see the vocational expert suppress a laugh. My hearing recorder gave a quiet snicker. The claimant's lawyer had a grin on his face for the first time since the beginning of the hearing.

The claimant's face didn't change. Nothing registered.

I tried again. “You know, special training, I'm trained as a lawyer, that's why I can follow the story.”


I knew at once I had discovered a new clinical test for depression. I paid the case.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Old Post Office

I spent the first two nights of September at the Park Avenue Mansion, a bed & breakfast in St. Louis. It's located on Lafayette Park near our new home. We needed temporary quarters because we had not yet closed on the new house. Merry and Joli joined me for the second night after driving our VW to St. Louis from Syracuse.

The B&B is owned and operated by a man named Michael. On the second morning we were passing the time waiting for our real estate agent to arrive to drive us to the closing. Michael was regaling us with stories about the history of his house of which he had made a very close study. Having exhausted that source he moved on to discuss other highlights of St. Louis architecture. He insisted we visit the “Old Post Office” building downtown and claimed it was architecturally one of the most significant of all of St. Louis' buildings. To prove his point he told us the following unusual things about the building: (1) It has a two-story basement that once served as the US Treasury gold depository for the western US. He claimed that it featured its own underground railroad station so gold could safely be shipped in and out. (2) The windows can be completely covered with steel shutters that slide out from slots in the wall. He claimed the shutters were installed in the 1920's during a trial of organized crime figures as a defense against possible mob machine gun fire.

A few days later I was talking with a fellow judge at work, Tom Muldoon. Judge Muldoon informed me that the hearing offices for Social Security used to be located in the Old Post Office. He described the grandeur of his former office in the building and told me he had the good fortune to tour the building with an architectural historian following the building's renovations in the 1990s. He too told me of the steel shutters that pull out of the walls, but in his version they were original to the 1884 building and were intended to turn the building into a fortress against attack from forces hostile to the Union. He explained border conflicts occurred in Missouri for quite a time after the Civil War. He repeated the story about the underground train station and added that the open air space surrounding the two story basement was designed as a moat that could be flooded in an attack thus protecting the gold by covering it with two stories of water. Finally, he told me that to stabilize the massive building it was built on pilings that rest on giant cotton bales. He claimed the bales were inspected during the renovations and were still sound after more than 100 years in the ground.

The very same day after a hearing, Jane Lanser, my hearing reporter, told me she had a book on the Old Post Office she would bring in for me to look over, and by the way, had I heard the story about how the gold mysteriously disappeared from the vaults there. The vocational expert in the courtroom waiting for the next hearing added that during the 1904 World's Fair people wanted to see the basement of the Old Post Office because it was rumored to be the entrance to a tunnel to the center of the earth.

I had to go look. It is an amazing building and architecturally significant for a number of reasons [see attached photos]. The real eye opener, however, occurred this past week when Jane brought me the book she promised. It was published in 1979 by the Landmarks Association, a St. Louis civic group that was leading the efforts to save and renovate the building. This book includes the following (presumably reliable) information: (1) When excavation for the building was underway a large bed of quicksand was uncovered. Attempts to excavate the quicksand caused the surrounding streets and buildings to subside, so excavation was stopped until hundreds of yellow pine pilings were driven then capped with 4-6 feet of limestone slabs (not cotton bales) on which the building now sits. These pilings were inspected in the 1970s and found to be sound. (2) The building was furnished with its own underground railroad platform but it was never used because it was impracticable to stop a coal fired steam train for long underground. (3) The metal shutters were original and intended for fireproofing. (4) There is no moat, the space around the basement was designed to admit light to basement windows.

Great old buildings inspire the imagination and gather stories. There is no tunnel to the center of the earth where the missing gold can be discovered by the fortunate soul brave enough to open the right passageway – but there should be.

Sunday, September 21, 2008


Hello again everyone. Here's another short reflection on my new job. Thanks to everyone who commented on last week's entry. It's a bit lonely out here and the friendly contacts are certainly welcome.

After two weeks of hearing cases I've already discovered a rather surprising (surprising to me at any rate) basic law of judging Social Security cases. Finding in favor of someone and granting benefits is easy. It's gratifying, too. Claimants come to court convinced they are so disabled that they cannot work. They tell me their story. These stories are always heart wrenching. The claimants are sad, worn-out folks. Some have worked hard all their lives until an accident or bad judgment laid them low. Some are deadbeats, drug addicts, and lay-abouts who ran out of friends and luck. Some are ordinary people whose body has inexplicably turned on them. Many are mentally ill, undiagnosed and unable to care for themselves in any meaningful way.

During a hearing this week, as I listened to another sad story, I realized that I was going to have to deny this person benefits. I am certain that she believed she could not work, indeed it may be true that she can't work. The problem is she simply did not have any credible evidence to support her belief. Her good doctors had done their work well. According to them she had recovered most of her body's function. She hurt and was tired but I knew without a doubt that she could hold down a job.

As she told me that no one would hire her no matter how hard she tried, I looked at her lawyer. He is a well respected practitioner. He caught my eye. Somehow he saw that I had reached my decision and that it did not favor his client. I saw a slight change come over his face; a look of resignation, perhaps. As I noticed this change, he realized I knew that he knew the case was hopeless. At the end of the testimony I asked him if he needed more time to gather evidence that might convince me. He knew that such evidence did not exist and to his credit he did not pretend it did.

The next day I wrote the unfavorable decision. It took a lot of time to explain why I did not believe the testimony of the claimant and why her doctors did not provide adequate evidence of disability. This was hard work. Lonely work. Necessary work.

To my surprise, I did not shrink from this work or even find it distasteful. Judging means being striving to be fair. To be fair you need rules. It some cases the rules dictate some claimants lose. In order for me to do my part in this system of justice I have to apply these rules impartially, even when it means someone loses. It is hard work to be sure. I hope I can be worthy of it.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


My “training” period came to an end at last after 7 hard weeks of not sleeping in my own bed. This last week our furniture arrived and I started hearing cases.

Let me set the stage. The Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) in St. Louis is located downtown in a modern office tower called St. Louis Place (picture attached). It occupies three quarters of the ninth floor. The office is roughly shaped like a “U” with a waiting room and elevators in the center. There are ten judges organized into two work groups with five judge's offices located on either long end of the U. There are about 45 support staff including ten decision writers (all lawyers) and 10 clerks called Senior Case Technicians (SCTs), one assigned to each judge. Tara Achembo is my SCT. She is essentially my paralegal helping get cases ready for hearing and following up afterwards. The rest of the staff is general clerical workers and managers.

Along the long flat side of the “U” adjacent to the waiting room is a row of five identical courtrooms. Claimants, their lawyers and any witnesses enter the courtrooms through locked doors from the waiting room. Judges enter from the inner office through a wooden door with a peephole that allows a fish-eye view inside. The judge's courtroom doors are unlocked from the office side but cannot be opened from inside the courtroom unless you have an electronic key.

The courtrooms each have the judge's bench on a raised platform at one end with a large desk, a computer hooked up to the SSA mainframe and a seat for a hearing reporter and their computer. In front of the bench is a large table with a seat for a vocational expert witness (VE) and seats for the claimant and their representative. Since 90% of our files are fully electronic, the attorney's seat and the VE's seat are equipped with computers, and they often also bring their own laptops. Each seat has a microphone to allow for electronic recording of the testimony.

On Monday I put on my new Judge's robe for the first time and headed for courtroom #2 a few minutes before 1:00, the time for my first hearing. I opened the door and was surprised to find the morning hearings had not yet ended. I apologized for the interruption then went to find my group leader to figure out what to do. I was quickly assigned a different courtroom and a different court reporter, but we couldn't get the computers to work. Finally, a half-hour later I was on my way. The confusing start took my mind off being nervous. I looked out at the claimant and his lawyer, introduced myself and started my questioning. I had perhaps over-prepared for a routine hearing but I wanted to really know the case. After about 15 minutes I knew what my decision would be. It was not this claimant's lucky day. His lawyer knew it was not going well. I gave the lawyer, who was very well prepared and comfortable, plenty of time to question his client, then granted his request for more time to try to get key evidence. They thanked me and left. The first hearing was over. It was 2:15. Not bad.

The next case involved a very mentally disturbed very young man. After he testified his mother testified and told me that virtually everything the claimant told me was a delusion. The file was devoid of adequate evidence. The claimant could not afford medical care so this time I ordered the client to get psychological testing paid for by Social Security. Another hour gone. The last claimant failed to show up. I dismissed his case. I walked out of the courtroom at 3:30, half an hour ahead of schedule. I felt great.

It's been pretty much like that every day since. After the hearings I issue orders for further development of cases and write decisions (actually I mostly write instructions to decision writers who draft decisions for me). Before the hearings I read files and make notes to prepare and occasionally decide a case without having to hold a hearing. I expect to decide at least 12 cases a week, or about 600 per year.

The work is inherently interesting and it suits me. I have a fair amount of compassion for claimants, but I've seen enough to not be a fool. I know what claimant's representatives go through and how they think. What's so different about judging is the realization that I'm the one who decides what will happen next for these folks. They need to move forward, and until I decide their life is on hold. Win or lose, after I decide, their story continues.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Forest Park

This is the first installment of my St. Louis blog. I send it to you for your amusement and as a way to keep in touch with valued friends. When I left Syracuse on Labor Day I started a new chapter in my life, but was at a loss about how to realistically keep in touch with the many friends I made during the last 20 years. A former neighbor of ours (Curt Miller) moved to Spain a few years back and sends us his occasional thoughts on his new life by email blog. Merry and I both enjoy reading Curt's blog so we decided to try doing something similar. Since we have different views on events and a somewhat different list of friends we decided to each write our own blog. If you do not want your mailbox filling up with our random thoughts, please let us know and we will take you off the list – no questions asked and no hard feelings.

The three of us (Merry and I and Joli the dog) arrived safely in St. Louis this past week and have bought a classic (circa 1900) brick home in a city neighborhood called McKinley Heights. Here is our new contact information. Our new address is 2115 Ann Ave., St. Louis, MO 63104. Our new phone is 314-865-0699. My new office phone is 314-588-7534 x 3015 and my office email is We are working on a new Internet connection and will probably get new email addresses soon but our current addresses will work for at least another month.

Yesterday (Saturday) was pleasantly warm so we took Joli for a walk in Forest Park. Forest Park sits in the heart of St. Louis and at 1,371 acres is one of the largest urban parks in the country. By comparison Central Park in New York is 843 acres. The park was dedicated June 24, 1876, and was originally four miles outside the St. Louis city limits. George Kessler, a well-known Midwestern park designer of the time, redesigned the park as a part of his master design for the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. A popular myth says that Frederick Law Olmsted designed the park, fair grounds and Washington University campus. Kessler briefly worked for Olmsted as a Central Park gardener when he was in his 20s. The vistas in Forest Park seem to show Olmsted's influence.

There were 15 main palaces built for the 1904 Fair, but only one (now the Saint Louis Art Museum) was constructed as a permanent building. Today the park is an urban paradise with acres of lawns and gardens, walking trails, playing fields, several lakes, a golf course, bike and boat rentals and “the Grand Basin.” The Art Museum is the dominant architectural feature but there is an open pavilion from the Worlds Fair, the “Jewel Box” glass house, a beautiful boat house, some cafes, the Municipal Theatre, outdoor Opera and the Science Museum. A few illustrative pictures are attached.

The park's PR says that more than 10 million visitors come each year to relax, walk, play sports or attend events. Saturday was a prime day. We parked near the “Grand Basin” where a large wedding was underway. We arrived just in time for the “I dos.” The view from the Grand Basin is a classic of 19th Century park design. Water in a formal setting with fountains and row boats; marble arch bridges, then a steep lawn with the neo-classic museum at the top of the hill. People and dogs were everywhere. Wedding parties were every where. I lost count at 10 sets of brides, grooms and magenta colored bridesmaids.

We met everyone who was walking a dog and all the little kids who wanted to pet Joli. Most importantly we started to relax. Our new home has a spacious guest room. Please keep in touch and start to plan your visit to the Gateway to the West. Ed