Saturday, December 26, 2009

Goodbye St. Louis

My request for a transfer back to Syracuse, NY came through in record time. I successfully negotiated with the largest bureaucracy on earth to be allowed to move at a time that better suited my family. My boss threw me a great farewell party and said nice things about me. So why am I blue?

During the 16 months we have lived in St. Louis I have grown quite fond of the city. On balance it is a lively place with many unique features. The city has fabulous public spaces, chief among which is the Gateway Arch. Unique in the world, this monumental building so dominates downtown as to disappear from consciousness. At unexpected times it suddenly appears as a shimmering reflection in windows of an office tower, or a partial view of the north leg from the windows of the office, or in the distance when driving toward downtown. The Arch reminds me I could be in no other place in the world.

We have spent many reflective and renewing hours in the world class parks here. The parks define the boundaries of my St. Louis experience. The two neighborhood parks, Lafayette and Benton, are good ways to come to know your neighbors, their kids and dogs, at least by sight. A bit further afield is the arboretum called Tower Grove, where our kite got stuck in a tree one breezy Sunday, also home to the farmer's market we frequented. Further, but still within an easy drive is magnificent Forest Park, home to the art museum, the history museum, the Zoo, the MUNY and miles of dog walking trails. Downtown, only a few blocks from my office, is the brilliant new Citygarden, a sculpture park unlike any other. Merry has beautifully documented all these municipal gems on her photoblog at

The queen of all the city parks is the Missouri Botanical Garden. I was completely unaware of this amazing garden before we moved here. Founded in 1859 by Henry Shaw, who made a fortune peddling housewares to passing pioneers, this garden has a look and feel of earthly perfection. We have visited botanical gardens everywhere we have traveled, but only two (Kew in England and Longwood in PA) rival Shaw's Garden. It has historic structures, wonderful sculpture, a 1960s geodesic dome jungle, a kids' garden, a spectacular Japanese garden and an astounding collection of plants from all sorts of habitats. When we visit St. Louis in the future, we will always spend at least part of a day in this garden.

We have spent considerable time searching out the great restaurants of the city. We favor ethnic food, so we didn't eat at many of the well known high end places but we did come to love Vin de Set with its rooftop view of downtown and Chez Leon, traditional French cuisine and a player grand piano to boot. Many weekend mornings we would head for the Mississippi Mudhouse, a funky coffee shop in the Cherokee antique district, for fresh roasted coffee, spicy hot chocolate and breakfast. We tried several Italian places on “the Hill” but generally did not take to toasted ravioli, provel or the heavy pasta here. The single exception is Stelina Pasta Cafe where all the pasta is made fresh daily on the premises. When hungry for reliably wonderful food, we would head for the Tower Grove/South Grand neighborhood and eat at Basil Spice (Thai), Cafe Natasha (Persian) or The Shaved Duck (Barbeque). These are unpretentious spots where the owners treat you like family and the servers remember what you like. We especially love Thai food and the friendly Thai people. The owners of Basil Spice always greeted us warmly, often made us special desserts and even gave us a sweet going away present. I'll miss them.

Of course, a great part of my life here was spent inside 200 N. Broadway where Social Security holds hearings. Before coming to St. Louis I had generally escaped working within any large bureaucratic organization. I was worried that working for Social Security would be soul numbing. In fact, it is psychologically very hard, but the staff who do the work in St. Louis do it with grace. This is certainly due in large part to the efforts of the chief judge, W. Gary Jewell, and the hearing office director, Karen Kumpe. Karen knows everything, can find anything, fix anything, and understands how it all works because she has done every job in the office over the years. Judge Jewell, a true son of Alabama, “Roll Tide,” learned how to motivate people during his military career in the JAG corps. He knows people want to do well but can be lax if you let them. He devises little motivators, walks around the office causing cheerful disturbances and lets people know he cares that they do their work well. He will always step up to help, often taking the extra work on himself. His staff want to get the job done for him. He changed the name of the three staff work groups from A, B, C to Aardvarks, Cobras and Bobcats. I'll forever hear him call out “Goodnight, Bobcats” in my mind at the end of a work day.

And so I leave with a sense of regret for leaving my temporarily adopted city. I'll miss the friendly people and my daily dose of real life as I ride the bus. I'll miss the smell of hops from Budweiser when the wind is from the south. I'll miss my wonderful massage therapist, Cathi, from Indigo, who nursed my sore muscles back from stress and fatigue. I'll miss all of this, but I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to live at the gateway to the west. Farewell.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Eagle Days

Last winter we made several day trips along the river north of the city to see bald eagles. When our friends from Hamilton, NY, Russ & Sally Lura, visited last January we convinced them to spend a frigid Saturday afternoon with us at Eagle Days.

Bald eagles were plentiful in Missouri when Lewis & Clark camped during the winter of 1803-04 just north of St. Louis. Habitat loss and senseless hunting exterminated the entire population of midwestern eagles by 1890. Missouri’s eagles were already long gone by the time DDT nearly wiped out the rest of the bald eagle population across the country.

There were no nesting pairs of bald eagles in Missouri for nearly a hundred years. In 1972 DDT was banned and it was time for the eagles to return. The Missouri Department of Conservation, in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Dickerson Park Zoo of Springfield, MO started to release young bald eagles across the state in 1981. By 1990, the eagle was back. Because their old haunts in the cypress swamps of the bootheel in southeastern Missouri had long ago been cut and drained for cotton fields, modern eagles set up housekeeping along the banks of the Mississippi and a few big lakes. It's estimated that the current resident population consists of about 300 nesting pairs.

In addition to resident eagles, the middle Mississippi River Valley hosts one of North America's largest concentrations of migrant bald eagles during the winter. Annual bird counts show an annual influx of about 3000 birds drawn to areas of open water in search of fish, their preferred food. Many of the small towns on both sides of the river capitalize on the eagle migration. On the Missouri side, Clarksville has an eagle festival featuring an auto tour of eagle sites including a tree covered bluff behind the town that becomes an eagle roost in winter. On the Illinois side, festivals are held in Grafton and nearby Pere Marquette State Park that feature views from the spectacular limestone bluffs in that area. The Great River Road runs along the base of the bluffs and the river. We were captivated here last year by the sight of a large eagle riding down river on a block of ice.

We took Russ and Sally to the celebration hosted at the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge by the City of Madison, IL, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources,  the Confluence Partnership, and the MO Department of Conservation [but not the MO Department of Natural Resources, which I previously mentioned, thanks to alert reader Dan Zarlenga]. This historic bridge is worth of a visit any time of the year. Built in 1929, it was once part of old Route 66. One of its most distinctive features is a 22% curve in the middle of the river, the curve built to accommodate barge navigation. The bridge closed in 1968 but was renovated in 1999 as a bike and pedestrian walkway connecting trails on both sides of the Mississippi. Just south of the bridge is a line of rapids that insures the water stays ice free all winter. This open water attracts bald eagles looking for easy fishing.

It was cold and clear when we joined the crowds of birdwatchers at Eagle Days last January. We packed into a tent to watch a live eagle program put on by the World Bird Sanctuary and McGuire, an adult male eagle. We trouped onto the frigid bridge where we saw the bare sycamore trees along the banks filled with eagles. At the bend of the bridge in the middle of the river the Audubon Society set up a big heated tent with displays on all sorts of birdwatching opportunities.

Back near the parking lot a camp of four or five canvas tents was set up. Outside the tents stood men in buckskins and funny hats holding muskets. Until that moment I was unaware that Lewis & Clark reenactors existed. One bearded fellow was demonstrating the weapons carried by the Corps, another explained the design and use of period canoe paddles. We stopped to talk to another reenactor who had a fine collection of fur trapping paraphernalia. Among his collection spread on a wool blanket on the ground I spotted a few strings of glass beads. I asked him about them. He picked up some small red ones and showed me their real gold centers. He handed me a string of about ten blue beads with white centers on a rawhide cord. “These were found in a archeological dig along the Columbia River in Oregon. They're the real thing, they are Lewis & Clark trade beads actually carried on the expedition.”

In fact the Corps of Discovery may have been saved from starvation because of these humble blue beads. The Corps brought a trunk load of beads along to trade with the natives for everything they needed from food to boats. The far western tribes were unimpressed with the expensive beads and wampum favored by eastern tribes. Lewis made the following entry in his Journal as he travelled down the Columbia: “[T]he object of foreign trade which is the most desired are the common cheap, blue or white beads, of about fifty or seventy to the penny weight, which are strung on strands a fathom in length, and sold by the yard, or the length of both arms; of these the blue beads, which are called tia commachuck, or chief beads, hold the first rank in their ideas of relative value; the most inferior kind are esteemed beyond the finest wampum, and are temptations which can always seduce them to part with their most valuable effects.”

As I turned the old blue beads over in my hand, I felt history stir.

Eagle days will be held again soon, Saturday & Sunday Jan. 16-17, 2010 at the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge 9 am - 3 pm.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Every time I hold a Social Security hearing I briefly reflect on the value of work for pay in our society. Indeed, as I tell every claimant, the point of the hearing is for me to determine, using Social Security's rules, whether it is reasonable to expect that they have the capacity to work for pay. This presupposes that everyone ordinarily has the basic capacity for remunerative work. It also presupposes that a person can lose the functional capacity to work. In essence, a Social Security Law Judge is a person who is supposed to be able to tell the difference.

The unquestioned assumption here is that everyone can and should work if they are able. I suspect this assumption has always existed in human society. The unique feature of the modern era is the role of money in defining the worth of work. The birth of the very idea of work for wages is detailed in Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations (1776). Karl Marx brilliantly expounds the social cost of wage labor in his giant Capital (1867). The spiritual heritage of wage earning is detailed in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904) by Max Weber. These three classics form the basis of my understanding of why people work for pay, the social tension created by inequalities of wages and the process through which commonplace wage earning is infused with meaning.

Social Security law is not concerned with such details. There is no mention of meaningful work in the regulations. There is little notice taken of the soul crushing effects of lifelong poverty. For Social Security the inquiry starts and stops with a simple question: can this person be expected to earn enough through work to constitute substantial gainful activity? As of 1/1/10 the regulations define substantial gainful activity [SGA] as the ability to earn $1000 per month from work of any kind. At the minimum wage of $7.25 a person has to work just 32 hours a week to reach this level. We're not talking deeply satisfying work here, we're talking basic survival.

As I rolled these thoughts around in my mind the last few weeks, I occupied my lunch half-hour sitting at my desk reading The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2009) by British essayist Alain de Botton. As a rule I dislike books that have a lot of illustrations, but the numerous candid black & white photographs by Richard Baker of people working are wonderful. I also really like the fact that the book closely examines various types of work. De Botton chooses warehouse logistics with an emphasis on tuna fish, cookie making, career counseling, satellite launching, oil painting, electrical transmission engineering, accountancy, entrepreneurship and aviation sales. He seems to see himself as a sort of Michael Moore figure padding around in these various venues asking probing questions of unsuspecting and generally cooperative informants. It's clear that independently wealthy de Botton has scant respect for his subjects. His greatest praise is for the middle aged slightly successful artist who obsessively paints the same tree year after year. His greatest scorn is for the workers in complex enterprises: office workers, factory managers, vocational experts, scientists, engineers, sales representatives and wide-eyed inventors. He sees all of them as mildly desperate souls trying to distract themselves from their own inevitable mortality. Judging from this book de Botton most admires the stoic philosophers.

Nonetheless this is an interesting book. While de Botton is too assured of his own intellectual superiority to be a person I'd ever like to meet, he asks good questions and does succeed in opening up his subjects in a way I've never seen before. His curiosity about the ordinary and commonplace reveals whole new worlds. I never knew there was a society devoted to admiring and visiting the various types of electricity transmission pylons. I had no vision of how the French launch satellites in the jungle of Guiana. The cut-throat competition between biscuit makers was unknown to me before reading this book. I often had to keep pushing through the author's stilted prose and arch commentary to reach his really interesting insights. It was worth it, even though it was often discouraging. I'm not the only one to feel this way about this book as can be seen from the NY Times Book Review from last summer:

It took me about a month of lunches to finish the book in small bites. The exercise left me more deeply appreciative of the value of wage earning. We spend much of our waking hours doing something to earn wages. We usually endow this work with meaning beyond the instrumental value of the money it produces. People are proud of their work and happy when they do it well. This psychic value helps us get up and go to work every day, not just pull the covers up and go back to sleep. If work somehow loses this meaning, people will stop doing it. If a physical or mental injury is severe enough to overpower the meaning of a person's work, the person becomes disabled.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Elephant Rocks

Geological tourism is subtle. Merry and I love it. Often the sights require special attention because they are not apparent to the casual passer-by. Over the years we have bagged much of the really big game of the geologically motivated: the Grand Canyon, of course; the Utah marvels of Bryce, Zion and Arches along with the lesser known but truly amazing Capital Reef; the stratovolcanos of the Northwest, Crater Lake, Mt. Hood, Mt. Baker and Mt. St. Helens; the magnitude one springs of Florida and Missouri ... I could go on. Many of the most memorable places, however, are of more subtle form. Last Saturday we toured two of the marvels of the St. Francois [pronounced Francis] Mountains.

The St. Francois Mountains are the tallest and only true mountains in Missouri. They run through part of southeastern Missouri beginning about 50 miles south of St. Louis. They are between the eastern edge of the Ozarks and the Mississippi. Any geologist worth his or her salt will tell you the Ozark “mountains” are not proper mountains at all, but a plateau deeply dissected by valleys. The St. Francois range contains the highest point in the state, Taum Sauk, at a modest height of 1772 feet (540 meters). These rounded hills are actually among the oldest mountains on earth having been formed by volcanic activity about 1.5 billion years ago. By comparison the Appalachian range started to lift about 460 million years ago, the Rockies about 70 million years ago and our beloved Adirondacks only 5 million years ago. The St. Francois are so modest today because they've sustained a lot of wear over the eons. They are probably the only area of of the midwest not to have been submerged during the Paleozoic era. Ancient corals along their base indicate they probably were a solitary island chain at the time. They were also never scraped clean by glaciers during the ice ages.

The St. Francois Mountains are the center of Missouri commercial mining. Mineral deposits in and near the mountains yield lead, iron, baryte, zinc, silver, manganese, cobalt, and nickel ores. The area today accounts for over 90% of primary lead production in the United States. I wrote about that in last weekend's post on the Bonne Terre mine. Granite has also been commercially quarried in the area since 1869. The area around Elephant Rocks State Park produces a deep red tone granite that was used for the towers of the first bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis as well as for the thousands of shoebox sized paving blocks on the St. Louis waterfront. Granite mining continues in the area today producing primarily Missouri Red monument stone.

People generally don't come upon Elephant Rocks by accident. It's miles off any Interstate tucked back the Acadia valley near the small towns of Pilot Knob, Ironton, and Graniteville. Technically Elephant Rocks is a “tor” or weathered outcropping of rock along a ridge line. A mile or so of the north ridge here has a line of pink, lichen encrusted granite outcroppings topped with giant rounded boulders. Granite erodes very slowly, so these boulders were a long time in the making. Because many of the boulders are in a line, nearly touching, they remind people of circus elephants.

On the fine warm day we visited people were everywhere but it was not really crowded. There are a lot of rocks to scramble around on, a human jungle gym. Back in the 19th century small entrepreneurs decided this was an excellent and easy place to mine building stone. Two abandoned granite quarries are on the park property and a few more small quarries, one still in operation, are nearby. There are piles and piles of large blocks of granite everywhere. The woods are full of stone, cut but never used. Down one side trail is an old railroad engine repair shop, its roof long gone but its double thick walls of pink granite as solid as the day they were laid by skilled masons more than 100 years ago. It's a minor miracle that the stone cutters didn't finish the job of taking this formation apart block by block.

Joli, the dog ambassador, greeted everyone on the trail, especially the kids. Once she was surrounded by about 10 pre-teen boys who were finally ordered to stop petting her by their grumpy adult group leader. On top of the ridge among the Elephants Rocks are a series of depressions filled with rain water that she found made great drinking dishes and also worked as a serviceable cooling bath.

Back when this area was the exclusive realm of the stonecutter, the quarry workers must have taken their lunch breaks up with the Elephants. They used their quarry tools to carefully carve their names in the granite underfoot all along the ridge. The letters are still clear and sharp. The lettering is familiar, exactly what you would see on a grave stone. It's an unusual form of graffiti, slowly turning into a landmark. We even found a handsome “Edward” carved by a long forgotten stonecutter. I'm sure his view of these mountains in the late fall was nearly the same as ours.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bonne Terre

Bonne Terre, MO, population 4,939, is about 60 miles directly south of St. Louis. From 1864 until 1960 it was home to what became the largest lead mine in the world. Lead was extracted in this area as early as 1720 by the French. Surface mining of lead quickly spread throughout the eastern Ozarks becoming one of the engines for European settlement. Prior to the Civil War the primary uses of lead was for water pipes, containers, white pigment [remember lead paint?], manufacture of crystal and roofing. The Civil War caused a significant increase in the demand for lead as bullets and shot.

On March 25, 1864, six New York businessmen incorporated the St. Joseph Lead Company. Few of the incorporators knew or cared much about the mining business. They bought the 950 acres known as Bonne Terre for $25,000 cash and $50,000 in unsecured bonds. They hoped that the mere possibility of a profitable lead mine might bring investors and they would get rich. One hopeful stockholder who attended the 1865 annual meeting in New York City was J. Wyman Jones, a young lawyer from Utica, NY. In a turn of events common in those robber baron times he was promptly named president of the company. Jones turned out to be a terrific manager. The mine prospered.

On a tree-lined street with a few modest Victorian homes in the middle of town is a block surrounded by a high board fence. In the center of the gravel parking lot inside sits a square green building with a sign over double doors reading “Mule Entrance.” Old, rusting mining gear, small gauge mining cars and power shovels are scattered around. Along the back is a row of tired storefronts with a board sidewalk. There's a general store, but the rest are labeled: Showers, Changing Rooms, Diver's Lounge. The store is locked with a sign that the next tour starts in fifteen minutes. The price for a one hour walking tour is $18 a person, $23 if you add the boat tour. We decide to pass. It is getting late.

Just as we were about to leave two men emerged from nowhere. The older guy with a handlebar mustache dressed in what looked like a painter's outfit introduced himself as Chuck. He wanted to know if we were interested a tour. We hesitated. He unlocked the store and showed us a live video feed from the dock on the underground lake.

It is a scene from another world. Beyond the dock a flood-lit blue green lake stretches in all directions. The roof is supported by huge stone pillars that disappear into darkness. We are hooked.

Back in 1960 the lead ore was running out. A new source of better quality ore was located further into the Ozarks. Bonne Terre Mine closed and the pumps that kept spring water out were turned off. Crystal clear water quickly filled the mine nearly to the top. The town tried using the water for a municipal supply but it had too many dissolved minerals. That's when the owners of a St. Louis Dive shop, Doug and Cathy Georgens, bought the place. They pumped the top two levels of the mine dry and set up “Billion Gallon Lake Resort.” Thanks in no small part to numerous cable TV shows that have featured it, people come from all over the world to scuba dive.

Chuck shows us a fist size chunk of nearly pure galena, the state mineral of Missouri. Galena, or lead sulfide, is silver gray, and has a metallic gleam. He shows us old mining tools and explains their use. We enter the mine and walk down 60 steps or so to the upper level. We are in a series of dimly lit massive rooms each a cube about the size of a city block. Every 40 feet or so a hand-hewn stone column rises to the roof. We look down a shaft where ore was dumped and we can see the lake far below. We work our way down room after room. Some have calcite coated walls, cream colored if iron is mixed in, black if manganese, green if copper, pink if cobalt, stark white if pure.

When the mine was opened in the 19th Century all the work was done by hand using simple tools. Men dug with shovels. They drilled holes by pounding a drill bit with a sledgehammer. They filled the holes with black powder and blew up the rock, hoping not to blow themselves up in the process. They loaded one ton cars by hand. A shift lasted as long as it took to load 22 cars. The cars were hauled along narrow gauge rails by mules. The mules lived their entire working life underground. Day after day for a hundred years the miners broke rock and hauled it out leaving behind this huge void of about 1,500 giant rooms on increasingly deep levels. When the rooms became too tall, they built tottering wooden scaffolds and hung trapezes from the ceilings 50 feet in the darkness where they continued to hammer rock. The work was dangerous and serious injuries frequent. Chuck told us if an injured miner managed to live long enough to be carried out of the mine, the authorities didn't record his death as a mine accident.

We reach the dock and board a pontoon party barge with a silent electric engine. A group of eight divers swim just ahead of us then disappear. We glide from eerie room to room. Lights make the clear water glow green. We can dimly see mining equipment in the deep. I keenly sense the ghosts of long gone miners watching as we trudge back to daylight.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Update: Historic Aircraft Museum

Readers of this blog may remember Al Stix, our crusty tour guide at our recent visit to the Creve Coeur Aircraft Museum. See: Sunday afternoon, 11/22/09, Al crashed his yellow mid-1930s Stearman biplane on take-off when the engine lost power. Neither Stix nor his passanger were seriously injured. Stix had started to turn back toward the landing field when a wing caught a tree. According the the Monday edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Stix told reporters, "When you fly these old planes, you're bound to have some exciting moments, hopefully, they don't get any more exciting than this." You can read the entire story here:

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Why I'm not an academic

When I was in high school my mother suggested from time to time that I become a surgeon. I was a good student and liked science. I have small, fairly delicate hands. I was a pretty good pianist which suggested to her that I had the dexterity she assumed surgeons need.

I found the idea appealing. I had little idea of the work doctors do. What I knew for certain was that I was destined for a life as an intellectual. I loved books and still do. I read voraciously. I was sure as a teenager that a life of physical labor would not suit me well.

So I set off for Bucknell University, a good liberal arts college, with a vague idea of possibly, maybe becoming a doctor. I signed up as a biology major. The first shock came in the second week of my freshman microbiology lab. We were examining a specimen, trying to draw the cells. Everyone else seemed to think this was extremely easy. I couldn't get the damn thing in focus. After a long struggle the lab instructor told me I had just drawn my eyelash.

By mid-term exams I was still struggling with biology lab and way behind my peers in the other subjects. This was new for me. I never failed at any subject but I could see I was on a course to fail now. The one bright light in that first semester was an English Literature course I took to fill a humanities requirement. I loved it. The professor was terrific. I did well. I didn't have a vocational plan but “temporarily” became a humanities major. I tried courses in History, Philosophy and East-Asian Studies. I loved them all and did very well. I started to learn to write. I got a BA in History with Honors. I never doubted my future as an academic as I earned a MA and PhD in philosophy.

In all the years of intense study I never questioned my ability to make a living. I did odd jobs. I taught freshmen and prison inmates. I learned basic plumbing and wiring. I heated with wood and became president of the local food co-op. I surrounded myself with books. I read every day and slowly learned to be a better writer. When I finally finished my PhD it took me a year and a half to land a regular teaching job, but I finally got one at a small Franciscan school in Western New York, St. Bonaventure University.

During my first years at St. Bonaventure I threw myself into really learning how to teach philosophy. It was hard but I had fun. I found I was pretty good at inspiring a fair number of my students to read, write and even think about things they never considered before. I developed a couple of new courses. I helped start a student outdoors club that flourished.

At the end of my second year I was called in by my department head for an evaluation of my work and my progress toward the golden ring of academia, tenure. He started out by praising my work as a teacher. He liked the fact that students gave me good evaluations. I was also pulling my weight in the generally distasteful committee work required of all academics. I was well liked by other members of the department and was fitting in. Unfortunately, he was not able to give me a good recommendation.

The problem, he explained, was that I had never published anything in an academic journal. In fact, I admitted that I was not even working on a research project. I had read a few papers at professional conferences, but that was it. Unless I could get going on something major, I would not be ready by the time my formal tenure review came up the following year and I would be let go.

I walked out of the meeting in shock. All the work I had done counted for nothing. I wrongly assumed that at a small college I would get a lot of credit for being a good teacher. I assumed lack of a research publication might be overlooked. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

About a week later I was starting to get angry. I stopped in to see the department head and asked him to name a journal where he would like to get published. The Journal of the History of Ideas.

Over the next few weeks I poured over that journal trying to get a handle on the sort of articles they generally published. I holed up in a library with a good collection of works by and about Spinoza, a philosopher about whom I knew nothing. I skimmed everything I could find about Spinoza's political and ethical views looking for a topic. Then I focused on carefully reading everything he said on the subject of freedom of speech. I wrote an article of exactly the right length with appropriate footnotes and references. I polished it and sent it in. A few weeks later, just as the summer break was ending, I received the letter telling me the article would be published.

I returned to St. Bonaventure deeply disturbed by this exercise. On first meeting my department head before fall classes I told him I had written an article about Spinoza. Great, he said. Was I working on getting it published? I handed him my acceptance letter. He was pleased, actually quite jealous. I had proved my point. Academic publication is a sham exercise, just part of the hazing, with no practical consequences except in the tenure game. Now I was bitter. I never recovered my enthusiasm.

The next spring my department head told me he was happy to recommend me for tenure. Maybe they would even consider early tenure. By then I was making plans to attend law school with hope that I might find an intellectually honest profession at last. I've not been disappointed.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Historic Aircraft Restoration Museum

Our friend, Jim Leiter from Syracuse, visited us in St. Louis the first weekend of November. His hobby is photographing airplanes. Over the years he has amassed quite a collection, all neatly organized in binders. While I'm sure Jim was pleased to visit us in the big city by the big muddy, he was also really, really pleased to be able to visit the aircraft museum at the Creve Coeur airport.

Not many people even know there is a world-class museum along the flats of the Missouri River on the western edge of St. Louis at the end of an unmarked dead-end road past a farm stand offering hayrides the day after Halloween. As luck would have it Butch O'Blennis, an ALJ with the office next to mine, is taking flying lessons at the Creve Coeur airport and could give us directions. He knew the place is loaded with old planes, but had not had time to tour the museum. Butch kindly offered to accompany us on our tour. He had a lesson scheduled the day we planned to visit, so we agreed to get there in time to see if he had learned to land safely, yet.

Creve Couer airport is a private, non-profit created out of farm fields in 1983 by three vintage airplane fanatics, Al Stix, John Cournoyer and John Mullen. The field has evolved to include a paved runway, a grass runway and about 100 privately-owned hangers. Most of the hangers are used to house, restore or build small planes. It turned out Butch's instructor was ill the day we visited so he did not get to fly. While waiting for the museum to open we decided to wander through the rows of hangers to see what we might discover.

The place is crawling with small planes. We encountered a man wheeling a very small plane singlehandedly out of his hanger. He was happy to show us the homemade craft built around a VW engine. He claimed it was simple to build. I have no idea how he defines “simple.” I asked him how it flies. He raved about how much fun it is, the only problem is that it pulls pretty hard to the right on takeoff. He only figured that out while taking off in it for the first time. He's obviously a quick study.

At 10 am the three of us bought tickets to the museum [a bargain at $10 per person] and met our guide. It was airport owner, Al Stix. Stix knows virtually every detail of every plane in the collection. He knows where it came from, its complete history and how it flies. He has personally flown almost all of the planes in the collection and lived to tell the tale.

The airport's museum is comprised of three large hangars packed with about 50 vintage airplanes. Many of the planes are one of a kind. There's a 1916 Sopwith Pup with the original 80-horsepower engine, a Taylor E-2 [father of the Piper Cub], and the only flying de Havilland Dragon Rapide in the country. The collection also includes a rare restored 1930 St. Louis Cardinal. According to Stix all but a couple of the aircraft are flyable except for "the two or three that no one has yet had the nerve to try." Stix loves these old planes, but is not at all sentimental. "If these airplanes were really any good, planes would still look like this." Al and the collection were recently featured in the Simthsonian Air & Space magazine. You can read the whole article here:

To be honest I got tired of looking at old planes pretty quickly; it's not really a big interest of mine. We wandered through rows of shining biplanes, old monoplanes and some scary small vintage passenger planes with wicker seats. Al kept things pretty interesting with his tales of smuggling an old WWII Soviet flying boat out of Russia labeled as tractor parts or about how Lindbergh was tricked into falsifying parts of his own autobiography.

Perhaps Al's best stories have to do some serious daredevil flying. It is a very good thing that almost all of this priceless collection can be flown since the airport is located on the flood plain of the mighty Missouri. During the great flood of 1993 the entire airport was under 20 feet of water. The historic planes had to be flown to higher ground, many by Stix. One little two cylinder plane that Stix particularly hates hardly generated enough power to get off the ground. He flew it at treetop level looking for places to crash land all the way. While scoping out driveways to use as a makeshift runway he claims to have flown right by a guy brushing his teeth in a second story window.

Two hours later, we emerged into the sunlight, but Al had detected Jim was a truly dedicated fan and Butch was also seriously captivated. The three of them took off in Al's van to visit some treasures in more remote parts of the airport. I stayed behind to meet up with Merry. We waited for Jim in the little administration building where a cup of coffee costs $0.50 on the honor system and pilots sit around trading stories.

I wasn't sure we would ever see Jim again, but about a hour later he returned tired, hungry and very happy. As we got up to leave a snappy little biplane called a “Pitts Special” taxied up and posed for us. Then we headed off for a late lunch and the rest of Jim's tour of St. Louis.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Chicken catcher

The hearing was already over when Karen, my hearing monitor asked, “How do they get them in the crate with four in one hand and three in the other?”

I didn't know and forgot to ask. I summoned his attorney, who asked his client.

“Well Judge, see, two of 'em work as a team. One opens the crate, the other stuffs the chickens in.”

It had been a long and difficult hearing for a fellow from deep in the Boot Heel of Missouri. He had worked sporadically at a lot of different agricultural labor jobs. His longest employment was four years full-time as a chicken catcher on a big poultry operation. I questioned him pretty carefully on how he did this job because I knew it to be very physically demanding. I wanted my vocational expert to understand it clearly. I wasn't entirely sure she was all that familiar with the poultry business.

Commercial chickens intended for meat are generally raised in long metal buildings that each hold hundreds of birds of the same age. When they are large enough to be processed someone has to go in, catch them, crate them and put the crates on a truck. That, in a nutshell, is what chicken catchers do.

This is about the smelliest, most dirty, dusty and hot work available. In many ways it is also one of the most brutal. Animal rights folks often describe commercial chicken farming as one of the most objectionable types of farm animal cruelty due in part to how chicken catching is done.

For my purposes, I had to find out exactly what sort of physical abilities are required to be a professional chicken catcher. Only in this way could I decide if the claimant could theoretically return to that work. So I took a deep breath and asked.

On the farm where the claimant worked he and another guy would herd the chickens against the walls or into a corner then grab them by their necks. He said he would get four at a time in his right hand then three more in his left before stuffing them in the crate. After four trips, the crate was jammed with 28 chickens. They would load that crate onto the truck and go back for more. Eight hours later the chickens were gone and they went home.

After he finished testifying about the other jobs he held, I asked the vocational expert if she needed me to ask any further questions about any of the jobs.

“Just about the chicken catcher job, Judge.”

“OK, what do you need to know?”

“He said he typically carried seven chickens at a time. I need to know how heavy the average chicken is. I'm thinking about 3 pounds.”

I immediately knew where she was going. If each chicken weighs 3 pounds, then 7 chickens weigh 21 pounds and the job would be classified as light work. If the chickens weigh more, then it's medium work. I knew that it was in fact heavy work because of the weight of crates full of chickens, but I had failed to ask those questions.

“OK, sir, how much do you think those chickens weighed on average?”

“I don't exactly know, Judge. I expect about 5 pounds.”

“That's about what I was thinking. Ms. Expert, how does that sound to you?”

“OK, I've got it. I guess I was thinking of the chickens without their hair.”

Everybody in court looked up suddenly. There was a split second of stunned silence before the claimant burst out laughing.

“I meant feathers!” the vocational expert sputtered, too late.

We all roared.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Current River

We could not leave Missouri until we canoed the Current River. It's an amazing river, so amazing that a national park, the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, protects it.

It's about a three hour drive from St. Louis to the central Ozarks of southern Missouri. We broke up the drive by detouring for a couple of hours to Maramec Spring Park where the 5th largest spring in Missouri pumps out about 100 million gallons of water a day. On a clear, mild fall day we fell in love with this beautiful privately owned park. You can see one of Merry's photos at:

After hamburgers at the snack bar, we drove on twisty roads to the small town of Salem through glittering oak forests in every shade of brown and tan. Past Salem we took an even smaller side road that winds down through the “hollers” to Akers. Here the road literally runs right into the water at an antique car ferry; a two car, hand operated job on a cable spanning the Current River.

Akers may appear to be a town on maps but in reality it consists of a single rustic store selling assorted camping and river gear. The store is operated by a canoe rental and campground family empire with several locations along the river. The same folks operate the car ferry. Across the road the National Park Service has built a large parking lot, a river access point on a gravel bar and bathroom facilities. Canoes are stacked everywhere. Dozens of canoe trailers each with 10 or 12 boats are behind the store. Dozens more are in the lot across the road, more in a field. Canoes are piled along the gravel bar. The canoes are old and very battered. ABS plastic boats of assorted brands are the the rule, most patched multiple times. A few scarred aluminum boats are mixed in, too. The impression of abandonment on this beautiful fall day is downright eerie.

We rent a “cabin” from the outfitter and arrange for them to shuttle our car downriver to Pulltite the next day. About two miles from the river the vintage A-frame we rented sits at the edge of a large deserted campground surrounded by dozens of retired yellow school buses, now in service as canoe shuttle vehicles. Inside the floor is littered with dozens of dead nine spot ladybugs and the occasional wasp. The living room is sparsely furnished in Flintstone-inspired furniture made of halved logs with the stub of a branch still attached, heavy enough to resist hard use. We decide we can survive the utter lack of amenities for one night.

We head back to Akers Ferry early the next morning after a restless night. The river is high. Green water sweeps along at a fast pace. We unload our tandem kevlar canoe on the gravel bar. Two young guys are loading a canoe trailer attached to one of the smaller school buses. One guy is skinny and needs a shave. The other is a baby-faced mountain of a man in baggy shorts and an old tee shirt from a bluegrass festival. They both heft 80 pound plastic canoes over their heads without appreciable effort. Merry and I each later confess that when we saw these guys we could hear strains of “Dueling Banjoes” in our heads.

I grow a bit apprehensive as we prepare to launch. Merry and I have canoed together for nearly twenty years but never on water moving this fast. Right below the gravel bar the river curves out of sight but I can hear rapids. We load Joli the canoe dog into the canoe and push off, then think better of it and quickly land to pull on our life vests. We're off. We sweep around the bend into our first small drop. We know there are no big rapids in the 10 mile stretch we have chosen, but all morning we have to constantly dodge trees that have fallen from the banks, avoid being swept into the high cliffs on the outside of every turn and carefully negotiate countless small stretches of Class 1 riffles.

It takes us time to get a feel for the river. The current is so strong in the narrow portions that it threatens to turn us sideways. Slowly we obtain a good paddling rhythm. We chase dozens of chattering belted kingfishers downstream. Several times big pileated woodpeckers swoop over. Merry spots a sleek dark river otter on the bank, then two more pop their heads up right in the middle of the next rapid to watch us speed by. A bald eagle glides downstream then circles back to give us a better look. After an hour we spy a little grave bar and pull out to take a breather. We are already tired but exhilarated. Back on the water it's hard to relax amidst all the rushing water, but we are gaining confidence. About a mile further on we wave to four guys who have camped on a gravel bar the night before and are just getting ready to get back on the river. We feel less alone.

Halfway into our trip I spy a side channel from which a stream of cloudy olive oil green water pours. I realize this must be Cave Spring. With some difficulty we wheel around and paddle upstream along the bank into the cloudy water. Once out of the main current we can relax a bit. The channel rounds the edge of the bluff. In front of us the cliff wall contains an opening about 10 feet wide and equally tall. We paddle in past a curtain of big water drops from the cave entrance. Inside we hold our position as our eyes adjust to the dim interior. It's a classic limestone cave, the bottom filed with water, stretching back into the darkness. After a few minutes of wonder, we return to the light.

We reach Pulltite after about two more hours of stunningly beautiful river. As we drive out of the Current River valley a hard rain begins. With deep satisfaction, we pull into the Subway in downtown Salem for lunch.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


I ask the claimant to describe an average day in his or her life in almost every hearing. In Social Security speak these questions about activities of daily living are called ADLs, of course. The point of this exercise is to get a better idea of the sorts of things a person can actually still do despite their disabling condition. Allowing for some inevitable exaggeration, this enquiry is often very enlightening.

I generally ask people to account for the 12 – 15 hours they are awake each day. What do they do for fun? What are their hobbies? Do they take care of any animals? A shockingly large number of people tell me they do nothing but doze in their recliner or watch TV all day. I've written about this before here: Still, at this point in the hearing many people relax somewhat and tell me things that really help me evaluate their case.

A person who lives on a small farm tells me about taking care of her goats.

A person tells me about how he doesn't throw a ball inside for his Chihuahua anymore after that time it broke its leg. “That was expensive.”

One person tells me about scrap booking; another about using the computer to make a family tree.

I ask everyone if they socialize at all. Even if they tell me they don't, I ask more probing questions. Do they ever visit with family members? How far away do they live? How do they get there? Do they go to church or AA meetings? How do they get to their doctor's appointments?

Recently I talked to an older guy who lived just outside of a rural town, who had worked as a janitor at a nursing home for quite a few years. He told me he never socialized with anyone, but he was a talkative and friendly sort of guy.

“Don't you ever go down to the Huddle House for a cup of coffee with your friends?”

“No Judge, I don't.” “Why's that?”

“Well Judge, I've got a little touch of homophobia, I think you call it.”

I heard a sharp intake of breath from Jane, the hearing monitor sitting next to me.

There was a 10 second pause as I tried to imagine what was he talking about. The possibilities seemed endless. I briefly tried to imagine that he might think the guys who hang out drinking coffee all day are gay – Nope, probably not.

The only thing to do was ask.

“What do you mean, how does that keep you from going for a cup of coffee?”

“See, I don't go to restaurants at all. I don't like to eat after anybody, like at a buffet or smorgasbord. I can't stand to use the same serving spoon as everybody else. I won't even eat off the same dishes as my wife.”

“Are there other things you are nervous about?” “Yeah, you know, like I can't stand it if my wife leaves even the smallest crumb on the kitchen counter. I've got to clean it up, or I can't do anything else. Or like one time at work one day a patient dropped a glass and I spent all morning cleaning up every little piece, then got real upset when someone found another tiny sliver.”

“Did you ever tell these things to your doctor?” “I think so.”

“Well sir, you seem to be describing something called Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or OCD.”

“Oh, right, I think my doc did say something about OCD.”

“A little OCD may not be a bad thing for a janitor, but if it's keeping you from seeing your friends you might want to talk to your doctor some more about it.”

“OK, judge.”

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Dating service

One of the most enjoyable aspects of holding a Social Security hearing for me is learning how jobs are actually done. Some jobs are specific to a geographical area, so learning about them is part of understanding the fabric of place. I've described such jobs in prior posts on tow boats [] and the cotton module builder []. In this same vein I was looking forward to a case this past week that involved a MetroLink operator. MetroLink is the light rail I ride every work day, so I had a lot of questions. Unfortunately, she overslept and missed her hearing.

Sure, it's possible to read a description of how to be a “hand packer” in a factory, but it's entirely different to hear a person who has worked for 10 years at a tea factory describe how you get 15,000 little tea bags into boxes every eight hours without going crazy. Since one of the first things I have to decide in every case is whether the claimant can return to his or her “past relevant work,” I need to get a pretty clear picture of how it was actually done. In my decisions I'm required to reference the job descriptions in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) but that was last updated in 1992. I believe it's much more reliable to get the necessary details from the person who actually did the work. Almost everyone enjoys talking about their work, so it's also a good way to get a nervous claimant to relax early in the hearing.

Having practiced disability law for 20 years I feel I have a pretty good working knowledge of how most jobs are performed. I can tell you more than you want to know about what a certified nurse assistant or fork lift operator does to earn their pay. Despite this knowledge, nearly every week I talk to a claimant who surprises me with some part of their work description.

Recently, for example, I took testimony from a woman whose last job was at a dating service. I focused on this job because she was clearly disabled from all of her other past work. She had worked in factories, in fast food restaurants and as a retail cashier at Wal-Mart. She hurt her back and now could not stand continuously for the majority of an eight hour day. All her other past work required substantial standing, so I wanted to know why she couldn't still do her job at the dating service.

My mistake was to assume she worked as a receptionist or file clerk at the dating service. I jumped to this conclusion because she had no other experience working in an office and only a high school education. I assumed she would only qualify for an entry level unskilled office job. I proceeded to ask her about whether she answered the telephone or did filing. Yes, she did both. Did she have to sit all day or could she get up and move around when she needed to? She said it was a small office and that she could get up anytime she liked as long as she could hear the phone ring. The heaviest thing she had to lift was a stack of papers weighing a few ounces. Did she have to use a computer very much? Not too much, just to enter the basic data on the clients.

By this point I had pretty much pegged this job as unskilled sedentary work that allowed alternate sitting and standing. It was perfect for a person with her sort of back injury. She should be able to do it without too many problems. I needed to be sure.

What else do you do beside answer the phone and take people's applications? Well, she had to set up appointments, you know the dates. Oh, I didn't know the service set up the dates. No, that's not what she did. Her primary job was to match people up, then call them and arranged the introductions. Oh, so do you use a computer to match applicants? Nope, she just flips through the pile of applications and finds people with similar interests who sort of match up, then calls them to set up introductions. How much training did she get to do this? None, really, its just common sense.

I was surprised, to say the least. This woman was not an office clerk at all. She was the dating service.

So why did she stop working there? The service moved out of St. Louis. Did her back pain have anything to do with her stopping the job? Not really. She hurt after working for eight hours but she liked the work and the pay was OK. She would have kept on if the company had not moved. I see.

I was amazed. My Vocational Expert was briefly amazed, then tried to hide her surprise. It was clear that this claimant was totally unqualified to do this job as described in official vocational guides. Yet she did it day after day and no one complained or even questioned her ability. I re-evaluated what I knew about dating services. I realized my knowledge, if you can call it that, is based entirely on advertizements for eHarmony and the like. The services want us to think matches are done in a highly sophisticated manner, maybe by computer or a specialized questionnaire, but back at the office, at least in some cases, the actual work gets done by an untrained office worker flipping through forms.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sand Hills

We crossed central Nebraska on Rt. 2, the Sand Hills Scenic Byway. The Sand Hills start just outside Grand Island and run for the next 272 miles. We're not going to traverse the whole distance. At 19,000 square miles this is the largest dune field in the western hemisphere. Trees only exist around ranch buildings, towns and river bottoms. High hills roll to the horizon in every direction. Stabilized by prairie grass, it's open range cattle country. We're headed to Valentine on the northern edge of the Sand Hills. Half way across we turn north, then drive most of the way to South Dakota. As we near our destination a big sign announces: “Cherry County, God's Own Cow Country.”

Valentine is the county seat of Cherry County, a town of about 2800. Its main street is mostly lined with small businesses catering to the ranching community. There's a big cattle auction every Thursday. A giant western wear store featuring clothing, boots, a full service tack shop, and boot rebuilding holds down the west side of Main Street. The First National Bank has a stunning carved brick mural of a longhorn cattle drive running the length of the building. They have a mounted longhorn head in the lobby. There are a handful of motels and some river outfitters on the edge of town but no big box stores of any kind. We pull up to the BunkHouse Restaurant and Lounge at the corner of Rt. 20 and Main St. for lunch. Cowboy hats are the norm for men. As we check out, “Uncle Joe” at the cash register does a few truly amazing card tricks for us with a deck from the nearby Rosebud Indian casino.

We drive along the north side of the river 18 miles to Sparks, population 3, where we are staying at the Heartland Elk Guest Ranch. They raise a herd of elk to stock their private hunting operation. Next to the main house is a pasture with five big bull elk. A larger pasture nearby holds about 100 cow elk and calves. Our cabin is across the road in a open Ponderosa pine grove at the edge of a steep canyon. We're high on the north side of the Niobrara valley. Through the trees a panorama of the sand hills glows in the south.

We were originally drawn to this place by the striking descriptions in the book Old Jules by Mari Sandoz. This book vividly describes her father and the pioneering life in the Sand Hills in the later nineteenth century. Merry stopped to see this area on her return from a trip to Utah a few years ago and was captured by the landscape and the beauty of the Niobrara River. We've planed a return trip here ever since.

In front of our cabin the land drops off steeply into rough country cut by small streams that lead eventually to the Niobrara. This land is fenced for pasture but seems little used. As a result it is a haven for wildlife and birds. Only minutes into her first walk Joli scares up three mule deer that bound away as if on springs, all four feet off the ground. We see small herds of both mule deer and whitetails every day. This is the furthest west for many eastern species and the furthest east for many western species.

Toward dusk our first day Merry gestures me to the cabin door to show me a Great Horned Owl sitting on the ground only a few feet away. Because of its ears and coloring it looks a bit like a large cat.

Just as it's getting light, Joli insists she needs to go out for a third time and will not take no for an answer. As we step off the porch I look up to see we are surrounded by horses. We step back onto the porch. Joli is awestruck as one of the horses comes right up to the porch and sniffs her. They are calm and curious. I wake Merry so she can see. The horses graze slowly away. Merry goes to the ranch house and is told the horses have been turned out to cut the grass around the cabins.

The spring fed Niobrara is managed by the National Park Service as a National Scenic River. During the weekends of the summer season hundreds of canoes and tubes float the section of the river from Valentine to Rocky Ford each day. Brenda, who manages the cabins, cooks for the elk hunters and drives the canoe shuttle van, meets us at 10 am. We are on the river by 10:30. No one else is at the launch at Berry Bridge; we see no one else on the river. The day warms into the low 60s. Clear green water rushes us along. We get into a paddling rhythm that allows us to avoid the rocks and sandbars and gives Merry time to take photographs. High bluffs of cream colored stone rise alternatively on our right and left. Sunshine lights multi-colored grasses and the remaining leaves of a few deciduous trees. We stop at Smith Falls, about half way along our trip, to see the highest waterfall in Nebraska. Too soon we're at the takeout at Brewer Bridge, feet damp, a bit tired but elated.

On Saturday we wake to about half an inch of snow on the ground. We pack the car and bid adieu to our eight horse friends. Then it's off on the two day trip across most of Nebraska, the western edge of Iowa and all of Missouri back to St. Louis.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Family Reunion

“So, how long has it been?”

“I can't remember, probably 40 years...”

“I think the last time was your brother Rick's wedding.”

“Yeah, that sounds right, that would have been 1972, I think.”

We're sitting in my cousin Bill's loft in the beautiful Western Auto building in downtown Kansas City. Merry and Joli and I are on our way to a week in the Sand Hills of northern Nebraska. We stopped for the night in Kansas City specifically so I could catch up with my cousin Bill Pitts who has lived out here for the last 30 years or so. Our trips to our shared hometown never corresponded over the years. My mom would occasionally mention that he had dropped by when I spoke with her on our weekly telephone calls. Before her death she suggested I try to see him, since we now lived in the same state, never mind it was opposite sides of that state. So here we were.

Bill, who is two years older than me, looks a lot like my younger brother Rick: same black hair, same bald spot (smaller than my brother's), same build, same basic complexion. When we met him in the lobby of his building Merry recognized him at once even though she had never met him before.

It would be an understatement to say the Pitts family has not been really close. Bill and I remembered some family gatherings at our summer place from the early 60s, but none since. The few family members of my generation all moved away from our home town, Hanover, PA, after high school and started lives elsewhere. There was not enough of whatever it takes to pull us back together.

After taking some time to tell each other the short version of the stories of our lives since high school, we headed out to eat at Lidia's, a signature Italian restaurant of Lidia Bastianich, host of Lidia's Italy on PBS. It's housed in an old railroad freight house that has been converted to a big, stylish, bright and busy place. The food is very good. I dug into a plate of three fresh pastas: a sweet potato ravioli, a spicy linguini and a bolognese rigatoni. We relaxed and expanded on our stories. I told them the catfish story [see:] and in return they explained the old Ozark tradition of the “sportsman.” It seems that when a southern Missouri good ole boy is out of work and somebody asks him what he does, he says he's a sportsman; you know, fishes some days, hunts or trains his hunting dogs on other days. His wife works.

After our leisurely dinner Bill gingerly eased his car through the packed streets of the Crossroads Arts District. A glam rock band was on a stage set up in a parking lot complete with smoke and sequins. “First Friday” was in full swing. The art galleries are open late. Restaurants and bars are hopping. A film flickers on the side of a warehouse. We saw a whole troupe of what appeared to be circus performers of some sort waiting to cross the street in full costume, complete with two costumed miniature horses. KC, the most midwestern city of the mid-midwest is hip. I see this as a sign that our country is finally starting to grow up and learn to enjoy itself.

Finally, we had to go. We rescued Joli and let her run around for a few minutes to meet my rediscovered family members. Then it was off into the windy midwestern night.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

CPMS and other ODAR acronyms

Merry's been away this week taking a load of fragile items and a canoe back to Syracuse, so there is no new picture for this blog. Check out her new pictures from the Adirondacks here:

I've been mostly focusing on work this week. I have a lot of cases pending and need to decide as many as possible before leaving for my new post in Syracuse. As I work through these cases I've been reminded of the amazing process Social Security uses to keep track of cases as they move through the adjudication system. If you are interested in knowing more than you need to about how this bit of bureaucracy works, keep reading.

The last Friday of every month is the “official” last day of the month for purposes of toting up what has been accomplished. For ALJs this means the “bean-counters” make note of the total number of cases assigned to each judge, the number scheduled for hearings, the number of final decisions issued and the number of cases pending in “judge controlled” status. They get their data from an electronic case management system called CPMS that can display a constantly updated listing of the current status of every case for every judge. When I'm reviewing a case before a hearing it's in ARPR. If it's waiting for my post hearing review it's in ALPO. Decisions waiting to be edited are in EDIT and decisions waiting to be signed are in SIGN. There are “benchmarks” assigned to every status. If a case remains in any status too long, someone, somewhere is bound to notice. Did I mention that four letter acronyms are dearly loved by your government?

This case tracking system applies to every employee at the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review [ODAR]. From the second a case comes to ODAR at the beginning of the request for a hearing until that case is finally closed, it resides in some status on CPMS and responsibility for the work is assigned to someone. Yes, there is a category of “unassigned” cases but that case is actually sitting for a day or two in a supervisor's cue just waiting to be assigned to the appropriate employee.

Not only are there benchmarks that apply to the time individual cases stay in a given status, there are “goals” for total numbers of cases decided. All ALJs nationwide have the goal of issuing 500 – 700 “legally sufficient” decisions per year. To achieve this overall goal, each office assigns sub-goals to every employee. Every month everyone knows exactly how many cases need to be completed to meet the goals at every level. Everyone is acutely aware that their numbers will be toted up on the last Friday of every month. To deal with this mutual stress the unwritten rule seems to be to pretend not to care about the pressure while keeping an eye on your goals. Managers, including the Hearing Office Chief ALJ [HOCALJ], the Hearing Office Director [HOD] and the Group Supervisors [GS], send out email updates on everyone's progress toward monthly and yearly goals so no one forgets they are watching.

So far as I can tell, nothing bad happens when goals are not met. Then again, our office has met or exceeded our goals for every month I've been here. Coincidence? I don't think so.

There is a very good reason for all this attention to numbers. Social Security operates the largest judicial system on the planet. More than 2.6 million people applied for some type of disability benefit this last year. Every one of those applications gets decided at some level. Over the past decade the “backlog” of applicants for benefits who are waiting for their case to be adjudicated has grown. Right now if a person is not approved at the initial level they can expect to wait 15 – 18 months for a hearing before an ALJ. In some parts of the country, especially the northeast, it's worse.

Everyone acknowledges that this is too long to wait. It's too long for the deserving applicant but also for those who don't qualify. People put their life on hold while they wait. We need to do better. This year agency-wide the top goal was to decide all cases pending 850 days or more. Last year it was 900 days. That's right, highest priority was to decide cases pending 2 1/3 years or more. When I left work Friday no official announcement had been made, but I know St. Louis met this goal on Tuesday.

This past Friday, Sept. 25, marked the official end of the federal 08-09 fiscal year. I took a look at my own first year numbers. I held hearings in about 675 cases, about 56 a month, or about 12 a week. That gives me about 3 hours to work on each case including preparation, a one hour hearing and decision writing. Since I did take two weeks or so off for vacation, the real averages are a bit higher. I issued decisions in about 540 cases. The remainder of the cases were postponed for future action. My productivity is speeding up a bit, so I'm confident I'll do slightly better next year.

After working in St. Louis for just over one year, I have over 800 cases pending on my docket. I started with about 500. Some judges in St. Louis have over 900. The situation is pretty much the same across the country. If every judge in the country issues 500 decisions a year [that's 700,000 cases] and if cases keep flowing into the system at the same rate, we won't ever reach a point where every case can be concluded in one year.

So, it's easy to see how numbers can become a fetish in my job. I try not to think about it too much. My work is to decide each case on its merits, not to meet a quota. Wish me luck.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

St. Louis Smells

Wind's from the south today.”

When we toured the big Budweiser plant here last December we realized that the slightly sweet odor we occasionally smell in our neighborhood emanates from the brewery, a mixture of fermented grains with strong overtones of hops. The brewery is only a mile from our house. It vents massive amounts of this non-toxic gas every hour. We only smell it when the wind is from the south.

It's a good clean smell. Nobody complains. It's also a reassuring smell in a time of economic uncertainty since it means beer is still being brewed by one of St. Louis' biggest employers.

Most of the time I'm not aware of smelling anything. The scientific explanation for this is fairly simple. First, compared to other mammals, humans have a very puny nose. Second, we have evolved so that sight is our primary contact with the world. We've got eyes exquisitely well suited to interpret everything we encounter, so smelling the world takes a back seat. Third, our olfactory system stops smelling things quite quickly. Even though the chemicals for the odor are still there we forget we can smell them. The result is that human beings are not very discriminating in the olfactory department.

Because we live in a world mostly encountered by sight, we're unreliable reporters of smells. Some people are better than others at recognizing and describing what they smell. Most people typically just categorize smells as pleasant or unpleasant. To describe a specific smell we refer to common experience rather than the smell itself. Something smells like rotting fish or like a rose. Descriptions of complex specific smells are elusive. No one can describe a specific perfume, for example, without sounding hilariously vague: “violets, sugar and a hint of musk” does not conjure up anything for me.

I bring this up because of an incident this week involving our dog, Joli. First thing every morning while it's still dark I let Joli out into our yard. She's gone 2-3 minutes then comes back to eat her breakfast. On Tuesday I realized about 10 minutes had passed and she had not come back. I was concerned enough to go out to see what was up.

I saw her at the foot of the steps crouched in a typical border collie “stare.” This stance always means she has spotted something she believes is potential prey. I went down to her. In a group of flower pots overflowing with annuals was a small possum. I'd seen two in our yard before so I wasn't that surprised. Joli's nose was within a foot of the possum. The possum was cornered. It was hissing. Joli was so interested in this small animal that she growled at me to let me know how unhappy she was at being told to get inside and let the possum go on its way.

After about 15 minutes I let Joli out again to see what she would do. She immediately went to the spot where she had confronted the possum. She took a minute or two to investigate that area then set off on a complete patrol sniffing every inch of our yard and garden. She seemed sure the possum was still around. Its persistent odor told her to keep searching.

For the next two days she repeated this very complete search every morning to no avail. Only when there was no residual scent left was she finally convinced the possum was gone.

As chance would have it the Times Sunday Book Review this past week featured Inside of a Dog: What dogs see smell & know by Alexandra Horowitz, a psychology professor at Barnard College, Columbia University.

Professor Horwitz contends that we can only discover what our canine companions are thinking by trying to understand how they experience the world, their umwelt as it were. The key to understanding a dog is to realize that dogs primarily sniff the world. “As we see the world, the dog smells it. The dog's universe is a stratum of complex odors. The world of scents is at least as rich as the world of sight.”

A dog not only has a much larger area in their nose and brain devoted to smelling, they constantly renew the air in their noses so they continue to smell things long after we humans can sense no odor at all. Recent research into the mechanics of sniffing shows it to be a complex phenomena that allows a dog to exchange the air in its nostrils without inhaling or exhaling. Humans are just not very well equipped to sniff.

For me St. Louis is the strong smell of hops on a south wind; for Joli it's the subtile scent of opossum.