Thursday, January 29, 2009


Merry, Joli & I just returned from a few icy days in Cape Girardeau, MO where I was scheduled to hold court from Monday afternoon until this morning. On Monday we held court as planned. Monday night it started to rain, then it froze. By Tuesday morning there was a thick coating of ice everywhere. Southern Missouri does not have a very large fleet of plows and salt trucks. Even the major roads and Interstates were iffy; everything else was pretty well impassable. Fortunately Bill Kumpe, the other ALJ on the trip, had his four wheel drive and plenty of confidence. We arrived at court on time Tuesday morning. We waited. No one showed up. The weather deteriorated as the day drew on. Overnight it got worse in the area to the south, referred to as the “bootheel.” Now power lines and tree limbs littered the rural roads. Towns were without power and sometimes without phone service. We tried to cancel Wednesday's court. We were unable to reach everyone so we trekked back to court Wednesday morning and waited. As soon as we got there the sun came out. Crews were using anything that could plow snow to clear the main roads and parking lots. By noon we had reached everyone by phone except for one client who had failed to show up or call by her 11:30 hearing. Of course, as soon as we headed out for lunch she showed up. Back to court we went. We finally got lunch about 2:00. Two days gone and only one hearing held between the two of us. We had 24 scheduled but now adjourned.

Today it warmed up and the roads north of Cape Girardeau are clear. Massive convoys of utility trucks are finally heading south to the bootheel. We held court as usual in the morning and headed back to St. Louis.

Tomorrow Merry & I head to NYC to see Billy Elliott on Broadway. You can expect my review when we get back. We know two of the young cast members, so my review will not pretend to be objective. What review ever is objective anyway?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Death of a poet

I did not know Hayden Carruth died last fall until yesterday.

He was probably the only winner of the National Book Award to ever live in Munnsville, NY.

I spoke with him a few times in his later years.

He read poems at the Oneida Community Mansion House and had coffee with us.

One Christmas I unexpectedly received a package containing a note and video tape of him reading. He said I should stop by his place on the Bear Path. I never did. He scared me too much. I didn't think I could hold down my end of any conversation with him. So I never stopped to see him and now I never will.

His struggles were mighty. He made poems out of everyday common life with uncommon grace.

If you have not yet read his poems, please do. (Times obit) (long and interesting obit from London)

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Earlier this week I realized I would be at work preparing to hold hearings this coming Tuesday, Inauguration Day. I hoped to watch the swearing in and hear Obama's address live rather than on the evening news. Our office does not have a television in the lunch room. After some preliminary investigation I decided I needed to ask Karen, the Hearing Office Director, and longtime boss of all things, whether she would permit arrangements to be made that would allow the office staff to watch the Inauguration. Karen was not in the office at the time so I sent her a brief email.

The next day Karen came to my office and told me she was unable to clear the idea. She looked uncomfortable. There were technical problems. It seems you can't get good TV reception in the office, and we aren't allowed to use SSA's satellite up-link for streaming TV over the internet. There was a possible issue with video hearings that might be held, which had something to do with available bandwidth, not to mention the difficulty clearing use of the computer system for such use, complete with allusion to prior difficulties encountered. Clearly she was not enthusiastic.

When I arrived home Tuesday evening, turning this bureaucratic encounter over in my mind, I was surprised to find an email waiting for me from John Mahoney, a friend of mine from way back in the late 60s. It seems John saw the item in the Bucknell Alumni magazine announcing my move to St. Louis and decided to drop me a line. He reminded me that back then when we were fellow student radicals working to stop the Vietnam war he arranged for a speaking engagement for a previous black presidential candidate. Here's how John puts it:

Do you remember when I brought Dick Gregory to Bucknell? Jake Register (and his wife) and I drove down to Harrisburg to pick him up that afternoon - but he wasn't there. We were told that he was at Penn State - so we drove there and picked him and his assistant up. On the drive he kept tossing out his campaign literature - which was dollar bills with his face on it with the White House painted black. We would have made it to the Davis Gym in time - but Gregory needed to be fed. He was a vegetarian! I had never met a vegetarian and didn't know what to do - so I headed to IHOP!”

Frankly, until John's email I had mostly forgotten this event. I still have one of those “Gregory Dollars” in my collection of 60s political memorabilia. I vaguely remember being disappointed in Gregory's speech at Bucknell not only because he showed up late, but because he spoke more about the health values of vegetarianism than about ending the war. I didn't vote for Gregory.

Next week an African American will be sworn in as our President. I believe Dick Gregory's somewhat jokey, sure-to-fail, presidential write-in candidacy 40 years ago played some role in changing the perceptions of my generation about the role of African Americans in US politics. I feel the same way about the ill-fated runs of Jessie Jackson (1984 & 88), Lenora Fulani (1988 & 92), Alan Keyes (1996 & 2000), Carol Mosely Braun (2004), and don't forget the Rev. Al Sharpton (2004). I think they all knew that they were in some subtile way laying the ground work for someone they knew would someday exist who would run and win. I very much doubt they dreamed that Barack Obama would come along so soon.

Racism runs deep in our national psyche and our institutions. It pervades the subconscious life of us all. In my view racism can be gradually overcome only by successful modeling of the possible future of people of all races living and working together. This can only be achieved practically, not by aspiration. We learn to live together in harmony by actually doing it. That's why so much rides on Obama having a successful presidency.

As of Friday, there was no official office announcement about whether, where or how ODAR staff could watch the Inauguration. I'm sure some staff members have already decided to stay home from work Tuesday. In the end Karen had agreed if I wanted to set up a TV with possibly poor reception and the staff wanted to watch on their lunch break, she was fine with that, but it was apparent the office would take no steps to facilitate such arrangements. I am troubled that the value of having the entire office staff watch the Inauguration together does not seem to even have occurred to the SSA bureaucracy. In a more perfect world all federal employees would pause, gather together and listen as their new boss explains his or her plans for the future.

I was heartened when one African American staff person told me her husband, who works for the Army, was going to watch the Inauguration on a big screen TV set up especially for the occasion at work. I am glad the Army recognizes the value of watching their new commander-in-chief be sworn in.

Right now I plan on unofficially watching the Inauguration on Tuesday on the TV in the claimant's waiting room. I'm sure many ODAR staff will join me. Together we launch our imperfect future.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


When we moved to St. Louis we decided to experiment in living without television or daily newspapers. The basic idea was to cut down on the barrage of advertising that assaults our brains. News, weather, Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow, all the essentials, are on line. Six months in, I mostly enjoy the result but I admit some key information slips by. For example, we recently got an email from our friends in Syracuse, Jim and Allison, who asked whether we had been to a St. Louis restaurant called IronBarley they had seen on the Food Channel. We had not only not been there, we had never heard of it.

We trust the food instincts of our good friends with whom we had dined many times. It was just too cool that they told us about a restaurant in our own backyard. We decided to go at the first chance.

Last Tuesday was a stressful day for me. An unexpected icing event glazed our front steps. I bumped down all four on my butt at 4 am when taking Joli out for her morning constitutional. Court also had it's challenges and I was sitting none too comfortably. I needed a break. First, I used my Christmas gift certificate from Merry to get a massage – that helped. Then we went to IronBarley.

IronBarley is located not far from where we live in South St. Louis, but it's in a neighborhood not known for restaurants. It looks like a common neighborhood tavern. We opened a cheesy aluminum storm door and found ourselves standing in a crowded bar right next to a guy with a huge grin in an oversized top hat decorated with rhinestones, playing the guitar and singing “Down on the Bayou” to the accompaniment of his friends on tuba and accordion. We were sold at that moment.

We moved to the adjoining room where a waiter seated us. The music was actually pretty mellow and the musicians very talented. The dining room is paneled in rough sawn boards. The wall sconces are iron frying pans with light bulbs. Paper menus are in a basket on the table with the silverware wrapped in paper napkins. The menu is an eclectic mix. Specials are listed on a chalk board. Our waitress informed us that Tuesday was “steam cake” night and even though they don't usually have live music on Monday and Tuesday, the band was there to kick off Mardi Gras. The dinner specials were heavy on cajun food: gumbo, shrimp etouffee, jambalaya and so on but also included non-cajun items.

We started out with some very tasty local beer while we decided – a smoked porter with a taste too complex to describe adequately – smooth, hoppy, with a strong hickory smoke aftertaste. A different person, who did not seem to be on the restaurant staff, brought us pieces of steam cake before we had even ordered. It is a dense yellow cake with a glaze of hard icing topped with sugar sprinkles. Umm – eat dessert first.

After much deliberation we ordered a large “wedge” salad with blue cheese and Jack Daniels dressing to share. I got the gumbo and german pancakes. Merry was brave and ordered the “Double Dog” with chili, cheese and onions.

While waiting for the food we enjoyed the music and looked around. Many of the other patrons looked like they lived in the neighborhood. Young to middle aged working people just kicking back and having a fun meal. Merry pointed out a foursome at a table near us that didn't fit the general MO of the place. Could that really be the Coen brothers (the filmmakers of Fargo and No Country for Old Men)? We checked them out closely. I'm convinced it was them.

The waitress brought our salad. It turned out to be nothing very special. We asked her about the Food Channel show, and, yes, she was there when that was filmed about a year ago. She mentioned that the Travel Channel was there in the last week and the week before that local TV news had taped a show. She admitted she liked being a “cable channel rock star.” We asked if they really served the “Ballistic Elvis Sammich” shown on the menu. Yep – texas toast, peanut butter, strawberry jam, bananas, and bacon.

The food came. My gumbo was to die for; spicy, thick with fresh ingredients and hot. Three german pancakes with carmelized apples and red sour cabbage slaw was perfect. The double dog was served in a huge stainless steel bowl with two quarter pound beef hot dogs covered in good chili. We ate well. I couldn't stop smiling.

As we left, the singer was between tunes. He turned to us and asked if we had enjoyed ourselves. We assured him we had.

“Well, I'm glad y'all had a good time. By the way - this hippy right here is Tom Coghill, the owner. He put this all together just for you, so promise Tom you'll come back soon.”

We promised. Check it out for yourself at

Friday, January 2, 2009


Happy New Year

One of the reasons I wanted to go to New Orleans for our Christmas break was to visit “Prospect.1,” a city-wide exhibition of contemporary art featuring work by 81 artists from 39 countries at more than 23 locations. This show takes some space in every art museum in the city as well as parts of many other venues such as the Old Mint, the African American Museum, many art galleries, and some abandoned buildings; see, There was no way to see it all. We decided to spend one day at the Contemporary Art Center where the show is headquartered, one day at the New Orleans Art Museum and one day on the free shuttle bus visiting the venues scattered across the Lower Ninth Ward, the area most devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

For those of you who want an overview of the show as a whole I recommend the reviews from the New Yorker ( and the NY Times ( ) I want to share my own views on just a few pieces I like, with an emphasis on the pieces in the Lower Ninth.

We spent the first day exploring the Contemporary Art Center (CAC). This is a relatively new museum built in an old warehouse downtown within walking distance of where we were staying. Prospect.1 (a/k/a P.1) has taken over all four floors of the museum. There are numerous video pieces, some sculpture, some two dimensional pieces, one “virtual” piece and a few installations. When it comes to contemporary art, I prefer sculpture. Sculpture demands personal interaction. At a minimum you walk around it; at best you get to play with it. On the top floor in a room by itself we found a piece I like a lot by Pedro Reyes called Leverage (photo below). Essentially it is a giant orange see-saw made from tube steel with ten small wooden seats on one side and only one on the other. When we got to the room two adults and a child were sitting on the seats on one side but their combined weight had absolutely no effect. Gradually more folks climbed on, but it still didn't tip. When I tried to climb on I gently pushed down and the whole thing started to move slightly. The child climbed off and moved to the single seat on the other side. Merry took his place. Now that there were ten adults on one side and one kid on the other the thing worked like a charm. We rocked up and down each time a little faster, the kid shot toward the ceiling his arms outstretched. That's art.

Also in the CAC tucked in a corner is a shiny seven foot tall black plastic lump looking a bit like a giant deformed Darth Vader helmet. This turns out to be Bunker-M. Bakhtin by Lee Bul. The whole thing sits on a floor of mirror tiles. On the far side is an opening. Inside hangs a set of headphones. Put the headphones on. Every sound is amplified and reverberated. The tiles underfoot are connected too so every shuffle or step is an explosion. Dancing is essential, as are silly sounds. Anyone watching can't hear what you hear, only the silly sounds with no echos. People entering this piece are tentative at first, then get wilder and sillier until someone comes along and they stop in embarrassment. I went back four times. It's very hard to embarrass a trial lawyer.

The next day we went back to the CAC and looked at a few pieces a second time while waiting for the shuttle bus to the Lower Ninth Ward. As we crossed the bridge over the Industrial Canal the entire cityscape abruptly changed. On one side, most of the buildings had been rehabbed or at least boarded up. On the other, most of the buildings were just gone, replaced by tall grass. A little further from the canal we pulled up to a house that is now the L9 Center for the Arts where we switched to a small van for a tour. Across the street sits a bare foundation with a rough outline of a house made by strings of lights. The owner paid her savings to a contractor who stole the money; now her home is an art project with hope. Another partly destroyed home in the immediate neighborhood has been completely covered in flame orange – art as a warning. We drove to a mostly destroyed furniture store. Now it's called Lower 9th Ward Village. It contains two small galleries of paintings by people from the neighborhood, a police substation and three installations for P.1. The largest of these is a full size metal boat hull. When you climb the scaffold you see the top of the boat is a shallow tank of water. The hull slowly tips and a small wall of water slides back and forth. We walked down the street to the Tekrema Center, a former hardware store. The walk was more sobering than almost anything else we saw that day. A few houses are occupied. Many are boarded up, some too far gone to save. The weather was balmy, but few people were around other than the P.1 visitors. Upstairs at Tekrema the walls of the rooms were completely covered by a realistic mural of the bayou country. The message was clear: nature is returning to claim the waterlogged land the humans appropriated.

We drove closer to the canal where almost everything was totally annihilated. A former public restroom standing by itself in a weedy field has been turned into a quiet meditation spot with bubbling fountain, but the water marks from Katrina are clearly visible high on the walls. In an abandoned church we visited Diamond Gym, the piece described in the New Yorker article. All around we saw the various rebuilding projects but the effect on me was one of despair. The scale of destruction is too large, the effort to rebuild too small. The art was particularly moving because it was intended to be seen in this context. It brings a lot of people to the Lower Ninth and shows them what happened there complete with emotional content. I don't know if this will ultimately help the people of the Lower Ninth, but taken as a whole it is a successful art experience like none I've experienced before.

On our last day, we visited the New Orleans Art Museum, the city's most formal gallery and home of a terrific contemporary sculpture garden. It sits in City Park, another area completely inundated and largely destroyed by Katrina. Much of the park and surrounding area has been cleaned up, but reminders are everywhere. The last P.1 piece we saw before leaving for home was Paul Villinski's Emergency Response Studio. This rebuilt travel trailer, superficially like the infamous FEMA trailers, sits on the lawn in front of the museum. ( For me the piece raises the question of whether artists need to rush to respond to natural disasters. At first glance it seems to be all about rushing to the scene of future disasters in ecological comfort, but is it? When Merry looked at it she laughed out loud since the concept of the piece seems so totally off base it has to be an elaborate joke. The artist statement makes it clear that he is not joking, just nuts. To me the piece points to the irony of trying to make art out of people's suffering. Transforming and commemorating suffering is one of the central roles of art. The problem presented is how to make art from suffering without at the same time exploiting the victims. To my mind P.1 succeeds in this effort by never letting the visitor forget the context of the art.

Go see it if you can.