Saturday, March 28, 2009


Atticus Finch at the bus stop

Street lights the pre-dawn

Spring has brought him a mockingbird

Not a robin

Not a bluejay

Not a wren or crow

But all in one bird

He's there every morning at 6:05

One day a street light

Then a flowering crab

Wednesday the top of an abandoned store

His personal songster

No other bird song at this hour

Clear notes, louder than traffic

Atticus wonders:

Could this be the same bird

Every day,

A new resident of this dusty corner?

Until now I've been alone in the dark

Then on Friday,


Saturday, March 21, 2009

Dr. Who at the Pulitzer

On Wednesday evening Merry and I set out for the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in the teeth of a threating thunderstorm to hear a New Music concert in that wonderful space. The Pulitzer was created especially to exhibit contemporary art but the current exhibit is a selection of old masters. The unique twist is that the art is hung without exhibition lighting. The Pulitzer has lots of natural light so the effect is eerie, somewhat like seeing the art in a contemporary cathedral. The overall effect is one of profound dislocation. See for yourself at

The Pulitzer has a contemporary chamber concert series designed by David Robertson, the music director of the St. Louis Symphony. Robertson is a devotee of contemporary classical music and programs it often for the Symphony. We wanted to attend this concert because it featured Andrew Russo, the talented young Syracuse pianist I know from my work with the Society for New Music.

There is no other art space like the Pulitzer. It's built entirely of polished concrete with soaring open spaces as well as wonderful quiet corners. The main hall is two stories high ending in a set of steps leading to a lower level. The far end of this space, now three stories tall, is dominated by Blue Black by Ellsworth Kelly. As we sat down on clear plastic folding chairs near the top of the steps Blue Black set the mood by echoing the early evening near darkness with the impending storm.

About 100 people arrived. At the bottom of the steps was a grand piano, a tangle of computer equipment and about six guys dressed entirely in black wandering around with no obvious purpose. Six loud speakers ringed the space. When the well-dressed patrons of the series took the front row of reserved seats we knew the concert was about to begin.

Matthias Waschek, director of the museum, and Robertson appeared at the base of the steps. Dr. Waschek talked for a few minutes about how the old masters in the exhibit represented the tension between an emerging technology (oil painting) and an old technology (egg tempura painting). He claimed the artist's task is to find a way to preserve what is best of the old while adapting what is best of the new. Maestro Robertson explained he chose Pluton, the piece of the evening, because it represents how the older technology of the piano was preserved and transformed by electronics. This entire introduction seemed unnecessary and strained to me, but it did demonstrate just how silly serious people can be when trying to justify their entertainment.

Robertson introduced world-famous electronic music composer, Philippe Manoury. Manoury is a small, unprepossessing Frenchman with shoulder length wild white hair. He explained that all of the sounds in the piece would be produced and modulated by the performer at the piano, but would then be manipulated by the computer to produce an improvisational interaction unique to each performance. I instantly liked him.

Andrew Russo came on stage without introduction and sat down at the piano. Pluton was composed in 1988 making it a pretty early piece of electronica. Unfortunately, it shows its age. The music is utterly atonal, loud and difficult to listen to as it lacks any obvious rhythmic or melodic structure. The five movements with titles that suggest theme and development are utterly indistinguishable. In the midst of all this sound and fury Russo's piano technique was incredible. He put on his usual virtuoso show, but after ten minutes I longed for it all to end.

When trapped in circumstances like this I often close my eyes and try to imagine what movie would have this music as its score. At once I saw Dr. Who [] emerge from his Tardus and sweep around the room accompanied by electronic squeaks and whooshes. His archenemies the Daliks armed with toy pianos assault him from every angle. Their tinkling shots bounce off his hat, coat and long scarf and scatter everywhere. The music gets louder and more dissonant as the battle rages, then . . .

I couldn't keep going. There was no sequence to the sounds or the progressions. It fell back in a rain of academically driven technical experiments with no obvious regard for the sensibility of the listeners. I started counting page turns and hoped it would end soon. Finally, after about 50 minutes the lights dimmed, Russo rose from the piano, but even then the computer was not finished. Finally, and mercifully, it died.

Believe it or not, a question and answer period followed. It was respectful and fairly short.

I went back stage to briefly talk to Andy Russo. I'm not sure he really remembered me, but he greeted me warmly. He agreed the piece showed its age. I asked him how he got the call to do this concert and he noted he is perhaps the only person who has rehearsed this piece enough to perform it in concert. He came to St. Louis at Robertson's invitation and was headed back to Syracuse the next morning.

On later reflection I realize I had enjoyed the experience, if not the music.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


I spent the last week hearing cases in Cape Girardeau, about 115 miles south of St. Louis. Cape is an old Mississippi River town, founded as a colonial trading center by the French, now pretty much reduced to the service capital of southeastern Missouri: strip malls, government offices, courts, a regional university and major health care center.

One of my cases involved an unrepresented young guy of very marginal intelligence who had been out of work for years. He previously ran a cut-off saw in a sawmill, loaded ice trucks and worked as a dishwasher. He's functionally illiterate, can't count money or make change. He seemed strong and healthy to me, so I was questioning him closely to find out why he was not working. As part of this investigation I often ask about hobbies. This question frequently turns up interesting answers.

Well judge, my hobby is fishing, but you see I have to be careful not to catch any catfish.”

Now that is something. As I'm sure y'all know, the channel catfish is the official state fish of Missouri. Not being able to catch catfish in southern Missouri is surely a pretty serious problem.

What's the problem with catfish?”

Well judge, I'm allergic.”

It turns out he can't touch catfish, eat catfish or even smell catfish cooking without a very severe allergic reaction that actually sent him to the emergency room on several occasions. When he saw I was impressed, he decided to play the tune louder. He insisted he once lost a job as a dishwasher because the restaurant served catfish. His wage records showed he worked at that restaurant part time for four years. I guess it took a long while for the essence of catfish to reach the dish room.

Fishing for catfish is taken pretty seriously out here. The bigger rivers and lakes boast some truly awesome catfish. There are three types of large catfish native to Missouri waters. Channel cats are the most abundant and weigh in at 20-35 pounds. More common than you might think in slow water is the flathead cat. The biggest flathead ever caught in Missouri weighed 77 pounds. Out in the Big Muddy you can find lunker blue catfish that weigh 100 pounds or more.

When catfish get this big, good old southern boys go a little crazy. When I told the catfish allergy story to another judge, he asked me if I had ever heard of “noodling.” It turns out “noodling” involves catching massive catfish with the bare hands.

Flathead catfish live in holes or under brush in rivers and lakes. Their sedentary nature makes them the prime target for noodlers. To catch one a noodler wades and dives in the shallows looking for holes or brush along the silt bottom. When the noodler finds a likely hole, he or she swims down and wriggles a few fingers inside in hopes of attracting the attention of a big 40-50 pound flathead catfish. If all goes as planned, the catfish will swim forward and latch onto the fisherman's gloved hand, usually as a defensive maneuver in order to try to escape the hole. Once the fish grabs a hand all the noodler has to do is drag the animal out of the water without drowning first.

Hand fishing for catfish like this is illegal in most states, but not Missouri. Last June Missouri opened its first season of legal hand-fishing, due to persistent lobbying by a group called “Noodlers Anonymous.” Legalization seems not likely to make much difference. The legal hand fishing is limited to only three rivers. There are 2000 estimated noodlers in Missouri, but only 21 applied for the new $7 hand-fishing permit.

Anyone who wants to learn even more about noodling should definitely check out this link to YouTube:

Enough about the fine art of sport fishing in Missouri.

I have had several requests lately for copies of earlier blog entries to share with friends. I don't mind anyone forwarding what I send you. However, given the number of entries accumulated so far it seems like a good idea to post them all on the internet where anyone can access whatever entries strike their interest. Starting today you and your friends are invited to view my new blog site “St. Louis Sojourn.” To take a look go to Please note there is no “www” in this address. I still intend to email each blog entry weekly as always. I've already posted all prior entries the site and will continue to do so weekly. Entires posted to the internet will probably have fewer pictures, but the same text. As always, your comments are appreciated.

Saturday, March 7, 2009


Last Saturday we drove an hour west of St. Louis to pick up Bear at a McDonald's along the highway. Bear is a three-year-old Border Collie who had just been plucked from a private dog shelter by the dedicated, kind-hearted souls at Mo-Kan Border Collie Rescue. Robin, the woman behind his rescue, found out that Bear had spent virtually his whole life to date in the kennel. He apparently has a minor thyroid problem, but is otherwise healthy.

Merry joined Border Collie Rescue only a short time ago. A local volunteer came to our house to check it out and determined we would be appropriate as foster humans for dogs waiting for adoption. I was somewhat surprised that a dog was placed with us so soon. We debated for a few days whether we were ready, then decided that now was as good a time as ever. Thus, we found ourselves at the McDonald's transferring a somewhat shocked black and white dog to a crate in the back of Merry's Subaru.

Our first challenge was introducing Bear to Joli. We decided to begin by walking them together around the neighborhood before letting Bear in the house. This was a good plan and it would have worked, too, if the handle on the leash we used hadn't broken the first second as Merry got Bear out of the car. This led to a scramble to hold onto Bear while a different leash was located. Then it was off around the block. To our pleasant surprise he walked very well on a lead, even though he got tangled up a few times. As our blood pressures returned to normal, we seemed off to a pretty good start.

We kept a close watch on him in the house. Here's an excerpt from Merry's first report back to Robin:

He is a pretty good boy in the house. We've interrupted him marking in the house a couple times. He mainly wants to stay close. He wants lots of pats and scratches and will lay on his back for tummy rubs. He is not very civilized. He knows sit pretty well, and comes pretty well when he remembers he should be coming when called. We are working on sit and lay down. Stay is out of the question so far. We are working also on come out of the crate or to go through the door. We don't think he knows his name yet.”

We've had him a week now. Merry works with him every day. We see small bits of civilization becoming part of his behavior set. For example, I was quite surprised on last Sunday to discover that Bear had not played much with toys. I threw him a tennis ball and he just looked puzzled. I tried a squeaky toy. Same result. So we had him watch as we played with Joli and made sure there were toys in the yard when the dogs were out. Here's Merry's report to Robin on his progress:

Yesterday outside he discovered the big ball with the rope. He watched Joli run for it and after a while, when he got the chance, he grabbed it and ran around with it. Tore around! He is an incredibly graceful runner and jumper. Really light on his feet.”

Perhaps the most interesting challenge could be called “Bear's Liminal Problem.” The most difficult time for Bear (and us) is when he needs to make a transition from one way of being (say in his crate) to another (loose in the house), or vice versa. Here's Merry again:

Anytime we go out or upstairs or downstairs, he needs prep, and it is best if Joli is not in the scene. For instance, going up to go in his crate for the night has been hard. He ran by the crate, ran into this room, that room. Last night I tried coming upstairs with him and not going straight to the crate. [lightbulb!] We hung out on the couch nearby, him getting lots of pats and scratches, generally making out. Then when I asked him to get into the crate, he popped right in!”

I experienced this problem first hand a few days ago. I just got home from work and as is my habit hitched up Joli for her evening walk. We've been doing this virtually every day for at least ten years, so I was on automatic pilot. I opened the door, let Joli out and suddenly Bear was past me and out the door. A second before he had been nowhere around. Joli blocked him and I grabbed him by the neck fur. He's so strong he pulled me to my knees before I could stop him. Ouch.

This event and the general problem Bear has with learning how to gracefully make transitions put me in mind of how anyone learns to go from one mental state to the next without being utterly confused. While we are on the threshold between two mental states we are particularly open and vulnerable. There exists a fairly large body of literature on liminality in philosophy, anthropology and neuroscience. I never thought it might apply to dog training.

As for Bear, he will be at our house for another week at least. Then he's scheduled to go to another foster home. I'm off for a week hearing cases in Cape Girardeau. Merry will stay here and work with Bear some more. You can check on the status of Bear by looking at his bio found at

For those of you who love BC's and want to see how Merry first got interested in rescue, check out one of the very best BC sites on the web at

One final note: I want to thank everyone who responded to my cry for help in last week's post. I needed the boost. I've decided to follow the advice of several of you [Thank you George, Merry, Kate, Scott & Glenn] and start a blog archive on the web. I've signed up with Blogger and by next week I expect to have the archive ready for public viewing.