Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Muny

Even though rain threatened, we set out for Forest Park this last Thursday evening to attend our first ever performance at the St. Louis Municipal Theatre, lovingly referred to as “The Muny.” We knew we could not claim to know anything about this place until we had a dose of America's oldest and largest outdoor theatre.,com_frontpage/Itemid,1/ Merry got the tickets, scoped out the best place to park and prepared a picnic supper. We went early so we could appreciate it all.

Forest Park is to St. Louis as Central Park is to New York City, only Forest Park is bigger. For an overview of the park and its history take a look at my very first blog from way back on 09/07/08. The Muny is set on a steep hillside close to the center of the park. The backstage and auxiliary buildings are constructed of light tan brick fronted by a grand colonnade. The theatre has an astounding 11,000 seats. Ticket prices are pretty reasonable ranging from $9 - $46 and 1500 seats at the top of the hill are free, first come, first served. When we arrived at the picnic area around 6 pm only half the picnic tables were taken but soon they all filled. A line formed for the free seats that are given out at 7 pm for the 8:15 curtain. All around the theatre people set up picnics, bought box suppers or sat down to eat at the open air pavilion serving a $19 buffet, reservations only.

The season typically consists of seven musicals, each running a week. This year the lineup is 42nd Street, Annie, Godspell, Meet Me In St. Louis, The Music Man, Camelot, and Hairspray. We chose the 76 trombones. Each show features actors equity performers in the leads drawn from Broadway and traveling professional productions mixed with a large number of local performers and a full orchestra.

We were just finishing our picnic when a serious thunderstorm hit. Everyone calmly took cover under the colonnade, spread out their table cloths again and resumed picnicking. Thunder crashed and torrents of water ran off the roof. The rain let up in about half an hour. More and more people arrived, wiped off the picnic tables, filled the pavilion and prepared for the show. The free seats were completely taken.

We explored while we waited. In front of the Muny is a pond with an elegant pagoda on a island. A white egret with a hurt leg stalked frogs on one side of the pond. On a bridge a young man was throwing bread crumbs in the water. We walked over to find he was feeding the many turtles that live under the bridge, pond sliders and one pretty big snapper.

Finally the gates opened. The theatre quickly filled. It was not a sellout, but at least 9,000 people arrived from all sides. Most brought all the necessities: seat cushions, towels to dry the seats and rain gear. Those who were unprepared could rent seat cushions or have the friendly ushers wipe off the wet seats. The lights dimmed. The music started. Bats danced overhead seeking insects drawn to the stage lights. From the first note I knew this was a top quality show; terrific singers in all lead roles, great dancing and fabulous sets.

About an hour after the show started a second rainstorm hit. Out came a sea of umbrellas and rain ponchos. Vendors immediately appeared hawking cheap rain gear. The show continued for a few minutes until the rain really started to come down. A rain delay was called. The show would resume, we were told, in 15 minutes to half an hour. We decided to leave even though we were having a good time. It's a long show and I needed to get to work early the next morning.

To understand how the Muny managed to gain such a substantial following you have to look to its beginnings during the First World War. In 1916 the site was first used to present “As You Like It” put together by the Parks Commission and the Civic League to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. This show turned out to be such a success that by early 1917 a decision was made to erect a permanent stage at the site. That summer the city was hosting the 13th Annual Convention of the Advertising Clubs of the World. The opening of the new outdoor theatre would be the highlight event of the convention. Construction began April 16 funded with $5000 provided by the Convention board and $5000 from the city. In 46 days the massive stage was constructed, an orchestra pit built to hold up to 200 musicians, all the concrete was poured and dressing rooms built behind the stage. On June 5, 1917 the Muny opened with an audience of 12,000 in attendance. A full production of Verdi's “Aida” featured world famous opera stars and a local chorus of 250 plus 30 local dancers.

After three weeks of performances with about 10,000 people in attendance nightly the theatre had lost nearly $60,000. Nonetheless the city was determined to make a first rate summer theatre in the park a permanent reality. During 1918 Mayor Henry Keil spearheaded a fundraising campaign that raised the necessary money to plan another season.

By March 1919 the organizing committee announced they would present six operas the coming summer. In April, St. Louisans went to the polls to vote on the repertory. As soon as the results were tabulated, stars were engaged from New York, musicians auditioned, sets built and choruses assembled.

Ticket prices ranged from 25 cents to a top price of one dollar. 1,620 of the 9,000 seats were set aside as free, beginning a tradition that continues to this day. On June 10, 1919, the Municipal Theatre Association was formally incorporated. Six days later the curtain rose on “Robin Hood,” with a full house and Mayor Kiel himself proudly appearing in the production as King Richard.

Ninety seasons later, the Muny is still going strong.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Stone School Inn

I have a lot of dusty philosophy books in my personal library. I acquired most of them during my years in graduate school when I still imagined myself capable of plumbing the depths. I read the classics of antiquity as well as modern giants: Descartes, Hegel, Marx, Kant and Heidegger. Along the way I acquired an interest in how European thinking made its way to America. I especially like nineteenth century American philosophical writings because they contain a wealth of new ways to think about old problems. This rich philosophical vein almost completely dried up after about 1920. I soon gave up reading anything by living American philosophy professors because it had so little to do with anything that matters. At the time I cared enough about this phenomenon to make it the subject of my doctoral dissertation, The Profession of Philosophy in America (1979).

I turned my back on the academic life in 1984 when I started law school. Still I find myself drawn to the philosophy section of bookstores. Thus it is that I encountered On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfort (Princeton Univ Press, 2005)

In a nutshell, Frankfort points out that the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony. By this he means that the bullshitter seeks to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned at all about whether what they say is true. The central purpose of bullshit is to create a favorable impression of the speaker rather than to say anything meaningful about the subject of the conversation. Frankfurt concludes that although bullshit can take many innocent forms, excessive indulgence in bullshit can undermine the capacity to tell the truth in a way that lying does not. Liars implicitly acknowledge that truth matters.

I recommend this elegant and amusing little piece of philosophical writing. I have applied Frankfort's insights in my work as a judge with great success. I keep a copy of the book on my desk right next to the BULLSHIT stamp Merry bought for my birthday.

Once you are alert to bullshit you see it everywhere. It is so rampant in advertising and in most political discussion that it's hard to miss. I take it so much for granted that I don't expect anything more in certain types of discourse. Still, it often takes me by surprise.

This past week I was hearing cases in Hannibal, MO. Merry, Joli & I wanted to find a new place to stay. We generally like B&Bs but we needed to find one that takes dogs. That's how we settled on the Stone School Inn. The place is situated in the country up a long steep drive. For $5.00 extra per day they provide an outside kennel for a dog. It worked out very well. The two resident dogs, Daisy, a basset/beagle mix, & Coco, a chocolate lab, were nice to Joli and hung around with us. The room was private and comfortable. We had our own screen porch that looked out on the yard and a number of active bird feeders.

I was surprised that the stone schoolhouse had been almost entirely enclosed in a modern structure. Since the original structure was too small to serve as a modern house, and probably poorly insulated, it made sense but altered the historic building significantly. Like most B&Bs this one is for sale. The owners, Richard & Di Ann Hammon, told us they want to get out of the B&B business and move nearer to their adult children.

Thursday morning Richard fulfilled his promise to tell us his well-rehearsed story of the history of the inn. I was quite surprised when he started the story by reminding us of the great New Madrid earthquake of 1811 He segued to survivors of the quake moving far up river to the Hannibal area to settle on land acquired by the government. These survivors wanted a school, so about 1830 they build one of locally quarried stone. Richard noted the school was expanded later to add the chimney and served as a church for years. He made a big deal about a small trapdoor in the floor and claimed it led to a small space where runaway slaves were hidden. He showed us the trapdoor, now sealed. He claimed that slaves must have participated in the building because the stones and chestnut beams are so heavy. The locations of the local slave cemeteries were referenced. He regaled us with stories of visitors who returned to see the old schoolhouse where their great-great-great grandfather once served as superintendent.

My bullshit detector went off almost at once. The dates seemed totally wrong. If there was a surviving school building from before the civil war in good shape it surely would be a registered historic landmark. Terrell Dempsey, a lawyer who appears in my court, recently wrote a well regarded history of slavery in the Hannibal area ( I asked Richard if Mr. Dempsey knew of the trap door and slave history of the building. Richard claimed he did.

An hour later I saw Mr. Dempsey in court. I asked him about the Stone School. He had never heard of it. He further was amazed that any “purpose built” schoolhouse existed in the county from pre-Civil War time. He was familiar with the other educational institutions from the time, and was pretty sure the story I heard from Richard was not true. I've done some quick internet research and believe that Richard was pretty much making it all up.


Saturday, July 11, 2009

I just call her mommy

One of the more interesting challenges of being an ALJ for SSA is the occasional need to decide a “child's case.” Some background – Social Security includes a provision to assist families of seriously disabled children who live below the poverty line. The policy goal is to provide a small monthly payment to such families to assist with the additional costs of having a disabled child in the household. Child's benefits are part of the Supplemental Security Income [SSI] program. As with SSI for adults, the income eligibility part of the child's benefit program is administered by a different part of the agency. I just have to decide whether the child is seriously disabled.

The disability requirements are complex. I'm supposed to evaluate functioning in six “domains” (1) acquiring and using information,
(2) attending and completing tasks, (3) interacting and relating with others,
(4) moving about and manipulating objects, (5) caring for yourself, and (6) health and physical well-being. In each of these domains there are quite different factors to consider depending on the child's age. Infants and pre-school children have their own criteria; elementary and high school children have different criteria. Children can come into the system at any age and are re-evaluated periodically so it's possible I would hear an appeal of a child at any age from just after birth to age 18. When a child turns 18, and if they have not successfully joined the labor force, they are re-evaluated as an adult. I not only have to read medical records in these cases but a wide variety of school records including Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) as well as IQ and other psychological testing.

Only about 10% of the cases I hear are child cases. That means I've heard about 50 since last September. In 49 of the 50 the claim was initiated by the mother or grandmother. Only one case was initiated by a father, but unfortunately when that case was scheduled the father and child did not appear in court. No shows are quite common in all child cases. One reason is that a much smaller percentage of these cases have legal representation, thus there is no one to help prepare the case and to remind the claimant of the hearing. I never represented children in my private practice primarily because I had not studied this area of Social Security law and because the fees are relatively small. It's a lot of work for not much money. So about 2/3 of these cases have no lawyer; most of the rest are represented by Legal Aid.

I was quite daunted, therefore, when I encountered my first child case about the third week I was on the bench. That case involved a 3-year-old with sickle cell anemia. She has a twin sister with the same disorder who was granted benefits without a problem in initial application so the mom didn't understand why this child was being denied. It ended up being my job to explain that this child was just not as sick as her twin sister, not yet. Not a fun task.

Then there is the issue of how to take testimony from children. According to SSA rules, I'm supposed to ask adequate questions of the child to satisfy myself on whatever issues the case presents. How is this done? I was offered virtually no training in this area by SSA. I asked the other judges. Some never take testimony from children. Some let the lawyer do it, if they are lucky enough to have a lawyer. Most told me they just ask a few questions and observe the child's behavior in court. Nobody had much helpful to say. I decided to ask at least some questions of all children old enough to talk. If they had lawyers, I'd ask the lawyer to question the child and observe how they did it. I'd ask questions about school, pets, hobbies, going to the doctor, etc. and just see what happened. So far this has worked out well for me and I'm actually having a good deal of fun doing it.

I asked one six-year-old boy who the woman sitting next to him was and he said, “That's my mommy.”

What's her name?” He looked puzzled. What was I asking? He looked at her. “Tell the judge my name, honey.” He looked up at me and sweetly said, “I just call her mommy.”

In another case I was questioning a ten-year-old about her need for glasses. There was nothing in the school or medical records on this, but her mother had just testified she could not see the blackboard without glasses. The girl was not wearing glasses in court. I asked her whether she always wore glasses when she went out. “Yes.” Why didn't she have them on now? “I forgot them.” Could she see me alright? “Yes.” I pointed down the front of the bench, could she read my name plate there?

She frowned and looked puzzled. “No.”

Why not, is it blurry?“

After a second she smiled and said, “No, I can't read it 'cause you don't got no name tag.”

My hearing clerk got up and looked. Sure enough, she had forgotten to insert my name plate before court. If I had bothered to look, I would have seen it lying on the bench in front of me.

Next time I'll be more careful before inadvertently asking a child a trick question.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Buddhist Judging

I'm not a Buddhist, far from it, but I've been a fan of Buddhist writings on the practical aspects of spiritual practice ever since I encountered Zen In the Art of Archery by German philosopher Eugen Herrigel back in the sixties.

Recently Merry shared a Buddhist text that resonated with her. She observed that although the text deals with mastering the skill of meditation, it could easily apply to the process of mastering the skill of judging.

When you see that you've acted, spoken, or thought in a skillful way conducive to happiness while causing no harm to yourself or others take joy in that fact and keep on training.”

This thought intrigued me so much that I tracked down the quote to a recent article in the journal Tricycle by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, called The Joy of Effort.

As I read the article I substituted the work "judging" for the word "meditation" just to see what happened. Here's an example of the result:

"...the key to maintaining your inspiration in the day-to-day work of judging is to approach it as play—a happy opportunity to master practical skills, to raise questions, experiment, and explore. This is precisely how the Buddha himself taught judging. Instead of formulating a cut-and-dried method, he first trained his students in the personal qualities—such as honesty and patience—needed to make trustworthy observations. Only after this training did he teach judging techniques, and even then he didn’t spell everything out. He raised questions and suggested areas for exploration in the hope that his questions would capture his students’ imagination, so they’d develop discernment and gain insights on their own."

While this may seem a bit too facile, for me it reveals one key to learning how to become a good judge. While obviously important, technical skills such as knowing the law and practice are not primary, instead skills like patience, curiosity, humility and honesty need to take precedence.

Perhaps one of the most difficult traits to learn and practice in any court is integrity. In my view, some aspects of the structure of our court systems actively discourages personal integrity in judges. I'm not referring here to explicit lies, double dealing, or graft. Our court systems and rules of professional ethics are actually quite sensitive to these types of dishonesty. When I think about integrity in this context, I'm more concerned with avoiding the loss of focus that can easily creep into the work and degrade its quality. In any job that involves a lot of repetition, it's easy to become complacent once you have obtained the basic skills of the job. What happens from a practical standpoint is that attention to the specific facts of each case can suffer from time of preparation through trial. I have about 1000 cases currently pending in my docket with more being added daily. There's a constant temptation, even incentive, to cut corners.

Monk Bhikkhu offers the following good advice on this point, "And the key to this honesty is to treat your actions as experiments. Then, if you see the results aren’t good, you’re free to change your ways."

Furthermore, in a job like judging where social status plays a major role, it's easy to forget that the status of judge is an artificial one, created by our culture for a specific end. Being chosen for this job is not a statement about the qualities, good or bad, of the person who is the judge. Nonetheless it's always tempting to confuse the role with the person. Being treated with formal deference can lead one to believe that by being granted the power to make judgements, the judge has somehow have been endowed with these special powers based on superior personal traits. This is not the case, but it's easy to get confused when being addressed as "Judge" or "Your Honor" repeatedly on a daily basis.

In the end the key to applying Buddhist teaching to practical skill is to remember to avoid getting wrapped up in the "eight worldly concerns," i.e., gain/loss, pleasure/pain, praise/blame and fame/dishonor. A skillful practitioner of any art simply focuses on the joy of doing the work and rejoices in each of the many complicated steps required by the practice. Achieving or avoiding the eight worldly concerns is totally forgotten and on a good day the result is a heightened awareness of the present moment.

I think of this heightened awareness as "being in the zone." When I achieve this state I read with greater comprehension, write more clearly, smile more and ask better questions. It's virtually impossible to tell an effective joke or give an extemporaneous speech unless I'm in the zone.

Om mani padme hum

Just a reminder, both Merry & I have put up web sites where you can see archived posts and view Merry's terrific photo essays (most recently about the new St. Louis “Citygarden”). Check them out when you have the time at: and