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.