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.