Friday, April 21, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Curious Parallels?

In the 20th century, there were volatile interim decades which
preceded periods of war and global change. In our 21st
century, it would appear we are in the midst of such an
interim decade in its “teen-age” (2012-19) years, although to
where and to what it will lead is far from clear.

The age from 16 to 17 can be particularly unsettling for a
young individual in our society, and so it would seem it is for
our whole planet in the years 2016 and 2017.

The world in the 1930s struggled to put itself together not
only after a violent and seemingly senseless world war, but
also after the initial blows of a global economic depression.
It also was marked by the rise of new and frightening
totalitarian ideologies, the genesis of global decolonization,
and the appearance of rapid new planet-altering technologies
in communications, transportation, consumer goods and
medicine.

Very few persons who were adults in the 1930s are now alive,
so our understanding of it, like all history, is second-hand.

As I write this in April, 2017, we have just seen an historic
upset in the presidential election in the United States, and the
introduction of many about-face polices as a consequence;
the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and its separation from
the European Union (EU); a populist uprising in post-Cold War
Europe; the political and economic rise of two largest nations
on earth, China and India (both in Asia); new instability
throughout most of the continent of South America; an
intensification of an earlier wave of terrorism emanating
from the Middle East; plus new and greater patterns of
intracontinental and intercontinental migration with
accompanying disruptions; and the continuing and numbing
faster velocity of new technologies.

That, to put it colloquially, is a lot to swallow in just one year,
and doesn’t even mention or detail other perhaps less “cosmic”
circumstances and events which have occurred --- or are about
to occur.

To further confuse or diminish our perception and understanding
of all this turmoil and change, the means by which we receive
this news has been compromised by the very media we depend on
to bring it to us. A hyper-subjectivity now permeates most
communications --- almost everything seems to be transmitted
with over-dressed ideological clothing. In other words, and also
colloquially, there is no “naked truth” --- or. we are told, no truth
at all.

I make two points. First, this kind of interim has happened
before, although the names and places were different. Second, if
history does instruct us, this interim is the “volatile” calm before
an historical storm.

In the interim before World War I (1904-13), and the one before
World War II (1929-38), the civilized world seemed to go like
sleepwalkers into catastrophe.

Are we, as a species, still somnambulists? Or do we, this time,
decide to wake up?

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Copyright(c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: The "Meddling" Media Get It Wrong Again

The special congressional election in Georgia, according to
the national “meddling” media, was heading to be a devastating
defeat for the current Republican majority, and particularly
for President Trump. It is difficult to remember an occasion
where so many one-sided resources were thrown into a
congressional race that failed in its objective.

To understand the magnitude of these one-sided resources, it is
necessary to note that the main Democratic candidate, Jon
Ossoff, a 30 year-old first-time candidate, spent between 8 and
9 million dollars on his campaign, while the four main
Republican candidates spent no more than a few hundred
thousand dollars each on their campaigns. In addition, Ossoff
received the support of thousands of out-of-state liberal
volunteers who came into Georgia to help him. Finally,
the neophyte liberal candidate received millions of dollars of
free publicity from the liberal national media as it made him,
in a matter of weeks, into a celebrity and the hoped-for
harbinger of voter rebuke to President Trump.

The Georgia 6th district is made of three counties in the 
Atlanta metro area. Since Newt Gingrich won this seat in the
late 1970s, it has elected Republicans, including the latest
incumbent, Tom Price, who resigned recently to join President
Trump’s cabinet. The district includes some of the most
affluent voters in Georgia, however, and polling across the
nation show clearly that some of the biggest Democratic
majorities come from rich urban voters.  Indeed, the most
affluent parts of the 6th district gave Ossoff about 56% of their
vote in the special election. Only months earlier, Hillary
Clinton had come close to beating Mr. Trump in this district,
and this gave national and local Democrats hope that, if voters
had truly soured on the president, and enough resources were
poured into this race, they could deliver an upsetting blow to
the Republicans in advance of next year’s national mid-term
elections in which the entire U.S. house must face the voters.

With all the votes counted, the Democratic hopeful received
48%.

To be fair to Mr. Ossoff, he had good credentials, was an
able and attractive campaigner, and was unfairly charged by
Republicans as an outsider because his current residence was
just beyond the district’s borders. In fact, Mr. Ossoff had
grown up in the district.

The race now goes to a run-off on June 20 since Georgia law
requires a 50%-plus-one win to take the seat. Mr. Ossoff could
still win, but Republican nominee Karen Handel now will
receive all of the Republican vote, and not have to share it. In
fact, it appears that Republican candidates received slightly
more total votes than Democratic candidates in the special
election. With two months to cool off, and the unlikelihood
that the resources will be so one-sided in the campaign ahead,
Mr. Ossoff now faces increasing negative odds in the
two-person contest.

So what happened in Georgia?

It is clear nationally that Democrats do not like Donald Trump.
In a recent Kansas congressional special election, the GOP
candidate won, but by a notably smaller margin than Trump
had carried the district last November. President Trump has
had a predictably uneven first 100 days in office (although the
recent confirmation of his supreme court nominee, and his
widely-praised airstrike against Assad in Syria, have boosted
his poll numbers).

On the other hand, national Democrats seem poised to move
sharply to the left with a takeover of the party by its Bernie
Sanders/Elizabeth Warren/MaxineWaters wing. Such a move
does not seem likely to enhance Democratic prospects in rural
America, and in rust belt and Southern states (like Georgia)
where Republicans and Mr. Trump have been so strong.

The Democratic message in Georgia was decidedly anti-Trump,
but it is clear that Republicans there were not swayed by it.
In fact, although President Trump stayed out of the race until
the end, he did tweet widely-publicized messages the day before
the special election denouncing Mr. Ossoff and urging Republican
voters to turn out in the special election. Since the Democrat fell
only two points short of the necessary majority, Mr. Trump might
even, rightly or wrongly, take some credit for the result.

What lies ahead?

There are a few more special elections this year, including the
Georgia run-off, but Democratic prospects in them are not
very promising. Mr. Trump’s popularity, according to the polls,
seems to be rising a bit. The stock market remains in an upward
motion, and congressional Republicans seem increasingly aware
of what will happen to them if they don’t fulfill their campaign
promises. Even the recent Obamacare repeal debacle could be
reversed in coming months.

Worst of all, perhaps, for the Democrats is that the “meddling”
media, so eager to help them, might be their unintended worst
enemy. That media, by creating unfulfilled expectations,
ultimately corrode the enthusiasm and energy of Democrats
who understandably want to do well in 2018  and 2020.

There seems to be palpable disappointment for liberals in the
aftermath of he first round of the Georgia special election. If
the media had not meddled so much, that disappointment might
not have been so great, and the result possibly even different.

Media not seen as fair and credible by the public at large, even
if they are on your side, might not actually be your friends.

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Copyright (c) by Barry Casselman. All right reserved.

Monday, April 17, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Whither France?

If today continental Europeans consider off-shore Great
Britain (UK) the region’s “bad boy” for its Brexit vote, they
should recall that only 50 years ago the main troublemaker
was not the UK, but France under the leadership of Charles
DeGaulle.

DeGaulle had emerged suddenly in the early days of World
War II when, after France’s humiliating defeat by the Nazi
invaders, he and a small group of French soldiers fled to
London, and set up a government-in-exile. Always a thorn
in the side of President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime
Minister Winston Churchill who together were directing the
Allied war efforts, De Gaulle overcame rivalries with other
French generals not under control of the Nazis or the
notorious collaborationist Vichy regime headed by Marshall
Petain, and by the time in 1944 when Paris was liberated and
the Nazis were routed, he was the biggest Gallic hero of the
war, and the leader of the new provisional government.

There is very little that is admirable about much French
conduct during the war, especially in the Vichy regime
which was not directly under Hitler’s army control, but there
was a notable resistance effort by some courageous French
men and women, and there was the small but noisy (thanks
to DeGaulle) Free French outpost in London. This provided
much salve to the French psyche after the war, despite the
nation’s general cooperation in deporting French Jewry to Nazi
concentration camps and their eventual brutal murders, as well
as its hasty surrender to the advancing Nazi armies in 1940
and later collaboration with the Hitler regime.

DeGaulle, by his escape, had preserved for many of the French
their national honor, and although he soon retired in 1947,
it was he who the nation called on more than a decade
later when the Algerian civil war threatened to destroy the
republic. DeGaulle always had not only a powerful sense of
personal destiny, but also an excessive view of French grandeur
and importance in the world.

Returning to found the Fifth Republic in 1958, DeGaulle
redefined the role of the president, and settled the Algerian war
by allowing the North African territory (not exactly a colony
since it was considered an integral part of France) to become a
sovereign nation. He then embarked on his own desire to make
France apart from the NATO alliance, and establish his country
as a go-between in the Cold War pitting the Soviet Union against
the democratic nations of Europe and North America. This latter
effort failed because the Soviet leaders rightly saw that he had
little real influence. At the same time, France lost most of her
African and Asian colonies, including Viet Nam. In 1969, on a visit
to Canada, De Gaulle stunningly offended his hosts by declaring
his sympathy for Quebec separatists (“Vive Quebc Libre!”). and
was forced to cut his visit short. In spite of the sanctuary provided
to him by Churchill and Great Britain during the war, and its
efforts with the U.S. to liberate France, DeGaulle resented the UK,
and consistently vetoed its entry into the Common Market. By
1969, he had worn out his welcome in his native country, and
following a parliamentary defeat, he resigned, dying a year
later at age 80.

After De Gaulle, the French immediately approved British entry
into the Common Market, and continued the policy of
rapprochement with West Germany. France rejoined NATO,
and its economy soared. Nevertheless, it was West Germany (later
reunited with East Germany) which emerged as the dominant
economy in the EU. In recent times, French leaders have allowed
significant immigration of foreigners from North Africa and the
Middle East (as have the other EU nations), and the French
economy has declined under the current socialist regime. Attacks
against the largest remaining Jewish population in Europe by new
immigrants has raised the specter of the earlier Nazi persecution,
and French Jews are now leaving France in increasing and noticeable
numbers. French euroskeptics are calling for France to leave the EU
(“Frexit”), and many feel their French identity is being threatened
from within.

In this volatile environment, France is about to hold its perhaps
most significant national election since World War II. The
presidential candidates of the two major parties actually trail
the leading candidates. One of those frontrunners is Marine Le Pen,
a populist/nationalist who opposes more immigration and wants to
take France out of the EU. The other frontrunner, Emmanuel Macron,
is a former socialist minister who formed, he claims, a new centrist
party that is pro-immigration and pro-EU.  The socialist candidate,
Benoit Hamon, is in last place, and is not even gaining in he polls at
the end. That is because another leftist candidate, Jean-Luc
Melenchon,  who is pro-immigration but anti EU, has come much
closer to the leaders in the polls, as has the conservative candidate,
Francois Fillon, who had earlier been hurt by allegations of personal
scandal.

With the election only days away,  pollsters allege that the race
is tightening, and that any of four could be in the top two. A run-off
is typical of French presidential elections. It was thought that M.
Macron was a shoo-in to be elected president in that run-off if the
other frontrunner, Mme. Le Pen, were his opponent. But two very
important factors suggest that this conclusion might be premature.
First, it is now much more unclear who the final two candidates
will be, and second, an amazing 30-35% of French voters are
reportedly still undecided about whom they will vote for.

In addition to the many local and regional issues at stake in the
imminent French parliamentary and presidential elections, the two
biggest issues, the EU and immigration, touch on the very identity
of France and its republic. In the political time of Donald Trump
and Brexit (both of those elections also has an extraordinary number
of undecided voters until the end), the French vote has potentially
tremendous implications for Europe, the U.S. and the world.

The suspense about its outcome, once thought to be minimal, is now
growing.

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Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Should Republicans Worry?

A special election in Kansas was just held to replace a popular
Republican congressman who took a cabinet post in the new
Trump administration. Many in the media glibly speculated
that the results, especially if the Democrat won or got close, 
might be an early omen for the mid-term elections next year.
As it turned out, The GOP candidate won by a clear but not
overwhelming margin. Sean Trende at Real Clear Politics,
always a smart and cool-headed observer, suggests that no
one should make too much about this election because the
overriding factor in 2018 will be later public perception of the
Trump administration and the Congress’s record of
achievement or lack of it.

There will be about a half dozen special elections over the
next few months, and this caution should be carefully applied
--- although upsets are possible, and Democrats will surely
try hard to make them happen where an incumbent GOP seat
is involved.

While it is obviously too early to assess what the public mood
will be more than a year from now, that does not mean that the
Republican house majority is inviolable. A current media mantra
is the possibility that liberals could win back the U.S. house in
spite of the currently comfortable GOP majority. The recent
split in the majority caucus recently the unresolved debate over
Obamacare repeal and replacement, a key issue that favored
Republicans in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections, could have
a boomerang effect if the GOP majority does not deliver on its
promise by the end of the year. Demographics and redistricting
have given the conservative party a clear advantage in the past
decade, and that advantage remains on paper, but voters are
these days remarkably impatient with gridlock and vacuous
promises.

Inexperienced in the ways of DC legislation, President Trump
has deferred to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader
Mitch McConnell to navigate the conservative legislative
program through the Congress, and to his desk. Mr. Trump,
as he repeatedly points out, likes to win, and he will not defer
forever. Mr. Trump is not up for re-election in 2018, but the
entire U.S. house is, as is one-third of the U.S. senate,

Ahead is important and promised legislation on tax reform and
tax cuts, infrastructure spending, the complex issues of the new
budget, and the overhaul of the government in Washington, DC.
If 25-35 Freedom Caucus members continue to thwart the
Trump-Ryan-McConnell agenda, Republicans would have every
reason to worry about their “impenetrable” majority in the
house, and their rare opportunity to pick up as many as 10 seats
in the senate.

GOP strategists would be well-advised not to be pre-occupied
with occasional special elections which might turn more on local
issues, and better be concerned about getting their political act
together, and soon.

The man in the White House is the most improbable, and perhaps
the most underestimated, political figure in a very long time. His
pedigree suggests action, surprise (some might prefer the word
“shock”) and a thirst for success. He is being respectful, for the
time being, of the ways of Washington, and seemingly prepared
to work in its environment.

But if Donald Trump discovers that the Capitol is just a decorous
and unyielding china shop, it might get a lot noisier than it is now. 

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Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 10, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: One Minnesota Congressman, and Perhaps Two, To Run For Governor

Minnesota’s first district Congressman Tim Walz has
announced he will not run for re-election for his southeastern
Gopher State seat, but will run for governor in 2018 instead. A
former school teacher, Walz had held the seat for six terms. A
farming region that also includes the booming city of Rochester,
it has traditionally elected centrist Democrats (called the
Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party or DFL here) and conservative
Republicans until Walz. In his first election, Walz promised
voters he would serve in the tradition of popular DFL
Congressman Tim Penny, a nationally-known centrist who
served from 1983 to 1995, but it soon became apparent that Walz
was voting more like an urban liberal than a rural centrist,
and his vote margins declined sharply in his recent re-elections,
narrowly avoiding defeat in 2016 as Donald Trump carried the
district by 15 points.

Jim Hagedorn, son of a former first district GOP congressman,
almost beat Walz with his second try in 2016, and now is the clear
frontrunner for the Republican nomination. But Walz’s retirement
is likely to bring other GOP candidates into the contest. No formal
announcements have yet appeared on the DFL side.

Mr. Penny, now the president of a regional non-profit foundation
in the area, and still a popular figure there, said, “The 1st district
is now in play, but Hagedorn may not be the strongest candidate
for the Republicans --- though he does have a jump start on the
others. Still, given recent trends, this district, in my view, leans
Republican.”

Current DFL Governor Mark Dayton is retiring after two terms,
and the DFL field of candidates to succeed him is large. Walz,
largely unknown outside his home district, will likely have an
uphill contest to win his party’s nomination against at least four
or five other DFL candidates who are more well-known in the
Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul (where most of the DFL
votes are in the state). In fact, another incumbent DFL
congressman, Rick Nolan, who represents the northeastern 8th
district, is also reportedly seriously considering a bid for
governor. Congressman Nolan, much better known throughout
the state, might have a better chance for the DFL nomination
than Walz.

Donald Trump almost upset Hillary Clinton last year in this
previously reliable red state, and local Republicans are optimistic
they can win back the governorship in 2018 after winning control
of both houses of the state legislature in 2016. The GOP problem
so far, however, is that no major candidate has entered the contest
for its party nomination.

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Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 7, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: An Historic 24 Hours

A 24-hour period of April 6-7, 2017 has proved to be not
only historic, but perhaps  a turning point in the nascent
administration of President Donald Trump.

Beginning with a punitive raid on a Syrian government air
base from which a chemical warfare attack on Syrian civilians
had been reportedly launched only days earlier, Mr. Trump not
only made the most dramatic assertion of his role as U.S.
commander-in-chief, he decisively assumed his, and revived the
nation’s, command of the free world. His action, a sudden
reversal of his words only days before, was welcomed warmly
by the leaders of virtually all U.S. allies, including those who
had previously been critical of him. It also shattered any
presumption that the new administration would not confront
Russia.

A few hours later, the U.S. senate confirmed Mr, Trump’s first
nomination to the U.S. supreme court by a 54-45 margin. In the
confirmation process, the last remaining filibuster procedure
was eliminated, thus making any future Trump nominations
confirmable by a simple majority.

In the logistics of the successful air raid, it appears that the
president deferred to the experienced military figures he has
appointed to advise him. In the confirmation process, he
deferred to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who now
emerges as a particularly strong figure in the future course of
the administration’s legislative program.

So far, a pattern has appeared in Mr. Trump’s actions of
attempting to fulfill domestic campaign promises and of
maintaining flexibility in foreign affairs. There are risks in the
latter, including disappointing those in his own party who
bitterly oppose foreign interventions, and in changing the
dynamic in our relationships with Russia and China. The
military action in Syria was clearly very limited, but it is likely
to produce consequences, including whether or not the U.S.
military role in the region will be increased. It is  often unclear
what will happen when you alter the chemistry of international
circumstances.

Although the two developments in an unusual 24-hour period
might be counted a short-term victories for the new president,
many major and problematic issues remain ahead in the
domestic and foreign policies of the U.S. government.

If anything lasting might be gleaned from these notable
developments, it is the reinforcement of the advisory repeatedly
expressed on these pages --- it is much more important to pay
attention to what President Donald Trump does than just to 

what he says.

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Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All right reserved.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: A Poet Departs

Obituaries of poets are usually short, and they are of
interest to very few these days. Poetry is in a prolonged
depression.

But major publications this week feature prominently, often
on their front pages, the just-announced death of Yevgeny
Yevtushenko, 84, the Russian poet known in the non-Soviet
West as a dissident and troublemaker, as well as for his
verse. He was popular in the Soviet Union, too, and after
Nikita Kruschchev came to power, in the 1950s, briefly in
favor in the Kremlin as part of its effort to shatter the myths
about long-time dictator Joseph Stalin.

Perhaps his most famous poem was “Babi Yar” --- a searing
indictment of the Soviet government’s refusal to acknowledge
the site of the Nazi massacre of 33,000 Jews in the outskirts
of Kiev in 1941. Yevtushenko was a poetry rock star in Soviet
Russia, Europe and the U.S. (which he often visited) after that,
and drew huge crowds for his readings in the 1960s, 70s, 80s
and 90s.

It was on one of those occasions, when Yevtushenko came to
Minneapolis for a reading, that I had an interesting and
memorable encounter with him.

Before his reading, he held a press conference in a hotel across
the street from my office. I was publishing a local newspaper
then, so it was especially easy for me to go to this press
conference.

Yevtushenko was a charismatic figure who spoke English quite
well, and appeared before us with a characteristic cigarette
drooping from his lips and a diffident manner. He parried most
of the questions as if he had heard them all before.

Towards the end of this event, I raised my hand and asked him
a question that appeared to shock him. His cigarette fell from his
lips onto the table in front of him, and he suddenly became very
animated.

“What do you know abut the Russian poet Alexander Mezhirov?”
I asked him.

A moment for a backstory:  My family on both sides came from
what is now Ukraine, but which then was part of the Soviet Union.
Many in my mother’s family came here at the turn of the century
in the 1890s. Their name was spelled “Masiroff” at Ellis Island,
but it was really spelled “Mezhirov” in correct transliteration.
My grandparents came from large families in the shtetls (ghetto
villages) in the outskirts of Kiev. Immigrant Mezhirovs settled
in New York, Cleveland, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Erie, PA. It
was a family of folk musicians (“klezmorim”) --- although most
of the emigres went into retail trade after they settled in America.
My grandfather, who was a conductor and composer, went into
the furniture business in Erie. Cousins in Chicago (“Mesirows”)
went into the drug store business. Cousins in other cities went
into sales and real estate development.

My Aunt Sylvia, my mother’s sister, was the only Erie sibling of
that first generation to become a serious musician. She was also
the most cultural figure in my immediate family, and introduced
me to classical literature even before my teens. Like her mother,
she was very aware of her family tradition, and kept me posted
on the exploits of famous relatives such as jazz legend Mezz
Mezzrow (real name Milton Mesirow, the son of the Chicago
cousins), bandleader Eddie Dutchin, and pianist/harpsichordist
Rosylin Tureck. A prodigious reader, one day in the 1980s she
read a biography of the Russian novelist Boris Pasternak, and
discovered that he had befriended a young poet named
Alexander Mezhirov just before World War II. Mezhirov, it
turns out, survived his military service, and returning to
Moscow, became a protege of Pasternak. Surviving the Stalinist
era, Mezhirov wrote and published many books of poetry, and
became a literary household name in Russia. His poems, however,
were not translated into English in the U.S., and he was unknown
here. Aunt Sylvia wrote to me to be on the lookout for our
hitherto unknown cousin. (My grandmother once told me that all
Mezhirovs are related.)

Back in Minneapolis, I realized I might have an opportunity now
to find out more about my cousin, so I asked Yevtushenko if he
knew anything about him.

“ALEXANDER MEZHIROV!” the charismatic poet boomed,
coming suddenly to life. “No one has ever asked me about him
before.” Then he went on, “Alexander Mezhirov was my mentor
when I came to Moscow from Siberia as a young man. He’s a
great poet.”

After the press conference, Yevtushenko came directly up to me
and asked, “How do you know Alexander Mezhirov?” I explained
that I had reason to believe he was my cousin. I told Yevtushenko
about my family and the names of the two shtetl villages
(Bobrovits and Koselets) outside Kiev where the Mezhirovs had
lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. I also gave him a copy of my
own book of poetry which had recently been published. “You’re
in luck,” Yevtushenko told me, “Mezhirov lives in my apartment
building in Moscow, and I am going to tell him about you.”

About two weeks later, I received a telegram, in English, from
Alexander Mezhirov in Moscow. “We are definitely related,” it
said, “My father was born in Kozelets, and my family is from
there.” It turns out that the father had moved to Moscow (where
Alexander was born in 1933) before World War II, but that most
of the Mezhirovs who had not emigrated to the U.S. had remained
there. (Ilya Ehrenberg, another famous Soviet writer, wrote of
how the entire village of Koselets --- men, women and children ---
had been lined up in a field and murdered by the Nazis in 1942.)

Aunt Sylvia was overjoyed when I wrote to her about the
telegram.


[There is a fascinating postscript to this story. Shortly after
hearing from Mezhirov, I learned he was coming to the U.S. to
speak at Columbia University. I hastily arranged for him to
come also to Minnesota where we had a remarkable family
reunion. I then took him by train to Chicago where he met my
niece Tobi (also a writer). But all of that is another story.....)

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Copyright (c) 2017 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.