Wednesday, December 13, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Everyone Won And Lost?

The election of Democrat Doug Jones in the Alabama special
U.S. senate election to replace Jeff Sessions (who retired to
become attorney general in the Trump administration) was
won and lost by both political parties.

First of all, it was a victory for the Democrats in one of the
most conservative states, and in a race, under normal
circumstances, they could not win. They pick up a senate
seat, and now Republicans control the senate by only 51-49.

But Democrats did not think they were going to win, and
made a political bet that they could use GOP nominee Roy
Moore, once elected, as a foil to embarrass the conservative
party --- having forced a senator of their own, Al Franken, to
resign following scandal allegations (Roy Moore also faced
allegations). Their ultimate target, of course, is President
Trump, but that is likely to fail, as have all their other
numerous attempts to undo the 2016 election.

Enough conservative voters, in addition to Democratic voters,
had the good sense to reject Mr. Moore, twice ousted from the
state supreme court, and leaving scandal allegations aside, was
so controversial and off-the-wall that it is amazing he went as
far as he did.

President Trump did gamely support Moore at the end,  but in
the primary he had rightfully supported Moore’s opponent.
Blaming him for Roy Moore just won't wash.

There were losers in the Alabama election. Mr. Moore was the
biggest loser, but so was his major political sponsor, Steve
Bannon. Mr,, Bannon had been on a kamikaze crusade to
“cleanse” the Republican party of part of it base, and he failed
--- not only hurting his own party, but in making himself a toxic
figure in the 2018 campaign ahead. He won’t likely go away
quietly, but his political plot has been exposed as the "bust" it is.

Republicans have done this before. They have nominated various
“extreme” candidates for U.S. senate races (Nevada, Missouri,
Indiana, Colorado, Delaware, etc.) they were likely to win
in recent cycles --- and they lost. Frankly, they deserved to lose
those races, and they deserved to lose Alabama. If they don’t
finally learn the political lesson, they will lose again.

But sensible, and many very conservative, voters in Alabama
decided they deserved better. In rejecting Mr. Moore, they also
took away a Democratic partisan argument against the
Republicans. Forcing Al Franken to resign might have been a
Democratic Party strategy too clever by half.

As others have pointed out, you have to work very hard to be
removed from a state supreme court twice, and then to lose
a virtually certain U.S. senate election. Roy Moore managed
to do all of that, and now it is time for him to ride that horse
of his off into an Alabama sunset.

Senator-elect Jones is presumably an instant lame-duck. A
majority of Alabama voters do not share most of his political
views. If he is to have even a remote chance to win re-election
in 2020, he will have to become the most conservative
Democrat in the senate. If he does not, he will become very
quickly one of the most unpopular guys in the state. He won
the election, but he might not enjoy the aftermath.

It was a most curious race in which both sides won, and both
sides lost. But if the Republicans don’t finally get the message
that voters deserve quality candidates, then one side will have
truly won, and the other will have truly lost.

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

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: The Colder Season

In the northern hemisphere, we are now in the colder
climate season. This year, it has also been a time of
increasingly “heated” political  passions, and even some
“boiling” media hysteria.

As we begin the multi-week holiday season going to the
new year, The Prairie Editor respectfully suggests that
we all (paradoxically?) “chill out” and reflect not on
incessantly sensational (and often misleading) headlines
and negative news. How about acknowledging, and
being grateful for, our many blessings --- our families and
friends, our faiths, our freedoms and liberty, our
opportunities ahead, and the positive side of the many new
technological resources which improve our well-being,
our health and our daily lives?

Perhaps we could also reflect on those in the world who
are suffering, the true challenges we face, and on real and
pragmatic solutions to make all human lives better.

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

Friday, December 8, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Minnesota Musical Chairs

The imminent (“in coming weeks”) resignation of
Minnesota Senator Al Franken will greatly increase the
volume of a game of political musical chairs in the state’s
2018 election cycle..

The last time a similar circumstance happened in this
northern midwest state was 1978 when both U.S. senate
seats were on the ballot because long-time Democratic
(here called the Democratic-Farmer-Labor or DFL) Senator
Hubert Humphrey had recently died, and the state’s other
senator, Walter Mondale, had been elected vice president
of the United States. The governor’s race that year was
also unusual because the popular incumbent Wendell
Anderson had taken the risky step of having himself
appointed to take Mondale’s place by the former lt.
governor Rudy Perpich (the new governor). At that time,
the DFL dominated Minnesota politics overwhelmingly.
and most observers believed 1978 would be a good DFL
year. Long-time DFL (Minneapolis) Congressman Don
Fraser was expected to win the Humphrey seat (then
temporarily held by his widow Muriel). The first sign of
trouble occurred when Fraser was upset in the DFL
primary by Humphrey pal and moderate businessman
Bob Short who was pro-life and opposed Fraser’s
outspoken environmentalism. The Republicans
chose businessman Dave Durenberger to oppose Short.
Taking on self-appointed Anderson was the GOP national
committeeman and plywood chain owner Rudy Boschwitz.

Angry at Short for defeating the liberal Fraser, many DFL
women now supported Durenberger. Upset with Anderson
for his self-appointment, and for his absenteeism in the
senate (to come back to Minnesota to campaign), many
independents (most of whom usually voted for DFL
candidates) now supported Boschwitz. Nevertheless,
newspaper polls on election eve showed all the DFL
candidates winning handily. But on election night, all of
them lost by a landslide. It became known as the
“Minnesota Massacre.”

The state governorship will be an open race in 2018.
Incumbent Mark Dayton, whose poll numbers have
dropped sharply recently, is retiring. Popular senior U.S.
Senator Amy Kobuchar will be on the ballot. Her poll
numbers remain high. and now presumably, the other
senate seat will be on the ballot.

The race for governor had already begun the game of
musical political chairs in both parties. DFL 1st District
Congressman Tim Walz, State Representative Erin
Murphey, State Auditor Rebecca Otto, State
Representative Paul Thissen, and St. Paul Mayor
Chris Coleman are now in the race, and state Attorney
General Lori Swanson is expected to enter it. These are
all DFLers.

On the GOP side, state legislators Matt Dean and David
Ozmek are candidates, as is recent state party chair
Keith Downey and 2014 nominee Hennepin (Minneapolis)
County Commissioner Jeff Johnson. But waiting in the
wings is former Governor and presidential candidate Tim
Pawlenty who is known to be considering the race, and
could wait until January or February if he decided to run.

The Franken resignation ups the ante for 2018. Governor
Dayton would appoint someone to fill the seat until next
year’s election. That is widely believed to be his loyal
lt. governor, Tina Smith. His presumably better "political"
choices are running for governor, although the appointment
of Mrs. Smith would be well-received, especially by DFL
women. But a new Senator Smith might choose not to run in
2018. That could set off a new round of musical chairs.
Even if she did run, she would likely face a formidable GOP
opponent --- perhaps most likely popular 6th District
Congressman Tom Emmer. (Other prominent Republicans
could also compete for the GOP nomination.)

As in 1978, the DFL had been looking forward to a good year
at the polls, including electing another Democratic governor,
re-electing Senator Klobuchar, and picking up one or two
U.S. house seats from GOP incumbents. DFL strategists also
have been optimistic that Minnesota voter attitudes about
President Trump would help them next year.

Republican best hopes were in picking up the Walz seat,
and successfully defending two of the three seats they now
hold (which are considered vulnerable). The GOP also had
the possibility of picking up the governorship.

Until three weeks ago, the Franken resignation was totally
unexpected.  A second senate race on the ballot in 2018
could turn all expectations upside down.

However upset some DFL voter might be now, most of them
will likely turn out for their nominees next November. The
giant unknown is the damage done to DFL support by
independent and unaffiliated voters in the state (who
comprise almost one-third of all likely voters).

Some pundits have suggested that Franken might rescind his
resignation if controversial Roy Moore is elected in the
special senate election next week in Alabama (and the GOP
senate then fails to expel him), but that would provoke a new
and unpredictable set of reactions among Minnesota voters.

How those voters react to the sudden high volume of political
dissonance, and how they feel (outside the major urban areas)
about President Trump (who remains very popular outstate)
is a big question mark only ten months before election day,
2018 --- forty years after the last big game of Minnesota
political musical chairs.

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

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: The Next Future

There is always a future, but it has the inevitable habit in
our lives of soon enough becoming the past. For several
centuries, this transfer of the future into the past has been
increasing its velocity. Technological revolutions used to
take several generations to take effect and be realized.
Then they took place in a lifetime. Then (amazingly) in a
single generation, or several in one lifetime. We now witness
and  feel the impact of technological change in only a few
years. Soon it will be months. And then, under “artificial
intelligence” machines (robots), probably only days or even
faster.

The institutions of government adapt slowly. Institutions of
business and commerce adapt more rapidly (by necessity)
in our democratic capitalist system.

Although many of our scientists, researchers, analysts and
other technicians deal with this phenomenon in their own
fields all the time, and a few even try to understand its
overall impact, most of us go on with our lives only dimly
aware of the speed of change and how it alters the ways in
which we live.

I am writing this as a suggestion to all of us (myself included)
to take the currents of technological change more consciously.
I write about political and public policy events, usually trying
to examine the immediate and easily foreseeable
consequences of them. We always do have provocative
political personalities, and our own time has not a few of
them --- in our own country and elsewhere. Specific issues of
healthcare, taxes, education, public spending, human rights,
the environment, and other subjects appear and reappear.

My point is that these issues are not accidental. They are in
some way  connected to, and arising from,the whole world,
and our whole country, changing. Is our survival at stake?

We need our diversions. Sports, detective novels, TV sitcoms,
fantasy movies, computer games, hobbies, pets, and other
interests, are (and should be) be part of our lives.

But something is rapidly taking place all around us, and it is
happening with a velocity that has not ever occurred in human
history.

Just saying.

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

Saturday, December 2, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Weekend News Items 2

SENATE PASSES TAX BILL
The U.S. senate has passed major tax cut legislation by a
51-49 margin, All Republicans, except for one, voted for the
bill. Every Democrat voted against it. Tennessee GOP
Senator Bob Corker, who is not running for re-election next
year, voted “no,” but criticized the bill for not being
conservative enough. Earlier, the U.S. house passed a similar
bill, so the legislation will now go to a conference
committee to “iron out” the relatively small differences.
The two bodies will then vote on a final bill, which if it
passes, will go to President Trump for his signing into law.
The senate action ends  a long stalemate over major
legislation that goes back to the years of the Obama
administration. Passage of the tax cut bill represents the
fulfillment of a major GOP election promise made in 2016.
Proponents of the bill, which required much negotiation and
tinkering at the last hour, assert it will significantly boost the
economy almost immediately. Opponents claim it will
increase the deficit. It was ironically an iconic Democratic
president, John F. Kennedy, who advocated a similar tax cut
in 1962, saying, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” That tax cut,
and subsequent tax cuts by Presidents Reagan and George W.
Bush did succeed in improving the nation’s economy.

FLYNN MAKES A PLEA BARGAIN
Former General Michael Flynn, also a former Donald Trump
campaign aide, has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, as part
of the Mueller special prosecution inquiry. He has also
promised to cooperate with the current investigation. Much
“fake news” and speculation arose at Flynn's action, but its
impact on the Mueller inquiry is, in reality, unknown to the
public and the media this time. The stock market took a brief
dive on some of the initial “fake news” --- which a major
network (ABC News) had to retract later in the day.

MORE SENATE CONFIRMATIONS
The U.S. senate, at the direction of Republican Majority
Leader Mitch McConnell, has continued to speed up delayed
confirmations of President Trump’s nominations for the
federal judiciary and for major positions in his
administration which require senate approval. Mr.
McConnell has decided, after some delay, to ignore
individual senator’s “blue slip” vetoes and other stalling
tactics by the Democratic opposition.

RECOGNIZING AN ALLY’S 
CAPITAL CITY?
After promising in the 2016 campaign to move the U.S.
embassy in Tel Aviv to the Israeli capital of Jerusalem,
if he were elected president, Donald Trump delayed the
action after taking office. It was believed he meant it to be a
“bargaining chip” in his also stated intention to bring about
a Middle East settlement. Recent reports, however, indicate
that the administration now intends to make the move soon,
including the possibility that he would keep the embassy in
Tel Aviv for the time being, but formally recognize the
capital is in Jerusalem.

A FUTURIST POLITICIAN?
Breaking the usual political rules of discussing imminent
innovation details in technology, former Minnesota Governor
and 2012 presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty is making
the speaking tour rounds, especially in Minnesota, with
some eye-opening talks about dramatic and significant
changes taking place in science, medicine, and the general
economy --- all of which are already altering the American
workplace and way of life.  Although some of this impact is
shocking and controversial, Mr. Pawlenty’s speeches have
been well-received.

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

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: Incredible Double Lives

I have always been fascinated by those rare and extraordinary
individuals who excel in two entirely different professions,
one of which is often unknown to the public until after their
deaths.

I have written about Morris “Moe” Berg, a Princeton graduate,
polymath, and a major league baseball player for more than a
dozen years in the 1920a and1930s, and who then became a key
spy for the OSS (forerunner of the CIA) during World War II.
At some point, I hope to write about Charles Ives, one of  my
favorite (and one of the greatest) American composers. Ives
also was a top executive and a pioneer in the insurance
industry, and is given credit for the invention of estate planning.
Wallace Stevens was one of the nation’s most important poets,
but throughout his writing career was also a top insurance
company figure and actuary.

There are other examples. In this column, I will tell the story of
two more whose lives were perhaps even more improbable.

Hedy Lamarr was one of the most beautiful and famous movie
stars of the 1930s and 1940s. Born Hedwig Kreisler in Vienna in
1913, she was the daughter of two Jewish refugees (her father
from Russia; her mother from Hungary) who settled in the
vibrant Austro-Hungarian capital and met there. Before she
was 18, young Hedy was a theater and film star. She also soon
married a Viennese munitions tycoon who helped arm the
pre-war European nations, including the budding Nazi groups
in several of them. After the 1930s and the Nazi rise to power
in Europe, however, Ms. Kreisler (now Mandl) had to flee
Austria and her husband (who in spite of his usefulness to the
Nazis was partly Jewish and was now shunned by them) to
emigrate to Hollywood where several directors and movie
moguls knew about her from her acting work in Europe.

In her American films she now became Hedy Lamarr, a huge
box office movie star, and remarried several times. She knew
and hung out with most of the most famous literary, music
and film personalities of her era. But the glamorous actress
had a secret double life.

During her years married to the munitions tycoon Mandl,
she had overheard in dinner conversations about top secret
weapons development in submarine warfare technology,
Although not a typical “intellectual,” Ms. Lamarr had some
remarkable scientific skills, and had for years pursued the
hobby of creating inventions. Now in Hollywood, and
understandably upset by reports of terrible casualties
resulting from German U-boat sinkings, she decided to try
to invent a device to counter the Nazi submarines.

At this point, she met one of America’s most avant-garde and
famous composers, George Antheil.

Like Charles Ives, Antheil had a double life. He also liked to
invent things. He had become a prophet of new music with
his notorious Ballet Mechanique in 1926 which, like Igor
Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” premiere in Paris in 1913,
caused a riot. By 1947, he was rated as one of the most
performed U.S. composers (along with Samuel Barber,
George Gershwin and Aaron Copland). Like so many classical
composers of his era, he was drawn to Hollywood to write
music for films and lot of money. There he met Hedy
Lamarr, and was astonished that she, too, spent her spare
time inventing. Lamarr had sought out Antheil, not because
he was a famous composer, but because he was an expert in
a scientific process she needed to complement a discovery
she had made in submarine warfare technology. Antheil was
also upset by Nazi submarine activities, and the two film
figures secretly began collaborating on a device that would
thwart Nazi U-boat activity. By the early 1940a, they had
succeeded, and applied for a patent which they eventually
received. They also offered their invention to the U.S.
military which initially rejected it. Eventually, the military
bought the patent, but it was largely unused during the war.

After the war, it was rediscovered by technicians and became
known as spread spectrum technology. It is now one of the
most important communictions technologies in use today,
critical to the use of cell phones, wi-fi, and so much more.
It all began with Hedy Lamarr’s idea and her collaboration
with George Antheil.

George Antheil died in 1959, but Hedy Lamarr lived until 2000.
While both of them deserve credit for their invention, Antheil
was always up front about Hedy Lamarr’s creating the first
insight which led to it. Ms. Lamarr retired from films, and
her contribution to science was for many years ignored. In her
80s, however, some scientists and engineers, aware of what
she had done, made efforts to give her the recognition she was
due. In 1997, she was given the Pioneer Award from the
Electronics Frontier Foundation, a Nobel Prize equivalent of
honoring inventors, and other major honors soon followed.

For almost half a century, Hedy Lamarr had been mostly
silent abut her remarkable scientific contribution. She was
obviously a complicated and extraordinary personality. She
kept many secrets. Only after her death, did her children,
and her many film friends and fans, discover that she was
Jewish.


[For those who would like to read more about the lives and
collaboration of Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil, I strongly
recommend Hedy’s Folly by Richard Rhodes, a superb book
which was a major reference work for my article.]


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

Saturday, November 25, 2017

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: A Palace Of Dreams

Andy Warhol, the legendary Rusyn-American founder
of Pop Art, once famously said that everyone, in our
current age, gets (or is entitled to) 15 minutes of fame.

It doesn’t quite happen that way, but he was making a
valid point about the sudden and brief quality of much
celebrity in our own time.

I have a corollary to Warhol’s now-legendary prophecy.
It is that almost everyone (meaning lots of ordinary
persons) can and will have an extraordinary experience
at some time in their lives.

We all well know, from tabloids, films, daytime TV
and innumerable glossy magazines, how the “rich and
famous” live. The affluent homes of a great many
middle class Americans today are filled with lavish
furnishings, world-class kitchens, large spaces, fine art,
architectural amenities and numerous other features
unavailable to all but the very rich in the past. But they
are distinct from a category of multi-million dollar
over-sized dwellings with dozens of bedrooms, bathrooms,
swimming pools, tennis courts, assorted luxury
outbuildings, beaches and docks for private yachts.

I live modestly these days in a comfortable apartment.
I have no desire to live in some great house, but part of
this feeling comes from an experience I once had in my
youth while visiting Mexico.

I grew up in a small city, and in a middle class home. In
Erie, Pennsylvania, I spent the first dozen years of my life
in a three-story brick house built at the turn-of-the-century
and originally owned by my grandparents. It had a
coal-burning furnace in the basement that had been
converted to gas after World War II. The basement had a
laundry room and a windowless pickle cellar that was no
longer used. (I turned this room into a dark room.) The
laundry room had a washer and a dryer, as well as a mangle
(an old-fashioned device for pressing clothes). My brother,
a budding scientist, made a small laboratory/workshop for
himself near the furnace, and a no-longer-used coal bin was
used for family storage.

The other primary storage area in this house was the attic
which was very much like countless other attics in America
except that it had a small sleeping room where a live-in
maid stayed during the years before and just after World
War II.

The first floor had a small living room, a dining room,
a den, a pantry, a small powder room, and the kitchen.

The second floor originally had four small bedrooms, a
large bathroom and an enclosed porch. My grandmother,
who survived my grandfather by two decades, had the
porch converted into her own kitchen, and combined two
bedrooms into her separate living quarters.

By the time I was in high school, we had moved to a
comfortable suburban ranch-styled house with a small
attic, large basement, and all its rooms on one floor.

I mention this because these living quarters were very
typical of those of many Americans. I was used to modest
comfort and nice furnishings, but nothing really out of the
ordinary.

After my undergraduate years, I attended graduate school
in the midwest. I had originally planned to go to law school,
but had been convinced by a well-known writer who had
been a guest teacher at one of my English writing classes
to attend the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa.

One of my first Iowa courses, in world literature, was taught
by the Chilean novelist Jose (“Pepe”) Donoso. Donoso had
moved to Iowa City with his wife Maria Pilar that semester
to teach at the Workshop. He had attended Princeton in his
youth before returning to Chile, and then traveling
throughout South America and Europe. He spoke English
flawlessly, and was a master storyteller and a charismatic
conversationalist.

At the end of the school year, in May, he invited a few of his
students, including myself, to visit him and Maria Pilar at
their rented villa in Guanajuato, Mexico where he was
working on a new novel novel (it became his masterpiece
“The Obscene Bird of Night”).

As it turned out, only two of us who had been invited showed
up in Mexico. That was the year that Greyhound had a special
deal for traveling by bus --- $99  for 99 days anywhere in the
U.S. you wanted to go. So I decided to circumnavigate the U.S.
with a side trip to Mexico.

I arrived in Guanajuato (which translated means “City of
Frogs”) in June, and was warmly welcomed by the
Donosos at their lovely villa in Marfil, an elegant suburb of
the old Mexican colonial capital that was designed by an
expatriate Italian architect Giorgio Belloli. Belloli was
developing in Marfil a group of new villas over the ruins
of a 16th century Spanish hacienda. These villas, each
different, were quite magnificent with large rooms, superb
period furnishings, modern kitchens and bathrooms, and
fabulous gardens each with a swimming pool, hibiscus, palm
trees and other tropical flora.

The villa the Donosos had leased, they told me, was then
owned by the curator of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Other residents included Dirk Hubers, the famed Dutch
potter and his young son, the unmarried heiress of a
Canadian department store chain, a Mexican physician and
his wife, the Hollywood novelist/screenwriter Harry Brown
and his wife, and in the most spectacular villa of them all,
architect Giorgio Belloli and his retinue. For a  small U.S.
city kid like me, this was heady company and high living.
Maria Pilar was a fine cook, and her meals were splendid.
She taught me how to make her dazzling recipe for bananas
flambe, and both Dososos told me about their fascinating
childhoods and glamorous friends all over the world.

When not touring the environs of Guanajuato with Donoso, I
regularly visited the other residents in their villas. The heiress
invited me every Tuesday for afternoon tea and conversation
about art and poetry. Harry Brown, it turned out, had attended
Harvard just before World War II, and then gone to England
where he served in the army and became a protege of T.S.
Eliot. On returning to the U.S. after the war, he wrote the
novel “Island in the Sun” which became a best-seller, and
then he moved to Hollywood where he wrote novels and
screenplays, including “Oceans Eleven” for his pals Frank
Sinatra and the “Ratpack.” Now he lived in Marfil, and
drank a case of Carta Blanca every day in his large office
with bookshelves containing just about every contemporary
novel, play and book of poems. The first time I was there,
he suggested I browse through this library, and I soon
discovered that nearly every book, all first editions (and
including virtually every major writer of the past 30
years in the U.S. and Europe), contained inside a tyoed or
handwritten letter from the author to Harry!  (I am told that
after he died, this incredible library was thrown away!)
Dirk Hubers’ son Maarten was my age, so we spent time
together hanging out and visiting the neighboring towns.

One week, I went to Mexico City, armed with letters of
introduction from Donoso to some of the leading Mexican
writers. One of them was the legendary (and now deceased)
Juan Rulfo with whom I spent an incandescent  and
unforgettable evening in a bar near his apartment.

But the best experience was yet to come.

On returning from Mexico City, it became apparent that my
visit with the Donosos had gone on too long. I was young,
inexperienced, and having such a great time, that I did not
realize that I was overstaying my welcome. Finally, Pepe
took me aside, and told me directly it was time to resume my
travels.

The problem was that I was having such a good time that
I didn’t want to leave Guanajuato. Pepe then promised to
help me find a place to rent, but there were not any low rent
places available at that time in the summer. Perhaps in
desperation to get me out of his villa, Donoso went to one
of his local friends and finally found a place for me.

Actually, it wasn’t just any friend or any “place.” It was
a palace of the fabled Conde de Rul, the 18th century
Spanish nobleman (when Guanajuato was the national
capital), and, as well, one of the principal owners of the
silver and gold mines of Valenciana (a mountain located
next to the city). These mines for many decades produced
not only gold, but more than half the world’s entire
production of silver. For a time (this was before Bill Gates),
the Conde de Rul was one of richest men in the world. He
built two palatial houses in Guanajuato. One was in the city
(and now is a national tourist site that Pope Benedict recently
visited), and the other was on top of the mountain Valenciana
near the silver mines, and across the street from a spectacular
churrigueresco Baroque church (Iglesia San Cayetano) which
he also built. Tourists could not visit this house, which had
remained in private hands. In fact, the owner was Donoso’s
friend (and I believe, a descendant of the Conde de Rul) who
lived in the city, and had become one of Mexico’s greatest
collectors of antiques, He used the house/palace at
Valenciana, with its huge living room, formal dining room,
many bedrooms, mountainside gardens and terraces as one
repository for his great collection of rare paintings, furniture,
one of the finest private collections of early Mexican pottery,
and early European harpsichords.

This mansion came thus fully furnished, with a full-time
maid, cook and gardener. It was like living in a royal palace
with a royal retinue. The cook, a young and cheerful woman
of Aztec heritage, prepared three meals a day for me
with recipes from her great Aztec culinary legacy. Every
morning, seated at a table under an intense sun on a 30-foot
terrace, I was served a delicious breakfast of eggs, filet
mignon or Spanish ham, fresh-squeezed juice, aromatic
fresh tropical fruit, home-made pastries and imported tea.
At several thousand feet, my terrace/balcony overlooked the
whole terrain surrounding Guanajuato, with the mines to my
right. After breakfast, I would catch the hourly bus to the
city, and go to the market to buy the meat and produce
specified by the cook for the day’s later meals. (Prices were
ridiculously low. Even the filet mignon was about sixty
cents a pound. Bacardi Rum was less than a dollar a gallon.
Fresh fruits and vegetables went for pennies.)

The palace itself was built around a large courtyard filled
with banana trees and an ancient well. It had been
constructed in the 18th century on the side of the top of the
mountain. An all-glass shower room faced out into the
valley below. Below the terraces were cultivated gardens.
A small enclosed alley alongside the palace led to a tiny
grotto with fountains of sculpted lions, water pouring
from their mouths over elegant white lilies planted between
the old bricks underneath.

Each bedroom had an antique bed, some with canopies.
Tables, chairs, decorations and chests were all rare antiques.
I slept in a different bedroom every few days. On the walls
was a museum of old paintings.

Aside from the maid, the cook and the gardener, I thought
I was the only person in this palace, but I was wrong.

One late morning, back from the market in Guanajuato,
I returned to my bedroom to discover a tall man, with
a black patch over one eye, and wearing a cape, instructing
the gardener how to dismantle my bed.

I inquired in Spanish who he was,  and he replied,
“No, young man, the question is what are doing here!” It
turned out that my “visitor” was actually Manuel Parra,
one of Mexico’s greatest architects and a friend of the
owner of the villa (Donoso’s friend, and my landlord).

What I had not noticed when I moved into this sprawling
house was another building built adjoined to it, but hidden
from the street. This building was the working studio of
Sr. Parra, and it contained an elegant living room, his
large workroom, a bedroom, a kitchen and a terrace of
its own.

He invited me to dinner at his studio that evening, and
I learned that he had just arrived from his other villa in
Acapulco where he had for a week been entertaining
Jacqueline Kennedy and her two young children Caroline
and John Jr.  Sr. Parra also had a house in Mexico City, and
spent much of his winters in Monte Carlo and on the “jet
set” circuit.

My own huge living room did have a record player, but
the only record I could find was Mendelssohn’s “A
Midsummer’s Night’s Dream
” which I played frequently
at night while I tried to write poems in the room only
lit by candles in wrought iron candlesticks made from old
branding irons. A large oil painting dominated the living
room. It was, I later found out, by the Spanish master
Herrera. My landlord/collector had obtained it, I was told,
while shopping for antique furniture in the rural Mexican
countryside. After purchasing an antique chair, the seller
had given him a piece of old canvas to wrap it in, but when
he removed the canvas back at the palace, he discovered it
was a priceless Herrera!

I did meet some local students at the University of
Guanajuato, and occasionally invited them to the
palace for dinner. The first week I had  some daily
visitors at my door, all tourists from the hourly bus
that brought them from the city to see the mines and the
cathedral, and hoping to see “my” palace. The maid
sternly advised me not to admit anyone.

For about two months I lived in this splendor, not quite
fully believing what was happening, At the end of
August, I had to reluctantly return to the U.S. and the
rest of my trancontinental trip.

I have some slides  I took of the palace, but it is only
when I hear the Mendelssohn piece, that my Mexican
midsummer dream truly returns from my memory.

The palace, a friend who recently visited there tells me,
has now become partly a restaurant. That’s hard to imagine,
but apparently it’s so.  [Update; the restaurant has closed.]

Money could not buy that long ago summer’s
experience at any price today, nor could any residence,
however large and lavish, exceed those magic and halcyon
days and nights in the City of Frogs when I unexpectedly
was a mere young gringo poet who became transformed
briefly into a prince.

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