Happy Milwaukee Day! Celebrating the Beauty of Our Big Small Town

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The Recombobulation Area is an award-winning weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.


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Happy Milwaukee Day, everybody!

What a truly phenomenal holiday. Born in 2010 as a half-joking idea between friends Andy Silverman, Brent Gohde, and Timm Gable, Milwaukee Day has grown over the past decade to become a signature celebration in a city that loves to celebrate. 

And this homegrown holiday really does come at the perfect time. Spring is finally here, the ice and snow has melted, trees and flowers are in bloom, and the glory that is Milwaukee Summer is right around the corner. 

This year, of course, still feels different. The coronavirus pandemic appears to be in its later stages, but it is not yet over. Instead of the festivities we’ve come to expect from this glorious area code-based holiday, the good people running things over at Milwaukee Day HQ are hosting an online shindig with The Cooperage that you should be sure to check out, and there are a bunch more events and happenings taking place around town, virtually and otherwise. 

While the pandemic may be ending, we’re not going back to normal. There is no “back” and there is no semblance of “normal” that remains -- certainly not after the year this city and state has endured. 

But Milwaukee is a resilient town. Crisis has a way of revealing character, and we’ve seen it so many times during this year how this city truly has character. When hospitals from all over the state were overflowing with covid patients, Milwaukee hospitals were there to step up and help. That’s the kind of city this is. 

Soon, we’ll re-emerge, post-vaccination, and begin to enjoy all that this city has to offer. It sure is going to be nice to see everyone again.

Because Milwaukee is a big small town. You can go out pretty much anywhere and there will be a good chance that you’ll see someone you know. Whether it’s at a summer festival or a restaurant or a simple trip to the store, this city is connected in so many ways. It is one of the things that really sets Milwaukee apart and makes it such a special place. Other big cities aren’t like this. There is community in this big small town that doesn’t exist in cities full of transplants. Milwaukee is its own thing, and it’s beautiful.

In the months to come, I hope we all get to enjoy more uniquely Milwaukee experiences more often, and just have the opportunity to see each other again, unexpectedly, through the beauty of our big small town.

So, enjoy today. And be sure to get vaccinated, so we never have to celebrate this way ever again. We can’t wait to see you real soon. 

#414Ever


MILWAUKEE DAY SPECIAL: We’re offering 50% OFF a 1-year subscription to The Recombobulation Area. Your support will help local, independent, reader-backed media continue to grow. Subscribe here


Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.


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Biden's Infrastructure Bill Would Replace Every Lead Pipe in Milwaukee. That's a Big Deal.

Milwaukee has tens of thousands of lead pipes and there’s been no end in sight to the crisis. Until now.

The Recombobulation Area is an award-winning weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

One of Milwaukee’s biggest and seemingly most impossible-to-solve problems has been its lead pipes. The nearly 175-year-old city has about 75,000 of them under the ground, running directly into homes, schools and businesses, requiring an additional filter for people to consume clean drinking water. It is basic infrastructure, it is in a perpetual state of disrepair, and there has been no end in sight.  

Estimates for the cost to replace all of Milwaukee’s lead pipes recently ran as high as $750 million. The city was on a 70-year pace to get that job done, and the pandemic has only slowed things down. It’s not great.

But now, there’s real potential for that to change in a big, big way. 

President Joe Biden unveiled his new infrastructure bill on March 31. Other aspects of the $2 trillion proposal have drawn more attention — new passenger rail lines, rural broadband expansion, green energy initiatives — but the American Jobs Plan sets a goal for so unlike anything we’ve seen. 

“President Biden’s plan will eliminate all lead pipes and service lines in our drinking water systems, improving the health of our country’s children and communities of color,” reads the White House fact sheet on the American Jobs Plan.

It can’t be overstated what this would mean for Milwaukee and cities like it. This is aging, basic infrastructure that is bringing toxins into people’s drinking water. It should no longer exist, period. Lead pipes are particularly hazardous to children and pregnant mothers, and childhood lead exposure has been linked to gun violence later in life. But because we have not had the political will to solve big, difficult problems for the better part of a generation, glaring problems like this one continue to worsen and metastasize into greater and greater crises.  

The scope of the lead pipe problem in this country is truly massive. There are between six and 10 million lead service lines in the United States. The total investment in clean drinking water in Biden’s proposal is $111 billion

With this proposal, the issue could be addressed all at once, and does so in a way that would put people back to work during a time of crisis on an issue that would otherwise have been largely ignored or met with half-measures. 

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It’s important to note that not all larger, older cities in Wisconsin have the same problem with lead pipes. Madison replaced all of their lead pipes in the 2000’s, becoming the first major utility in the nation to do so.

But in Milwaukee, “we’re looking at a problem that’s going to stretch out over decades, not years,” David Strifling, director of the Water Law and Policy Initiative at Marquette University Law School, told me in a 2019 interview

Until Biden’s proposal, the lead pipe crisis was turning out to be another problem without a solution, often for many of the typical Milwaukee and Wisconsin reasons.

At the city level, the problem was ignored and then mismanaged by Mayor Tom Barrett and his administration, leading to the high-profile resignation of longtime health commissioner Bevan Baker in 2018. Some city funding was eventually steered toward the problem and plans were put in place to begin the long process of replacing these pipes while providing some filters in the interim, but at a level nowhere near sufficient to address the issue. With Milwaukee’s finances being what they are, there are limited options to address such an issue without raising new revenue or making major changes to the city budget. 

At the state level, Gov. Tony Evers proposed upwards of $40 million for replacing lead lines as part of his 2019 budget. But that proposal was removed by the Republicans running the state legislature. John Nygren, the now-former co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, nixed the proposal, saying too much money would go to Milwaukee.

He really, actually said that! And Assembly Speaker Robin Vos backed up those comments and the GOP-led state legislature provided no alternative solution. Never mind that the money would have been proportionally distributed to the approximately 200,000 lead lines across the state. Since more than a third of that would be going to the state’s largest, most diverse city — a frequent target of Vos and the GOP’s scorn — it was worth throwing out entirely. It remains perhaps the most telling moment of how post-Walker Wisconsin would operate with Vos at the helm in the Legislature.

A few smaller steps followed. Evers added a new health department position on lead abatement. Legislative Democrats from Milwaukee introduced a standalone bill on lead replacement (which went ignored by the majority), and Vos & Co.’s Water Quality Task Force produced a handful of bills, but predictably, those left little more than a drop for Milwaukee.

In 2020, Milwaukee’s city-level efforts run through the health department were forced to the back burner as the coronavirus pandemic upended the world, and progress stalled. 

Now in 2021, Tony Evers revived many of the proposals removed by Republicans in his 2019 budget — accepting the Medicaid expansion, education funding increases, etc. — but a fresh proposal on lead pipe replacement did not return this time around. It is perhaps the single most glaring absence from the governor’s proposed budget. 

But perhaps there was a sense that federal help was arriving, one way or another. 

As part of the American Rescue Plan — the covid relief bill passed by the Democratic House and Senate and signed by Biden on March 11 — some of the funding for the state of Wisconsin could go toward lead pipe replacement. And funding going directly to the city of Milwaukee could also go toward pipes, and Mayor Barrett said in a recent Milwaukee Courier op-Ed that “lead abatement” (which could also include lead paint removal) would be a priority for those funds.

But none of that is final, and it wouldn’t meet the full scope of the problem the way Biden’s infrastructure bill aims to do.

So now, with the potential for the Democratically-controlled Congress to pass this infrastructure bill, the calculus for the state of Wisconsin and the city of Milwaukee could soon change. This issue could finally gain the federal help necessary to address this seemingly insurmountable problem. 

Milwaukee’s lead pipe crisis could be solved by Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill. Solved, completely (if things break right). When was the last time you saw an impossible problem met with a real solution backed with the funding necessary to actually get it done?

The current estimates to solve Milwaukee’s lead pipe program is $750 million, and that’s less than one percent of the $111 billion total for clean water infrastructure in Biden’s proposal. And based on how some other cities are now repairing lead pipes, the cost could be much less than $750 million. With the federal government’s help — with this bill’s help — solving this problem is doable.

This would be a huge deal for this city, and so many others across the state and across the nation that have lead pipes carrying undrinkable drinking water to the faucet. We should be talking more about it. If this bill passes Congress, Milwaukee will have a brighter, healthier, safer future, free of lead pipes. Wisconsin’s congressional leaders from both parties should throw their support behind this bill.


Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.


Subscribe to The Recombobulation Area newsletter here and follow us on Facebook at @therecombobulationarea.

Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer

The End of the Pandemic in Wisconsin Is In Sight

Buoyed by vaccination success, all of the numbers for coronavirus in Wisconsin are headed in the right direction.

The Recombobulation Area is a weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.


The vaccination timeline has been moved up. Reopening is being accelerated. The emergency facility at State Fair Park is shutting down

We are getting out of this. There’s a new dawn on the horizon. The end of the pandemic in Wisconsin is in sight. 

The success of the vaccines is exceeding expectations, and the Department of Health Services (DHS) said it could now have enough supply to vaccinate 80% of Wisconsinites by the end of June.

“Wouldn’t that be a wonderful 4th of July celebration, to hit 80% community immunity in the state of Wisconsin?” said DHS Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk this week.

That does, in fact, sound wonderful. The reasons for hope are real. 

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Let’s take a look at some of the numbers that show us why.

The 7-day average for new cases in the state of Wisconsin dropped below 400. 

Covid hospitalizations dropped below 200, the lowest they’ve been since the first week of April 2020. They peaked on Nov. 17 at 2,277, with 456 people in the ICU with the deadly virus. 

Daily deaths have finally fallen to a 7-day average of six per day. On Dec. 7, that number was 61.

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Here in Milwaukee County, numbers are falling, too. 

The 7-day average for new cases is down to 64 (as of the last update on March 14). As recently as Jan. 9, that number was 444.

Hospitalizations are lower than at any point since the pandemic began, now at less than three per day. 

Days without covid deaths in Milwaukee County are becoming more and more frequent.

Pockets of the city are going weeks without reporting new covid cases.

We’ve spent so much time looking for ways to endure this immense tragedy over this past year that it almost doesn’t feel right to recognize signs of a breakthrough, but all signs are now pointing to that moment having arrived.

The vaccines are our ticket out of this, and Wisconsin’s successful vaccine rollout appears to be making a real difference.

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Vaccinations in Wisconsin continue on a best-in-the-nation level pace. The state has topped the list of percentage of supply used for much of the last month as the rollout has kicked into high gear across the nation (100 million shots in 58 days!). 

In Wisconsin, nearly 2.5 million doses of the vaccine have already been administered.

Perhaps most incredibly, more than 72% of those over 65 years of age have received at least one shot, and nearly 50% are fully vaccinated

This is truly a remarkable achievement for Tony Evers and the state of Wisconsin. It also speaks to something larger about covid and politics in Wisconsin for the past year.

This is the first time over the course of the pandemic that the Evers administration has had an extended runway to do anything without the Republican-controlled state legislature interfering. And he's achieving best-in-the-nation level success.

It's easy to forget how quickly things happened a year ago. Evers issued the first public health emergency on March 12. Robin Vos, Scott Fitzgerald and the legislature sued Evers to end the public health order on April 21

That was just 40 days. 40 days! That level of impatience seemed rushed at the time and just looks downright ridiculous now.

The first shipment of the vaccine arrived in Wisconsin on Dec. 14. As we all know, things moved slowly at first -- not just here, but everywhere -- but once concerns over supply subsided, the state has been getting shots into arms as fast as any state in the country.

Vaccine eligibility for Wisconsinites age 65 and older began on Jan. 25. That was 56 days ago. 56 days is the longest time of uninterrupted action Evers has seen at any point of this interminable year of obstruction and inaction from the Republicans running the legislature.

It then begs the question: What if this were the case the entire time? How many lives would have been saved? How much better off would our state be had we just let the people we elected to be in charge *actually be in charge*?

The facts don't lie. Given an opportunity for an extended runway to make a difference for the people of Wisconsin at a key moment of the pandemic, Tony Evers is delivering. And then some.

What we’re also seeing as a result of this vaccination success story is how it is also making a difference in the larger covid numbers in Wisconsin. 

In early March, nursing homes reported a 97% decline in new cases since vaccinations began. Those numbers for 65+ Wisconsinites have continued to drop, and are now at the lowest rate among any age group in the state. During the week of March 14, just 155 state residents over 65 tested positive for covid. 

Capping it all off, Wisconsin has had the lowest rate of new cases in the Midwest this past week, to go along with the 10th lowest rate of any state in the nation.

To be sure, things are not perfect. The pandemic is not currently over. People are still dying of this horrible virus every day. And within Wisconsin’s vaccine administration, there are troubling gaps, particularly among people of color who have long been underserved by the health care system — just 9.2% of Black Wisconsinites have received one dose of the vaccine compared to 23.8% of white residents. The hospitalization spike in Michigan is worth monitoring with a close eye. Variants in places like Brazil are troubling. Just because the end is in sight does not mean that this is over. We need to do what we haven’t yet at previous moments of declining cases and finish the job this time. 

But there is no doubt that things are improving, and that good things are happening. The worst, it appears, is behind us.

Soon enough, this pandemic will end in Wisconsin. It is time to start getting excited again. 


Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.


Subscribe to The Recombobulation Area newsletter here and follow us on Facebook at @therecombobulationarea.

Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer

Guest Column by Francesca Hong: “We must be willing to challenge the status quo.”

Newly elected state representative Francesca Hong of Madison shares her vision for an Economic Justice Bill of Rights, which already has the backing of dozens of elected Democrats. 

The Recombobulation Area is a weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

Francesca Hong is a chef and co-owner of Morris Ramen in Madison, and is part of a groundbreaking group of newly elected Democratic state legislators in Wisconsin.

From Dan Shafer:

The freshmen class of Democrats elected to the Wisconsin State Legislature is doing things differently. 

It is often thankless work being in a state legislature’s minority party. That’s especially the case in this state legislature, where Republican leadership often won’t even bring legislation or resolutions from the minority party up for debate at the State Capitol. 

But that doesn’t mean the work stops. And for this group of new legislators, that means putting forth a real vision for Wisconsin, something truly aspirational for the future of a state that so desperately needs the kind of ground-up, paradigm-shifting change these Democrats are working toward.

On March 1, less than two months into their first terms, newly elected state representatives Francesca Hong of Madison and Kristina Shelton of Green Bay introduced “An Economic Justice Bill of Rights for All Wisconsinites.” This was introduced as a collaborative call to action, and has since won the support of dozens of Democrats in the Wisconsin State Legislature who come from all corners of the state (see full list at end). I’d expect that list to grow. 

Wisconsin has a real independent streak when it comes to party politics. There are many in this state who don’t subscribe to the traditional platform of either the Republicans or the Democrats, believing that neither truly delivers for the people of this state. There’s a reason Wisconsin is the swingiest of the swing states. But Wisconsinites should know that this new wave of Democratic legislators is taking a different approach. It’s better to be for something worth working towards than to simply be against the opposing party (as important as that factor often can be in this state). This is something that is genuinely worth working towards.

To further discuss this Economic Justice Bill of Rights, Rep. Francesca Hong has written a guest column for us here at The Recombobulation Area. 

Enjoy.


Ideas that challenge the status quo are always seen as a regression from the norm, a trend away from what is right and what is good. 

My chief of staff, Nada Elmikashfi, said this recently, and it’s something I think about often. Why have we, as a nation, had such a visceral reaction to policies like universal healthcare, universal broadband, or universal 4K? Why are we terrified as policy makers to speak in absolutes? 

It seems that when the status quo is an institutional white supremacy that benefits the rich, that “universality,” or the notion that absolutely everyone deserves equal access to a certain service, becomes the antithesis of that institution. 

Economic, social, and political justice do not serve the status quo, and therefore are labelled with negatives: too radical, too impractical, too socialist, and so on. 

The reality is that our political parties have yet to catch up with the progressiveness that an increasing number of Americans have found themselves identifying with. And yes, the Democratic Party is much further along than the Republicans, but there is still much to be desired. All too often, our knee-jerk reaction as a party is to shy away from truly progressive stances on many issues affecting our less-represented demographics. 

This is one of the reasons why I chose to introduce the Economic Justice Bill of Rights with my fellow colleague Representative Kristina Shelton of the 90th Assembly District. We saw a need for a shift of the status quo to one that catches up to modernity. A reconfiguration of democratic ideals, if you will, to the 21st century. Or perhaps, to what we hope the 21st century can become. 

It is in our lived experiences as working class women, and now as legislators, that we have seen how stagnation is used to obstruct and oppress communities that have been siloed. We have learned, albeit the hard way, that stagnation is the enemy of progressiveness and that in order to do any good we must be willing to challenge the status quo. 

In the words of Henry Drummond in the 1960’s drama, Inherit the Wind: “All motion is relative. Perhaps it is you who have moved away by standing still.”

We cannot stand still, especially now in a global pandemic. So here is what we plan to do:

The time has come for Wisconsin Democrats to start speaking clearly and consistently to the aspirations of our fellow citizens in all their diversity. We must embrace the best of Wisconsin’s progressive past and articulate a clear vision for Wisconsin’s future. This vision must engage our collective imaginations and encourage folks to join us in transforming our state for the better.

Native-born or newly-arrived, we are all heirs to the fundamental American promise and vision of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Aware of the contradictions that have marked and marred that promise, we aim to equitably correct the grave inequalities of racism and sexism that seriously limited this vision, and caused harm.

We have it in our power to recreate and renew a shared vision. To do this, we revive the idea of the Second Bill of Rights — originally advanced by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in January 1944 during another critical moment in American history — while deepening that promise to make it fully equitable and inclusive. 

We propose a modern-day Economic Justice Bill of Rights for All Wisconsinites that proclaims that all Wisconsinites deserve the right to:

  • An equitable, living-income and livelihood

  • A union, public or private, and collective bargaining

  • Affordable and accessible high-quality healthcare

  • Equitable and accessible public education and child care

  • Pollution-free water and a healthy planet

  • High quality, safe housing

  • Reliable, climate-friendly transportation

  • A fair and equitable justice system

  • Life, self-determination, and liberation regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, disability status and age

  • And to live free from fear of racial, religious, and gender oppression(s)

Only when all these rights are actualized, and for every person, can we truly re-establish and better our proud progressive tradition here in Wisconsin. 

In service, 
Francesca Hong 


The Economic Justice Bill of Rights for All Wisconsin is supported by the following Democratic state legislators: Sen. Melissa Agard (Madison), Rep. Jimmy Anderson (Fitchburg), Rep. Samba Baldeh (Madison), Rep. Jill Billings (La Crosse), Rep. Jonathan Brostoff (Milwaukee), Rep. Marisabel Cabrera (Milwaukee), Rep. Sue Conley (Janesville), Rep. Dave Considine (Baraboo), Rep. Dora Drake (Milwaukee), Rep. Steve Doyle (Onalaska), Rep. Jodi Emerson (Eau Claire), Rep Kalan Haywood (Milwaukee), Rep Gary Hebl (Sun Prairie), Rep. Dianne Hesselbein (Middleton), Rep. Gordon Hintz (Oshkosh), Rep. Francesca Hong (Madison), Sen. LaTonya Johnson (Milwaukee), Sen. Chris Larson (Milwaukee), Rep. Tip McGuire (Kenosha), Rep. Tod Ohnstad (Kenosha), Rep. Greta Neubauer (Racine), Rep. Daniel Riemer (Milwaukee), Sen. Kelda Roys (Madison), Rep. Christine Sinicki (Milwaukee), Rep. Kristina Shelton (Green Bay), Sen. Jeff Smith (Eau Claire), Rep. Shelia Stubbs (Madison), Rep. Lee Snodgrass (Appleton), Rep. Mark Spreitzer (Beloit), Rep. Robyn Vining (Wauwatosa), Rep. Don Vruwink (Milton), and Sen. Robert Wirch (Kenosha). 

Read more about the Economic Justice Bill of Rights for All Wisconsinites here.


The Recombobulation Area is the winner of three Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Wisconsin Journalism Awards, including for Best Column.

Subscribe to The Recombobulation Area newsletter here and follow us on Facebook at @therecombobulationarea.

Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer

The Recombobulation Area Wins Three Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Wisconsin Journalism Awards

You are now reading an award-winning opinion column!

The Recombobulation Area is a weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.


Greetings, readers!

We have some news: The Recombobulation Area has won three Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Wisconsin Journalism Awards.

The Milwaukee Press Club today announced finalists for its 91st Annual competition. Each finalist will win a gold, silver or bronze award, so we are guaranteed to come home with some hardware. 

The three awards are: Best Column (Writing), Best Single Editorial, Statement of Editorial Position or Opinion (Writing), and Best Column (Online). 

The Best Single Editorial award is for this column: ‘Wisconsin Is Now the Epicenter for Coronavirus in America.’

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This is a pretty big deal for us here at The Recombobulation Area. When we launched this project, we said we would start small, start independently, and build one piece at a time. As an independently produced publication, this is a really nice piece to add as we continue to build.

I keep saying “we” because this is truly a team effort. It starts with my family. My wife and daughters (pictured above) bring me unending support for this project, even if it means I’m sleepy and stressed after a long night of writing. They are the true source of inspiration for The Recombobulation Area, and not a single column would be a reality without them (especially my wife, Katie, the column’s true editor). My sister and brother have backed this effort every step of the way. Close friends and supporters have been crucial to this project’s success. These columns may have one name on the byline, but this is far from a solo project. This is a big win for all of us, and I am endlessly grateful to the team that makes this happen. 

Finally, this would not be possible without you. This publication is funded entirely by readers, and we have the very best readers here at The Recombobulation Area. To the thousands of you who back this project: Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Your support means the world, and that support is making a real difference in bringing something new (and award-winning!) to the media landscape of Milwaukee and Wisconsin. 

We’ve got something good here, folks. Let’s keep it going. 

With endless gratitude,
Dan


Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.


Subscribe to The Recombobulation Area newsletter here and follow us on Facebook at @therecombobulationarea.

Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer

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