Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Flashback 1918: When flu stalked Chicago

Chicago city workers receive their masks

      Occasionally, despite my best efforts to avoid them, I'll catch a whiff of Fox-befouled yokel who bobs to the top of the social media cesspool and declares that the coronavirus is "only the flu." Which is double idiocy because a) it's not; and b) the flu was even worse. In 1918, it slew more than World War I, as I laid out in 1998, on the 80th anniversary of it gripping Chicago. Some of the insanity back then will be sadly familiar today. 

     Shortly after noon on Oct. 1, 1918, the entire Chicago street cleaning department gathered at the foot of Randolph Street, where they were handed white paper masks and ordered to wear them while they worked.
     So began the deadliest month of the deadliest epidemic Chicago and the nation has seen this century. Eighty years have passed, but we are still feeling the repercussions of the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, as scientists search for the virus responsible and epidemiologists worry that the world is as vulnerable now to a killer flu bug as it was then.
     The Spanish flu (actually a misnomer; it seems to have started in the United States) roared to life in spring 1918, did its worst damage over the next few months, and was gone by the end of summer 1919. It was truly a global epidemic: Samoan Islanders and Inuit Eskimos were both devastated by the disease. Conservative estimates place worldwide deaths at 51 million people, 12 million of them in India. Twenty-eight percent of Americans caught the flu, and 550,000 of them died. Nearly 200,000 people died in the United States in the month of October.

     In Chicago, the crisis tended to be overshadowed by the celebration of the end of World War I. Caught up in that excitement, Chicagoans were slow to grasp the impact of the Spanish flu, though it extracted a far greater toll than the war. In the United States, the flu toll was five times higher than the war toll. Greater, in fact, than all U.S. military deaths in the 20th century.
     The flu was first detected here Sept. 25 at the Great Lakes Naval Base and spread to the general population with stunning ferocity. In a week, 50 people a day were dying in Chicago and in two weeks 100 a day were dying.
     At least 100,000 Chicagoans fell ill. Hundreds of telephone company operators were bedridden, so many that the company asked the public to place fewer calls. Half the nurses in Chicago were sick, and appeals for medical help from as far away as Salem, Mass., were turned down.
     By the middle of the first week of October, the board of health instructed police to arrest people spitting in the street or sneezing without covering their mouths. The first offense got a warning; the second, a $1 fine.
     The northern suburbs were particularly hard hit. In Winnetka and Glencoe, military guards patrolled, "breaking up gatherings on the streets and urging citizens to remain in their homes as much as possible." North suburban schools, theaters and churches were closed, and attendance at funerals was limited to immediate families.
     As the epidemic worsened, city and state leaders, conferring at the Sherman Hotel, struggled to form a plan. They knew the disease passed through the air, and they considered closing Chicago schools, churches and places of public gatherings.
     But they didn't do it. When they requested that churches close voluntarily, religious leaders refused. The fear was that closing the schools would send children pouring into the streets, to spread the virus more quickly. So students attended classes in their overcoats, all the windows open to admit healthful air (which was considered so beneficial that, even before the flu, 700 Chicago children attended "Fresh Air Schools" that met outside).
     Streetcar windows and doors were also kept open; when chilly passengers closed them, officials nailed the doors and windows open.
     Still the plague advanced. The medical establishment, already strained by the war, was quickly swamped. Hotels were converted to hospitals, as was the Indian Hill Golf Club, its nursing staff made up of society women.
     Midway through the lethal month, Daily News columnist Frank Crane weighed in with his opinion: The Spanish flu was a fad, possibly a delusion, certainly no different from bugs of the 1890s, and "if we all take reasonable care of ourselves and by simple rules of health fortify ourselves against bad colds we shall not be in serious danger." The next day, 317 people died in Chicago of the flu.
     Efforts to stop the spread of the disease were remarkably haphazard. Taverns were kept open, but political meetings were banned—the election of 1918 was called "the speechless campaign." In the middle of the crisis, with hundreds dying every day, the city held a gigantic liberty loan parade through the Loop, the streets "jammed to the point of suffocation with cheering crowds."
     Police, however, were instructed to arrest parade goers who spat, and the city health commissioner warned those watching the parade "not to expose themselves to any chills."
     The city closed the theaters for 2 1/2 weeks. Hard-working actors found themselves suddenly stranded with time on their hands. Actor Tyrone Power Sr., whose son, Tyrone Jr., later became a film star, spent his idle time "tramping from one end of the city to the other" -- hiking was a fad at the time.
     Chicagoans, accustomed to going out, turned to other pursuits. The Chicago Public Library reported a 50 percent jump in book circulation. Mrs. Samuel T. Chase reported that society folk were "getting acquainted with their own families."
     The death toll peaked Oct. 17, when 520 people died. Many were among the poorest classes, who could not afford medical care. Charitable institutions, going door-to-door, found entire families sick, delirious and uncared for.
     Minds snapped. Even though the flu was fatal in only about 2 percent of the cases, it was seen as a death sentence. After his family became sick, Pater Marrazzo, a laborer living on South Morgan Street, cut his own throat and the throats of his wife and four children. Only he survived.
     Businesses were quick to try to cash in. All manner of nostrums advertised themselves as helpful against the flu, from Gude's Pepto-Mangan ("Fortify your body against Spanish Influenza") to Smo-ko Tobaccoless Cigarettes ("Influenza Germ Killer"). Something called Ely's Cream Balm advised "Cream Applied in Nostrils May Prevent Spanish Influenza."
      Even public health officials tended to intersperse practical advice with bunkum. "Wet feet will make you an easy victim of the 'flu,' Mr. and Mrs. Individual," warned John Hill Robertson, the city health commissioner.
     Toward the end of the month, the daily death toll began to fall. In November, the rate of infection and death dropped dramatically.
     By then the theaters had reopened, though a new act was added to every stage: a two-minute address by a city health department official on the subject of "How to Escape the Influenza."

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 18, 1998

Monday, March 30, 2020

Happiness is spread as easily as any virus

Josefina Olivo at home
     "The first thing that the plague brought to our fellow citizens was exile,” Albert Camus writes in his novel, "The Plague." That, and “being separated from a loved one… the greatest agony of that long period of exile.” 
     Which is why, even with everything going on, the little sidewalk celebrations that have been popping up everywhere are still noteworthy. They might not be as key as social distancing and hand washing. But they are still important—Camus thought such kindnesses were essential: “It may seem a ridiculous idea," he writes, "but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”

     ”Abre la puerta!” said Josefina Olivo, seeing her family line the sidewalk in front of her house on West 58th Street. Open the door.
     ”No abre la puerta,” her son gently cautioned. Don’t open the door.
     It was March 20, Olivo’s 95th birthday. Five years ago her big family — she has five children, 19 grandchildren, 29 great-grandchildren — threw a big party for her at a fancy restaurant, with purple balloons, her favorite color.

      Now in the time of coronavirus, the woman referred to as “our matriarch” by her family stood in a purple dress — one granddaughter calls her “Lil Petunia” — and was serenaded with music and signs. She waved.
    Life has a habit of plucking away our joys even in the best of times. It was hard enough for Olivo, then in her late 80s, to stop making 20 lamb cakes every Easter — a tradition she borrowed from a Polish friend in the West Loop bindery where they worked. Pressed by her family — baking took three full days — she cut back to only 10 “los borreguitos,” or little lambs. Now she can’t even hug her grandchildren.
      Still, everyone is free to spread joy, even during a plague. With all the worries about contamination, jobs, supplies, social distancing, it should be noted that people also take time to brighten the days of loved ones, or even complete strangers.

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

"You must read, you must persevere"

Scene from Decameron (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
    Facebook gets a lot of grief, but I find it helpful. Not only do you see the news stories your friends are tossing up, with a cry of alarm, increasingly nowadays, but also sharing warm and encouraging human moments—some choice ones that I solicited are the basis for my Monday column.
     On Friday I was tired, so rather than read, I began listening to a new book on Audible. Well, not a new book—it's The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, completed in 1353. I would have never thought to read it, but was reminded of it, on Facebook, by my friend Michelle Durpetti, which just goes to show that running a steakhouse and being well-read are not mutually exclusive.  
     This was her post Friday at 8:07 a.m.:
”You must read, you must persevere, you must sit up nights, you must inquire, and exert the utmost power of your mind. If one way does not lead to the desired meaning, take another; if obstacles arise, then still another; until, if your strength holds out, you will find that clear which at first looked dark... —Giovanni Boccaccio
     I have had the privilege of reading this twice in English and three times in Italian. Looking for a truly special read, especially now?
     Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron was the first great masterpiece of European storytelling.
     In the summer of 1348, with the plague ravaging Florence, ten young men and women take refuge in the countryside, where they entertain themselves with tales of love, death, and corruption, featuring a host of characters, from lascivious clergymen and mad kings to devious lovers and false miracle-makers. Named after the Greek for “ten days,” Boccaccio’s book of stories draws on ancient mythology, contemporary history, and everyday life.
      That was good enough for me. I probably should wait until I'm done—28 hours of listening on Audible—and make my report, but frankly I don't see the need for delay. The Decameron is laugh-out loud funny—particularly the second story, where two Parisian merchants are friends, one Giannotto di Civignì, a 'thoroughly honest, upright man," a cloth merchant, who "entertained a singular friendship" with a wealthy Jew, Abraham, who was also a very good man. 
    Giannotto feels distressed that Abraham should be consigned to hell "for not possessing the faith, so he took to urging him in friendly fashion to forsake the errors of the Jewish faith and turn instead to the truth of Christianity."
    The Jew "remains obstinate and would not be converted." Giannotto perseveres in his efforts. Eventually he wears Abraham down, and he says that yes, he will convert. But first he wants to go to Rome and see the man Giannotto calls "the vicar of God on earth."
   "I wish to acquaint myself to his style of living and that of his brother cardinals," says Abraham.
    This news devastates Giannotto, who suspects that a visit to the Vatican would sour the strongest believer. "All my efforts gone to waste," he broods. "If he goes to the Court of Rome and observes the impious and disgusting lifestyle of the clergy, far from turning to Christianity from Judaism, he'd revert to being a Jew if he'd already turned Christian."
    But Abraham persists, as Jews tend to do, goes to Rome, where he sees the utter corruption of the papal authority.
     "Every one of them from the greatest to the least was given over to the worst sort of lechery. Not merely the kind which accorded with nature, but also that practiced by sodomites. They did so, moreover, without a scrap of shame or conscience, and the courtesans and pretty boys could ask the earth in exchange for their favors. Aside from their lechery, they were one and all gluttons, he discovered, topers forever at the bottle and like brute beasts more concerned with stuffing their paunches than anything else. On further scrutiny he found that they were all so grasping and money grubbing that they would buy and sell human, nay Christian, blood,  and by the same token sacred objects of whatever sort."
      There's more, but you get the idea. That brought a smile, to remember that while we consider ourselves apostates for questioning our religious leaders, that tradition goes way back, dwelling at the heart of our culture.
      But that wasn't the laugh-out-loud part. The truly funny moment is Abraham's conclusion. 
     "A sober and temperate man," he surveys the corruption and debauch, "grieves not a little," and returns to Paris. 
     "What an unspeakable lot," Abraham tells his friend all about it, not only the lack of the smallest degree of holiness or mercy, but also "lust, greed, gluttony, deceit, envy arrogance, and worse." 
    The Holy See, he continues, seems to be putting all their effort and skill in expunging the Christian religion rather than preserving it.  Then Abraham reaches a surprising conclusion.
     Despite the best efforts of its leadership, he observes, Christianity "continues to spread and acquire ever brighter radiance. I think I'm right to see the Holy spirit at work in it."
     In other words: only the direct intercession of God Almighty and His continuing favor could bring success to a religion otherwise so thoroughly undermined by the evil of its leaders. Abraham declares "nothing will stop" him from joining such a mighty faith.
    "Let us go to church and have me baptized," Abraham insists. Together they proceed to Notre Dame. Giannotto is his godfather.

You can learn more about the version I'm listening to on Audible here. 


Saturday, March 28, 2020


    When the butterfly-shaped Rush University Medical Center opened in 2012 on the near West Side, I took a tour. I'm not sure why; they must have invited me, and I went, having a professional interest in hospitals. I've been inside most hospitals in the city, and watched surgical procedures at quite a few of them.
     Eight years later I only remember one thing about the tour, because I've repeated it over the years, as an interesting factoid. That the lobby of Rush is cleverly designed to be turned into a field hospital, with oxygen outlets and power sources hidden in the pillars for instance, so that should disaster strike the city, they could immediately fill the place with beds and start treating a large number of patients in the large space.
     What kind of a disaster could that be? I mused at the time. A 9/11 attack of some sorts. I tried to wrap my head around the possibilities, but gave up. I really couldn't.
     Now we know. On March 11, the hospital announced it's going into "Surge Mode," "as preparations for a potential sharp increase in patients with COVID-19 move into a new phase." Since much of the hospital is designed to handle airborne infectious disease—their emergency room bays have doors, for instance, instead of the usual curtains, and whole wards can be negatively pressurized to keep contaminated air from leaking out—the lobby ward will be used to handle non-COVID-19 cases, to free up hospital space for those battling the virus.
     Maybe because eight years ago it seems such a distant, improbable, end-of-the-world possibility, that it gave me an extra jolt this week to realize that the long-planned for calamity is upon us now, and as of Friday Rush is now ramping up their lobby field hospital for the very worst, which might arrive within the next few weeks.

Friday, March 27, 2020

The cost of lies; coronavirus death toll could top Vietnam

     The Vietnam War raged for the first 15 years of my life. I’d sprawl coloring as Uncle Walt read the death toll on TV. When I was older, the war became my benchmark for presidential folly: sacrificing thousands of American lives to avoid admitting the obvious: We lost.
     During the first three years of the Trump administration, I kept pulling out Vietnam like a talisman. Sure, things are bad, but look: They’ve been much worse. We’re lucky.
     When fellow Dems swooned, wailing that we’d reached rock bottom — America broken, democracy dead — I’d try to cheer them up by dangling my lucky token. See this? Within our lifetime Lyndon B. Johnson — a Democratic president, for those unfamiliar — also lied, followed by Richard Nixon, a Republican, and their lies led to the deaths of 58,000 Americans. While Trump is certainly affecting lives, he isn’t taking many. There isn’t a growing body count to lay at his feet.
     I didn’t think to add: “Yet.”
     Citing the awful past was a way to feel good about the present, about our beloved country even as it enshrined idiocy and error. We’ve been here before and recovered. We will do so again.
     That seems like giddy optimism now that we are facing a crisis that Donald Trump can’t lie away. We have no idea how many American lives will be sacrificed on the altar of his ego. A thousand? We’ve passed that already. Ten thousand could be dead next week. A hundred thousand? Easily. A million? Some epidemic experts fear more, warning that as many as 1.7 million Americans could die if we continue bungling our response. The final figure will depend in part on whether Trump really declares the crisis over in mid-April and sends Americans packing their churches at Easter.

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Dry dock

     My father was a sailor. He often entertained me as a boy with tales of the sea, of adventures in exotic ports: Bermuda, Oslo, Copenhagen, Majorca, Naples, Venice. His voyages at sea were only 10 years in the past and still tangible to us both: I played with the shoulder boards from his uniform, worked the knob on his shortwave, tapped his telegraph key. Dah-dah-dah, dit dit dit, dah dah dah.
     He'd also talk about the more practical aspects of sailing, how ships would have to be occasionally hauled out of the water and repainted, the barnacles scraped from their sides.
     "If you can figure out a way to keep barnacles off ships," he say, "you'll make a fortune." And I'd grab a crayon and a pad of paper and design systems for peeling the tenacious little crustaceans off the hulls of my triangular vessels, with scrapers and nets and such. It passed the time.
     I thought of dry dock Wednesday, passing the Landmark Inn, Northbrook's downtown bar. They were taking advantage of this enforced idleness to replace their old deck—why not? No worry about customers blundering into the work, and a way to keep busy, not to mention a vote of confidence in the future. We'll need the deck by summer.
      With our 24 hour, global economy, we've lost the natural rhythm of voyage and port, work and repair, sailors and farmers. We don't spend the winter mending nets and sharpening plows. I don't want to romanticize that life, a hard life, I imagine, but there were fallow times when everything shut down and you did repairs and carved scrimshaw and told stories, resting and waiting.
    We are in such a time now.
    So we wash our hands and swab questionable surfaces with antiseptic wipes, keep track of The Situation and monitor The Crisis , which feels, to me, as if it is just beginning, rather than just ending, as the president imagines and would like us to believe. I'd say come Easter he'll look like a fool, but he looks like a fool now, to those with eyes to see.
    While hunkered down—I'm going to prepare a post on that word, "hunker," I've been hearing it so much—waiting out the storm, listening to the wind pick up, there is only so much news you can absorb—I haven't watched a second of the president's endless propaganda sessions, some reaching 90 minutes, rants that edge into Castro territory. Just seeing the aftershocks through social media is enough. Why gaze directly at it?
      "Teach us to care, and not to care," T.S. Eliot writes. "Teach us to sit still."
      I like the idea of dry dock, of off-season and hibernation. We are instructed to keep to our homes, and I largely do that, with breaks to walk the dog and, today, to walk one of the lovely Dominican Republic cigars my son brought me—save your lectures.
    Yes, it's scary. Only a fool wouldn't be scared, and we see those aplenty. My gut tells me they will be scared too, eventually, as understanding dawns, too late, gasping for air in the parking lot of a besieged hospital.
     Before that sets in, we are all suddenly rich in time. Why not use it, best we can? The temperature hit the 50s today and I went outside and put on my elk skin linesman's gloves and started to finish clearing out the garden, a task I abandoned last October.  I don't have an expanse of hull to scrape, but there are leaves to rake and branches to clear, a winter's worth of trash that has blown into the woods alongside my yard to be picked up. There are things to do in every household, and why not pull yourself away from this social media thing and do them? That's an order.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

‘It hurts’ — Food pantries shut by coronavirus crisis

Homeless men crowd around Night Ministry worker handing out toiletries, 2016.

     It isn’t just restaurants and bars, museums and stores.
     Organizations that provide food to the poorest and most vulnerable Illinoisans are shutting down in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Other social service agencies, like homeless shelters, are struggling to adjust.
     In the past two weeks, 112 Chicago-area food pantries have closed; 82 in Cook County — almost a quarter of the 370 food pantries served by the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
     “The number is shocking” said Greg Trotter, spokesman for depository. “It hurts and it has an impact.” 
     In the 13 collar counties, another 30 food pantries closed in the past week, according to the Northern Illinois Food Bank, mostly because those who run them don’t want to risk exposure to COVID-19.   
     “Our pantries largely rely upon the help from volunteers, and a lot of our volunteers tend to be older folks, seniors who have time to spare,” said Liz Gartman, communications manager for the food bank. ”Many of those same folks are taking health precautions very seriously, as they should, so they don’t feel comfortable coming in.”

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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Fuck You Monster: I'm Not Afraid of You.

     I very rarely welcome a guest writer to the blog. But then Tony Fitzpatrick is no ordinary jamoke. Extraordinary in so many regards, he's the most Chicago guy I've ever met (and I've met Studs Terkel, Mike Royko and Saul Bellow). A fantastic artist, star of stage and screen, both movies and TV—he was great as Jack Birdbath in the recent Amazon series, "Patriot." I consider myself lucky to have spent as many hours as I have in his company, lucky to call him friend and hang his art on my walls. Monday was a very full day tracking down a hard news story—rare for me, I know—that will be, I believe, fairly eye catching when it hits the paper on Wednesday. To keep you groundlings happy in the meantime, I asked Tony if I could reprint this essay he posted on Facebook, and he graciously agreed:

This is an essay I wrote on the 7th day of the Coronavirus crisis in Chicago:

     Walking through Humboldt park on Wednesday, I sat down on a bench after a loop around the Boathouse and the Bird Sanctuary part of the park. I'd been trying to keep from freaking out about the enormous changes in our world manifested in the last week. I quit my health club because of expenses and shuttered both of the galleries.As I sat there I realized that they might never re-open. That walking this park in the morning would be the new normal; and this was more than okay.
     For the first time since this whole mess started. I was somewhere ... Quiet. There was Green—trees grasses, marsh weeds , and water. It was the stillness of solitude. I needed to think and this was a place to do it. I looked at the Water and saw Canadian Geese, Mallards, and Wood Ducks; and around me in the park I'd noticed Robins, Red Winged Blackbirds and Grackles as well as copious Gulls.This place was perfect for all I had to think about which was how to remain calm.How to accept what I could not change. How to go forward with the sometimes arduous business of living one day at a time and being grateful for it.
I grew up watching Monster Movies as a kid: Giant Gila Monster, Creature From the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein, Willard (bunch of Rats eat Earnest Borgnine),The Abominable Dr. Phibes. You name it--I saw every gruesome mutation the movie racket could concoct in the relatively naive age of 1960's America-- where there were plenty of societal horrors, wars and assassinations-- but THOSE were too real. Those were things one heard on the news.      

     Those were somebody else's Monsters. Mine were out of the Comics—Creepy, Eerie, and pulp novels. The one that scared the shit out of me was "I am Legion" by Richard Mathissen it became an equally scary movie with Charlton Heston and Anthony Zerbe. Heston plays the last man alive, or so he thinks, he is holed up in a building in what I think is Downtown L.A. or SanFrancisco, not sure which; and he is surrounded by an Army of Zombie-Like mutants who can only come out at night.Led by the amazing Zerbe (an underrated character actor his whole life) who plays a former news anchor gone mad after becoming a mutant from an unnamed plague.
     That was the truly frightening part—the Un-named plague. The one that wiped most of humanity out and made the rest into mindless fanatical Zombies who practice some inane religion. Led by a psychologically stunted leering Madman. Actually ?—A lot like Trump voters. I would SAY that—but Zerbe's Mathias is infinitely smarter and more likable than Trump—which is still to say: Not at all. The real monster is the plague itself—Heston survives it because he is injured while bringing the vaccine for this back to America—he injects himself—and he is cured. This , by the way, in NO way portends a happy ending.
I could not stop thinking of this movie while walking an empty Park yesterday—while able to hear every sound of every bird in that park. It centered me --I sat down and was able to cobble together something like a plan B. I was also able to accept that life was changing in a tidal way. That nothing that comes after this; If I live through it, will be the same. I'm 61 years old-- I've lived longer than anyone ever thought I would . I've been lucky in my life, my wife and kids, my work,I've got no complaints.
     While this thing descends upon us I'm going to try to be the best version of human that I can be. I make sense of the world by making pictures about it . One of the things or devices I relied on. as a kid was drawing giant creatures taking revenge on us—Lizards, Locusts, Eagles, Cicadas, and Wolves. All of them opening giant cans of Whoop-Ass on whichever segment of humanity I thought needed a good Ass-Kicking that day...Mostly? ...It was Nuns and Christian Brothers-- who took turns playing tether-ball with my head as a kid. Hell—I learned how to throw a left-hook from a Nun--she would pretend she was going to smack me with her right hand?...then?... she would hammer me with her left.I made a note to myself:         
In case of a rematch? Punch the Nun FIRST...
     These drawings were great fun . They allowed me to get a little Karmic revenge on the Nuns, Teachers, Cops ,and anyone else I considered a pain in the ass who ought to mind their own fucking business.
     This Drawing is a bit like that. It's a way of saying: "Fuck You Monster—I'm not afraid of You". The only thing I know about the coming days is that we have the best weapon known to mankind. We have each other.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Toilet paper gives strength to face crisis

     As the COVID-19 global pandemic unfolds, and the confusing whir of current events slowly gives way to the certainties of history, one question will echo down the years, fascinating scholars yet unborn:
     What was the deal with toilet paper?
     With a deadly plague spreading everywhere, consumers stripped stores, not of batteries or booze, coffee or toothpaste.
     But toilet paper. In enormous, cart-filling mega-packs.
     And not just in the United States. Australian media described a toilet paper “frenzy” where shoppers pulled knives on each other. In Hong Kong, armed robbers stole pallets of TP. Shelves were stripped in Singapore and Taiwan.
     Journalists quizzed those buying the paper for their perspective.
     “If everyone’s doing it, I’m doing it, too,” one Sydney shopper reasoned.
     The world seemed divided into people either loading up on what was called “therapeutic paper” when it was first patented in 1857, or condemning those who did so for panicking.
     It struck me there had to be a third path to understanding. There had to be someone wise. Someone oracular. Someone who knows toilet paper.
     “It has been a crazy couple of weeks as related to toilet paper purchasing,” said Kim Sackey. She is consumer knowledge leader at Georgia-Pacific and was speaking from the global headquarters in Atlanta of one of the world’s leading manufacturers of what the company demurely calls “bath tissue.”

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

As colon cancer rises among the young, NU doctors use old tool in a new way

     I wrote this a couple weeks ago, and it got held,  first to find space in the paper, second by all the news regarding the coronavirus. While there is nothing in it about the epidemic riveting our attention, I do think there is a message here that is valuable to anyone facing any kind of dire situation.

     Sometimes fate hits you with both barrels, the good and the bad in one life-altering blast.
     In August 2017, Shannon Harrity found out she was pregnant. Two days later, her husband Sean O’Reilly learned he had metastatic cancer. It had started years earlier in his colon, then spread to his liver.
     O’Reilly’s previous doctors had puzzled over his stomach problems, his bloody stools. Maybe hemorrhoids, they speculated. He was so young — in his late 30s. Too young to bother with a colonoscopy. Too young to worry about what the NU doctors found — spreading colon cancer, Stage 4.
     “You hear the ‘C-word,’ and you think it’s over, you’re dead,” O’Reilly says. “There is no Stage 5. You’re six feet under the ground.”
     Chemotherapy started two weeks later. In a second irony, while he was back at Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center for his first chemotherapy session, as the virulent chemicals were dripping into his veins, his wife was across the street at Northwestern’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, learning she was carrying twins.
     How does a couple respond to this kind of one-two punch?
     “Happy but devastated,” says O’Reilly, an analyst for the federal government.
     “A lot of life changes in very little time,” says Harrity, who works in human resources for a consulting company. “We were definitely overwhelmed.”
     Even his doctors were moved.
     “Emotional for all of us,” says Dr. Ryan Merkow, O’Reilly’s surgical oncologist. “It had a big impact.”
     O’Reilly was 39 when he learned he had cancer, making him part of a new development doctors have identified but don’t yet fully understand. Colon cancer is down among older Americans — those over 50 — but up sharply among the young, jumping by 20%.
     “We’re definitely seeing a trend here,” says Dr. Mary F. Mulcahy, O’Reilly’s medical oncologist. “Reports from across the United States show it is on the rise in people less than 50, on the decline in every other age group.”
     Nobody knows why.

To continue reading, click here.

Sean O'Reilly holding an example of the hepatic liver artery infusion pump helping him fight colon cancer.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Full house

     When the boys went away to college, my wife and I discussed downsizing, moving to a smaller place, maybe two bedrooms in the city.
     That conversation lasted about 30 seconds.
     Because we love the old place, and the neighbors, and moving is such an enormous chore.
     "We moved here for a reason," I'd say, alluding to the schools. "Let's move somewhere else for a reason too." That sounded like logic. Then I'd pause, and add another thought, to seal the argument. "And you never know. The boys could end up back at home."
     That was meant as an improbability. Almost a joke. A little light flourish at the end of a conversation. That wasn't happening. We didn't really expect them back in their old bedrooms, still painted the same aqua that welcomed them when they were 3 and 4.
     But back they are. As of yesterday. With both law schools shifted to remote classes, and one campus emptying out, while the other, New York City, perhaps not the place to ride out a pandemic of unknown scope, return to the heretofore empty nest suddenly seemed prudent. If they don't come back now, I cautioned, coming back later might be more difficult. "You could end up having to walk back from Virginia" I told the younger boy. Air travel still works, for the moment, let's use it. Without coordinating their plans, they arrived at O'Hare within 10 minutes of each other Friday afternoon. I went outdoors to collect them. Normally I'd park and go into the terminal get them—less stress and at $2 to park for 30 minutes, the best deal in the city. But now my wife forbade me from setting foot inside O'Hare. Infection. A changed world. So I pulled over to Terminal 3 and they hopped in.
     I won't lie. I am happy to have my sons home. The younger boy brought his kitten, now almost a cat. The older brought me cigars from his recent travels. "Corona," he pointed out dryly. I nodded, missing the joke completely. Ah. Sorry. Old, slow on the uptake. Corona...like the disease. Good one. That's one of the wonderful things about kids. They keep you on your toes.
     Happy to have them. At least on Day One. Happy to be on my toes, while understanding that happiness at a practical measure taking during a global crisis is perhaps wrong and bound to be fleeting anyway. My wife is already working in a corner of the living room. They'll be upstairs, attending classes remotely and editing law reviews, in bedrooms flanking mine. We'll all be trying not to get in each other's way. Serenity will be a flickering ember we'll all have to puff on to keep lit.
     The first family dinner went well—not in the kitchen, where it would usually be, but in the dining room, the better to spread out and encourage social distancing. The legality of J.B. Pritzker's order for people to stay in their homes was critiqued, and various other practical steps discussed. Then the younger one said, "You should get a gun, dad."
     "That's right," the older chimed in. "You should get a gun."
     I couldn't tell if they were joking or not. They didn't seem to be joking. Too many zombie movies. I have my second FOID card—they expire every 10 years. We'd all gone shooting a couple times, but I hadn't pegged them as gun fans.
     "What would I need a gun for?" I asked.
     "To stop looting," one said.
     "To stop looting by who?" I wondered.
     "To stop looting by whom?" the older one corrected. "Just because the laws of society are crumbling doesn't mean the laws of grammar have to."
     Actually, those two developments usually go hand-in-hand. I didn't say that. Nor did I get annoyed; trying not to be annoyed with each other is, if not as important as washing our hands frequently, still pretty darn important. I just laughed, shaking my head. Which is also important. Because besides the risk of infection, there will be the risks that come with living in an altered world, with changes in jobs as industries grind to a halt and the economy seizes up. Shifting family dynamics, close quarters, all sorts of new stresses vectoring in from unexpected directions. I'm not expecting looters, but I am expecting a certain number of folks to snap and start shooting each other, or themselves, just because that happens periodically already, when there isn't a global crisis. This period is a challenge and, being a challenge, is also an opportunity for us to fall apart or shine. I for one do not intend to shine by sitting in my living room with a shotgun across my knees, waiting to shoot the first person who jiggles the door handle. They can have the toilet paper.


Friday, March 20, 2020

Hard work, prayer and carry-out

Sisters (from left) Kim, Minah and Tran Dao opened a Northbrook restaurant and coffee bar, Basu, in late February. Kim encouraged her younger sisters to quit their jobs and go into the restaurant business. “It’s very bad timing,” she said.

    Sarah Stegner looked at the deserted dining room of her restaurant at 6 p.m. Monday and said words that perhaps no professional chef has ever uttered before:
     “I was afraid it was going to be too packed.” 
Sarah Stegner, chef at Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook, with husband
and co-owrner Rohit Nambiar. “The plan is to keep cooking,” she said

     She was explaining why, even though she could have held a final, last hurrah dinner at her Prairie Grass Cafe before Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s order to indefinitely close all Illinois restaurants and bars went into effect, “that’s not the right thing to do.”
     She said it twice.
     “That’s not the right thing to do.”
     While a goodbye dinner would have raked in money that she, her partners and staff may desperately need in the weeks and months to come, it would also put those who love her Northbrook restaurant in jeopardy for contracting the virus. That, she was unwilling to do.
     Instead, Prairie Grass, like many restaurants, is offering carry-out. I was there picking up dinner out of a sense of moral duty. Part of what gives Chicago its luster is the bountiful array of unique and delightful restaurants in and around the city, from beloved hot dog stands to world-famous 3-Michelin-star eateries. They have been there for us, framing the joyous moments of our lives — we had our 25th wedding anniversary dinner at Prairie Grass. It seems natural for customers to stand with them now that they need us most.

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Thursday, March 19, 2020

Readiness is all

     I strive to be rational, and to live a rational life. But I'm not Mr. Spock, so fall prey to some of the same irrational practices dabbled in by everybody else. I wish upon stars, touch wood, and consider certain situations "lucky."
    Or unlucky. Baseless fears and oddball notions afflict just about everybody, and such tendencies are amplified by strain, such as the current crisis.
     For the past few days I've been seeing crows—large, deeply black birds—as not just a welcome indication that the crow population has rebounded. But a sign. A bad sign. A warning.
     Crows aren't quite vultures, but they are omnivores, and will eat almost anything, including carrion and, given the chance, our corpses. It's like they're watching us. Waiting.
     Nor is it just the crows. I set out to walk our dog Kitty Wednesday morning. After a few steps, her attention was riveted to a spot on the lawn in front of our house. She snuffed mightily, and I noticed a scattering of white wisps. Fur of some sort. Plus a bloody leaf, and, at third glance, a white puff that had to have been, until very recently, a rabbit's tail. The culprit? A hawk, probably. Or perhaps a pre-dawn coyote—we saw one only a few weeks ago.
    I gazed down at the white tufts and had a single, chill thought —I'm almost embarrassed to say: "An augury!" A presentiment of what is to come.
    And that is? Difficult to put into words. Something along the lines of: Nature doesn't care about our little edifice of society and culture and hopes and selves. Death just scythes the field, it doesn't first sort the good from the bad. I'm sure that was a fine rabbit, handsome, intelligent, with a tidy hutch somewhere, nosing the morning air for a waft of delicious ... whatever the heck it is rabbits eat. Then bam! Doom from above. Or a final thought, "Oh sh..." as the coyote pounces.
     A prediction. An augury.
     Luckily, I had a few lines of Shakespeare to bat that away with.
    "We defy augury..." then—God, this is really embarrassing—"There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all." I said it out loud.
      No kidding. Getting ready is about all anyone can do nowadays. That and wait. And worry.
      The readiness is all. That seems a sentiment worth sharing in these parlous times. Readiness is good, is it not? 

    And yes—don't all shout it out at once—I know the trepidation that Hamlet feels is well-placed: he is reluctant to agree to a duel with Laertes that will in fact—spoiler alert!—kill them both.  Readiness doesn't help him much; he shoulda paid attention to the signs.
      But the current contest is one that will go on with or without our consent. Ready or not, the sword's hilt is thrust into our freshly-Purelled hands and we must duel with this invisible thing, this virus, defending ourselves by ... geez, washing our hands a lot I guess and keeping a sword-length of distance. 
     We defy augury. How? Yes, by being ready. By doing what we can to prepare. Also by not being too afraid. Notice, I didn't say "by not being afraid." A certain amount of fear is inevitable, and even useful, to the degree that it prompts you to vigilance, doing the steps you're supposed to do to keep yourself and others safe. 
     But not so much fear that it poisons these pre-spring days.  Even in the very worst scenarios, the vast majority of people will be fine, only suffering the harm of having to live through the coming ordeal. Unlike that poor rabbit.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Turn-out low but steady in Purell Primary

     Election Day is an all-hands-on-deck proposition at the Sun-Times, and it felt good to be out in the field, working on a story. My instructions were to write something about the election, and my plan was to hit as many polling places as I could, then scoot back home and write it up. I was a little worried that this is too light, out-of-step with the disasters rearing up everywhere. But it reflects what I saw and learned about. 

     The shock of Tuesday’s election is how ordinary it was.
     Considering all that is going on around the March 17 statewide vote — a global viral pandemic, a stock market meltdown, schools cancelled statewide, bars and restaurants closed — Tuesday’s primary election proceeded with surprising smoothness, at least in places such as the Sulzer Regional Library, 4455 N. Lincoln. All the judges who were supposed to show up did show up. Voters came too.
     “Aside from hand sanitizer everywhere and wiping down the pens, it’s business as usual,” said Colby Krouse, an election judge. “Lots of wipes.”
     Sure, there were problems. There always are. Reports of long waits, confusion and late openings from various locations. A major challenge was with election judges. Retirees like to pick up a little extra cash and perform a civic good by serving as judges. But the threat of the virus, which is particularly dangerous for older people, prompted more than 800 judges to bow out at the last moment.
     “I set this whole place up,” said Jim Maivald, surveying a roomful of voting stations, chairs and tables at the Lincolnwood Community Center, 4170 Morse. “Usually there are four teams.”
     Some judges overcame their fears and showed up anyway.
     “I’m very worried about it,” said Vicky Plange, speaking through a mask at the Croatian Cultural Center of Chicago, 2845 W. Devon. “But I’m taking precautions.”
     “Somebody has to do this,” added Cindy Gray-Lewis. “It’s our civic duty, to represent Chicago and Illinois.”
     Chicago, a city that has had its share of difficult and wild elections, from the one after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, to the Spanish Flu of 1918 and the Pineapple Primary of 1928, punctuated by 60 bombings. (”pineapple” was gangland slang for a hand grenade).
     Successfully conducting an election — perhaps Tuesday’s should be remembered as the Purell Primary — is not typically a source of civic pride. But managing statewide voting was more than Ohio was willing to risk — they canceled theirs, the governor overruling a court that ordered him to hold the election. Florida and Arizona also held primaries.
     Judges who dropped out in Chicago were often replaced by high school students like Noah Kern, 17, who attends North Side College Prep.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Kindness can be infectious too

Oedipus Cursing his Son Polynices, by Henry Fuseli (National Gallery of Art)
     Anger, too, is infectious. You might not be mad at all, but someone else is, and yells at you. Instantly you're mad, too. You tend to yell back.
     But calm also can be infectious. Kindness too, and here is an example to back that up, something from the email reaction to yesterday's column. In fact, the very first response, Monday evening, from Matt S.—he used his full name, but I'll shield it:
     "I read your article about maintaining a sense of humor and want to say that you are really a pathetically snarky person. No, you aren’t an optimist. You’re just an asshole."
      Maybe because he telegraphed his intent—the subject heading was "what a dick article"—I was prepared.  My reply was in full cross-legged-on-a-lotus-blossom mode:
"But polite. Thanks for writing Matt."
     That usually would be the end of it, or if someone did reply, they'd just take the trowel and ladle on more. But Matt, perhaps feeding off my zen, caught himself:
"I’m sorry. I hate anything political in these times, the memes, etc.. i lean right and found myself backing up JB Pritzker today to someone of my ilk, and had to say “Jesus, dude, put politics to the side for 5 minutes”. this whole thing sucks."
     That seemed sincere, and I tried to respond in kind:
     "No argument here. In my defense, I had a big package about a young guy fighting Stage 4 colon cancer ready to go—I feel less like writing about this virus stuff than you feel like reading it. But all the virus news pushed it out of the paper about 2 p.m.—a long, complicated story, now running Sunday—and I had to whip something together in half an hour, so I grabbed some tweets and retro-fitted them. We're all on edge lately. And thanks for the apology. Very rare in this day and age. Sorry the column struck a wrong chord. Stay safe."
     His reply was:
"You too, man. Young guy with stage 4 colon cancer? geez. we are all lucky to just be freaked with germ paranoia and hand washing ocd.
I look forward to reading that article for some perspective. Please add any info if he needs help with medical bills."
      From calling me an asshole to pulling out his wallet to help with medical bills for someone I was writing writing about. All in the span of 10 minutes. People do cover the spectrum, don't they? I thanked him and said the guy works for the federal government, so his bills are covered.
     This crisis, it will bring out the good and bad in people before it is over. Wouldn't it be something if it was remembered more for the good than the bad? It's still possible. Stay safe out there. Keep an eye on one another.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Better laugh now, before tragedy sets in

     If this seems slapped together, it was. Sunday morning I turned in a complicated, long story on colon cancer I'd been working on for a few weeks. Then mid-afternoon, as a string of coronavirus developments pushed it out of the paper. No room. But there was room for a standard-length column, so I batted out this and hoped it flew. I'm not sure it does. I think my point, to the degree I have one, is that if 9/11 started in tragedy and we learned to laugh again, the novel coronavirus is starting in farce and ending in tragedy. 

     You want to hear something strange and a little scary? I felt great Saturday morning. Walking the dog, breathing the frosty air, taking big strides—well, what constitutes big strides for me. An unexpected surge of energy.
     I had no idea why. I hope it wasn’t the snow day, society’s cancelled, End of Times drama of the United States collectively ducking into a crouch, readying itself to start receiving full body punches from the coronavirus. But with journalists you never know. We can’t help but ooo and ahh at the big fire for a moment or two before catching ourselves and remembering the people leaping out the windows.
     Maybe I was just well-rested.
     Social media fixated for some ungodly reason on people buying lots of toilet paper and others condemning them for buying lots of toilet paper. I took to Twitter to try to offer up a silver lining in all this before, you know, thousands of Americans start to die and nothing seems funny anymore, which I distinctly remember as being the bitter icing on the tragedy cake of 9/11.
     I tweeted out a series, beginning with “Look on the Bright Side #1: No sign of Rudy Giuliani.”
     Because this was twitter, people were reacting instantly, pointing out that this was wrong: Trump’s unhinged consigliere was on Fox News, flapping his gums about the crisis. That’s what I get for never watching Fox, and for being an optimist. I keep thinking, with life or death hanging in the balance, the presidential clown show must come to an end.
     But of course it doesn’t. It just gets worse.
     I tried again.
     “Look on the Bright Side #2: Trump not crowing about the stock market.”

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Sunday, March 15, 2020

Ennobled and demoralized.

     Stayed home all day Saturday. Following the news online. Reading. Like waiting for a storm. Edie made chicken noodle soup. That helped.
     We see what's coming. Yet it's hard to believe. Walking the dog in the morning I felt ... almost buoyant. That's weird, right? Inappropriate. But understandable too. As a child, I liked storms. And even though I tell myself this will be something bad, it doesn't feel bad, not yet. People are still prattling on about toilet paper. So a disconnect, between the mind and the heart, what I know and what I feel. Which itself is unsettling.
     Human, I suppose. I believe I've been a consistent enough critic of Donald Trump in the nearly five years since he cannonballed into national and world politics that I can make one small observation that may seem in his favor without being accused of apologizing for the would-be tyrant.
     His underplaying the coronavirus threat — saying it was under control, or would quickly pass — is being waved around social media as clear evidence of his utter unfitness to lead. It certainly is. The man is a buffoon, a liar, a traitor, and more. So many flaws it's wearying to even list them.
     However. Closing your eyes to peril is also very human. Routine has a momentum, and we tend to want to keep it going along its intended path, even when there is an obvious bump, or detour, in the road. We don't let go of it without leaving claw marks.
      At least I don't.
      I remember almost 25 years ago, in July, 1995, when the Chicago heat wave was killing people across the city — as with COVID-19, also mostly the elderly — and the medical examiner was holding press conferences, outlining that day's toll of what would be nearly a thousand heat-related deaths in Chicago. Even as the bodies stacked in refrigerated trailers in the medical examiner's parking lot, I distinctly remember looking at the television and wondering, "Now, is this a real phenomenon, or just Donoghue calling every corpse that shows up at Harrison Street a 'heat-related death?' He's a showboat. I wouldn't put it past him. How could it be that many?"
     It was real. This pandemic is real too. Though it doesn't seem real. Not yet.
     Maybe I'm deceived by all the false alarms in the past. The predicted storms that never came. The blizzards that proved to be a dusting. Missed us. I know how people get worked up over threats that are not there, they exaggerate. Maybe that's what causes me to be reluctant to acknowledge the looming disaster. If it's to be a disaster. I'm too aware of the possibilities of panics, mistakes, mass hysteria.
     There's a great story, "The Day the Dam Broke" in James Thurber's "My Life and Hard Times," where he recounts "that frightful and perilous afternoon in 1913 when the dam broke, or, to be more exact, when everybody in town thought that the dam broke."
     Nobody knows how it started—perhaps a young man in high spirits breaks into a trot, or a husband remembers he is late for a lunch date with his wife. In a moment hundreds of people are running for their lives, shouting "Go East! Go East!" Even though the dam hadn't broken and, even if it had, it wouldn't have reached them in the East part of Columbus, Ohio. No matter.
     "The fact that we were all as safe as kittens under a cookstove did not, however, assuage in the least the fine despair and the grotesque desperation which seized upon the residents of the East Side when the cry spread like a grass fire that the dam had given way," Thurber writes.
     Astounding how quickly society shut down over the past few days. Air travel, restaurants, sporting events. Of course the thing feels like a snow day, a lark, when it should feel like ... something else. The calm before the storm. These extraordinary steps are to keep people safe, and I can't be faulted for hoping that they might work. For feeling safe.
     That's the irony here, an irony worth pointing out. The more effectively we wash our hands, avoid crowds, cancel events, etc., the more blunted the pandemic might be, the more we'll feel those precautions were unnecessary, an overreaction. Even though they weren't. We'll never really know how much they helped, or what we avoided. Unless we don't avoid it. Talk about a dilemma. For some Americans, these weeks and months to come will be a time of tragedy. That's a certainty. And for the rest it'll be a story about stores being stripped of toilet paper. That too is par for the course.
    "We were both ennobled and demoralized by the experience," Thurber writes. Sounds about right.

The Thurber story was based on a real event, March 12, 1913


Saturday, March 14, 2020

Notes from the Current Crisis

Northbrook Public Library
     When the Village of Northbrook sent an email Thursday announcing that after Friday the library will be closed for the rest of the month, the harsh voice of Clarence, the angel from "It's a Wonderful Life" practically screamed in my ear: "They're closing down the library!"
     And the NBA. And Broadway. And much of public life. But it was the library that prompted me to action, 4:30 p.m.—it was closing at 6 p.m. I grabbed a half dozen books around our living room that need to be returned, either already- or never-to-be read, and walked over: the library is literally in my backyard, or, rather, through my backyard, over a berm of trees, past the community vegetable garden, and through the parking lot of Village Hall.
     It wasn't quite a mob scene. But there were a dozen people in line to check out books. I had never seen that. I went upstairs to the New Books section, grabbed a few volumes that might prove useful in researching my next book, and got in line. The librarian who checked out my book was wearing latex gloves. He asked me if I knew the library was closing for a couple weeks. I said I did.
     I felt glad that in addition to hoarding toilet paper, that people are also hoarding books. A hopeful sign. Then again, the strange toilet paper situation—shelves stripped—did not cause the sense of superiority or condemnation it seemed to evoke in everybody else. I have what my people call rachmanis—something stronger than sympathy but weaker than pity—for such people. This is a scary moment, and if you can comfort yourself with a big cube of Angel Soft, or a copy of Emily Dickinsen, or just about anything else, well why not? Later that evening I stopped by Target for cat litter—not as a hedge against the End of the World, but because we need cat litter. I was relieved to find litter in bountiful supply and also on sale—normality tends to endure. The bread, however, was completely gone.

Target, Friday night


Friday, March 13, 2020

We can’t learn from art we can’t see

Dettail of "Outstanding American Woman" mural by Edward Millman at the Al Raby High School.

     One way to see a slice of Edward Millman’s take on women in American history is to fly to New York, cab to the Whitney Museum and pay $25 admission for “Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art.” Wander around what The New Yorker called “a thumpingly great” exhibit until you see a monochromatic drawing of a woman grappling with men in gas masks. That’s it.
     Or, if you are at the Al Raby High School for Community and Environment in East Garfield Park, simply drop by the lounge near the entrance and savor the entire 54-foot-long, full color Federal Art Project mural, originally titled “The Contribution of Women to the Progress of Mankind” — the title’s irony no doubt lost when the fresco was completed in 1940 at what was then Lucy Flowers Technical High School. 
Cartoon for "Contribution of Women" mural
by Edward Millman, on display at the Whitney
     Now restored to its original glory, this Millman mural has been renamed with the more acceptably anodyne, “Outstanding American Woman.”
     What makes this mural relevant today is that it was whitewashed over the year after it was completed.
     Not because Harriett Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” is depicted comforting a slave, an image seen by some as an offensive example of White Savior Complex. I am reluctant to point that out, lest the Chicago Public Schools be tempted to whitewash the mural again.
     Because CPS officials are once more flirting with the get-yourself-tied-in-a-knot-over-old-murals business, censorship always being the easiest way to hush the complainers. Only now it is the Left being “insulted and triggered” by depictions of the past that, rather than being too grim — in 1941 an all-white school board deemed the Millman mural both “subversive” and “depressing” — are not grim enough to suit their view of American history as a continuous slough of oppression and atrocity.

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