Nicky Was Here

Nicky sharing a sweet moment with her youngest son, Max.

Nicky sharing a sweet moment with her youngest son, Max, in 2012.

Nicky was dying from liver cancer and in France to marry her longtime love, Jean-Philippe. I asked her to name her favorite moment of their trip so far.

“It is impossible to pick a favourite moment, place, nap or anything,” she wrote from her hotel room early one morning before heading out to explore Paris again. “Everything is just so incredibly beautiful. How could I possibly choose?”

So it went with Nicky until the inevitable end arrived some nine months later. She cherished each moment of her life. Even during the nauseating, nearly deadly rounds of chemotherapy she endured to extend her time with her family. Even later, when those treatments had run their course and her blinding pain was tempered only by morphine injections and medical marijuana pills that left her all but incoherent, or what she once called “sloggy and zzzzzzish.” She complained to me only once, during a particularly bad round of chemo, saying, “It’s hard to stay upbeat and positive when you feel like garbage all the time,” but also telling me not to panic because “this is just temporary and I will get past it.”

I tended to romanticize her sunny attitude in the face of such misery as heroic fortitude, but Nicky was always quick to correct me.

“Meh. I’m not tough,” she said. “Just don’t want to waste the time I have being sad. Also, there’s nothing like death to make you appreciate what you have. Life is short, so don’t waste time fucking around.”

I wish I had half her spirit.

I’m an adult, I understand everybody dies. But I accept it begrudgingly, if not bitterly. One day somebody you love is there, the next day they’re gone, and the relationship goes dark, as if a lightbulb has burned out. Maybe you will see them again in the next life, but in the moment it’s sudden and shocking, and it can’t be fixed.

The loss hurts badly.

It seems especially unfair to me that fate would claim the life of a 48-year-old woman who had a husband and three sons, two of them, Jacob and Kane, young adults, and one, Max, still a boy. Even worse that there is a seemingly infinite line of assholes in the world who deserve to die but survive to torment others when Nicky would’ve added so much happiness instead.

Why her? We discussed that question once briefly, and it made no sense to either of us. It seemed like random bad luck of the worst sort. Now, the thought of it just fills me with anger and regret. But Nicky admonished me long ago to focus on goodness where she was concerned, and so I will.

Nicky and Jean-Philippe got married last summer in France with their son, Max, at their side. Their love for one another was obvious to everybody and will endure.

Nicky and Jean-Philippe got married last summer in France with their son, Max, at their side. Their love for one another was obvious to everybody and will endure.

It isn’t hard to, either.

I only knew her through her writing and our personal correspondence, but we became friends and I can tell you she was a remarkable woman.

On the surface, Nicky had a keen intellect, quick wit, and a brilliant, often bawdy sense of humor that made her a compelling writer. She also had a knack for making other people (including me) feel special, as if they had rare talent or were especially charming and lovable. She had many friends real and virtual, and many more wanted to be her friend.

Deeper down, however, Nicky was also a rebel—a longtime smoker who quit a few years ago for her health, but still liked loud rock-n-roll music, dark colors (purple was her favorite), cold beer, and sometimes fantasized about escaping the routine drudgery of life in a fast convertible. In her heart of hearts, she was an independent, self-described introvert who didn’t like a lot of chatter and needed time alone to think, or even better, not to think.

Being sick changed Nicky a little in this area. For instance, when she asked me to edit her wonderfully funny yet poignant post announcing her battle with cancer to the world, I noted that it must have nearly killed her to be so open. Her response: “Priorities change when the timer is counting down. I don’t have time to waste building walls anymore.”

That sort of complexity was one of Nicky’s most-appealing qualities. Underneath a layer of reticence or reserve that was almost stereotypically male in its expression, for example, she was very feminine. Everybody who read her blog knows she rocked a pair of high heels as well as any woman and looked much younger than she was with her jet-black hair and infectious toothy grin.

What might not be as obvious is that she was also a devoted wife and mother.

Nicky was too realistic to say Jean-Philippe was perfect—”all wives alternate between loving their husbands and thinking they’re asses,” she once cautioned me after I had a upsetting spat with my wife—but her love for him was unchallenged.

He returned it, too, both romantically and practically.

Nicky's love for family was rivaled only by her famous fondness for high heels. She posted this photo in October 2014 to prove she was recovering well from surgery for pancreatic cancer, which preceded the liver cancer that ultimately took her life.

Nicky’s love for family was rivaled only by her famous fondness for high heels. She posted this photo in October 2014 to prove she was recovering well from surgery for pancreatic cancer, which preceded the liver cancer that ultimately took her life.

In Paris, “we met some ladies from Minnesota when we were in line at the Louvre,” she told me. “I took a picture of their group for them. As we were chatting, one of the ladies told JP to make sure not to miss seeing Venus. His response: ‘I see her everyday.’ ”

That melted her heart, but it was his consistent attentions that proved his mettle. When the chemo gave her diabetes, it was Jean-Philippe who administered her insulin shots, and later still, when her pain got bad, he stayed by her side constantly to give her morphine injections every three to four hours. She was, she admitted, very weak and completely dependent on him, and although she meant it physically, it was clear to me that his devotion pulled her through her most-difficult days. She loved him dearly.

Nicky was a great mother, too. She joked about what a pain in the ass her sons were, but also loved them fiercely.

My favorite photograph of Nicky shows her post-shower in a bathrobe without makeup, her hair a wet mess, sharing an affectionate kiss with her youngest son, who had climbed into her lap and cradled her face in his small hands. It’s a highly personal, surprisingly revealing picture for a woman who valued her privacy. It’s also courageous. How many women do you know who are willing to have candid photos taken, let alone without makeup?

That was just like Nicky, though. She could be soft one moment and enforce a no-bullshit policy that was even stricter than my own the next. As a result, it was nearly impossible to fool her.

For instance, one morning, driving to work and feeling particularly down about her deteriorating condition but mindful of her wish to focus on the positive, I blinked tears out of my eyes and took a cheery photo of Colorado’s famous purple mountains and golden plains in the early morning sunlight. Then I sent it to her along with a brief explanation of how a similar sight had inspired the song America the Beautiful, which should be our true national anthem instead of The Star-Spangled Banner. It wasn’t like me to pretend to be positive when I actually felt like shit, but I meant to put on a brave front to help make her feel happier.

“That’s beautiful, Michael! I am feeling better today and was even planning to do a little status update later this afternoon. I think America the Beautiful would have made a better anthem,” she replied before acerbically adding, “And stop being so wishy-washy now or I might just end up back in the ER.”

Nicky liked the Steampunk sunglasses I sometimes wear, so I sent her pair along with an aviator helmet when chemo claimed her hair. She got a lot of hats that year, and gamely posed with all of them.

Nicky liked the Steampunk sunglasses I sometimes wear, so I sent her a pair along with an aviator helmet in 2015 after chemo claimed her hair. She got a lot of gift hats that year, and gamely posed with all of them.

I adored her brand of no-nonsense, tell-the-truth-at-all-costs humor, but our communication got more and more spotty in the weeks before she died. I sent her a lot of messages about random subjects, asked her to comment on a short story I’d recently finished because I highly valued her opinions about writing, and made her a pretty box. I also asked her a lot of questions, and if two days passed without a response, I panicked. But invariably she’d gather enough strength to send me a line or two, sometimes more.

Finally, however, at 4:43 last Monday morning, I asked, “How are you doing today, Nicky?”

About 45 minutes later, after I’d fallen asleep, she wrote, “I’m better today, Michael.”

Then, some 15 minutes later, “I would like apologise for my stoni-nes and general lack of lucid communication.”

More than two hours later, she wrote, “You’ve also been bombarding me to keep me happy. Thank you.”

I responded as soon as possible, but that was the last message I got from Nicky.

She died early Saturday morning.

I miss her badly.

I knew I would, and told her so a long time ago: “I’ve shed a few tears for you, Nicky. And also for myself because, speaking selfishly, I hate that a day will arrive when you and I won’t have these chats anymore.”

“I’m going to miss these chats, too,” she wrote. “I hear there’s no WiFi in the great beyond. Which really sucks because I was planning a dazzling afterlife status update. Bummer. But don’t cry for me, Argentina. I’ll keep an eye on you from my seat at the bar.”


The Golden Dragon


I’m driving to work on a cold, sunny morning, listening to news on the radio about a magnitude-6.4 earthquake in Taiwan that collapsed the Golden Dragon, a high-rise building made partially with tin cans. Authorities say 118 people in the building are missing, but rescuers picking through the rubble looking for survivors hear the cries of a 3-year-old boy. A pile of concrete has collapsed on one of his arms, pinning him alone in the dark for more than a day. A camera crew is on the scene and the boy is pleading for help, and even though he’s speaking Mandarin, a language I don’t understand, the fear and desperation in his young voice is unmistakable. His parents are missing, almost certainly dead, and the rescuers feed the boy through a long straw while they work frantically for hours to pull him to safety.

He is 3-years-old. Three! Trapped alone in the dark for a day in some profiteering capitalist’s tin-can apartment building, unable to free himself and screaming because he’s in pain and his entire world has cracked and broken apart, turning what he believed was his shelter into a would-be sarcophagus.

And he’s three. Three!

Images of a video my friend, Ziva, sent me a few days ago flash into my mind. It’s of her baby boy, Oliver, who is about to celebrate his first birthday. He’s sitting in a high chair in their kitchen, slapping the palms of his tiny hands on the curved, white-plastic plastic tray in front of him and giggling at the noise while he alternately plays with a toy car and a stuffed rabbit. He stares at Ziva the whole time like she’s the center of his entire universe, and I can see his love for her shining brightly in his eyes. She asks Oliver if he can hug the rabbit, and he babbles in response and then gleefully presses the rabbit’s cloth cheek to his own.

Now I’m thinking about how happy Oliver looked, and how frightened that little boy trapped in fallen apartment building sounded, and suddenly I’m peering at the road ahead of me through unwelcome tears, thinking that I’m a grown man and need to pull myself together, that tens of thousands of children die every day all over the world, and that there isn’t any rational reason to shed tears for this particular boy just because he was trapped in the rubble of an apartment building called the Golden Dragon.

But I was a boy once, too, small and happy like Ziva’s son, and it also occurs to me that on special occasions, my parents used to take me and my brother and sister to eat at a Chinese restaurant called the Golden Dragon.

Chinese restaurants are everywhere now, but the Golden Dragon was an exotic treat back then with its hand-carved mahogany woodwork, red-leather booths, and paper lanterns. I recall being riveted by the rare beauty of the waitresses, who had almond-shaped eyes and wore their long, black hair in ponytails, repeating our orders to us in quiet, deferential broken English while they wrote them on green and white paper pads with strange symbols that seemed more like hieroglyphs than language. We always ordered yellow Egg Foo Young smothered in rich, brown gravy, and Almond Chicken, and Chicken Chow Mein, and I remember trying to ignore the hungry rumbling in my tummy while I studied the 12 animal signs of the Chinese Zodiac that were printed in dark green and bright red on the stiff paper placemat. I remember wondering why fate had decided to birth me in the Year of the Boar, animals that are said to be imaginative, successful, highly responsible, and lucky.

The Golden Dragon restaurant was certainly lucky for me, but the Golden Dragon apartment building in Taiwan wasn’t so lucky for that little boy. He was pinned there all alone in the dark for a full day, his parents gone, unable to do anything but cry.

Life is terrifyingly and wonderfully random, both in the way it separates and connects us.

Why is it that an earthquake strikes a city in Taiwan while I’m sleeping comfortably in my bed and topples a building built with tin cans to the ground, trapping a baby boy in the wreckage? Why is it that the Golden Dragon evokes pleasant, safe memories for me, but will likely be lifelong source of fear and sorrow for a baby boy halfway around the world who lost everything except his life? Why is it that I am a grown man and that he is just 3-years-old—three!—and that, today, connected by nothing more than a name, we are both crying?

I don’t know why. I don’t believe I ever will.


Of Birds And Men: How a friend tried to use Nikola Tesla to make me a birder

I’m often amazed by how much effort people put into trying to make you like the things they like, whether it’s movies, food, politicians, books, religion, or photos of their family vacation.

Consider the tireless pleadings of my good friend Cheryl Duford on behalf of birds, for instance.

Cheryl’s fascinated by, even obsessed with, birds. So much so that she regularly slogs through muddy swamps and hacks through thorny thickets to take photographs of cormorants, snowy owls, and many other fowl that look far too small to make a decent meal out of. Or even an indecent meal.

This is precious time she ought to be spending with her dear and increasingly lonely family. Or using to kneel and prayerfully beg God to forgive her for having impure thoughts about Mémère’s molasses-drop cookies.

Instead of doing something meaningful with her life, however, Cheryl has repeatedly tried to convince me to adopt her love of all things ornithological, even though she knows my basic position on the issue is that birds can’t be trusted because they will invariably peck your eyes out. Because everybody knows that’s what birds do. They peck your eyes out.

I’ve successfully resisted her earnest petitions to make me a birder for years, but now she’s set a clever trap for me by dragging Nikola Tesla into the debate.


I think we can all see why a pidgeon might fall for Tesla.

Yes, THAT Tesla. The brilliant Serbian-American physicist and engineer best known for creating those crackling, scary-looking electrical coils and ladders that have reanimated Frankenstein’s monster in countless movies. Oh, and also for inventing the wireless radio and contributing to the development of the X-Ray machine, radar, robotics, and an early form of cell phone communications. Not to mention conceiving and designing the alternating current induction motor that generates enough electricity to power them and all the other electrical devices that have become ubiquitous in our lives.

But that’s all common knowledge.

What many people don’t know is that Tesla, like Cheryl, was also fixated on birds. So much so—and I swear on the towering, ostentatious grave of naturalist John James Audubon I’m not making this up—that he eventually fell in love with one.

Near the end of his days, when Tesla compulsively sorted his life into threes and lived alone in room 3327 on the 33rd floor of The New Yorker hotel in Manhattan, he walked daily to a nearby park to feed pigeons and enjoy the company of his feathered paramour. Then he would return to his humble suite in the evenings to continue working on his inventions.

“I have been feeding pigeons, thousands of them, for years,” Tesla wrote of his avian affair. “But there was one, a beautiful bird, pure white with light grey tips on its wings; that one was different. It was a female. I had only to wish and call her and she would come flying to me. I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life.”

One night, however, Tesla said the white pigeon flew to his hotel and, speaking to him through an open window, announced she was dying.

He saw “two powerful beams of light” in the bird’s eyes, he said. “Yes, it was a real light, a powerful, dazzling, blinding light, a light more intense than I had ever produced by the most powerful lamps in my laboratory.” The pigeon died in his hands, and the inventor claimed that at that exact moment he knew that his life’s work was over.

He died soon after—just before midnight on Jan. 7, 1943, some 86 years after having been born around midnight during a fierce lightning storm, an event that led his mother to predict little Nikola would grow up to be “a child of light.”

Now, you might think Cheryl would be satisfied to rest her case for all things winged and feathered on an intellect as piercing and as influential as Tesla’s. Or, setting education, creativity and knowledge aside, to swaddle her argument in a lover’s heart as full, as warm, and as courageous as the one that bridged the longstanding gap between two distinct species, man and bird, to fiercely love a talking white pigeon with fiery eyes.

But you’d be wrong.

Cheryl took this photo of a hawk. Maybe it’s a hawk. It might a chicken for all I know. Anyway, you know what it’s thinking? “I want to peck her eyes out,” that’s what.

You see, Cheryl is an infamously cantankerous woman, as hard and as unforgiving as the igneous rock that lends its name to the Granite State from which she hails, New Hampshire. She wasn’t content to simply make an argument and then let its transformative powers seep into the bird-resistant crannies of my mind.

No, she felt compelled to hammer her case home by sending me a near-priceless gift: A Tesla watch, a Steampunk-style timepiece I’ve long coveted and now proudly wear on my wrist even though it’s a constant nagging reminder that my position on birds stands in opposition not only to Cheryl’s, but to one of history’s greatest inventors.

I appreciate the watch more than I can say, Cheryl.

I truly do.

I’m also humbled by your generosity and resolute passion for the beaked beasts that fly overhead teaching us to aim high in life, if not with our personal goals, then at least with our camera lenses, or depending on your point of view, buckshot.

But I can’t lie. As beautiful and as practical as the Tesla watch is, as forceful a case as it indirectly makes for songbirds, raptors and their kin, it hasn’t changed my mind about birds.

Not one wit.

Birds will peck your eyes out. Because that’s what birds do. They peck your eyes out.

My new Tesla watch rocks, but not enough to make me a bird-lover.

My new Tesla watch rocks, but not enough to make me a bird-lover.


Chasing Amy


Amy and me, surrounded by the dead and the undead who visit them.


I knew I was in deep trouble when Amy Roberts, aka the blogger Laughing Mom, bounded into the hotel lobby with a large smile on her face and hugged me.

I don’t bound. Or smile. And hugging is usually right out—unless you count gripping cold porcelain after a long and increasingly blurry night of drinking like a Scotsman on holiday as hugging. So I stood there like a dead tree and accepted her cordiality with as much grace as I could muster; She had, after all, driven hours from her home in Richmond, Virginia to see me at the tail end of my business trip to Washington, D.C.

There are a few things you should know about Amy:

• She’s energetic. I spent most of our 3-hour visit desperately trying to keep up with her and praying that God would take me home before I drowned in my own sweat, a product of my less-than-fit physique and D.C.’s oppressive summer heat and humidity.

• She laughs a lot and speaks with a charming soft Southern accent. Not the kind that adds extra syllables to words and brings hillbilly banjo music to mind, but the hypnotic, lilting sort that relaxes you and then makes you idly wonder if she spiked your sweet tea with arsenic while you were discussing magnolia blossoms.

• She knows how to use a GPS. Not necessarily well, but she’ll get you where you’re going eventually and make the trip enjoyable by entertaining you with sad and frightening stories about the time a lightning strike burned her family’s house to the ground.

We didn’t have much time before my flight, but decided to visit Arlington National Cemetery. In Amy’s case, because she’s related to sculptor Moses Jacob Ezekiel, designer of the cemetery’s impressive Confederate Memorial, although it would’ve been more impressive if it hadn’t been shrouded in an unfortunate tangle of scaffolding that rendered it unviewable. In my case, because the black crow of loss is perpetually perched on my shoulder and the cemetery is home to the remains of more than 400,000 people from the U.S. and 11 other countries, including many war veterans, astronauts, presidents, and stars like boxer Joe Louis, writer Dashiell Hammett, and musician Glenn Miller.

There were mishaps in our outing.

For example, it took us nearly an hour to find the place, which is the size of a small town and was less than 3 miles away. Then there was the moment when Amy panicked and tried to blow out the eternal flame at John F. Kennedy’s gravesite; she truly hates fire. And I didn’t help matters any by blowing flirty kisses at the stone-faced infantry regiment guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Turns out those M-14 rifles they prance around with aren’t just for show.

But you know what? None of that mattered, because we had a great time hanging out together.

So much fun, in fact, that it was me who smiled and hugged her when we reluctantly parted company. I was honored. Never have so few traveled so far to visit with someone so insignificant. I was also moved, and hope to return the honor by visiting Richmond next time I’m in the area.

All I ask is that you don’t tell anybody about that emotional stuff, please. I have an image to maintain.


Why I’m Happy, But Not Proud, To Be American On Independence Day

On this Fourth of July, I can say I’m happy to be an American, but not entirely proud to be an American.

Happy, because it’s undeniably pleasant to be a citizen of the most-powerful and wealthiest nation in world history. I like my mid-sized SUV and big flatscreen TV, and greatly enjoy the high level of comfort, safety, and freedom that being American affords me and my family.

Not proud, because I am acutely aware that the garden of “American exceptionalism” was heavily watered with the blood and tears of Native Americans and blacks. Our Founding Fathers may have stood for liberty, but they didn’t include Native Americans or African Americans in their bold Declaration of Independence. Instead, they rebelled against a repressive regime and then immediately created one of their own, embarking on what they saw as a divine mission to tame the land and use its resources for profit by subduing the people who had lived on it for thousands of years before the white man’s arrival. Yes, they championed some lofty and noble aspirations, but they were also warmongers and slavers of the worst sort, and we’re still stumbling through the gloomy shadow of their legacy. 

It’s important to remember that Native Americans suffered miserably when our European ancestors showed up. Foreign plagues like smallpox initially killed an estimated 45-90 million Indians, about 90 percent of their population. We couldn’t have predicted or controlled that devastation, but we could’ve prevented expansionist-minded white men from going after the rest of the Indians and their property with brutal, self-righteous vengeance. 

In my home state of Colorado, for instance, 700 U.S. militia surrounded a sleeping encampment of Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians in November 1864, and then opened fire without warning or cause. Some of the soldiers under Col. John Chivington’s command protested the surprise attack, but he urged them into battle with the cry, “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians…Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.” And so they did, cutting fetuses out of the women while they were still alive, slaughtering infants by stepping on their heads with their boots, slicing the genitals off men and women, and decorating their horses and wagons with scalps and other body parts before parading them through Denver to celebrate the wanton murder. 

Our fury against Indians knew few bounds. 

For example, we went after their main food source, the buffalo, with unprecedented ferocity. A herd of some 30-60 million bison was cut to just a few hundred creatures in a couple of decades. We did it partly to sate our bloodlust, shooting them from trains and leaving their bodies on the ground to rot. We also did it to clear paths through the prairies for railroads and the commerce they fostered. But mostly we did it to starve the Indians out of existence. 

It worked, too, and when the remnants of their battered tribes finally surrendered, we rounded up their people and herded them like cattle to reservations on some of our new nation’s most-barren and inhospitable lands. Many of them still live there today, often in crushing poverty, our miserable treatment of them largely forgotten or ignored by the dominant culture we established. 

Blacks didn’t fare any better under American rule, and our history is tightly enmeshed with slavery. About 450,000 to 500,000 Africans were brought to North America between 1619 and 1866 to work in our homes and on our farms as slaves. 

Twelve of our first 18 presidents owned slaves, nine of them while they were in office. Presidential attitudes toward blacks seem horrifying by modern standards, and hypocritical and illogical even by the period’s standards. 

George Washington complained before the American Revolution that oppressive new British laws would make Americans “as tame and abject slaves as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway.” Ten years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, he criticized Quaker abolitionists for fomenting unrest by encouraging slaves who were “happy and content to remain with their present masters…to leave them…” 

Andrew Jackson bought his first slave in 1788, and by 1794 he owned 16 slaves and his business included slave trading. 
Martin Van Buren said, “I must go into the Presidential chair the inflexible and uncompromising opponent of every attempt on the part of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia against the wishes of the slaveholding States, and also with a determination equally decided to resist the slightest interference with it in the States where it exists.” 

John Tyler said, “(God) works most inscrutably to the understandings of men; the negro is torn from Africa, a barbarian, ignorant and idolatrous; he is restored civilized, enlightened, and a Christian.”

Even Thomas Jefferson, who described slavery as a “moral depravity” and was the key author of the Declaration of Independence, which argues “that all men are created equal” and are endowed with unalienable rights, to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” held blacks in poor esteem. He was one of the largest slaveowners in West Virginia, with more than 600 at his Monticello plantation. He believed blacks were racially inferior and “as incapable as children.” He also wrote that slavery was like grabbing “a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” 

By the time morals shifted and the U.S. Congress decided to end slavery in 1860, there were 3 million to 3.5 million slaves in the South. Slavery was entrenched philosophically and economically, and the South reacted by seceding from the Union and launching a Civil War that led to the deaths of about 750,000 people, the bloodiest war in American history. 

Don’t let closet bigots or modern-day historical revisionists fool you into thinking the battle was over state’s rights or money. 

It’s true that 60 percent of the nation’s wealth was concentrated in the South, which contained just 30 percent of its population, and it’s true the Southern states felt the federal government didn’t have a right to tell them what to do. But in the infamous Cornerstone Address announcing the South’s secession, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens made the foul heart of the matter perfectly clear. The Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all men are created equal” is wrong, he said, adding that “Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” 

Or as William Thompson, the designer of the newly controversial Confederate flag, put it, “As a people we are fighting to maintain the heavenly ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race…”

I am not raising our ugly past on July Fourth to say America is a broken country or that today should be a day of mourning rather than celebration. We have done both bad and good since our first Independence Day in 1776, and the history of nations everywhere is littered with the corpses of failed political ideologies. Our weaknesses are unique, but not unprecedented. 

We have also progressed. Tribes gained significant civil rights and independence as sovereign nations in the early 1800s, and have received some modest reparations since then. Slaves were emancipated in 1863, got the right to vote in 1869, and discrimination against blacks was legally ended during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Coupled with recent, hard-fought civil rights gains made by women, people with disabilities, and just last month, gay couples who won the right to get married, America is looking freer than ever.  

Still, while we’re grilling hamburgers and waving sparklers today, I believe we ought to be mindful of our troubled legacy of oppression, if only because it’s recent and persistent. 

What do I mean when I say racism persists? 

Less than 100 years ago, entire Southern towns turned out for “spectacular lynchings,” the ceremonial torture, murder and burning alive of black Americans by whites. Angry mobs would truss up black men suspected of crimes, cut off their fingers, toes, ears, and genitals, sometimes flay them alive, and then tar their mutilated bodies and light them on fire while they were still conscious. Men, women, and children—even judges and police—attended these events like they were county fairs. Body parts were handed out as souvenirs. Food was shared, drinks quaffed. Celebratory postcards were printed and mailed to friends and family. 

Racism persists. 

Just last month, Donald Trump, one of the world’s richest and most-famous men, announced his Republican presidential candidacy by calling Latino immigrants drug dealers, rapists, and killers. He wants to build a 1,989-mile-long wall on America’s border with Mexico to keep them out, like the Great Wall China built more than 2,200 years ago. He was ridiculed by some people and lost business contracts with many former partners, but also jumped into the number-two spot in polls behind fellow conservative candidate Jeb Bush. 

Racism persists. 

Today, some of my neighbors are flying Confederate flags. I’m sure I’d see even more if I lived in Arizona or the Deep South. It’s part of the Mississippi state flag, and waves every day over public buildings in South Carolina, site of the racially motivated shootings of nine black men and women in June at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Some state leaders have called for the flag to be taken down and banned from public buildings. But more than 115,000 people a,so signed a petition within hours of its circulation calling for South Carolina to secede from the Union for the second time in American history if that happens. 

Racism persists. 

I can’t believe we’re even debating that flag’s sick symbolism. It’s steeped in racism and the blood of slavery, and I believe our society should strive to portray it only in that light. Not as a proud remembrance of Southern heritage. Not as a commemoration of the brave soldiers who died fighting for the South’s cause. Not even as a jaunty salute to a sort of admirable, playful juvenile, Dukes of Hazard-style rebellion. It is none of those things. It is an emblem of shame, ruination, and hatred. The flag’s heritage is wickedly corrupt, and while the Southern leaders and soldiers who died should be remembered, they shouldn’t be commemorated or revered any more than Himmler or Göring are. Nor should the old South. It was a bad place. One of the worst in history.

Racism persists. 

This is one reason—there are others—why I’m not entirely proud to be an American. But I am happy to be an American. God bless America, and I hope we all have a happy holiday. I intend to. 

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